The Story Of Hamilton Is Also The Story Of Brexit

Hamilton musical - London - Brexit

What do the latest imported smash hit musical from America and Britain’s historic vote for Brexit have in common? The answer, it turns out, is nearly everything.

It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force
—  Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton

Yesterday evening I succumbed to the hype and went to see the London production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton, newly opened at the Victoria Palace Theatre.

Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, American statesman and Founding Father, most famous for having been a delegate at the constitutional convention of 1786, writing many of the Federalist Papers, moulding the new country’s financial system as Treasury Secretary during George Washington’s presidency and having been killed in a dual by political rival Aaron Burr. Through his words and intellect, Hamilton made an enormous contribution to the birth of America, yet his untimely death robbed him of as prominent a place in history as his legacy deserved.

At first glance this might not seem the most promising material for a musical show, but theatre aficionados have been buzzing about Hamilton since it premiered in New York to rave reviews back in 2015. Such has been the show’s rapturous reception that it is fairly hard to find a negative review, let alone a ticket, especially in New York where tickets for the Broadway production have traded hands on the secondary market for insane sums of money.

Being something of a contrarian, I arrived at the theatre in sceptical mood, perhaps too eager to find fault with something that was being universally praised by everyone else. I was sceptical that the rap and hip-hop musical styles which predominate would be a good fit with the narrative material, and worried that the much-discussed “colour-conscious casting” might be little more than a convenient excuse to shoehorn an identity politics lecture into what should be an evening of entertainment.

As it turned out, my scepticism was blown away and any worries about ideological virtue signalling were (mostly) unfounded. Hamilton is an excellent show, the musical genres and clever allusions to other composers from Gilbert & Sullivan to The Notorious B.I.G. draw you in to the story rather than distracting from it, and the source material (Lin-Manuel Miranda based his show on the 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton written by Ron Chernow) is catnip for history and constitutional geeks like me.

But as I watched the first act build to a climax – after Alexander Hamilton has arrived in New York, become involved in the revolutionary movement, served as General George Washington’s aide-de-camp, fought at Yorktown, studied law in New York after independence was won and ultimately chosen to be that state’s junior delegate to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, which laid the foundations for the United States of America as we know it today – something else occurred to me.

It provoked groans and assorted expressions of incredulity from my wife and our friend when I confessed my epiphany during the interval, but as the show progressed I realised that the story of Hamilton – of people forging a new and uncertain path through a world in flux – is also the story of Brexit. Bear with me, and I shall explain why.

After they won the War of Independence, Americans didn’t know exactly what they were creating or the experiment they were embarking on. They knew that remote and authoritarian rule from an overseas power was intolerable and injurious to their right to freedom and self-determination, but having thrown off the shackles of monarchy there was no set template for them to follow, no clear-cut alternative to which they should naturally gravitate.

Much of the detail as to how freedom from empire would actually work in practice had to be hashed out in contentious discussions, first formalised in the 1777 Articles of Confederation between the thirteen original states and later in the 1787 Constitutional Convention. This was a time of uncertainty, but it was also an exciting time ripe with promise. Then, as now, there was a new world to build.

Today, we face similarly profound questions about how humanity should best govern itself in changing times, as the epoch of the nation state finds itself threatened and undermined by powerful forces such as globalisation, automation, mass migration and the need to balance smart regulation of international trade in all its technical complexity with the need to preserve democracy and the ability of ordinary people to defend their local priorities and concerns in the face of corporate technocracy.

The existing political order has never looked less equipped to deal with these challenges, or been so discredited and seemingly unequal to the serious task at hand. In Britain, the political class have forged ahead with a centrist, corporatist vision regardless of which political party was in power for the past three decades, an incredibly narrow Overton Window effectively shutting out a huge range of reasonable, non-extremist political ideas from the national political debate. And in the United States, politicians of both parties peddled the illusion that the post-war manufacturing economy could be resurrected together with the promise of a comfortable middle-class lifestyle sustained by semi-skilled manual labour requiring limited education.

In both cases the people themselves were partially to blame for falling for false promises and in some cases practically demanding to be lied to by pandering politicians, but regardless of ultimate fault it has increasingly dawned on people that national and international institutions as presently configured have not met the challenge of our times and can not keep pace with a world increasingly knitted together by technology.

The European Union, held up by its naive supporters as the unquestionably superior way for nations to peacefully cooperate (despite not being replicated on any other continent), has conspicuously failed to effectively tackle nearly all of the big challenges thrown its way, from the migration crisis to the pitfalls of monetary union to rampant corruption in some member states and growing authoritarianism in others. And through all this, despite Herculean efforts and vast sums of money spent with the aim of forging a cohesive European demos – a body of people who hold their European identity in equal or greater worth than their national identity – no such demos has formed.

The EU’s “if you build it, they will come” strategy, creating all of the institutions required for a supranational political state in the expectation that a demos would magically follow along to grant them legitimacy, has failed. Outside Britain, where misguided and low-information young idealists sing Kumbaya and paint the EU flag on their faces, euroscepticism among young people is increasing as more people recognise that the institutions of Brussels present a beguiling but erroneous vision of the future. To all these challenges and more the European Union has nothing to offer save more political integration for the sake of political integration. The EU has no answer, just as remote and exploitative monarchy failed to redress the legitimate grievances of the American colonists.

A recent article by Bradley Birzer in The American Conservative about the limited lifespan of any system or institution of government certainly applies to the European Union and other pillars of the post-war world order as much as it does to the nation state:

One must remember that no republicans believe their republic can last forever. A republic, by its very essence, must rely on its organic nature, a living thing that is born, flourishes, decays, and dies. It is, by nature, trapped in the cycles of life, bounded by the walls of time. While a cosmic republic might exist—as understood by Cicero’s “Cosmopolis” and Augustine’s “City of God”—it existed in eternity and, therefore, aloof of time.

For better or worse, the Roman Republic reflected not just nature, but the Edenic fall of nature as well. We can, the Roman republican Livy recorded, “trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice.” The virtues of the commonwealth—the duties of labor, fate, and piety—gave way to the avaricious desires for private wealth. When young, the Romans rejoiced in the little they had, knowing that their liberty from the Etruscans meant more than all the wealth of the material world. “Poverty, with us, went hand in hand with contentment.” As the republic evolved and wealth became the focus of the community, not sacrifice, so the soul decayed. “Of late years,” Livy continued, “wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death both individual and collective.”

Who can deny that some aspects of our present society – our materialism, individualism and instinctive fear of anything that might (no matter its virtue or long-term benefits) temporarily disrupt the steady accumulation of wealth, assets and positive experiences which we increasingly expect and demand – are worryingly reflected in Livy’s words?

To paraphrase Birzer, all things must come to an end. The Britain of today is not the Britain of thirty years ago, just as the dogmas of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” no longer automatically apply to the American present. We have witnessed tremendous progress in that time, but also political and social atrophy. We are not what we once were, and neither should we cling on in futility to what is past. Many Remainers, having fixed in their minds the false image of Brexiteers as Mafeking stereotypes – curmudgeonly old retired colonels pining for lost empire – fail to realise that through their devotion to the European Union it is they who yearn to preserve the past, slavishly devoted to an anachronistic mid-century blueprint for a new world order, one which came to partial fruition, peaked and then found itself wholly inadequate to the stormy present.

Brexit is not a magical elixir sufficient to address the stormy present or dissipate the challenges we face, but it is a necessary first step to confronting them, just as Alexander Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers could not fully contemplate and realise their revolutionary new system of government until they had first thrown off the shackles of monarchy. Looking at Brexit as a narrow and obstinate project to reclaim full sovereignty or purely as a technocratic matter of trade regulations is to miss the point – we are seeking not to go back but forward, and Brexit is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition to enable this progress.

It pains me to read much of the coverage and commentary around Brexit, which overwhelmingly ignores the big picture and the long term to obsess over speculative short term costs. It is vital to consider short-term costs and risks in any endeavour, but good policymaking is only possible when short-term considerations are balanced with a broader, longer-term perspective. Remainers often react with incredulity to the suggestion that anything might matter beyond next year’s GDP growth rate, but the American colonists of Hamilton’s day were every bit as concerned about their economic prosperity and security as their modern-day British counterparts; they just also realised that other issues were at stake, issues worth enduring the hardship and destruction of a revolutionary war to correct.

We in modern Britain are called to make no sacrifice remotely comparable to that of the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies as they struck out on their own to form a more perfect union. It would be laughable to compare even the worst of mismanaged Brexits to the price that Hamilton’s peers paid for their freedom and for the opportunity to advance the model of human governance. Yet so great is our present culture of consumerism and so diminished our sense of citizenship or civic duty that few of us are capable of thinking in terms greater than the pursuit of whatever might sate our present desire for comfort and stability. And even when this stability is under long-term threat, such is our fear of disruption that we would rather cling on to the slow, familiar degredation than take any risk by seeking to prevent it.

Today we have a tendency to think of ourselves as having transcended our past, that we inhabit what Francis Fukuyama called “The End of History”, a time when all major human challenges have been vanquished and we inhabit some kind of permanent, beneficent steady-state from which any departure would be an intolerable disruption. And from this perspective, Brexit does indeed appear to be a crazy, irrational endeavour, threatening to unleash a backslide into the fascism and totalitarianism with which we struggled in the twentieth century.

But of course we have not reached the end of history. We are continually presented with new challenges and opportunities, and try as we might to pretend that our existing institutions and policies need only tweaking or adjusting to meet them, recent events have proven this to be patently false. Not all Brexiteers may have voted to leave the European Union based on these high ideals but as Shakespeare wrote, “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

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.

As I recently wrote:

It has been decades since Britain truly took the lead in influencing world affairs. But having voted for Brexit and thrown into the open many pressing debates which other countries remain desperate to defer or ignore, we can now be both a laboratory and a beacon for the world.

Rather than feeling rancour or relitigating the 2016 referendum result, we should feel the same sense of excitement and possibility that Alexander Hamilton and his co-revolutionaries felt as they debated among themselves how to keep the new republic that they had created. We must rediscover that spark within ourselves.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that a stirring tale about forging a new, more democratic future, a story kindled in America, is set to take Britain by storm as we negotiate our secession from the European Union and look questioningly but optimistically towards the future. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the spirit of Alexander Hamilton is flickering back to life on a London stage at this specific time and place.

Because when you strip away the political games and the media sideshow, the catastrophisation, recriminations, denunciations, speculations and bifurcations, the story of Hamilton may just also be the story of Brexit – if we have the courage and vision to make it so.

 

Hamilton tickets and information here.

 

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CCHQ Should Not Automatically Protect Tory MPs From Deselection

Conservatives Tories start candidate selection process early - mandatory reselection - deselection of rebels

A seat in the House of Commons is not a job for life. And just as the Parliamentary Labour Party should not be encumbered with MPs increasingly at odds with their local constituency parties, so Tory MPs should not be immune from deselection if they repeatedly ignore the priorities and concerns of grassroots Conservative Party members

Try as I might, I simply cannot get myself worked up about the government’s “shock” defeat over the amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. While the legislative drama seems to have Hard Brexiteers up in arms and Remainers parading their newfound (and one suspects rather less than genuine) love and respect for Parliamentary sovereignty, I don’t see that these machinations will have any real bearing on the eventual outcome.

So Parliament gets to have a “meaningful” vote on the terms of the UK-EU agreement? Fine, so be it – though I have always held that the people, not Parliament, should be sovereign, and that no government should be able to divest itself of fundamentally important powers or seek to repatriate such powers without an explicit and specific mandate from the people. Of course, if we had a written constitution then such things would likely be enshrined automatically rather than be up for furious debate as new issues and obstacles are encountered along the road. But then if we had a written constitution we likely would never have ceded so much sovereignty to the European Union in the first place and would not now be in this position, making it all a rather moot point.

Of far more interest to me is the fact that talk of deselection of MPs has bubbled up again. We saw this last year as Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters sought to cement their control of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and for democratic reasons I supported the idea of mandatory reselection in principle. And now there are new calls to deselect sitting MPs, this time from Conservative politicians and activists angry at what they see as the Tory rebels’ deliberate undermining of the prime minister and the country’s negotiating position with the EU:

On this occasion I do not share the Tory Brexiteer outrage, but their case is every bit as compelling as was that of the Corbynite leftists who wanted to rid their party of centrist MPs who do not reflect the values and priorities of their local associations. While I personally find it hard to work myself into a spittle-flecked fury at the antics of Dominic Grieve or Heidi Allen, if it is the case that these MPs represent Leave-voting constituencies and a majority of local party activists find their voting record objectionable then I see no reason why they should be protected and continually re-imposed on an unwilling local party organisation.

Of course, CCHQ and the Tory Party machinery vehemently disagrees. Reflexively opposed to any notion that grassroots activists or local constituency associations should have any input as to the direction, policies or running of the party, CCHQ sees individual conservatives as little more than indentured servants campaign material distributors at election time, to be put to work when necessary and then roundly ignored the rest of the cycle.

Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s intellectual bloodbank-in-exile, makes it perfectly clear that the present Conservative leadership remains determined to run the party (if not the entire country) as their personal private fiefdom, and that local constituency associations should shut up and do as they are told, whether they like the candidate or MP chosen for them or not. Timothy unapologetically and shamelessly spelled out as much on Twitter today:

This is an open admission that Theresa May, the prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, saw fit to interfere in local constituency business and keep an unwanted MP foisted on an unwilling local party.

But what the hell business should it be of the prime minister who gets to stand as a Conservative candidate in a local constituency? This is everything that is wrong with the current Tory party – overcentralised and overbearing, with CCHQ pig-headedly declaring that it knows best while confidently marching us all to ruin. Given the litany of gaffes, unforced errors, scandals and bad judgements which have emanated from Theresa May’s cabinet, I would sooner entrust a panel of ten individuals randomly selected from the phone book to choose good Tory candidates than I would have Theresa May make the judgement call.

Of course, there is a counter-argument to all this, as a reader pointed out on Twitter:

We certainly don’t want a situation where conscientious, independent-minded MPs are peremptorily driven from office or from their political party because they fail to toe the hardest of hard lines demanded by their activists. We have recently witnessed just such a phenomenon lead the Republican Party to ruin (at best Pyrrhic victory) in America, where a succession of primary challenges and forced retirements saw an influx of ideologically uncompromising Tea Party politicians into Congress, hard-liners who thwarted any attempt at sane governance in the second term of Barack Obama, rendered the Republican congressional caucus unmanageable and ineffective and set the stage for Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the GOP.

In actual fact we need both of these opposing forces – greater responsiveness to grassroots opinion and a cool, dispassionate process to adjudicate in the event of rogue or underperforming MPs – to be in balance. We need a far greater measure of accountability of MPs to their local party associations, and a more meritocratic system of selection (preferably primaries) which draws more people into the political process and prevents the mediocre-but-well-connected from leveraging their connection to CCHQ to be shortlisted or ultimately foisted on a constituency.

But we also need to build safeguards into the system so that the bar for triggering deselection is high but achievable – the recourseshould only become available at the time of a general election or by-election, so that MPs are judged on the body of their work and their voting record throughout a Parliament and not on the basis of any one single contentious vote.

Ultimately, the resurgent argument about deselection of MPs reminds us that Brexit is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for meaningful democratic renewal in Britain. Brexit was never going to be a cure-all no matter what some cynical Brexiteers may have implied, and we must all now recognise this fact. Achieving Brexit only to return power to the hands of the same MPs who negligently frittered it away in the first place, and who think so little of the people who campaign to put them in office that they seek to be made immune from their judgement, will not solve anything.

To this extent, the worries of Hard Brexiteers that the EFTA/EEA route may be used as cover by some Remainers in order to thwart Brexit entirely are quite valid. When there are so few penalties or recourses available to voters when politicians betray their own supporters, the trust required to sustain a well-functioning democracy is inevitably corroded.

But the real tragedy is that when we should be discussing how to respond to the period of disruption and discontinuity facing Britain, developing bold new mutually-reinforcing policies to tackle 21st century challenges, instead the Conservative Party is bickering about process and thwarting any attempts to clear out the intellectual deadwood and bring in some new ideas and personalities. Constitutional and electoral reform is important and eventually necessary, but there are pressing issues facing Britain which cannot be put on the back burner while we argue about the rules of play. Unfortunately, we seem less interested in these big debates and more interested in arguing about process stories.

When the Conservative Party fails to stand for anything – and Lord knows that under the rootless leadership of Theresa May, the Tories stand for little more than surviving the day at hand – it has plenty of time to devote to juvenile, internecine spats like the one playing out over the EU Withdrawal Bill rebels.

This is highly entertaining for the political media and a gift for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party, but very bad indeed for everyone else.

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Upset An MP On Social Media? Prepare To Lose Your Voting Rights

Intimidation in Public Life report - Committee on Standards in Public life - Parliament - Britain - UK - online social media abuse

Hurt an MP’s feelings and lose your civil rights. This could be a reality in the prissy, authoritarian, neo-puritanical Britain we inhabit

Having learned nothing from the past three years of populist insurgency, rather than facing up to their shortcomings and accepting the validity of justified criticism (and the inevitability of unjustified criticism) the political class is instead preparing to further insulate itself from public accountability.

A new report published by the Committee on Standards in Public Life proposes punishments such as barring people from voting or removing them from the electoral register as suitable punishments for the “new electoral offence of intimidating
Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners during an election” – which if enforced with the same arbitrary capriciousness as all other UK speech laws would inevitably see many people unjustly stripped of their basic civil rights while other, worse “offenders” who happen to hold officially sanctioned opinions go unmolested.

We in Britain now have a government which would give convicted prisoners the right to vote while stripping the franchise from certain free citizens who commit vague and loosely-defined acts of speechcrime – including hurting the feelings of an MP or Parliamentary candidate.

The report (prefaced with a quote from the late Jo Cox MP, so as to imbue the document with an air of incontestable wisdom and grace) graciously concedes that the existing restrictive framework of draconian anti-free speech laws does not need augmenting to protect the feelings of MPs at this time, but then immediately ventures the possibility of unprecedented new punishments for those accused of speechcrime:

Electoral law can overlap with and complement the criminal law, such that offences with criminal sanctions can also involve sanctions under electoral law. These sanctions are specific to the election process, such as being barred from voting for a certain period, or removal from the electoral register. Such sanctions recognise that these offences, such as undue influence or electoral fraud, are offences against the integrity of the electoral process, and that it is therefore appropriate that individuals face sanctions relating to their own privileges within that process.

[…] However, the Committee considers that the issue of intimidation is of particular significance because of the threat that it poses to the integrity of public service and the democratic process.

During an election period, it would therefore be appropriate to have specific electoral sanctions that reflect the threat that intimidation of Parliamentary candidates and their supporters poses to the integrity of elections. Any such offence in electoral law should be tightly defined, to capture intimidatory behaviour that is directed towards an individual specifically in their capacity as a Parliamentary candidate or party campaigner, which intends unduly to influence the result of the election (for example, by affecting their candidature or inhibiting their campaigning).

[..] the introduction of a distinct electoral offence will serve to highlight the seriousness of the threat of intimidation of Parliamentary candidates to the integrity of public life and of the electoral process, and will result in more appropriate sanctions. We believe that specific electoral offences will also serve as an effective deterrent to those who are specifically targeting Parliamentary candidates and their supporters.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life, a body whose intended purpose was to ensure that elected and non-elected officials uphold standards of behaviour appropriate to those who serve the public in high office, now seems far more interested in passing haughty judgment on whether members of the public are abiding by the new speech codes dictated by our puritanical, thin-skinned rulers.

I would be interested to know which of the Seven Principles of Public Life the committee believes it is defending by proposing new speechcrime punishments which attack so fundamental a civic right as voting – particularly as each of these principles sets a standard specifically for “holders of public office” and not private citizens. The only tenuous link offered in the entire report is this throwaway sentence:

[..] the Committee considers that the issue of intimidation is of particular significance because of the threat that it poses to the integrity of public service and the democratic process.

Ah, that’s okay then. So because the rowdy public is supposedly threatening “the integrity of public service” (presumably by scaring people away from getting involved in politics, because those who are already inclined to get involved in politics of course tend to be shy fauns who take fright at verbal hostility) the Committee on Standards in Public Life can use this as an excuse to regulate the behaviour not of people in positions of power, but of those who seek to express their feelings about people in power.

Of course, MPs are not the only people to find themselves at the receiving end of vitriol on social media, as anybody with even a semi-public profile or the desire to talk about politics on Facebook or Twitter can attest. Twice in recent months I have been at the receiving end of such a barrage, first when a “comedian” chose to misrepresent one of my tweets to his baying audience of pro-EU Remain supporters and again when an SNP MP sicced his Twitter supporters on me for daring to write about the office of Scottish First Minister in less than worshipful terms. None of the hate I received (on those occasions) amounted to the level of death threats, but other private citizens have suffered far worse.

Yet the political class seem to want to carve out a special protection in terms of exempting themselves from harsh criticism while doing nothing for anybody else. As Members of Parliament they already occupy a high-status, well-remunerated position in society, are generally endowed with a level of intelligence which enables them to articulate their priorities and concerns and be taken seriously, and make laws and decisions which impact our present reality and future happiness. Yet many of these same people now seem determined to portray themselves as shrinking violets, vulnerable victims-in-waiting, a discriminated against minority group who require the special and proactive additional protection of the law. This is absurd and insulting to the citizenry they notionally represent.

But in addition to protecting the powerful from the masses, these puritanical proposals also fundamentally misunderstand the problem. As even many victims of social media harassment would likely agree, the really damaging part of online abuse is not the individual insults but their combined, collective effect. One person insulting or mocking you can be laughed off or brushed aside, but this is not so easily done when one’s notifications fill up with a constant wall of such derogatory, negative messages. Indeed, when under attack on social media, at times it can be difficult to step back and remember that the strident opinions of social media moralisers is not reflective of the feelings of the country or society as a whole. At times, I myself have momentarily allowed hate and derision on social media to interfere with my self-esteem, despite my fairly thick skin.

The answer to online trolling and abuse (whether directed at politicians or private citizens) is not to criminalise individual acts of strident, unpleasant or insulting speech, let alone to curtail the fundamental civil rights of individual citizens as punishment for (or deterrence of) something which is in large part a swarm effect, an unpleasant but distastefully necessarily defensible part of our society’s commitment to free speech.

To do so would be akin to criminalising the act of gathering together in crowds because of the risk that somebody might be crushed or trampled, punishing individuals for what in itself is often a very small contribution to a larger group effect. No single individual is usually responsible for a stampede, just as very few individuals commit specific acts on social media which alone trigger substantial distress, and barring such people from voting (one wonders what offence merits losing the franchise while retaining one’s liberty) will not deal with the vast bulk of abuse on social media and consequently the vast bulk of suffering resulting from it.

The issues addressed by the report are real, worthy of discussion, and are already being debated at length. There is no lack of editorialising or scholarship on the impact of social media on public political discourse, and the way in which the semi-anonymity of interacting online brings out a far more vicious side of human nature than is usually visible during face-to-face interactions. These are problems which we need to face up to as a society at a time when we are learning on the go. But the solution is not to announce further new restrictions on freedom of expression, as though filling in gaps in the statute books will in any way compensate for filling in the mental and spiritual void which turns some people (including the highly educated and outwardly successful) into social media trolls.

Furthermore, at a time when the yawning disconnect between the ruling class and many of the people they represent is growing wider and fuelling all kind of populist outbursts (some welcome and others far less so) it is the height of irresponsibility for those in power to publicly toy with the notion of punishing the plebs for insulting their masters by stripping them of their voting rights.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life should cast their haughty, disapproving gaze back where it belongs – on those who debase their political offices or abuse the public trust. Now more than ever is a time for humility and introspection from the ruling class, not a whinnying list of grievances about those who fail to sing their praises.

 

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Grenfell Tower And Westminster’s Assault On Local Democracy

Kensington and Chelsea town hall

The latest casualty of the Grenfell Tower fire is local democracy

One of the key ideals of democracy – only ever half-heartedly observed in the United Kingdom – is the principle of subsidiarity, the notion that higher levels of government should take on only those duties which cannot be performed at a lower level by local officials more directly accountable to local people.

Most people would agree that local people are best placed to make decisions that directly affect them and their communities. Of course, in Britain this is balanced out by our terror at the thought of a “postcode lottery” when it comes to public service provision, that gnawing feeling that someone, somewhere might be getting a better deal from the government and that it would be far better if we all resign ourselves to the same low standard of uniform mediocrity than witness excellence in some places and failure in others (see the Cult of the NHS). But generally speaking, the principle of subsidiarity makes sense to people when it is explained in abstract.

It is sad, then, to see that the latest victim of the Grenfell Tower fire is (thankfully) not another person, but rather the ability of local councils, elected by local people, to manage their affairs in the way that suits them best. This was manifested today by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid’s request that the CEO of Kensington & Chelsea council submit his resignation as an act of public contrition for the council’s chaotic and disorganised response to the disaster.

From the Guardian:

The chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council, Nicholas Holgate, has resigned after being asked to do so by the communities secretary, Sajid Javid. In a statement Holgate said that Javid “required the leader of the council to seek my resignation”.

His resignation comes after a tide of criticism of the council, not only for the way it responded to the Grenfell Tower tragedy but also for historical neglect of poorer residents of the borough and a neglect of social housing.

Holgate said: “Serving the families so desperately affected by the heartbreaking tragedy at Grenfell Tower remains the highest priority of the council. Despite my wish to have continued, in very challenging circumstances, to lead on the executive responsibilities of the council, I have decided that it is better to step down from my role, once an appropriate successor has been appointed.

He added: “Success in our efforts requires leadership across London that sustains the confidence and support of central government. There is a huge amount still to do for the victims of the fire, requiring the full attention of this council and many others. If I stayed in post, my presence would be a distraction.”

The local council has instead been instructed to “work in a new way with different partners” going forward until the disaster relief efforts are concluded.

In some ways this speaks to the urgent need to reform Britain’s lacklustre civil contingencies protocols, which (as this blog discussed yesterday in detail) were proven not fit for purpose, with contradictory guidance about who has ultimate ownership for disaster recovery and unclear lines of communication between local government, national government and the emergency services.

But more worrying, from a democratic perspective, is the fact that the Communities Secretary has the power to unilaterally intervene and demand that a local council fire one of its own officers – for any reason, let alone mere bad optics.

Personally, I have never seen the great wisdom in councils hiring Chief Executives to effectively run their jurisdictions. One wonders what the job of councillors is supposed to be, if not that very thing. Far better to have directly elected mayors with real executive responsibility – and in the case of London, powers should either be vested in the office of Mayor of London or in elected mini-mayors for each individual borough – who are then responsible for running the machinery of local government.

To separate out the roles of political leadership and administration is itself to subvert the democratic process, as elected councillors are essentially divesting themselves of any direct responsibility for running their own fiefdoms while giving considerable power to a typically overpaid and unremarkable individual who is not directly accountable to voters. This gives local elected officials “plausible deniability” when anything goes wrong – including disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire. Rather than holding local politicians to account for their failures, instead the unelected CEO is offered up as a sacrifice to soak up the public rage while elected officials serenely glide on as though nothing had happened. This is no model for democracy.

But even though the CEO model is clearly flawed, it certainly should not be any business of central government in Westminster how the people of the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea manage their affairs. If people were politically engaged and had the will to do so – and if local elections were more than a glorified opinion poll in the gaps between general elections – then the local people could demand that the council dismiss their chief executive, or else punish the ruling party at the ballot box. But because we in this country look to central government to solve literally every one of our problems (and central government happily grants itself the authority to try), most people don’t care how their local government is organised. Turnout figures for any local election make this immediately plain.

Ultimately, there are two dangers here. The first is that by forcing the resignation of the Kensington & Chelsea Council chief executive – a huge overreach of authority by an already overcentralised Westminster government – we essentially paper over all of the cracks and flaws in our emergency response protocols. Rather than asking deep and searching questions about what went wrong at every stage of the process, we instead simply pat ourselves on the back for having forced one particular figurehead (or scapegoat) to resign and congratulate ourselves for a job well done.

But the second danger is the continued, seemingly limitless growth of the state. What is the point in having local elections or having a layer of local government if its decisions and appointments are to be arbitrarily second-guessed and overruled by Westminster? Sajid Javid is accountable to nobody in Kensington & Chelsea, and yet he saw fit to dismiss a local official whom local officials had entrusted with the running of the borough. This is appalling, and people should be outraged.

Never mind that the mere presence of an unelected borough chief executive is itself a shameful abdication of responsibility by local politicians and one of the key reasons why there are so few opportunities for elected officials to gain real executive experience in local government before seeking higher office. Ultimately, if Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council want to run their administration in this ludicrous way and the people are lethargic enough to allow it to continue, then Westminster has no business meddling in their affairs and picking and choosing who should be allowed to perform that role.

Some aspects of government – such as emergency response and disaster recovery – clearly require the close interaction of different levels of government and a variety of different agencies. But who Kensington and Chelsea council choose to keep in the position of chief executive should have absolutely nothing to do with Sajid Javid, Theresa May or anybody else in central government.

When it comes to designing protocols and procedures which clearly spell out how these different levels of government and different agencies work together during the emergency response and disaster recovery phases, there is clearly a vital role for national government. That is exactly the kind of high-level central planning that national government is designed to do. But when it comes to deciding who can and cannot serve in a position reporting to local government, Westminster needs to butt out. It sets a terrible precedent and undermines what little local democracy we actually have in Britain.

We are all outraged by the Grenfell Tower fire and we all want to see tangible actions taken to hold those responsible to account and prevent future occurrences. But mindlessly clapping along as the state makes yet another power grab and undermines the very idea of local democracy even further is not a sensible response to last week’s tragedy.

Theresa May’s beleaguered government has enough to be getting on with at the moment, without acting like a glorified parish council on top of everything else. We must stop encouraging Westminster to do so, and demand a revolution in local government instead.

 

Kensington Town Hall Protests - Grenfell Tower

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On Article 50 Day

United Kingdom Britain EU Secession - Article 50 Letter - Downing Street - Theresa May - Donald Tusk - European Union

A genuine opportunity for democratic renewal – if we can keep it

Many believed – either through arrogance or hopelessness – that this day would never come.

Article 50 Day: the day that the British government triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and formally signalled to the European Union our decision to secede from that dysfunctional, anachronistic and profoundly anti-democratic political union, conceived more than a century ago and constructed in a post-war age now almost completely alien to us.

Of the many pictures which may come to represent “Brexit Day” in historical memory, the two images which struck me are the photograph of Theresa May signing the Article 50 notification letter in Downing Street last night, and the television footage of the British official (Ambassador Sir Tim Barrow) in Brussels, striding into the European Council building to deliver the note to president Donald Tusk.

Why? Because these images more than any other represent the astonishing triumph of democracy over the near-unanimous will of the political establishment.

Theresa May signing Article 50 Letter - Downing Street - Brexit - EU

Sir Tim Barrow - Article 50 letter - Brexit- European Union - Britain

Theresa May did not want to sign the Article 50 letter. During the referendum she campaigned, albeit half-heartedly and often nearly invisibly, for Britain to remain in the European Union before accepting the inevitable and promising to implement Brexit as she manoeuvred for the Tory leadership.

And the British civil service, foreign office and diplomatic corps, represented here by Tim Barrow, our Permanent Representative to the EU, certainly did not want to deliver the letter, so accustomed are they to thinking and operating only within the narrow tramlines of those competencies not surrendered to Brussels..

The generations of politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats who currently run Britain were raised on a narrative of national decline and inevitable dependence on the Brussels political union as the only means of amplifying our fading voice in world affairs. Their formative years were spent during the Winter of Discontent and marked by one post-war national humiliation after another. The tremendous post-1970s (Thatcherite) revival has failed to disabuse them of the utterly false, poisonous notion that Britain is a small and insignificant country, no longer capable of governing herself in the manner of other independent countries such as Canada or Australia, let alone as the fifth largest economy and major cultural, commercial, diplomatic and military power that we truly are.

By huge margins, these people were deeply wedded to Britain’s inevitable future as a European Union member state, and consider Brexit a huge mistake bordering on a tragic act of national self-harm. And yet Theresa May signed the letter, Tim Barrow delivered it, Article 50 was duly triggered and the process of Britain’s secession from the European Union was put into motion.

Why is this something to be celebrated? Because at a time when there is every reason for cynicism and doubt, it shows that at a fundamental level, the British people are indeed still in charge of their own destiny.

Theresa May did not want to sign the letter and Tim Barrow did not want to deliver it, but they did so because they retain a sufficient fear of (if not respect for) the public that they dared not abuse their power by overriding the results of a public referendum. Note that there is no such reticence about subverting democracy in the diminished union we are now leaving – unfavourable referendum results in member states (relating to EU treaties or the ill-fated constitution) have consistently been treated as unfortunate but minor setbacks and then sidestepped by the Brussels machinery, its leaders safe in the knowledge that they are so insulated from democratic accountability that they will suffer no consequences for their actions.

In Britain, however, there remained just enough fear of the people for our leaders to be forced to do the right thing, against their will. That’s not to say that they will get Brexit right, not by a long stretch – right up until Referendum Day, many Brexiteers were too busy hating the EU to identify the future relationship they wanted to have with it, while bitter Remainers did much to poison public and media opinion against the kind of transitional EEA deal which would have caused the least economic disruption. But given a mandate to take Britain out of the European Union our leaders are now doing so, however clumsily and against their will. This is as it should be.

Brendan O’Neill also gets it:

What we’re witnessing in Britain today, with Theresa May triggering Article 50, is something radical: the political class is going against its own judgement under the duress of the demos. The polite, peaceful duress of the demos, it should be pointed out.

We know that 73 per cent of MPs want to stay in the EU. We know many in the House of Lords are horrified by Brexit and were keen to hold it up. We know 70 per cent of business leaders wanted Britain to remain, and that some of them launched costly legal battles to try to stymie the Brexit momentum. And yet in the end, all of them, every one, has had to roll over and give in to the masses: to the builders, nurses, teachers, mums, old blokes, unemployed people and others who effectively said to the political class: ‘You’re wrong. We should leave’. To the people surprised that such a state of affairs can exist, that the political set can be made to do something it doesn’t want to by the mass of society, including even uneducated people: what did you think democracy meant? This is what it means.

Yes, this is what democracy means. To do anything else – to override or subvert the referendum decision for Brexit – would mean the triumph of technocracy  and well-meaning dictatorship over democracy.

We tend to forget, because it has not been this way within living memory for many citizens, but in a democracy the leaders are supposed to fear and respect the people and their judgment, not the other way around. As government relentlessly expanded and the bureaucratic state encroached ever more on our lives, we have unfortunately come to fear the government far more than government leaders fear the public – but not so with Brexit. Government ministers know that to defy the Brexit vote and seek to remain in the EU against the wishes of the people would visit such anarchy and destruction upon the country that they daren’t seriously even consider it (save inconsequential politicians such as Tim Farron). And so no matter how much they dislike it, today they implement our instructions.

Of course, Brexit is just one issue. In many other arenas of public life, officials have absolutely no qualms about defying public opinion and treating voters as polling units to be managed or placated rather than autonomous, thinking and engaged citizens to be feared and respected. We must take care not to merely repatriate powers from Brussels back into the arms of a power-hungry, over-centralised Westminster government that will fail to act in the interest of the UK’s diverse home nations and regions, and which carelessly surrendered its own powers to Brussels without democratic consent in the first place. Now, more than ever, we must hold our politicians and civil servants to account.

Brexit is the start of an opportunity for real democratic and constitutional reform, not an outcome in itself. Secession from the European Union makes the rejuvenation of our democracy possible, but by no means inevitable.

When queried by a stranger as to the outcome of the constitutional convention he was leaving, American founding father Benjamin Franklin famously replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it”.

Today, as Theresa May’s government (for all its many flaws) triggers Article 50 and serves notice on the European Union, we seek to reclaim our national self-determination and renew our democracy – if we can keep it. If we can rise to the occasion and collectively seize the great opportunity which now stands before us.

 

Theresa May signing Article 50 Letter - Downing Street - Brexit - EU

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