Sunday, January 25, 2015

Burying the Past

“The theory goes that, if there is trust in society, then its bureaucracies will be more straightforward and effective – the cost and time of transactions between companies will be reduced and less time will be spent paying lawyers to draw up costly contracts, and in litigation.  A handshake is free.  Anyone who has tried to conduct business in France or America will have soon become aware of the massive inconveniences involved with living in a society where the default setting is to assume the other person is trying to pull your trousers down.  Danish companies are freer about sharing knowledge and divulging secrets to one another; this has been cited as one of the reasons why, for instance, the wind turbine industry flourished here in the 1970s, ultimately becoming the world leader.”
Michael Booth, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle

With an 87% turnout in elections, Denmark also trusts its politicians.  Like Scotland, it has such a thing as society.  We don’t.  We have a London-obsessed oligarchy constant in its conspiracy against any such thing.

BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions? came from Keynsham this week.  It was great fun listening to Labour’s Peter Hain telling Bea Campbell of the Greens that voters can’t expect to vote for the party they like best, because that’s not how our electoral system ‘works’.  For the Tories, Owen Paterson described that system as the means by which we choose who will rule us.  The dinosaurs just don’t get it.  They think that we’re the servants and that they’re the masters.  We’ve let them believe that long enough but the tipping point is coming.  The whiff of revolt is in the air.

One sign of that is the proposed widening of the TV election debates from three party leaders to seven.  There’s a growing consensus that the election will produce a brilliantly rainbow-hued parliament, and perhaps in response a grand coalition of the dinosaurs, huddling around the dying embers of their evil empire.

We were asked this week if, since seven party leaders have already been invited to take part in televised debate, we should be included too.  Well, why not?  Where’s the arbitrary line to be drawn between those parties that are ‘in’ and those that are ‘out’?  Is it to be on the basis of past election results?  What if opinion polls show them to be wildly out-of-date as a guide to voters’ current intentions?  There truly isn’t a simple answer.

It’s a circular argument to say that only the more successful parties should be allowed the oxygen of publicity.  Ending that circularity means addressing much more than just the TV debates.  Smaller parties have been – and still are – systematically discriminated against.  It starts with the election deposit, a tax on smaller parties, who are in effect fined for daring to challenge the status quo.  It then continues throughout the campaign.  We’ve reported on one or two instances where hustings have been slanted towards the parties pre-selected by the organisers as worth hearing from.  And it all ends with discourtesy to the losing candidates at the declaration of the poll.

As an example of the stitch-up that is British ‘democracy’ we need look no further than the Electoral Commission guidance on the running of hustings.  In this document it’s glibly assumed to be fine to exclude some of the candidates as long as it’s done on a so-called ‘objective’ basis.  There’s no such basis.  That’s just a way of dressing up subjective prejudice in the garb of past performance, not future prospects.  The only objectivity is the ballot paper, on which all candidates are equal and the past counts for nothing.

Watch the debates.  Those who claim that small parties have no influence should think again.  David Cameron wasn’t happy to have to face UKIP, seen as the party to split the right-wing vote.  So he said no, unless the Greens were added, seen as the party to split the left-wing vote.  Not a bad outcome, for parties judged small and thus irrelevant.  Now Cameron’s nightmare has got a whole lot worse.  In a seven-party debate, he has one party to the right of him, and five to the left.  Thoughts from the Left will thus dominate the debate numerically.  The parties of the Left haven’t had a chance like this in a generation.

Cameron has to take part or he’s finished.  But if he does, he’s going to be ganged up on.  The most likely alignment is that the three main parties will all sound the same, leaving the other four to present an alternative.  Three out of those four will largely agree on what the alternative is.  The tired Labour nonsense about fringe parties splitting the vote – the vote that Labour considers its birthright – is turned on its head in the media spotlight.  Ideas that Labour might once have endorsed, but ditched in its fumbling for the centre ground, will get more airtime than ever, precisely because they’re not the preserve of one monolithic party.

One should never forget that ‘did not vote’ currently accounts for a larger share of the electorate than any of the parties.  Everything really is up for grabs.  Imagine that in Wessex that first column in the graphic below is the share of the vote cast for the Wessex Regionalist Party, and what would flow from that.  So let’s not be hearing any more moaning from other candidates about WR taking their votes away.  Our votes are our votes, not theirs.

Come polling day, will it matter?  No.  Even if the major parties are deserted in droves, the electoral system will save their skins.  But at a cost.  The more the vote fragments, the greater the discrepancy between what we vote for and what we get, the more the days of first-past-the-post are numbered.  Ultimately those parties that try to defend it will be swept aside by an outraged electorate.  One that's had enough of their combined efforts to limit the choice that in every other field we're told is the essence of freedom.  The only tactical voting worth considering is not to choose the lesser of two evils but to vote for whatever hastens their end.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Jeux Sans Frontières

Events in Paris this week have exposed Europe’s anxieties to the full.  Let’s consider some of the possible reactions.

On the far Right, and among the not-for-prophet movement generally, this is I-told-you-so time.  Even those who disagree with the politics must find recent analysis strikingly prescient.  And at least it’s an opportunity to highlight some double standards.

Then again, cui bono?  Who benefits?  Will Le Pen prove mightier than the sword, deepening the backlash?  About the only certainty is that there will now be further restrictions on civil liberty in order to intensify the ‘war on terror’.  Threats to national security will be enumerated, movements for autonomy doubtless among them.  Those who like the theory of a false-flag operation – a few fanatics supplied with guns and training by the security services and then shown the direction to go – will point to other conspiracy theories that turned out to be at least partially true.  The humanitarian catastrophes that have resulted from intervention across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia are too systematic and repetitive to be put down to incompetence.  Those in charge know what they’re about.  The challenge for anyone else is to say what that is, though for starters what do the letters O.I.L. spell?

That sense that there isn’t a trustworthy narrative is bound to be destabilising.  Its consequence is fear and more fear, coupled with appeasement as a means to restore breathing space.  Freedom of expression will not be defended (if anything, the pressure will be to remove freedom of non-expression in the hunt for the non-conforming).  Liberals and anyone to the left of them will certainly not defend it, because it’s a fixed principle and liberal power depends on being able to manipulate a debate and steer its unfolding, contradictory development.  Power, for them, depends on the ability to set, and to arbitrate on the setting of, social and cultural boundaries.  An uncompromising defence of free expression is a nuance-free zone in which born control-freaks can make neither mischief nor money.  There can be no political correctness where nothing’s incorrect.

Migrants, and perceptions of migrants, play a relatively small part in what’s essentially a struggle for hegemony between the elites of Left and Right.  That being so, we cannot expect measured but steadfast leadership from either side.

The closing of the European mind is a mark of Europe’s lost place in the world.  You don’t annoy the oil sheikhs.  You rant against the terrorists, not their funders in the Gulf, whose wealth you court.  Does the Royal Navy’s new base in Bahrain serve any credible military purpose, or is it a taxpayer-funded shop window for the UK arms trade?  The BBC’s Robert Peston last month suggested that the dramatic slide in the oil price has been deliberately engineered to put high-cost oil extraction – fracking, deep sea, etc. – out of business.  And after that, the price will again rise.  It’s all a game, mes amis, c’est tout un jeu.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Spirit of ‘15

Last year’s commemorations of the First World War were a good excuse to re-open old wounds and close our eyes to modern Europe.  Now consider that 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of Waterloo and the 600th anniversary of Agincourt.  In 2014 the French were our glorious allies against the Hun.  This year, it will be their turn to feel the cold shoulder, if not exactly the cold steel.  Better still, we shall be marking the 750th anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s first Parliament and the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.  That will be a splendid opportunity to overlook historical niceties.  Like the European context in which the first English Parliament arose.  Or the inconvenient fact that while the English (in 1215) and the Irish (in 1216) each had a Magna Carta to defend their threatened liberties the Scots never did (they still manage well enough without one).

London’s Lefties will be all frothing uncontrollably about the need for the modern UK to have a written constitution.  There will be conferences and seminars, websites and book launches.  No-one will ask whether ‘modern UK’ isn’t a bit of an oxymoron, or why for 800 years we’ve obsessed over keeping our rulers in check instead of challenging their assumed right to rule.

This time in 2013 we predicted that that would be the Year of the Wyvern.  We were a year out.  In 2014, the Wyvern made its mark, with local councils endorsing the flag, flying it proudly for St Ealdhelm’s Day, and our Secretary-General unfurling it for the BBC as part of their debate on devolution.  So what of 2015?

If last year remembered the start of the First World War, this will recall the end of the Second (as well as the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death).  It sounds like an opportunity for Labour to put Blairism behind it and rediscover the spirit of ’45.  Last month saw the death of John Freeman, the last man alive to serve as a minister in Attlee’s government.  That was the death not just of a man but of the memory of an idea.  There is no way that Labour can rediscover its past, because its front bench is corrupted beyond redemption by the Blair and Brown years.  Labour in 1945 offered a different world.  Labour in 2015 will struggle even to cobble together a markedly different vision.  When it’s seriously suggested that they might prefer a coalition with the Tories to working with nationalists you know the game’s well and truly up for them.

Common Wealth, the wartime socialist party to which we owe much of our thinking, was sceptical even at the time that Labour would deliver.  John Freeman resigned as a minister in 1951 over the introduction of NHS prescription charges.  Under Blair and Brown, Labour went on to set the NHS up for privatisation.  When David Cameron promised that ‘the NHS will be safe in my hands’, it was a claim he needed to make, even if he didn’t believe it and few believed him.  But is the NHS safe in Ed Miliband’s hands?  In Labour’s case it might be thought that past actions speak louder than present words.  Voters in at least one Wessex constituency this May can expect to have an alternative they can rely on.