Thursday, July 21, 2016

Trump's disastrous convention doesn't matter


This year's Republican convention has been a mess.  A delightfully anarchistic mess for those of us who do not wish him well, but a mess nonetheless.  Although he is unchallenged as the Republican nominee, he still faced a floor challenge to his candidacy.  In previous conventions - and you have to go back to 1976 for this - you at least had to have another candidate to rally round, but not this time.

Donald's wife gave a speech that had significant elements plagiarised from Michelle Obama's 2008 convention speech, which gave us the excellent spectacle of hardened Trumpites loudly applauding the sentiments of the current First Lady.

The principal speakers at the convention have all shown clear signs of madness.  Rudy Giuliani, once a respected New York mayor, tried to be Donald Trump on acid.  Chris Christie, once a governor who briefly looked as if he could reach across partisan divides, played his role as chief witch-hunter (prosecuting chief witch Hillary Clinton) to a perfection that would have been admired in Salem back in the day.

Only Ted Cruz - Ted Cruz!! - has emerged with any credit from this nonsense, and he did so by adding to the fiasco.  Unlike Marco Rubio - who prostrated himself on video before the Donald - Cruz used his convention speaking slot to basically stab Trump in the front.  He clearly loved doing it.  I think Cruz is in many respects a repulsive politician, probably in league with the sulphur burners, but he did this bit very well.

Yet despite it all, it probably doesn't matter.  The Telegraph's Tim Stanley makes a good case for suggesting that the conservative Cruz has fatally holed the Trump candidacy, but I'm not so sure.  Trump has succeeded on the back of a lamentable campaign that would have sunk anyone else.  But that is rather the point of Trump.  The media classes and the liberals and all those who hate him have rejoiced in a hopeless, divided convention.

Trump's supporters won't have heard any of that.  All they want to see and hear is their man telling them that all the ills of the world, all of their own poverty and economic dislocation, is down to dastardly forces and people who can be evicted from American society.  He'll tell them that again and they'll lap it up.  He won't lose any of that support on the basis of a lamentable convention week.  

Liberal democracy is in crisis at the moment because it turns out that it has failed to gain the support of significant numbers of left-behind voters.  In America, Trump has those people.  If it turns out there are actually more of them than there are of the many different groups Trump offends, then he's on course for the White House.  His convention plays no role in that calculation.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

It's ok - choosing our next PM is safely in the hands of Tory members.


Here’s a chance for the Tory selectorate to prove they’re not just right-wing shadows of Momentum.  Will they take it?

1.              The Tory grassroots voted overwhelmingly for Leave.  Theresa May didn’t.

2.              The Tory grassroots is as representative of the electorate as a whole as your slightly loopy grandparents who are appalled at all these gays and rather regret having to leave the 1950s.  Andrea Leadsom voted unapologetically against gay marriage.

3.              The Leave campaign which received so many Tory votes was notable for  a number of porkies which quickly became apparent after they won – the most obvious being that £350 million pounds a week that isn’t going to fund the NHS because it doesn’t actually exist.

4.              Andrea Leadsom has had to busily revise her CV because the original, declaring her to have managed million pound investment funds and manage hundreds of people in major teams, wasn’t actually quite 100% accurate.  Turns out she didn’t.  Do either.

5.              Tory grassroots occasionally latch on to genuinely loopy ideas, like the one that suggests we’d all be much happier paying privately for our health care.  One of Andrea Leadsom’s signature policies is to do with babies’ brains.  No, I’m not entirely sure either.

6.              After the hustings when Andrea competed against four other Tory MPs, one cabinet minister noted that “only four of them were sane”.  Don’t know who he meant.

7.              Theresa May once suggested that people saw the Tories as “the nasty party”.  Ooops.

8.              Andrea Leadsom dislikes gays, isn’t keen on Europe, is distinctly incurious about the world around her, is a social reactionary, thinks the EU is just going to hand us a great deal on a plate and, in the words of the great right-wing commentator Douglas Murray, confuses stubbornness for principle.   Tory members are cut from an entirely different cloth.

9.               Andrea Leadsom has no appeal to young people (Young Tories who wear bow-ties don’t count).  Neither does the Tory party.

10.          So, over to 150,000 Tory electors for the choice of our next Prime Minister.  Looks like a clear wrap for Theresa May (erm….).  Glad we’ve all managed to “take back control” though. Wouldn’t like to think what would happen to Britain if those meddlesome Eurocrats were in charge with their silly ideas on regulation, open borders and international co-operation.  Hurrah for democracy.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The Terrible Tale of a Disastrously Botched Aftermath in Iraq


The Chilcot Report is, as expected, damning of Tony Blair's government and its decision to support America in a war of invasion  against Iraq.  There isn't much that is positive to be taken away from the report, from the war's inception, to its execution and through to its long drawn out, disastrous aftermath.

But Blair did not act alone.  Indeed, it is his slavish desire to show solidarity with the American administration and inability to temper - even a little - that administration's determination on war that is such a contributory factor in his overall failure.

Chilcot is damning about the awful aftermath of the invasion in Iraq.  As well he should be.  But the real responsibility - if we accept that Blair was a mere cipher in this regard - lay with the ultimate planners of the war, and none was more involved than George W Bush's Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld.

It is worth briefly recounting why the Iraq invasion turned that country into such a ruinous state in so rapid a time.

Once determined on war, Donald Rumsfeld was also determined that it should be fought with as few men as possible.  Having scythed through Baghdad, Rumsfeld’s forces were then confronted with a horrendous security operation, and faced with the Secretary’s unyielding demand that this too be undertaken with the most underwhelming force possible.  Rumsfeld, indeed, even stopped one division from going to Baghdad at all, in the belief that it was an unnecessary expenditure. 

The man in the Pentagon thus hamstrung the very forces he had sent into Iraq right from the start. There was worse to come, though, in the form of his sweeping aside of the cautious but politically aware team of American reconstructionists who were in Baghdad and headed by Jay Garner, in favour of the brash, arrogant and wholly unsuited Paul Bremer.  Bremer, a man of supreme egoism who likened himself to General MacArthur, insisted on complete authority to run Iraq.  It couldn’t have gone to a less qualified individual.  Bremer had no knowledge whatever of the Middle East – unlike Garner and his team, or the Iraqi originally slated to be a co-leader, Zalmay Khalilzad.  His foreign experience had been as a chief of staff to Henry Kissinger, and an ambassador to the Netherlands.  It was this lack of any prior involvement in Mid East affairs that endeared him to the ever cretinous Rumsfeld. 

Bremer arrived in May 2003 to an urgent need to establish some sort of authority in Baghdad. His predecessors, Garner and Khalilzad, had been making some useful moves to incorporate previous Iraqi civil servants and military commanders into a new governing authority.  Bremer swept this aside, since he had arrived determined to stamp his authority on Baghdad by dismissing the whole of Saddam Hussein’s political and military structure.  His first order was thus to bar the top four levels of Saddam’s Baath Party from holding any government office.  As the CIA station chief in Baghdad noted, Bremer had just disenfranchised 30,000 people.

Bremer’s Order No 2 was even more catastrophic.  Despite the talks that had been going on between Garner and Khalilzad and potentially sympathetic Iraqi army commanders, Bremer’s order – drafted by former Clinton aide Walter Slocombe – removed the entire military structure that had existed under Saddam.  The reaction in Iraq was furious, with angry demonstrations in Baghdad and other cities; sixteen US soldiers were wounded by violent protests in Mosul, a matter of particular annoyance to General Petraeus whose forces had up to that point been making some headway in winning over the city’s population.  And if Order No 1 had sent 30,000 officials to unexpected unemployment, Order No 2 did the same for 300,000 well armed soldiers.  It is no surprise to discover that many of those soldiers formed the nucleus of the Islamic Army of Iraq and Syria that is causing so much grief today.

Bremer’s orders, confirmed by Rumsfeld, were ill considered and destructive, but even the logic on which they were based was flawed, not least because Bremer failed to make even the most cursory investigation of the country he had come to rule.  Had he done so, he would have discovered that the Iraqi army’s top ranks had far fewer Baathists than he had thought.  A mere half of the generals,  and only 8,000 of the 140,000 officers and NCO’s were committed Baath Party members.  The Iraqi officers who had been in discussions with Garner and Khalilzad knew this, but Bremer had dismissed their contribution out of hand.  He ended up pursuing de-Baathification of a military that hadn’t needed it. 

There is a final indication – and perhaps an appropriate one – of Paul Bremer’s mendacious ignorance of Iraq and Arab culture.  He and Slocombe had devised a scheme to replace the Iraqi military with a ‘New Iraqi Corps’.  NIC, when pronounced in Arabic, sounds very much like “fuck”.  It is a fitting commentary on a man who has retired into a peaceful life of painting and lecturing in the bucolic countryside of Vermont while the reverberations of his ill-thought out and gung-ho policies continue to condemn thousands of Iraqis to death, torture, or – often at best – a wretched existence carved out in the midst of slaughter, and fear of the ISIL monster which has filled the vacuum he created.   Mr. Rumsfled may not have been in favour of imposing democracy.  The trouble is, he doesn't appear to have been in favour of imposing anything at all.

The book “Cobra II” by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor (chapter 24) provides much of the narrative detail referred to above.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Thatcher's Return


The Tories are in a better position than the Labour party as they will undoubtedly quickly unite behind a new leader come September.  The question is, who will that leader be and what does it mean for British politics?  At a time when the Labour party is incapable of providing any clear opposition and the Liberal Democrats remain an irrelevance, the choice of Tory leader is crucial for the country. Sadly, the country doesn't choose.  A few thousand Tory activists do.

Forget the MP tallies in the parliamentary vote for the moment.  That they will put Theresa May through with a substantial - even overwhelming - majority supporting her seems likely (at the moment - though the last week has emphasised the unpredictable nature of politics).  Andrea Leadsom looks well set to be her competitor in the run-off amongst party activists.

And here's the thing.  Leadsom may be relatively new to the party, while May has racked up immense service in the voluntary party even before she went into parliament.  But if you have a look at the way the wind is blowing the activists think they could have found their new Thatcher, and it's not the estimable Mrs. May.

The Conservative Home site remains a useful - though admittedly not infallible - bell-weather inidcator of Tory grassroots opinion.  While the focus of the media commentariat is still on the vote amongst Tory MPs, the key vote, the activist vote, is being monitored by Conservative Home.  It shows a serious movement in Andrea Leadsom's favour, as she edges past Theresa May.

A previous poll from the ConHome panel showed Michael Gove as the firm favourite a mere few weeks ago, and even after his dire week he is still holding up well in third place.  The message for the May faction, however, is that they are nowhere near victory in this race.  While she may seem to the non-Conservative onlooker to embody many of the characteristics of a classic Tory leader - strong on national security and law and order, fiscally sound, compassionate but only to a degree, socially pretty conservative in most areas - she has a serious weakness as far as the grassroots vote is concerned.  Two, actually.

The most serious is that, for all her strengths of character and her low profile in the EU campaign, she is a Remainer.  Yes, she has announced that Brexit is it, Brexit is the way.  But the Tory grassroots were implacably for Brexit over many years.  Their euro-scepticism stymied the frequent attempts of the Tories' most popular national politician, Ken Clarke, to become leader.  Their implicit support for the regular bouts of euro-sceptic rebellion undermined John Major and gave rise to David Cameron's catastrophic referendum decision.  They are socially very conservative and tend to a more isolationist global outlook.  And they want someone who reflects their image.  By endorsing the EU, Theresa May has significantly distorted that comforting reflection.

Second, no matter how quietly (again), Theresa May did support gay marriage.  In the metropolitan, EU supporting part of Britain that is a good thing.  In the Conservative Party, it is a cause of real suspicion.  Before the referendum, nothing alienated David Cameron more from his own party members than his promotion of gay marriage, and it remains significant that he chooses that as one of his signature achievements.

If Theresa May had been facing off a candidate with similar socially liberal tendencies this might not have mattered.  Her support for the EU would still be a stumbling block, but against a Johnson or a Gove there is a chance that her steadier personality and the perception that she is a tough defender of British interests might still have pulled her through.

But May won't be against either of those men.  She will be against a woman who reminds the Tory electorate more than she does herself of their most potent icon.  Margaret Thatcher.

Leadsom is a grassroots member's dream.  They love the fact that she has been "in finance" for over 25 years since nothing screeches success to Tory members more than the ability to make a killing over a long period in the financial markets.  They fully embrace her euro-scepticism, and as the key male leaders of that campaign fall like dominoes, Leadsom's own over-rated role becomes ever more important.  She was a true believer when it still looked like a lost cause.  And she opposed gay marriage.  She will face hostile questioning from a metropolitan media about that, and all the people on social media who aren't members of the Tory party may excoriate her for it, but it is a significant point of unspoken attraction for Tory members.  If homosexual attraction used to be the love that dare not speak its name, genuine hostility towards gay people is the attitude that dare not speak its name within the Tory party.

I would rate Leadsom's chances, over a summer campaign, of gaining a majority of the small Tory grassroots vote as being much better than average.  This race may look like May's to lose, but her star rose only recently, benefitted from Westminster shenanigans, and could dip again as the brighter meteorite of a more clearly Thatcherite lady takes centre stage.

Forget Westminster.  Like the referendum before it, this race is decided amongst ordinary people who have never been plugged in to the Westminster conversation.




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.