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.

The rise and rise of populism (2)

I referred in my last post to immediate actions which can be taken to combat the rise of populism. In this post I look at what I described as the deeper crisis.

I’m taking Yascha Mounk’s book ‘The People versus Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save it’ as my starting-point and primary source. For Mounk the fundamental distinction is between what he describes as ‘illiberal democracy’ and ‘undemocratic liberalism’.

Looking first at illiberal democracy, Venezuela, Hungary and Turkey, and Poland and Brazil as might be, all come to mind. ‘While the form populism takes may initially be democratic, its long-term effect is to undermine not only liberalism but democracy as well … attacks by populists on independent institutions and the rule of law ultimately erode the conditions for free and fair elections …’ It is these independent institutions, the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly, and a free press, which define liberal democracy. To this list I’d add representative multi-party government, based on regular elections and changes of administration and policy as the electorate dictates.

Illiberal democracy too readily turns into dictatorship.

But illiberal democracy, and the support it gathers to itself, doesn’t arise from nothing. It is popular dissatisfaction with existing systems and institutions, and a sense of exclusion, which have driven the rise of populism. Mounk and others have defined this as ‘undemocratic liberalism’.

Much of this is inevitable and unavoidable. The technocratic challenges of our time require bureaucratic agencies, independent banks, and international treaties and organisations, all of which put distance between the ordinary man and woman and the elites which have taken charge of these institutions. Independent agencies in the USA include the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). President Trump has the EPA and the Federal Reserve firmly in his sights. But perhaps, in Mounk’s view, the most powerful ‘independent agency’ in the world is the European Commission. The European parliament has little power, so career bureaucrats call the tune.

Following on from the demise of the Breton Woods currency controls in the early 1970s, banks have become ‘key institutions deciding on whether to focus on minimising inflation or unemployment’. The European Central Bank followed the example of the  Bundesbank in terms of independence from government. Donald Trump rails against Jerome Powell when the Federal Reserve pushes up interest rates.

The extension of judicial oversight ‘is another way in which important issues have been taken out of democratic contestation’. The power of Supreme Court judges in the USA is more than ever evident. The Supreme Court in the UK plays a much less overt role in political affairs but sections of the press have attempted to paint it as a creature of the elite.  The European Court of Justice has also been attacked, much more vociferously.

The nature of political campaigning, American hyper-capitalism, and illicit funding (think Arron Banks) in other countries, have put further distance between legislatures and the popular will. Wealth and education, and personal and professional experience, put legislators in a class apart from their constituents.

‘At a minimum, any democracy should have in place a set of effective institutional mechanisms for translating popular views into public policy. In many developed democracies these mechanisms have become significantly impaired over past decades …many supposed democracies resemble competitive oligarchies’.

The ‘popular views’ highlighted by Eatwell and Goodwin (see my previous post) are directly relevant here. (Social media should also be added to the mix.) ‘If these long-term drivers are not confronted in a concerted and intelligent manner the rise of populism is likely to continue.’

This would lend credence to the arguments of those who take a more root and branch approach – who see the very institutions of the modern state, and the captive professionals who work for them, as lying at the heart of the problem. For them ‘returning power to the people is both the obvious solution and a straightforward task’. Take on the independent banks, the bureaucratic and international agencies …

And yet, Mounk argues, they are fundamental to our continuing prosperity. (Though not money and its perversion of the electoral system).  Remember the origins of the European Union, rebuilding the continent after the Second World War. (The issue is not how to do away with the EU and the European Commission, but how to make them more accountable.)

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA. Likewise international treaties such as the Paris Accord are fundamental to our futures.

Constitutional courts in many countries have a proud record.

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In Mounk’s words, ‘undemocratic liberalism … is woefully under-theorised …a better understanding of its nature and its remedies [my italics] is of much more than academic interest’.

I’d argue this is a massive understatement. The rise of populism has brought issues which were systemic but held in the background to the fore, and we need to understand what is at stake – by ‘we’ I mean the wider public. Democracy is not enough of itself. It does not, as experience around the world have shown, have its own inbuilt survival mechanisms.

Liberal democracy provides that mechanism, ensures the balance of forces and the representation of all people and interests. Or so it should. Its failure to do so brings illiberal and ultimately undemocratic forces into play – to the detriment of all.

 

 

 

Fifty shades of folly

I thought I’d touch this morning on the many kinds of folly. Not fifty, I have to admit. But it makes a good title for this post.

Zenpolitics, born in the measured Obama era, in the first months, didn’t allow for folly. That was my big mistake. There’s much to criticise, much to be angry about, in the years 2009 to 2016, but the wheels just about stayed on track. We argued the parameters of austerity, whether they should be wider or narrower, about the boundaries of wealth and enterprise, and the constrictions of poverty and exclusion.

But I didn’t allow for folly. Which isn’t to say the follies I highlight below are in any way new. They are as ancient as the hills, in one form or another. But they now have become by twists of fate the dominant discourse.

Once folly take root, it shows up in many guises.  One of the most common, and damaging, is taking outlying incidents as the norm. Regaling us with incidents (I’m quoting a recent conversation of mine, typical maybe of half the nation, if polls are to be believed) involving Lithuanian criminals, and benefit scroungers, and over-crowded schools, as if these were the norm across the country.

Anecdote and emotion dictate the debate.

Taking sides is another variant of folly – you’re one one side or the other, no shades of grey inbetween, and that multitude who live on the other side of town from you, and claim benefits, they’re all shrinkers and shirkers.

Following the same line of thought, you’re a refugee, or you’re an economic migrant. The former good, the later bad. No shades of grey. And no recognition of the fact that all our forebears  were migrants once upon a time.

In dealing with mass movements of population, maybe the greatest issue of our time, it does no service to either argument or individual to stigmatise.

Brexit might in time, with a clear run, have learnt to speak truth, but with a siege mentality taking hold the old shibboleths are gaining new traction. The same mentality is feeding another kind of folly. Denial. Denial that it could all go wrong – has gone wrong. The comforting belief that Northern Ireland can be shunted forward forever as an issue. That we have a plethora of options other than a customs union with the EU.

Only last week the outgoing president of the CBI said that sections of UK industry faced extinction unless the UK stayed in the customs union.  And yet that is precisely what our prime minister has ruled out.

Denial invites rhetoric. Boris Johnson recently argued to Conservative donors that Britain is at risk of ending up in ‘a sort or anteroom of the EU’. He blamed this on insufficient resolve from the PM, and strong resistance from – the establishment. That old and easy target. (Who are Tory MPs, other than the establishment?) Keep the faith, and all will be well, I believe was the tenor of Johnson’s speech. Churchillian rhetoric may have a time and place. But it sounds foolish now.

That take us neatly on to another kind of folly – the strong leader. Oh, how we need one. Trump ‘would go in bloody hard’, argued Johnson. So we would be pugnacious toward the EU, and go cap-in-hand to a US president we can’t afford to offend… And we’re assuming that Trump will emerge triumphant from all his bombast.

And if he does, and the idea of strong leader triumphs, representative democracy will be the loser. It’s argued that American democracy is strong enough in its institutions to withstand Trump. Would our unwritten constitution stand up so well? It is folly to put it to the test – to attack the judiciary, to bandy words like traitor.

The folly of blame, and panic. Blaming the prime minister who ‘is a Remain voter who has sold out the Brexiteers at every possible opportunity’. (I’ve borrowed the paraphrase from the Economist.) Brexiteers are being stabbed in the back. Much could be said about the resolute incompetence our PM, but I’ll spare her that charge.

But I will level another – the curious pusillanimity of Remain-supporting Tory MPs who have lined up behind Brexit, mealy-mouthing their change of mind and heart, engaging in protracted acts of self-preservation, in the face of possible de-selection.

They may wish to row back from their conversion, but having changed their minds once would they dare do so again? They’re trapped. Maybe a few journalists out there, on the Telegraph, and the Spectator, find they’re in the same place. They’ve spoken out so strongly in the past – dare they turn their coats now?

The likes of Arron Banks have long sought to change the frame within which we see and understand our world – to something less liberal and more confrontational, the loner doing better than the pack, ideas backed by the Koch brothers in the USA, and realised after a fashion in Donald Trump. Folly lies in the failure of so many to realise that the frame has been manipulated, by money, Super-PACs in the USA, media owners in the US and UK, so they think they’re on the same song sheet they always were, but someone’s changed changed the words, and they haven’t noticed.

We haven’t reached that point here, but Trump’s caging of immigrant children, after separating them from their parents, should be simply inconceivable. Yet swathes of the American public went along with it. And Tory politicians here were slow to condemn, fearful of upsetting a government on whom they will depend to an unconscionable degree if a hard Brexit were ever to happen.

The frame becomes a cage. The folly of not reading and remembering your history.

Folly also lies in an increased propensity to lie as your position weakens. Brexit supporters always played fast and lose with the truth – promises come cheap and uncosted. The increase in NHS funding promised this week resurrected the idea of a Brexit dividend for the NHS, famously associated with the Brexit red bus. All serious commentators make it clear that the British economy will sustain significant damage as a result of Brexit. And even if that only applies to the short and medium term, and trade secretary Liam Fox is able to conjure trade deals further down the line that magic our GDP to new levels (an unlikely scenario) – that is the long term. The increases in NHS funding are for the period up to 2023-4. There can be no Brexit dividend over that period.

We have here a simple unvarnished untruth. Folly shades readily into untruth to protect itself. We’re engaged now in the most egregious and protracted act of folly in modern British history. When a pressure group surprised by power flounders. Historians will have a field day. Unless of course folly wins the day, and as in other countries historians come to toe a party line.

Hay Book Festival 2018 – Philippe Sands

The Hay Festival, as always, delivers. Tuesday (29th May) was a warm and cloudy day, shirt-sleeves after midday, which means the fair can be an outdoor as well as in-tent affair, and that always helps.

My first stop was Philippe Sands. His title, ‘Words, Memory and Imagination – 1945 and Today’. The title didn’t entice. It was enough that it was Philippe Sands.  What follows are expanded notes I took during his talk, with a few interpolations of my own.

Sands recounts the story behind his book, East-West Street, on which I’ve posted before. East-West Street is a street in a then Polish (now Ukrainian) town where his Jewish grandfather’s family had lived for centuries. He discovers how his grandfather’s life intertwined with that of Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, two great lawyers and key figures  behind modern, and recent, notions of the pre-eminence of human rights, genocide,  crimes against humanity, and limitations on state sovereignty.  They studied at the same university in Lvov as Sands’ grandfather.   

Sands has spoken about the book on many occasions before. This time he puts it in the context of a letter to his friend Ahmet Altan, a Turkish novelist recently sentenced to life imprisonment by a Turkish court. ‘My dear friend, Ahmet,’ he says from time to time, as if his talk is addressing him directly.

[I’m adding here Ahmet’s own words before his trial: ‘I am writing these words from a prison cell … But wait. Before you start playing the drums of mercy for me listen to what I will tell you … They may have the power to imprison me but no one has the power to keep me in prison. I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not.’]

Why, Sands asks, did his book, East-West Street, appeal to so many?  

1] We like in the context of the big picture small details which we can connect to. Often those small details have a personal connection.   

One such is that Richard Strauss (a favourite composer for many of us) composed a song for Hans Frank in 1943. Frank as Hitler’s controller in Poland was directly responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Jews. He was a fine musician, a classically-trained pianist.  

2] The issues surrounding identity, so brutal in his grandfather’s time, and still so powerful today, across Europe and America – only a few brave Federal judges stopped a complete ban on all Muslins entering America. The assumption that someone who is a stranger to me must also be my enemy. 

3] More broadly, the connection to our own time. The authoritarian regimes of the 1930s, and the rules-based order that established itself after 1945, and how that order is under threat.

Hinterland – we all have our hinterland, and for writers it’s out of that that comes our writing. Ahmet has his readers, Sands has his. 

(What it would feel like to be incarcerated? That’s what I asked myself. And for life? For only speaking words… That’s what I asked myself as Sands spoke.)

Ahmet takes great delight in knowing his readers are still out there, he feels it like ‘a cloud touching his face’, as he put it, or something similar. Sands had to be taken through eight locked doors to meet him. He was Ahmet’s first visitor: his wife is only allowed to talk to him, on the phone, every two weeks. Sands gets to see him (and Ahmet’s brother, also incarcerated, who ‘only wanted to talk about globalisation’) in person. He’s representing the international court in The Hague, that’s how he gets access.  

Ahmet smuggles writings out. He and Sands meet and laugh at the absurdity of his situation. He’s lost weight – he has weights to work out with. (Where does civilised life begin, where end?) 

Ahmet implied that money moved out, and moved in, or something similar – enough to suggest someone high up was taking their cut. That was enough.

Judges – Appeal Court judges – are ‘enemies of the people’, in the Daily Mail’s language. Compare the UK and Turkey, where judges serve the president. Is this what the Mail would like? Remember we are the country who with the USA provided the leading lawyers at the Nuremberg trials. We established the European Convention on Human Rights, which Theresa May would now have us leave. ‘Citizens of the world are citizens of nowhere,’ she insisted. Does she, Sands asks, really understand what she’s talk about? (How much was she simply being fed lines by her team?) Compare also Boris Johnson’s reference to ‘half-Kenyan Obama’, as his explanation for Obama’s attitude to Brexit UK. Africans ‘with melon smiles’ – Johnson’s words. ‘Piccaninnies.’ And it’s he who represents us.

Johnson and May welcome Turkish president Erdogan a few days ago: the talk was only of trade, not the fate of novelists, teachers and journalists. We no longer have influence in the world, not least because we need trade deals too much – our trading partners know that.

The Chagos Islands – we lost a UN vote last year on whether or not the islanders have a right to return, which the our own Supreme Court has asserted they do not. Our main European allies abstained rather than support us. The case will now be referred to the International Court of Justice. And as for the ICJ – after ninety years of being represented there we now have no judge. It’s powerful evidence of our declining influence.  

Regarding Brexit, Sands believes the best we can hope for, and the likely outcome, is a Norway-style agreement – single market etc, but no influence. The idea that we could use arbitration effectively instead of the European Court of Justice is absurd. Arbitration at an international level, which is a specialist area for Sands, is both slow and unpredictable. 

Thousands of people have written to Sands. The Scotsman who voted yes to the union, but no wonders whether he wants to stay in an isolationist UK? How would he vote now?

Are we facing a breakdown of the post-1945 rules-based order? Ahmet still has hope. Turkey is not done for yet. But, worldwide, authoritarian and identity-focused politics are an ever-more-powerful threat. Europe and America need to take the lead, but is there out there a clearly expressed alternative scenario? Compare the current edition of the Economist on the subject of the Democrats in the USA. The Democrats are strong on race and gender issues, but what is their position on the America First agenda, resentments toward the rest of the world, trade with China, blue collar jobs, immigration – the agenda which helped Trump win the election? How can the Democrats regain some of that support which went to Trump?

How shallow is the support for Trump? Salman Rushdie in an interview later in the day at Hay recalled addressing a meeting in Florida recently. They were mostly Republicans, but they were civilised and courteous. ‘Didn’t he agree that the New York Times was simply telling lies?’ No. ‘The evidence for climate change is simply not there.’ But it is, argued Rushdie. ‘Where’s the evidence?’ he’s asked. His answer – just because you believe the world is flat, doesn’t mean that it is flat – it will still be round.  

Sands received a standing ovation at the end of his talk. Maybe from two-thirds of the audience. His talk was one hour long, no time for questions. Applause lasted at least a minute – maybe more like ninety seconds – I’ve never known anything like it at Hay.

And yet – for a couple chatting next to me as I left – ‘it didn’t seem to be going anywhere,’ he argued, though it did have a clearer focus at end. His partner agreed. Yes, Sands does range widely – but he never loses coherence.  It’s funny how what might seem heroic to me might be a matter of a shrug and indifference to others.

Europe or America – too much ‘us against them’

Europe v America

Do you lean more to Europe or to the USA? What does your instinct tell you? I remember the question being posed in a radio debate a few years ago. It caught my attention then. It’s more than ever relevant now, as Brexit disparages and attempts to sideline Europe.

Why for so many is there an instinctive hostility to the EU? Is it just to the institution? Or does it reflect the way we engage with European culture and history? At a bumptious Boris Johnson ‘I can sing Ode to Joy’ level, or at a level more woven into our soul – into our identity?

Are we a European people, one of many, an outlier, but integral nonetheless? Or are we to all intents and purposes, though we wouldn’t admit it, just another state of the USA, just doing things a little differently.

We’re uneasy about the USA, it’s brashness, its noise, its superiority complex – but we go with it – it is, we feel, an exaggeration of our own character, the same substance, lacking the finesse. But they’re our comfort zone – not Europe.

Brexiteers by default lean to America, to trade agreements which will of course be on American terms. They hide this behind ‘global’ aspirations, and a maritime, ‘old Commonwealth’ identity.

I’d argue we are already global – and we are as engaged with the USA we need to be. Trump’s penalties for companies and banks breaking US-imposed sanctions against Iran underline the point.

 

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Europe v the world

So we’ve widened it. It’s no longer Europe v America, it’s elided into Europe v ‘the world’. We’re going global. As if we need to assert one identity at the expense of another. I’m proud to be a citizen of the UK – of Europe – and of the world.

Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, trespasses onto this territory when (I’m quoting from The Economist) he criticises liberal Tories such as [Amber] Rudd ‘for misinterpreting Brexit as a vote for closing the borders rather than embracing a more global future’.

There are countless other such statements. The likes of Nelson have set up and pursued a false dichotomy, pitching a European against ‘a global future’. We were there of course already. The Brexit strategy will indeed involve (the shenanigans of current Cabinet debate on the subject will go down in history as farce) some kind of closure of our border with Europe, against a pie-in-the-sky chance of signing trade deals with further-flung countries that offset the damage that closure will cause.

Countless pages, articles, tomes have been written on both sides of the argument. It’s that deeper and false sense of a divide that concerns me here. The Brexit debate, and Brexit supporters for decades before the 2016 vote, have polarised ‘European’ and ‘global’, pitched one against the other, and we’re digging the divide deeper all the time.

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Don’t for heaven’s sake claim you’re an intellectual

I’m hardly saying anything new but it’s also an anti-intellectual debate. Don’t rely on argument, rely on instinct – it’s become a matter of belief. There’s a new book out about the French intellectual (The End of the French Intellectual): at least France has had such a person as the public intellectual. A species who in this country should expect to get as little appreciation from the likes of the Daily Mail as members of the House of Lords or the judiciary.

Leaping across the pond, we have Scott Pruitt, head of the American Environmental Protection Agency, barring scientists who have received federal grants from the EPA from sitting on boards advising the EPA on the grounds of ‘conflict of interest’. There are no restrictions on scientists who work for the industries the EPA monitors. Again, independence of mind is under threat.

And finally, that Ruth Lea, a long-time public figure, arguing that ‘the economics ‘establishment’, including the Treasury, were utterly wrong-footed by our economic performance after the Brexit vote in June 2016′. The economics ‘establishment’ – ‘commissariat’ is another term I’ve seen used. In other words, the great majority of economists. Maybe Ruth Lea hasn’t noticed how our performance has significantly lagged the rest of Europe – and taken on board the reluctance abroad not to let the UK slide too far – for in whose interests is that? Yes, arguments were too apocalyptic, attempting to match the Brexiteers’ approach of promising the earth.

The way is still down, it’s just taking far more turnings. As long as we inhabit this falsely polarised world that won’t change.

George Orwell – lessons for a post-truth world

How do you define an essay, and how does an essay differ from a blog, or an article by a newspaper columnist?

Bernard Crick in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (published in 2000)  of George Orwell’s essays attempts a definition: it can be moral, didactic and serious … it can be informal and flexible, ‘above all it leaves the reader in some uncertainty about what is going to be said next’.

By comparison so much contemporary discourse is predictable: read a blog, your favourite blog, and you’ve a good idea what it might say.

Orwell as we all do had favourite themes (though he often surprises), but he approaches them in ways that are never tedious or predictable. The Prevention of Literature begins at a PEN Club meeting, ostensibly celebrating John Milton and freedom of the press, where none of the speakers highlight that freedom of the press means the freedom to criticise and oppose. (Two speakers eulogise the Soviet Union.) Antisemitism in Britain begins with specific examples (‘No, I do not like the Jews … Mind you, I’m not anti-Semitic, of course’), Politics and the English Language with passages which exemplify ‘a few of the bad habits which spread by imitation’, and How the Poor Die takes off on a harrowing journey based on his own experience in Hopital X in Paris in 1929.

The greatest joy in reading Orwell is his lucidity – and the sheer breadth of his experience and reading. (In Books v Cigarettes he owns to having just 442 books, and yet his range of reference and quotation is remarkable. There were of course always libraries.) His essays are models – and reminders – for our own time, as they were for the 1940s.

Likewise his conclusions. ‘The Catholic and Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot both be honest and intelligent.’ We no longer have a Russian ‘mythos’ (‘true individuality is only attained through identification with the community’) but we have ‘mythos’ which are all our own, and a society which in recent years has become more divided and less tolerant.

We don’t play with ideologies as they did in Orwell’s time. But we tailor what we say or write, more dangerously, we tailor what we think, to received notions, put identity and security before intellectual challenge.  ‘A bought mind’, now as then, ‘is a spoilt mind.’

Orwell continues: ‘Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes ossified.’ What applies to literature also applies to politics.

What we also get from Orwell is a portrayal of the mood of his times, the anxieties of a wartime and immediately post-war would where one spectre of totalitarianism has been removed but another is asserting itself ever more strongly, good minds all around Orwell are signing up, and tempering their beliefs and writing to what they deem a higher cause. Orwell doesn’t question the aim, the emancipation of the working class, but is adamant that Soviet Russia isn’t the vehicle by which that might be achieved.

(We also pick up on his anxieties about a post-Christian, avowedly humanist society, where socialism as as an ideal, as an alternative to the afterlife, has been compromised, maybe fatally.)

Totalitarian regimes require misinformation, they write and re-write their own histories (pro-Soviet intellectuals were caught out by the 1939 German/Soviet pact, and caught out again when Germany invaded Russia in 1941). But apologists for Russia weren’t the only enemy.

‘Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than active persecution.’ Examples include ‘the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly radio and films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books…’

Misinformation in our own time has been well-disguised: it’s about how the news is framed and who does the framing – about how we, as watchers and listeners and readers with it, are manipulated. But post-Brexit, post-Trump, in the recent German election, it’s out in the open. Which side is putting out ‘fake news’?

Many of the essays were written for Tribune, and that meant a left-wing and intellectual audience. I’d guess that Orwell would love to have written for a wider audience, to have hustled in alongside a newspaper magnate (or maybe not!) as Michael Foot did with Beaverbrook in the 1930s, or better still find popular media outlets that weren’t in the hands of rich men. 1984 and Animal Farm, written at the same time as the Tribune essays, did of course break through, but at the level of the educated middle- not working-class. So the best Orwell could do, the best he could hope for, was to influence other writers, other opinion-formers, to lay out a course between the intolerancies of the Tory (and Catholic, as he saw it) right and the radical and Sovietised left.

He does this with grace and precision at the conclusion of his essay of antisemitism, arguing for integrity based on self-examination:

‘I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual.’

Hatreds and loyalties aren’t confined to nationalism of course. (Another subject on which Orwell writes with great insight.) My only caveat is his use of the word ‘intellectual’. It is not beyond all of us in our educated world to step back and step back and view our world dispassionately.

One obstacle, a fundamental one, to our doing so, is our use of language.  Orwell is explicit on the subject in Politics and the English language:

‘…the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy … where you make a stupid remark it will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits …’

There’s a mighty challenge here, and the first thing I must do is re-read what I’ve written here – is it an essay or a blog or just a few ruminations ? – and see how it fares when judged against Orwell’s high aspiration.

Free trade – whatever the cost?

Free trade and a hard Brexit are all but synonymous. There’s an obsessive quality about free traders, men on a mission, who feel their time has come: seize the moment, lest it slip away.

Daniel Hannan and Boris Johnson recently helped launch the Institute of Free Trade, arguably duplicating the work of the long-established Institute of Economic Affairs. I’ve always had a sense of vast lacunae between argument and reality among free traders, and I turned to an article on the IEA website, by its chief economist, Julian Jessop, to check out whether this judgement was justified. For the full article see:  https://iea.org.uk/whos-afraid-of-free-trade/

Jessop expresses puzzlement as to why ‘the economics commentariat’ (i.e. most economists) had given a ‘sceptical, with some downright hostile’ response to two papers advocating a policy a free trade once the UK leaves the EU, by Professors Kevin Dowd and Patrick Minford.

It may be unfair to quote passages and not reproduce the whole article, but to my mind they do speak for themselves.

‘… it has been suggested that Prof Minford’s analysis shouldn’t be taken too seriously because his forecasts of the economic and market impacts of the vote itself were inaccurate. As it happens I don’t know what Prof Minford was forecasting in 2016. But nor, frankly, do I care….’

‘Professor Minford’s current and past work in this area has been challenged for using what some regard as a simplistic and out-dated model of world trade. But the ‘gravity models’ favoured by many of his critics also have their flaws. Even if Professor Minford’s numbers are only as good as his models (which is always the case) …’

The phrase, ‘the underlying principles are as sound as any’, is key: there is a millenarianist belief in free trade as a universal panacea, the UK’s adoption of which will open the eyes of the rest of the world, as Britain did once before, in the early 19th century. ‘Gravity models’ refers to the long-established and incontrovertible pattern of a much heavier weighting toward trade with one’s neighbours, than with more distant countries.

Nonetheless, whatever the correct interpretation here, these legal points do not weaken the more important economic argument that the UK would be better off lowering its own trade barriers regardless of how the rest of the EU responds.

Free trade it seems works because it works, regardless of circumstance. In what sense better off – who would be better off?

‘… of course, there would be some losers from free trade among consumers as well as producers …

‘….there would be some losers..’ The reality is that the disruption would be extraordinary.

Others have suggested that trade can never be fully ‘free’, because of non-tariff barriers. But this is tedious semantics. Even if unilateral free trade only results in freer trade, relative to the status quo, that would be an improvement.

‘…tedious semantics’? There’s an impatience here, a touch of the Gadarene swine.

What then about things that we do produce ourselves but where other countries have a genuine comparative advantage? Why should we subsidise domestic producers if consumers can buy better or cheaper products elsewhere?

A few suggestions as to why… Easily disrupted supply chains, sourcing expensively at long distance, security implications, quite apart from the disruption to urban and rural landscapes as industries close and new ones – we would hope – spring up elsewhere. But in the chaos, and the economic disruption, what certainty is there that new industries, competitive on the world stage, would rise up?

**

Read the whole article: you may find you’re on his side, not mine.