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.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Playing with fire



This is a trailer for a book that is worth your time and money. Much of the discussion of Brexit is about economics, but a large section of the vote to leave was about immigration. What some people were voting for was the forcible expulsion of foreigners. They didn't phrase it that way. They used euphemisms like 'ending freedom of movement,' but they meant something a little more savage. The referendum has led to increased incidents of hate crimes, as this chilling Panorama programme shows. This and the book tell us about the human cost of playing politics with people, people who didn't even have the right to vote on their fate.

Racism was harnessed by the leave campaign to win it. This is not to say all leave voters are racist, far from it, but enough were to swing the result. Nor did Brexit create xenophobia. However, this accursed referendum has acted as a legitimating tool and has ended inhibitions against the expression of hate. Something good about the country has died.

Nationalism and racism are potent forces for mobilising the worst in society. They are a curse that has killed millions through war and genocide. The EU was a response, and a clever one. It didn't try and create the European super state of myth. It didn't try and abolish the nation state. Instead of utopianism, it gradually softened borders. It did that through integrating trade in a single market and through ensuring that every EU citizen became, in effect, a dual national. We are citizens of both our own country and the EU. It was practical too. Driving licences, pet passports, mobile phones, reciprocal health care, and others became Europe-wide, making life easier. Freedom of movement is part of that softening. It is a heavily circumscribed right. Any stay over three months is subject to stringent conditions (not that the UK enforced them). But it opened up opportunities to live and work in different EU states, without onerous bureaucratic restrictions.

Nationalists, and that means most Eurosceptic politicians in the UK, resented this and wanted to firm up borders again. They used the worst of populist rhetoric, spread lies, and dropped dark hints. It was playing with fire, but they preferred winning their game to the risk of being burnt. They thought they were safe anyway, the flames would only consume others. Their behaviour was contemptible. They encouraged dark forces to emerge from the corners to where they had been confined. They wanted their right-wing fantasy at all costs, costs that were born by the people in this book and documentary. I look at Brexit and sometimes wonder, what have we become?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

An elegy

This is a gorgeous elegy for England, written in despair about Brexit, inspired by the death of Prince, all the while referring to the death of another prince, Hamlet. Not bad for a pop song. There's a personal element to this. One of the band members was a student in an 'A' level Politics evening class I taught back in the mid 80s. He was a guitarist changing himself into an academic. Now he's turning himself back again. I can't stop listening to it and I love the evocative video too.


Friday, October 06, 2017

Murder most foul


A few days ago the Daily Telegraph led its front page with the speech of that egregious liar, our Foreign Secretary, under the by-line: "The Roaring Lion." This is quite mad. So is the speech by this arch reactionary in fancy dress who talks of Brexit in terms of Agincourt. Theresa May's speech, dogged by a virus, a prankster, and collapsing scenery worthy of the worst 1960s soap opera, was a disaster. But it was one of cringe making pathos, as the inadequate attempted the impossible. It wasn't the worst speech of the conference. She was inept; Johnson and Rees-Mogg were worse, they were sinister.

Whenever I hear the nationalist right expressing their deep love of our country and the glories that will come to us when we shake off the tyrannical yoke of our biggest trading partners and closet allies, I don't think of their disregard of simple things like facts, evidence, or truth. Instead I think of Oscar Wilde:

And all men kill the thing they love, 
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look, 
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Nationalism kills patriotism; and it kills the country it professes to love.

It's one reason why nationalists like referendums. They are faux-democracy; they flaunt democratic values, even as they undermine them. Democracy is a network of interlocking institutions, checks and balances, underpinned by elected representatives. Referendums by-pass all these safeguards and offer a one-off marketing exercise. Sell your fad or obsession to enough people just once and the entire structure of democracy is undermined. Referendums kill democracy.

All British national and regional institutions were opposed to Brexit. All parliaments, councils, and assemblies were opposed. Business and trade unions were opposed. Academics and the medical profession were opposed. Scientists and all our trading partners and allies were opposed. It could never happen. There was one shot. A referendum, where a bare majority of the honest but inexpert could overrule the lot. This wasn't the triumph of democracy, so much as its betrayal.

Nationalist crimes agains democracy are being committed in Hungary and Poland. While the polarisation in Britain is now being experienced by Spain. I don't know enough about Catalonia to have an informed opinion, other than a revulsion at the brutality of the Spanish Police, but the Catalan left are making it clear that they do not support the nationalists.
The appalling scenes of police violence that took place on 1 October in Catalonia along with the most baffling disrespect for democratic procedures and democratic substance that preceded them a month ago in the Catalan Parliament urges us to raise a collective voice.
This voice belongs to the democratic, non-aligned left, a left whose expression we have been longing for. While this voice unequivocally and strongly condemns the authoritarian violence endorsed by the central government, it sternly and democratically resists nationalistic discourse. We refuse to accept this binary as the choice we must face.
And in the same way we should cancel Brexit, assert our democratic values, heal our divisions, and end the xenophobic hostility that the referendum raised. In that way we can save the country we love, rather than let it be transformed into the plaything of a deranged and obsessive right.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

A hard choice

I can't make up my mind.



For those not in the know, this was in the League Cup. Palace's league record this season is played 7, lost 7, goals for 0, goals against 17. Well you have to laugh - I suppose.

Health and the nation

During the past few months, indirectly, I have had need to be extremely grateful to the NHS. In fact, over the last couple of years friends and family have made me too familiar with hospital wards and waiting rooms. I looked and saw the technology, the profound expertise and the sheer hard work all around me. I saw skilled people dedicated to saving the lives of my friends, solely because they, like me, are citizens of a civilised country. I know that anyone, whoever they are, can get the best help possible. This is what the Americans denigrate as "socialised medicine." And, my, are we lucky to have it.

Now read this article from Jonathan Lis. It's a brief summary of the risks posed to the NHS by Brexit. It's not that it could be suddenly dismantled, but it's more the worry of a long, slow erosion of the service as the result of pressures on resources, staffing, and funding. Lis picks up on some of the consequences of leaving the EU that are not as frequently mentioned too.
While remain campaigners stressed the risks to the NHS of reduced immigration and a diminished economy, few mentioned the €3.5bn supplied by the European Investment Bank to the NHS since 2001, or publicised the dangers to cancer patients of leaving the European Atomic Energy Community or the European Medicines Agency. The government, for its part, is so consumed with fire-fighting that it is neglecting to recognise the NHS for what it is: one of Brexit’s key issues, and potentially its most high-profile piece of collateral damage.
This is something that everyone, leaver or remainer, will experience at some point in their life; a service made worse for no good reason. Once again, I can only hope that someone stops this madness now.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

In praise of pragmatism

I have just passed my 65th birthday. I'm officially an old age pensioner. This isn't a bad time to reflect on the most important division in modern British politics. Sure we are split by class, region, and by big geographical differences. But there is one thing that cuts through it all, something that is consistent within all classes, groups, and areas - it's age. Unlike people of my generation, the majority of young people are overwhelmingly in favour of being a member of the European Union and much more likely to vote Labour.

That would be cause for optimism from my point of view if it weren't for the fact that we have a Conservative government hell bent on leaving the EU. They have their dream too. It's of an independent, ethnically homogenous Britain, one in true Trumpian rhetoric that has been restored to greatness. The young look at this and don't see utopia; they see a prison. Nostalgic Britain is somewhere to escape from. Europe offers liberation. Unconcerned by immigration, freedom of movement promises them a continent of opportunity that Brexit removes.

The irony is that 2016 is probably one of the last years where it would be possible for leave to win a referendum, and then only narrowly. The demographics are overwhelmingly against the possibility of Brexit in the future. Yet the future is to be bound in perpetuity by the present.

Both generations are dreamers. But the blissful vision of one generation is the nightmare of the other.

Dream is the right term too. I saw recently one of those little articles that provide a condensed version of an idea for easy digestion. This one contrasted the difference between opinion and evidence. You could just as easily substitute the terms the ideal and the material, fiction and reality, belief and truth, abstract and concrete. The problem is that opinion can be held contrary to evidence and be bloody difficult to shift. Brexit is an example.

Brexit is a fantasy divorced from reality. Eurosceptics spent forty odd years arguing that we should leave the European Union. They never bothered to ask the question about how it could be done, or research the real consequences. No details, just wishful thinking and empty rhetoric, bolstered by a few comforting myths. The result is that they haven't a clue. In deciding to interpret a narrow majority as the "will of the people," and, by implication, to see the other half of the population as "enemies of the people," they now have to manage reality. And they can't. It's too difficult.

Now turn to the Labour Party. I should be feeling optimistic. But though the future looks assured, there is another problem. Youthful enthusiasm is directed towards another dream. They are lionising a rather mangy old lion. They are wrapped up in adoration of an elderly backbencher of minimal achievement and limited ability. He is adored as a symbol, not as reality. Like Brexit, Corbyn has become whatever his adherents wants him to be. This is also divorced from reality.

The biggest contradiction for the enthusiastic pro-EU Corbynista is that he is an old Bennite Euroscpetic. He has always been opposed to membership of the EU. And despite a carefully calculated ambiguity, the leadership is adamant that Britain is going to leave the European Union. What's more, he keeps repeating things about the single market that are simply untrue. Yet Labour hoovered up the votes of remainers. Image and reality are completely at odds with each other.

Let's get material. It's time to drag out that old, semi-forgotten word, pragmatism. It's been discarded because it became a euphemism for acceptance or inaction. In my book it means dealing with reality. And radical pragmatism was defined beautifully by Patrick Geddes: "the realizable best that can be made of the here and now, if we invoke and use all the resources available, physical, mental and moral."

A radically pragmatic approach to Brexit would be to abandon it. There are no material benefits. It would make us poorer and diminish our role in the world. Membership of the EU on the really advantageous terms we already have is the best option available. The political consequences of remaining and the loss of face it would entail are as nothing to the damage of leaving.

And beyond that, the realities that are eroding the Tory party and animating the young are the problems that face people in their everyday lives – housing, poverty (both in and out of work), low pay, rotten employment, insecurity, debt, and many others. How are we to deal with them? Not by creating some imaginary future, how are we to do it now, as quickly as possible, for everyone today? That's what would drive a radical pragmatic politics.

Because I am old, I remember earlier times. In 1978 the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm published an essay, The Forward March of Labour Halted? It was reissued in extended book form in 1981 after Margaret Thatcher's election victory. It has dated, but its significance was that it argued that British society had changed, the working class had fragmented, and Labour needed to respond to a different world. Its conclusion was that Labour needed to "formulate not only what we would want to do, but what can be done." Indeed. It's time to wake from the reverie and deal with complex reality, to value the contribution of experts, and to elevate practical knowledge over vague illusions. It won't be easy. It never is.

Silence

Sometimes golden, but sometimes due to difficult times.


Friday, July 28, 2017

Wholesale prejudice

I have been saying all along that Brexit is a victory for the right. It was the obsession of parts of the Conservative Party who saw leaving the EU as the true path to paradise – either a libertarian one with a free market and a minimal state, or a nationalist heaven of restored Victorian values and imperial preference. We are in this mess purely because of their persistence and their ability to wreck the Tory party if they didn't get their way. Yet they have had fellow travellers from the other side, a dogged band of leftists from a variety of persuasions. Whether they are after creating socialism in one country or some form of nationalist socialism, the historical precedents are not pretty. Simon Wren-Lewis has superbly eviscerated the economic case they put forward here. I thoroughly agree.

"Lexit" raised its head again last Sunday as Corbyn, to the horror of trade union leaders, committed Labour to a hard Brexit, only mitigated by meaningless platitudes and erroneous suggestions about the single market, jobs, and "tariff-free" trade.

Despite having said precisely the same previously, John McDonnell rowed back once it became clear that this was kicking up a row, suggesting that Britain could stay in the single market if public opinion changed. Whether this was tactical or genuine is open to question, though it's clear Labour is as split as the Tories.

What incensed me is that Corbyn also put himself firmly in the anti-immigration camp. He blamed "wholesale" Eastern European immigration for worsening working conditions and reducing wages, particularly in the building trade. As a result, he insisted, free movement of people had to end. It was an evidence-free assertion and an ancient trope. Research points to immigration as being a net benefit, though some anecdotal accounts suggest that there may be problems at the margins (never nice if you are one of the people in that margin of course). Regardless, there are three big difficulties with his argument.

The first is that any problems are not ones of immigration, but of exploitation. To say that exploitation will cease if we stop foreigners coming into the country is risible. It blames the victims.

The second is that it's the sort of red meat that some on the middle-class left think that you have to throw at working-class people to make them like you and abandon UKIP. It's facile and condescending, but, most importantly from a left perspective, it addresses what are often described as the 'white working class' in terms of their whiteness and not of their class. It's the kind of divisive narrative socialists used to despise.

Finally, this marginal problem is not solved by dealing with the issue itself, but by removing a universal reciprocal right. His solution to exploitation in the building trade is to stop British pensioners retiring to Spain.

These are not left-wing views.

I would like him to answer this question from an Anglo-Belgian family:
"Do these Brexiters ever consider how many ordinary people’s lives they have harmed?”
Does he? Do they? Johnson, Gove, Farage, and now, openly, Corbyn?

This whole farrago is the consequence of the obsessions of nonentities producing a situation that is being managed by mediocrities. As the incredible difficulty of extracting anything reasonable from increasingly difficult negotiations become ever more apparent, opinions are starting to change.

The details of the negotiations are nightmarish. The government is unprepared, divided, and has no vision of what it wants. The debate that is going on is one that should have been held before the referendum, not after invoking Article 50. There is only one reasonable option open to us – don't do it.

In the meantime, those tempted by anti-immigration rhetoric should remember that, however long ago, we are all the products of migration. It is one of the most ubiquitous experiences of humanity. We are all in its debt. George Szirtes put it magnificently.
As for refugees they are, as we were, like leaves blown off a tree, drifting where the wind or sea takes them. But not just leaves. Leaves wither and die and return to earth. Refugees, migrants of all sorts, are also seeds of new growth and always have been. Few of us present here now live in the places where we were born. We too drift and seed. On good soil with a little tending we become part of the landscape. That is our history, our present and, with luck, our future.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Look on my works ... and despair

I haven't been blogging much lately, there have been a lot of other things going on in my life, but that isn't the main reason. I have more or less run out of things to say about the political class. It's awful. And it's tasked with managing the most complex, pointless, and utterly self-destructive policy imaginable. When you are holding a gun to your own head, the sanest thing to do is to not pull the trigger. Instead, in the words of Martin Wolf in the Financial Times,
Remember what has happened. In an unnecessary referendum, a small majority chose an option they could not understand, because it had not been worked out. Thereupon, a new prime minister, with no knowledge of the complexities, adopted the hardest possible interpretation of the outcome. She triggered the exit process in March 2017, before shaping a detailed negotiating position. Some 70 days later, in an unnecessary election, she lost both her majority and her authority.
The result is a dismal failure to even begin to negotiate the best EU deal we can hope for, which would be something merely significantly worse, rather than catastrophically worse, than what we  already have.

On the first anniversary of May becoming prime minister, the tributes have been coruscating. Two stand out. John Crace, inventor of the jibe "Maybot," is cruel, funny and accurate. His conclusion:
In just a year, the Maybot had imploded entirely. It had come to this – from being lauded as the saviour of the Conservative party to begging Labour for some policy ideas. A year in which her true mediocrity had been exposed.
Meanwhile, Ian Dunt resorted to a list. It's long and damning.
On Thursday, we reached the first anniversary of Theresa May's time in Downing Street. During this period she has pursued a hopelessly mangled Brexit strategy, rebranded the Conservative party with hard right-wing nativism, trashed Britain's global reputation and thrown away her own majority in a fit of imperial arrogance. We are unlikely to have to mark her second...

The list of her failures goes on and on. They are moral, political, economic, strategic and presentational. She is a full-spectrum political disaster.
Then there is Labour. When it came to the election, the result was a narrower defeat than expected, aided by the collapse of third party votes and the worst Tory campaign imaginable. Corbyn scrubbed up well. He is now dressed in expensive suits, carefully groomed, and when tieless looks preppy, rather than scruffy. He didn't lose his temper on TV, came over avuncular, but was confined mainly to mass meetings of the adoring. I still can't see any evidence that he he has the ability to be Prime Minister, but I suppose that what really gets to me is the bizarre cult of personality that has been generated around him. This worship is disturbing, it's uncritical, and every objection to his saintliness is met by a tirade of abuse. And the object of this fevered veneration is so vacuous. I mean, what has he actually said of interest? Most of his speeches are content-free rhetoric or vague promises of the impossible. Can anyone say what on earth a "jobs first Brexit" means? It's an endlessly repeated platitude worthy of Theresa May.

The weird thing is that when he says something, like wanting to leave the single market, his fan base don't believe him if it's not what they want. He is a vehicle for people's political fantasies, a symbol of being on the left, rather than the advocate of a coherent political programme. Eventually, this will be found out. Brexit is the most likely cause, but even on a flagship policy like abolishing university tuition fees, they have started rowing back expectations. I suppose being vague on Brexit is a necessary tactic, given that the party is split and the voter base is overwhelmingly pro-remain. But eventually people will begin to notice that on every Parliamentary vote on it, Labour has offered no official opposition to the policy of the Tory right.

I have always felt that Corbyn's past stance on foreign affairs made him unfit to lead the Labour Party. It hasn't turned out to be an obstacle for him as his supporters can't remember the IRA, and even if they don't share his virulent hatred of Israel, they have an antipathy to it. As for his disgusting "friends," they don't seem to make much difference either. The issue cropped up again last week when he shared a pizza with Marcus Papadopoulos, a pro-Assad denier of the Srebrenica massacre (a position Corbyn has flirted with in the past).

Corbyn is often described as a pacifist. He makes his association with peace politics known whenever possible. It sounds nice. But he isn't a pacifist. He isn't even a principled non-interventionist. No, he is an appeaser. It's a long political tradition. It was derided in the 19th Century by working class radicals as being "peace at any price." To avoid war by making concessions to a potential aggressor may be a political necessity at times, but it is morally ambiguous at best. The problem is that if you want to pretend that it is virtuous, then you have to move beyond Orwell's famous observation about pacifism being objectively pro-fascist, to being materially so. Pacifism may refuse to resist evil, but it doesn't pretend that it isn't evil. Appeasers argue that the evil actually have a case, that they are being reasonable, and that our goodwill in conceding their demands will win them over to virtue. It's wishful thinking, and from there it is a small step to become a fellow traveller, apologist, or even an outright supporter. And that's where Corbyn's Irish republicanism and anti-Zionism took him. But the association with the word peace has allowed him to effectively lie about his actions, to the ecstatic joy of his fan base.

So what can you say? In the middle of a deep, self-inflicted crisis, we have domestic politics that is reduced to a contest between Joseph and Neville Chamberlain. It is dominated by cowardice and confusion. It is organised failure. It has to change, but until it does, there is nothing more to do other than to look on in disbelief.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Don't mention the EU

They keep coming. Every day I get sent another adoring meme and article, often from idiotic sources like the Canary, glorifying the achievements of Jeremy Corbyn. I half expect to see one on his latest bowel movements - the holy turd of St Jezza - as an exemplar of his exceptional virtue. I grew up in a tradition that was sceptical of leaders and so I find this outpouring unintelligent, disturbing and nauseous.

However, not one person I know, not a single one, shared his Mirror article from 17 June. I am not surprised as most of my Corbynista friends are firmly pro-EU. Corbyn writes:
We would start by confirming that Britain is leaving the EU. The issue of Brexit is settled...
Leaving the EU will mean freedom of movement will end...
Leaving the European Union means Britain will have a different relationship with the single market.
But jobs and the economy will be our priority, and the final Brexit deal needs to keep the benefits of the EU single market and the customs union.
That means we will seek continued tariff-free access to the European market, with no new non-tariff burdens for British business.
This is mad. Ending freedom of movement means leaving the single market. If we leave the single market, then we cannot keep all the benefits of membership. This has been made perfectly clear from day one. Retaining our current benefits outside the EU is a fantasy. The best that can be hoped for is a deal that will be worse, but not catastrophically so. The only way to get a deal as good as we have currently is to remain members.

What this article is doing is not proposing a 'soft Brexit,' but using soft words to conceal a 'hard Brexit.' It's a commonplace way of arguing and isn't confined to any one political party. Two tricks are the most frequent. The first is over freedom of movement. Corbyn wrote about how it will be replaced:
In its place, we will back fair rules and reasonable management of migration, underpinned by tough action to end the undercutting of pay and conditions by unscrupulous employers and to stop overseas-only recruitment.
Notice anything missing? You probably haven't because it's rarely mentioned. Freedom of movement is a reciprocal right. It isn't just about immigration. If he said, 'in order to bring in new rules to manage immigration we will have to strip all British citizens of their right to live, work, run a business, or retire in any other EU country,' he would be telling the whole truth. But it doesn't sound quite as good does it? Confining the debate to immigration distorts the real meaning of freedom of movement. It only tells half the story.

The second is that people elide between membership of the single market and access to the single market. They are not the same thing. Access to the single market is universal. Anyone can trade into it. Sometimes the terms of trade can be made more favourable by a separate trade deal, but the full benefits are only available to members. Pretending otherwise is deceitful.

And so we are stuck within a pointless debate which all rests on the premise that a narrow majority in a poorly constructed referendum should overrule all other democratic decision making processes, because it represents the permanent and immutable will of the people for all time - even if they change their minds afterwards. This is mad. And as the benefits remain elusive, while the huge costs, the impact on people's lives, the scary economic damage, and the loss of liberties become more apparent, this premise looks more foolish by the minute.

We have a divided country. We have a divided governing party. We have a divided Labour Party trying to appease two divided constituencies of voters. Instead of dealing with realities, we have entered a world of wishful thinking where soft-sounding waffle can magic away reality. We have landed ourselves in an unconscionable mess, and I doubt whether we have a political class with enough courage and intelligence to get us out of it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Hubris

After hubris comes nemesis. The schadenfreude of watching May's supreme confidence vanish in a cloud of platitudes was intense. Instead of oblivion, something I expected, Labour is now well placed. Corbyn has shown himself to be a proficient campaigner. Age has softened his image, if not the reality, but elections are all about smoke and mirrors and not details. Labour have had their Dunkirk; a triumphant defeat that is the basis for future victory. But beware of hubris on their part. I want to sound some notes of caution.

1. The obvious – Labour didn't win. They need 56 more seats to even catch up with the Conservatives. It was their third consecutive defeat. They are still a long way behind.

2. To make matters worse, Labour finished third in Scotland, overtaken by the Scottish Conservative Party who had been an irrelevance for decades. Even though there was a recovery for Labour, this points to fragility in its support.

3. Look at the data. This was the best share of the vote the Conservatives have had for thirty years. Yes, this Tory crisis really has been brought about by their best result since 1987. How so? Once again it's down to the arbitrariness of the electoral system. This election saw a return to predominantly two-party voting, particularly in England. The shrinking of support for minority parties has meant that the result in 2017 is more proportional to vote share than previously. If there had been any form of proportional representation in 2015, then the Tories wouldn't have had a majority to lose. The momentum may be with Labour, but the Tory base is also stronger.

4. The Labour vote, as in every election, was not homogenous. It was a coalition of different social and demographic groups, and of differing political outlooks. Though Corbyn's electoral strength was underestimated, the increased Labour vote share also includes those who voted Labour despite it being led by Corbyn.

5. The Conservatives are in control. The DUP despise Corbyn because of his republican sympathies and will always block him. Labour need the Tories to muck it up, which they are more than capable of doing of course, but they may also be shrewd at exploiting openings.

What all this points to is the need for consolidation not triumphalism. I suppose you can excuse celebrations and outbursts of idiocy, but in the end Labour have to be seen as a government in waiting.

The one great issue that a government needs to face is Brexit. It was ignored in the election, despite it being the single most significant event in the last fifty years. It's a bit like cleaning the oven, one of those jobs you keep putting off because it's too unpleasant. Parties are hiding behind the mantra that they will 'deliver the result of the referendum.' No one dares to question whether that decision was actually wise or not (or even deliverable!). Nor do they consider the dissensus rather than consensus that it produced. But what is unforgiveable is that they are completely unprepared for the complexity of the task and reluctant to acknowledge the damage it may cause. May's decision to invoke article 50 and then call an election is a monumental error. It should have been the other way round. The clock is counting down and there isn't a government to head negotiations. If we were serious about leaving, then article 50 should have been invoked only after all the preparatory work had been done.

Labour's position should be clear. Wait and seize the opportunities when they arise. Instead, the leadership went ahead and adopted the position of UKIP. Mirroring Corbyn's utterly stupid call for invoking article 50 immediately after the referendum, they have made it clear that their priority is ending free movement and thus exiting the single market. They have boxed themselves in.

Whether there is a political cost to be paid, who knows? A more sensible stance may appear. I'm not predicting anything. But it smacks of overconfidence and an underestimation of the consequences of the realities of Brexit, while failing to look over their shoulder at the uneasy coalition of voters that have raised their hopes, despite yet another defeat. 

Friday, June 09, 2017

Wrong again

Yes, I got it wrong. Pretty comprehensively wrong. It's a talent I have.

At this point everybody who did get it wrong about the election starts writing pieces about how, although they got it wrong, the fact that they were wrong proves that they were right all along. I can't disappoint the tiny number of readers of this blog.

Over the years I have been banging on about two things. The first is the need for a new and credible left political economy to challenge orthodoxy. The time for it is now. There is an electoral coalition for the reinvention of a neo-Keynesian social democratic settlement.

More recently, I have been saying that the significant demographic divide in politics is generational. The young voted. This is a great moment of hope, because the previous assumption that there was a realignment where a left political economy was tied to social conservatism is wrong. The new generation of voters is socially liberal, pro Europe, and relaxed about immigration.

Now, some caveats.

First, I haven't changed my views of Corbyn, and especially his foreign policy and support for awful movements and regimes. They have been formed over thirty years. There is still a fight to be had over where Labour stands.

Second, this wasn't a victory for Corbyn alone. In fact it wasn't even a victory, he lost. Both the Conservative and Labour votes increased. But it is one of those moments when political change became a real possibility. And the "progressive majority" has returned. Though the country is polarised, a majority didn't vote for the right. This was a success for the Labour Party as a whole. It was a campaign fought locally as well as centrally. Right, left, and centre candidates worked hard and did well. And Labour didn't win, they came close, and they recovered amazingly from a terrible position. Think back to how bad the local election results were just a month ago! Retreating into sectarianism would throw this opportunity away.

Third, I am old. This is a bit of a bugger, but true. And like a lot of older people, I can lapse into pessimism. I don't feel like that today though. I feel that there is an opportunity now, but probably for people younger than me. But if I am old, I am younger than the leadership. This is still an interregnum. What comes next is what matters.

Finally, and this is the most important, there is Brexit. It was the reason for the election and never mentioned. This is an extraordinary constitutional and economic revolution to be undertaken with a flimsy mandate that has just been made flimsier. This is the defining issue. It has the potential to create huge damage. Where is our strategy for that? Ian Dunt put it well before the election:
It is not an elephant in the room. It is a stampede approaching at speed, to which we have stared, shrugged and continued with our little tea party. If historians do bother to assess what happened in this election they will be left aghast at our complacency.
Brexit could wreck everything.

Let's leave the Daily Mash to inject a sense of proportion:
LABOUR leader Jeremy Corbyn has congratulated himself after being beaten by a political idiot.
True, but I'm still smiling. Hope springs eternal in the human breast.