Why I Am Glad To Be Leaving Britain

Statue of Liberty

[As I continue to wend my way through Southeast Asia en route from London to my new home in the United States, below are some reflections on leaving Britain which have been percolating in my mind. Regular political commentary to resume once our travel itinerary calms down a bit and I reach a country with more reliable internet connectivity.]

I’d like to say that it has been a pleasure…

Britain will always be home to me. I will never renounce my citizenship, even though I will proudly take American citizenship and become a joint citizen of the other country to which I feel love and loyalty when I become eligible to do so. But speaking strictly from the perspective of someone who thinks about policy and writes about politics more than is probably healthy, I’m very glad to be escaping Britain for America at this particular juncture.

Not because of Brexit. I hear the keyboards of fifty Twitter wags clattering to life in my mind right now: “Ha, look at this die-hard Brexiteer who wanted out of the EU so badly but now won’t live in the apocalyptic hellscape he has bequeathed us”. Save the wisecracks, this has nothing to do with Brexit (though Brexit certainly shines an unforgiving light on the institutional and intellectual rot which makes me glad to move across the Atlantic).

I’m happy to be leaving Britain because we have become a small, petty and insular country. Not because of Brexit; we have been gradually becoming so for years prior, helped in large part by our EU membership, the stultifying centrist Westminster consensus and decades of bland technocratic government. The smallness I refer to has nothing to do with military or diplomatic power, though there are certainly warning signs in both these areas. It has nothing to do with our immediate economic prospects, since growth continues and the fundamentals of our economy are no more or less wobbly than they were prior to the EU referendum. It has nothing to do with the rise of other powerful countries or Britain’s supposed isolation outside the comforting embrace of supranational European political union.

The smallness afflicting Britain is a smallness of aspiration, of confidence, of purpose. It is the gradual draining away of any self-belief among those who run, report or comment on this country that decisions made here could actually matter, or influence human events and progress in a significantly beneficial way. It is the even more alarming realisation that the people with the potential intelligence and vision to help Britain recover our place as a visionary leader among countries increasingly self-select out of political life for reasons which are as obvious as they are tragic.

Why climb the greasy pole in a broken party system which rewards group conformity over ideological consistency or necessary pragmatism? Why inch one’s way up from town councillor to county councillor to MP’s bag carrier to ministerial SpAd to junior MP to parliamentary private secretary to junior minister to Cabinet minister to prime minister, compromising one’s ideas every step of the way, when one can have a far more fulfilling career in every respect working in the private sector, and have a more lasting and profound influence on humanity in the process?

For a couple of years now I have been writing about the great challenges facing Britain and the world in the new period of discontinuity which we are entering – an era when the old political settlement with its associated policies neither solve the new challenges we face nor command widespread public support any longer. The last such period of discontinuity in British politics took place in the late 1970s, when a sclerotic economy and over-powerful vested interests (particularly the trades union) were gradually choking the life out of Britain. Back then, we responded with the Thatcherite revolution, which for all its faults (and yes, those faults were real) revitalised our economy and rolled back the worst excesses of the socialist post-war consensus.

This new period of discontinuity is different, with new challenges in the form of globalisation, outsourcing, automation, mass migration and uncertainty over the role and long-term survival prospects for the nation state. These are problems which affect nearly every advanced economy, and which most countries are currently sidestepping or delaying their day of reckoning to some extent. Brexit offered Britain the golden opportunity to be not a helpless canary in the coalmine but rather an innovative testing laboratory and beacon to the world, confronting some of these challenges head on, breaking open political taboos and experimenting with heretofore unconsidered policy alternatives to meet the challenges we face. Britain could have seized this opportunity to genuinely lead the way for the first time in the post-war era, certainly in my lifetime.

This opportunity has been squandered, and the squandering is both tragic and unforgivable. In the 1970s there was enough intellectual life left in Britain for new policy ideas to germinate in places like the Centre for Policy Studies, then-revolutionary think tanks who brought in outside talent and evaluated ideas based on their innate worth rather than the connectedness or insider reputation of the individual putting them forward. That’s how the famous Stepping Stones Report came to be written in 1977, which Margaret Thatcher then took with her into Downing Street in 1979 and used as a blueprint for many of the policies and reforms which ultimately saved Britain from seemingly inevitable national decline.

In 2018, there is nobody left to do this kind of radical, disruptive work. Some of the same think tanks and organisations still exist (in name), but to a large extent they are rusted out old shells of their former selves, living on past glories and eking an existence by flattering government ministers or acting as a mouthpiece for existing party policymaking theatre rather than doing anything genuinely revolutionary or independent.

When I proposed a new Stepping Stones Report for 2022, a document which would seek to identify and classify all of the issues and threats facing modern Britain in order to discover their interlinkages and arrive at a suite of mutually-supporting policies to tackle and overcome them, I received a few polite and non-committal words or emails from various MPs and think tanks, and then no more. On one occasion I was cordially thanked and then told that there is “nothing in particular for you to do at this time”. You see, I am from outside the inner Westminster bubble so it is inconceivable that I might have stumbled upon a good idea or have anything whatsoever to contribute to government policy.

A few fruitless efforts at gaining the attention of influential figures within the Conservative Party made it abundantly clear that while normal people like me are good for stuffing envelopes or knocking doors to get out the Tory vote, best leave the policymaking and strategic thinking to those inside the bubble. And so the Conservative Party’s effort to make policy continues to throw up random half-baked ideas to solve the housing crisis, the productivity crisis, the migration crisis, the healthcare crisis, the education crisis and the so-called crisis of capitalism (many of these ideas lifted straight from the Miliband playbook) without any attempt to consider how these challenges might be linked or best be solved in conjunction with one another. A few genuinely heroic Tory MPs – George Freeman, Nick Boles and Robert Halfon, to name the most active – are engaged in serious work attempting to reimagine conservative policy for the 21st century, but they are receiving precious little air cover from CCHQ or Downing Street.

Things are no better on the other side of the aisle, where Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is permanently one anti-Semitic tweet away from total self-destruction. This blog celebrated Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016, not out of any admiration for or agreement with his policies but because he represented a bold step away from the suffocating centrist consensus whose policies overlook so many Britons and which has been hugely resistant to change. And there have on occasions been genuinely encouraging signs of intellectual life within Labour, such as with Corbyn’s proposed National Education Service – a horribly statist idea, but one which at least sought to recognise the limitations of our present system and try something different rather than continuing to shoot for the middle.

However, much of the political backing behind Jeremy Corbyn – Momentum in particular – is anything but modern or forward thinking, offering nothing so much as reheated 1970s statism. Worse, it comes infected with rabid and widespread anti-Semitism which the leadership ignores in order to avoid offending certain other fellow ideological travellers at home and abroad. Such has been the infighting that one can scarcely discern a Corbynite platform more nuanced than raising taxes and renationalising industry. Meanwhile, the displaced Labour centrists, full of entitlement and utterly lacking in introspection as to how their moral and intellectual failures led to this nadir, have done precious little policy thinking of their own and when given the chance to displace Corbyn in 2016 were so concerned for their own precious political careers that none of the remaining big beasts would stand, leaving it to the malodorous Owen Smith.

Ah, but what about the smaller parties? Well, UKIP has collapsed into now inevitable (if once avoidable) irrelevance, the Green Party continue to wage their ostentatiously anti-prosperity agenda and the Liberal Democrats have become nothing more than a futile Stop Brexit Party (and even on this ground they are challenged by new upstart anti-Brexit parties such as Renew). If there are signs of intellectual life or political courage to be found on the political periphery they have escaped my attention.

Look at education, healthcare, housing, automation and AI. Britain isn’t even currently aspiring to emulate best practice in (or achieve parity with) other countries, let alone pioneer new policy solutions which might see us leapfrog our competition and point the way for other nations. Take just education as an example, where technology could be revolutionising our current conception of school, opening up new possibilities for remote learning and real-time interaction with experts and other classes across distance and borders, and research in the social sciences has long hammered home the importance of proactive parental involvement in order to inculcate success at an early age. Where is the new technology in our classrooms? Where is the digital learning strategy? Where is the government promoting more responsible parenting?

Instead of these necessary endeavours to face up to policy failure and change direction, we either indulge in vainglorious British exceptionalism and imagine that the world has nothing to teach us (see the Tory Right’s insistence on a hard Brexit and our national obsession with the NHS, according to its hagiographers the world’s only compassionate universal healthcare service) or else resignedly believe that we are so feeble a country that there can be no hope in striking out on our own to road-test new ideas. How pathetic. How cowardly. What a betrayal of the next generation. How utterly, utterly small.

None of this is to say that things are significantly better in the United States. Lord knows that my new adopted home has not got everything all figured out just yet; America is also idling in neutral to a large degree, an unpredictable and vastly underqualified new president at the helm, his own worst enemy, and an opposition party which has sold its soul to the false god of identity politics rather than offering any uniting, uplifting alternate platform. But at least the big issues are still debated in America, however crudely may sometimes be the case.

As I wrote last year when lamenting the decline in British political rhetoric:

Maybe part of the reason that there are no great contemporary British political speeches reflects our diminished status in the world, no longer a superpower or the pre-eminent actor in world affairs. Lofty words are easier to reach for when one reasonably expects that they might reshape the world.

Despite having every opportunity to take the lead, Britain seems determined to be a follower – either cowering fearfully within the EU or attempting to roll back the clock to a time when economic integration, regulatory alignment and international just-in-time supply chains didn’t make a mockery of the Tory Right’s hard Brexit fantasies. We even import our social movements these days, with British universities racing to copy their American counterparts in capitulating to the censorious cult of identity politics and organisations like Black Lives Matter UK springing up despite lacking any of the context or triggers which prompted the formation of the original.

I have very little desire to spend my time engaged in the minutiae of political debate in a country which stubbornly refuses to lift its gaze above its own navel, whose activists have enough spare time on their hands to worry about non-issues or capriciously import social movements from abroad yet no time to agitate for universal reform, true egalitarianism or issues which do not immediately benefit their own wallets. America may not be the country it once was in terms of the richness and profundity of its civic life (though this is not to dismiss the great and necessary advances in civil rights and equality) since many of its greatest thinkers left the stage, but it is a darn sight healthier than contemporary Britain.

Interventionism versus non-interventionism? That debate burns more brightly in America because it is the United States which must do the bulk of intervening in an age of parsimonious European retrenchment. Healthcare reform? The American system may exist primarily to make Britain’s NHS look good by comparison, but at least radical healthcare reform is possible in the United States, unlike Britain where NHS worship is a mandatory religion for those in power. Education? The federal system and greater role for local government in America means that far more experimentation with new policies and technologies can take place than in Britain, where “postcode lotteries” are feared and policy competition is severely limited. The benefits and costs of laissez-faire social liberalism? Nearly all of the most thoughtful writing can be found in American journals, not the incestuous British publications.

Only on the question of national identity and societal cohesiveness is the political debate more interesting and pressing in the UK and Europe than in the United States, and even then only because years of bad and arrogantly-imposed policy have bequeathed Europe with significant subpopulations which feel little loyalty to or affinity with the countries which give them life and liberty, thus making it an existential issue. It is now fashionable among many elites to bemoan the decline of liberal democratic values, yet there is precious little introspection as to how policies which deliberately undermine the nation state and erode a common sense of identity accepting of liberal values might have played a part in their demise.

America is presently less far down this destructive path, and thus freer from the risk of the kind of societal unrest and breakdown which would make other policy experimentation impossible. In other words, if you don’t have to continually fight to justify your country’s existence (either from plotting euro-federalists on one side or unintegrated subpopulations and post-patriotic citizens of the world on the other) then one can comfortably think about other policy concerns, but if national survival underpinning essential liberal values is not assured then everything else becomes largely irrelevant.

So why this long, somewhat bitter screed as I depart the United Kingdom? After all, in the grand scheme of things I don’t matter at all. I’m not a genius, a policy wunderkind or a charismatic future political leader, so me quitting these shores to make my mark in the United States is no great loss for Britain. But if even people like me survey the state of British politics and civic life and feel overwhelmed by a feeling of resigned ennui, how must those individuals blessed with real talent and inspiration feel? You think they are going to stick around to watch Owen Jones, Ian Dunt and EU Supergirl slog it out with Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liam Fox, or feel compelled to step forward and offer their leadership skills to a country which itself has no desire to lead?

Britain can survive me flouncing off across the Atlantic; indeed, the country may well be much the better for it. But the pathetic state of British politics and civic life that I have described here is not only repulsive to me; it alienates talent and discourages innovation at nearly every level.

When British politics becomes little more than a technocratic debate about making the trains run on time or ensuring by national decree that hospital waiting times hit a certain target, we are thinking far too small.

When British political debate is more about desperately ignoring obvious truths (the unsustainability of the NHS, the failure of unmitigated multiculturalism, our broken welfare state) than tackling those problems head-on, we are being far too cowardly.

And when the desire and capacity of British elites to confront and overcome 21st century challenges gives way to a sense of resigned powerlessness and a petulant impatience for somebody else to do the difficult work, I can’t muster much sorrow to be taking a step away from that dismal stage.

I will never stop following or writing about British politics, and this blog continues. Britain is my homeland, a place towards which I will always retain a deep attachment and where I will undoubtedly spend some future years raising a family – and indeed, one of the unique selling points of this blog – I hope – is my ability to provide a familiar Brit’s perspective on American politics and a (nearly) American perspective on British politics, which would make unplugging from the debate quite counterproductive to my work.

But since Britain has repeatedly shown itself to be disinterested in domestic or global leadership of any kind, my focus will naturally gravitate more toward the politics of my new adopted home, a country which despite its many dysfunctions still retains that optimism and self-belief that matters debated and decisions made in America can shape the world for the better.

And Lord knows I am looking forward to that change of scenery.

 

Sign at Plymouh Rock - landing place of the pilgrims - 1620

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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 False Allure Of A Second EU Referendum

Anti Brexit Pro EU protester holding Second Referendum banner

Beguiled by the irresistible prospect of overturning Brexit before it even happens, many Remainers are even more oblivious to the consequences of forcing and winning a second referendum than Brexiteers were to the fallout from victory in the first

What would actually happen in the event that there was a second EU referendum? Unforgiving timescales mean that the prospect of a second vote may be more remote than ever before, despite much salivating on the Left and in the media, but the question is still worth asking because it reveals a pathology within the Remain side which not only mirrors but now exceeds that of the most unlettered Brexit Ultras.

Whether any future second referendum offered voters a choice between accepting the government’s secession deal or remaining in the EU on current terms, or if it posed a choice between the government deal and having to apply for re-entry on likely punitive terms, the argument put forward by establishment Remainers like Chukka Umunna is that “new facts” which “we could not know at the time” would inevitably swing the vote the other way.

Why do they think this? Because the intellectual leaders (though such a term may be too grand) of the Remain movement still refuse – either on principle or through basic incompetence – to empathise with the Brexit case. They live in a world of tenuous economic forecasts and financial charts designed to portray immediate economic ruin but refuse to acknowledge, let alone properly engage with, the democratic or self-deterministic case for leaving the European Union.

Even now, the idea that someone might reasonably vote for a cause which does not personally line their pockets or send perks and opportunities flowing their way is unfathomable to many Remainers (though of course there are Remainers of good conscience who do “get” the democratic argument while disagreeing with it). So on the whole, Remainers are no better equipped to fight any putative Referendum Take Two than they were the first time round.

But it gets worse. At the same time as they failed to update their overall case for Remain (for example by finally producing a forthright and unassailable case for European political union as a valid or exclusive solution to the problems we face), there has also metastasised within the Remain camp a very ugly and shrill Cultural Remain narrative which is openly hostile to Brexiteers as people, not just because of their vote.

This much is evident in that the cultural figureheads of Brexit are people like AC Grayling, Ian Dunt, Gina Miller and other polarising types who make no visible effort to see the argument from the other side (the first rule of persuasion), as to thus engage with “evil” would offend their delicate sensibilities.

Rather than outreach and understanding, there has been a constant hum of outraged, self-entitled contempt emanating from Camp Remain, and a seething hatred of Brexit voters which does not even attempt to mask itself. This is most clearly shown in the way that some Remainers publicly console one another at the prospect of elderly Leave voters dying, while others actively salivate at the prospect:

(The “wall of gammon” is a derogatory reference to white men of middle age and upwards, for whose deaths it is now perfectly acceptable to openly pine on social media and be blessed by the imprimatur of a Twitter verified tick).

So when the starting gun is fired on any second EU referendum, the pent-up cultural anger from this angry subgroup of Remainers will produce a banshee-type wail of fury and hatred toward the 52% that all but guarantees they alienate more swing voters than they are able to win over.

But we must also consider the dynamics of the public backlash. I wrote immediately following the June 2016 referendum how unprepared I was for the extent of the anti-Brexit backlash – partly because I fully expected the Leave side to lose the referendum and so had not mentally prepared for victory, but also because Brexiteers were so used to being the instigators of populist revolt that we neither saw the Remain backlash coming nor had any experience in defending against such a wave.

What should have been obvious to us then is that given the Remain side consists of the vast majority of politicians, academia and the cultural scene, their capacity to generate and sustain a backlash (or huge public tantrum) was always infinitely greater than a disorganised, squabbling band of Brexiteers who had wanting to leave the EU (in one form or another) in common with one another, but little else.

If Nigel Farage and UKIP were able to create a lot of noise and help dictate the UK political agenda in the years leading up to the referendum – and do so on a shoestring budget while riven with factional infighting, dogged by unforced errors and PR disasters – how much louder and more persuasive would the screams of self-entitled outrage be when they emanated from nearly every artist, celebrity, teacher, professor, public sector worker and a phalanx of journalists and commentators? Most Brexiteers, myself included, completely underestimated that part.

But if the establishment’s ongoing howl of outrage about Brexit is deafening, it would be nothing at all compared to the reaction of Brexiteers to having their decision called into question and the vote re-run in the hopes of getting a different answer. Rightly or wrongly, the resulting social and political conflagration would make AC Grayling’s Twitter feed look like a mellifluous, level-headed stream of soothing wisdom.

I say “rightly or wrongly” because I have no personal hostility toward a second referendum on principle, only that we only seem to be having this discussion because the Remain side lost. Ideally, guided by a written constitution rather than machinations behind closed doors, the terms EU referendum and the consequences of each result would have been more carefully considered, and the potential need for public ratification of any secession deal built into the process. But this did not happen.

On the contrary, the expensive pro-EU government propaganda inflicted on every British household made it absolutely plain that the UK government would implement whatever result was decided in the first and only referendum, despite their strong preference for keeping the status quo. And given the uncharitable way with which they would doubtless be dealing with Leave voters had the result gone the other way, their case is not a tremendously strong one, logically or morally.

Remainers should, however, learn from the harsh experience of Leave voters following our unexpected victory in 2016. Back then, Brexiteers were so keen on winning a “Leave” vote that we didn’t think through the extent of cultural opposition we would face between the referendum and secession day. And now many Remainers are so fixated on overturning Brexit they can’t think past the daydream of a “Remain” vote in a Referendum Take Two.

We hear much wailing about how Brexit has supposedly “divided our country”. This is mostly nonsense – the country was always divided over the EU, it’s just that the side who were used to having their way for 40 years suddenly find themselves unable to call all the shots, often for the first time in their living memory. The balance of divisiveness now tilts the other way.

But the divisiveness of a second EU referendum would make the first seem like good-natured banter between best friends – and having forced a replay, the Remain side would emerge neither victorious nor with their reputation intact. They would be responsible, in the worst case, for a rending of our social and democratic fabric which would likely prove impossible to repair. And even in the very best case scenario, the price of overturning the referendum would be millions of British citizens, half the country, effectively giving up on democracy and returning to a state of resigned indifference, a toxic and self-fulfilling belief that they have neither the right nor the ability to influence national events according to their values.

Remainers, who often consider themselves enlightened and progressive, would ordinarily recoil in horror from any course of action which threatened such toxic side-effects. They just can’t think clearly right now because the (unattainable) prize of scrapping Brexit and rendering the past two years little more than a centrist’s bad dream is so desperately shiny and alluring.

Protester placard at parliament - Europe We Demand A Vote - Second EU referendum - Remainers

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On Citizenship

Camden Town Hall council chamber doorway - Citizenship ceremony - British UK flags and Queen Elizabeth portrait

The unexpectedly moving experience of watching forty strangers become fellow citizens and compatriots at a UK citizenship ceremony

“Citizenship is more than an individual exchange of freedoms for rights; it is also membership in a body politic, a nation, and a community”
— Melissa Harris-Perry

“There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship”
— Ralph Nader

On Wednesday this week I had the privilege of attending a citizenship ceremony at Camden Town Hall, as my American wife finally took the oaths and became a British citizen.

This journey has been quite the odyssey for us. Jenny first came to this country on a short study abroad programme, staying for only a matter of months. She returned a couple of years later to study for her postgraduate degree, which is when we met, and after marrying we moved back to London (she on a spousal visa) and have been living here together since 2012.

The subsequent steps – applying for indefinite leave to remain, studying for and taking the Life in the UK test, providing biometric data more often than one would think necessary given the unchanging nature of one’s fingerprints and of course forking over large sums of money to the Home Office at regular intervals – were frequently stressful and time consuming, but there was never a question that this was a step we were going to take.

Britain is home for Jenny just as much as is the United States of America. She may have stubbornly refused to learn the 24-hour clock, use Celsius when talking about the weather or guzzle tea ten times a day along with everyone else at her office, but she is indisputably a proud Brit and a Londoner. She understands our cultural quirks, appreciates our history, loves the natural beauty of our countryside and maintains a richer social life and a wider network of British friends than I have ever cobbled together for myself.

Thus, naturalisation was simply a case of formalising on paper a transformation which had already taken place in her heart and mind. Jenny was already British in pectore; we were simply waiting for the legal side of things to catch up with reality. And so it was that I found myself sitting in the gallery of the council chamber at Camden Town Hall in King’s Cross, witnessing my wife and a diverse group of strangers complete the long and arduous process to become something which (through accident of birth) I have been fortunate to take for granted my entire life.

It was a genuine honour to be present as over 40 people from all backgrounds, races, religions and countries of birth solemnly affirmed their commitment to our United Kingdom. Many people are content to live in this country, building lives here, contributing and receiving back, without making this gesture of commitment. But I believe that it is very important, and admire those who do so.

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

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

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

If I was a non-citizen living in Britain, I would take citizenship in a heartbeat. In fact, as a natural born citizen of this country I was almost envious that the immigrants who were naturalised today in King’s Cross were able to solemnly mark the event. Those of us born here often take our citizenship for granted, but these immigrants strove and sacrificed to attain their status.

With the ongoing debates around Brexit, I encounter all manner of arguments from people who clearly don’t understand the first thing about what citizenship entails or represents. For example, many are genuinely outraged that EU citizens could not vote in the 2016 referendum. I find it to be astonishing that people who live here but are unwilling to share the bond of citizenship with me seriously believe that they should still have the right to help determine the future of my country.

At this point I inevitably hear outraged spluttering along the lines of “I pay my taxes / serve in Our Blessed NHS / help employ local people, so why shouldn’t I have a say?” But this only highlights the transactional view of citizenship that many now hold, with paying taxes and claiming benefits the only relationship one might possibly have with a country.

And to be fair this transactional view of citizenship is also encouraged by the UK government, which rather than pursuing an immigration policy optimised for economic growth, social stability or national security instead blindly chases an arbitrary and unattainably low net migration number. When the state makes clear its view of immigrants as a problem to be mitigated and prospective citizens as purely a bureaucratic burden to be processed it is difficult to demand greater fealty or civic engagement from immigrants themselves.

Yet citizenship still matters, despite its somewhat tarnished image. Only citizens are able to participate fully in our civic life – voting, running for office, serving on a jury. If one is unwilling to undertake these commitments 99% of the time, as long-term EU residents who choose not to take citizenship are essentially declaring, you can’t object when you are then prohibited for participating in the one very specific event (voting in the EU referendum) in which you have a direct interest. That kind of cafeteria civics would represent a one-way flow of benefits from the state to the individual and undermine the reciprocity needed for society to function.

The Brexit debate has highlighted just how degraded our conception of citizenship has become. With reduced and increasingly ineffectual armed forces, only a very limited opportunity for national service (the National Citizen Service being one of the few entirely positive policies enacted by David Cameron) and our exquisite embarrassment about any display of patriotism, it is really no wonder that we have come to see citizenship as just a bunch of perks.

As I wrote back in September last year:

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

I am sure that some of those who naturalised in the citizenship ceremony today did so for purely practical or transactional reasons. But I hope that even they will look back on today with pride and now feel a deeper connection to the country they call home.

Ultimately there is nothing magical about naturalisation. The certificate does not hold any special magical powers. It is not a measure of personal worth, and of course many UK residents who are non-citizens on paper are far better citizens in practice than many of us who are natural born. Naturalisation is just one indicator, albeit a very important one, of an important responsibility solemnly accepted.

Of course, none of this will be the case in perpetuity. The nation state is not forever, and in a century or two, civics and geopolitics will doubtless look very different. But for now, the nation state remains the best guarantor of freedom and incubator of prosperity that mankind has yet devised, and attachment to the nation state has been the means of securing these blessings for an individual. Wishing for its premature demise is foolish.

To those citizens of the world, outraged by Brexit, who hold their EU citizenship more dear than their British citizenship, I would simply point out that any objective, dispassionate analysis shows us that the European Union is not the only (nor best) vehicle for international cooperation, its status as the natural successor to the nation state is far from certain and it will never possess the essential spirit of democracy until there is a European demos – a body of citizens willing to take the oath that my wife and forty others willingly gave to the United Kingdom.

Watching these people – as diverse as one would imagine forty people randomly plucked from the streets of Camden to be – take the oaths of allegiance was to witness them transform from being strangers and fellow immigrants to being compatriots. It was nearly as emotional for me, sitting perched in the gallery, as it clearly was for many of them.

And if only more of us knew the journey involved and the sacrifices made by these people so that they might share the same rights and responsibilities that we enjoy as British citizens, we would not be so cavalier about our own citizenship and all that it represents.

Camden Town Hall council chamber - view from public gallery - Citizenship ceremony

Oath of allegiance - British UK Citizenship ceremony

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