Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Friday, 29 July 2016

The rise and rise of the Wall People

It is tempting, as we head into August, to gaze across the Channel at the continent of Europe and despair. Some of us will be about to take our holidays in France, Spain, or Italy – others will stay at home and wonder what is to become of us.

In the past two weeks, a series of attacks in France and Germany has left those countries reeling. In Nice, Würzburg, Munich, Reutlingen, Ansbach and Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy, where an 86-year-old priest was murdered by men who had pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State group, dozens of people have been killed and injured. Three of the attacks in Germany were carried out by recent immigrants – two from Syria and one from Afghanistan; the fourth, in Munich, where nine people were killed, was carried out by an 18-year-old Iranian-German who was said to have become obsessed by violence.

But Europe’s problems go much deeper than how to deal with a spate of attacks by deeply disturbed young men. Those of us of a certain age will remember the 1970s and 80s when the Basque separatist group ETA, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Red Brigades and sundry neo-Fascist groups in Italy, as well as the Provisional IRA, all spread death and destruction across the continent. Then, as now, there were calls for crack-downs to catch the killers. And then, as it will be now, it was careful, methodical intelligence work that beat them.

Europe’s deeper malaise stems from a process that has been under way for at least three decades, a process that enables goods, services, capital and people to flow across borders unhindered, disrupting national economies and creating deep social fissures between those who have benefited from this process and those who have not.

We call it globalisation, and I remember once asking someone to define exactly what it meant. ‘Globalisation,’ I was told, ‘is what we call anything that we don’t understand.’ We certainly didn’t understand the fundamental changes it would bring with it, or the political tensions that would result.

Britain is not immune from these tensions, as we saw all too clearly in the result of the EU referendum. In a fascinating essay in the London Review of Books, the journalist and novelist John Lanchester wrote: ‘To be born in many places in Britain is to suffer an irreversible lifelong defeat – a truncation of opportunity, of education, of access to power, of life expectancy.’

Once, he said, people who grew up in these areas were equipped for reasonably paid unskilled or semi-skilled jobs in the same industries that their parents had worked in. But now those jobs have gone, and in their place are new jobs that are unsatisfying, insecure and badly paid. The proletariat have been replaced by the precariat, and they resent the process that has destroyed the things they most valued.

As Lanchester wrote: ‘People hate to have things taken away from them. But whole swathes of the UK have spent the last decades feeling that things are being taken away from them: their jobs, their sense that they are heard, their understanding of how the world works and their place in it. The gaps in our society have just grown too big.’

In the US, a similar process is under way. How else could a lying, ignorant demagogue like Donald Trump – a man who this week became the first presidential candidate for 40 years to refuse to publish his tax returns and who called on Russia to hack into the emails of his Democratic party opponent, Hillary Clinton – be the chosen candidate of millions of American voters?

The NewYork Times columnist Tom Friedman divides Americans into Wall People and Web People. The Wall People are those who want a president to build a wall to protect them from what he calls the ‘violent winds of change that are buffeting every family.’  

It is not, he says, just about race and class. ‘It is also about a yearning for community — about “home” in the deepest sense — a feeling that the things that anchor us in the world and provide meaning are being swept away, and so they are looking for someone to stop that erosion.’ They are the same people whom John Lanchester calls the precariat.

On the other hand, according to Friedman, Web People embrace change and focus on empowering more people to be able to compete and collaborate in a world without walls. They are in favour of expanding trade and of more, managed immigration to attract the most energetic and smartest minds from overseas. Here in the UK, the Web People would have voted to stay in the EU; the Wall People would have voted to leave.

Across Europe, as in the US, the Wall People are rising up. They are angry and frightened, and with every new attack in a shopping mall, a concert hall or a church, they become more angry and more frightened as they search for political leaders who will give voice to their anger and promise to assuage their fear.

Here, a new political movement has just been launched – it is called More United UK, a deliberate echo of the words of the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, who said in her maiden speech in the House of Commons: ‘We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’ Among its early backers are the historian Simon Schama, the internet entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox, the environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, the feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez, the former High Court judge Janet Smith, and the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown.

It calls itself a tech-driven political startup and says its aim is to harness the power of crowd-funding to offer financial support to any political candidate who shares its principles. It wants to ‘get more progressive MPs from all parties elected and shift the balance of Parliament away from extremism.’


I wish it well, because I share its liberal and progressive principles – but if it wants to make a real difference, it will need to find a way to reach Wall People as well as Web People.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Democracy? Bah, humbug ...

I’m beginning to think that democracy may not be such a great idea.

Not just because I’m a whinging Remainian, still sore about losing the referendum, but also because of what is happening many thousands of miles away: in Turkey to our east, and in the US to our west.

Turkey is a member of NATO, and boasts the alliance’s second largest army after the US. After last weekend’s attempted military coup – which would have been the country’s fifth since 1960 if it had succeeded -- its ever more autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has begun a purge of supposedly suspect state employees. So far, 60,000 people are reported to have been either arrested or dismissed, clearly as part of a programme that had been planned long before the events of last weekend.

In the US, Donald Trump has made clear that he is prepared to tear up NATO’s most fundamental principle, mutual self-defence. Asked if the Baltic states could be confident that under his presidency the US would come to their assistance if they were threatened by Russia, he replied in the conditional: ‘If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.’ As the New York Times commented drily: ‘Mr. Trump’s statement appeared to be the first time that a major candidate for president had suggested conditioning the United States’ defense of its major allies.’

His proposal to ban all Muslims from visiting the US has now been subtly reworded -- in his speech on Thursday night accepting the Republican party’s presidential nomination, he promised to ‘suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place.’ The words may have been more carefully chosen, but the underlying idea remains exactly the same: people who come from Muslim countries are our enemies until they are proved otherwise.

Trump’s appeal precisely echoes Erdoğan’s: both portray themselves as national saviours, uniquely placed to rescue their countries from both internal and external enemies. As populists always do, they offer simple answers to complex problems: strength, single-mindedness, and confrontation with entrenched interests that are threatening the national fabric.

Three of the world’s most powerful democracies – the US, Turkey and India – either are, or may soon be, ruled by democratically-elected populist demagogues. Add Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which is often called a ‘managed democracy’, and you can make it four. (If a democracy is defined as a political system in which governments organise elections, a managed democracy is one in which they organise both the elections and the results.)

And it just so happens that these four countries are all in the top 10 of the world’s biggest military powers. (The others, if you include paramilitaries and reservists, are China, North Korea, Pakistan, South Korea, Iran and Vietnam.) It’s all a bit worrying. More than a bit, in fact.

There is nothing in the rule book that says democracies always produce good governments, even if non-democracies invariably produce bad governments. And if one of the principal tasks of any government is to help create conditions in which its citizens feel secure, both financially and physically, then over the past decade, the democratically elected governments in the world’s most developed economies have patently failed.

According to a new report from the McKinsey Global Institute, real incomes in 25 of the world’s most advanced economies were either flat or fell for more than two-thirds of households between 2005 and 2014. The highest proportion of households in which incomes failed to rise were in Italy, the US, the UK, the Netherlands and France.  

And guess what? Those just happen to be five of the countries in which anti-elite, populist politics are making most headway. As Martin Wolf pointed out in the Financial Times this week, people will accept far-reaching social and economic change (high levels of immigration, for example, or globalisation) if they believe that the changes are making them better off. If, on the other hand, the changes do not result in greater prosperity for the majority of people, they will be far less likely to be accepted.

In the words of the McKinsey report, ‘A significant number of those whose incomes have not been advancing are losing faith in aspects of the global economic system. Nearly one-third of those who are not advancing … expressed negative opinions about free trade and immigration.’

In a piece I wrote last May, I quoted the British-born American commentator Andrew Sullivan: ‘Late-stage capitalism is creating a righteous, revolutionary anger that late-stage democracy has precious little ability to moderate or constrain.’ Since then, we’ve had the EU referendum, the Erdoğan crackdown in Turkey, and the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican party’s presidential candidate.

It’s not exactly democracy’s finest hour. President Erdoğan once described democracy as like a train: you get off when you reach your destination. (Erdoğan and his Justice and Development party, by the way, have won four successive elections in the past 15 years.) So what happens when democracies elect demagogues? Or when a referendum produces a result that is regarded by a clear majority of MPs as damaging to national prosperity? What use is representative democracy if elected representatives can be over-ruled by a plebiscite?

Come to that, what happens when the members of a political party elect a leader who does not command the confidence of the party’s own MPs? Yes, Mr Corbyn, I’m looking at you.

Democracy can often fall far short of what a genuinely effective, representative political system should be. The trouble is that so far, no one has come up with anything better. I just hope that someone, somewhere, is working on it …







Monday, 18 July 2016

UK to world: Please stop laughing

(This post was originally due to be published last Friday but was held back after the attack in Nice.)

When even the Swiss are laughing at you, you know you’re in trouble.

Last Thursday morning’s Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger carried a cartoon showing Theresa May and Boris Johnson. ‘I didn't use to have any children,’ she says. ‘Now I do.’

What in God’s name was our new prime minister thinking? Or perhaps the question should be: What in God’s name was she smoking? Which hallucinogenic substance on earth would induce anyone to think that appointing BoJo The Clown as foreign secretary might be a good idea?

Did no one show her the front page of the French newspaper Liberation the day after the referendum? It showed that famous photo of Boris Johnson dangling helplessly from a stalled zip wire, forlornly waving a union flag with a daft blue helmet on his head. There were just two words in the headline, in English. ‘Good Luck.’

Merci beaucoup, mes amis. We’re going to need it.

Did no one remind her of the long list of countries and foreign leaders insulted by BoJo? Or of his talent for shooting from the lip for the sake of a cheap laugh and an easy headline? Or his miserable lack of any discernible achievements during his eight years as mayor of London? A housing market out of control and pollution levels so high that in some parts of the city they actually exceed legal limits?

This is the man she wants to represent the UK overseas? In God’s name, why?

If you ever wanted proof that politicians live on a different planet from the rest of us, observe our new foreign secretary and marvel. Because to politicians – and to political analysts and observers – the appointment of BoJo makes a weird kind of sense.

You thought Brexit was a good idea, Boris? Fine, off you go and explain it to our friends and allies around the world. But you won’t be doing any negotiating, because frankly, I wouldn’t trust you to negotiate your way into the right room at the right time, let alone say the right thing to the right person.

You think you can still have a shot at being prime minister? Sure, go ahead, but remember that if Conservative party members revolt against the inevitable compromises that we’re going to have to make, you’ll have to support me as a loyal member of my government. Your job is to sell the deal – isn’t that what you’re meant to be so good at?

And if you think you’ll have time to plot and scheme against my leadership, and then storm out of the government as if you’re Michael Heseltine, think again, because you’re going to be spending nearly all your time for the foreseeable future on flights to far-off places and in foreign hotel rooms. Bon voyage, BoJo, and hasta la vista.

Perhaps our new prime minister has outed herself as a closet Stephen Sondheim admirer:

Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground
You in mid-air
Send in the clowns.

Oh, how sweet is revenge. Theresa the Terminator has wielded the axe with unparalleled brutality. Osborne, Gove, Letwin, Whittingdale, Morgan – the colleagues she rowed with or never rated – all gone. Not even Margaret Thatcher dared to be so bold.

And Andrea Leadsom, remember her? Buried in what’s left of the Min of Ag and Fish, to explain to farmers why they won’t be getting any more EU subsidies.

But we know, of course, what happens to those who live by the sword. Mrs May has created more than enough political enemies to wipe out her Commons majority at a single stroke. She is in for a very rough ride and her chief Brexit negotiator David Davis will need all his SAS training to survive the battles ahead. She will never be as powerful again as she was last week.

Her party is as divided as it ever was, its Commons majority is as razor-thin, and the country’s economic woes are set to worsen. As the storm clouds gather, she’ll be mighty tempted to bolster her authority by means of a general election. I should know better by now than to try to make predictions, but I’m pencilling it in for the autumn of next year. If she’s lucky, the Labour party will have finally fallen apart by then.

Mrs May’s Cabinet appointments tell us that she is far braver than David Cameron, and far more ruthless. But she must stop smoking whatever it was that led her to send BoJo The Clown to the Foreign Office.

Because it will never, ever, be in the national interest for the UK to be an international laughing stock.