After the vote

The biggest defeat in recent parliamentary history, arguably of all time, 432 against and 202 for, margin 230. The PM resigns surely, given such a massive indication of disfavour? But she survives, and come a no-confidence vote her party falls in behind her. We have chaos.

Introduce a rogue element into any system and beware the consequences. The system, in this case parliamentary democracy, isn’t designed to cope with what we might call an externality – a referendum which claims to carry an authority greater than that of the body that authorised it. Beware what you give birth to.

If the rogue element was in any way workable on its own terms then, while the authority of parliament would be reduced, and that’s a serious issue in itself in these populist times, then chaos might be averted. But Brexit is inherently unworkable, as the last 2 ½ years have shown. The EU have conceded as much as they wish to, and will not concede more.

Given the current debacle we might have expected an end to wishful thinking but Mrs May will be back to the Commons with further proposals, all the while precluding the customs union which might open the door to an agreement with the EU. Brexit with a customs union would be no more than damage limitation – the country would be enfeebled, but it could be a way forward.

The only characteristic that is in any way noteworthy about Mrs May is her grim and dogged determination, unfazed by the discord and the harsh realities around her as she blunders on. Asserting that voting down her proposals would represent a serious threat to democracy, when she herself by her actions and words is compounding that threat, is a contradiction lost on her.

She has of course to deal with her own divided party. This is a further and unruly element in this unholy mix. She is looking for the route which will best bring her party in behind her, and making that her primary concern. As for her MPs, they carry a heavy responsibility for the mess we’re in.

Possible future scenarios are being and will be mapped out endlessly over the coming days and weeks. Surely, no ‘no-deal’, but who knows? A Norway-style agreement, which would take us back to the starting blocks? Extend the exit deadline under Article 50 beyond the 29th March? Is there any deal which would bring both the EU and the Tory lunatic fringe on board? If not, a second referendum? A bad idea in itself – never encourage referenda, of their nature pernicious to any well-functioning democracy. But if that is the only way out of this mess, that’s the route we’d have to take. On the understanding that it would be the last. But – what if the Remain side lose the vote? To what would we be committed then? Boris Johnson asserts that no deal is no more in the EU’s interest than ours. True, but that doesn’t mean, given internal politics and solidarity within the EU, that the UK would get any worthwhile concessions.

We skate on dangerous waters, in dangerous times.

The day after…

So we’re the day after. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, officially received by Donald Tusk. From a Brit to a Pole, a document that’s tantamount to a surrender of our status in the world. Ironic, remembering 1939, when we went to war for Poland.

I’ve often thought post referendum that this blog belonged to another age. Might a Zen approach to politics, bringing wisdom and compassion, as understood in Buddhist terms, to bear, no longer be of its time?

Engagement, street-corner politics, arguing, rallying, taking sides, contrasting opposites – we may seek to hold to the truth but when the other side embellishes or distorts then we have to counter – and the language of attack and counter-attack isn’t always sweet. I tried the counter-attack last year. But that’s for another blog. For now, a simple statement, from the Buddha, no less:

How wonderful, how miraculous that all beings are endowed with the wisdom of the Tathagata [someone who has achieved enlightenment]. Only sadly human beings because of their attachments are not aware of it.

The ultimate attachment is to ‘I’, which is out there all the time asserting its identity, in a state of more or less insecurity, seeking reassurance, arguing, shoring up its position.

24-hour news is part of this. Listening every few hours, even every hour. Always engaged with the minutiae, and responding yea or nay to each news item – agreeing, disagreeing. Encouraged, depressed. Even if we’ve escaped the high and lows we’re always in there with the buzz of it all.

As a contrast, take a simple image, water in a glass vessel, conforming to its size and shape. We want to change the moment, or change the world. We pour the water out, find another vessel.

But imagine the universe as a vessel, and the laws which govern it – the laws of the tao (see the Tao Te Ching), the Buddha wisdom, the Christian gospel message of love, which is universal – as the water within.

The day-to-day is about change. That is what life is, change and becoming. But chucking out the water, changing the vessel, endless agitation, that can never be the way forward. The way of wisdom moves more slowly, wisdom lies in silence and in a quieter, more measured understanding.

And that is not the mood or way of our times!

Taking politics out of zenpolitics …

Back before I took ten days out from the world I wondered about the future of my zenpolitics blog. ‘Politics and creativity, blogs and poetry are uneasy bedfellows….There has to be something obsessive about a political blog, and I may want to put obsession behind me.’

Which, indeed, I do.

Trump happened while I was away. Here in the UK, judges insisted that the government couldn’t invoke Article 50 without first putting it before parliament. Theresa May had an embarrassing trip to India. She looked out of her depth. I could but don’t want to comment on all this. I’ve spent years doing so, and especially in this Brexit year. But with so much going on it’s almost a full-time job just to keep up to speed. Let alone comment.

We are in a time of crisis. Zenpolitics has always assumed a continuing broadly liberal agenda in Western politics, and that’s now very much under threat. If, as the Economist argues, Trump’s success is replicated in Europe, ‘the EU may eventually tilt toward a common assembly for mutually beneficial transactions rather than a club of like-minded countries with a sense of shared destiny’.

I will continue to argue for that shared destiny.  But to look out for insights and inspiration, and anomalies, and avoid day-to-day combat. Insights into politics, but also I hope into landscapes, real and imaginary, and travel.

I will as always aim to understand the other’s point of view. But there are a good few bastards out there, not to put too fine a point on it.

So I will sometimes fail.

Taking time off from Brexit

I’ve written a lot about the referendum and Brexit in this blog. It is after all a blog with ‘politics’ in the title. But we’re all tired of reading analyses of one kind or another, about hard and soft Brexit, free trade and customs unions, the democratic deficit, immigration levels and the like.

And I want to get back to writing on other subjects, could be political, but just not Brexit, chill out, write poetry, seeking out high mountain or deep country retreats – or more prosaically, just get on with ordinary life.

That said, I’m not signing off without one last submission! With a focus on the action – the actions – we should be taking.

There’s a sense at the moment that events are running away from us. We’re anticipating dire consequences from the Brexit vote – but that means we’re looking out for those consequences – almost willing them – to prove ourselves right. And that’s no place to be.

A sense that more than ever in my lifetime we are headed in the wrong direction, and led by the wrong people – amateurs in a ruthless world. Rarely has hope – false hope – so triumphed over pragmatism.

Nor should we forget anger. Anger over the simple mendacity of many in the Leave campaign. But also over our own foolishness for not seeing it coming, for not realising the potential for a protest vote – and not understanding earlier why that protest vote might happen.

We now need to take action, to build up and sustain pressure – working with others, as part of campaigning groups, as supporter/members of the pressure groups, or pro-EU political parties – the Lib Dems, or an actively opposing opposition, as I hope Labour will become after the September leadership election. (It may be another kind of Labour, a breakaway or a reborn Labour, as it needs to be if it’s to regain support among the old blue-collar, working-class vote.)

‘Actions’ in italics.

All the while we have to keep that open and open-market, European, international, global perspective. International agreements by continent or wider are a much more effective, more reliable way forward than agreements at a single country level. (Which isn’t to say we should be immediately signing up to TTIP!) Europe is also an attitude of mind, relating back to how we connect with the world.

But – don’t so much shout in from the roof-tops, develop a wider, quieter strategy, but one that’s no less determined. There was too much shouting during the referendum campaign.

And too little awareness – now I hope radically changed for everyone on the Remain side – of economic and social and political realities, too little awareness of what life is really like beyond city borders – the sense of a government that doesn’t listen, the decline in prosperity and pride in traditional working-class areas, and the hostility and alienation felt even in prosperous Tory outer suburbia. If immigrants bring increasing wealth to the country, where is the infrastructure, the investment in the NHS and schools? If industries close down, where are not just the re-training packages but the industries, the services, the actual physical jobs to allow people to re-engage with society?

We may find we’ve common ground with Brexiters here – arguing for (sensible, nationwide – not HS2) infrastructure and investment.

Cameron and Osborne all but turned their backs on the problem. Inadequate re-training, and little sense of a wider industrial strategy. The irony is that it’s now the Brexiters, the old-style grumbling Tories of the shires who have to take action, when it’s just they who have been happy to turn their backs on run-down, de-industrialised areas in the past.

There are critical procedural considerations – how we can best secure votes in parliament before before Article 50 is invoked, and likewise on the results of negotiations, if we get that far. And how we can make certain we win those votes, should they happen. In the first instance – by supporting individual MPs, think tanks, pressure groups – and political parties, Labour I hope as well as the LibDems. 

God knows how the immigration debate will play out over time. Business and the NHS and social care depend on immigrants, and if the economy expands, and the NHS and social care improve their services, we will require continuing high levels of immigration. If we’re to stand a chance of retaining a sane immigration strategy it will need some radically re-thinking at an EU level – which we must argue for.

The sovereignty debate is one where opinion if it changes will only do so over time. It’s become confused with national identity, and too many people have argued that British and European identities are not compatible. The EU has to a great extent only itself to blame. It has now to show, and we have to argue hard for, a radically improved awareness of national concerns and susceptibilities. It will go to the wall, and one country after another will exit, if it doesn’t. Federalism must be put out to the very longest grass .

And that, for now, is it on the subject of Brexit!!

Wimbledon, Cameron, China, Chilcot – a few thoughts for our times

Wimbledon: Andy wins in style, and for once an afternoon watching a Wimbledon final doesn’t extend into the evening. I’m remembering Federer against Nadal, was it five years ago – rain breaks and five sets…

Andy mentioned that the prime minister was in the crowd and asked almost as a throwaway – who would want the PM’s job? Should we just occasionally give politicians a break? Even the PM? He’s made a life-changing (for all of us) mistake, but he’s kept his cool, and laughed when Murray made his comment. I almost felt I could forgive him.

And tomorrow (13th July) he’s out for ever.

*

Other thoughts for our time…

‘Few middle-class Chinese people say they want democracy.’ (The Economist) Three possible reasons. For one, memories of Tienamen Square: economic freedom it seems doesn’t require political freedom. For another, the Arab spring – the dangers of insurrection.

And Brexit, yes, Brexit.  ‘A sign that ordinary voters cannot be trusted to resolve complex political questions.’ Another good subject for discussion. One riposte – only ordinary people can be trusted.  And who are ordinary people these days. The proletariat is no more, and they weren’t it turned out very good at dictating. And the Economist’s big feature is on China’s new 225 million middle class. And then we have readers of the Daily Mail.

*

One conclusion from the Chilcot Report: politicians should beware commitments which catch up with them later. Applies to Cameron of course. But Brexit supporters have put out all sorts of promises and expectations – with little chance of delivering on them. But you can get away with promises.

Also, beware plans based on best-case scenarios, which is what Blair and Bush worked to…They may get support in parliament (2003) – win elections – and indeed referenda (2016) – but they can come back to hurt and haunt you.

*

Mendacious campaigns – which side in the referendum debate was more mendacious?Unwise forecasts (which nonetheless could be right) based on Treasury models from the Remain side, which weren’t believed. But not mendacious. Promises with almost nil substance on the other side. Given they were presented as probabilities if not truths by the Leave side – I’ve no problem with the word mendacious in their case.

If we delay invoking Article 50 – how favourably will other countries respond? We’re still – the Leave side are – in a dream world, laced with false expectations. The EU countries’ point of view? Keep Britain trading and halfway prosperous, yes. But at the same time demonstrate that you don’t get way with being a turncoat. And remember too, the cards are all in your (the EU’s) hands.

To take just one example. Paying in – we stop paying – and yet we expect the same benefits.  Absurdity. The something for nothing culture – which the Brexit side in other circumstances rail against.

*

And finally – ‘groupthink’. ‘When Mr Blix’s inspectors failed to find any WMD the JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee) gripped by groupthink put it down to the Iraq’s talent for subterfuge’. We reinforce each others’ opinions, if one of us believes, we make it easier for the others. We’ve been gripped by groupthink these past few months. The ‘somehow it will all turn out right, because it always does’ school of thought. Nearly always. Sometimes. Or, more realistically, never….

Another day 

I read the Economist’s latest thoughts and prognostications before I went to bed, and I didn’t sleep for the next two hours. That was a mistake. See Anarchy in the UK for the link.

On the BBC website this morning there’s little suggestion of crisis: the BBC’s perceived need to be even-handed eviscerates their commentary, takes out the drama, compromises truth, as it did during the campaign. George Osborne, still hanging on as Chancellor, is putting on a brave face about the economy this morning, as he has to do – and all power to him. I have yet to see the Telegraph, but I’m expecting more of the triumphalism that characterised Saturday’s paper. (Well, almost – front-page article by Boris, ‘We must be proud and positive.’ Though ‘anxious and scared’ might come closer.)

Where lies the truth? You can guess. The only one of the above not in some way beholden to someone else, by way of caution (Osborne) or position in society (BBC) or ownership (Telegraph) is the Economist. Theirs is probably the most cogent analysis I’ve seen. (Do Leave have a plan? ‘There is no plan.’) Articles by the likes of Nick Cohen take in important aspects of the crisis, but the Economist provides a wider focus.

Also this morning – a Labour leadership crisis to match the Tories’divisions, and all at a time of national crisis.

Attention now has to be on the Commons. My question – how best can the pro-Remain majority make clear its refusal to countenance any Leave legislation, and its opposition to invoking Article 50? Parliament is sovereign – not referenda.

That of course begs a multitude of questions. Not least, how would the public respond?

Short term there’ll be an almighty bust-up. Longer term, government must be more inclusive if it’s to win over the protest voters (as opposed to hardliners).

Taking my local area, Spelthorne, just outside London’s boundaries, but very much in its orbit, as an example. It came out strongly pro-Leave. 65%. How much of that vote might be considered protest? While there are areas of deprivation they’ve not been left behind as other areas have. But that dividing line just 400 yards from where I live, between inner and outer London, marks a real boundary in outlook and expectations and perceptions of the world.

I could put it down to fear of immigration, stirred up by the media: that’s one reason, but too simple. We’ll be getting closer to a full picture if we link it to proximity to the instruments of government, parliament, civil service, especially the City. Closer still if we take into account the greater numbers of young people, of voting age, within London’s border, and its corollary, the greater number of retired people, suspicious of the modern global world, beyond that border. Why do older generations and the retired feel so alienated? Does it have to be that way? I’m still looking for answers.

24th June – the day after

Many responses to this absurd nonsensical vote for Leave. Anger, anxiety, recrimination. Being ashamed for the country, ashamed at the way we’ll be seen by the rest of the word, ashamed maybe that we didn’t see it coming.

A sense we’ve let down young people across the country, who voted by a substantial majority for Remain. We being the old fogeys.

What we must not do now is acquiesce, accept that the people have voted, and imagine we can’t challenge the vote itself and its consequences.

Just how constitutional is a referendum in the first place? It was established by an act of parliament so it is clear by this simple fact that parliament takes precedence over referenda. We don’t have a written constitution but the supremacy of the House of Commons is clearly established. It can make legislation, and it can remove legislation.  We shouldn’t assume, mustn’t assume, that yesterday’s vote is forever.

Referenda

The referendum expressed ‘the will of the people’, it will be argued. But did it? The will of the people at one moment in time. The will of the people as directed by a popular press which has been pursuing an anti-EU agenda for many years, and an anti-immigrant agenda. A popular press that plays on prejudice and seeks to portray isolated instances as widespread patterns of behavior – that looks to disparage, mock and scorn at every opportunity. The damage all this does to public debate is immeasurable. And given the importance of maintaining a free press there’s little we can do about it.

‘The will of the people’ …  in theory it exists, in practice it is easily influenced, ever-changing Next week, next month, it could express itself very differently.

Parliamentary democracy is arguably Britain’s greatest gift to the world. We elect representatives, they divide into different parties and groupings which debate and pass legislation which has at least been fully considered and argued in a (usually) sane and calm environment. Elections are open to populist rhetoric, and they can be divisive, but they elect parliaments which balance opinion and establish consensus in a remarkable way.

Why in earth should we want to subordinate a parliament to a plebiscite-based democracy?

Referenda polarize opinion too readily, as they have done this time, encouraging wild statements and mis-statements, sometimes total untruths. They give some kind of equivalence to both sides, however untenable the position one side might be. (I’m thinking of the BBC.) Opinions in the country are now so divided, tempers so frayed, that rifts engendered could take years to heal.

That said, now our ire has been roused we must act on it. At a more trivial level by keeping up the pressure on Boris. Boris found himself faced with a hostile crowd when he left home this morning. I hope that continues to happen. He needs to be aware of the consequences of his actions.

The next stage

Cameron will resist pressure from the EU to quickly invoke Article 50. So he should. There’s a big Remain majority in the Commons and they must ensure that no precipitate action is taken before we have not only a new Tory leader and prime minister (and I’d hope a new Labour leader) but also an election.

If the Brexit mood is maintained, then Tory MPs who’ve voted Remain may succumb to local party pressure and agree to vote for Brexit legislation in the next parliament. If they don’t, they may find themselves de-selected. But if they hold out, then the new parliament is likely to have a pro-Remain majority. In which case, back to my argument above – which should take precedence – a parliamentary majority, or a referendum vote? That could of course become an election issue in itself. Feathers will fly.

We can’t know how this will play out. But it will be interesting.

The Brexit vote

Some of us feel angry and ashamed. But rightly or wrongly, there were and are strong emotions on the Brexit side. I was very aware of that observing the count at my local council offices on Thursday night. A roughly 65:35 Leave majority.

Why so many? It’s important to know, and we must deal with their anger without indulging our own too much. Resentment at elites, suspicion of authority and expertise – a legacy of the financial crisis, and the expenses shambles. A related sense among many of being left behind, forced into part-time work, low pay. Among the more fortunate a sense of others on the gravy train, doing better, and unfairly so, than they are. Immigrants: if jobs are still there wages are lower than they would otherwise have been. And often a simple fear of immigrants, even when they may never see more than one or two in their locality.

Much of this has been played upon and wildly exaggerated by the UKIP and the media, but there is some truth here. If there is resentment, we have to address it. If government austerity measures have exacerbated feelings of being marginalized, we must deal with that too. It won’t help if we disparage and cry foul. If towns  in the North-East feel that all the focus and investment is down south – they’re right. (Please divert HS2 finance into a network which serves everyone, including the North-East.) We have to get to the root of the matter. It won’t stop the Mail or Sun seeking out incidents they can exploit, but we have to limit their opportunities to do so. And we must be, in two words, more inclusive.

Brexit leadership

Several strands. All need to be addressed head-on, for what they are.

Immigration – UKIP and the closet racist agenda of Nigel Farage, making racist attitudes somehow acceptable, attempting to link the refugee crisis and Eastern European immigration in the popular mind.

Arguments about sovereignty and accountability, EU extravagance, sclerotic administration.  (Mostly specious, but can be made to sound convincing.)

The neo-liberal agenda, which the Tory right has managed to squeeze through under the radar in the guise of reducing regulation.

More broadly, looking inward, looking back, shades of Empire, and a belief we can go it alone. The fairy tale land Boris would like to inhabit.

Our response

We can take up the standard from Jo Cox, be proud of Britain (and in her case Yorkshire as well!), proud of Europe and what it’s achieved and where it’s come from over the last seventy years, and be open and open-hearted toward the world.

That’s a challenge, and one I think with younger generations on our side I’m sure we can rise to.

52% doesn’t have to be a done deal.