Back to Brexit ….

A brief note – in the end not quite as brief as I intended! My reason for this post – to explain why I am not one of those who voted Remain but is now prepared to accept Brexit, to accommodate – accept that the vote has happened, argue we should make the best of it and get on with life.

A few reasons, in no particular order, as they say on Strictly Come Dancing, as follows….

The vote was won on a basis of a false prospectus and false promises. Even now – press headlines pick up James Dyson and Lord Bamford, two of the rare industrialists who supported Brexit.

We are a parliamentary, representative democracy, and we should live and die by that. Not be ruled by plebiscites, which are the first and last resort of populists and demagogues. (We currently have an unelected government, governing to its own and not the 2015 Tory manifesto, and which anticipates pushing Brexit through using the royal prerogative without, if it can help it, reference to parliamentary discussion or vote.)

The European Union is a remarkable institution. Unwieldy, bureaucratic, fractious, but it is the extraordinary coming together of 28 different nations, each passionate about its own interest, but likewise seeing the benefits, after two thousand years of conflict, of coming together. Our efforts should be concentrated on reform not withdrawal. (The EU has been pilloried for its poor handling of the refugee crisis, but I wonder how it could have been handled well, given all the fear and anxieties felt by 28 countries with very different histories. Had here been no EU, how would the crisis have been handled? With any less agony, any less suffering?)

A war which tore Europe and then the world apart ended only seventy years ago, a year before I was born. Before that another war, arguably even more terrible. We’ve had seventy years of peace, unprecedented peace. The EU symbolises and acts out that peace.

As an economic union, despite all the talk it’s a significant success. No serious economist would argue otherwise. Run a business which trades with other European countries, which I’ve done, and you’re aware of all the benefits. The danger is you take them for granted – assume they’d have happened anyway. There are also extraordinary levels of scientific, environmental and cultural collaboration, for which the EU has provided both the mechanism and inspiration.

The EU isn’t restrictive – unless you’re opposed to workplace and environmental rights. And we’re not going to do without the regulations by asserting our independence – if we want to trade with Europe, the regulations are the terms.

Where there is unnecessary red tape we need to be in there, ensuring it’s removed, instead of being passive observers. We are sacrificing engagement, and influence. We’ve used that influence well over the years.

Immigration is a perceived threat – where immigrant numbers are highest we had the highest Remain votes, where they were low the highest Leave votes. A perceived threat – nowhere near the actual threat that much of the press played up. Likewise no evidence that immigration has held wages down. Yes, pressure on schools and housing in certain areas – and the last government singularly failed to recognise that immigration, and other changes in our working lives, must be reflected in improved infrastructure. (Levels of immigration in recent years have been too high – I’m not arguing otherwise – and politically they’re unsustainable at this level. How you handle this while preserving freedom of movement is a mighty challenge, but not remotely a sufficient reason for Brexit.)

Behind immigration lies the identity politics, aligned with nation and race and social group, which we should be fighting every step of the way. Espouse patriotism not separatism. Patriotism based upon British values of openness, tolerance, free speech – and a tradition of welcoming strangers, bringing them into the fold, and letting them benefit our life and culture – blending in as countless immigrants have done before. Likewise refugees – there are limits of course, but our first instinct must be to welcome.

Related to this, the argument that British, the U.K., England, isn’t the country it used to be. The old generational cri de coeur. True, the pace is faster, and the landscape much impaired. But there have been many radical improvements, too easily discounted. As for the negatives –  the EU takes the rap. I may personally be in the old codger bracket, but I’m with the younger, pro-EU generation.

There’s a mood out there, encouraged by the right-wing press, and played along with by the BBC, that somehow it will all work out. In Philip Hammond’s words, there will be bumps in the road. There’s another much more likely scenario where we find ourselves out on a limb, with an agreement which is dictated to us, and which we accept out of necessity. The economic auguries are not good. Put simply, a crisis awaits us.

There is so much else that matters out there in the world which we were just about facing up to, and they’re now on the back burner in terms of government and public attention. Global challenges, new technologies, fundamental changes in our working lives. At home, infrastructure, the NHS – requiring focus and funding when attention is elsewhere.

We have a hugely inflated view of our presence and reputation in the world. We embody as a nation tolerance, free speech, we pioneered modern representative democracy, the world plays many major sports by rules we laid down. But this is Britain as was. Our current behaviour simply alienates.

To end, two further points –

I’ve mentioned openness above. We have always been open to the world, and the danger now is that we shut ourselves off. Look to the past. Seek one-off deals when others work together. Openness is state of mind, and in an atmosphere of fear and apprehension, in great part built up by the media, it is now challenged as never before in my lifetime.

In direct contradiction to Theresa May’s comments, whether we like it or not we are citizens of the world, citizens, along with all our neighbours, of Europe, and citizens of the U.K. My patriotism is undiminished, I’m British to my last breath, but I also share a common humanity  with every man and woman on the planet.

And finally – never imagine that the change you wish for works out as you anticipate.  It will not, and never has. Gut instinct will never provide. A wing and a prayer will never suffice.

I remember one egregiously daft piece imagining a post-Brexit Britain in 2025 by Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph. It was the stuff of dreams, and typified the dream world in which Brexiters exist.

Now isn’t the time to buckle under.

Taking time off from Brexit

I’ve written a lot about the referendum and Brexit in this blog. It is after all a blog with ‘politics’ in the title. But we’re all tired of reading analyses of one kind or another, about hard and soft Brexit, free trade and customs unions, the democratic deficit, immigration levels and the like.

And I want to get back to writing on other subjects, could be political, but just not Brexit, chill out, write poetry, seeking out high mountain or deep country retreats – or more prosaically, just get on with ordinary life.

That said, I’m not signing off without one last submission! With a focus on the action – the actions – we should be taking.

There’s a sense at the moment that events are running away from us. We’re anticipating dire consequences from the Brexit vote – but that means we’re looking out for those consequences – almost willing them – to prove ourselves right. And that’s no place to be.

A sense that more than ever in my lifetime we are headed in the wrong direction, and led by the wrong people – amateurs in a ruthless world. Rarely has hope – false hope – so triumphed over pragmatism.

Nor should we forget anger. Anger over the simple mendacity of many in the Leave campaign. But also over our own foolishness for not seeing it coming, for not realising the potential for a protest vote – and not understanding earlier why that protest vote might happen.

We now need to take action, to build up and sustain pressure – working with others, as part of campaigning groups, as supporter/members of the pressure groups, or pro-EU political parties – the Lib Dems, or an actively opposing opposition, as I hope Labour will become after the September leadership election. (It may be another kind of Labour, a breakaway or a reborn Labour, as it needs to be if it’s to regain support among the old blue-collar, working-class vote.)

‘Actions’ in italics.

All the while we have to keep that open and open-market, European, international, global perspective. International agreements by continent or wider are a much more effective, more reliable way forward than agreements at a single country level. (Which isn’t to say we should be immediately signing up to TTIP!) Europe is also an attitude of mind, relating back to how we connect with the world.

But – don’t so much shout in from the roof-tops, develop a wider, quieter strategy, but one that’s no less determined. There was too much shouting during the referendum campaign.

And too little awareness – now I hope radically changed for everyone on the Remain side – of economic and social and political realities, too little awareness of what life is really like beyond city borders – the sense of a government that doesn’t listen, the decline in prosperity and pride in traditional working-class areas, and the hostility and alienation felt even in prosperous Tory outer suburbia. If immigrants bring increasing wealth to the country, where is the infrastructure, the investment in the NHS and schools? If industries close down, where are not just the re-training packages but the industries, the services, the actual physical jobs to allow people to re-engage with society?

We may find we’ve common ground with Brexiters here – arguing for (sensible, nationwide – not HS2) infrastructure and investment.

Cameron and Osborne all but turned their backs on the problem. Inadequate re-training, and little sense of a wider industrial strategy. The irony is that it’s now the Brexiters, the old-style grumbling Tories of the shires who have to take action, when it’s just they who have been happy to turn their backs on run-down, de-industrialised areas in the past.

There are critical procedural considerations – how we can best secure votes in parliament before before Article 50 is invoked, and likewise on the results of negotiations, if we get that far. And how we can make certain we win those votes, should they happen. In the first instance – by supporting individual MPs, think tanks, pressure groups – and political parties, Labour I hope as well as the LibDems. 

God knows how the immigration debate will play out over time. Business and the NHS and social care depend on immigrants, and if the economy expands, and the NHS and social care improve their services, we will require continuing high levels of immigration. If we’re to stand a chance of retaining a sane immigration strategy it will need some radically re-thinking at an EU level – which we must argue for.

The sovereignty debate is one where opinion if it changes will only do so over time. It’s become confused with national identity, and too many people have argued that British and European identities are not compatible. The EU has to a great extent only itself to blame. It has now to show, and we have to argue hard for, a radically improved awareness of national concerns and susceptibilities. It will go to the wall, and one country after another will exit, if it doesn’t. Federalism must be put out to the very longest grass .

And that, for now, is it on the subject of Brexit!!

Zenpolitics, and the world, six years on

It’s not a bad idea in these tortured times to remind myself why I began this blog. ‘What is zenpolitics,’ I asked. My answer? ‘Taking the trash and hyperbole out of politics and trying to look at people and issues in a way that’s detached from emotion and as they really are.’

Six years now since I wrote that, and it’s even harder now. The Brexit campaign has focused all the uncertainty in British politics but instead of providing resolution has brought animosity, and potential chaos. Politics should always be about gradual not sudden change – not a thought everyone shares, I appreciate – it’s a subject for another time, another post.

But now we have an elephant in the room, as someone said. We are all obsessed and divided and old-style political discussion has gone out of the window. A good thing?

Referenda do damage, they polarise, the original subject of debate gets lost in hyperbole, in distortions, it too readily becomes a protest vote. They’re prey to propaganda, to manipulation. Referenda were a distant and unlikely possibility six years ago. Now they are subverting the parliamentary democracy which gives a forum for rational – and emotional – debate, which falls prey to all sorts of issues and irregularities, but nonetheless gives a sane and measured and balanced way forward.

In the US it’s no better, and potentially worse. US presidential elections reflect a traditional divide, they have a slow almost two-year (if not a four-year!) build up, and they are multi-issue. But this time it’s a protest vote, whipped up on the one side by special interests with vast amounts of advertising spend at their disposal, now turned on its head by Donald Trump, and on the other side by an equally disillusioned younger and streetwise population – both sides equally out of step with Washington politics. In the US and the UK vast numbers of people no longer feel a part of the traditional democratic process.

Behind all this are the challenges of globalisation and new technologies – the decline of traditional industries, a switch from a unified and organised and socially cohesive labour force to a fragmented and lower-paid workforce engaged in lower-paid service industries, influenced and exacerbated by massive trade imbalances with China – resulting in a growing divide between those who benefit from these changes, usually educated and skilled, and those who do not.

And out of this we have alienation, discontent – and, given a forum, we have protest. And we have the blind (and Tory economic policy under Osborne has to fit under that heading) who fail to see the

impact of that alienation, and how it has to be directly addressed. And the manipulators, who turn it to their own purposes – anti-immigrant sentiment, or neo-liberal economic agendas.

Blind – we’ve all been blind. Back to my original zenpolitics aspiration – ‘trying to look at people and politics… the way they really are’. More than ever that has to be the aspiration. And it’s now, with so much emotion and obsession, that much harder.

All the while, the other big issues haven’t gone away – the refugee crisis, Syria, IS. Population movements in Africa, where the population explosion is hitting hardest. Russia and Ukraine. China and the South China Sea. And suddenly, almost but not quite out of the blue, we have Turkey, an attempted coup, and a profoundly foolish but populist regime which will lead Turkey further down the road to either chaos or autocracy.

And here in the UK – we now obsess with Brexit, where the very best outcome will be that we achieve something close to our existing economic performance, and the worst – better not to contemplate.

There are bigger issues, much bigger issues, out there, and we have turned foolishly inward.

I wanted with zenpolitics to take the emotional out of politics. But we need emotion at times to drive the engagement we need to have to put our own world, here in the UK, back on to a saner track.

But above all we need to, and I repeat, ‘see things as they really are’. In a world of fractured and misleading debate that is a mighty challenge.

Three absurdities: 1) HS2

Back to politics, and avoiding the referendum:

HS2, the great white unwanted straight-line snake that will reduce journey times by a few minutes or an hour or by some other insignificant short and quite unnecessary time, when there’s always useful things to do on trains, and anyway

trains go to the centre of cities, and businesses unless they’re banks or headquarters don’t hang around in the centre of cities

and if they can have all the conferences and conversations they need in virtual or in e-mail form

Upgrade existing lines, improve the motorways, both are vital – but don’t cut mega-expensive swathes through the heart and soul of the country, and spend money so much better used elsewhere.

Infrastructure, Lord Adonis (infrastructure supremo), isn’t about the big gestures, it’s about Devon, and Cornwall, and Wales, Nottingham and Derby, and Norwich and Newcastle, it’s about all the ordinary towns, the ordinary places – not just the metropolises

Too late I fear on this one, the political parties have all closed in behind it, after initial doubts. I remember the Economist making the contra case, but they have gone quiet.

Realising that some battles are lost, I fear this one is.

The better side of business

Zenpolitics and enterprise. Bedfellows? I’ve two very different contributions to the subject.

One is inspirational, Vincent Kompany, the Manchester City and Belgian captain, writing on the subject of Shared Goals, in an interview with Matthew Taylor, in the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) magazine:

‘Too often we’re forced to make a choice between charity and business. Of course supporting charities is very important and there need to be dedicated areas for charities. But I think we need to close the gap between the two – entrepreneurial and charitable – because there is a huge middle ground there, where there are still a lot of projects worth bringing to completion, that are going to have huge long-term benefits for society.’

Referring specifically to football, he argues that it is ‘more and more… damaging for a brand to just be focused on profits without having a plan that can make other people benefit… One of the biggest examples to me of this is the pricing of a tickets in England…’

The other contribution – a recent House of Commons debate on the subject of tax. Tory MP Alan Duncan referred to people on the other side (meaning the Labour benches) who ‘hate enterprise’. Much of the rest of his speech was intemperate and best forgotten. His jibe begs the question – what do we mean by enterprise?

Vincent Kompany has a much better understanding than Alan Duncan, particularly if we note that Duncan’s comments were during a debate on tax havens.

We have one definition of enterprise – the pursuit of profit for its own sake.

And a second – enterprise which, to borrow Kompany’s words, closes the gap between ‘the entrepreneurial and the charitable’ – combining both a private and a public good. Capitalism drives the world economy, it’s high energy, and competitive – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Likewise football – high energy and competitive! Think last evening and Chelsea drawing with Spurs – arguably too competitive. Be that as it may, we need entrepreneurs who are aware of the social impact and benefit of what they do, at the same time as looking to make a profit for themselves. The best entrepreneurs will plough a lot of that profit back into the country, new ventures, charities, sport and other forms of social support.

Other definitions – social enterprise, cooperatives, on a small and a larger (John Lewis) scale. And there’s scope for enterprise in public services, though I wouldn’t argue for re-nationalisation. Public ownership and enterprise aren’t easy bedfellows.

And Buddhism? Buddhism is about letting go, curbing the acquisitive instinct, recognising the impermanence of everything in the world. Viewed another way – it’s about change, and that of course is exactly what enterprise has to be. And it’s about compassion – and we have Vincent Kompany’s comment that ‘we need to close the gap’ between the entrepreneurial and the charitable.

Change and progress and enterprise have always produced casualties, with the Victorian Poor Law and workhouses as the extreme examples. But link compassion and enterprise, bring the entrepreneurial and the charitable closer together – and we could make a different and a better world.

As Vincent Kompany suggests, this isn’t a utopian ideal, but something that can become part of business, already is for many – part, put simply, of the way we do things.

Why bother to vote?

My last post focused on which way to vote in the EU referendum. But there’s another concern, another issue – apathy. Why bother to vote? Could be indifference, or ‘a plague on all your houses’.

So – why vote?

There’s much wrong with the EU, much that needs reform, but what we do have is on the one hand a remarkable trading bloc, an open market which in all previous ages would have been inconceivable.

(By way of contrast, there’s a hard left faction in the National Union of Teachers which views the EU as part of vast capitalist conspiracy: for them the plague is all-encompassing and they’re voting to leave.)

And on the other we have a common European mentality, a sense of a common European heritage. It’s not just a British heritage but a European heritage that we – as seen by non-Europeans – present to the world.

Is that a small achievement?

We have 28 countries all working together, with many a disharmony – as you’d expect – but still working together. I think it’s remarkable. Don’t take it for granted. It didn’t just happen.

One market with its four freedoms – free movement of goods, capital, services and people – requires the same trading conditions, across the continent, and agreement has not been easily negotiated or easily won. Europe – the EU – is unique in world history – nations finding a remarkable level of common ground, and working together, and presenting one face to the world – not just a trading bloc but an exemplar to the world of cooperation, decency and integrity – a collective advocate of social justice and equal rights – a model for the world of how a continent can put past enmities behind it.

I hope and pray we don’t have the too-easy cop-out of a ‘plague on all your houses’ influencing the vote on 23rd June. Yes, there’s much wrong with Europe, with the EU. But we should be working to put it right, to make it function in the interest of all Europeans.

By that I mean public servants, children, teachers, private sector employers and employees, professionals, artists, musicians, charity workers, the retired, the unemployed, the disadvantaged, immigrants – and those who feel their lives are threatened by immigration.

All Europeans – anything less than that and we will continue with the same problems, the same tensions we have now.

The Foreign Secretary wobbles …

One final post before I put this blog to rest for a week or two – I’ll be on a retreat and, I trust, out of touch with the world!

My starting point this time: Bronwen Maddox’s interview (before an audience of 250 within the Foreign Office) with Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, in the March edition of Prospect.  Richard Dawkins was, curiously, in the audience. Not always a favourite – his views on religion aren’t mine (though I read his books!) but on this occasion he pinned Hammond beautifully.

Dawkins: “On something as important as Europe why hand it over to the British people.’ (How tongue in cheek that was I don’t know.)

Hammond: ‘There speaks a true democrat – too important for the people to decide.’

Dawkins: ‘We have a representative democracy – we want politicians to make judgements on our behalf.’

And that is indeed how we avoid the excesses of populism, and rule by the popular press and an unaccountable media. Referenda are dangerous instruments: the ‘popular will’ is a fickle thing, easily roused by rabble-rousers, and the damage once done hard to put right.

Hammond, justifying his position on Europe, then commented: “What’s gone wrong is very simple. The economic benefits haven’t been materialising for Britain, so many people feel that the dynamism and entrepreneurialism of our economy has been held back by the dead hand of Brussels bureaucracy.”

Does he really believe this? To quote an article elsewhere in Prospect (by Springford and Tilford), “there is next to no evidence that EU membership is a significant constraint on the supply-side of the UK economy. For example, according to the OECD, Britain’s markets for goods and services are the second least regulated in the world.”

If we’re not reaching markets – and that is especially true  compared to our European neighbours in countries outside the EU – it isn’t the EU’s fault.

Look elsewhere, Philip, and you might begin to do your job encouraging British firms to get stuck into markets round the world.

(It’s interesting to speculate on why British firms do underperform outside Europe. Two related suggestions: the size of our domestic market, and more broadly the English-language market, so there isn’t the same urgency there is for others; and a certain discomfort dealing with other countries and other languages. The world dominance of English may actually count against us.)