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 story so far – fifteen months on the disaster trail

The shadow over politics, the Brexit shadow, is one vast distraction. I feel I have to escape the shadow before I address other political subjects. But those other subjects – they’re all impacted in some way by Brexit, not least by the uncertainty associated with Brexit.

Take the environment, for example. UK environmental law is tied into European. Projects are EU-financed, standards, ideals, aspirations are shared. I remember at Finistera, at the end of the Camino, last autumn, noting how environment projects there were funded by the EU. I’d shared the Camino with many nations, and I loved that confirmation that many nations shared those standards, lived by a common framework. We know that Brexit free-traders cosy up to climate-change deniers, are casual about man-made changes to the environment – human ingenuity, they argue, has coped, and will always cope. All hinges on that one word ‘cope’.  Does the world we have around us, and that we’re projecting for our futures, mean that we’ve ‘coped’?

Human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights, which followed on from the UN Convention, and unlike the UN Convention is legally enforceable. Before the European courts. So for that reason we should exit it, according to Theresa May. As Philippe Sands (author of the remarkable East-West Street) pointed out when talking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last Sunday, more than any other country we – the UK – gave Europe the convention. It was a British inspiration. Hersch Lauterpacht, who pioneered so much (beginning life in Lviv, in modern Ukraine: he left in the 1920s, his family were wiped out in the holocaust), was latterly a Cambridge professor.

Farming policy: how will policy change, how will farmers be financed, once we exit the EU, and exit the Common Agricultural Policy? CAP funding is based primarily on the amount of land farmed , so big farmers (mostly Tory supporters) benefit most. On the other hand, to quote a Scottish hill-farmer in a Reuters report: ‘The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers but brought a good deal for us as well.’ Post-Brexit, where will the money be directed? We are promised ‘a major policy overhaul’. Will the acreage farmed continue to dictate funding?  How might our landscapes change? Will the much-hyped new trade deals bring in cheaper farm imports , with knock-on effects on farm prices – other farming countries have more clout than we do. And what of cheap farm labour from Eastern Europe?  Michael Gove wants to prioritise the environment in any new scheme. But we’ve no idea how that will work out in practice, and legislation will be fast-tracked through parliament – fundamental changes pushed through with minimal public debate.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival has brought to the town an impressive range of politicians, journalists, singers (Peggy Seeger), mountaineers (Chris Bonington), sportsmen (Mike Brearley, Jonny Bairstow), TV stars, performers, poets, novelists….

Among the politicians was Chris Patten. I’ll leave his words to speak for themselves.

Referenda ‘are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them’. (I can’t recall Patten’s exact words in Cheltenham – I’m quoting from another interview he gave.) Leavers in the Brexit campaign peddled a dubious notion of sovereignty (‘dubious’ was his polite word in Cheltenham – I see that elsewhere he’s spoken of ‘all this ideological crap about sovereignty and taking back control’). Brexit itself is ‘the single most calamitous act of self-harm in my lifetime’.

Philippe Sands, also at Cheltenham, put the remarkable achievement that the EU represents in the context of the preceding centuries of war. How casual can we be to turn our backs? He mentioned that Boris Johnson has been a friend for thirty years. How, he wondered, do you sustain such friendships in present times? Brexit has brought the obsessive tendencies of the further reaches of the Right, and Left, to centre stage. The centre ground of rational idea-based, truth-invigilated debate, is out of fashion.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, has written a novel. He and Vince Cable, also a new novelist, were a Cheltenham double-act. Boris’s novel assumes a Russian plot behind Brexit, enough to bring Brexit down. But he himself has changed sides from EU-supporting environmentalist to that contradiction in terms, a Brexit-supporting environmentalist.

Vince Cable outlined how higher education, the number of foreign students in the UK, intra-university cooperation across Europe were being threatened by Brexit. Stanley’s response, ‘Vince may be right, but he may not be.’ That was the limit of his response.

‘He may not be’ – that is standard Brexit-speak. You don’t need to address the detailed argument. It’s enough to suggest these days that’s there’s another point of view, however weak. And that point of view gets equal billing. The climate-change debate over again.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, is a one-time Remainer, now a Leaver – the damage, he suggests, to the economy that leaving was supposed to cause hasn’t happened. Is he now a convert to the hard-Brexit free-traders’ prognosis of a free-trade nirvana which will somehow subvert a world where protectionism and self interest are ever more asserting themselves? Or the Hammond soft version?

As the economy,  we haven’t left yet, we’re in a phoney-war period, a state of suspended grace which might just allow us to pull back from the brink – but the brink is too enticing. That itself is another aspect of Brexit – how supposed conservatives, the slow and steady incremental movers of politics, overnight become practitioners of brinkmanship.

Brexit is not only a bizarre course in terms of the economy, it is extraordinarily damaging to the democratic process, not just by giving referenda precedence over parliamentary democracy (so we have the question, can an act of parliament over-ride a referendum result – where does sovereignty lie?) but by polarising debate, taking out the common ground that most of the Right and Left shared until 2015.

Not only is the common ground not shared – it’s now scorned. So the John Majors, Chris Pattens, Nick Cleggs – they are old-school, flag-wavers of a different age. That would apply to me, and to most of my peers …

 

Zenpolitics, and the world, six years on

It’s not a bad idea in these tortured times to remind myself why I began this blog. ‘What is zenpolitics,’ I asked. My answer? ‘Taking the trash and hyperbole out of politics and trying to look at people and issues in a way that’s detached from emotion and as they really are.’

Six years now since I wrote that, and it’s even harder now. The Brexit campaign has focused all the uncertainty in British politics but instead of providing resolution has brought animosity, and potential chaos. Politics should always be about gradual not sudden change – not a thought everyone shares, I appreciate – it’s a subject for another time, another post.

But now we have an elephant in the room, as someone said. We are all obsessed and divided and old-style political discussion has gone out of the window. A good thing?

Referenda do damage, they polarise, the original subject of debate gets lost in hyperbole, in distortions, it too readily becomes a protest vote. They’re prey to propaganda, to manipulation. Referenda were a distant and unlikely possibility six years ago. Now they are subverting the parliamentary democracy which gives a forum for rational – and emotional – debate, which falls prey to all sorts of issues and irregularities, but nonetheless gives a sane and measured and balanced way forward.

In the US it’s no better, and potentially worse. US presidential elections reflect a traditional divide, they have a slow almost two-year (if not a four-year!) build up, and they are multi-issue. But this time it’s a protest vote, whipped up on the one side by special interests with vast amounts of advertising spend at their disposal, now turned on its head by Donald Trump, and on the other side by an equally disillusioned younger and streetwise population – both sides equally out of step with Washington politics. In the US and the UK vast numbers of people no longer feel a part of the traditional democratic process.

Behind all this are the challenges of globalisation and new technologies – the decline of traditional industries, a switch from a unified and organised and socially cohesive labour force to a fragmented and lower-paid workforce engaged in lower-paid service industries, influenced and exacerbated by massive trade imbalances with China – resulting in a growing divide between those who benefit from these changes, usually educated and skilled, and those who do not.

And out of this we have alienation, discontent – and, given a forum, we have protest. And we have the blind (and Tory economic policy under Osborne has to fit under that heading) who fail to see the

impact of that alienation, and how it has to be directly addressed. And the manipulators, who turn it to their own purposes – anti-immigrant sentiment, or neo-liberal economic agendas.

Blind – we’ve all been blind. Back to my original zenpolitics aspiration – ‘trying to look at people and politics… the way they really are’. More than ever that has to be the aspiration. And it’s now, with so much emotion and obsession, that much harder.

All the while, the other big issues haven’t gone away – the refugee crisis, Syria, IS. Population movements in Africa, where the population explosion is hitting hardest. Russia and Ukraine. China and the South China Sea. And suddenly, almost but not quite out of the blue, we have Turkey, an attempted coup, and a profoundly foolish but populist regime which will lead Turkey further down the road to either chaos or autocracy.

And here in the UK – we now obsess with Brexit, where the very best outcome will be that we achieve something close to our existing economic performance, and the worst – better not to contemplate.

There are bigger issues, much bigger issues, out there, and we have turned foolishly inward.

I wanted with zenpolitics to take the emotional out of politics. But we need emotion at times to drive the engagement we need to have to put our own world, here in the UK, back on to a saner track.

But above all we need to, and I repeat, ‘see things as they really are’. In a world of fractured and misleading debate that is a mighty challenge.

The same again please

Written before May announced and Johnson renounced, and then Gove pronounced. More on that later…

I’ll argue to the end for the re-assertion of parliamentary democracy (over referenda) and continued membership of the EU. And millions with me, I know. But, if that doesn’t happen, what should we argue for – what should we demand?

The same…

If we can’t have the EU we need the EU without the EU. The same workplace, health and safety, and environmental legislation, the same Europe-wide agreements in science, the same cooperation in the arts.

What we still want to be a part of came about because of the EU. That fact will be more than apparent for many of us. Maybe the realisation will strike home for a few Leave voters.

The same vision: that’s more difficult – the open inclusive vision that many of us have is simply not shared. And that, as long as it doesn’t shade into bigotry and prejudice, I can just about accept – I must accept. (That it did so shade in the referendum is a challenge for all of us.)

The same trade deal: all save a few economists on the neo-liberal wing of the Tories (or beyond that wing) would like to be spared tariffs, would want to be part of a single market. EU regulations would have to be adopted by the UK – little option but to do otherwise – and any reining back would be a betrayal of civilised values.

Compromise is sometimes possible: in some areas we have to take a stand. And that means immigration, the devilish strand that is woven through history. Our forebears somewhere way back were immigrants, and their progeny a generation or two down the line took up against the next wave. Each generation has to manage the issue as best and as widely as it can.

Wisdom in a referendum too easily goes out the window, as it has done here. Fertile ground for wild statements appealing to the worst in people. I would have trusted Cameron to bring that wisdom to any negotiation. I think I might also trust Stephen Crabb. Start out with a degree of humility not arrogance. Boris Johnson has today disqualified himself, though there’s no more humility there than in his nemesis, Michael Gove.

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.

The Foreign Secretary wobbles …

One final post before I put this blog to rest for a week or two – I’ll be on a retreat and, I trust, out of touch with the world!

My starting point this time: Bronwen Maddox’s interview (before an audience of 250 within the Foreign Office) with Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, in the March edition of Prospect.  Richard Dawkins was, curiously, in the audience. Not always a favourite – his views on religion aren’t mine (though I read his books!) but on this occasion he pinned Hammond beautifully.

Dawkins: “On something as important as Europe why hand it over to the British people.’ (How tongue in cheek that was I don’t know.)

Hammond: ‘There speaks a true democrat – too important for the people to decide.’

Dawkins: ‘We have a representative democracy – we want politicians to make judgements on our behalf.’

And that is indeed how we avoid the excesses of populism, and rule by the popular press and an unaccountable media. Referenda are dangerous instruments: the ‘popular will’ is a fickle thing, easily roused by rabble-rousers, and the damage once done hard to put right.

Hammond, justifying his position on Europe, then commented: “What’s gone wrong is very simple. The economic benefits haven’t been materialising for Britain, so many people feel that the dynamism and entrepreneurialism of our economy has been held back by the dead hand of Brussels bureaucracy.”

Does he really believe this? To quote an article elsewhere in Prospect (by Springford and Tilford), “there is next to no evidence that EU membership is a significant constraint on the supply-side of the UK economy. For example, according to the OECD, Britain’s markets for goods and services are the second least regulated in the world.”

If we’re not reaching markets – and that is especially true  compared to our European neighbours in countries outside the EU – it isn’t the EU’s fault.

Look elsewhere, Philip, and you might begin to do your job encouraging British firms to get stuck into markets round the world.

(It’s interesting to speculate on why British firms do underperform outside Europe. Two related suggestions: the size of our domestic market, and more broadly the English-language market, so there isn’t the same urgency there is for others; and a certain discomfort dealing with other countries and other languages. The world dominance of English may actually count against us.)

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.