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.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Corbyn and the SNP's new playbook

"Jez we can!", they cried and Jez they've got.  Good grief!  With the results just in, I think there's already rather too many people taking the piss.  Top of the list are fans of the Labour party's most prolific rebel saying the party needs to pull together.  It goes without saying those who follow their past example rather than heeding their latest injunction are probably already being denounced for their treasonous ways.

Also near the top of the list are nationalists, like my SNP-supporting friend and colleague, who told me that he thought the Corbyn surge was a good thing for Labour.  This is really too much.  This is a party who correctly saw the Labour party as one of the key British institutions standing in their way of power in Scotland and their wider goal of independence so have done everything in their power to destroy it - and having done so in May's election, have danced on its Scottish grave with great vim and gusto.  Can't say I can really blame them but what is pretty offensive is their claim to be the guardians of the soul of the Labour party.  We had all of these people claiming that they were backing the SNP, not because they were nationalists (heaven forfend!), but because Labour was too right wing.  I don't believe for a moment that any strategist in the SNP seriously worries about losing many of these votes because I would assume any such strategist worth his or her salt understands perfectly well that the SNP's success in May would not have been possible if it had to depend on left wing votes.

Rather, I'd assume the SNP are delighted with Corbyn's victory.  I know I would be, if was in the SNP.  Their genius is that they combine triangulation with Corbynite rhetoric when it suits them, which it did in the West of Scotland.  They are the Blairite party par excellence in UK politics today and it is, to me anyway, utterly inconceivable that a Corbyn-lead Labour party will be a match for them.  Instead, the script is going to go something like this, "We disagree with Jeremy Corbyn on some things but we're both against austerity and Trident.  Look what happens to someone in England who shares these views we've been so awesomely successful with in Scotland.  Look what happens to him in his own party!  Just shows how very different our two nations are..."

Here's a preview.  This is the line we'll get on a loop.

The SNP's path to the mainstream - supporting EU and NATO membership - is now more difficult for the Corbyn Labour party, whether he comes out in favour of these or not, and that is the state the Labour party has got itself into.

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.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The "nah" factor

Why am I living under another Tory government in my little corner of these Isles that has apparently decided to become a one-party state?  This is no attempt at a comprehensive analysis of the situation but merely to reiterate what I've said before (sort of, in a different way): if Labour is to salvage anything from its crushing electoral defeat, it needs to tune into the 'nah' factor.

Here's what it is: it's when you see someone opening a shop where the people who have launched this enterprise have it filled with the sort of things they like, without giving much thought to what people in the neighbourhood might actually want to buy.  Y'know, like a juice bar in a part of Glasgow that is like Beirut or something.  It may be that the people in this area should buy your product because they really need more vitamin C and fibre in their diet and suchlike - but they don't want it, they're not going to buy it, so your business is fucked.  This is the factor I'm talking about - you look at it and say, "Nah, man - this one ain't gonna fly".

Labour leaders are a bit like this.  In my lifetime, there was Foot and then Kinnock.  Who knows how Smith would have done if he had lived but by the time Blair came along, the Labour party eventually tired of opposition and opted for him.  One gets the impression that large swathes of the party faithful have never quite forgiven him for winning three elections.

The Tory party has made a habit of mistaking their 'grassroots' for the electorate far less often.  They chose IDS and then thought, "Nah, man - this one ain't gonna to fly" and got someone less mental to win elections for them.  This instinct surely forms at least part of the reason why they have been the most successful Western European election-winning machine in the 20th - and now the 21st century?

By picking Ed Miliband, Labour reverted to type, almost as if in an act of penitence for winning three elections in a row.  You just know when the party faithful talk about how decent and clever their guy is, you're totally fucked electorally.  I argued this in 2011 and I'm gonna do it again: the reasons for Labour's electoral defeat are complex and they are, in my view, more serious than the problems the party had in 1983.  Then the path to electability was more straightforward, which was to stop treating General Elections as if they were running for a student union.  There's lots of things that Labour might do or should do but one thing they absolutely have to stop doing as a matter of urgency is treating their party members as if they were in some way representative of the electorate.  Is Andy Burnham too left-wing, right wing, moderniser, old Labour, Northern or whatever?  Stop it, stop it!  He's got the 'nah' factor.  He's a loser and that is that.  If you like being in opposition, he's your man.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Against 'full-fiscal autonomy'

During one of the Scottish 'leaders' debates' Nicola Sturgeon reiterated her party's commitment to 'full-fiscal autonomy' for Scotland, something she hopes to extract from whatever government is formed in Westminster after May's General Election.  The so-called 'black hole' of over £7 billion that Scotland would have to fill either with tax rises and, or spending cuts is not my primary concern, not because it is unimportant but because I think there are two very good reasons to oppose fiscal autonomy even if it was a measure that was fiscally neutral.

1) It is not an economically stable solution to the national question within the UK.  People who are suggesting it - and they are not all nationalists - rather give the impression that the Eurozone crisis never happened.  The fact that the Eurozone has a single monetary policy but not a single fiscal policy is part of the reason why EU countries have found the recession so difficult to cope with.  For a currency union to work, you need cross-border transfers.  Given this is broadly the consensus with regards to Europe it seems very odd to suggest that within the UK we should ignore this and go for fiscal dis-integration.  This is just repeating what I said here but it might be worth elaborating a little.  As pre-referendum Alex Salmond used to like pointing out, Scotland has often ended up with an inappropriate monetary policy because said policy was formed primarily to cool an overheating economy in London and the south.  True enough but within the fiscal union, the effects of this were ameliorated with transfers in the form of welfare benefits that could be paid in Scotland without having to rely on exclusively Scottish tax revenues.  There's no reason that this situation wouldn't happen again but next time it would be without these automatic stabilisers.

2)  It is not a politically stable solution to the national question within the UK.  One wonders if this is a policy that anyone really wants?  The Nationalists may say that they do but I'm not convinced.  One of the defining characteristics of the SNP is their refusal to take responsibility for anything.  Nothing that happens in Scotland is ever their fault, even though they've been in power since 2007.  Local government cuts because the council tax has been frozen for years?  Or because they refused to even think about using Holyrood's tax-varying powers?  Don't be silly.  All ills can be attributed to the fact that we're locked in a constitutional prison with cold-hearted neo-liberals who don't like children or kittens.  The Nationalists, on the other hand, would love to help the children and kittens but they can't because they don't have enough 'powers'.  Why the ones outlined in the Smith Commission aren't enough they haven't bothered to explain.

There is no reason to think this would not continue in the future because whatever powers are given, any short of independence will never ever be enough.  Moreover, the powers that would be left reserved to Westminster would be those that rank pretty high in Nationalist demonology.  For them, particularly evil is defence spending - for lots of reasons but primarily because this involves having nukes.  Now having these is not something I'm too keen on myself but they form but a part of spending which accounts for less than 2% of GDP.  It is around the world average and slightly below that which NATO considers a minimum requirement but the notion persists that the UK devotes an abnormally high share of public spending to defence.  For the Nationalists, there is no limit to the spending that could be devoted to 'bairns', were it not for the fact that we had 'bombs'.

That would leave other aspects of foreign policy and immigration.  Here I think the Nationalists are kidding themselves a bit that we're a nation of Euro-philes who would like to see more immigration but I happen to agree with them about both EU membership and the need for a more relaxed immigration policy. In fact, I'm kind of left wondering what would be the point of remaining part of the UK in a situation like this?  I'm sure that thought has occurred to them as well, which is presumably why they're suggesting this.  I don't believe they are sincere in wanting to pay a subscription to those policy areas of the British state that they disapprove of the most.  They don't want to be part of the British state and they are clearly not reconciled to the fact that a majority of Scots do not share their view.  I don't think fiscal autonomy would work and I don't believe the Nationalists want it to work - as good reasons as any for opposing this daft idea.

Monday, April 06, 2015

An introduction to nationalist realpolitik for dummies

Wife accuses her unfaithful husband of cheating.  If he wasn't a total dawg, he'd be calmer, more reassuring.  "Don't be silly, there's no-one else..."  But what fires his indignation is that on this occasion he really was working late.  "The very idea!  How dare you!"

Nicola Sturgeon's response to the Telegraph story that she expressed a preference for a Tory victory in May's election strikes me as being exactly like that.  I doubt very much that she would have said what she was reported to have said and one of the key reasons for thinking this is the reason she gave just doesn't ring true.  She may have said she doesn't think Miliband is Prime Ministerial material - but as a reason why she wants Cameron to win?  Nah.  For why should she care if Milband isn't Prime Ministerial material?  A Labour PM who isn't up to the job would suit her just fine, although not as much as a Tory PM, whether he's up to the job or not.  Why?  Well, I hate to break it to the likes of Owen Jones and Zoe Williams but because she's a Nationalist and Nationalists are not the least bit interested in forming part of a 'progressive centre-left coalition' that will govern Britain.  Why, if they thought such a thing was possible, they might even give up Nationalism but clearly they haven't, which is why of course the SNP want a Tory victory.  Anyone who thinks otherwise just hasn't been paying attention.  Nationalism needs enemies.

It's depressing to have to spell this out.  The SNP want independence.  To get this they have to undermine support for the Union in Scotland.  Does anyone really think they are more likely to achieve this under a Labour government than a Conservative one?  Get the latter and you get a few more years of being told this is a government we haven't voted for, as if 'we' voted as a homogeneous bloc.  

And for the Conservatives, there's an obvious attraction, which I assume is the reason why the Tories, post 'Leaders' debate, have been anxious to talk up the performance of Nicola Sturgeon at every occasion, as well as being why Cameron didn't confront her properly during the debate itself.  The SNP are for the Conservatives the last hope they have of ever winning a majority in Westminster ever again.  It tends to be forgotten that they haven't won a Parliamentary  majority for over twenty years are are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future - unless Scotland leaves, or get 'Home Rule', which would presumably mean scrapping the Barnett formula, a reduction in the number of Scottish MPs and/or EVEL.  If you're an English Tory, "what's not to like?" is a question I'd imagine fewer and fewer have a convincing answer to.  

This is why we are were we are.  Did Sturgeon say what she was reported to have said?  I personally doubt it but this shouldn't distract from the unspoken Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that now exists between the Scottish Nationalists and some (many, most?) English Conservatives.  I'm not at all confident that the Union can survive this contemporary political class that puts the need for electoral advantage quite so blatantly above country.  It matters to me for reasons I've already elaborated but I also think many others will miss the Union when it's gone.  If it does fall, I think there'll be many other people who realise that "anything's better than this" is one of the most over-used phrases in the English language.  Or any other language, for that matter.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Taking offence

The debate about free speech following the Charlie Hebdo murders has followed a now familiar rights vs obligations narrative.  "Yes, of course people have the right to express themselves but is it wise for them to do so?"   I don't find the 'of course' in some people's usage entirely convincing but I've been wondering if the question might be posed in a different way: is it either possible or desirable to have a legal framework that protects people from offence, and specifically from that sense of hurt derived from others desecrating what they hold to be sacred?  The answer is no, for two reasons:

1) Taking offence is a far too subjective experience to be worked into any rational legal system.  Some found Charlie Hebdo's cartoons deeply offensive whereas I have found the fact that some people couldn't even wait for the artists to be buried before they smeared them as racists obscene.  I don't want to do a sermon about this.  Peter Ryley summed up what I think as well as anyone.  France has a long tradition of leftwing politics with a strong anticlerical strand.  It was in this tradition Charlie Hebdo stood.  We just don't have that in Britain - and boy doesn't it show? 

2) A legal fence can't be built to protect what others consider sacred because that enclosure would be so wide as to suffocate free thought.  Do we really need to demonstrate this?  It's not just about cartoons, or, as others have pointed out, any representation of Mohammed but whole fields of intellectual enquiry.  I was glad Nick Cohen mentioned the dearth of form criticism in Koranic studies in his article at the weekend because it's a point that should be made more often.  Form criticism is basically lit crit techniques applied to the Bible, an field of theological study pioneered - like so many - in Germany.  Wikipedia will inform you that this technique is 'in its infancy' when it comes to the field of Koranic studies.  It is in its infancy because it is extremely dangerous, as Professor Nasr Abu Zaid discovered to his cost.

Whipping out the inverted commas to put round free-speech doesn't make closing down fields of intellectual enquiry, whether it be academic research, writing books or drawing cartoons anything other than intolerable.  And neither do the charges of hypocrisy, as if those of us appalled at this atrocity are in some way supportive of the various restrictions imposed by the governments represented at the Paris march.  The obvious solution to the hypocrisy of the uneven application of free expression is to have more of it, not less.  Anyway, what is hypocrisy but the tribute vice feels obliged to pay to virtue?   Perhaps we should fear more if our corrupt rulers didn't even feel the need to do this?

Finally, there's the question of whether seeing the origin of all this in the audacity of free speech does justice to the situation.  As well as the attack on Charlie Hebdo there was the assault on the kosher supermarket.  God preserve us from anyone attempting to discern what offence the victims had caused since it should be plain it was their very existence.  I'm not going to ask the rhetorical question, what does it take for people to realise what they are being confronted with?  The answer is something other than a fascist gang with automatic weapons killing unarmed journalists and Jews, obviously - and that is deeply depressing.

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