The Uncivil War (C4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There can be no compromise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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.