Thursday, June 23, 2016

16 take-aways from the referendum campaign

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Turn-out looks as if it has been extraordinarily high for this referendum, not that that is making it any easier to predict.  I did read one analysis which suggested that a very high turnout (above 75%) would favour Leave, since it meant all the customarily non-voting anti-establishment types had decided to turn up and vote to leave.  But who knows?  Another few hours and the apparent indecision of Britain will have finally become a decision, and one which about half of us will apparently hate.

Meanwhile, before the reality offers us the chance for reams of further comment, here are my take-aways from the campaign just concluded.

1.     The Leave campaign has actually been a blinder.  It was consistently under-estimated at the start – possibly part of its deliberate strategy – with rumours of persistent infighting, rivalry between the Johnson/Gove and Farage outfits, and the lack of a clear vision of Britain after Brexit.  Nevertheless, they learned some core messages of political campaigning first honed in 1930s Germany.  They found a scapegoat class and caricatured it to the point of irrational hatred.  They lied often and glibly, and maintained their lies – especially the favoured one about £350 million a week going to Brussels.  Their lead figure was consistently inconsistent when comparing his views of the campaign with his views from before the campaign.  And they had the biggest media hitters of the lot firmly on side – the best-selling tabloid press.

2.     Which brings me to the second point.  The largely foreign owned, right-wing tabloids have never been known as models of rational argument and balanced reporting, but they’ve outdone themselves this time.  While the Remain campaign has had to rely on the more nuanced and considered support of the Guardian and some columnists in the Times and Independent, the Mail, Express and Sun – and the Telegraph, which sits uneasily between tabloid and quality press – have gone all out for the Leave campaign.  By relentlessly placing immigration on their front pages more or less consistently in the run-up to today’s vote, they have ensured that Leave’s key attraction has reached millions of readers.  That has been a great coup – albeit one that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth – for the Leave campaign.

3.     The Remain campaign over-dosed on Project Fear and then found it difficult to row back.  They forgot that most of their supporters and likely allies amongst undecided voters would respond more warmly to a less strident campaign.  George Osborne’s future budget speech was a spectacular mis-fire.  It is also possible that David Cameron would have benefitted if he had taken a less prominent role and allowed others to head up the Remain campaign.  This might in particular have lessened the vitriolic antagonism he has aroused amongst his opponents in the Tory party.

4.     Too much of the British electorate is irrational and uninterested in boring things like facts.  It’s why Boris Johnson, a mendacious and slippery political performer, still scores so well.  He’s funny, you see.

5.     Broadcasters focus too much on personalities.  This feeds the media strategies of the campaigns and then people complain about a lack of substantive debate as the vicious cycle carries on downwards.

6.     Referendums are fundamentally a bad thing.  There’s a reason why we have a parliamentary system, not the least of which is that most voters genuinely can’t be arsed to think about political questions in anything other than headlines and images.  The political class needs to rediscover some respect for itself and its vocation and stop passing everything on to the public at large.

7.     Celebrities, with very few exceptions, encourage derision for the cause they support.  They should shut up.  Unless they’re David Beckham or Sheila Hancock.

8.     The Labour Party is in a serious mess.  Jeremy Corbyn has shown that he has no idea how to fight a national campaign, and has failed to provide any sort of useful leadership for his party on the most significant issue the country has debated in over a generation.  Worse, most of his MPs know this but can’t do anything about it because they took their eye off their own party and allowed it to be taken over by hard-line Corbynistas.  If Jezza hangs up his leadership chops before the next election then it’s a racing certainty that John McDonnell will take over.  Time for Labour MPs to start re-reading their histories of the SDP.

9.     The Tories hate David Cameron.  They hate him because he tried to modernise their party.  They hate him even more for the fact that he almost succeeded and showed that it was an election winning strategy.  They hate him because he doesn’t really like them.  They hate him because he’s not Margaret Thatcher and doesn’t invoke her name in every speech.  They hate him because he’s a metropolitan liberal.  They hate him because of gay marriage.  And boy, do they really hate him over Europe.  They could tolerate him while he kept up an air of mild scepticism towards Europe, but now the mask is off and they will never forgive his leadership of the Remain campaign.  Win or lose tomorrow, he and his successors are eventually toast as far as many Tory members are concerned.

10. Despite 9 above, the Tory party is actually much more united than the campaign suggests.  Whatever the referendum result they will soon be led by a right-of-centre populist Leave supporter – probably Johnson, maybe Gove.  Theresa May won’t beat either of them and the rump of the once proud Tory One Nation tradition will remain largely unheard – for they are small in number and low in status.  Under a new rightist leader the party members, and the majority if not all of the MPs, will quickly rally round.  There is no tradition of the Tory left making serious trouble for right-wing leaders, and it will be astonishing how quickly this poison is drawn once the Cameroons are out.  Amazingly, they can probably even look forward to another election victory thanks to 8 above.

11. The Liberal Democrats are still in shock over their 2015 defeat.  They have failed to make any real impact in this campaign despite being a homogenously pro-European party.  They have failed too to pick up any advantage from the Tory civil war or the Labour party’s contagious apathy.  If there is any time for a strong centrist and internationalist voice to emerge in British politics it is now, but the Liberal Democrats have shown they aren’t it. 

12. Everyone on twitter is far more knowledgeable than experts who have studied political issues for decades or politicians who have made it their vocation to pursue them.

13. It is now a ritual humiliation that prime ministers must go through, after a long and dedicated career in public service, to be lambasted by air-headed television audience members who want their 5 minutes of fame for a laborious and not very good insult, and to smile wanly throughout as if it really was a very good point.  British political leaders will have regained their self-respect when they have a go back.

14. David Dimbleby should retire.  He interrupts too often and doesn’t like anyone to finish an answer if it means having to explain ideas.

15. Jo Cox was a tragedy and a phenomenon.  A tragedy that no-one can gainsay.  A phenomenon in that a new MP with just a year of work behind her has been garlanded with the praise and honours usually reserved for statesmen or women of many years service, and was certainly denied those old warhorses, also murdered, Ian Gow and Airey Neave.  Whether the tragedy of her killing justified the Dianification of her remembrance is a moot point too soon to be debated.  That politics looked as if it had become more dangerous certainly seemed to be the case. 

16. My final take-away is unhappily the most melancholy.  We really are a divided nation.  The metropolitan city-scapes and the left-behind rural hinterland no longer inhabit the same polity.  There is little common understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  While half the country continues to look outwards and seek the rewards of its ongoing prosperity, the other half continues to decline economically and put up walls against the encroachments on what remains of its lifestyle.  In or out, that dichotomy isn’t going away.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Gove's Star Ever Rising



If Boris Johnson has had a pretty mediocre - even poor - Brexit campaign, then the quiet man of the Leave team has had a great one.

Johnson remains popular with Tory grassroots and amongst the general public, who persist - contrary to all the evidence - in seeing him as the most trustworthy politician when it comes to speaking about the EU.

Gove, however, has severed his links with Cameron and the party modernisers, carved out a new furrow and become the Leave campaign's most potent debater.  While Leave supporters were collectively swooning over the great man's performance in the Question Timed debate yesterday - possibly because they've rarely heard one of their own side string words together with fluency and meaning, even if the substance was still being held at the door - even commentators who are not amongst Mr. Gove's natural support base were conceding that he'd done a good job.  Three of the Guardian's writers were inspired by Mr. Gove to produce delightfully crafted assessments.

Michael Gove has also seen a surge of support from grassroots Tories who would like him to be their leader.  The Conservative Home survey in June showed that he remained the firm favourite.  Discount his repeated protestations that he isn't fit to be leader - given sufficient support and a few nudges from senior colleagues and I'm sure Mr. Gove will overcome his reluctance to stand - and the former friend of Dave may be the man charged with negotiating our departure from the EU as Prime Minister.

It's possibly at that point that he might wish he had been a little more thorough on the detail of life after the EU.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ugly, Ugly, Ugly - A sane man tweets a Trump rally



This is appalling reading.  Well, it's appalling reading if you're not a racist, homophobic, mysoginistic, immigrant-baiting, Muslim-banning bigot who also wants to beat up anyone who disagrees with you.

Jared Yates Sexton is a professor and political writer, and he went along to a Trump rally in Greensboro, North Carolina.  What he encountered there was a microcosmic representation of the Trump campaign in all of its ugly, discoloured reality.

Amongst the Confederate flags, drunken attendees, tasteless T-shirts and open misogyny towards Hillary Clinton was a palpably nasty atmosphere.  In the end, Yates concluded that yes, of course Trump should be defeated in the same way that a virus needs to be stopped in its tracks, but that the bigger question was how on earth to combat the deeply unpleasant, hate-filled people who are giving Trump such an extraordinary reach.

Of course Sexton is educated, a liberal, a man who thinks about what he's watching and doing.  Of course he approaches the Trump rally with a sense of foreboding and perhaps even slight derision.  Perhaps someone else would have gone along and seen a happy band of cheerful soldiers celebrating together and rooting for their unafraid champion.

But read his tweets for yourself and see if you think he was making it all up, or reporting accurately from a terrible event.  I wish it had been the former.

[Hat-tip to Politics.co.uk's Ian Dunt, who re-tweeted the Yates tweets]

Monday, June 13, 2016

Trump's narcissistic bigotry is well reflected in America's right-wing land

Donald Trump has been roundly condemned by the liberal classes for his extraordinary ability to turn a tragedy into a bit of narcissistic self-promotion.  The famous tweet - "Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness and vigilance.  Must be tough" - would seem, to any sane reader, to have come from some semi-educated loony who spouts his vitriol without thought onto the internet.  The fact that it actually comes from the Republican nominee for president is alarming in itself.  What is arguably worse is that the very view and temperament conveyed in that tweet chime so precisely with such a significant proportion of American opinion.

Much of the support given to Trump is inarticulately expressed, but the Breitbart site is a good place to find some attempt to express Trumpism in a form closely approximating to fluent English.  It is here that we get a character called Milo energetically endorsing Trump's approach and slamming Obama's. 

I must confess that I thought Obama's response was measured, thoughtful and soberly expressed without ignoring the sheer horror of what had happened, or shying away from the possible causes, be they hatred or terror.

"Milo" on Breitbart thinks differently.  Like Trump, he thinks the Orlando massacre is essentially about the impact of Islam.  In his bizarre online rant he takes a lesbian commentator to task for suggesting that the attacks were not about religion but intolerant extremism; claims the slaughter is entirely down to America's "Islam problem"; and attacks Obama for variously not mentioning Islam, having a go at gun control and refusing to acknowledge the homophobic nature of the attack.

Obama, of course, specifically referred to the fact that this was an attack upon Florida's "LGBT community", something Milo must have missed when ranting at his TV set, and something that Republican leaders, in their responses, have refused even to mention.  It is also surely beyond question that at least one issue that needs to be considered in assessing the whys and hows of this latest attack is the easy availability of guns - the attacker in Orlando bought his just a few days prior.

But this level of rational thought is anathema to Milo and his ilk.  So too is the recognition that by targeting homosexuals the Orlando attacker carries at least some baggage in common with America's own fundamentalist right.  The same Republicans currently tweeting their sympathy are those who have sought to marginalise the gay community in America by denying their rights to marriage, or to adopt children.  

The attack in Orlando was a terrible example of hatred towards a minority bubbling over into inchoate and destructive violence, taking the lives of 50 innocent people on this occasion.  Hate attacks are not new and are hardly confined to gays, as the Charleston church shooting in 2015 demonstrated all too clearly.

The American right, headed by Trump, have seized on "Islamic terrorism" as the key factor because it allows them to ignore the other possible elements of homophobia and lack of good gun control, which remain firmly embedded in the right-wing mindset.

The discomfiting fact is, though, that it is precisely such a mindset which is proving so electorally potent at the moment.  We may laugh at Trump and mock his primitive narcissism from the safety of our liberal enclaves, but out in the electoral lands of America he has real traction, and the murderous actions of the Orlando killer merely add grist to his mill of hatred.  Killer and would-be politician both understand the potency of collective bigotry.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Can you find rational arguments about the EU?

When even respected MPs change their minds on the EU debate it might be fair to ask what chance the rest of us have in understanding the issues and coming to a definitive conclusion. 

To be fair, Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP who has changed her mind from supporting "Leave" to supporting "Remain" has done so largely on account of her unwillingness to support a campaign that bases one of its core arguments on a lie.  Their widely publicised claim that leaving the EU would save £350 million a week has been derided in most quarters as at best misleading, and now Dr. Wollaston has determined that to support such an erroneous campaign would clearly be wrong.

The claims and counter-claims about the money we could save if we left the EU, or the immigration problems that could be solved if we left the EU, are responsible for many people suggesting that it is impossible to define a rational argument about it.  And yet, if you bother to spend just a small amount of your time for research about what everyone agrees is a crucially important vote, you can scratch beneath the rhetoric and identify some clear points.

One person who has done just this is a guy called Nick Carter-Lando, who has taken the time to analyse the statistical claims being made about immigration and the economy, and posted on his facebook page a piece that is remarkably clear and rationally presented.  I'd commend anyone to go and read the whole thing - it isn't too long, given the amount of material he is trying to cover. 

Amongst some of Mr. Carter-Lando's key conclusions include the point that immigration, based on the highest estimates, makes a difference of at most 2.8% (that's 1 in 35 people) over ten years; and that removing our net contribution might indeed save us £8.5bn a year, but that such a sum (spent several times over by Leave campaigners in their rhetoric) is a drop in the ocean of, for example, the NHS budget of £116.4bn a year.

We have been ill-served by much of the tabloid press in this campaign, most of it firmly in the Brexit camp and most of it majoring on scare stories about immigration.  But we have always known that our tabloid press is sensationalist, scandal-mongering and only tenuously linked to the truth.  It is actually up to us as individuals to be trying to make our own rational case for leaving or staying in the EU.  The weight of expert evidence so derided by Michael Gove (who needed to compensate for the complete lack of any expert evidence for his own case) does point overwhelmingly towards a Remain vote as the best option.  But rationality may yet play only a small part in the referendum outcome.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Do voters fail democracy?

Democracy may be lauded as the "least worst" system available to govern countries, but there is a reason why most countries at least try and regulate it via a representative system.  From the American founding fathers onwards political leaders and thinkers have sought ways to respect the will of the people but not allow it to become tyrannical.  And a good thing too.  Political decisions should be taken with due consideration for facts and a high level of reasoned argument leading, one trusts, to rational outcomes.  Even having written that I'm aware just how fantastical it seems - we all know that emotions govern most political decision making and rationality comes a long way behind, but it's not a bad aspiration nonetheless.

Even so, there is normally some sort of correlation between reason, truth and decision making.  Not amongst voters though - at least if the current Yougov poll on trustworthiness is to be believed.

According to this, the most trusted politician on the EU debate is Janus' own disciple, Boris Johnson. Wise watchers of the EU debate have long been able to mock Johnson's snappy and easily made move from EU supporter to EU opponent.  The blog "Pride's Purge" has a great post essentially setting up a debate between the two Boris Johnsons, while the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland really went to town on Johnson's iniquitous approach to truth in an article aligning him with Donald Trump.

But perhaps the last word should go to the Guardian's Andrew Sparrow, reporting the poll findings:

Coming after Johnson’s evidence to the Commons Treasury committee (described as “mountains of nonsense” by the Tory chair Andrew Tyrie), his claim that the EU stops shops selling bananas in bunches of more than three, the bogus claim on the Vote Leave battlebus about EU membership costing the UK £350m a week and today’s “triple whammy” hyperbole (see 9.16am and 4.30pm), this is surprising, to say the least. Most politicians are capable of twisting the truth. But Johnson, as my colleague Jonathan Freedland pointed out in a column last month, is one of the few who has been sacked twice for dishonesty.
Sometimes I feel I don’t understand UK politics anymore. If Leave do win the referendum, the explanation will lie somewhere in the factors explaining these figures.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Gove v Cameron

On the surface Michael Gove had a better run at the EU debate than his boss, David Cameron did last night.  Gove came across as an impressive debater able to turn the tables on questioners and not short of the striking phrase (the best one being that the greatest symbol of British democracy is the removal van).

But Michael Gove had an easier audience, which was probably vetted to make sure no teachers attended.  Gove's audience struggled for killer questions and were allowed to ask rather tendentiously linked ones relating to the election fraud case and his own leadership ambitions.  No such cosiness was extended to David Cameron, but as has been pointed out by several commentators, the difference here is that Cameron was always going to present a better target for show-casing audience members looking for their 5 minutes of fame for the simple reason that he is the Prime Minister. 

What about the substance?  Cameron was badly tripped up at the start with the question on immigration, for which he has his own careless pledge to blame, but after that he maintained a more substantive case than the largely grandiloquent but empty Gove.  When asked for specifics about what life will be like if we leave the EU he tellingly chose to start with "hope".  Hope is nice, but it's very unspecific.  Which is the problem with the Leave case that Gove couldn't easily finesse, for all his skill as a debater - it is based on pure speculation, and speculation moreover which flies in the face of most expert testimony.  That was his other serious area of weakness.  In his exchange with Faisal Islam Gove had to admit by default that no expert testimony was going his way, to the extent that he tried to make a joke of it by suggesting we'd all had enough of experts anyway.

This debate will have done Michael Gove a lot of good amongst the Tory grassroots, who are increasingly desperate to get rid of their election-winning leader and replace him with a more ideologically pure, but probably less electorally potent model.  The triumphant crowing of the Leave campaign in the wake of tonight's debate also suggest they believe they have a star in Gove, though given their other spokespeople the bar is not set high.  I suspect the Leavers will push Gove more to the fore, but it will become increasingly difficult for a man who decried the Prime Minister as delivering up a depressing and erroneous vision last night to continue serving in his cabinet after the referendum.

Cameron is undone by a broken pledge in his Sky "debate"

One of the worst aspects of modern day political leadership must surely be the need to go and be ritually humiliated by television debate audiences.  You have to give a wan little smile at the voluble English Literature student who spends ages asking her incoherent and roundabout question, only to finish her inestimable waffle with an accusation that you are the terrible waffler.  You have to listen to the grumpy man who wants to know why you need trade agreements when you've got amazon and ebay.  People who have read a couple of Express front pages suddenly become the interlocutary experts you have to politely respond to.  Lose your rag and you become vilified forever.  Stand there and respond with reason, to often unreasoned questions, and you just look like a wimp and everyone can proclaim that the wonderfully well informed audience sorted you out.  It's an unwelcome gig, but it's a cost of democratic leadership.

David Cameron is, as one commentator has put it this morning, an old trouper in this regard and he kept his cool while under fire from the audience at last night's Sky News debate, responding passionately yet reasonably, and staying on what was a relatively clear message throughout.  Whatever you say about Cameron's aloofness, his rarefied upbringing or his isolation from the lifestyles of most ordinary people, you have to respect the fact that he does these amongst the people things well.  He engages, I don't think he patronises, and he really does try and explain his stances.  Most of us would lose it early on, if we even had the patience to go through with such a process.

Where Cameron was genuinely on the ropes, however, was at the beginning, at the hands of an experienced political observer and interviewer, Sky's Faisal Islam.  Still relatively new to his position as Sky's political editor, there seems to be a general agreement that he emerged with his reputation enhanced.  Tenacious, appropriately aggressive and with a nice ability to use humour to puncture his subject, he looks as if he might be able to fill a Paxman-esque void in political interviewing (though still behind the current past master, Andrew Neill).

It was Islam's question about immigration, and specifically Cameron's oft-quoted pledge on limiting immigration, that gave the Prime Minister the most trouble.  Not surprisingly either.  It's a pledge he hasn't met, and can't meet.  Whatever other points I might want to disregard from the shrill and constantly whinging Leave campaign, the one about his pledge undermining trust in politicians hits home.

Pledge breaking is the worst thing a politician can do, which is why it is concerning that they seem so free with making them.  Cameron's old coalition buddy Nick Clegg fell the same way with his broken pledge on tuition fees.  I'm surprised Cameron got caught by this.  Feeling pressurised from the right, worried about the inroads made by immigration-hating UKIP, he allowed himself to appease their cries with an impossible pledge.  Now he's paying the price, and it's a pity because in many ways Cameron is a reasonable man, a pragmatic political leader and a man who can give politics a sheen of authoritative respectability.  An ill thought out pledge, a short-term response to a difficult and intractable problem, has undone him.

David Cameron tried to present an honest case about continuing membership of the EU to his studio audience last night.  The easy accusation of a non-listening young audience member that he was "waffling" wasn't actually true.  The pity of it was that he hasn't been as honest about the EU and about wider problems - notably immigration - before.  Truly, politicians who frame their dialogue in the transient window of 24 hour news and social media find that ignoring the long view can have dire consequences. 


Thursday, June 02, 2016

Americans shouldn't ignore Trump's racism


For a while I flirted with the idea that Donald Trump is an entertaining candidate.  I liked the fact that he was shaking up traditional politics and sneakily admired the way his sheer chutzpah seemed to be getting him through the primaries.

But Donald Trump is no joke, and it will arguably be his greatest achievement to keep us seeing him as a rough-edged diamond making headway against a wretchedly corrupt establishment, instead of the dangerous demagogue and bigot that he really is.

It seems absurd at the moment that it is the Democratic Party which is in disarray, and not the party which has just seen a debt-driven real-estate chancer and reality television star seize their nomination from under their noses.  The Republican high command isn't just holding its nose to endorse Trump.  It is leaping willingly into the position of co-conspirator.  As House Speaker Paul Ryan becomes the latest leading Republican to endorse Donald Trump, let's remind ourselves of the person that all these top politicians now believe is absolutely the right person to lead their country for four years.

This is the man who has accused his now supporter, Ted Cruz, of "coming from Cuba" and suggesting he should have been disbarred from running for president.  This is the man who wants to ban all Muslims from America and who has happily perpetuated the myth that Muslims were celebrating in the streets of New Jersey on 9/11.  This is the man who wants to build a wall to stop any Mexicans from entering America, and who has described Mexican immigrants as "drug mules or rapists".  This is the man who has used the sly rhetoric of religious bigotry when he had a go at then-rival Ben Carson's membership of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.  Slate writer William Saletan has done a great job in identifying the ten things any politician who endorses Trump needs to defend.

Trump's inherent racism and malevolence go deeper than this though.  His Trump University is currently facing a class action which exposes it as a major scam, designed to rip off anyone who signed up to its courses, peddling false prospectuses of what it offered and preying on the weak and poor in order to make its money.

The judge who has been handed this case happens to be an Hispanic judge, whom Trump consistently tweets about as being biased against him, impugning his judicial integrity.  He also refers to the East Chicago born judge as "Mexican" in his statements, and he made much of the judge's "Mexican" race when he spoke to a crowd at one of his rallies.  Saletan again:

Trump’s attack on Friday continued in this vein. “I have a judge who is a hater of Donald Trump,” he told a crowd in San Diego. “His name is”— at this point, Trump, having raised his voice like a drum roll, held up a piece of paper and pronounced the name carefully, gesturing for effect—“Gonzalo Curiel.” The audience booed, and Trump let the moment soak in, shaking his head in solidarity. Trump told the audience two things about Curiel: that he “was appointed by Barack Obama” and that he “happens to be, we believe, Mexican.” After railing against Curiel and the lawsuit for more than 10 minutes, Trump concluded: “The judges in this court system, federal court—they ought to look into Judge Curiel.”

Donald Trump isn't a joke.  He is the worst type of malevolent, minority-baiting demagogue whose relationship with the truth is so tendentious as to beg the question of whether he even understands the concept.  He is a man who incites violence at his rallies and stoops to slews of personal insults against his opponents in the absence of any thought-through policies.

The British politician Edmund Burke famously noted, back in the late eighteenth century when all Europe was abuzz with the daily news of slaughter in the French Revolution, that "all that is required for evil men to triumph is that good men stay silent".  I might demur about whether all of the Republicans who are rolling over in front of Trump are necessarily good men, but they are fantastically not just keeping silent, they have chosen to add their voices to the evil in their midst.

Donald Trump is riding high at the moment as his likely opponent in the autumn election is mired in her own primary battle.  But if and when Hillary Clinton does win nomination as the Democratic candidate, then all those Bernie supporters, and Bernie himself, need to take a long hard look at her opponent.  For all her flaws, Hillary is not a racist, and nor does she approach Trump's levels of deception and wanton bigotry.  If Sanders supporters think that somehow it's ok to stay home when Hillary faces Donald, that their own purity shouldn't bring them to vote for a seasoned candidate because she has compromised too much, well then they too can count themselves in the legion of Burke's silent good men (and women), who wilfully allowed a man who will tarnish their democracy to be elected president.  There are no innocent voters in this contest.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Sanders, Trump and the challenge to parties


A month or so ago it looked as if the Republican convention would be the best spectacle for those who love a bit of political anarchy.  With Donald Trump marauding his way through the Republican primaries, faced by establishment opponents who clearly loathe him, what would have been better than a convention which tried to overturn the popular vote and insinuate a more acceptable candidate.  This would be a better spectacle even than Ronald Reagan's attempt to usurp the nomination of sitting president Gerald Ford in 1976.

Yet in such a short space of time the Republican conflict appears to have died down in the face of a pretty well invulnerable Trump candidacy and it's the Democrats who look like hosting at least a fractious, if not fully contested convention.  While Republican leaders accept the inevitable and start looking to make their peace with the candidate they desperately didn't want, the Sanders campaign for the Democratic nomination strides on, now even bringing violence and chaos in its wake.

The difference would seem to be party loyalty.  Trump himself may not be particularly loyal to his newly acquired Republican brand, but he's holding the good hand.  He's the presumptive nominee.  Those old establishment Republicans - or, to be more accurate, those new establishment Republicans like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio - are going to hold their noses and endorse Trump, because they need their party to win in November.  And win not just the White House but Congress as well. Trump can corral the Republican party because the party needs him.

The Democratic party, meanwhile, neither needs nor wants Bernie Sanders.  The problem is that Sanders will fail to get the Democratic nomination but will still need to create the maximum disruption against the party in order to gain any traction.  Like his fellow insurrectionist, Sanders has no loyalty to the party whose label he recently adopted.  In a two-party system, both he and Trump saw their only chance for presidential success as being to take a major party hostage rather than run as a failed Independent.  Trump's gamble has succeeded, Sanders' has failed.  But Sanders' momentum is such that he can at least keep going, and since he's not really a Democrat that party's leadership appeals to him will have no impact.  Any more than Republican appeals had any impact on Trump.

Effectively what we are seeing are the attempts of two maverick insurrectionists to turn the party system against itself.  It is arguably the logical consequence of a political system which forces everyone to adapt to the two-party system.  If that's all you can use, then it is hardly surprising that the parties themselves become a target for otherwise independent, or socialist, or Green, or whatever other type of candidate who might be out there.

As it stands, then, the Democratic convention is going to be the most exciting.  Sanders is looking to gain traction in the California primary and has made no bones about taking his fight all the way to the convention floor.  The cries from the Clinton camp, and the establishment Democrats, will fall on deaf ears because Sanders has no use for party unity.  The slightly maudlin calls for Sanders to accept his defeat graciously so that Clinton can look to the general election battle against Trump are mis-directed and misconceived.  There would be no need to make appeals to Sanders if Clinton had managed to effectively dispatch his candidacy via the primary vote.  His continued campaign is as much an indication of her serious electoral difficulties as it is his own stubbornness.

2016 will not mark the end of the two-party system in American politics, but it has shown just how it is possible to subvert the parties in the interests of outsider campaigns.  The establishment - in either party - rules no more.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

"We're nicer than you" - the Leave campaign's misleading siren shout

It’s always interesting to see how groups regard themselves.  It is not unusual for any sort of group to take a rather positive view of itself and, by contrast, demean other groups.  Nowhere is this more likely than in the tribal bear-pit of politics.  Political parties have long had a rather favourable view of themselves which doesn’t seem to have been readily passed on to anyone outside their nicely insular organisations, and now the two sides of the European referendum campaign are at it too. 

The loudest bleaters seem to be the Out campaign.  Barely a week of the campaign goes by without a slew of Outers complaining about the tone and attitude of everyone else.  There was a particularly concerted campaign today to claim that they themselves were all lovely, decent people while the mean old Remainers are unpleasantly attacking them.  In particular, various Leave partisans professed to be wounded and upset by the terrible attacks launched against their de facto leader, Boris Johnson.

We should certainly take these with a hefty shovelful of salt.  Firstly, Mr. Johnson’s incendiary comments are deliberately aimed to provoke mass outrage and they succeed wonderfully.  His most recent invocation of Hitler as a sort of pre-cursor to the EU is precisely the sort of ludicrous, over-the-top assertion that Mr. Johnson has made his stock in trade for years.  As a historical observation, it is panders to the outer fringes of myopic lunacy.  Whatever Mr. Johnson’s intelligence, it is certainly great enough to understand that there is no comparison between the dictators and monarchs of history trying to subjugate Europe, and the rather more collegiate endeavour – no matter how flawed – of the European Union.   Also, barely a week after his mayoral predecessor, Ken Livingstone caused such outrage with his own Hitler comments, it is inconceivable that Boris didn’t know that using the H word would do the same for him.

Boris wanted us to talk about him, and about Europe, probably in that order, and he succeeded admirably.  He is also perfectly capable of throwing brick-bats towards the Remain campaign, and especially the Prime Minister, who he accused of deviously planning to sell Britain to the corporate backers of the EU campaign during his battlebus tour.  It was Boris, also, who described David Cameron as “demented” for suggesting that leaving the EU would lead to “bubonic plague and world war three”, neither of which Cameron had in fact specifically mentioned in his speech. (The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland penned an interesting piece associating Boris with Trump as one of what he called the "post-truth politicians".)

As for the Leave campaigners themselves, they have emerged from one of the most vicious training schools of fratricidal politics that Britain has ever seen – the Euro-sceptic wing of the Tory party.  Nothing has ever been too extreme for the sceptics, and we saw some of their parliamentary ilk seek yesterday to try and sabotage their own government’s Queen’s Speech as they apparently plotted to defeat it in an unholy alliance with Jeremy Corbyn.  Last week they unloaded shed-loads of venom on the governor of the Bank of England for having the temerity to suggest that there might be economic consequences if we leave.  Before that, Barack Obama was their target - an unprincipled president who had dared to remove a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.  And ITV, of course, has been threatened with reprisals for not doing the Leave campaign's bidding, with a sinister reminder that the present lot in No. 10 won't be there for very long.  Not exactly a litany of loveliness and politeness I'd say.  

Euro-sceptics, and now the Leave campaign at large, have always portrayed themselves as plucky little mavericks fighting against the fascistic vested interests of the state and the EU.  If you want to stick with misbegotten historical analogies, that’s about as accurate as suggesting Hitler was simply a brave German freedom fighter. 


Thursday, May 12, 2016

An evening at the asylum

I went with at least a partially open mind when I attended the premier of “Brexit: The Movie” with friends last night.  Whilst believing that a vote to remain in the EU is probably best for the UK’s future, I’m nonetheless familiar enough with arguments about a democratic deficit and trade strangulation to be swayable on the crucial issue of our continuing membership of that flawed body.  So I was attending the IEA sponsored movie in the hope of hearing some of the rational arguments that appeared to have been missing from the campaign trail so far.

Alas, such optimism was terribly mis-placed.  First of all, it was apparent that what we were attending was less a general audience viewing of a carefully established case, and more a sort of rally for the committed Brexiteers.  There they all were, bow-tied up to the nines, greedily clutching champagne glasses on entry, double chins wagging away in righteous sympathy with each other at the Odeon Leicester Square.  I hadn’t come across such a very distinctive gathering since my days in the Young Conservative movement, or that time I went to the South African embassy to hear why apartheid was really quite a pragmatic idea back in the 80s.

But each to their own.  So what if the audience was a caricature of the metropolitan Brexit supporter, wanting not so much to leave the EU as leave the twenty first century.  They were perfectly entitled to gain solace by watching a film that helped articulate their wildest dreams and ambitions.
So we settled back in the cheap seats and waited for our intellectual Brexit fare to materialise on screen.  After all, the side that so regularly scolded the Remainers for their emotive “Project Fear” would hardly play the same trick themselves.  Would they?

Turned out they would, and more.  As the film began, there was little effort to drop us into the argument gently.  The first minutes were occupied with a selection of outraged middle-class tones competing with each other to screech out the worst offences of the EU.  After this political ice-plunge, the film’s presenter, Martin Durkin, took us on the sort of guided tour of the Bad EU that you might find in animated educational films for children.  His tone remained relentlessly patronising and light-weight throughout, as if we were somehow too stupid to be given any serious evidential meat.

Durkin’s potted history of the downfall of Europe included a paean of praise to post-war Germany, condemnation of over-regulated 1970s Britain, and some hilarious racial stereotypes, like Italian factory workers downing tools to snog a curvaceous woman, or eager-beaver Asian lab assistants exhibiting their maths skills.  In between the cheap animations and terrible sketch-show attempts we kept cutting to some talking heads.   Although the film’s case appeared to be that Brexit was on the side of the entrepreneur and the small businessman, all of the talking heads appeared to belong to rather inconsequential and definitely unproductive journalists and think tank authors.  It’s not that I don’t think Janet Daley or James Delingpole have a right to be heard.  It’s just that I don’t think penning “Why oh Why” columns for the Telegraph, or selling “My not very interesting memories of Dave Cameron at uni” to the  highest bidder qualifies them as particularly good spokespeople for the plucky industrial spirit the film seemed to want to identify itself with.   

The most egregious talking head, though, was Kelvin Mackenzie.   You’d have thought by now that Kelvin would be willing to spare the world his carefully manufactured down to earth “say it as I see it” salty wisdom.  Not a bit of it.  There’s still plenty of unfathomable rage waiting to find its inarticulate way out of Mackenzie.  What’s worse is the sheer hypocrisy of the man.  There he was, praising the “little man” and piously harping on about the awful abuse of power without a moment’s reflection that one of the worst abuses of power conducted in the modern age was by one K. Mackenzie.  No-one has ever managed to shit so relentlessly on an already ground down mass of people than Mackenzie as editor of the Sun, when he savaged the reputations of the dead and the friends of the dead Liverpool fans at Hillsborough, following as he did the dictates of one of the most corrupt police forces to have operated in the UK.  Abuse of power?  Lack of accountability?  Never were both more in evidence than in that wretched man’s tenure at the top of Murdoch’s calamitous empire.

By contrast, Simon Heffer’s faintly ludicrous comment in the film that if his whole family had to eat stewed grass as a result of leaving the EU it would still be worth it was merely barking rather than mendacious.

Heffer’s comment was loudly applauded by the audience of Brexit true-believers, but they applauded a lot.  Whenever Farage, or Dan Hannan, or Douglas Carswell appeared on screen to give us their well-cut middle-class faux outrage about the EU, the applause rippled around the auditorium.  There was some irony in these champagne quaffing, bow-tie clad Brexiteers clapping the regular mentions of the mythical “little man”, but then the evening seemed to be about fantasy for the most part in any case.  A cinema was an entirely appropriate venue.  And we had the bad guys to boo at too.  Edward Heath of course, although that other election-winning Tory, David Cameron, just about made it through unscathed, even if the tension when he appeared on screen was palpable.  Oh, if he would just leave office and let Boris or Michael take over, then all would be well with the world.

There was some meat buried in the film.  There were some genuinely strong points to be made about the collapse of the British fishing industry, or the struggles faced by Tate and Lyle.  It’s just that they seemed smuggled in amongst the more satisfying polemic, or the lengthy section on the wonders of Switzerland. 

With the end credits rolling, as the chant to “Leave, leave” started to gather pace amongst the committed, we took their advice, and left.  It had been an interesting evening.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Is Hillary's lack of the "vision thing" a real problem?


There is an interesting article up on Politico, strikingly headlined "How Hillary could win the election and lose the country".  Writer Todd Purdum considers the problem of a centrist, status-quo candidate becoming president (Hillary) in a year when all of the drive and momentum has been on the side of the radical, change-politics-now candidates.  Not unreasonably, he points out Hillary Clinton's lack of a clearly articulated vision and essentially postulates the idea that she might win the election by default - in that the Republicans will choose a virtually unelectable candidate in either Trump or, less likely, Cruz - but then fail to appease a country seething with discontent once she's in office.

It is an alarming thesis but one that may also be giving too much credence to the noise coming from the energised masses of left and right.  It is in the nature of democracies to go through regular convulsions, and for the reporting media to announce these as the critical convulsions of an era.  Such is modern democratic politics.  But it is also worth noting that the majority of people vote for little more than a relative competence in governance and stability on the home front.  These are unexciting attributes that are hardly going to rouse great audiences or inspire click-baiting readerships, but they are the greater part of a country's polity.

It may well be that Hillary Clinton's advantage as a candidate is that she does not arouse unreachable levels of expectation, and that she offers instead a rational, pragmatic competence in governing.  Yes she does have her guiding principles - the traditional Democratic ones of greater fairness, positive but non-confrontational diplomacy, a broad liberal belief in the beneficial impact of wise but not over-reaching government.  Certainly it's true that, set against the moral certainties of a Sanders or a Trump these are significantly less exciting attributes.  But there is an argument that Clinton is winning the Democratic nomination - and is odds-on favourite to win the November election - because most Americans prefer to embrace the less exciting, but likely more productive, option.

Donald Trump is generating enormous publicity with his campaign, and can claim to be providing a voice for the voiceless in his brash comments, but in so doing he is also turning many Americans away from him.  The elderly Sanders has managed to tap in to the holy grail of youth support, but youth is ever fickle and unrealistic, unmatured by the wisdom of years which show that compromise and realism offer better paths forward amongst diverse and contradictory humans than the apparently clear-sighted vision of idealistic politics.

It is noteworthy that in Mr. Purdom's vigorous article, he devotes a paragraph to re-living the exalted rhetoric of previous presidents.  Observing that the key power of the presidency is the power of persuasion, he cites again Kennedy's words about passing the torch to a new generation of Americans, or Reagan's "morning in America".  These were powerful pieces of rhetoric, but they were just that, and neither Kennedy - cut off too early but already arguably in the throes of seriously under-performing to the high-blown tones of his inaugural speech - or Reagan, who ended his years enmeshed in the Iran-Contra scandal, were able to translate their flights of rhetoric into reality.

More recently, it is often stated that one of President Obama's persistent problems throughout his eight year presidency has been that no achievement or policy could ever match the soaring heights of his first election's rhetoric.  A brilliant candidate became a troubled president whose achievements live consistently under the shadow of the expectations he aroused.  More notably, possibly, is the fact that Obama's popularity is growing as he works out his last year because his rational, reasoned speeches stand in such stark contrast to the populist and unrealistic rhetoric of some of his would-be successors.

Hillary Clinton is not a great candidate.  She is a work-horse determined to be a realistic president.  She has produced thought-through positions on many areas of policy but can't easily translate this into neat, visionary sound-bites.  Yet it would be a mistake to assume that her failure to be a rabble rouser means that she has somehow missed the mood.  If her presidency begins with a sense of realism rather than over-articulated optimism, she may in fact have hit just the right spot and be in a position to tackle America's problems with the effectiveness of a political pro, rather than doom herself to disappointing her supporters because she raised up a whole level of unattainable aspirations.


The politicians we deserve


We are a democracy, and so we get the politicians we deserve.

If we derive our news from personality-obsessed newspapers who fail to do even basic grunt-work to hold our representatives to account, well so be it.

If we look out onto the world of politics and simply sigh that they're all corrupt, and politics is boring in any case, well that's our right but don't then complain that nothing better is available.

If we are angry or annoyed that the campaign on one of the most important issues in a generation - the EU referendum - is being somehow trashed on both sides by outrageous, emotive, headline-hunting rhetoric, well we might just want to reflect on who the well-paid campaign leaders and researchers are aiming at.  Us, the voting public.  And they've mastered enough polling and marketing material to believe that their campaign is the very one we respond most to.  Had they bombarded us with information, boring but rational argument, a careful consideration of the volume of detail available to understand the pros and cons of EU membership; well then we probably wouldn't have listened.

If we think that the election to run one of the biggest cities in the world has become mired in name-calling, sleaze and racism, and seems moreover to be conducted by seriously uninspiring candidates fit possibly to become the middle-managers of a small business enterprise rather than visionary leaders of a great and complex city, well that too is due to the latitude we've extended to the current comedy occupant.

That's the thing about democracy.  It is about us.  We, the people.  We, the people who have the right to hire and fire our law-makers, hold them to account, reward the good ones and consign the bad ones to Trotsky's dustbin of history.  Instead of which, bored by real politics and by the necessity of being properly informed on issues of the day so that we can use our democratic right in a duly informed manner, we allow our politics to be become neglected and then subsumed by the same misshapen characteristics that prevail on those venal curses of modern entertainment, the reality television shows.  After all, that's what politics has really become.  A nationwide reality show, without the same level of viewers or attention afforded to the Saturday night versions.  Our politicians even talk with the same verbal incontinence of reality TV performers, as witness Ken Livingstone's current strife.

Of course some people recognise the situation we're in.  The Times lambasted Jeremy Corbyn as being a leader of "incompetence and nugatory intellect" in a striking indictment of his record and abilities.  The Guardian's Sonia Purnell penned a withering critique of outgoing London Mayor Boris Johnson, a man allowed to get away with promoting himself exhaustively over eight years when he should have been applying himself to running London.

The occasional philippic railing against our leaders and our current status is not, however, enough to force any sort of change.  Neither is racing to the nearest and loudest "anti-politician", who usually turns out to be simply another politician with a more raucous tone.

If we want to change our democracy, and the calibre of our representatives and leaders, then we, the people have to change it.  We have to interest ourselves in more than the personalities of the contest.  We have to search out real information, and demand accountability from it.  We should be joining parties to understand and influence them from the inside.  And dare I say it, as a teacher of politics, we need our schools to be more pro-active in the education of all our students in politics and civic responsibilities, not just the motivated few who choose to pursue the subject at A-level.

Maintaining a healthy and effective democratic state is not just the prerogative of the few who gain election to office.  It is the duty of all of a democracy's citizens; a deep duty that is more than the occasional shouting in support of a media bandwagon.  When we vote in our various elections on Thursday, or in the referendum on June 23rd., we might just want to ask, as we consider the choices in front of us, whether the act of voting is merely the first step in our democratic engagement.  If the choices before us this year so appall or scare us that we think about being more than just voters on the end of a process, then our democracy might be renewed after all.  Because as a democracy, we get the politicians we deserve.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Right-wing hatred of Obama is deep and irrational

Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal pulls no punches in the opening lines of its opinion column attacking President Obama.

"Britons now know how Americans feel. The most politically polarizing U.S. President in modern history decided on Friday to inject himself into the British debate over the June referendum to leave the European Union, as ever leading with a dubious political threat."

Wow. Really?  The most politically polarising president of modern times?  Leaving Nixon in the shade?  Clinton?  Johnson?  That's some claim.  But it is very much the right-wing mantra.  Take a UK observer, Tim Montgomerie.  Normally a man of moderation and common sense, Montgomerie lets go of his moorings when he writes about Obama.  He started his Spectator attack piece by comparing Obama negatively against Donald Trump, suggesting Trump was a bit of a shrinking violet when stood against Obama's over-weening self-confidence.  "King Barack" Montgomerie called him, presumably to distinguish him from non-imperial presidents like Nixon, Johnson, Reagan et al.

The trans-Atlantic right's hatred of Obama merits serious academic study at some point (and Alex Massie pens a vigorous current assessment here), but for the moment it is worth just noting that his main sin is to be an articulate spokesman for liberalism, and that the facts on the ground point as much, if not more, to a laager-retreating Republican Party than a dementedly dividing president when it comes to polarising American politics.  Obama, after all, continues to enjoy buoyant and improving ratings as this election year goes on.  Every time a right-wing spokesman demonizes the president they manage to do it in such a way as to invite serious questions about their mental stability.  Which explains a lot about the current rosta of Republican leaders and presidential contenders.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

That Special Relationship - or not

I have blogged before on the one-sided nature of America and Britain's alleged "special relationship".  With President Obama's visit this week, it has once more come under the spotlight, with the president and David Cameron using the phrase many times during their press conference.  Others - notably Brexiters - have been decidedly sniffy about the relationship, while for the president himself it has been clear that he enjoys visiting members of the royal family if nothing else.

As to where it really stands in a modern world of powerful regional unions and multi-country trading alliances, it probably isn't a surprise to learn that strong though the emotional resonance may be, the reality is not terribly significant.  Michael Crowley on Politico analyses where the special relationship stands today, and suggests that other European countries (quelle surprise) such as France and Germany enjoy a more influential role than the one-time ruler of the thirteen colonies.  But Obama does love the Queen.

Big Bad Bozza - just the tip of the Leave iceberg


It's difficult for the Leave campaign.  Faced with using high profile spokesmen to get their message across they often end up having to choose between Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.   The campaign hasn't really been kind to either man, although this might of course be the consequence of their well-embedded political personas which have now been unfairly exposed to harsh public glare.  Boris' once-cheery schtick of being a bumbling but well-meaning chap is increasingly seen as the incompetent antics of a jobbing journalist looking for headlines but uninterested in the grunt work of analysing detail.  Farage, meanwhile, is fulminating at what seems to be his increasing irrelevance in the very campaign he fought so hard to have, and spent much of his time today and yesterday excitedly pointing out that President Obama used the word "queue" and not "line" - clear evidence that his statement was written up by the Englishmen in Downing Street.

It's good to see the Leave campaign focus on the important issues.  The word "queue" for Farage, and the right of the US President to have a bust of an American civil rights icon rather than a British PM in his office for Johnson.

The Leave campaign's intellectual heft is meanwhile provided by Michael Gove, an undeniably intelligent (and apparently, in person, thoroughly nice) man but whose public persona suffered badly from his rather bombastic performance as Education Secretary.  Meanwhile, the chief bureacrat of the Leave movement is Dominic Cummings, arguably Gove's most wacky adviser at Education and now a man so steeped in his own importance that he begun his Commons select committee appearance with the announcement that he really couldn't give them much time as he had to be elsewhere.  By the end he had come off distinctly worse from committee chairman Andrew Tyrie's methodical and relentless grilling.

It seems like only a few weeks ago that Boris Johnson was being heralded as the likely next Tory leader, as George Osborne imploded and the British right-wing press went to war for Brexit.  Alas, poor Boris.  Even his champions are publishing articles suggesting his PM ambitions are simply the end-point of an extended political car crash.  Let's just hope the EU referendum doesn't go the same way, even as Leave do their level best to hand victory to the Remainers.


The importance of regionalism - A2 Global Politics


Observer commentator Andrew Rawnsley goes on holiday to Vietnam to celebrate his significant wedding anniversary and ends up ruminating on the EU referendum.  Which may have been trying for his wife, but is good news for us, as he produces a fascinating consideration of the nature of regionalism and why the eastern experience may be one which offers a guide to the British voters on the EU.

Vietnam is well entrenched in our historical memory largely because of the "Vietnam War" which still features on our GCSE history specifications, and has a cultural pull through a range of well known films in particular.  Some of which carefully discriminating teachers like myself show in class when it's really, really relevant and instructive to do so (say, Friday afternoons, end of terms, times when other pressures have pushed out the lesson planning, afternoons when you just want an easy life, an undue confluence between me and my students' lack of desire for anything more than thoroughly passive learning.....).  It is also increasingly popular on the student gap year trail - those years when teenagers can "find themselves" and realise they never lost themselves in the first place.

Anyway, the admirable Mr. Rawnsley provides us with a few useful pointers about the strengths of encasing a nation's future within helpful regional structures, and he does so by looking at the Vietnam situation.  He notes, in particular, that:

Two millenniums of resisting a succession of foreign invaders have forged a tremendous sense of national pride in the Vietnamese. At the same time, this is a country that has become an ardent joiner of multinational organisations and economic partnerships. “Deep international integration” is now its lodestar. Membership of Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is seen as crucial to its security and prosperity. It takes pride in hosting summits of Apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation). It has signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which seeks to create a single market from 12 countries with a combined population of around 800 million commanding 40% of world trade. Modern Vietnam has grasped what its feudal emperors did not: you can’t wall yourself up against the world.

Any aspiring A2 Global politics student might find the point about the benefits of Asean particularly relevant to their exam preparation, while the rest of us may consider it a prescient warning about Brexit.  Rawnsley went on to note the contrast between the country's communist rule and its capitalist pretensions, with Prada, Gucci, Chanel and Cartier occupying city centre space just metres away from monuments to Ho Chi Minh, the country's communist founder.  And, of course, the west wants in, but Britain's best route is via the EU.

A Britain that wants to maximise its future prosperity will seek to be part of the future of coming countries such as Vietnam. There is Vietnamese interest in aspects of Britain, particularly a perceived British expertise in insurance, banking, science and technology. But compared with other global actors, we are not that significant in the Vietnamese scheme of things. Certainly not as important as its complex relations with the US and its Asian neighbours, especially the historic enemy and one-time occupier to the north. In so much as the UK matters to a country such as Vietnam, our influence is leveraged through membership of the EU. After three and a half years of negotiation, the EU and Vietnam recently signed a free trade agreement (FTA). When Mr Hammond came visiting, getting the FTA ratified was the main point of the talks from the perspective of his hosts.

Take or leave Mr. Rawnsley's conclusions as you wish - I prefer to take them if I'm honest - but the lessons from the far east about the importance and impact of regionalisation in a globalised world seem thoroughly on point.


Monday, March 21, 2016

The blind fury of the Euro-sceptic Tories


Iain Duncan Smith was not one of those ministers we heard serial encomiums about when he was actually in office.  A former backbench rebel against John Major, he was thrust unprepared into the leadership of the Tory party, from which role he was ignominiously ousted by his fellow MPs a couple of years later.  He is now, of course, the best Work and Pensions Secretary we've ever had, a reformer of remarkable quality who has sacrificed his career in order to warn the Tory party of the dangers it faces under its current evil, election winning leader.

Mr. Duncan Smith's past and present are useful fables on the wider problem of the Conservative party as a whole.  He was elected as a leader in what became a two-way contest against Kenneth Clarke.  Clarke was by  far the most experienced of the two, as well as having a popularity in the world outside the Tory party.  He may have been a consummate politician,  but he also had character and an appeal as a "regular" guy who spoke sense in politics.  He was, however, a pro-European and this proved toxic in his various leadership bids, including the one against Mr. Duncan Smith.  The Tories showed that they preferred an unknown, untried serial rebel to allowing a Europhile anywhere near the leadership, and much good did it do them. Within two years IDS had become such a liability as an opposition leader that he was gracelessly ejected by his own parliamentary colleagues.

As leader IDS had proved a poor speaker and a poor tactician.  He failed to fulfill the function of an Opposition Leader when it came to the Iraq war, which he supported (and which Clarke opposed) and found it difficult to identify any strategic vision to help the Tories overcome their trenchant unpopularity.  He was succeeded by the more experienced Michael Howard, who went on to show that an initially poor public profile didn't need to be a handicap for an accomplished and intelligent political operator.  Howard stabilised the Tories and while he didn't win the 2005 election in the UK, he shored up his party's position and won the most votes in the populous but electorally under-represented England.

It was Howard who mentored David Cameron, his successor as leader who went on to bring the Tories back into government in coalition in 2010 and on their own in 2015.  Cameron is thus the most electorally successful Tory leader since Thatcher, and has proved a less divisive figure nationally.  He is also a pragmatist and has most recently, of course, come out as a pro-European, leading the Remain camp in a referendum that had only one political aim, which was to try and appease the Euro-sceptics in his ranks.

To hear the wild stories now circulating, and provoked by the resignation of Mr. Duncan Smith, is to see again the full lunacy of the Tory Euro-sceptic right.  There is talk of backbench rebellions whatever the outcome of the referendum, a desire to see the back of Mr. Cameron, serious allegations against his dictatorial leadership style and even condemnations of just how closely he and his Chancellor work together.  Nearly all of these criticisms lack merit.  Cameron's "dictatorial" leadership style is nowhere near as domineering as the late, sainted Margaret Thatcher, while his closeness to George Osborne has delivered remarkably harmonious government.  This has been in stark contrast to the thirteen year trauma of the Blair-Brown years.

None of this matters to the Euro-sceptics though. As their hysterical interventions in the current referendum campaign indicate, there is no fury equivalent to that of the Tory Euro hater against anyone who suggests there might be another side to the European debate.  Mr. Duncan Smith himself was the author of one of these polemics recently, railing against the fact that the Remainers were, er, putting their case.

The Tory sceptics will never accept a referendum vote to stay in the EU and they will continue to push the self-destruct button in their own party long after the referendum is past.  Much of their campaign at the moment is dedicated to the idea that Remainers are somehow cheating in the debate.  This includes the notion that the Prime Minister himself shouldn't really be campaigning at all and that Downing Street should stay above the fray.  The Outers are worried that they will lose and are setting up the next stage of the campaign.  For there will be a next stage.  As in Scotland, the referendum won't end the debate and it won't silence the sceptics.  If they lose they will seek the first opportunity to oust the most successful Tory leader in decades and neuter as many of his supporters as they can.  Like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the Labour party, they will have the majority of the Tory grassroots with them and it will be this populist endorsement that powers their attempt to re-take control of the leadership of the Tory party.

Mr. Duncan Smith is an unlikely political martyr, but the sound and fury accompanying his self-imposed departure from government has far less to do with the issue at hand than he might protest.  He may indeed be passionately committed to the social welfare reform he feels has been undermined by Mr. Osborne and the rest of the government.  But his resignation storm is not about that.  It is about the undying hatred of the Euro-sceptics towards a successful leader who refuses to share their views on Europe, and might even take those views to a substantial public endorsement in June.  But that won't matter.  The right have already shown they prefer purity in opposition to electoral success that depends on compromise.  It was what propelled them to choose Mr. Duncan Smith as their leader back in 2001, and it's why they are so vociferously using his resignation now as a wedge against their current leader.  Mr. Duncan Smith proved a useful fool when they adopted him in the leadership contest before and is alas proving so again now.  Such is the madness of the modern Tory party.