Chaos is taking over – we cannot carry on like this

All semblance of discipline and party solidarity has broken down – that isn’t good for anybody

The House of Commons is a marvellous chamber. Its chapel shape, based on St. Stephen’s chapel in the original Palace of Westminster, gives the place a grand and imposing air. The benches that face one another in perfect opposition, based on the choir stalls that once brought beautiful harmony, now facilitate the (alleged) adversarial nature of the politics of the country. The distance between the two front benches is said to be the length of two swords…take from that what you will.

And yet, watching proceedings this week at home, astonished at the malaise into which we are sinking deeper and deeper as vote after vote passed by low single digits, the chamber seemed unable to accommodate the true combat.

It should be simple – I sit on this side, I aim at that side. Stand up, face the way you were facing anyway, and fire. No longer.

Shots were being fired around the House – not across, but along. Civil war on all sides, right in the middle of an all out war. Remain Tories spat at Leave Tories. Leave Tories sniped at Remain Tories. Backbenchers lobbed missiles at the front benches. The SNP railed at Labour, Labour members rebelled to side with the government, Lib Dems were nowhere to be found, Tories rebelled against rebellions, members turning and seeking out their targets – it was utter and total chaos. The dividing lines of the country are no longer represented properly.

This can’t go on. The Prime Minister is kept in place, strangely, by her own weakness. The great irony is that the best thing that could happen to her now is a motion called of no confidence in her leadership. That is no way for a Parliament to function.

As Stephen Daisley says in The Spectator, “[Anna Soubry], standing mere metres from the Treasury benches, enquired: ‘Who is in charge? Who is running Britain? Is it the Prime Minister or is it the Honourable Member for North East Somerset [Jacob Rees-Mogg]? I know where my money’s sitting at the moment.’

“Before the crazy set in, an MP taunting the Prime Minister as a feckless weakling would bring the full nuclear hellfire of Number 10 raining down upon their head. That Anna Soubry won’t proves her thesis. The PM is too feeble to insist that her MPs at least pretend to respect her in public. Theresa May is not in power without authority — she’s without power too.”

She is not leading, and neither is Jeremy Corbyn. She leads her cabinet, not her party. Jacob Rees-Mogg leads an internal faction opposed to the executive. Anna Soubry leads another. Corbyn leads his members, but not his PLP. Polls are shifting dramatically and getting to summer recess no longer feels like the dash to safety it once did. The Prime Minister has gone from surviving day to day to surviving hour to hour.

Something will have to give. But it is a fool’s game to predict what that will be.

Tony Blair’s Brexit intervention is sensible – an analysis

This is the way to engage in the debate – thoughtfully and respectfully

The former Prime Minister, Tony Blair (much criticised on these pages) has made yet another intervention in the national debate. Only this time, he seems to be making reasonable points. His statement is lengthy, but lean, and makes significant attempts at conciliation. This seemed to merit more analysis, so I have done a full reply to the points he raised. As I sit watching the debate on the Taxation (Cross-border trade) Bill on BBC Parliament, despairing at the state of that place, I fear where we are headed. So this has been a relaxing and therapeutic piece to write.

This is probably about a 15 minute read. You may read Blair’s original piece here.

Blair’s text is in italics, mine in bold.

 

I fully accept the Prime Minister is putting forward the Government White Paper as a well-intentioned attempt to do Brexit whilst minimising the economic disruption to Britain. But this solution – half in/half out – won’t work, won’t end the argument and will simply mean a confused outcome in which we continue to abide by Europe’s rules whilst losing our say over them.

Parliament should reject this solution decisively.

So far, so agreed.

There is an essential Dilemma at the heart of the Brexit debate, which has been laid bare by what we have learnt over the course of the last two years since the referendum of June 2016.

The Brexiteers have a long term vision for Britain which may be heavily contested but is nonetheless a genuine new direction for the country. It involves Britain leaving Europe altogether, striking a new economic and political path and is a vision which only makes sense if we market ourselves as ‘not Europe’.

My tick has not gone away since the referendum – it’s the ‘European Union’, not ‘Europe’. See this old post for my full analysis of why this is important for the tone of the debate.

Otherwise, Blair is, unusually for a Remainer, being gracious and generous. I’ll expand on this later, but the rest of the Remain tribe should take note of this.

At the core of the Brexit campaign, however, is the exploitation of a myth which is that we are not in charge of our country unless we leave the EU.

The truth is we already have control over the major parts of British political life. Think of the top issues facing the country – the NHS, Education, Housing, Poverty, Crime. We can pass whatever laws we want. We can put our taxes up or down, cut spending or increase it, make peace or war, elect a leftist Labour Government under Corbyn or a right wing Tory Government under Rees-Mogg. Even in respect of immigration, we can do what we wish in respect of non-European immigration; and in respect of European immigration it has already been shown that we need most of those who come here to work and to study.

This is a little disingenuous. Whilst there is a good point here, it isn’t a complete one. Sure, the NHS is in our remit, but if the EU were to pass divergent health regulations or introduce the potential for more market interference in it, it could do so above our heads. Similarly on crime, the European Arrest Warrant is an EU tool implemented and enforced in the UK. And sure, we can elect any shade of government we like, but they are not in full control, defer as they must in certain areas to the EU.

And the immigration point, Blair highlights the key issue – non-EU immigration. Having seen several non-EU born friends attempt to navigate the UK visa system, it seems grossly unfair to discriminate so heavily against them in favour of EU citizens. Whenever a government feels under pressure on immigration, they’re the first to suffer, as the executive knows it cannot touch EU immigration and so becomes more stringent on non-EU applicants.

Therefore, the Brexiteers are driven to focus on the Single Market and Customs Union because that is the one area, for perfectly sensible economic reasons, where we have chosen to pool our sovereignty and so you can plausibly say we are tied to Europe’s laws.

The Single Market and Customs Union have thus been demonised as illustrating Britain’s loss of national sovereignty and they successfully pushed the May Government into announcing they would leave both before the ramifications of this decision were properly thought through.

They may deny this, but there is absolutely no point in Britain leaving Europe unless it is to be more competitive outside the European Single Market. It is the only Brexit which could conceivably work. But, to be attractive in those circumstances, business needs to believe it is offered advantages so overwhelming as to compensate for no longer having the right to enter European markets without friction.

This is a central point, and one which is not made enough. It is indeed true that a different model would be required.

Michael Gove may pretend that we should leave Europe to have tougher Environmental Protection but who seriously believes the problem with Europe is that it’s too weak on regulation of the environment.

This is less persuasive to anyone who understands these issues. Whilst the EU is often held up as a bastion of high standards (which I don’t argue against), this is often at the expense of the perception Britain’s own standards, standards which often match and exceed those of the EU’s. Britain has oft been painted in this debate as being somehow backwards on these issues, but on the environment, animal welfare, health and safety, British standards are world renowned and internationally recognised. It seems a shame to do down our country on these grounds.

Boris Johnson’s one specific grievance in his resignation letter – which in any event turned out to be mistaken – was the effect of European truck regulation on female cyclists, a frankly fatuous basis for altering the entire geo-political and economic future of the nation.

I must have missed this. But it does indeed sound fatuous. Go figure.

All of this is patently a ruse to conceal their real beef with Europe: its political culture which stresses the social as well as the economic and where regulation interferes with the freedom of the market.

Their ‘Clean Break’ Brexit means not only a new relationship between Britain and Europe but a new relationship between Britain and itself.

It is not anti globalisation or anti immigration. On the contrary, it sees Britain as a global player, but free to make its own decisions without the constraints of the Single Market and Customs Union.

Unlike others, I don’t regard this vision as dystopian, cruel or necessarily unworkable. If Britain were prepared to follow the logic of it through to its ultimate realisation, it is at least a version of our future worth debating, though one I would profoundly disagree with as, I suspect, would the majority of British people.

Bravo, Mr. Blair. Finally, somebody willing to have an actual conversation with the opposing side. He disagrees, but understands it. Take note, Remainers – this is how to talk to Leavers. This is one of two, maybe three pieces by Remainers over the last few years (and I’ve read countless) that has encouraged me to engage and given me cause to doubt. Not being called a racist within the first 5 paragraphs of a Remain piece is remarkably refreshing.

The problem is this vision was sold, in the context of Brexit, as short term painless and with substantial immediate gains like extra money for the NHS, and the most appealing element for many of the Brexit voters especially in the north of England was that Brexit would slash immigration and put a brake on globalisation.

Agreed, it was a silly basis on which to run the campaign. This was one of the reasons I paid almost no attention to the official campaigns. Frankly, anyone who believed that £350mil to the NHS pledge gets what they get. The focus on immigration was handled badly and distastefully (admitted to by Mr. Gove just today) and there just isn’t any stopping globalisation (depending on your definition). 

What has now become apparent is that, for sure, short term and this may mean a period of several years, this was a false prospectus. In the near future a ‘Clean Break Brexit’ involves economic disruption, the immediate result is a £40bn bill not a £350m a week NHS boost, we need most of the European migrants, and a Hard Border in Ireland poses risks both to the UK and the peace process.

As this reality has dawned, so the Government has tried to navigate its way through the Dilemma.

I’m not sure it’s that the reality has dawned, these issues were discussed at length before the result and were obviously accepted as a risk worth taking by the 52%. More, I think it’s that people who weren’t in that camp now run the show and weren’t as prepared for them as much as those who believed in the whole enterprise would have been.

The Dilemma is simply expressed: either we stay close to Europe after Brexit to minimise the economic cost, in which case we will be obliged to continue to abide by Europe’s rules; or we do a Clean Break Brexit in which case we will suffer substantial economic pain.

The first is a Brexit which leads to the question: what’s the point, since we will abide by rules over which we have lost our say, a somewhat weird way of ‘taking back control’.

The second is a Brexit which leads to the question: what’s the price?

This is the dilemma, well summarised.

For two years the Government has tried to pretend that we could have our cake and eat it: that Europe would somehow change the rules of the Single Market, which we helped shape, and allow us frictionless trade with freedom to diverge where we want to.

This is and always was a non-starter.

Very true. One of the reasons triggering Article 50, not preparing for a no deal situation and letting a Remainer run the show were all fatal decisions.

The Chequers Cabinet summit and the White Paper were the first serious attempt to choose and resolve the Dilemma.

Both documents are drafted with exquisite disingenuousness. But stripped of their verbal camouflage, they come down effectively on the side of staying close to Europe whilst trying to pretend the opposite.

We are to have a common rule book with Europe for goods and agri-food, including the rules already agreed in the Single Market. This means we abide by Europe’s rules.

Parliament can choose to refuse further rules but this will have ‘consequences’. This is supposed to stress our Parliamentary sovereignty. But the reality is the consequence of refusal would be exit from the common rule book area so it’s never going to happen. And of course, Parliament is sovereign. It always is. We choose to be in the Single Market now. We can choose to exit it now.

But in practice, under this proposal, we are staying in the Single Market for goods, whilst losing our voice in it.

Couldn’t have put it better myself. I guess that’s why I’m a blogger to a couple of dozen people and he used to run the country…

Likewise, with the so-called ‘Customs Partnership’. This is effectively the Customs Union just renamed, with the possibility at some later time of getting agreement to some as yet undiscovered technological facilitation of trade which would allow us to have different tariffs on goods. This is pie in the sky.

In any event until the time the pie miraculously appears on earth, it will be impossible to do trade deals elsewhere, as President Trump has just confirmed. In the meantime, of course, Europe can carry on doing such deals, but we will have no say over them, though we will be bound by them.

Again, true. How does Theresa May not see this when everyone else does? Does she think she’s pulling the wool over our eyes?

As for freedom of movement, this is to be replaced by a new ‘Labour Mobility Framework.’ This will give a special preference for European workers. It is the Government’s recognition that without such workers being able to come easily to Britain, key sectors of the economy will suffer.

The practical reality is that the difference between current freedom of movement and this new framework will be miniscule because for economic reasons it must be. Also, there is no way Europe would ever agree to this partial acceptance of the Single Market, unless freedom of movement was, in essence, retained.

Another way in which Mrs. May attempts to convince us she is ‘delivering’ when she is in fact doing nothing of the kind. I’m put in mind of a sailor who unhooks the moorings of his ship, only to hold on desperately to the dock with his hands.

Meanwhile, we will try to negotiate our way back into a slew of European Agencies where we are now as of right.

Going through each section of the White Paper, at every turn the absurdity becomes more manifest. Every page details why it is so important we stay in cooperation with Europe whilst trying to invent new forms of partnership which can be presented as consistent with leaving Europe.

Indeed, the Paper proposes even closer cooperation with Europe in defence and data protection, as if Brexit were necessary for such enhanced partnership.

The one area excluded is that of workers’ rights, with no commitment to retaining the benefits of the European Social Charter.

Finally, we come to what, with delicious irony, is titled ‘Fishing Opportunities’, under which we agree to negotiate a new fishing framework with the EU, which looks a lot like the old one.

The intent behind this, at least on the part of the Prime Minister, may come from a good place, but the result is an ‘Inbetweener’ half in/half out mess.

As with everything else. This is because she fundamentally doesn’t believe in it.

A genuine ‘soft’ Brexit would obviously be less damaging than a Hard Brexit, though it would highlight the ‘what’s the point’ nature of this choice. But this Brexit is just mush.

It is not making the best of a bad job. It is the worst of both worlds. This is where True Remainers and True Leavers make common cause.

We do indeed make common cause. Everybody sees it. It is plain and out there for all to gaze upon. It will never work.

I understand completely its attraction for some in business and for many people who just want the agony of Brexit to end. ‘Ok’ so the argument runs, ‘it may be a messy compromise but it’s the only way we can limit the damage, so let’s get on with it.’

How depressing.

But I am afraid this argument is fatally flawed.

  1. The practical upshot of this proposal is to tie us to Europe over large parts of economic life, without a say in its rules. This is intrinsically a dismal outcome which reduces British influence for no or negligible gain.
  2. It is not an ‘honouring’ of the Brexit vote. It will disillusion large numbers of Leavers, whilst being dismissed by Remainers, except those in the Conservative Party who see this as a way through their internal schism. A point often forgotten – never mind an economic crisis, a democratic crisis will be much worse and much harder to contain.
  3. The Europeans will not accept it unless clarified in a way which will expose the Dilemma once again. The likelihood is that they will consider cherry-picking between different parts of the Single Market wrong in principle and hard to do in practice, given the overlap between services and goods. But suppose they do accept distinguishing between the Single Market for goods and services. This will only be on the basis that Britain clearly applies those rules for goods trade, adjudicated by the ECJ, and probably with what are called flanking arrangements for those parts of the services sector intimately bound up with the manufacturing supply chain. This will never be palatable to the Brexiteers who sit in the Cabinet. So the argument will continue.
  4. Even if the Brexiteers or some of them swallow such an agreement with Europe, they will only do so, in order to drag the country the other side of March 2019, and then they will re-ignite the debate when it is then too late to stop Brexit and when our bargaining position will be very weak. Nobody wants to reopen this wound once it is closed. Even Jacob Rees-Mogg has said as much.
  5. By excluding services, the Government is prepared to do significant and possibly irreparable damage to the UK service sector which is the bulk of our economy, and where unlike the goods sector, we presently have a large surplus in European trade. Particularly for the financial service and tech sectors, where Britain is dominant in Europe, we now know from those active in those sectors that exclusion from the Single Market is going to result in job losses and economic cost which will impact output and revenue considerably.

In other words, this is a bad deal. More important, it will not be accepted as fulfilling the mandate of June 2016 and we know that because many of the leading Brexit proponents are saying it.

I’m certainly saying that. And there’s no getting around this fact. May might try to sell this on the technical point, but nobody wins anything in politics on a technical point. 

And there will be no majority in Parliament for it, or for ‘Clean Break Brexit’ or possibly for any version of Brexit or indeed for staying.

We are stuck.

And herein lies the lesson – referendums are constitutionally idiotic. If this teaches us nothing else, it ought to teach us that referendums do not work in a Parliamentary system without a fundamental restructuring. Yes, we’re stuck. That feels to me like a good way to learn a hard lesson. 

In any rational world, and I understand that is a big caveat in today’s politics, this would go back to the people for resolution.

I have to disagree – that may be the pragmatic way of resolving this immediate problem, but for me it just gives further credence to the idea that referendums are a good idea. They aren’t – they don’t have enough political power in our current system. The same questions will be asked – is this one binding? Does it overrule the last one? But the government promised to implement the last one… 

It would not be a re-run of the 2016 referendum. Two major things have changed since then. Our quantum of knowledge about the issue and particularly about the consequences of leaving the Single Market and Customs Union is vastly enlarged. And there is fundamental disagreement about what Brexit means between supporters of Brexit.

The question may be complicated because it really involves three choices: Clean Break, ‘soft’ or stay. But the complexity is not insuperable.

If it’s three way, does 34% win it? So 66% of people could vote against the option we end up taking…but we had a bigger mandate last time round…and on and on it will go.

For the Conservative Party it avoids owning a botched Brexit.

Well they made it, they can own it.

For the Labour Party it escapes constructive ambiguity becoming destructive indecision.

That’s no way for a major party to behave.

For Parliament it may be the only way through.

Maybe it is. But it seems like a major cop out to resort to this when they created the problem for themselves. I elect representatives to sort this sort of stuff out for me – stop asking me to do your job, you get paid enough (well…maybe…) to do it on my behalf.

End of analysis.

I fear any talk of another referendum. I have no desire to have another damaging fallout with friends. It would also have that chilling effect of ‘the EU makes you vote until you give the right answer’ which is rightly pointed out over and over again. And would this one be definitive? Or do we go again? What if a new government gets elected and decides against it? It’s too messy and anti-democratic.

We have a Parliament for a reason – if you want constant referendums, dissolve the blasted thing. I’m sick of politicians constantly reverting to this blunt tool to avoid making decisions they don’t want to make. The offering of referendums is the modern day independent inquiry – a tool to kick a subject into the long grass.

Consecutive PMs have now, to their eternal shame, failed to prepare this country for a no deal, leaving negotiators powerless and rudderless. Cameron refused to allow it and May leads a shambles. The dereliction of duty in these two cases is appalling and shameful to the office they have held.

I voted Leave and would do the same today. I have not changed my mind. But what people forget when they parrot the old ‘biggest vote in history’ line is that the second biggest vote ever was the vote to Remain. If it were up to me, we’d just leave the whole thing and get on with it. But it isn’t, and there is currently no majority for any position. I’m up for a discussion with anyone who wants to persuade me.

Mr. Blair, for all his obvious faults, made a good start.

The ongoing hilarity of Corbyn’s Brexit position

No matter what he does (or doesn’t do) on Brexit, he can do no wrong in the eyes of his supporters

As a non-partisan but politically engaged person, I cannot help but continue to actually laugh as this doublethink persists among the rank and file of the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party, and indeed, the country.

It is amazing how much he is allowed to get away with. It is astonishing how little accountability he faces from his supporters. Even if anyone in his own party dares to question him on Brexit, the people who are actually trying to hold him to account on the biggest issues of the day, they are denounced as ‘out to get him’, even by those who are die-hard Remainers.

I have tried to point this out before, but it apparently cuts no ice among the faithful apostles – Mr Corbyn is no ally of Remain. I really don’t mind people ignoring this point (as it makes the opposition to Britain leaving the EU all but toothless in the Commons), but never let it be said that you weren’t warned.

His performance in the original campaign was heavily questioned, but this didn’t stick to him because the acolytes defended him. This was hilarious at the time, and continues to be so. Defending a man against a charge that you yourself would have levelled at literally anyone else…yeh, definitely not a personality cult.

Imagine it had been Blair who had been all lukewarm on this issue. Or Brown. Or indeed, Cameron. They’d have been all over them like a rash – “Why didn’t you try harder? Why didn’t you give it everything? Where were you?!”

Anyway, that was then and this is now. But of course, not much has really changed has it?

Deep down (and probably in the privacy of the voting booth), he’s a fellow Leaver.

As thousands and thousands of people gathered on the second anniversary of the vote to protest against it, chants of “Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?” intermingled with the sourdough dust and diesel particulates of the warm London air. For whilst this was a large gathering of woke, right-on, middle class Leftists on a lovely sunny day in the nation’s capital, it wasn’t a Corbynite rally. This was the fierce, white hot rage of the correct (just less than) half of the nation.

Inevitably, the defence came. The great man had more important engagements. A quick scan of Twitter (shudder) told me exactly what I needed to know. He was in Palestinian refugee camps working with the displaced people there. Aha, gotcha. Argue with that one, you heartless Zionist.

Again – as laudable as that is, does it not worry you that that couldn’t have waited for perhaps one more day? He isn’t exactly known for shying away from demonstrating in London. This march was for one day on a well known anniversary – as the Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition and apparent ‘Remainer’, could this have been the priority for just one day? Forgive me if this sounds glib, but isn’t the point of a refugee camp that it isn’t a pop up tent that’s here today and gone tomorrow? Who could begrudge him going there…but on that day? The same people are crying foul over Boris Johnson’s failure to show for the Heathrow vote on Monday due to some apparent important foreign engagement – is it not the same thing?

Who knows. I’m not attacking the guy. He can do whatever he wants. If the visit to the camp was his priority, then more power to him. I quite like him (have defended him several times here and here) and admire his ability to not show any cards yet be defended for it. My point is the reaction of his followers. Nobody is ever disappointed in him. They spend so much time defending him from attacks that they seem to fail to see that he is not their ally on this crucial issue.

It’s all fine by me. Keep putting him up on a high pedestal and defend him from attacks. Deep down (and probably in the privacy of the voting booth), he’s a fellow Leaver.

Ooooooh Trojan Horse Cooooorbyn…

As the Tory ‘Islamophobia’ row simmers, Labour has a unique opportunity

Will they be bold enough to grab the high ground? Somehow I doubt it…

Hardly a day goes by without reports of identity issues within our existing – yet lifeless and to all intents and purposes, dead – political parties. And so it is that the next ‘identity under fire’ scandal begins to take hold of another major British political party, as mutterings of ‘Islamophobia’ within the Conservative and Unionist Party begin to make their way into the public ear.

The Guardian reported last week that some party members, activists and potential election candidates had been on the end of some rather unpleasant behaviour from other members. I make no judgement on the veracity of these claims; for the purposes of this piece, I merely want to look at the fact that these things are being reported.

For herein lies the potential opportunity for Labour (particularly the Corbynite wing), one which I wholeheartedly believe they will not take, living as they still do in the point scoring, one-upmanship world of traditional politics.

When the Labour antisemitism scandal started to bubble up, I was sceptical. I couldn’t really see how there could be so much prejudice and dislike of Jews within that party. Of course, any large organisation will always have unpleasant people (especially organisations that are, by definition, ideologically driven such as political parties) and unsavoury views. Of course, it has turned out that there is far more of it than it really palatable for a mainstream party and they are rightly now doing something about it.

But I have to be completely honest, whilst I thought it unfair, I had very little sympathy. I will always stand up for my opponents when they are being unfairly smeared (indeed I have done so on these pages several times), but it felt very much like they were finally lying in the bed that they had made for themselves.

For years, they trashed, smeared and viciously attacked UKIP (a party that I personally loathe but had huge democratic support at one point) whenever any reports of racism or other prejudices surfaced. There was no ‘well I’m sure it’s only a few bad apples’, no ‘well at least they’ve expelled that person’, no ‘that isn’t representative of that party at large’. Nothing. They joined, nay led, the charge, crying ‘racism’ at every turn. Same thing happened at the referendum, when I got caught up in the hysteria against my vote. So I have absolutely no problem standing back and letting Labour defend itself against charges of rampant, endemic and institutional antisemitism. I don’t believe it, but that’s the game they’ve been playing for years, so they can keep playing it and take the punches from it. Not nice being tarred with a big brush is it?

Now though, the Tories are facing a similar thing. The tone is rising to the point where they will be accused very soon (if they haven’t already by the time this goes out) of having rampant, endemic and institutionalised ‘Islamophobia’. So Labour has a choice. It either does the traditional, tiresome, public-are-bored-of-it-all tactic of squeezing them on this and pushing for resignations and inquiries and expulsions. Or, it takes a new path, one that urges them to root it out whilst not assuming the whole thing is already corrupted by it. A good faith opposition, if you will.

I’ve felt the responses to this just whilst writing those last few paragraphs. It’s like I can already read the comments. ‘But they are though, Mark, it’s so obvious’. ‘You’re not serious defending the Tories are you?’ ‘This is a completely different situation.’

Well it might look like a different situation to you, but from an outside, non-partisan point of view, it looks exactly the same. You certainly don’t need to listen to a word I’m saying, you’re welcome to do whatever you want. But wasn’t politics supposed to be different now? Wasn’t Labour supposed to be ushering in a new era of politics? It seems to me that there is a moral high ground that could be occupied here that is currently vacant. It’s also, if you really want to look at it with cold hard party politics, an opportunity to get this antisemitism thing off your back. By looking reasonable for them, you make yourselves look more reasonable.

I don’t have a horse in this race, and I know next to nothing about the internal machinations of the Tory party. I don’t think I even know a member of it, but I know plenty of Labour voters and members – probably at least 80% of friends and acquaintances, with the rest distributed amongst Greens, Lib Dems, random other weird Leftist movements and non-engaged people. I do know that most of my friends are feeling very cross about being accused of either being antisemitic or enabling antisemitism though. And that doesn’t feel fair does it? So…what do we think we might do about it? Someone has to take the first step here.

It feels like that moment in ‘The Thick Of It’ where one of the two parties announces an inquiry into something that will bring them both down. An act of pure mutual destruction, no longer held in a state of stand off. Well, whilst you’re both scrabbling around in the mud anyway, one of you has the opportunity to be the bigger party.

I hope that can be Labour. But I doubt it.

 

Oh great. Now I’ve got to defend Raheem Sterling

The winger is under fire – for a tattoo of a gun

Well thanks very much, instant reactors of the world. Now I’ve got to come to the defence of one the of slimiest, greediest, most loathsome individuals in the world – the Manchester City and London FC winger, Raheem Sterling. Fan-flipping-tastic.

It continues an apparent theme of this site. In recent times, I’ve come to the defence of Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott, John Bercow and Jeremy Corbyn. Twice. It’s not always fun, but whenever anybody is being unfairly maligned or mistreated, whatever one thinks of them, one should always come to their defence.

So back to Sterling – I am loath to do this, as he is a repulsive, reptilian creature worthy of a career that spirals downwards towards ignominy and an eventual transfer to somewhere awful and humiliating like the Russian Second Division or the Scottish Third Division or Everton. Of course, these feelings of spite and bile are purely because he was a quality player who left Liverpool. I am unashamedly tribal in one aspect of life – football – and I shan’t be changing that. Indeed, if I ever met the guy I’d probably say hello and have a lovely chat. My football emotions aren’t to be taken seriously and I make no comment on the man’s character outside of football. The greedy little sod. Sorry.

So what has been his alleged crime? Mr Sterling posted a picture on Instagram that showed off his new tattoo – an M16 rifle on his lower right calf. This, safe to say, hasn’t gone down too well in this modern age of hand-wringing over guns, particularly big and scary ones, in the media.

The internet will always collapse in convulsive fits of spasmodic rage whenever any sportsperson does anything vaguely controversial

Now, I’m not going to make any comment on the offensiveness or not of his tattoo. Generally, with some exceptions, I find tattoos to be a bit of an eyesore anyway, but would never dream of telling anyone else what they should or should not have permanently etched onto their flesh. It’s not for me, but knock yourselves out if that’s what you want. Unless it contravenes a known law, you can show it off as much as you so desire.

He has explained its ‘deeper meaning’, which goes along the lines of it being a symbol against gun violence, owing to the fact that his father was himself murdered by a gunman. The positioning of it, on his right foot, symbolises the weapon that he uses to shoot with – not a gun, but his foot. again, think whatever you like about that, but its his decision and his tattoo.

It’s the reaction to it that’s got my back up. The internet will always collapse in convulsive fits of spasmodic rage whenever any sportsperson does anything vaguely controversial, and so that’s barely worth bothering with in terms of a rebuttal. But one particular reaction caught my eye and brought me here to write this defence of Mr Sterling.

A lady by the name of Lucy Cope, who founded Mothers Against Guns following the murder of her own son in 2002, gave the following statement:

“[The tattoo] is totally unacceptable. We demand he has the tattoo lasered off or covered up with a different tattoo. If he refuses, he should be dropped from the England team. He’s supposed to be a role model but chooses to glamorise guns.”

Could she not have ‘suggested‘ he cover it up? Might she not have ‘encouraged‘ him to think about removing it or changing it?

Now, I again make no comment on Ms. Cope, or her organisation. I know little about them. But I want to look at this statement and its purpose, because it seems to me extraordinary – an extreme overreaction with an unfortunate tone.

She is completely entitled to say that the tattoo is unacceptable. I take no issue with that – she can think whatever she likes and say whatever she likes in this regard, it is her opinion. Where she runs into trouble is the next phrase – “We demand…”

Ms. Cope makes a demand of a complete stranger that he either damages his body or hides it in shame. She then sets out the terms of the punishment should he refuse to comply with her demand. Of course, she has no power to enforce any of this, but the mere fact that anyone would use language like this to speak about or to another person about choices they have made speaks to the growing censoriousness that we see almost everywhere.

Could she not have ‘suggested‘ he cover it up? Might she not have ‘encouraged‘ him to think about removing it or changing it? Would not a better approach have been to actually engage him in a dialogue rather than making demands and threats?

I know exactly what I’d think if it were me being attacked. Suffice to say I’d be in no mood for a little chat

I do not wish to call into question the overwhelming emotion that such a person must feel, particularly given the tragic circumstances of her family. I’m sure I might feel exactly the same way in her situation. I also do not question her motive or intent. But this was a public statement made to a national newspaper. This kind of language does not start a healthy conversation, and I know exactly what I’d think if it were me being attacked. Suffice to say I’d be in no mood for a little chat.

It’s why I continue to implore everyone to take a step back and speak with a calm, measured tone. Take the time to think before reacting. It makes for a much calmer and less angry society, one in which we might actually be able to talk to one another rather than shout and make demands of one another. In this case, Raheem Sterling doesn’t need to answer to anyone unless he chooses to do so.

The greedy little sod.

Ken Livingstone resigns – and yet I don’t rejoice

Something still doesn’t feel quite right about this whole saga

Ken Livingstone has resigned (finally, one might say) from the Labour Party. So there we have it – the dragged out, inevitable result following a grotesque spectacle that has lasted 2 years. Two years. Has it really been that long? It simultaneously feels like an age and just a few days since the ex-Mayor of London uttered the phrase that may outlive anything else he has ever said: “Hitler was a Zionist“.

Rejoicing has come from most quarters outside of the Labour hard left to which Mr Livingstone nominally belonged. My own MP, Luciana Berger, who I very much like and has championed the cause of ridding the Labour Party of antisemitism, tweeted her approval with a note of disappointment that it has taken so long.

It is being positioned as a victory for the moderates, a victory over Jeremy Corbyn (whose response has, as is typical, been criticised) and a victory against antisemitism.

And yet…and yet…I just can’t bring myself to join the chorus. Something still doesn’t feel quite right about the whole issue. I say still, because back when this was all kicking off, I wrote in defence of Mr Livingstone:

“Here’s my problem – why didn’t anyone just challenge him on the facts? If you think you’re right about something, there is no reason to apologise. Sometimes people get hurt and that’s a shame, but if they’re hurt by something that is true, there’s not much you can do about that. As it happens, he’s wrong, so he should apologise. But the problem is, every time he is on the airwaves, he isn’t met by this challenge, he is just met by an incredulous presenter who simply cannot believe that he won’t apologise for hurting people’s feelings.

“I’ll be completely honest, I think the guy is wrong, but I do have a respect for his doggedness. He hasn’t just backed down like every other person in public life does and apologised just to end it all. Throughout this whole saga, I deliberately didn’t look up his references because I wanted to hear him faced with someone authoritative on the subject to deliver an actual riposte to his claims. The problem with not doing that, is that the people listening just hear his side, then a request for him to apologise. This leaves people going “well if he’s right, why should he?””

If somebody is going down, even an enemy of mine, you’d better have a good, logical and rational reason for it

It honestly feels like this never really happened. I saw the odd piece discussing the so-called ‘facts’ that Mr Livingstone was talking about, and some brilliantly dissected them and showed, to my satisfaction, that he was at the very least misinterpreting unquestioned historical events. David Baddiel’s piece in the Guardian was particularly good.

But the whole thing has been soaked in emotion and fury, something most of us hate when it is directed from the hard left towards the rest of us. It’s so easy to drop verbal nukes on people – ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, homophobe’, transphobe’, ‘Islamophobe’, all terms which, if they can stick, can destroy you in an instant. I hate their overuse and the casual way they are thrown around. Well, the latest powerful one is ‘antisemite’, and I’ll be damned if I start playing the same game as unthinking idiots whose tiny emotional capacities can’t separate “I think, after careful consideration, that the EU is a bloated, bureaucratic organisation which is not capable of real reform and which I think will collapse quite soon, and I’d rather Britain was away from that when it happens” from “I HATE IMMIGRUNTZ”.

I refuse to allow emotion, even when used to advance my own political ideas, to be the tool used in what should be a civilised argument. If somebody is going down, even an enemy of mine, you’d better have a good, logical and rational reason for it. If only this whole saga had taken place at the level of ‘Ken, you are wrong, here is why you are wrong and therefore why we’d like you to recant and apologise’, we may have better grounds to call for his sacking. As it is, it has taken place at the level of ‘what you said was very hurtful and we don’t like you so kindly p*** off or we’ll destroy you’, leaving the guy bewildered and in a more defensible position. He can claim he was hounded out by a mob without due process. Not something you want to leave an enemy with.

You might say that he didn’t help himself, that he seemed to just keep talking about Hitler every time a camera was pointing at him. But frankly, why shouldn’t he? That’s what he kept being asked about. It may look silly, but I’ve had to sit back and admire the guy whilst he engages in political suicide in order to not back down to emotional pressure. More power to him on that front.

He thinks he’s right. I think he’s wrong. He won’t be persuaded of that whilst people just shout in his face and demand apologies. He isn’t sorry, so why you even want him to say it is beyond me – you know it would be empty.

Listen, the Labour Party as an organisation can do whatever it likes. It’s not my problem how they go about their business. If they don’t want him there, they can get rid of him. It just seems like such spurious grounds at the moment, and without solid due process, it’s difficult to know. Antisemitism is definitely a real problem within the Labour Party. Is this a serious victory in that fight?

Somehow, it doesn’t feel like it.

Libertarianism: attractive, but ultimately flawed – Part 1

It is not without merits, but the pragmatist in me can’t see it working in practice

Libertarianism – it’s an ideology that has its merits. It’s one of those things that I love in theory, but know I’d be disappointed with in practice. A good dose of small state with a great dollop of trusting people to live their lives as they see fit, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. What could be more conducive to a happy, healthy and free society?

Well then, let’s have a brief look at Libertarianism. It is defined on Wikipedia as seeking to “maximise political freedom and autonomy, emphasise freedom of choice, voluntary association, and individual judgement” Libertarians “believe in individual rights and share a scepticism of authority and state power”.

All of which sounds great. But the key words for me are ‘maximise’ and ‘scepticism’. This implies to me that we cannot have complete political freedom or autonomy, nor can we totally dismiss the role of the state. So, whilst I would generally align myself with these stated aims, it becomes a matter of where along those axes you draw the line. And, if I may borrow and adjust a quote from Joey, to most pure Libertarians, ‘you can’t even see my line – my line is a dot to you.’

The state should not interfere in the freedoms and liberty of people unless there is a very good reason to do so

I tend to believe that the state should not interfere in the freedoms and liberty of people unless there is a very good reason to do so. ‘Very good reason’ is the space in which the conversation needs to happen. One person’s good reason is another person’s tyranny.

Strident Libertarians would have it that laws such as the smoking ban or the recent legislation limiting Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) are outrageous interferences in the liberty of the inhabitants of Great Britain. The principles of small state limited government, freedom of choice and autonomy of the person would dictate that these laws are grotesque and not required in a society that ought to allow its citizens to smoke and gamble as much or as little as they please. And yet most of us can see the good reasons for these laws.

Taking the smoking ban for a start, if we were to strictly adhere to the Libertarian ideal, people ought to be able to smoke whenever and wherever they like. But it is perfectly clear that doing this doesn’t just affect them. I won’t go through the ins and outs of the effects (or lack thereof) of passive smoking, because that’s only part of the point. Suffice to say that restaurants, bus stops and Anfield stadium have become much more tolerable places to breathe since the ban. But then, as a non-smoker, I would say that.

I’m not in the least saying that people shouldn’t smoke. That is absolutely for each individual to decide for themselves. I also think the ban is starting to go too far and is unnecessarily embarrassing and shaming people who do smoke. The images on the packaging are quite intolerable (yes, I know that is the point) and the prices artificially ridiculous due to tax pressure. These things always affect the poor the most, and this should be taken into account when forcing such laws through Parliament.

But this is where the conversation happens. I can’t imagine a situation where pure ideology makes you either for the complete banning of cigarettes, which are in mass use, or for the complete and untrammelled freedom to infringe on everyone else’s space with your choices. So we need to discuss where the line is.

Let’s take the other example mentioned – the reduction in the amount any person can gamble on a FOBT has been reduced from £100 to £2. That may sound draconian, until you realise this amount of money is the stake that you can wager every twenty seconds. These machines, wherever they are, can suck up thousands and thousands of pounds.

The passing of this law prompted the Spectator columnist, editor of Spiked and staunch libertarian, Brendan O’Neill to complain that the ‘snobs had won‘ the battle over FOBTs. Now I don’t mind Brendan – sometimes he speaks complete sense, other times absolute wham. This feels much more like the latter.

What I do like about him is that he defends the working classes, the poor and the Northern against the horrible caricatures that can so often be painted in national media. He hates paternalism and nanny state-ism, as do I to a large extent.

The state can be overly paternalistic and better off people can have a snooty way of discussing anyone who doesn’t live in a comfortable neighbourhood and vote Remain…

But taking some lines from his piece, it feels much more like ideology than practical politics.

“I know people who frequent betting shops, mainly to bet on horses, and they will occasionally spend 10 or 20 quid on an FOBT if they’re bored. I expect that’s how the majority of FOBT-users engage with these machines.”

Great – then they won’t be affected by this then will they? They can still gamble their 10 or 20 quid. And the majority of users, I’m sure, do just use them for this purpose. But what about the minority who don’t? I’m not going to get into ‘addiction’ and what that word actually means in theory or practice, but the simple fact is that people can and do sit at these machines and watch their money disappear at a ferocious speed.

“A few years ago the Guardian sent a reporter to Slough — you know things are bad when the Guardian is willing to enter Slough — to investigate FOBTs. She watched in horror as people’s ‘£20 notes disappeared into them’. Yeah, well, I’ve watched in horror as impeccably middle-class people have queued for hours to get into some hip new restaurant and proceeded to spend £40 on glorified hotdogs and dirty chips. We all do stupid things with our money.”

Apart from the nice little dig at the Guardian, which seems to me to be an accurate summation of Guardian attitudes, the difference here is surely obvious? Endless £20 notes going into a machine (which, remember, can take £100 every twenty seconds) is not the same as a very silly (but probably well off) person overpaying for poncey food.

He writes well and much of this piece is persuasive. Whilst I back the legislation, I often recoil at the tone in which the topic is discussed. I agree that the state can be overly paternalistic and better off people can have a snooty way of discussing anyone who doesn’t live in a comfortable neighbourhood and vote Remain. All the same, I think restricting the amount you can put into these machines isn’t really harming anyone expect the gambling industry – you can still use the machine, you can still see the flashing lights and the spinning wheels, if that’s your thing. You’re just losing less each time.

The other big aspect of Libertarianism – an unshakeable faith in the power of the market no matter what – is something that is attractive, but not without its faults. I’ll come back to this in Part 2.

I’m all for reducing the power and influence of the state. It is too often creeping into our lives where it isn’t needed or welcome and it treats far too many people like they need to be saved and looked after. But it has its place.

The theory of Libertarianism is exactly how I would love the world to be. Alas, the world wouldn’t work like this in practice. It’s a shame, but we have to be pragmatic about these things.

If only hardcore Socialists took the same view…