On the other hand…

Further to Andrew Sullivan’s essay, discussed below, here’s an alternative interpretation from Kenneth Armstrong:

There has been some speculation that the political freedom the Prime Minister will enjoy will allow him to reveal his “true self” and to pursue a policy on Brexit that is less beholden to the extreme Eurosceptic elements in his own party. The argument then runs that we could be looking at a much less “hard” Brexit than the rhetoric might have suggested. For two reasons this assumption looks doubtful.

The first is that the idea that there is a different Boris Johnson waiting to be revealed doesn’t have an obvious basis. That he is prepared to adopt different positions to suit circumstances and to seek political advantage is a better characterisation of his pollical demeanour. That could, of course, mean that the Prime Minister might seek to adjust his Brexit strategy in light of the new political realities but that is not the same as the revelation of an intrinsic and authentic political credo hitherto constrained by prevailing political conditions.

The second reason for doubting a less “hard” Brexit is to do with the problematic characterisation of different choices as “hard” or “soft”. This language suggest a continuum of possibilities with positions hardening or softening. In reality, the choice the Prime Minister will have to make will be much more binary. It’s a choice between a loose “free trade” discipline in which a future EU-UK relationship will be better than World Trade Organisation terms but significantly reduced compared to those of EU membership, and a “free movement” discipline in which the future relationship entails a pre-commitment to regulatory alignment with the EU as a condition for maintaining market access on terms similar to those currently enjoyed. There seems little reason to believe that a Johnson Government will shift from a free trade approach to a free movement approach anytime soon.

So, as Ken says, “ Getting Brexit Done turns out to be Getting Brexit Started.”

Boris: an alternative view

Andrew Sullivan, who was at Eton and Oxford with Boris Johnson, wrote a lengthy (and contrarian) essay about him for New York Magazinebefore the election. It’s worth reading in full, especially now, but here’s the bit that struck me:

He has done what no other conservative leader in the West has done: He has co-opted and thereby neutered the far right. The reactionary Brexit Party has all but collapsed since Boris took over. Anti-immigration fervor has calmed. The Tories have also moved back to the economic and social center under Johnson’s leadership. And there is a strategy to this. What Cummings and Johnson believe is that the E.U., far from being an engine for liberal progress, has, through its overreach and hubris, actually become a major cause of the rise of the far right across the Continent. By forcing many very different countries into one increasingly powerful Eurocratic rubric, the E.U. has spawned a nationalist reaction. From Germany and France to Hungary and Poland, the hardest right is gaining. Getting out of the E.U. is, Johnson and Cummings argue, a way to counter and disarm this nationalism and to transform it into a more benign patriotism. Only the Johnson Tories have grasped this, and the Johnson strategy is one every other major democracy should examine.

None of my friends is likely to agree with this. But I found it interesting. It’s the first piece I’ve read that seemed to take Johnson seriously. And — given that he is the Prime Minister of an elective dictatorship with a large Parliamentary majority — we’d better start to take him seriously. Besides, Andrew Sullivan is a perceptive and intelligent liberal.

What just happened?

Insightful reaction by the Economist:

Five years ago, under David Cameron, the Conservative Party was a broadly liberal outfit, preaching free markets as it embraced gay marriage and environmentalism. Mr Johnson has yanked it to the left on economics, promising public spending and state aid for struggling industries, and to the right on culture, calling for longer prison sentences and complaining that European migrants “treat the UK as though it’s basically part of their own country.” Some liberal Tories hate the Trumpification of their party (the Conservative vote went down in some wealthy southern seats). But the election showed that they were far outnumbered by blue-collar defections from Labour farther north.

This realignment may well last. The Tories’ new prospectus is calculated to take advantage of a long-term shift in voters’ behaviour which predates the Brexit referendum. Over several decades, economic attitudes have been replaced by cultural ones as the main predictor of party affiliation. Even at the last election, in 2017, working-class voters were almost as likely as professional ones to back the Tories. Mr Johnson rode a wave that was already washing over Britain. Donald Trump has shown how conservative positions on cultural matters can hold together a coalition of rich and poor voters. And Mr Johnson has an extra advantage in that his is unlikely to face strong opposition soon. Labour looks certain to be in the doldrums for a long time (see Bagehot). The Liberal Democrats had a dreadful night in which their leader, Jo Swinson, lost her seat.

What’s happened to Labour, in other words, looks awfully like what happened to the Democrats in the US in the 1970s and 1980s.

Quote of the Day

“One of the best short definitions of neoliberalism I have encountered is the one by Will Davies, namely, the dependence upon the strong state to pursue the disenchantment of politics by economics. If that sounds like an oxymoron, well, maybe that’s the nub of the project.”

Democratic oversight?

Here’s my summary of what we learned from Ed Snowden’s revelations in 2013 and the official responses to them in Western democracies:

  1. There was astonishingly intensive and comprehensive state surveillance under inadequate democratic oversight in these democracies.
  2. There then followed various official and semi-official inquiries in the US, the UK and elsewhere.
  3. In some cases, these inquiries led to limited reforms. The US Oversight system remained broadly untouched. The UK had three separate inquiries, followed by a new Investigatory Powers Act, which enhanced some kinds of Judicial oversight, but also added new powers for the security services (e.g. ‘equipment interference’ and warrantless clickstream logging).
  4. The result: comprehensive state surveillance continues, under slightly less inadequate democratic oversight.

Now comes yesterday’s US Inspector General’s report into the FBI’s Russia investigation. It provides a peek under the hood of how the secret FISA Court process works, post-Snowden. “ At more than 400 pages”, says the New York Times, “the study amounted to the most searching look ever at the government’s secretive system for carrying out national-security surveillance on American soil. And what the report showed was not pretty”…

That’s putting it mildly. The Justice Department’s independent inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, and his team uncovered a staggeringly dysfunctional and error-ridden process in how the F.B.I. went about obtaining and renewing court permission under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to wiretap Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.

“The litany of problems with the Carter Page surveillance applications demonstrates how the secrecy shrouding the government’s one-sided FISA approval process breeds abuse,” said Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. “The concerns the inspector general identifies apply to intrusive investigations of others, including especially Muslims, and far better safeguards against abuse are necessary.”

Congress enacted FISA in 1978 to regulate domestic surveillance for national-security investigations — monitoring suspected spies and terrorists, as opposed to ordinary criminals. Investigators must persuade a judge on a special court that a target is probably an agent of a foreign power. In 2018, there were 1,833 targets of such orders, including 232 Americans.

Most of those targets never learn that their privacy has been invaded, but some are sent to prison on the basis of evidence derived from the surveillance. And unlike in ordinary criminal wiretap cases, defendants are not permitted to see what investigators told the court about them to obtain permission to eavesdrop on their calls and emails.

According to the Times’s account, the inspector general found major errors, material omissions and unsupported statements about Mr. Page [the target of the surveillance] in the materials that went to the court. F.B.I. agents cherry-picked the evidence, telling the Justice Department information that made Mr. Page look suspicious and omitting material that cut the other way, and the department passed that misleading portrait onto the court.

Lots more in that vein. The surprising thing is that anybody should be surprised. That’s not to say that Carter was not a legitimate target for surveillance, by the way. But democracy dies in darkness.

Quote of the Day

”It is dumbfounding to observe how everyone suddenly reverts to being a strict nominalist when they encounter Neoliberalism. They circle round the word as if it were a dead animal in the middle of the road, crushed and distended, trying to figure out what to call it, even though, strictly speaking, they reserve judgment over whether it is really there.”

What the election is really about

Remarkable essay on openDemocracy by Anthony Barnett, who is recovering from major heart surgery. Here’s just one excerpt:

The determining issue may be Brexit. But Brexit has never been about Europe. Which is why its key advocate, who unbelievably is Prime Minister, is pitching his campaign on getting it “done” so we can focus on the “really important issues” that we face as a country. It’s a paradox Lewis Goodall tweeted neatly. After Brexit, way above all the other issues voters care about is the NHS. Once scorned by Johnson as a religion he now presents himself as its most zealous believer, while Jeremy Corbyn commits the last days of his campaign on the need to save it from Trump and privatisation.

Well, I’ve just experienced the very best of the NHS. I’ve also seen at first hand a culture which could open the way to undermining it. There is no doubting its fundamental magnificence. The heart of this is that it is driven by human need, not the profit motive or concern over costs. You know this the moment a hospital gets to work. I had an angiogram a few weeks before my operation. It’s a procedure where a nurse inserts a tiny catheter into your wrist and up through your arm’s artery until it gets near your heart. A dye is then injected which can be X-rayed so that specialists can assess the state of the blood vessels around the heart in advance of surgery. You are conscious throughout. Two people worked on my other wrist injecting blood thinners to ensure that the procedure itself does not trigger a heart attack or a stroke, and an emergency team is on hand in case it does. Along with radiographers, it meant there were eight people in scrubs in a gleaming operating theatre with a huge X-Ray machine and multiple screens, for this simple check-up. The ‘market’ cost of just this 20 minute procedure not to speak of the administrative outgoings of billing the charges would have been unspeakable. But it was needed, so it was done.

You don’t experience its cost-effectiveness in this. But others were coming in after me with conditions that were perhaps more complicated. With good management it is a very efficient use of the team that was in place. In the US, because of all the insurance, billing, and the disputes over charges, just the administrative costs of health care alone came to an estimated $496 billion in 2019. This is considerably more than the total expenditure on the NHS this year which was £143 billion.

The costs would have been far-greater for the surgery itself. But in my heart unit there were fellow patients from every class and walk of life, sharing a battlefield equality in our farting and groaning, as we were all treated equally with state-of-the-art operations, free from financial fear. The extraordinary human return means so much to our families we forget that elsewhere such a medical emergency could have bankrupted us. In the United States, between 2000 and 2012, over 40% of the nearly 10 million people diagnosed with cancer “depleted their entire life’s assets” to cover its treatment, according to the American Journal of Medicine. It’s not flippant to suggest that fear of such an outcome is itself enough to make you ill.

Well worth reading in full. I’ve never thought that Brexit is the key issue. In a way, it’s a kind of attempted coup d’etat by powerful political and economic interests (many of them foreign) to reshape the UK into a private-equity sandbox.

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King Donald the First

Marvellous blast from Thomas Friedman: “Impeach Trump, save America”:

Folks, can you imagine what Russia’s President Putin is saying to himself today? “I can’t believe my luck! I not only got Trump to parrot my conspiracy theories, I got his whole party to do it! And for free! Who ever thought Americans would so easily sell out their own Constitution for one man? My God, I have Russian lawmakers in my own Parliament who’d quit before doing that. But it proves my point: America is no different from Russia, so spare me the lectures.”

If Congress were to do what Republicans demand — forgo impeaching this president for enlisting a foreign power to get him elected, after he refused to hand over any of the documents that Congress had requested and blocked all of his key aides who knew what happened from testifying — we would be saying that a president is henceforth above the law.

We would be saying that we no longer have three coequal branches of government. We would be saying that we no longer have a separation of powers.

We would be saying that our president is now a king.

Brings to mind the Benjamin Franklin’s reply to the question he was asked as he was leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787: “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” “A Republic”, said Franklin, “if you can keep it.”

Looks like they can’t.

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