Monday, 31 October 2016

More on why Remain lost

This, from Daniel Korski (deputy director of the policy unit in David Cameron’s government) is fascinating.

I thought there are two striking aspects of the piece. First, it clearly emerges that the British Establishment really did not understand Europe: we thought we could block Juncker; we miscalculated the renegotiation terribly; at one point he refers to "Whitehall departments [that our man in the EU] believed had long since given up trying to understand Europe".

Second, Korski has some interesting insights on politicians: "British politics is famously adversarial, and those who make it to the top are results-focused leaders. They start and end meetings promptly and go into a conversation with clear set of points. Once these have been made, they seek to end the conversation. Cameron is no exception; rather, he is the exemplar. He can be charming. But his style is functional, whether in telephone calls or in person. // Continental politics, on the other hand, tend to be more consensual. European leaders spend a lot of time discussing issues, talking around a subject. They even vacation together." Urgh.

On Labour politicians in particular: "Labour’s problem was structural. In many constituencies, especially in the North, Labour MPs never really needed to canvass the electorate. These constituencies had returned Labour MPs to the House of Commons since time immemorial. And so they remained largely uncavassed. // Many Labour MPs also did not seem to me to have the intellectual tools to have serious arguments about Europe with their constituents. They just hadn’t had to do it before. Whereas every Tory MP and would-be politician had been forced to hone his or her views on Europe, Labour — though historically and nominally pro-European — was full of MPs who struggled to make the case for the EU."

But read the whole piece.

And then read this, from Dominic Cummings. Fantastically complementary. The Remain man in Downing Street failing to understand Merkel, the Labour Party, the EU or anything of any importance, compared with the dedicated Leaver spending money finding individual streets that would vote Leave. And note Cummings' comments about PPE.

Friday, 21 October 2016

On ballet

This fascinating piece tells us a lot about the life of one ballerina/ex-ballerina and a little about the lives of others.

This struck me as true: "We know of no other occupation that requires such extensive training, that is held in such esteem as a contribution to culture, and that pays so little." And yet, as a dilettante balletomane, I am sure that that is somehow part of the strange, glamorous, fairytale, magical appeal of the whole affair.

There is a reason why the things that everyone knows about ballet dancers are that they are very fit and strong (stronger than footballers, you may have heard) and that their feet bleed. Knowledge of the hard-as-nails labour below all that sugar-plum-fairy-pink-tutu-silliness on the surface is an essential flavour of the experience: one sits there knowing that vast resources - the opera houses! the hand-painted scenery! the hand-sewn costumes! the hours of practice! the muscles! people's whole lives! - have been built and expended to create something effervescent and ephemeral, something fleeting and light. All that weight is designed to create the illusion of something essentially weightless - and the more the real weight, the more impressive the illusion is. It just wouldn't be the same experience for the audience if it could be done without practice by naturally talented individuals, like rolling your tongue. And who would watch robots doing ballet?

I also suspect it wouldn't be quite the same if ballet dancers were all as rich and famous as footballers.

I am not happy to notice that feeling in myself. I really do wish they were all as rich and famous as footballers. At the very least, it would be nice if they were well-paid professionals with happy bourgeois home lives - 2.4 children and a back garden - and healthy appetites, rather than living in poky garrets on a diet of cigarettes and $5 a week. May they all have the afterlives of Darcey Bussell! But introspection tells me that one of the reasons the audience cares about the ballet, one of the reasons that, for all its silliness, it matters, is because of the sacrifices made by the dancers.

I know, I know. It's the other way around, isn't it? I should say that it is because it matters that people make the sacrifices. But in the case of ballet at least, is that right? Can't something which itself of beauty and value be given additional value - be sanctified, almost - by the sacrifices involved in its creation?

Thursday, 20 October 2016

How the "Cab Rank Rule" works

You may have heard of the Cab Rank Rule for barristers: barristers take their clients as cabdrivers take their fares. The idea is that, as Lord Hoffmann put it, "Every barrister not otherwise engaged is available for hire by any client willing and able to pay the appropriate fee. This rule protects barristers against being criticised for giving their services to a client with a bad reputation and enables unpopular causes to obtain representation in court." Lord Hutton described it as "a fundamental and essential part of a liberal legal system". You get the idea.

This is the lighthearted diary of a fictional QC doing criminal work. Our diarist is meant to be a sympathetic protagonist, struggling with the financial hardships of modern criminal work and occasionally regretting the passing of the good old days.

The following is from his most recent column. The scene: his clerk has come to his room with a case in mind.

"‘You like Mrs Whitcomb of Rodericks and Carlson, don’t you sir?’ He knows I do. ‘It’s just that she’s got a very nice little section 18 I thought you might suit you.’ I enquired how she had secured public funding, as a charge of causing grievous bodily harm with intent is almost always seen as not requiring Queen’s Counsel by the powers-that-be. ‘Private, sir,’ was the response. ‘Oh,’ I said, moving slightly forward in my chair but hiding my excitement. ‘Oh well, I don’t mind. And, yes, I do like her. She is extremely capable and enormous fun.’ Andrew looked at me: ‘It is in Wales, sir.’ I knew it had been too good to be true. ‘I do have quite a bit of paper work to do actually, now I think about it.’ ‘Leading Miss Briar-Pitt, sir, and she’s got a lot of papers to work on too; in that fraud next year here in London. The one she hasn’t got a leader in yet.’ He had put his cards on the table and asked to see my hand. I folded."

I don't do criminal work, but the scene sounds plausible to me. Lord Hoffmann's "not otherwise engaged" can be a bit of a movable feast.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A miscellany of links

Nothing to do with Brexit.

1. There are still some Samaritans. Only 777 of them, but that sounds like the kind of auspicious number that might just work out for their future.

2. Do you really care about global warming? Does it matter? It depends.

3. I don't really understand this, but it seems that computers can write time travel fiction and 'solve' the grandfather paradox into the bargain.

4. Interesting piece about Sadiq Khan. It reminded me of that bit in American Hustle where the sympathetic mayor explains that if they are to have a casino then they need to do business with the mob. "Nuance is the friend of truth," the author says, and ultimately of Khan too, I suspect.

5. Robert Kaplan: "the tragedy of the Arab world was never a lack of democracy, but a lack of enlightened authoritarianism". Meanwhile, "Authoritarian leaders are seen as far more trustworthy than politicians in more openly democratic countries across the emerging world, according to data compiled by the World Economic Forum. ... One of the biggest losers in the WEF's "trust in politicians" ranking over this period has been Tunisia, widely regarded as the sole success story of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Its politicians were ranked as the 15th most trustworthy in the world in 2010, before the overthrow of President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali. Under democratic rule, the country has fallen to 63rd."

Monday, 17 October 2016

Who will pay the bills?

Look at this graph from the Economist.
Forget poor old Poland for a moment. What about Italy, Spain and Germany? Who will pay the eurozone's bills? 

Maybe those shrunken populations will be terribly rich and productive? Well, "Italy, the third-largest economy in the eurozone, has a per-capita G.D.P. that’s lower than it was at the end of the last century," says John Lanchester. It's 2016.
Say what you want about Mark Steyn (and please do - freedom of speech is one of his things) but you can't deny that he is thinking about demography. 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

How to write about Brexit - and how not to

Brexit, in the sense of both the vote and what happens next, is an economic issue. It is not just an economic issue, but it is certainly that. You might have spotted that the pound has gone down a bit, for example. So people with an economics background write about it, as they should. And they draw political points from their economic framework. Again, so they should. But it can go wrong. (More below.)

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

A miscellany of links

1. How to have fun. ""Competitiveness is a funny one," said Ben afterwards. "Usually it just makes people angry and kills fun dead." ... After all his studying, Ben concluded that you need other people to have fun. You just can't have fun alone. Even when you think you're having fun by yourself, it's with reference to an absent other. It's doing something you know you've had fun doing with others in the past, or it's I-can't-wait-until-someone-else-hears-about-this." This and more, all worth thinking about.

2. How we spoke 8,000 years ago.

3. More recently - in fact last month - here is singing in Aramaic for the Pope visiting Georgia. Yup, Aramaic. Listen to it and weep not for the Abendlandes.

4. "As Charles Moore explains in his biography of Margaret Thatcher, Mrs T always felt that there was no one to catch her if she fell, because she wasn’t part of that male–dominated Tory club where political bonds are reinforced by old school friendships and family ties. May, who entered the Commons only five years after Thatcher left, is conscious of this too. ... Throughout her time in politics, May has known that if she made a mistake there wouldn’t be anyone to make excuses for her." Is that true of women politicians starting out now? If not, what difference will it make to them?

5. Brexit stuff. William Hague talks sense here, while Daniel Hannan (profiled here as the Man Who Brought You Brexit) writes about post-referendum Britain here. (The Untergang will come to Britain too, fear not, but my hope is that we will be so distracted by debating Brexit - an argument in which both sides are led by people steeped in that liberal democratic tradition that was the future once - that it will take longer to reach here than other parts of the Abendlandes.)

6. Donald Trump. First, why some people vote for him. Second, here, what the Mormons were right about (Trump), what Trump was right about (Iraq, healthcare) and what St. Teresa of Avila was right about (More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones).

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Der Untergang des Abendlandes (continued)

Here is the ever-excellent Ross Douthat making a complementary point to my observation the other day that the liberal democratic state has lost its supporters, namely that all the energy and enthusiasm in politics is to be found in those who "regard the liberal consensus as something to be transcended or rejected, rather than reformed or redeemed".

Douthat gives us a taxonomy of the groups on the Left and the Right who are doing the transcending or rejecting. You probably don't need to be told about those on the Left who consider that the righting of structural injustices warrants all sorts of impingements on traditional views of free speech and free association. But do not forget those on the Right too. I was put in mind again of this passage (from here): "The tenets of Manchester liberalism were adopted by conservatives in America because they found them well-suited to an Anglo-Protestant people with a wide distribution of property and a continent of resources. They are not divine writ [...] we may need to make different exceptions to them than we have in the past."

Friday, 7 October 2016

Japanese self-mummification

"Between 1081 and 1903, at least 17 monks managed to mummify themselves. The number may well be higher, however, as it is likely some mummies were never recovered from the alpine tombs.

They are called sokushinbutsu. They were pretty hardcore: "Incredibly, Tetsumonkai is one of several sokushinbutsu to auto-enucleate—remove one’s own eye—as a charitable act."

Do not try this at home.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Donald Trump and Elena Ferrante

Two people with nothing in common? Nothing except something that occurred to the Complete Review:

"As it happens, this weekend also saw another invasion of privacy: the release of a few pages of American presidential candidate Donald Trump's tax returns. ... there were dozens, if not hundreds of posts expressing disappointment and outrage at the release of the 'Elena Ferrante' information -- but not a one suggesting that Donald Trump had in any way been treated unfairly, despite the fact that this information was released without his permission and presumably entirely against his personal wishes. ... Almost everyone seems terribly sympathetic to 'Elena Ferrante' while shrugging off the other case, as though Trump just got what he deserves. It shouldn't work that way."

It shouldn't. But it's hard to keep that kind of dispassionate approach: cf bin Laden and Thatcher.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Der Untergang des Abendlandes

Yesterday's post was about how the eurozone countries have been forced to vote for an ugly fringe party in order to achieve economic sanity. I am not sure that liberal democracy has the emotional resonance required to resist this.

Let's look at this way. The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama was published in 1992. The thesis of the book was that Western liberal democracy had won: it was the endpoint of human political evolution. Of course, people said, we're not really at the end of history. But did they imagine that the pillars of Western liberal democracy would be so devoid of supporters within the space of one generation?

Free trade? Here's this week's Economist: "It is hard to imagine ... a leading Western politician being lauded for a defence of free trade. Neither candidate in America’s presidential election is a champion." And that's in the Land of the Free. On this side of the Atlantic, do you remember all those people marching down the streets in favour of TTIP or the EU's free-trade agreement with Canada? Nope, me neither.

Free speech? Take your pick: no-platforming, hate speech laws, you name it. Here are just a couple of straws in the wind.
- 4 years before Fukuyama's book (and just one year before the article on which it was based), The Satanic Verses was published. It was a 1988 Booker Prize finalist and won the 1988 Whitbread Award. You may recall that it caused some controversy and that the Establishment stood up to defend Salman Rushdie. Last year, however, cinemas refused to show an advert in which a carefully-diverse set of people take turns saying the Lord's Prayer. You may have more difficulty recalling that controversy.
- Here's another example: "A freshman tentatively raises her hand and takes the microphone. “I’m really scared to ask this,” she begins. “When I, as a white female, listen to music that uses the N word, and I’m in the car, or, especially when I’m with all white friends, is it O.K. to sing along?” // The answer, from Sheree Marlowe, the new chief diversity officer at Clark University, is an unequivocal “no.”" She's not as scared as Salman Rushdie was, I'm sure. But the people she is scared of are much closer to home.

Democracy? Here's that voice of sanity, Martin Wolf in the FT, saying, "Under a President Trump, democracy would lose credibility as a model for a civilised political life". So it seems we're just one bad election in one country away from the final discrediting of democracy.

Oh well. Liberal democracy has had a good run. My guess is that the history books will rank it up there with the Roman Empire, so that's not too bad, is it?

Monday, 3 October 2016

A disaster in the making

Sir Paul Collier CBE is professor of economics and public policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. From 1998 until 2003 he was the director of the Development Research Group of the World Bank. In 2010 and 2011, he was named by Foreign Policy magazine to its list of top global thinkers. Collier currently serves on the advisory board of Academics Stand Against Poverty.

Why am I telling you this? Just to let you know that Collier has mainstream liberal views and knows what he is talking about.

What he is talking about on this occasion (here in the TLS) is the euro. Specifically, he is reviewing the recent book by Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel Prize winner in Economics, worked for Bill Clinton, also knows what he is talking about) on the subject. You should read the review.

Stiglitz says that the euro is - as mainstream economics always said it would be - a disaster. And he turns his well-intentioned, mainstream, liberal thinking mind to the question of how to resolve the situation.

Plan A is to save the euro by (in essence) turning the eurozone into one country, like the USA. But this isn't going to work for practical reasons so there will have to be a divorce.  Stiglitz and Collier have some clever-clever ideas for how to get an amicable divorce going. But there are political difficulties with that Plan B too.

All of this is sensible, mainstream, liberal, etc thinking. But it leads to this sentence: "Divorce is likely, but it will most probably happen when a fringe party of some varying shade of ugliness wins an election." Which means that we started with mainstream liberal sensible people thinking about the euro, and by a series of sensible steps, thinking about how things are in the real world, we have ended up saying that the solution to the problem of the euro - the central economic problem of Europe - is to elect a far-right party. So don't be surprised when that happens.

My own view is that there is more life in Plan A than Stiglitz/Collier think. After all, sensible people would never have started in the euro in the first place, and the people in charge of the euro have enough power to take steps to avoid themselves looking stupid for some time to come. But that will only make the "fringe party of some varying shade of ugliness" all the more ugly when it finally arrives.