The story so far – fifteen months on the disaster trail

The shadow over politics, the Brexit shadow, is one vast distraction. I feel I have to escape the shadow before I address other political subjects. But those other subjects – they’re all impacted in some way by Brexit, not least by the uncertainty associated with Brexit.

Take the environment, for example. UK environmental law is tied into European. Projects are EU-financed, standards, ideals, aspirations are shared. I remember at Finistera, at the end of the Camino, last autumn, noting how environment projects there were funded by the EU. I’d shared the Camino with many nations, and I loved that confirmation that many nations shared those standards, lived by a common framework. We know that Brexit free-traders cosy up to climate-change deniers, are casual about man-made changes to the environment – human ingenuity, they argue, has coped, and will always cope. All hinges on that one word ‘cope’.  Does the world we have around us, and that we’re projecting for our futures, mean that we’ve ‘coped’?

Human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights, which followed on from the UN Convention, and unlike the UN Convention is legally enforceable. Before the European courts. So for that reason we should exit it, according to Theresa May. As Philippe Sands (author of the remarkable East-West Street) pointed out when talking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last Sunday, more than any other country we – the UK – gave Europe the convention. It was a British inspiration. Hersch Lauterpacht, who pioneered so much (beginning life in Lviv, in modern Ukraine: he left in the 1920s, his family were wiped out in the holocaust), was latterly a Cambridge professor.

Farming policy: how will policy change, how will farmers be financed, once we exit the EU, and exit the Common Agricultural Policy? CAP funding is based primarily on the amount of land farmed , so big farmers (mostly Tory supporters) benefit most. On the other hand, to quote a Scottish hill-farmer in a Reuters report: ‘The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers but brought a good deal for us as well.’ Post-Brexit, where will the money be directed? We are promised ‘a major policy overhaul’. Will the acreage farmed continue to dictate funding?  How might our landscapes change? Will the much-hyped new trade deals bring in cheaper farm imports , with knock-on effects on farm prices – other farming countries have more clout than we do. And what of cheap farm labour from Eastern Europe?  Michael Gove wants to prioritise the environment in any new scheme. But we’ve no idea how that will work out in practice, and legislation will be fast-tracked through parliament – fundamental changes pushed through with minimal public debate.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival has brought to the town an impressive range of politicians, journalists, singers (Peggy Seeger), mountaineers (Chris Bonington), sportsmen (Mike Brearley, Jonny Bairstow), TV stars, performers, poets, novelists….

Among the politicians was Chris Patten. I’ll leave his words to speak for themselves.

Referenda ‘are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them’. (I can’t recall Patten’s exact words in Cheltenham – I’m quoting from another interview he gave.) Leavers in the Brexit campaign peddled a dubious notion of sovereignty (‘dubious’ was his polite word in Cheltenham – I see that elsewhere he’s spoken of ‘all this ideological crap about sovereignty and taking back control’). Brexit itself is ‘the single most calamitous act of self-harm in my lifetime’.

Philippe Sands, also at Cheltenham, put the remarkable achievement that the EU represents in the context of the preceding centuries of war. How casual can we be to turn our backs? He mentioned that Boris Johnson has been a friend for thirty years. How, he wondered, do you sustain such friendships in present times? Brexit has brought the obsessive tendencies of the further reaches of the Right, and Left, to centre stage. The centre ground of rational idea-based, truth-invigilated debate, is out of fashion.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, has written a novel. He and Vince Cable, also a new novelist, were a Cheltenham double-act. Boris’s novel assumes a Russian plot behind Brexit, enough to bring Brexit down. But he himself has changed sides from EU-supporting environmentalist to that contradiction in terms, a Brexit-supporting environmentalist.

Vince Cable outlined how higher education, the number of foreign students in the UK, intra-university cooperation across Europe were being threatened by Brexit. Stanley’s response, ‘Vince may be right, but he may not be.’ That was the limit of his response.

‘He may not be’ – that is standard Brexit-speak. You don’t need to address the detailed argument. It’s enough to suggest these days that’s there’s another point of view, however weak. And that point of view gets equal billing. The climate-change debate over again.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, is a one-time Remainer, now a Leaver – the damage, he suggests, to the economy that leaving was supposed to cause hasn’t happened. Is he now a convert to the hard-Brexit free-traders’ prognosis of a free-trade nirvana which will somehow subvert a world where protectionism and self interest are ever more asserting themselves? Or the Hammond soft version?

As the economy,  we haven’t left yet, we’re in a phoney-war period, a state of suspended grace which might just allow us to pull back from the brink – but the brink is too enticing. That itself is another aspect of Brexit – how supposed conservatives, the slow and steady incremental movers of politics, overnight become practitioners of brinkmanship.

Brexit is not only a bizarre course in terms of the economy, it is extraordinarily damaging to the democratic process, not just by giving referenda precedence over parliamentary democracy (so we have the question, can an act of parliament over-ride a referendum result – where does sovereignty lie?) but by polarising debate, taking out the common ground that most of the Right and Left shared until 2015.

Not only is the common ground not shared – it’s now scorned. So the John Majors, Chris Pattens, Nick Cleggs – they are old-school, flag-wavers of a different age. That would apply to me, and to most of my peers …

 

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.

‘The normal parameters’

“I am endorsing Hillary. And all her lies and all her empty promises. I am endorsing Hillary. The second worst thing that could happen to this country. But she’s way behind in second place, you know? She’s wrong about absolutely everything – but she’s wrong within normal parameters.”

We enjoyed PJ O’Rourke at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Serious, yes, but with a sense of the absurd which gets to the heart of things. There’s no-one else like him. (He’s a great fan on Jon Stewart, on the other side of the political spectrum.)

Who else is out there beyond Trump, beyond the normal parameters? A serious party game – where protagonists just might come to blows.

Thinking of the UK.

Farage, or farrago, as my spellcheck would have it, of course: he like Trump claims to be within boundaries. He’s fooled a good few people. But closet racism, and recent support for Trump, place him firmly outside.

Corbyn, with his past support for elective dictatorships like the Chavez regime, and backing from trade unions who muddle the pursuit of workers’ rights with political agendas from another era – likewise.

Sections of the Tory party, the libertarian Davies and Fox wing, are on the parameter edge, and should never ever be near positions of powers, let alone dictating.

O’Rourke takes inspiration from Hayek, and avows a small government, minimal intervention agenda. That’s firmly within. We’ve been battling in the UK and USA between big and small government for decades – and that’s the way debate should be.

*

Read on for O’Rourke on Brexit.

He recounted interviews he did for an American public radio programme: he’d set out to understand why Brits voted for Brexit. He quoted a ‘financier’ who argued that the euro and probably the EU was going down the tube sooner rather than later, so best get out now. (To which the obvious reply is – we’ll be hit amidships anyway, and immeasurably better to be in there, influencing proceedings.)

And a more cogent argument – this is no longer the country we grew up in. The older generation’s lament. It isn’t the same country of course, and it’s the same for every generation. The sanity of representative democracy normally allows us trade-offs between young and old, and we move forward, an erratic progress maybe, but progress nonetheless. But not when you chuck a referendum into the mix.

Not a point that O’Rourke made, but a US presidential election has some of the characteristics of a referendum, in the sense of the media blitz and the half-truths, and this time the blatant untruths. But running in parallel are the Congressional elections. There’s balance in the US political system (which sure as hell isn’t perfect!), which brings politics back closer to the centre, where both sides have their say, and policy evolves out of a rough consensus – policies and programmes balancing out over time.

(At least, there was a balance, before Tea Party, and Cruz, and acolytes, and now Trump, came along.)

But referendums on their own – overriding representative, parliamentary democracy… that’s another story.

‘Normal parameters.’ Depart too far, allow prejudice and ideology to take centre stage, and the damage could be irreparable.

 

A story about lemmings 

Hard to post anything on the subject of Brexit. Zenpolitics has been quiet for a while. The level of absurdity is too high. Talk of hard or soft as the only alternatives. Business, scientists, economists, all against. Incredulity that it could get this far.

Martin Wolf, in the FT, argues that we’re underperforming against our European partners of similar size, whether we look at increases in GDP, exports or productivity, proof surely that it’s not European regulation that holds us back but something more deep-rooted in British attitudes and industry – attitudes to the wider world, an over-focus on our home territory.

Jeremy Warner in the Telegraph recognises the same infirmities, but imagines that Brexit will somehow shake industry up, that it’s the EU that’s holding us back. Industry needs the shock: the mechanism by which the shock transforms isn’t mentioned.

Divorce is a shock, relationships are soured, couples don’t normally get back together. Could ‘just good friends’ ever be enough?

Companies having to divulge the number of foreign workers, as if by doing so they’d take on any more British workers. (It seems this may not now happen, a step too far, but other measures with the same intent remain under discussion.) A Home Secretary whose past record suggest she knows better, but who falls into line.

And so to the Tory party conference, an assembly of lemmings gleefully finding a cliff and looking to leap over, some in hope of a soft landing, others unconcerned if it’s hard. Maybe a few of the soft landers will live. Maybe not. Theresa May, our turncoat (loyalty to Cameron? closet believer in Brexit all along? serving her own ambitions?) PM, admits there will be bumps in the road. Some road.

The whole process is deeply unedifying. Once the Tories were split between supporters and opponents of the EU. Now the supporters are cowed, MPs looking to save their seats. Defying the logic of history and events. Falling in behind an anti-immigration agenda. Playing along with the racists closet or otherwise in their number. There’s a cowardice, a self-serving mentality about it all. They and we will look back in shame on this example of how mass hysteria can take over a political party. On a press which soaks it all up, and reflects it all back.

As a country we are bigger and better than all this. But Labour is obsessed by internal wranglings, old obsessive loyalties clouding the minds of those who ought to be out there, strident in their arguments. Anti-establishment loyalties on the left encompass the EU as well – anti-capitalist means anti-EU. We turn inward, pay heed to ideologies of left and right, we shuffle nervously, and accept ‘it’s going to happen’. Let Brexit take its course. We will get on with our lives. Phoney war. Nothing’s happening now. The stock exchange is buzzing with revenues taken in a depreciated currency. Because nothing is happening now a hazy logic suggests nothing ever will.

God help us all.

Junk food wins the day

Environmental regulations are under threat, and the funding of scientific research (despite government protestations) is threatened.

But at this stage they are concerns, not as yet actualities.

We now have an actuality – the scrapping of tough new measures to combat obesity proposed by health secretary, Jeremy Hunt. We’re left with a sugar tax and a plan to encourage primary school children to do at least one hour’s exercise a day, which is merely repeating exhortations made over the last twenty years, which have come to little. And what have we lost? Two specific items:

#  Restrictions on two-for-one offers on junk food – 40% of the food we buy is bought on promotion. So it’s hardly surprising that cash-strapped families buy junk food – and suffer the consequences. (The chair of the Commons’ health select committee refers to ‘the burning issue of health inequality.’ Money can’t buy you love but it can buy you health.) Two-for-one offers on perishable foods are also an major cause of the appalling scourge of food waste.

# Restrictions on the advertising of high-sugar foods, with celebrities no longer employed to sell them.

We’re left with a challenge to food companies ‘to reduce overall sugar across a range of products… by at least 20% by 2020.’ The best way to make progress we’re told is government working in partnership with industry on a voluntary basis. Given ‘progress’ to date, I am profoundly cynical.

The Times reports that Downing Street ‘doesn’t want to burden the food industry as the economy falters.’ I can’t imagine that there would be many job losses – consumers would switch to other products. There’s another agenda – a small-state anti-regulation agenda – operating behind this, the more doctrinaire element of the Tory right asserting itself, at the expense of a clearly defined and enforceable national health agenda. Note also the phrase ‘as the economy falters’ – and whose responsibility is that, I wonder?

And finally, we have the Department of Health justifying the emasculation of its earlier proposals: ‘we are confident that our approach will rescue childhood obesity while respecting consumer choice, economic realities and, ultimately, our need to eat.’ [My italics.]

No-one, I should add, is underestimating the role parents, and schools, have to play in combating obesity in children, but it is a responsibility they share with government and the food industry, and if the government and the food industry rely on platitudes what chance do we have of really engaging with parents (I know how hard many schools already try), and getting them on board?

Woolly journalism

There is too much woolly talk and poor journalism on the subject of Brexit. Too many people asserting that one referendum vote is enough – enough to turn history on its head. One moment in time – and we have a paradigm shift.

An example was on Radio 4’s The Long View, with Jonathan Freedland, this morning (1st August). I missed much of it, so if I do it an injustice I apologise. One of the contributors recognised that the way the country is split is a big issue – with big Remain majorities among the young, the educated, and city dwellers.

But another suggested that academics (I think we’d consider them educated) were horrified because, whereas elections over the years had been squabbles between right and left, now their own personal interests were affected. The suggestion being that their opposition was self-interested and self-indulgent. But – they, the academics, know – and I know – and my friends know – and a few million others out there – we all know – that our concerns lie at a deeper level – about a way of looking at the world, with an open not a closed mind – about being European and internationalist – taking a positive rather than a cynical view of the world – looking to the future with optimism. (It’s there writ large in the comparison between all the enthusiasm and aspiration of the Democratic convention last week, and the negativity of the Republican convention the week before.)

The programme enlisted Diarmaid MacCulloch, Oxford historian, to make a ‘long view’ comparison between Henry VIII’s break with Rome and Brexit. It took a long time for the implications of that break to work through the country, to rework the fabric, to change irrevocably beliefs and practices – twenty years, forty – and longer. Could we be in for something similar this time – a slow, gradual, inexorable change to a different view of the world – to a different world?

To my mind the very notion that there’s a comparison is absurd. I’d agree that Henry’s decision was pretty arbitrary, a whim, the result of an obsession, influenced by a (un)favourable reforming wind from the continent, and an executor and manipulator in chief who knew how to execute (too literally) and manipulate – yes, maybe we can have fun drawing comparisons. But that there are any real searching comparisons with any relevance for our time – that’s a load of baloney.

A 52:48 vote in favour of an ill-thought through proposition based on misleading and sometimes mendacious arguments does not represent a paradigm shift.

As another example of bad journalism we have Ed Conway in The Times. (I’m relying here on a summary of his article in The Week).

The wider world is all too keen in Conway’s view to blame the world’s problems on the Brexit: ‘Britain’s great gift to the world: a giant pre-cooked excuse for absolutely everything.’ That’s nonsense, he says. We’d all agree. And it’s not of course what the wider world is saying. Brexit is, however, part of a big picture that the wider world does find worrying.

For Conway the problems in the world economy have been ‘baked into the system’ for some time. To be specific: unemployment rates, productivity, demand. But it’s been ‘easier to blame (problems) on Brexit’.

Arguing from one dubious proposition to another, he goes on to suggest that ‘if anything Brexit presents an opportunity’. ‘For years G20 members have been paralysed in the face of a global showdown. If Brexit provides an excuse for tackling this by spending more on infrastructure, tearing down regulations, printing more money, so much the better’.

An excuse to spend – to spend our way out of a crisis. Brexit it seems could be an excuse for throwing caution to the winds. More an argument I associate with the Corbynite left.

There are good arguments for increased spending on infrastructure, and there’s a debate about whether a further dose of QE would be helpful. But that debate should have nothing to do with Brexit. Unless it is – as this is how I’d construe Conway’s argument – we spend and print money out of desperation following a post-Brexit slump in economic performance and confidence.

I started with The Long View, and a massive non-sequitur – Henry VIII and Brexit. And I’m ending with another – Brexit and global economic reform.

The pre-referendum debate was characterised by wild assertions and woolly thinking. The post-referendum ‘debate’ is sadly no better.

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.