Wednesday, August 28, 2019

In search of lost coherence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 27, 2019


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

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Brexit shorts

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

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


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

Why are we not talking about Gibraltar?


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


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


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


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


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


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

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Springtime for Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Anxiety in paradise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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