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 …

 

The day after…

So we’re the day after. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, officially received by Donald Tusk. From a Brit to a Pole, a document that’s tantamount to a surrender of our status in the world. Ironic, remembering 1939, when we went to war for Poland.

I’ve often thought post referendum that this blog belonged to another age. Might a Zen approach to politics, bringing wisdom and compassion, as understood in Buddhist terms, to bear, no longer be of its time?

Engagement, street-corner politics, arguing, rallying, taking sides, contrasting opposites – we may seek to hold to the truth but when the other side embellishes or distorts then we have to counter – and the language of attack and counter-attack isn’t always sweet. I tried the counter-attack last year. But that’s for another blog. For now, a simple statement, from the Buddha, no less:

How wonderful, how miraculous that all beings are endowed with the wisdom of the Tathagata [someone who has achieved enlightenment]. Only sadly human beings because of their attachments are not aware of it.

The ultimate attachment is to ‘I’, which is out there all the time asserting its identity, in a state of more or less insecurity, seeking reassurance, arguing, shoring up its position.

24-hour news is part of this. Listening every few hours, even every hour. Always engaged with the minutiae, and responding yea or nay to each news item – agreeing, disagreeing. Encouraged, depressed. Even if we’ve escaped the high and lows we’re always in there with the buzz of it all.

As a contrast, take a simple image, water in a glass vessel, conforming to its size and shape. We want to change the moment, or change the world. We pour the water out, find another vessel.

But imagine the universe as a vessel, and the laws which govern it – the laws of the tao (see the Tao Te Ching), the Buddha wisdom, the Christian gospel message of love, which is universal – as the water within.

The day-to-day is about change. That is what life is, change and becoming. But chucking out the water, changing the vessel, endless agitation, that can never be the way forward. The way of wisdom moves more slowly, wisdom lies in silence and in a quieter, more measured understanding.

And that is not the mood or way of our times!

A puzzling innocence

Back in January I wrote a poem which touched on a nightmare which I trusted with the bright and clear skies, and warmth, of June would evaporate. It didn’t, of course.

There is a foolish innocence abroad in the land. I thought back in January that we could all handle it with gentle irony. Now it’s for real – and the irony, still gentle, has a sharper focus. Irony better than anger? I’m not sure!

*

A puzzling innocence
at home on English shores

Is it a puzzling innocence, that we should wish
to shake ourselves free of all the sand and salt,
a dog out of the waves,

more than sand and salt –
we would be somewhere else, another beach –

the same waves, the same wrack and kelp,
but the sea would be somehow different,

the tide driven by another moon and
under that new moon we’d trade our goods

beyond our shores unfettered, be more English –
the moon an English moon –

ours would be
a calculated innocence, a glorious future,
an imagination of a past when we rode oceans –

grew rich on other lands – unshackled, the sea
we’d command would stretch no more than

a few miles off our shores, yet we would
still be lords –  you say,

                         it’s bright-eyed innocence
to see only the benign, the old navy afloat,
a few new tugboats on calm and peaceful waters –

but who needs containers in this grand design –

where once we traded pounds we’d trade in pence
and who are you to say, that’s not a better way

(c) Chris Collier, January 2016

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.

Another day and another …

… and another. There is no end in sight.

A febrile and emotional atmosphere, 150,000 Tory members out in the shires with the final decision on the new Tory leader. They will represent the nation. Even more so since there’s no new parliamentary election planned.

And once the leadership election is over, the big question – whether to invoke Article 50 sooner, or later.

The general disruption and shenanigans on all sides in the meantime will keep us in a state of both panic and amusement.

Quite where Labour will end up is likewise impossible to predict – a separate but related battle in its own right for the soul of the nation – who in the end does Labour represent?

Those who visited this uncertainty and foolery on us will be pilloried by history. Boris has now departed the scene, but he bears a heavy responsibility. He paraphrased Brutus in his recent withdrawal speech: ‘A time not to fight against the tide of history but to take that tide at the flood and sail on to fortune.’

If the tide for him is Brexit, a withdrawal and a ‘glorious future’, he should reflect on the fate of Brutus (he took his own life) and how futile his gesture in holding back the imperial tide.

Back to reality …

Peter Wilby in the New Statesman: ‘… the European project that led to the EU was – and in some respects still is – an an attempt to embed humane and liberal values so deeply that the nightmare [of war and violence] could never be repeated.’

That remains my view as well, but obscured and obfuscated by reactions (some valid, some not) against elites and establishment, against authority and expertise, against neglect and ostentation, post-industrial decline and globalisation, together with …

false perspectives on the past, colouring absurdly-imagined perspectives on the future (Daniel Hannan being one such errant dreamer),

neo-liberal attitudes and policies which with Ayn Rand lurking as a ghost in the room will only make division worse,

immigration and refugee crises, again with deeper issues, this time regarding population movements, tucked away in the shadows.

The optimism and open hearts of younger generations against the certainties of age, idealism against anger and cynicism. (We will need to reduce the voting age to 16, and maybe younger (!), to counter the increasing numbers of the elderly.)

Not forgetting the dangers of referenda, of populism, of a popular press in the hands of barons who bought their stake in the national debate. The triumph of mendacity and misinformation. The dangerous subjugation of parliamentary democracy, which is slow burn and should always be so, to the politics of the moment.

It’s one hell of a mix. To quote Wilby again: ‘Now new monsters, more frightening than Johnson or Farage, emerge across Europe to challenge those values. I was confident that none would acquire serious power. Now I am not so sure.’

We are fighting chimera and obsession and absurdity when there are big issues out there – population, the future of work, the fairer apportionment of resources, and much more, not to speak of the violence and hatred which are always looking for fertile ground in which to take root – they should be our focus.

Working with international bodies – the UN, and the EU, and all the others forums where we get together and talk. The very existence of such forums, in the wider context of history, is a miracle in its own right.

Matched against this there’s the gathering of Beaconsfield Conservatives shown on the news last Sunday (3rd July), so pristine, chatty, engaged in discussing the rival merits of candidates for the leadership), and all so far removed from reality. It might have been a garden in September 1939.

I’ve always loved politics and political discussion – but do I enjoy walking on a tightrope over a precipice?

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.

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.