Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Through the looking glass

Curiouser and curiouser. As we reach another round of Parliamentary votes on Brexit, the detachment of the debate from reality is getting ever more bewildering. Much of it is a mirror image of reality.

For leavers on the right, the EU is an invading, colonising power to be resisted - The Soviet Union, Hitler, and Napoleon rolled into one. It is an oppressive, hostile monster that we joined voluntarily and held a commanding position in. We can leave if we want to, but we also want all the benefits of membership (and there are plenty of those), none of the costs, and all because of who we are - we are great, they owe us, Dunkirk (oh, perhaps not), D-Day (yes, that's better) and all that. But they won't let us have everything unconditionally, the bastards. Who won the war anyway? We want to be out and in at the same time. Schroedinger's Cheshire Cat.

For the far smaller number of leavers on the left, the EU is a monstrous vehicle imposing a vicious neoliberal ideology on plucky socialist Britain. We need to escape to free ourselves from this hostile, and suspiciously foreign, economic horror. We must reject their Thatcherism! Thatcherism? Er ... where did they get it from? Oh. Margaret Thatcher. She was British, wasn't she? And Conservatives bitterly resented the old-fashioned, social democratic EU's determination to resist and protect the workforce, even if they did come to share what had become a broad international consensus. Never mind, now they are the ideological aggressor. We must free ourself by facilitating an extreme neoliberal project to leave the EU and turn Britain into Singapore.

Then there is the withdrawal agreement. The critical word is "agreement." That implies that two or more parties agree. As we did with the EU over the Northern Ireland backstop - in December - December 2017. It looks as if the government might try to defeat itself again so that it can go back to the EU to unagree what has been agreed so we can have an agreement that they have said they will not agree to.

Next up, democracy. Yes, a nice word. A very nice word. However, it does have a few different meanings. We are a representative democracy, not a plebiscitary democracy. Except that we held a non-binding referendum that is, apparently, binding, allowing some MPs to openly say that they think Brexit will damage the country, make people poorer, that they oppose it, that they want to remain, but they will support leaving because democracy and that sort of thing. A sovereign Parliament bound by a non-binding referendum. How novel.

Then there are the voters. They might turn nasty if we don't leave. They will be so angry. Beware of unrest. We must do as they say. No, not those voters. Not the ones that voted remain. They don't matter. Angry? Well they might be a bit pissed off, but who cares? They are only about half the electorate anyway, or if the tracker polls are right a majority these days. But they don't count. They may be the majority of the people, but they aren't the will of the people.

Have we gone mad? Have the German leaders who wrote to The Times urging us to stay not understood that our "legendary British black humour" is not humour at all but our principles of government? The answer is no, we're not crazy, not really. Accident has trapped us into attempting to implement an impossible policy and we are thrashing around trying to do it. Even those who advocated it didn't know how to leave without doing major damage, which was why they never offered a plan. The minimalist approach, sometimes referred to as the Norway option, was to rejoin EFTA and become members of the EEA. That meant giving back control, but remaining within a beneficial set of economic arrangements. That was the only well thought out proposal. Everything else meant stripping out the nation's economic infrastructure, an economic revolution with uncertain, but deeply damaging results.

Of course, we got here by a mad route - a mistake that ended with an unintended result. Otto English put it beautifully:
The uncomfortable truth is that whether you voted Remain or Leave in June 2016 you probably voted emotionally. Very few people understood it. Inviting a largely uninformed public to make a judgement on something as unfathomably complex as our membership of the EU was akin to asking a six-year-old to perform delicate brain surgery – with a crayon.

And it's not just Brexit. Most people simply do not fathom politics. Most have no understanding of concepts like pooled sovereignty, or how net migration works, or what first past the post is, or how our unwritten constitution functions. Many, frankly, don’t even care. Why should they?

In a parliamentary democracy we elect politicians to make important decisions on our behalf. That’s how the system has functioned for decades and also why the British have traditionally astutely avoided referendums – which reduce perplexingly multifaceted matters to a binary choice. 
The problem though is that this ignorance was shared by our representatives. Worse still, they have misunderstood their role in a Parliamentary democracy.

If people do not understand something that is now as ubiquitous, then they have to find a narrative that is familiar enough for them to understand. The result is the dominance of heroic fictions invested with strong emotional attachments - on both sides - rather than prosaic reality. As Jeremy Cliffe puts it, what motivates the EU is "the quest for the quiet life." It's about stability through prosperity and creating institutional arrangements to allow states to co-operate to achieve it. It's not very exciting.

Can't we go back to being a normal country? Might we not take this revolutionary leap in the dark, informed by bollocks? Can we be ordinary please? The mantra at the moment is 'respecting the result of the referendum.' But why? Why, if it is a mistaken policy produced by a necessarily ill-informed vote in a poorly constructed, flawed referendum, can't we say 'sorry, we made a mistake.' There is no shame in admitting error. Can't we judge the referendum result on the quality and consequences of the decision, rather than implement it regardless solely because of the way it was made?

The evidence is clear from all those who actually do know something about it. Business are against leaving. Trade unions are against leaving. All our allies are aghast at our leaving. Our international reputation has been trashed. Our influence and power is diminished. We were a significant world power because of our commanding role in the EU, not despite it. Now we are irrelevant. Even before we leave, there is a process of disinvestment in the UK going on today. Investment decisions are not coming our way. We face a long drawn out transition or a catastrophic rupture. Why not stay? There will be a lot of work to be done to repair the damage, but at least we will stop more taking place. It's in our power. It's our choice. We can unilaterally withdraw Article 50. There's no need for another risky referendum if Parliament accepts its duty and explains it well. We can abandon plebiscites. It might be rather a good idea.

And if we do become normal again, we can put all our energy into doing what matters - tackling inequality, ending austerity, redressing poverty, and rethinking the failures of democracy that got us into this mess. And let's pledge to not use referendums unless absolutely appropriate, especially not poorly constructed ones to try and resolve an internal party dispute by risking the future of the country.

Sunday, January 27, 2019


What troubles me the most these days is the detachment of anger from reality. Comfortable people in prosperous and peaceful societies, living longer and healthier lives than ever before in history, put on yellow jackets and riot, demand to leave the European Union, campaign against vaccinations that have eliminated some of the worst diseases that have plagued humankind, rage against medicine and bio-technology, embrace convenient fictions to explain away inconvenient facts, and think that even the most commonplace things are phoney. And when you ask them why, the answer will be at best fallacious and at worst uncritically thoughtless.

Commentators write earnest pieces about how this is the fury of the dispossessed, the downtrodden, and the forgotten. Except it never is. The poor are too busy surviving. And on the rare occasions that they do take to the streets, they are driven by hunger rather than their desire for homeopathy.

As we have seen with Brexit, demands that are not concrete can never be appeased, anger cannot be dissipated by success. Rage becomes an addiction.

The glue that holds all these together - that binds the ludicrous, the prosaic, and the sinister into one incoherent discontent - is conspiracy theory. It's the idea that everything can be explained by malevolent others plotting against you, thereby thwarting what you and your overwhelming self-esteem think you deserve, while frustrating the glorious future that awaits if only they would allow it.

There are so many cruelties and injustices in the world. They have causes and remedies, though none are quick or easy, many are complex, understanding them means insight and nuance, and conflicts may often be resolved only through imperfect trade-offs between incompatible demands. Conspiracy theory denies this. It says everything is simple. There is one cause - them. Eliminate them and all will be well.

Today of all days, a day of remembrance, we mustn't forget that the ultimate and foundational conspiracy theory is anti-Semitism. If you scratch the surface of any of these movements, you will soon see Jew-hatred festering away. It's rarely as crude as in the 1930s. It is expressed though symbols - George Soros, the Rothschilds, Zionism, all woven into a subterranean racism. It's growing. It's suppurating in the left and right. It's evil.

Piously repeating mantras, like "never again," is not enough to defeat it. Instead, we need to rediscover reason - using analysis, self-awareness, and a sense of humility in the face of our own ignorance and prejudices - which we can never escape, but may come to know. In the meantime, we should remember where this leads.

(Thanks to Allan for the music)

Tuesday, January 08, 2019


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

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

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

First, it's a failure of representative democracy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

A new year

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

1. An end to the delusion of British greatness.

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

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

2. The abandonment of the word 'weaponise."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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