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.

Bad language …

Bad political language, that is.

Political debate is typically black and white. Secondary arguments are subsumed under big headings. The Brexit morass is in theory black and white, in practice we have multiple agendas with no clear majority for any of them. Language has been one of the first casualties.

‘The first casualty of war is truth,’ is the famous quotation. How about ‘the first casualty of intemperate discourse is truth’. We are not at war… but our discourse is intemperate.

*

To take one high level example. Mrs May sought last week in an address to the nation to take the high ground, and was pilloried for it. She wound up animosities (and, some have argued, stoked death threats) even further.

Mrs May: ‘You’re tired of infighting, you’re tired of arcane procedural rows, tired of MPs talking about nothing else but Brexit when you have concerns about our children’s schools. Our National Health Service, knife crime…’

Many would argue that Mrs May’s refusal to compromise has been a direct cause of the infighting, and the distraction. Indeed that Brexit itself is the distraction – a secondary issue catapulted by internal Tory politics into the defining issue of our time.

It’s too late for Mrs May to capture the high ground, two years too late. She is so deeply  embedded that she is beyond any understanding of cause and effect. Or of the impact of the language she uses.

*

An article on the website Brave New Europe, by an LSE law professor: ‘…. Britain’s right to leave is … contested by a British ruling class …The EU’s liberal empire is a type of government improvised by national governing elites that are reluctant … to rely on the political authority provided democratic politics. These elites look outwards to supranational arrangements for their authority.’

It was the use of the word ‘empire’ that caught by eye. German economic dominance is considered a kind of empire. ‘Empire’ is a loaded word weighed down with pejoratives. By implication the ‘elites’ are aspiring to empire. They look outwards to ‘supranational governmental arrangements’.

There is a simple heuristic at work here, using ’empire’ as a loaded word to dictate the terms of the argument. I’d put a counter-argument, that governing elites are an inevitable part of government and in the modern globalised world countries have to operate at a supranational level, and structures have to be invented to facilitate this.

It may sound complacent, and it certainly doesn’t sound exciting. But it is closer to reality. The argument must be how we strike the balance between supranational and local, and accommodate all the levels inbetween. Without measured language and measured debate we will never find answers.

*

Spurious statistics … John Kay highlights in an article in Prospect the difficulties associated with cost-benefit analysis (‘cost-benefit analysis today offers a bogus rationale for bad decisions’) and how the debate over HS2 (the high-speed London to Birmingham rail link) has been conducted without any convincing analysis of the outcomes.

So too Brexit. The debate revolves around a single market and a customs union, a free trade area and WTO rules, Norway and Canada options. ‘But insofar as we heard any economic argument during the referendum it consisted of the exchange of unfounded numerical assertions. It was only after the result that any of the substantive choices entered public discourse.’

*

I read, at second-hand, a report of a radio phone-in when a Brexit supporter had no fear of a hard Brexit because we still have ‘our rabbits and vegetable gardens’. I paraphrase, I can’t recall the exact words. But we are it seems at war, under siege. The enemy as in 1940 is only a few miles over the water.

How have we so quickly reached this point – that the EU is our enemy?

*

Conspiracy … A recent study of conspiracy theories reported in the Economist found that 60% of British people believe in conspiracies, Leavers more than Remainers. 31% of Leavers believe that Muslim immigration is part of a wider plot to make Muslims the majority in Britain, compared to 6% of Remainers.

Jeremy Corbin: ‘They’ve stitched up our political system to protect the powerful. They’ve rigged the … rules to line the pockets of their friends. ’

The system works to the benefit of the powerful. And people have – we have , I have – a right to be angry. So I’d go part way with Corbin. But ‘stitched up’, as if there’s a plot or conspiracy involved. It would be simpler if there was.

*

Emotive language and easy assumptions, shouting loudest, attempts to dictate the terms of a debate, assertion at the expense of debate, appeal to prejudice. The best counters to alternative versions of truth in this post-truth world is the careful and considered use of language. I wondered whether to add ’emotive’, and thought not. Emotion, anger – yes – but don’t let them dictate our use of language.

 

The rise and rise of populism (1)

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

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

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

*

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

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

immigration, under the curious heading ‘destruction’;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.