Getting it wrong – and getting it right

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It can often be fun re-reading publications some time after their sell-by date. Like this example which I stumbled over yesterday.
 “It’s time for me to stick my neck out. The Tory push north will end in failure”
That was Matthew Parris in the 7 December issue of The Spectator.
I suppose he had to write something and the possibility of having a chance to write in the aftermath of 12 December,  “I told you so”,  was too tempting.
He did cover himself somewhat with this: “What follows is anecdotal and my hunches have  often been wrong.”
However, the only accurate phrase in this, from his opening paragraph, which came near to  matching yesterday morning’s reality was “Mr Johnson will win”. He could not foresee any “enduring shift northwards”. That might turn out to be right – but we will have to wait at least five years to find out.
Parris wrote, “Tory strategists’ hopes of surfing a tidal wave of new support from ‘tribal’ Labour voters in the English Midlands and the North will not be fulfilled. Mr Johnson will win this time, but there will be no substantial and enduring shift northwards of Tory support. “
But, I suppose he had a bit of fun writing it – as we have had reading it.

A far more enlightening and hopeful read in the same issue was Robert Tombs’ reflective speculation about the future of Britain – and Europe – in the aftermath of Thursday’s results. Tombs is a historian and knows how to take the long view of contemporary events. This one, he predicted would change “us and Europe, and have an impact on the wider international system.” And that includes Ireland.

That long view contrasted with the actual campaign so much that a sense of reality pervaded the past six weeks. He wrote:

Commentators focus on spending plans and personal foibles, but what will make next week’s vote historic is something else, something so momentous that we draw back from discussing it seriously. The Lib Dems boast of Stopping Brexit, knowing that as things are now they will never have to try.

We now know where that got them – oblivion for at least another five years.

Jeremy Corbyn pleads neutrality: the first leader not sure which side he was on since poor Henry VI in the Wars of the Roses.

Not many people know the sad history of Henry VI. Were it not for Shakespeare many fewer would know it. Unless James Graham writes a companion piece to his “Brexit: An Uncivil War”, even less will be known about Jeremy Corbyn.

The Conservatives, whose hopes of office depend entirely on this issue, downplay its importance: ‘Get Brexit Done,’ ministers repeat, as if it were a tiresome distraction from real politics. Perhaps it is, if ‘real politics’ is only about mending potholes and recruiting nurses. But however much politicians, and perhaps voters, would prefer it all to go away, this election will change us and Europe, and have an impact on the wider international system.

There has always been something ironic about the Republic of Ireland’s stance on the British electorate’s Brexit decision. Tombs saw that essentially Brexit was about British independence. That Ireland, formerly – but no more – ferociously independent  did not sympathise with that psychologically was always a bit of a puzzle. The answer is, of course, on the economic side. Fear of serious economic discomfort trumped psychology. Not so for the British.

Tombs sees the Brexit decision as all about resistance to being driven down a path on which Britain would have become “a subordinate component of a larger sovereign entity” Their independence, as he saw it, was not primarily a matter of the details of European laws and regulations, however voluminous; or of the creation of a common citizenship with 27 other states; or even of the intended future development of EU control in still wider areas of government. It was primarily a matter of psychology.

“Britain voted in 2016 by a clear majority to be an independent state”.

The election he said would show whether or not the British electorate would back away from that decision, “perhaps through fear of the consequences following a constant battering with anti-Brexit propaganda, perhaps through the coming of age of a new generation for whom independent national democracy appears to have little meaning.”

It was a test of stamina. Were the two and a half years of chaoatic politics and the prospect of difficulties to come going to prove too much and lead them to “surrender ultimate control of their destiny because independence was too difficult.”

Writing over two weeks ago, he was optimistic about the outcome.

Despite a humiliating trail of mismanagement, the 2016 vote will be confirmed by an electorate angry at being despised. This means that most of those who govern us — or governed us — in politics, the media, the quangocracy, the business lobbies and the universities will have been defied. Despite their strenuous efforts, they will have lost. What we have seen emerge — as in a bloodless War of the Roses — is a divided elite. On one hand, a national elite that bases its legitimacy on identification with the nation and the majority will. On the other, a transnational elite — far bigger, more determined, and less respectful of our constitution than we could have imagined in 2016 — which draws authority and a sense of entitlement from its multiple links with the EU. Defeat of the transnational elite would be a kind of peaceful revolution; and like all revolutions, its outcome is unpredictable and for some unpleasant. Most, like the Abbé Siéyès, who said his great achievement during the French Revolution was to have survived, will accept the new reality and ‘move on’. Others, like Old Regime nobles who learned nothing and forgot nothing, will go into internal exile and do their best to make trouble.

After reflecting on Britain’s long and fraught – often chaotic – imperial history, in which it often spent as much time escaping from imperial entanglements as acquiring imperial responsibilities, he concludes:

The British have been adept at escaping empires, including their own: Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin predicted that we would be part of a trans-Atlantic empire governed from New York, so the American Declaration of Independence in effect liberated Britain too. We made far less effort than the French to keep an empire after 1945. We seem to be about to escape again, this time from Mr Verhofstadt’s empire. We have long been used to relying on others for support and even to give us a sense of purpose: the empire, the Americans, the Europeans. Now that we have blackballed ourselves from the club, for the first time since the 17th century we may have to navigate our own course. We tend to put off thinking about essentials, and we shall probably vote on 12 December without having done so. But sooner or later we shall have to start thinking about what we have chosen, and what it will require of us.

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Read his full article in The Spectator here.

Brexit being played to the gallery?

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Boris Johnson – politicians behaving badly?

As we tune in to the Brexit show, somehow, it is hard not to feel that there could be a little more maturity in evidence than at times there seems to be. At one level it is excellent and indeed very dignified – as we saw in Prime Minister May’s address to the British Parliament. It was again in evidence this morning in her address to the global audience at Davos.

But when it comes to the soundbites reaching  us through the media’s reported comments from politicians across the continent of Europe – not to mention the media’s own comments – the dreaded infection of populism now seems to be at pandemic level.

Immaturity begets immaturity, it seems. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the response of that rather funny man, Boris Johnson, to some of the reactions to Mrs. May’s House of Commons address. But Boris is not now addressing the Oxford Union. He is the successor of Lord Palmerston and should be playing that part rather than playing to the gallery.

Brexit is very serious business – for both Britain and Europe. The people of the United Kingdom, admittedly by a not very large majority, have indicated their will. Even though across the territories of that kingdom there are clear differences of opinion on the matter, the fact is that by the terms of the venerable and ancient constitution which political life is organised there, the decision to leave the EU is democratically valid.

This is where the immaturity and lack of respect of their European partners – as matters still stand – shows itself. For all parties what maturity and mutual respect would seem to demand would be an acceptance of the will of a people and then an agreement to get down to work to rearrange matters on questions of trade, movement of people, and anything else that is amiss in the apple cart after this “upset”. Apple carts do get upset from time to time.

But, in the popular press at any rate, that is not what we are getting. European press and some European politicians seem to be mainly preoccupied with saving their faces. To do that they seem to need to tell their public audience that Britons cannot be allowed to seem to do well as a result of their decision. On that cue Boris Johnson jumps up from his seat to talk about the silliness of thinking that Britons should be given “punishment beatings” for upsetting the apple cart.

The reality is that the European Union is not the be-all and the end-all of Western civilization. It is a political solution to real problems which Europe has had since the nation states of the continent evolved and which in the 20th century were partly – but only partly – responsible for two disastrous wars. There are many features of this political experiment which have brought their own problems and there have been turnings in its evolution in which many observers detect the seeds of self-destruction – or at least serious deficiencies.

British influence over the years of UK membership tried to correct what was perceived as faulty. It failed to do so and the end result is Brexit. There was in essence a clash of civilizations, or at least a clash of cultures. The basis of this clash might be seen in the observation of Tolstoy about 150 years ago.

Writing in War and Peace of one of the German generals in the Russian army, he summarized what he saw as the national characteristics of some Europeans:

Pfuel was one of those hopelessly and immutably self-confident men, self-confident to the point of martyrdom as only Germans are, because only Germans are self-confident on the basis of an abstract notion- science, that is, the supposed knowledge of absolute truth. A Frenchman is self-assured because he regards himself personally, both in mind and body, as irresistibly attractive to men and women. An Englishman is self-assured, as being a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore as an Englishman always knows what he should do and knows that all he does as an Englishman is undoubtedly correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and other people… The German’s self-assurance is worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth- science- which he himself has invented but which is for him the absolute truth.

The European Union is not founded on absolute truth. Its constitution did not come from Mount Sinai.The tone of European reactions to Brexit seems to suggest that they believe it did. Until they adopt a little more of the characteristic pragmatism of the British they will continue to make the British nervous. They will also continue to look silly in their approach to sorting out the real difficulties that the British decision has created. Sorting out difficulties is what politics is all about. Get on with it people, and stop this silly posturing.