Europeans, The New Persecuted Minority In Britain?

Europeans are Britains new minority - Brexit hysteria - Nick Cohen

Europeans are apparently the latest persecuted minority in benighted, dystopian Brexit Britain

From the annals of overwrought self-pity today comes this piece from Nick Cohen in The Spectator, declaring that thanks to Brexit, Europeans are supposedly the latest designated victim class in Britain.

Money quote:

They have lived, worked and loved here. They never saw their status as a problem until Brexit. Nor did anyone else apart from a few thugs who look for any excuse to racially abuse a target. They knew who they were. And now their certainties have gone.

By this I don’t mean that the British government and the EU are still arguing about their legal status – important though the argument is. Rather that their secure sense of identity has gone.

I am not unsympathetic to the theoretical notion of one’s identity being impinged upon or “ripped away”, as so many Remainers like to claim. And Cohen is quite correct in his piece to point out that the umbrella term “EU immigrant” contains multitudes and diversity, from Romanian fruit-pickers to Romanian or French management consultants and bankers.

I will further concede that some on the Leave side have a tendency to paint all EU immigrants to Britain as city-hopping, rootless “citizens of the world”, members of the highly-educated professional class, when this is by no means always or even usually the case. I have been guilty of this kind of oversimplification in my own writing at times, and it is important to note that an individual or family can simultaneously be EU citizens from another member state and also one of the JAMs (Just About Managing people) invoked by Theresa May.

But what is particularly galling about Cohen’s piece is the total lack of self-awareness yet again shown by Remainers. Yes, an unexpected threatened change to one’s legal residency status can be unnerving and stressful (even though such issues have now been put to bed) but there is no reciprocal regard for the feeling of many Leave voters that their identity had been under increasing assault for the past forty years of Britain’s EU membership. This identity is not to be mistaken for a white ethno-nationalist sense of self, but in the sense of people of all races and ages who hold their British identity significantly more dearly than any European identity, yet have seen government political power and agency increasingly shift from being rooted in a demos to which they feel a part toward a wider European demos with whom they have far less affinity.

In other words, Remainers like Nick Cohen complain because of a sudden reversal of fortunes whereby they no longer call all the shots or get to see their worldview prevail unchallenged, but spent the past recent decades dismissing the concerns of Leave voters who watched their sense of Britishness being undermined against their will and without their positive consent.

Further, it should be pointed out that there is a surefire solution available to many of those who now claim to feel like “aliens in a land they took to be their home”, and that is to apply for citizenship. That’s what people do in practically every other part of the world if they choose to live and work in a country other than their own, and nowhere but within the European Union is it considered an outrageous, retrograde demand. My US citizen wife took the oaths of British citizenship only last month in a very moving ceremony in Camden Town Hall precisely because having lived in this country and grown to love it, she wanted to formalise and make permanent that connection rather than simply renewing her permanent residency ad infinitum or having to apply for it all over again when we return from the United States.

The process of applying for citizenship is bureaucratic, stressful and expensive, not helped by Home Office red tape and administrative incompetence, which should be changed. But barring those rare cases where joint citizenship is not permitted then there is no justifiable impediment from taking this step and formalising one’s connection to the United Kingdom.

As I wrote last month:

Citizenship is more than a basket of rights, privileges and perks. It is also a binding commitment to the society in which we live. Choosing to naturalise means a willingness to undertake obligations as well as demand one’s due. Becoming a citizen is a declaration that one is bound to one’s fellow citizens by something more than temporary convenience or the accidental byproduct of an overseas work assignment or relationship.

This bond is hard to describe or put down in words, which is perhaps why so many self-declared “citizens of the world” – people who consider themselves to have transcended national alignment and who flit from place to place without ever making a binding commitment to anywhere they set foot – don’t understand why it matters.

But if you have built a life in Britain over the course of years or even decades, why would one not want to formalise that connection? Yes it costs money, and yes the Home Office does its damnedest to make the process as bureaucratic, expensive, frustrating and opaque as possible, often actively throwing barriers in the way of people who desperately want citizenship. But if one has the means and the opportunity, why not take the pledge and acquire the passport? Failing to do so is the civic version of cohabiting with a partner but never marrying, one foot always out the door, one eye always casting around for something better.

There is one surefire way to ensure that you are never made to feel like a stranger in the land you call home, and that is to seek and acquire citizenship. The European Union is very much an aberration in that freedom of movement suspended this requirement and removed much of the motivation for taking citizenship in another member state, but this is exactly what people in other parts of the world do every day.

But as I wrote last year when thinking about the degradation of the concept of citizenship in general, we have been indoctrinated to see citizenship as a purely clinical, transactional affair when in reality it is supposed to be so much more:

In Britain, citizenship is increasingly regarded (to the extent that people think of it at all) as a transactional affair, services rendered for taxes paid – or even rendered with no reciprocity at all in the case of the modern welfare state. The argument goes that by the sole virtue of paying taxes or drawing benefits here one deserves a full voice in the country’s affairs, even if one is a non-citizen or is present in the country illegally.

This very transactional approach has frayed the contract or bond between citizen/resident and the state. Of course, people still expect the state to protect them from foreign foes, guard against domestic security threats, provide healthcare, offer a welfare safety net and distribute various domestic and EU services. But even as they make these demands they offer rapidly diminishing loyalty to the state in which they live. People are increasingly insatiable for the benefits while being less and less willing to accept the responsibility.

[..] Today, many people demand the perks without accepting the responsibilities – hence the outrage of and on behalf of EU citizens who have built permanent or semi-permanent lives here yet refuse to see why they should formalise that commitment through the naturalisation process (or at least the acquisition of permanent residency following Brexit). They forget that the European Union is an aberration, that nowhere else in the developed world would countries offer so much while asking for virtually nothing in return.

In a way we should actually be glad to encounter a sustained argument from the Remain side rooted in identity rather than the usual alarmist, short-term economic forecasts and prophecies of doom (or insistence that a reduced rate of forecast economic growth in future years means that we will all be digging through the trash for food tomorrow) – in that sense, I suppose Nick Cohen’s submission to the Oppression Olympics actually counts as a forwards step. But in every other sense, it is just more of the same.

More furious obsession with safeguarding access to perks and benefits, more failure to empathise with or comprehend the other side, more demanding something in exchange for nothing, more Politics of Me Me Me, more trying to win a political argument by referring to one’s supposed oppression rather than with reference to empirical facts and ideas.

Victimhood and oppression are the currency of our age, but Nick Cohen goes way too far with his latest argument, devaluing the idea of discrimination and persecution in just the same way as Social Justice Warrior student activists who take time out from their Ivy League or Oxbridge educations to complain about feeling “unsafe” at some of the most prestigious, well-resourced academic institutions in the world.

Citizenship and residency in another country is a privilege, not a right, and will remain so until the nation state is no longer the primary building block in human civilisation (an inevitability, but by no means an imminent one). The displacement which some EU citizens may feel with regard to their identities, while thoroughly regrettable, is therefore nothing more than normality finally reasserting itself in Britain after a long, unbidden hiatus.

Anti Brexit Pro EU protester holding Second Referendum banner

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Falcon Heavy Takes Flight, Rebooting Human Ambition

At a time when distracted Western governments and decaying institutions are incapable of providing visionary leadership, with society increasingly split along partisan lines, it took the vision of a private citizen to remind us what real ambition looks like

“Ad astra per aspera”, reads one of several memorial plaques to the crew of Apollo 1, three brave NASA astronauts who died in January 1967 when the oxygen in their capsule ignited during a routine launchpad test midway through America’s audacious bid to put a man on the moon. A rough road leads to the stars.

But since 19 December 1972, there has been no road to the stars of any kind, no road anywhere beyond Low Earth Orbit. The final Apollo missions were scrubbed due to their enormous cost, public apathy and perceived lack of return on investment, and while the Space Shuttle and International Space Station served as holding accomplishments of a kind, one cannot escape the conclusion that we have gone backwards, and not only as it relates to space travel, in terms of our willingness to embrace big challenges or dare mighty things.

Various politicians in recent years have proposed vague and (to varying degrees) fanciful plans for a return to manned spaceflight beyond Low Earth Orbit – George W. Bush had his own plan to send people to Mars, never likely to happen while he was busy bungling the War on Terror, while Newt Gingrich promised a moon colony by 2020. But this was always fanciful thinking – the fact that NASA has not had a permanent director in over a year reveals the truth about exactly how much the US government currently prioritises space exploration.

Thus in recent years it has fallen to private companies (as well as the Russians and Chinese) to keep the hope of future manned spaceflight alive. We are able to fill the sky with myriad commercial and military satellites, but the normally insatiable human appetite for exploration seemed in recent years to have dimmed.

Matthew Continetti makes this point in a piece for the National Review:

It was precisely this dream that seemed jeopardized by President Obama’s 2010 decision to cancel our return to the moon. Not only did America cede the final frontier to Russia and China. The policy lowered our sights. It tempered our dreams. Certain possibilities, such as Americans on the red planet, appeared to be closed off.

NASA’s robot explorers, who have traveled to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the asteroid belt, are scrappy and intrepid. They have told us much about the solar system. But they are not very exciting. They make for good copy in Discover and Scientific American, but they do not quicken the pulse or exhilarate the imagination. Only a vision of the human future in space can do that.

This sense of decline finally started to change with the launch of the SpaceX rocket Falcon Heavy on Tuesday 6 February, a machine half the size and power of the Saturn V rockets used in the Apollo missions but far more efficient and able to carry significant payloads into orbit, and beyond. Meanwhile, NASA’s own next-generation Space Launch System is lagging behind and not due to carry its first manned mission until the highly optimistic date of December 2019.

I found the video of the Falcon Heavy launch – much like the footage of the Apollo missions – profoundly moving. I’m a child of the 1980s, and became an adult in the 2000s. And I can name no human accomplishment which has taken place in my lifetime remotely comparable to the moon landings. Nothing even close. Since the Apollo missions we have betrayed that legacy, hugging our own planet and never venturing beyond low-Earth orbit within the lifetimes of most people on this planet. Some even question whether the accomplishment was real, or if it wasn’t all just deception concocted in a TV studio.

The America of 1969 was not without its challenges and issues. The preceding year had been particularly difficult, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy and the Vietnam War protests. Yet despite these trials and difficulties, still the United States accomplished great things, launching (and safely recovering) the first men to ever set foot on another world. We, by contrast, seem overwhelmed by challenges which are no more insurmountable than those we faced in the 1960s.

Humans need vision and purpose. The prevailing political debate in the West implies that we must be concerned with “equality” (of outcome) above all else, that the guiding star of humanity should simply be ensuring that everyone has equal slices of a pie. But equality of outcome is a state of being (and an undesirable one at that), not a destination. As a society, we need to be part of something, to belong to a collective endeavour. Religion has long served that purpose, but is now a diminishing influence for many, while intersectional identity politics threatens atomisation rather than building unity.

President Kennedy once said “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. He was addressing a country and a people who wanted more than simply to protect their own perks & privileges – people who asked what they could do for their country, not what the government could do for them.

Our leaders don’t speak like that any more, because there is no longer any political reward to be gained from calling us to a higher, shared purpose. Atomised and highly individualistic, we couldn’t care less about discovery or common endeavour, or anything that doesn’t directly help us to pay a deposit on our London flat or New York apartment.

It’s easy to blame politicians for our societal and cultural drift, but in truth we get the leaders we deserve. And the reason we are lead by identikit drones who waffle on about “Our NHS” and act like making the trains run on time is God’s highest purpose, or ignorant blowhards who spew empty promises to “Make America Great Again”  is because we reward the people who do so. We are overly self-absorbed.

There is no ambition in our politics anymore, only petulant demands from voters and cowardly pandering by politicians. Young people in particular are (rightly) idealistic – but what, aside from the utterly misguided forced equality advocated by the likes of Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, is remotely idealistic or ambitious about our politics today? Almost nothing. In Britain, the Conservative government wouldn’t know ambition if it slapped them in the face, while in the United States the “elites” and the “deplorables” are too busy trying to paint one another as Hitler to stop and try to achieve anything remotely tangible.

In 2018, Britain has voted to leave the European Union, and we stand at a unique moment in history. But rather than seizing this opportunity to earnestly debate the meaning of democracy and self-determination at a time when the world is more knitted together than ever before, instead we obsess about personalities and repeat worn-out half-truths and talking points from the referendum campaign.

Rather than starting a serious discussion about the future of the nation state, the challenges it faces and how to preserving meaningful democracy as we move toward whatever comes next, instead we obsess over whether or not the new settlement will put money in our pockets or make us poorer in the short term. The short-term Politics of Me Me Me pervades everything, to the extent that we laugh at and dismiss people who dare to talk about higher ideals.

But this is about so much more than just Brexit; you can agree or disagree with the wisdom of leaving the European Union. This is about the energy, ambition and vitality being sucked out of our politics and gradually replaced over the years with a greedy, grasping self regard. It’s about having no higher purpose (or common purpose) than the fleeting pursuit of pleasure.

That’s why the Falcon Heavy launch, the work of SpaceX and the ambition of Elon Musk struck such a chord this week. The launch of this rocket creates a link to past accomplishments in human spaceflight and reminds us of a time when we set our sights on higher things, when we sought out rather than shunned the difficult challenges, despite the technological deficits we faced. And having witnessed nothing but retrenchment and lowered expectations from government in the intervening years, it fell to a private company and its own commercial ambitions to provide us with that sense of wonder and possibility that we no longer seem able to channel through government or civil society.

 

I look at the historic footage of the Apollo landings, magnificent accomplishments which took place decades before I was born, and ache to live in a time when we as a society cared about something more than our bank balances and social status; when we aspired to goals greater and more noble than mere “tolerance” and “equality” among atomised, self-interested individuals.

Each one of us has in our pocket a computing device more powerful than that which sent Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, those brave pioneers, to the moon. What are we doing with the near-limitless intellectual resources at our disposal? With the kind of wealth and purchasing power that only aristocrats and industrialists enjoyed a century ago? And yet with all these advantages at our disposal, for what accomplishments will we be remembered fifty years hence?

We are better than the current depleted state of our national ambition suggests. I don’t know how we rediscover or rekindle the spark, but we urgently need to do so. Western society is drifting, as evidenced by the furious obsession with social justice and identity politics in an age of unrivalled riches and opportunity, by our failure to stand up for small-L liberal Western or Enlightenment values at a time when they are under attack on all fronts, and by the shrinking of our political debate into a question of what the government ought to do for us rather than what we can do for our countries, and for the world.

On January 27 1967, three brave American astronauts died during a routine test of their space capsule. They gave their lives for a higher ideal and paved the way for us to later set foot on the moon. As a society, as a species, we need to once again be worthy of their sacrifice, and the bravery of those who followed in their footsteps. Otherwise what the hell are we all doing?

 

Falcon Heavy maiden flight

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We Need To Constrain Unchecked Government Power, For The Sake Of Brexit And Our Future Democracy

Dr Phillip Lee MP - Tory government minister - reverse Brexit based on economic forecasts

Does the UK government have the unilateral right to ignore instructions from the electorate if it finds them to be “harmful” based on narrowly subjective criteria? And if so, shouldn’t we do something to constrain that power?

A couple of days ago I mused that the most fundamental question facing both Britain and America right now is that of whether or not the people should be permitted to make mistakes as they participate in the democratic process.

Regardless of whether one thinks that electing Donald Trump and voting for Brexit were “mistakes” or not (and I strongly believe that Trump was a mistake and that Brexit is not), it is a question we must ask ourselves because of the nature of the opposition to both. In both countries, large parts of the opposition are not content to let events play out and then capitalise at the next election; rather, many want to thwart these unwelcome electoral decisions altogether.

This is best encapsulated by the #Resistance movement in America and by the #FBPE (follow-back pro-European) social media movement in Britain – people convinced that their nation has made the wrong choice, and unwilling to wait for the “regular order” of the normal democratic process to reverse what they see as an existential mistake made by the voters.

Yesterday I wrote:

In both cases, the objectors – those who want to summarily impeach Donald Trump or overturn the EU referendum result in the light of “new facts” – are actually saying something quite serious. They are saying that in the cases of highly consequential decisions, the people are wrong and should not be allowed to inflict their wrongness on the country via the ballot box.

The implication is that some decisions are simply too important, consequential or irreversible to be left to the direct judgment of the people (unless, conveniently, the choice in question can be blended with a bunch of other decisions in a general election, supported by all the main political parties and thus be preserved in perpetuity). And the clear subtext is that the ruling classes know best, are imbued with a deeper wisdom and sense of morality which must prevail any time there is a conflict between the governed and the governing.

I also wrote that politicians rarely if ever explicitly come out and actually say that they reserve the right to overturn or ignore a decision made by the people and expressed through the political system if they happen to dislike it. Rather, they obfuscate and couch this point (or threat, depending on how you interpret it) with grave warnings about the dangers of populism – some of which are valid, but which are never accompanied by an explicit statement of the precise circumstances under which the political class reserves the right to reject an electoral decision made by the people.

But no sooner had I published these thoughts than I came across a story in the Huffington Post reporting that Conservative junior government minister – Dr. Phillip Lee MP – last night made the following statement in a short burst of posts on Twitter:

The next phase of Brexit has to be all about the evidence. We can’t just dismiss this and move on. If there is evidence to the contrary, we need to see and consider that too. 1/3

But if these figures turn out to be anywhere near right, there would be a serious question over whether a government could legitimately lead a country along a path that the evidence and rational consideration indicate would be damaging. This shows the PM’s challenge…2/3

The PM has been dealt some tough cards and I support her mission to make the best of them. It’s time for evidence, not dogma, to show the way. We must act for our country’s best interests, not ideology & populism, or history will judge us harshly. Our country deserves no less 3/3

My emphasis in bold. Phillip Lee is stating here what most politicians are only willing to tiptoe around – the fact that the government and the political class reserves the absolute right to ignore an instruction from the electorate if an ill-defined process of “rational consideration” of a certain pool of “evidence” that they themselves select means they think that it would be unwise to do so.

Still we get no specifics about just how potentially damaging a scenario would have to be or what form the damage would have to take for this antidemocratic override of elitist salvation to kick in, but here we have an admission in plain English, from the mouth of a government minister, that senior politicians think in this way. But if government ministers are going to publicly claim the prerogative to ignore an instruction from the electorate if they happen to dislike it, at the very least the people have a right to know the precise circumstances and criteria under which this might happen, both now relating to Brexit and in the future relating to the many other important national decisions that we will have to make in coming decades.

And as I wrote yesterday, this is just further evidence that Britain needs to debate and ratify a written constitution for the United Kingdom, one which “upgrades” the patchwork of our unwritten constitution and augments or replaces large parts of it with a document which clearly sets out the limits on government, the rights of the people, electoral and judicial processes and more, all in a language which people have a fighting chance of understanding.

But in the short term, for Brexit’s sake if nothing else, we also need to challenge Dr. Phillip Lee’s casual but totally unproven assertion that “evidence and rational consideration” might give the government legitimate grounds to ignore the result of the EU referendum. Phillips is clearly talking here only about the economic case – he references the leaked Brexit Impact Report. But by restricting his focus on the reasons for Brexit to such a narrow point he is saying that either the non-economic reasons for voting to leave the European Union don’t exist, or that they do exist but are outweighed by the economic reasons to remain.

This is a considerable feat of omission by Phillip Lee, one which is best illustrated with an example.

Imagine – and I acknowledge that this is an extreme example to which I draw no direct parallel, though it clearly illustrates my point – that one were to take Dr. Phillip Lee back to the Britain of 1939 as war loomed, or in 1940 after Dunkirk. Would he have counselled appeasement of Germany on the same grounds? After all, if one considers only the economic metric, the Second World War was always going to be utterly ruinous for Britain. Aside from the military and civilian casualties our cities were levelled, our industry appropriated by the government (and in some cases not returned to private hands for decades), food and clothing were rationed, arts and science were overshadowed and our footprint on the world stage shrank in every conceivable way.

Surely, then, the right course of action would have been to make a deal with Hitler, no? Peace at any costs? After all, we are only considering the economic metric here, because we are “rational” and look only at Approved Facts. After all, life under a puppet Westminster government wouldn’t have been so bad for most of us. Who really needs self-determination so long as the occupying power is delivering the many fruits of a non war-ravaged economy? And hey, who knows, maybe the Nazi war machine might even have helped modernise British industry, which was already falling behind our competitors at the time. On every front, things would have been better had Britain stayed out of the war. Loved ones would have lived and families remained intact. Our major cities would not have been pockmarked with bomb damage. Coventry Cathedral would not be a burned out shell (though I mean no disrespect to its replacement).

Now, the decision to go to war in 1939 is not the same as the decision to leave the European Union. But it was Phillip Lee, not me, who proposed a vague, ethereal set of criteria under which the government might claim the right to overrule the people in the event that politicians think they know better on a key national issue. I am simply showing one reasonable endpoint of applying the very framework that he proposes.

In reality I do Phillip Lee the courtesy of assuming that he would not have been an appeaser, that his intellect and moral code would have compelled him to risk immense short-term harm – not just to Britain’s economy but to our very continued existence as a country – in service of a higher goal, namely freedom. Further, I am convinced that Phillip Lee would not have had to sit down for a second weighing the risks and creating economic forecasts before arriving at his decision. Because Dr. Lee knows as well as I do that cold hard numbers do not encapsulate the value of this country or the dignity, resilience and potential of her people.

And yet Dr. Lee is quite happy to pretend – again, I do him the courtesy of presuming that he is intelligent enough to actually understand that other very valid and serious arguments were in play during the EU referendum but simply chooses to ignore them to bolster his argument – that the entire decision should be based on a government cost-benefit analysis or the output of an Excel spreadsheet on a Whitehall computer.

We see this again and again from Remainers – this steadfast, stubborn, furious refusal to look at the question of Britain’s membership of the European Union in anything other than their own chosen short-term economic terms. People doubtless have their own reasons for thus deliberately restricting their peripheral vision, but at this late stage none of those reasons can be deemed honourable or respectable. Dr. Lee knows full well that whether one agrees with them or not, there were very valid arguments about sovereignty, self-determination, trade relationships, immigration and national identity which together with the economic warnings formed the complex backdrop against which every single one of us cast our vote on 23 June, 2016.

To pretend that the sudden discovery of “new evidence” (as if the publication of a new economic forecast can be called “evidence”, given their consistent record of alarmism and inaccuracy) constitutes anywhere near sufficient reason to overturn a national plebiscite which was based on a multitude – a multitude – of factors, is deeply disingenuous and really an affront to any notion of democracy.

Furthermore, it is a total fallacy to talk piously about the need to respect “evidence and rational consideration” when deliberately focusing only on the evidence you want to see, and simply pretending that no other evidence and no other rational arguments exist for the opposing side.

Even if you are an ardent Remainer, this should concern you. Because after the government uses this get-out clause to avoid following the direction given to them by the EU referendum, what’s not to stop them from starting to disregard other, future directives from the electorate? After all, we have no written constitution to constrain the government or make our rights and the separation of powers crystal clear.

I think that Dr. Phillip Lee knows all of this. I believe he is a good person simply trying to win the argument for his side, or perhaps just blinded against other perspectives after years of percolating inside a bubble where the very idea of life outside a supranational government of Europe seems absurd. But he his also spinning a falsehood. Remainers in general are spinning a pernicious falsehood, and have been doing so since the referendum campaign began. And now that this falsehood threatens the integrity not only of the EU referendum vote but of our wobbly, unwritten constitutional settlement it needs to be confronted and stopped.

If Dr. Phillip Lee genuinely thinks that the government has the authority to unilaterally disregard the result of a referendum in which it committed in its own propaganda to obey, let him clearly state the case. Let him publicly outline first the legal and then the moral basis on which such an act might be justified, and provide other examples of when such a code might apply.

And then let’s have another talk about that boring old campaign for a written constitution.

 

Update – 31 January

Reports suggest that Dr. Phillip Lee MP has now been slapped down by Downing Street and told to “air his views in private” rather than on Twitter in future. However, the government has not explicitly repudiated Lee’s argument. Whether this is due to their continuing incompetence, internal division or secret agreement remains to be seen.

 

Political System of the United Kingdom - Britain - UK

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Don’t Expect Better Political Outcomes In Britain Until We Change The System

Brexit - EU protesters - Breverse

Upset by how Brexit is being prosecuted by the government, overseen by Parliament and reported on by the media? It’s time to stop lamenting the symptoms and fixing the underlying issues with our constitution and system of government

Of the sum total of British political discourse at all levels, a good 95 percent is probably spent whining about events with just 5 percent devoted to thinking about the systemic issues which all but ensure that our political system continually throws up results we don’t like or believe to be illegitimate, over and over again.

I was musing on this the other day, and started a rambling Twitter thread on the state of British democracy which I thought was worth spinning into a slightly longer blog post, if for no other reason than to prevent the words being buried deep in the dusty archives of Twitter. And so here are those same words, expanded and transplanted to the even dustier archive of this blog instead.

The great question before us in these challenging times is this: Should the people, as they participate in the democratic process, be permitted to make mistakes? This is the underlying but often obscured contention behind some of the most contentious issues in British and American politics right now, namely Donald Trump and the “resistance” to his presidency in the United States, and the effort to undermine or reverse Brexit here in the UK.

Rightly or wrongly, the political classes of both countries, as a whole, object both to the policy initiatives of Trump and Brexit as well as the tone and context in which these events transpired. Parliament may have voted convincingly for Britain to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and commence the process of secession from the European Union, but few MPs believed that it was a good idea and many only voted to do so under duress. In America, most Republican politicians have either chosen to circle the wagons around Donald Trump or study feigned ignorance of his unsuitability for high office, in both cases because they see him as a useful idiot and an automatic pen with which to sign their own policy priorities. Yet hardly any of these Republican politicians are firmly aboard the Trump Train.

Whether it is Republican politicians using illegal immigration as an issue to get themselves elected in opposition only to blanch at the idea of illegal immigration actually being significantly impeded or reversed now they are in power, or Tory MPs building entire careers on moaning about Britain being ruled by a nascent European superstate only to fall in line with David Cameron and the Remain campaign during the referendum, there is a deep and unpleasant hypocrisy at work – a hypocrisy which needs to be acknowledged and confronted whether or not one agrees with the policies in question.

In both cases, the objectors – those who want to summarily impeach Donald Trump or overturn the EU referendum result in the light of “new facts” – are actually saying something quite serious. They are saying that in the cases of highly consequential decisions, the people are wrong and should not be allowed to inflict their wrongness on the country via the ballot box.

A degree of catastrophisation is required to pull off this argument, given how odious and undemocratic it sounds when stated plainly. And so we hear wildly overwrought tales about how Donald Trump represents a near-physical threat to designated minority groups, or that Brexit will see the UK economy returned to the stone ages.

The implication is that some decisions are simply too important, consequential or irreversible to be left to the direct judgment of the people (unless, conveniently, the choice in question can be blended with a bunch of other decisions in a general election, supported by all the main political parties and thus be preserved in perpetuity). And the clear subtext is that the ruling classes know best, are imbued with a deeper wisdom and sense of morality which must prevail any time there is a conflict between the governed and the governing.

Yet rarely do the decisions thus normally kept out of the reach of the people rise to this level of irreversible calamity. Take immigration. If throttling illegal immigration would harm the economy, do politicians have the right to override electoral wishes, even if the decision could be reversed? How great would the economic harm have to be, how would it be measured and how would it be balanced against any other factors?

Secession from the EU is rather more complicated, since reversal would likely involve the UK returning to the bloc on worse-than-current membership terms and therefore only ever be partially complete. But again, it could be done. So should politicians have the right to prevent the people from making only semi-reversible decisions? And if so, what are the criteria which should be met in order for politicians to step in and ignore popular opinion in order to effectively prevent the public from potentially scraping their knees?

Sometimes, though, the argument becomes more distasteful. Many polls have suggested that the British public would back the restoration of the death penalty given a straight-up referendum. Should politicians allow people to make that “mistake” too, and if not, what clearly written and easy for laymen to understand justification is there or should there be for thwarting such an odious policy change?

I am not (yet) a constitutional lawyer and I don’t have answers to all of these conundrums, but it seems clear that the current processes (if you can even call flying by the seat of your pants and making it up as you go along a “process”) that we in Britain have in place to adjudicate questions of vital importance are wholly inadequate to the decisions now before us.

When should referenda be offered, and when should they not? If they are to be offered, when should they be advisory and when should they be binding? When should blanket decisions be made at the national, supranational or local levels, and are exemptions ever to be allowed, and under what circumstances? What recourse should the public have when repeatedly rebuffed on a subject by politicians?

Many of these questions could be foreseen & mitigated through a well-written constitution which clearly prescribes the powers reserved by the people and those which are lent to local, national and supranational government. If we abandoned the Traditional British Fudge in favour of a written constitution, no longer could we so plausibly claim that we didn’t know what we were doing or that the outcome of any constitutionally legitimate process was unfair.

Of course a written constitution would not be a cure-all. Much would depend on the process of drafting such a document, who could participate and whether the process was taken seriously or simply used by special interests as an excuse to shoehorn every last entitlement onto the statute books as a “corporate necessity” or “human right”.

Britain’s constitutional monarchy is another complication, being one of those institutions which nobody would think to invent today but which arguably serves its purpose well enough and is part of the rich cultural fabric of our country that cannot be measured and summed up in an Excel spreadsheet. Embarking on any kind of constitutional convention would immediately generate enormous friction with the monarchy and its strongest supporters, which is one of the key reasons why such a movement has never properly gotten off the ground (with some honourable near-exceptions).

But unless we bite the bullet and physically write down a code of governance under which we are all willing to live, we are going to keep coming up against political elites of one faction or another assuming a divine right to attempt to implement their own worldview, wholesale, over the objections of others.

It’s worth noting too that such a national conversation was neither realistically possible nor worthwhile so long as Britain was bound to remain a member state of the European Union. When you are busy being slowly subsumed into a supranational government of Europe with its own ideas of federalism and subsidiarity, tinkering around with a little old national domestic constitution is almost laughably pointless, comparable to an animal grooming itself in ignorance of its surroundings while a much bigger predator sneaks up from behind.

It is only now that we have taken the first (hesitant and often erroneous) steps toward undoing the error – or great national act of settling for second best – that was our EU membership that we more fully realise the flaws in our own system and have the opportunity for a serious discussion about what comes next.

So what would such a constitutional document look like? That is a big question best left to a separate blog post but at the highest level I believe that any law or treaty which threatens to impinge on the life, liberty or property of other citizens – things like the death penalty or confiscation of property – should, *if* ever put to a referendum, require such a super-majority that the process is not easily abused by demagogues.

Other decisions, though, should be put within much readier reach of the hands of the people – such as whether successive UK governments are authorised to freely give up vast areas of sovereignty, wholesale, without sufficient oversight or realistic chance of painless future revocation.

I am open, for example, to the argument that the EU referendum should have required a certain threshold of victory to achieve quorum and passage, but then so every significant EU treaty signed by successive UK governments should have been put to the British people – the most recent of which would certainly not have been approved and ratified. But we are where we are and there is very little point crying over spilt milk – the best we can do is fix the system for the future.

At present there are virtually no meaningful checks and balances in our democracy. Victory goes who whoever can summon the loudest and most vociferous outrage, either on the pages of the tabloids or (far more effectively, though curiously less controversial) at the dinner parties & papers of those in the governing class.

By all means, we can keep blundering on as we are, lurching from crisis to crisis, failing to tackle our problems in a systemic way and then just working ourselves into a spittle-flecked outrage each time our broken system throws up a result we don’t like. That’s Option 1. Option 2 involves stepping back a bit and thinking about what kind of constitutional, governmental processes are most likely to yield outcomes which we can all get behind.

Option 2 is far more boring and requires more work, and lacks the appeal of being a meme-worthy MP, smug newspaper editor or shouty TV news talking head. But that’s what we need to do at this point, because given the period of discontinuity we have entered (one which affects many other countries too), there will be other hugely consequential decisions to make down the line, and we need to handle them a hell of a lot better than we are currently handling Brexit.

As a country, our capacity to competently govern ourselves has atrophied and withered during our 4+ decades of EU membership. That membership, combined with a bipartisan but increasingly broken centrist consensus, succeeded in masking the extent of the rot for some time, but no longer. Now the rot has been revealed and the full horror of the decay is clear to us, effecting every branch and level of government from the town council to 10 Downing Street.

If, as a side benefit, a period of serious reflection on how we govern ourselves as a country (whether or not that leads to a constitutional convention) further exposes just how ill equipped many of our institutions and present leaders are to navigate these national challenges, so much the better.

Sunlight can often be the best disinfectant.

 

Scene at the signing of the Constitution of the United States - Howard Chandler Christy - Hamilton musical - Brexit

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Henry Bolton And The Death Of UKIP

Henry Bolton - UKIP leadership - vote of no confidence

As party leader Henry Bolton gives a majestic display of the power of denial and refuses to resign, UKIP seems determined to go out not with a bang but a whimper

What an ignominious end for a political party which only a couple of years ago seemed to be dictating the rhythm of British politics and the headlines of our newspapers. But after a slew of leadership changes, cringeworthy scandals and bizarre disciplinary issues it seems pretty clear that there is nothing now left worth salvaging.

Several of the party’s remaining senior figures (none really warrant the title “big beast”) have resigned from the party following leader Henry Bolton’s refusal to immediately stand down after a unanimous vote of no confidence in his leadership, and everyone else may as well just follow suit and cut up their membership cards because there is no positive outcome to be had. Either Bolton tries to cling on until UKIP becomes a party of one, or he goes and makes room for another nonentity aboard the party leadership carousel.

Political parties drift when they lack any kind of unifying purpose or positive vision (though sometimes a strongly negative, reactionary position will do just as well in a pinch). We saw this with Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party when the centrist “moderates” were found to believe in nothing and stand for nothing, and we see it now in the Tory Party as Theresa May’s government fiddles while the few forward-thinking people in the party are shooting off in a million directions with their own uncoordinated plans for conservative reform.

UKIP have less of an excuse for their current predicament, though. It was always known that they would face an existential moment of reckoning in the event that an EU referendum was secured and won, and they did far too little – probably nothing – to prepare for that moment. And for a single-issue party (or at least a party viewed by many to be single-issue) this was an unforgivable strategic error.

I covered and live-blogged the UKIP annual conference in Doncaster back in September 2015, when the referendum had been secured but the official campaigns had not yet officially kicked into gear. I wrote going into the event that this was a “make or break conference”, not because of the referendum but because this was the last, best opportunity to solidify exactly what it was that the party stood for besides secession from the European Union before the referendum and its aftermath would signal the closing of that window.

As I wrote back then:

When we look back on 2015, this could be seen as the conference which makes or breaks UKIP. Not in the sense that any careers are on the line today, or that terrible consequences await any missteps made over the next few days. But decisions taken at this conference – and more importantly, the general tone and sense of direction given by the party leadership – could be vital in determining whether UKIP is strongly positioned to survive the turmoil of the next five years in British politics, or if the party is destined to go the way of New Labour.

As long as the target of the 2016/2017 Brexit referendum looms ever larger in our sights, the unlikely coalition that makes up UKIP’s support base are likely to continue cohabiting without any real problem. But what happens when the European question is settled?

UKIP is a vastly more established political party than it was this time last year, and is almost unrecognisable from the party it was at the time of the last election, back in 2010. And this has been an unquestionably good thing for our stale, consensual politics.

However, interested observers will be watching closely for any signs indicating the type of party UKIP is likely to become by 2020. And a lot could ride on the answer.

And unsurprisingly, UKIP totally ducked the challenge at their conference. Everybody who wasn’t indulging in the traditional UKIP pastime of shooting themselves in the foot with unnecessary squabbles and gaffes was drunk on referendum fever and in no mood to contemplate any event past June 2016, be that their preferred method of Brexit (a failure which has already come back to bite) or the preferred shape of their party when banging the eurosceptic drum no longer attracts votes.

Nigel Farage himself offered only a vague non-answer:

 

Over the course of the conference I spoke to a number of senior UKIP figures in addition to Nigel Farage, including Mark Reckless, Douglas Carswell and a number of lesser-known but deeply involved activists, and of those people only Douglas Carswell had a vaguely plausible vision for what UKIP could become – a vision that was so at odds with Nigel Farage’s own that Carswell jumped/was pushed out only eighteen months later.

 

Thus the tension between the various different UKIPs was never resolved. The party continued to be a fractious circus tent encompassing a dwindling cohort of libertarian types, a rump of ex-Conservative eurosceptics and an influx of new, more economically left-wing voters and activists.

Immediately after the 2015 conference, I wrote:

The United Kingdom Independence Party currently draws its support from a number of quite distinct support bases. There are the social conservatives and traditionalists, mostly ex-Tory voters. Then you have the “lost Labour” voters, those who are repelled by the modern Labour Party’s superficial virtue signalling, unquestioning embrace of uncontrolled immigration and perceived lack of patriotism.

There is also a significant body of support from the so-called economically “left behind” voters from Britain’s faded coastal resort towns, where pro-UKIP sentiment is very strong. And finally, there are the young (and old) libertarian types – for so long the backbone of the party, until relatively recently.

All of these disparate groups are currently joined under the UKIP banner in an uneasy alliance because they share the common goal of a Britain independent of the EU. But what happens when the EU referendum is won (or lost)? What, if anything, will keep these separate groups together in the post-election landscape?

That’s the conversation which should have started taking place at this conference. But it is a conversation which has been assiduously avoided by nearly everyone, including the party leader.

There was very much a self-sacrificial tone at that 2015 party conference. Nigel Farage seemed to have little concern that the party might burn up in the wake of the EU referendum, no doubt presuming that his own personal prospects would be fine in any event. But nobody else in the party had any excuse for so much complacency. And the personal squabbles and increasingly ludicrous crises to rock the party are partially a result of that failure to plan for the future.

As I write, Henry Bolton is giving a statement to the press in Folkestone affirming that he has no intention to resign, and instead proposing a new party constitution – in the hubristic manner of all banana republic dictators in history. Others know the detailed history of UKIP, with all of its personality clashes and policy squabbles, far better than I. But I can’t help feeling a little sad that the most consequential insurgent political party in decades seems so determined to end not with a bang but a whimper.

 

Nigel Farage - UKIP Conference 2015 - Doncaster

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