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.