Taking a break from politics

I am going to take a break from this blog for a while.  It will be hard to do. Blogging can be compulsive. (Two posts already today.) That’s why I must take a break. But before I do, I thought I’d sign off with a ‘where we are now’, ‘where I stand’ statement. With so many distractions, so much delay and prevarication, so many assertions, so much absurdity, it’s not a bad idea to put down a few thoughts.

How different this list from one I might have written ten years ago, when the outlook, recent financial crash notwithstanding, was somehow more rosy. You could, back then, at least trust the integrity of the protagonists.

In no particular order (apologies to Strictly contestants), though the first two or three are fundamental:

# pride in nation, as a citizen of Britain, of Europe, of the world, the best way, the only effective way, to exercise influence – linked to the awareness, and self-awareness, I mentioned in a recent post on the Tory leadership contest

# the dangers of referenda, trying to tie down that which will not be tied, as opposed to the sovereignty of parliament, which allows flexibility – the right to change your mind as a core feature of democracy

# recognising a free trade agenda as a chimera – your closest neighbours are always your best partners, and the benefits of the EU will only be appreciated when withdrawn, when too late – you get ‘owt for nowt’ (no benefits if no contributions)

# you negotiate better as part of a trading bloc – the importance of being part of, and a key player in, one of the three big economic groupings of the planet, the benefits from membership over more than forty years (delusional to think we would have reached better agreements negotiating on our own)

# global capitalism, how best to influence, to rein it in, while retaining its benefits – hard enough anyway, impossible to have any significant impact if we are a ‘free-trading’, Singapore-style economy

# the importance of collective action on climate change and conservation, on migration – working with the EU, not out on our own, likewise, on automation, and changes in the workplace

# opposing false notions of sovereignty, rebutting claims that we have sacrificed too much power either to the European Commission or European courts – what we gain in influence far outweighs what we lose – remembering also that we in the UK are pioneers of human rights – our influence across Europe has been profound

# working within the power structures that now prevail – opposing any reversion to old ideas of British and latter-day imperial clout, not least notions of an ‘Anglosphere’

# misrepresentations (Boris Johnson-style) of EU practice and policy

# Brexit impeding the EU reform agenda – the EU needs reform, in some areas radical reform, and we could and should be driving that process

# too easy to forget, it seems, how the EU has guaranteed the peace since 1945, and how remarkable that is

# the alternative to the EU – throwing in our lot with Donald Trump, over whom we will have no influence, and signing up to trade deals on US terms

# the simple necessity of bringing our media back home, and making owners and editors publicly accountable, the importance of debate and the pursuit of truth – too many newspapers have become house journals of parties or factions

# the dangers of populism, fake news, alternative truths, post-truth, opinion masquerading as fact

# the delusional appeal of personality politics, where personality trumps policy, where the shouters drown out argument – Farage-style conspiracy theorists

# the dangers of authoritarian, illiberal capitalism – the downgrading of democracy whether it’s China, or Turkey, or Hungary

# Brexit as a knowingly false agenda – 1) claiming a no-risk, no-danger, all-benefit scenario against all evidence, 2) bringing in a free trade agenda, never a priority of the wider population, under the cover of anxiety over immigration

# the sidelining of social welfare, the removal of safeguards and regulations advocated by Dominic Raab and others – the irony that there are Labour supporters of a Brexit driven through by hard-line libertarians

# the real risk of a possible break-up of the UK – think yourself into the shoes of a Scottish nationalist or a Northern Irish Catholic, soon to be the majority religion

# and finally, the omnipresent danger of unintended consequences – as Daniel Hannan, said of the Brexit saga to date, ‘it hasn’t quite worked out as he expected’

 

Apology gets political

Apologia: ‘a formal written defence of one’s opinions or conduct.’

Apology: ‘a regretful acknowledgement of an offence or failure.’

The focus these days is on regret. It’s easier it seems to regret than defend.

‘Democrats are a sorry bunch,’ always expressing regrets, ‘for racial, gay or women’s rights, failing to call out sexism and harassment, dubiously claiming ethnic heritage and for being white and privileged.’ (David Charter writing in The Times last Saturday)

Their ‘apology tour’, Charter continues, ‘contrasts with the man they all hope to beat next year. President Trump has tweeted that it is the media that owes the nation an apology after the Mueller report…’

Charter’s is an odd piece. It almost reads as if he’s on Trump’s side. But he makes a powerful point. If you not only dictate the agenda, if you set the agenda, as Trump has done to a remarkable degree, you’re in the driving seat. If you’re always looking over your shoulder you won’t win the race.

On the same day there was a good piece in The Guardian on this subject. But a very different context. Entitled ‘Battle lines’, it’s well-summed up by the intro: ‘It’s given us Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and many spellbinding stories. But now the world of Young Adult fiction is at war with itself. There have been accusations and public apologies, novels have been boycotted and withdrawn. There have even been death threats against authors. What is going on?’

The vehicle for all this is of course social media. I’m not a regular user. But if I was an author wanting to get to the widest audience, I would be.

Put a racist character in a book, and they might assume your racist. Write outside your own colour, or indeed gender, and you run a risk. Your perception might not be another’s, and they may be vociferous on the subject.

My answer, for what it’s worth… Avoid correction and apology. (And avoid apologias as well.) For publishers as much as authors. If criticism is legitimate, acknowledge it. Otherwise hold out. Easy to say, I admit.  But as the author of the Guardian article (and it is, unlike Charter’s, a very good piece), Leo Benedictus, says, ‘It may not be realistic to hope for restraint from social media, but it is clearly what’s required.’

One consequence is that supporters of gender and racial equality damage their own cause by this relentless and sometimes vicious self-examination. Supposed supporters of Democratic candidates for the presidency likewise. Give authors, give candidates space to breathe. Recognise they make mistakes, leave them be, save for the most egregious offences. It doesn’t mean you don’t criticise. But you don’t harangue. Avoid instant reactions, that immediate resort to social media when something offends.

Go beyond that, and the wider public you’re looking to influence, or looking to for support, will turn to the likes of Trump instead, and say they prefer the simple, the unvarnished, the non-truth, to all this argument and introspection. Gender and racial issues are inconvenient for many. They don’t wish to face up to them. Don’t give them a let-out – an easy, Trumpian let-out.

Making the case for silence

Zen is about silence. No soap box required.

I want to call out for silence – to call, not shout. Nothing comes of shouting, rabble rousing, name-calling – only further division, and the defeat of reason. We have too much shouting out there. Endless Brexit arguments and silence aren’t easy companions.

Silence is something we can all share, all people and all persuasions, all races and religions … silence makes no demands, it is there if you wish to find it …. silence leaves he or she who shouts loud out in the cold … it gives space to think and consider, has little time for short cuts and easy solutions.

I remember my son being disciplined by the school librarian for telling the librarian to shut up because her continued calls of silence were breaking his concentration.

You can’t command silence.

But silence is unexciting. Why not follow the pied piper? Or he or she who shouts loudest?

Shouting divides. With the European elections around the corner we find ourselves more polarised than ever.  ‘We are the people.’ The 52%. But what did we vote for? Brexit at any price? Remain also has its ranters. Shouting embeds ideas, good, on occasion, usually bad.

Reasoned argument is beyond ideology, beyond ‘big’ ideas, beyond assumptions. Reasoned argument requires silence. A prayer before we start. OK, unfashionable. It doesn’t have to be a prayer. But silence. Time to reflect. And, maybe, he who is most eager to speak should go last. Or speak not at all.

But that’s as maybe…

We’re faced with big subjects, big themes – with globalisation (which is ironically the natural and only outcome of a ‘free trade’ position), on the one hand, and the sense, and the reality, of being left behind by elites, by the big cities, the bankers, even by the younger generation, on the other. Pay is pegged back, annual increments a rarity, austerity has for many been brutal.

‘There is a real question about whether democratic capitalism is working, when it’s only working for part of the population.’ The words of Nobel-winning economist Angus Deaton. Could the country be at a tipping point?

More than ever, we need to step back. We need silence. An end to shouting. Instead we need engagement, close engagement, with all the areas I mention above – engagement across Europe and not just in this country. That’s been our role in the past, and I see no reason to give up on that now.

In the recent past many of us have been too cautious, too reasonable – too slow. Silence has been a negative state. A place we retreat to. A place to hide. (We treat elites as somehow inevitable. We shrug and get on with life.)

I’ve found the last three years one hell of a challenge. (I am not alone of course.) The sense that there’s a continuity between my private world and the wider political world out there has been broken. Extremes and wild ideas have become common currency. If I acquiesced in a too-slow change of pace before, I can no longer do so now.

Silence has to be more positive, more active, more pro-active. More political.

But it must still be silence. Paring back the rush of ideas, allowing quiet space in between, that space which anger and emotion too easily fill. Don’t be fooled by the loudest voice. Or a half-truth in a headline.

There’s wisdom, a real wisdom, in silence. If wisdom isn’t too unfashionable a term these days.

Climate change – just another news story?

‘At what point will we realise that the world we see on our TVs is actually our world – and that it is time to act?’

I was on London’s South Bank last Thursday, and realised something extraordinary was happening on Waterloo Bridge. I’d chanced on the Extinction Rebellion protest. As an infrequent visitor to London these days, I was taken by surprise – unlike most people in central London, who’d found not only Waterloo Bridge blocked, but also Parliament Square and, famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view), with a pink boat, Oxford Circus.

I climbed over the crash barrier – wanting to enquire rather than directly participate. To find out more.  Warm weather helped. Trees and greenery had been brought in, a band was playing quietly (yes, quietly) and under an awning one of the organisers proffered advice on dealing with journalists and possible arrest to younger questioners.

For they were young, the protestors. Theirs is indeed the future. They have a claim on it, which we – we older folk – do not. It’s the point which the Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, has been making so eloquently. And we can’t, surely, just brush it off as another example of youthful high spirits and idealism.

The key aims of Extinction Rebellion? ‘The Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, … and act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.’

The upside: shaking us out of our lethargy regarding the consequences of climate change, and highlighting the action that must be taken to arrest it. (Whether or not a 2025 target is realistic, the aim is to shock.) The downside: commuter traffic has been seriously disrupted, and businesses and shops have suffered as a consequence.

Which side am I on? Are we on?

Section of the press would have it that the protestors are all middle-class hippies. The Daily Mail has printed pictures of the organisers’ homes in Stroud. Billionaire media owners are the beneficiaries of the status quo: yes, climate change may (just about) be real but responsibility is down to us as individuals. Plastic bags and the like. Governments, where lies the power to push through radical change, are off the hook.  

Readers of the Mail and Express and Telegraph, redoubtable papers all, are protected species in all this – protected from the imperatives of climate change. Given that reality, what choice do the protestors have but to put themselves out there?

So back to that question. What about us?

Are we prepared, as over a thousand were, to be arrested? Or is our support at second hand – we’ll argue their case (‘their’ case, not ours) and their corner, but we won’t join the front line. Or we’ll aver our support for action, but decry radical means to achieve it. (And thereby play into the hands of climate change deniers?)

There’s a rather dubious statistic doing the rounds. 3.5% of the population (only 3.5% …) committed to your cause and the momentum for radical change will be irreversible. I don’t buy this. But there is another tipping-point – beyond which we can’t avoid taking sides.

I’d like to think that could be now. I’m not going to rush to be arrested. But I know which side I’m on.

That same Thursday, 18th April, at 8pm, David Attenborough silenced any who question his commitment to action with his BBC TV programme, Climate Change: The Facts. No-one watching could be in any doubt about the terrible consequences of global warming. The facts as he described are brutal.

To repeat my opening line:

At what point will we realise that the world we see on TV is actually our world – and that it is time to act?

Returning from the other side of the world …

Returning from two weeks away on the other side of the world (Chile) helps bring the reality of British politics into still sharper focus. Above all, the simple and basic incompatibility of referenda and parliamentary democracy. And the utter absurdity of our current politics. When an idea as ill-formed and unsuited to the task as Brexit is treated as immutable disaster inevitably awaits.

Europe before 2016 was a low priority among voters. Wild promises, a billionaire-owned right-wing press, and a presumption that equal time to argue a case (a prerequisite of a referendum) equates to equal merit in argument, turned it into the issue of our time. Attempts by a lunatic fringe (is ‘lunatic’ unfair?) of the Tory party dating back to the immediate post-Thatcher era have crystallised in the activities of the European Research Group, and the party is now split between free-traders who supped at Ayn Rand’s table at university and have never grown up (the student right and student left have much in common), and an overly-loyal mainstream which has allowed itself to be pulled right with hardly a protest. ‘One Nation’ Tories have been left stranded.

In one-time Attorney-General Dominic Grieve’s words, ‘Most oddly [Brexit] has been demanded by Conservative Leavers in the name of restoring “traditional” government… Yet to achieve all this [supposedly ‘restoring parliamentary sovereignty’] they demand that the principles of democratic representative government should be abandoned.’ (Prospect, March 2019)

The mainstream support for Mrs May is craven. (Again, is ‘craven’ unfair? How measured should we be in our language, where the reality out there is so dire?) However inadequate to the task the Chequers statement, and however inferior the EU withdrawal agreement is to our current arrangements, party members fall into line. Loyalty to the leadership comes too naturally, and a presumption that others ultimately know better than they do, a uniquely Tory form of deference, are part of the party DNA. The leadership is pulled to the right, and party members are only too happy to move with it. One Nation Tories might as well be in a different party.

Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen, all of whom resigned from the party last month, faced up to that reality. In their resignation statement they referred to a ‘redefinition’ of the Conservative Party, ‘undoing all the efforts to modernise it’ …. ‘a dismal failure to stand up to the hard line of the ERG’ … a shift to the right ‘exaggerated by blatant entryism’.

‘We haven’t changed, the Conservative Party has … we find it unconscionable that a party once trusted on the economy is now recklessly marching the country to the cliff edge of no deal.’

Dominic Grieve is on the same wing of the party, but more a traditionalist. ‘Pray that we may be quietly governed’ are words from the Prayer Book which to his mind should apply to government as well. His instinct is to intervene less, where others believe that ‘some shaking up and disruption can be beneficial to furthering social progress’. (Beautifully phrased!) But ‘quiet government’ is no longer policy. ‘The Conservative Party has a problem. It is no longer conservative.’

Grieve does, however, show a little more sympathy than Soubry and her colleagues toward Mrs May, ‘whose career has been intimately bound up with the grassroots of party membership’. (All the more reason to show leadership, one might argue.) Some may predict the Conservatives will break up as a party, but ‘I certainly have nowhere else to go’. Whether that might preclude him from resigning the whip and becoming an independent Conservative, who knows.

So what about the other side of the Tory argument? Not quite the ERG wing, but those more inclined to be libertarian that interventionist?

Altruism and opportunity, working together, are core to the beliefs of Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, as an article in Prospect magazine (March 2019) makes clear. Both wings of the party, and most of the electorate, could connect with that.

And yet … Javid still reads the courtroom scene from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead ‘twice a year’. The Fountainhead, as anyone following American politics will know, is notorious.  In the courtroom scene Howard Roark asserts that ‘the man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves…’ ‘The “common good” of a collective… [was] the claim and justification of every tyranny that was ever established over men.’

Nelson Mandela nonetheless is Javid’s hero, and he accepts more of a role for government (in house building, for example) than he once did. ‘Altruism is one of the reasons I’m in government – the most important part of my job is to help those who find it hard to help themselves.’ On the other hand his driving purpose is ‘opportunity’. Government, taxation, regulation can all get in the way, so less of the first two, and smarter versions of the third.

Where does this leave us? With the idea that pursuing opportunity for yourself you create opportunities for others … You may feel for others, but acts of kindness toward them are not always in their best interest. … We all (privilege or parenting notwithstanding) have the same start in life.

That is, of course, a massive over-simplification. But somewhere here lies that key distinction between One-Nation Tories and the libertarian, Randian wing. Javid hovers between the two.

The old pre-2016 Tory party could accommodate both sides, just as long as they accommodated to each other. That tolerance of difference has been shattered by Brexit. The likes of Javid are, when it goes up to the wire, instinctively closer to the ERG, Soubry and company to that One Nation tradition.

Theresa May who studied geography needs that discipline (a better word than subject) laced, as it should be for all good geographers, with the wisdom of history. She’d then appreciate how the democracy and parliament in British history are inextricably intertwined. The notion of accountability in parliament is our single greatest contribution to peace and prosperity across the world. To try to wind the threads in a different way, and to assert that, whatever the circumstances, she has to deliver on the result of the referendum – they are foolish acts.  Where the foolish tread there is surely, and I’m thinking of both party members and supporters, no need to follow.

Voting ‘no’ – Chile 1988, UK 2016

I’m off to Chile for two weeks next week, and I’ve been casting my mind back to 1973, when Allende was overthrown by Pinochet, and to 1975 when I backpacked on my own down from California to Bolivia, then across to Rio and Buenos Aires – but I never made it back across the Andes to Chile, or saw what Santiago was like, two years into the Pinochet regime.

Pinochet wanted legitimacy, and in 1988 held a plebiscite: ‘Yes’ and he would stay in power for another eight years, ‘No’ and there would be a full presidential election the following year. This is the subject of Pablo Larrain’s Oscar-nominated movie, simply entitled ‘No’, which I watched last night.

The No campaign had all the media and institutions of the state ranged against them, but were allowed 15-minute of TV time each night in the weeks running up to the vote to get over their message. Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, a creative guy brought in by the No team fashion their message. The team instinctively wants to focus on the horrors perpetrated by the regime, the murders, torture, incarcerations, the simple brutality of the army. Rene suggests a radically different tack, a future agenda – what a No vote might ultimately achieve by way of escape from the repressive and still brutal Pinochet regime – he argues for ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’ as the primary theme, depending on how you translate ‘alegria’. (‘La alegría ya viene’ was the slogan.) The message is to be upbeat. With music and dance, street life and country picnics – life with the shackles removed.

Bernal portrays a broody, introspective guy sharing custody of his son with his estranged wife. The ads may sing, but he never smiles. Rene himself may be a fiction, but the wider story is hard fact.

They won, of course. The message – never allow an insurgency gain too much momentum. Chile was all the more remarkable because it was a military dictatorship.

It is quite a story. But Yes/No – haven’t we come across that recently? ‘Yes’ protecting the status quo. ‘No’ the outsiders, the left-behinds, now the insurgents, with all to gain. ‘Yes’ focused on all the dangers of change, ‘No’ promoted a brave new world free from shackles.

And the differences? They are radical of course.

The Brexit insurgents (allowing for some generalisation) are the old(er) stagers, the over 50s and 60s, sensing they are neglected or somehow left behind, believers in older, stricter values, self-reliance – wary of new ideas, identity politics, immigration, the younger generation.

They had, or were presented with, an enemy – the EU, portrayed as the source of manifold evils.

The Chilean insurgents were the younger generation, or at least their agenda was dictated by the younger generation. The older generations of socialists and communists came on board, most but not all, and with hesitation. Pinochet had privatised, brought in overseas and especially American investment – Chile was, as an economy, prospering. The No campaign never suggested rowing back to the old times – they were all about opening doors on the new.

Their enemy was the army and repression – the EU doesn’t quite compare. (Though some might argue it does…)

Both the similarities and the radical differences intrigue. Above all, how the insurgents in Chile were broadly speaking from the left and centre, in the UK from the right.

Insurgents do have a big advantage. I doubt if Remainers in 2016 thought to look to Chile. Just too far way, too off the map. Had they done so they’d have appreciated the dangers of focusing on a safety-versus-risk agenda, looking to hold on to the past rather than focusing on a brave new future. The greatest danger is in thinking that, surely, you can’t possibly lose. Yes, a charismatic leader would have helped the ‘Yes’ campaign – but in the end it’s the message that counts.

Could the Remain campaign have sketched out a brave new future, as opposed to the Leaver’s ‘brave new past’? Maybe not. The time when anyone in Europe thought the EU or European cooperation was exciting or sexy is long past.

But excitement will always beat down gloom. It was the two ‘No’ campaigns that got the blood racing.

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 …