Monday, July 27, 2015

Reclaim the centre

There's a post here announcing the apocalypse: "Corbyn is going to win".  Oh nos!  There will be rats - and other stuff that's bad.  It's not that I disagree - albeit for slightly different reasons than some.  Mine are more pragmatic: Corbyn is not going to be able to lead his party, and will struggle to avoid a split, especially if he pitches his lot in with the 'No' crew in the EU referendum.  He certainly isn't going to be Prime Minister.  I have no idea if any of these poll predictions bear any relation to reality but one thing I've been continually thinking during this leadership campaign is, it really doesn't take much to get you designated 'hard left' these days, does it?

I'd have to stress I don't know much about Jeremy Corbyn.  He obviously is the leftwing candidate in some respects.  I have no idea what he thinks about the IRA and Hezbollah but if I bothered to find out, I'm quite sure I probably would disagree.  In other respects, one thought that keeps re-occurring is, how leftwing is Jeremy Corbyn anyway?  Some of his ideas obviously are, like a 75%  higher rate of income tax.  Other ideas like increasing corporation tax are leftwing but strike me as a bit nostalgic for an age when pesky capital didn't move around as much as it does now.  Others I'm not sure.  Getting rid of the monarchy?  Join hands with Rupert Murdoch on that.  Free university tuition fees?  We have this already in Scotland and as a middle-class parent, I would welcome this but maybe for selfish reasons - perhaps making the point that this sort of thing, whether it's a good idea or not, is a hand-out to the median voter.  

But in as far as one can tell, the two positions he holds that are usually given as evidence that a left platform would be popular with voters are nationalisation (specifically of the railways) and an end to 'austerity'.  I would argue that these aren't leftwing policies at all.  Heath nationalised the aircraft bit of Rolls Royce in 1971 and the last Labour government nationalised Northern Rock in 2008.  In recent years, this Conservative government has nationalised schools and our Scottish Government has nationalised the police force.  Here's Peter Hitchens arguing for nationalised railways.  Do we need to provide more evidence that this is an issue that is both a mainstream opinion and cuts across the political spectrum?

It's a similar story with 'austerity'.  I appreciate this is repetition on my part but it's worth elaborating: the idea that the level of government borrowing does not impose the sort of restrictions on government spending that the Conservatives say it does is a centrist, not a 'radical left', position.  Here's Lord Sidelsky, for example, taking issue with my compatriot historian Niall Ferguson,  He argues a fairly standard Keynesian line that the history of the interwar period shows that you can't cut your way out of a recession.  Compare to the postwar period where a national debt that nearly reached 250% of GDP was reduced over time, not by slashing spending but by the economic growth of the long postwar boom (aided and abetted with an occasional bit of inflation).

Sidelsky is obviously to the left of Niall Ferguson - but that's true of most people.  The point is that his is a centrist position.  Keynes was a liberal, after all - as are most of the 'anti-austerity' economists, as far as one can tell.  Which leads me to the following suggestion: Jamie K in conversation on Twitter expressed the view that Blairism has solidified into a doctrine whereby 'capturing the centre ground' means in practice moving to the right as a default position.  (Apologies to him - I'm paraphrasing here.)  Could it be then that 'winning from the centre' might involve  Labour reoccupying this centre they've surrendered in deference to what some people have (correctly, in my view) described as 'deficit fetishism'?  It's a matter of no small importance: both in Britain and the European Union, fiscal orthodoxy is putting enormous strains on these multi-national institutions.  I would suggest in this context 'winning from the centre' might involve reclaiming 'anti-austerity' centrism from the nationalists and the supposedly 'hard-left', which would require moving a little to the left.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Indyref v2.0?

Alex Salmond, in keeping with the new Nationalist micro-wave definition of what constitutes a 'generation', said today that a second referendum was 'inevitable', it was just a question of the timing, something he claimed was a matter for Nicola Sturgeon.

Sturgeon appeared to contradict him by saying it was in the hands of the 'Scottish people', which made me think I should have qualified the last part of this: I don't think the SNP would tolerate someone like Corbyn but obviously Salmond isn't like Jeremy Corbyn.

Anyway, regardless of whether Nicola wishes Alex would shut up, neither of these statements bear any relation to the legal reality.  There is no mechanism by which the 'people' can express a preference for another plebiscite and constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster and are not, therefore, a matter for the First Minister.  I'm assuming that people don't remind the Nationalists of this for fear of being seen as 'bullying' and 'undemocratic' but as an aside, I'm struck by how few have noted just how effective (so far, anyway) the Madrid government's preference for actually using its constitutional powers has been in dealing with its own nationalist problems.

Salmond's criteria for the 'material change' that could justify a referendum were as follows:

1) If Westminster reneges on the 'Vow'.

2) Continued 'austerity'.

3) The EU referendum, should Scotland vote to stay in but England to leave in 2016 or '17.

All of the above are also nonsense, and not just legally.  Some of us are getting particularly fed up with No. 1.  It's already clear that this stupid 'Vow' was not decisive in getting out the No vote; people who claim it promised 'devo-max', 'home rule' or 'near-federalism' are confusing what a Labour backbencher said with what Her Majesty's government said; and even if these were not true, the 'Vow' has no binding legal power because plebiscites are advisory.

I hope it doesn't need pointing out that No. 2 is drivel?  Remarkably, you do sometimes find the Government  has a different economic policy from the Opposition parties and the idea that this is grounds for constitutional change is just daft.   Rather, it's the third possibility that interests me.  It's not that this would be legal grounds for a referendum either because Scotland's membership of the EU is because we are part of the UK.  I would, however, agree that a vote for 'Brexit' would create huge problems but what interests me is, this wouldn't be just for the UK government.  I still don't think Britain will vote to exit the EU but if we did, and this generated another referendum, there are two huge problems for the SNP:

1) Particularly if, as has been reported, it's next year - this is too soon for the Nationalists.  One of the reasons I'm speculating that Sturgeon might be wishing Salmond shuts up a bit is that while she too wants another referendum, she doesn't want one quickly because she knows that there is no reason to think they would win it.  In reality, the 'material change' they are looking for is opinion polls that consistently show a 60-40 lead for independence, which as some of the more thoughtful nationalists have pointed out, we just don't have.  Having another one too early risks a future for the SNP that is Parti Quebecois-shaped.  More time would also give the Nationalists space to come up with a coherent economic policy, which everyone, apart from the most evangelical among them, accepts they did not have in the indyref.

2) While it would have been taken as justification for a referendum, I'm not sure that it would be the selling point for independence that some Nationalists think.  I wouldn't expect to see 'Independence in Europe' on SNP flyers any time soon because I would imagine that many Scots, after watching events in Greece, might conclude that you can either be independent or be part of Europe but not necessarily both.  It would also bring unwelcome focus on the unresolved currency issue.  Would an independent Scotland be compelled to join the EMS - and what are we supposed to do for a currency before that, even if we were?  The Nationalists might just revert to the tunes they played in September last year but I'm sure as many people would necessarily be listening.  "Here's some legal advice we've got", isn't going to fly - at least I would hope not - and now surely people have been disabused of the idea that the EU is the sort of institution that bends over backwards to accommodate small countries?

As regards the EU referendum and its impact on our political parties, I suspect things are going to turn out to be rather boring than some are predicting.  Corbyn isn't going to win the leadership and the Labour party are going to campaign to stay in with more or less exactly the same broad position as the Conservatives, the Liberals and the SNP.  With minor differences, they'll argue for the status quo - that we remain part of the EU but not members of the EMS - and they'll win on both sides of the border.  At least I hope that's what happens and I would suggest that the more cautious among the Nationalists are hoping for exactly the same.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Corbyn-mania and the SNP: beyond left and right

The surprise poll ratings for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership battle have got quite a few people, traditionally seen on the centre-right of the party, rather worried.  Others on the left have got rather excited because they think it shows enthusiasm for traditional left-wing policies within the party, which they believe, in turn, would be popular throughout the country.

Some of those who fall in the latter camp have taken the popularity of the SNP in Scotland as evidence that a left-wing platform can get to the parts that dessicated managerialists cannot reach.  My concern is they are drawing the wrong conclusions from this and would argue instead that there are two rather different lessons that could be drawn from the SNP surge:

1) What the experience of the SNP shows is that you can talk like Jeremy Corbyn and govern like Liz Kendall, if you can get enough people to like you, as this gentleman has pointed out.  I'm impressed with just how many people have swallowed the line that the Nationalists are to the left of Labour.  Part of the appeal here is their 'anti-austerity stance'.  But this isn't, in and of itself, a leftwing position.  Samuel Brittan, for example, isn't exactly a pinko subversive   The view that the deficit or the national debt are not as urgent a matter as some people are making out is more often found on the left but ultimately it is a technical matter that has to do with the likelihood of possible constraints on fiscal policy in the event of a run on gilts.  If anyone imagines that the Nationalists' 'anti-austerity' position has anything to do with this sort of reasoning, they are dreaming.  Their opposition to austerity is nationalist-populist, not Keynesian.  What has gained traction in Scotland is the idea that this is being done to you by a government you didn't elect, rather than anything that Paul Krugman has to say about the matter.

The only circumstances under which the SNP's anti-austerity rhetoric would collide with reality would be if Scotland became independent, by which time it wouldn't matter to them because they would have have got us across the line, achieved their goal and there wouldn't be anything anyone could do about it.  Short of this, the SNP's anti-austerity will be enjoyed from the luxury of opposition.  It isn't obvious, therefore, what lessons Labour could learn from this, unless they also long for the purity of opposition or want to complete the eighties revival and campaign for withdrawal from the EU in 2017.  This is another issue that isn't obviously left or right.  It used to be Labour policy and could be again.  It could get the sort of populist-nationalist vibe that might win over some UKIP voters, as well as appealing to people like the teenage Trot Owen Jones.  The problem with this is it really really wouldn't be a very good idea.

2) What the experience of the SNP has shown is the importance of party discipline.  I saw Angus McNeil claiming Corbyn was the candidate that the SNP feared most and thought, "Ah, man - you're just taking the piss now".  The SNP don't fear Labour at all any more but since they're fans of bayoneting the wounded in a big way, I assume they want Corbyn to win for the same reasons the Conservatives do.  This candidate has a big disadvantage that, again, can't be slotted neatly into left or right: you're only a leader if people are following you, and Corbyn wouldn't be able to lead his own party, never mind become Prime Minister.  What people who pretend to have been observing the Scottish scene need to understand is that the SNP would never tolerate any of this.  In the past they haven't spent the aftermath of an election defeat indulging in a public display of existential angst and they certainly wouldn't put up someone like Jeremy Corbyn, whose sole claim to fame prior to this leadership election was to be serially disloyal to the leadership of his own party.  So how could he insist on loyalty to his leadership: on the grounds of his authenticity?  Gimme a break - and while you're at it, take note of the fact that Nigel Farage is also seen as 'authentic'.

I wouldn't say I admire the SNP's party discipline, exactly, because it's a bit creepy and robotic - but any observer can't fail to be impressed by it.  English SNP fans might want to look, for example, at how they dealt with the former ambassador Craig Murray, who applied to be an SNP candidate.  It was described as an example of the party's 'control freak tendency'.  I'd say, well maybe - but it was also a sign of good sense, from a party that actually wants power.  It's the sort of thing that parties who want power do.  The Conservative do it and the SNP do it - but we're being asked to believe it was their policy platforms that have been the secret of their success?  Seriously talking about Corbyn as leader, in contrast, is the behaviour of people who have assumed that 2020 is already lost.  2020 may well be lost but - if there's ever going to be a Labour government again - it might help if people didn't behave as if this were inevitable.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Please stop mentioning the war

In his profiles of bloggers, the late Norman Geras used to ask if people had any prejudices that they were willing to admit.  Having read one or two responses, I used to wonder why he bothered.  "I have to confess I'm prejudiced against the ruling class who like opera and stamp on the faces of the poor on their way in the door blah blah..."  I read one or two of these and thought, "Oh fuck off!  Seriously, if you're not prepared to be honest, would it kill you to just say no - or saving that, not answer the question at all?"

I had always thought of myself as having latent anti-German prejudices, what with having a mother who lived through the war and who frankly doesn't like Germans very much (pity the fool who tries to tell her Dresden was a war crime) - as well as being brought up on a diet of war films and comics that have left me with words like "Achtung" and "Schnell" pretty much exhausting my German lexicon.  But one of the things I've realised in recent weeks is I actually don't, or at least not compared to some of the people paid to comment on the present situation in Greece.  In this I remembered - because I'm old -  the resignation of the Thatcher-era minister Nicholas Ridley for his diatribe on the EEC in the Spectator.  I note this journal is now saying he 'was right all along'.  Well, on the issue of the single currency I think he probably was - as well as on the 'democratic deficit' within the EU.  But the reason he was pressured to resign was not because of his views on the practicalities of EMU but rather for the anti-German (not to mention anti-French) flavour of his views  - and I think that bleeding heart internationalist Margaret Thatcher was right to accept his resignation.  

What concerns me with the present situation is that this kind of attitude seems to have popped up on the left.  The Syrizia coalition's posturing was explicitly anti-German - and to this end adopted a "do mention the war" strategy from day one.  (I'm not going to reference this on the grounds that anyone who doesn't recognise this simply hasn't been paying attention.)  But this has also been the case in Britain.  While there's been a few examples, Paul Mason's is one of the most egregious I have seen:
"Parallels abound with other historic debacles: Munich (1938), where peace was won by sacrificing the Czechs; or Versailles (1919), where the creditors got their money, only to create the conditions for the collapse of German democracy 10 years later, and their own diplomatic unity long before that. But the debacles of yesteryear were different. They were committed by statesmen."
The key distinction here, the only one, is that prior mistakes were made by 'statesmen'?  There is also, I would suggest, the whole nature of the situation.  Here's one excerpt from an account of the annexation of Czechosolovakia:
"Just as the Anchluss had resulted in a large surge of anti-Semitic violence in Vienna, so the incorporation of the Sudetenland saw a number of Jews either murdered or so despairing that they leaped from roofs or turned the gas taps. Hitler personally gave the Sudeten German Friekorps a three-day period of grace to hunt down Jews and political opponents."
Contrast and compare to today where the Germans have loaned Greece rather a lot of money and would like it back.  I had meant to say more about this but I find I can't bear it.  I would agree that Germany hasn't handled the Euro crisis particularly well and are not being entirely realistic about Greek debt but I really think those doing this 'banks are tanks' line should try a little harder to avoid being so crass and gratuitously offensive.  The war has been over for seventy years, after all.

Monday, July 13, 2015

An exhaustive guide to journalistic historical anaologies

WWI and Vietnam - for wars and stuff that journalists don't think are a very good idea.  Insert "quagmire" here.

Appeasement and the Second World War - for wars and stuff that journalists think are a good idea and how anyone who disagrees with them is morally degraded.  Like Chamberlain!

Treaty of Versailles - for end of wars and stuff where journalists think being mean isn't a very good idea because you'll get Nazis!

Spanish Civil War - general example of volunteers being heroic and righteous whilst fighting fascism.

I really don't think I've missed any out here.

See Paul Mason here.

I mean, can they not even do Bismarck or Treaty of Vienna or Napoleon or something?

Friday, July 10, 2015

Syrizia and the SNP

I didn't really like Ian McEwan's novel Saturday but there was one line that spoke to me, which had to do with the "accidental nature" of the opinions you hold.  We like to think we arrived at them by a rational interrogation of the available evidence but really it often has to do with timing and the (frequently unrepresentative) people you read or talk to.  I'm like that with the Euro.  I graduated three years before the introduction of EMU and from what I had read, I was convinced it wasn't a very good idea.  It was pretty basic textbook optimal currency zone stuff.  Europe, as far as I could tell, fell far short of qualifying as one - but I could have easily drawn a different conclusion if I was reading the same European history a few years later when it looked as if the naysayers were wrong, or if I had been clever enough to convince myself that the differences in the putative Eurozone economies didn't matter as much as I thought they did.

I don't, in other words, have anything particularly original to say about the position Greece finds itself in now.  One is inclined to agree with much of what has been written about the deflationary impact of the IMF intervention within the context of a monetary union, which now virtually everyone agrees Greece should not have joined.  

Syrizia obviously were not responsible for all of this but I'm also with a rather smaller number who think criticism of the way they have handled this situation they did not create has to go some way beyond admitting "they've made a few mistakes".  Dan Davies has a very good summary of this, "When negotiating with Germans, do mention the war, as much as possible" non-strategy here.  

There's one small point to add of a personal nature: I was a little dismayed when people were going on about how cool it was that Varoufakis was a clever leftwing academic because it reminded me of my Dad.  There's lots of things that clever leftwing academics are generally really not very good at but at the top of my list is admitting they might be wrong.  (You may find something Freudian in this if you wish...)

It is in this context of a complete failure to do anything that could be reasonably described as negotiation that Sunday's plebiscite should be understood.  I'm not alone in finding similarities between Scotland's September independence referendum and this, although I think most people would agree the former was rather better conducted.  Among the features they shared were as follows:

1) The insistence that, what to the outside observer would be reasonably described as populist nationalism, it is absolutely not this but rather democracy!  What with democracy being an unarguably Good Thing, if you disagree with us, or have any issues with the populism inherent in plebiscites, then you obviously hate democracy.  So saith those who intone the General Will.  For them, raising issues about whether this 'purest expression of democracy' is the best way to conduct politics in a country is unbearably bourgeois.

2) The insistence that this exercise in democracy creates obligations that stretch outside the borders of the country in which it is held.  In both cases this has to do with the messy business of sharing a currency.  With the SNP and Yes Scotland, the idea that the outcome of the referendum created an obligation for the rUK to enter a currency union - and was not a matter that the English, Welsh or Northern Irish needed to be consulted on.  You can take this 'sovereign will of the people' thing too far.  

It is a similar situation with Syrizia.  I should stress that I hope Greece strikes a deal with the EU and to this end I hope people realise that the last thing they need here is more democracy because there is no way that a proposal for more assistance would pass the sort of 'democratic' test in Eurogroup countries that Greece held on Sunday.

3) The insistence that pointing out that potential pitfalls in a chosen political trajectory is just 'scaremongering'.  I would concede that there was some of this on the No side in Scotland and the Yes side in Greece but I'm afraid merely pointing out that if party x does y, it's reasonable to assume bad stuff might happen, simply can't be dismissed in this blanket fashion.  Hope over fear?  Yeah, that always works, doesn't it?  Like with children and fireplaces, for example.  

For the Nats, it was this idea that refusing a currency union was a 'bluff', as if the Eurozone crisis hadn't happened or something.  Then it was the idea that 'sterlingization' might not be a very good idea and if you suggest otherwise, you're 'talking Scotland down' - as if any 'dollarised' country isn't dependent on its balance of payments to generate currency reserves, or that the fall in the price of oil might have created a bit of a problem here - with or without 'secret oil-fields'.   

For Syrizia it was the idea that 'Oxi' may well mean an exit from the Eurozone.  I do hope and believe that this won't happen but the consensus is that it looks increasingly likely.  There surely isn't now anyone who thinks this is impossible?  Yet at the time of voting apparently only 5% of No voters thought this was a likely outcome.  I hope to God it doesn't happen but those lines about 'scaremongering' are going to look pretty stupid if Greece starts paying wages and pensions in IOUs.

For the future, for Greece we'll have to wait and see but being of a parochial mind recently, one can't help wondering what impact all this will have in Britain and Scotland with the forthcoming referendum on EU membership.  I'm struck by the way that the Greek debt crisis has caused some on the British left to return to the days before (some) Labour and the Tories swapped sides on the issue of EU membership.  The question is, what does a party led by someone who seriously imagines Labour went wrong when they ditched Michael Foot do now, given that they claim to represent 'real' Labour values?  The SNP adopted 'Independence in Europe' as part of Salmond's gradualist strategy but the interesting thing is that not only is Scotland not a country of Euro-philes in the way that the SNP leadership likes to pretend, Yes voters are actually more Euro-sceptic than those of us who voted No. 

The Euro crisis has obviously had an impact on the SNP, which is why what they were effectively arguing for in the referendum was independence within the UK rather than Europe.  Assuming this ill-advised Europe referendum goes ahead as planned, there is no question of the SNP adopting the position of the Bennite left that many of them claim to represent.  They won't do this because they are not a leftwing party at all, Bennite or otherwise.  Making these assumptions, one could make the following predictions about the SNP's position on the EU 'in-out' referendum:

1) They will struggle to have anything relevant to say.  They will conveniently forget that Salmond-era SNP wanted us to ditch the 'millstone' of Sterling for the pound and join EMU but there is no question of campaigning for an exit.  Therefore their position is likely to be the same as that of the Conservative government, which one assumes will be to retain membership of the EU but rule out adopting the Euro.  What's left is complaining about details such as insisting HM Government needs a 'mandate' in all the component part of the UK and complaining about how awful it is that 16 and 17 year olds can't vote or whatever.

2) This won't make a blind difference to the level of SNP support.  It's not just that your average SNP voter is indifferent to the EU, it is that the Nationalist movimento has occupied a space that is completely beyond any arguments about economics, which creates something of a problem for opposition parties.  It doesn't seem to matter that a party doesn't have a coherent plan - what matters is they are seen as making a stand for the national collective, regardless of whether they actually achieve anything.  Both the SNP and Syrizia are considerably more benign than some of those who cheer them on but it is a trend in European politics that is more than a little unsettling.  You could say that I take this position because I am fearful, conservative, on the side of 'neo-liberalism', or lacking faith - but then you'd be making my point for me.

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