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– your closest neighbours are always your best partners, and the benefits of the EU will only be appreciated when withdrawn, when too late – you get ‘owt for nowt’ (no benefits if no contributions)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

 

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?

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 …

There can be no compromise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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?

Infrastructure and the Genoa bridge

Infrastructure hasn’t over the years been a topic of too much debate. It simply went on, all around us, yet curiously out of sight. We’d complain, some of us, about HS2 and Hinckley Point, but these are new glamour projects. Not the day to day. The day to day is about detail, hard graft, the invisible – and the maintenance of what we have.

All has been suddenly thrown into a much sharper perspective by last week’s collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa. The human cost is terrible, the economic cost (access to Genoa’s port, north-south communication) serious, the political cost (Italians disillusioned with government now even more so – but to whom do they turn?) likely to be high.  Italy’s interior minister blames the Eurozone’s strict rules on budget deficits – but as the Financial Times points out ‘a bigger constraint is the crushing burden of interest payments on Italy’s public debt’, 132% of annual economic output. (Source: Tony Barber, FT 18/19 August.)

Italy is not alone. Germany has bridge issues of its own. Obama’s transportation secretary described the US as ‘one big pothole’. Much of the road network across Britain, once you leave the motorway system, is in a poor state of repair: not dangerous, but a significant impediment to good communication.

(How many other bridges small as well as large on motorways across the developed world are suspect? The Genoa bridge had passed all its tests. I’m reminded of the long-term roadworks on the M5 just south of the M6 junction. You see few workers on the motorway itself: there are 40 or so (notices tell us) out of sight, working below the road surface. That at least is re-assuring.)

Quoting Tony Barber again: in the UK, ‘governments of all political stripes tend to neglect unglamorous small scale infrastructure projects and repair work in favour of ostentatious schemes with predictably spiralling costs.’

HS2 (high speed rail link) is a case in point. Local infrastructure (taking in the north-west, north-east, south, and south-west of England, and Wales and Scotland – HS2 may in twenty years time, with a following wind, just about reach Manchester and Leeds) and high levels of maintenance of existing infrastructure would be a far wiser way to spend money. In the case of Hinckley B (our very own Chinese-financed nuclear power station), funding requirements have trumped political considerations – and reduced our scope for independence and influence in the world.

One other consideration, which Italy’s situation highlights. Massive infrastructure self-evidently requires massive maintenance and repair costs, and that assumes continuing stellar economic performance. Will we need our skyscrapers in fifty (or a hundred) years’ time? Will our road networks be underused, radically underused, as we develop new modes of transport?

We move too fast, too blindly, and that won’t stop any time soon. The Chinese Belt and Road initiative is one guarantee of that. Development is driven as much by political and strategic as well as economic considerations. (One powerful reason why we need to be part of the EU – only that way will we have serious political heft in the world.)

What we can do is hold to the simple truth that infrastructure requires maintenance, and put aside the money in national budgets across the world to ensure that it is carried out to the highest level. That is the imperative now. (Easy to say, immeasurably harder to ensure it happens.) As for the future, we cannot simply rely on continuing high levels of prosperity as a guarantee of the required levels of funding, via taxation and borrowing or private investment.

If we cannot be confident in the long-term maintenance of our infrastructure, then we shouldn’t be building. One day our leaps into the dark will come to haunt us.