Taking the government to court (again) over Brexit

Gina Miller has said she’d take the new Prime Minister to court if he tries to prorogue parliament, so it can’t debate or vote, to stop it blocking a “no deal” Brexit. The backlash says a lot about the dangerous forces that have been unleashed.

Proroguing parliament for political reasons didn’t work out well for Charles I

In the normal course of events, there is a Queen’s Speech at the start of each parlia­mentary session, and a prorogation at the end.

But there is a more extreme precedent: an unpliant parliament led to Charles I doing this. It produced a period of “personal rule” (1629–1640) — fuelling the resentments that led to civil war and his own execution.

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Police called to the home of Boris Johnson: a Trump moment?

Both Johnson and Trump seem to continue despite scandals that would end most politicians’ careers. What does this tell us about where we are at the moment?

Boris Johnson and Donald Trump

The news that the Police were called to the flat Boris Johnson shares with Carrie Symonds is (rightly) raising eyebrows.

At the time of writing this post I don’t know whether the Police will bring charges against Johnson, so we don’t know whether this should be heard as actual domestic violence, or simply a nasty row.

What’s striking is the contrast between this and the anger generated by the news of Mark Field MP “grabbing a woman by the throat” — actually a climate change protester at dinner where Philip Hammond was speaking. He’s been subject to censure and suspended as a minister, pending investigation. The implication is that it’s considered unacceptable for a junior minister to manhandle a woman who (rightly or wrongly) he perceived to be a threat, but acceptable for someone who is the front-runner to become Prime Minister to act towards his partner in a way that leads to the police being called.

My mind jumps from this to the host of allegations of sexual mis-conduct made against Donald Trump. Continue reading “Police called to the home of Boris Johnson: a Trump moment?”

Shadow and Theresa May’s downfall

Perhaps Theresa May’s downfall was an inevitable tragedy. Jung’s idea of shadow offers a way to think about her impossible role.

The shadows one doesn’t see

Carl Gustav Jung coined the term “shadow” to draw together the things of ourselves we carry but are not aware of.

That could be read as another way to think of the unconscious, but it fits with Jung’s idea that the path to becoming a more integrated self is to seek to work with the unconscious rather than seeing it as sinister. Dreams, free associations, jokes and “Freudian slips” offer some insight into that world, but Jung’s point is that this is something we carry even when we don’t notice it — like our shadows. Whenever there is light, our bodies cast shadows, even without our awareness. Many people have had the experience of taking a photograph and concentrating so much on what they were photographing that they fail to realise that their own shadow is also in the photo, as if it is so familiar that it is not noticed.

In calling this “shadow” he’s naming the fact that this is often in things we see as bad — though it’s sometimes also there it what we see as almost-excessively positive — in the people and causes we idealise. Inner work is needed to engage with this, so that it doesn’t come to dominate without being noticed. Jung phrased it that “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
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Notre Dame fire: reactions showing how European we are

I reacted strongly to the fire at Notre Dame. In the complex emotions there’s something around identifying with a national symbol of another European nation, which seems to be around reacting as European. This is a taste of the more complex sense of national belonging that’s now emerging on both sides of the Brexit debate.

Notre Dame fire: showing us as more European than we realise

At one level, I’ve a lot of sympathy with Dr Johnson’s description of patriotism as “the last refuge of the scoundrel”. The increasing use of both the Union Flag and the Cross of St George by the far right means I’ve come to associate both with an extremism with which I am not comfortable. If someone waves either flag to justify the mis-treatment of ethnic minorities, my instinct is to be on the side of the minorities.

But this isn’t the whole story. Identity — including identification with country — are really complex and multi-layered. “National identity” has become blurred, and in the blurring there are real surprises as well as dangers. Continue reading “Notre Dame fire: reactions showing how European we are”

Dangerous support for a “strong leader”

Recent research from the Hansard Society shows a majority of Britons favouring a “strong leader who would break the rules”. This is a dangerous next step in the saga of Brexit.

Dangerously popular

The Hansard Society’s recent 2019 Audit of Political Engagement shows “54% say Britain needs a strong leader who is willing to break the rules”.

That research was done towards the end of 2018: it seems a fair guess that the present state of shambles around Brexit will have seen that number going up since then.

The Guardian coverage of this report on 8 April highlights the sense of concern: it was entitled “UK poised to embrace authoritarianism, warns Hansard Society”, with a subtitle “Public attitudes emerge that ‘challenge core tenets of our democracy’, says report”.

This connects with something I blogged recently about the Brexit saga in terms of failed dependency — of the raw emotions exposed when the sense of failed dependency. A very natural response is to seek a leader who can be trusted (or gives the impression that they can).

The Audit of Political Engagement also shows people thinking the government shouldn’t have to worry so much about votes in parliament, that more important decisions should go to referenda, puts public trust in MPs even lower than it was in the expenses scandal, and says 74% trust the military to act in the public interest, but only 34% say the same of MPs (and 29% say it of political parties). On top of this, it adds that 50% say the main political parties don’t care about people like them, 63% say “the system” is rigged to help the rich and powerful and the proportion who don’t think that political engagement can change the way the UK is run has hit a 15 year high.

That’s a heady cocktail. Like the scepticism around MPs, referenda assume we can’t trust parliament — it shifts the decision from politicians expected to find out facts and deliberate with each other to find a way forward with broad consent, to people coming to positions without the facts or the deliberation. That’s dangerous: lots of people would be tempted to vote “yes” to lower taxes and “yes” to more money for the NHS, but those two contradict and it takes information and deliberation to reconcile them. Continue reading “Dangerous support for a “strong leader””

The chaos around Brexit in terms of Earl Hopper’s Fourth Basic Assumption

A corner of group relations theory, Earl Hopper’s “Fourth basic assumption” might offer a way to think about the turmoil around Brexit, as indicating an extreme anxiety arising from failed dependency

In the background is an idea from Wilfred Bion, that groups sometimes behave as if everyone has agreed to act in a particular way, but without there having been any discussion. His suggestion is that this reflects something happening at an unconscious level in the group. He coined the term “basic assumptions”, and named three common ones — that the group has become dependent on someone acting as “leader”, or has mobilised two people to work on its behalf as a conversation in a pair, or that it’s gone into a fight-flight mode. In the context of management, these ideas are useful as they can shed light on what’s going on when a group has gone from what it thinks it is trying to do, and there’s a sense of “something” getting in the way.

Earl Hopper’s fourth basic assumption

Other thinkers have observed other basic assumptions. Earl Hopper named a “fourth basic assumption”, with the moderately incomprehensible name “basic assumption incoherence, aggregation/massification” to indicate a situation where things have become very broken.

He joined together two things others had observed. One is called “basic assumption me-ness” to describe a situation where individuals feel sufficiently uncomfortable to mean they act as if the group doesn’t exist. This goes beyond “is the group trustworthy?” or “how do I find my place in the group?” to extreme withdrawl. It was first named in working with Roman Catholic monks and nuns after Vatican II: the point was that, faced with huge changes in their world, some were reacting by extreme withdrawl.

The other is “basic assumption one-ness”, describing a situation where people in the group act as if it is met for some higher transcendent purpose. Sometimes religion makes sense in these terms.

Hopper’s point was that both of these involve not engaging with the group. The sense is that the group has become an unsafe place, so people are disengaging at a very visceral level. Others have extended this to suggest this is visceral, gut-level stuff, that barely gets near conscious thought.

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Why are some people (wrongly) claiming petition to retract Article 50 notice has been fiddled?

A petition for Britain to revoke the Article 50 notice has gone viral, but supporters of Leave are claiming foreign interference (despite the fact that you have to sign from a UK postcode). This seems a snapshot of how fake news circulates because it fits with what people need to be true, rather than what is.

On the evening of Wednesday 20 March (2019), Theresa May gave a televised address which went down badly. Immediately after a petition on the government web site started to gather support, as if in reaction. As it headed towards 100,000 signatures someone pointed out that there was a petition in favour of a hard Brexit with nearly 400,000 signatures and suggested people shouldn’t be complacent. They needn’t have worried. In less than 24 hours it gained over 1,200,000 signatures, becoming the most-signed petition on the Parliament petitions web site and causing the site itself to crash repeatedly, struggling to cope with its highest-ever rate of signing.

The sense is of a huge surge of energy in favour of cancelling the Article 50 notice. As this can only be done “in good faith”, and not simply to buy more time before being re-issued, this would stop the Brexit process for the forseeable future.

A pro-Brexit response: fear of outside interference

From the pro-Brexit side things have been muted. Angela Leadsom said she’d only take it seriously if the number of signatories crossed 17.4 million (the number who voted Leave). The Daily Express headline that “Petition to CANCEL Brexit hits 1 MILLION signatures as Luvvies declare ‘national emergency’”, adding “ELITIST luvvies Hugh Grant, Annie Lennox and Jennifer Saunders are scrambling to cancel Brexit using a petition that has amassed an eye-watering one million signatures — though Leave voters are questioning its authenticity.”

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Projecting imperialist fantasies onto Europe

There’s a wild — and delusional — optimism at the heart of the fantasy of a hard Brexit and trading on World Trade Organisation rules. The idea of “lots of trade deals” has been dubbed “British Empire 2.0”. What binds these together is people dealing with the awkward legacy of empire by projecting the negative emotions onto the EU and fantasising that we can capture the imagined glory of empire again.

The problem now is unresolved things from the past being worked out in the present, with the UK seeing its own imperialist tendencies in the EU, rather than acknowledging them, chasing an ill-conceived flight of fancy that tries to recapture the past without recognising its shadow, doing real damage in the present and even more serious damage to our future.

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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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Rex Tillerson: a veiled attack on Trump, and a cultural problem

Speaking at the Virginia Military Academy commencement, former Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson’s comments on truth have been heard as a not-so veiled criticism of Donald Trump’s questionable grip on truth and the corrosive effects of that on democracy. Tillerson is right, but he also highlights a very Western approach, which is becoming a big part of the problem.

Rex Tillerson, former US Secretary of State

Tillerson’s words

come across as wise and measured. He speaks of technology, of the need for truth, and for the protection of freedom of speech. He also speaks of globalisation and the changes it is bringing.

The crux of his comments on truth is the much-quoted phrase “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”. But that quote comes from St John’s gospel. It is both a statement on freedom, and something deeply rooted in the Christian heritage of the West.

Tillerson goes on to talk about “allies who share our values” and others. Inadvertently, he highlights one of the key anxieties of globalisation. Freedom and truth are good things. Christianity is also the bedrock of Western society. But, despite the West’s now-complex relationship with its Christian heritage, religion is part of a “double inscription”: on the one hand, it shapes the way we view the world, and our experience of the world shapes our religion. It is extremely hard to step outside this. Even Westerners who reject Christianity tend to get up in the Christianity they are rejecting (or its mirror image).

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False allegations against Jeremy Corbyn: chaos as things shift on Brexit

On 26 February, Jeremy Corbyn gave a speech saying that Labour favoured remaining in customs union with the EU. The week leading up to that was dominated by said an absurd, untrue, and ultimately retracted, allegation that he had spied for Czechoslovakia. It seems like a testing of absurdity on the way to a wise position on Europe.

In the foreground was the media storm which ended with Jeremy Corbyn winning an apology and payout from Tory MP Ben Bradley over his “Wholly untrue communist spy tweet”.

Andrew Neil’s brilliant interview with Steve Baker MP, demonstrates the ridiculousness of the allegations.

This is so absurd that the question it raises is “Why on earth did anyone believe it?”

In the middle of the storm, one comment caught my ear — Jeremy Corbyn saying that he had spoken with Czech diplomats because he wanted to hear both sides in the Cold War. An individual backbench MP won’t have had a huge effect, but advocating peace rather than war, and talking with the other side rather than demonising them, sounds like the conduct of a wise statesman.

So, why has this story blown up now? There is a political answer, and a below-the-surface one.

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A snapshot of the chaos of Brexit

A few months after the referendum I gave a conference paper where I suggested that Europe has been so important to the UK for so long that the referendum and its result had had a profound effect on the British political system, leaving it struggling to cope. The week of the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos has provided a striking example of this.

The systemic problem

In the background of that paper was the thought that stable systems need some form of containment. That applies at lots of levels, from a small child feeling safe in the containment of its mother’s arms, through to people feeling an anxiety over immigration feeling the need for a country’s borders to be enforced to make them feel safe. Containment is particularly important when people feel vulnerable. It can be about actual physical needs, but is much more about managing anxiety. Some of this will seem irrational, but it makes sense if it is thought of as managing anxieties that are hard to express. Immigration is a good example because the economic evidence that it helps the economy, boosts living standards and doesn’t cost people their jobs doesn’t communicate at the same level as the raw emotional fears in people for whom life is uncomfortably fragile.
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