Political Tribalism, Brexit And The Liberalist Insurgency

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Many so-called liberals are great at diagnosing destructive political tribalism when it manifests in other people, but are often blind to the same pathologies within their own ranks

I wrote a long piece earlier this month about deepening political tribalism as it relates to Brexit. After the piece was serialised in Country Squire Magazine, much of the pushback I received from the usual suspects within the Remain camp (university professors and the like) only served to prove my point – that Brexit merely exposed, rather than caused, the increasing depths of partisan tribalism afflicting Britain.

This tribalism is not the exclusive preserve of the under-educated, supposedly simple-minded working classes whose emotions and voting habits are apparently so easily manipulated by Rupert Murdoch, Cambridge Analytica or the dozens of other shadowy figures who now stand accused of ushering in Brexit for their own nefarious ends. Indeed, through their growing obsession with these new scapegoats, many of those opposed to Brexit reveal themselves to be capable of behaving in an equally aggressively tribal manner without even realising that they are doing so.

It never occurs to many of those people who occupy the groups most statistically prone to supporting Britain’s EU membership – students, university professors, artists and arts workers, young urban professionals – that they might be doing something so base, so primal as to be influenced by tribal behaviour. Why? Because many are used to seeing tribalism as a pathology affecting only the poor, the uneducated or others traditionally seen as either victims (like welfare recipients) or potential threats to be mitigated (juvenile criminals or nascent Islamist extremists). To many journalists, academics and politicians, tribalism is seen as something afflicting only society’s losers and outcasts,  not something which might also pull the strings inside AC Grayling’s neocortex.

The idea that political tribalism might just as easily drive the behaviour of an Oxbridge professor, a PR director on a six-figure salary or a young university student often simply fails to compute, but it is a real and frequent occurrence nonetheless. Being educated and even nominally aware of the existence of tribal impulses does not automatically make one immune from being driven by tribalism oneself, particularly when one possesses the intellectual capacity and vocabulary to rationalise one’s behaviour as more noble and high-minded than it necessarily is.

And so time and again we see those who would normally be first to decry tribal behaviour engaging in its most vicious forms, whether it be the American college students or graduates who refuse to visit their Trump-voting parents or public figures who believe they have license to say the most horrible things about Leave voters and Brexiteers from atop their perch on the “right” side of history. More concerning, since these new converts to overtly tribal behaviour supposedly make up much of the cognitive elite, they seem unable to acknowledge the drawbacks of their behaviour or the many ways in which it actively harms their end goal, be it overturning the result of Britain’s EU referendum or prematurely turfing President Donald Trump out of office.

Smart people should be capable of noticing when an existing strategy is not delivering results and adjusting course to deliver better outcomes, but many within the anti-Brexit academic, cultural, commercial and political elite instead seem intent to double down on losing strategies which may feel cathartic but fail to achieve their political ends. Only political tribalism can drive nominally smart people to behave in so counterproductive a way.

Political tribalism causes anti-Brexit members of the elite to act out in a couple of negative ways – firstly by failing to understand or acknowledge the true motivations and drivers for the Leave vote, and secondly by engaging in public statements and actions which actively alienate many of the people whose good opinion they need to court and convince in order to change their minds. In my recent long article about political tribalism and Brexit I covered a number of the ways in which anti-Brexit elites harm their own cause through misbehaviour and bad messaging, but it is also worth focusing on the way in which political tribalism causes Brexit opponents to consistently ignore the full range of valid reasons which drove thinking adults of good character to vote to leave the European Union.

The first is a binary worldview which sees the EU as representing (if not always achieving) the highest ideals of mankind, and euroscepticism as the antithesis of all that is good in the world. This widely held opinion reveals itself in every tweet decrying Brexit as the result of unchecked xenophobia and racism (or a neo-imperial quest for lost glory) while simultaneously ignoring the EU’s manifest flaws. The best one can often get in debate with a pro-EU activist is an exasperated admission that “of COURSE the EU needs reform!” uttered through clenched teeth, though specific proposals for such reform or estimates of their probable implementation are always curiously lacking. Meanwhile, despite post-referendum polling which showed sovereignty and not immigration as the key driver of the Leave vote, heinous racist or xenophobic statements are taken to represent the broad church of pro-Brexit opinion.

The second reason is the exclusionary nature of many of the strongest bastions of pro-EU sentiment. There are people of good conscience in the academic and arts industries who support Brexit, but they rarely make themselves heard for fear of social or professional reprisal. If the prevailing opinion within one’s social or professional circle holds that Brexit is a national calamity with grievous implications for human rights, few people will have the courage (or luxury of courage) to take an openly contrarian view. Unfortunately this only worsens the situation, with those who do most to oppress pro-Brexit sentiment within their respective circles then failing to see that Brexiteers can sometimes be respected colleagues and friends.

Just as increased meaningful exposure to immigrants tends to reduce xenophobia or opposition to immigration, so structured and controlled exposure to Brexiteers might make many of the loudest anti-Brexit advocates realise that their opponents are not the evil masterminds or stupid pawns they have been portrayed as. But ironically, while many anti-Brexit campaigners are eager champions of multiculturalism, they also either encourage or tacitly tolerate a sometimes aggressively ideologically homogeneous pro-EU school of thought to dominate their field – ideological diversity is the one kind which is not celebrated and put on a pedestal.

But the greatest driver (or manifestation) of political tribalism among anti-Brexit activists now is not the deeply ingrained sense of moral superiority or self-imposed isolation from contrarian viewpoints – rather, it is the degree to which many of the afflicted now seem willing to latch onto anything from issues of concern to downright conspiracy theories, promoting them as valid reasons for nullifying or re-running the EU referendum in order to seek the “correct” response from the electorate.

The latest cause du jour is Cambridge Analytica, which seems to have transformed itself in the minds of Remain supporters from the tawdry and morally questionable data huckster outfit into a shadowy, all-powerful corporate behemoth which single-handedly tipped the balance and inflicted Trump and Brexit on a naive and defenceless world. The re-emergence of Cambridge Analytica in the headlines following news of its connection to a Facebook data “breach” and the Trump presidential campaign has only encouraged those already looking for reasons to invalidate (rather than argue against) Brexit to seize upon the scandal and make a lot of tenuous and irresponsible insinuations.

Pro-EU advocacy website InFacts can now be found – contrary to their name – raising “questions” whose entire purpose is to put the murkiest deeds of Cambridge Analytica as close as possible to Brexit on paper or a smartphone screen in the hope that insinuations about the former question the legitimacy of the latter.

Prior to Cambridge Analytica, the figure of Russia loomed largest in the Remainer imagination as the driver of Brexit. While any foreign interference in British electoral processes represents an abhorrent and unacceptable attack on our national security and civic institutions, one which we should probably be taking far more seriously both in terms of reprisals and future safeguarding, the idea that even a large scale attempt at Facebook manipulation had a material impact on the referendum result is both unproven and far from meeting the common sense test.

Are Remainers seriously proposing that the full weight of UK government advocacy, the massed ranks of the artistic and cultural world, a plurality of big business and heavyweight external interventions from the likes of the IMF and even President Barack Obama, all encouraging a Remain vote, were overshadowed by £1 worth of Facebook ads and the addled efforts of a Twitter troll farm in Russia? Apparently so – and yet many of the high profile personalities and Serious Thinkers who make and amplify these assertions are unable to step back and escape the prison of their political tribalism for long enough to appreciate how unhinged their conspiracies are beginning to sound.

In short, a significant strand of anti-Brexit opinion remains obstinately unwilling to consider any failure on the part of the Remain campaign or the European Union itself, instead attributing their every setback and woe to crude dismissals of the electorate or fantastical conspiracy theories of the type embraced by leading Remainer intellectual Professor AC Grayling.

It takes a lot to make intelligent and accomplished people behave in a way which is both counterproductive to their interests (they will never stop Brexit by repeatedly shrieking that Leave voters are stupid automatons who were hoodwinked either by Vladimir Putin or sinister corporate interests) and damaging to their long-term reputations. In fact, one of the only things which can induce such a mania in so-called “respectable” people is the phenomenon of political tribalism, whereby it becomes more important to be seen as strongly aligned with and supporting ones own people than it is to be either pragmatic or empathetic.

And when it comes to Brexit, so strong is the force of political tribalism among certain demographics that even those whose job it is to understand political and constitutional matters find themselves unable to acknowledge, let alone meaningfully engage with, the real issues which prompted millions of decent people to vote for Brexit, instead blaming “fake news”, the Russians or Cambridge Analytica.

Tom Peck makes a reasonable observation in the Independent:

People have almost entirely forgotten that, say, in 2015, when the BBC hosted its first hustings in the Labour leadership contest in a church in Nuneaton, some hitherto unknown man called Jeremy Corbyn was the only one who had anything of any interest to say. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall were beyond abysmal, and they remained so throughout the contest.

Is it acceptable to wonder if the fire is only being turned on technology because it hasn’t delivered the results the bulk of the media class wanted? If the Democrats had delivered a candidate better equipped to deal with the shallowness of the media age, and if the Remain campaign had been run as well as the Leave one, this apparently existential crisis would not be occurring.

The comparison with the 2015 Labour Party leadership contest is an instructive one. Then, as now, a cadre of people accustomed to calling the shots and having their worldview acknowledged, respected and advanced at all times – the Labour centrists – suddenly found themselves out of power and influence within the party for the first time since John Smith and Tony Blair ushered in their long period of domination. But rather than engage in any kind of introspection as to why they were so unloved by the Labour base, centrist Labour MPs instead engaged in an unseemly year-long insurrection against new leader Jeremy Corbyn, culminating in the rather disgraceful and ultimately unsuccessful decision to use the shock EU referendum result as a convenient “fog of war” in which to take down their new leader.

Why did the Labour centrists behave in this way? Because they were motivated more by tribal affiliation and beliefs than political principle or even civic decency. They (rightly) sensed that their tribe was under attack from the hard-left Corbynites within the party, and worried that their status would be permanently eroded were Jeremy Corbyn able to cement his grip on power. And thus rather than spending the following years attempting to hold the Conservative government to account, as an Opposition party is supposed to do, we instead saw the biggest names from Labour’s centrist wing engage in a long period of unseemly infighting – because political tribalism trumped their commitment to either party unity or the national interest.

The funny thing about political tribalism is that its most ardent practitioners tend to see themselves as being immune from the phenomenon while ruefully detecting its presence among nearly everyone with whom they disagree. Thus it simply never occurred to many of the Labour MPs who made it their primary mission to destabilise Jeremy Corbyn that they were primarily motivated by tribal interest, just as many of those who howl the loudest about Brexit cannot bring themselves to contemplate the possibility that their behaviour is driven by anything other a rational, fact-based analysis of the common good.

 

The Liberalist Insurgency

The vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president have been widely painted by many establishment opinion-setters as an assault on liberal democracy and liberalism itself, as progressive or enlightenment values fell prey to reactionary populism spouted by right-wing demagogues. Indeed, it pleases many of those who oppose both Donald Trump and Brexit (for the record, this blog strongly opposes the former and supports the latter) to paint themselves as brave guardians of liberal democracy and sole keepers of the frame of liberalism in these uniquely benighted times.

And yet when many of the great and the good in the anti-Brexit or anti-Trump camps are not fulminating against their respective bêtes noires, they can often be found undermining and attacking the same liberal values which they claim to champion. How often are those who decry Brexit as the first step toward fascism also found supporting draconian hate speech laws, advocating censorship and No Platforming on university campuses, attempting to excommunicate those who merely profess (without seeking to enforce) traditional social values from polite society and aggressively ushering in radical new gender theory and the divisive intersectional identity politics movement which seeks to stigmatise and oppress any questioning of these goals? None of these behaviours are remotely liberal in the true sense of the word, yet all are being enthusiastically adopted by many of those who also seek to paint themselves as guardians of liberalism in their fight against Brexit.

It is therefore important that we deny the anti-Brexit campaigners automatic and exclusive use of the “liberal” label, particularly when their actions and words – wheher expressed through contempt for a democratic referendum result and those who voted for it or other stances taken against science, liberty and free speech – are the antithesis of true liberal behaviour. When prestige journalists, academics and politicians who are complicit in these illiberal behaviours also inveigh against Brexit in a way which denigrates Leave voters and fails to even acknowledge the existence of their legitimate arguments we should not allow them to pretend that they are safeguarding either liberalism or democracy when they do so.

And that’s where the word “liberalist” could be very useful. Just as Islamism refers to a fundamentalist, politicised and perverted strain of Islam and the word Christianist has been memorably coined (by Andrew Sullivan among others) to refer to those Christians who profess a harshly authoritarian, theocratic political worldview, so the word “liberalist” (as distinct from “liberal”) should perhaps be taken to mean a hypocritical self-serving authoritarianism masquerading as genuine concern for democratic stability and outcomes, a cynical perversion of true liberalism.

Post-Brexit (and to some degree since the election of Donald Trump in the United States, though the analogy is imperfect), liberalists have effectively become the “faith militant” of progressive liberals, a combative sect who use their typically high-status positions in electoral politics, journalism, culture and academia to inveigh against any political initiative which threatens to disrupt a stale status quo under which they have largely prospered while other groups have largely stagnated.

In order to shroud their blatant self-interest in the more noble garments of high-minded civic duty, liberalists portray their objection to current political developments as flowing from an overriding commitment to individual rights, the protection of vulnerable minorities and the preservation of democracy. This is quite impressive, since many of them have built entire careers on the back of attacking individual freedoms (particularly core civil liberties like free speech) and signing away our right to democratic self-determination by blindly and naively entrusting sovereignty to a supranational political union which represents a non-existent demos, which has never sought public input and which even now shows no real willingness to change for the better.

Taking on this faux-superhero role serves a dual purpose for the liberalists – firstly it allows them to avoid any real introspection as to why the values, norms and institutions they champion are increasingly rejected by a plurality of voters, and secondly it helps to soothe the cognitive dissonance which inevitably arises when people whose identities are so closely tied to projecting the appearance of social conscience and civic virtue act so shamelessly in their own short-term self-interest.

But whatever their protestations to the contrary, the liberalists are engaged in a performative act, if not a downright fraud. That is not to say that there are no legitimate reasons to oppose or even deplore Brexit – of course such a case can be made. But the liberalists will not engage in reasoned debate because they refuse point-blank to even acknowledge the Brexiteer frame of reference, insisting instead that everything is debated through the lens of short-term economic impact. And on top of this obstinacy they treat us to an increasingly tedious and condescending tale about civilisation teetering on the brink and the only safe option being a return to the EU’s cold embrace, with not so much as a nod to Brexiteer concerns.

Political tribalism is not the exclusive preserve of any one demographic group or end of the political spectrum, but the media focus is nearly always on those deemed to have fallen under the corrupting influence of “populist” rabble-rousers – understandably so, because such people are so poorly represented in the politico-media and cultural elite that they can raise no significant objection when one weepy Guardian article after another frets about rising nativist tendencies among the provincial rabble while ignoring rising insularity and decreasing social solidarity within the London-centric elite.

Therefore, it is time that we turn the focus back on the people who ostentatiously fret about the tribalism and populism they so readily detect in others. It is high time that we stop naively accepting the liberalist narrative that their objections to Brexit are exclusively rooted in high-minded concern for the national interest – at least so far as the word “national” incorporates any regard at all for the importance of democratic self-determination. They are not.

Brexiteers may be equally susceptible to political tribalism, but how much more dangerous is it when members of the political, cultural and media elite, with all their power and influence, throw themselves into the opposing side of the anti-Brexit culture war with such verve and venom?

We are about to find out.

 

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Did The Russians Just Hack Our NHS?

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Our NHS is under attack – and not by the Evil Tories, for once!

Newspaper and television news networks are now reporting a major cyber attack targeting NHS England hospitals – apparently all systems are down and an emergency has been declared to initiate backup/recovery processes.

From the Guardian:

A number of hospitals have been hit by a large scale cyber attack, NHS England has confirmed.

Hospitals across the country appear to have been simultaneously hit by a bug in their IT systems, leading to many diverting emergency patients. NHS England said it was aware of the problem and would release more details soon.

Meanwhile doctors have been posting on Twitter about what has been happening to their systems.

A screen grab of a instant message conversation circulated by one doctor says: “So our hospital is down … We got a message saying your computers are now under their control and pay a certain amount of money. And now everything is gone.”

This is obviously potentially very serious, with possible impacts on patient care – apparently local NHS hospitals are reverting to pen and paper, while tweeting that patients should avoid going to A&E.

Was this a coordinated attack by a foreign power, or is it simply the case of a dozy NHS office admin clicking a dodgy link in an email and falling prey to a traditional money-grubbing scam?

(The answer is almost certainly the latter – this time. NHS Digital itself has confirmed that the generic ransomware attack was not specifically targeted at the health service, as a number of other organisations in multiple regions and sectors are affected; so the outraged NHS priests and priestesses on Twitter calling for the execution or maiming of these hackers can probably stand down now).

But since politicians and armchair pundits have been quick to blame Russia for everything else that hasn’t gone their way lately, I’m sure that Vladimir Putin’s name will be put forward as the man behind this craven attack on Our Blessed NHS.

But Putin should be careful – while Britain and the international community will apparently sit on our hands and dither while he invades Ukraine and drags his country ever further backward toward nationalist authoritarianism, provoking a fight with the NHS might be a step too far.

Even Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party election manifesto reserves the right to use nuclear weapons, with great cautionin extremis. Well, since the National Health Service is the closest thing we now have to a religion in secular Britain, attacking Our Blessed NHS may be the one hostile act by a foreign power that could still rouse half the country to press the red “launch” button and fire off some Trident missiles.

But when the dust settles, it may be worth considering that yet another drawback of having a monolithic national healthcare system serving all 65 million people in Britain is that it represents a singular target for mischief-makers and hostile foreign powers alike.

Presumably GCHQ and other agencies are constantly on the case protecting Britain’s national energy grid and other core infrastructure. But as a country have we been so busy singing endless hymns of praise to “Our NHS” that we neglected to realise that it has also potentially become our national security Achilles heel?

At this grave time, let us all repeat the Pledge of Allegiance to Aneurin Bevan’s glorious creation, our country’s pride and joy:

I pledge allegiance to the logo of Our #NHS
The envy of the world
One health system, indivisible
With increasingly poor healthcare outcomes for all

And when NHS England has fixed the problem and we have all made ourselves feel good by cheering on the saintly people who work in the world’s fifth largest bureaucracy, maybe we can have a sensible conversation about breaking up the NHS monopoly – for the good of all patients and, apparently, our national security too.

 

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MPs Allege Foreign Hacking Of The EU Referendum, Provide No Evidence

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Cynical, calculating and alarmist MPs are undermining faith in democracy with their conspiratorial anti-Brexit shenanigans

“A voter registration site that crashed in the run-up to last year’s EU referendum could have been targeted by a foreign cyber attack, MPs say”, screeches the BBC.

The Guardian, spurred by its anti-Brexit bias to step even further over the line of journalistic responsibility, declares “MPs are concerned about allegations governments including Russia and China may have interfered with EU referendum website”.

Wow. One might think that there would be some solid evidence, a “smoking gun” or at least an accumulation of circumstantial evidence for MPs to use their public prominence and access to media platforms to make such an accusation.

But we live in an age when the political establishment, spurned by the electorate and destabilised by defeats such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, have found solace in the kind of comforting conspiracy theories which they once decried. And so today we woke up to the insinuation that Russia (or some other foreign power, but really Russia) had covertly intervened in last year’s EU referendum and swung the result in favour of Brexit.

From the Guardian’s alarmist article:

Foreign governments such as Russia and China may have been involved in the collapse of a voter registration website in the run-up to the EU referendum, a committee of MPs has claimed.

A report by the Commons public administration and constitutional affairs committee (PACAC) said MPs were deeply concerned about the allegations of foreign interference in last year’s Brexit vote.

The committee does not identify who may have been responsible, but has noted that both Russia and China use an approach to cyber-attacks based on an understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals.

The findings follow repeated claims that Russia has been involved in trying to influence the US and French presidential elections.

My emphasis in bold. In other words, MPs of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee went on the record to insinuate that a foreign power attempted to manipulate the EU referendum result while supplying zero evidence in support of their claim. Apparently their “concerns” were deemed worthy of inclusion in a lessons learned report on the EU referendum, even though none of the MPs on the committee could provide a single justification other than base paranoia.

The relevant section of the report states the following:

The Register to Vote website crashed on the evening of 7 June 2016. The Government has stated that this was due to an exceptional surge in demand, partly due to confusion as to whether individuals needed to register to vote. The Government should develop an online service to enable people to check whether they are already correctly registered. However, the Government clearly failed to undertake the necessary level of testing and precautions required to mitigate against any such surge in applications. The Association of Electoral Administrators criticised the government and the Electoral Commission for a clear lack of contingency planning.

We do not rule out the possibility that there was foreign interference in the EU referendum caused by a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) using botnets, though we do not believe that any such interference had any material effect on the outcome of the EU referendum. Lessons in respect of the protection and resilience against possible foreign interference in IT systems that are critical for the functioning of the democratic process must extend beyond the technical. The US and UK understanding of ‘cyber’ is predominantly technical and computer-network based, while Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. We commend the Government for promoting cyber security as a major issue for the UK. We recommend permanent machinery for monitoring cyber activity in respect of elections and referendums be established, for promoting cyber security and resilience from potential attacks, and to put plans and machinery in place to respond to and to contain such attacks if they occur.

But rather than providing corroborative detail in the body of the report, the committee merely restate the unfounded allegations:

102. Although the Committee has no direct evidence, it considers that it is important to be aware of the potential for foreign interference in elections or referendums. The report on lessons learned from the website crash described it as “technical in nature, gaps in technical ownership and risk management contributed to the problem, and prevented it from being mitigated in advance”.138 However the crash had indications of being a DDOS (distributed denial of service) ‘attack’. We understand that this is very common and easy to do with botnets. There can be many reasons why people initiate a DDOS: commercial (e.g. one company bringing down a competitor’s website to disrupt sales); legal (e.g. a law enforcement agency wanting to disturb criminal activity on Darknet); political; etc. The key indicants are timing and relative volume rate.

103. PACAC does not rule out the possibility that the crash may have been caused by a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) using botnets. Lessons in respect of the protection and resilience against possible foreign interference in IT systems that are critical for the functioning of the democratic process must extend beyond the technical. The US and UK understanding of ‘cyber’ is predominantly technical and computer-network based. For example, Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. The implications of this different understanding of cyber-attack, as purely technical or as reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion, for the interference in elections and referendums are clear. PACAC is deeply concerned about these allegations about foreign interference.

Now this is just plain self-contradictory. The committee state correctly that rival powers such as Russia and China use a “cognitive approach” to their cyber warfare efforts, seeking to influence the minds of electors through dissemination of fake news and targeted releases of stolen information to undermine public confidence in one or other side of a political debate. This formed much of the controversy over the allegations of Russian hacking of the US presidential election, with some people arguing that Russia deliberately hacked and then leaked damaging information about the Clinton campaign to Wikileaks while withholding any damaging information about the Trump campaign.

However, the type of hacking described (or imagined) by the MPs in their report is a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack, which is a technical, web-based attack designed to target computer systems and websites, not human minds. The MPs already conceded that the temporary unavailability of the voter registration website had no material impact on the outcome of the referendum; therefore, for Russian or Chinese cyber activity to have had any effect on the Brexit vote would have required them to have engaged in cognitive hacking – and the committee provides zero evidence, not even a suggestion, that this took place.

And besides, Russia had no need to wage the kind of “cognitive” cyber warfare that they are accused of deploying against the United States. Vladimir Putin didn’t need to hack David Cameron’s emails and leak the contents to Wikileaks for us to find out that he, and the rest of Britain’s political elite, considered eurosceptics to be “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” – the kind of damaging private remark that rightfully helped to erode trust in Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. No, David Cameron was bold enough to let the country know exactly what he thought of the 52% who ended up voting for Brexit, back in 2006 on a live radio show.

And interestingly, in 87 pages of findings, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee – so concerned about the influence of foreign powers on our sacred democratic process – could not spare a sentence, let alone a paragraph, to censure David Cameron for inviting President Barack Obama to a Downing Street press conference for the sole purpose of browbeating the British public and threatening us with being sent to the “back of the queue” in terms of a future trade agreement with the United States. In a supposedly comprehensive review of how the EU referendum was planned and executed, was this not worth a mention?

And what about David Cameron’s flagrant breach of purdah rules by making a speech from the steps of Downing Street during the prohibited period? Again, this egregious violation of the letter and spirit of the referendum rules is apparently not worth analysis or mention by the committee, who seem only too happy to ignore elected officials and civil servants deceiving and influencing voters in real life while getting worked up about unfounded allegations of foreign interference.

PACAC has every right – indeed a responsibility – to be concerned about foreign interference in British democracy, and to apply pressure to the government to do more to guard against such interference where appropriate. But in their “Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum” report, all the committee have done is foment unfounded suspicions of foreign interference – an attempt to hack the Brexit vote which does not even match the profile of the type of cyber warfare favoured by Russia and China – knowing that it will be picked up and repeated by a credulous media who care more about a dramatic headline than the mundane reality.

Everyone will read the headlines declaring “MPs suspect Russian and Chinese intervention in the EU referendum”. Far fewer people will read down a few paragraphs into the various articles and realise that the paranoid, grandstanding MPs offered zero evidence to support their incendiary claims, and in fact destroyed their credibility through contradictory allegations. Fewer still will make it to the bottom of the 87-page report and realise that the alarmist claim is supported by just two meagre footnotes, neither of which provide a link to additional sources.

MPs are savvy people, and they know how the media works. By including this unfounded allegation on page 5 of their report, in the executive summary, they knew that it would be picked up by the media, especially those credulous and anti-Brexit parts of the media who might seek to spin this “news” in as defamatory way as possible to undermine public confidence in the referendum and in Brexit as a desirable outcome. That the PACAC chairman, Bernard Jenkin, was a founding director of Vote Leave only makes the appearance of such unsubstantiated, manipulative remarks in the published report even more perplexing.

As a tactic employed by losers fighting a desperate rearguard battle against Brexit, throwing mud at the legitimacy of the EU referendum in the hope that some of it might stick is an understandable, if still reprehensible ploy. But persisting with this behaviour will have grave and wide-reaching consequences.

Brendan O’Neill gets it right:

MPs say foreign states may have tampered with the EU referendum registration website and helped to bring about Brexit. The big ridiculous babies. It’s David Icke meets Veruca Salt, half conspiracy theory, half tinny tantrum over the fact that for the first time in their pampered political lives they didn’t get what they wanted. Grow up. It wasn’t sinister foreign agents who crushed your political dreams — it was us!

Absolutely.

Faith in the British political and media class is already at a nadir. Any further transparent attempts to manipulate public opinion with unfounded accusations and cynical attempts to delegitimise the referendum outcome – a continuance of Project Fear from beyond the grave – will only create an even greater crisis of legitimacy.

 

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With Military Cutbacks, Even Britain’s Shows Of Strength Reveal Weakness

RAF Russian Bomber Operation Rising Panther

 

The Express reports today that the Royal Air Force has recently conducted its largest air defence exercise in over thirty years, in response to the increasing frequency of Russian incursions into British air space and spheres of influence:

Operation Rising Panther, the first of six proposed air defence operations due to take place every year, will “show Vladimir Putin in no uncertain terms” that Britain is ready, willing and able counter increasing Russian aggression should the need arise, say military sources.

More than 30 aircraft, including 20 Typhoons and Tornado fighter jets as well as a range of ED-3, AWACS, Sentinal and Shadow surveillance aircraft took part in the mock attack-and-defence wargames over the North east of England, as well as ground-based command teams.

At first glance, this sounds like a positive development – like maybe the British government has finally woken up to the fact that history did in fact not end at the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that future threats to our national interest and national security will remain, and be unpredictable, for many years to come. Given the circumstances, a show of force by the British military might be no bad thing.

And so it is, until you read the small print:

The Ministry of Defence played down Rising Panther’s significance, maintaining that it was merely the first opportunity since the end of hostilities in Afghanistan to hold an air exercise of this scale.

“Due to our continuing commitment to operations overseas, this is the first time we have had the full spectrum of our capability operating together at the same time in a realistic, opposed, environment,” said Wing Commander Andy Coe in the Ministry of Defence-run RAF News.

He added that this was the first time that the RAF had used AWACS and Sentinel together because they have been “in such high demand” in theatres abroad.

It is the facts that are implied, rather than those which are stated, which are most significant here.

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Should We Punish Artists For Their Political Beliefs?

LSO Valery Gergiev
Maestro Valery Gergiev with the London Symphony Orchestra

 

Music and politics make uneasy bedfellows, and this timeless truth has only been reconfirmed with the continuing tumult and unrest in Ukraine.

Russia, the protagonist in this latest crisis, provides ample recent evidence that politics and music are best kept apart. The punk band Pussy Riot, for example, is hardly ever out of the headlines in recent months, with members being jailed, released, threatened and attacked by the authorities merely for adding their voices to the civic discourse, for wanting to make themselves and their beliefs heard.

But at the other end of the artistic spectrum, for the fine arts – especially classical music – the problem is not the Russian government’s persecution of artists, but artists’ apparent eagerness to praise the political leadership and to lend President Vladimir Putin their credibility.

The most famous current case is the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Gergiev was one of the most prominent Russian artists to sign an open letter in support of Vlarimir Putin’s foreign policy towards Ukraine. Part of the letter’s text reads:

In the days when the fate of our compatriots in the Crimea is decided, Russian cultural figures can not be indifferent observers with a cold heart . Our common history, our cultural roots and spiritual origins , our fundamental values ​​and language have united us forever. We want to see the commonality of our peoples and our cultures have a strong future. That is why we firmly reiterate support for the position of President of the Russian Federation and Ukraine Crimea.

Sometimes, these messages of support for Vladimir Putin’s policy of aggression are downright perplexing, such as when the Russian Writer’s Union decided to make their love and support for Putin known in a very Soviet style open letter, a sloppy wet kiss to power. Craven though they can sometimes be, one can hardly imagine the British or American press joining together as one to praise and defend the Cameron or Obama foreign policies.

At other times, however, particularly in the case of artists responsible for institutions that depend on government support, the situation is not so clear-cut and such acts of public sycophancy may be part of the inevitable cost of doing business. The Financial Times picks up on this point:

There is little doubt [Gergiev’s] position is compromised. Deep down he is a nationalist, as his ill-judged support for the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008 demonstrated. At his two Mariinsky theatres in St Petersburg, he has 3,000 employees on his payroll and a rich tradition to maintain. No other figure could raise the kind of money that Gergiev does to keep the Mariinsky going. Much of that money comes from members of the Putin circle. If Gergiev is presented with a petition in support of government policy, he is obliged to sign – unlike prominent freelance musicians such as Denis Matsuev and Yuri Bashmet, who have foolishly toed the line.

This is perhaps a distinction worth making, though it could equally be argued that the brave and moral thing to do would be to speak out against government malfeasance, consequences be damned. US country music group The Dixie Chicks tried this approach in 2003 when they spoke out against their president and their country’s imminent invasion of Iraq.

The aftermath was not pleasant, and it is a brave person who now does what the Dixie Chicks did – and this was in the United States, where the rule of law still means something. One can only imagine what might befall the likes of Gergiev if they actively spoke out against their government, when even maintaining a diplomatic silence would invite negative repercussions.

But of course Valery Gergiev would not speak out against Vladimir Putin’s policy of bullying and undermining Ukraine; he actively supports it, his signature to the open letter was enthusiastically given. So the question then becomes one of whether artists with differing political or world views should continue to be welcomed in foreign concert halls, or be else ostracised and made artistic pariahs?

A significant weight of critical opinion seems to be coming down on the side of ostracisation and intolerance. Prominent human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has already made headlines by protesting Valery Gergiev’s continued association with a top-flight British artistic institution, going so far as to hijack the opening night of the London Symphony Orchestra’s Berlioz season in November 2013 and later issuing an open letter to the LSO, effectively demanding Gergiev’s dismissal. The letter concludes:

It is our view that Mr Gergiev’s current position is untenable and he should be suspended with immediate effect until he officially withdraws his name from the list published on the Russian Culture Ministry’s website and fully explains his position on the Anti-Homosexual Propaganda Bill.

If he decides he is not prepared to do this, his employment should be terminated as he is not an appropriate person to be in receipt of UK public funding. He supports discriminatory legislation which goes against the UK values of equality and diversity, and he supports Russian military action which the prime minister and foreign secretary have unequivocally condemned.

Ironically, the open letter sent by the Peter Tatchell Foundation and the Ukrainian Institute uses the same basis of government-policy-as-justification that we see in the Russian Ministry of Culture’s letter of support from Russian artists. Tatchell’s letter demands that Gergiev be fired because he supports a policy “which the prime minister and foreign secretary have unequivocally condemned”. Does this then mean that any artist or artistic institution not in complete accordance with the current views of the British government should be denied funding and actively picketed?

As is so often the case with campaigners from the political left, it is never enough to let the people vote with their feet on matters of moral principle. Rather, they instinctively turn to the government to invoke its power to make people fall into line. If it transpired that Valery Gergiev was jetting off between concerts to personally help foment unrest in eastern Ukrainian cities, people would be outraged and his situation would immediately become untenable. But he has not, and would never do this. Ultimately, Gergiev is guilty of little more than supporting the overwhelming view – however wrong it may be – among his own countrymen, something that most of us would likely do ourselves.

The Washington Post also picks up on this point, noting that famous Soviet artists were welcomed when they performed in the West even at the height of the Cold War, at a time when diplomatic relations were far more precarious than they are now:

If a musician chooses not to take a stand, he or she is often automatically charged with collaboration in any case. Gergiev, through his support of a challenging regime, may have in some sense “deserved” the protests at some of his concerts in 2013 (though this was not a reaction many Soviet artists got when they performed in the West at the height of the Cold War, sent by an even more suspect government).

For those in the West who watch Russia’s bullying and takeover of parts of Ukraine with mounting concern and anger, it may well provide a moment of catharsis and sweet justice to send the likes of Valery Gergiev packing prematurely from the London Symphony Orchestra, and to see other prominent Russian artists who do not disavow their country similarly exiled.

But it is precisely at times like these – when passions are high and tempers flared – that humanity most needs to remain in touch with the few common threads that unite us all. Music is perhaps the most precious of these unifying threads. After all, while the West may have a legitimate quarrel with the Russian government, the Russian people are largely innocent, as much victims of Putin’s repressive regime as the people of Ukraine and Crimea.

And even when prominent artists such as Valery Gergiev weigh in on the “wrong” side of an international dispute or a political debate, how can it be right to sever an important international cultural tie, a key reminder (to quote John F. Kennedy) that whatever our many differences, “We all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal”?

In the end, it was Valery Gergiev together with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus who answered the conundrum most eloquently, with their recent concert performance of Alexander Scriabin’s First Symphony, part of Gergiev’s ongoing promotion of the Russian classical repertoire and a concert attended by Semi-Partisan Sam.

Sitting in London’s iconic Barbican concert hall, the rich sound of the LSO’s strings and peerless brass section enveloping the audience as the symphony drew toward its noble conclusion, hearing the chorus intone “Slava isskustvu vo veki slava!” – Britain’s finest musicians conducted by a Russian maestro – it hit home that if anything is truly transcendental, if anything must be held sacred and kept apart from our cynical, self-serving and sometimes hypocritical geopolitics, it should be music.

From the text of the choral finale to Scriabin’s first symphony, in praise of art’s unifying gift to humanity:

You are an exalted vision of life,
you are celebration, you are peace,
you bring your enchanted visions
as a gift to humankind.
In those cold, dark moments
when our souls are troubled,
mankind can discover in you
life’s joys, consolation and forgetfulness.

Gather here, all nations of the earth,
let us sing the praises of art!
Glory, eternal glory to art!

 

 

More on Scriabin‘s first symphony hereMore on the London Symphony Orchestra here.