Friday, March 29, 2019

Another fine mess

Everyone is sharing this, so why not me as well. Since June 2016 I have been bashing out stuff on here as a catharsis. I needn't have bothered, this says it all. A cabinet minister quoted on Newsnight the night before the withdrawal agreement gets defeated for the third time, despite offering the ultimate bribe, a crack at the leadership to Boris Moses Johnson. Never can failure be more deserved.

If we do leave, I think the traditional UK motto, honi soit qui mal y pense, should be replaced on our new blue passports. After all, it is in Norman French. This Anglo-Saxon would fit nicely. Fuck knows? I'm past caring. It's like the living dead in here. The new symbol of our nation.

And in case you are in doubt about the meaning of Brexit, look at the demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament. A knot of several hundred people being addressed by Tommy Robinson. Serious Eurosceptics of left and right, together with elderly right wing nostalgics yearning for imperial measures, are propping up an explicitly fascist movement. All the while the sharks of the ERG swim around, scenting blood, waiting to dismantle the post-war welfare state. It is against everything that Labour has achieved and everything it stands for. It has to be defeated, not just in numbers, but intellectually through a progressive, democratic Europeanism. We are winning, but clinging on by our fingernails at the same time.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

An exam question

Given that:

1. The strength of a mandate is based on the size of the majority, not the number of people who voted for the winner. The number of votes cast only indicates the size of the population and the turnout. A 4% majority is a weak mandate.

2. Out of the total electorate, 17,410,742 people voted to leave. 29,090,500 didn't.

3. "The will of the people" is not a democratic concept. It takes a single fixed opinion and insists that it must be enforced regardless of opposition. It is populist authoritarianism. Consensus is a democratic concept. It is about negotiation and change, reaching agreement, listening and deliberating, with no predetermined conclusion.

4. The British Social Attitudes Survey (page 5, table 1) shows that there has never been a majority for leaving the EU. The only time that it came close (41%) was in 2016 as a result of the polarising effects of the referendum and support has been falling away ever since. According to Faisal Islam  there "hasn’t been a single poll in almost a year now with a Leave lead." Of the 70 polls since the 2017 general election only two show a small Leave lead, five were ties, and sixty-three had Remain leads. The latest poll showing a ten point lead for Remain is a sign that we are reverting slowly to the mean.

5. Every credible study of the economic impact of Brexit shows it to be damaging in most parts of the economy, and will hit the poorest people and areas worst. This reportage from SMEs is frightening.

Make a case for the EU referendum being a) democratic, and b) a good idea.

Monday, March 25, 2019

End times

Brexit died last weekend.

By that I don't mean that it won't happen. There is still a threat of political stupidity hanging over us because of the capture of a political party by loons (not an overstatement after reading Johnson channeling his inner Moses in the Telegraph). What I mean is that it has returned to the margins where it used to lurk as an eccentric irritation rather than as a horde of vandals set on sacking Brussels. The majority are still bored and baffled, but, as a few dozen devotees followed Farage, up to two million ordinary people gathered from all over the country to march in London to oppose Brexit. The visuals of the comparative strengths of the two events would not comfort Leavers. Leaving is no longer a viable political option.

The march was to demand a second referendum, but an online Parliamentary petition to cancel Brexit altogether by revoking article 50 and remaining in the EU, has gone viral. At the time of writing it has over five and a half million signatures and is still climbing. The largest demonstration ever has been joined by the largest petition ever. Material reality is on the march against religious faith. All Brexit has left is the appeal to belief.

If Brexit happens, it will do so in the teeth of widespread opposition and confront the most surprising event of modern British politics - the rise of a mass, determined, pro-European movement. Leaving will not be accepted, it will be fought through all the torturous negotiations in the years to follow, and, given the overwhelming sentiments of young people, it will be reversed. All we will be doing is damaging the country, permanently losing our many privileges within the EU, making people poorer, and diminishing our power in the illusion that we are gaining sovereignty. For what? An interregnum. Brexit is an exercise in futility.

As I have always said, leaving is a project of the right. It is the means to two ends, redoubling the Thatcherite revolution and winning permanent control of the Conservative Party. Though a small group of Lexiters have jumped on the bandwagon as well, with the opposite aim of greater economic collectivism. Both see the European Union as a constraint. But there isn't much evidence to suggest that either have come to grips with the nature of the modern economy. In this excellent article, Duncan Weldon looks at Brexit in the context of 20th century economic history and concludes that there is nothing original about it:
For all the talk of a radical change in the economic policy set‐up, it is just as likely that the end result is a very British attempt to ‘muddle through’ with a model which itself is not working and of which one of the key props (EU membership) has just been kicked away. The implication of this is that Brexit will not generate a new model for the UK, but simply an inferior version of the existing one.
It's hardly surprising that Leavers haven't got the faintest idea of what they want out of Brexit or of how to achieve it.

But it is a political revolution. It recasts Britain's place in the world as one of vulnerable isolation -sorry Global Britain. It is driven by nationalism. And that's the problem. It's attraction is emotional. Get to the details and the justification falls apart. It's a vacuous revolution, whose main aim seems to be the entrenchment of the Tory right in the leadership, regardless of electoral consequences. Indeed. consequences of any sort seem to be the least of their concerns.

In a couple of interesting posts Will Bott describes the structural causes of the increasingly radical noises coming from Leavers as they shift from Norway to nihilism. there are a number of factors, but the most appropriate here is that Leave has always had a problem of legitimacy, which is why they have never been comfortable with their victory. From the very first they have attacked Remainers, often in vicious and provocative language. They claimed the mantle of 'democracy' and used it it to fix the referendum result as the only democratic outcome for all time.

The political parties have acquiesced in this game too, bowing down before the altar of 'respect the referendum result,' regardless of how it was achieved, whether opinion has changed, or, most startlingly of all, whatever the consequences of the result actually are. Crash the economy? Respect the result. Make people poorer? Respect the result. Strip people of their rights? Respect the result. Threaten peace in Northern Ireland? Respect the result. Utter madness.

The other line is the psychic perception of 'they knew what they were voting for,' which, by coincidence, is always the favourite option of the clairvoyant. Paul Evans skewers this one here.

Saturday's march challenged the complacency. The 'will of the people' might not be as clear cut as leavers insisted it was. Their first impulse was to denigrate the demonstrators to try and strip them of their legitimacy. They were marching against democracy, rather than practising it. Then we got the sneering. For a long time we have had the strange spectacle of multi-millionaires decrying ordinary people as the elite. Now wealthy commentators declared that Remainers are middle class and so are inauthentic, which means that their opinions must be invalid. Lexiters jumped on the Tory bandwagon too. Picking up on some naff posters, middle class leftists decried middle class protestors for being middle class. The reality of a diverse demonstration, showing a depth of anger that could bring coaches to London from as far away as Orkney, should have made them question their world view.

Both left and right Leavers were caught up by the myth of Brexit as a working class rebellion to be romanticised in different ways. Duncan Weldon summarised why that is not so:
It is tempting to try to describe the Brexit vote as a revolt by the losers of globalisation—communities that had experienced de‐industrialisation and stagnating wages simply voting against what the elite desired. One could argue that the Labour party and the leadership of the trade unions have been disconnected from their traditional support bases and that class politics (despite appearances) actually drove the Leave victory. Innumerable newspaper opinion columns have indeed attempted to make this case. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Despite the popular image of Brexit being something which finds its loudest proponents in a stereotypical northern working men's club, the reality is that the most hardcore Brexiteers are usually to be located in the bar of a southern golf club. 
Labour's nervousness about the possibility of losing 30% of its vote and recklessness with the risk to the other 70%, led to a curious decision. On the day of the biggest street protest in history, against a Tory government and in support of official Labour policy, the Leader of the Opposition dodged it and spent the day in Morecambe, grabbing a photo opportunity with the statue of a dead comedian.

A cynical politician would have looked at that demonstration and the distribution of signatures on the petition and seen millions of voters in strategic locations that they need to win over at the next general election. The less cynical would have realised that forty years in the EU have produced, for enough people, an affinity, identity, and attachment to the rights it offers its citizens, to make Brexit divisive and toxic. A realist would have read the hard-headed economic analyses, seen the joint alarm of the TUC and CBI, looked at the millions on the streets and thought - no, this mustn't be done. I think it might take a bit more time for our current ones to cotton on.

That's why Brexit is dead, but it still lives on. It's a bugger to kill. The temptation of a zombie Brexit remains. It would be a disaster. Now's time to hammer a stake through its heart. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2019


Many miscarriages of justice have the same feature. The accused has confessed and the confession evidence is used to convict. What is important, though, is how that confession is obtained. The use of physical duress is one way, but the other is repetitive questioning until the moment the suspect cracks and says they did it just to make it stop. They withdraw the confession the next day, but that, and the hundreds of previous denials, doesn't matter, and they are charged. The one confession is all that counts. This is how May is approaching getting her withdrawal agreement through Parliament.

Parliament and MPs have failed in the past. They should never have voted for the referendum, nor should they have voted for article 50 without a detailed and agreed plan. But the current crisis is not a Parliamentary failure. They have woken up - belatedly. The Speaker has paused the interrogation process. Parliament is holding an overbearing executive to account. The crisis is that the executive refuses to listen or even accept the fact that it has suffered an historic defeat. There is no majority in Parliament for any one form of Brexit. The same applies in the country.

However much they try and blame someone else, the failure is the government's. The failure is the Conservative Party's. The failure is the Prime Minister's.

To negotiate a way through the thicket created by a badly designed, legally non-binding, pre-legislative referendum, with no methods for leaving specified, would have taken intelligence, imagination, flexibility, good judgement, alliance building, listening, and negotiating skills. May has none of them. Instead we have a pretence of strength, that is really cowardice in the face of the bullying of the far right ERG in her own party. I fear that she is neither intellectually or psychologically suitable for the task. This Spiegel piece is damning, but seems to hit the target.

Ultimately, the blame lies with Brexit itself. It's a stupid policy with no consensus to back it. The referendum only gave a weak mandate (a narrow majority of the vote, making Leave the largest minority of the electorate on that one day). Never mind the illegalities or the lies, Leave promised what could never be delivered. A weak mandate to deliver the impossible is why we are here.

Accept that Brexit has failed. Accept that it has gone wrong. There's nothing humiliating about recognising the truth. And remember that suspect under interrogation. Even if Parliament accepts the withdrawal agreement under duress, that acceptance will be withdrawn afterwards. The result will be years and years of wrangling over our future. And as it goes on, the country will become poorer and our international reputation will collapse even more. We are already an international laughing stock, we will then be seen as untrustworthy as we are ludicrous.

I meant to write an analytical post about democracy, I meant to answer my blogger friend Harry Barne's comment a couple of posts ago. Instead, this is just a long scream into the void (or to the handful of people who read this blog). Stop it! Don't mess around with another referendum. Stop it now. Revoke article 50. It's time to begin the task of rebuilding our international relationships, to repair the economic damage, and to reform ourselves - to renew democracy, promote equality, and extend social protection. Let's reject the spivs and demagogues and deal with reality. Let's rethink our relationship with Europe in a sane, considered, and consensual manner. But will we? That's the biggest question of all.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

The Photographer at Sixteen

The Photographer at Sixteen
George Szirtes
Quercus Publishing
London, 2019
ISBN: 9780857058539

Back in February 2008, George Szirtes wrote something on his blog about poetry that was so intriguing that I copied and kept it.
There is, most crucially, the ghost in language, the feeling that life haunts language in a ghostlike fashion, glimpsed now here, now there, offering a shudder here, a shudder there, but that when you put out your hand through the words to grasp it, it escapes you. Your hand passes straight through it.
When I read his poetry, I always thought that I could sense the ghost. It was the spectre of history, of the lingering smell of totalitarianism. I can now see that my understanding was inadequate. Ghosts are people after all. And in this wonderful book, George invites the reader in to meet the most personal ghost of all, his mother - more than three decades after her death. 'Come and get to know her,' he seems to be saying. 'Let me tell you as much as I can about her life. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin at the end.'

And so he does, winding us back through time, unravelling some of the mystery and enigma of a victim who refused to be one, of a survivor who would not be defined by her survival.

He tells her story with respect, tenderness, and honesty. It isn't a sentimental book. It's intelligent and affectionate, capturing the spirit of a forceful personality. Inevitably, her life was haunted by the great crimes of the twentieth century, but the book has more to say. I smiled recalling the shared familiarities of a 1950s Home Counties upbringing. I understood the pressures of intense maternal love while growing up in the shadow of a generation that had seen too much. That was personal to me, but a reader will find many other things to identify with and think about. George starts from his own memories, then steps outside himself and ransacks the recollections of others so he can fill in the story of her life before he was born. Those are the events that shaped her, and were what he needed to know. But they're also part of a collective experience that should never be forgotten.

His mother, Magda, was a photographer. And George's narrative is structured around those everyday ghosts that hang on our walls, sit in frames on our sideboards, or are tucked away in albums, waiting to be retrieved. They catch a moment in time, often ambiguous, demanding interrogation, and are a source of reflection. His intimate thoughts are bound up in those photos. He searches for meaning in each and every one of them – as, I suppose, we all do when one catches our eye and interrupts the progress of our lives with memory.

It's fitting that the penultimate chapter meditates on five photographs, the only reminders of life before tragedy. A fragmentary record of an unrecorded time. And when the ghosts have been properly scrutinised and laid to rest, what is left is language. Language is the vehicle for the imagination, to recreate the senses and emotions of past times, and to cautiously invent what is missing. And as George says, "The trick is to invent the truth."

The Photographer at Sixteen is an original and compelling book. It does tell truth. Truth that we need to hear. And when you reach through the words, the ghost of a life still slips away. You can't touch, but you have felt a presence, one that stays with you.

Friday, March 01, 2019

Breaking up the party

What's going happen now? I've not got a clue. Both main parties have seen defections to a new Parliamentary grouping. They both responded by going on manoeuvres, with nobody too sure about the sincerity of their new poses. Neither appear to be functioning and both are seething with discontent. Prediction is impossible and speculation is tedious. It's more interesting to think about how we got here, and there is something useful to be said on that.

Let's talk about the generic causes of splits in parties.

We should abolish the words 'centrists' and 'moderates.' They are meaningless. Both draw their language from the idea of a political spectrum – a supposed sliding scale of positions from far left to far right. I've always thought that's rubbish. What we have are clusters of ideas as part of more or less coherent world views. Those clusters overlap in certain key areas. Those areas are the basis of a coalition. Because of the way our electoral system works we have intra, rather than inter, party coalitions. Party loyalty and unity holds those coalitions together around the core shared beliefs. The non-consensual ideas exist outside the mainstream and compete, sometimes winning influence, sometimes losing. This is the 'broad church.' It is the core that holds the party together though.

But parties are also systems of power and problems emerge when one group is tempted away from small victories on the margins by the prospect of total victory, power to the exclusion of others. That pushes the consensual, unifying beliefs to the margins. Party unity ceases to be a compromise, it becomes a rhetorical demand for obedience and submission to a new ideological ascendency. The sentimental attachment to the myth of the party holds it together for a while, but it can't last. Dissidents will rebel or defect. And that's not all. Ideological purity is never enough. Deviation becomes betrayal. A new purity is found, and obedience sought. Purists fight purists for the only true purity. Ironically, compromise is the way to prevent schism and thus keeps an ideology functional, instead of splintering it into warring factions. Both parties have fallen prey to this temptation of purity, and it's the source of their troubles.

Secondly, we need to look at the specific, proximate causes. Today's splits are around Brexit for both of them and anti-Semitism for the Labour Party. These are both animating beliefs and symbols of allegiance. You can tell a person's politics by how they define themselves against either one of them. Brexiters and anti-Zionists are rebels against the mainstream.

Take Brexit to start with. Britain's EU membership was an answer to a real question; how we should deal with Britain's post-war relative decline. As the EEC economies grew rapidly, we were being left behind and were seen as "the sick man of Europe". The debate as to what to do polarised around two positions, nationalism and Europeanism. Right wing nationalists still had imperialist pretensions and called for an ethnically homogeneous nation state, aligned with America. The left were not bothered about ethnicity, but wanted an autonomous and sovereign socialist nation state. Pro-Europeans fretted about British vulnerability if we were to remain isolated in a world increasingly divided into power blocks. Their answer was to join the then EEC and become part of a growing economic alliance and political union.

The advocates of Europe won, and, with the progress of globalisation, it proved to be a wise choice – probably the only viable option. Today, a multi-polar, interdependent world is emerging through powerful regional organisations, the most effective of which is the EU. Britain's future had been successfully resolved.

From 1992 the single market accelerated and deepened the process of economic integration. The Social Chapter established social democratic rights. The result was a model of industrial production and trade in both goods and services that made leaving the Union phenomenally difficult without doing immense damage.

What's more, after Thatcher's disastrous monetarist experiment in the early 80s and the consequent rapid de-industrialisation of the country, Britain found a partial remedy through the encouragement of inward investment. Large industrial concerns, such as Japanese companies, were invited to base their operations in the country. The main attraction was Britain's EU membership, especially membership of the single market. Now they are leaving. They won't be coming back.

There was also a more difficult debate about the extent of the political integration of the EU. Should it be a loose federation of nation states with limited areas of competence, or a federal union – a United States of Europe? This debate was clouded with linguistic confusion. In European discourse, 'federalism' is understood to mean decentralisation, in Britain it became associated with greater centralisation of power – the fabled "European super-state." The issue was resolved by the 2007 Lisbon Treaty. The final form of the treaty was a victory for the decentralists. It defined and limited the spheres of competence for the EU both inside and outside the Eurozone. It emphasised the practice of subsidiarity, that wherever possible decision making should be devolved to the national level. Most importantly, it made it impossible for additional functions to be given to EU bodies without a treaty change, which meant that every member state and their legislatures had a veto on any proposal to extend the sphere of competence of EU institutions.

At last, Britain's position was resolved and secure. Except the nationalists hadn't gone away. They lurked on the crank fringes of left and right, but it was their ability to be destructive in the Conservative Party that won them a referendum. Yet the issues they banged on about were over. The EU was not about to become a super-state. Britain not only had a leading decision-making role, but also had a veto over the extension of future power and EU expansion. These were old debates, long settled (which, perhaps, partially explains the generational divide in the vote, the issues only resonated with those who had longer memories.) The result was that the Leave campaign had to invent a fictitious EU to rail at, while fighting a more general culture war to avoid dealing with specifics.

Then they won. That meant dealing with reality. And they hadn't a clue. So, they ploughed on with fictions and fantasies, tales of conspiracy and betrayal, all the hallmarks of the purist and the fanatic. All of them ways of avoiding the truth. In the meantime, companies are leaving, investment is drying up, and the costs are phenomenal. The only certainty is that if we do leave, we will be poorer than otherwise. Trust and respect for the country have been shredded. All Brexiters have succeeded in doing is to return the old question about Britain's role to the agenda. Only this time the answer will be more difficult in a substantially transformed world where we will be more isolated, having voluntarily abandoned the only viable solution at a huge cost to ourselves.

Whereas Brexit has enpowered the fringe group on the Tory right, who John Major famously referred to as "bastards," the Labour anti-Semitism crisis is the product of the new Labour leadership coming in from the margins.

This needs greater explanation. There has always been anti-Semitism in the left - always. However, the form it takes and the vehicle for its expression changes. The current version is intrinsically tied to anti-Zionism and is articulated through a virulent hatred of the state of Israel, a reversal of Labour's traditionally pro-Zionist stance.

There are two main factors underlying that shift. Firstly, there was a change in left thinking in the second half of the 20th century. Class analysis was eclipsed by 'anti-imperialism.' Instead of class conflict, this new left emphasised the struggle against Western capitalist imperialism. As a result, nationalism, where it opposed the West, was seen as a progressive rather than a divisive force. It was to be supported in whatever form it took and however reactionary its politics. This took hold in the far left and they took up the Palestinian cause.

This brings in the second factor, anti-Judaism. The term comes from David Nirenberg's book, a remarkable intellectual history. It traces the way Judaism has always been a cypher for one side of a Manichean struggle, the nature of which changed with the times. Whether it related to the reading of the scriptures, opposition to the Enlightenment, or finance capitalism, Judaism was seen as both the enemy of civilisation and the cause of its potential downfall. Apply this way of thought to 'anti-imperialism' and it isn't surprising that it's the Jewish state that's seen as the embodiment of modern evils – racism, colonialism, and empire. Thus, the enemy becomes the United States and Israel. Slowly, and inexorably, the insidious conspiracy theory that is anti-Semitism makes Israel the instigator, the hidden force, the sinister manipulator, through its all-pervasive 'lobby.'

And so, a fictitious Israel emerges from the left imagination. The language that describes it comes from two alliances that they made; Stalinist anti-Semitism, together with both Arab and Islamist nationalisms seeking to impose their hegemony over the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Middle East. Arab nationalism carried with it the contempt of the coloniser for the colonised and ended in the 'ethnic cleansing' of the ancient Jewish communities from the Arab world (they now form the majority population in Israel). Islamism introduced the worst of exterminatory European anti-Semitism into its discourse. Colonial settler state; Zionist Entity; Zionism is racism; Apartheid; the same as the Nazis; these are familiar terms in the milieu and often blend with older, more sinister tropes – child killing, organ harvesting, blood lust, and the ubiquitous use of money to corrupt and destroy. They see the Israel/Palestine conflict as the source and origin of all conflict in the Middle East. Without Israel there would be peace.

None of this is true. The conflict is real enough. The existential threat to Israel is ever-present. The ethnic nationalism of the Israeli far right is vile. The Palestinian condition is wretched. But the portrayal of this conflict within the anti-Zionist movement is false – historically and morally. But it has to be thought of as the truth to fit into the anti-imperialist world view and to justify hating Israel.

This is the milieu that shaped Corbyn's world view. His alliances were indiscriminate. His anti-Zionism an article of faith. He is extremely uncomfortable when challenged and incapable of seeing this as anti-Semitism in any way. He sees himself solely as a defender of the Palestinian people. This too is a problem. It feeds a form of denial. Whether that is the harassing of the Jewish Labour Movement by the newly formed fringe group Jewish Voice for Labour, or the accusation that this is an imaginary 'Blairite' plot dreamed up to attack Corbyn (sometimes with the suggestion that they have been paid to do it by Israel!), it indicates the existence of institutional racism under the McPherson definition"
The collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.
When Jews said that they experienced this as anti-Semitism, they were disbelieved, something that would be inconceivable if the same was said by another minority. And there was worse. This is where social media can be poisonous. Log on to Labour supporting forums and twitter accounts and it won't take long for you to come across vicious and unambiguous Jew hatred. Social media also allows that to be sent directly to its targets. Harassment and abuse are widespread. It needs stopping, instead it's spreading into the mainstream.

It needn't be like this. To be pro-Palestinian doesn't mean denying the right of Israel to exist. Parts of the revolutionary left have the intelligence to reject this crap. For instance, take your time to read this open letter to Corbyn by the Trotskyist Sean Matgamna of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty.

Both Brexit and anti-Semitism share common features. They are both the symbol of political change within their respective parties, and both mark the entry of conspiracy thinking into the mainstream. They tell us that their targets are conspiring to undermine us all. The EU is trying to subjugate Britain, reducing it to a "vassal state." Zionists are using their wealth and power to secretly rule the world. These are articles of faith that bind their adherents together. Neither are true, and both run aground on the rocks of reality. But they don't have to be real for people to act on them, and the actions themselves are only too real and can hurt real people.

A stench of unreason is seeping through from fringe movements, and with them comes the threat of violence borne on the sanctity of their belief. If parties split, it's of little importance compared to the urgent need to end our complacency over the risks we face.

There's a lot of talk about how we are reliving the 1980s. I don't buy it. Things are very different from then, even if some politicians are consciously trying to re-fight the old struggles that they lost previously. However, I don't find history comforting. It shows a habit of confidently embracing folly and fervently believing bollocks. The consequences are rarely benign.