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.

 

2015 and 1968

In the wake of last month’s massacre in Paris, and the Charlie Hebdo shooting earlier this year, there’s good evidence that the new millennial generation in France has found a powerful voice. Scroll down for extracts from Lucy Wadham’s article in Prospect.

What intrigues me – more than intrigues – is how their experience, their voice, marries up with the new generation in England, supporters many of them of Jeremy Corbin, but with few links to the old Left with which he’s strongly connected.

Almost fifty years ago, in the middle of the Cold War, with the possibility of nuclear annihilation still very real, the Vietnam War building rapidly to become a defining issue, I was part of a new generation with a similar sense of crisis in the world, and we were then as now looking for solutions, finding hope in crisis. Though nothing as immediate as the Bataclan massacre.

How, I wonder, do the two generations compare? Not just France and England, Paris and London, but 2015 and 1968? Can the relative failure of our hopes back then provide any pointers for the current generation? How can their hopes be turned into reality? (I say ‘relative failure’. In many ways the world hasn’t done too badly. We’re still here, and arguing, but the old problems of enmity and disadvantage have been cast in new forms, and we have a new threat to the planet in the form of climate change.)

As a powerful contribution to the argument I’d  like to quote from an eloquent and impassioned article by Paris resident, Lucy Wadham, in the current edition of Prospect. For the full article see:  http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/features/pariss-bataclan-generation-this-is-our-struggle-not-yours

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She quotes her son, Jack, describing Saturday evening, the day after the attacks of 13th November, in the Place de la République:

“It felt as if the whole world was there, present and in harmony, wondering what to build and how to connect… The calm, the particularly gentle energy, was indescribable. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

She continues: ‘This was the kind of phenomenon Jeremy Rifkin, the American social theorist and one of the great gurus of Jack’s generation, had written about in his book The Empathic Civilization. Jack had believed in, but never before experienced, this kind of empathy: “Our fear of each other,” he concluded, “and of death, felt completely surpassed, annihilated.”’

She quotes Pierre Servent, author and a colonel in the Army Reserve:

“I have confidence in this generation,” he said. “They don’t have the anti-militarist prejudices of the old French left… They’re hip, open, international, collaborative, but they’re not weighed down by the post-colonial guilt that has prevented such a large portion of my own generation from seeing the growing threat that is salafi-jihadism.”

She also quotes Le Monde asserting earlier this year that l’esprit Charlie is “a liberated tone, a satirical humour, an irreverence and pride built around solid left-wing values where the defence of secularism (laïcité) often comes first.”

No. In her own words: ‘I’m pretty sure that this is not the definition my children’s generation would give of l’esprit Charlie. For them the whole point about the extraordinary show of national unity in the aftermath of the 7th January attacks, and the thing that made the million-strong marches across the country that followed so unique and uplifting, was their apolitical nature and the spirit of tolerance towards France’s religious minorities, a tolerance that had been absent from mainstream public discourse.’

She contrast that with the views of  Alain Finkielkraut:

‘….members of the ’68 generation such as France’s principal bird of ill omen, Alain Finkielkraut, a philosopher. Finkielkraut was interviewed in the wake of the attacks by the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro, under the headline “We’re living the end of the end of History.” “His rigorous words,” Le Figaro declared by way of solemn preamble, “find a deep echo in the collective unconscious. How he is listened to. How he is read.”’

Wadham continues: ‘Not by the next generation he isn’t. For them, thinkers like Finkielkraut howl in the wilderness that is the past, still railing against an enemy that no longer has any teeth: the third-worldist leftists of the same generation. As Servent pointed out, Generation Y is not anti-militarist and does not suffer from post-colonial guilt. They’re a generation of pragmatic humanists who can see the world around them for what it is—multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multifarious—and they have a deep mistrust of grand ideas and highfalutin’ rhetoric.’

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Much to think on – and to agree or disagree with. We were once the next generation. Can the millennial generation engage with the world at a practical day-to-day level, and seek to change it as we did – and maybe with a little more success?

Democracy – a bloody miracle

Democracy is a fragile institution. Not, to paraphrase Churchill, the least-worst form of government, but a bloody miracle. Against the tendency humanity has shown throughout history to tear itself apart we have fashioned a form of government which works – where we listen, argue, campaign, vote, and accept that vote. After legislation in the last parliament, for a five year period.

And in practice?  Governments and oppositions have to abide as far as they can by the manifestos on which they’re elected. But MPs also have to make their own judgements. Trust in an individual has to be one of the criterion the electorate use in voting someone into parliament. Ultimately MPs are mandated by the electorate, and not by conferences which may support policies which weren’t in an election manifesto. 

Party loyalty, and especially the three-line whip, is necessary part of the parliamentary process, but there will be issues where MPs take principled positions against party policy (‘conscience’ is a poor term), as Jeremy Corbin often did in the past, and as others would have done had there been a three-line whip in the Syria debate. There’s been much talk recently of the duty of an opposition to oppose,  and the failure to impose a three-line whip in the Syria debate is seen as weakness by some. But when a party is divided, with both sides arguing from principle, a three-line whip serves no purpose. It only exacerbates division. 

Nor am I a fan of referenda which can be influenced by short-term considerations, or media hype. But with the Europe referendum coming up, that’s an issue for another time.

There’s a centre ground of British politics, where parties are broad churches, encompassing right and left wings, representing interest and arguments across the political spectrum. It’s as near as we have to a political duty to make certain the system continues to function and flourish.

History has yet to suggest that there is any better form of government than parliamentary and party democracy, with all the check and balances of tradition (the UK) or a constitution (the USA, above all others) built in. I think it’s one of mankind’s greatest achievements, flawed in its execution, but our first and last best hope.

I want to be arguing in this blog for compassion, aspiration and opportunity. Against the bigotry of some sections of the press, and for a compassionate state. Neither small state or command economy. For a wide and international perspective. Beyond ideology.

But this blog is called zenpolitics – politics, and politics is a rough old game. That said, we have in the UK the finest working democracy in the world. The challenge is to build on that, not to undermine it.