Looking beyond Brexit — to help us escape Brexit

I am one of many Liberal Democrats who sees Brexit as a slowly-unfolding disaster, with no conceivable upside. There is every reason to oppose it. In that comment is an implied vision for the future — much less attractive if Brexit actually happens — but it doesn’t reach the same spot as Brexiteers with bright images of what’s in store (albeit detached from reality), or Corbynistas whose optimism would run aground on the harsh realities of a Brexit-induced recession. But there is real hope for what is in view on the other side of a People’s Vote choosing, after all, to remain in the EU.

On the People’s Vote march, September 2018

The preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution is a good place to start — we “exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.

This is not about a narrowly party-political agenda. It is about embracing the bright future on offer to a Britain at the heart of the EU, which we are in danger of failing to grasp, but gets in touch with the vision that took us in and has enabled us to make a real contribution — not least to bringing about the Single Market.

Putting some flesh on those bones, in no particular order:

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Xenophobia and Brexit (again)

Early in December there was a revealing juxtaposition in my media feeds. There was a story by Matthew d’Ancona in The GuardianLet’s be honest about what’s really driving Brexit: bigotry”, and the Daily Mail inadvertently providing evidence.

Protest in Newcastle soon after Referendum result
The Guardian piece put a persuasive case for seeing bigotry at the heart of the support for Brexit. It is persuasive but not totally compelling, in that I know people who voted Leave out of a sense of alienation or wanting to waive two fingers at politicians, and others who voted Leave because life has been very tough and they felt that “something has to change” — without thinking too closely of the possibility of things changing for the worse.

And the Daily Mail ran one story appealing for volunteers to help in the NHS, and another proudly proclaiming that 11,000 people had come forward.

What’s intriguing about the Daily Mail story is that the claim has been that “immigrants are taking our jobs”. Though the reality is that immigrants also boost the economy and therefore create jobs, this has been a real fear. But Brexit is leading to staff shortages in the NHS, and the Daily Mail is proud of people volunteering to plug the gap, then something else is going on. Volunteers are not paid. The Daily Mail initiative has turned “immigrants taking our jobs”, which sounds like an economic argument, into “we should be prepared to work for nothing”, as a price (apparently) gladly-paid for getting rid of foreigners.

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Brexit as an attack by the wealthy on the rest

Two years ago I wrote an article suggesting that Brexit makes sense as a new “class war” — in this case an attack by the rich on the rest. The details have changed, but the suspicion persists.

Shortly before Christmas, Dominic Raab made the extraordinary suggestion that we might crash out of the EU on a hard Brexit, not pay the agreed £39Bn settlement, and use that money instead on tax cuts for business. A friend acidly — and rightly — suggested that, when more and more people are needing food banks, and there seems to be an explosion in the numbers sleeping rough, there might be other uses for that money. Her point was underscored by the death of homeless person just outside the Palace of Westminster later the same day.

As a point of fact: if the UK fails to honour what has been agreed, then why would any foreign government trust us? This money is not a sweetener: it is honouring commitments the UK government has already given. If foreign governments can’t trust us, how on earth are the promised “trade deals” to be negotiated?

And the idea of “trickle down”, where money given to the rich somehow boosts everyone has been seriously challenged. The perception is that it instead widens the gap between rich and poor in a way that fuels social tension.

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Demography undermining the legitimacy of the 2016 referendum

Support for Remain was hightest among young voters and lowest amongst elderly in 2016. Young people coming onto the register and older voters dying is gradually changing the balance. Even if nothing else changes, these demographic changes will remove the majority for Leave towards the end of 2019. This erosion of the legitimacy of the 2016 vote is a strong argument for a People’s Vote.

Support for Remain was highest among young voters and lowest amongst the elderly in the 2016 referendum. Young people coming onto the register and older voters dying is gradually changing the balance. It will take only a few years to reverse the result. In among all the reasons for a People’s Vote, this erosion of the legitimacy of the 2016 vote is a powerful reason to ask voters again.

There’s been lots of discussion of whether the 2016 referendum result makes sense as “the will of the people”. Much of that has centred on lies from the Leave campaign, their apparent bending of election law and the possibility of Russian interference. But YouGov found that 71% of those under 24 who voted, voted for Remain, where among the over 65s that figure falls to 36%. The implication is that, even if no-one changes their mind and there’s no change in voter participation, Remain will be ahead of Leave by the end of 2019.

Writing soon after the referendum, David Howarth asked if it is reasonable for the elderly to bind the young like this.

In May 2018 The Express took up the story, and also naming serious concern over the long term legitimacy of the result.

The numbers

The poll in 2016 simply records the numbers voting Remain and Leave. Various organisations undertook polls soon after the referendum in which they asked people whether they voted, and if so, how. For the purposes of this post, I am drawing on a YouGov poll, offering some fine-grained data. I’m making four assumptions:

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The People’s Vote is not in the bag, alas

A People’s Vote is looking increasingly likely, but it’s outcome is not in the bag, especially if there are three options.

People’s Vote March, September 2018

There’s a warning in a comment from Gina Miller: “We discovered that a vast swathe of people who would vote for no deal across the country would do so because their perception is that no deal means remaining”.

As a strong supporter of full EU membership, the danger is that I seize on every opinion poll that suggests Remain would win in a People’s Vote. But the polls are still uncomfortably close: Remain is ahead almost everywhere, but not by nearly enough. The tracking at whatukthinks.org shows Remain on 36%, Leave on 33% and “don’t know” at 31%. That’s too close. Over at BrexitCentral numbers are being quoted that show Leave in a strong position. My twitter feed showed a BMG poll putting Remain at 52% and Leave at 40%, with the gap widening, but BMG also have a more fine-grained poll showing 51% against a second referendum, and “Canada Plus” as the preferred option for all age groups except those under 34.

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Speech to East Herts and Broxbourne Liberal Democrats AGM 21 November 2018

Speaking about achievements in the last year, particularly Sophie Bell’s victory in the Watton-at-Stone by election, and the fast-moving situation around Brexit.

Mark Argent

It feels as if we are in a very different place from this time last year. Sophie Bell’s super victory in the Watton-at-Stone by election means there is now an oppostion party on East Herts District Council. In Sawbridgeworth, Annelise Berendt Furnace has been doing a brilliant job on the Town Council. Seeing what she’s done in that role, the people of Sawbridgeworth would be daft not to elect her to the District Council in May. The action day in support of David Payne in Goffs Oak on Saturday is another step along the way — in the last elections there we’d gone from fourth to second and are working hard to go further. I won’t be at that action day — instead I’ll be with the people canvassing as part of Terence Becket’s campaign in the by election in Meads ward, Bishop’s Stortford — another place where we have a real prospect. Plans are coming along well for the District Council elections in May.

Help is needed for all of these — you can sign up to volunteer or to donate via the “contact” section of Hertford and Stortford Liberal Democrats web site.

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What madness is this? Approval of Brexit deal soon after Armistice day.

The European Council has approved the Brexit settlement. Coming so soon after its members were at the ceremonies marking the anniversary of the end of the Great War, this should cause people to stop and think.

What Madness is this?

Today’s meeting of the European Council (25 November 2018) endorsed the EU withdraw agreement. In the words of European Commission President, Jean Claude Junker:

 

“To leave the European Union is not a moment of jubilation. It is a moment of deep sadness.”

 

“There are no smooth divorces.”

 


It is a day to weep.

With its characteristic professionalism and generosity, the EU has enabled some sort of agreement. Virtuoso work behind the scenes by negotiators means the deal that has been negotiated a lot better than it might be — though still well short of simply staying in the EU.

But it is a day to weep.

It is a fortnight since European leaders gathered to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War — the “Great War”, the “War to end all wars”. The determination to end war in Europe is what called the EU into being.

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Quasi-religious support for Brexit

One of the recurring themes in commentary on support for Brexit is that some of it is “religious”. That offers a way to think about some of the anxieties leading people to support it, even if Brexit itself is not the answer, and would harm more of its supporters than it helps.

Front page of The Sun, 13 June 2016

From the Leave side, Aaron Banks has spoken of “true Brexit” and Nigel Farrage accused Theresa May of “not believing in Brexit” after the General Election. Jacob Rees Mogg has accused other members of the parlimentary committee on Exciting the European Union of being “high priests of Remain”. From the Remain side Rafael Behr has written of the dangers of following the “scriptures of Rees-moggery”, and it’s not unusual to hear support for Brexit dismissed as “religious” when it seems to ignore economic reality.

There are a range of attitudes among Brexit-supporters I’ve spoken with, but the more strident support for Brexit is coming across as having a religious quality.

Some will want to bracket together religion and support for Brexit as irrational, and leave the argument there, but this short-changes both religion and what the support for Brexit. This matters because winning a “People’s Vote” on the terms of Brexit needs some who voted Leave in 2016 to vote the other way, and avoiding the damage that would come from alienating a substantial minority needs a large number of people to change sides. For people to switch sides means they need to feel that their concerns have been heard.

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Brexit through the lens of The Mahabharata

The Hindu epic the Mahabharata belongs to a different age and a different continent to the saga of Brexit. But there’s something in its timelessness and exploration of the complexity of being human that has powerful echoes.

Arjuna, with Krishna as his charioteer in the Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is a complex epic. The snag with producing a quick summary is its richness is in the detail, in the complexity of what happens across generations and extended families, and the interplay of virtue and messy human reality.

Reducing The Mahabharata to a story of the conflict of good and evil makes sense in Western terms, but looses much of the point of it. I first read it in an attempt to get a better understanding of the Hindus in Bali soon after reading a book on Jung’s lectures on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. Jung makes sense of some of Ignatius’ ideas by talking of the devil as the fourth person of the Christian Trinity. His underlying point is that things seem to come on groups of four for humans, raising the question of what’s missing in the Christian concept of the Trinity (God as father son and Holy Spirit). In practical terms of spiritual direction this is a really useful concept because it holds a space for that of God that’s outside people’s conception of God. With more of a psychoanalytic lens, it shifts the dynamic from pushing things away as “evil” or “the devil” in a crudely-dualistic way. One of the fruits of that is to help people own both their limitedness and their capacity for evil, rather than simply to project it onto others who then get labelled as “bad”. Not doing evil things involves owning one’s ability to do just that and choosing not to go there: assuming that evil is what “bad people” do is a recipe for rationalising one’s way into doing appalling things.

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5g and China: a bigger question of sovereignty than the EU

Might Chinese involvement in the new 5g technology represent a bigger loss of sovereignty than anything to do with the EU? Might anxiety over sovereignty and the EU be a displacement of anxiety that belongs elsewhere onto a safe target — with serious consequences?

At the time of negotiation of Chinese investment in the Hinckley C nuclear power station commentators noted that it marked a new and much deeper connection with China. Some went as far as to suggest that, in reality, it marked a transfer of sovereignty far greater than anything associated with the EU, that had passed with barely a comment. Their point was that Chinese control (or near-control) of a major nuclear power station gave them significant influence over key infrastructure. At its crudest: would they shut off our power in event of a war or trade dispute?

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