Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Handwash

Most of my recent posts have been about Brexit. Other things are happening as well; like a massacre. It's a massacre that comes after half a million other deaths. It finishes off what was started with Sarin gas in 2013. It is a crime against humanity, piled on top of crimes against humanity.

I don't expect much from our unserious Foreign Secretary or a government consumed by Brexit, but what about the opposition? Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary has spoken. Last week, she emitted this pile of sycophantic drivel. Genuflecting to the wisdom of her leader, she talks of Syria without mentioning Assad. Not a word about the man who launched the war. Silence about the person whose forces and allies are responsible for around ninety per cent of the deaths. No mention of his prisons and torture chambers. Nothing. Zilch. War without agency.

The piece is anti-interventionist in all cases, but doesn't acknowledge that there are consequences to non-intervention. We are seeing them daily, that is if we can bear to watch the news or read the reports. Mostly, I can't. But I still know that they are there and that it's happening.

There can be very good reasons behind non-intervention. I have friends who I respect who see it as a principle. Others point to the desperate difficulty of intervention in Syria, especially given Assad's allies, and the possible unintended consequences. They may be right, they may not, but at least they are in touch with reality and do not describe the results as 'peace.'

I can't be bothered to fisk Thornberry's piece. It's just a piece of Stop the War Coalition orthodoxy. But I feel nauseous when I see something suggesting that standing by and allowing slaughter to happen is the way in which we can "live in a world free from war."

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Imperialism

Many of the tragedies of Irish history have been the result of an English political conflict being fought out in Ireland. Other than the UK, the country most affected by Brexit is the Republic of Ireland. It was hardly mentioned during the referendum campaign. This imperial amnesia covered an inconvenient truth. Thirty years of violence and thousands of deaths later, a classic political compromise was embodied in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It has held the peace in Northern Ireland for twenty years, despite the lingering residue of the "Troubles." Maintaining the Agreement makes a hard Brexit impossible.

This week Daniel Hannan, Owen Patterson, and Kate Hoey all used the deadlock in the Stormont power sharing talks to make claims about how the Agreement has failed and needed revisiting. They are all hard Brexit ultras. It's a classic ploy. People will respond by offering justifications and explaining why it isn't true and that the Agreement has been a success. By doing so, they will have validated the idea that there is a debate about its utility and put the possible revision of the Agreement on the agenda. That has to happen if the ultras are to get their hard Brexit.

The conclusion that should be drawn is not about the Agreement. It is that those three ultras are not politicians, but zealots. It appears that there is no price that they are willing to let other people pay to achieve their benighted goal. Theirs is the irresponsibility of the fanatic.

Imposing the baleful consequences of English nationalism on Ireland is something Ireland does not need or deserve. This must be resisted and condemned from all sides.

Monday, February 12, 2018

East West Street

Phillipe Sands' East West Street is wonderful.


That's the only word that fits. It's gripping, engaging - and about international law. That might seem incongruous, but Sands wove what could have been a dry academic narrative around stories of the people involved, together with the discovery of his own family history. It's a brilliant device for making non-fiction accessible.

The biographical approach works because of a coincidence. There are four main protagonists. The first three, Leon Buchholz, Sands' grandfather, Hersch Lauterpacht, a professor of international law who established the concept of crimes against humanity, and Rafael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide, all came from the city that is now known as Lviv, in the Ukraine. The fourth, Hans Frank, was also a lawyer, but was the Nazi governor who administered the Holocaust in Poland. Buchholz, Lauterpacht, and Lemkin all managed to get out in time before Frank murdered their families.

The book focuses on the development of two related but conflicting legal ideas, crimes against humanity - committed against individuals - and genocide - committed against groups. However, both shared a central principle, that state sovereignty should no longer be unlimited and that the leaders of states should be held accountable for their crimes.

This raised the question as to how sovereignty was to be limited?  Rather than invent some powerful supra-national body, the answer was more ingenious. State sovereignty was to be pooled for a specific purpose, the administration of international law and the protection of citizens against abuses by their own state. The result was the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. The limitation of sovereignty protected citizens. Ordinary people gained at the expense of their governments. The Holocaust made it a humanitarian imperative. And though it took decades for the International Criminal Court to be set up, the principle had been established.

The nature and extent of the war asked profound questions about the shape of a post-war settlement. In the first half of the twentieth century the sovereign nation state brought an era of catastrophe that culminated in the Nazi war of extermination. The system based on the balance of power broke down, collective security through the League of Nations failed, while the self-determination of nations brought intractable ethnic conflict rather than peace. Nuremberg pointed to a different approach, the voluntary pooling of sovereignty where the gains were greater than the losses. Which brings me round to the single most important question facing Britain today, Brexit.

The European Union is an evolving response to the dangers of nationalism. Membership involves states pooling sovereignty in limited areas, whist retaining it overall. Describing the EU as bureaucratic misses the point, it's more accurate to describe it as legalistic. It's existence and operation is based on law, made through collective decision making processes, involving all members and embodied in treaties. By requiring democratic governance and tying it to economic self-interest, it has been the most successful of our trans-national institutions. Which is why nationalists, fascists, and revanchist neo-imperialists (such as Putin's Russia) bitterly oppose it. And in Britain they struck gold.

The narrow result of an unnecessary, poorly constructed and appallingly conducted referendum is now being interpreted in the most radical way possible. Each compromise, even the ones the Leave campaign actually advocated themselves, is treated as an act of treachery. The language is of ultra-nationalism, the very force that brought ruin to Europe. As the realities hit, any economic case for Brexit is melting away, while the huge costs of the increase in bureaucracy and new infrastructure necessary to deal with the consequences of leaving show this to be an expensive folly. The result is that nationalist rhetoric has become the first resort of the Brexiters. Given, that the heart of the European catastrophe was the Holocaust, it is both alarming and unsurprising that this rhetoric involves stepping into the sewer to drag out noisome anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about George Soros as the Jewish "puppet master" secretly plotting to sabotage Brexit. The echoes of an evil past are unmistakable.

As it all becomes about "taking back control" we have to ask the question, 'control for whom'? I can assure you that it isn't control for you or I. It's not for ordinary citizens; we will lose rights, freedoms, and protections. No, the liberty they talk about is for the government to act without restraint. This gets lost amongst all the welter of detail, as does the broader historical significance.

Reading Sands' book brings you back to a sense of national pride that Britain played a role in establishing the principle that national leaders were not immune from prosecution for the crimes that they have committed against their people. It reminds us that unlimited state sovereignty is not an untrammelled good. It tells us again that nationalism and genocide walked hand in hand throughout European history. And it shows that Holocaust remembrance is not just about pious statements, but the need to build institutions that prevent it from happening again, and never taking them for granted.

If there is one compensation it is that Brexit appears to have strengthened rather than weakened the European Union. It still faces challenges within from Hungary and Poland, together with the extreme nationalism of the far right. However, The EU's economy is growing and it is becoming more and more apparent that the big loser will be Britain alone. Even so, the challenge to the delicate balance of the post-war settlement is disturbing. It is a triumph for the nationalist right, even if some left-wingers think that they can combine nationalism and socialism without the terrible consequences of the previous attempt. And it is Britain, my country, that has delivered the most damaging blow to post-war European institutions.

There has been much noise and resentment amongst Brexiters that we are not celebrating our exit from the EU. They witter on about Big Ben ringing and special stamps issued to commemorate our departure. I find their facile suggestions contemptible. If, and I really hope the day never comes, Britain leaves the EU, it will not be a moment to mark with rejoicing. Instead, it will be a day that signals our betrayal of the attempt to create a new Europe out of the ruins of the old, to establish the protection of citizens through international law, and a reversion to an historical fantasy of British exceptionalism. It will be a day of shame; deep, deep shame.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Regrets

There's something really poignant about these comments from people who regret their vote to leave the EU. They come from wider focus group research on attitudes, mainly among older people.
"To be perfectly honest, I don’t think there should have been a referendum anyway on a subject as complex as that. I don’t think the public had enough knowledge of for and against."
"I thought we voted for politicians to actually make these decisions on our behalf!"
"We were absolutely not in a position where we should have been given the vote in the first place."
"They asked us to vote on something which, the majority of us, had no real knowledge on what we were signing. I wanted to just to come out of Europe because I thought Europe had too much control over our cards, over our system. But, I for one, didn’t fully understand the implications of coming out of Europe. And I think there are a lot of people who likewise."
Admitting that we got things wrong is rare. Normally we double down on our original judgement, rationalise it away, and slowly forget it. But, if we do recognise that we were in error, it helps to have someone to blame, and they did. It was the fault of politicians for putting it to the vote. They're right. This points to one of the many flaws in referendums. Not only are they a way of by-passing democratic institutions and giving no additional weight to expertise as against ignorance, but they are a way of passing the buck. Politicians avoid taking responsibility for their own decisions. Instead, they hide behind "the will of the people." The recriminations are then levelled at the voters, even within families. Young people accuse older ones of "having stolen their future."

You can feel the distress in these answers. They were asked to vote and did their duty to the best of their limited knowledge, sensing that the mere fact of the referendum indicated that there was a problem. Now they are shouldering the guilt they feel for a wrong decision. The referendum put responsibility on people who neither wanted it, nor were qualified to exercise it, all in a failed attempt to placate the right wing of the Conservative Party. It was cruel to put them in that position.

Which brings me round to the question being raised about another referendum (not a second one, it will be the third). Paul Evans is against. Chris Dillow makes excellent points as well.
Nigel Farage and Arron Banks are starting to agree with many Remainers that there should be a second referendum. Both sides, of course, do so for the same motive – the belief they would win.
What this misses is that the first referendum was, as Robert Harris said, “the most depressing, divisive, duplicitous political event of my lifetime.” It was dominated by lies and by ignorance of basic facts. The result in effect went simply to the highest bidder. There’s no reason to suppose that a second referendum will be any better.
There would be one difference of course, a fresh referendum would be better informed because of the experience and consequences of the first. Otherwise, it's a dismal prospect.

The problem that those of us who think that Brexit is wholly mistaken face is a different one. However rotten a decision making process a referendum is, it might be our only chance. I don't mean this is because of a Parliamentary or governmental decision being a challenge to the supposed legitimacy of the referendum, far from it. I don't think that many outside the tiny ranks of the Brexit partisans really care about the issue. It would be mainly greeted with a shrug or a sigh of relief. Brexiters are convulsed with hysterical hatreds and denunciations of treachery when winning anyway, so who would deny them the intense, orgasmic pleasure of an ultimate betrayal? No, the problem we face is that politicians are showing every sign of cowardice. They are determined to avoid the responsibility bestowed by their office. So, it isn't that Brexit shouldn't be halted by anything other than another referendum, it is that it won't be.

A referendum is a way out, but is still a risk. It will have many of the same flaws as the previous one. It could go either way. So while I would prefer politicians to actually do their job as representatives, I fear that we are stuck with the prospect of another poll. I would welcome it only in so far as it would be the only chance of revisiting the decision. One thing I do know though, I hope to hell we never have another one of the damnable things.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Questions without answers

Jeremy Corbyn has set out his position on the EU single market to the PLP. If this report is correct, his thinking raises a number of questions. He said:

1. It is impossible to be outside the EU and stay in the single market. (This is untrue, as pointed out repeatedly).

Q. Is he lying or is he thick?

2. He wants a 'jobs first Brexit.'

Q. WTF does that mean?

3. He wants to retain all the benefits of membership through negotiation with the EU. (Despite the EU making it perfectly clear that no such deal is possible).

Q. Can he name any other organisation that would grant the full benefits of membership to non-members without them having to meet the obligations of membership?

Supplementary:

Around 65% of Labour voters voted remain. 87% of Labour members voted remain. The overwhelming majority of voters and members want Britain to stay in the single market. Why then is Corbyn supporting the Tories against Labour? 

Friday, January 05, 2018

Myths and legends

Wales is full of them. The whole point of a myth is that it is a compelling story that isn't true. Mythology also sells books. For example, David Goodhart got a lot of attention for his book, The Road to Somewhere. He followed a proven recipe. Take a complex subject and simplify it down to a couple of categories and give them catchy names. Once you have done that, cherry-pick the evidence to make your argument seem credible. Goodhart divided the British into Somewheres and Anywheres. Somewheres are rooted in their locality and community. Anywheres are - well, you can't avoid the phrase - a cosmopolitan elite. The former tend to be socially conservative, the latter more liberal. Somewheres voted for Brexit. Remainers were Anywheres - classic "citizens of nowhere." It's very neat and is often rolled out to explain the Brexit vote. Convincing, until you look closer.

This superb article does just that. Richard Wyn Jones examines the impact of Brexit on one of the poorest communities in Wales, Holyhead. The future outside the EU doesn't look promising for the town, even though it voted narrowly to leave. But when you break down that vote, you can see something else.
The island’s Remain vote will have relied heavily on Welsh speakers. Indeed, fully 84 per cent of fluent Welsh-speaking, strong Welsh-identifying voters supported Remain. That itself is a statistic that should be enough to puncture the vacuous argument that “people from somewhere” voted Leave while more cosmopolitan, better-educated “people from anywhere” voted to Remain in the UK. 
Such an explanation has been offered frequently since the referendum result by English metropolitan circles. Believe me, it is difficult to be more local in outlook than to be brought up as a native Welsh speaker in Anglesey.
84%. That is a stunning figure. National identity clearly played a critical role in the vote, but not the one Goodhart would have expected.

This is a warning to avoid glib, but commercially viable, explanations and look at the vote as a complex response to an ill-framed question in a diverse, multi-national country. And when you do that, the spurious slogan, "the will of the people," melts away and trickles into the sewer labelled 'bollocks.'

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Facts and figures

Commentary on the EU referendum in the press is coalescing around one narrative, let's call it the deprivation thesis. Brexit was delivered by the economically deprived and socially marginalised. It's a convenient explanation for the following reasons.

1. For leavers, it bolsters the narrative that Brexit was a revolt of the people against the elite.

2. For the Labour Party leadership, it provides cover for their Brexit policy of non-committal triangulation.

3. It excuses and obscures the racism inherent in sections of the vote.

4. It bolsters the strange argument that although Brexit is a disaster it must be carried through because of the anger and alienation overturning it would generate. For variations on this theme see here (£) and here.

There is one problem with the deprivation thesis. It isn't true. Or at least, even if there was a broad tendency towards voting leave in some deprived areas and plenty of anecdotal examples, there are so many anomalies it would be hard to see it as a sole, valid explanation.

This Twitter thread has a go at presenting the data in a way that shows the weakness of the correlation. It isn't authoritative and the author is tentative about his findings, yet it asks a good question. If the deprivation thesis is true, why did some of the most deprived constituencies of the UK vote remain and some of the more affluent ones vote leave?

The conclusion drawn is:
... it was not the North, the Left Behinds or anything like that which lost the referendum. It was the Home Counties and the prosperous agricultural districts. "Why did Aylesbury vote Leave?" should be asked a lot more than why did, say, Stoke. ... So can a journalist please travel the Home Counties looking for Leavers, please?
I agree. This refutes the first two arguments, and those who don't think that racism played a part should read this other thread too. It's the fourth that needs the most unpacking.

Leaving aside the inherent absurdity of insisting that we are compelled to hurt you because you asked us to even if you didn't think it would hurt at all, there are two elements that I find dubious. The first is that it mistakes the fact of a vote with the strength of feeling behind it. Until the referendum, the EU was a low salience issue. Outside a small band of believers, most were indifferent. Even though it's a much more salient issue now, I can't see that much change in passion. Remainers have managed to call out tens of thousands of people for mass demonstrations agains Brexit, but leavers have only been able to pull together a few dozen flag wavers at best. Where is that mass anger?

The second is pure class condescension. It is based on fear of the mob. When the referendum was held the majority of voters were rationally ignorant. There was no reason for them to learn about the complexities of an organisation that they took for granted. I was much the same. I refuse to believe that working class people are incapable of learning and understanding, especially when faced with stark alternatives.

But then again, as well as the bulk of leavers being affluent suburbanites, there is one set of statistics that is robust. There was no majority for leave amongst those under the age of forty-four. Somehow I can't see bands of elderly rioters flooding out of deepest Surrey to wreak havoc as they have been thwarted in their deep desire for blue passports and, in the latest mad campaign, the return of the crown stamp on pint beer glasses.

What matters is not fear of popular reaction, but the consequences of Brexit. Our consideration should be for the national interest in maintaining our international standing and economic strength, for the stability of a democratic Europe, and for the protection of citizens' rights and liberties that the wealthy, tax evading leaders of the Brexit campaign are itching to strip from us.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Iconic

New Year in Greece. Cats, oranges, blue skies, and the European Union.






Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Toothache in the rain

The Sore Tooth and the Broken Umbrella: Brexit and the Crisis of Nationalism - Fintan O'Toole from TASC on Vimeo.

This is good. It's fifty-two minutes long, but worth your time. It's a perceptive critique of Brexit from Fintan O'Toole.

His theme is the rise of English nationalism and he talks about about its purpose, consequences, and dangers, dangers about which English nationalists seem oblivious. Brexit is the consequence rather than the cause. Ironically, its language and politics is alien to English political traditions - 'the will of the people,' opposition as betrayal, plebiscitary politics, the sacred moment of the referendum - all are closer to continental revolutionary practice than British representative democracy. Nationalism is not necessarily related to real, lived experience. It is irrational and impervious to argument. And, ultimately, it can never deliver the utopia it promises.

O'Toole points to two types of nationalism, one that is positive about the nation and what it can contribute, and the antagonistic version that defines the nation against others. English nationalism is the latter. Again there are two variations of antagonistic nationalism, the imperialist one, where a nation asserts itself over others on a world stage, and an anti-imperialist one, where a nation resists imperial domination. Brexiters make a claim to both. They are utterly contradictory.

One the one hand we have the notion of a liberated Britain once more ruling the waves - "Empire 2.0." As if that wasn't enough, we have an anti-imperialist version too. The problem with that is that in the absence of an imperial aggressor, we have to invent one. And so the EU, a body that we joined voluntarily as an act of idealism as well as self-interest (and, yes, positive nationalism), a body in which we were one of the most powerful decision makers, an organisation that gave real economic benefits and protected citizens' rights, is now called 'rule by Brussels' and we have become 'a vassal state.' It's completely mad.

There are things O'Toole missed. Wales is the obvious one, equally as committed to Brexit. And the other is that there is a left nationalism as well. Yet that too is unimaginative and nostalgic. It clings to Bennite recitations of past struggles - the Levellers, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, etc. Each are as historically important as they are distinct. But they do not constitute a coherent tradition of national independence formed through working class struggle. And those 'Lexiters' also embrace the madness. For them, the EU is an alien imposition deliberately created to crush any hint of democratic socialism and impose a neoliberal order on subject states. They say this at the same time as the right argue that the EU is a socialist regulatory nightmare, strangling business and economic liberty. This astonishing incoherence has seen Dennis Skinner and Kate Hoey rebel against a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn to vote with the Tories. Work that one out.

O'Toole reckons that there is little we can do about nationalism other than see it out. As its discontents are irrational, appeasing its demands will do nothing. Instead he argues, rightly in my view, that our focus should be on a social Europe "animated by an urgent imperative of social justice and equality." The European Union is an ally, despite the regressive economic orthodoxy of the handling of the Euro crisis, but the prime responsibility lies with the individual nation to build welfare states and abandon counter-productive austerity policies. To which I would add the importance of strong labour unions. This ties in with another aspect of English nationalism, its link to economic deprivation.

If there is one phrase I would love to remove from modern political discourse, it's "the white working class." It needs to be replaced by another one - "the working class." The qualification "white" is redolent of antagonistic nationalism. The belief that the white working class has been forgotten and disadvantaged, while the non-white working class has been privileged at their expense, is implicit in the term. It's the politics of resentment. Not only is the narrative an example of how scapegoating foreigners works, it is also untrue. All research shows that black and ethnic minority groups do worse than white ones. But once again, perception trumps reality. I have even seen a comment on Twitter from a leftist talking about how an indigenous working class has been exploited by a "cosmopolitan elite." This should send a shiver running through anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with fascism and anti-Semitism.

The other phrase that is often used, "the left behind," is much more useful. It describes deprivation as a function of geography rather than ethnicity. It is also true. It always has been. It was as true in the 1930s as it is today. The "left behind" is an apt description of areas in transition. When a place loses a staple industry, communities collapse. New replacements may spring up, but rarely in the same location. This is where investment, regional policies, social intervention, local government, and strong welfare states play a crucial role. They can manage transition and help areas resurrect themselves. EU regional aid was a huge benefit, but they took the blame for the UK government's inaction and neglect. Instead of support and investment, we see universal credit, cuts to services, exploitative casual employment, low wages, and of austerity for the poor alone. The anti-EU vote in these areas was a cry of desperation rather than of nationalism.

O'Toole speculates about why we never saw English nationalism coming. But if we didn't spot its rise, he hasn't seen its fall. It's declining. Antagonistic nationalism is weak amongst the young - in all classes and all areas. They see Europe as a source of opportunity and a guarantee of rights, not as an alien oppressor. I don't think that they yearn for imperial glory - not even at football. (We've all written that off and now the international break is mainly seen as an irritating interruption to what really matters, club football with its cosmopolitan profusion of international stars.) Only the most fervent believers cling to the expensive quack remedies sold to them by charlatans once they realise that they are killing rather than curing them. The majority for Brexit was small, weak, and ill informed. The political response has been inept and craven. Support couldn't last. This week, there was a pretty dramatic opinion poll. It may be an outlier or the product of sampling error, though all the polls have slowly slipping in that direction. Remain has a ten point lead over Leave.

I have always said that we are a nicer country than many give us credit for. People like Blue Labour may believe that we have to throw illiberal red meat at the workers, but I think they are patronising ordinary people, pandering to the worst to no effect. Brexit isn't inevitable. The fantasies of a deranged political class do not have to be implemented. But what is absolutely imperative is that we see our enemy as poverty, deprivation, and hunger - yes hunger, in Britain - and we bring determination to defeat that enemy into all our dealings with our European partners. Now that's a nationalism that would make me proud to be English once again.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Greece and a tragedy

I'm here.


It's a lovely mild winter in Greece. The leaves are falling and the citrus is ripening. I have a one way ticket. I will probably return to the UK sometime in late January. Both circumstance and choice means that my life is lived in two places, rather than here alone.

I can come and go as I please because I am an EU citizen. My rights are guaranteed by freedom of movement, as laid out in article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Until now. A small majority of my fellow Brits have voted to take this right away from me and to strip me of my citizenship. A legal right will become something that can only exist at the discretion of the Greek government and the European Union's rules on the citizens of third countries. I have no idea what this will mean for me. Nor do millions of other people in the same position. Lives are being ruined to no good purpose.

It was a disastrous decision, but rather than handle it constructively and minimise the damage, the government has been driven by the fanatics and fantasists in the Conservative Party (with a little help from the weird Lexit brigade), aided and abetted by staggering incompetence and over-confidence. I could go on and on, but this gives a good summary. Consumed by fury, Brexiters spit bile at the EU for the perfidy of doing exactly what they said they would do. Remainers are called remoaners for pointing out the obvious. The British government blusters, promises the earth, and then submits to what is required by law and treaty, the only options available to an organisation of, for now, 28 nation states. The choices we face are over how much poorer and how less influential we will be. Even if we abandon Brexit now, much damage has already been done.

And as it becomes evident that Britain is giving away its power to shape decisions in its vital national interest, Theresa May is making her last stand to make the world safe for tax havens. I think my country has gone mad.

We will see what transpires as reality begins to overwhelm wishful thinking and people realise what it was they were actually voting for. The latest poll has a 50% majority in favour of a second referendum. This is a bit of a misnomer, it would actually be a third referendum. The first was in 1975 and the score is currently one-all, extra time and penalties beckon.

This is the curious thing. Governments make mistakes. Sometimes they are serious. Brexit is in the first rank of notable errors. It ranks alongside the return to the gold standard in 1925 in adverse economic impact, though that was far less complex and easily reversed. It comes a long way second behind the Munich agreement of 1938, whose consequences killed 50 million people. But what is different about both of those is that the people taking the decisions thought they were right to do so. Munich is still the subject of historiographical debate. Brexit is being delivered by a Prime Minister who campaigned against it. Politicians who voted for it in Parliament are on record as saying it will be catastrophic. Business is against it. Science and industry is against it. The TUC is against it. The universities are against it. Most economists are against it. All our closest allies (with the exception of an American president drawn from the same stable) are against it. All those with whom we wish to agree post-Brexit trade deals are against it.

Ah, but we are told these are the elite. The people have spoken. Their will is reflected in their tribunes, those horny handed sons of toil; Viscount Rothermere, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Vladimir Putin ('no, we deny it all'). That's before we get into the dodgy finance and groups like Veterans for Britain, investigated here by Adam Ramsay. He points out that this was no a blow against the establishment, but a victory for it. As he says, "The Brexit movement was led by Establishment England." It was a win for an unpleasant, reactionary right.

17.5 million voters out of a UK population of 65.6 million have defined "the will of the people." If a mere 600,000 people had voted differently, the result would have been reversed. I can't remember such bombastic certainty, to be based on such fragile support.

But then again, Brexiters' nationalism is so un-English. If our national characteristics are reticence and self-deprecation, they are born from a very deep self-confidence. The sheer belligerence of Brexiters, their lexicon of treason and betrayal levelled at all opponents, are signs of something else. They know that they have attached themselves to nonsense. They know that they are about to impoverish the nation. They know, deep down, that they are failures and that Brexit will be as reviled by future generations as the Gold Standard and Munich. They just can't admit it.

Brexit is a contradictory shambles, promoted by obsessives, sold through illusion, and implemented by incompetents. It is so shoddily built that the slightest wind could bring it down. It's only support is another English trait, embarrassment, being seen to do the right thing, "respecting the referendum result." Could we cope with admitting a mistake and finding a way out?

There is a passage in Max Stirner's The Ego and its Own on the death of Socrates that reminds me of our predicament.
How they do praise Socrates for his conscientiousness, which makes him resist the advice to get away from the dungeon! He is a fool that he concedes to the Athenians a right to condemn him. Therefore it certainly serves him right ... That he did not escape was just his weakness, his delusion of still having something in common with the Athenians, or the opinion that he was a member, a mere member of this people. ... as he had uttered no sentence of death against himself, [he] should have despised that of the Athenians too and escaped. 
Let's not drink the hemlock. Let's escape. Let's survive. There's no shame in sanity. Besides, I have a Greek dream of my own to live.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

1997 and all that

For people interested in recent British political history, Andrew Adonis' talk on Tony Blair was revealing in ways that perhaps he didn't intend. Adonis was a New Labour insider, but was rarely one that I sympathised with. In this talk he looks at the mistakes that Blair made that could have led, indirectly, to Brexit.

He has three main points:

1. Referendums.

The Blair government established the customary use of referendums in British politics. Adonis thinks that was a mistake, and I agree. Referendums are instruments that bypass, rather than enhance, functioning democracies. However, the main sin to my mind was not just their use but the lack of thought that went into their design and their constitutional role. This article on the extensive use of referendums in Switzerland shows just why it is important. Successful referendums ask highly specific questions and, on the one occasion when the question was too broad, Parliament reserved the right to reject an unworkable result, even though the referendum was binding. In the same way, the referendums held in New Zealand on electoral reform asked about preferred systems as well as the initial question on whether to change from first-past-the-post or not.

Now, let's look at the Euro referendum. There were, and are, four options facing Britain: remain, join EFTA, become a third country with a free trade agreement, become a third country under WTO rules. The consequences of each, and the processes required, are radically different. Yet we were only offered remain or leave. Remain was straightforward, leave consisted of one of three options. The choice between those options is still unknown. What was remarkable is that this mistake has been compounded by Parliament voting for article 50, without any idea of what the government's intention was. This week, to their horror, MPs have discovered that by doing so they have locked themselves into a legal process where they have thrown away any power they may have had. We still haven't got a clue what we want and the EU look at us in bewilderment at our indecision.

Before we leave the topic of referendums, let's just throw in the one that was promised but never happened. The 1997 manifesto pledged Labour to hold a referendum on electoral reform. They didn't. Fat chance of that happening. Labour had won a historic landslide with 42.3% of the vote. Just to put that into perspective, Theresa May is being hammered for the disaster of losing her majority in 2017 when the Conservatives won 42.4% of the vote. I will let that sink in. May did better than Blair in 1997. This is one reason why we shouldn't make assumptions about next election. The distribution of seats depends on the strength of the other parties, rather than the popularity of the winning one. In 1997 Labour won enough seats to virtually guarantee victory in the next two general elections. This had another consequence. It masked the dramatic loss of Labour votes in the elections of 2001 and 2005. New Labour's electoral triumphs were nothing like as clear-cut as latter-day Blairites claim.

2. European social democracy.

This jumped out at me, though Adonis really only mentions it as an aside to illustrate a general point. He mainly focused on Iraq as being the moment when Blair favoured Atlanticism over the EU, but then threw in something else that was revealing.
Tony never developed a successful political project with fellow European social democrats. I say “fellow European social democrats,” but privately Tony didn’t think he had much in common with most of them, particularly Jospin and Schroeder who happened to be the two most significant of the decade. The “third way” was a political project mounted with Bill Clinton, not with the Europe’s left. It didn’t help that the European left insisted on calling itself “socialist.” Tony didn’t think they ‘got it’ on the need to move beyond old style welfare socialism towards the “third way” of triangulating with the Right and modernising public services ... 
He is disarmingly frank about this in his memoirs: “The truth is—and I fear this was becoming increasingly the case in my relations with the European centre right—we had more in common with [Merkel] than with the German SDP… Their view of the European social model was very traditional. Angela would see the need for change. I liked her as a person also." 
Unfortunately, a significant number of voters thought that they had voted for a social democratic party, while most members thought they had joined a European social democratic party. If jibes about 'Tory Blair' were over the top, 'Christian Democrat Blair' would have been spot on. The doors were opened to the disillusioned piling in behind Corbyn.

What this points to was that the split between Brown and Blair actually had more substance than personal rivalry and neuroses. If Brown and his supporters wanted Labour to be a modernised European social democratic party, the differences were real. This was certainly true of Adonis' next point.

3. The Euro

Adonis makes it clear. Blair wanted to join the Euro, but Brown didn't and was prepared to stop it happening. Adonis sees this as something to regret. If we had been part of the Eurozone, leaving the EU would have been even more difficult. True, but he's missed something out - the Euro crisis. What if Brown was right? A currency union imposed on a sub-optimal currency area was always going to run into trouble without a mechanism for fiscal transfers between deficit and surplus countries. It did. How would that have played with Eurosceptics?

***

Historians like to study long-term and proximate causes. Though Blair may have contributed to the long-term reasons for Brexit, his government was only of tangental significance. This national disaster was made on the right. Frank Field and Denis Skinner may be in a peculiar alliance as Labour leavers, but they weren't significant. Brexit has only happened for two reasons.

The first is decades of deranged, ideological agitation by a group of unrepresentative and argumentative right-wingers in the Conservative Party. Their trouble-making meant that Cameron made the terrible mistake of calling a poorly constructed referendum, narrowly lost it, and ducked out of dealing with the consequences.

Secondly, George Osborne's economic policies made most people worse off. Demagogues on the right found their scapegoat to harness discontent to their cause. Rather than finger the government and policies they supported, they blamed the one institution that was trying to mitigate the damage. And if that wasn't enough, there was always the race card. They played it. It worked.

Adonis' speech left me with one overriding impression. Blair was broad-brush in his policies and opinions. He wasn't into detail. Whether it was the structure and constitutional significance of referendums, the design of the Euro, post-war planning in Iraq, etc., the complexities were missing from sight. I get the same impression about Cameron. Brexiters are also in complete denial about the difficulties and consequences of exit, which is why they respond to problems with wishful thinking, rhetoric, and abuse. Making policy that actually works is only possible if the details are understood, faced honestly, and dealt with. We need experts and expertise. Dismiss them with a sneer and a disdainful shrug, and failure beckons. This applies especially to those who think that they are un-ideological pragmatists, because they deceive themselves most. They are as dreamily impractical as any utopian.

Monday, November 13, 2017

"Unfit for office"

A definition:
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a personality disorder in which there is a long-term pattern of abnormal behaviour characterized by exaggerated feelings of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of understanding of others' feelings. People affected by it often spend a lot of time thinking about achieving power or success, or about their appearance. They often take advantage of the people around them. The behaviour typically begins by early adulthood, and occurs across a variety of situations.
Boris Johnson seems to fit the bill nicely. It's all documented. A career launched by inventing lies about the European Union for the Daily Telegraph, regular dismissals for dissembling, a carefully cultivated persona, combined with ruthless ambition.

But his latest escapade suggests something more sinister. His comments about the imprisonment in Iran of the British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe certainly shocked me. He gave wrong information that has endangered her. It should be a resigning matter. One of the main duties of a Foreign Secretary is to protect British citizens abroad. He failed utterly. So far, so dreadful. But what is really troubling is the response.

He issued a semi apology, claiming his remarks were taken out of context (they weren't, they were clear and unambiguous). Then a phalanx of supporters was mobilised. They mounted three arguments:

1. The diversionary tactic. By concentrating on Johnson's remarks people are deflecting attention from the real culprits, the Iranian regime. This is nonsense. The criticisms of Johnson are about what he said and the possible consequences of his remarks, with their potential to make a dreadful situation worse. The nature of the regime makes his failure even more serious.

2. The charge of hypocrisy. After Corbyn called for Johnson's resignation, Johnson's pals chimed in by pointing out that Corbyn is a defender of the Iranian regime, speaks at Khomenist meetings, and has taken money from Press TV. All true, and one of the big reasons I dislike his leadership. But in this case, it's utterly irrelevant. Appeals to hypocrisy are a feeble argument. However wrong he has been on Iran in the past, he is right on this issue. And his past sympathy towards the regime gives his stance even more credibility.

3. Reversing the charge. This is where defending Johnson slides into attacking the victim. His allies, like Gove, don't say so directly, but by their equivocations they hint and suggested that maybe Johnson was right and the family of the woman are not telling the whole truth about her being on holiday.

It's this third one that bothers me most. It raises a question; when does narcissism cross the line into sociopathy? Where is their conscience? Where is their empathy for the victim of grotesque injustice? No, if it is a choice between their careers and the life of a young mother, then she is disposable. These politicians are disgusting human beings.

To conclude, listen to Zaghari-Ratcliffe's MP, Tulip Siddiq here. She's right.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Wonderland

Rachel Sylvester in the Times reports (£):
"We are trapped in a box,” admits one minister. “Parliament feels frozen by the referendum but people voted for a fantasy we can’t deliver. They can only have Brexit if they’re prepared to suffer the pain."
Let's get this straight. This is a minister speaking. This is a minister from a government that keeps going on in public about how wonderful everything will be, how they are making progress, that no deal is better than a bad deal, and every other platitude you can imagine. In private they call Brexit "a fantasy we can’t deliver."

In the meantime, the opposition repeat an even more meaningless slogan. What in hell is a "jobs first Brexit?" A Eurosceptic leadership scrambles around doing anything it can to avoid a commitment as it triangulates between the overwhelmingly anti-Brexit membership, the majority of their voters who are in favour of remaining, and a strategically placed minority of Labour voters who wanted to leave the EU.

So what to do? How about telling the truth. Maybe it's an idea not to pretend. After all, Churchill offered "blood, toil, tears and sweat" rather than "it will be all over by Christmas." Let them stop lying. Whether you support remaining or leaving, the facts are the same. It will be difficult. It will be expensive. It will cost money rather than save it. If there are any benefits, they will be a long way in the future. The risks are huge. The country is likely to be poorer, certainly initially. Most predict the best outcome to be a slow and continuous relative decline.

And if people are faced with that choice, a real choice, would they object if their representatives did their job and decided not pander to the ideological fanaticism of the lunatic right and destroy the country on the basis of a tiny, fragile majority in a one-off and ill-informed poll?

Telling the truth might be a bit much to ask for, but how about looking to their self-interest as this study of pro-remain tactical voting would suggest.
The Conservatives gambled by backing the leave voters exclusively and still came up short. They were punished by remain voters and stand to be punished further if they back an uncompromising Brexit. The Conservatives cannot win on a leave only platform.
Remain voters are the key to election victory. Both main parties are too terrified to speak for them. Until one of them does, we will continue to watch the consequences of the worst mistake in British post-war history take its toll on our national standing and the welfare of our people.