Wednesday, March 29, 2017

With apologies to General de Gaulle

We don't say it enough but Charles de Gaulle was right to say "Non".

Yes he was primarily concerned with France's national interest. That's not a bad thing for a national leader to be concerned with. But he also spotted when interests were different and incompatible. When he vetoed our original membership application for what was then the European Economic Community he stated:
England [sic] in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her interactions, her markets and her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has, in all her doings, very marked and very original habits and traditions.
It's a statement that could have been made by almost any British Eurosceptic over the last fifty years. And it's ultimately proved correct.

The United Kingdom never shared the vision of the European Union as a whole. That's why we ultimately could never be satisfied. When we did eventually get in (Georges Pompidou was wrong to say "Oui"), we kept needing to be satisfied. Either the project had to be transformed to our approval or the UK had to go places it really didn't want to. And so began endless fudges - renegotiations, rebates, opt-outs, Europe a la carte etc... even while the project as a whole advanced. The situation became ever more messy. In fact, I'm surprised the EU never decided to throw us out.

For sure not everyone in the UK took the same view. Some embraced the European dream. Others came to see it as the wrong direction. And some tried to fudge it for the advantages, but the benefits and drawbacks were not shared evenly. The result was debate over decades as the EU increasingly headed onwards, crippled by a lack of a direct democratic mandate for what it had now become. Holding a referendum on staying under the 1975 renegotiation meant the door of direct democracy had been opened on this. Promises of further referendums never materialised despite expectations being raised. At some point one would have come, forcing the issue to be settled.

Today we trigger Article 50 and begin the process of extracting ourselves. And it's also time to posthumously apologise to De Gaulle for spending so long trying to prove he was wrong.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Democracy will not be crushed

The news from Westminster today has been horrific. Knowing the area well, and having been in New Palace Yard only last week, it's been shocking to see what's happened.

The police do an incredible job, risking their lives to protect the public. Sadly an officer has today lost their life protecting others. I salute their bravery.

An attack on Parliament is not merely an attack on a building or the people in it. It is an attack on democracy. But democracy will not be crushed.

Parliament has been attacked before and thrived. It will do so again. Not even the destruction of the Commons chamber could destroy it. Nor will this.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Labour - the new Jacobites?

Even today there are still people who assert that the rightful monarchs of Scotland and England are the heirs to James II & VII, the current heir being Franz, Duke of Bavaria. From time to time they can be found toasting the "rightful" king. A few have even popped up outside Parliament to protest the validity of all monarchs and laws passed since 1688. (I would not be surprised if a hard-line Eurosceptic had advanced this argument as a means to get us out of the European Union.) I've even seen opinion polls that ask if the Queen should be succeeded, either upon her death or in a separate Scotland, by a Stuart heir. Looking back to the heyday of Jacobitism in the first half of the 18th there is much to romanticise. It was a cause that had a lot of popular support and much hope that the silent masses would rise up at the right moment. Its followers were convinced it was right. It could well have succeeded but for events beyond their control. But it didn't succeed. And for two and a half centuries the cause has been little more than a romance of history with only a few present-day followers.

How long before the Labour Party goes the same way?

The idea that one of the UK's major political parties could collapse into complete irrelevance may seem incredible. After all the death of parties has been predicted before but both the Conservatives and Labour have come back after prolonged periods in opposition when many commentators and even some leading members began to wonder if the party would ever return to government. The Liberal Party had a more prolonged crash but managed to convert to and survive as a third party. But Labour seems to be in almost terminal decline:
It has taken batterings from all sides and seen heartlands evaporate. Its ratings suggest something bigger than mere short-term problems are afoot. Worse still it seems unable and unwilling to even try and break out of its mess.

That's not for want of trying by some Labour members. But it seems that the Corbynistas just will not be shifted, no matter what happens. And although Corbyn is clearly a contributor to Labour's problems they didn't start under him - they go back to Blair. The party members are bitterly divided - see YouGov: A tale of two parties – what we learned from our Labour membership surveys. One side seems unable to turn things around. The other seems unwilling to do so.

At what point is the Labour Party going to become a hopeless lost cause, which may still stir people's hearts but which is recognised as an utterly impractical prospect? The Jacobites' last real chance of winning power came in 1745. The last serious plan for a restoration came in 1759. But the last direct descendant of James II & VII, "Henry IX & I", still asserted his claim until his death in 1807. The Labour Party might carry on for many years as a shell of what it once was, with successive hard left leaders still hoping. But when will the moderates give up trying to recapture the party and turn it around? Is there a point of no return?

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

When you're on the losing end of the vote

Here's an extract from a piece I recently wrote over on the Mars Hill blog, explaining why so many Brexiteers have the attitude they do to the post referendum legislation debate, namely because of how things went when many were on the losing end of votes:
In many ways, it feels as though the country has turned full circle from the late 1990s. Back then it was pretty miserable to be a right-winger, losing elections heavily, facing an almost impossible route back to power, losing referendums, being told from all sides that the great debates were permanently settled and you had lost and so forth. There was much talk of "this election will be the last fought on ideology". Eurosceptics were bluntly told that their opinion was invalid because so many had voted for pro-European parties. There was a real sense of having it crushed down that not just a battle but a war had been won and a new permanent settlement was here to stay.

Sound familiar?

However, what is definitely different is the media reaction and coverage of those who lost at the ballot box. It was never mentioned then that in 1997 Tony Blair and New Labour swept to power with the backing of about just 30% of the total electorate. Instead New Labour swept all before it. The Welsh devolution referendum passed by 50.3% on a 50.22% turnout. But very few talked about the "49.8%" or the "75%" or whatever the percentage of the total population of Wales was. The media did not go hunting for regretful Yes/Yr voters. The referendum had to be followed up by primary legislation but few argued that it was only "advisory" and that Parliament should not enact it. Those who did were dismissed as anti-democrats who were disrespectful of the will of the people. There was no talk of further referendums on the final settlement or when question marks were raised about what had influenced voters.

(Ironically the one referendum whose implementation did get challenged a lot was the only one that did have the backing of over 50% of the total electorate, namely the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.)

You can see from this why so many Eurosceptics are both gung ho and apprehensive about the current situation. Having been on the other end of the stick, they know all too well the importance of getting the great democratic mandate enacted as quickly as they can. They have little sympathy for those who showed them none. But they also don't feel as confident in their position as New Labour did. And they fear that victory will be snatched from their hands. They've lost time and again on European treaties. They've seen politicians promise referendums only to not deliver them, sometimes taking refuge in how proposals have been repackaged. They are aware of how pro Europeanism has consistently been much stronger in Parliament than in the country. And they see a significant chunk of political opinion that claims to want to have a say in shaping Brexit when it actually wants to stop Brexit altogether. Few believe that Gina Miller brought her court case merely because she wanted to see a debate in Parliament but because she and her supporters were trying any method they could to derail Brexit altogether.
(The full piece is at "Arise Lord Brexit".)

Campus freedoms

Once again, the question of freedom of speech on campuses has come up, this time with the news that the University of Lincoln Student[s'] union bans Conservative society from speaking out - because they challenged its position on free speech (Daily Telegraph). It brings back memories of my once having found myself having to wade through this mess but also highlights how the debate has shifted a lot over the years.

Many years ago, now I was elected as the University of Kent students' union Anti-Racism Officer and so I found myself handling considerations about whether or not the students' union should reintroduce a "No Platform" policy; the previous one having lapsed in earlier years (in part, it has to be said, because one those proposing its renewal was frankly not trusted by some groups on campus). The issue was on the ascendancy in wider student politics at the time - during that year there was a general election with the BNP vote rising and it was also in that year that the National Union of Students added Al-Muhajiroun to the list of organisations banned nationally.

(This is as good a place as any to tackle the first big misconception and problem. Unless things have changed in recent years, the NUS policy is not binding on individual affiliate students' unions who are free to adopt their own policies. However, NUS has long encouraged individual affiliates to adopt a No Platform policy as well. Many have simply reproduced the text and some even automatically use the banned groups list as defined by the NUS.)

It rapidly became clear that the standard No Platform policy within the student movement is a complicated affair that years of poor institutional memory and localised practice have turned into a difficult to understand, explain and defend mess. This stems from it being an awkward hybrid of a public order measure, a more general welfare measure and gets into a political measure. The aims can be quite distinct and so mixing them all together results in confusion and anger over just what the policy was or is aiming at.

Thus, what was originally intended as a measure against violence on campus by not allowing groups with violent track records to rally on students' union owned or booked facilities has steadily turned into a more political weapon to also deny a platform or refuse to share one with people who make entirely peaceful expressions of opinions deemed racist and fascist - with a very unclear process for determining exactly how that deeming is carried out objectively. It's made even worse by meeting procedures that often require deeply complicated philosophical questions to be expressed in a speech just a minute or two long. The result is the policy gets poorly explained and misunderstood, both by its detractors but also by those who find themselves having to operate it.

Now other organisations have No Platform policies as well. But a combination of the organisation's overall scope and a much stronger historical understanding of the policy's purpose means that it is much clearer what it's for, what it's aiming to do and how to explain it clearly. However, students' unions are very heterogenous bodies with numerous societies and media forms, with the result that there's far more potential for issues to arise. So it gets over used and at times abused.

Worse still it encourages a more general approach to trying to fight ideas through bans.

And that's before we even consider the potential legal mess that can arise out of this, with those keenest often not the ones legally responsible.

A return to basics of stating clearly that an organisation will not host particular organisations, will not allow them to use media outlets and will not have its office holders appear in official capacity at events with them (e.g. appearing on panels or in debates) should be a priority. Trying to police individuals' speech is a route doomed to failure. Where necessary, there are laws in place for that.


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