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.

Prize (political) idiots of the year

The Economist in its 8th December issue reports on the Spectator magazine’s annual dinner where the editors hand out awards to MPs. Or, rather, The Economist didn’t report. They chose instead, in a year when politicians are ‘falling over each other to make fools of themselves’, to present an alternative set of awards. No bean-feast or ceremony of course, just dishonourable mentions in despatches – the Bagehot page to be precise.

Names names names – if you’re from over the pond, or antipodean, or subcontinental, or even European, they won’t mean much. But you could always come up with your own list. It is Christmas, after all.

I’m not doing much more than reporting here – sharing the names. Compassion, you ask? Should I show some? My counter to that would be – incompetence must out in the end.

1] Ministers who should never have been promoted. Liam Fox, Andrea Leadsom, prime candidates, but ‘no-one can hold a candle to Chris Grayling, whose unpopularity and incompetence put him several lengths ahead of the rest.’ Justice secretary, transport secretary – why is he still there? ‘Maybe it’s because he’s a Brexiteer…’ (Indeed, it is.)

2] Failed comeback of the year: Vince Cable, leader of the LibDems (a little cruel). David Cameron – mooted the idea he might become foreign secretary. Laughter echoed for miles, so I hear.

3] Most deluded politician of the year. Jacob Rees-Mogg? No, the award goes to David Davis: ‘He was a disaster as Brexit secretary, which he blames on the civil service and everybody else blames on his laziness.’

4] Own-goal scorer of the year. Lord (one-time Andrew) Adonis … a candidate for obscure reasons I won’t go into here. But for me he also qualifies as an enthusiastic supporter of HS2, unnecessary speed at extraordinary expense. But that’s not quite an own goal. Not yet. Not until it gets finally buried in a bunker under the Chilterns.

Own-goal, who else? Jeremy Corbyn one suggestion. As an effective opposition (leaving ideology out of it) Labour has been one spectacular own goal since Corbyn was elected. But that was three years ago. We’re in the here and now, and for The Economist it has to be Arlene Foster of the DUP – her strident opposition to Mrs May’s deal makes a second referendum – and no Brexit – that much more likely. For a Brexit supporter, that’s impressive.

5] ‘The most coveted award’ – the politician who has done most to let his party and country down.  Corbyn is a candidate – a ditherer on Brexit, a follower of the line of least resistance.  ‘But Mr Corbyn merely exploited Brexit, and we felt our award should go to one of the architects of this catastrophe.’ There’s one outstanding candidate. ‘He failed miserably as foreign secretary.’ He sniped while in cabinet, from the back benches, and in his Telegraph column. ‘A demagogue not a statesman, he is the most irresponsible politician this country has seen for many years.

‘Step forward Boris Johnson!’

Well done Bagehot for an excellent bit of … reporting? The awards are all spot on, and they made me in these depressing times smile out loud.

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Just for the record, who won the actual Spectator awards? They were reasonably cross-party. Campaigner of the Year: David Lammy (Labour MP for Tottenham) – right on. Speech of the Year: Margaret Hodge. Inquisitor of the Year: Yvette Cooper. Cabinet resignations of the Year: David Davis and Dominic Raab. (There were so many, comparable to resignations in the Trump White House.)

Take out Davis and Raab and they are mostly an impressive bunch, fighters for causes, well away from the deluded end of the spectrum. The fringe, those who make their fellow MPs cringe, weren’t likely to get far in the voting.

The Economist on the other hand had no such quibbles.

Ten years on

Ten years ago I was full of optimism.

More to the forefront than ever was our common identity, as human beings – coloured, black or white, male or female, or what or whoever they might be.

There might I thought come a time when love and compassion could be mentioned more readily in everyday discourse, without raising cynical hackles.

Zen with its focus on living in the present, and not in imagined pasts or impossible futures, might have something to teach us.

The personal would naturally elide into the social, and the political. The local into the big picture. Society would be more just, more open, and liberal democracy more firmly rooted.

I still have my optimism. But it’s tougher road to travel.

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Ten years on my starting-point remains the same – the innate sense of justice and compassion which lies within each of us. Violence is the distraction. For Thomas Hobbes, favourite political philosopher of many, on the other hand, violence is the reality, society a necessary construct to allow social values space to operate.

I’m arguing we should take compassion as the reality, and build out from there.

It’s hard to imagine the practice of compassion beginning at the top, with government, though it would be wonderful if it did. Its natural launch pad is the family, from which it extends out into neighbourhood, into local institutions, school, colleges, local government. Identification with neighbourhood is key. But identity too easily becomes exclusive, narcissistic, intolerant – identity operating against rather than with others. We operate our politics from behind barricades. We don’t talk at bus stops, on street corners, or in pubs. We prefer social media …

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Many see social media as a panacea for all our ills, people coming together. I’d question this.  Coming together is about eye contact, about all the nuances of expression, about changes from moment to moment, about listening more than speaking, about compromise – about the moment, about the instant – about holding hands, walking together, taking in the sky and sunset together – social media offer none of this.

Larry Diamond argued back in 2010 that new digital tools would empower ‘citizens to report news, expose wrongdoing, express opinions, mobilise protest, monitor elections, scrutinise government, deepen participation, and expand the horizons of freedom’. The Arab Spring, inspired by social media, followed. And we know what came later.

#MeToo is another matter – it proves how much of a driver for change social media can be. I’m counselling caution, not opposition.

Who are the gatekeepers of social media? We may think the digital world has left the analogue, the old pedestrian face-to-face outmoded and behind the curve. But we should beware. Keyboard democracy has the same instant appeal as referenda, and all the disadvantages, and more. The ‘will of the people’ is unrealisable, because there must always be a question-master, a rule-setter, an interpreter, a judge – whereas representative democracy has the rules, the check and balances, and, for the USA and Europe, the traditions in place.

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Politics is about compromise – it is the art of compromise. And it needs to be personal, and pragmatic. So when we move out of our localities, or our social media space, we need our social spaces to link up to find common ground with each other. We need to look beyond our immediate identities. Find common ground with other groups. Political parties exist for this purpose. They need to be broad churches, where change and compromise are the order of the day. Media which demand positions which are always consistent which never change, are the enemy here.

Political parties aren’t popular. At times they’ve had the world before them – ridden the wave, at other times they’ve turned inward, exclusive – one interest group triumphs, ideologues take over the agenda … I needn’t say more.  But I don’t believe they can be easily substituted. Gauging opinion via social media assumes an entirely open and unmanipulated space out there, and that doesn’t and will never happen.

So, yes, it’s the street corner, the pub, the club, the church – they’re the spaces where we start. With the individual, operating in person and not with a virtual identity. We move up the chain from there, by consultation and election, to representative institutions, places for debate and the exchange of ideas, ultimately to parliament.

There are vast differences of view out there. Conflict and change will remain the order of the day. But let us at least ensure the foundations of our institutions are dug down deep. They don’t belong in a virtual space, they belong in ordinary human contact – moving up and out on to larger stages.

Those institutions well established are our best guarantee that we will reach the right decisions – on identity, immigration, infrastructure, business, welfare, how wealth is distributed, how media should be owned and operate ….

For some what I’ve said here many seem obvious, others may see it as no more than faux sociology. But I’m not attempting here an academic proposition. Rather, no more than to outline the way the personal and political need to link if society is to prosper.

As individuals, while we may lay into politicians, we need to tread carefully railing against institutions. They’ve come about not by accident, but because they worked. Take note of China, Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela. Whatever you do with the bathwater, hold on to the baby.

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?

The rise and rise of populism (1)

Theresa May has today come back with a draft Brexit deal from Brussels. Will it get through her cabinet meeting later today – will it get through parliament in the coming weeks? The convolutions over recent months have been extraordinary, and occupied newspapers, TV, parliament and civil servants, and intruded overly into all our lives. Our time could have been better spent elsewhere.

I wrote when I set up this blog that ‘zen is living in the moment and not somewhere else past or future’. We have done too much of the latter over the last two years. It is the reality of the moment we have to address.

In this blog and the following one I’m looking at the rise of populism and, with the help of an Economist article and a new book from the political theorist Yascha Mounk, attempting to put it in context.

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Bagehot (Economist 3rd November) is on the look-out for ‘intelligent explanations’ for Brexit and specifically the rise of populism that lies behind it, and he finds guidance in Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin’s book ‘National Populism’.

The authors identify ‘four Ds’ that they believe explain populism:

immigration, under the curious heading ‘destruction’;

distrust of established elites: 58% of Britons think that ‘politicians do not listen to me’;

deprivation: ‘a growing feeling of both absolute and relative deprivation … tipped the balance for significant groups of voters,’ in Bagehot’s words;

de-alignment: it’s true that Labour and Tories together at the last election won 82% of the vote, but ‘Brexit cuts like a knife though both main parties’.

Bagehot argues that all this should warn ‘the political elite should not to take the decision to re-fight the 2016 referendum lightly if the opportunity presents itself’.  Those whose opinions were ignored ‘could be dangerously radicalised if the vote went in favour of Remain’.

This is a dangerous argument in itself. If Brexit is a pathway to disaster for the country, as Remainers believe it is, and as events are proving, then we who might be immune to ‘dangerous radicalisation’ should not back off because we fear it from the other side.

Bagehot’s other conclusion, that nationalist populism will be an important part of British politics for decades, is probably true – but not certainly so.

Disinformation and dishonesty and simple deviousness (Ds again) played a significant part in swinging the referendum vote. (Or as a local leaflet has it: ‘manipulation, mistruths and campaign violations.’) They will be harder to counter as long as the media play the polarising game: restricting UK media ownership to fully resident and full UK-taxpaying citizens would be an important step forward.

But we have the media we have – in the UK and the USA. Looking beyond, we have immediate actions we could take, if the will is there. But there is also a deeper crisis, which immediate actions can ameliorate but not resolve – a crisis for democracy and for liberal democracy, in the very institutions which have underpinned our democracies in the post-war years. I’ll return to this in the post following.

As for immediate actions …. I don’t believe answers lie in new democratic institutions, citizens’ forums and the like, but returning power to local authorities would be an important step. Likewise, nation-wide investment in infrastructure: starting in, not ending in, or not even reaching (I’m thinking of HS2), deprived areas.  And a curtailing of arrogance among the elite – de-eliting the elite. Many MPs have a close relationship with their constituencies (see Isabel Hardman’s new book, ‘Why We Get the Wrong Politicians’): all need to do so, and the ‘club’ atmosphere of the Commons, and all signs of arrogance among MPs, need to be stamped down on hard. A surfeit of posh Tories and democratised Trotskyites hasn’t helped.

Fewer ‘free-traders’ would also help: arguments that there exist ‘free trade’ alternatives to the EU and the single market reassured many Leave voters that there was a real alternative to the EU. I grew tired of ‘free-traders’ referring to an economists’ ‘commissariat, as if there was a plot afoot among mendacious economists to fool the nation in the interests of … who? … global capitalism, I assume.

But immediate actions can’t level out the playing field between a rampant banking and global business sector, and the wider business sector, between a brutally acquisitive oligarchy for whom wealth brings power and influence, and the ordinary person, out of London, out west, or north, or east.

I’ll address this wider context in my next post.

Back to Europe

Should we sit back post-Brexit (if indeed it happens), as one-time Remainers, and accept our severance from Europe as permanent? Or do we make it clear that our aim will be to to rejoin – rejoin both EU and Europe. Get ‘back to Europe’.

Robert Peston (late of the BBC, now ITV’s political editor) spoke with his usual passion, lucidity and calm deliberation (a uniquely Pestonian combination) last Friday evening at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

He is very much in the Remain camp, but careful to understand both sides of the argument. But as an economist he is in no doubt about where Britain’s interest lies. Likewise over the role of the EU in guaranteeing long-term peace in Europe.

His one caveat, and a crucial one, relates to the divide in the country that Brexit has revealed and the last two years has exacerbated. How much deeper the divide, how much more bitter the recriminations in the country, if we don’t leave? Where might a hyper-charged political atmosphere lead – what damage to our institutions?

I understand that concern. But there is of course the other side. The anger and blame if we leave. But I’d suggest that maybe too many on the Remain side aren’t quite passionate enough – they’re not of the go to-the-wall mentality. Rather, shrug, and see what happens. Which is curious in a way because Remainers have a majority among the young and better educated, but it may just be that the capacity to be reasonable among the Remainers tones down their opposition. They aren’t quite angry enough.

Nor should we sideline the moral argument, highlighted by Macron’s statement that Brexit advocates were liars. ‘Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be alright, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home, are liars.’

Let’s say purveyors of half-truths and distortions. Without the fake stories, without the BBC’s equivocation, Leave would never have won. (Which isn’t to argue that elites and arrogance, wealth distribution and immigration weren’t the deeper concerns which drove the Brexit vote. These are the issues of and for our time. But Brexit is simply the wrong way to deal with them.)

Should we sit back, or on the fence, and allow Brexit to happen, without continuing to challenge at every step, before and after 29th March next year?

Saturday morning there was a Guardian story that Conservative MPS are talking to Labour MPs about winning their support for Theresa May-negotiated settlement with the EU. Takes me back to Peston. The outcome of a vote in parliament?  Another referendum on the final terms? He almost said a ‘Peoples’ Vote’ but checked himself. He put it at 40% likely – maybe 50%.

So … if, from next April on, we have a Customs Union, of sorts, and various other stop-gaps and cobbled-together elements. Do we sit back quietly? No, surely, we need a Back to Europe movement, and we need to be the ones arguing, shouting if need be, above the mess and the noise.