Europe or America – too much ‘us against them’

Europe v America

Do you lean more to Europe or to the USA? What does your instinct tell you? I remember the question being posed in a radio debate a few years ago. It caught my attention then. It’s more than ever relevant now, as Brexit disparages and attempts to sideline Europe.

Why for so many is there an instinctive hostility to the EU? Is it just to the institution? Or does it reflect the way we engage with European culture and history? At a bumptious Boris Johnson ‘I can sing Ode to Joy’ level, or at a level more woven into our soul – into our identity?

Are we a European people, one of many, an outlier, but integral nonetheless? Or are we to all intents and purposes, though we wouldn’t admit it, just another state of the USA, just doing things a little differently.

We’re uneasy about the USA, it’s brashness, its noise, its superiority complex – but we go with it – it is, we feel, an exaggeration of our own character, the same substance, lacking the finesse. But they’re our comfort zone – not Europe.

Brexiteers by default lean to America, to trade agreements which will of course be on American terms. They hide this behind ‘global’ aspirations, and a maritime, ‘old Commonwealth’ identity.

I’d argue we are already global – and we are as engaged with the USA we need to be. Trump’s penalties for companies and banks breaking US-imposed sanctions against Iran underline the point.

 

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Europe v the world

So we’ve widened it. It’s no longer Europe v America, it’s elided into Europe v ‘the world’. We’re going global. As if we need to assert one identity at the expense of another. I’m proud to be a citizen of the UK – of Europe – and of the world.

Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, trespasses onto this territory when (I’m quoting from The Economist) he criticises liberal Tories such as [Amber] Rudd ‘for misinterpreting Brexit as a vote for closing the borders rather than embracing a more global future’.

There are countless other such statements. The likes of Nelson have set up and pursued a false dichotomy, pitching a European against ‘a global future’. We were there of course already. The Brexit strategy will indeed involve (the shenanigans of current Cabinet debate on the subject will go down in history as farce) some kind of closure of our border with Europe, against a pie-in-the-sky chance of signing trade deals with further-flung countries that offset the damage that closure will cause.

Countless pages, articles, tomes have been written on both sides of the argument. It’s that deeper and false sense of a divide that concerns me here. The Brexit debate, and Brexit supporters for decades before the 2016 vote, have polarised ‘European’ and ‘global’, pitched one against the other, and we’re digging the divide deeper all the time.

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Don’t for heaven’s sake claim you’re an intellectual

I’m hardly saying anything new but it’s also an anti-intellectual debate. Don’t rely on argument, rely on instinct – it’s become a matter of belief. There’s a new book out about the French intellectual (The End of the French Intellectual): at least France has had such a person as the public intellectual. A species who in this country should expect to get as little appreciation from the likes of the Daily Mail as members of the House of Lords or the judiciary.

Leaping across the pond, we have Scott Pruitt, head of the American Environmental Protection Agency, barring scientists who have received federal grants from the EPA from sitting on boards advising the EPA on the grounds of ‘conflict of interest’. There are no restrictions on scientists who work for the industries the EPA monitors. Again, independence of mind is under threat.

And finally, that Ruth Lea, a long-time public figure, arguing that ‘the economics ‘establishment’, including the Treasury, were utterly wrong-footed by our economic performance after the Brexit vote in June 2016′. The economics ‘establishment’ – ‘commissariat’ is another term I’ve seen used. In other words, the great majority of economists. Maybe Ruth Lea hasn’t noticed how our performance has significantly lagged the rest of Europe – and taken on board the reluctance abroad not to let the UK slide too far – for in whose interests is that? Yes, arguments were too apocalyptic, attempting to match the Brexiteers’ approach of promising the earth.

The way is still down, it’s just taking far more turnings. As long as we inhabit this falsely polarised world that won’t change.

And who is working class these days?

Working class – who is working class these days? The numbers of Americans defining themselves as middle class are in decline: 48% now consider themselves lower or working class. There are similar shifting sentiments in the UK.

And where do the old values of social liberalism (for a definition of social liberalism see * below) and social justice fit within this changing spectrum?

In both the USA and UK a new identity (nation, race, interest group) politics is taking hold. At the expense of both a more liberal outlook, and ‘the more conservative Labourism that might still stand the best chance in small-town England’. (David Marquand)

Taking Labour first, what the old Left hasn’t accepted is that the working-class solidarity of old, which has inspired the Labour movement for 150 years, is gone forever. And that could include Marquand’s ‘more conservative Labourism’. Left-intellectual radicalism and working-class aspirations no longer gell as once they did. Grinding poverty is no more, the old Marxist underpinning likewise, and there’s an alienation, a boredom and increasingly an hostility toward the political process.

And intellectuals, never too popular in the UK, are out of fashion as never before.

The popular instinct, as the Brexit result revealed, is to hold on to what we have. Immigration, globalisation, new technologies, the old politics, all are suspect. There’s support for renationalising the railways, but not for wider state intervention.

Maybe the Corbynite left will convince us otherwise, but I think they’re simply out of tune with the popular will.

So too social liberals – they’re also out of tune with broad sections of the population, who only see government indifference to unwanted changes in their lives – housing shortages, pressures on services, regional development, immigration.

It’s addressing these issues, rather than an overtly radical political prospectus, that will win people back to a liberal agenda.

Likewise, this should be Labour’s policy focus. Radical at heart, but pragmatic in practice. Unless you’re happy in the wilderness.

*Wikipedia has a helpful definition of social liberalism: Social liberalism is a political ideology that seeks to find a balance between individual liberty and social justice. Like classical liberalism, social liberalism endorses a market economy and the expansion of civil and political rights and liberties, but differs in that it believes the legitimate role of the government includes addressing economic and social issues such as poverty, health care, and education. Under social liberalism, the good of the community is viewed as harmonious with the freedom of the individual. Social liberal policies have been widely adopted in much of the capitalist world, particularly following World War II. Social liberal ideas and parties tend to be considered centrist or centre-left.

Argument and counter-argument – the beauty of debate

I seem to be quoting the Daily Telegraph a lot recently, which is worrying.

I was once a Guardian reader, disgruntled long ago, really from the moment the paper moved south and lost its link to the Manchester liberal tradition. I am of course from Manchester, and biased.

One friend from my college days has me down as some kind of Trotskyite, and I’m loathe to disillusion him, as it’s good for my ego, though I could do without the ice axe.

Where do I stand? If you’ve read other posts of mine you’ll know that I’m an arch-parliamentarian. And who or what is that?  (Not a latter-day Civil War Puritan!)

Michael Sandel in ‘What Money Can’t Buy’ refers to ‘the parlous state of public discourse’, with particular reference to the USA, but it also to a lesser degree applies here in the UK. Thinking of Congress ‘it’s hard (Sandel argues) to imagine a reasoned public debate about such controversial moral questions as the right way to value procreation, children, education, health, the environment, citizenship, and other goods’. 

Thankfully we haven’t got that far, and parliament can still be a place for serious debate.

But outside of parliament, opinions can be dismissive, personalised, and especially on social media, downright nasty. ‘Some,’ to quote Sandel, ‘see in our politics a surfeit of moral conviction.’ People believe too deeply. Sandel, and I’m with him on this, takes a different view: ‘The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument, but too little.’

We’re used to big opinions but we’re frightened of any debate about moral issues and even more so spiritual issues, and when we do have them, as the BBC does on Sunday mornings, the debate is boxed in and artificial – as if moral issues need a forum, and can’t simply be part of everyday discourse.

Moral debate goes hand in hand with measured debate. Moral positions convince no-one if they’re asserted. Listening to the other side, argument and counter-argument, avoiding posturing, keeping open minds….

I mentioned mind-maps in an earlier blog, where arguments are laid out in a form where we can begin to make judgements. Where there are moral issues involved, discussing welfare issues, for example, we need them addressed, not skimped, a degree of balance, different viewpoints.  We’re living in time when economic arguments, masquerading as moral, trump moral too often.

Not too much to ask, but it doesn’t always make for good viewing. TV and media assume that what we want is a good scrap, and sometimes we do. But we also want to be well-informed, on facts and opinions – the two kept separate. 

Parliament can be and needs to be a model for such debate. It has a history as a great debating chamber, probably the greatest of all.

It can also be a bear-pit – and that makes for a good mix.

 

 

 

No Country For Old Brits

Just finished a quick reading of No Country For Old Men. A landscape of violence, where even Sheriff Bell finds no hope, where the devil at work maybe the only explanation. Compare the very different noir landscape of Brighton in the recent Brighton Rock movie (based on the Graham Greene novel of course), Pinkie the Chigurh equivalent, the difference being that Pinkie is on his way down, faced with life and death decisions, where he chooses death, another person’s, each time. Chigurh is already there, the only decisions he makes are death decisions, save for when he tosses a coin to decide Carla Jean’s fate (the coin falls the wrong way), but even that palls before the degradation of Pinkie urging suicide on Rose.

That really is enough of that. I turned for restoration (by way of extreme contrast!) to January in Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm where there is peace in landscapes where man and nature have evolved side by side, rather than one all but seeking the destruction of the other. Texas may have redeeming features (we know Brighton has a few), but Cormac McCarthy sure as hell doesn’t want us to know about them.