Brexit – the new promised land

Buddhism has neither a god, nor a promised land – for many that is, but not for all:  adherents of the Pure Land teachings within the Mahayana tradition believe that by reciting the name of Amithaba Buddha they can achieve rebirth in a western ‘pure land’.

Deriving any kind of political conclusion from spiritual belief is always high risk. But there is a ‘promised land’ mentality abroad at the present time, and curiously it’s taken hold of the right of the political spectrum – the day-dreams, the political unrealities which typified the Left for so long are now the prerogative of the Right.

There is it seems a world out there, beyond the western horizon (beyond the sunset), where we can trade freely, without restriction, without regulation, where self-interest becomes the common interest, where supervisory bodies not least governments touch so lightly that we’re hardly aware they’re there. We in the UK, we’re free traders at heart. Once we set the example for the world by going it alone. Others followed. And they will do so again. We were, we still are, exceptional.

We achieve this by a simple stroke, a referendum, from which there is no turning back.

Our history, our unwritten constitution, is full of errors, U-turns, crises, but the parliamentary system has always allowed for corrections, changes of tack, a self-correction mechanism.

But true belief and true believers allow no compromise.

There is a rigidity to belief systems, and referenda are a classic way of embedding practices and beliefs. Cooperation and compromise become, as we’ve seen over last year, much harder. We are on dangerous ground.

Likewise the USA, where exceptionalism, of the American kind, is also closely woven into the debate. A continuing danger lies in the presidential control over appointments to the Supreme Court, and the way appointments can sway the Court in the ever-more-polarised national debate. The Citizens United decision in 2010 effectively allowed super-PACs to spend unlimited amounts in support of political parties or candidates, as long as the money wasn’t paid directly to the candidate. There is now no restriction on what money can buy in American politics, and no limit to the levels of vituperation, and with much of the press in the UK in the hands of over-wealthy men with overt political agendas we are running the same risks here.

The US Congress has many famous examples of cross-party cooperation, of a movement to consensus when the times require it.  The UK likewise. But money polarises, and likewise referenda. If one side dig deep to defame the other, if one side claim that a referendum has once and for all and forever decided an issue – what scope can there be for coming together?

The ‘pure land’ mentality belongs in the spiritual sphere. It is pace Dawkins, Dennett el al, a natural aspiration of mankind. But it has no place in politics.

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A brief coda. Paul Johnson (director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies), writing in The Times, reminds us how once a big government project (for example, the NHS IT system) is underway ‘its momentum can carry it through almost any amount of evidence it is not working’. He continues:

‘The serial inability of governments to define, manage and deliver big projects can only be sobering in the context of the attempt to deliver Brexit – the biggest project of them all.’

At what point does a promised land become a fool’s paradise?

The fantasies of free trade

Walking and swimming, conjuring turtles (see my last post) and building castles… since the Brexit vote politics have been more a burden, less a pleasure – how we (as country and individuals) might hold on to our sanity while others attempt to build castles in the air.

Brexit has many castles, most of them air-borne, from the immigrant threat to free trade. Closing down on one, on the free movement of labour, runs directly counter to a fully libertarian approach to free trade – if this was a board game, or a novel, I’d want to see how it all worked out. As political reality, I hope not to.

Focusing on free trade, last week we had ‘From Project fear to Project Prosperity’, a report from the free-trading supply-siders ‘Economists for Free Trade’, chaired by one-time Thatcher adviser, Patrick Minford. Matt Ridley in The Times (21st August) pours praise upon them. We hear the old shibboleth, ‘Fortress Europe’, curiously used to describe 28 countries which have taken down the barriers and practise the four freedoms – goods, capital, services, and labour. Ridley argues that ‘external barriers are pure self-harm’, and you’d have thought that he’d take the EU as a shining example. Instead he focuses on the tariffs the EU imposes on non-EU countries – apparently the tariff on unicycles is 15%. What he totally and wilfully fails to recognise is that free trade isn’t a level playing-field, but self-interested countries seeking common ground on which they can co-operate – not for another’s interest, but for their own. We hear from Brexiters about countries keen to reach trade agreements with the UK – but on whose terms? On ours, on the UK’s?

Garvan Walshe on the Conservative Home website is helpful on the subject. (There is an awful lot of sanity still left in the Tory party – but the sane too often these days are the quiet and the cautious.) In trade between countries, ‘the distance relationship is paramount’.

The effect of that decision [the referendum]  is to forego [the EU’s] economic benefits, and they can’t be replaced by shallower trade agreements with other countries, because they are too far away. And while there could, as Minford suggests, be economic gains from deregulation, they won’t happen while Britain´s politics is moving leftwards … Far from bringing benefits through other trade deals, leaving the EU erects an enormous trade barrier with the rest of our continent. Economists for Brexit should have renamed themselves Economists for Protectionism.

Back to Matt Ridley: ‘…after Brexit, Britain should try unilateral free trade, no matter what everybody else does’. This would Economists for Free Trade argue benefit the British economy by as much as £135 billion a year. (Compare the NIESR – leaving would cut our total world trade by a quarter.) The Minford report assumes that we’d reach an agreement with the EU broadly comparable to what we have now, and a level of de-regulation which simply won’t, and shouldn’t, happen in the current climate.

Ridley is also guilty of a selective use of history, an old bete noire of mine. He quotes Sir Robert Peel in the 1846 Corn Law debate – ‘we should cease haggling with foreign countries about reciprocal concessions’. He argues that ‘the closer countries get to free trade, the more they thrive’ – and quotes Britain in the period 1846-80, and Hong Kong and Singapore today. In all three cases the circumstances are radically different – Britain in a period after 1846 when we could dictate the terms of world trade, and two city-states (treating Hong Kong a city state) operating as low-tariff entrepots.

Ridley also attempts a distinction between the Roman civil law ‘prescriptive, rules-based system’, and a ‘better’ common law (and distinctively English to his mind) approach, ‘which is principles-based, outcome-focused, consumer-friendly’. He continues: ‘Because of our history and the nature of our economy Britain can be an effective champion of this challenge.’

The risk is all ours.

We are back, happily for my argument, to ‘castles in the air’. There is no hard evidence that ‘free trade works’, no hard evidence that supply-side economics will deliver any of the benefits (above all increased tax revenues on higher output, and collective benefits deriving therefrom) it claims.

And finally… Adam Smith. Ridley tries to corral him into the Leave camp: ‘As Adam Smith put it, describing the European Union in advance, “in the mercantile system the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer”.’

‘…describing the European Union in advance…’ – this is populist and emotive junk.

The founders of the Adam Smith Institute don’t do much better: ‘We both take the view that the UK now has the chance to trade freely with the rest of the world, since it will no longer be locked inside a protectionist bloc of diminishing economic and political significance.’

The EU isn’t doing too badly at the moment, and it carries political clout – the ‘diminishing economic and political influence’ will all be ours if Brexiters have their way.

Impermanence

We conjured a turtle on a Cornish beach last Sunday, and slates gathered on the beach were scales for its back. Five hours later, in the gloaming, I watched the incoming tide, the waves creeping, maybe one in three or one in four, a little closer, until they trickled into the ditch we’d dug around the turtle. The shell held out a little longer, maybe ten minutes, until a small wave sloshed gently over the top, and then the undermining was really underway. By the time I took my leave, reluctantly, ten minutes later, there was barely a hump to be seen, as the tide pushed further in.

Impermanence… I’ve also been walking the coast path, from Trevose Head to Morgan Porth, and back, the same terrain, yes, but different perspectives, as if two separate journeys. The coves bite deep, and the caves and sink-holes provide sounding-boards for the waves. The rocks break and twist, as the strata and lines of weakness, and all the vagaries of weather and climate over many millions of years, dictate. And yet it all seems so permanent. Even the flock of oyster-catchers, which piped on a rock platform far below: they were there both outward and inward, though inward the black-backed gulls had flown.

Looking down on Bedruthan Sands from the cliff top, the sand was fresh-swept – the tide bites the cliff, no soft or littered sand, and four girls were playing boule, and their cries just carried to me. The waves which had been a high surf were lapping low, or seemed to from my elevation, and all seemed … well, yes, permanent.  I didn’t want to walk on, and lose that sense of forever.

I found a grassy slope, and sat and looked out to see, blue under blue, aquamarine closer in, where it shallowed, and the rippling smoothness extended in a great curve around me. Another cliff, another cove – snorkellers were taking advantage of low tide and swimming out to a sandy beach.

Where the cliffs come down to Treyarnon beach there’s a steep gully which you can swim through at lowest tide. This, my imagination tells me, is what they do, what I could do, as the observer, every day, and yet – such moments, such times, are rare. The tide will rise, the mists sweep in, and the storms, and the winter …

Joy and a gentle melancholy combine, and a sense of peace, and fragility … that sense of living in the moment, and yet living forever.

 

 

Conservatism – selling out to the new right

I began this blog eight years ago in a mood of optimism. Obama’s ‘yes we can’. Maybe we could find common ground across the political divide, enough to take agendas of enterprise, economic growth, internationalism and social justice forward together. We knew of the new right’s machinations, but didn’t foresee how their path to power might work out. And how conservatism would be re-interpreted, and buy into the politics and the moral neutrality of post-truth. To take a few examples:

# Referenda: the idea seems to be abroad in some circles that referenda results are for all time. Referenda if used at all, and they are too easily manipulated (by money and media) to have any significant role in any serious democracy, must be reversible, in the way that parliamentary legislation is reversible. It is extraordinary and irrational to think otherwise. And against conservative tradition…

# Conservative vs radical: it is no less remarkable how the Tory party has moved so far right without realising it, mirroring the Barclay brothers Daily Telegraph agenda and adopting the manners and demeanour of the Paul Dacre Daily Mail. We could indict the Conservatives under the trade descriptions act. (Tory – from the old Gaelic toraidhe, meaning outlaw. Altogether a better description.) The old Tory party, going back to Macmillan, Heath, even Thatcher, believed in the great British unwritten constitution, the wheels turned slowly, radical change and revolution were disdained. We have now arguably the biggest leap in the dark outside of wartime in two hundred years.

I am now the conservative. I’m not sure I like my new role too much – there’s too much in the world to be radical about.

# Economic forecasts from outlier economists such as Patrick Minford, given press and media coverage as if mainstream. Compare the wiser counsels of the FT and the Economist. Curious now how many rely on the Telegraph City pages: that’s a subject in itself.

# Assumptions that post-Brexit we will dispense with the ECJ – the European Court of Justice – and still achieve some kind of trade deal. Set up a separate quasi-judicial body? Are the EU for a moment likely to acquiesce in that?

# ‘Recent’ poll data suggesting wide support for a hard Brexit – quoted as fact in the media (including The Week) – when the data dates back to April and has been wilfully misinterpreted.

# Finally – diversion away from the issues which should be engaging us. Not least the tragedy (see recent reporting in The Times, and all power to them ) almost on our doorstep in Libya. 700,000 migrants camped and waiting. This is a crisis for all Europeans, and one so far which the EU, 28 countries with clamorous electorates, has simply failed to come to terms with.

Here in the UK we are obsessed by Brexit, preferring to close our borders physically, morally and politically. Rather, we should be in there, facing up to the crisis, putting forward proposals. Advocates within Europe, within the EU.

Suggestions, for example, for a wall across southern Libya, or funding repatriations… maybe or maybe not viable … but where are we?

Sidelined, irrelevant.

BBC News at One

Off to Cornwall and beyond the news, and truth and post-truth, for a few days. But before I go…

BBC news reporting has so often impressed me, but in these post-truth days it worries me – the standards of presentation, debate, argument, balance, integrity have to be so much higher.

Taking a News at One programme from a few days ago as an example.

Martha Kearney: trying to get an answer to her question, why had there been no increase in participation by young people 16-25 in sport as a result of the Olympics. The Sports England director of sport, Phil Smith, answered valiantly, pointed to an overall increase since 2005, made the point that there were increasing pressures – distractions if you will – for young people, against which sport has literally to compete. (Where would we have been without the Olympics? –  declining rates of participation a real likelihood.) She wanted a quote – an admission – a headline. In the best, and worst John Humphreys tradition. Instead of pursuing a wider knowledge, she was seeking a story.

A debate regarding statues in the post-Charlotteville (Alt-Right demonstration, and an anti-racist protestor’s death): the ‘debate’ disguised the story, and ambled round the David Aaronovitch’s argument in the Times that statues should remain but with explanations. The BBC treatment completely missed any shading in the argument – the dark shade, the statues out up in the 1920s as political Jim Crow-era statements – re-asserting the old slaveholding anti-bellum America: for every African-American passing by they are a reminder of a cruel and bitter world. Whereas the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford (my college, Oriel) is high on a wall, all but out of sight, a thank you to a benefactor – not a political statement. You can (indeed I can) argue the Rhodes statue shouldn’t be there, but explanation could be, and I think will be, the way forward in this case.

More recently, late night, BBC News, Professor Stephen Hawking has come out strongly arguing that the government has been selective in its use of evidence for the 7-day working week for hospitals. We then had the Secretary of State for Health’s strong denial – all right and proper. But they then quoted just the kind of selective evidence Hawking was referring to – and didn’t quote any of the other studies. The bare facts as portrayed by the government were even given display boards. ‘Labour-supporter Stephen Hawking’ – that was the final way of damning his argument. It was poor stuff. The arguments on both sides were never properly addressed.

Going back to the News at One I remember they ended with a Tory MP being given space to argue for entitlement cards for immigrants, which as Martha Kearney pointed out, implies identity cards for all of us. David Davis has strongly opposed these, I understand, but the Tory MP argued along the lines of ‘special measures for special times’. The vast inconsistencies in this as in most Brexit arguments was hardly touched on.

And there are other stories. I feel like the Mail – on BBC watch all the time. But the Mail belongs in the post-truth era, and has for many a year, long before post-truth. I am of course just the other side of the argument these days. It does make it so much harder to make a case…