The Left Will Not Achieve Gun Reform By Using Divisive Culture War Tactics

Gun violence protests - NRA blood on your hands

Going on a moralistic crusade against the NRA and gun rights supporters may be cathartic for the Left, but folding the gun control debate into the ongoing toxic culture war only guarantees bitter polarisation and more deadly inaction

A worrying (but perhaps predictable) new development following the horrific Parkland school shooting has been a concerted effort by many on the anti-gun Left to fold the issue of gun rights and restrictions into the broader, toxic ongoing culture war, in which Americans hunker down within their respective ideological bunkers and instinctively assume the worst of those who disagree.

This trend reached depressing new heights last night during CNN’s town hall on gun control, held in Broward County, Florida, where the shooting took place. This was less a serious debate conducted in the spirit of seeking compromise than it was an inquisition, designed not to foster understanding or brainstorm solutions but rather to provide a cathartic opportunity for gun-control advocates to scream at gun rights supporters and accuse them of complicity in the mass murder of innocent schoolchildren.

Even if there were a shred of truth in these monstrous accusations – and there isn’t – it would remain absolutely terrible politics. Constantly fuming that the other side is selfish and evil only encourages alienation and division, a fact which was true when some Republicans implied that President Obama didn’t “love America” and which applies equally now when some Democrats imply that conservatives don’t care about murdered kids. And it really should be a cause of deep shame for CNN that President Trump of all people was able to moderate a calmer, more respectful and productive listening session on gun control at the White House than Jake Tapper, with all his experience, managed on live television.

(Of course, the US media being the uncritically self-regarding entity that it is, Tapper is receiving praise from all corners for permitting what was effectively open season on Republican senator Marco Rubio and NRA representative Dana Loesch while letting the political activist local sheriff whose department failed to take action against the killer before he struck completely off the hook).

The irony to all of this is that there have actually been some genuinely hopeful signs of movement from gun rights proponents after this latest shooting. Whether it is increased fatigue from even hardened gun-rights activists at witnessing the funerals of more young children or (perhaps more likely) the loud and insistent activism of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students themselves, concessions are now being mooted and offered on areas from bump stocks (though no such device was used in this particular shooting) to increased criminal background and mental health checks.

This much, however, was foreseeable. What seems to be new this time is that efforts are now underway to make gun rights supporters pariahs in the wider American culture and society. We see this most notably with swarms of activists on social media browbeating corporations into disassociating themselves with the National Rifle Association – and gunowners in general, by extension:


This, of course, is precisely the same tactic used by the illiberal leftist British organisation Stop Funding Hate, which channels the efforts of a few thousand shrill voices on Twitter to intimidate companies into pulling their advertisements from certain publications or certain publications from their places of business.

Stop Funding Hate has had great success in surgically removing the spines of various corporations in Britain and then bending them to conform to whatever happens to be their moral outrage of the week, nearly always involving the Daily Mail. One does not have to approve of the Daily Mail’s editorial positions or reporting standards to be concerned that leftist efforts to make the personal political are creating dozens of new wedge issues to divide British people from one another rather than uniting us around common values, and co-opting big business in their efforts to do so.

In America, it seems to corporate capitulations are going to be every bit as swift as they have been here in the United Kingdom, with car hire giant Enterprise Rent-A-Car swiftly terminating a deal with the NRA in which offered rental discounts to their members:


Note the specific language used here, too. The business relationship was between Enterprise and the NRA, so the spineless amoebas who run the company’s social media accounts could simply have said that they terminated their relationship with the NRA. But they went one step further and specifically pointed out that they were withdrawing their discount for “NRA members”, as though innocent NRA members (none of whom have ever committed one of these mass shootings) are themselves deserving of opprobrium and social sanction.

An intersectional social justice warrior might say that this has the effect of “othering” the large minority of Americans who own guns, but of course such terms are only conferred on designated victim groups, a label which conservative gun-owners will never attract. Those of us who do not wallow 24/7 in victimhood culture might simply point out that appearing to repudiate law-abiding NRA members

Are firms like Enterprise free to advertise or offer affinity partnerships with whatever organisations they please? Of course. Is it necessarily good business to allow a handful of Twitter activists to effectively dictate corporate strategy? It’s arguable, but I have very strong doubts. But is it good for the country for corporations to so clearly take sides on divisive social issues, coming perilously close to suggesting that those who hold more conservative views are effectively personae non gratae? I think it is unambiguously bad and counterproductive to do so.

We have already been through this dismal dance with the media. The mainstream, prestige media’s often soft but near-universal leftward bias on all issues did not have the desired effect of “reprogramming” conservatives into adopting progressive positions; rather, it simply forced conservative news consumers into the arms of right wing talk radio, Fox News and a slew of independent right-wing websites whose journalistic standards and commitment to objectivity are often questionable at best. And freed from the need to cater to that side of the market, the remaining prestige media has had every social and commercial incentive to pander to progressive dogma and groupthink to the extent that many journalists genuinely believe themselves to be objective while displaying degrees of selection bias and epistemic closure which beggar belief.

Has this division been good for American society? Who can argue that it has been anything other than a monumental failure? More than anything, this is what gave the country President Trump. When the legacy news outlets which generally still come closest to reporting objective truth make it plainly clearly that conservative ideas are unwelcome and will be treated with more scepticism than progressive ideas, the very idea of objectivity is poisoned.

Do we really want to replicate this polarisation across all aspects of American life? Do we want to live in a society where the car rental company you use, the airline you fly, the grocery store you shop at or the high-tech goods you buy become an expression of your stance on every hot-button social issue, a flag planted to declare your allegiance in the culture wars?

Nothing good can come of this. Nothing. Have conservatives historically shown far too little sense of urgency in proposing and implementing policy changes in an attempt to reduce the frequency and deadliness of mass shootings, or at least been content to see efforts stall so long as their rights were not threatened? Absolutely. But now they are actually coming to the table, the Left’s response cannot be to paint every gun-owning American as a pariah and refuse to frequent the same places of business.

The Left have a history of achieving social changes – often welcome, sometimes less so – and responding to these victories not with magnanimity toward the conservatives they routed but rather with an unbecoming, snarling vengefulness. It would be a real catastrophe if they now repeat this destructive behaviour as they fight for greater gun control.

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After The Parkland School Shooting We Need To Rethink The Trade-off Between Liberty And Public Safety

Mass Shooting - Marjory Stoneman Douglas High - Parkland Florida - Gun Control

Conservatives and gun rights activists don’t like to talk about it, but at the heart of their opposition to increased gun control is an unspoken trade-off between defending against possible future tyranny and trying to reduce or prevent otherwise inevitable future deadly mass shootings. In the wake of the Parkland school shooting, we need to drag this debate out into the open and re-examine the trade-offs which we are willing to tolerate

At what point is the promise of the Second Amendment and the assurance it offers Americans as the final firewall against government tyranny outweighed by the monthly carnage in American schools? Or is it wrong to even conceptualise such a tipping point, gut-wrenchingly tragic and outrageous though these endless mass shootings may be?

Are we right to focus on high profile mass shootings when so many more murders take place, in no way less tragic, during shootings involving only one victim? Is it appropriate to even contemplate reviewing something so fundamental to the American culture and precepts of government as the Second Amendment based purely on high profile massacres, when they form such a small percentage of the total yearly gun homicides?

Even if it were possible to outlaw the kind of weapons often used in high profile mass shootings, would it ever be politically or logistically possible to enforce a ban and/or seek to recall these weapons from lawful owners while providing appropriate monetary compensation, or would this simply leave the citizenry more at the mercy of criminals, or even provoke armed insurrection by those unwilling to comply?

All of these thoughts and more have been going through my mind as I learned of the latest deadly school shooting, this time at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen young people are known to have been killed.

I have long supported gun ownership rights, albeit with some caveats. Part of this is a function of growing up in the United Kingdom, where not only are most of the police unarmed, but where the law often ends up penalising those who try to engage in legitimate self-defence. If the government will not quickly and reliably come to one’s aid in a life-threatening situation, particularly given the rising Islamist terror threat, then what right has the government to demand that citizens forego even non-lethal methods of personal self-defence such as tasers or pepper spray?

I am not yet constitutional scholar enough to be able to adequately dissect the Second Amendment and the myriad existing gun control laws, but clearly there are existing limits on the right to bear arms, set both by the definition of the word “arms” and by state and federal law. One cannot construct a homemade nuclear weapon or dirty bomb in one’s garage or laboratory as an insurance policy against government tyranny, for example, and even the most conservative Republicans and the NRA don’t seem to register any objection to that.

As with free speech and the First Amendment, a line has been drawn. In the case of free speech, the line has rightly been set at the point of incitement or “fighting words”, the credible threat of harm to another individual. In the case of gun ownership and the Second Amendment, the line is both blurrier and more jagged, with various carve-outs and inconsistent application among the various states. But over the passage of time it was decided that certain semi-automatic weapons should be legal while others designated “assault weapons” are not, and yet nowhere is this spelled out in the Constitution.

Since there is then precedent for wide-ranging interpretation, it does not seem unreasonable to demand one of two things – either that the Second Amendment is revisited and its language tightened up to elucidate precisely what constitutes “arms” and precisely what infringements upon the right to bear such arms are now tolerable, or that the line in the sand (whose presence we all tacitly tolerate anyway) is redrawn in a way that restricts the type of weapon repeatedly used in these mass shooting incidents.

I believe that principles are important. In the Brexit debate here in Britain, I maintain that the principles of democracy and self-determination are sacrosanct and in themselves worth voting to leave the European Union, which is a deeply antidemocratic supranational government in gestation. I hold this view despite the fact that Remainers can point to many potential short and medium-term costs (albeit some of them invented or far-fetched) because democracy, though not quantifiable, is priceless.

And so it is with liberty and the right to fend off a tyrannical government, I suppose. America’s history is rooted in having to fend off a colonial power and fight to remain independent. American government is further predicated on the noble idea that the government and institutions of the day exist at the sufferance of the people, from whom they are temporarily given certain powers of governance, unlike most other countries where rights flow from the government to the individual. Given that the arc of history does not inevitably bend towards progress, and that tyranny can re-emerge unexpectedly at any time, a plausible and coherent (if distasteful) argument can be made that no matter how grim the death tolls and murder rates, the fundamental, universal liberty which the Second Amendment protects is yet more precious even than the lives taken every day by the bullet.

And yet. And yet we do not live in a world of pure political theory. We live in the real world, a fallen world where at some point the body count, the sheer mass of lost human potential will eventually outweigh (if it hasn’t done so already) any benefit that the Second Amendment offers in its current form.

For the past decade I have been a project and program manager by trade, and one of the key things we do in my job is assess and mitigate risk. In order to do so, one needs to determine both the likelihood of an adverse event happening and the severity of the consequences if it does so. Assigning a numeric value to each, one can then multiply the two variables to arrive at a unique risk rating for any eventuality, and use that rating to determine whether the risk can be mitigated and whether it is worth the cost of doing so based on the probability and severity of any potential fallout.

The Second Amendment is essentially a risk mitigation strategy against the re-emergence of tyrannical government. The result of true tyranny (though such things always exist on a sliding scale) can inevitably be measured in countless human lives, as borne out by every dictatorship which has ever existed. The probability of tyranny re-emerging, however, fluctuates all the time according to societal trends and political developments – at this time, some might say that the probability has spiked somewhat, while others would say that such an assessment is overblown.

We then need to compare the price of our current risk mitigation strategy against government tyranny – the Second Amendment in its current form – against the price of such a tyranny re-emerging in the event that we either cease to mitigate the risk (by abolishing the Second Amendment and attempting a recall or seizure of guns in legal circulation) or reduce our mitigation efforts (by imposing additional limits and restrictions on Second Amendment rights).

I’m sure that some person far cleverer (and more clinically, dispassionately calculating) than I could input thousands of societal and political variables into a huge Excel spreadsheet, work some pivot table magic and come up with a theoretical crossover point in terms of lives currently being lost versus lives potentially saved by fending off government tyranny (to the extent that current levels of gun ownership are any true defence against such tyranny). However, I am not that person. All I can do is go by my gut feeling and confess that much as I believe in gun ownership and support the Second Amendment in principle, it seems evident to me that we are way past the tipping point and that something needs to change.

A reasonable trade-off at this point, I believe, would be the banning of the sale of semi-automatic, gas-operated weapons and potentially compulsory buy-backs and amnesties to remove as many as possible currently in private ownership, given the capacity of such weapons to rapidly inflict mass casualties and their current popularity with mentally disturbed or evil people for whom such firearms are their weapon of choice.

I arrive at this position based on an honest and realistic assessment of both the risk of government tyranny (the ultimate reason that supporters of such weapons invoke in their defence) and the ability of such weapons in the public domain to deter against tyranny. I would not go further and propose the banning of non auto-loading firearms because there is a legitimate self-defence and recreational interest in keeping them, while they also provide a continued (if reduced) protection against the emergence of government tyranny, with the reduction in deterrence more equal to the potential lives saved through a successfully-enforced ban of semi-automatic weapons.

As Salon (hardly an unbiased source, but instructive in this instance) wrote in the aftermath of last year’s Las Vegas shootings:

The problem with gas operated weapons is that they are very, very dangerous. They are inherently dangerous, of course, because they are capable of killing people. But they are also dangerous because of the design of their rapid fire mechanisms and because of the nature of the humans who use them. In order for one of these weapons to be safe when it is loaded with a magazine full of bullets, two things must happen: the safety must be on, and it must not have a live cartridge in the chamber. But even if these safety precautions are taken, it’s still dangerous because dropping the weapon might chamber a round and knock the safety off, causing it to fire. The United States Military considers the gas operated weapons it issues to soldiers to be so dangerous that loaded firearms are not permitted on military bases here in this country, or even on bases in combat zones abroad. When I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, every time we entered an Army basecamp, our convoys had to pull over to the side of the road short of the camp entrance, soldiers had to dismount and walk over to barrels full of sand, and pointing the barrels of their M-16’s or M-4’s into the barrels, they had to remove loaded magazines from their rifles and clear the chamber of live rounds. Only when their weapons were completely unloaded and the bullets were put away were they safe.

[..] That’s all the Congress needs to know in order to write legislation that will make it far more difficult for mass killings to be carried out in the future. Ban the sale of gas operated weapons. Ban the importation and manufacture in the United States of new gas operated weapons except those for military or police use, and ban the sale or resale of currently existing gas operated weapons. The Las Vegas shooter apparently bought all of his weapons in contemplation of using them to shoot up the concert on Sunday night. If he had been unable to legally purchase his arsenal of gas-operated rifles, he would have been unable to kill 59 and wound over 500. Nor would the shooters in Orlando, or Newtown, or Virginia Tech, or Aurora Colorado have been able to so easily carry out their mass murders. If each of those shooters had to cock his weapon every time he fired it, far fewer people would have died.

Could such a ban be enforced by a mere Act of Congress? Again, I am not yet lawyer enough to proffer a deeply informed opinion. It may well be that such a ban could only be achieved through a Constitutional amendment – and given the current lack of clarity in the Second Amendment, the latter course of action would probably be preferable. Far better to have a clear and unambiguous limit on the power of the government to infringe on the private right to bear arms than the current situation where we have a very maximalist clause in the Constitution which is interpreted and curtailed in all manner of ways and thus made a mockery of in real life. And since so many decent and law-abiding citizens view their right to own such weapons as rooted in the Constitution, only a Constitutional amendment would give any future ban real weight and legitimacy.

But would such a measure do anything to significantly reduce the carnage which has long been a part of daily life in America? Much would depend on the method and timescale of any recall effort after an applicable law or Constitutional amendment was passed, and one can look to the Australian gun amnesties and buy-back schemes for guidance, but it should be acknowledged that any effect would be marginal at best in the short term.

Many weapons would inevitably not be handed in and would continue to be stored insecurely or accessible to those who should not have them, while psychopaths could continue to inflict mass casualties using smaller weapons. And while in time there would almost certainly be a decrease in the deadliness of mass shooting incidents (if not in the number of incidents themselves) as more guns were handed in and the inevitable smuggling routes disrupted, opponents of the ban could always disingenuously point to any mass shooting involving a semi-automatic weapon which slipped through the net as “proof” that the whole exercise was a futile exchange of liberty for no additional safety. The benefits would be marginal, and one cannot disprove a counterfactual.

And yet clearly something must be done. America stands alone among prosperous, developed countries in terms of gun violence and mass shootings in particular, and freedom enjoyed is not so vastly greater in the United States than it is in other peer countries such as Britain to justify the carnage (though again, America’s “insurance policy” against tyranny is somewhat greater than other countries).

If not this moderate additional restriction on gas-operated semi-automatic weapons, what is the alternative? Many Second Amendment defenders rightly point to a litany of other factors which contribute toward mass shootings, from the degenerate culture and lack of accessible mental healthcare services to the ubiquity of antidepressants and other prescription medications, and more. And they are right to highlight these issues – after all, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

But we are now faced with a choice between trying to change society and human nature, which is incredibly difficult, time consuming and unpredictable in its results, or taking steps which accept the world and human nature as they are (surely the correct conservative approach) and enact physical constraints on the ability to purchase or acquire semi-automatic or gas operated weapons, or doing both.

At this point, we need to embrace an “all of the above” solution. We should absolutely do what we can to identify instances where the lack of mental healthcare or the prescription or illegal acquisition of certain pharmaceutical drugs can impact someone’s mental equanimity to the point where they become a potential mass murderer, and thenmake sensible reforms in this sphere. We should examine our culture of violence and any role that this plays in mass shootings, and also continue to take steps to change the way that the media reports such incidents (such as by focusing less on the killer, depriving them of the posthumous fame they crave and so acting as a deterrent to potential future killersthough others disagree that this makes any difference).

But this alone is not enough. We need to take practical measures too, steps rooted in the physical world to make it harder to acquire particularly lethal weapons. And for Second Amendment advocates (of whom I still consider myself one, albeit a reformist) it might be suggested that a small tactical retreat on this issue, if exchanged for cast-iron guarantees that no further infringement will take place, is infinitely preferable to inaction and the slow build-up of public outrage which might one day boil over and result in far more draconian gun control laws.

It may sound heartless so soon after another unspeakable tragedy to consider the issue of gun control in the clinical terms of risk mitigation. But at its heart, this is the purpose of the Second Amendment – to provide an insurance policy against encroaching government tyranny. And it does no good arguing the issue from a purely emotional angle or even from the self-defence angle, when both of these approaches skirt the real Constitutional issue at stake.

At its heart, the Constitutionally-rooted argument for the right to bear arms is not about hunting, recreation or self-defence; it is about the preservation of liberty and the right of the people to protect themselves from a government which no longer serves their interests. One can argue that this is an anachronism made hopelessly out of date by advancing weapons and surveillance technology, but American founding history vindicates the right to bear arms, and the wider arc of history warns us repeatedly against allowing ourselves to believe that Western democracies have entered some permanently benign state where the interests of the people and those in power will never again be irreconcilably opposed.

This is the battleground on which the issue must be fought if we are to have any resolution to the gun control debate, because this is the only line of argument seen as valid by gun ownership advocates, and because the Constitution demands that it be so. What, in 2018, would be a more acceptable, legal and politically/logistically feasible balance between safeguarding against the low probability of encroaching government tyranny versusprotecting the presently-imperilled public interest?

That is the question we must answer.


Note: I am no constitutional scholar or expert in how existing gun control measures have been reconciled with the Second Amendment. If anybody has any corrections, additions or counter-arguments to what I have written, I would be grateful to hear them in the Comments.


Shooting At High School In Parkland, Florida Injures Multiple People


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

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

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

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

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

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

Yesterday I wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Update – 31 January

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


Political System of the United Kingdom - Britain - UK


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

Brexit - EU protesters - Breverse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunlight can often be the best disinfectant.


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


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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.


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


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