Sunday, 10 February 2019

Dunkirk spirit? Be careful of what you wish for, Boris...

I was fascinated by Peter Fischer Brown’s suggestion in the Radix blog that there are people in the Brexit camp who believe that a no-deal Brexit the hard way is likely to be as successful and unifying as our national escape from the Dunkirk beaches.

This was, as I said in my book about Dunkirk, during the last Brexit – when they decided their hand had been forced, and that they had to abandon their French allies.

But I wonder whether it might be worth following the parallel a little further.

The miraculous escape of the BEF from the beaches, minus their equipment – and with a little help from Hitler’s controversial stop order, was not in any sense a victory. It was bitter and tragic in terms of loss of life.

It was also the result partly of luck and partly of the extraordinary wildcard administration by Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who made it happen through sheer willpower, the sacrifice and exhaustion of his crews and a brilliantly innovative staff.

Do we have anyone of remotely the same calibre now? If so, they should be appointed immediately.

But the other key point is that the nation remained divided over the war even then, just as we are about Brexit. And, although there were few enough voices raised for staying out of the war – broadly the Brexiteer position at the time – after Dunkirk, those responsible for out humiliating exit were seriously punished by the electorate and the political class emerging below.

So if Boris Johnson and his colleagues – who have not descended to the special part of hell reserved for people who plan to leave without working out how (Donald Tusk) – think they are following in Churchill’s footsteps, they may find they are actually following in Chamberlain’s and those of the much-reviled Guilty Men of Munich.

Yes, Dunkirk was a unifying moment, but it was also a bitter one. And those who were responsible for this national humiliation were soon out on their ear - making way for those who had saved the day which they had so comprehensively lost.

Let me end with Churchill’s comment on Dunkirk that “wars are not won by withdrawals’.

I fear he was right. Even if we do have to withdraw – and I increasingly feel we must now face up to that – people will not easily forgive those who plunged us so blithely into this godawful mess.

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Monday, 4 February 2019

How to find a little common ground? Honesty

A slightly disaffected Liberal writes...

When I was a teenager first interested in politics and determined to choose the odd party out, I put aside my childish idea that the Conservatives were the odd one out because they did not start with L. I began to suspect that the Liberals might be just peculiar enough for me - but what did they stand for?

I used to ask all my older relatives likely to know - I come from a long line of Liberal voters after all - and surprisingly few could answer. But there was one exception: "Don't they stand for 'three acres and a cow' or something?" she said.

I can't emphasise how peculiar this is. That a century or so after the slogan was coined, by Joseph Chamberlain's sidekick Jesse Collings, back in the 1870s, it should be all that they remembered from all the Liberal policies and slogans in a century of elections.

It was certainly a successful slogan, formulated to explain how much land a family would need to support itself - implying a call for land redistribution and new allotments. It did more than imply a commitment to self-determination, which was why it was borrowed by the Americans (they called it forty acres and a mule). It was then appropriated in the UK by a breakaway group from the UK Liberals called the Distributists, led by Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton.

I pay tribute to it here because I am reminded how divided the Liberal Democrats are today - despite appearances - and how unlikely we are to remember any of their current slogans and policies in a century's time, when my own great grandchildren are searching as I did in the 1970s.

Why do I fear they are divided, when you get no clauses about this from the party's communications? Partly because  feel so divided myself, and partly because of the very obvious divisions between the party's whig or social democrat wing and its distributist one (I am here using the nomenclature used by academic community who studies such things).

I am divided myself because I am firmly embedded in what remains of this distributist wing, the elements of the party responsible for driving forward the demand for localism and self-determination. Whereas all I see is the social democrat wing clinging to our membership of the European Union, which represents neither localism nor self-determination, and in fact seems to represent clinging onto the outward firms of institutions which badly need reform.

You see my problem? Nor is it just my problem or the Lib Dems' one, I have been wondering about some of my non-Radix friends, after the announcement by Nissan that they will not be building their new model in Sunderland after all - presumably because of Brexit.

I can hear my friends tut-tutting about it even without tuning into Twitter to watch them doing so. I know they are, as I am, suspicious of the influence of big corporations in the UK economy. I know they dream of a far more diverse economy that is a good deal less dependent on trade.

Yes, I don't think anyone would want to make this shift overnight at the end of March - as we seem to be about to do. But I do want to hear some recognition from the Remain side that this is something they had also been hoping for before now.

I mean this honesty simply as a way to tackle some of the bonehanded divisions in UK , whichpolitics are now as intense as they have been at any time since anyone last used the slogan Three Acres and a Cow in anger.

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Monday, 21 January 2019

It is time to remember 1918, and hold a 'multi-coupon' election

I have been beginning a debate with my friend and Radix colleague Joe Zammit-Lucia about whether or not a general election is the only way out of the government's current impasse. Quite reasonably, he suggests that the Conservative Party will never call one - to quote A A Milne, "for fear of finding something worse".

What has given me an excuse to return to the debate are the rumours emerging from the government that, like me, they believe first, that Jeremy Corbyn's refusal to talk to Theresa May has guaranteed that he would lose any election. Second, that this is the traditional way in which parliamentary democracies sort out these kinds of muddles and that is to call elections.

My main nervousness about it is that - if the parties continue to pretend that they behave as if they were all of one mind - then we will be no further forward. Voters might reasonably complain that they were being sold pigs in pokes.

So what is to be done? My proposal is that, uniquely, for one election only, Parliament should wave the deposit, so that - alongside the traditional parties - we can vote for a Soubry party of Tory remainers, a Moggite party of Conservative party of hard brexiteers, and a Starm-ite (either love it or hate it, like Marmite) of Labour remainers.

Nor should we pretend that the Lib Dems are any less divided. It is just that the Liberal Leavers have drifted off to vote for others. Even so, I know at least two Lib Dem MPs who seriously struggled with their consciences about Theresa May's last vote.

Alternatively, we could keep the deposit rules in place and pay for Brexit with the proceeds.

But to be serious, government figures have been fulminating about the 'constitutional impropriety' of MPs taking control of the agenda, as they seem likely to do today. The real constitutional impropriety is a government that is unable to enact its business but refuses to call an election.

The election almost exactly a century ago, in December 1918, was known as the coupon election - the coupon was provided to candidates across various parties who were approved by the coalition government. Perhaps what we need now is a multiple coupon election, so that every constituency includes a candidate to make the case for their version of the way forward.



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Monday, 14 January 2019

The least competent government ever? No, it's worse than that...

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

Have we ever had such an incompetent government? Isn’t it so embarrassing?

That is how the chattering classes seem to be reacting to the admittedly dire performance of our own government when it came to rising to the challenge of Brexit. But I have to say: I don’t really agree with their fundamental analysis. 

The problem with Theresa May’s government is not that it is exceptionally incompetent, it is that most recent UK governments have been just as incompetent, but – for reasons that may be obvious – the members of the House of Commons are no longer going along with it.

You might even call political incompetence a great British tradition.

For a generation or more, MPs of each ruling party have casts their votes obediently for a range of wholly incompetent ideas – nuclear expansion, mortgage tax relief, public-private partnerships, rail privatisation – though most thinking people knew exactly where they would lead, and said so. Not perhaps by definition, but in the incompetent way the policy and legislation was constructed.

Suddenly, the incompetence we have been living with has become obvious because – for the first time – MPs are working together to call a halt. 

The situation does not reveal an unprecedented lack of competence – it reveals and old and very predictable kind of British incompetence.

So are British officials uniquely incompetent? Certainly not, but they are unexpectedly deferential to party leaders (or they have been until now). Also, let’s face it, the UK system of government encourages a couple of pretty useless skills – doing nothing about an obvious problem or abuse for decades, and then riding roughshod over everyone to impose some half-baked idea.

When we need politicians skilled in negotiating or listening to find an acceptable middle way – as we had to in Northern Ireland – we had to bring in an American, from where the system encourages that kind of behaviour.

I know the Americans admire our system because it encourages witty repartee. The problem is that that this is a less than useful skill when it comes to uniting the nation. Still, this is our system and we have lived with it for so long it is hard to recognise any more competent possibilities.

Our loss unfortunately. Especially when the funeral bell appears to be tolling for our system of government: a case of never sending to know for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for us.

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Monday, 7 January 2019

Misunderstanding the Munich crisis

Those fascinated by the events of Munich eighty years ago will be aware that there are two books out which assume rather different interpretations. On is by the novelist Robert Harris, who has made no secret of his pro-Chamberlain views. The other one is by me, and Munich 1938 puts rather greater weight on the testimony of the pro-Czech writer Shiela Grant Duff than he does.

Now, it so happens that I have been sent a copy of the letter sent by Shiela to The Observer three decades ago, complaining about Robert Harris's opinions back then (thank you, Penelope). I reproduce it here without further comment:

"20 September 1988

In his monstrously misleading article as your guest political diarist, Robert Harris follows the now embedded myth that what was at stake at Munich was whether we should fight for the Czechs. 

In fact, Chamberlain’s concern was, above all, to prevent the Czechs from fighting for themselves, and the French from honouring their solemn treaty obligation to go to their aid should Germany attack.

Munich was only the final scenario of a policy which the British government had been following more or less consciously since it came to power in 1935. The ‘wets’ in the Foreign Office were not those who opposed appeasement, as Robert Harris seems to think, but those who concealed – or perhaps honestly did not recognise – the true war aims of German policy and the iniquity of the Nazi regime.

The Czechoslovak government realised this from the start and, with greater foresight than ourselves, immediately began to fortify its frontier, build up its army and air force, augment its massive armaments industry and tried to develop the only international security system which would have prevented the German general staff from allowing Hitler to fight a war on two fronts – the Franco-Czech-Russian alliance.

Throughout the pre-war period, we not only refused to have anything to do with this allowed Hitler to “enter his backyard” in the Rhineland, thus depriving France of this demilitarised safety zone on a frontier, and positively encouraged him to look for German expansion in central Europe. Neither Austria nor the Sudetenland had ever formed part of Germany before.

What appalled Chamberlain was not the weakness of Czechoslovakia but its strength, in the dreadful fear that, if the Czechs defended themselves, we and the French would be drawn in. The Berchtesgaden-Godesberg meetings were concerned, not with preventing Hitler from invading Czechoslovakia, but making sure that the Czechs would neither defend their fortifications, nor use their army or air force.

At 2 o’clock in the morning of 22 September 1938, the British and French ministers aroused President Benes from his sleep to tell him that, if war broke out, not only would neither we nor the French intervene, but on the contrary, would hold the Czechs responsible for any catastrophe which followed. Benes surrendered. The German armies marched in, took possession of the tanks, planes, the guns, the armament factories, and turned them against us and the French on the Western front, defeating the French and expelling us from Europe just two years later.

“A triumph for all was best and most enlightened in British life”?

Shiela Grant Duff
Observer correspondent, Prague, 1936-8"

You can buy copies of Munich 1938 on kindle and as a paperback.

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Sunday, 23 December 2018

How badly do we need Paddy now?

Of all the unlikely pieces of news that have belaboured us in recent weeks, the news that Paddy Ashdown has died - with all his drive and vitality - seems in some ways the most unlikely. I admired him enormously, perhaps too much to know him as well as I would have liked. But he was party leader throughout my six years as editor of the party's weekly newspaper, so I was often in close touch with him.

I first met him when I helped him with a green speech in 1989, after the Lib Dems were roundly trounced by the Greens in that year's Euro-elections. I remember downloading my frustration that we were still flat-lining in the polls, and I also remember the fortitude and good-humour with which he took my somewhat ill-judged exposition.

Paddy was always a liberal and a Liberal. His decision to switch the main focus of the new party from defence (the SDP obsession) to education was at least as important, in my view, as the string of by-election victories in pushing the new combined party up in the polls.

He was always fascinated by new ideas. Back to the days when he was first an MP, and rumours would circulate about the picture of his shared office with David Penhaligon, with socks drying on the lampshades on the Penhaligon side and everything neat and computerised on the Ashdown side (this was, I may say, before I even owned a computer of my own).

Two reflections from the point of view of our current national predicament...

First, the way that Paddy always managed to combine leadership with a towering rage at the illiberal uselessness of the establishment. He was always a crusader. He never operated as a cosy insider with mildly liberal views. That seems to me to be the only political way forward out of our current mess in the UK.

Second, he was a true leader in a period of history when leadership is largely missing. This was not always comfortable. The first meeting that I attended as an elected member of the party's policy committee consisted largely of the committee and the leader bawling at each other about the position he had taken on extending the remit of the highly successful joint cabinet committee with the Blair government.

Looking back, now tempers have cooled, I can see he was probably right. The point here is that he knew where he was going, based on what was possible, articulated it clearly and lead from some way in the front.

Nor was this the traditional leadership style of the English upper classes - Theresa May style - based on insisting that reality is what they say it is, with disastrous results.

Once again, Ashdown style inspiration is now so seriously lacking in the UK body politic.

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Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Where are all the men?

This post first appeared yesterday on the Radix blog...

Why would a relatively sane man like me (perhaps that is overstating the case) dare to risk tiptoeing back into questions of gender politics that got him so roughed up online last time?

A good question. Because this time I particularly have something to say about men, in relation to women of course.

Because despite everything, all the violence against them and the unequal pay gap and much more besides, women have one great advantage over men. Not in all times but now, in the western world.

They have a clear vision of what they could and should become. They have a clear ethic and and an overwhelming sense of themselves as women.

This is clearly not the case everywhere. There are cultures, and some of them have outposts in the UK, where women are seriously threatened. But that may have fuelled the fire in the women who are in a stronger position to act.

They have women's magazines which spread the word. They have a strong sense of sisterhood. They have books for girls about what other girls achieved when they grew up. And whether or not the patriarchy actually exists in quite the way they say it does any more, they have a clear enemy.

This is not intended as any kind of criticism. Quite the reverse. They are now more emotionally evolved than many men, let's face it.

What worries me about this is that I don't see anything remotely parallel available to men in this generation or the one coming up - and I speak as a man bringing up two boys ("You should be teaching them not to rape," I was told last time I wrote that sentence, which kind of confirms my point.)

I am not claiming any kind of victimhood here. But I believe that the only kind of gender reform that is likely to work long term is one which provides some kind of solution for the lives of both genders, so this is not just relevant to the debate - it is central to it.

I was inspired to write this by an elderly clergyman, in his eighties, whose sermon I heard a couple of weeks back, when he asked the congregation - "where are the men?" If it had been a time bank - and I was involved in setting these up sometime ago - I would know the answer: they are at home watching daytime television.

But he didn't mean where were then then - he meant where were they spiritually? And of course so many man make a major contribution in so many ways, but that isn't the point either. As a sex, we have got some work to do - to show what it is that men could and should be now and in the future.
Maybe also to work out why men are so much more susceptible to the lure of screens than women.

Not as a blueprint either, any more than women are projecting any kind of blueprint. But there is a poverty of aspiration in being a man these days, I believe,  and it is time we learned from women, with women, how to grow up.

This is hardly a new thought. But Robert Bly's mythopoetic men's movement was a bit, well, mythopoetic. Nor do I admire some of the examples of manhood that have been set before me by the media for my contemplation. Most of which seem to be some kind of encouragement for workaholism - or some other -aholism.

No, there has to be a better way - but it has to be the men who do it for themselves.

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