Monday, 8 April 2019

A sad story of Liberalism

This blog post was first published on the Radix site...

I found myself in agreement with Norman Lamb last week that his party (and mine) was in danger of becoming an equally irresponsible version of the European Research Group on the Remainer side.

What I did find unexpected was how much agreement and symathy there was for his position in the comments below the line on Lib Dem Voice.

I also have huge sympathy with him because I feel what he must feel, this terrible sense of guilt and alienated disappointment that I find myself so out of kilter with the party I have been a member of for four decades.

I also feel a sense of huge frustration for another reason, looking back more than a century since the last time the ruling Conservatives fractured over trade policy. In the early years of the century, Joseph Chamberlain's ideas about 'imperial preference' - whether we should have as close a trading relationship with Europe as we did with the empire or not - split the Tories from top to bottom.

It was this dispute where one cabinet minister famously confided that he had nailed is colours "firmly to the fence".

What was different from today is that there was an effective Liberal opposition under Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who was able to engineer the Liberal landslide of 1906 as a result - which gave us old age pensions and the People's Budget and much else besides.

This is what I find frustrating. That Campbell-Bannerman's successors could have developed the kind of rheortic that could speak for the nation as a whole, beyond the old labels of Remainer and Leaver and could provide people with just a glimmer of hope.

I fear it may now be too late.

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Monday, 1 April 2019

It may be time to see the bright side of Brexit

Let me categorise myself to start with. I voted remain in 2016, though armed only with the conviction that - if Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage wanted something - it probably made sense to vote the other way.

As we appear (at least as I write this on Sunday evening) to be hurtling out of the European Union
without a deal, I found some of my more emotional remainer friends saying it was time to embrace it.

That might be putting it a little strongly, but I have a feeling they are right. There is certainly good sense in avoiding the fixation and despar involved in going over a political cliff - if only to avoid giving the other side the satisfaction. It may in fact be time to look on the bright side, and here are a few of these...

Bright side #1. The multinationals will shun us. The City of London will shrink. Most of my remainer friends believe that both have been pretty impoverishing for the UK and the climate. So this would at least mean they can stop tweeting horrified reactions to the demise of Honda in Swindon.

Bright side #2.We will simply have to train the so-called underclass to do the tasks we have seemed unable to do for outrsleves, from picking vegetables to being doctors. And to pay them enough.

Bright side #3. We have at least the basis for healing some of the deep divisions in UK life. Not all of them by any means, but we can't survive on the current basis, especially since none of the political parties seem willing or able to generate a narrative that can supercede them.

Bright side #4. If it doesn't work, we can blame John Redwood for everything that goes wrong for the next 20 years or so.

Bright side #5. Radicals across Europe have seen our plight and their funders are busily funding community organisig at the grassroots. Which is at least a basis for rebuilding. Or so I am told.

Bright side #6. By foregoing the prospect of a second referendum, we will at least avoid the possibility of holding another one every time the polls switch back either way, and so on ad nauseum. This seems to me the main argument against a People's Vote.

Some of this is clearly a little tongue in cheek - but which bits? Is is obvious?

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Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Like voting against climate change

This blog first appeared on the Radix website...

I heard an amazing radio interview a couple of weeks back with two voices from the past, Joe Haines and Bernard Donoughue from Harold Wilson’s  kitchen cabinet.

What, they were asked, would the great fudger Wilson have done if he had been Theresa May? The answer was as clear as it was elegant – he would have reached out to Jeremy Corbyn and offered him a general election in return for his party’s support getting the Brexit deal through.

I’m not sure I really would go so far as to wish we were still ruled by Harold Wilson, but it is a pity none of the players with perhaps a handful of exceptions has demonstrated any kind of flexibility along those lines, or any others.

Theresa May appears to be the hopeless victim, not so much of her personal intransigence – which is clearly not small – but the boneheaded intransigence of the British way of government. That is how we are always governed – but normally a prime minister has a majority behind them that allows them to get away with it.

It may be in fact that our prime minister’s greatest sin has been to mangle the UK constitution. Normally, if a PM can’t get their legislation through the Commons, they have to resign and make way for one who can.

That is just the way it is supposed to work. Her defiance of the rule has led to the rest of the ridiculous situation we find ourselves in.

But we can’t let other factions off the hook either – the European Research Group of Brexiteers and climate change sceptics, the Don’t Knows round Corbym and the ardent Remainers, all of whom have been hypocritically been accusing May of running down the clock while they do precisely the same thing to avoid compromises.

Even on the verge of a no-deal Brexit, there are Remainers who believe the slim chance of a second referendum justifies their avoidance of any other kind of compromise. That is seriously irresponsible.

Meanwhile, parliament is so obsessed with their own importance that they have voted against a no-deal Brexit, forgetting perhaps that this is now largely out of their hands.

It is a bit like voting against global warming, or turkeys voting against Christmas. To really avoid it, you have to act.

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Monday, 4 March 2019

5 reasons why the left is still losing

I was fascinated last month while writing about the great Distributist G. K. Chesterton, to find his description of why he stopped being a socialist. Because, although he wrote it more a than a cemtury ago, it is again the main reason why I can't be a socialist, despite the fact that I  have always considered myself on the left, somewhere or other.

Chesterton's stumbling block was the “tone of bitterness [and] atmosphere of hopelessness” encouraged among socialists. And, a century on, take a long hard look at those on the socialist left that you know, and it feels remarkably similar.

It struck me that, this may be among the reasons why the left, including the centre left, is losing across Europe. Here are my others.
  1. Rage. As Chesterton implied, the peculiar psychology of socialists tends to be that they are angrier than anyone else. Every political tradition had its own underpinning profile - conservatives have a bizarre and unjustified self-belief and liberals feel somewhat left out. The anger issue is peculiarly offputting, and it does them no favours, particularly when it is linked to cynicism about most of what happens. None of this suggests that there is no reason for anger. But there has to be some openness to possibility, which is hard to do when you approach any new idea as if it needed first to prove its purity.
  2. Conservatism. In its gestures and its policy, and also in its symbolism, the left currently reaches back - not just, in the case of Corbyn, to the reheated nationalisation of the 1970s - but to the marches, placards, sloganising, demonstrations and revolutionary symbols of the Russian revolution and before. As if anything more clever that a good old-fashioned demo was somehow suspect. What for example should we call children bunking off school to demonstrate against climate change? Why did it have to be a 'strike'? Quite apart from anything else, they are the employers. And was that the most likely narrative to bring middle England over to the cause?
  3. Institutional blindness. There seems to be difficult for the left to distinguish between the purpose and the practuce of our national and institutions. If the purpose of the European Union is to keep the peace, for example, it  must be defended in its current form, even if it is failing. This is, I believe, why the left is constantly defending institutions, even when they are less than effective and some debate about reform might be a reasonable idea.
  4. Language. The rise of politically correct language, especially recently, may - as it was once portrayed to me - represent a kind of politeness. But I have a more sceptical view, since I think some excluded groups are right to see it as a way to undermine their legitimacy, and render them unable to take part in political debate for fear of giving offence. In some way, it really hardly matters what the purpose is if that is how it is understood. In the UK, it also puts particular pressure on excluded white communities, who regard this further exclusion as some kind of revenge from the chattering classes for supporting Brexit.
  5. Puritanism. Taken together, this amounts to a new kind of puritanism - one that has developed protestantism so that it now rejects all religion as supersition, and all complementary medicine too if it is unable to prove itself in the conventional way. When nearly 80 per cent of the population has some religious belief, and when many articulate adults are attracted to the claims of unconventional medicine, this is not an efective way forward.
Those are my five. They overkap in worrying ways and amount together to a kind of intolerace that now seems to have infected the Labour Party and is horribly obvious, for example, when you read comments below the political contributions, for example to the Guardian. The combination of nihilism and disapproval is remarkably unattractive.

Taken together, they also imply a different way forward, more emotional and human, less aggressively cerebral. It is no coincidence, for example, that complementary medicine has played such a role in the new political movements emerging across Europe. about which I can do no more to recommend my Radix colleagues' new book on the subject...

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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.



Get a free copy of my medieval Brexit thriller The Remains of the Way on pdf when you sign up for the newsletter of The Real Press.

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