Jan 272017
 

The times are out of joint. Can the centre hold? Brexit, Trump – then what? No one seems to know what is going on. What is populism? Is it a new thing, or just the return of something old?

Yes, something new is going on. There are several familiar layers to the recent upheavals and surprises, but under it all lies a reckoning that has been a long time coming. To understand it we need to retreat from modern jargon and revisit some older, more reliable political vocabulary, which can help clear away the slanted words in current usage. What we are currently experiencing is a long-delayed crisis; the crisis of fraternity.

Fraternity is an underused word and an undervalued principle, but it lurks behind every sentence that contains a ‘we’ or an ‘us’. To define ‘them’ we first need to know who ‘we’ are. This is not always easy, and fraternity has been a Cinderella idea, standing ragged beside her gaudy sisters, liberty and equality. Fraternity remains the Holy Ghost, or feminine principle, of the French revolutionary trinity that has dominated so much of our political thinking since 1789. Since then we have been living in a world of liberal assumptions, and these three linked terms are still a good starting point for assessing the condition of liberal institutions, such as the democratic nation state, and for stabilizing complex discussions that risk descending into petty party politics. Liberty, equality and fraternity still provide useful guidelines to help focus a longer view of our common history.

Such a view will tell us that we have now reached the first modern crisis of fraternity. Circumstances have conspired to make us question not democracy, which has taken on a new vigour in the minds of many right of centre people, but to question what our communities are, and what they mean.

Theorizing the local level of politics has never been a priority in left of centre thinking. Liberals and socialists have had plenty to say about humanity, mass movements and international affairs, but rather less to say about traditional or hereditary groupings. Meanwhile all the theorizing about global capital has always seemed a little abstract – until now, when suddenly we see it working in a destructive way, against strongly cohesive groups of people at a local level. We can now see losers in the twenty-first century world that we have not seen before, within wealthy societies. And these groups of losers have fallen into the hands of the right, not the left, to such a degree that we currently see the radical right calling for trust in the people – more democracy – and the liberal left wary of that trust, and of the instincts of the masses.

We can now see how the coincidence of interest between sections of the political right and the forces of capital has broken down. The cultural damage wrought by ruthless international action – globalization – is very evident, while many of its benefits seem to have evaporated. But what has then happened is not a workers’ revolution for more socialism; what has happened is a workers’ revolt against destitution, but framed as a movement in favour of local cultural units. The workers have finally struck for fraternity, of all things. But the fraternity they want is an older style of fraternity they remember (or imagine), not the new fraternity that they feel they have been whipped into.

With the massive cultural technological and social change that the past three decades have given us – including the collapse of global communism, the liberalization of Eastern Europe and the destruction of several regimes in the Middle East – a great many old assumptions have been brutally challenged. The old certainties of left and right have been so shaken around that nostalgia has become a left liberal vice and radical change a right-wing demand.

Conservatism has never been truly party political, but the defence of workers against the interests of capital always was. No longer, with insurgent parties of the cultural right lining up to criticise multinational corporations. When billionaire property tycoon Donald Trump can lambast the evil workings of capital, we know something has changed at a very deep level.

The concept of fraternity has been fractured, because we now have two kinds of social empathy on offer. We have an older style of interconnection based on ancestral ties, traditional habits and superficial appearances, which has lost its friends in high places, and is being challenged by a new style of rational, economic fellow-feeling based on circumstance and proximity. The former relates to our upbringing; the latter to our individual aspirations. The former is prescriptive and narrow, the latter pragmatic and broad. Conservative temperaments on both left and right have clung to the old style of fraternity; economic right wingers and metropolitan liberals have adopted the new.

The internal contradictions between the demands of culture and of capital have never been so sharply revealed. Over recent decades the right managed to win the economic debate, while the left racked up victories over social issues, and we now live in a right wing economic world modified and managed by left of centre social thinking. But in a time of mass migration, the liberal instincts of permission and tolerance have been shown up as inadequate to the task of integrating new communities at speed. The governmental response all over the West has been social policing, in an attempt to validate and manage the new societies that have grown up. This was not a bad option; it was inevitable in the face of the scale of, and the economic demand for, migration, and the attendant social change.

But the illiberal element in this integration has become increasingly pressurized as freedom of movement and capital has not been matched by freedom of speech, or adequate welfare. Indeed, welfare has proved a very difficult area. Who should be supported? This leads us straight back to the problems of fraternity. Who should be included in our social model? As a side issue, here we have also opened a real and pithy debate on the subject of deserving. Now we are discussing not just the undeserving poor, but also who are the undeserving rich. The criticism of elites started here.

Accelerated change has opened a new chapter in the battle between liberty and equality. No one much disputes the value of freedom, but equality is a hotter topic than ever. It is often distinctly resented in the current context, whenever it feels like it has been imposed. Equality needs qualification, in both senses of the word. It feels better when it is achieved, or somehow earned, or remains as an ideal that no one has quite managed to attain. Liberty has also become a more qualified benefit; too much freedom in the hands of other people can be perceived as a threat, and it can often feel like others are getting away with too much. The best freedom leads to a just and stable equality. But imposed equality is akin to tyranny.

The classic triad is increasingly out of kilter, but not just because equality has staked more demands on us than liberty. It is also that its third leg has come under unaccustomed pressure. It is, in fact, being examined rigorously for the first time.

Where is fraternity now then? To understand how it can work, and where it fits, we need to spend a moment covering the working of the classic trinity, and the special status fraternity occupies within it.

Americans have never been too keen on equality. They have always prioritised liberty, and have spent more time worrying about how liberty can be squared with security, rather than equality. In France, the obsession has always been equality; laïcité is an extended exercise in equality. By contrast, the whole EU project was from the start an experiment in fraternity. And it has struggled to thrive. Created by top-down thinking, the EU’s inventors assumed that a new fraternity could be created, or perhaps revealed, on a continental scale. Unfortunately this has proved to be the kind of fraternity we can only find stamped on coins.

Some may gloat if a lack of fraternity wrecks the EU. Not many will cheer if its weakening dissolves the United Kingdom. Only a reckless few will rejoice if our towns descend into mutually uncomprehending ghettoes, for want of a feeling of belonging or common purpose.

Liberty relates to government, and equality to the law, but fraternity relates to society. This means that fraternity has no institutional organs, beyond the simple building blocks of the family and perhaps the clan. Any larger unit requires theorization, and in the atomized world of cash relations, only the family has survived as a real fraternal unit in today’s social landscape (and radical sexual political theory has had a go at discrediting the family as a valid unit, too). Every grouping larger than the family rests on a process of choice, and it is clear how left and right temperaments build different structures. On the left there is the choice of classes, on the right nations, faiths and even races.

So fraternity, the one thing that the French revolutionaries thought they did not have to fight for, is now defined by politics as much as liberty and equality are. But fraternity is very different in its roots from the other two ideas. It can only be the subject of negative law – what you can’t do to your neighbour. Liberty can be granted, equality enforced or imposed, but fraternity must be felt. Fraternity is the one thing we have to give, a thing we have to make real by our own autonomous actions, as individuals. It must in the end be freely given, for there is no legal force to the idea that one should love one’s neighbour.

Unhappy people all over the Anglo-Saxon world have recently called into question their societies and their governments, but not – it must be made clear – their democracies. This is a truly modern phenomenon because the revolutionaries and nationalist liberals of previous times never examined the basic nature of their societies; they were trying to express them in democratic political institutions. They challenged the traditional forms of government they lived under, and demanded new institutions that could solidify, sustain and protect identity, not create it. They did not challenge the substance of their societies, because they accepted the nature of the ones they lived in.

This is not true in 2017. Too many people feel that the society they live in has been altered, that its very substance has been changed. Their anger has been vented on governments they feel are not loyal to the people they govern. Treachery has a new directionality. Treason used to be a matter of individuals betraying a government; now the nouveaux enragés maintain that rulers can betray the people.

So, how did it come to this?

The nineteenth century was dominated by a succession of struggles for practical liberty, which involved building viable containers for it, namely nation states, and creating legal systems that could guarantee political and personal freedoms. Twentieth century struggles were mostly about equality. Both battles were won, with enormous benefit for everyone on the planet, except hereditary absolute monarchs. And this two-hundred-year sequential process was entirely logical in intellectual and social terms. Liberty established the concept of rights, and then allowed them to be equally enjoyed. Equality could not come first as a principle because there was no way of working out what should be equally shared. Equality by itself achieves nothing and does not improve our societies. But democratic systems of rights are not possible without general legal equality, and they were duly secured through the twentieth century.

Yet in all the excitement an important point was overlooked. The search for liberty is finite. There is only so much liberty any person or any society can enjoy. More and more liberty does not give you a better life. Nor have governments been keen to extend liberty indefinitely. Across recent decades, in the interests of security and in times of war, they have positively limited it. But equality has been another story. Equality is potentially unlimited in its application, and the struggles of the twentieth century went further than any traditional liberal ever expected. Although there was resistance in the end to the Maoist agenda, other less militant work still remained to be done.

The equality agenda, however, has often proved highly unpopular among citizens, though it is very alluring to governments, to whom it represents work to be undertaken for everyone’s sake as a moral good, and as a gesture of good faith to the lower echelons of democratic societies, who are assumed to need evidence that their elected rulers are working in their interests. Disadvantage drives the equality agenda, and thus, inevitably, democracy does too. Equality is peculiarly amenable to measurement – of income, life expectancy, and indices of human development of all kinds, including happiness. Therefore, at least in theory, it is manageable, and a government’s main business is management, especially in the interests of its own popularity. Even if a society is not becoming more prosperous, it is still considered good liberal form to make it less unequal.

Equality, thus, is more measurable than liberty, and has more social utility; liberty does not protect the weak, whereas equality is supposed to. But who really needs the protection is a deeper question. Here fraternity comes in again; fraternity is an extra protection against exploitation. Fraternity and fairness go together as closely as fraternity and deserving.

But in terms of government policy, the fraternity agenda has always been downplayed, if not outright neglected. Fraternity is assumed to be natural, and to spring from social interaction, rather than to condition it, or emerge from it. But is this correct?

The alarming truth, from a governmental angle, is that fraternity is out of reach of executive fiat. Liberty can be granted, equality can be enforced, but fraternity can only be fostered. Yet it is centrally important to social life, more even than equality. Fraternity is the dynamic engine of democracy, the ultimate justification for rights. When it comes to rights, equality ranks only as the means, while fraternity is the reason. Liberty is then the result, the beneficial outcome. Of the three great French obsessions, fraternity is the active principle, while the other two are passive.

And the real world results of all this have finally come into political focus. Enter populism. Simple messages, big personalities, loud voices, sharp grievances, all joined by the neglected thread of fraternity. Mainstream democratic parties have proved ill equipped to defend themselves against freebooting politicians who correctly identify deep discontents. Pinpointing the emotional centre of these discontents, and voicing them in the right tone has translated into real support at the ballot box. Solutions are not necessary; they can come later, or maybe not at all. The powerful, even immoderate expression of group identity is the objective. This is what we are seeing.

The Second World War was a war of ideologies, which, confusingly, had two winners – liberalism and communism. The Cold War was the subsequent, prolonged shoot-out, and liberalism won. Then the brakes were off. The infinite quest for justice and equality continued, while free markets ran amok.

All the while there has been no proper discussion of fraternity since Aristotle, who first realised it was necessary for the smooth functioning of any political system.

The Trump-Brexit phenomenon, in as much as it can be taken as one thing, comes out of a lack of understanding of fraternity among leaders, and a sense of its loss among citizens. But this rebellious phenomenon is not a true movement, despite Trump’s claim. It has far too little to underpin it; it has no agreed aims, only a vast sump of shared discontent driven by rapid change, new interconnectivity, cultural disorientation and a sense that democratic institutions are too unresponsive. What Brexiteers and Trumpers perceive is not wrong; real problems have been identified. Where the insurgent anti-establishment ‘movement’ is weak is in analysis, and particularly solutions. How to fix things. That is the question. And answers so far have not emerged.

Let us therefore not misunderstand the wave of so-called populism that has swept the globe, from India in 2014 to the US election of last November. Populism is many things – an addiction to simplicity, a cadre of insurgent opportunist leaders, a rallying call for militant localism. What it is not is the arrival of new thinking about solutions to our common problems. On the contrary, it is simply a massive hubbub of discontent about shared pain, a collective agreement about what our problems are.

To find solutions – apart from wishing for a general upturn in our economic circumstances – we need to look a little at the roots and mechanisms of fraternity, and in particular to unscramble it from the idea of identity.

 Posted by at 7:51 am
Dec 162016
 

Global events have been very difficult to follow in recent months, and undoubtedly the situation has changed a great deal in the last ten years. The true, yet unsuspected depth of this change has only revealed itself recently via democratic processes, whereas it usually remains hidden, thickly covered by the manipulations and deceits of party politics in the richer countries.

But there is an underlying sense to much of this, and we must accept that a gestalt change or even a ‘renversement des alliances’ is underway all over advanced societies and the wider global structures they have built. Fukuyama was right, but he was also very wrong. What has come to an end is not history, but the bipolar conflict, bequeathed by the Second World War, of a global liberal left against a global hard left.

Many groups, states and ideas emerged defeated from that war, but the most egregious losers were the nation-loving nationalists of the old style. What followed was the formation of a large number of supra-governmental creations, and a drive to defang the nation states that had given us a century of competition, conflict and war from 1848 to 1945. Welcome UN, NATO, EU, and all the other regional clubs.

In the Cold War that ensued, the liberal left eventually beat the hard left all over the world. The struggle against communism, both ideological and military, came to an end. But in labelling this as a terminal event Fukuyama was wrong, as he was about so many other things, which any pupil of Samuel Huntington was always likely to be.

The liberals beat the communists with economics. Hands down. And the national varieties within that victory revealed themselves as -isms preceded by names from Reagan to Blair. But economics was not enough for some, and there was always a grumble about culture underlying the liberal social agenda, with its tenderness to minorities, the unfortunate and the feeble. The anti-freedom agenda – seen as anti the right of the strong to exploit the weak – was fiercely resented, and mercilessly parodied all over the West, especially in North America.

Now we have a new game, in which the globally victorious left cannot beat the locally based right with economics, for two reasons. 1 Wealth was never enough for the right in its cultural, traditional or conformist strands. 2. The left-liberal project eventually ran into trouble over public debt and private speculation, leading to grand busts in the 2010s, of the Eurozone and the world’s banking systems.

And here we are, still living with political systems that were posited on historic left and right viewpoints – which certainly still exist – but which were built around party polarities that do not currently reflect the nature of public debate. And indeed an international community set up to combat various common threats upon which we no longer agree. The right have peeled away increasingly from the old liberal view of the world. Putin is now our friend. Why? Because he wants to fight Islam more vigorously than western governments. And for some he is a better national role model – strong, anti-gay, patriotic, decisive and so forth. Patriots within western countries now feel more able to support Putin, and his aims and methods, than their own governments. Patriotism has been redefined as a partial, conditional thing. My country is different from my government. I can hate my government, I can happily believe it is run by traitors, and I can wish it ill, while somehow wishing well on my country.

All across the left, the new dispensation has been embarrassing. The British Labour party has always found its left fringes in sympathy with terrorist groups, from the IRA to Hamas – because they were viewed as national, ‘people’s’ movements opposed to the capitalist west. But the current, Corbyn-led Labour party can produce little in the way of coherent policy toward the Middle East, because all the players there – religious extremists, hereditary monarchs. anti-democratic dictators – are all anti socialist. But some of them are also anti capitalist and anti western. ideological lines have become impenetrably tangled. The result has been a drastic bout of irrelevance for this kind of thinking, especially as the Levant has dissolved into complicated overlapping dyads, triangles and quadrilaterals of conflicting interests, covert and overt, the existence of which has removed the option of clear and logical side-taking, especially as all the participants are morally compromised in a variety of disgusting ways. Welcome, then, the return of medieval warfare, where the fight is dirty, the sides are fluid and the end result is never clear.

Result – most of what we have known is currently irrelevant, and party systems have not adapted. Donald Trump – the first non-party politician to rule a western democracy – will struggle to run a complex entity like the US with so few beholden friends, but meanwhile, both home and abroad, he can select his allies at will, untrammelled by previous alignments that all seem mired in old fashioned and inappropriate interests. So, at home his counsellors are his family, and his minions are star businessmen and military figures of a completely traditional, right wing, can-do type. And abroad, it’s down with China. a power that does matter, and up with Russia. a power that doesn’t.

Now, the prime conflict is not between liberal left and hard left on a global scale, it is between left and right in single, local arenas. The old arguments have not gone away, they have come back with renewed relevance and unrestrained vitriol. Alarmingly, the bitterness of this revived division has led to the abolition of most of the old common ground, while its eschewal of received norms has rendered all news sources, including national intelligence services, suspect. Facts are the first casualties of the renewed hostilities.

Welcome to the new bipolar, left-right world.

 

 Posted by at 4:47 pm
Dec 102016
 

The general reaction to current events seems to be bafflement – a stunned acceptance that nothing makes sense and that everything is changing. Respecfully, I disagree.

An important initial point is that all the current dislocation did not start with Brexit, but was well under way by the time Corbyn was elected in the UK. In fact. there was a lot of discernible movement after the 2008 crash, and it is possible to see all sorts of global disruption long before that. What we are seeing is the dismantling of the post-1945 consensus on a number of issues, an important harbinger of which was the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The collapse of the USSR has had numerous other long-term, profound effects, and all that we are seeing now can be traced to that event in various ways.

But on the plane of political thinking, the situation is not as unclear as many seem to be willing to concede. For a start, the idea that left and right in politics has disappeared is not correct. These two general outlooks are alive and well, and will continue to thrive among their respective devotees. This familiar division is real and persistent, because it relates to so many important issues across the span of human affairs, particularly the levels, types and degrees of organisation we prefer, and those in turn are related to profound and real differences in human temperament that are activated in different circumstances. Our current modes of expression have changed, or evolved, but the fundamentals on which they rely are still in place.

The big revelation – the one that has thrown the commentators off axis – is that working class people still exist, and that they are quite capable of holding right wing views. This has never been a popular idea in left circles, but Disraeli built a career on it, and perhaps things haven’t changed quite as much since then as many had believed, or at least hoped.

Thus what we should be telling ourselves is not that left and right are dead or defunct, or that one is particularly dominant or well-placed to sustain a long-term dominance. Corbynism is a rehash of 1980s radicalism, and Trumpism is small-man populism from the 1930s rebranded. What has happened is that our party system has been revealed as out of kilter with the fundamental popular perceptions of our times. It is the politicians and their well-schooled machines – and pet projects – that are out of step, not the people or any traditional range of political philosophy.

Most interestingly, the brigade of political columnists are trying to place all this in various views of historical context – which decade are we in again? – but this is missing the point. We are in the 2010s, and, of course, everything is a bit different, and nothing is identical. We are certainly at a moment, like the 1830s, when the party political system makes an ill fit with social realities, and the political class – yes, there is one – will have to make concessions, or find itself out of employment, supplanted by a new cadre that better understands popular concerns. After the 1830s the artistos did fall; the liberal middle classes did take over the show. Something similar may yet happen in our lifetimes, with power moving away from the current cliques – the nexus of bankers, financiers, media moguls and hereditary super rich – to the tech barons or the petty bourgeois rabble rousers.

Internationally, the old bi-partite, Cold War world has gone, and Trump will not restore it. Bad news for the USA there. More revealingly, what is happening at the moment is a massive popular backlash against the political idealism of the later 1940s, and the social idealism of the later 1960s.

High art began to fragment in the 1950s, and popular culture caught up shortly afterwards. Uniquely propitious times were afoot – with a population explosion among the young, and a huge increase in global consumer spending power – two sonorous booms with enormous impact. What followed was a massive rise in the concept of individualism – social and cultural expressions of the self across the board, from religion to sex, via food, music and fashion. The two distinctive social expressions of that period, the rock band and the commune, were both radical attempts to recast social relationships and cultural endeavour, combining individuals in new, supposedly equal and more fitting ways. Old associative structures, particularly class, race, nation and denominational religion, were rejected as too confining, too rigid, and above all, too old. This was fine for the relatively privileged, better educated among the new global youth, who tended to be white and male. As this group was avidly disaggregating itself, a parallel restructuring was going on in several traditionally overlooked and under-organised groups, who could not wait to throw on the garb of collective identity. These included blacks, gays and women, all of whom began to organise in new and more vociferous ways.

This is the consensus that has been overthrown recently. We are back to desiring what is old and avowedly collective. The less educated white males of the West have rejected the power grab by the ‘minorities’, and have expressed a wish to reinstate what amounts to sexism, racism and homophobia. If you don’t believe me, read the comments, look at the banners. Nation is back, but sadly, with none of its inherent contradictions, absurdities and injustices resolved. Au contraire, they have been reemphasised, but dressed up in a newly selective idea of democracy, one in which small majorities (or even a minority in the case of Trump) are enthroned as unassailable and omnipotent. This ‘nu-democracy’ opens up a fresh prospect for our collective lives, in which new applicants cannot appropriately join an old, white, island nation. The new orthodoxy is that multiculturalism ‘doesn’t work’ – a fact now, proved and passionately believed. Make war not peace. Bring back mining.

Doubtless all of this will shake out in due time and we may eventually go back to nice, middle of the road politicians promising us life a little better than it is. The sad thing is that so many people seem to be about to get fooled again. What the Reagans, Clintons, Blairs and Camerons did was to over-promise for too long while not addressing a lot of the social and economic friction that a massive rise in the older population and a massive drop in consumer spending was wreaking across the wealth-hungry West. This has not been addressed in public culture at all, which has swanned on in a bubble of affluent aspiration. The Trumps and Brexiteers of this world, who have double over-promised, will not be able to deliver anything like the goodies they have sold us in advance. What they can deliver is a return to monoculturalism. And we all know where that leads – to stagnation and oppression.

So be careful what you wish for, people. Trumpism is the oldest kind of politics, but founded on bigger lies than anyone has seen for a while.

 Posted by at 7:43 am
Nov 132016
 

Astonishing developments. Uncertain times.

Several topics have emerged in the UK press after the US election, with hysterical handwringing on the left and absurd triumphalism on the right.

Amazingly, there is confidence among some Brexiteers and Trumpistas that liberal democracy ‘doesn’t work’, and that various things, including political correctness, welfareism, and mass migration are now over, near buried or dead.

Not quite.

For a start, the fact that majorities have appeared for certain candidates and causes – the loud, passionate ones – should indicate that liberal democracy works very well, which the (largely) peaceful acceptance of majority decisions confirms. Meanwhile, most of the virulent, undemocratic language has actually been deployed by majority cheerleaders bewailing any attempt to question any aspect of the two narrow victories concerned.

One thing, however, has again been made clear – that liberalism does not possess much of a sense of urgency about it. But it never did have. and this is not news. Ideological causes always possess a central sense of pressing necessity. Liberals have never suffered from such a sense, and liberalism is the very definition of gradualist belief. Nor does it possess specifics of time and place to force it into action. So at times of stress and danger, the vague generosities of liberalism have never suited the bill.

Thus the announcement of the death of liberalism and its associated soft-heartedness should not be trumpeted just yet. Those on the newly invigorated right should be careful what they wish for. Every political liberty and entitlement they enjoy is a liberal bequest.

The crisis to come will not be the temporary failure of liberal governments to deal adequately with the end of the Cold War and the crash of 2008, it will be the impending right wing crisis of heightened expectations and internal contradiction.

Neither Brexit nor Trump will deliver what the manifestos promised, not least because there were none and enthusiasts all wrote their own. Nations, if we now somehow have them back again, will still have to choose between prosperity and conformity.

There is no new politics on offer. Just the old, old, old kind.

 

 Posted by at 2:48 pm
Aug 142016
 

I have just spent a fairly lazy morning dotting about on YouTube, letting its helpful sidebar of suggestions lead me where it will. I ended up watching a few of dozen, entirely US, clips about impending world apocalypse, meaning US apocalypse, meaning the collapse of the dollar economy.

I remain unpersuaded except of two things. One is that it is always really difficult to get independent financial advice. All these people are either nakedly politically biased, or they are promoting ‘How To’ books on how to survive the imminent collapse of civilisation (by wise investments!), or they are running a non-mainstream media platform that makes them money. None of this sets us up for level-headed, dispassionate analysis. My one take away, is that it is not a good idea to fix the worst credit crisis in history by creating an even bigger credit bubble.

One other thing that strikes me is that the US-based discussion seems to be a passionate civil war between rival right wing camps. There is far more left-of-centre commentary available in Europe, it seems, or maybe I am living in too small a space, thanks to the many constricting factors in my alleged liberty to consume opinions – like guided choice sidebars, for instance. So much of what seems to be at issue, even Clinton vs. Trump, seems to be an argument pitched very far to the right of anything I grew up with. Any arguments between free marketeers and cultural conservatives seems not to be resoluble in a left-right frame, and is about clashes of priority – what those on the right used to call ‘values’ – and can only be settled by re-articulating what those values are. Freedom vs. what? Cultural homogeneity? Someone has to sort this out in plain language.

And to go with the right wing civil war, I am surprised that so many of the US commentators seem completely unable to understand the Middle East. They all seem to think that conflicts must have two clear sides, and that the US has to be on one, and that that side will be ‘right’. Sigh. Just because the CIA backed the mujahideen in the 80s against the USSR doesn’t mean that Obama backs ISIS, or created it. It really doesn’t.

The whole ISIS phenomenon is the product of a multi-stranded civil war within Islam. Most of the figthers are Muslims, most of the casualties are Muslims, the backers of ISIS, such as they are, are all Muslim, as are most of their enemies. The war with the West is a distraction and a false trail. To fall for the Islamophobic rhetoric of demagogues is to do more damage than we need to, both here and there.

 Posted by at 2:51 pm
Jun 242016
 

So, the people have spoken. Or rather they have mumbled, because nobody knows what they really voted for, because the Leave offer was all about passion and sentiment, not detail. In the end we have had the biggest by-election in our history that has garnered the most massive protest vote ever seen. Good-bye EU, and probably UK too.

Is Farage the new messiah? Or just a careless, irresponsible gadfly who has amused himself for years without threat of responsibility. I hate to think that he is really the man most in tune with the mood of modern Britain. We should be careful what we wish for.

We must now live with our new freedom, and maybe some good will come of it. But what, and how? What if the 52% do not actually get what they want out of this? In voting for greater security and higher living standards, they may well have made both less likely. Smashing up the UK and the EU might not look like such a good idea in a minute. And if they do not get what they want, what will they pull down next?

 Posted by at 10:14 am
Jun 222016
 

The one we are having, and will have for a while – either way.

Referendums are not a good thing on the whole , and they are awful if they are close. A close vote and no one is happy. Plus we may well be in a position where we have a House of Commons that is pro Europe and an electorate that isn’t. Commons versus people. Where does that leave our lovely sovereignty then?

I am also troubled by the whiff of consumerism here. We the voters have been given a switch and told that if we press it we get what we want. No mediation, no grey areas. In out. us them, freedom slavery – whatever. But the world is not like that. Politics gives us our world, and allows us infinitesimal adjustments and adaptations to circumstances. Referendums don’t do this. Governments – human beings, that is – do.

Worse, the current divide is posited on the idea that we, the British, would be better off spared the need to interact with foreigners – they are unreliable, malign – and all in collusion against us, led by this weird unelected Illuminatariat in Brussels. Well, our bureaucrats aren’t elected either. Nor are our judges, and they sometimes strike down the decisions of our government. Just ask Michael ‘Sovereignty’ Howard.

My point is that we are all condemned to a life dominated by politics, unless we opt for dictatorship. And this whole referendum scenario has assumed that we are not.

I am not sure that the exit camp will actually get anything like what they want. I would cheer if the EU reformed itself. But if it does so without us in it, or breaks up into nation states again, how will we be more secure? And do they want to kiss Ireland and Scotland goodbye on their way to a new, freer future?

Exit say the world has moved on, that the EU is outdated and restrictive. Perhaps. It is certainly protective, but so will we be if we get out. Outers just want a smaller circle to defend. History may not be on the EU’s side, but I find it hard to believe that every serving British Prime Minister for fifty years – that means people who actually exercised responsible power – are all wrong and Nigel Farage, a man with no responsibility to anyone or anything, is right.

Personally I believe that we need small political units for democracy and large units for peace. Farage claims that it is NATO that has kept the peace, but with the EU in place it is inconceivable that there could be war in Europe.

We will have to do politics, among ourselves and with our neighbours. We can do it in a club, or out. But it is a very bad idea, historically, to antagonise one’s neighbours. I said it about Scotland, and at least for the sake of consistency I have to say it about Europe. I fear that both local and long-distance politics will be a lot harder after leaving.

 Posted by at 9:39 am
Jun 202016
 

This has all become a terrible mess. We are having a referendum for no particularly good reason, it has hit democracy on all of its weak spots and degenerated into such a cavalcade of misrepresentation that it is hard to see anything good coming out of it.

Its origins lie in the run-up to the last general election, and it has continued as a knife fight among the present cabinet. Most obviously it is the child of a serious split on the right of British politics, and it is more about the deep fissures between capitalism and nationalism than anything else.

As a result we are essentially having a general election by proxy, and the British public appear to be about to elect the hardest right government we have had in generations, something it would never do at any national poll. The issues have been skewed so badly that the moderate right pitch about prosperity has been entirely swept away by the hard right fear of immigration. Well done boys, break my country why don’t you?

Referendums are a very mixed blessing. They should be about simple issues, like the voting system, where arguments can actually sway people, and office is not at stake. Here we have a disproportionate amount of passion on one side and a limp hope for the better on the other. That’s not clever in politics. It’s also dumb to put up an issue that doesn’t need to be decided now, and is of such complexity that it should be taken by a government. All the other decisions about the European project have been taken by Prime Ministers in cabinet – all of whom since Macmillan have been pro-European, and none of them stood for election on that specific issue. The European project has never been a high priority for any of Britain’s voters, except those at the fringes of left and right who have always seen it as a conspiracy of some kind.

Now in the middle of a global revolt against elites, we are asking an apparently simple question to an electorate that is so riled up that it can’t disentangle entirely unconnected issues, and is being encouraged to conflate them by deliberate spin-doctoring – so that the NHS and Premiership football have moved into questions about international relations.

So, the reasoning, the question, the timing, and the conduct of this campaign are all bad in their ways. And we can see again, exactly as in the Scottish event of two years ago, that the whole idea of optimism is being abused. One person’s optimism is another’s delusional, hyperventilating fantasy. As with Scottish independence, leaving will solve almost nothing. We will recover economically either way. But what will be lost is harder to see, as is persuading people of its value.

Last thing. If Brexit wins, if the optimistic, confident, patriotic pitch is persuasive, if we smash up so many things at once, is it reasonable to assume that all the pieces will fall where we want them to?

 Posted by at 6:23 am