Update From The Road, Part 2

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

A political union which might actually work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sydney Harbour Bridge at dusk - SJH

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Update From The Road

Angkor Wat - Cambodia - Sam Hooper

And now for something completely different

Those who watch my Twitter timeline particularly closely or otherwise follow me outside of this blog may know that I am heading to graduate school in the United States to study law this September.

Just as my initial career in management consultancy was wonderful and taught me much but ultimately was not where I wanted to make my life’s contribution, so producing this blog for the past six years has (hopefully) stretched me as a writer and thinker but ultimately proved frustrating due to the rather incestuous UK political media’s absolute refusal to acknowledge or promote the blogosphere, or nurture the kind of positive symbiotic relationship between old and new media which still characterises American political discussion at its best (even now, this blog is cited far more in US outlets like the National Review than most UK publications).

Fear not, this blog and the political writing will continue. But having read and written so much about policy and political values in recent years, I’ve reached the point where I actually want to see some of my ideas implemented – or at least to advocate for those ideas from a position where there is a fighting chance of making a tangible difference. Deeds, not words.

As I recently wrote in the personal essay component of my various law school applications:

I am proud of my part-time work as political writer and campaigner, particularly my advocacy for Britain’s secession from the European Union during the 2016 referendum, but writing and commentating from the sidelines is often frustrating. I now realise that without a legal education of my own, there will always be a constraint on my ability to fully participate and influence many of the technocratic and constitutional debates about which I care deeply.

Through my writing activities, I see that the future is being shaped by intersecting developments in trade and international law, intellectual property, privacy, civil liberties, national security and constitutional law. I know from my current activism that my future work will require a rigorous knowledge of several of these fields, and that the law, if not quite the battleground on which these issues will be fought, is certainly the language in which they will be contested. I want to have a voice in those conversations, and it is for this reason that I now seek a legal education.

My wife and I have now left London as our permanent home, and having shipped off all of our personal belongings are currently en route to the United States by way of an 11-week trip through southeast Asia. We began in Hong Kong, moved on to Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Thailand, spent an enlightening few days in Siem Reap, Cambodia and are now back in Thailand doing various beachy things before travelling to Singapore, Bali, Australia and New Zealand, arriving in Los Angeles some time in June and then road-tripping back to my wife’s native Texas.

I am currently in the process of hearing back from various law schools and while I am blessed to have already received some very appealing offers of admission we still find ourselves in the strange and rather stressful position of not yet knowing where we will be living and working come September – it could yet be on either coast of this vast country, or somewhere in between. I am also having to frantically switch my brain from work mode to study mode after a decade-long hiatus, and hoping that Study Brain successfully reboots after its extended hibernation.

All this by way of saying sorry for the lack of recent new blog pieces. We front-loaded the trip with most of our time-intensive activities (as of yesterday, for instance, I am now a PADI certified open water scuba diver) so writing time has been largely nonexistent for the past three weeks, but we are now moving into a more relaxed phase of the trip which should afford me some time to blog from various coffee shops and beaches. It’s a tough life.

The benefit of half unplugging from the daily news cycle and not feeling the need to react to every twist and turn of the Brexit negotiation, the establishment backlash against democracy or the metastasization of corrosive identity politics through our culture is the opportunity to gain clarity and perspective which is easy to miss when one is in the fray of daily political debate.

I am currently re-reading Charles Murray’s excellent 2012 book “Coming Apart: The State of White America” in the context of our present reality, which itself is perfectly captured in Amy Chua’s new book “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations”. Murray’s warning about the growing societal schism (in terms of both geography and values) goes a long way to explaining how the ruling classes – the “new upper class” in Murray’s language, the “coastal elites” in Chua’s, but both equally applicable to Britain as America – have come to hold very different values and priorities to the broad centre of the countries they lead, to the extent that there has been a near-total breakdown of mutual trust and empathy.

It has long been a theme of my writing that the fault for this schism lies first and foremost with the ruling elite – the well-educated, well-connected and well-employed – for having been content to run society exclusively in their own favour for so long, and for the stunning lack of consultation or restraint with which they pushed ahead with their policy goals. One can potentially agree with every single one of the coastal elite or pro-EU centre-left’s values and still deplore the way in which those who make policy and influence the culture have become so ignorant of the lives of their fellow citizens, and the open disdain shown by many elites for those who hold different values and aspirations. For democracy to long survive, those with power, wealth and influence have a particular responsibility to be magnanimous and empathetic to their political opponents, but instead we are currently witnessing an establishment backlash which ranges from the hysterical to the furious, by way of the conspiratorial.

I have more detailed thoughts on all of this which properly belong in a future blog post, which will hopefully also include some ideas for how these bewildered and furious elites might actually begin to regain the pulse of their own countries – if they are willing to do so. For now, however, I wanted to give this quick status update and apologise for the recent lack of blog posts. More updates (and new material) to follow soon.

 

Law school - books and gavel

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Deep In The Heart Of Texas

british-airways-boeing-747-london-heathrow-airport-terminal-5

Back to the ‘Heart of the Rio Grande’

Well okay, way down at the southern tip of Texas, a few miles from the Mexican border, to be more precise.

I’m off to Texas to spend the Christmas and New Year celebrations with my American family. Blogging will continue (I hope to resurrect the Postcards from America series started last year and have the chance to write a few more reflective pieces) but will be at a slightly slower tempo, with occasional hiatuses on those days when we are either travelling or making merry.

I am currently seeking recommendations for good places to eat in Austin, Houston and Las Vegas – if you have any inspired ideas, please do get in touch!

Many thanks as always for reading, commenting, cheering and arguing with me here at Semi-Partisan Politics. Stay tuned!

 

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There’s Nothing Virtuous About Being a Rootless ‘Citizen Of The World’

citizen-of-the-world-roula-khalaf
Someone give that woman a medal

Most self-described citizens of the world are actually no such thing. They might enjoy the company of very similar people in increasingly similar global cities, but they probably couldn’t think of a single thing to say to somebody of different socio-economic status from a smaller town twenty miles down the road

Pete North explains perhaps better than anyone exactly why those people who style themselves as liberal “citizens of the world” are often no such thing – neither tremendously liberal, nor engaged citizens of anywhere, in any meaningful respect.

North writes:

In the end there is nothing especially virtuous about people who are well travelled and outward looking. A society needs all stripes to function. We need people to work the routine jobs and then we need a fluid workforce not tied down with responsibilities. Moreover, having dealt with more well pampered HR people than a person ever should, one thing I have noticed is that travel does not necessarily broaden the mind.

If you take an incurious person and lavish travel upon them you are wasting your money. Some of the most shallow, snobby and fatuous people I know would consider themselves liberal citizens of the world. Such people have no concept of what it is to be building or maintaining something with a long term plan. They latch on to the fashionable and socially convenient worldview that the EU is the manifestation of liberal values but it little more than virtue signalling.

And develops his argument:

What I find is that the broader your horizons, the harder it is to fit in wherever you go, and so there remains a polarisation between the settled and the travelled. It is then no surprise that there is an obvious demographic divide and opinion is split between the ages.

In this, the remain side of the Brexit debate seem keen to pour over these demographic studies to pathologise the leave vote, and consequently delegitimise it, as though you need to be of a particular set for your opinion to hold any worth. Democracy is lost on such people. The whole point of democracy is one person; one vote, where we take a sample of opinion and move together on the basis of compromise.

In something as binary as EU membership though there is only winner takes all. There is no third option on the ballot so we move with the majoritarian view which is to leave. For whatever reasons they voted for, they did so in accordance with their own views based on their own choices. Their worldviews are formed by what they see and hear in the media, but also in the street and in the workplace. They are the best judges of what is important to them. To suggest that choosing a more conservative lifestyle means you are not qualified to make such an estimation is to invite the very sentiment behind the leave vote.

What these people know better than anyone is that the frivolous and rootless people telling them how to vote are no better than anybody. I imagine the working classes would like nothing more than to live a more adventurous life but they don’t because they can’t afford it. It’s then a bit rich to tell them that the EU brings them freedom of movement and prosperity.

Earlier this year Theresa May said “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means”. I smiled when I heard that. Nothing quite so succinctly demolishes the flimsy worldview that believing in the borderless homogenised EU, along with all the pompous garb that goes with it, is somehow enlightenment. May recognises that being a citizen is more than holding outwardly liberal views. It means making a contribution – to be part of something.

It takes no particular talent to drift through life going place to place – and in so doing all you’re likely to meet is others who have made the same choices or enjoy an extraordinary privilege. Far from broadening the mind it merely reinforces a particular mindset which is never exposed to the values of the settled community. It’s why self-styled “citizens of the world” have no self-awareness and do not for a moment appreciate just how naff they sound to everybody else.

In my experience, self-described citizens of the world have tended to describe their outlook in terms of what they get from the bargain rather than what they contribute to the equation. They call themselves citizens if the world because being so affords them opportunities and privileges – the chance to travel, network and do business. Very few people speak of being citizens of the world because of what they give back in terms of charity, cultural richness or human knowledge, yet all of the people that I would consider to be true citizens of the world – people like Leonard Bernstein or Ernest Hemingway – fall into this latter, rarer category.

What does it really mean to be a modern day “citizen of the world”, anyway, besides having a determinedly self-regarding outlook? Most of those who claim the title – either members of the ruling class or young hipsters whining that their futures and European identities have been somehow ripped away from them – are from the big cities, London most prominently. But to a large extent, many world cities are so alike in culture that one can negotiate and skip between them fairly easily,  even with a language barrier.

London has Starbucks, museums, galleries, bars and hipsters. So do Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Rome, Warsaw, Manchester, and everywhere else in Europe. In our interconnected world, large global cities are if not interchangeable then at least often share a common culture and vibe.

So you can successfully get smashed in Lisbon, Dublin, Stockholm and Munich? Congratulations, Mr. Citizen of the World. What do you want, a medal? Now go try to strike up a conversation with someone from your own country but from a different social class or region. Try going for a night out in Harlow or Wolverhampton or Preston. Your non-prescription hipster spectacles and quirky denim dungarees might buy you immediate entry to the trendy coffee shops of Amsterdam or the bars of Barcelona, but they’ll get you nowhere in Stoke-on-Trent.

And increasingly this is what it comes down to. We have a broad class of people with access to (and the desire to be part of) this emerging global tribe based in the top cities, and a class of people either cut off from this world or with little desire to participate in it. Now, we should certainly use economic policy to lift those who want to live more global lives into a position where they can do so, and avoid the urge to persecute or condescend to those who do not. But in general, we could all do with a bit less smugness and sanctimony from the Citizen of Starbucks Brigade.

For a start, the vast, vast majority of these people are such poor citizens of their own countries that they would feel adrift and culture-shocked, as though in a foreign land, if you lifted them from their home city and moved them to a smaller town thirty miles down the road. This is not some elite band of super-enlightened, non-judgmental, globally-minded, culturally-aware aesthetes, eager to experience new things. This is a pampered, cosseted tribe of relatively well-off millennials, many of whom are in thrall to the divisive Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics, who barely understand their own compatriots yet arrogantly believe they are ready to be unleashed upon the world.

There is nothing particularly noble or praiseworthy about overcoming a language barrier to work and make friends with other people just like you who happen to live in other countries – which describes the vast majority of those people now tearfully painting the EU flag on their cheeks at anti-Brexit demonstrations and angrily declaring themselves “citizens of the world”.

Want to do something more challenging and actually worthy of praise? Try earning a reputation as somebody with friendships that span ages, social classes and other demographic indicators. Try living up to the ideal set by Rudyard Kipling:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch

And if you do so, you might not necessarily become a Man, my son. But at least you won’t be just another insufferable, identikit, cookie-cutter individual who conspicuously supports the European Union – despite barely comprehending what it really is – purely as a means of signalling your virtue to your insufferable, identikit, cookie-cutter fellow citizens of the world.

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Bottom Image: albawhitewolf

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Vote Remain, Or London Gets It

London - Brexit - Apocalypse - EU Referendum - European Union

Fiona Twycross AM is an idiot

The latest piece of silly, hysterical scaremongering to emerge from the positive vision-challenged Remain campaign is the idea that London will somehow wither up and become a ghost town if we leave the European Union.

Normally such idiocy wouldn’t merit a response, but it is now being advanced by some fairly serious people, including elected London Assembly members, such as Fiona Twycross AM, writing in Left Foot Forward:

Londoners are also renowned for their openness, and it’s the welcome that visitors receive that draws so many people in.

It’s that latter point that is so important to consider when we discuss the ramifications of Brexit. If Britain choses to leave the EU next month it would effectively signal that we are pulling up the drawbridge and that London is closed for business.

Not only would this diminish our great city, it would discourage the tourists who contribute so much to our economy.

Yes. Because choosing to no longer be part of an ever-tightening political union of European countries is exactly the same thing as “pulling up the drawbridge” and turning our back on the world.

When we consider the major cities of other countries which foolishly failed to dissolve themselves into political union with their neighbours, naturally they are all complete fortresses, utterly hostile to would-be visitors. The reason that Canberra and Wellington are not top of the list of tourism cities is of course entirely because Australia and New Zealand stubbornly cling to the idea of being separate, independent countries. New York City, Toronto, Chicago and Los Angeles are all ghost towns because the governments of America and Canada failed to get together and realise that the only way to attract tourists is to form a political Union of the Americas.

But Fiona Twycross has expert testimony to back up her assertion, from the mouth of London First Tourism Director Matt Hill who says:

Cutting ourselves off from Europe is not in the interests of the tourism industry.

Any new barriers which add complexity and expense to holidaying or doing business in London will put at risk investment in the capital’s attractions, flagship stores and hospitality venues.

Because in the event of a Brexit vote, the government’s first actions will be to blockade the Channel Tunnel and blow up the runways at all of Britain’s major airports in order to most effectively sever our ties with other countries. Because that’s what Brexiteers want. Sure.

Twycross then has the nerve to say “this is not about scaremongering”. No, of course not, Fiona. You’re not trying to worry anybody. You’re just saying that if we don’t want supranational EU institutions to have primacy over our own parliament and supreme court, the world will end.

She continues:

According to the capital’s promotion agency, London and Partners, in 2014 the capital’s tourism industry saw 17.4 million visitors. Their contribution to London’s economy stood at a huge £11.8 billion.

But perhaps most significantly, of these visitors 11.5 million (66 per cent of all tourists) originated in Europe, which shows just how important continental tourists are to London’s tourist economy.

Brexit could therefore mean a devastating loss of billions of pounds and put at risk thousands of jobs.

But why? Twycross doesn’t explain. Quite why any tourist would give a damn whether Britain remains inside a political union with 27 other countries or acts as an independent country like the United States, Canada or Australia is never explained. It is just disingenuously presented as received wisdom in the hope that nobody will notice how stupid it sounds.

If Remain supporters are going to continue claiming that leaving a political union is the same as “pulling up the drawbridge” and liable to result in billions of lost tourism revenue, then let’s see some figures to back it up. Not cooked up HM Treasury statistics which only look at apocalyptic scenarios while ignoring the most likely Brexit option (a controlled, safe exit to EFTA/EEA membership, retaining free movement of people and single market access), but a genuine, unbiased analysis.

Of course there will be none. Because Fiona Twycross, like too many others on the Remain side, is too scared to admit why she really wants Britain to stay in the European Union (because to do so would be politically toxic). And when the Remain campaign cannot be honest about why they love the EU so much, they instead resort to evasions, distractions and scaremongering to achieve their desired result without ever making the passionate case for Britain surrendering what remains of our independence and allowing ourselves to be fully dissolved into the common European state.

It’s a shame that Fiona Twycross and others in the Remain campaign lack the political courage to tell the truth about why they are so desperate for Britain to remain in the European Union. Not least because all of the fake reasons they are scrambling to come up with make them look really, really stupid.

 

Postscript: But full marks to Twycross for her sneaky, disingenous attempt to portray worrying about London’s status as the world’s top tourism destination as the “patriotic” thing, but worrying about Britain’s independence as a sovereign country as reckless and irresponsible. That takes some nerve.

 

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