Thursday, December 31, 2020

Happy New Year?

It's a bittersweet New Year.

Here in Pelion, the weather is glorious, but we are under a strict lockdown because of the pandemic. The world is holding its breath, waiting for the vaccine.

And the UK has Brexit. The New Year signals us leaving transition and entering into a hard, hard Brexit that bears little or no relationship to what the Leave campaign promised during the referendum.

Brexit has turned my life upside down. I had to become a Greek resident before today to be protected by the Withdrawal Agreement. It's odd to be told by my own government to emigrate or lose my rights and it's not what I had planned. But it's worked out well for us, in a beautiful place, with wonderful friends and neighbours. It's a piece of paradise. It's brought happiness and there have been times I have been overwhelmed with the kindness that we have met.

We are the lucky ones, retirement made it possible. But I can't forget the people I know who have lost their job or had their careers ruined because their freedom of movement has been taken away. Nor can I forget the restricted futures of younger people, the businesses facing large increases in bureaucracy and costs, the loss of the European Social Fund and regional aid helping the most deprived, the list goes on. And I can't forget my native country, to my mind making the worst mistake in its post-war history. EU citizenship meant more to me than just the conveniences, rights, and liberties it conferred. It was part of my identity and losing it feels like a bereavement.

But I was in time to rescue my Greek life. Good things are happening too, for friends and family. There is sweetness to alleviate the bitterness of the awful year 2020.

So, to all my readers, friends and relatives, I hope that 2021 brings sweetness for us all, even though I feel for the victims of this awful pandemic and fret about the future of the United Kingdom. How I wish we had settled for being a nice country with a crap climate, collaborating with the rest of Europe, rather than trying to be ... well, you tell me. 

Monday, December 14, 2020


We have a disgusting government. We have an even more disgusting and complicit right-wing press. I am not sure that they are wholly sane.

What can you say about this?

Untrue, obviously. Racist, certainly. Deeply offensive on so many levels - Kristallnacht, Merkel as a Nazi, Britain, even more offensively, compared to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. And it's about the bloody war. Give it a rest. It ended seventy-five years ago. 

We are in this mess partly because of decades of blatant, deliberate lying about the EU by these papers. Years and years of relentless nonsense, twisted interpretations, and invented drivel. It has found an audience, made money, given Johnson his career, and cost the country its place in Europe. It also tells you everything you need to know about Brexit.

Brexit was only about breaking things. True, it subscribed to the old revolutionary slogan about destruction being creative, of a new Britain emerging unchained by those tiresome reciprocal obligations that brought us wealth and security, but they never bothered to tell us how. There was nothing as messy as a programme or a plan. No, every piece of Brexiter propaganda was based on one thing - hatred of the EU, often insane hatred. Just like this piece.

I'm back in Greece. Brexit has forced me to choose to become resident here before the end of transition. I'm a Brexile. I got back early, getting a flight the day before the UK lockdown and, as it turned out, only a few days before a much tougher Greek lockdown. And then there was the unexpected. A feral dog gave birth to puppies and brought them into our garden. A local animal charity got involved and we rescued them. The local kennels were full, so the option was that they would either be housed in a room provided by a local hotel owner, or we could build a pen in our garden for them until they could be adopted. This is the result.

There are six of them. All but one has been found a home. They will move after the next round of injections. And they will be spread all over Europe. 

The people involved in the rescue and rehoming are Greek, Dutch, Italian, German, and us. It's a European Union in microcosm. Brexit is seen as being all about trade and sovereignty, about international relations and economics. We forget the micro level, people of different nations living where they want and organising themselves to do things as small as rescuing a litter of Greek puppies. Freedom of movement was its triumph. And we have a government that is proud to have removed it, restricting British citizens' rights. Institutions matter. The EU, where it fails can be reformed, but a void is a void. A pile of rubble is no use, it has to be rebuilt. Britain has chosen demolition without reconstruction. 

Brexit is a national folly, and the attitudes behind it are a national disgrace.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Notes from a depressed country

I've been back in the UK for a week and a half. It's an odd feeling after more than three months in Greece, but it's amazing how quick it is to adjust to the old normal. Stepping from glorious warm autumn weather into the chill of a Mancunian October is less easy to cope with. But my house is nice and comfortable. It's well stocked with memories, even if the friends are fewer these days. But the country doesn't feel right. It's very easy to project one's own unease onto others and to assume that what you sense is the national mood, although I think that there is something about the way the country feels to me that might ring true to others.

It could be the pandemic, it could be Brexit, it could be that so many people are isolated from friends and families, that the pubs are closed again, and that we still can't go to watch a football match, but arriving here felt gloomy and unusually quiet. Maybe it's because we are governed by the manifestly unfit who only seem capable of screwing up while describing everything as world-beating. Perhaps there's a realisation that we have not got what we were hoping for, only what we were worried about. But the country feels depressed. There's not the same cheery banter in shops or public places in general. It could be me, but Simon Kuper seems to agree.

He's written about a study of focus groups in the Financial Times. It's not behind a paywall, so you can read it easily here. He writes:

The pandemic has slashed people’s emotional investment in Brexit. Hardly anyone is following the technical, depressing trade talks. Both Remainers and Leavers want to patch up the family row — literally, as the other side usually includes their relatives. This divide has turned out to be weaker than the American red-blue split: God isn’t involved, few Britons had strong views on Europe before 2016 and there are no militias to fight this one out. People who made strong statements in the focus groups often immediately apologised: “I’ll get off my soapbox now.” 

Almost all polls show that most Britons now think Brexit was a mistake ...

I don't think that this is new. The polarisation of the country has always been overstated. The diehards are still in their trenches, but most of the population are where they always were, sharing a cup of tea in no-man's-land. And now the country looks towards January, when Brexit will become real, with a sense of foreboding. You can tell it isn't going well. The Brexiters are getting increasingly angry and hysterical, spewing out irrational hatred of the EU, including condemnation of the 'punishment' they are dishing out by not letting us use the airport gates for EU passport holders! We have to use the ones for third country nationals because that is what we will be and what we asked to be.

Of course we don't know what will happen other than a big increase in bureaucracy and barriers to trade and travel. Will it just be a pain or will the economic damage cause serious hardship? Who can say? But one thing will be missing in January, a great symbolic act of liberation. That's because we were not oppressed. Brexiters imagined it. There's nothing for us to be liberated from. The best we can hope for is that everything will only get a little bit worse.

Brexit is a mistaken revolution without benefits. We are caught in it because Cameron decided to gamble the future of the country to appease the obsessive revolutionary cranks in his ranks. The idea of being a leader and actually confronting and defeating them never seemed to occur to him.

I was reminded of the danger of giving minority cults power by this wonderful article. It's about an American town that elected Randian radical libertarians. They ignored all expert advice and dismantled the economic and administrative base of the town in the belief that private initiative would emerge to run everything better. It didn't. They ended up with bears. The type that kill people. It's a great story of ideological mayhem, but it's also a metaphor for Brexit. 'Let's set the country free to roam the world. But what about the bears? Project fear!'

And so here we are. Heads down, unenthusiastic, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. Kuper's conclusion - "anxious though most Britons are, they are still probably underestimating Brexit’s impact" - is probably true too. People are in for a shock. In the middle of a pandemic. One that could kill thousands of us. No wonder this is a depressed country.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Bring back democracy, all is forgiven

Hardeep Matharu asks a question:

[Johnson is] ... implying that his Government is only giving the British people what they already desire. While it might be tempting to dismiss this as yet another piece of blame-shifting rhetoric conjured up when reality doesn’t serve him, in his perverse projection does Johnson have a point?

Simply put, it must be asked: do the British people have a kind of death wish?
The answer is no. It's another silly generalisation.

Anything that talks earnestly about the British people, extrapolating a collective psychology from random events, is making a category error - thinking that there is such a thing as a collective will.

This type of speculation rests on two false assumptions. The first is that people are paying attention and actually know about issues. The minority of interested obsessives may be, but the majority are, to the intense disappointment of activists, at best semi-detached. They aren't willing anything, certainly nothing abstract. The second error is thinking that there is a collective consciousness, rather than a preponderance of opinions and impulses, or a bundle of commonly held prejudices.

Talking about the broad ignorance of an indifferent people is very different from the idea of a 'silent majority.' This usually conservative idea is that the bulk of people agree with you, but their common-sense voices are crowded out by vocal smart-arses. It's another example of the fallacy of false consensus. You may think that you are right, but it doesn't mean that everybody else agrees with you. And, of course, they don't. They aren't even thinking about it. Their ignorance is perfectly rational. Why do they need to know? They want to get on with their lives. It's people like me who are the weirdos. And for those battered by politics - the poor, the victims of austerity, the vulnerable, etc - they have resentments but are too busy surviving to be actively involved.

So, if we overestimate people's engagement, what becomes of democracy, the moment we ask them to have an opinion? The answer has always been representation, the selection of people to use their judgement on your behalf. But for that to maintain its legitimacy, representative institutions have to function effectively, and we now have problems.

Parts of the constitution are not fit for purpose. I have lost count of the number of earnest analyses of results that were primarily the result of poorly functioning institutions. What did Labour get wrong in 1951? Hard to say when they lost the election with the largest share of the vote that any single party has ever managed in the post-war period - a larger share than the winners. They lost because of a disproportional electoral system. The same can be said today of the national endorsement of Brexit in the 2019 election, giving Johnson the legitimacy to leave the EU - on 43% of the vote, with the majority of votes going to parties that wanted a second referendum. While recent polling shows that a clear majority now oppose leaving and think it was a mistake. The same share of the vote lost May her majority in 2017 but gave Johnson a landslide victory in 2019 - utter madness. Then there is Trump. Why did the American people vote for him? Well, three million more Americans voted for Clinton. He won an election he lost because of the electoral college system, the disproportionate way it allocates its votes, and the cynicism of his campaign in exploiting it. 

The electoral system is entwined with the party system. It's a bit like Scottish football. However many teams there are, either Celtic or Ranger will win the title. There is a two-party monopoly on power despite multi-party voting. That means that if cranks and loons capture either of the two main parties, they inherit votes and power that they could not win on their own and which rivals cannot take away from them. It's a system made for hobbyists and grifters to flourish.

I find it curious how people on the left are still resistant towards proportional representation. Possibly, it's the temptation of power without a majority. I used to be the same, but it was Thatcherism - another landslide on a minority vote - that made me change my mind in the 80s. Arguably, Johnson would have got nowhere near No.10 and we would still be in the European Union if we had a proportional voting system.

As if we didn't have enough problems, the failure of our representatives to understand our constitution has compounded institutional failures. There should not have been an election in 2019. It was a constitutional outrage to bypass the Fixed Term Parliaments Act with a single clause bill setting its provisions aside, without repealing the legislation. That was egregious enough without the catastrophic misjudgement of the opposition's support. And what on earth was Parliament doing when it voted for a referendum on EU membership? There was no demand for it other than from a few fringe groups. Referendums have no place in a parliamentary democracy, even leaving aside the poor design and the lack of safeguards in something so significant. The fact that MPs thought that leaving was wrong for the country, but still felt bound by the result of a non-binding referendum, shows that they didn't understand their job. 

At the same time, social media is providing a potent vehicle for the manipulation of short-term opinion. It's short-term because the denial of reality cannot last when reality bites. When the warnings of "Project Fear" start coming true, cognitive dissonance can only take you so far before regret kicks in. The techniques for the denigration of expertise and the replacement of complexity with wishful thinking are well established (as in this superb radio documentary series from Peter Pomerantsev). From voter suppression in the USA to the irregularities and illegalities of the Brexit campaign, social media and data manipulations have a bleak effect.

The collapse in support for Brexit has come too late and is unrepresented in the system. Brexit is an elite project claiming to be anti-elitist, opposed by the majority yet being carried out because it is the will of the majority. The government implementing it is from the darkest corners of the Conservative Party. It's part of an over-confident and entitled circle from a protected elite, people for whom politics is a game with few penalties for losing. 

Democracy is not a fixed event, it's a process. The referendum result was the product of particular circumstances, timing, dodgy practices, and the quirks of turnout. It opened up a process, it didn't close it. Yet, due to the insistence of its adherents, it became fixed and immutable. The preferred version of Brexit was the choice of the Conservative government. When a hung Parliament promised scrutiny, the 2019 election was held to stop it. The election was about the prevention, rather than the exercise, of democratic deliberation.

All these failures raise questions about democracy and democratic practice. How do we deliberate on policy and scrutinise the executive? How could representation work in mass societies? The answers point to the reform of existing institutions and supplementing them with something new. Paul Evans has addressed some of the issues here, while deliberative democracy offers the possibility of a democratic renewal through enhanced representation and citizen participation. Both parties are mired in constitutional conservatism and complacency. However, Brexit is a constitutional earthquake. The UK may not survive. Northern Ireland is a circle that cannot be squared. As Britain leaves its regional trade block, in order to make trade deals that are worse than the ones it has already, to revel in its increased sovereignty which it hasn't the power to exercise, and to threaten its own well-being and stability as a multi-national entity, the adverse consequences of something that was sold as consequence-free may force a rethink about democratic failures. Perhaps, we will begin to try and renew our democracy and the democratic governance that we need to protect our rights and freedoms. And then we could go back to ordinary life, caring about our families, enjoying the company of friends, and watching the telly.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Another door closes

I read this interviewContinuous Learning as a Right and a Necessity, with Li Andersson, the leader of the Left Alliance and Minister of Education in Finland, with sadness as well as pleasure. 

I have worked with numerous adult education programmes supported by the EU. This article refers to the European Agenda for Adult Learning, the most recent of several pan-European initiatives. Given the state of adult education in the UK, it's obvious that they can't compete with hard cash and ideology. However, European networks provided support and offered models for adult education's subsequent reinvention. A lifeline is being closed off. Britain pioneered adult education; it's now a backwater of retreat and regression.

There are two splendid quotes in the piece.

"... the alternative of employment should not be unemployment but education."

That's education in its broadest sense, not skills training alone. 

And it's conclusion is spot on:

“In major turning points such as now, participating in adult education can bring content and safety to everyday life amidst uncertainty. The education system should always offer an opportunity for learning, and there should be no closed doors.”

When I worked at Hull, our aim was to embed the University deep in the community - working in outreach centres, with voluntary groups, and in the prisons. Gradually, the doors swung the other way towards generational exclusion and narrow instrumentalism. Only a few leaks in the door seals persisted in providing opportunities for something wider, something much more radical.

And now we have closed the biggest door of all, the one to our European partners and the networks they provided. It's a national tragedy - and shame.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The silly season

What a mess. From the quiet of a Greek village, still nervous in a pandemic, with late summer weather hinting at the warm softness of autumn, my country appears even more surreal. The British people I meet out here are appalled, ashamed, or both. Greeks, and the other European nationalities who live here, think that we have gone mad. British residents and home owners are scrambling around doing the best to protect their interests as their rights are stripped away against their will - in many cases without them even having had the right to vote in the referendum that decided their fate.

The observation that I read and agree with most often is that we have a Vote Leave campaign in power, not a serious government, and it is from this that the incompetence flows. It is not equipped to govern and is fixated on its own security in power (and, at times, personal profit), rather than running a country in the interests of all its citizens. Brexit has wrecked far more than our place in the European Union. And that's before you factor in the inadequacy of the PM and cabinet.

Brexit remains undefined and its consequences unknown. A suicidal policy has been compounded by a precipitate dash to the cliff edge without bothering to work out if there is a safe route down. People keep searching for rational reasons, that Brexit is all about protecting offshore interests, selling British assets, and the like. I'm not so sure. There are plenty of grifters hustling their way through the crisis, that's true. Farage has successfully turned being obnoxious into an income stream. It's also a manifestation of hard-right populist ideology, one that has replaced totalitarianism with kleptocracy as its goal. (Bannon's arrest is a brief moment of hope and joy). But the essence of Brexit is not rational. It is an emotional spasm, rooted in mythologies and embodied in a paranoid style all of its own. It is propelled by resentment at fictitious indignities inflicted by a mythological EU. Reality doesn't feature. And even leaving the EU can not assuage their sense of persecution, something that they clearly enjoy.

Chris Grey is one of the best chroniclers of this psychosis. His insight evolved from years of academic analysis as the drama unfolded. His blog has long been essential reading. His excellent article for the Byline Times defines the problem Britain faces with precision.

Since the referendum an entire nation has been shackled to the political psychology of a relatively small number of people who – like rebellious teenagers secretly wanting to be set boundaries – demand total victory whilst craving defeat. It makes it impossible to turn Brexit into a workable policy because, at heart, it is not a policy demand at all, but a demand to be thwarted.
Reasoning with unreason is not possible. And by missing the multiple opportunities to deliver the betrayal the Brexit ultras craved, this is where we stand; with the greatest unhappiness for the greatest number of people. Chris Grey again from his latest blog post:
... for now at least, there is no answer. How can there be, when a nation is completely re-inventing its place in the world against the wishes of half its population, and with the other half gripped by a political psychology woven of paradoxical and contradictory impulses that have led them to vote for something undefined and that, however defined, is, because of that psychology, offensive to large numbers of those who did so?
It will unravel of course. The economic damage and destruction of people's rights should be enough. Add in the lies and distortions, the perversion of democracy, the sinister involvement of dark money and foreign interests, and it will unravel. Reality always wins in the end. I just hope that I am still around to see it. In the meantime, I must concentrate on how best to secure my life here as a second-class citizen.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The state of Britain

There is a lot that's good but something that's irritating in this article for an American audience about Britain's shocking record on Coronavirus. It puts our record down to the weakness of the British state. At times, it's too kind to Cummings and Johnson, though, at others, it gives them a well-deserved kicking. It's true that there are long-term structural failings in parts of the civil service. The administration has been weakened over the years by austerity and political fashions - from managerialism to small-state ideology. Brexit has thrown the most complex task ever on its shoulders, now to be undertaken in excessively rapid time by the decision not to extend the transition. It isn't a good time to be a civil servant. And you can't fault the article's conclusion:

When the pandemic hit, then, Britain was not the strong, successful, resilient country it imagined, but a poorly governed and fragile one. The truth is, Britain was sick before it caught the coronavirus

However, the line that it takes on Coronavirus is that the government should have been more critical of expert advice and have made a political judgement, rather than following uncritically. 

One of the central criticisms of Johnson’s leadership—expressed to me in multiple conversations—is not a refusal to accept the truth ... but a failure to challenge his experts’ strategy. It was the prime minister’s duty to question the scientific advice, to demand more.

As a criticism of leadership, it's a weak one. The ultimate blame lies elsewhere. It's a hard explanation to swallow. All governments have a tendency to hear the advice that they want to hear and those desires can shape the advice that's given. Rather than being not political enough, advice is often heavily politicised. 

But this is also a government that is keen to avoid responsibility and shovel it on to the administration wherever possible. Failure is met with a prompt announcement of a reorganisation/scapegoating (Public Health England is the latest to come in for the treatment). A government that disregards all expert advice on Brexit in favour of upbeat dissembling, doesn't strike me as one to slavishly follow a strategy decided by others unless it wants to. It doesn't seem to have been over keen to get some independent help, either, before launching the latest exam result fiasco on the people.

The Civil Service is being set up as the patsy for political incompetence. And they are not happy.

Alastair Campbell, not a bad spinner in his time, has his ear to the ground

There is a new word doing the rounds in Whitehall. Brovid. It must of course be whispered, not shouted, lest word gets back to the Gove-Cummings axis that it is being uttered at all, for to be heard using the word in polite company would be to signal a certain level of doubt about the efficiency of the Johnson regime.

This combination of Brexit and Covid expresses the contempt of the administration for the politicians.

It unites them in a morale-sapping reality for all in the employ of HMG – that the government is wholly consumed by one problem entirely of its own making – a Brexit secured and sold on promises that, guess what, turned out to be unfulfillable – and a second problem not of its making, the global pandemic, but the handling of which has created a succession of disasters entirely of their making.

...the civil service are seeing the realities of ministerial failings on both of these challenges day in, day out. They have made a total mess of Brexit. They have made a total mess of Covid.

The rhetoric of world-class this-and-that covers a grim reality, as the Institute for Government points out about the Brexit information campaign.

For business, December 31 will bring an unparalleled amount of red tape, extra hassle and administrative costs to add to their already strained cash flow. And life will change for everyone else too.
There are few moments when the veil parts and we see the genuine feeling of administrators trying to deal with the mess made by others. One happened during the Cummings affair. It was a single heroic, anonymous tweet to the official Civil Service account.

Remember this every time you hear any of this lot blame the administration or when Cummings trots out one of his banal schemes.

And remember too the irony of this shambles when you hear the 'global Britain' bullshit, that the rationale of Brexit was to free the dynamic British state from the constraints of a sclerotic European Union. 

It may be unfashionable to praise bureaucracy, but good administration is utterly necessary. Nothing can happen without it. If administrators are browbeaten, poorly resourced scapegoats, don't expect miracles. One of the first jobs of a new government will be to restore the morale of the people who run the British state. And the best way to do that would be for politicians to stop asking them to do stupid things and then to defend the indefensible.

Sunday, August 02, 2020

A silent crime

Outside the specialist education press, nothing is reported. I know from experience how hard it is to get a hearing. Yet, it's life saving and life changing. Adult education in all its alternative guises - continuing education, community education, lifelong learning, etc - matters. It matters very much indeed. Millions and millions of our fellow citizens have used and benefitted from it at all levels. But it's on few people's political radar and its loss is only lamented by those who used it. It's a national scandal that has been quietly accepted.

This might look like a local issue, but it is illustrative of the damage done by narrow, utilitarian and philistine government funding policies that have seen more than 4 million adult learners lost since 2003, with cuts accelerating through these past 10 years. Adult education centres, committed to literacy, numeracy, learning for active citizenship, social solidarity and a second chance at education for people failed by the system have a vital place in securing a post-Covid society. 

But they are not alone in experiencing the consequences of blinkered policy. In 2006, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, NIACE, published an independent inquiry on lifelong learning in colleges. Its title, Eight in Ten reflected the proportion of FE college students who were adults. Today, only a fraction as many remain. University extra-mural departments for adult learners now are all but a thing of the past. Libraries close. Museums have shorter opening hours. Public spaces for communities to meet together, for people from different backgrounds to meet and share enthusiasms, to make art and music, to understand and help shape the future fabric of our society diminish.
Step by step we lose the places for us to create a world worth living in.

I started working in adult education in 1982. I retired early over thirty years later. In that time, I set up dozens of programmes and initiatives for hundreds of students, in both urban and rural areas, and in community, further, and higher education institutions. There is not a single one left. I repeat, there is not one left. Everything that I built has been closed. Those thirty years were spent in an increasingly desperate battle against cuts. In the end, they won.

It would be easy to sit back and demonise the Tories, but, after a burst of initial encouragement, the New Labour years were as bad, and hard-left Labour authorities were horrendous. My experience has coloured my politics. The needs and dreams of so many people, the elderly as well as the young, were unseen and unvalued. It worries me about what people can tolerate and assimilate in relatively comfortable societies. It isn't just that "we don't know what we've lost till its gone," it's that we forget that we ever had it. And that's a lesson for today alright.

Saturday, August 01, 2020


I find it hard to contain my disgust at this Johnson government. Brexit, COVID, blatant cronyism, ignoring constitutional constraints, and the lying, the endless lying smothered in faux bonhomie. The list goes on. But this 'honours' list is something to be ashamed of. It's bad enough that it rewards Vote Leave activists, however rancid their politics - an insult to the majority of the electorate who voted for pro second referendum parties at the last election and the more than 50% that polls suggest wished to remain. Then there is the blatant nepotism of giving a peerage to his brother, though at least he is a Remainer and not a fan of Johnson's populist turn. And, of course, he raises two fingers to the Russia Report with a peerage for Evgeny Lebedev. Friends, family, and sympathisers rewarded. It stinks of both personal indulgence and the repaying of debts, together with a lack of respect for the office he holds. 

But there is one name that stands out; Claire Fox. Not just because she was a Brexit Party MEP, nor because of her part in Frank Furedi's absurd contrarian cult that he resurrected from the ashes of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and not because she is one of a number of grifters fawned on by the media when they should be beyond the pale. It's because of one event: Warrington. In March 1993 the IRA planted two bombs in cast-iron litter bins in the main shopping street on a busy Saturday. They killed two children, Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, and injured more than fifty others. Fox defended the bombings at the time. She has equivocated and not disavowed her support since. 

The peace foundation set up to honour the victims' memory tweeted a couple of replies in response:

This should have disbarred her from honours, while the non-response of Number 10 to the foundation is a cause for shame. 

I am still furious at the failure of the opposition to remove Johnson when they had the opportunity. Corbyn bears a huge responsibility and an even greater one for giving Johnson the general election that the opposition could have prevented. It was criminal stupidity. But let's not forget that the real source of this malignancy is Johnson himself and his talentless administration. He's Britain's Trump. He has one success to his name. Brexit. He has succeeded in ensuring that Britain has made its most catastrophic mistake since Munich in 1938. That's his legacy. The honours list is evidence of hubris waiting for its nemesis. How long will we have to endure this nonsense until then?

Monday, July 20, 2020


I made it back. Direct flights have resumed, but I travelled before then via Frankfurt, masked the whole time in strangely empty airports. It was all well organised. I filled in a PRF online, was sent my code, and was selected for testing at Athens airport. Negative. That's a relief. And, feeling a little uneasy, after the isolation of lockdown and aware of the poor reputation of the UK, I got back home. I needn't have worried. The garden had been strimmed and trees pruned by a tame Dutch hippy. The locals greeted me warmly. I had elbow bumps from Kostas and a pot of glyko from Seri. And, of course there are the cats. They were delighted to reclaim their favourite seats in the house and demand food regularly. I'm hugely grateful to the neighbours who kept them fed during the enforced absence. They seem to have been joined by a hedgehog as well, who pushes them out of the way and steals their food.

It's warm, the cicadas are kicking up a racket, everything is green, there are walnuts and quince ripening on the trees, with grapes hanging from the vine, which has benefitted from Manolis' expert attention. It's idyllic.

There are few clouds in the sky, but there is a metaphorical one on the horizon. Brexit. Bloody Brexit. And, thanks to the extraordinarily irresponsible decision by the government not to extend transition, despite the UK being nowhere near ready for exit, it is a cloud that is looming fast. December 31st. Then we become a third country, and second class citizens in the EU. Seeing our terrible government proudly boast of ending our freedom of movement was horrible. Strange times when we are supposed to celebrate being stripped of our rights.

So, it's decision time.

I have three options:

1. If I become resident in one EU country (Greece, obviously) before December the 31st, I can keep some of my rights for that country alone. I will still lose them for all other EU and EEA countries. After December 31st, that option is gone forever.

2. I can remain resident in the UK and accept that I am only allowed to be in my house for 90 days in any 180 day period and will be barred from returning for another 90 days. (The 90 day period includes visits to all Schengen countries, so any time spent in the rest of Europe is deducted from the time I am allowed to spend here.)

3. Wait, and if I decide I want to live here in the future, apply for a renewable two-year visa for third country nationals under more stringent conditions. Although, Greece is trying to encourage UK pensioners to live here.

Option 1 gives me a more limited version of the rights that are being taken from me, but preserves my life in Greece. The Greek government is making things easier by choosing declaratory rather than constitutive registration. This is unlike the UK government who is requiring a greater burden of proof from EU 27 citizens resident in the UK. There is some flexibility too. Part of the dilemma is that I'm fond of both worlds - Greek and British; urban and rural. Residence only requires being in the country for six months of the year for the first five years. It's attractive, I qualify easily, but there are complications around health, tax, and many other essentials. Some are yet to be agreed.

Whatever, it will mean extra cost and more bureaucracy. But then, if you put up barriers and borders where previously there were none, that's inevitable. Many more people and businesses will find this out when transition ends and reality hits. It will be a shock. I'm lucky. I'm retired. Those who are still employed, or have families and businesses in more than one country are far worse off. As are future generations, who will lose their rights entirely. Millions of people are affected.

Brexit has mucked everything up. I think that it's a catastrophe for the country, but this is personal. What was easy is now complicated. Now the government is effectively saying that if anyone wants to retain a fraction of their rights, they have to emigrate by the end of this year. This is a curious policy for any government to follow.

Of course, the Leave campaign denied that any of this would happen during the referendum. It was supposed to be easy and cost free. Those of us who pointed out the difficulties that Brexit entailed were accused of being 'Project Fear.' Of course, we were only telling the truth. Leave were the ones lying.

It's been horrible and stressful. In many ways, the worst is yet to come. I have no doubt that Brexit is a colossal mistake. And for my part, I'm left with three questions floating round my head:

1. I know that many people in the UK did not identify as European and had no wish to use their freedom of movement. However, they were never obliged to. At what stage does it become legitimate for them to remove these rights from those of us who do want them?

2. Just what was so intolerable about the previous 47 years that justified doing this to us?

3. Has anyone got an Irish grandparent I can borrow?

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Changing times

It's nearly a year since Johnson became Prime Minister. Amidst all the bluster, lies, scandals, and evasions, he has one solid achievement. Britain is no longer a member of the European Union. We are now a third country, even if the full consequences are yet to be felt. Remain is over. We can begin the long application process to rejoin, but we cannot remain. Johnson took us out.

The final terms are unknown and the haste with which Johnson wants us to leave the transition period is baffling. Even so, we know that the shape of Brexit will bear no relationship to the one that we were promised in the referendum campaign.

Johnson's achievement was facilitated by others, of course. Cameron's decision to hold an unnecessary referendum at the tail end of the Euro crisis, expecting remain to win handsomely, was a master class in bad timing. Corbyn's decision (with a bit of help from Swinson) to vote for an early election, again thinking he would win, was criminal stupidity. Johnson's landslide with 43% of the vote was a consequence of the perpetual failings of our electoral system. His gamble in purging the Conservative Party of real conservatives paid off.

This was the culmination of an era of political instability in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the desperately misjudged response of the coalition government, with its austerity and resultant grinding poverty. Even so, everything was politically normal until 2015. Cameron's majority, as a result of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, Miliband's weak leadership of Labour, and the bloody electoral system again, changed everything. Cameron initiated the chaos by holding the EU referendum, which smashed everything to pieces. Labour's folly was the collective act of suicide in choosing Corbyn as leader.

2015. Five short years ago. It seems a lifetime.

During that time we saw radicalisation accompanied by the processes of accommodation and excuse making that Anne Applebaum wrote about and that I referred to in my earlier post. First, Theresa May redefined the referendum result as mandating a hard Brexit, leaving the single market and customs union, in line with the demands of the right-wing ultras in her party. Then we saw her hard Brexit described as soft, as the Brexiters radicalised after the referendum. Hard Brexit became orthodox belief, even for people who campaigned for Remain. While Lexiters abandoned the language of social democracy in favour of vituperative hatred for the EU and all its works.

We saw the same accomodation on the left. People who had been critics of the politics that Corbyn had espoused, rallied round and found reasons to support someone who was clearly inadequate and personally unpopular. As Labour sank into a morass of antisemitism, they dug themselves in deeper. The left winning mattered more to them than the nature of the left that did win.

It's been changing for a while. Possibly, it's been accelerated by the government's inept handling of the pandemic, but it would have happened anyway due to the inherent contradictions of the politics of the era. Now, it's over. This week saw two things that clarified what's going on.

Rebecca Long-Bailey, the left's defeated candidate for Labour leader, tweeted her support for an interview with an actor. The interview contained an antisemitic conspiracy theory (as well as other criticisms of the party). I don't expect political acumen from a celebrity, but from a member of the shadow cabinet? It was not an act of intelligence. She was sacked. Rapidly, rightly, and decisively sacked. It marks the start of a serious change of political direction. The Corbynista left has become irrelevant.

As Labour detoxes, the Tories are finding that their one triumph is turning septic. The  European Social Survey was published this week, confirming previous trends and showing that support for the EU is growing across Europe. This report deals with its consequences for Brexit.
The survey, completed in 2019 and released this week, found that 57% of Brits would vote to be inside the EU, compared to 50% who said the same in the previous survey released in 2018.
By contrast, just 35% said they would vote to be outside the EU, compared with the 52% of people who voted to leave in 2016. Eight percent of Brits said they would not vote in such a referendum.
35%, that's all. Demographics and everyday experience will probably shrink that number further. The referendum took place at the only time Leave could win. Brexit has happened when the majority oppose it, in a form no one campaigned for. The form is one that few anticipated, and even fewer voted for.  It has happened solely because it was defined as 'the will of the people,' rather than a quirk of timing. It's shape is the result of treating the views of half the population as irrelevant. The insecurities of the Brexiters, with their accusations of betrayal, shows Brexit's fragile foundations.

Brexit is Johnson's nemesis. His only success is turning into a curse that will haunt him. His personal inadequacies are manifest. But worst of all, his legacy will be defined by a policy that will be despised. He has wrecked his party and his country with his one moment of triumph.  His premiership will be seen as a curse.

There is only one certainty about the next political era. It will be dominated by our relationship with Europe. Europe is, as it has been for centuries, vital to our security, economy, and, given our near fifty years of integration, our personal lives. The coming years will be spent dealing with the consequences of our folly. I'm sure that we will look back on our years of membership as "the land of lost content" as we begin to deal with the accursed legacy of Cameron, May, and Johnson.  

Chris Grey is right about the immediate tasks, and he views the prospect of rejoining as remote. I'm not so sure. Back in 2015, nobody could have foreseen where we are today. I suppose, much depends on the extent of the change that is coming. Reality points in one direction, as it has throughout. It's just that right-wing utopians chose to disregard it. 

The years 2015-2020  have been momentous. Though, how much better off we all would be if they had never happened.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The sun has set

Even by the standards of this dismal government, this week has been puzzling. The jingoistic 'Global Britain' flag has been waving without much sense of what 'Global Britain' actually means, other than an expensive makeover for a plane. All the while, the threat of a destructive no-deal exit from transition remains.

Then there was the embarrassing launch of negotiations for a trade deal with Australia and New Zealand, glossing over the fact that talks between the Australasian countries and the EU for a free trade agreement are advanced and that we would benefit from one far quicker if we were members of the EU. Australia has made it clear that we are not a priority and the deal with the EU takes precedence. Otto English is scathing. This mirrors the heralding of the opening of trade talks with Japan, without mentioning that this is to replace the trade deal we already have with them through the EU - a deal that we are abandoning by leaving the single market and customs union.

All this comes after Johnson's previous nod away from globalisation towards nationalist autarky and import substitution, together with the abolition of the Department for International Development. It convinces me that Chris Grey is right. There is no plan.
The Brexiters have no more idea in private than they do in public about what they are doing. Predictions based upon their concealed intent project on to them a competence they simply don’t possess.
Brexit as an ideology, as opposed to the type of reformist Euroscepticism that didn't question our membership, was only ever a vehicle for a vague, self-indulgent sense of grievance projected onto a fictitious, scapegoat EU. It never proposed a coherent model of political economy or of international relations. It had nothing to offer other than bluster. I'm not sure that its adherents either expected or wanted the opportunity to put their fantasy into practice. Perpetual complaint without responsibility is much easier

Those of us with long political memories, like mine stretching back to our entry into the EEC in 1973, will know that we are simply replicating the debates of the 60s and 70s. The options are the same as then. That's because the question is the same. Where does the future of a post-imperial Britain lie?

There is a lot of talk of the EU as a peace project, but there is less about its other role as a solution to the questions raised by decolonisation and the end of the European empires. Even though the long and bloody retreat was not complete, it was obvious that individual European nation states could not play a global role on their own. A regional collective of independent states had the economic power to enable them to be significant international actors and thereby enhance their own sovereignty. Isolated individual states would be ineffective by comparison.

The choice Britain faced was between European engagement - either through EFTA, which we helped found in 1960, or full membership of the EEC - or a global role - through the Commonwealth or, more improbably, a relationship with the USA. Guess what we are debating today?

The decision was obvious even then. Distance and history drew us to Europe. The other options were not viable and, on its own, Britain would have drifted into continuing decline and irrelevance. We left EFTA to join the EEC because of its limitations. Now we won't even try and rejoin EFTA and be part of the EEA.

After 47 years, Britain abandoned the solution only to rediscover the problem. Except that the alternative remedies are even more unpalatable today. The EU has enlarged, is an economic superpower, our economy is deeply integrated with the internal market, and we are not just close, but joined by a tunnel. We have given up a powerful position without any replacement.

All the other choices, barring the utopian fantasy of a world of unconstrained independent nation states, leave the UK as a weak supplicant in a world dominated by regional networks. We have lost sovereignty by trying to enhance it. Pretending that we can be part of a Pacific bloc is mad. The solution to our predicament is obvious and we have just rejected it.

And so we are stuck, pursuing a disastrous policy at ruinous cost. As for the government that has to handle this, Chris Grey gets it right again:
We’re not in sway to some set of manipulative geniuses pursuing a well-thought out, if malign, agenda, but the captives of a coterie of utterly deluded simpletons who have stumbled into power by a series of accidents. The plane hasn’t been hijacked by steely-eyed terrorists so much as it has fallen into the inadvertent hands of a group of smirking school bullies and debating society geeks, led by a priapic layabout and advised by those for whom the term Incel inadequates is not so much an insult as an unattainable aspiration. Thus as Rafael Behr writes, convincingly, “incompetence is a built-in feature, not a bug of Boris Johnson’s government”.
And that's where we are today. An awful government, pursuing a destructive policy, without a clue about what to do other than to posture and indulge in rhetorical hostility towards our closest allies on whom we depend. Their only tactic appears to be reckless brinkmanship at the behest of a deranged sect on the right of the Tory Party. And all for nothing. There is no good reason to continue with a policy that never made sense and is only the result of a political miscalculation. But instead, we have left the EU without no idea about what to do instead. I despair for our country.

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.