How many more crisis votes will there be?

More votes last night. Arguing as ever on the wrong territory.

The argument should not be, in any sane polity, ‘should we be part of the EU’, but what form that participation should take. Any organisation pulling together states with disparate backgrounds but shared interests will always be, in one regard or another, close to crisis, but likewise, always be looking to reform and develop itself. The EU is an ongoing project.

The UK is aiming to put ourselves outside that process. Without any other body with whom we could engage, which could act as a substitute. Not the old Commonwealth, or (God forbid) the USA. And at a time when ‘a new pattern in world commerce is becoming clearer’ (The Economist).

A key aspect of the slowdown (‘cross-border investment, trade, bank loans and supply chains have all be shrinking or stagnating relative to world GDP’) over the last ten years in globalisation is the increasing focus on more regionally focused trade, as wages rise and market size increases in developing countries. (‘Supply chains are focusing closer to home.’) Containerisation brought about a radical reduction in transportation costs, but that was effectively a one-off. Distance adds cost, and takes out of the equation just-in-time availability. Brexit is intended to take us in the diametrically opposite direction, trading with more distant, less reliable partners, over long distances with slower supply chains, and at the same time putting up barriers and souring relationships with our local hitherto partners.

And so to yesterday’s series of votes in the House of Commons, where attempts to delay the Brexit process to allow parliament more time to discuss alternative options, to avoid a hard Brexit, were all voted down, and instead a Tory amendment passed, backing a renegotiated version of the agreement with the EU – a renegotiation of the Northern Ireland backstop, which the EU has made it abundantly clear it is not willing to renegotiate.

It is hoped – assumed – imagined – that the EU will cave in, wishing to avoid the damage that a hard Brexit would cause to the EU as well as the UK. Having seen that there is a majority in the UK parliament for some kind of an agreement, the EU would find a way to circumvent the Irish border issue. There is a reported lack of unanimity among the leaders of individual countries: true or not I can’t say. But if the continuance of an open border is crucial to the EU and specifically to Ireland, I (and the mass ranks of commentators out there) can’t see how there can be any agreement which fails to guarantee absolutely that an open border will remain in place indefinitely. There is a patent absurdity here.

I may be wrong – maybe the EU will find a way to trim and compromise, with a show of politeness, and withholding their scorn in any public utterances. One way or the other, we will be back again in the House of Commons in two weeks’ time, for more votes. The assumption must be that the May agreement would again be voted on,  unchanged, in its current unamended form, and again be thrown out. Or May will pre-empt that by proposing some kind of Customs Union, backing down from one of her original red lines, those hostages to fortune she put up so foolishly shortly after she became prime minister.

She is meeting today with Jeremy Corbyn, who now says he is prepared to talk with her. Maybe he wants to explore how and when such a change of policy on the government’s part might occur, and in what circumstances the Labour Party, and Labour MPs, might support it. He will know now that he is not likely to bring the government down. When it comes to the crunch Tory MPs, even the moderates such as Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry, will always rally to the flag.

Being a Tory MP, which requires a certain mindset, local constituency alliances, and a habitual and habituated tolerance of local opinion, instils loyalties which will survive crisis and sometimes override what common sense dictates. (Labour loyalties also run deep, but aren’t so tribal.)

That’s my take on current events, on what will come out of last night’s more ordered than usual chaos.

I’ll be away in the Southern Hemisphere, far from the madding crowd, when the next vote, or series of votes, come around. There will probably be a snow-capped volcano on the other side of the lake when I draw back the curtain the morning after. They are always the best kind.

After the vote

The biggest defeat in recent parliamentary history, arguably of all time, 432 against and 202 for, margin 230. The PM resigns surely, given such a massive indication of disfavour? But she survives, and come a no-confidence vote her party falls in behind her. We have chaos.

Introduce a rogue element into any system and beware the consequences. The system, in this case parliamentary democracy, isn’t designed to cope with what we might call an externality – a referendum which claims to carry an authority greater than that of the body that authorised it. Beware what you give birth to.

If the rogue element was in any way workable on its own terms then, while the authority of parliament would be reduced, and that’s a serious issue in itself in these populist times, then chaos might be averted. But Brexit is inherently unworkable, as the last 2 ½ years have shown. The EU have conceded as much as they wish to, and will not concede more.

Given the current debacle we might have expected an end to wishful thinking but Mrs May will be back to the Commons with further proposals, all the while precluding the customs union which might open the door to an agreement with the EU. Brexit with a customs union would be no more than damage limitation – the country would be enfeebled, but it could be a way forward.

The only characteristic that is in any way noteworthy about Mrs May is her grim and dogged determination, unfazed by the discord and the harsh realities around her as she blunders on. Asserting that voting down her proposals would represent a serious threat to democracy, when she herself by her actions and words is compounding that threat, is a contradiction lost on her.

She has of course to deal with her own divided party. This is a further and unruly element in this unholy mix. She is looking for the route which will best bring her party in behind her, and making that her primary concern. As for her MPs, they carry a heavy responsibility for the mess we’re in.

Possible future scenarios are being and will be mapped out endlessly over the coming days and weeks. Surely, no ‘no-deal’, but who knows? A Norway-style agreement, which would take us back to the starting blocks? Extend the exit deadline under Article 50 beyond the 29th March? Is there any deal which would bring both the EU and the Tory lunatic fringe on board? If not, a second referendum? A bad idea in itself – never encourage referenda, of their nature pernicious to any well-functioning democracy. But if that is the only way out of this mess, that’s the route we’d have to take. On the understanding that it would be the last. But – what if the Remain side lose the vote? To what would we be committed then? Boris Johnson asserts that no deal is no more in the EU’s interest than ours. True, but that doesn’t mean, given internal politics and solidarity within the EU, that the UK would get any worthwhile concessions.

We skate on dangerous waters, in dangerous times.

Will parliament claw back control?

Two days from Tuesday’s crucial vote ….

It’s curious how the argument has become the legislature against the executive, parliament against Theresa May’s government’s Brexit agreement with the EU. I’m not a fan of historical parallels, but I’m reminded of Parliament before and during the time of the Civil War, clawing control away the monarchy, ensuring that the executive would be beholden to the legislature. The 1689 Bill of Rights enshrined this in statute. Only the government could originate legislation – but why put forward a bill if it was unlikely to get through parliament?

Three-line whips, control over the parliamentary timetable and the sheer bludgeoning effect of government have tilted the balance toward government in recent times. Time in the eyes of many for a re-balancing.

Why are we in this situation? Because of the natural tendency of the executive to arrogate power to itself. The referendum has brought arguments over what has been effectively a transfer of power to a head. The government has arrogated to itself a new power to be the guardian of ‘the will of the people’. While Charles 1st wasn’t too good at bringing ordinary folk over to his side, we’ve already a good few examples in other countries in our own time of noisy politicians with big ideas asserting the power of government, in the name of a people, of tradition, of race or nation, over a legislature.

I’ll say again what I’ve said before – we are a parliamentary democracy. It’s taken us almost eight hundred years, if we go back to Magna Carta, to reach this point. Ultimately the legislature has to call the tune – not a government arguing that a third-party, ‘the people’, ‘the will of the people’, has a prior claim. The will of the people – it may reflect, as the Brexit vote did, a groundswell of opinion, but fashioned too easily by others, not least the media, for their own ends.

And opinion can change. From one year to the next. All decisions of government need reversibility. That has to apply to referenda if they’re to have any legitimacy. Every government operating through parliament knows that it has not only to get its legislative programme through – it knows also that it will be held accountable, and everything could indeed be reversed, come the next election.

Government vs parliament. There has to be, in the name of good government, only one winner. And last Friday, yes, we do have to thank Mr Speaker for entering the lists, and allowIng a vote on an amendment which breaks with recent precedent and allows the House of Commons a much greater role in determining the parliamentary timetable.

We wait on Tuesday’s vote …

The Uncivil War (C4)

I watched Brexit: The Uncivil War on C4 (Channel 4) last night (7th January). My last post listed a few good reasons why we had to hang on in there in our opposition to leaving the EU. The C4 play takes us on to different territory. It’s not about the pros and cons of immigration, or sovereignty, or indeed about the EU. It’s about disruption, genius, the triumph of algorithms (or data analytics, to be more precise), and almost incidentally, but powerfully, about an underclass, shown here as middle class, which feels excluded and left behind. And it’s about Dominic Cummings.

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Benedict Cumberbatch is Dominic Cummings, mastermind of the Leave campaign, campaign director of Vote Leave. Cumberbatch is brilliant: totally credible, I was watching Cummings, not Cumberbatch.

Cummings is a disruptor, tired of the old political set-up, loathing politicians, initially reluctant to get involved. He sees an opportunity and shows up the old guard, the twerp Bernard Jenkins and naïve Daniel Hannon, the out-of-his-depth Douglas Carswell, up as servants of the system – different chapters, the same old book. Arron Banks and Nigel Farage come off even worse, as drunken play-acting old fools. (Hard to say it, but the real Farage probably has more integrity than the wastrel depicted here.) There had to be a link between Cummings and the establishment, and that’s lobbyist Matthew Elliott, a man with the ability to muddle along with both sides.

Cummings is waging war, in his terms Dionysian, irrational, emotional, pitched again Apollonian reason and prudence, and bugger the consequences. As he explains to a committee of investigation set up in 2020 (yes, 2020) to no doubt get to the bottom of the whole charade, the means justified the end.

Explains also to Craig Oliver, Cameron’s director of communications, leading the Remain campaign, played with sanity and good humour by Rory Kinnear (an overly-kind depiction, I’ve heard argued). The two men face each other on opposite platforms of a tube station after missing both their trains (symbolic of course), and head off for a pint together. Oliver suggests Cummings should beware of what he’s unleashed (‘I’m worried that we won’t be able to heal’), and Cummings more or less shrugs. They also compare notes on their children – Oliver’s three girls, Cummings’ as yet unborn.

Cummings has a bedroom scene, with his pregnant wife. Oliver a kitchen scene, where he’s taking a conference call with Cameron and Peter Mandelson (which I understand never happened), and feeding four children at the same time. Writer James Graham allows them a degree of ordinary humanity.

Cummings’ masterstroke is to employ AggregateIQ to help him identify potential Leave voters: they identify three million, all of whom they can individually targeted – with over one billion messages during the campaign. Leave immigration to the Ukippers, their supporters are in the bag anyway. Use focus groups to identify the people who really matter: the vast numbers Brexit brought to the fore whom politicians and the media and the big cities had forgotten, and the issues which matter to them.

Cummings didn’t offer, and indeed Gove and Johnson didn’t when they came on board (they’re portrayed as all but prisoners of Cummings’ campaign), any policies, but he set up the enemy, a convenient enemy, the EU, and gave Vote Leave a slogan, initially ‘Take control’, and then, a stroke of genius, adding ‘back’ – ‘Take back control’. He didn’t worry about putting the £350 million a week NHS bus on the road: even Boris couldn’t justify it – but Cummings had made it a fact of life. And Turkey, all 70 million Turks, waiting to head for the UK once Turkey joined the EU. He didn’t need to get into the detail of immigrants scrounging welfare (when they were in fact net contributors through the taxes they paid). Turkey got the immigrant message across.

We are drawn in, initially, to thinking that this a pro-Leave drama, and by the end we know it’s anything but. Leave.UK, the Farage crowd, drew on data supplied by Cambridge Analytica. Cummings worked closely with AggregateIQ. Both organisations were funded by Robert Mercer, also the largest single contributor to the Trump campaign – so the rolling credits tell us.

Probably the only group who come through unscathed are the Leave voters themselves. Leave-supporting politicians are serving their own interests. Cummings is on his own big trip. The system operates for others, and not for the voters. It’s not a matter of age, but of their being the outer suburbanites, the out-west and up-northers, the non-city, non-metropolitan types. No-one had thought to include them in debates, or even to listen to them. There’s a memorable focus group scene where two women, one black, one white, argue – the white woman being accused of racism, and then breaking down in tears – she sees herself not the black woman as the outsider.

No politician escapes. (Cameron half survives, only because he’s not given a part. He’s off-stage, occasionally on film. Reduced to a cypher, appropriately.) They are self-serving, tied to old and failed ways of operating. Creative destruction is the means by which Cummings hopes to bring them down. By the morning of 24th June 2016 we get the impression that he’s realised what he’s done. It’s as if he hadn’t really wanted to win. Others celebrate, he doesn’t. It’s as if he already knows that he’s helped seed divisions that will take years if not generations to heal.

There can be no compromise

The Financial Times recently headlined warnings from leading economists about the dangers of Brexit. I expected something more forthright when I read the article. They were hedging their bets, not, I imagine, wishing to be caught out when things do not work out quite as they forecast.

The muddle-through-to-a-glorious-future approach has few supporters among economists. But simply muddling through, without the expectation of any glorious future, seems to be a currency shared by many among both economists and the wider population.

For me, and millions like me, opposition goes much deeper, and in the event of any kind of Brexit our opposition to a departure from the EU will remain as virulent as now, until such time as circumstances oblige us to re-establish the connection we have so rashly thrown overboard.

For reasons, as I see them, read on. Feel free to add, or subtract.

historical (1): fly solo at your peril, build don’t tear down alliances – never over-estimate your power or position in the world, or assume that past prestige guarantees future influence – never draw empty parallels, one example being the specious argument that the UK leaving the EU is a re-run of England versus Rome in the 1530s;

historical (2): the bond created over seventy years of peace and cooperation since World War Two isn’t one to be lightly set aside;

political: it may or may not be that, under Trump, a transactional, case-by-case approach to policy will work for the USA, but a smaller country, and the UK is a smaller country, holds few cards – self-interest not charity among partner countries will always prevail – negotiations involve unpalatable trade-offs, a blank slate is no place to start – always build from strong foundations, with plans in place for all eventualities – bluster is no substitute for hard graft;

economic: on what basis could we ever assume that the EU would agree that we can take out (i.e. trade) we do now, without putting back (financially and in other respects) at a level comparable to current levels? – that we can somehow reverse gravity theory and its thesis that our closest neighbours are our best and favoured trading partners? –  that the theory of comparative advantage, whereby we all specialise in those areas where we have advantages not shared by others, could ever deliver other than diminished returns and destruction of existing industries, not least because we would be inviting in tariff-free products from a world which is unlikely to reciprocate?;

philosophical: for many a vote for Brexit was simply a vote for change, a plague on all your houses, but change rarely delivers what we expect, and that applies especially to change as little planned and falsely argued as Brexit – the frequently peddled and spurious notion that there is some kind of a contract between government and governed, which begs the question of what’s in the contract, who wrote it, and who are the ‘people’ – how democracy functions is a fundamental question, see next item, and flawed concepts do not help;

democratic: decisions must be reversible, and are best handled by elected and representative assemblies, referenda being the favoured tool of those who wish to bribe and manipulate, or as happened in the Brexit vote promote a specious ‘free trade’ agenda on the back of hyped-up panic about immigration, that of itself an example of how a critical issue can be radically mis-represented;

humane: rules and regulations exist to protect the working population, not as some would have it for their own sake, and future trade deals will allow minimal change from what we have already have;

humanitarian: we are all citizens of the world, as well as the UK and Europe, by definition, a simple and to my mind ontological truth – what we can bring to the world, not how best we can hide behind borders, should be our focus, and we can drive that worldwide agenda far better through the EU;

environmental: as ‘humanitarian’ above, working together with people in other countries, pushing a climate change agenda, exercising influence on the US and China which we could never do on our own;

judicial: the rule of law must always be above politics, a notion that has been unwisely challenged in some quarters;

sovereignty: we have greater sovereignty as part of a wider body wielding influence in a US/China/EU dominated world, than a supposedly greater say on our own – ‘taking back control’ is a fiction whereby we lose much more than we gain;

demographic: where comes our uniqueness as a nation: from closed borders, from excluding foreigners? – the opposite has always been, and should always be, the case;

influence: why leave the forum through which are influence has been most effectively spread and felt around the world in recent times? – any more than we should leave the United Nations on the grounds of poor performance – we will effect change by working on the inside, rather than gesture politics on the outside;

reform: expanding on the idea of influence, there are vast issues out there in the world which British pragmatism and ingenuity can help solve, but we will do that as insiders, pulling levers, arguing in corners, never by grand-standing;

pragmatism: implicit in all the above, but worth separating out – pragmatism is what has always defined us as a nation, which is why so many beyond these shores are astonished to see so many in our land practising the politics of division – and badmouthing the institution with which they’re negotiating, and yet anticipating a happy outcome … curious indeed;

reputation: why be taken as fools, as we are being already, and risk being taken as greater fools, with our new friends the Republican right, the supporters of Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy….

The flag of St George turned into a jingoistic banner cannot be the way forward for this country (for sure, it can’t be for Scotland, or for Northern Ireland, and, despite a majority voting for Brexit, for the population of Wales). With sanity and pragmatism we can avoid fracture now, not least territorial. Without it the battle-lines will remain, and skirmishes and worse continue, for many years to come.

Where are we now? – the day of a no-confidence vote in Theresa May

Anyone who wants a day-by-day and blow-by-blow of politics will have been disappointed in recent times by this blog. Others are better qualified than I am to debate the Northern Irish backstop. But if only for the record I thought I’d put down a few comments, on Ireland and a few other Brexit issues.

Tonight at 6pm there will be a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister. It looks like she will win, but the legacy can only be a yet more divided party. What a frightful, appalling mess – and only one aspect, a passing moment, in a much bigger crisis.

The no-confidence vote follows only two days after Theresa May’s decision to postpone the parliamentary vote on her agreement with the EU, on the basis that she would be seeking improvements specifically with regard to the backstop. That such a delay should be announced just a day to spare is outrageous in itself, and even more when one considers that the EU has asserted, and so too the different countries within the EU, that the agreement is the final wording. They have other issues they want to get on with. The UK has the status of an annoying distraction.

The politicians and pundits in the UK (think back to their pronouncements in 2016) who thought the EU would give way because it was in their economic self-interest to do so radically misunderstood how EU countries read the economic runes. And rather than helping pull Europe apart Brexit has brought other EU countries closer together.

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It’s curious how Tory Brexiteers failed to foresee the Irish difficulty (‘I believe that the land border with Ireland can remain as free-flowing after a Brexit vote as it is today,’ Theresa Villiers, former Northern Island Secretary, April 2016), or Brexit’s implications for the agreement – open borders between north and south were a cornerstone of the Good Friday agreement. (‘One key to the entire arrangement was the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that the European Union guaranteed.’)

We also have to consider the miserable shenanigans of the DUP, selling their vote to the government for money, advocating an impossible open-border Brexit while the province itself voted Remain.

Looking beyond, the Brexit vote marked out a pre-existing social divide, but prior to 2016 territories hadn’t been delineated, nor had the debate become entrenched and embittered. I accept the argument that the referendum gave Leavers a voice (though the EU was the wrong target). But Leave’s political and media advocates, before the vote and even more since, have turned a divide into a chasm unprecedented in British politics. And we have the curious argument that we should all now go along with Mrs May’s agreement because not to do so would tear the country apart, which would of course hand victory entirely to those who have feverishly fed the current tensions. Project Fear is now a taint attached even to the Governor of the Bank of England.

Hearing Brexit supporters on radio phone-ins brings home how much they’ve been gulled – for example, outside the EU we will be able to negotiate much better deals than anything the EU could. Statement of fact.

Back to Tory MPs’ no-confidence vote in Mrs May. Her opponents believe that one of their hardliners (‘free-traders’ being the false appellation they give themselves), Johnson, Raab or the like, will somehow be able to hammer out a new agreement, despite clear statements across the EU that what has been agreed is final. Or, alternatively, preside over a no-deal Brexit, which would of course create problems, but nothing that couldn’t be managed. They show little knowledge of the simple maxim that change rarely delivers the expected outcome, or indeed of chaos theory.

And on specifics – how weak the UK’s negotiation position outside the EU would be, how beholden to Trump, how our supposed gain in sovereignty would be matched by a far greater decline in influence, how a perceived glorious history is a dangerous chalice to drink from, how any kind of no-deal would devastate both our food exports and our food imports. Reading the Institute of Economic Affairs website is a useful experience.

Mrs Thatcher comes up in conversation. She saw referenda as tools of potential dictators. She was hostile to any kind of federated Europe, but well understood the economic benefits of a Europe-wide market for British goods. She was also a passionate supporter of an elective and representative democracy, as you’d expect of the daughter of a dedicated local politician such as Alderman Thatcher back in Grantham. But the Thatcher legacy has been ousted, and the ‘swivel-eyed loons’* as a Cameron supporter once called them have worked their way to the fore – an example of how a pressure group, with the backing from expatriate-owned media, can turn politics on its head. They’ve needed many accidents and Labour weakness to help them on their way, but they’ve never lacked staying power.

Accidents – immigration swung the referendum against Remain. The free-trade Brexiteers contribution was to use the immigration issue to their advantage, to promise a Britain that would function better without the EU than within. A false promise that was given equal status to wiser counsels by the media, and not least by the BBC.

Even now that supposed even-handedness continues. And the chasm continues to be fed and watered.

*I always try and use moderate language, to find the middle ground. But when that middle ground has been so spectacularly abandoned, and indeed there is a streak of madness in all the fury, should one still, even then, seek to moderate one’s language?

Not the end of democracy – not so fast

Democracy is in crisis. So many believe. David Runciman’s recent book has the title, ‘How Democracy Ends’. He takes a very different approach from Yascha Mounk – see my last two posts.

Democracy it seems cannot survive on its own. It needs (Runciman suggests) the shock of war, or something akin. The coming together after war. It also needs targets: the widening of the franchise, a shared vision of a society where everyone has a vote, was one such.

A target readily becomes a vision, with optimism and even idealism wound in. Trade unions were the vehicle for the working man, the Workers Education Association for the middle classes extending a hand up to the working class.

Now we all have the vote. And, for older generations, they’ve seen no further advantages in wealth or status come their way. Arguably the reverse. No matter that in terms of comfort and lifestyle most of us score more heavily now. We’ve lost the vision. For younger generations there’s the perception that their parents’ generation had it better than they have. They’ve never had the vision.

Those in power, in business, in the City, and indeed in the cities, small ‘c’, those down south, especially the south-east – they have the status, and the wealth. And they flaunt it. (In past times the division of wealth might have been seen as part of the natural order – but no more.)

Older generations now sense that they’ve found a voice, calling out against change – wanting to return to the old safe areas. (The old borders, real and metaphorical.) The institutions of democracy take a hit, with some hefty encouragement from the media.

For younger generations it’s a different issue – they see themselves as outside the system, not so different from previous generations you might say. But they’re not indifferent: typically they are issue-driven, and social media have taken the insistence and passion of their beliefs to another level. To the extent that political scientists like Yascha Mounk are asking the question, ‘can liberal democracy survive social media?’

Not quite as alarmist as ‘How Democracy Ends’. Mounk is talking of liberal democracy, and survival, not an endgame.

Democracy has always been inadequate to the task. That’s written in to its unwritten constitution. So much is expected of it. So much more demanded than it can readily deliver. Incompetence is the other side of the coin: always there to a greater or lesser extent, and always will be. ‘The blunders of our government’ (to quote King and Crewe’s phrase) reflect back on democracy itself.

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Old-style deference, working to middle, middle to upper class is no more. We, the people, across all classes, have asserted ourselves. There are no ‘betters’. We the people call the tune, and there is indeed a specific ‘will of the people’, which can be identified – and if we can’t do it ourselves, then there are others who will do it for us.

We’re in a battle against a globalised world, against the City, against elites, and vast inequalities of pay, against real pay doing no more than hold its level over the last thirty years, against the EU, against immigration.

Democracy isn’t doing it for us. We don’t worry that it’s a lot to ask, we deem democracy to be in crisis.

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In David Runciman’s view it’s a mid-life crisis, and that assumes old age and death. He does argue in defence of democracy that unlike any other system it has inbuilt recovery mechanisms – but they may not be enough.

I think Runciman, and many another, have got it wrong.

Our focus should be on how democracy can best take on and deal with the challenges that society faces. The hard work, the argument, the big picture, the detail. Talk down the ability of a democratic society to make the right decisions, we make those decisions harder. Short cuts. Apparently easy answers. Looking back rather than forward. Fringe even extreme views gain currency.

This is where the distinction made by Mounk (see my last post) between liberal and illiberal democracy becomes key. Where is the vision if we reduce democracy to no more than a convenient and hitherto just-about-effective modus operandi? Or, worse, to a Trump-inspired transactional nationalism?

In our current Brexit context, how are we to deal with the worldwide and EU-wide immigration issue if all we can think to do is tighten our own border controls? How do we take on big business and big money, if we’re obliged for want of other allies to kow-tow to the USA? And just how much power might a free-trading ‘Anglosphere’ wield in a world out east driven by the Chinese Belt and Road initiative?

To borrow a phrase, liberal democracy needs to take back control.

Runciman puts up Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan and the sociologist Max Weber as proponents of a mechanistic de-humanised view of society, where we cede power to the state out of self-interest, defending ourselves against an innate tendency for society to descend into violence.

He is curiously shy when it comes to liberal democracy. (It doesn’t get a mention.) But he’s clear regarding representative democracy, which in its contemporary form is ‘tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy and frequently ineffective’.  The more gloomy we are, the more old Hobbes comes to the fore. And characterised in this way, why bother to save it?

His shyness extends to the role of the individual, who hardly gets a mention. (Though he does appear as a depersonalised online unit.) Liberalism brought the individual into play – the individual finding expression in democracy, and democracy in the individual. We have rights and freedoms, as long as we do not trespass on those of others. Yes, it is a minefield, an almost impossible task, there is no ideal world, progress can only ever take us so far, and we will lose ground as well as gain it – but that, if you want, is the stuff of democracy.

Democracy is not, to use Churchill’s characterisation, the least worst form of government. It is a bloody miracle we’ve got this far: we are fools to disdain it.

What we have to be focusing on is making it more robust. And that of course means the liberal democracies, not the emerging illiberal democracies of Hungary, Brazil, Turkey. Venezuela. It is not democracy as a system that should be at issue, but rather the scale of the problems we’re faced with.

Democracy has to adjust to deal with many challenges – and that (taking one example) has required and will require ceding of power upward to supranational bodies, with the European Commission the most controversial example, but balanced by a devolving of greater responsibility to local levels. Democracy works best at multiple, and connected, levels. The debate should be about structures of accountability, from local to supranational. The transactional approach cheered on by Donald Trump, with self-interest and specifically national interest always paramount, throws the issue into sharp relief.

Denigrate democracy, treat it with disdain, or part of the problem, or at best as suffering a midlife crisis, then you open up the other possibilities which Runciman discusses in his book – oligarchies (specifically  epistocracies – see below), pragmatic authoritarianism (as realised in the Chinese model of state capitalism), and liberated technology (internet utopias and  accelerationism, whereby a liberated economy and liberated networks, ‘crack the future open’).

Epistocracy, government by the best, is considered (though ultimately dismissed) as a serious alternative to democracy. Runciman quotes the American philosopher, Jason Brennan author of ‘Against Democracy’ (2016): ‘Political participation is not valuable for most people. On the contrary it does most of us little good and instead tends to stultify and corrupt us. It turns us into civic enemies who have grounds to hate one another.’ Runciman acknowledges that attaching power to knowledge can create monsters, but he leaves us in no doubt that he has some sympathy with Brennan’s direction of travel.

His conclusions – ‘Mature, Western democracy is over the hill …(it) will almost certainly have a drawn-out demise … democracy is not us. The demise of democracy is not our demise …’ I could continue, but I will desist.

Above all, what we miss in Runciman, as we do in Hobbes, and in the cheerless bunch of prophets he enlists to make his case, is any role for the positive aspects of human nature, for enterprise and compassion working together, for vision, ideals and aspirations – for new goals, for coming together rather than falling apart, for instinctively supporting rather than denigrating. For notions of liberty and responsibility. For any evidence that he’s taken on board any of that great liberal tradition from John Stuart Mill, and his precursors, to John Rawls, Amartya Sen and beyond.

The challenges facing society are terrible and wonderful, depressing if we wish them to be, exciting if we will ourselves to see them that way. We need champions not purveyors of doom, optimists not nay-sayers, a little bit of joy to put up against the gloom.

Connected, need I say, to a hard pragmatism. There need be no end to democracy, any more than there as been (pace Fukuyama) or ever will be an ultimate triumph.

‘Yes we can,’ was only ten years ago.