Faith, Doubt and Brexit

Anti Brexit march

A warning about the disturbing fundamentalism of Continuity Remain and the anti-Brexit crusaders

In the course of arguing on Twitter this evening, I received back the following piece of friendly psychological analysis from a longtime follower and antagonist.

The text reads:

“You are almost always wrong, as if you’re from another planet. I’m starting to feel pity, not sure if for you or for the people who have to suffer the consequences of what you keep saying with grave conviction. Please take a step back and reflect.”

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Now, I don’t necessarily take issue with the charge of being “almost always wrong”, nor even the insinuation that I hail from extraterrestrial origins. But the funny thing is that I am actually a rather introspective person, and do spend quite a lot of time stepping back and reflecting on my beliefs and political worldview – perhaps in fact never more so than now, when law school has limited my available time to write.

Also, having never attained any level of fame or recognition from my writing (save a solitary appearance on the BBC and the very occasional retweet from a famed Twitter bluecheck journalist) I have not been subject to the temptation to lapse into permanent “transmit mode”, that gnawing need to be seen by my legions of followers as an all-knowing sage, privy to Great Knowledge and the secret schemes of the political elite.

In fact, performing a word count search on my blog reveals that the word “introspection” appears over 30 times in more than 20 articles – usually in the context of me demanding that certain politicians, journalists or other actors engage in some introspection as to their recent behavior, and precisely because I hold myself to this standard of regular self-reflection and accountability.

So I do take it somewhat personally when it is suggested I “take a step back and reflect” on my position on Brexit, because that is something I frequently do anyway. Having begun my age of political awareness as a devout europhile and even ardent euro-federalist, I already know many of the arguments in favor of the EU and against Brexit inside-out, without needed to hear mangled recitations of them from the Continuity Remain lobby’s telegenic campaign mouthpieces. In some cases, I was spouting many of those same tedious lines about “friendship ‘n cooperation” while pro-EU “celebrities” like EU Supergirl and Femi Oluwole were probably still watching children’s television rather than the evening news.

Having been on a journey from ardent euro-federalist (I once proudly wore a polo-shirt emblazoned with the Euro logo, soon after the single currency’s launch) to reluctant supporter to resigned leaver to committed Brexiteer, I have naturally examined and re-examined my views and the evidence supporting them on repeated occasions. That’s what it is to change one’s mind. And when it comes to the question of Britain’s European Union membership, I would always sooner listen to someone who once held an opposing view only to change their minds – whichever side they ultimately end up on – because at least I then know I am dealing with someone who has likely evaluated conflicting evidence or willingly exposed themselves to alternate viewpoints. The result is almost always a more productive exchange of ideas, and the avoidance of those dreary social media debates where two ideologues simply sling dueling talking points at one another with no intention of engaging in real debate.

Thus I continually questioned my beliefs before I started taking a more outspoken role in the Leave movement. Was the EU really as harmful to our democracy and impervious to attempts at reform as I had come to believe? Were many of the benefits of EU membership really replicable through other means that did not involve supranational government? Was the EU actually the best we could hope to do in terms of looking at governance beyond the nation state at a time of globalization? Were there realistic prospects of spurring that broader international discussion through Brexit, or would it be an act of national self-mutilation that had no ripple effects beyond Britain? Would it be better to just bide our time sheltering inside the European Union while we waited for someone else to finally address the pressing issue of balancing global governance with national (and local) democracy? Does it look like anybody else is about to step up to the plate and begin that work? Is the EU actually going to step up, admit its past failings and respond in a humble new citizen-centered way?

I also inevitably thought about how history would judge the positions I took and the statements I made, particularly at a time when social media records every throwaway remark or careless retweet, creating a rich seam of information that can be used by the unscrupulous to destroy one’s reputation and career. If Brexit was likely to fail and its opponents succeed in portraying it as a doomed nationalist spasm fueled primarily by xenophobia, was it worth the risk of me sticking my head above the parapet and supporting it? With so many powerful people on the pro-EU side, Remainers never seriously had to worry about being viewed by the history books as a latter-day Nazi if Brexit succeeded despite their opposition – they had more than enough manpower in the political, commercial, academic and cultural arenas to effectively absolve themselves from any blame for standing in the way of Brexit if it did lead to good things. Not so Brexiteers – like the American revolutionaries who would have been hung for treason had they not prevailed, history’s judgment would likely be merciless to Leave advocates and voters if Brexit did not go well, even if the fault was that of saboteurs determined to ensure that it not succeed.

Even after winning the referendum in 2016, I questioned my choices. The very next day, as Brexiteers toasted victory, I travelled with my wife and friends to Greece on holiday. As we passed through the EU flag-starred lane at passport control, I again asked myself if my decision to support Brexit had been a mistake; whether the EU, imperfect as it is, was the best we could do; whether it were better to remain in a vast bloc and regulatory superpower that looked likely to centralize further and become more powerful, even if it meant the further atrophy of British democracy, in order to remain “in the club”.

And of course the dismal events of the past two years – as Article 50 was triggered prematurely and without a plan, negotiated ineptly by a government sorely lacking in expertise, held to account by a Parliament full of MPs who cared more about appearing superficially knowledgeable or striking partisan poses than actually understanding the important minutiae on which everything depends, watched over by a debased and infantilized national media which either failed to contain its bias or do its due diligence – only led to more such introspection. Was it all a terrible mistake? Was there never anything good to be won? Was it inevitable that things would end up this way, with our government, opposition and legislature beclowning themselves in front of the world on a daily basis?

Yet after all of my questioning, my answer remains the same – Britain was right to vote to leave the European Union. I was right to campaign for Britain to do so. Even now, we are right to pursue Brexit and to resist those who would like to simply maintain the status quo in our governance and relationship with the EU. The fundamentals have not changed – indeed, Continuity Remainers seeking to overturn the result have generally still not bothered to discern precisely what those fundamentals are, in order to better communicate with Leave voters.

I do, however, wonder whether my far more famous and eminent counterparts on the Remain side have ever once engaged in the kind of introspection and self-questioning as to their stance of opposing Brexit and uncritically embracing the EU that I perform on a routine basis regarding my opposition to the project. And I strongly suspect that many of them have not.

Do you think for a moment that James O’Brien, LBC’s anti-Brexit polemicist-in-chief, as ever once taken a break from his task of finding the most inarticulate, confused and angry Brexit supporters to “defeat” in argument on his show to question any of the fundamental issues about the EU and Brexit that I and other Brexiteers consider every day?

James Obrien Brexit LBC

Do you think that eminent celebrity academics like AC Grayling ever once take a break from rending their garments and peddling conspiracy theories on Twitter to consider whether they might themselves be trapped in a closed ideological echo chamber which prevents them from fulfilling the basic academic and scientific duty of exposing their dogmas and hypotheses to scrutiny and criticism from alternative perspectives?

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Do you think that grandees like Tony Blair and John Major ever really stop and reconsider the pivotal moments in their administrations, and ask themselves whether they might have ever misjudged the march toward greater EU integration without public consent? Or is it more likely that they are simply desperate to cement their legacies rather than concede potential error?

Tony Blair and John Major warn against Brexit

Do you think that progressive-left religious leaders like the vast majority of bishops of the Church of England – people who are supposed to unite the nation in faith but who have often chosen instead to use politics to divide us while idolizing a slick salesman’s vision of European unity – have ever prayerfully reflected on their behavior?

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Do you think that issue-illiterate, virtue-signaling woke celebrities like Gary Lineker and Eddie Izzard ever engaged in a serious evaluative process of understanding valid complaints about the EU and the driving forces behind Brexit, or is it more likely that their publicists simply spotted a good opportunity for them to effortlessly win acclaim from the chatterati?

Gary Lineker celebrity Remainer Brexit

Do you think that the self-regarding doyens of the prestige international media ever take a break from communing with Bono to learn the causes of populism in order to question whether their very actions might contribute to the problem, and whether their uncritical acceptance of the legitimacy of bodies like the European Union (and consequent feeble scrutiny of them) was harmful to the very democracy they claim to defend?

Fareed Zakaria Bono Populism Brexit

Do you think that the plum voices of the BBC ever take a break from smearing UKIP voters or flatly declaring without evidence that Tory MPs belong to the “far right” in order to question whether they are really promoting the cause of truth and serving the whole of society?

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Do you think that shamelessly biased Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow ever actually seriously considered whether he was wrong to negatively highlight and criticize the number of “white people” attending a pro-Brexit rally in Westminster?

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In all of the above cases, I believe that the answer is probably “no”. Convinced of their righteousness from the start, these individuals and many others switched into permanent transmit mode on 24 June 2016 (and in some cases long before), never once subjecting themselves to the discomfort and potential cognitive dissonance of questioning their own assumptions.

Maybe these people have actually forfeited the public trust and the right to their bully pulpits in the media.

Maybe when evaluating how Brexit is being attempted, resisted and portrayed in the media, we should ask ourselves who is actually engaging in an intellectual exercise of any kind, and who has simply lapsed into triumphantly bleating articles of faith, with little questioning of their own side. I would argue that many of the latter can be found in prominent positions on the Continuity Remain campaign, or at the apex of those organizations and industries which most strongly support it. And ironically, many of them can also be found publicly marveling at the inability of Brexiteers to reconsider their stance, question their dogmas and change their minds.

The truth is that Brexiteers have had nearly three years of unremitting exposure to the scorn, derision and hatred of many of the most respected and influential groups in our society – the politicians elected to our Parliament; the people who staff our civil service, lead our educational institutions, run our largest companies, lead our charities and edit our newspapers; the people who act in our favorite films and television shows, entertain us with their stand-up comedy or represent us at the pinnacle of professional sports, literature, music and the arts. Three years of this unremitting negativity and hostility from opposing forces in the most powerful reaches of the country; three years of embarrassing failure after failure by the people tasked with executing the decision we made at the ballot box on 23 June 2016, and still there is no overwhelming desire among Brexiteers nor the country as a whole to scrap Brexit and remain a member state of the European Union.

You could say that this is emotion over reason, that it is faith over fact, that it is a desperate act of confirmation bias by people who simply don’t want to admit to themselves that they were wrong. But every single one of these attack lines is also a piercing dagger which can just as easily be aimed right back at the heart of the Continuity Remainer “resistance” movement – people who despite being rebuffed at the referendum against all the odds and opinion polls have still not engaged in any kind of meaningful introspection at a group or individual level, and many of whom never once questioned their stance on Brexit, prior to nor after the referendum.

We are continually told that Remain voters and their movement’s heroes are more highly educated – even more moral – than those of us who had the nerve to imagine a future for British democracy outside the European Union. We are told that they are stringent disciples of reason while we are base creatures motivated by nativist superstition and easily led astray by nefarious outside influence. But it’s all a total sham. Theirs is a priesthood with no monopoly on fundamental truth, just a desperate faith in the European Union as the solution to problems which it has shown no capacity to meet.

There is indeed an emergent quasi-religious movement in Britain, one which holds its truths as unquestionable dogma, which views nonbelievers as automatically “lesser than” and which blindly fetishizes a flag as representation of all that is good and true in humanity. But the new faith militant in British politics is not the fractured and browbeaten Brexit movement. It is the Cult of Continuity Remain, and the banner under which it triumphantly marches bears the twelve yellow stars of the European Union.

 

EU flag body paint

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Faith And Doubt At Christmastime

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A brief personal Christmas reflection on waxing and waning faith

At this time of year, back in England, I would often attend Christmas carol services where it was customary for an excerpt from John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas” to be read aloud from the pulpit. Chances are that if you grew up attending church in Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century, you know it too.

The well-known poem concludes:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

The poem is nice enough, and one can certainly understand why it is enthusiastically incorporated into Christmas services across denominational divides (I would often hear it at an Evangelical Congregational church the week before Christmas and again a week later at Midnight Mass).

But at present, my mind keeps returning to another Betjeman poem on the subject of faith, this one entitled “The conversion of St. Paul”. Betjeman was apparently spurred to write it as a response to the (shocking for the time) broadcast on the BBC of a humanist lecture attacking Christianity – given by the “Mrs. Knight” mentioned in Betjeman’s verse.

My personal faith has ebbed and flowed this year. Highlights certainly include attending the Easter Vigil Mass at a church in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and finding a very welcoming home at my new university’s Catholic Student Center. Meeting some good friends there, attending a Catholic Bible study (that rarest of things) and praying the increasingly rare yet beautiful form of Compline (my grandfather would have approved) have all been very happy and spiritually affirming memories.

On the other hand, my disillusionment with the Church hierarchy has grown deeper and deeper, to the point of physical disgust, and an involuntary repellence from the rituals and practices which are often necessary to maintain a healthy spiritual life.

Another explosion of child sexual abuse cases – this time implicating very senior officials across numerous diocese in the coverups after the Church in America supposedly cleaned house after the 2001 scandals – make it increasingly hard to believe that many of those in positions of leadership within the Church are doing anything more than securing power and status for themselves, while placing the stability of the institution over the flock it is supposed to serve. Only recently, the Cardinal Archbishop of my new home diocese, Washington, D.C., was finally forced to resign under a cloud of scandal and suspicion.

The author and blogger Rod Dreher has written frequently and movingly of his disillusionment and eventual detachment from the Roman Catholic Church over the same issues, though Rod as a journalist had far better knowledge of what was going on and the depth of depravity and corruption within the hierarchy. In one piece (I forget which – if I find it I will update this piece with the link) he talked about the way that skepticism about the human institution can easily bleed into skepticism about the doctrine and theology which its leaders proclaim, and so works as a kind of metastasizing cancer throughout the faith. I must confess that I have not found myself entirely immune from this syndrome.

I have not yet taken the plunge of leaving the Church as Rod Dreher did, and have no current plans to do so. But this has been a year of waxing and waning faith, even more than usual for me. And it is this experience which finds resonance in Betjeman’s other poem, which I have reproduced in full below.

The last two paragraphs in particular resonate with me at this time and in this unusual Christmas season, my first spent as an expat, immigrant and permanent resident of the United States. Much like Betjeman, “no blinding light, a fitful glow is all the light of faith I know”; yet even now, we “stumble on and blindly grope, upheld by intermittent hope”.

 

The Conversion of St. Paul

Now is the time when we recall
The sharp Conversion of St. Paul.
Converted! Turned the wrong way round –
A man who seemed till then quite sound,
Keen on religion – very keen –
No-one, it seems, had ever been
So keen on persecuting those
Who said that Christ was God and chose
To die for this absurd belief
As Christ had died beside the thief.
Then in a sudden blinding light
Paul knew that Christ was God all right –
And very promptly lost his sight.

Poor Paul! They led him by the hand
He who had been so high and grand
A helpless blunderer, fasting, waiting,
Three days inside himself debating
In physical blindness: ‘As it’s true
That Christ is God and died for you,
Remember all the things you did
To keep His gospel message hid.
Remember how you helped them even
To throw the stones that murdered Stephen.
And do you think that you are strong
Enough to own that you were wrong?’

They must have been an awful time,
Those three long days repenting crime
Till Ananias came and Paul
Received his sight, and more than all
His former strength, and was baptized.
Saint Paul is often criticized
By modern people who’re annoyed
At his conversion, saying Freud
Explains it all. But they omit
The really vital point of it,
Which isn’t how it was achieved
But what it was that Paul believed.

He knew as certainly as we
Know you are you and I am me
That Christ was all He claimed to be.
What is conversion? Turning round
From chaos to a love profound.
And chaos too is an abyss
In which the only life is this.
Such a belief is quite all right
If you are sure like Mrs. Knight
And think morality will do
For all the ills we’re subject to.

But raise your eyes and see with Paul
An explanation of it all.
Injustice, cancer’s cruel pain,
All suffering that seems in vain,
The vastness of the universe,
Creatures like centipedes and worse –
All part of an enormous plan
Which mortal eyes can never scan
And out if it came God to man.
Jesus is God and came to show
The world we live in here below
Is just an antechamber where
We for His Father’s house prepare.

What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St. Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging round in doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below –
My parish Church – and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St. Paul.

– John Betjeman.

 

Additional: If you are a regular reader, derive value and enjoyment from my writing and have not yet contributed to my Christmas fundraising drive (particularly important now that I am an impoverished student once again!), please consider doing so here.

 

John Betjeman statue

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Christmas Appeal

Ramen Noodles - college students - studying abroad

A cheeky request…

I feel a little bit guilty making an appeal this year, given that I have managed to output a mere 67 articles over the course of 2018 (down from 162 in 2017) – but such have been the challenges of trying to keep the blog going while traveling around Southeast Asia, emigrating from Britain to the United States and commencing what turns out to be a very demanding legal education in Washington, D.C.

In fact, were I still in London and ours a two-income household, I most likely would not be asking. But since the vicissitudes of life find me in the position of being an impoverished student once again (living in one of the more expensive cities in the world) I am emboldened to repeat my annual pledge drive.

Therefore: If you have enjoyed or derived value from my writing and commentary over the course of the year – whether you primarily read it here or over at Country Squire Magazine, The Daily Globe or Guerrilla Politics – and have the means to do so, please consider using the PayPal donate button to make a small contribution.

 

 

Your contribution will not only enable me to keep writing the content that you love (or love to hate), but also save me from the potentially lethal effects of excessive instant ramen noodle consumption. If that’s not a win-win, I don’t know what is.

I am very grateful to all those who have generously donated through the course of the year, including several of my long-time regular contributors, without whom I may well have hung up the keyboard by this point. Your support means more than words can express, particularly at a time when the prestige or mainstream media is in no hurry to acknowledge the work done by the independent blogosphere.

The year ahead promises to be eventful, or quite possibly the fulfillment of the curse “may you live in interesting times”. Given all that is happening in the world I would love nothing more than to resume a daily blogging schedule, but sadly this is likely to remain incompatible with the demands of the first year of law school.

2019 is therefore likely to see a similar posting frequency to the past year, but as usual I shall try to provide commentary or perspectives which are under-provided elsewhere (rather than simply repeating what you can read from the people who get paid to do this for a living).

Thank you as always for reading, and to my donors for your ongoing generosity. In this festive season I wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas, a Happy 2019 and a blessed, peaceful holiday season.

College student starter pack - instant ramen noodles

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Dispatch From Washington

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Nothing much to report here

I’m writing this from the desk in my study, where right now just four blocks away in the White House a president whose daily conduct raises legitimate questions about his fitness to govern is raging in helpless impotence. Why? Because some faux-patriot within his dumpster fire of an administration decided to hint to the New York Times about just how bad things have become – supposedly out of civic duty – yet lacked the courage to give the accusation real weight by putting his name to the anonymous OpEd. All this is just today’s drama; no doubt tomorrow there will be some new unprecedented scandal to bump this story down the news agenda.

These are interesting times to be living in Washington, D.C. I must admit that I have not yet gotten over the novelty of watching the bottom of the Washington monument appear in the background of a live TV broadcast, then looking out the window of my study and seeing the top of the same structure mere minutes away. In British terms, our new home is within close earshot of Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster. This means a constant stream of noisy motorcades carrying second-tier officials down the next road, and regular glimpses of Marine One as it ferries President Trump back and forth as he escapes the city to play golf.

It is strange to be living in the modern equivalent of Ancient Rome at the height of its power (or perhaps shortly into its terminal decline), the seat of government of what is effectively the most powerful empire in the world. Many of the buildings here are built in conscious acknowledgement of the torch that was passed from Ancient Greece to Rome, and so on through Britain to the New World. I find myself walking amid the classical architecture in this planned city and wondering what future historians or tourists will say as they pick over the ruins or buried past of this metropolis, many centuries in the future.

Highlights have to include the Lincoln Memorial. Abraham Lincoln has been a particular interest and inspiration of mine since I was a teenager, and since then I have devoured enough books on the 16th American president to comfortably fill a bookshelf. Standing inside that immense marble memorial and reading the inscription above Lincoln’s statue – “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever” – is a moving experience. Even when full of screaming children and selfie-happy tourists, there is a sense of power and dignity in that place. While there, it is also hard not to dwell on just how far we have fallen from that ideal in recent years.

Law school has started well. You must forgive me for the lack of blog posts over the last month; road-tripping half way across the country from Texas, establishing a new home in DC and going through law school induction took up all of my spare time, and even now I have thirty pages of Criminal Law reading which I should be tending to this evening. However, for my own mental health and diversion if nothing else, the blog will continue, albeit maybe somewhat more sporadically than before.

Being back on a university campus as someone with a record of speaking out forcefully against the excesses of identity politics has been interesting – I can confirm that all of the warnings I have been giving over the past few years were prescient and on point. There have been no stand-out incidents yet which lead me to believe that my institution is faring worse than any other, but it only takes one supposedly “controversial” speaker invite or student society activity to create havoc and endless protests, so we shall see how things develop. Halloween will likely be a good indicator, given recent controversies elsewhere and the growing conviction that “cultural appropriation” is a harmful, negative phenomenon. Today was the law student organization fair, and reflecting my semipartisan nature I added my email to the law school chapters of both the ACLU and the Federalist Society. I agree with neither organization entirely, but look forward to some interesting debates.

Adjusting to student life has been challenging, but frequently fun. Though I am a graduate student I am still on the generic university email list, so have been receiving helpful daily missives about how to do my laundry and accomplish other tasks now commonly known as “adulting”. On the flip side, there is nothing like living in close proximity to a bunch of eighteen-year-old undergraduates to make you feel your age, and there has been more than one occasion when I look from all these young whippersnappers with their lives ahead of them to myself and wonder momentarily what it is that I am doing, making this mid-life career course correction. Fortunately these moments never last long – I came here with a purpose, albeit a somewhat inchoate one, and many of my classmates have impressive and inspiring backgrounds.

Intellectually I feel like I am holding my own thus far, though the annoying habit of American law schools whereby the first real feedback only arrives in the form of all-or-nothing final exams in December means that I won’t really know precisely where I stand for awhile. Mostly it is just a relief to have made a start, after having done so much preparation and read so many conflicting pieces of advice about how to succeed at law school. There is a satisfaction when the reasoning behind some obscure rule or legal concept finally clicks into place – it is good to be learning again. Growing, hopefully.

We have some pretty eminent academics who teach here, people whom I knew and respected before the thought of going to law school even occurred to me. One Supreme Court justice teaches a constitutional law seminar here, and another is coming to speak next week. Mostly I am awed by a sense of vast new possibility – the law is not really one career, it is a gateway to a myriad of different sub-vocations, almost as different from one another as it is possible to be. And while I can pre-emptively rule out certain options – it is pretty safe to say that I will not be becoming a small-town lawyer or one of those personal injury kings with their face on a billboard above the freeway – the possibilities remain varied.

Anyhow, this will likely be the longest thing that I write for some time outside of law school. Necessity dictates that I will at last have to do what I have often threatened to do on this blog but never quite succeeded at, namely trying to adopt a “little and often” approach to commenting and reacting on stories of interest. At this point you all know what I think about the big issues anyway, and I can always link back to those longer-form pieces when necessary. Time constraints now mean that if I want to say anything at all – and keep the blog ticking over – I had better find a way to condense my opinions into a paragraph or two. It will be good practice; Lord knows that much of what I have written the past six years would have benefitted enormously from an editor’s red pen anyway, if not the shredder.

Finally, while it may be somewhat cheeky to mention this when I haven’t published anything new for a month, I am now technically an impoverished student once again and without a regular income, so any donations to the instant ramen noodle fund are most gratefully received.

 

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Update From The Road, Part 2

Sydney Opera House - steps and sails in the sunlight - SJH

A political union which might actually work

As day 57 of our slow-motion American migration (by way of Southeast Asia and Australasia) draws to a close, I thought it was about time for another brief update from the road.

After a frenetic, exhilarating time in Singapore (don’t go there without visiting  Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, the cheapest Michelin-starred lunch you will ever eat, clocking in at about $1.50 USD) and an alternately wonderful and frustrating couple of weeks in Bali, we finally made it to Australia. We began in Melbourne, which the coffee snob in me enjoyed very much and which generally validates everything you read about Melbourne being one of the most liveable cities in the world, and then flew up to Sydney for five days, and now on to Cairns. I write this evening from the dining table in our motel room in Port Douglas.

Country highlights thus far would have to include the Great Ocean Road heading north from Melbourne, with its views of the majestic coastline and powerful sea. Also the private wildlife tour we took out of Sydney, in which we spotted a variety of birds, koalas, wombats, kangaroos, wallabies, a couple of (thankfully) baby huntsman spiders and a vain search for a platypus. My highlight, though, has to be the Sydney Opera House. This marvel was of course bound to tick all of my boxes as a classical music and opera-loving architecture geek, and the behind-the-scenes tour was fascinating. The sweeping beauty of the modernist architecture and the ingenuity of its construction make the building fully deserving of its status as a UNESCO world heritage site. It is the kind of building which, having beholden it, makes one feel sad that one can never again encounter it for the first time. Sadly there were no performances of interest scheduled while we were in town, but visiting the building was pleasure enough on this trip.

What a fantastic place is Australia. Those who know me personally probably grew tired of my pre-trip jokes about how I fully expected one or other of the many terrifying creatures which inhabit Australia to kill me, but the truth is that I have been very taken with this country since arriving a couple of weeks ago. The similarities to Britain are, as you might expect, almost too numerous to list, though there are also important and valuable differences too.

The spoken English and many of the idioms used here are of course easily recognisable and understandable by most Brits – we attended a show at the Sydney Comedy Festival a few nights ago, and while my wife (a Texan) struggled in some places to follow along, I was able to do so without effort. Much of the free-to-air television seems to consist of either old British shows from the 1990s (lots of Inspector Morse) or reality TV format exports, while the shorter store opening hours – many stores seem to shut up shop not long after 6pm, even in the cities – also resemble Britain prior to New Labour, circa 1996. Many UK businesses and brands have a visible presence here. The food is also very similar to that of Britain. Neither country really have a national cuisine as such; Australians may claim to produce superior meat pies or fish and chips, but after extensive personal research I can confirm that in reality it is pretty much a draw on that front.

We had the pleasure of visiting friends from London who moved to Sydney for work a couple of years ago, and it was interesting to hear anecdotes revealing their positive and negative experiences. Both found it very easy to make the transition from working in London to working in Sydney, not just because working culture is similar in the two cities but primarily because the general culture is so similar. Australians tend to be a little more direct and confrontational where necessary – much less British passive aggressiveness here – and in parts of Sydney there is a kind of health and body-obsessed vanity which those who know such things compare to the culture in Los Angeles, but overall there are few impediments save financial cost and homesickness which would stop any Brit from packing up and transporting their lives to Australia with relative ease. Well, aside from the points-based immigration system, of course.

All of which naturally led me to think about culture, national identity and the argument from Remainers in Britain that the UK has so much in common with our European friends and allies that a supranational political union is harmless at worst, and most likely deeply desirable. One need only spend half a day in Australia to realise that if there was to be a culturally viable supranational political union it would be between countries like Britain and Australia, with their deeply rooted shared history and multilayered cultural connections, than our closest geographic neighbours, dear and valued friends though they are.

The language barrier is the obvious issue, though far from the only one. For a supranational political union to work, there has to be a cohesive and willing demos to give the political institutions legitimacy – or at least a desire among the people to forge such a multinational demos and meld themselves into it. Without a shared language, this is an almost impossible task. Even conversational or business knowledge of another language can be insufficient to forge the kind of understanding and close relationships needed on a wide scale for people to see themselves as a single body. Being able to order food in a restaurant or even participate in a business meeting in a second language is often not enough, particularly when so few are likely to do the latter relative to total population size.

Rage against human nature all you want, but successful political systems and settlements are those which work with human nature rather than against it – capitalism being the prime example, harnessing individual self-interest and leveraging it in the ultimate service of the greater good. Supranational political union without consultation and consent is as doomed to failure as socialism, as both demand that human nature subordinate itself totally and unquestioningly to Utopian political theory.

If supranational political union is the goal – and to be clear, I’m not necessarily advocating this – it would be most likely to work where countries already share a language, a similar system of government and laws, numerous cultural references and deep links at all levels of society, not just between post-national elites. In other words, between countries like Britain and Australia (and most likely New Zealand and Canada too, though I shall have to confirm this as the grand tour winds its way toward America).

Those who say that Britain is so culturally aligned with Europe that we inevitably and rightfully belong in the EU’s political union find themselves not only delusional but also caught in a pincer movement by cold, hard reality. On one hand, there is the stubborn fact that ties of history, language and culture bind us much more strongly to the Commonwealth Anglosphere than to Spain or Germany, and on the other hand there is the fact that while “citizen of the world” post-national elites and knowledge workers may increasingly share a common culture and tastes, this emerging culture is itself global, not parochially European. A digital marketing executive from Bangkok or a hipster from Melbourne is likely to have as much in common with their British counterparts than mainland European, and in the latter’s case

I am presently reading “The People vs Democracy” by Yascha Mounk, himself no populist rabble-rouser, and even Mounk admits:

After a few months of living in England, I began to recognize that the differences between British and German culture were much deeper than I had imagined. They were also more wide-ranging. Far from being confined to food or language, they extended to humor and temperament, to personal outlook and collective values.

After college, when I spent more time in Italy, and then in France, I came to the same conclusion all over again. The residents of various European countries were much more attached to their national cultures, and much more resistant to thinking of themselves primarily as Europeans, than I had wanted to believe.

Again, Mounk is no Brexit apologist or excuse-maker for populism, but unlike many Remainers in Britain he is at least willing to change his assessment based on cold, hard reality and observance of human nature. EU defenders seem more determined than ever to ignore such qualitative facts, seemingly because unlike warnings of forthcoming economic doom, vital cultural issues cannot be so easily added up in an Excel spreadsheet and then pasted into an alarmist infographic to be shared on social media.

The furious insistence that Britain is culturally European and thus destined for political union centred in Brussels is primarily an elite phenomenon, and therefore a marginal viewpoint. If one has the money and inclination to ski in France or cycle in Italy every year, one is far more likely to perceive closer ties and similarities between Britain and Europe than exist on the macro level – and I say this as someone who has travelled a fair deal in Europe including four consecutive summer vacations in Santorini, Greece. While I love the Greek people and their culture, and readily acknowledge many similarities and crossovers with my own, I am deluding myself if I tell myself and others that the shared culture of Britain and Greece is more or equally capable of supporting political union than the shared cultural heritage of Britain and Australia.

For the final time, this is not to suggest that Britain and Australia do form such a union, or that the wildest dreams of the CANZUK fanclub be pursued – there is no real economic case, only a slender geopolitical one and very little mainstream interest for such a radical move in any of the concerned countries. The point is merely that if a political union were to be attempted, its chances of success would be infinitely higher among the Commonwealth Anglosphere than it is among the far more heterogenous countries of Europe.

And yet this does not stop the Remainers, with their endless tropes about the dangers of “going it alone” in the world and the evil “British exceptionalism” which leads us to believe we are somehow “better” than our continental European allies. They would struggle manfully against human nature right to the bitter end, furiously clinging to their dream of a supranational European government and political union, all the while ignoring the only kind of deep political union which might potentially work.

Brexiteers are often accused of a pig-headed refusal to engage with facts and deal with empirical reality, a charge which is frankly often deserved in the case of truculent leading hard Brexiteers who haven’t made the first effort to properly acquaint themselves with the details (or even the basics) of international trade and regulation, or who see Brexit not as a constitutional or technocratic challenge/opportunity but rather as nothing more than an exciting new front in their ongoing culture war.

But having now spent time in Australia and witnessed the degree to which cultural similarities with Britain are of such an entirely different (and higher) order than exists between the UK and most EU member states, I see that there is far greater pig-headed stubbornness on the other side – a stubbornness which is far less forgivable since its bearers love to portray themselves as highly educated disciples of reason, and have persisted in their delusion for so much longer.

 

Sydney Harbour Bridge at dusk - SJH

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