What responsible opposition is, and what it isn’t… (it’s more than attacking Tories and demanding voting reform)…

It’s not about “getting rid of the Tories” or “changing the voting system”. It is about holding the government to account, and giving a voice to the millions who are unhappy with the way things are going.

There’s a powerful case for voting reform. There’s been a powerful case ever since the Labour party emerged as a force in British politics a century ago because first-past-the-post only makes sense in a two party system.

There’s a great deal to question about the present government. I can understand opposition parties wanting to see it gone. But action is needed now, if there’s a change of government in four years’ time.

At an emotional level the bracketing-together of “opposition”, “getting rid of the Tories” and “voting reform” makes most sense as a reaction against the turbulent time we are in, but makes it harder to achieve each of those three aims.
Continue reading “What responsible opposition is, and what it isn’t… (it’s more than attacking Tories and demanding voting reform)…”

“Getting back” what was never lost: the tragedy and the impossible task

Brexit “gets back” what was never lost — Boris Johnson has set up himself (or his successor) for failure when this becomes obvious. The consequences will be serious.

The vox pops in my social media feed on 31 January sent a shiver down the spine. There were comments on getting back “our freedom” (that we never lost), “our independence” (that we never lost), our “sovereignty” (that we never lost), our “democracy” (that we never lost) and “our industry” (that we have lost, but not because of the EU).

That’s a heady mix. On social media people were quick to lampoon these positions — with good reason — but people are believing them.

Economics

The brutal reality is that these positions show the depth of the failure thinking that has accompanied Brexit. We can’t get back what we never lost. But globalisation is changing the world radically. The real loss of sovereignty and the real limit on what governments can do is nothing to do with the EU, but does come from increased global connectedness.
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General Election 2019: Labour’s failure dressed up as a Tory mandate

The surprise result of the 2019 General Election says more about Labour’s failure than the Conservatives’ success. It’s a mandate for not-Labour rather than an endorsement of the Tories. This is dangerous.

This was an election where Labour promised huge increases in borrowing, championing “the end of austerity” a “green industrial revolution” and a large number of nationalisations. Those with long memories will think of the situation the country was in during the 1970s. It’s a message that caught the idealism of young people. The snag is that it’s an idealism that risked also doing real damage.

On the Conservative side there was the option of Boris Johnson, full of confidence and bravado, promising an unattractive Brexit, avoiding media scrutiny and producing campaign claims which rarely survived the attentions of fact-checkers.
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Repercussions of a sadness around Brexit

The People’s Vote march on 19 October 2019 had a sadness to it — akin to depression — and which should be taken seriously.

People’s Vote march, 19 Oct 2019

A friend commented that she was struck by the sense of sadness. There was also fear, but much less of the carnival-like atmosphere of previous marches. One of the hallmarks of emotions in groups is that, if they affecting the whole group, they are less obvious because people don’t look around and see others in a radically-different space. My friend’s words called my up short, and made me wonder.

Freud’s essay Mourning and Melancholia suggests that the big difference between the two is that, in mourning there is real grieving for something that has been lost, such as after the death of a loved one, but in melancholia, though the sadness is real, but it’s not so clear what has actually been lost. That’s part of the territory of depression.

19 October 2019 was a day of high drama in Parliament — in its first Saturday sitting since the Falklands invasion. The media has been awash with speculation and interpretation — often adding more heat then light. Perhaps that’s justified, but I wonder if it was also a distraction from something much harder to name.

An un-nameable loss

I could point a finger at both the Conservative and Labour parties, suggesting that they’ve both lurched to extremes, leaving many of their traditional supporters with a sense of abandonment. I could point to the serious threat of Brexit, in both economic and cultural terms. But these have all been around for a while. They don’t adequately explain the sadness now.
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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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