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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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….

The anger is still there

Four mornings on and the anger is still there. Meeting a friend last night, I’m greeted by ‘hello’, followed by ‘I’m angry’. To take one instance.

Cameron gave a statement in the Commons yesterday. Questioned whether the infamous £350 million a week would all go the NHS, this was ‘a matter for his successor’ was the gist of his reply, and he sat down with a slight smile.

It was the slight smile that worried me, angered me. This was politics at its very worst, playing games at a time of crisis. In the absence of any plan from the Leave side we are heading into an abyss. The Tories would like to delay the negotiations until a new PM is in place. The EU on the other hand cannot afford to delay – uncertainty and contagion are their big concerns. Hollande and the Italian PM Mario Renzi have both emphasised that exit must be processed quickly so that the EU can focus on what should be the biggest issues – fighting terrorism and strengthening borders (and, I’m sure, the wider issues associated with the refugee crisis).

If our government delays the likelihood is that the EU will draw up its own terms and present them to the UK on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. In any negotiation, any normal negotiation, you put your case down, coherently and cogently – and early. Get in there first. Stake out the ground. The way this is playing out it is we who will get staked out.

What I would have thought (and hoped) is that Cameron, playing the statesman not the politician (and taking into account the legacy he’d like to leave), would realise that the only option open to him now is to announce to parliament that the UK will continue to be a member of the EU. Given the referendum result we, the UK, would be seeking further reforms (the referendum result  has given him a powerful mandate) but we would remain, not leave. He should remind the House, and the nation, that the result of the referendum is not legally binding, and parliament in all matters is sovereign. There will be an awful lot of flak, more like heavy shelling from some quarters, but the country would be spared a long-drawn-out disaster. All that we’d suffer would be loss of face.

His justification would be watertight: the Leave camp have no plan, economic indicators are dire, our reputation in the world is at serious risk of being terminally damaged, above all the welfare of each and every citizen, of all of us, is threatened if we continue as we are at present.

There have been arguments from the likes of Digby Jones (ex CBI chief) that we could manage very well in the world outside the EU. Up to a point, that could be true. We could function OK, at a lesser level than now, but we would function. But that issue is theoretical.

The real issue is where we are now, and the imperative of taking action now to avoid the chaos ahead.

Three political issues – getting it wrong

One or two political issues – London, and election for mayor coming up this summer, and the Europe referendum. And a third – Adidas withdrawing athletics sponsorship.

Three egregious examples of getting it wrong. And they’re all three in their different ways about identity – our identity as Londoners and as Europeans, and in the Adidas case, brand identity.

The Tory candidate for London mayor, Zac Goldsmith, was on the Andrew Marr show last Sunday. He accepts that the London building boom under Boris Johnson has pushed prices up beyond what ordinary Londoners can afford, but he still claims Johnson’s London to have been a great success story. A very partial success. Goldsmith claims to have a plan, should he become mayor, but such is the gap between average house prices and the income of the average Londoner, it won’t be enough to subsidise first-time buyers, and reductions in housing benefit have already made life much harder for low-income earners. Johnson has at the most basic level failed Londoners, and that point needs to be drilled home.

Goldsmith is a confessed eurosceptic, waiting on the result of Cameron’s renegotiations, a state of being which doesn’t impress me. Europe is a matter of identity, and part of our identity is as Europeans. The EU is a remarkable achievement, the benefits historic and tangible, but change and reform have to be ongoing – as they must be for any large organisation. The muddled scepticism and brave imaginings (of a brighter future outside) of the Tory right are a major obstacle to that process.

Adidas: it’s withdrawing its sponsorship I assume because it’s worried about damage to the company name and brand.  Did it take into account the damage it will do to athletics? It’s the athletes and not the IAAF which will be big losers. Make reform a condition of future sponsorship, yes, but don’t withdraw it altogether. The damage to the Adidas brand is to my mind now – their act of withdrawing sponsorship.

Who do we want to be? If we’re Londoners, London should be for all its citizens. We’re British – and we’re Europeans. As for Adidas, they and their brand should know be judged by what they give, and not by what they take away.

Argument and counter-argument – the beauty of debate

I seem to be quoting the Daily Telegraph a lot recently, which is worrying.

I was once a Guardian reader, disgruntled long ago, really from the moment the paper moved south and lost its link to the Manchester liberal tradition. I am of course from Manchester, and biased.

One friend from my college days has me down as some kind of Trotskyite, and I’m loathe to disillusion him, as it’s good for my ego, though I could do without the ice axe.

Where do I stand? If you’ve read other posts of mine you’ll know that I’m an arch-parliamentarian. And who or what is that?  (Not a latter-day Civil War Puritan!)

Michael Sandel in ‘What Money Can’t Buy’ refers to ‘the parlous state of public discourse’, with particular reference to the USA, but it also to a lesser degree applies here in the UK. Thinking of Congress ‘it’s hard (Sandel argues) to imagine a reasoned public debate about such controversial moral questions as the right way to value procreation, children, education, health, the environment, citizenship, and other goods’. 

Thankfully we haven’t got that far, and parliament can still be a place for serious debate.

But outside of parliament, opinions can be dismissive, personalised, and especially on social media, downright nasty. ‘Some,’ to quote Sandel, ‘see in our politics a surfeit of moral conviction.’ People believe too deeply. Sandel, and I’m with him on this, takes a different view: ‘The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument, but too little.’

We’re used to big opinions but we’re frightened of any debate about moral issues and even more so spiritual issues, and when we do have them, as the BBC does on Sunday mornings, the debate is boxed in and artificial – as if moral issues need a forum, and can’t simply be part of everyday discourse.

Moral debate goes hand in hand with measured debate. Moral positions convince no-one if they’re asserted. Listening to the other side, argument and counter-argument, avoiding posturing, keeping open minds….

I mentioned mind-maps in an earlier blog, where arguments are laid out in a form where we can begin to make judgements. Where there are moral issues involved, discussing welfare issues, for example, we need them addressed, not skimped, a degree of balance, different viewpoints.  We’re living in time when economic arguments, masquerading as moral, trump moral too often.

Not too much to ask, but it doesn’t always make for good viewing. TV and media assume that what we want is a good scrap, and sometimes we do. But we also want to be well-informed, on facts and opinions – the two kept separate. 

Parliament can be and needs to be a model for such debate. It has a history as a great debating chamber, probably the greatest of all.

It can also be a bear-pit – and that makes for a good mix.

 

 

 

UK air strikes in Syria – the vote

Relief at the vote in parliament. 297 to 223 in favour. Mightily impressed by Hilary Benn, making a powerful moral case for intervention. A reminder of Labour’s tradition of internationalism, opposition to fascism, support for human rights.

But…. I’m aware of how hugely divisive this is, and how family, friends and commentators who normally agree are polarised on this issue.

Cameron’s disgraceful comment that his opponents are ‘terrorist sympathisers’ requires an apology that hasn’t been forthcoming.

Likewise the following statement in the literature of the Stop the War Coalition, also totally untrue: ‘In reality, it is not conscience at all that animates pro-war Labour MPs. It is either inveterate support for all British war-mongering, or a desire to destroy the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, or both…’

Leaving aside comments on Corbyn’s leadership, as someone who has thought long and hard on the issues involved, and come down on the side of engagement, it’s in effect an attack on me as well.

Trading insults is massively counter-productive.  It’s a debate where there’s been too much heat. It’s wound me up, as it has many others. We have to be much cooler in our arguments, and listen better to the other side.