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By the editor, Mar 25 2020 10:38AM

We need to be cautious in commenting on this crisis, but it is, I hope, uncontroversial that we shouldn't hold back from pointing out clear mistakes, whether that is for learning to deal with a later phase of the crisis, or for dealing with a similar crisis in the future, or for assessing the competence of those taking the decisions at the moment.


One serious mistake, it seems almost certain, was not encouraging people who could work from home to have done so much sooner. Currently, of course, pretty much everyone who can is doing so. But there was a clear opportunity to encourage people several weeks ago, which wasn't taken up.


There's a danger that this issue gets lost as events hurtle on, but it seems to me that the mistake was significant, in terms of the attempt to "flatten the curve", and needs to be noted.


I first tweeted about this on 9 March, when the scale of the crisis was starting to become clear. I work in a public sector organisation, and work from home twice a week. Many in my organisation work from home occasionally too. It was clear then that the whole organisation could operate remotely if needed, possibly with a small minority of staff in the office. My work brings me into contact with those working for Government Departments in Whitehall and elsewhere, and other public sector organisations, which were all in a similar position.


Back in early March, there was a message from the Government that it didn't want to move too soon to enforce social distancing. Whether they got the timing right isn't considered here. I'm interested in why the Government wasn't encouraging people to work from home at an earlier point. What in fact happened was that many private sector organisations started doing this before the Government made any statement about it, during the week beginning 9 March. It was only in the following week that the Government set out its position.


What the Government could easily have done, at least as early as 9 March, but probably much earlier than this, once it was aware that the UK was following Italy's path, was simply tell all public sector workers who could work from home to do so immediately.. This wouldn't have required all such organisations to close their offices. They would have had time to allow more people to work from home, and otherwise prepare for the likely eventual move to remote working for nearly everyone. An alternative, if this had felt too drastic initially, would have been to recommend, rather than require, the same thing - i.e. all organisations should operate on the presumption that anyone who could work from home should do so, without there being an actual requirement.


There are over 5 million public sector workers in the UK. Of course, many of those cannot work from home (including many of those working in the NHS). But a significant minority (working in offices, especially in London) can, and this measure could have stopped several hundred thousand people from going to work each day, for at least an extra week, and probably several weeks, while the virus was taking hold.


If the Government had done this, coupled with a recommendation to all private sector employers to do the same, the effect would in fact have been much greater. As I said, some private sector organisations (such as law firms and other professions, and others working from offices) had already started - but the practice would have been much more widespread had the Government taken the initiative. Even if not motivated by altruism, such organisations would have been under pressure from their employees, and would have been worried about their commercial reputations, if there was a nationwide move towards homeworking, and they were resisting.


It wouldn't have stopped everyone, of course. And some people (like me) were already working from home at least some of the time. But multiply the number of people - likely to be millions - by the number of days, and the total number of additional days individuals would have stayed at home would have been several million. Consider also the typical social interactions that commuting to and working in an office involves: often crowded public transport (for me for example, it's a bus, a train, then a tube, repeated twice), then the day spent working in a air-conditioned building (often open-plan, sharing keyboards, phones, kitchens, toilets), popping out for lunch in a canteen or cafe. These must be close to ideal conditions for the virus to spread. We now understand that it's spread most quickly in London. How much slower might the spread have been if this simple, painless measure had been taken?


There are wider considerations too. Part of the success of the Government's strategy is based on people trusting what it says, being seen as competent, and building consent for its measures. Here is an example of the Government acting too late - following, rather than leading. It doesn't inspire confidence. What other decisions might have been made too late?


So why didn't the Government take this action? I can think of a few potential reasons.


One: there was the worry about moving too fast on social distancing. But as set out above, the Government could have made this a recommendation only at that stage. Working from home does not mean total social isolation. Those who particularly wanted to work in the office could have done so at that point. If anything, a more gradual path to getting people to work from home was likely to have helped over the longer term, as people got used to the idea, had time to order relevant equipment and make other arrangements, and the final move towards mandatory homeworking didn't have to be rushed out in the way it ended up happening.


Two: perhaps the Government was pursuing a "herd immunity" strategy, and didn't want to slow the rate at which the virus spread at this point. I don't know whether this was actually the Government's policy. But even if it was, my understanding is that the Government wasn't at this point actively encouraging the spread of the virus, but rather that it was seeking to delay the point at which the most stringent measures would be implemented to slow it. Hence its "soft" approach at this time - such as encouraging people to wash their hands. Encouraging people to work from home (rather than forcing them to) would have accorded with that strategy..


Three: the Government was worried about a drop in productivity. I suspect this may be something to do with it. There are of course diifficulties working from home - especially, we can find it difficult not seeing colleagues in person, and it's more difficult to manage people, perhaps to the point where some workers are simply not working at all. But it could have been left to the organisations concerned to implement any recommendation to work from home as they saw fit, and the recommendation period concerned was likely to be brief (as it turned out) or it could have been subject to review otherwise. But the main point is that any decrease in productivty was likely to be minimal considering the scale of the developing crisis at that point.


I suspect in fact that there is a linked point, for which I only have anecdotal evidence - my and others' experience of working in several public sector organisations. Those at the top of these organisations usually have no childcare or other caring responsibilities, and despite public professions of enthusiasm for flexible working, are in fact usually ambivalent if not hostile. I can imagine Ministers and Permanent Secretaries, at a particularly difficult time, not liking the idea that many of the staff they rely on might suddenly no longer be around. This may well be why they waited till the last possible moment.


Whatever the reason, it doesn't seem to have been a good one.

By the editor, Mar 9 2020 11:21AM

Perrg Tursit

Reader in Memes, Cultural Norms, and Folk Studies

University of Ingenstans


__________________________________________________________________________


This exploration of a devastating and mysterious event is one of the most disturbing works to emerge from the Ulvaeus-Andersson stable.


It starts on a note of melancholy as a grim foretaste of the horrors to come. Although the summer air was both soft and warm, and the feeling apparently “right” (right in what sense? we begin to wonder), Paris only “did its best” to please the couple. The couple concerned had a drink in every café on the 2 km stretch of the Champs Elysees. There seems little point in having a soft drink in every single café, so we assume these were alcoholic drinks, and also downed in one session. During this binge, one of the couple (“you”) was engaged in what must have been a marathon monologue ranging over politics and philosophy, while the singer simply smiled, “like Mona Lisa”. Whether the singer’s expression was due to her own inebriation, or the boredom induced by her partner’s drunken ramblings, or some more sinister factor, isn’t immediately obvious.


She then tells us that she can “still” recall their last summer. The immediate thought is that this is a defensive response to the suggestion that the drunken stupor might have dulled the singer’s memory. This interpretation gains some support from the later reference to the “crazy years”, the time of “the flower power” (note the definite article – this was not just any old flower power). But is drink the only explanation? It is here that the song darkens dramatically.


During the superficially carefree “age of no regret”, those crazy years of the flower power, there lurked, we are told, a “fear of flying”. We immediately think of aeroplanes, of course, and the trip back home from Charles de Gaulle. But we are brought up short: there is also a fear of “growing old”, of “slowly dying”. All these, separately, are widely-held fears; but their juxtaposition forces us to a different conclusion. No one is simultaneously afraid of a) flying and b) growing old and “slowly” dying. Quite the reverse. Unless, perhaps, the fear is not of flying itself, but of what the journey entails.


We’ve assumed, until this point, that the couple were on holiday in Paris. But the song doesn’t state this. In fact, it gives a clue later on that this isn’t so. There’s a reference to the “tourist jam” around the Notre Dame. Perhaps, then, the couple aren’t tourists themselves? Perhaps we can assume that somehow, in their fear of flight from the city, they’ve sought refuge at its very centre, and allowed themselves to be metaphorically pulverised in the crush of sightseers. The image is one of ghastly contrast: the escapist holiday crowd; the fateful couple subsumed in its midst who are terrified, themselves, of escape.


The “chance” they then took was like “dancing our last dance” when they were “living for the day”.

Precisely what decision has been taken? And by and concerning whom? The listener can’t help here remembering that reference to the fear of slow death, and thinking of the sort of choice that such a prospect might prompt. We feel the shadow of some incurable disease falling.


But once again our assumptions are confounded. The singer’s lover is suddenly revealed to have an afterlife as a “family man”. The person who had earlier declaimed so extensively and alcoholically on the humanities has found employment “in a bank”. Furthermore, he’s become a “football fan”. Both are matters we are invited to find surprising, especially in combination. But these are only tasters for the next bombshell. The person has also now, we learn, changed names to “Harry”.


“Now” the person’s “name is Harry” we are told, unequivocally. Why on earth change names? There are various possibilities. His full name could be “Harold”, and perhaps he liked to be addressed by his full name previously (although not a preference we readily associate with the “years of the flower power”). Or he could have been “Henry”, for which “Harry” is an alternative. Or Harry could have been one of his other Christian names. Whichever of these may be the case, perhaps “Harry” was how he preferred to be known by banking colleagues and fellow football fanatics.


All these explanations seem implausible, however. It seems much more likely that the new name was chosen, like the new career and sporting interests, as part of an entirely new identity. The key here is “family man”. His new life is one of conventionality – with a family, as a man.


The shocking thought strikes us: might this new identity – so clearly male, with its high performance career choice, its macho hobby, its pugnacious royalist name, its patriarchal boast of progeny – signify an escape from its complete opposite? Why choose this new identify at all? And anyway, why go to the extreme lengths of choosing to live under a different name if all you are escaping from is a love affair?


Bit by bit, the rest of the work slots into place. Throughout the song, sung by a woman of course, the lover is simply referred to as “you”, and only revealed as a man when he has changed identity. Theirs – the lesbian relationship – was the fine “and true” romance, as opposed to the heterosexual sham relationship the lover entered into subsequently. Then was the “age of no regret” – before “Harry” (Harriet? we can only guess) took the momentous decision. No wonder the singer could only smile like Mona Lisa as they went out to get plastered before the fateful act. No wonder the “chance” felt like “taking the last dance” – it was pretty final. The “fear of flying” referred of course to the flight the lover took in order to get the operation. But the fear of the operation was ultimately outweighed by the dread of ageing as a lesbian in less enlightened times.


No wonder the singer finds it a struggle to recall, in shock and despair, their last summer – the last summer not only for them, but also of her partner as a woman.


For your lover to leave you and have a sex operation is bad enough. For her then to move in with another woman must be beyond endurance.


_________________________________________________________________________


"Our Last Summer"


The summer air was soft and warm

The feeling right, the Paris night

Did its best to please us

And strolling down the Elysee

We had a drink in each cafe

And you

You talked of politics, philosophy and I

Smiled like Mona Lisa

We had our chance

It was a fine and true romance


I can still recall our last summer

I still see it all

Walks along the Seine, laughing in the rain

Our last summer

Memories that remain


We made our way along the river

And we sat down in the grass

By the Eiffel tower

I was so happy we had met

It was the age of no regret

Oh yes

Those crazy years, that was the time

Of the flower-power

But underneath we had a fear of flying

Of getting old, a fear of slowly dying

We took the chance

Like we were dancing our last dance


I can still recall our last summer

I still see it all

In the tourist jam, round the Notre Dame

Our last summer

Walking hand in hand


Paris restaurants

Our last summer

Morning croissants

Living for the day, worries far away

Our last summer

We could laugh and play


And now you're working in a bank

The family man, the football fan

And your name is Harry

How dull it seems

Yet you're the hero of my dreams


I can still recall our last summer

I still see it all

Walks along the Seine, laughing in the rain

Our last summer

Memories that remain

I can still recall our last summer

I still see it all

In the tourist jam, round the Notre Dame

Our last summer

Walking hand in hand

Paris restaurants

Our last summer

Morning croissants

We were living for the day, worries far away...


[fade]


By the editor, Feb 27 2020 01:26PM


What does “freedom of movement” mean to people? In the UK, I think it is generally regarded as a mixture of good and bad, depending on political views: as having the advantage of allowing people to work, study, and otherwise move across Europe with ease, and giving us access to the EU’s single market; and having the disadvantage of inhibiting the country from imposing its own limits on immigration. Some see it as all advantage, and others as all disadvantage, and some see it as a mixed bag. Few politicians would dare to claim it was an unalloyed good. To the extent that it is seen as good, it tends to be for economic and social, rather than political, reasons.


In the institutions of the European Union, and in other European states, I think there is more to it than this, and worth reflecting on why, and what the implications of that are.


As far as the European Parliament is concerned, “freedom of movement and residence for persons in the EU is the cornerstone of Union citizenship”, and it goes further, stating that the Schengen area (which many in the UK regard as having gone much too far) “is widely regarded as one of the primary achievements of the European Union”, despite acknowledging the strains it placed on the EU from migrants and refugees from elsewhere (https://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/147/free-movement-of-persons). The European Commission refers to it as a “fundamental principle” (https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=457). This Commission press release refers to evidence that “more than two thirds of Europeans say that free movement is beneficial for their country”: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_13_1151.


The implementation of the principle of freedom of movement was undertaken gradually, affecting limited categories of workers to start with, only applying to all workers within EEC states from 1968, and given wider application to all citizens from 2004. Nevertheless, there is an aspect to the principle that seems to be intrinsic to the project as a whole, and not just its economic functioning.


Freedom of movement is of course restricted by borders, and borders in mainland Europe shifted considerably over the centuries, particularly after wars. After the First World War, and the disintegration of several empires, there was a concerted attempt for the first time to impose new borders to differentiate “nation states”. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, it obviously created difficulties that were hard to resolve. What if there was an area including people from more than one nation? How should a person’s nationality be determined? What if populations changed?


It is often noted that the creation of the EU (as it is now) was inspired by a wish to bind countries closer together to avoid the horrors of the Second World War. But there were plenty of other tragedies throughout the 20th century arising from attempts to impose borders and force people out of the wrong areas and into the right ones. Instead of freedom of movement, much of the history of that century was one of forced movement – often what has since become known as “ethnic cleansing”. The following are examples, but this list is by no means exhaustive:

• 1.5 million Armenians were forced into the deserts of Syria and Iraq by the Ottoman Empire in 1915-16, around a half of whom died as a result.

• 100,000 German-speakers were expelled from Alsace-Lorraine from 1918-21, and many more who remained were persecuted.

• Under the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, 1.5 million Greeks and Turks were ”exchanged”, most of them forcibly.

• From 1935 to 1938, the Soviet Union deported hundreds of thousands of members of national minorities to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

• Over 12 million Germans were forcibly transferred to Germany after the Second World War, mostly women, children and the elderly, about 1 million dying in the process (some of them tortured, starved, and worked to death in the same camps used for the Holocaust).

• From 1992, Serbia began systematically removing Muslims from Bosnian territory, triggering wars, atrocities, and a sequence of forced population movements, displacing several million people.


Apart from the immense human suffering involved at the time – and forced movement inevitably has a high death rate – there must have been a significant impact on the collective memories of societies affected. Some territories experienced forced movements several times over, and some people found themselves forced to move twice. So for example there were people who were forced out of Germany for being Jewish under the Nazi regime, who were later forced back into Germany for being German. The processes for determining which national or racial group a person belonged to – and so what rights (if any) a person may have – could be complex, bureaucratic, and often illogical. Even the Nazi regime gave up on agreeing a test of “Aryanness”, and eventually left it to local “ethnocrats” outside Germany to decide who should be so classified. After all, what does it mean to be a “German”, or “Pole” or anything else, after decades of shifting borders, population transfers, and mixed parentage?


After decades of this, it’s unsurprising that there’s been an attempt by the countries concerned to soften borders between them, and encourage citizens to live where they want to.


The UK’s borders have been, of course, more or less fixed by the sea (the exception, the Northern Irish border, serves to demonstrate some of the increased difficulties that land borders entail). So although it’s had its own experience of the horrors of the wars of the last century, it hasn’t had the experiences referred to above. It’s notable that one of the most high profile messages of the 2016 EU referendum campaign was a poster of a line of migrants and refugees headed “Breaking Point”. The message being: “this is what happens in other countries – this is what free movement does – we don’t want this here.”


Not all those in favour of leaving the EU share that sentiment of course. Nevertheless, the process of leaving the EU is now firmly in the hands of our current Government. Its chief negotiator is David Frost. His speech of 17 February 2020, setting out the UK Government’s approach to negotiating a new relationship with the EU, was strongly supported by the Prime Minister. The speech referred, approvingly, to a counter-revolution, seeking to reverse the first “transnational” revolution of the EU project:


“The second revolution is of course the reaction to the first – the reappearance on the political scene not just of national feeling but also of the wish for national decision-making and the revival of the nation state. Brexit is the most obvious example for that, but who can deny that we see something a bit like it in different forms across the whole Continent of Europe?”


The “reappearance… of national feeling” is a toned-down way of saying “re-emergence of nationalism”, and the other “forms” being obliquely referred to include the burgeoning far right movements in Germany, France and elsewhere, and the repressive governments of Poland and Hungary.


So the battle lines are drawn for our current “negotiation” with the EU: nationalism against transnationalism. On the one side, a belief that nationalism is a fact of life, and strong borders are needed between nations. On the other, a belief that such feelings can be transcended, and borders can be relaxed, or even abolished. Pessimism versus optimism, or reality versus naivety – depending where you stand.


By the editor, Jan 31 2020 04:50PM

I remember listening to this, many years ago, from “Summoned by Bells” by John Betjeman, and remain as puzzled by it now as then:


“Some know for all their lives that Christ is God,

Some start upon that arduous love affair

In clouds of doubt and argument; and some

(My closest friends) seem not to want His love -

And why this is I wish to God I knew.”


My puzzlement will be shared by other atheists: how can you reject love when there’s nothing to indicate that it’s being offered to you?


But my puzzlement at Betjeman is matched by the puzzlement Betjeman felt about people like me - as to our mental states; as to “why this is”.


It’s for this reason that there isn’t much point in an argument between those with faith and those without, as to who is “right”. They are mutually incomprehensible positions.


There are some political positions, too, that become articles of faith. So for some, the virtues of socialism are self-evident, and for others capitalism is immutable. Such opinions may be in part based on evidence, but become matters of moral certainty. The same is true of other political philosophies, and some more specific issues, whether it might be nationalisation, immigration, criminal justice, HS2 or Donald Trump. We’re all guilty to some extent of tending to adopt and defend positions on matters before we’ve considered the evidence in any particular case. We like to think we’re open to being persuaded if the right facts are put before us. But there comes a point in many disagreements where the dispute is really about values rather than empirical truth. And at this point, there’s nothing to gain by arguing further. Neither side will prevail, or even make any headway; neither side will understand the other side’s point of view. It doesn’t stop people continuing, of course, and this is often when disagreements turn nasty – they turn personal, because they’re essentially about values, and by implication about character.


Betjeman’s lines came back to me at this time because of the feelings generated by the UK’s departure from the EU tonight. Despite the bitterness and sadness from some on one side, and the glee and nastiness from some on the other, there are signs of people (from both sides) wanting to heal the divisions of the last few years. One step in this process may be recognising that differences of view can’t easily be understood, and that people can’t be reconciled simply by attempting to resolve factual disputes.


It’s odd from one perspective that the EU has caused such strong feelings. It wasn’t previously high on people’s list of concerns. Such ideologies as there are on either side (theories of fraternalism versus theories of national sovereignty) aren’t widely shared. Instead, I think (as others have suggested) that Brexit became a proxy for a more deep-seated cultural divide - highlighting, exacerbating and warping it.


This means that sometimes we engage in our Brexit battles on the assumption that our differences are to do with Brexit itself, when in fact they’re to do with something quite different. That can make it even harder than in other contexts to understand where another person is coming from. Meanwhile the tone of the debate has become at times so vitriolic, simplistic, and tribal, that it’s difficult to make the effort to understand in the first place. And at the core of some of these issues are differences of values, which run into the difficulties mentioned above.


Someone’s concerns about “sovereignty”, for example, may have one of, or several, many different causes. But it may well be that at core this person has a different view on the importance of “place” to someone else. And that is likely to be a difference about something deep-rooted and instinctive, rather than something reducible to reasoned argument. So it may be that there’s a fundamental psychological difference between that person and someone who isn’t as bothered about the issue, and it isn’t easy for either to comprehend the other’s perspective.


It still seems worth trying to understand such matters, if we’re to avoid simply trading insults. But perhaps we ought also to acknowledge that we may end up, like Betjeman, saying - and really meaning it, not out of exasperation, but out of recognition of our human limitations – “and why this is I wish to God I knew.”


By the editor, Dec 20 2019 05:11PM


Some thoughts – loosely linked – about the result of the 2019 general election.


WHAT CAN BE LEARNED?


Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of commentary already about the reasons for the Conservative victory. More surprisingly, much of it has taken the form of the counterfactual, presented as a confident assertion of probability, rather than as interesting speculation. For example: if only Labour had tilted more towards Leave, or more towards Remain, or if only it had backed Theresa May’s deal, or refused to vote for Article 50 – the result would have been different.


It’s surprising because – as you’d have assumed many of these commentators would know – it’s impossible to predict with any degree of probability that the present would have turned out in a certain way if something about the past had been different. I’ve explained why in another context, in another post (http://inkspring.co.uk/blog/4590596332/Would-technology-have-won-Australia-the-2005-Ashes/10840863). In short: there are too many variables.


Of more practical and long-lasting use are the statistics being gathered, not only about the actual votes, but also about what people have said about their reasons for voting (albeit that the latter obviously need to be treated with caution). Three points emerging from this data are reasonably uncontroversial. Firstly, the Conservative share of the vote didn’t go up by very much; the Liberal Democrat share of the vote went up significantly; and the Labour share of the vote went down dramatically. Secondly, the main reason voters gave for not voting Labour was its leader. Thirdly, voters were unusually repelled by both main parties, if not all parties, including their leaders. Usually there is some evidence of enthusiasm for opposition parties, or of (perhaps grudging) admiration for incumbent parties. This election seemed to present large numbers of voters with a particularly unpalatable choice of evils.


And that has a bearing on the part Brexit played in the election. It was this election that decided whether the UK would leave the EU, and Brexit was the trigger for calling the election in the first place; and yet both main parties simply refused to talk about it. It is interesting that the winning side’s slogan was “Get Brexit Done” – hardly a rallying cry to the Brexiteer enthusiast. This is the slogan that played well in the focus groups before the election. It is the attitude of the voter who is fed up of the Brexit saga, just wants to get it over with, isn’t expecting anything particularly positive to come of it, doesn’t care too much about the details or the consequences, but believes that the referendum result should be respected, and wants there to be a Government that will stop dithering and just get the country over the line, so that everyone can get on with their lives and concentrate on what’s of more immediate importance. It is not an appeal based on the positive (albeit similarly dishonest) messages of the original Leave campaign.


So there was no party representing enthusiastic Leavers. Remainers often faced a difficult decision. Labour vacillated about whether it effectively supported a Remain position or not. The Liberal Democrats adopted a revoke position (which many Remainers apparently recoiled from), and then backtracked. Ex-Conservative Remain-leaning MPs stood in some seats. Many Remain voters whose politics were otherwise on the centre ground found it difficult to vote for an outcome that would result in Jeremy Corbyn moving into Downing Street.


In short, there was one clear Leave position, represented by one major party (“let’s put this sorry mess behind us”); and several muddled Remain positions, which couldn’t counter this simple appeal. The final victory of the Leavers – like its first victory, at the referendum – was a triumph of message over substance. As everyone who is reasonably informed knows, Brexit will not be “done” when the withdrawal agreement is passed, as the message sought to convey. But for many voters, it was good enough.


So, emphatic though the 80 seat majority result was, it shouldn’t be taken as reflecting the degree of enthusiasm in the country for Brexit generally, or the Government’s proposed version of it in particular.


On Brexit, and on other matters, the many people who voted so reluctantly for the Government may be particularly quick to judge it harshly if things don’t go the way they hoped.


A SILVER LINING?


There may be one silver lining, although it has nothing to do with the UK’s relationship with Europe. The damage from the 2016 referendum was much more widespread than that. One of the referendum's most threatening legacies was the weakening of support for parliamentary democracy. Now that the Leavers have won after a parliamentary general election, there will be no more talk of a “Remainer Parliament” thwarting the “will of the people”. That isn’t to say that the poison has been removed completely. The new Government has called itself, laughably, the “People’s Government”. More menacingly, its manifesto includes proposals to look at “the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts”, suggesting that there may be an attempt to increase the powers of the executive. There could yet be challenges from the hardline Brexiteers to the new Government that seek to draw on their own interpretation of the referendum mandate.


However, the potential constitutional crisis that was brewing in the autumn has, I think, been averted. Both Remainers and Leavers seem to have accepted the result of the general election. It is worth briefly reflecting on what this means.


There had been an argument that the outcome of the referendum represented a superior form of democracy, which trumped that of any election, and accordingly, any Parliament. To some extent this was widely accepted, even by many Remainers, which has been why many Remainers were attracted to the idea of a second referendum, despite the obvious drawbacks to it. As argued in the previous post, this view is in part explained by the particular circumstances of the referendum, which was not seen as being “owned” by the Government that held it, as other referendums have been.


It is clear that the new Conservative Government wholly owns Brexit, at least for now. Those of us who object to Brexit don’t like the fact that it’s happening, of course. Many of us also consider the current voting system for general elections is flawed, and wonder whether a different one might have yielded a different result. But there was a referendum on that too, of course, in 2011, and the status quo was preserved. So this is our system of democracy – we’re stuck with it for now. And it’s returned a Government with an emphatic majority, and a clear mandate, to take the UK out of the EU on the basis of a withdrawal agreement that’s already drawn up.


Of course, the precise details of the final withdrawal settlement aren’t clear yet. The Conservative Party, no doubt deliberately (following the Vote Leave campaign strategy), hasn’t spelled this out. But the electorate was free to reject it for that reason. After three and half years, there was a huge volume of information about what Brexit might mean, depending on the different ways in which the UK might leave, and extensive exposure of the dishonest statements and mistakes made by the previous Government and other supporters of Brexit. Maybe many voters weren’t interested enough to read much about this. But again, that’s their choice. They can cast their vote with or without that considering that information: that’s democracy.


It's purely anecdotal, but I’ve heard several people, both Remainers and Leavers, express some relief that at least this general election has settled the issue of whether the UK leaves, and that at least the country gets a chance to move on, despite differing views about the ultimate destination. It’s possible that the election, having answered the question of whether (if not how) the UK leaves, might help to heal some of the bitterness. And it is clear that the new Government will be held to account for whatever shape Brexit takes over the next few years. That seems to me a healthier state of affairs than existed previously.


WHAT SORT OF BREXIT?


Opinion seems divided on whether the Government will choose a soft or hard Brexit, though inclining now towards the latter. I think worth considering the following points on this.


Boris Johnson will, I think we can assume, want something that a) is quick and easy, so freeing up time for other projects, b) is not immediately economically (i.e. electorally) damaging, c) fits in with other policy objectives, and d) he can actually get past his own MPs. He’s unlikely to get a deal that ticks all four of these boxes, so which assume higher or lower importance will depend at the time what his priorities are. He won’t be the hostage of the 30 or so hardline Brexiteer MPs as he and Mrs May were previously. It’s possible that some of the new MPs may be of the same breed (recently it looked as though the ERG might have increased its membership slightly), though some of them represent areas that might particularly suffer from a hard exit (for example, constituencies in the North-East and the Midlands dependent on the car industry and other manufacturing sectors).


In any event, Mr Johnson himself is clearly not an ideological Brexiteer. So if he chooses a hard Brexit, it will be for other reasons than any convictions about Europe.


In fact, it’s hard to discern any convictions in him at all, other than those concerning himself. It seems to me mistaken to assume that, for example, because he was apparently in favour of liberal policies while London Mayor, he will suddenly adopt liberal policies now that he has a comfortable majority as prime minister. His record is one of bending and flipping towards whichever policy position best secures him support in any given situation.


I think it is worth, however, considering that he may not end up driving this particular policy. He shows little interest in the detail of Brexit (or indeed, in any detail – he prefers to delegate generally). A lot may depend on the Cabinet reshuffle. Will the ERG continue to dominate? The choice of other personnel could give a clue as well, now that the focus has shifted from the limited priorities of the previous administration. Dominic Cummings had been hired to get a Brexit deal through, and win an election – but both have now been secured. So why is he staying on – how long for, and in what capacity? He has radical ideas, and a particular vision of Brexit (not the same as the ERG, but not a soft Brexit either). If he continues to dominate No.10, this may indicate a direction of travel.


So in summary, it seems to me too early to say what flavour of Brexit we’ll be getting, except that it would be surprising if Mr Johnson allowed any development that he thought would damage his prospects of getting re-elected, and also that it may well depend on who else holds the key positions within the Government


FINALLY


It is interesting that the Government is disbanding the Department for Exiting the EU, and is to stop referring to “Brexit” in its communications. This is the natural consequence of a Government elected to “Get Brexit Done”: get it all out of the way on 31 January 2020, hope the focus moves elsewhere. And maybe the voters (or those they’ll need for the next election) will stop caring after that. But the early signs are that the debate in the country isn’t going to go away, that there are already divisions in the Government and the Conservative Party about the next stage of the Brexit process, that there are potential difficulties brewing already, for example in Northern Ireland and Scotland, which could yet make it difficult for the Government to control this narrative as it wishes. The saga seems destined to continue.



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