Thursday, June 09, 2016

Plebiscites: poisoning the well of democracy

This referendum is the worst thing in British politics since, well, the last one.  Favouring Remain as I do, I am as dismayed as anyone else at the sort of lines we are being fed.  Today, for example, a Brexit leaflet posted through my letter box gave a short geography lesson pointing out both the population of Turkey and (lifting a sledge-hammer to reinforce the message) the fact that they share a border with Syria and Iraq.  As someone else remarked in a different context, this doesn't count as dog whistle politics - because you can't hear a dog whistle.

That this is pretty appalling demagogy is a view shared by a great many people, in my experience - but rather fewer have been making the point that such as this is an inevitable result of our recent indulgence of plebiscitary democracy.  Here if I could use Paul Evans' post from a few years ago to as a base point and elaborate one point he sort of mentioned and introduce another that he didn't.

The view I know Paul shares with me is that referendums present the electorate with a binary choice - it's all or nothing, you're either with us or you're against us.  But in reality, these choices do no justice to the actual situation.  This was the case both in the independence referendum of 2014 and in this forthcoming EU plebiscite.  In Scotland, the fact of the matter was - and is - that Yes Scotland and the SNP were arguing not for independence but, what with the desire to retain a common border and the frankly belligerent and childish insistence that London continue to run Scotland's monetary policy, for the continuation of the UK in a different, diluted form.  'Independence in the UK', if you like.  And among those of us on the 'No' side, only a few eccentrics seriously imagined that the devolution settlement of 1999 was something that could be dismantled.

The same is true of the EU.  One of the lines from the Leave side that I am getting a little tired of is the suggestion that those of us who think there would be serious economic consequences from a Brexit are the same as those who warned of the deleterious effects of not joining the single currency.  It is true that some took this view but not all of us did.  I didn't, as people who have known me a long time will testify - but a significant player who also happened to share my view was Her Majesty's government.  Can this really have escaped the attention of our zealous Brexiteers?  It was the position of the Conservative government under John Major - one that was maintained by Blair and Brown.  

But what strikes me as a more important defect with plebiscites that Paul doesn't mention is they simply don't work.  They are sold to us as a mechanism for settling an issue 'once and for all'.  The supposedly decisive and permanent nature of these plebiscitary exercises was used in Scotland to mobilise voters.  "Get out and vote!" we were told because it was a "once in a lifetime opportunity". How very short a lifetime turned out to be - and the aftermath of the European referendum is shaping up to be as dismal and petulant as it has been in Scotland.  The voter registration deadline has been extended in response to a technical problem.  This might be grounds for a legal challenge, we are told - although only if the result is unfavourable, naturally.  The same has been said if the Remain margin is not large enough.  It's all so predictable because the most obvious defect of referendums is that the people on the losing side don't accept the result - whether that be the Irish government, the Quebecois, the Scottish nationalists or the Brexiteers.  It is maybe too obvious a point to make but since this is self-evidently the case, what exactly is the point of having them?  There are many arguments about whether and to what extent plebiscites are a properly 'democratic' or 'deliberative' way of deciding matters, which perhaps distracts us from the nose-bleedingly obvious point: referendums don't even count as a way of deciding matters at all.  

It is this simple observable fact that makes me even more convinced than I was already that plebiscites are poisoning the well of our democracy.  What effect do we think all this is having - when they are presented as the very acme of democracy - yet it is more than occasionally the case that the people involved in them refuse point blank to accept the 'verdict of the people' that they have just spent an arduous and ill-tempered debate claiming to represent?  Plebiscites: absolutely don't do what they do on the tin - so after this one is done, let's not do them anymore.

Monday, April 18, 2016

A short note on the perils of political predictions

When confronted with the prospect of an event that many would regard as both undesirable and unlikely, there is a tendency for some political journalists and academics to remind us of that old adage that everything must pass: human institutions are not necessarily eternal or even as enduring as people often assume.  The purpose of this is to either shake us from our complacency or to accept that the zeitgeist has dispensed with the services of the particular institution we may have affection for - depending on the political prejudices of the author.  

Most recently, this sort of reasoning has been applied to the fortunes of the Labour party in the UK, the continued existence of the UK, now Britain's membership of the EU and more generally the survival of the European project itself.  It is undoubtedly useful to be reminded of how few people saw epoch-making events coming before they arrived.  History is littered with these - but the biggest and most obvious in living memory is the collapse of the Soviet Union, something I often wonder if the left has really come to terms with.  More recently, of course, was the banking crisis.

However, hasn't there been a tendency to over-compensate for these prophetic failures (if that is what they are)?  Everyone agrees making political predictions is a mug's game but almost all of us persist in doing it any way so I've been wondering whether and to what extent there has been in British and European politics in recent times a tendency to underestimate the endurance and resilience of institutions?  For example, in my lifetime this has been most commonly - and most plausibly - applied to political parties.  Why shouldn't the fate of the Liberal party in the 20th century also befall either the Conservatives or Labour?  No reason, really - but they're both still here.  I'm pretty sure I've suggested this might be the case with the Conservatives, prior to 2015 that is.  They hadn't won a majority since 1992, after all.  But they've got one now.  

If this is often wrong, how much more likely is it to be so when applied to nation-states and the international arrangements to which they belong?  Most recently we've had the Scottish referendum during which we were told the whole rotten house was on the brink of collapse.  There are some who still think it's hanging by a thread but I thought then and still conclude that those who think that dismantling a state that is older than the American republic is an easy matter might want to reconsider their position.  It hasn't, after all, even been true of (and apologies in advance for any offence at the use of this term) those states that were 'made-up' after the Great War.  Czechoslovakia is gone and so is Yugoslavia but the genuinely fractured and war-torn constructions of Iraq and Syria are still with us, despite a variety of pundits talking about partition as if it were a 'no-brainer' and I'm wondering if the significance of this hasn't been rather overlooked?  

I'm not sure where the prospect of a 'Brexit' fits into this.  Historically the EU is a relatively recent project - but the European conflicts from which it was born are not.  On the other hand, surely among the reasons that the European project has run into problems recently is the unwillingness of Europeans to completely dispense with borders when it comes to the business of the movement of fiscal transfer and human beings?  I don't know but at the moment I'm inclined to think that there's rather a lot of people who are seriously underestimating the amount of historical political capital that is invested in a number of British and European institutions.  Following the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon we had the Vienna Settlement of 1815 and Europe still has enduring monarchies - so in the spirit of agreeing that making political predictions is unwise but we all make them anyway, I'll predict the following: Britain will say no to Brexit; the EU will survive and so will the Euro; the UK will endure, even if there's another referendum in Scotland; and the British Labour party will survive Jeremy Corbyn's leadership.  Strange eruptions can and do happen in European history but, at the moment anyway, I'm thinking they aren't as easy nor as common as many people seem to assume.


Thursday, December 03, 2015

Syria and the pessimistic imagination

With RAF airstrikes in Syria now under way, I'm one of those who would have rather preferred that Parliament hadn't voted in favour of this last night.  Of the reasons for taking this view I make no claims for originality.  Like others I think saying 'something must be done' with regards to ISIS is not good enough - there has to be a reasonable chance of success and, while I may easily be wrong, I don't think this military action meets that criterion.  The cliché that no war can be won from the air doesn't really take proper account of how Japan was defeated in the Second World War but assuming everyone thinks the immolation of entire cities is unacceptable, it is indeed right to say we need 'boots on the ground'.  Given that a Western land-invasion is both out of the question and undesirable, these would have to be local region players.  Here I share the scepticism of many about Cameron's claim that there are 70,000 'moderate fighters' prepared to take on ISIS.  Unlike some, I don't claim to know for certain that they don't exist or that they aren't all that moderate - although I suspect both claims are largely true.  But what I do know is they aren't our fighters prepared to do our bidding and even if they were, this number of troops just is not enough to stabilise the country.

I am not a pacifist so if I thought this action would do anything to 'make us safer' or help stem the heart-breaking human stampede from the region, I would back it but at the moment I don't.  A number of people supporting this military action have said to me personally that 'things can't get any worse than this'.  This has to one of the most over-used phrases in the English language and relates to the title of this post.  What we have is a regional conflict with the Assad regime backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah on one side; Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing the Sunni insurgents on the other.  On top of this we have the United States and France air power.  The Assad military - depleted though it undoubtedly is - is still the largest functioning military force in the country.  It cannot win the war but now it is backed by Russian air-power, it can't lose.  Without it, the only other force capable of winning is ISIS and its affiliates.  Among the many problems the American have is that they don't want either side to win but are not - thank goodness - willing to countenance a military confrontation with both sides.  It is this horrible situation that we have been drawn into and one would have thought the dangers of this escalating into something wider and very much worse should be obvious.

It is here I would really have to object to the question, "So, what's your plan?"  I haven't got one.  I'm a middle aged history teacher struggling even to remember the names of the various factions involved in this conflict.  I don't know how to sort out the Middle East but I'm not sure I'm prepared to accept that people who can't answer basic questions like, "Whose side are we supposed to be on?" know either.  Not having a 'plan' doesn't mean I'm obliged to accept any one on offer and here I am thinking we might need to consider the possibility that some of the pro-interventionists and the 'Stop the War' crew are twin sides of a wishful-thinking coin that says this is all about us.  For interventionists, it is about taking appropriate military action; for Corbyn groupies, it is about giving up our evil imperialistic ways and then people will live in harmony.  They seem polar opposites but both imagine it is in our power to do something to resolve this.  What if both are wrong?  What if the failure of the Arab Spring is like the failure of Europe's 1848 revolutions?  Starting dates in history are always arbitrary but what anti-imperialist nationalist then would have imagined that the following century would be mankind's most violent?  I don't mean to be apocalyptic - I have no idea if this is right - but it is surely at least possible that we are not near the end but at the beginning of a conflict that won't be resolved until everyone reading this is dead.  Even if we weren't now, it would be one that we would bound to be involved in one way or another eventually so it surely cannot be absurd to suggest that we might want to consider whether a deeper engagement is absolutely necessary now?

Friday, October 30, 2015

Economics and education

"Most of us have long lamented the general public's lack of understanding of economics", writes Chris Dillow - before linking to a study suggesting that it is the under-development of the average human brain that lies at the core of the problem. This is exacerbated by politicians who have a vested interest in reinforcing misconceptions, such as the the notion that a nation's finances are like a household budget. I really like Chris's writing but this isn't very helpful. If you want to assume people don't get economics because they aren't able, go ahead - but I'd suggest the reason is more straightforward: they don't get it because nobody bothers to explain it to them properly. Two points here:

 1) It isn't taught in schools very widely. In Scotland it is possible to do it as a certificate subject but not only is it not compulsory, hardly any schools do it at all. I'm not sure what the situation is in England except to say that I do know it doesn't form part of the core curriculum either. Given that this is unlikely to change, not least because there isn't really anyone demanding things be otherwise, any economics education would have to come from somewhere else. Chris probably rightly rules out politicians and the MSM here, which leaves only 'public economists'. But there's a significant problem here...

 2) 'Public economists' are a rather other-worldy bunch who really need to learn the humility of a good teacher. The bad teacher assumes that the reason the class hasn't followed what he or she is saying is because they're just plain stupid. Well, they may well be - but the good teacher at least allows for the possibility that perhaps the reason the class hasn't grasped the curriculum is because it hasn't been explained to them very well.  How many public economists are good teachers in this sense?  I'd suggest not many.  There are quite a few who I won't name but are the sort of people who spend an inordinate amount of time on social media complaining, or crowing, about how unbelievably thick people who disagree with them are.

Take, for example, the idea that the government's finances are like a household budget.  This is obviously wrong.  "When I find money is tight, I just print some more".  You can't because you don't have a currency-issuing central bank in your living room.  But economists, like good teachers, should use bad analogies, work with them - and then explain why they are wrong later when understanding has developed, rather than dismissing those who use them as thickos.  Why, for example, are there so few economists (are there any?) pointing out that many of those who claim to be "living within their means" have debt in the form of mortgages that are often easily in excess of two and a half times their annual income?  And why is there no 'anti-austerity' politician making the point that when Britain emerged from the Second World War with a national debt roughly around this proportion, the government built the NHS from the ground?  Why is there no-one to say that what this present government is effectively saying is that, "Sorry kids but Christmas is cancelled this year because we're making it a priority to pay off the mortgage earlier than we have to."?

More generally, why are there absolutely no anti-austerity politicians in the British Isles, even among those who say they are?  Corbyn isn't against austerity - he just want different people to do it.  The SNP aren't either.  They actually practice austerity in the form of budget under-spends while complaining that it's the rest of the UK that should be doing the more elastic fiscal policy.  The failure is pretty comprehensive and I blame the teachers - or rather the economists that should be teachers but have for whatever reasons failed in their responsibility.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Milne on the USSR

Like many, I thought Corbyn's decision to appoint Seamus Milne as the Labour Party's director of communications was a bad one - for me primarily because it looks like the consolidation of a faction that makes winning an election even more unlikely than it did before, rather than anything to do with his views on history.  However, following a conversation on Twitter, it is his views on history, specifically that of the Soviet Union, that this concerns.

What it relates to is the objection to the epithet 'Stalinist' to describe this journalist's views on the 'Red Terror' on the grounds that all he has insisted on is that Hitler was worse than Stalin and that attempts to equate them is a distortion of history.  The purpose of this short post is really just to explain why I don't agree that this is all he was doing.  If it was, I would find a fair bit of common ground.  That Hitler was worse than Stalin is something I agree with without equivocation and would also agree that, in as far as the Second World War is now seen by some as two totalitarianisms slugging it out on the Eastern Front, this represents a (very) vulgar interpretation of  the 'totalitarian thesis'.  (Although I think the tendency he describes is rather more commonly found among journalists than proper historians.)

There are a number of fairly well-known objections to the thesis.  Among these is that it is a static concept that cannot properly deal with what happens when some supposedly 'totalitarian' regimes succumb to the forces of routinisation.  Is it really satisfactory, for example, to describe Brezhnev's USSR as 'post-totalitarian'?  Then there's the fact that the total control of these regimes has purported to have attempted has never really been a historical reality.  Should we then describe 'totalitarianism' as an aspiration?  I'm not sure that makes much sense.  But my principle objection to the equation of Hitler and Stalin under this category is that it doesn't even properly use the concept as it was originally stated.   The thesis holds that 'totalitarian' regimes have more in common than separates them, not that they were the same thing.  The notion that Stalin was at least as bad as Hitler because he killed more people is a vulgarisation of this.  I do agree with Milne that this simple-minded interpretation does indeed seem to have gained an unjustified currency and I also agree that it shouldn't, not least because it is simply wrong.  Hitler and not Stalin started a war that led to at least 50 million dead and it is indeed right to remember that among these are included around 20 million Soviet deaths, including some three million Red Army POWs.

That Hitler was worse than Stalin is not a controversial view in my world but the objection to Milne is that it seems to me that he goes some way beyond that.  Churchill also took this view but could anyone seriously argue that you couldn't put a fag-paper between his and Milne's view of Soviet Communism?  One objection is that Milne seems to accept the vulgar terms of the debate and has produced in the past something even more vulgar.  The linked piece was from 1990.  The following year, evidence from the Soviet archives tended to suggest that Conquest's 20 million figure was more likely to be accurate than the 3.5 million he suggests.  I didn't get the impression from some of his post 1991 articles that he has taken this on board at all.  I don't think it is unreasonable to suggest that he has shown a tendency to down-play Stalin's crimes and he also seems to have an unfortunate habit of juxta-positioning this with acknowledging the USSR's considerable industrial modernisation under Stalin.  This is obviously a fact of economic history but the context in which this observation is made - and without noting the horrendous human cost of this - should, I think, make people uncomfortable.

Is it unfair to dub Milne 'Stalinist' for this?  I'm prepared to accept I could easily be wrong about this but I don't think it is.  Put it another way, if a similar process was applied to the Third Reich with someone suggesting that Hitler didn't kill as many people as is generally assumed whilst simultaneously inviting us to recognise he build some awesome roads, I don't think many people would have any difficulty in recognising that for what it was.

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