Friday, 7 August 2020

People's Vote - the post-mortem

There is a terribly interesting article on People's Vote in the FT.

It is quite right to say that we got very near to a second referendum happening: the monied and media classes were broadly keen on it, in many cases excessively so and, had they been better led, I suspect they could have achieved it. But the fact that their beliefs were quite different from those of the country as a whole is mentioned only in passing.

"Campbell, Baldwin and Mandelson didn’t want to be explicitly anti-Brexit. Citing their polling, they argued instead that the campaign had to be about resolving the blockage in British politics — thereby appealing to both Leavers and Remainers.  This also chimed with what Downing Street saw. James Johnson, who ran polling for May, recalls: “In every focus group I did, the reaction was always the same: ‘It’s done, we voted, we just need to get on with it’ . . . The only shred of credibility [People’s Vote] ever had was when it was framed as a way to resolve things. ... 

 The marches also didn’t win over floating voters, such as those in the north and Midlands who had backed Brexit in the hope of better public services. Instead, they may have skewed the campaign towards a passionate, pro-immigration minority. Baldwin concedes: “The proportion of soft Leavers supporting a People’s Vote was going down and down.”

 And there we see the problem: Remain's most vocal, prominent, enthusiastic and well-off supporters were its own worst adverts. (Much the same was true of Leave, as Cummings realised, which is why Johnson, Gove, Stuart and co were so important.)

 Of course, as Ed West points out, there is nothing terribly unusual about the majority of the country feeling distanced from their own native elites - or indeed favouring foreign ones (e.g., many Remainers). How about this: "But in a country like Nigeria, Britain’s largest African colony, feelings towards colonialism were more complicated. In his 1947 book Path to Nigerian Freedom, Obafemi Awolowo, considered one of Nigeria’s Founding Fathers for his role in the independence struggle, offered a frank assessment of the challenges in mobilising his compatriots against British rule at the time. “Given a choice from among white officials, [Nigerian] chiefs and educated Nigerians as the principal rulers of the country, the illiterate man today would exercise his preference for the three in the order in which they are named. He is convinced, and has good reasons to be, that he can always get better treatment from the white man than he could hope to get from the chiefs and the educated elements,” Awolowo wrote." (That is from this interesting piece.)

As for the future of People's Vote: "In June, four years after the referendum, People’s Vote — with its large email lists and half a million Facebook followers — renamed itself “Democracy Unleashed”. It has warmed up with attacks on Cummings but is yet to mention the word Brexit. Its eyes are on the general election due in 2024. Its slogans include “Campaigning to put power back in the hands of the people” ...". Is it just me, or is that slogan not the worst ever paraphrase of "Take Back Control"?

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Our relationships with inanimate objects

I was prompted to consider what is going on in the 'relationship' between a dog and his/her/its owner. It proved to be surprisingly hard. So I thought I would start with the easier case, namely human relationships with inanimate objects - mere things. But even thinking about this turned out to be both more tricky and more interesting than I had suspected. Some thoughts below.

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Unnecessary sneering from the Economist

You may have heard that the UK has introduced its own 'Magnitsky' sanctions, i.e. sanctions targetted at named individuals alleged by the UK government to have been complicit in serious wrongdoing. The UK's list includes 20 Saudi Arabian officials said to be involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, for example. People on the list can have their assets frozen and be barred from entering the country.

I was interested to see how The Economist covered this story. This is what it said:

"Magnitsky legislation is a fulfilment of a manifesto pledge and Mr Raab, who has been calling for such an act since 2012, has achieved a rare political feat: delivering something he genuinely believes in."

Come on. This is cynical, sneery and unworthy of the paper, and I don't need to say why.

But what I thought was particularly strange about the comment was the context. As the article itself says, there is an EU/Brexit angle on this:

"Britain’s sanctions regime has until now worked through the UN or EU. Brexit allows the country to fashion its own rules. Indeed, the first piece of Brexit-related legislation passed by Parliament was the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act ... "

One might have thought that the biggest British political fact of recent years - Brexit - is a good example of the political feat of delivering something that many politicians genuinely believe in. And one might have thought that this story of the Magnitsky sanctions would be an example of why some politicians do believe in Brexit - the power of Britain to fashion its own future, to make its own way in the world, etc etc. But The Economist continues to be incapable of seeing Brexit this way. 

I appreciate that the thinking and writing classes consider Brexit to be a Bad Idea. But I do find it odd that they can bring up the value of sticking to one's beliefs and delivering on them, and do so in a Brexit-related context, and not see the connection.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Sam Kriss continues

Sam Kriss has carried on being Sam Kriss-y, i.e. an astonishing mixture of annoying and insightful and wrong and right. He is well-aware that he is both clever and left-wing. Is he as clever as he thinks? Is he as left-wing as he thinks? I leave that to the reader.

Here he is on Black Lives Matter and similar: "There’s no nice way to say this: a certain subset of (mostly) white people have lost their minds online. ... See, for instance, the form letters: How To Talk To Your Black Friends Right Now. Because I refuse to be told I can’t ever empathise with a black person, I try to imagine what it would be like to receive one of these. Say there’s been a synagogue shooting, or a bunch of swastikas spraypainted in Willesden Jewish Cemetery. Say someone set off a bomb inside Panzer’s in St John’s Wood – and then one of my goy friends sends me something like this:

'Hey Sam – I can never understand how you feel right now, but I’m committed to doing the work both personally and in my community to make this world safer for you and for Jewish people everywhere. From the Babylonian Captivity to the Holocaust to today, my people have done reprehensible things to yours – and while my privilege will never let me share your experience, I want you to know that you’re supported right now. I see you. I hear you. I stand with the Jewish community, because you matter. Please give me your PayPal so I can buy you a bagel or some schamltz herring, or some of those little twisty pastries you people like.'

How would I respond? I think I would never want to see or hear from this person again. If I saw them in the street, I would spit in their face, covid be damned. I would curse their descendants with an ancient cackling Yiddish curse.

And here he is on Bernie Sanders and other failed left-wing causes. You know who the "we" is in what follows: "Give us our due, though: we’re passionate, and committed, and we’re strivers. In a few short weeks, we had the Bernie campaign speaking our language and broadcasting our concerns. We turned ourselves into its faces and figureheads. Just in time to thoroughly alienate everyone who wasn’t already onside.

I don’t think socialism is always, by necessity, a bourgeois idea. On both sides of the Atlantic, left-populism did briefly enjoy a broad base of support. But we need to be smarter: we need to understand that ordinary people simply
do not like us, and they’re not wrong to feel that way. We’re basically obnoxious, and to overcome that we need to meet the people where they are." And from that uncontroversial starting point, he spirals off into the void. An acquired taste.

Thursday, 2 July 2020


"I got involved with the best of intentions and a desire to play my part in contributing to a democratic debate around Brexit. I ask you, having read this story, would any of you now volunteer to do the same?" So asks Alan Halsall.

The Brexit story gives this a certain piquancy, but Halsall's story goes wider than that. If you have recently volunteered for almost anything then there is a good chance that you will have found yourself faced with a thicket of rules and regulations, guarded by threats of awful consequences. GDPR, for example, or health and safety rules.

If you are involved in recruiting or training people, quite likely having volunteered to do this in addition to your normal job and with the best of intentions, then you will have been subjected to training and warned of the risks of illegal discrimination.

Do you remember all those school governors facing the threat of competition law proceedings? Still happening (discussing discounts! during covid! How very dare you!)

If you have had tangential contact with a school then your criminal records will be checked. Have you carried out a risk assessment for the communal parts of a shared building recently? Organised a village fete?

Here's one example: "... if your group or organisation want to use a community kitchen you will need to know if your particular food operation will need to be registered as a ‘Food Business’ with [X] Council ... For example ... volunteers serving hot soup and sandwiches on a regular basis to homeless and potentially vulnerable people. ... It is recommended that at least one person within a group/organisation will have a ‘Level 2 Food Safety in Catering’ Hygiene Certificate so that they can be available to supervise at events and/or pass on their knowledge to others where appropriate." So you decide, out of the kindess of your heart, to set up a kitchen to help homeless people. One moment you are thinking of feeding some home-cooked food, the same food you would give your own children, to less fortunate members of society - and then all of a sudden you are revising for your advanced food safety certificate.

All of this is probably well-intentioned. Or at least understandable given the outrage that can happen when something goes wrong. But it creates a series of burdens that fall on the public spirited. And it is slowly squashing that spirit. Why do I bother?, asks Mr Halsall - and so many other people across the country, muttering to themselves that no good deed goes unpunished. 

Monday, 29 June 2020

Gove and Gramsci ...

... are the two big Gs of the thinking wing of the modern Conservative Party.

Here is a cracking Ditchley Lecture by Gove, entitled the Privilege of Public Service, but much more interesting than that sounds. I do not agree with all Gove says, but he is reassuringly intelligent and sensitive in his thinking. It is worth a read (particularly if you are in the Civil Service - your career path could well change).

The thinking Right (NB not an oxymoron) has the advantage over the thinking Left not only of being familiar with the intellectual landscape of its opponents - hence Gove's knowledge of Gramsci - but also of being unashamed about appealing to its opponents' holy cows. (And why not? Once an impressive left-wing achievement or person becomes old enough, it/s/he becomes another National Treasure.) So Gove appeals to FDR as a touchstone throughout his speech. Here is using FDR to remind us in London about Leavers:

"Almost every arm of Government, and those with powerful voices within it, seemed estranged from the majority in 2016. That is not to say those people’s views were not honest, principled and public-spirited. It is just to observe that a view, a perspective, a set of beliefs, which the majority, albeit slight, held in this country were rarely heard within Government. FDR asked his Government to remember the Forgotten Man. In the 2016 referendum those who had been too often forgotten asked to be remembered."

Gove is a confident thinker too, which makes his writing more interesting than most politicians. "My first attempt as Education Secretary at a new history curriculum was deeply flawed ... My cancellation of the Brown government Building Schools for the Future programme was a political fiasco ... My proposal to bring back O-Levels strained the bonds of the 2010-2015 coalition and had to be abandoned ...". He adds "buts" to all of these, but even so, it refreshing - and a sign of confidence - to see a politician set out failures as plainly as this.

I would be interested to know how much of what he says would prompt vigorous disagreement from a Starmer-type Labour Party. Possibly very little. Gove (and one detects the work of Cummings too - feel free to play "DARPA" and "Bayesian" bingo) might be writing the future of sensible centrism in this country. I rather hope so.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Someone who did change her mind

Following on from my post about people not wanting to change their minds, here is a great example of someone who did. She is Zion Lights (great name! rather like the best kind of Puritan name from the 1640s), formerly spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion UK and the founder of its climate reporting newspaper The Hourglass, who has quit the organisation to take up a position as a campaigner for nuclear power.

"For many years I was skeptical of nuclear power. Surrounded by anti-nuclear activists, I had allowed fear of radiation, nuclear waste and weapons of mass destruction to creep into my subconscious," she says. But then Lights looked into the science and "realised I had been duped into anti-science sentiment all this time."

She adds, poignantly: "To my surprise, when I shared the data with my anti-nuclear friends, they argued against the science. Alas, we parted ways."

Just think how strong her desire for truth is that she left her friends and her job simply to follow what she believes to be true. And not to adopt a fashionable cause that comes with fashionable new friends, but simply to save the world. Zion Lights indeed.