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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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?

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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.

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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.

 

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.

Infrastructure and the Genoa bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!!

Three absurdities: 1) HS2

Back to politics, and avoiding the referendum:

HS2, the great white unwanted straight-line snake that will reduce journey times by a few minutes or an hour or by some other insignificant short and quite unnecessary time, when there’s always useful things to do on trains, and anyway

trains go to the centre of cities, and businesses unless they’re banks or headquarters don’t hang around in the centre of cities

and if they can have all the conferences and conversations they need in virtual or in e-mail form

Upgrade existing lines, improve the motorways, both are vital – but don’t cut mega-expensive swathes through the heart and soul of the country, and spend money so much better used elsewhere.

Infrastructure, Lord Adonis (infrastructure supremo), isn’t about the big gestures, it’s about Devon, and Cornwall, and Wales, Nottingham and Derby, and Norwich and Newcastle, it’s about all the ordinary towns, the ordinary places – not just the metropolises

Too late I fear on this one, the political parties have all closed in behind it, after initial doubts. I remember the Economist making the contra case, but they have gone quiet.

Realising that some battles are lost, I fear this one is.