Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Theatre of the absurd

So it begins.

Today, we start to leave the EU by accident.

The referendum was called to disarm UKIP and the obsessive right of the Tory Party, and by doing so to secure our place in the EU for good. That went well didn't it?

It might have just about worked until the leavers played the race, sorry, immigration card.

Not that there is a consensus. The majority was small, subsequent polling all points to the country being split half and half, while up to 100,000 people marched through London to demonstrate against Brexit last weekend. Never can a change as fundamental as this have been implemented on such a weak mandate.

A Prime Minister who campaigned to remain has started the process, supported by an opposition who campaigned to remain, and with the backing of a vote in Parliament, the majority of whose members consider this to be an act of folly. The principles of representative democracy have been abandoned.

To be fair, if all goes well in negotiations, given enough expertise (which we don't have), given plenty of time (which we don't have), given adequate experienced staff (which we don't have), and given politicians who know what they are doing (which we don't have), we might just about get away with a deal that is only slightly worse than the one we already have as members. Otherwise, the risks are huge. This is a change that hasn't be thought through and for which we are entirely unprepared. There wasn't even any contingency planning.

I can't help thinking that this is a colossal, reckless error and, even worse, a betrayal of the future of the younger generation who voted overwhelmingly - in all classes and all regions - to remain. This is the generation who will have to bear the costs and lose the opportunities they had expected, which have been taken away from them against their will.

Another fine mess you got us into, Mr Cameron.

Monday, March 20, 2017


"If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring," as the old song goes. Well, it's the first day of spring today. The clouds are low, a cold wind is blowing, and the rain is slashing down. The singer wants every day to be like this? Really? Of course the symbolism of the first day of spring is that it marks the end of winter and the promise of summer to come. So, the song offers us a promise never to be fulfilled. Oh joy.

Come on Ryley, it's only a song. But it got me thinking. It comes from the musical Pickwick and is a political speech, a manifesto sung by Samuel Pickwick, an ingenue mistaken for a political candidate. Perhaps it's rather an apt metaphor.

The question it raises is, 'when is it right for people to impose their will on others?' Quite clearly, I want every day to be mid summer. I don't want to be condemned to live the rest of my life in vile weather like today. There isn't a simple answer. The current fashion seems to be that the majority, however small, of voters in a referendum have the right to impose their will on everybody else.

I moan about having my EU citizenship being taken away from me against my will, Scottish independence is being raised again, but one of the worst aspects of the EU referendum is that EU citizens, legally resident in the country for many years, didn't even have a vote. They are at risk of losing everything and weren't allowed a voice. Others took away their automatic right to live here and now they can only rely on others to try and protect them. As for Gibraltar, the forgotten question, around 90% of its citizens voted to stay in the EU. This is because their entire economy is dependent on an open border with Spain, guaranteed by membership. Yet, they are to be wrenched out of the EU by the votes of people in England. I could go on and on.

This isn't just a question about Brexit, though I think it is a terrible mistake, it is about the nature of government and democracy. It is why I would always defend representative democracy against a plebiscitary alternative. I am not an individualist absolutist. There are clear cases when people's ideas and desires should be overruled for the collective good, but the mechanisms for doing so matter.

I don't have good answers for a blog post. While the case against vesting all power in a dictatorial ruler or an oligarchy is manifest, crude majority rule also has dangers and is a flawed model of democracy. In the meantime, roll on summer.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The state of the nation

"Now is not the time" for a referendum on Scottish independence. So says the queen of the platitude.

So what's this all about? After all, it's only a short time since the last referendum. Actually, it's pretty simple. I've worked it all out.

We have two politicians going head-to-head who owe their position to being on the losing side in a referendum. One supported the losing side, but when the leader of the losers resigned because he lost, she took over on the basis of implementing the winning decision despite campaigning against it. The other lost, but, because of the popularity gained through losing, trounced the winning side in the subsequent election where the losers emerged victorious over the winners.

Now, there is very little enthusiasm for another referendum, it's unwanted by most. But we have to remember that the reason for the call to hold an unwanted referendum is the unwanted result of another referendum that wasn't really wanted either.

This is all about taking back control. For the English loser who won, taking back control used to mean taking back control from the European Union. Now it also means taking back control from the Scottish institutions that were set up in order to allow Scotland to take back control from the UK. They can't have that control, because they must take back control from the EU along with the rest of the UK, even though they voted not to. So the winning Scottish loser now wants to take back control from the UK government so that she doesn't have to take back control from the EU and reckons she can do it by holding an unwanted referendum. The English winning loser thinks we are stronger together in the union of the United Kingdom, making it easier to take back control from the European Union, where we are not stronger together even though she campaigned on a slogan saying that we were. The Scottish loser who won thinks that we are stronger together in the European Union, but not in the union of the UK, because she will be forced to take back control from the EU, which she doesn't want to do.

It's clear. This is consensus politics. Both agree that they want to stay in a union, just not the same one.

It's the will of the people.

(Er ... can't we just go back to being a representative democracy instead? Please.)

Be happy, it's an order!

Playing away

Forget the cloth cap image, Rugby League has always been innovative and has led the way only for others to follow and claim credit. Its holy grail has always been expanding the game. Often this has resulted in failure, but these days the sport is focusing on more organic growth, with new teams starting in the lower leagues and progressing on merit. Geography has never been an obstacle. This year Toronto Wolfpack (yes that is the Toronto in Canada) are playing in Championship 1 alongside teams like Barrow and Hunslet, as well as other clubs trying to build the game North and South.

Last year, it was the turn of the South of France when Toulouse Olympique XIII joined and won promotion at the first attempt, joining Swinton in the Championship. They played each other at the weekend. What an opportunity. I and a couple of hundred others grasped it, struggled with an air traffic control strike and made it over to Toulouse. Having got, nothing was going to stop a memorable weekend.

The stadium is in Blagnac, a very bourgeois suburb. It's so quiet on a Saturday evening that you felt you had to whisper as you walked through streets whose life had been choked out of them by stern respectability. Then, in late afternoon on a hot spring day, Swinton fans arrived from the city centre. Few had stopped drinking from the moment they arrived in France, most had sung continuously. The barbarians had arrived. Amiable, humorous, warm spirited, and boisterous barbarians. It was brilliant.

Then on to the match where the noise was non-stop, Swinton supporters amongst the 2,300 crowd trying, and often succeeding, in making more noise than the French brass band in the stand. It was a superb game, where a fine Toulouse side were taken very close, only winning 36-28 on successful goal kicks after both sides had scored seven tries apiece.

You can watch the whole game here:

The crowd dispersed for more drinking, dining on cassoulet, and sightseeing on the following days. It was a celebration of our international Rugby League family, of the delights of Europe, and of the general friendship that sport can engender. For me, they were four unforgettable days in two beautiful cities - we took an extra day in Carcassonne. There was sumptuous cuisine, historical sites, great art, and sporting comradeship all rolled together.

And as fans bumped into each other as they wandered round the town, they all said they same thing. Will we be going to Toronto?

Friday, March 03, 2017

Devilish details

I was never a Blairite. It wasn't just his political economy, I also disliked what I saw as the vacuity of much of his discourse, the strange, verbless syntax, the corny soundbites, and his peculiar halting delivery. Then he gave his speech on the EU. It used the same formulas, but it was startling because it was excellent. It made me think how much our political discourse has deteriorated since his heyday. Instead of the dry platitudes of May, the false bluster of Johnson, and the delusional rambling of Trump, Blair did something unusual in a political speech. It may have been partisan, but it presented clear facts and asked questions that needed answering.

The response was predictable. Rather than deal with the issues of substance, his speech was deluged in ad hominems. The left went on about Iraq. The right sneered. The worst was Boris Johnson who dealt with the arguments by telling people not to listen to them. But what about the questions Blair raised? Did anyone try and answer them? If they did, I didn't see any replies. This is the problem. The trouble with Brexit is that it's scary. Look at the data and it is clear, Brexit will be expensive to implement and the gains are hard to see. So let's avoid all that unpleasantness and castigate the "remoaners" for their negativity.

This reluctance to look at the facts is on all sides. Take this from here. It's from an article by a natural Blairite and a remain voter. He quotes a bizarre statement from Wes Streeting that voting not to trigger article 50 would have led to riots in the street, and then he throws in this:
Here’s a rallying cry from Jonathan Rutherford that I want to share;"Instead of hedging its bets, lamenting Brexit, and echoing each dire forecast of impending disaster Labour must stand foursquare for the labour interest in the restoration of a self-governing, trading nation."
 There are obvious objections. I thought we already were a "self-governing, trading nation." And what if the dire forecasts are right? Standing foursquare behind a mistake isn't a very good idea. But mainly, the quote is meaningless. Again look at the data. Blair did.
We will withdraw from the Single Market which is around half of our trade in goods and services. We will also leave the Customs Union, covering trade with countries like Turkey. Then we need to replace over 50 Preferential Trade Agreements we have via our membership of the EU; for instance with Switzerland. So, EU-related trade is actually two thirds of the UK total. This impacts everything from airline travel, to financial services to manufacturing industry, sector by sector.
So, how do we deal with this problem, who do we trade with? How do we overcome the loss of our membership of our main market? How do we do it with a productivity gap and trade deficit? And how can it serve the labour interest? These are real problems. Surely they should be discussed before leaping into the dark? There's nothing about any of this in the "rallying cry."

Ah, but then there's the 'will of the people.' That always gets pulled out. It's OK, don't worry about the details, because 'the people have decided.' 'They have spoken.' 'Their verdict is in.' Never mind a discussion of the quality of that decision or how well informed it was, let's look at the figures. 17 million voted out, 16 million voted remain, 13 million didn't vote at all, and millions more were not on the register. This wasn't even a majority. It was the largest minority. Now it is often sensible, customary, and democratic to vest power in the largest minority (though there are exceptions - Germany in 1933 springs to mind), but to describe this as somehow being the immutable will of the British people as a whole is absurd. I could accept the result as the starting point of a long deliberative and consultative process, but not as a blank cheque to the government to do whatever it likes. What politicians are really doing is hiding behind the vote to avoid talking about the substance.

Then there's the Labour Party's dilemma.They nominally supported remain, yet two thirds of their constituencies voted leave. What do they do? Their instinct is to protect what they hold. They must fall in line with their voters. All very commendable - except, as the vastly experienced psephologist, John Curtice pointed out, around two thirds of Labour voters voted remain, even in those constituencies that voted out. The referendum result was carried mainly by voters of other parties. It was based on the support of affluent, middle class areas. This gives Labour a profound problem, but not the one they think they have

In one sense Labour's timid position, to abandon policy and principle, and whip its representatives into line to support a hard Brexit, is thoroughly Blairite. Accommodate to a Conservative settlement and privilege one section of your support over another on the grounds that they 'have nowhere else to go,' is exactly what New Labour did. The weakness is that in order to win now Labour needs both. This points to a different strategy. I fear that if Brexit goes badly, the party has put itself in a position where it will have no credibility to criticise and propose an alternative direction. If it goes well, something I find unlikely, Labour will get no credit. Safety may well prove to be a lose/lose strategy.

When will we realise? This is a victory for the right. A big victory. Look at the voting figures. The last general election was one of the few times in post-war history when the parties of the right gained more than 50% of the vote. Brexit was predominantly the cause of right-wing obsessives and the Conservative press. This is our reactionary moment. But look again. It's a rebellion of the old. The young don't share it. It will pass.

So where should Labour stand? Should they embrace the present or gamble on the future? Who then should Labour stand with? The future or the soon to be past? That's their dilemma.

What all this shows is that if we rely only on slogans, conventional wisdom, clever journalistic phrases, or ideological biases, we can get things badly wrong. They make complexity seem simple, and the difficult easy. We have to look at the data. This is the hard, material reality that will decide what will actually happen. At the moment there is little comfort to be had from it for either side, which is presumably why all are lapsing into public expressions of wishful thinking.