Are we really living in a post-truth world?

Former London Mayor Boris Johnson speaks at the launch of the Vote Leave bus campaign, in favour of Britain leaving the European Union, in Truro
The Vote Leave campaign bus: evidence of a ‘post-truth’ world?

There was no great surprise in the announcement by Oxford Dictionaries that ‘post-truth’ is their 2016 word of the year. Usage of the word has increased 2,000% this year compared to last. Daily it is said that our age is one of ‘post-truth politics’. The vote for Brexit—or, more specifically, the campaign that led to that vote—and the US presidential campaign are cited as confirmation of our ‘post-truth culture’. ‘Post-truth’ has itself become a truth among many commentators and their followers; the term is bandied around in a spirit of assumed general acceptance of its validity and value.

Yet I am instinctively sceptical. ‘Post-truth’ looks a little too much like a trendy buzzword that ultimately turns out to be saying much less than it thinks it is. The coinage itself has that grating appearance of faux meaning for a generation desperate to think both its experience of the world and the way that experience is understood are novel and original. Not all terms beginning with ‘post-’ are vacuous, but many are—and many seem to stem from the laziness or inability to think deeply about an issue, to examine it within a broad historical and cultural context, leading to the easier approach of unquestioningly assuming that our world is unprecedented.

The dictionary definition of ‘post-truth’ is that the word is an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. My objection is not to this definition—it is quite neat to have a word, and a concept, that describes such a cultural state—but rather what is not contained in the definition: the implication, in the coinage itself and in the way that it is used, that ‘post-truth’ describes a new phenomenon.

I do not question that the politics of both Brexit and Trump were dominated by lies, distortion and exaggeration, by a casual dismissal of objective facts (or at least any that were inconvenient to a particular ideological viewpoint), and by appeals to emotion and personal belief. Nor do I doubt the wilful dishonesty of much media, the existence of ‘fake news’, and the power of both to shape public opinion. What I do question is whether any of this is new. The suggestion seems to be that we have moved from an age of truth, in which public opinion was shaped by objective facts, to an age of post-truth, in which public opinion regards objective facts as irrelevant. Neat and catchy as such an analysis is, I see little evidence of its truth—the irony here is that the description of our age as post-truth in contrast to an earlier age of truth may itself lack objective perspective.

Politics has never been about an unqualified commitment to objective facts. Politics is bound up with ideas (which become ideologies), with theories about, for example, the best ways of organizing economic and social resources. Politicians and political thinkers take strong positions on issues that defy straightforward objective analysis. Freedom and equality, for example, are rooted in ethics far more than they are in objective facts; whether a society should be more or less equal is invariably an ethical question rather than one that can be answered by reference to objective facts. Ideologies are about values, and values are rarely objective. (I am not saying that objective assessment of data does not contribute to these types of question, and that objective truths cannot support particular values; I suggest only that objectivity is usually less important than ethical considerations in answering them.)

Every age has its ideologies, and usually more than one. Consider the dominant ideology in much of early modern Europe: the divine right theory of monarchy (according to which a monarch, as God’s representative on earth, had absolute power). This theory was not built on anything that we would understand as an objective assessment of facts; it was built, rather, on various common beliefs about hierarchy, order and power, and the values that went with those beliefs. A similar point could be made about the many ideologies in our modern world. They are shaped by certain notions of how the world should be, and by various objectively unprovable beliefs and values (for example, that freedom is more important than security, or that a nation is more important than an individual). The advancement of an ideological belief, while it may be in part based on objective facts, is never entirely concerned with objectivity.

Furthermore, since antiquity politics has been closely bound up with the art of rhetoric. The classical authors of rhetorical handbooks (Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian, for example) were interested in the range of tools at a speaker’s disposal for persuading an audience. These tools could include reference to objective facts, but the focus of much rhetorical theory was on the way language could be structured and delivered in ways that worked on an audience’s emotions as well as reason. Persuasion—which is the essence of opinion formation—has always emphasized the importance of playing to emotions.

Rhetoric and the appeal to emotions appears to have been present in all political cultures throughout history. Whether it was the speeches and aesthetics of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, the use of fear as part of political rhetoric during the Cold War era (and the projection of figures such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as strong leaders in the face of communist threats), or the hysteria surrounding the supposed Catholic threat in seventeenth-century England, appeals to emotions and personal beliefs invariably play a key role in shaping public opinion. For centuries, after all, an attachment to monarchy, hierarchy and the Church was largely an emotional attachment, not one grounded in any objective assessment.

Slogans, pamphlets and satires have been around for centuries, and they frequently appeal on an emotional rather than an objective level. And there are many instances of ‘fake news’ throughout history: spurious accounts of ritual murders by Jews, false reports of massacres by Catholics, invented conspiracy theories, fabricated myths and legends. In late seventeenth-century England, for example, the political crisis known as the ‘Popish Plot’ was based on an entirely fabricated account of a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and place the king’s Catholic brother on the throne. Nor is there anything new about a cavalier dismissal of objectivity and truth by the media. Newspapers have been doing this since their beginnings; even within living memory, the idea that the press (and tabloids in particular) have been wholeheartedly committed to objective ‘truth’ seems laughable.

The argument that, in respect to objective truth, the politics of the early twenty-first century differs fundamentally from previous ages seems, therefore, to lack much substance. Clearly the way we communicate today is different; but while digital and social media represent a significant technological shift, it does not follow that the nature of politics has also undergone a revolution. Populism and demagoguery were not born in the digital age; appeals to emotion and personal beliefs did not suddenly arise with social media. Equally, objective facts have not gone away; they are still prominent in debates, and they remain part of the arsenal of almost all politicians (even Farage and Trump).

Perhaps the significant modern shift concerns objectivity itself, in particular the value attached to it. But this shift is not recent; rather, it began happening in the seventeenth century. As Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007) demonstrates, the notion and concept of objectivity arose alongside the empirical sciences. The process by which objectivity became established as part of the modern mental world was a long and complex one; but its legacy is that objectivity as a value and a concept has become ever more deeply embedded in modern culture.

What does seem to be new is the idea contained in the ‘post-truth’ concept that we are only now fully aware of it, as if truth and objectivity were silently taken for granted in previous ages. But they were not. In early modern England, many despaired of the methods of the pamphleteers and satirists, and bemoaned the way truth was lost among the emotion and outright lies of many populist appeals. Our laments about the supposed disappearance of objectivity and truth in politics are really no more than an echo of complaints that have been made for centuries; long before the word ‘post-truth’ was coined, George Orwell devoted considerable attention to the threats posed to ‘truth’ by the totalitarian ideologies of his time.

For those who believe that the term ‘post-truth’ applies to a new form of political culture emerging in the early twenty-first century, one that is qualitatively different from any previous political culture, the challenge is to prove and to articulate this idea fully. I am open to the possibility that there may be something in a notion of a distinctively new post-truth age, one that embodies a political culture fundamentally different from anything previously seen. It may be that digital technology is leading to a decisive rejection of either the existence or the relevancy of objective facts; it may be that politics is becoming so intensely ideological that any semblance of objectivity is eradicated. But I am yet to be persuaded of either of these suggestions, just as I am (for now at least) sceptical that our supposedly post-truth politics is substantially different in its relationship to truth and emotions than were the political cultures of the past.

Tony Blair and the politics of resistance

tony-blair
Enemy? Or useful ally?

Is Tony Blair worth listening to? Are the Liberal Democrats worth voting for? I’m going to risk losing whatever respect and friends I have by suggesting that ‘yes’ is a conceivable answer to both questions. A year ago, even six months ago, I would not have imagined being able to write this. But such is the nature of politics, generally, but particularly right now, that it is necessary to be flexible, to be strategic, to be willing to reassess and shift one’s positions—in short, to think what only recently had seemed unthinkable.

Some personal information will help contextualize this post. Those familiar with me will know that in so far as I am ideological I am well to the political left; I also subscribe to broadly liberal, libertarian and individualist views. All this makes me a somewhat idealistic anarchist. But I’m also a realist and, for the most part, non-partisan. I have long accepted that I will never see a society and political system conforming to my personal beliefs, I have reconciled myself to the long catalogue of political disappointments that I will experience in my life, and I am even sceptical whether my own politics would work—which doesn’t stop me from thinking that anarchism is a beautiful philosophy, and that the ideals of equality and freedom are important, even if only as a valuable counterpoint to and check on prevailing politics. Another way of putting this is to say that I am both politically idealistic and politically practical.

There is a vital place for both idealism and practicality in the present political situation. Idealism remains valuable: even if unachievable, our ideals, since they are ideas, are important starting points for thinking and debate. At the same time, there is a fundamental practical problem—more than a problem, in fact, a danger—facing us: the rise of the populist, nationalist right, with all its illiberalism and politics of division and (to be blunt) hate. In order to resist and overcome this danger it is essential that ideals and practicality are mutually accommodating.

My ideals can be viewed, above all by myself, both narrowly and broadly. The narrow view sees a particular version of anarcho-socialism. The broad view sees this anarcho-socialism within a wider historical context, namely a liberal and rational intellectual tradition that essentially stems from the Enlightenment. My own politics, in their detail, may be quite narrow and precise, but I recognize them as part of a large family of values and ideals occupying a broad swathe of the political spectrum, from the left all the way to some distant cousins on the centre-right. What unites this diverse and argumentative family are such things as the following: a belief in liberal values, above all a respect for individual freedom; the importance of tolerance; a celebration of diversity; the belief that all, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, religion and sexuality, are fundamentally equal; a rejection of nationalism, and a belief in the importance of international cooperation; a commitment to democracy and equality before the law; a belief that politics should be grounded in rationalism and secularism. Not one of those beliefs and values is straightforward and uncomplicated. But for all the differences and arguments about how best to achieve, say, gender equality, it ought to be possible to recognize the fundamental difference between those of us who believe absolutely in gender equality and those on the right who subscribe to patriarchal and misogynist views.

In good times (or less bad times) we can quietly acknowledge our shared core ideals and attend to the more urgent business of getting at each other’s throats over our more particular differences. But right now we are living in the bad times: the core ideals, the entire liberal and Enlightenment tradition, is in danger of being overwhelmed and overthrown. In practical terms, the family members need to set aside their differences, focus on the common threat and defend their shared, core ideals. That might mean acknowledging, however grudgingly, that the unsavoury and hard-to-like uncle trying to be heard is nevertheless part of our family, unlike Donald, Nigel and Marine, the noisy, obnoxious and aggressive neighbours next door.

I have never much admired Tony Blair, not even in 1997 when he led the sweeping victory of the centre-left over the Tories. His contribution to the rise of neoliberalism has been significant and woeful; his path of personal enrichment, and his work with authoritarian regimes has been appalling; and his role in the Iraq War was little short of scandalous. That Blair bears some responsibility for the current crisis is undeniable. But simply yelling ‘liar’ at him and insisting that he is prosecuted for war crimes is as simple-minded and unproductive as those Trump supporters who screamed ‘crooked’ and ‘lock her up’ about Hillary Clinton. Just as the murderer will never confess to his crime because he knows that to do so would come at the cost of personal destruction, so Blair will never apologize for nor admit the mistakes that led to the Iraq War. Does that refusal—which, I would suggest, owes more to understandable human psychology than to any irredeemable ‘evil’ on Blair’s part—mean that he should never be listened to again?

The fact is, distasteful though Blair may often be politically and personally, he belongs to the same family as I do. He is smart, experienced and insightful, and his political analysis is often incisive—just because one may not like him doesn’t mean one should ignore his strengths, intelligence and qualities. He is evidently dismayed by recent political developments, arguing that a fightback against Brexit needs to be launched in tandem with a revitalization of the political centre ground. I’m not much of a centrist myself, but I rarely find centrism truly objectionable. And right now there are simple binary realities that call for practical responses that embrace centrism rather than precious idealism that rejects it. The fact is, it may be uncomfortable having to vote for the likes of Clinton, or whoever the French centre-right puts up against Marine Le Pen, and it may be uncomfortable having to accept an alliance with figures like Angela Merkel or Richard Branson or Tony Blair, but in times like this it is necessary to act against the larger enemy.

I’m not suggesting that one needs to agree with everything, or even most things, that Blair says. I am suggesting that one needs temporarily to set aside differences and disagreements, or at least not to let them dominate debate, and focus instead on the shared ground. Let’s hope a day will come when arguing against Blairism will seem once more like a good idea. But for now there is an overriding goal: to resist the politics of Trump and Brexit and Farage, to defeat Le Pen, and to defend and reinvigorate the core values of liberal democracy. When that’s done we can all get back to fighting among ourselves; but if the new populist right is allowed to succeed, there’ll be no opportunity for infighting since we will have suffered a crushing defeat. That Labour, and above all Momentum (whose ideals elicit some sympathy from me, but whose practical politics elicit much contempt) seem determined to descend into infighting first, thereby enabling the populist right to run rampant and unchallenged, is a shameful invitation to disaster. Ideologically I may have more in common with Momentum than with Blair, but if the latter is urging broad cooperation in the face of the right-wing threat while the former is obsessed with internecine war on the left, then I’ll listen more seriously to Blair than to Momentum.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, I’m all for the idea of a broad front, spanning from the centre-right to the left, to resist the populist right. This does not necessarily have to be a formal front; on a personal level I find it practically strategic and helpful to view all forms of opposition to Trump, Brexit and Le Pen as constituting such a front, even if it is more an idea than a formally constituted political body. In large part this is a negative form of politics: it’s about doing anything and everything to stop the other side, the common enemy, from winning. If that means listening to Blair and Branson, if it means voting Liberal Democrat (like many, I vowed after 2010 never to vote for them again, but there you go), if it means opposition parties agreeing on single election candidates to fight the Brexiters, if it means voting for a centre-right French presidential candidate, then so be it.

But the notion of a broad front is not entirely negative. The positive essence of such a front is the identification, recognition and defence of the common values—those values of liberalism, tolerance, equality and rationalism stemming from the Enlightenment tradition that I summarized above. And there is a shared and positive wider aim, which is to ensure that history remembers the early twenty-first century not as the death of the liberal, progressive tradition but as a period of revitalization in the face of the threat from the irrational, illiberal, reactionary, authoritarian, intolerant and hateful politics of the populist and nationalist right.

[I have added some further thoughts and discussion to this post in the Comments below.]

Brexit, Bob Dylan, Braudel (and Trump): Part 2—‘surface disturbances, crests of foam’

donaldtrump
The times they are a-changin’

More than four months have passed since I promised this post—which is now written in the light of the election of Donald Trump as US president (something that I superstitiously predicted in the frustrated hope that I would, for once, be wrong about election outcomes). Like Brexit and the presidential election, my writing has been a drawn-out, chaotic process. This post as good as represents a new article rather than an obvious sequel to the first post. Above all, it responds far more to Trump’s election than it does to Brexit—it would, after all, be the height of parochialism to consider the latter anywhere near as significant as the former.

* * * * *

Right now, in the midst of Brexit and so soon after the election of Donald Trump as US president, historical perspective is not likely to yield much that is useful for helping to understand events that have only just begun to unfold. Clearly Trump and Brexit, as well as Putin, Erdoğan, Le Pen, Assad, Isis and much else besides across the world, point to the emergence of a global crisis and a treacherous future. But history will help us little to comprehend any of this in detail, how it may unfold and what may be the route out of the dark and grim cave we find ourselves in. On the other hand, history can provide an important broader perspective—and one that may even provide grounds for optimism.

Like anyone else, historians like to feel useful, so there are inevitably attempts to analyze recent events in light of the wisdom they have acquired from their expertise. One such attempt that garnered some attention (it was originally blogged at medium.com and was republished by The Huffington Post) is an article by Tobias Stone entitled (with somewhat hubristic confidence) ‘History tells us what will happen next with Brexit and Trump’.

Stone makes two broad points, which turn out to be disconnected, and arguably incompatible. The first is that comparatively small events, such as Brexit, can lead to larger events in a globally connected world. To illustrate the point, he sketches out a scenario in which Brexit is the triggering event in a chain that leads to global nuclear war. This is, of course, speculation rather than a serious claim that this ‘will happen’, and Stone himself concedes that one cannot know for sure what the outcome of Brexit will be, either for Britain or internationally. However, the general claim is sound to the point of being historical commonsense: events lead to other events, invariably in ways that are unforeseen at the time. No historian would dispute this.

Stone’s second main point is that history operates in a cyclical way. The cycle he presents is one in which a period of stability is inevitably followed by a period of destruction, from which society emerges in better shape and achieves stability again, only to descend once more into destruction; and so on. He suggests that most people are unaware of this because their understanding of the past is limited to about 50-100 years; but historians, who have a longer perspective on the past, will soon detect this cyclical pattern. Unfortunately, the only real example of this cycle he presents is one that is itself limited to the previous 100 years, encompassing the two world wars and various other events over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that culminate in the emergence of Putin, Trump and Brexit. Stone does present a disparate list of other historical events—‘the collapse of the Roman Empire, Black Death, Spanish Inquisition, Thirty Years War, War of the Roses, English Civil War’—but without explaining how these wildly different events (including one—the Black Death—that has nothing to do with human agency, and another—the Spanish Inquisition—that was not so much an event as an institution that spanned centuries) illustrate a recurring cycle to the past.

The idea that the past reveals historical cycles is a popular one. It was a common topos among classical writers, and the notion of a wheel of fortune revolving and dictating human affairs has a long pedigree. Nineteenth-century social theorists and historians, fond of understanding society in biological terms, likened human affairs to the life cycle, with inevitable stages of youth, maturity, decline, death, and new life.

But, to put it bluntly, cyclical theory is utter rubbish, based on a groundless, quasi-mystical notion that some kind of metaphysical (or, alternatively, biological) law applies to history. There is no evidence that history works in cycles and that we can use the past and a ‘cyclical model’ to predict what will happen next. Of course, if one tries hard enough (and many historians have) it is possible to impose all sorts of patterns on the past—most notoriously by those historians influenced by Marxist theories on historical development. We have a tendency (and this is arguably a psychological truth) to impose or detect patterns because we prefer seeing comprehensible order rather than incomprehensible chaos. However, these patterns, whether they are Christian providentialist history or Marxist determinism or cyclical history, almost never stand up to real scrutiny. They are fictions, telling us far more about ourselves than they do about the past. The Christian providentialist history, for example, reveals more about the mentality of its author than it does about the past; cyclical theory tells us a lot about the human predisposition to view time and the universe in an anthropocentric way, and about the desire to render history as a science operating according to identifiable laws. There is no requirement to be a postmodernist to cast scepticism upon such grand, and undeniably imaginative, historicizing theories.

One thing that history does teach us is that it is unwise to draw direct comparisons between two historical periods, particularly when they are at significant temporal remove. Any suggestion that our own time might be compared with earlier historical periods is fraught with problems. In almost every area there are fundamental, incomparable differences between our age and any previous age, whether those differences be demographic, cultural, technological, scientific, intellectual, or social. For all that there are things which approximate to constants (or at least admit only tiny change over history)—geography, the environment, biology—difference rather than similarity characterizes the overwhelming part of human life and society when viewed across historical periods. The urban, post-industrial society that we live in today, the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we socialize—none of that can be compared with any previous period except in ways that are highly general or superficial. It is, for example, undoubtedly interesting and valuable to consider the modern digital revolution in media and communications with the print revolution of the early modern period, but to approach them from a cyclical perspective—as examples, perhaps, of cycles of technological change—ends up in a ridiculous and misconceived effort to incorporate the vast differences between the two ‘revolutions’ under a single explanatory ‘law’.

The capacity for folly would seem to qualify as a human constant transcending time. However, this folly invariably manifests itself in different ways depending on the historical context. Just because in both 1618 and 1939 Europe descended into profoundly destructive warfare emanating from Germany does not mean the two events are comparable instances of a deeper cyclical law. The Thirty Years’ War and World War II were vastly different conflicts, stemming from vastly different causes, and occurring in vastly different social, political, cultural and intellectual worlds. Similarly, just because the crisis of democracy and liberalism in the 1920s and 1930s led to totalitarianism, war, genocide and devastation does not mean the same will happen again in the present crisis. The economy, society and culture of interwar Europe resembles our own in few respects. Trump, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen may well be ‘fascistic’, and it may be interesting to compare them with Hitler and Mussolini, just as it may be interesting to compare Putin with Lenin or Stalin, but there are significant limits to how far one can take such comparisons. There are far more ways in which Trump differs from Hitler than there are ways in which he resembles him. Likewise, one does not have to be fond of the Republican Party to point out that they are not remotely like the German Nazi Party. To suppose that Hitler and the Nazis, and Trump and the Republicans are fulfilling the same destined cyclical role is a nonsense. In short, cyclical theories of history are junk—entertaining junk perhaps, and revealing of the mental world from which they originate, but junk all the same.

* * * * *

braudel_mediterraneanHistory can nevertheless shed light on contemporary events. A more fertile approach to understanding the past was that of the French historian, Fernand Braudel (1902-85). One of the central figures in what has come to be known as the Annales school of historiography—the influence of which on historical research cannot be overstated—Braudel was arguably the greatest historian, and his book, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), arguably the greatest historical work of the twentieth century. The importance of The Mediterranean stems in part from its brilliant exposition of sixteenth-century Mediterranean society, economy, culture and politics, but above all from its broader structure. Braudel consciously rejected the traditional approach to history which focused on politics and events. Instead, he understood the past in terms of three different levels of historical time: geographical time, social time, and individual time. The first deals with the extremely slow, almost imperceptible, changes in geography, the environment and climate that shape human history; the second concerns demographic, social, economic and cultural structures and their gradual changes; and the third, individual time, is the domain of ‘events’, those

surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs. A history of brief,  rapid, nervous fluctuations, by definition ultra-sensitive; the least tremor sets all its antennae quivering. But as such it is the most exciting of all, the richest in human interest, and also the most dangerous. We must learn to distrust this history with its still burning passions, as it was felt, described, and lived by contemporaries whose lives were as short and as short-sighted as ours. It has the dimensions of their anger, dreams, or illusions… Resounding events are often only momentary outbursts, surface manifestations of these larger movements [of geographical and social time] and explicable only in terms of them. (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. by Siân Reynolds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; first published in French, 1949; second revised edn, 1966), p. 21.)

Traditional history fixated on events and individuals: kings and queens, statesmen, diplomats and generals, high politics, wars and revolutions. It is interesting, exciting and entertaining history, but on its own provides little understanding of the past. To understand the sixteenth-century Mediterranean world, as Braudel endeavoured to do, required attention to the longue durée, the long-term, the arena of geographical and social time. It necessitated understanding the Mediterranean as a sea with its islands and coastline, and the surrounding lands as varying regions of hills, mountains, plains and deserts. For it is this geography and climate which has shaped the social and economic culture of the Mediterranean peoples, fashioning the agriculture, the local and wider economies, the trade routes and financial systems. Only by grasping these features of the Mediterranean world—its geography, its climate, its economy, its society—is it possible to understand the individuals, politics and events that emerge from them.

Braudel’s metaphor of ‘surface disturbances, crests of foam’ suggests that most events are little more than froth. Perhaps one way of thinking about this is to offer a Braudelian adaptation of Shakespeare: events, whether wars, revolutions, political upheavals, are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing other than the larger movements of geographical and social time.

A Braudelian perspective, therefore, might regard the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit as surface manifestations of larger movements. An analysis of Trump and Brexit more plausible than the attempt to discern in them the recurrence of a cyclical stage is to consider them as reactions to rapid change (some of which might be described as progress). It is possible, for example, that they are the final, dying twitches of misogyny, white supremacy and blinkered nationalism in a world that increasingly has little place for such things; certainly, demographic, social, cultural and economic evidence suggests that possibility is more likely than that Trump and Brexit are ushering an enduring change in human history. There is a chance that these dying twitches will lead to global devastation and environmental catastrophe. But this is not inevitable, and assuming we manage to avoid such disasters, we may well find an era will follow—in five years or fifty years, who knows?—that once again embraces progressive, liberal and enlightened values suited to the demographically and culturally diverse world we live in.

The point is, to adopt this Braudelian view, that there is a flowing ocean of broad social, cultural and intellectual shifts on which Trump and Brexit are transitory crests of foam. One might consider gender history as an example. The election of Trump is undoubtedly a setback in the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights. But the long history of this struggle shows nothing cyclical about it; rather, it resembles a long and painfully slow story of progress against a background of gradual social, economic and cultural change. Trump is probably no more than a temporary setback, a desperate misogynist backlash, a brief and fleeting political manifestation of the rage and frustrations of men who are dimly aware they are almost certainly on the losing side of history. Even the misogyny of Trump and his supporters is not going to reverse female suffrage, say, or access to higher education. Despite Trump, all the historical signs are that one day in the future women will achieve equality. As Braudel put it, in ‘historical analysis… the long run always wins in the end’ (The Mediterranean, p. 1244). Individual historical actors, such as Trump, and events, such as the 2016 presidential election, are, for all their immediate and foreseeable pain, insignificant in the context of the broader tides of social and cultural change.

Despite the hopes of non-specialists that history may contain the secrets of what will happen in the future, historians have never been good at predicting the future with any precision. Any attempt to read from recent events a future sequence of events and their outcome is no more than speculative guesswork requiring no knowledge of history. Anyone could imagine, say, a scenario in which a terrorist incident on US soil in the name of Islamic fundamentalism early in the Trump presidency leads to virulent Islamophobia; or a win for Marine Le Pen that results in Frexit and further international instability. Equally, however, there may be neither a terrorist attack nor a victory for Le Pen. Whether there are or not, and what possible outcomes may arise, cannot be gleaned by looking at past historical events; they can only be based on an astute and informed assessment of current possibilities and probabilities.

But what history can illuminate are the broader and longer changes that generate events. Climate change, demographic change, social and cultural change, technological change: the long histories of these provide a better context for understanding recent events than a narrow analysis of personalities, political calculations and strategies. A recognition of this may help us avoid the despair of supposing recent events map out a road that ends only in catastrophe. And it certainly makes more sense than to view these events as manifestations of a mysterious historical law according to which humans will periodically enter into phases of self destruction. Not only is such a cyclical view nonsensical fiction, it is also likely to foster an attitude of resigned quietism.

Finally, it is worth stating that the present concerns are fourfold: to understand recent events; to avoid potential global disaster; to keep alive progressive values; and to work towards the acceptance and success of those values. History can help in these tasks, particularly those of understanding events and preserving values. This is because the past does not present a metaphysical law of inevitable cyclical return, but is rather a shared body of experience, knowledge and analysis from which to draw inspiration and understanding. It is for this reason that history, as the discipline concerned with the past, is invaluable in the present.

And since I began my first post with reference to the now deservedly Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan, I’ll end this one with a couple of lines worth keeping in mind: ‘For the loser now will be later to win, / For the times they are a-changin’.’

Brexit, Bob Dylan, Braudel: Part 1—‘Something is happening here’

bob_dylan_ballad_of_a_thin_man‘Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mister Jones?’ sang Bob Dylan in ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. It’s a refrain appropriate to the political situation in the wake of the EU referendum (which increasingly seems to have occurred in a past life rather than a mere fortnight ago). For about the only thing about which we can be fairly certain is that nobody—not Mister Jones or Mr Gove or Mr Johnson or Mr Cameron or Mr Farage, not Mrs May or Mrs Leadsom, not the leader writers or the commentators, not the investors or the speculators, and, for sure, not me—knows what is happening or what will happen. The atmosphere is febrile, tumultuous and astonishingly, gloriously clueless. Perhaps, ultimately, nothing much will happen, yet Britain feels different, as if anything could happen—the real possibility of a bona fide loon such as Andrea Leadsom becoming Prime Minister is evidence of that. When not dispirited by the alarming and hideous rise in racist incidents over the past two weeks—hardly surprisingly the far right, among whose number one should include the Faragiste wing of the Brexiteers, are feeling very chipper right now—I will, a little guiltily, confess to finding the ‘Brexit crisis’ rather exciting and invigorating. How can one not when so clearly something is indeed happening here?

And yet—is it? On the one hand: the Prime Minister has resigned; Farage has resigned; most of the Shadow Cabinet has resigned; Boris Johnson’s absurdly vainglorious ambitions lie in tatters; the Tories remain divided, and yet find themselves, for the first time in British history, with the remarkable privilege, and strange constitutional quirk, of directly electing the next Prime Minister; Labour are daily disintegrating before our eyes; the pound is plummeting; the FTSE is ailing; even the Greens are in the midst of a leadership election. On the other hand, Brexit has not happened, is not likely to happen anytime soon, and may in fact never happen (and the chances of it happening in a way that would satisfy the Faragistes, who are pinning their hopes on the hopeless Leadsom, and the Goveites seem, to me at any rate, extremely remote—the reality is that even Brexit will have to involve, at the very least, some access to the single market and some concessions to freedom of movement).

All of this has consigned Britain to limbo (a place in hell, according to the Catholic church, it is worth remembering). For example, Britain is still a member of the EU. But nobody seems sure what this means. For some in the EU, and in Britain too, the referendum result makes Brexit a fait accompli; consequently Britain should no longer participate fully in EU decision-making. The UK is due to assume the EU Presidency in July 2017, yet will it or indeed should it? Doubtless all over Europe heads are being scratched, for until Britain invokes Article 50 so that exit negotiations can begin, the UK remains formally as much a member of the EU as it ever did—and even in the event of Article 50 being invoked, the two-year negotiating process could easily become overwhelmed by events that force dramatic rethinks of Brexit. With the Tory leadership contest still to be resolved, as well as elections in France and Germany that could well transform the situation by offering new possibilities and paths, the most likely thing to happen over the next few months is nothing much.

Even if not much happens for a while—apart from what now seems to be the business-as-usual fever, panic and wild, clueless running around in Westminster and the City—we will nevertheless be stuck in the ‘Brexit crisis’. Whether or not something is genuinely a crisis (and I think this is), calling it a ‘crisis’ always benefits some. Newspapers, journalists, commentators, even bloggers can do well out of a crisis as a feeding frenzy for information, opinion and comment takes hold. One can be sure that Brexit, both as potentiality and as actuality, will be the making of some people. Crises invariably are.

The words of the free-market guru Milton Friedman are relevant here:

Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that happen depend on the ideas lying around. (Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982; originally published, 1962), p. ix.)

Whatever one thinks of Friedman’s economic ideas, it is hard to dispute his assessment of crises. Revolutions and radical political change are born from them. The Bolsheviks and the Nazis emerged out of actual crisis; Margaret Thatcher came to power against the perceived crisis of 1970s union strife and the ‘Winter of Discontent’; and, as Naomi Klein has shown in The Shock Doctrine (London: Allen Lane, 2007), for the neoliberal disciples of Friedman economic crisis presented the perfect opportunity for radical free-market ideology to be imposed on states. The Brexit crisis has opened up a rare moment for those who desire radical change to progress in their goals.

Alarmingly, however, the main ‘ideas lying around’—the ideas likely to shape what happens over the coming weeks, months and years—are nationalism (both in its nasty form as embodied by the Faragistes and Goveites, UKIP and other far right groups, and in its cuddly variety as embodied by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP), neoliberalism and racism. The political centre and left, both in some disarray, currently offer little in the way of a coherent vision. When Theresa May represents the best hope for the moderate centre, then there are grounds to worry about the tectonic shifts in British politics.

Yet Brexit, unwelcome as it may be, surely presents opportunities. Consider what it has already achieved: the end of Cameron, the effective termination of Osborne’s political ambitions, the wonderful demise of Johnson, the accidental (and, let’s be honest, quite funny given it all stemmed from some supposedly clever—too clever as it turned out—Macchiavellian manoeuvres) harikiri of Gove’s ambitions, and in general the mayhem and panic across the political landscape. What more could follow?

I did not, and do not, want Brexit to happen, but in so far as we now are stuck in a Brexit crisis, and in so far as there can be no return to a pre-Brexit state of affairs, then we may as well make the best of it. After all, the Leave campaign have trumpeted the ideas of taking back control, of reclaiming democracy. So why not pick up their baton and run with it? We live in a country with an unelected head of state, an unelected upper chamber, an unrepresentative voting system, an excessive concentration of power in the executive, and a politics dominated by unelected media bosses, big business and the City. The potential for co-opting the Brexiteer slogans and arguments for progressive ends is great.

Perhaps this more than anything explains why Corbyn and Momentum are so determined to survive: they want to ensure that the Left has a dog in the political fights and struggles to come. It would be interesting if they succeed. In a couple of months both the government and the opposition in Westminster may be commanded by minority and comparatively extreme factions: the Tories by Leadsom and her Faragiste followers, Labour by the Momentum-backed Corbynites. If so, we could be in for a period of car-crash politics. But would this be so unwelcome if it continued the process of ripping through the familiar Westminster politics and bringing about some overdue political change? We could find ourselves in some heady days as different varieties of progressives and reactionaries battle it out.

But I am getting much too far ahead. For one thing, the Establishment, divided though it is about Brexit, invariably finds a way of asserting itself in the face of challenges. For another, it is worth being careful about what one wishes for: Germany had its heady days of progressives and reactionaries in the 1930s, and the possibility of something similar arising in Britain in the near future is remote but not non-existent.

And for another thing, I return to the words of Dylan: something is happening, but we don’t know what it is. Perhaps that is because we are so dazzled and seduced by the undeniably exciting high politics—the machinations, the party in-fighting, the psychologies of the central actors in the drama—that we are missing the more important things that are happening beneath the surface. Cameron, Farage, Johnson, Gove, May, Leadsom and Corbyn; Momentum and UKIP; the plummeting pound one day, its slight recovery the next; Merkel, Hollande and Sarkozy—these may be no more than the ripples and the froth on the surface of the ocean. To understand what is really happening one may need to make the more difficult journey into the dark depths, for there is to be found the currents that generate the tide of events. And to get that one needs the mind of an historian (or a Bob Dylan perhaps…) rather than a journalist (or a Mister Jones). We might do well to consider the ideas of the great French historian—arguably the greatest of all twentieth-century historians—Fernand Braudel, to which I shall turn in the second part of this blog post.

Iceland beats Poundland: Thoughts on Euro 2016

beautiful game
The beautiful game: Belgians tackling Ireland’s Shane Long

It being Sunday, and progress on my weighty essay on ‘Brexit and history’ moving forwards with all the purpose and clarity of England’s attack against Iceland, I thought I’d write about football. After all, Euro 2016 would seem to be a potential distraction from the Brexit clusterfuck that has descended on Britain and Europe. Brexit has, however, a habit of invading every area of life. For example, I posted to Facebook a photograph (above right) from the Ireland-Belgium match with an attempted witticism that had nothing to do with Brexit, only to discover that one of my relatives saw fit to post an anti-EU comment on it, an especially stupid and ignorant one as I subtly pointed out to him. But back to the football…

It has been a largely turgid tournament. The simple virtues of industry, organization and sticking to a basic plan have generally succeeded. Creativity has been conspicuously minimal. The prevailing tactic for many corners or free kicks in the final third has been to find a means to pass the ball all the way back to one’s own goalkeeper in order to build an attack with glacial slowness from the back. Not surprisingly, therefore, most scorelines have resembled binary computer programming.

Quality has been in short supply. This may be because of tiredness, either because of the rigours of long domestic seasons or because the widely-advertised ‘McDonald’s Player Escorts’ has been having an unfortunate effect. The standard of some of the awfulness has been impressive. In their opening group match against Poland, Northern Ireland resembled a bunch of Sunday league players who had won a prize to appear in the European Championships rather than an international football team. Fortunately for the Northern Irish, they then met Ukraine who resembled a bunch of Sunday league reserve players. Not that Ukraine were even the worst team in the tournament. Arguably the Czech Republic were even more awful; but indisputably Russia, who looked alarmingly unfamiliar with some of the basic principles of football such as running or passing the ball to a teammate, took the honour of being the most dreadful side in a tournament where the competition for that prize was intense.

Thanks to overcoming the feeble Ukrainians and then managing to keep Germany’s score down in their next match, Northern Ireland actually sneaked through to the knock-out phase. The format of the tournament has been widely, and rightly, criticized. It takes thirty-six matches to whittle twenty-four teams down to sixteen; but then having indulged various forms of risk-averse football from bad teams, the competition reverts to knock-out brutality as fifteen matches reduce sixteen teams down to the last side standing.

Defenders of the tournament structure point to how the enlargement of the Euros has meant that various minnows such as Albania, Northern Ireland and Iceland have been able to participate for the first time. But all of those countries would have qualified under the old sixteen-team format. Instead the enlargement has admitted various shades of dross. (And amid all the soul-searching in the FAs of Ukraine, Russia and England right now, one wonders what the Dutch are thinking: semi-finalists in the World Cup two years ago, the Netherlands failed to qualify for the Euros despite it being probably the easiest qualification process for any major football tournament.)

As the smallest country ever to qualify for any major football tournament, Iceland are the ultimate minnows. With a population of 330,000, once one has factored out women, children, the elderly, the sick, the obese, the researchers on volcanoes, it is hard not to wonder whether the Icelandic national football squad comprises all the able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 on the island. In fact, something like 1 in 2,000 Icelandic men in that age range are representing their national side in France. They are wonderfully cheered on at their matches by many thousands of Icelanders who have presented the watching world with some fantastically choreographed, and slightly scary, chants. So many Icelanders seem to be in France that one fears for their homeland: the puffins may have worked out a way of taking over by the time the population returns.

icelandic fans
Happy Icelandic fans doing their brilliant chant

The Icelanders did manage to upset the usually humble, modest and generous-hearted Cristiano Ronaldo. By daring to defend against Portugal in their opening group match, rather than more properly bowing down at Ronaldo’s feet, the Icelanders achieved an unlikely draw and brought upon themselves the wrath of the demi-god who accused them of having a ‘small mentality’. Ronaldo’s wider point is worth considering: is it in the spirit of football or indeed humanity that an insignificant country such as Iceland should attempt to play to its own tactical strengths rather than to the tactical strengths of its larger and more important opponents? Would it not be fairer if smaller countries actually played to lose against larger countries?

The uncaring Norsemen defied, however, Ronaldo’s prediction that ‘they are not going to do anything in the competition’ by qualifying for the knockout phase. So it was in the round-of-16 that they met post-Brexit England. Pre-Brexit England had been talked up as a highly talented and youthful squad of players, and much was made of their lively performances in the group matches which yielded a draw against Russia (yes, the same Russia who proved themselves to be the worst side in the tournament), a win over Wales thanks to a goal at the death, and an utterly dominant 0-0 demolition of the mighty Slovakia. Few pundits gave the Icelanders much hope against the English juggernaut that was trampling its way across Europe.

Now, I have to confess that I was in such a post-Brexit funk that I decided to get pissed with a friend rather than watch the match. This was because I wanted Iceland to win, but didn’t give them much hope (and having put myself through the torment of watching one hope die on EU referendum night, I did not want to repeat the suffering so soon). I shall, of course, be accused of a complete lack of patriotism—but, you know what, I wear my lack of patriotism with pride. Of the many stupid beliefs one might have, patriotism is right up there with the stupidest of them. (And this gives me an opportunity to refer to a good article on patriotism by Will Self.) I have never understood why one should identify with people just because they were born in the same country as me; the ‘my country right or wrong’ mentality strikes me as the height of idiocy. Often I quite like England to do well because I sense the local happiness that this will bring, but actually I care very little. If Wayne Rooney was a passionate advocate of international justice, or Raheem Sterling was an admirer of Virginia Woolf novels, or Joe Hart spoke lucidly about the Stuart age, or Gary Cahill was a devotee of Bob Dylan then I might care, because in general I find myself identifying with people like that. But as it is, they are product-advertising millionaires playing for a country with the world’s worst national anthem and which, thanks to the EU referendum, had just decided to unleash bigotry and racism on its own people. (But I should be fair: I genuinely do celebrate the fact that the England side is a reflection of the cultural diversity of the country.)

I have subsequently watched most of Iceland’s convincing defeat of England (which sadly did not involve them bringing on Eidur Gudjohnsen as a riposte to England’s Boris Badjohnson). Most of the analysis concluded that England’s display had been awful—indeed, that it was arguably the worst ever performance by the national side. I prefer to be more generous: I think the England side were putting on a piece of performance art that attempted to convey the confusion, lack of direction and sheer horror brought about by Brexit. It didn’t win a football match, but it won my admiration for perfectly and aesthetically capturing the national zeitgeist.

Now Iceland get to meet the host nation. I am somewhat torn: on the one hand I want Iceland to continue their Viking heroics; on the other hand I would like to see West Ham’s Dimitri Payet resume his lonely mission to inject some flair, imagination, creativity and quality into the tournament.

As I write there is still the possibility of an Iceland vs. Brexity Wales final. Wales, in their first international tournament since 1958, have won more tournament matches in three weeks than England have in their previous seven tournaments combined. (Another fun England fact I have learnt: since 1966 England have won only six knock-out matches in international tournaments.) In the best match of the tournament (yes, better than the 3-3 goalfest between Portugal and Hungary), Wales put on a truly outstanding performance to send my pre-tournament tip Belgium home. Now they get the opportunity to do what Iceland so spectacularly failed to do: pay reverence to the divine genius of Ronaldo and let Portugal win. Yet, for all that a country ought to suffer a bit of karma for voting for Brexit, it is hard not to want Wales to get to the final.

Finally, it is worth noting that Germany are, predictably, still in the tournament. For those Brexiteers who voted Leave because they believe that Germany dominates Europe, nothing in Euro 2016 so far is likely to disabuse them of their fantasy. The Germans have been the best side, and have even found a way to win when hashing up a penalty shoot-out. They would make worthy champions: they play expansive, dynamic football based on a tactical and organizational approach as coherent as England’s was incoherent. If football is a guide to anything in this post-Brexit world, then it suggests that one ought to choose Germany over England every time.


UPDATE: Sadly Iceland have been knocked out by France. Which means that we will not get to hear one of the truly beautiful national anthems again in the tournament. Still, the Welsh have a lovely anthem we can enjoy, hopefully for another couple of matches.

Brexit may never happen

A week ago today I posted on Facebook my ‘considered’ response to the EU referendum result: ‘Britain is fucked’ it read, capturing my end-of-the-world feeling. A week on—and certainly the most turbulent and dramatic week in British politics in my lifetime—and about the only thing that is clear is that nobody really knows what is going to happen. At best we can make only educated but partially informed guesses. (Partially informed because most information either about the referendum itself—for example, who voted and why—or about the immediate course of events—for example, who will win the Conservative party leadership contest, or how EU politicians are going to act—is unavailable). Like any guess, mine could well turn out to be wrong. History, after all, tells us that little is ever fully predictable, and that any number of factors can rapidly transform a situation. But for what it’s worth my guess is that Brexit will not happen.

This may simply be wishful thinking. I voted Remain and am strongly anti-Brexit for various reasons (which I have written about elsewhere). I do not intend to rehearse here why I think it is legitimate to oppose Brexit and work towards preventing it, except to make two general points. First, we live in a democracy and an open society (yes, I know both labels can be qualified but let’s not get too picky here), in which the right to express one’s views is valued and protected. Brexiteers may disagree with and oppose my position and arguments, but they are not entitled to shut down debate nor to stop campaigners from actively working for what they believe. Simply telling people to ‘accept the result’ will not do when nothing has actually been decided yet. Secondly, for a number of reasons I am not persuaded that the referendum is an example of ‘good’ democracy. This is undoubtedly a difficult argument, but I have written elsewhere (as have many others) about the legal, constitutional and democratic problems with the referendum. These problems deserve, at the very least, serious consideration as part of the ongoing debate.

There is a path to stopping Brexit. It is certainly not an easy one (but no path right now is), and it will depend on all sorts of factors aligning, but it is plausible—and we have already taken the first steps down it.

The first step, somewhat paradoxically, involved doing nothing. One of the few simplicities of the situation is this: in order for Brexit to happen, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has to be invoked, thereby formally triggering a departure from the EU; until it is, there is no Brexit. Throughout the referendum campaign David Cameron insisted that, in the event of a Leave victory, he would within hours invoke Article 50. Not only did he not do this, but he also said that he would not do it, instead choosing to resign and toss this particular grenade to his successor.

This was a smart move (Cameron—a disastrous Prime Minister to be sure—has always been at his limited best when doing nothing). It buys time, a precious commodity when the stakes are so high. Leaving the EU would be a momentous decision affecting many millions both now and for generations to come, and whether one wants to remain or leave there is little sense in rushing the decision or allowing hotheads like Nigel Farage to dictate the agenda. By announcing he would be doing nothing, Cameron, perhaps finally realizing the gross folly of his referendum, was opening up the possibility that a way might be found to prevent the impending disaster he had done so much to create.

The response to Cameron’s move (or, more accurately, non-move) further suggests that minds are turning to how Brexit may be avoided. Although, in the aftermath of the vote, a few EU voices called for Britain to clarify its position quickly, these have now died down; instead, calmer heads are recognizing that the best course right now is patience. It is anyway clear that nothing can happen before September at the earliest, when a new Prime Minister will be in place.

The most likely successor to Cameron is Theresa May, an instinctively Eurosceptic Tory but one who nominally campaigned on the Remain side during the referendum. She is a sensible, pragmatic and highly competent politician; indeed, her low profile during the referendum is evidence of her smartness as a politician, since she steered clear of the Tory civil war, bolstering her credentials as a future unifier of the party. May has said that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, a statement which, if scrutinized for a few seconds, is actually fairly meaningless, but one which she has to make: in order to win the Tory leadership she needs to reassure the Eurosceptic-inclined grassroots of the party. But she has also indicated that, should she be the next Prime Minister, any negotiations to leave the EU would not begin at least until the end of the year. She, too, is finding ways to buy time.

So it is unlikely that anything will happen in relation to Article 50—and, therefore, that Brexit will even begin moving towards reality—before 2017. Taking time over this is good in itself: the situation is unprecedented, and it is apparent (and also somewhat incredible) that no-one, least of all those on the Leave side, had any coherent plan about what to do in the event of a vote for Leave. What it means is that the debate stays open, rendering the referendum as simply one event (possibly crucial, possibly not) within a longer discussion and political process over the question of Europe. Both sides have, therefore, the opportunity to mobilize and continue the campaign.

For the anti-Brexit side that will involve making a strong case against leaving the EU—and a stronger and more persuasive case than was made by Remain during the referendum campaign—and putting pressure on parliament. Britain is, after all, a parliamentary democracy, and ultimately it is parliament, not the Prime Minister nor a simple majority of the people, who determines if and when Article 50 is invoked.

The parliamentary numbers are on the side of anti-Brexit: in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords there is a clear majority for Remain. Of course, neither MPs nor Lords are in an enviable position. Whether they choose to adhere to their conscience, to their sense of the national interest, to the apparent will of the majority, to their party, to their constituents, or to their personal political ambitions will doubtless involve tortuous individual decision-making. But one can be sure of one thing: parliament will not act as a simple rubber stamp. Nor should it: the question of EU membership is the most important in recent British political history, and the referendum result, while delivering a small majority to leave the EU, seems some way off providing a clear and definitive answer.

More time also allows the EU to formulate its own strategy to encourage Britain to remain. The EU cannot, of course, force Britain to remain, but it can help give Remainers room to manoeuvre. Publicly the EU has categorically stated that there will be no informal negotiations with Britain, a sensible position which ensures that Britain is seen to have full responsibility for its decision. But one can be confident that privately there will be discussions, as well as energetic activity, that explore all the options. There are already signs of the EU sending out low-key messages that give hope to the anti-Brexit position: Helmut Kohl’s call for Europe not to act in haste over Brexit; and the careful support from Slovakia, which holds the current EU presidency, for any moves towards reversing Brexit, as well as Nicolas Sarkozy’s suggestion that Europe as a whole should have a referendum on border controls and freedom of movement, key grievances for Brexiteers that may help turn the heads among some of their number.

There is much, therefore, still to play for, and various possible outcomes. One path to Remain may be this: the next Prime Minister, aware of the constitutional and political difficulties of invoking Article 50, decides that the only reasonable way ahead will be through a general election during which the electorate can be presented with various worked-out courses of action. There is a good democratic argument to be made for insisting that the country must go to the polls before any Prime Minister (least of all one who is being elected by that small subset of the population, members of the Conservative party) invokes Article 50 and sets about negotiating an exit. After all, the referendum only posed the superficially simple question of whether to leave the EU; it did not ask what should be done in the event of leaving. But this is clearly an important question that should be voted on; for example, the public has not been consulted on whether Britain should remain a member of the single market, and it quickly became apparent during the campaign that nobody knew whether a vote to leave meant a vote to leave the single market.

This highlights one of the fundamental flaws of the referendum: a vote for Leave can mean so many things—the Norway option, the Norway-plus option, the Swiss option, the Canada/Australia option, or something else all together—none of which have been presented to the electorate in any manifesto. Given this, the result practically demands a further vote, possibly in a second referendum over the British negotiating position and what exactly is Britain deciding to leave, but preferably in a general election. Concerted pressure should be put on parliament and the government to recognize this: Article 50 should not be invoked without a democratic mandate and parliamentary approval for where any negotiations may lead.

I would contend that this is both a reasonable and plausible way ahead. It does not guarantee that Brexit will not happen. It might, but at the very least there should be public consultation over what Brexit means and entails. But further public consultation allows the Remain side to regroup and campaign against Brexit, with the realistic possibility that Brexit itself will be reconsidered. And to reiterate what I wrote above: in a free and democratic society, it is entirely appropriate for people to continue campaigning for what they believe in—Brexiteers cannot claim that the referendum result somehow gives them a monopoly of the debate or the politics.

Of course, there are so many variables that any number of outcomes are still possible. The past week would seem to illustrate Lenin’s comment that ‘there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’. And we’ve got several months ahead of us in which countless things may happen. Whether Gove or May (or, more improbably, one of the other three) wins the Tory leadership contest; the voices coming from Europe; the financial markets and economic forecasts; whether Donald Trump wins the US presidential election; whether Labour can form a coherent opposition—all of these are examples of factors that could affect the course of events. And there is always a high chance of completely unpredictable events that are impossible to factor in but which could transform the situation.

Finally, it is worth noting that a large part, but by no means all, of the Establishment oppose Brexit—and the Establishment traditionally finds a way of securing its ends. I do not make that point approvingly; I merely note it as a further reason for doubting whether Brexit will ever happen. Still, one ought to be honest. As an opponent of Brexit myself, I am not dismayed that on this issue the Establishment share my views. Brexit creates some fascinatingly odd alignments: many millions of voters who identify as anti-Establishment found themselves lined up on the same side as Cameron, the banks, the City, and so on. That in no way dilutes their anti-Establishment position; EU membership was never the right issue to do battle with the Establishment. (The real question for the anti-Establishment is this: are you a nationalist or an internationalist? If the latter, then you should campaign to stay in the EU and fight the battle more widely across Europe, by, for example, working towards reform of the EU itself.)

If my assessment of the situation is correct (and it may well not be), then there is a reasonable chance that Brexit will not happen. There are good arguments for why it should not happen; there are moves, whether intentional or not, to buy time that increases the chances of it not happening; there are perfectly democratic and constitutional ways for preventing it from happening; and there is a potentially powerful combination of Establishment and anti-Establishment voices who can stop it from happening. For now, at least, nothing has been decided. If this was a football match, Brexit would be leading 1-0—with the second half about to start.

Labour crisis, Brexit crisis

Labour’s current turmoil mirrors that of the country as a whole, and lessons can possibly be drawn from this. A common problem is at the root of both: a disconnection between the head and the rest of the body. Brexit is the way this has manifested itself in the country: a large proportion of the population expressed, through a vote to leave the EU, their dissatisfaction with the political, economic and financial establishment. For Labour, the dissatisfaction with their establishment—party grandees and the parliamentary party—was aired in the 2015 leadership contest won by Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn was the anti-establishment candidate, and was voted in on the back of a popular insurgency among ordinary, rank-and-file party members. In the way he dressed, spoke and acted, and in his record as a notoriously rebellious MP who put principle before personal ambition, Corbyn was a man who oozed an anti-establishment vibe. Many of those who voted for him did so because they ‘wanted their party back’—a party that, in their view, had been hijacked by Tory-lite Blairite modernizers and corporate-friendly career politicians. Optimistically, and perhaps idealistically, they hoped that by installing their man at the helm, the rest of the parliamentary head might start connecting again with the body.

The chances of this hope being realized were always remote. From day one of Corbyn’s leadership there were murmurs of plots against him, and it was never going to take much for the murmurs to become a crescendo preceding an attempt by the Westminster politicians to oust him.

The EU referendum and the subsequent Brexit crisis was the opportunity the plotters were waiting for. As a pretext they cited Corbyn’s apparently lacklustre campaign to remain in the EU, attributing to him a large responsibility for the failure of the Remain camp. It is far from obvious that they are right about this—not enough at a detailed level is understood about who voted Leave and why. On the one hand, in a campaign dominated on both sides by overblown arguments, misplaced passion and straightforward mendacity, Corbyn’s more low-key, honest and cogent position was a welcome relief; he presented reasoned arguments, without resorting to a strategy of fear-mongering, and he was upfront in his reservations about some aspects of the EU while making a sensible case for Remain. On the other hand, in a campaign that allowed for little nuance, and in which the stakes were so high, Corbyn’s contribution appears to have been both misconceived and largely ineffective: he looked too much like an informed Remain voter with one or two doubts, rather than an inspiring leader fully committed to his cause (and there are those who believe his lack of commitment masked a sanguine attitude to the prospect of Brexit).

Whether Corbyn conducted a good campaign is open to argument; for his enemies, however, the possibility of reasonable doubt over the matter presented the opportunity they had been waiting for. And so an attempted coup is under way—and a Corbynite resistance is taking shape. How it will pan out is unclear, but it is not likely to be pretty. Corbyn is most likely finished, since his position has become untenable: Labour cannot function in any meaningful parliamentary way when its leader commands so little support among his fellow MPs. At the same time, however, Labour will struggle to function as a party if its anti-Corbyn grandees and parliamentary party fail to connect with the majority of its members. Is there a candidate who can pull it all together? And would the Corbyn supporters among the membership be prepared to transfer their support to him or her? At this extremely early stage the answers to neither question appear encouraging. For it would seem that much of Corbyn’s support comes from people who do not want the ‘same old Westminster politics’, and who are reluctant to embrace a consensus politics if that involves diluting their own ideals. Stand-offs, infighting, haemorrhaging of support may all feature in the weeks and months ahead.

The parallels between Labour’s woes and the Brexit crisis are somewhat ironic. For Corbyn’s position mirrors the Brexit position; and the Labour parliamentary party position mirrors the anti-Brexit position. The former are cast as anti-establishment; the latter (less fairly, perhaps) as establishment. It is of course much more complex than that, and this is only one of many ways in which the current crises—both Brexit and Labour—can be read. And this is much more about perceptions than it is about reality: Brexit is perceived as anti-establishment, and anti-Brexit is perceived as establishment. (I write this as someone who is strongly anti-Brexit and broadly anti-establishment.) But if we do read it in this way, what might we learn? One answer is that the political and financial ‘establishment’ will do just as most of Labour’s MPs have done: they will attempt to step in to end the anti-establishment insurgency carried out by a popular majority.

It is unlikely either ‘establishment’ will succeed, in part because both have been severely wounded by huge hits. But more than that, the game is changing; old rules and certainties no longer apply. Neither the Labour party nor the Westminster and City establishments in their current form are suited to the new game that is emerging. Labour thrived on the old certainties of an identifiable working class, and on a two-party system that fostered loyalty and consensus within ‘broad church’ politics. But society and politics are now fragmented—with divisions that go far beyond class—to such an extent that it is hard to see how Labour in its current form can bring it all together. Of course, one cannot be sure: there may be an inspirational and imaginative figure or movement who is able to build bridges across the divides. But more likely is the prospect of Labour splintering or splitting. And while it could be argued that this disarray and disintegration is limited to the political left, there is mounting evidence that the Conservative party faces similar challenges on the right.

The Westminster establishment, which in essence is built on a whole political system, will similarly struggle in this fragmented political culture. Just as the Labour party may no longer be fit for purpose, so too the wider political system. In the short-term all sorts of battles will be won and lost: the Brexiters may win, or the anti-Brexiters may win; the Corbynites may win, or the anti-Corbynites may win. But these battles, interesting and exciting though they will be, are merely the froth on the surface. Beneath the surface there are wildly changing currents that may result in much more radical developments, tearing down establishments and transforming both national politics and Labour politics.

A reckless and cavalier abuse of democracy: The democratic failings of the EU referendum

The EU referendum has inflicted potentially huge damage on democracy. Superficially it has the appearance of a great democratic event. In reality it risks bringing democracy into disrepute. In the wake of the vote for Brexit, Kenneth Rogoff, a professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University, has written an excellent, thoughtful article on this: ‘Britain’s Democratic Failure’. What follows is largely my own reiteration and comment on his argument.

At the outset it is important to be clear about two things. The first is that I unequivocally believe in democracy. The quotation attributed to Winston Churchill that ‘democracy is the worst form of government apart from all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’ expresses a view that I share. In relation to the referendum the question is not about democracy versus anti-democracy, but about whether the referendum was the best democratic way of deciding the issue of Britain’s EU membership. As I suggest below (and as Rogoff argues) it was actually a fairly terrible way of going about the decision.

Secondly, it needs to be emphasized that the question posed by the referendum was not a typical political issue. The gravity, importance and implications of the result were repeatedly discussed during the campaign—although little of this resonated with the wider public. The overwhelming majority of legal, constitutional, economic and financial experts warned of the dangers of Brexit, both in the short and long term; at the very least, this was an indication that the issue needed to be treated with great care and thoughtful consideration.

It is right that in a democracy questions of such fundamental importance as EU membership are decided democratically. But was a referendum the best way of doing so? And if referenda are in general a good way of making (some) political decisions, was the specific vote over EU membership a good example of a referendum? There are persuasive grounds to answer ‘no’ to both of these questions, and in particular the second of them.

To answer the first question it is important to distinguish between two forms of democracy: direct and representative. Direct democracy involves the people (or, more typically, those people who qualify as citizens) as a whole deciding on policy. There are few examples of direct democracy: the most famous is ancient Athens in which adult male citizens (constituting about 10% of the overall population of the polis) voted individually and directly on all legislative and executive matters. Some modern democracies—notably Switzerland and some constituent states of the USA—resort to direct democracy (through referenda) on various issues, but no modern democratic system can be described as a direct democracy.

The British political system is an example of a representative democracy: citizens do not vote directly on legislative and executive matters, but rather elect representatives to decide these matters. There are very good reasons why representative democracy is vastly preferable to direct democracy. Unlike ancient Athens, modern democracies are not small city-states in which the labour of women, slaves and foreigners enables the small number of citizens to participate in politics; they are large, highly complex societies and economies in which universal participation in politics would be impossibly unwieldy, beyond the capacity of most individuals to make informed decisions, and fraught with political risk. Representative democracy, by entrusting decision-making to elected officials dedicated to the sophisticated and difficult task of politics, is a rational and sensible arrangement for modern society and one that minimizes the risks of direct democracy.

The EU referendum illustrates some of the risks of direct democracy. On an issue of long-term and national importance, a fraction over half the voters (and little more than a third of the electorate) has overruled the wishes of a fraction under half the voters (and nearly two thirds of the electorate). It invited members of the public to decide on an issue likely to lead to national and international instability, with unpredictable risks and dangers both to Britain and the wider world. Many British citizens are educated and well informed, and are capable of weighing up the issues in a balanced, intelligent, critical and careful way. But many more are not. It is clear that many voters had little real idea of the issues; many voters engage rarely, if at all, in political debate, and, in so far as they do, rely on tabloid newspapers for their political information. Furthermore, there is the possibility that extraneous and irrelevant factors—the weather on polling day, the national mood in relation to Euro 2016, prejudice against immigrants that had nothing to do with the EU debate, a vote against Cameron or a vote for Boris (rather than a vote on EU membership), a vote based on no more than instinct or emotion—played a part. Any national vote is liable to be affected by contingency; the national mood now is not the same as the national mood a few months ago or the national mood as it will be in a few months’ time.

The referendum delivered, therefore, a snapshot of a deeply divided public mood on a particular day, and a result that statistically involved only a tiny margin between those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain. And yet the result is likely to affect many millions both in Britain and abroad who did not vote, as well as generations of people to come.

Rogoff comments that ‘the real lunacy of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union… was the absurdly low bar for exit’. In other words, the problem was not so much that a referendum was held in the first place, but rather that the specific EU referendum was fundamentally flawed in its design and conception. Above all, a ‘decision of enormous consequence… has been made without any appropriate checks and balances’. In Rogoff’s words: ‘This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics.’

This is surely right. In a robust democracy, even comparatively minor issues go through rigorous and careful procedures. Checks and balances are built into the process. Legislation is debated and voted on several times; it has to pass through committees and both houses of parliament; and bad legislation can be amended or repealed. Select committees scrutinize the work of the executive; parliament holds the government to account. In other words, for all its problems, idiosyncrasies and weaknesses, parliament works according to procedures designed to ensure political decisions come under thoughtful consideration and are not rushed. Even for minor laws, parliamentary procedure is robust and rigorous, embodying important checks and balances.

The debate over EU membership is far from a minor issue; on the contrary it is the most important in recent British politics. Yet it is hard to claim that the referendum was designed with the robustness and rigour normally found in British political decision-making. To allow a decision of this magnitude to be reached by a simple majority of the public on a single day after a campaign of a few weeks (and of extremely poor quality) would seem laughable if it were not so tragic. The absurdity of this was compounded by the fact that the electorate were offered the option to leave the EU but without any proper debate or information about what would happen if that option was (as it turned out to be) successful. In effect the referendum was offering two paths, but one of which was blind, difficult and lacking in any map or guide.

For all this the Prime Minister bears a heavy responsibility. For it was Cameron who pledged a referendum—not for democratic reasons but in the expectation that by doing so he would end divisions within his own party and see off the threat of UKIP (instead, in a grim irony, he exacerbated divisions and handed victory to UKIP). Worse than his high stakes gamble—he bet the nation, and possibly Europe, in order to win a narrow tactical victory—was the reckless and ill-considered design of the referendum itself. There were various ways in which he could have built checks and balances into the process: he might have demanded a demonstrably clear majority (e.g. 60-40) of the voters, or a majority of the electorate as a whole; he might have insisted that the outcome of a Leave vote in the referendum would simply trigger a second referendum at a defined point in the future, allowing for further consideration and debate as well as a much clearer understanding of exactly what Brexit would entail; he might have required that an outcome of Brexit was only valid if all four constituent countries of the United Kingdom had voted in favour of it; he might have indicated a clearer role for parliament in the decision; or he might have implemented two or more of these checks and balances. But he did none of these things, doubtless fearful of antagonizing UKIP and the right-wing of his own party. The referendum was a hubristic abuse of democracy on the part of Cameron that threatens to bring democracy itself into disrepute.

However, an important note needs to be added to the above. In a campaign of extensive mendacity, the Leave campaign did not have a monopoly on lies: the Remain camp told a few too. Cameron claimed that the day after a Leave vote he would invoke Article 50, thereby irreversibly beginning Britain’s exit from the EU. Not only did this not happen—it was never likely to, and was presumably a dishonest but unsuccessful campaigning scare tactic—but the claim was fundamentally dishonest in the first place. Neither constitutionally nor legally is it in the power of the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50; rather it is parliament’s decision whether and when the process of Brexit begins. We may be grateful that, despite Cameron’s cavalier and reckless abuse of democracy, British constitutional law has within it a potentially vital parliamentary check on the ill-conceived referendum and its disastrous outcome.

Nick Barber, Tom Hickman and Jeff King: Pulling the Article 50 ‘Trigger’: Parliament’s Indispensable Role

Nick Barber, Tom Hickman and Jeff King: Pulling the Article 50 ‘Trigger’: Parliament’s Indispensable Role

This is an excellent contribution by three experts on constitutional law to the Brexit debate, specifically in relation to the issues surrounding Article 50. It presents a clear and convincing case that, both constitutionally and legally, it is parliament rather than the Prime Minister who decides on triggering Article 50 and hence Brexit.

UK Constitutional Law Association

Barber-Hickman-KingIn this post we argue that as a matter of domestic constitutional law, the Prime Minister is unable to issue a declaration under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – triggering our withdrawal from the European Union – without having been first authorised to do so by an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament.  Were he to attempt to do so before such a statute was passed, the declaration would be legally ineffective as a matter of domestic law and it would also fail to comply with the requirements of Article 50 itself.

There are a number of overlapping reasons for this. They range from the general to the specific. At the most general, our democracy is a parliamentary democracy, and it is Parliament, not the Government, that has the final say about the implications of the referendum, the timing of an Article 50 our membership of the Union, and…

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An immediate fightback against Brexit?

Should there and could there be an immediate fightback against Brexit? There are already signs that this is being considered. Some parliamentarians are suggesting that parliament should block Brexit; others are calling for a second referendum; millions have signed a petition against the referendum result; and even some Brexiters are showing hesitancy about triggering Article 50. Right now Britain remains part of the EU, and it is not clear when, or even if, Article 50 will be triggered.

Brexiters will argue that the referendum was a transparent democratic exercise that reflects the will of the people, and that there would be no justification to go against the result. They will plausibly claim that to ignore the result would be outrageously undemocratic, and would confirm how an establishment elite treat the wishes and concerns of the majority of British people with disdain. It is a powerful argument, and one that looks, on the face of it, unanswerable.

But it may be worth, at the very least, thinking through some possible counter-arguments. For this is undoubtedly the worst political crisis in Britain in any of our lifetimes. The country is in a febrile, chaotic, incomprehensible mess, at risk of falling apart, and in danger of legal, economic, political and social turmoil that could take years or decades to overcome, if indeed they will ever be fully overcome.

The following comes with a caveat: it consists of initial thoughts about an unprecedented situation, and one that is likely to remain highly unclear for some time to come. My points are intended primarily as a contribution to a debate rather than as a fully worked out position.

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The referendum numbers are worth considering. In a population of 65 million, 45 million were registered to vote (some, mostly the young, were eligible to vote but were not registered). Of that electorate, more than a quarter did not vote; of those who did, 17 million voted Leave and 16 million Remain. In other words, about 38% of the electorate voted to leave the EU, or 26% of the population as a whole. The lives of 65 million people have been decided by 17 million people. Only one out of every four people on the streets of the UK voted for Leave.

Of course it can be argued that my presentation of these figures is a sleight of hand. For example, a large part of the population consists of children, and it is necessary to distinguish between the population as a whole and those eligible as citizens and as adults to form the electorate. Nobody would seriously work out voting percentages in an election based on the population as a whole.

But the referendum was not the same as a normal election. In a general election, for example, one knows that whatever the result there will be another election in a few years’ time. The teenager disappointed by the 2015 election result at least knows that she will get to vote in the next election; but the teenager disappointed by the 2016 EU referendum result will have no such opportunity. Unlike an election, therefore, the referendum imposes a result upon millions of young people, and countless millions yet to be born, none of whom has any apparent prospect of revisiting, let alone reversing, the result.

It is worth reflecting here on one of the claims for classical conservatism. Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between ‘those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born’, while G.K. Chesterton argued against risking the tradition that links past, present and future by submitting ‘to the arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around’. In the referendum, 17 million people ‘who merely happen to be walking around’ have come to a decision that will affect generations to come.

All of this exposes deep flaws in the referendum process, and for that David Cameron bears a heavy responsibility. Most people, and he above all, knew the enormous risks of a vote to leave the EU, but he chanced it anyway, arrogantly assuming that his gilded life of success would secure a narrow political gain amid his own party problems. He might have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote; he might have insisted that a majority of the entire electorate was required for a decisive result; he might have demanded that all four constituent countries of the UK had to be of one voice. In short, he could have built in some reasonable safeguards to ensure that a vote on such a momentous issue was more inclusive of the population, and required a high threshold for radical and extremely uncertain change.

Instead, what resulted was a referendum determined by a simply majority, and one that was always at risk—and particularly so after a Leave campaign based on populist slogans, dishonesty and base appeals to prejudice and xenophobia—of delivering a result that amounts to the rule of the mob. It is uncomfortable to make this point, but such is the crisis that numerous difficult and discomforting thoughts occur to those of us committed to progressive politics. But it is becoming increasingly clear that many people had little idea what they were really voting about; that many people regarded the vote as a simple protest against the government or the establishment, rather than specifically a vote on EU membership; that some Leave voters even hoped that Remain would win; and that many people were ill-informed and lacked the ability or the will to question critically the many lies and exaggerations of the Leave campaign (and, indeed, the relentless negativity of the Remain campaign).

But one does not have to argue that a dumbed-down political culture, in which, at best, a diet of tabloid junk journalism fuels the political views of large parts of the population, is a reason why there should never have been a referendum in the first place. For how many of us truly grasped the issues?

I can only speak personally here: I consider myself a well-informed elector, someone who has studied and taught on politics, someone who has read many things on the constitution, on sovereignty, on democracy, on the EU, someone who follows politics and keeps up to date with a wide range of commentary, someone whose work and research means I have to possess a modicum of understanding about economics, finance and broad social and political issues. And yet I did not feel truly qualified to vote on an issue of this importance. I have gone on record as saying that I like the EU and believe that it is in our interests we remain a member of it; I have also gone on record as saying that there are problems with the EU, and that some of the criticisms of the EU seem merited. I have been very happy to contribute my thoughts to the debate. But when it comes to making a decision on the issue, as opposed to being part of the important conversation about the issue, there are people, often with direct experience of working with the EU or with a broader perspective on British society and the economy, who are better placed and better qualified than I am.

The democracy we have is a representative democracy. We elect and pay for MPs whom we entrust to make informed and considered political decisions. We give them responsibility in areas over which we have limited competency. We choose them on the basis of their manifestos, and we get regular opportunities to choose someone else. In short, we entrust questions of national importance to parliament. This does not mean that we cannot debate and attempt to influence parliament; we can. But ultimately parliament is uniquely positioned to consider and make political decisions. There seems no good reason why, on the issue of EU membership as on any other political issue, it should not have been the responsibility of parliament to make the decision.

And, constitutionally, the referendum is only advisory on parliament. Westminster could, if it wanted, regard the referendum as an extensive opinion-gathering operation, and it could consider the wishes of 52% of voters as one factor to put alongside their own expertise as they deliberate the future relationship between Britain and the EU. MPs could note the referendum result but decide on continued membership of the EU based on their own understanding and knowledge of the national interest.

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It is only fair to note that the Prime Minister pledged the referendum during the last parliament and that this pledge was part of the Conservative party’s election manifesto last year. The Tory government was elected on this manifesto and it had, therefore, a duty to implement it. The process has been transparent and democratic. Any suggestion that the referendum result should be ignored or overturned undoubtedly risks looking like the complaint of ‘bad losers’. Democracy always involves some people not getting the result they want, and the expectation that they accept that. I would only reiterate that the referendum may not, for the reasons I mention above, be strictly comparable to normal democratic exercises.

Politically any attempt to sidestep the referendum is fraught with risk, so much so that I suspect it highly unlikely to happen. The popular fury and political turmoil if the result were ignored might be dangerously uncontrollable. On the other hand, almost all the possible paths ahead are full of risk. The fact is that the referendum has generated a crisis in which normal politics, and the old political rules and certainties, may no longer apply.