Monday, 20 May 2019

Gentleman Jack: a review

Gentleman Jack is a Sunday evening BBC-HBO co-production period drama set in the 1830s, with high production values (the scenes set in Hastings aside) and a high-quality cast. You know the sort of thing. 

As I watched the first episode, I starting thinking: how would you go about constructing a villain for a modern TV show set in Victorian times? 

You'd obviously make them a wealthy landowner. No, stronger than that, they would be an absentee landowner who had no apparent interest in their estates other than the income it brought them. They'd have to return to the family pile for plot reasons (and because you'd spent a fair chunk of the production budget on hiring a nice country house), but they would openly talk about moving away again quickly, perhaps (for added villainy) by going to a slave-owning US state, say, Virginia. 

You would rub in the economics: perhaps you would give the villain a soft-hearted old relative who sometimes went easy on the tenants and then have your villain turn up to renege on a rent indulgence shown by the elderly relative, and humiliate him in front of his tenant to boot. When collecting rents, you would make sure that the villain evicted an 80-year old man who had nowhere else to live; and if any tenant, faced with your duplicity, were to venture an opinion that one day the tenants would throw the landowners off the land, your villain would respond by saying that that was all the more reason for the landowners to give as good as they got. 

You could really lay it on thick. How about having the villain express an interest in exploiting fossil fuel deposits? And if the elderly relative were to opine that coal is 'dirty stuff', then ignore him in favour of profit? 

If you were not scared of going too far then you could have the characters discuss the modest widening of the franchise resulting from the Great Reform Act, the showpiece of the reforming Whig Government of the 1830s, and have your villain say "Don't talk to me about progress. It's change that's unnecessary and entirely in the wrong direction!". 

You would of course give your villain some personal failings as well. How about treating inferiors badly? Make them generally curt and unthinking with servants. But that's just for starters. You would also introduce a doctor who ventures a progressive opinion, e.g. that a depressed wealthy heiress might be better off working for a living, then allow a woman of the household to offer the doctor a drink, and then have your villain countermand the offer of a drink and order the doctor to look at your horse.

It goes without saying that your villain would be indulging in a casual adulterous affair. And the episode would end with the villain literally twirling a cane while strolling off to seduce the depressed and vulnerable wealthy heiress discussed earlier.

I have described what the supposed heroine of our story, Anne Lister, says and does in the first episode. As I understand it, because she is a lesbian rather than a man, all of these characteristics of the typical villain of a Victorian TV drama are now supposed to be signs that she is "fearless, charismatic, and determined to do things her own way ... she defies every convention of the society she lives in", as the BBC itself puts it

If I were an old-fashioned Marxist then I know exactly what I would say about this. This is the most egregious example of rentier-bourgeoisie propaganda: there is a very thin veneer of progressivism provided by making the main character a woman, but otherwise this is well-funded cheerleading for the worst excesses of the Victorian capitalist-landowning classes. It is a parody of Jacob Rees-Mogg in drag! Is it just like the way multinational corporations wave a rainbow flag to pretend to be progressive, and then use that as a distraction from crushing unions, oppressing workers in the third world, ruining the environment etc etc. 

But I'm not a Marxist of any kind. I'm just pleased to see that the BBC can provide a sympathetic portrait of reactionary politics and capitalist endeavour. "She’s an efficient landlord and runs rings around her coal mining rivals", the BBC says, bigging her up. I'm now looking forward to the BBC spotting that General Gordon was gay and using that as an excuse for a lavish costume drama with him as the hero. The tagline: "He's an efficient imperialist and runs rings around the natives!" Andrew Scott could play Gordon, with a few knowing, Fleabag-esque, looks at the camera. Give it a soundtrack with some pop music on and we're looking at 3 BAFTAs at least.

Anyway, the Marxists needn't worry. I'm sure the proletariat has better things to do than watch BBC costume dramas on a Sunday evening. They've got Ubers to drive, Deliveroo orders to fulfil and Amazon parcels to pack. 

Monday, 13 May 2019

The populist revolt yet to come?

I originally gave a link to this, from Lewis Goodall, as an update to my earlier Plea to Parliament post but it really deserves its own entry.

Goodall points out that the 2016 referendum was "an expression of faith in the strength and durability of the British political system and in its leaders. // Voters were certain that their wishes in the referendum would be carried out without too much difficulty: I lost count of the numbers of voters who, during the referendum and since, dismissed concerns about our withdrawal, not only from the EU but of its myriad political, economic and social auspices, with a variant of the following reply: "I'm sure they can sort it out." // In other words the Brexit vote, as well as a cri de coeur for Westminster to listen, was also an affirmation of faith by the British public in the fundamental competence of the British state to prosecute even the most difficult political outcomes."

That is a good point. We were given a choice and everyone thought that it was a real choice. The basic competence, honesty and good faith of the politicians offering us the choice were taken for granted. The high turnout was itself a vote of confidence in the system.

A large part of the rationale for Remainers demanding a second referendum is that things have changed because we can now see that leaving the EU is so very tricky. What does this mean?

We were told at the time that leaving would be difficult. So it must mean something more than that.

One thing it might mean is that leaving is just plain impossible. But it's not. It wasn't a referendum on making pi a more sensible number or moving the UK to the southern hemisphere or building a submarine out of cheese. There are some countries that are in the EU and some that are not, and moving from one condition to the other is politically possible. Hugo Rifkind is wrong about this

Another thing Remainers might mean is this: we, the political leaders of the country, are incompetent and simply can't make Brexit happen, so you'd better give up on that and aim lower. That's not what anyone was told at the time and not what anyone believed then. I don't even believe it today. Or maybe it means: we won't do it. Either way, as we lawyers observe, sometimes it doesn't matter whether someone is unwilling or unable, what matters is that they are not doing what they promised to do. 

Failing or refusing to carry out the promise to enact the result of the referendum has, Goodall says, caused the faith in the system that we saw in 2016 to disappear. Things have got so bad that, well, this is how he puts it: "How else can a working class crowd of voters on the Fylde, in Newport, in Durham, cheer figures once associated with the economic and Thatcherite right, like Farage, Widdecombe and multimillionaire Richard Tice? These are people for whom such places would once have had nothing but contempt. But now they are cheered as the true and authentic voice of ordinary people, of "real" people; politics is regearing along new, jagged and unpredictable axes."

Goodall is sceptical that that faith can re-appear. The thrust of his story is that we are in a new age of fury.

I disagree. A new age of fury is a great story. But let's just remember the 2017 General Election. That was after the referendum. Remainers were already in deep mourning for the result and worked up about reversing it: 4 million people had already signed a petition asking for a second referendum (remember that one?). Things weren't that different from today. But the two main parties agreed that Brexit should happen and we had a return to traditional two party politics: indeed, there was huge support for each of the two main parties, each of which espoused a distinctive set of policies, and each of which was reaching out, in different ways, to the left-behind Leavers recently uncovered by the referendum. The third parties that had recently flourished, UKIP and the LibDems, disappeared into irrelevance. It was democratic politics working as it is meant to work. Sure, it led to a hung Parliament, but so did the 2010 election, and that was back in the good old 'I agree with Nick' days when no one doubted the basic competence of our political classes.

All of that can be recaptured. All that has changed since 2017 is that the deadline for leaving the EU has passed and Parliament is giving every impression that it will move that deadline to 'never'. So all it will take to recapture faith in the political classes, as I said before, is for Britain actually to leave the EU. Competence just means doing the job: so do it. If the builders finish late then we sigh and put up with it: it's if the builders simply refuse to build it that we get really annoyed. So build it! Finish the job! Then politics will return to 2017: Nigel Farage will be squashed again, Change UK - The Independent Party - #Remain Alliance - whatever they are (the people whose logo is a drop-down menu icon that offers no choices) will wither, and the people who want Corbynism can argue with the people who don't in the confident expectation that one or other will prevail. 

I appreciate that that will leave a sizeable number of often quite wealthy, well-educated, comfortable, articulate and well-connected people very annoyed that Britain has left the EU. But they will be annoyed that they lost a referendum. Good. They can try to win the next one. They have can no other complaint: the system worked as it meant to. That is - by far - the lesser evil than having a sizeable number of people utterly disillusioned and furious with the fundamental political structure of the country - and rightly so. And if you think it is more important to ensure that the rich and comfortable group gets everything they want from the political classes than that the less privileged and more dispersed group gets the one thing many of them have ever asked for then you should reflect on your priorities. Or, at the very least, consider what a new age of fury would do for house prices. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

"‘This country is a blessed nation,’ he said. ‘The British are special. The world knows it. In our innermost thoughts, we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth.’"

This, I think, is one of the better pieces about Brexit by a self-reflective Remainer.

The writer, Tom Crewe, is not immune to patriotism. My title is taken from his quotation from Blair's farewell speech that forms the title to this blog. He comments: "if tears didn’t spring to my eyes, and I’m not prepared to say they didn’t, I undoubtedly brimmed with pride". Leavers sometimes need to be reminded that not all Remainers are busy robbing poor boxes in order to avoid standing for the National Anthem.

He talks about the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. It's surprising how many times discussion of Brexit turns to this urtext of Britain at its best: carry out a Google search if you doubt me. But Crewe is able to note that it was "a minutely calculated, essentially propagandist, publicly funded spectacle". Of course it was, you might say. So what?, you might ask. But, at some level, some people seem to have regarded it as a quasi-spontaneous outburst of feeling from the Real Britain, and there is a fair degree of overlap between those people and the most upset Remainers. I'm afraid the closest thing to a spontaneous outburst of feeling from the Real Britain that we have seen recently is the Leave vote itself. (For the record, I enjoyed the ceremony.)

Crewe also notes that it is Remainers, not Leavers, who get really worked up about Britain's influence in the world. The typical Remainer worries that leaving the EU means that Britain is leaving the 'top table', or ceasing to 'punch above its weight'. The typical Leaver would be happy if he could influence his own MP to do what he voted for in 2016, and influence on the rest of the world be damned. 

Crewe also notes that Remainers are principally afflicted by embarrassment. He asks why that embarrassment strikes now when it has not affected right-thinking people earlier, for example, given the "ideological savagery of the Tory-led governments since 2010"? (Gosh: the mild centrism of a Con-LibDem alliance is now "ideological savagery": I suppose same-sex marriage is pretty extreme by historical standards, but it was pretty mainstream at the time.) 

The answer, of course, is that Remainers feel that the world is watching them - and laughing. (Leavers have enough to worry about with Remainers laughing at them before they start worrying about what foreigners think.) It is akin to that feeling of being abroad and spotting other British people, loud and vulgar and, well, just plain embarrassing. It's ok if people behave like that back home, but it's just too much to bear when they do it in front of foreigners, making us look bad by association. (Why is that? Is it because even the most sophisticated and cultured Brits are secretly convinced that they are much less sophisticated and cultured than foreigners, and that outward crudeness from a fellow Brit will expose the truth?) I am sure that if Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau and Hillary Clinton and Emmanuel Macron and everyone who has ever been in a Scandi-drama all turned round and said that they thought that Brexit was a jolly good idea and they wished they'd thought of it first then Remainers would be a lot more happy about it, despite all the underlying facts being the same.

Crewe concludes: "But it’s also possible to see the vote to Leave another way: as a moment when reality triumphed over storytelling. ... Brexit, whatever the dangers, is forcing Britain to get to know itself better. Not all countries are given that opportunity." He's right. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, but I'm hopeful that this is an opportunity that Britain will put to good use.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

The future of the Conservative Party

You are probably aware that there is a large number of people in the UK who are socially conservative but economically left-wing and who find themselves politically homeless (in the B&B sense, if not quite sleeping rough), unwelcome to both the woke-brigades of the metropolitan left and the low-tax, pro-austerity leaders of the right.

What is stopping political parties from picking up their votes?

Part of the answer is that UKIP did pick up their votes (and the Brexit Party will do so too): UKIP always had a much stronger cultural brand than an economic one.

Another part of the answer is that many of these people are Muslims: "a quarter of Brummies, including a plurality of the city’s children" are Muslims, the Economist tells us, and "they are equally clear that others must accept them for who they are: products of a conservative Muslim culture."

Muslim people have proved a reliable voting bloc for Labour, in part, at least, because the Conservative Party has not been as welcoming to them as it should have been. Even in its heyday as a decent party, UKIP made little effort to attract to Muslims (and has no hope now), but the Conservative Party, at least, can change.

Birmingham is where we might see this change happen. You have probably heard about the protests against the 'No Outsiders' LGBT teaching programme. (I have tried - not terribly hard, I admit - to find out what is in the programme, but with no success.) The Economist (same link as above - read it) reports that "The city’s Labour councillors, who dominate local politics, range from Muslims with sympathy for the parents protesting against the gay-friendly classes, to secular left-wingers who strongly support the school." 

So the local Labour Party is split on a cultural issue. Which side does the Conservatives take? "The Conservative opposition tends to be on the progressive side; one worry among local Tories is that a new commercial development may destroy a “gay village” near the city centre." Hmm. Let's run the numbers on that one: where are the votes going to be in the long run? Have a look again at that fact about the children of Birmingham I quoted above.

Ok, so there are votes to be had in cultural conservatism. But isn't this all just grubby vote-counting, not based on any principle?

I don't think so. Read this piece, by someone called Jacob Williams, about why he became a Muslim. He was at Oxford, it seems, where "My utopian peers found their purpose in crusades against racism and homophobia, but their contempt for England revolted me. I chose a different course and embarked on a search for God. // Where could a lost soul go? Nowhere in college or country offered an answer. What the campus Conservative Party outlined was absurd: We can pick up the fragments of our culture by putting on three-piece suits, getting riotously drunk, and reviving the divine right of kings."

A serious person, a lover of England, looked for meaning in life and found it in Islam. Expect more stories like this.

Williams is a small-c conservative; he may well be a big-C conservative too. And why not? (He missed out at university, of course: you haven't had fun until you've spent an evening in a port-fuelled rampage aimed at reversing Cromwellism! And Henry VIII! And the Rescript of Honorius too! But I digress.)

Again, try this, by Ed Husain about Roger Scruton: conservative non-Muslim thinkers find plenty to like in Islam.

I would suggest, therefore, that there is a viable future for the Conservative Party as a party for conservatives, patriots and believers. Of course, that development would be helped if the party came to be led by, say, the Rochdale-born son of a Pakistani-born bus driver. Quite soon, we will get to see if the Conservative Party is still entitled to its old reputation as a party that can survive any change in British society.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Brexit - a plea to Parliament - updated

I'm sure you have seen that a couple of polls give the Brexit Party a decent chance of winning the Euro-elections. (My guess: it will come second to Labour.)

How do you feel about seeing Farage back in the news? Probably not too happy. We'd all hoped he was out of politics forever.

Well, this was all utterly predictable - and it was predicted. See this from November 2018

"A botched Brexit will draw renewed attention to the void between voters and the political class, which has been exposed but not closed by the referendum. The general consequence of this void is the rise of populist movements, which attract voters by pointing to this disconnect, and promising that they will smash the entrenched, corrupted “elite” and ensure that “the people” are heard once more. Populist mobilisation can be used for either “left-wing” or “right-wing” purposes, or even both simultaneously, though right-wing populism is most common in contemporary Europe. Indeed, it is rampant across the continent, thanks to the void entrenched by European integration. Right-wing populists have captured state power in Austria (the Freedom Party), Hungary (Orban’s Fidesz party) and Italy (the Lega and the Five Star Movement), while polling at second place in countries like Denmark (the Danish People’s Party), France (the National Front) and Germany (Alternative for Germany). This is not a random coincidence. It is a structural feature of the European Union.

Thanks to the Brexit referendum, Britain is temporarily inoculated from this terrible disease. In the preceding decades, voters who had been effectively disenfranchised by the convergence of the mainstream parties flirted first with the British National Party and then the UK Independence Party, in a desperate attempt to compel the establishment to listen to them. The EU referendum allowed these citizens – and many who felt so marginalised that they had never voted before – to express their disgust. Having apparently disciplined political leaders by rejecting the EU, they promptly abandoned UKIP, just as they had previously dropped the BNP. Contrary to [...] widespread Remainer predictions of some sort of post-referendum “Faragist” or even “fascist” takeover in “Weimar Britain”, UKIP’s vote collapsed in the 2017 general election.[...] Since the referendum, UKIP has also been through four leaders, lost its only MP and many councillors, and has been abandoned by its major donors.

The referendum therefore offered the British political elite a golden opportunity to restore representative democracy, neutralising the populist threat for good. ... [It] signalled to politicians that they must represent the voters again, and gave them the opportunity to do so, thereby closing the void. Unlike the Continent, where traditional parties have been all but wiped out in countries like Italy and France, displaced by populist upstarts of the right and the “extreme centre”, in the 2017 general election the two main parties gained their strongest support in decades, reversing a longstanding trend of political fragmentation. The UK’s populist party was decimated, while Labour became Europe’s most successful social democratic party. With Corbyn’s “old Labour” platform, real political contestation seemed to be back, at long last. Remainers’ predictions could not have been more wrong, though few acknowledge it.

This opportunity for democratic renewal now risks being missed entirely, with grave consequences. Any attempt to overtly overturn the referendum result, through a second referendum or similar, will result in the rapid resurgence of British populism. Either UKIP will be revived, or something similar will emerge. Its leaders will have concrete proof that, regardless of how you vote, the political establishment will not listen to you. The only alternative is to support a force willing to smash the lot of them. We do not have to imagine what this would look like: we need only look to the Continent.

Crucially, if this happens, this will primarily be the fault of Remainers, not Brexit. [...] If and when there is a right-wing populist resurgence, these very same individuals will declare: “See, we told you so – Brexit is about racist populism!
In reality, Brexit was a golden opportunity to lance this boil by closing the political void. It is the intransigence and myopia of the British left that is squandering this opportunity.

I disagree in part: the political right is pretty bad too. Moreover, pretty much everything that pro-Brexit MPs have been up to recently amply justifies Dominic Cummings' desire to keep them locked in a dark dungeon during any political campaign.

Let's pause for a moment to note that we should be proud of our political culture: Farage is not a fascist, and he gets popularity precisely from being not a fascist.

But just for a moment. Because we need to go on to ask: who (or what) comes after Farage? There's surely only so much that some people will take before they despair of Farage's attempts to do things by the book and turn to people who don't care about the book. 

You see that phrase: "concrete proof that, regardless of how you vote, the political establishment will not listen to you". This is my plea to our politicians: don't give us that proof! Leave and then campaign to re-join the EU - if being outside the EU is that bad then we will be desperate to rejoin (the EU seems reluctant to let us go, after all)! Brexit In Name Only, as soft a Brexit as you like! But please, please don't do to the people of the UK what you would never have done to the people of Scotland: do not reverse their referendum. If you care about democracy, if you care about legitimacy, if you really care about being tough on fascism and tough on the causes of fascism, please please please do not do what you are thinking of doing, what we can all see that you want to do, and undermine the result of a referendum.

UPDATE: Lord Falconer (posting from Beverly Hills!) agrees with me. Read the replies he patiently provides to a large number of people making the obvious points in response.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Miscellaneous links

1. Why Birmingham is not rich - poor public transport. Is good public transport (part of the reason) why London is rich?

2. She was 0-6 0-5 and matchpoint down - and she won!

3. The facts are true, the news is fake: why Taleb will not talk to English journalists (apropos of l'affaire Roger Scruton).

4. How quickly mores change. 20-something adult woman gets engaged to man of similar age she has known for many years - and is met with disapproval. Her love-life would have been nearly the world's most boring story a generation ago. Now it is a news story - or at least, an online magazine story. I am sorely tempted to take the (old-fashioned) feminist line on this: would anyone have expressed disapproval if she were a man? (By which I mean: a man marrying a man?) Human societies are capable of some weird varieties - don't be at all surprised if teen marriage comes back into vogue one day.

5. The gender gap in voice pitch has halved in the last decades, with women moving toward the lower pitch levels of men. Sounds like a laboured metaphor for a worthy novel.

6. Why the world of sperm donation helps the likes of Wickham and hurts the likes of Darcy.

7. The world as seen from America: a woman goes to the Gaeltacht and suggests it is one of few places where promoting native identity is uncontroversial. I suggest: most of the world.

8. "Thus, in several dimensions, areas in the US where Scandinavian descendants live resemble a ‘Scandinavia in miniature’." Worth looking at together with this piece on inequality in the Economist.

Monday, 8 April 2019

The Entitled Under Attack

Here are two articles, about completely different topics, but which struck me as having a common theme.

The first is this. It's an enjoyable piece by Caitlin Flanagan dealing with the American university entrance cheating scandal: Flanagan once worked at a posh Los Angeles school with children of the kind who feature in the scandal.

The second is this. It's Giles Fraser continuing his controversial thoughts on Brexit, this time responding to a point Will Self made about listening.

As I say, two completely different stories. So what is the common theme?

Entitlement - and the wrath of the entitled when scorned.

From Flanagan's piece: "These parents—many of them avowed Trump haters—are furious that what once belonged to them has been taken away, and they are driven mad with the need to reclaim it for their children. The changed admissions landscape at the elite colleges is the aspect of American life that doesn’t feel right to them; it’s the lost thing, the arcadia that disappeared so slowly they didn’t even realize it was happening until it was gone. They can’t believe it—they truly can’t believe it—when they realize that even the colleges they had assumed would be their child’s back-up, emergency plan probably won’t accept them. They pay thousands and thousands of dollars for untimed testing and private counselors; they scour lists of board members at colleges, looking for any possible connections; they pay for enhancing summer programs that only underscore their children’s privilege. And—as poor whites did in the years leading up to 2016—they complain about it endlessly. At every parent coffee, silent auction, dinner party, Clippers game, book club, and wine tasting, someone is bitching about admissions. And some of these parents, it turns out, haven’t just been bitching; some of them decided to go MAGA."

From Fraser's: "The Brexit debate can be characterised, without too much deformation, as one between a group of people who are used to being listened to and a group who are not. The Remain heartlands are in London, and university towns like Oxford and Cambridge. These places were most enthusiastic in signing up to the petition to cancel Article 50. They are used to being listened to. ... Pin your ears back. In 2016, the clear majority of those who spoke asked to leave the EU. Yet ever since, the political class have pretended not to understand, thus insinuating that what was said was itself unclear. It wasn’t unclear, they just didn’t like it. And so what we need now is not more coffee and chat. We need a whole new political class." (See also this, polite comments by Rob Ford in reaction to more overt signs of Brexit Derangement Syndrome on the part of Jolyon Maugham.)

Still, those entitled people will probably be OK. The abolition of slavery in the southern states of the US was a massive blow to the wealth of the wealthiest (must of which was held in the form of slaves). But within 10 years, they had bounced back. I'm sure that Remainers and doting parents of the coddled mediocre will bounce back too.