Friday, January 31, 2020

A black day

No state in the modern era has committed such a senseless act of self-harm. Brexit will make Britain poorer; the British government’s own analysis predicts as much. But the real impoverishment is far broader. Its citizens’ freedoms will be curtailed. Its voice in the international arena will be weakened. Its reputation as an open, forward-looking country will be diminished.
And whatever you do read this from Chris Grey. Here's a taste.
... Britain has made an historic strategic error, leaving it poorer and weaker. It is a strategic error without even being a strategic decision. Unlike the day that Britain joined what became the EU, which was the outcome of years of careful planning and statecraft, today has come about by a series of accidents and mistakes, and an epic failure of political leadership. To undertake it in the absence of any clear national consensus is profoundly dangerous and irresponsible.

And now watch this.

Friday, January 24, 2020


Paradox number one, from Fintan O'Toole:
Revolutions unleash euphoria because they create tangible images of change and inaugurate, at least in the fevered minds of their supporters, a new epoch. Brexit can’t do either of these things. The problem with a revolt against imaginary oppression is that you end up with imaginary freedom.
He's right. On the day we leave, bongless but with god knows what sad gimmick to accompany a fascist knees-up in central London, nothing will happen. Obviously, we enter transition, but even after that is over, the great moment of liberation will not come. That's because we are not oppressed. We are not 'ruled by Brussels' we are one of the most powerful members of a supra-national organisation managing the largest and most effective free trade area in the world. We jointly run Brussels and are not run by it. Neither is the EU imposing a neoliberal hegemony. We are giving up power in the name of sovereignty, and thereby losing sovereignty because we lose the power to decide the rules that govern our trade. 

The second is from Chris Grey.
It is one of the biggest paradoxes of Brexit, because most of those who understand what it entails at a practical level do not support it, whilst most of those who support it strongly do not understand what it entails at a practical level.
Now, it is perfectly reasonable that you and I would find the complexities of international trade baffling. But I would expect that those who advocate a dramatic course of action should actually know something about it. Given the contradictory, and often crazy, statements coming out of government at the moment, I'm not sure they do. What can you make of Javid's comment on regulatory divergence that would wipe out whole swathes of manufacturing and services? Does he mean it? Does he understand it? I might have problems with the details, but he's the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This is a brilliant must read from Ian Dunt, explaining the issues that have to be addressed. It's a long, and extremely clear Q and A. That's what the government has to get to grips with.

These paradoxes are probably why Brexiters are still angry and resentful. They like the idea of Brexit, but dislike the consequences. That's why they throw the blame for everything at the EU or remainers.

Zombie Brexit will happen. It will happen despite the fact that polls and voting show that a majority opposes it. It will happen despite it being rejected by all the devolved assemblies of the UK's constituent nations, raising the prospects of a constitutional crisis. It is the English alone that are ensuring it happens. This makes it less an act of English nationalism than one of English imperialism.  Even its claim to democratic legitimacy has crumbled. People are losing their jobs. Business is already divesting. The costs are escalating. The damage is already occurring. It can never deliver what it promised because it is based on an ideological fiction. Now that fiction has to face reality.

On 1st February we will have completed the easy bit. Yes, that's all. What comes next is far more difficult. Expect the same stupid statements, wild rhetoric, crazed nationalism and all that goes with it. Expect too, the climb-downs, u-turns, and sophistries. We have no idea what will happen. The government seems to be rushing into this phase without a clear idea of the final destination - again. Don't expect a sudden catastrophe or vast recession, the economy will still grow, but by nothing like the rate it should. There will be a slow erosion of jobs together with gradual business closures and relocations. Nobody is anticipating any benefits. And after the transition, Britons without dual citizenship will find themselves as second class citizens in a Europe where they were once one of the lucky elite. (And if you doubt that, look at the money that the wealthy are paying to secure EU passports).

The best we can hope for is damage limitation as reality confronts belief. Reality always wins in the end, but when the end comes depends how strong that belief is. Boris Johnson thought that leading the losing leave side in the referendum would be his passport to the leadership. Winning the referendum instead nearly wrecked him. He now has what he craved, but at a price. The price is that he has to implement a catastrophe of his own making. We will have to wait and see, powerless to do more than wince in pain. And whatever you do, don't mention Gibraltar. Nobody seems to.

Thursday, January 16, 2020


However much we may dissect policy or discus technicalities, sometimes politics is emotional, based on a sense of who we are and who we want to be. It's about what we find instinctively attractive. Here are two speeches in the European Parliament.

This is what we are leaving behind.

The second is what we are staying with. You can watch Ann Widdecombe's speech if you have the stomach for it. I can't bear to post it. You will have to follow the link. She spews out hatred for foreigners (aka free movement - a reciprocal right, something she ignores) in a furious response to a request that Britain does what the Leave campaign actually promised to do during the referendum. It's English nationalism in the raw - contemptuous, paranoid, triumphalist, and immensely stupid. It's hateful, gut-wrenchingly hateful, and not wholly sane.

When nationalism has been unleashed in the past, it has destroyed Europe. It has committed genocide. It has smashed communities. It has spread misery. The EU is a conscious attempt to defuse the poison by brining independent nations together in a community. It's about taming and controlling political nationalism, not the impossible utopianism of the abolition of nations.

This is why I am an instinctive European. It's something that I feel as much as think. I am drawn to the open, inclusiveness of the EU, regardless of the institutional framework. I am a European. It is my identity, just as much as is my Englishness.

And so, at the end of this month, I will be one of the people who will be heartbroken. I will be devastated, as much for the future of my country as for myself. And I fear for our entry into the darkness of a malign nationalism. It is why I hope that Reintke is right and that we will return. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The dunces' decade

"It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ..."


I've always loved the opening to Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, even though the novel is not one of my favourites. It captures the ambiguity of revolution perfectly. It's being revived as the theme for a TV advert for BT. I'm not a purist, I am delighted to see good literature made visible, even in this way. It may make some people read. And it got me thinking about the decade we have just lived through and how we would describe it. Could we use the same literary device?

It was the era of idiocy and the era of ... er ... more idiocy.
It was ... no, that's about it. Idiocy. We are living in an idiotcracy.

Anyone who writes a history of the 2010s in the future could do a lot worse than call it, WTF were they thinking of?

Anyway, let's try and write a brief chronicle of the politics of the decade.

The 2010 general election was held in the wake of the financial crisis and at the tail end of the New Labour governments. It resulted in a hung parliament, partly as a result of a Liberal Democrat surge on a raft of left leaning policies. Then the Lib Dems destroyed themselves by going into coalition with the Conservatives, putting Cameron in power, and instantly reneging on their promise to abolish university tuition fees. There was no way back after that. WTF were they thinking of?

The government's response to the effects of the crash was not to continue with the mild stimulus that had stopped the global economy grinding to a halt, but to cut spending, do enormous damage to public services, halt the recovery, and let the Liberal Democrats take most of the flak. WTF were they thinking of?

The 2015 general election, partly as a result of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, gave the Conservative Party its first majority for 18 years. Cameron had a problem with fringe eurosceptic loons in his party and UKIP outside. He was certain that the one thing that Britain must not do was to leave the European Union. So, to make sure that it wouldn't happen, he called a referendum on whether it should or not. Without any safeguards. Parliament voted for one. It was advisory, but Cameron insisted that the government would treat it as binding. He lost. WTF were they thinking of?

Labour's response to its 2015 defeat was to elect a new leader using a mad method that gave a vote to anyone prepared to pay £3. MPs nominated someone for the shortlist who they didn't want to win. He won. He was an elderly backbencher of no discernible ability and with no record of achievement of anything other than support for anti-Western dictatorships and dodgy violent movements, expressed together with his visceral hatred of the State of Israel. He had never held a cabinet or shadow cabinet post in thirty plus years, with good reason. But he became a symbol of the left and the object of a bewildering cult of personality. Those of us who pointed out that not only was the emperor naked, but he also had an unsightly skin complaint and poor personal hygiene, were abused and cast into the outer darkness. Labour lost every election - local, European, and general - that he led them in to. He was hailed as a saint. WTF were they thinking of?

2016 and the new Conservative PM, Theresa May, announced that "Brexit means Brexit" as a way of not telling anyone what Brexit meant. Parliament voted to invoke Article 50 without knowing what Brexit meant either. It turns out it meant something that the Leave campaign promised would not happen. Then in 2017 she called a general election to increase her majority and lost it. She shored up a minority government with the only Northern Ireland party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement. WTF were they thinking of?

I can't possibly track the humiliations that led to May's resignation and her replacement by a man universally acknowledged as unfit to be PM, who illegally prorogued parliament and failed to resign for a resigning matter. Having lost his majority, only one thing could have saved him, a general election against a divided opposition. The opposition could have blocked it. They didn't. They gave it to him. And remained divided. WTF were they thinking of?

And now we stand on the threshold of a new decade. It will begin with a pointless and expensive act of self-harm, from which recovery will be difficult. And with our absurd, deeply unserious, and dishevelled Prime Minister begging for money - "bung a bob for a Big Ben bong" - to fund repairs to the clapper of Big Ben so that it can ring out to celebrate an event that more than half the population don't want to happen. That's how far we have sunk.

Things can only get better. Perhaps.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Happy New Year?

The start of a new decade doesn't fill me with optimism. Britain has a new Conservative government with a secure majority and is about to leave the EU. I can't remember any government winning a comfortable majority by pledging to make the worst mistake any government has made since the Second World War. What's more, they are making this mistake by mistake. A referendum called to cement our place in the EU, ended up legitimating the fringe idea of leaving it. Claims of democracy ring hollow, as Chris Grey comments:
We have just had an election campaign in which Johnson made ‘getting Brexit done’ the central theme. Yet, as pointed in a previous post, he avoided saying almost anything about how it would be done – and neither the opposition parties nor the media were able to pin him down.
So he will now claim a mandate from voters for doing it any way he wants. It is a travesty of democracy, which replicates the way that during the Referendum Brexiters refused to tell voters what they were voting for, only to define it later and claim it as the ‘will of the people’.
And that's without the obvious point that the leave vote was smaller than the remain vote.

So how did we get here? For much of 2019 it appeared that remain was winning. The Tories had no majority and another election was not due for another two years. As a policy, leave is dead. It has nothing to offer and is based on fictions. Any majority it once had is gone, and will diminish further due to simple demographics, with an overwhelming remain majority amongst the young. The People's Vote campaign mobilised huge anti-Brexit demonstrations across the country. There is little enthusiasm for Brexit and no national consensus. It will be a continuing sore in British politics. It's a personal disaster for me with my life lived partly in Greece, it's a comprehensive defeat for the left, and it's an absolute catastrophe for the country. Yet the European cause has lost. It was in a position to win in Parliament, but threw it away. Or to be more precise, it was the stupidity of two party leaders who threw it away.

Best for Britain have tweeted a Private Eye article based on their research and activity. They had commissioned massive, detailed, multi-level polling research and reached the conclusion that if the Brexit Party helped the Conservatives, which they did by standing aside in Tory-held seats, then the Conservatives would have a majority of between 40-100. The evidence was compelling, and proved to be spot on. The LibDems refused to believe it, locked into the fantasy that they were about to achieve a massive breakthrough. Best for Britain showed the research to some Labour MPs, who were impressed. Emily Thornberry took it up in the shadow cabinet and tried to argue that Labour's strategy should be to win a second referendum in Parliament and only back a Johnson call for a general election after the referendum had settled Brexit. Given the make-up of Parliament, that was a distinct possibility. She was overruled by Corbyn and Milne. They both believed, against the evidence, that they were on the road to victory. Johnson was given his election, despite the power of the opposition to block it, and his path to a majority was clear.

Why did they do it? Hubris? Over-confidence? Magical thinking? Vanity? Who knows. They were faced by an obvious charlatan and confidence trickster and they fell for his line. They might just as well have signed up to a pyramid scheme. Swinson lost her seat. Corbyn remains leader, at least temporarily, and Milne is still drawing his £100k+ salary, despite being the architect of this disaster. Their collective inadequacy has ruined the country, while their ignominy will be meat and drink to future historians.