Consensus

There’s a parallel world in which Barack Obama, the worst President in US history (a serial liar, Communist, Islamist, and not even born in the US) is replaced by salt-of-the-earth saviour of the people Donald Trump (repealer of the Obama death panels, vanquisher of Hillary Clinton and her child sex ring), a truly great President who can and will do no wrong.  I know this because it’s the narrative pumped out daily by Fox News and right-wing propagandists.

What worries me is that the only thing that stops it being received as fact is that a critical mass of people don’t believe it. Yet. But a quite alarming number of people wholeheartedly do believe it. At some point will we cross the line between political doubletalk and actual revisionist history? I feel like it’s a line we’re meandering along like a giddily unrepentant drunk driver. In our daily lives we can sometimes see history being consciously, mendaciously rewritten even as it happens, and more and more we don’t seem to care — as long as this new history makes us feel better about ourselves, justifies our prejudices, and relieves us of responsibility.

I suppose politics has always been about selling the best narrative, but it feels different this time, at least to me. It feels like we increasingly lack checks and balances, that we’ve lost the patience for such dry and worthy stuff as investigative journalism, public standards in office, and fact-checking. We’ve devalued the idea that there are lines of public integrity you can’t cross without consequences.

Its already the case in America that there are revisionist tussles over history and science. It’s clear that there are people who would, if only they could, literally rewrite the book on evolution, vaccination and climate change. Maybe even the history of civil rights. Political narratives are that much more susceptible, because their factual basis is that much more subjective. It’s quite easy for the public to lose track of why that recession or that war happened, and who was in charge, and who was really to blame. Is it only in my fevered imagination that I put all this together with the likes of Fox News to raise the spectre of a near-future dystopian version of the US, in which things now widely accepted as historical fact have been quietly spun until they are no mainstream; like that scene in Interstellar where the teacher explains that everyone knows the moon landings were faked, but don’t worry because they’ve been recast as an example of a different kind  of American ideal.

In the UK, any suggestion that the recession wasn’t caused by profligate Labour spending is now met with jeers of derision, even though it demonstrably wasn’t, because that’s not the narrative that won. Here, in a fairly small way, we can see that history has already been rewritten just a few years later. Maybe not rewritten in text books,  but absolutely in public discourse. And there are plenty of politically skewed history books out there too, I imagine. (Aren’t they all?) Some politicians already question whether the British Empire was really a bad thing, whether Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech was all that unreasonable. And maybe these voices will always be fringe, like Holocaust denial. But we now have Daily Mail headlines where people who are actually fascist in their outlook are treated as valiant revolutionaries, and “alt-right” is treated a reasonable political position, and suddenly it seems like the trolls have taken over the conversation. It’s really not that big a step to a mainstream politician arguing that Hitler was misunderstood.

Damn: Godwin’s Law. I think that means I should stop. Is it me, or did Not Invoking Hitler used to be quite a lot easier?

Hot take on hot takes

Okay, look, liberal smugness and outrage… That’s a thing. Mea culpa.  It didn’t get Trump elected on its own, any more than any other single factor in isolation. And at least as many of those factors are the people who voted for him, and gave him oxygen, and didn’t disavow him. Some genuine racists and misogynists. The truly left behind, the ones who are genuinely disillusioned with politics as usual, even if the proffered solutions to those things are often illusory and come with a big helping of right-wing politics tacked on as a rider (“The band requests only the Aryan M&Ms”). It’s a complicated mess. Simple explanations and itchy hair-shirts rarely work. 

Blaming the people who oppose Trump’s rhetoric for driving people into his arms is a bit perverse. Just because some people think ‘political correctness’ has gone too far, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to push the wide-ranging principles that get pejoratively lumped under that label. It may mean they need to be explained better, less judgementally, and with more understanding of the person listening. That’s fair. But it doesn’t lay all the blame for the Rise of the Right at the door of liberals.

It’s unfortunately true that the political left in the UK is in disarray, and there’s a real danger in an opposition that isn’t organised, is too ideologically dogmatic, and doesn’t offer a clear and inclusive narrative. (I’m unsure if it’s the same in America – at least in the US a left-leaning candidate can win the popular vote – but in both countries liberalism seems to be constantly at war with itself.) Facing up to the issues of the left, and not demonising the people on the other side, would go a long way towards gaining acceptance for liberal ideas.

Does that require supporting the Government line, meeting in the middle on fascism, turning a blind eye to opportunistic racism and misogyny? Hell no. That sounds suspiciously like how To Normalise Fascism 101. In fact, politicians tactically giving ground on immigration is a big part of how we got where we are right now. About half of voters in both the UK and US don’t appear to support bigotry and isolationism; they may fall on a spectrum rather than being dyed-in-the-wool liberals, but they’ll be left voiceless if we allow a marginal majority to pretend that the public speaks with one voice. Someone needs to put the counter-argument.

Is there a way to speak out against those illiberal ideas and policies, while at the same time engaging more genuinely with the people we’d like to persuade? I know it’s a very fine line to walk, and I’m not very good at it myself. But what’s the alternative? Not speaking out just embeds selfishness as the prevailing narrative. Not reaching out means a victory for bon mots on twitter, a self-congratatory bubble of worthiness, and a defeat for progressive values where they might actually affect people’s daily lives.

P.S. Like most of my blog posts this doesn’t so much reach a conclusion as stop when I can no longer parse what I think about the topic.  Feel free to help me out in replies.

You wish for ice cream?

I have to say, I still don’t support overturning the outcome of the Referendum.

But I do very much support the proposal that there should be some Parliamentary process to determine whether, when we leave the EU, we also leave the Single Market.

That’s not ignoring the will of the people, who didn’t demand a ‘hard’ version of Brexit (or even express a view on the single market), nor is it traitorous, or the tyrannical agenda of a shadowy liberal elite operating from their secret base under St.Paul’s.

It’s just the kind of thing that lots of people in the country, including some who voted Leave, might reasonably expect to happen instead of having their answer to a binary question wildly and dogmatically over-interpreted.

It’s like one of those fairy tale wishes that were worded with insufficient care. “You wish for ice cream? Very well, you shall only eat liquorice ice cream! FOREVER! Mwahhahahahahah!”

The inexorable victory of the pod-people

In fiction, stories about fascist regimes almost always focus on the resistance, the few who carry the candle and represent the hope (however dim) that the regime will ultimately perish.

But it seems to me, as I contemplate two dismal candidates for Prime Minister and the backlash from Brexit, that the real story is often not one of idealists fighting back to glorious vindication, it’s about the idealists being gradually smothered as an ever-greater proportion of the country simply accepts the way things are. One by one we disappear, gasping, under a tidal wave of banal self-interest, until we can’t imagine things being any different, or even want it. The inexorable victory of the pod-people.

I’m being a bit melodramatic. I don’t say that we live in a fascist regime right now. I do think that the Overton Window has moved further and further right,and insularity is becoming the prevailing narrative. It’s that gradual shift of the ‘centre’ ground, until large swathes of the country look in genuine dismay and bafflement at those complaining about xenophobia, demonisation of the poor, intrusive surveillance. It’s about experts being decried, education being elitist, lying in public office being accepted with a shrug: “What is truth, anyway?” Even the ideological rewriting of history becomes routine, until our very ideas about who we are and where we came from are distorted by the lens of those who control the mass-media.

I know there are others who feel this way, but I don’t see it ending any time soon. I don’t see that groundswell of anger, that organised public desire to push back in the other direction. Perhaps just as importantly I don’t see any great likelihood that things will improve under the current Government, nor any realistic prospect that the Conservatives will lose the next General Election.

I suppose I’m emotionally influenced by all the ways that Brexit has left me feeling alienated, and by the upsurge in “immigrants go home” sentiment. It’s easy to be too short-termist — I’m no better at forecasting the future than anyone else. Maybe things will get better. Whenever a Blair or an Obama sweeps to power there’s always a false dawn; that rush of “maybe we’ve passed a turning point”. Reality always sets in. Maybe this is the reverse: a false dusk that will ultimately prove to be just another short blip on our journey to increasing liberalism, equality and openness. In some ways those social arguments have felt like a steady win for liberalism over recent decades. But now we have Andrea Leadsom wanting a fight back against “political correctness”, a rolling back of gay marriage, as if we were still stuck in the ‘toddler tantrum’ stage of accepting equality and diversity. I fear that, little by little, from Coalition, to Cameron Government, to May/Leadsom Government, the public mood is changing and no-one is really protesting all that loudly. And the drip-drip-drip of selfishness seeps into our bones.

Aftermath

So many stories of openly racist behaviour emerging.

Some of this, no doubt, is confirmation bias. Racist outbursts have always occurred on the fringes of society and once you start actively looking for an uptick it won’t be hard to find examples. The press does this all the time: one big earthquake means every minor tremor becomes news. But not only does the current run of incidents feel a bit more weighty than that, the character of the incidents is striking. The language is suddenly about repatriation, of ‘why don’t you go home’, ‘back where you came from’. That feels new. Or, rather, old. People openly expressing attitudes that have been culturally submerged for decades.

It’s still anecdotal for now whether Brexit has emboldened these individuals – even if some are actively referring to it – but it’s difficult not to see the influence of this sorry mess of a referendum, this free leg-up for UKIP and the far right.

The Petition for a Second Referendum

I nearly signed the 2nd Referendum ballot today. Nearly. Just to add a stone to the heap, so the scale of dissatisfaction can be seen from a distance.  But I just can’t bring myself to do it.

The time to push for this kind of contingency, for different thresholds for success, was before the Referendum. This just smacks of not liking the outcome and moving the goalposts. The turnout was as high as you could reasonably hope for. The result is valid.

Emotionally I can’t bear this outcome, but I don’t think another Referendum is the answer. If the result had gone the other way and Farage was pushing for this (which of course he did pre-emptively) I’d be angry. Looked at from the outside what does this petition prove? That millions who voted Remain are desperately unhappy. Nothing more.

I understand the argument that Leave sold lies that are now being hurriedly walked back. That was dishonest. But, horribly, that’s politics. What makes this a special case? Even General Elections are increasingly won through lies, misleading statements and ultimately broken promises. I’d love politicians to be held to a higher standard, but they’re not, and so the public has to pick the side whose arguments, policies, ideology and/or smarmy vitriolic intolerance appeals to them the most. In the EU Referendum I genuinely think an impartial view is that Leave not only lied more, but that they were more likely to double-down on those lies and continue to repeat them.  But it’s not like the opposing arguments weren’t aired. Both sides had their say. At length. Over and over again. It was perfectly possible to make an informed decision. If some people choose emotion over fact well, frankly, that’s their right. If they are smart or stupid, racist or progressive, they get to vote the way they want.  Sometimes I wish that weren’t the case, but what alternative is there?

The worst thing is that I think there’s a reasonable chance the Referendum would go the other way if we restaged it now. The reality has sunk in a bit. Would it go 60/40 the other way? Nah. And so we’d need a third referendum surely? And a fourth.

And the very act of not honouring the first outcome would (rightly) incense those who voted Leave. There’d be social unrest. If we do, as some predict, have a General Election within the year then ignoring the first Referendum would mean Leave (and, yes, possibly UKIP) would clean up. Do we really want that? Everything has consequences.

Far better in my view to accept this outcome but implement it in the least bad way possible. Stay in the EEA. Try to hang on to the single market. Try to hang on to free movement. Find a reason to spare the Halkans and make it stick. (Sorry, nerd reference.) That’s the best way forward.

This petition is not going to bring about another Referendum. It’s the same liberal echo-chamber that predicted a Remain victory, and it just won’t happen. I love that echo-chamber. It keeps me sane. But it doesn’t reflect the whole country, and another referendum would offend more people than it buoyed. IMO.

[The above partly adapted from a Facebook conversation with Mark Bowyer]

Sovereignty

*At any time*, for no reason, the UK can give two year’s notice to leave the EU. They literally can’t stop us.

If we stay and the EU ever threatens our sovereignty (even though we are exempt from closer union and can’t transfer powers without a UK referendum) we have enough sovereignty to leave.

So why jump now? Don’t we trust ourselves to exercise our own sovereignty wisely in future? Or is our Government a bit too sovereign for our own liking?

Further poorly argued thoughts on the EU

I don’t think I’ve got the hang of this clickbait headline thing.

This is another stream-of-consciousness political blog. I’ll post about science fiction next time and we can all relax.

Previously on LiveJournal. NOW READ ON.

I vacillate between a resigned belief that even if we vote to leave Europe it won’t be that bad, and a nagging fear that it’ll be bad enough. Things do tend to settle down, and the new status quo is almost certainly probably highly unlikely to cripple the UK in the long run. We have no Control for this experiment, and we’ll never know what the untaken path may have looked like.

I do worry about the short term impacts – the potential increase in the already punitive levels of austerity if the economy suffers a bit from a vote to leave. And yes, the impact on the Higher Education sector where I work1 – where millions of EU students are at risk at a time many institutions can ill afford it. Government changes to international immigration have already made the UK an unwelcoming and risky destination where students from beyond the EU can be turned away at the drop of a hat, or made to leave and return at their own expense, or suffer humiliating checks on their ‘genuineness’ as students. International student applications to the UK have declined as a result of this climate. Extend that same approach, those same hurdles, to EU students, and they’ll stay away in droves. We need those EU students, just as we need the overseas ones. (The Government’s stance on student immigration is largely inexplicable to me when these students bring millions into the economy and are not, on the whole, likely to settle permanently in the UK.)

I also worry that if we do vote OUT it’ll be largely a gut vote, based on sincere nationalistic pride, perhaps, but fed by fallacies and misinformation and woefully lacking in clarity about what lurks on the other side of an exit. There’s so much falsehood around. If we stay with the topic of immigration, there’s this facile idea that leaving the EU represents regaining control of our borders, as if we can’t control them now. I think there’s a myth that anyone from the EU can just stroll in without let or hindrance. But we’re not part of the Schengen Area. We already can and do check the passports of migrants from the EU. We already can and do turn them away when we regard them as a threat. (And, by the way, most of the examples that Teresa May and her ilk cite as EU tampering with deportations are actually decisions made by British courts, but that’s another discussion). If we make migration from the EU even more like migration from the rest of the world it won’t suddenly make us safer. Half of all our immigration, give or take, comes from the rest of the world. It won’t suddenly stick a big cork in Dover and make everyone turn away.

And as for sovereignty, I’m never sure what we imagine this means. I certainly haven’t spent my adult life thinking “If only the British government had the power to make decisions”. It seems to make them all the time. Really big, stupid fucking decisions, but decisions nonetheless. If by sovereignty we mean that there are constraints on what we can do based on certain narrow things we’ve agreed with other countries, which country can’t say that? In or out, we’ll be making deals, signing agreements, joining international bodies, and cheerfully limiting the hell out of our own sovereignty – if that’s what you want to call it. That’s our sovereign right, I guess. We willingly sign up to the treaties and trade regulations that we currently have – not in one fateful decision to join the EU around the time Jon Pertwee turned into Tom Baker, but in all those numerous discrete decisions ever since. We don’t have to leave the EU to make different decisions about what we sign-up to, if that’s what we really want. And if we do leave the EU we won’t suddenly lose all those trade regulations – far from it. We’ll probably need more. Every one of them will represent some kind of compromise in which the UK agrees to something that, yes, constrains it. I’m sure those UK trade deals will be painted as a triumph for the very sense of sovereignty that the EU trade deals seemingly undermine. But they’ll be no different.

Besides which, when it comes to employment law and human rights, I rather like the idea that we sign up to principles greater than the petty self-interest of whichever national governments are in power, here and elsewhere. I like the idea that we all agree on basic standards of decency, and hold each other to account.

So maybe it’ll be okay either way. But I really hope we vote to stay.

1 All opinions are my own personal views not those of my employer.

10 things I think about Europe

Politics again. Sorry.

The debate on Europe is driving me mad, characterised as it is by myths and subjectivity and opportunism masquerading as facts and imperatives. I’m sitting on my hands watching each side characterise the other as hateful scare-mongerers while appearing blind to the excesses of their own camp.

So to get it out of my system, here are some things I believe about Europe. Like everyone else, some of these are evidence-based, and some just are:

1) The principle of being in Europe is more important than the problems with Europe. Joining with others in principles and endeavours that transcend individual nations is positive, and acts as a check on individual nations.

2) Europe is not something which is ‘done to us’, it’s a collaboration we participate in, and help shape. We won’t always get our own way – neither will anyone else – but we have a strong voice. We shape the laws. We win exemptions.

3) It is nonsense to say that World War Three looms imminently if we leave the EU (aka “Stay Off My Side, David Cameron”). It is not nonsense to say that the history of Europe prior to the creation of the EU was one of near-constant conflict and war, and that participating in the EU has been one of a number of key reasons why we have seen an era of much greater peace and stability. Unchecked separatism and nationalism can easily and rapidly sow the seeds of conflict. Even now the EU is straining against an upsurge in extreme right wing political parties and anti-immigrant sentiment.

4) Our locally elected MPs go to the central parliament where they have a local voice but where local interests are balanced against wider ones, and the elected democratic parliament is supported by a vast bureaucracy of unelected officials. But enough about the UK. Ahem.

5) Europe is almost certainly rife with compromise and inefficiency, but it is not actually Evil (like, say, FIFA) and is capable of being reformed. If we do rightly focus on European inefficiency we shouldn’t cherry pick examples while ignoring the inefficiency inherent in our own political machinery.

6) EU membership is a net cost to the UK in terms of monies directly paid and directly received. On that level it’s a drain on our resources. But membership of the EU only has to make the most marginal percentage improvement in the UK economic growth for the gain, year by year, to vastly outweigh the cost. Does it do that? It seems highly likely, but I can’t say for certain. At the very least it’s a low risk investment with the potential for an extremely high return.

7) Putting aside the fact that European migrants provably contribute more to our economy than they take out, leaving the EU might (unless we retain free movement) reduce a chunk of net migration. On that level, leaving the EU would help us “regain control” of our borders. But it would by no means be a magic bullet that would bring net migration down to zero.

8) There are clear and to some extent understandable worries about how immigration is changing our culture, a fear of cultural miscegenation in which national distinctiveness is perceived to be lost, or changed unrecognisably. But we easily forget that our perception of ‘Britishness’ has changed over time. Second and third generation immigrants aren’t generally perceived as immigrants at all. They’re just British. If they’re white (like that extremely suspicious foreign influence Rick Stein) mainstream opinion doesn’t give them a second glance. Our sense of Britishness has always accommodated and been enriched by infusions from other places.

9) The ‘Out’ campaign is not intrinsically racist, and many who are in favour of leaving the EU are not driven by immigration. But I think one consequence of a ‘Brexit’ will be to increase the UK’s isolationism and feed racist views. I’d love to say that slightly curbing immigration would rob racism of oxygen, but in my view the tougher we talk and act on immigration the more strident and polarised our anti-immigration rhetoric becomes. Support for UKIP is often highest in the areas of lowest immigration, and right-wing debate on immigration is not notable for its relationship to facts. If we board up the windows, we’ll only become obsessed with what’s under the floorboards.

10) Whether we stay or leave, we’ll never know for sure whether that decision had a causal effect on our future prosperity, or lack of it. But politicians will cheerfully blame everything on that decision. And it will be So. Damn. Aggravating.

(Follow-up blog)

Oh god he’s talking about politics

I’m not really a Nick Robinson fan, but this slightly smug, waffly article summarises the obvious difficulty in talking knowledgeably about our future in or out of Europe. There are probably many reasons to leave the EU. There are many reasons to stay. Probably neither will be a disaster (though what do I know?) but amid the patent fear-mongering on all sides there’s genuine inability to know what will happen until it happens. The many leaflets that have thumped onto my doormat are equally aggravating whether they are for or against EU membership; although on the plus side they’re all pleasingly shiny and ideal for lining the cat litter tray.

I also don’t like Mr Cameron or his tax affairs, but as with his support for gay marriage I do occasionally find that he deigns to agree with me. It’s nice of him, I only wish he’d do it more often. I do worry that the meta-narrative about political machinations within the Conservative party – Boris and IDS making tactical moves, Cameron’s future, whether tax payers should pay for Government leaflets – is a sly and effective distraction from the real issues. Journalists don’t do it on purpose, but they just can’t resist shop talk. A story about a story is so much more gossipy than a story about an actual thing. It’s fine when there’s nothing much at stake but right now there are bigger fish to fry. (There would be smaller fish to fry, but they’re subject to a strict EU fishing quota). If this becomes a story about politics then people will treat it as a political issue. They’ll vote ‘Out’ to punish Cameron, rather than because they have a view on the EU.

Personally I’m for staying in. You’re amazed, I can tell. It’s not because I feel ‘European’, really. Intellectually I know I’m European, but it’s not my primary national identity. ‘Europe’ still intuitively means “that big bit of continent over there” and not “this little collection of islands that the BBC weather map persists in tipping at an alarming angle so that Scotland looks tiny”.

But neither do I feel any animosity towards Europe. I like the idea of being part of something greater. I guess I don’t know any different. I’ve pretty much always *been* part of it, and Europe hasn’t blighted my life with its evil foreign ways. Mais non. I think it’s quite telling that you can watch an episode of ‘Yes, Minister’ from 1981 and hear the exact same stereotypical worries about the EU and its alleged wacky laws. But here we are 35 years later and the sky hasn’t fallen and Britain hasn’t lost its Britishness. Far from it. If we really must define Britishness as a test of cultural purity then we’re more pugnaciously xenophobia than we have been in years. Well done, British people.

But really, what do we mean by Britishness? Boris is no less Boris for 40 years spent in the EU. It hasn’t made Iain Duncan Smith any less strident. I reject the seductive notion that Europe erodes our “sovereignty” – whatever that really means – as if any country can govern in perfect isolation from its neighbours and treaties and trade alliances and human migration and equality and rights for workers and basic human rights. Of course not. We have sovereignty over our own laws in every way that counts; we don’t seem to have any difficulty in passing laws that tax the homeless for their spare pavement. We simply subscribe to international common principles – both within the EU and in parallel with it – because it makes sense.

It’s very easy to talk about isolationism in terms that make it sound noble and patriotic. You can picture Jim Hacker drifting into his Churchill impression. But Churchill was an architect of a United Europe, and I think it’s a very grown-up, civilised thing to be part of a wider society of nations. We can be ourselves and still accept that there are limits on the way you can behave and still get to participate in the world. There’s no reason I can see to feel that being part of Europe diminishes us. It might even make us greater.