Don’t Expect The Independent Group To Rescue Britain’s Broken Politics

Antichrist - end of the world

Chuka Umunna? Former choirboy, but most definitely not the Messiah…

In my limited spare time since commencing law school, I have been attending a wonderful Bible study group for graduate students, organized by the university’s Catholic Student Center. Having plodded our way methodically through the New Testament, last week we reached the Book of Revelation and alighted on the topic of the Antichrist – antichrists being false prophets preaching a deceptive gospel, and also a specific figure cloaked in seeming holiness and authority, whose arrival would presage the second coming of Christ.

In other, totally unrelated news, British politics seems to have been roiled in my absence by the defection of eight Labour and three Conservative MPs from their respective parties to form a flashy new association called The Independent Group. In selecting a spokesperson for their group, the breakaway MPs nominated Chuka Umunna, the ex-Labour politician best known for describing himself as Britain’s Barack Obama. As we shall see, this was a revealing choice – elevating a man who models himself on the US president who promised hope and change, delivered the former in spades back in 2008 but so little of the latter by 2016 that the people elected Donald Trump as his successor.

The cast list of TIGgers (yes, they actually call themselves that) on the ex-Labour side is a veritable who’s who of frustrated New Labourite centrists whose slick career ambitions have been put into stasis since Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party and wholesale rejection of the Blairite/Brownite technocratic tendency (though some credit must be given to MPs such as Luciana Berger, who also had cause to flee the appalling, metastasizing antisemitism within Corbyn’s hard left faction). On the ex-Tory side, we have the likes of Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry, politicians whom one would never have guessed to be conservative in the first place but for the fact that they campaigned wearing a blue rosette during general election season.

The TIGgers had a number of justifications for their decision to leave their former parties (though notably, none had the courage to call a by-election and allow their constituents to positively affirm their presence in Parliament under a new party affiliation). Those coming from the Labour Party repeatedly stressed the antisemitism continually exhibited by those close to Jeremy Corbyn and tolerated by the Labour leadership, though their claims that it was the deciding factor fail the credibility test since antisemitism on the hard left and ultra-progressive wings of the Labour Party is hardly a new and surprising issue. More telling is ex-Labour Mike Gapes’ bitter complaint that “the Labour leadership is complicit in facilitating Brexit” – the idea that the Labour Party might support a policy popular among the party’s traditional voter base being too much for him to comprehend. Meanwhile, ex-Tory MPs like Anna Soubry complained about prime minister Theresa May’s dogged approach to Brexit and what they called the party’s reliance on the Hard Brexit fundamentalist ERG group of MPs and a takeover of the party by “right-wing, hard line anti-EU” forces.

All of this was covered portentously and near-reverentially by a Westminster journalistic class who tend to jump at any opportunity to breathlessly report on personalities instead of policy (the details of Brexit still eluding many of them) and which is near-uniformly progressive in socio-economic ideology and stridently anti-Brexit in particular. Thus we were treated to gushing hot takes by the likes of ex-PM Tony Blair (“embrace the spirit of insurgency!“), a Guardian journalist overcome with admiration as these courageous rebels dined at Nando’s, The Scotsman (which swats away inconvenient observations such as the fact that “they have no vision, coherent policy platform or leader”) and readers of the hateful EU propaganda rag The New European, who are desperate for the TIGgers not to subject themselves to by-elections and the indignity of seeking democratic approval of their party betrayal.

Naturally, all of this praise has gone to the TIGgers’ heads, and what started as an act of pure political calculation has now become in their minds an almost heroic declaration of political independence and bold purpose. Hence self-aggrandizing pronouncements such as this:

Heidi Allen thinks that “the two big parties [are] demonstrating more and more every day that they are not up to the challenges facing our country”. This is the same Heidi Allen who campaigned under the Conservative Party banner without a whisper of complaint in 2015 and 2017, maneuvering hard to get that coveted initial constituency selection in the first place.

And here is The Independent Group’s London branch, acting as though it is an oasis of reason in a desert of conformist thinking:

You would think that a brand new political party – a group whose ranks are filled with MPs who had the supposed “courage” to quit their parties and risk the wrath of their constituents because of their overriding concern about the country’s direction – would be positively fizzing with alternative policy ideas and solutions to the national problems they quietly tracked for so long before making their big move. You would be wrong.

But that’s fine. Maybe TIG is understandably reticent to commit themselves by announcing headline policies at this early stage, while they are still trying to woo other potential defectors and grow in strength. We should, though, still be able to parse a sense of what this radical new party stands for by analyzing the famous speeches and policy initiatives of its star members, right? “Oh, Bob? He’s the one who wants to create a network of community colleges to retrain people whose old careers are under threat from globalization and automation.” “Rachel? Isn’t she the one who called for a national Apollo Program for education, criticizing Britain for shooting for the middle with education outcomes and exhorting us to catch up with world leaders like South Korea and Finland?” “Rupert has a great plan for constitutional reform to bring government closer to the people and make leaders more accountable”. “Ayesha actually had the courage to reject calls for her to post a public love-letter to the NHS on Valentine’s Day, saying that we need to stop deifying the healthcare service and look to other countries for examples of best practice”.

Again, tumbleweeds. The British political firmament as a whole is hardly blessed with a multitude of bold, original thinkers, and such figures certainly aren’t among the fabulous seven, the daring eleven or whatever number of forgettable non-entities currently comprise The Independent Group.

All of which is a great pity. As this blog has noted over and over and over and over and over and  over again, Britain has entered a period of political discontinuity – a time when the existing political settlement, with its narrow range of policy options, are no longer adequate to the challenges at hand. Such periods of discontinuity require politicians to think the previously unthinkable in terms of policy solutions, not to flee their former political parties in an outrage that people are actually starting to do so.

As described in the influential Stepping Stones report:

In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.

But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.

So what is The Independent Group’s grand unified theory for fixing Britain? Besides thwarting Brexit, they don’t have one. But they did roll out their very first policy initiative with tremendous fanfare:

Today we launched a petition calling for an end to the Government’s four-year freeze on working age benefits. Ending the freeze on working age benefits would lift 200,000 people – who are working, but struggling to make ends meet – out of poverty.

We believe that all policy should be evidence-based, especially when that policy affects some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

There’s no reason to persist with the final year of the freeze, especially when the past three years significantly exceeded the savings originally envisaged.

Is this the best that the courageous breakaway radical thinkers of British politics can do -a feel-good policy about relaxing benefit freezes? As part of a broader overhaul of welfare policy, this may indeed be a valid and “evidence-based” approach. But The Independent Group have not conducted any such broader review of the welfare system; they simply cherry-picked the low-hanging policy fruit designed to appeal to middle income swing voters, without any consideration of the knock-on effects on public finances, incentives to work or anything else. There’s certainly no bold leadership here, no telling difficult truths to the public about necessary trade-offs in public spending.

Indeed, The Independent Group will not be able to formulate meaningful policy on any number of issues, welfare included, being comprised of defector MPs from opposite parties with different views on the subject. If the party is to survive for any length of time, it would have to strike a balance between the ex-Labour and ex-Tory factions, and would likely produce policies almost identical to any government or opposition which sought to woo the same swing voters by meeting them where they are (rather than doing the much harder – but necessary – job of convincing them that they, too, need to update their thinking about what is both desirable and politically feasible).

Contra Heidi Allen’s complaint that the two main parties are “not up to the challenges facing our country”, The Independent Group exists precisely because the two main parties were captured by forces which seek to overturn the “old established politics” – Labour by the Corbynites with their faith in 1970s-style, red-blooded socialism and the Tories by the ultra free trade zealots of the ERG (though on non-Brexit matters, the Tory Party remains as uninspiringly centrist and authoritarian as it ever was – a fact which Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston should have valued, given the fact that they emblemize that sentiment within the party). The two big parties may not yet be responding to this period of discontinuity the right way, but both are shifting their thinking. It is The Independent Group who seek to stand athwart history, yelling “stop!”.

These are not People of Action, bristling at the stultifying ideological confines of their former parties. Rather, they are Captains of Inaction, career machine politicians who thrived on the Old Politics – that comforting bygone era when New Labour would be nanny statist and indulge centre-left interventionist tendencies as the Tories accused them of socialism on steroids, while the Tories would be ever so slightly less nanny statist and interventionist as Labour screamed that they were a libertarian Ayn Rand dystopian outfit made flesh.

However much they may strut and preen, the TIGger MPs are not frustrated free thinkers yearning to push the boundaries of the Overton Window in British politics or advocate for daring new solutions to the problems we face in the early 21st century – they are establishment refugees seeking a lifeboat to take them back to the New Labour, centrist consensus of the 1990s and 2000s. The root of their discontent is not the fact that British politics has become stale and conformist – their anger stems from the fact that the two main political parties have reacted to voter dissatisfaction by moving in direction which reduces their own personal influence (and/or hopes of future high office).

Pete North, welcoming what he sees as the death of centrism, puts it better than me:

Progressivism (whatever that actually means) has become a byword for sanitised cellophane wrapped politics which produces the androgynous clones like Chuka Umunna designed for maximum media inoffensiveness. Like Ken dolls one wonders if these people even possess genitalia. The political version of morning TV magazine show presenters. And as repellent as they are, these people don’t actually know anything.

This much has been made abundantly clear during the course of Brexit. They have no idea why we voted to leave, and no idea how we got where we are, or indeed how to get ourselves out of it. Instead of seeking to understand what is upon us, they have invested all of their energies into sweeping Brexit under the carpet with a view to going back to their consequence free normality where they soak up media attention but take on none of the responsibilities and obligations.

It is telling that the new Independent Group have elected to promote themselves on a handful of recycled populist slogans. They speak of a “different way of doing things” under the “ChangePolitics” hashtag, with all the self-awareness of a diarrhetic hippo. Chris Leslie in all seriousness went on BBC Question Time to tell us “The big political parties want to keep everything as it is” when this bunch are the very essence of the establishment – the rotting corpse of centrism.

Frustration with Britain’s dysfunctional politics is quite understandable, and the growing realization that something has broken beyond repair is encouraging to witness. But to see in the cast of The Independent Group anything resembling salvation from our problems is to put one’s faith in a false prophet.

The politicians who made headlines by flouncing out of their respective political parties aren’t preaching a bold new gospel which the country can get behind. They aren’t currently preaching a message of any kind at all, beyond a furious opposition to Brexit and the inchoate yearning for a return to the time when uttering bland platitudes about Tory heartlessness or Labour profligacy was all it took to sustain one’s political career. If anything, these are avowedly Old Testament politicians, furious with incomprehension that their message no longer resonates in New Testament Britain.

As a general rule of life, it it looks too good to be true, it probably is. The Independent Group doesn’t even manage to look good on cursory examination, but even if one finds oneself falling for their polished Twitter hashtags about changing politics, the point remains that given the rather pitiful raw material at their disposal, The Independent Group’s promise of political renewal is indeed too good to be true – no matter how strongly one wishes that Chuka Umunna and his unlikely gang were the real deal.

 

Antichrist

The Independent Group

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I’m Sorry, Is Brexit Boring You?

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Laughing at Britain’s Brexit woes might be justified if other countries were successfully tackling the pre-eminent problem of the early 21st century — reconciling meaningful democracy and self-determination with the imperative for global regulation and governance. But since no-one else has bothered to pick up the torch of destiny, maybe it’s time to rethink the self-satisfied mockery.

Spare a thought for poor Ryan Heath of Politico EU. He simply finds Brexit – and specifically Britain’s ongoing debate about the nature and timing of our departure from the European Union – too boring to deal with anymore .

At this point a half-competent developer could probably build an algorithm to randomly generate these generic, establishment media anti-Brexit Op-Eds disguised as Serious Analysis. Simply change the order of the sentences and the particular focus (elderly racists, evil Russians, young people having their futures stolen, glorious isolation, the end of Our NHS), crank the handle and out will come another cookie-cutter article ready to publish.

For those journalists observing from across the sea, the generic takes tend to be even more uniformly simplistic – former colonial power having an identity crisis, mid-sized country trying and failing to punch above its weight, lots of schadenfreude about loss of empire, lots of gloating over the humiliation of a country ranked by the intelligentsia alongside only America and Israel as uniquely evil and benighted, polished off with a smarmy, waggish lecture about chickens coming home to roost.

Ryan Heath gives us an absolutely perfect encapsulation of such an article this week in Politico. Headlined “Brexit Britain: Small, Boring and Stupid” it indulges every tedious trope ever to have emerged from the Remainer hive mind.

A sample:

Brexit is the story of a proud former imperial power undergoing a mid-life crisis. The rest of the world is left listening to Britain’s therapy session as they drone on about their ex-spouse, the EU: When will they stop talking and just move on?

The promise of Brexit at the time it narrowly passed in a national referendum in June of 2016 was that it was a way for Britain to feel big again — no longer hectored by the EU bureaucracy in Brussels, no longer treated as just one of 28 members in an unwieldy confederacy.

“Britain is special,” the Brexiteers assured British voters, who cast their ballots accordingly.

The last two years have revealed something different: For the first time in modern history, Britain is small. Having sailed into the 20th century as an empire, the U.K. spent the second half of the century shedding nearly all of its colonies — and as a result much of its economic and military might.

For the first time in modern history, Britain is small? Isn’t that what they said after Victory in Europe, after Suez, during the Winter of Discontent and a hundred other, smaller national and geopolitical events? If Britain truly had shrunk in power and stature as much as has been claimed by the commentariat after each of these events, we would currently have the geopolitical heft of Burundi. Something doesn’t quite add up.

But it turns out that this was just the pleasant introduction, before Ryan Heath really dials up the condescension to 100:

While many Brits have strong emotions about the EU, they rarely have a strong understanding. I feel like a kindergarten teacher every time I speak on the issue.

It is fashionable to blame an irresponsible U.K. media (including the country’s most famous sometime-journalist, now leading Brexiteer MP Boris Johnson) for stoking misunderstanding about the EU for decades. Long before Macedonian troll factories and Russian bots there were the editors of the Sun tabloid newspaper.

But what about the millions of people who consumed those fibs and the spineless politicians who avoided the hassle of correcting them? We blame Greeks for blowing up their economy and hold accountable big-spending governments for saddling future generations with excessive debts. Britons don’t deserve a free pass: It’s time they reckoned with what they sowed through 45 years of shallow EU debate.

It is Britain’s unique ignorance that makes Britain so boring. Ignorant about its leverage and ignorant about the EU, the U.K. is coming across as clumsy and caddish.

On and on it goes – you get the idea.

Ryan Heath, you must understand, exists on a higher plane of consciousness than you and I. With his demigod-like, birds-eye view of geopolitics, instinctive grasp of democratic imperatives and subatomic knowledge of the technocracy underpinning global trade, Heath has conclusively determined that everything is great, there were no issues with the EU worth fussing over, and that Brexit was motivated by nothing more than a spasm of ignorance, racism and pining for lost empire.

But if anything is truly boring, it is not Brexit but rather this well-worn take on Brexit, echoed over and over again from the New York Times to the Atlantic to New York Magazine to Politico. Wherever self-described intellectuals of a center-left persuasion are gathered together, you can read exactly the same cookie-cutter take on Brexit, perfectly crafted to enable them to nod and stroke their beards while having all of their prejudices neatly confirmed.

It’s not new, and it’s not clever. Foreign journalists and media outlets have been repeating the same old tired “humiliation of a former colonial power” trope since the end of the Second World War. Often, these articles pointedly incorporate Dean Acheson’s famous quote about Britain having “lost an empire and not yet found a role”, presumably in an effort to add some gravitas and borrowed credibility. And now as 2018 draws to a close, Ryan Heath has the nerve to draw a salary in exchange for churning out the same tired observations made by half a century’s worth of diplomats and journalists.

Words cannot express how profoundly Brexit has caused me to lose faith in our political, intellectual and media class. At a time when the prestige media is increasingly busy beating its collective breast, playing the victim and positioning itself as the last great bulwark protecting Liberal Democracy from the (white working class) barbarian hordes, at best they seem to have become fundamentally uncurious about the single most important political debate and experiment in the world currently taking place in Britain, and at worst they openly cheerlead for the status quo.

If Ryan Heath spent less time airily declaring his boredom, he might dwell on the fact that Brexit – in all its halting, stop-start awkwardness – is the first significant attempt by any country to answer the question of how a modern nation state can reconcile the technocratic demands of global trade with the need to preserve meaningful democracy. On this key question, Britain is currently the laboratory of the world. No other first-tier country has dared to touch the subject with a ten-foot bargepole. At best, some of the more forward-thinking opinion journalists are belatedly ringing the alarm bells, but nowhere other than Britain have these concerns generated any kind of significant governmental response.

Sure, it doesn’t always sound like anything so noble is taking place, particularly when you hear one self-aggrandizing MP after another parade their ignorance on the television news, or when UKIP’s leader du jour stands up to grunt about Muslims and evil immigrants. But the job of good journalists working for a vigilant press is to look beyond the obvious, superficial headline at the deeper, underlying story. Just as no one expert in any particular field can plausibly claim to speak authoritatively on the merits and drawbacks of Brexit, no one journalist can make authoritative sweeping statements about Brexit from the sole perspective of their own cloistered social and professional circles.

At a time when the EU is signally failing millions of its citizens, when southern Europe’s economy remains sclerotic, youth unemployment endemic, populist parties and authoritarian leaders are gaining traction everywhere and civil order has been restored in Paris only thanks to EU-branded armored personnel carriers, some introspection as to the EU’s flaws and capacity to overcome those flaws might be in order. Some serious interrogation of the political leaders who delivered us to this baleful moment might justifiably be expected. But don’t look for such searching coverage in the prestige press, which would rather unquestioningly take the side of the people whose lack of foresight and political courage pushed the campaign for Brexit over the finish line.

In what passes for my feeble magnum opus of 2017, I laid out some of these challenges as they pertain to Britain:

Automation, outsourcing and globalisation have incrementally, relentlessly eaten away at the idea of a steady, 9-5 factory or retail job being sufficient to raise a family or buy a house. Millions of people who in decades past went through an education system which prepared them for little else now find themselves having to learn new computer or service-based skills from scratch, with almost no support or coordination from local or national government.

Even university graduates find that their degrees are of increasingly dubious value, and are obliged to virtually fight to the death for a coveted place on a corporate graduate scheme. The losers go back to live with their parents or work in minimum wage drudgery, wondering why their BA in critical gender theory hasn’t proven to be the passport to the slick professional city life they crave. Call centres and giant Amazon distribution centres have become the new dark satanic mills of modern Britain. Our present education policy should be focused entirely on this looming precipice, yet we distract ourselves by arguments over grammar schools or whether boys should be allowed to wear tiaras and tutus in class.

Meanwhile, there is a huge global human migration underway, prompted by the fact that countless millions more people are connected to the world through the internet and have the means to move from struggling countries to new lands of perceived opportunity – sometimes legally, usually illegally. Political leaders have openly or tacitly welcomed and even fuelled this flow, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the required housing, infrastructure and services do not smoothly and automatically increase in direct proportion to a rising population – and then dare to act startled and affronted when the resident population complains about the impact.

At the same time, elites have preached a gospel of absolute tolerance and multiculturalism while refusing to promote British or Western values, or encourage new immigrants to assimilate, and then cry “racism!” when inevitable tensions occur. They have created a country where some British-born people feel more affinity and allegiance to a barbaric Islamist death cult than the country which gave them life and liberty – and then prove it by stealing away to join ISIS or launching terror attacks which kill and maim their fellow citizens.

[..] Each one of these issues forms part of a crumbling edifice representing the failed, discredited and obsolete centrist political consensus. Tinkering with the EU – to the limited extent that Britain could ever effect meaningful directional change in Brussels – was never going to happen, despite the constant disgruntled, exculpatory outbursts from Remainers that “of COURSE the EU needs reform!”.

What do all of these issues have in common? They are things that the Ryan Heaths and other establishment journalists of this world spend their professional careers furiously refusing to acknowledge as a significant problem in the first place.

In fact, with very few honorable exceptions, one has to look to the neglected and under-appreciated political blogosphere for the kind of analysis that household-name journalists are apparently incapable of performing.

Here’s Pete North, on typically good form, doing Ryan Heath’s job for him:

They think Brexit only happened because of “austerity” – not because we are utterly sick of the lot of them. They think they can once again dip into our wallets to dish out electoral bribes and we’ll be ok with them pissing on our votes. They reckon we didn’t really mean to leave the EU – and that it’s just the underlying issues *they* need to fix. It doesn’t occur to them that the underlying issue is the fact that we hate them and their EU vanity project. It’s all just a management and PR problem to them.

They genuinely think we’re too bovine to care about things like self-determination,. democracy and accountability – and we’ll pack up and go away if there’s a top up of regional funding. We all know nothing would change if we trusted them. As much as anything, we voted to leave precisely because we have an establishment that will continually do as it pleases and ignore the rest of the country when we protest. Even now they don’t get it which is why they can so casually talk about overturning a vote.

They don’t recognise that Brits genuinely want regime change and a change to reshape Britain – and all they offer us is more of the same – more taxes, more authoritarianism and more paternalistic meddling while they heap on the insults. The fact that these well compensated individuals parade Blair, Major, Adonis and Campbell on our screens honestly thinking it will win people over tells you everything you need to know.

Ryan Heath thinks that Britain has made a fool of herself by taking the plunge and voting for Brexit in an attempt to address these looming challenges. That may be so. But what has any other country done to address the pressing challenge of adapting democracy to work in a globalized world? What has the United States done under Trump? Germany under “leader of the free world” Angela Merkel? Or France under the establishment’s beloved Emmanuel Macron?

It is easy to laugh and cast judgments at Brexit’s many pitfalls and the…significant intellectual and personality flaws of those who claim to be leading and speaking for it. But it is much less funny when one is forced to acknowledge that other countries still have their heads in the sand and are not even attempting to answer these increasingly existential questions, despite facing exactly the same democratic pressures and rifts as Britain.

When Donald Trump or his Democratic Party opposition come up with a coherent plan to address these interlinked challenges (rather than ranting about making America great again or bowing down even further to the cult of intersectional identity politics), Britain might look legitimately bad in comparison. When Emmanuel Macron emerges from his hiding place brandishing a plan for national renewal more sophisticated than simply hiking fuel taxes by 40% and screwing the rural poor, Britain might rightly feel a degree of shame. When the European Union takes these issues seriously and prioritizes the welfare of its citizens rather than the completion of the covert federal project, Britain might seem like the ignorant and churlish party by comparison. Needless to say, that day has not yet arrived.

In the European Union we have a supranational, continent-wide political union of distinct nation states, unloved by its nominal citizens, sorely lacking legitimacy, seethingly antagonistic to anything more than rote, symbolic democracy and displaying a marked unwillingness to listen to its people or change direction. Britain at least attempted to resolve this impasse by voting to leave that sclerotic organization, which is more than any other country has done, though the reasons for doing so and preferred modes of Brexit were many and varied. And so if you insist on laughing at Britain for taking this step, then you had darn well better have a bevy of superior, practical and politically feasible alternatives up your sleeve, ready to roll out.

But Ryan Heath has no superior answer to give. His preferred benchmark is the status quo. He clearly sees absolutely nothing wrong with the state of affairs which led to Brexit – the increasing political alienation and sense of powerlessness, a mode of governance which firehoses a stream of economic opportunity at the well-educated but rains financial and social desolation on everyone else, the rampant corruption of the European Union, the sinister drive to implement the project in defiance of any national referenda which stand in its way. All of which is unsurprising, since his professional history includes a stint working as spokesman for Jose Manuel Barroso at the European Commission. A more institutionally captured “objective” journalist does not exist on God’s green earth.

Brexit, in all its imperfections, is an historic opportunity, and one which deserves to be discussed as such at least some of the time by some of the prestige media – even if only as an opportunity missed – rather than the unmitigated, irrational, self-inflicted calamity that it is continually portrayed as by the likes of Heath. As I wrote when (not so implausibly) comparing the story of the hit musical Hamilton to Britain’s current predicament:

Through Brexit, history has gifted us the opportunity to imagine a new and improved form of government, one which strives to meet our future challenges rather than cower from them (all that EU membership offers, most telling in the rhetoric used by Remainers) or pretend that they do not exist (favoured by the more retrograde Brexiteers who envisage a simple rollback to the old nation state). We must seize this opportunity and be a beacon for other nations, all of which must ultimately grapple with the same issues though they may deny or postpone them for a time.

I’m very sorry that Ryan Heath finds Brexit so boring, and one country’s lonely attempt to address the preeminent challenge of the early 21st century a bothersome distraction from the true job of a Politico journalist – breathlessly reporting court gossip and revealing who was spotted dining with who at whichever Michelin-starred restaurant in Brussels or Strasbourg. Silly, selfish us for intruding too long on his consciousness with our concerns about representative democracy and self-determination.

Fortunately for Heath, it increasingly appears that he shall get his wish. The incompetence of Britain’s political class, the invidious dishonesty of the Tory extreme Brexiteers and the highly successful efforts by all corners of the establishment to obstruct and discredit Brexit has gradually increased the possibility that Britain never leaves the European Union at all – or that such a departure consists of nominally leaving the political union while remaining for all intents and purposes permanently bound to its key institutions.

And then of course, Brexit having been thwarted, all will be well with the world once again. Britain will reset to 1998 and a time when all of these pesky concerns about democratic deficits and a dehumanizing macroeconomic policy focus were a low-level hum rather than a piercing, inescapable alarm. People like me will know our place, and once again defer to people like Ryan Heath and the soulless technocracy he so faithfully serves.

Oh, wait.

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Mocking Grenfell Tower On Bonfire Night Is Appalling, But Should Not Be Criminal

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A society which looks to the state to deliver retribution for non-harmful offensive speech is a society which no longer values a core tenet of liberal democracy

The battle for free speech is won or lost at the margins, which means that those who call themselves advocates of free speech without being able to point to a history of defending deeply offensive speech from people across the ideological and cultural spectrum can be considered fair-weather friends of free speech at best – and outright liars at worst.

And so while a universal chorus of condemnation rightly rises from every corner of Britain regarding the sickening and provocative act of burning an effigy of Grenfell Tower, impersonating the victims and mocking the tragedy – and worse still, recording the vile show and sharing it on social media – it falls to this blog to point out once again that in a society which even aspires to uphold Western liberal values, having the police regulate social conduct is just plain wrong.

First, the appalling story, as recounted in the New York Times:

It was among the worst fires in modern British history: The blaze that gutted Grenfell Tower in London last year killed more than 70 people, displaced hundreds more and marred the lives of the mostly low- and middle-income residents who lived there.

But to a group celebrating Britain’s annual Bonfire Night, it was a joke.

In a widely shared video that circulated on Monday, a group of people laughed as they burned an effigy of Grenfell Tower, which included paper cutouts of residents in the windows. “Help me! Help me!” one person mocked as flames overtook the model tower. “Jump out the window!” another shouted.

Of course this is a disgusting and rather shocking act, one which no decent human being would ever contemplate performing. Of course it is injurious to the feelings of survivors of the fire, the bereaved families of the 70+ victims and the emergency services workers who attended the unimaginable scene. The act fully deserves the condemnation it has attracted from the prime minister on downwards.

But it is disturbing to hear that following such incidents, the police – empowered by law – take it upon themselves to seek out, arrest and charge those responsible. Many reprehensible actions either do not or should not meet the threshold of criminal liability, and absent any form of direct incitement to violence there is no good justification for invoking criminal sanctions against trolls. You cannot make a society politer and more considerate by fining or locking up the rude and provocative, and if you try then you will either preside over a hugely arbitrary and unjust system or else incarcerate tens of thousands of people and attach criminal stigma to social losers.

Some make the argument that scare police resources should not be diverted from frontline public safety duties toward scouring the internet for potential sources of offense and hunting down those who hurt the feelings of others, and this is quite correct. Particularly at a time when London is suffering a “stabbing epidemic” and has by some measures surpassed New York in terms of danger, continuing to employ crack teams of deskbound constables to scour Twitter and Facebook for thoughtcrime or bully the public with veiled warning about speechcrime is a monumentally bad use of resources.

But that is not the main issue at stake. Even if London was a refulgent and harmonious city of perfect safety and benevolence with no other crimes for the Metropolitan Police to handle (thanks to the inspired leadership of Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan) it would still be wrong to hunt down, arrest, intimidate or prosecute people for simply being vile human beings who delight in causing offense.

The remedy for such behavior lies not in criminal law but in the power of society to make its universal horror at such behavior known by exposing, shunning and shaming the culprits. Social consequences are a far more suitable and proportionate response – few people would contest that those who mocked the Grenfell Tower fire deserve any consequences which flow from their notoriety, be it lost jobs, lost friendship and ruined reputations.

And yet we live in an age where society will form a Twitter mob in nanoseconds to take down perfectly well-meaning people for simply misspeaking, making an error of judgment or not being fully up to date on the latest linguistic demands of the identity politics brigade, while in cases of positive acts of universally condemnable behavior we seem content to shrug our shoulders and outsource the job to the police and the criminal justice system.

This is not right. The kind of punishment which communities can dole out to moral miscreants is flexible enough so that the punishment can be made to fit the crime, but does not tar somebody forever. Being arrested, charged, convicted of a supposed “public order offense” and given a lifetime criminal record is another matter entirely, particularly when there is no injury to persons or property.

You can tell a lot about a society by the people who languish in its prisons. In the United States, my new home, over 2.2 million people are presently incarcerated in federal, state or county prisons and jails, nearly 1 percent of the population – many for non-violent crimes, the victim of a prison industrial complex warped by the prevalence of privately owned and operated prisons. Brits are often quick to mock or denigrate the United States for this fact, and hold America up as a cautionary tale – and rightly so.

Yet in Britain we arrest, charge, caution or imprison people for making YouTube videos in poor taste, joking on social media, singing offensive football songs, preaching non-violent religion in public or criticizing another religion (though of course some religions are more equal than others). This would make us an international laughing stock and object of grave concern were it not for the fact that many other Western countries are merrily going down the same path – particularly with the rise in authoritarianism on one hand and the desperation of an intellectually bankrupt establishment to smother dissent on the other.

Apparently five people have now been arrested after surrendering themselves to police following their depraved little Bonfire Night stunt. They are doubtless all entirely reprehensible and unsympathetic characters who will now join the ranks of lowlifes, oddballs, misfits and assorted others who have found themselves bundled into the back of a police van and charged with criminal acts for having made other people feel bad or outraged.

This should not be the purpose of criminal law in a liberal democratic Western society. The police at present cannot even guarantee our physical safety or reliably bring to justice those who commit crimes against people and property. Are we now to add to their burden a responsibility to guard our ears and eyes against taking in that which we find offensive and repellent?

This is the kind of case which makes me cringe when Britain’s unenlightened attitude toward free speech comes up while comparing and contrasting different judicial approaches here in law school in the US. This is the kind of case which makes me vaguely embarrassed to be British, because when British society and communities abdicate their role in self-regulating behavior and outsource the job to the police, it tells the rest of the world that we are too hopeless, too fragile, too pathetic to withstand the slings and arrows of daily life without the state acting as auxiliary parent to us all, stepping in to fight our battles for us.

I want no part in this societal self-infantilization. It should fall to strong communities with shared values (if there are any such values left that are not being busily undermined by progressives and reactionaries) to moderate discourse where they feel necessary, not the government. We do not need the police to arrest everyone who makes us feel bad or sickens our stomachs with their trollish, attention-seeking behavior.

People who see fit to publish online a video of themselves mocking the victims of one of the worst fires in modern British history condemn themselves through their actions well enough – they don’t require any additional help from the state.

 

Free Speech - Conditions Apply - Graffiti

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People’s Vote Celebrities Burnish Their Woke Credentials By Giving False Hope To Remainers

Bono U2 EU flag Brexit virtue signaling

As celebrities and failed politicians prepare to gather for another central London protest against Brexit, their unchanging tactics make clear that this is more about burnishing their reputations as right-on culture warriors than sincerely trying to persuade the British people to change course

John Harris has long been about the only writer at the Guardian worth reading, and today he has some wise words of advice for the organizers and stars of the upcoming march in support of “People’s Vote” on overturning Brexit and remaining in the European Union.

For those who have been living under a rock and therefore missed the incessant publicity of these astroturf, significantly foreign-funded umbrella groups agitating for another vote (termed by activists and unquestioningly sympathetic journalists the “People’s Vote” because presumably the June 2016 vote which they lost turned out not to be a people’s vote) are holding another one of their big marches in central London. They will be meeting in fashionable Park Lane, that bastion of salt-of-the-earth Britishness with which so many potentially wavering regional Leave voters identify, and sauntering down to Parliament Square where they will hear various assembled celebrities and last season’s political grandees tell them the same comforting bromides that they have been repeating for over two years.

John Harris thinks that maybe – just maybe – this “second time lucky” approach will not bring the windfalls which the organizers are hoping for, which presumably include generating mounting and irresistible public pressure for Brexit to be delayed while a new referendum is organized.

Says Harris:

The music, apparently swelling towards a climax that never arrives, sounds like a Coldplay outtake, and most of the faces suggest an entertaining Saturday night in front of the TV. On and on they go: the singer Jamelia, the actor Dominic West, Philip Pullman, Stephen Mangan, Josh Widdicombe, Tracey Ullman, Natascha McElhone, the musician Nitin Sawhney, Gary Lineker, Matt Lucas and good old Dan Snow. Non-famous people seem to be few and far between, with the exception of an unnamed man in front of a football crowd and someone whose caption merely says “a farmer from Scotland”.

Who are these people? The same crowd of luvvies who believe that their celebrity endows them with some special wisdom and insight into geopolitics which the rest of us desperately need to hear. The same people who actively drove wavering voters into the arms of the 2016 Leave campaign.

Harris continues:

Ostensibly, the video is aimed simply at encouraging people to go on the demo, a job it may well be doing reasonably well. But it clearly has a larger reach, and shines light on an increasingly inescapable problem: the failure of the range of forces now pushing against Brexit (from Open Britain, to Scientists for EU and the student campaign FFS (AKA For our Future’s Sake), and Britain for Europe) to do much more than working up their own side, and get anywhere near shifting the balance of opinion in the country.

Slow hand clap. It took two years, but we finally got there. To be fair, Harris probably knew this all along – but then if more instinctively pro-EU journalists, commentators and campaigners had half of Harris’ self-awareness we likely would not have voted to leave the EU in the first place. More:

To be fair to anti-Brexit campaigners, the contortions of the Labour party and the big trade unions are not helping them. But they should also look at their own failings. First, as evidenced by the video, they cannot seem to break out of the stereotype of remain voters as metropolitan and largely middle class, nor push beyond the impression of the anti-Brexit cause as something led by representatives of some awful ancien regime, commanded by Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and Bob Geldof (with supporting roles for, say, the former minister Andrew Adonis and the philosopher AC Graying, both of whom perhaps ought to tweet less).

Overall, there is still precious little awareness that if you put the people formerly known as the great and the good at the forefront of anti-Brexit campaigning, you run the risk of simply reminding millions of people why they voted to exit the EU in the first place. The problem is arguably symbolised by one fact above all others: that by the end of this month, the two biggest anti-Brexit events to date will have been huge marches in London.

This is why I shake my head every time that Tony Blair decides that the nation needs to hear from him on Brexit one more time – that if only he gives one more stirring speech, contorting his increasingly cadaverous face into those positions of faux-anguish and sincerity which once fooled so many of us – that we will immediately stop, see the error of our ways and hand the car keys back to the same determined kidnappers who drugged and abducted us in the first place, just as we stand on the cusp of escape.

But clearly this is not a lesson which penetrates the minds of the Smartest Guys In The Room, the people who think that their credentials, jobs and lifestyles give them some kind of exclusive divine right to chart Britain’s course. And so, like a one-hit wonder that won’t go away, they keep playing the same tune to an increasingly bored wider audience.

But it need not be like this, says Harris, who proposes ditching the celebrities and failed ex-politicians in favor of being seen “pitching up in the places that voted leave, and finally listening”. Harris signs off with this parting advice:

And perhaps bear in mind the words of the venerable Gina Miller, uttered at the people’s vote march earlier this year. “It’s time we took things back to the streets and the lanes, the towns and the villages, the meadows and the squares of this country,” she said. So why haven’t they done it?

Why haven’t they done it yet? Maybe because people like Gina Miller and the assembled celebrities agitating to subvert Brexit would never sully themselves by holding their big march in Sunderland (61-39) or Boston (75-25). Hell, they won’t even go so far as Birmingham (50.4-49.6). They wouldn’t be caught dead in any of those places. They’re happy to cut schmaltzy little videos exhorting other people to take the “People’s Vote” campaign to those areas, but Patrick Stewart and Bob Geldof aren’t going to check in to the Premier Inn Coventry and dine at Wetherspoon’s after a long day knocking on doors or accosting shoppers outside WH Smith.

And so we have this ludicrous campaign of unhinged celebrity carnival barkers, bleating their hypocritical demand about another referendum yet refusing to take their message beyond its existing metropolitan strongholds. Remember, these people really do consider themselves so smart. So much more educated, so much better informed, so much more aware of every possible relevant factor concerning Brexit, and yet they have made zero attempt to change the disastrous strategy which saw them lose the last round back on June 23, 2016.

Why? I am becoming increasingly convinced that the reason is that for many of them, this is not about leaving the European Union at all. That like so many other social justice causes, this is little more than a convenient vehicle for second-tier celebrities to clamber onto in order to prove their woke, right-on credentials. In short, the People’s Vote campaign is at least 50% a culture war issue. If even half of these celebrities were really motivated purely by the earnest desire to see Britain saved from economic self-harm, they would have been found during the 2017 snap general election protesting Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and cutting urgent YouTube campaign videos warning people not to vote for the party of renationalization and endlessly high taxes. But they didn’t, because allying with the Conservative party makes for bad PR, while hating on the Tories makes you cool and edgy.

Establishment and celebrity Remainers talk the language of economic damage, but at heart they are fighting a culture war. And to these people, Brexit is to be opposed because as Bono never tires of lecturing us, the European Union stands for everything enlightened and noble on this continent, and the nation state (and particularly Britain) stands for everything retrograde, oppressive and embarrassing. I have been watching this establishment-celebrity hissy fit roll on for over two years now, and I am convinced that the great thrust of their motivation is entirely rooted in the culture war.

Were it otherwise, establishment and celebrity Remainers would have used some of their vaunted intellect to learn from their mistakes and change tack. They would have realized that screeching worst case scenarios of economic doom at a population who were not evaluating the decision to leave the EU purely on economic terms had failed once, and would likely fail again. They would have conceded that having the same tedious, back-slapping conversation in which they and other like-minded souls praise one another for being so compassionate, intelligent and not stupid enough to be manipulated by the Russians was not buttering any parsnips among Leave voters. They would have ventured out into places like my hometown of Harlow, Essex and chatted with voters there – that way they could engage and attempt to convert some Leave voters firsthand while remaining within spitting distance of the M25 when they reached their tolerance limit for mingling with parochial Gammons.

But the celebrities and their political puppet-masters didn’t do any of that stuff. Instead, they threw every insult in the book at the other side. They painted the question in stark, good versus evil terms. They put forward air-headed celebrity spokespeople to make pro-EU statements about as emotionally convincing as a Kate Winslet Oscars acceptance speech. They came up with a new, racist word for white male Leave voters: Gammons. They broke out their actuarial tables and publicly looked forward to the death of elderly Brexit voters. And they organized march after insufferable march deep in the heart of Fortress London, the only part of the United Kingdom which most of them know or like.

The campaign for a “People’s Vote” is an exercise in catharsis for ordinary Remainers and an opportunity for virtue-signaling and personal brand-burnishing for the campaign’s celebrity conscripts. It is the least organic political movement in modern British history, and by far the most cynical. Again, most of these people bleating that the British people must be given a say over the terms of our future relationship with the EU never wanted the public to have a say in the first place, and certainly never wanted any public consultation or consensus-building as government after government took us deeper into supranational political union. And now they’re weeping in the streets of London, claiming that another referendum is required in the name of justice and democracy? Give me a break.

This is a culture war and these people are culture warriors – and rather pathetic, transparent ones at that. They certainly are not genuine tribunes of the people. Go ahead, try to change my mind.

Bob Geldof - EU Referendum - Brexit- Fisherman boat protest

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Lee v. Ashers Baking Company, A Victory Against Compelled Speech

Asher Bakery Belfast gay marriage cake compelled speech

Today saw a victory against compelled speech and authoritarian government, but fewer and fewer voices on the Left are in the mood to celebrate

Today the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom handed down a decision in Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd, the UK’s equivalent of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in the United States (which the UK court actually cited in its ruling).

Both cases came about when plaintiffs claimed discrimination based on sexual orientation after trying to place an order for wedding cakes bearing messages supportive of gay marriage at bakeries owned and operated by traditional conservative Christians, who then refused the orders on the grounds that to produce the cakes bearing the specific messages would violate their deeply held religious beliefs.

From the BBC:

The UK’s highest court ruled that Ashers bakery’s refusal to make a cake with a slogan supporting same-sex marriage was not discriminatory.

The five justices on the Supreme Court were unanimous in their judgement.

[…] The customer, gay rights activist Gareth Lee, sued the company for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and political beliefs.

But the bakery has always insisted its objection was to the message on the cake, not the customer.

I have long taken the view put forward many years ago by Andrew Sullivan, that gay marriage should be accepted on the grounds that broadening an institution which promotes stability, permanence, mutual responsibility and (consequently) social capital can only be a good thing, especially at a time when social atomization and selfish, destructive cultural hedonism are doing so much to weaken vital bonds at the community and national level.

I would never advocate (nor tolerate) religious institutions being forced to conduct gay marriage ceremonies against their will, but rolling out the basic template of marriage and making it more widely accessible – especially to one of the only demographics which currently shows any enthusiasm for the institution! – seems perfectly sensible to me.

But even more abhorrent than the idea that the government might compel religious organizations to conduct ceremonies which violated their codes and moral systems is the  prospect of government compelling the speech of ordinary people, making anybody who wishes to participate in the public square affirm certain social dogmas on pain of civil or criminal liability. We have already seen Canada start to go down this road with Canadian Bill C-16, a statutory amendment which adds gender identity and gender expression to classes of individuals protected under Canadian human rights law, and moves perilously close to criminalizing the “misgendering” of people. Thus it is not inconceivable that someone could be held criminally liable in Canada were they to refuse to conform their speech to proclaim that trans women are women and trans men are men.

Compelled speech is the very last thing a healthy liberal democracy should be striving to enact. Thus it is great to see at least one human rights and civil liberties group – one which has not yet fully prostrated itself before the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics – celebrate the Ashers Baking Company decision.

From the Peter Tatchell Foundation:

“This verdict is a victory for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers cannot be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage, it also means that gay bakers cannot be compelled by law to decorate cakes with anti-gay marriage slogans,” said human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

“Businesses can now lawfully refuse a customer’s request to emblazon a political message if they have a conscientious objection to it. This includes the right to refuse messages that are sexist, xenophobic or anti-gay, which is a good thing.

“Although I profoundly disagree with Ashers opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be forced to facilitate a political idea that they oppose.

“The ruling does not permit anyone to discriminate against LGBT people. Such discrimination rightly remains unlawful.

“Ashers did not discriminate against the customer, Gareth Lee, because he was gay. They objected to the message he wanted on the cake: Support gay marriage.’

It is sad that statements like this now have to be cheered and encouraged rather than taken for granted by civil liberties defenders and free speech advocates, but such are the authoritarian times in which we live – trapped in a pincer movement between what Maajid Nawaz calls the “Control Left” on one side, and reactionary, protectionist nationalists on the other.

Proving that he is one of the few prominent voices on the British Left who remains capable of thinking through the consequences of implementing illiberal leftist identity politics dogma heedless of the ramifications, Tatchell continues:

If the original judgement against Ashers had been upheld it would have meant that a Muslim printer could be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed and a Jewish printer could be forced to publish a book that propagates Holocaust denial. It could have also encouraged far right extremists to demand that bakers and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions.

Of course it wouldn’t be; we know that the administrators of this illiberal code – including establishment figures as powerful as the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service – would implement any such statutes or case law highly selectively, punishing only the disfavored “white, Christian male” group while refraining from holding other groups to the same draconian standard. But Tatchell is quite right that the argument for compelled speech, taken not even so far as to its logical conclusion but merely a few steps down the road, would swiftly end up censoring and controlling us all.

The real concern is that old-school campaigners like Peter Tatchell are a dying breed. In fact, they are being hunted to extinction by a new generation of social justice warrior activists whose petty accomplishments are nothing compared to someone like Tatchell (who, like him or not, has labored for years and put his body in harms way more than once in advance of his ideals) but who deludedly think they morally outrank him because they are willing to go further in their rhetorical, legal and constitutional attacks on dissenters.

This is a time when conservatives – indeed, anyone not of an ultra-progressive persuasion – need to pick their battles very carefully. Social conservatives may disagree vehemently with the social views of someone like Peter Tatchell, but in this authoritarian age it is not he who seeks to impose his views on others. Indeed, given the opportunity, some social conservatives would be more likely to impose their own views on progressive dissenters than Tatchell would do to them – which should give serious pause for reflection.

At this time the threat to fundamental rights and civil liberties, when the identity politics Left is hell-bent on compelling the speech of private citizens, forcing them to say words or endorse ideas in which they do not believe, old political divisions must be put aside in order to withstand the creeping incursions of authoritarianism into society. There will be time enough to relitigate social issues once we have jointly confronted and dispensed with the band of zealots who would actually put us in prison for thinking the wrong things.

In these fractious times, the sane(r) Left urgently needs shoring up. Because if things continue on their current trajectory, Peter Tatchell’s ideological opponents on the right will miss him when he is gone.

 

Ashers Bakery Belfast

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