Thursday, 31 October 2019

Loch Nowhere and how to save the British union

My apologies to anyone who realises, as I do, that I haven't been posting enough recently. I try to put most of my contributions here, but I'm very aware that I don't always. If there is really anyone out there impatient to hear what I think, I'm usually blogging at Radix early most weeks...

In the meantime, I have been worrying about the future of the UK after Brexit, given the enormous strains that will be put on the union.

I'm not a unionist. I don't think Nick Clegg was right when he declared the Lib Dems a unionist party. In fact, the party divided on the issue in the 1880s and the unionist bits went off and merged with the Conservatives.

But then, I also not a nationalist, and the process of division is likely to be frightening and possibly violent. I'm even aware that in parts of Wales - where people are reacting badly to being part of an English nationalist venture under Boris Johnson - they are investigating some kind of link with Ireland.

Now, I believe in these link-ups, if we can arrange them. In fact, it seems to me that the only way to save any aspect of the union is to act now to give Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland their independence in a controlled, peaceful and ambiguous way - within a national umbrella which might include the Queen, the pound and the Ministry of Defence.

It needs to be done quite soon and so that Scotland can stay in the EU if it wants to.

Two developments stand in the way of breaking the nation down further. One, we need the ambiguity that the government's virtual border system. Two, we need a better understanding of how local economies can provide what people need - so that small nations and regions can begin to go it alone.

It so happens that I have written a modern folk tale in the new collection by the New Weather Institute, Knock Three Times (which, full disclosure, my company published), and it looks at these issues, through the eyes of a man who - like Rip Van Winkle - wakes up a century in the future.

It is called 'Loch Nowhere'. In fact, I recommend the other 27 stories too, each one of them shedding light on modern crisis using older narrative styles. You can read the introduction here...

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Friday, 20 September 2019

The great division - and how to escape it...

This post first appeared on the Radix UK site...

There are, said the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge – the author of Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner – “two classes of men”.

He didn’t mean, as W. S. Gilbert suggested, “either a little Liberal or else a little Conservat-ive”. Nor did he mean Cavalier or Roundhead, nor Protestant or Catholic – though I will come to them later. He meant Aristotelians or Platonists.

“Every man is born an Aristotelian or a Platonist,” he said. “I don't think it possible that anyone born an Aristotelian can become a Platonist; and I am sure no born Platonist can ever change into an Aristotelian.”

Just to be shockingly simplistic, he meant something like the tradition of chopping logic versus the tradition of true belief. And there maybe we can begin to see how this might relate to our great dilemma: Remainer versus Leaver.

There was a small but fascinating Twitter debate last week about the implications of a peculiar fact – that a much higher proportion of Anglican church-goers (once described as the SDP at prayer) backed Leave compared to the general population (66% in fact).

The debate appeared to conclude that there was no significance in this anomaly – but I’m not so sure. My problem is that I am, at heart a Platonist, while most Remainers are clearly veering towards Aristotelians.

We urgently need to understand this bitter rift between us in the UK, and it may be that the political forces of Leave and Remain actually represent something much bigger – a clash between two rival establishments and two rival philosophies of life.

To do this we also have to see each side how they see themselves – fighting the forces of intolerance and xenophobia (Remain) or defending our right to self-determination (Leave). We also have to distinguish between rival versions of the establishment.

Clearly the traditional establishment is now divided between the prime minister and the old left of the Conservative party, hammered out on the playing fields of Eton, which – as Noel Coward put into their mouths – have “made us frightfully brave” (though perhaps not so frightfully intelligent, it does have to be said).

But there is a sense also in which Remain is represented by a rival establishment – the technocratic nomenklatura from the Blair-Brown years, the free market realists, those who have done rather well out of the property market and would prefer not to lose it all.

Two establishments, and – as the centre ground between them gives way – we find ourselves increasingly forced to choose between two raucous, obsessive and deafly intolerant extremes.

On one side we have the roundheads, the Remainers, the parliamentarians, who regard the other side as xenophobes, little Englanders who are riding roughshod over the economic consensus built up over the past four decades – but who also fear the world of alternative facts, the failure to understand modern concerns about race, gender and sexuality.

As Aristotelians, they regard the other side as hopeless atavistic throwbacks, in thrall to superstition and prejudice, who reject the whole edifice of evidence, scientific method and professional expertise.

Paradoxically, they are also the Catholic side, defending a united Europe and against Henry VIII’s protestant upstarts, determined to sell off the social service infrastructure to their friends at court.

On the Platonists on the other side, we have the cavaliers, holding out for royal authority against an anti-democratic parliament (even, according to Carswell, “treasonous”), who regard themselves as liberators of people against tyrannical bureaucrats, politically correct thought police – stifling the voices of ordinary people in debate with a ferocious atmosphere of suffering, cynically stuck in the old technocracy of targets and tickboxes, solidified into the old mantras of market economics, global trade and agnosticism.

Paradoxically, they are also the Protestants, breaking free of a Europe still in thrall to the pope (Brussels equals Rome from an English historical point of view).

Understanding these things may make the clash easier to understand. I am not sure it makes it any easier to heal.

I am not claiming that either side is right about their fears about the other. But there are some of us still who don’t really want either side to win out – though Boris Johnson’s misjudgements have made it hard to see how the old English love of compromise can win out either.

But electorally, neither has articulated this broader agenda, because they have been too busy fighting the details of the Brexit struggle. But it is possible to imagine either being able to build  a majority by moving  a little way towards the other side – perhaps by seriously embracing the issue of climate change (a good deal more important and urgent than Brexit).

What holds them back from doing so is largely ignorance of the way the other side really is. This is therefore a reminder that the radical centre means having a clearer view "of the whole road", to quote the author of Radical Middle Mark Satin.

So let's hear it for the Re-leavers and the Le-mainers and anyone thinking outside the usual familiar tramlines, Because the solution, if there is one, lies in Robbie Burns’ injunction to ask “some Power the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us!”

For my own party, it seems to me, there is an extra problem of translation. Because Liberals tend towards Platonists and social democrats towards Aristotelians. In another post, I might explain what I think the implications of that are.

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Friday, 16 August 2019

How to avoid a home-grown UK Milosovic

This post was first published on the New Weather website...

Earlier this month, Indian government ended the devolved powers arrangement they had with Indian-administered Kashmir. As I write, I have no Bidea what the consequences will be. But I do know this is what nationalist governments do.

There is a rash of books coming on the market about the phenomenon of populism, and its dangers, but it actually isn’t a very good description of Trump, Orban or Brexit. The Populist Party in the 1880s and 90s began as a kind of anti-globalisation movement in the modern mould. I would describe them instead as nationalists.

There is no reason why you can’t have sympathetic populists. The opposite of populist need not be unpopulists, after all.

So, what is the opposite of nationalist? I would suggest that you look no further than the Roman Catholic concept of subsidiarity – that people should be governed as locally as possible. The European Union has made subsidiarity one of its founding principles, and it isn’t the fault of subsidiarity if the EU fails to act accordingly.

Radical nationalist change, whether it is the action of the Indian government in Kashmir or of Scottish nationalists forcing through independence, can be very dangerous. Losing the Scots from the UK would be dangerous too. Those who oppose independence may well threaten to take up arms to prevent it, as Carson did in Ulster in 1913 (“Ulster will fight,” he said, “and Ulster will be right”).

You can imagine all too easily which British politicians would play the role of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovic to prevent the UK breakup – even though Brexit may make it inevitable.

My own party, it seems to me, has become muddled about this. Nick Clegg was wrong when he said the Lib Dems were unionists. In fact, the Liberal Unionists broke away as long ago as the 1880s on the issue of Irish home rule.

I believe in subsidiarity. So I have a proposition.

That before the inevitable victory of the SNP one day – even if it isn’t soon – let us break up the UK in such a way that we can remain ambiguous which is the nation and which the supranational umbrella.

That will mean going some way beyond home rule, so that Northern Ireland, Scotland and maybe Wales become nations in their own right, able to look after their own affairs – to join the EU if they want – but owing allegiance also to a continuing UK, with a joint royal head of state, joint foreign affairs and defence and joint management of the pound.

Otherwise our four nations will join the other 200 plus nations taking their places at the UN. The idea is that this will be a permanent settlement to the constitution, but it should allow a gradual merger between the UK and the Council of the Isles, the supranational body over set up under the AnglIo-Irish agreement, if Ireland ever wants to join in.

The role of the Royal family would also be crucial in making the shift safe from nationalistic rage. It would also flexibility and self-determination to the nations of the UK, and – because the units would be more manageable – we could also expect more effective, less imperial government. It would help us all take back control.

Most of all, it would prevent the trauma one day – now pretty much inevitable – of Scotland crashing out without a deal from the UK.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Boris, the backstop and Captain America

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

It was watching the final Avengers film with my children that gave me the clue. Sometimes I have spent many of these films in the lovely Worthing tea shop outside the Dome cinema - though I must confess that I quite enjoyed Captain Marvel and Captain America (the fact that there are too many captains here is part of the underlying issue.

So here is my proposition, the Marvel franchise represents an explosion of nostalgia in American culture that I have a feeling explains something of the parallel phenomenon of Donald Trump. In the same way, we - I use the term without irony - have elected a Latin-spouting, Churchill-imitating, harkback to a bygone age as prime minister, with a predeliction for archaic phrases shorn of their original meaning (like 'British pluck').

I have a feeling that the nostalgia represented by the back stories of the Marvel heroes - most of which seem to involve dinners in log cabins in the woods - is only part of the picture. The strange world provided by the 20 plus films - earning £22.3 billion - is rather as ordinary Americans feel: watched over by mysterious heroes, using technology beyond their understanding, yet still threatened.
The 'real' world rarely features in these films, beyond staggered policemen and screaming victims of natural or supernatural disasters.

The last credits of the last film, Endgame, seemed to bear this out, ending the saving of humanity with an extroadrinarily nostalgic piece of music, a 1945 rendition of 'It's been a long, long time' (Kiss me once, kiss me twice etc etc).

Nostalgia as a source of new ideas can be extrardinarily powerful. but without that forward-looking element, it can be, well, a bit masturbatory.

So if Boris' nostaligic package takes us somewhere new, or if other new thinking is stuggling to get out - then I am more positive about him than perhaps I ought to be. Sadly, the empty rhetoric about HS3 and its potential seems to suggest otherwise. Nostaliga can provide the basis for new understading and a critique of assumptions, which we badly need - especially for economic asumptions which are looking pretty threadbare (like the assumption that transport links do anything more than move prosperity about).

I have no problem with hope, though the increasingly cynical - not to say nihilistic and puritanical - left find it pretty intolerable. If Boris Johnson can put some beef behind his hope, he may just win through.

But there is one problem with his ability to do this. If he wants to get through these difficult negotiations with European leaders, he must put forward a credible alternative to the Irish border backstop. So why doesn't he - is it because there isn't one?

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Friday, 5 July 2019

Time for a radical centre alliance to save the planet

This post first appeared on Lib Dem Voice...

“We must be more than a political party or we will cease to be one,” said the great writer G. K. Chesterton, when he was a Liberal. “Time and again historic victory has come to a little party with big ideas: but can anyone conceive anything with a mark of death more on its brow than a little party with little ideas,”

I am writing about the man at the moment and I believe he was right, and especially perhaps in the first of the two sentences.

Nor are we such a little party these days, but the ideas we articulate in public are not yet big enough, and it is what I miss from our leadership election at the moment. Perhaps that is why Andrew Rawnsley claimed over the weekend that it was as dull as a bowl of tofu.

Beyond the resistance to Brexit – not really an idea so much as a rejection of one – there are only a couple; well, two: tackling climate change (Ed Davey) and embracing hi-tech (Jo Swinson). Both are short of the hows and whats that would make either of these big ideas – something to fill the spot for Brexit when it has either happened or finally not happened.

So here is mine, and it is entirely a practical one.

The recent polls put the four biggest parties practically neck and neck, around 20+ per cent. This is a highly dangerous position for the nation because it means, under our hopeless electoral system, that absolutely anything could happen.

I have been a member of the party for forty years last May. I’ve see us sweep up and down dreaming of one more heave. I know we shouldn’t get carried away. But it now seems to me – given the polls and the high ratings of the Greens, that it is now time to forge a one-off alliance of the radical centre for one election only: to save humanity from climate change.

I have little idea as yet whether either Anna Soubry or Sian Berry are likely to play ball or not – though I believe both are persuadable, on condition we prioritise getting their existing MPs back into Parliament and give them a clear run in 20-30 other seats.

I lived through the alliance with the SDP. I’m so aware that this is not straightforward, and that the kind of open primaries – open to the voting public in the other seats – are potentially expensive and unpopular amongst political parties.

I know there would have to be a system of appeals and there are other administrative issues about expressing alliances on ballot papers under existing electoral law.

I am also aware that ignorance about each other’s parties and policies get in the way of such alliances. But I don’t think any of these are insurmountable – and the prize is potentially huge. If you add together our poll ratings as they stand now, and it would put us well within spitting distance of the 30 per cent level when we could not just govern, but change UK politics forever.

But this is where Chesterton’s first sentence is important. None of this will happen unless Lib Dems, Greens and Tigs for Change are first working side by side on the ground, not just through More United, but at ward level – achieving things by campaigning about them in a way that is easier these days when Parliament is as finely balanced as it is now.

Only that can avoid the kind of projecting of our own peculiarities and intolerances onto other parties, the besetting sin of politicians, which so torpedoes working together for people.

The truth is that they are not that different from us. This will need to be an alliance forged locally, relationship by relationship. But if we can be more than a party and achieve that, I believe we can really grab power.

So Jo and Ed – what do you think?

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Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Watch out when the Conservative Party splits...

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

You can’t help noticing, looking back at the past century or so of UK political history, that a split in the Conservative Party can be extremely damaging to those who are entirely innocent of it.

Like now. Or like the period before the First World War, when the Conservatives were outrageously encouraging mutinies in Ulster against Liberal government plans for Irish home rule.

It is worth remembering who originally stoked the fires of the troubles that so beset Northern Ireland from 1969 onwards.

But there is a period of our recent history when conservatism was so fatally divided that we no longer talk about it - because the peril in which the nation was plunged in 1940 cut it short and obscured the divisions.

Yet there is no doubt that members of the UK establishment were determined in 1940 to make peace with Hitler – a prospect that was undermined when the BBC European Service took it upon itself to reject his final peace offer without reference to higher authority. They would have undoubtedly done so if it had not been for Winston Churchill snd his junior ministers.

I tell the peace offer story in my new book The Xanthe Schneider Enigma Files (published by Endeavour Quill), because – at the heart of the tale is the relationship between Xanthe, a young American crossword puzzle champion turned foreign correspondent and a former British minister who has defected to Berlin. British naval intelligence take the opportunity of asking her to keep an eye on him.

It is in short, a story about cryptography and American press people in Berlin in 1940, Athens and then Berne in 1941. It’s a good read, especially because three of the characters are Alan Turing, Ian Fleming and Ludwig Wittgenstein...

Why don't we remember these divisions, which are rather unfairly focused on Lord Halifax in the recent film? Because of the bizarre forgetfulness in which the UK establishment wraps itself afterwards, when they close ranks and celebrate the new mythology.

Which is another way of saying – beware what Conservatives will do when they get desperate.

You can read more about Xanthe Schneider here.

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Thursday, 6 June 2019

Breaking the rules to break the news of D-Day


Noel Newsome was director of European broadcasts at the BBC European Service from 1939-44, one of the few who knew the secret date for D-Day. He was in many ways the architect of the BBC;s international reputation for truth - believing that truth was a potential weapon of war. This led him into constant struggles with the authorities, which he described in his newly-published memoirs, Giant at Bush HouseHere he describes getting the news about D-Day out there...

"I had received my D-Day briefing. In the first week of June, the tides in the English Channel would be right for the great venture, and would remain so for about 36 hours. Provided the weather was all right for the air assault, the airborne landings and the sea borne invasion, the operation would take place during the night of June 4. Declarations by the supreme commander, Eisenhower, and by Churchill, Roosevelt and de Gaulle, were all prepared and recorded in advance for transmission directly the SHAEF communiqué announcing the landings was issued. This was timed for 10am on June 5 and strict instructions were given that no mention should be made of the invasion having begun until then.

All that night, I stayed in my office listening to the ceaseless drone of our aircraft heading for the continent. Early next morning, I got the news that rough weather in the Channel had prevented the assault. It had to be the next night or indefinite postponement. And we were still awaiting the arrival of the ‘V’ weapons. A nerve-wracking day passed and then another sleepless night, with the ‘planes again droning away across the city. Would it happen this time?

Soon after dawn, we began to receive flashes from the monitoring services and the news agencies, saying that the German news service was reporting Allied landings in Normandy and in the Calais area. We had every reason to believe that the reports of the Normandy landings must be correct, but believed that those of attacks in the Calais area were false, as we knew of no plans for landings there. But if these were false, might not those of the Normandy assault also be untrue? Might they have been put out by the Germans to enable them to claim, if bad weather had again prevented the invasion, that we had been repulsed?

My instructions were to wait for the SHAEF communiqué, not due for many hours even if landings had begun. On the other hand, our broadcasting services had built their reputation on the speed, as well as the accuracy, of their news. My own overpowering instinct as a newspaperman was to report the news from whatever source as soon as I got it.

Half-an-hour passed and German reports of Allied landings continued to come in thick and fast. I took the bull by the horns and ordered that we should start transmitting the German reports, with a statement that there was no confirmation of these in Allied quarters. Meanwhile, I took immediate steps to check the true position with SHAEF. This was not easy. Perhaps naturally, SHAEF was in a state of high excitement and it was impossible to get a clear telephone line for some time.

Eventually, I got through and secured confirmation that the invasion was on, that we were ashore in Normandy, and that a feint attack had been made in the Pas de Calais to sow confusion in the German defence. This was a great relief. Obviously, we could help the feint to achieve its purpose if we continued to relay German reports about the Calais attack as if confirming them. This we did...."

Read more in Noel Newsome's memoir of the war, published by the Real Press in paperback and on kindle.

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