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.

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.

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.

A pandemic might do it

Interesting interview of Michael Lewis by Tim Adams in today’s Observer, talking about Lewis’s marvellous book, The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy about how the Trump Administration is dismantling or enfeebling vital bits of the administrative state. I particularly liked this segment:

Adams: Part of your story examines the consequences of the ideological cull of climate scientists from government. You have lived in close proximity to wildfires in California, there have been unprecedented hurricanes. Do you think there will come a point when people demand leaders who understand the importance of scientific knowledge?

Lewis: You would think so. It hasn’t happened yet. For people to suddenly start to value what good government does, I think there will have to be something that threatens a lot of people at once. The problem with a wildfire in California, or a hurricane in Florida, is that for most people it is happening to someone else. I think a pandemic might do it, something that could affect millions of people indiscriminately and from which you could not insulate yourself even if you were rich. I think that might do it.

Adams: That is quite an apocalyptic thought. You have always seemed by nature an optimist, are you feeling more nihilistic about what you call the drift of things?

Lewis: I’m a little more wary than I have been. What we are seeing is an attack on the idea of progress and the idea of science. In the Trump administration there seems to be a total lack of respect for expertise. It sounds like you have something of the same with Boris Johnson. For this kind of attack to work you need to have characters who don’t care at all about consequences.

Impunity vs. democracy

I’m at Ireland’s Edge, consistently the most interesting event I go to every year. It’s held in Dingle, which is on the westernmost edge of Europe and a place I’ve loved ever since I was a student. And what conference Centre anywhere has a backdrop like the one shown in the pic?

Yesterday, one of the sessions was on “A New Era of Investigative Journalism: Political Polarisation and Surveillance Capitalism”. It was moderated by Muireann Kelliher, co-inventor of Ireland’s Edge, and had a terrific panel: my Observer colleague Carole Cadwalladr, Peter Geoghegan of openDemocracy and Donie O’Sullivan of CNN. There was a spirited discussion of the way in which journalistic exposés of the blatant flouting of electoral and other laws in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential election by political parties, foreign and domestic actors and social media companies have not resulted in any meaningful penalties for the wrongdoers. The audience came away having been stirred by the manifest injustices and institutional dysfunctionality described by the journalists, but also (I think) deeply pessimistic that anything will be done about the problematique (to use the French term for a real mess) portrayed in the discussion.

On reflection, it occurs to me that the fundamental problem underpinning all this is impunity — i.e. the discovery that there are agents in liberal democracies which are able to behave badly without having to worry about the consequences. We saw this with the banks in the 2008 crisis, and we’re seeing it now with political activists, foreign actors and tech companies. And the reason this is so poisonous is that impunity goes to the heart of the matter. Democracy depends on the rule of law (not, as the Chinese regime maintains, rule by law). Its fundamental requirement is that no one or no institution is above the law, and what we’re discovering now is that that no longer holds in many democracies — and most shockingly in two supposedly mature democracies: the UK and the US.

How did we get here? One of the reasons is that since the 1970s governments and ruling elites have drunk the neoliberal Kool Aid which privileges markets — and the corporations that dominate them. One of the reasons the 2008 banking crisis happened is that in preceding decades the regulations under which banks operated were loosened (using the hoary old “red tape” trope) to create a legal environment in which they were able to screw the world economy with impunity. And our failure to anticipate the growth of tech power led to a failure to create a regulatory environment which would punish monopolistic and irresponsible business models. And now we’re living with the consequences.

Zuckerberg’s politics: Facebook Über Alles

Robust commentary from Siva Vaidhyanathan after the news that Zuckerberg has had two secret dinners with Trump in the White House:

At the very moment when the US House of Representatives reveals overwhelming evidence that Trump used his power as president to support his re-election campaign and bolster his friend Vladimir Putin by withholding support from Ukraine, Zuckerberg continues to treat the Trump White House as just another potential regulator who must be charmed.

Zuckerberg’s politics favor two things: the interests of Facebook and people like him. So it’s no wonder Zuckerberg got close to the two American presidents who have served over his company’s history. Since the world abandoned its mindless worship of Facebook and Silicon Valley in recent years, Zuckerberg has been on a constant if unsuccessful campaign to save face and stem efforts to regulate or fracture his company.

So the problem with Zuckerberg’s politics is not just that they seem to have turned to the right. His politics have not changed at all. The world has. The problem is that by choosing an amoral set of principles and positions he has become deeply immoral.

Oxford, like the past, is another country

In a sense, that’s true — Oxford (like Cambridge) is locked in a bubble of privilege and prosperity. But my Observer colleague Kenan Malik’s experience reinforces that truism. “ I never thought I’d have to produce a passport travelling from London to Oxford,” he writes,

Until last week, that is. I was giving a talk at an Oxford college. “Bring your passport,” I was told. “The government has made employers legally responsible for ensuring that anyone who works for them has the right to do so. We need to see your passport before you can begin teaching.”

It was a shocking and outrageous demand and not one I’ve received from any other college, Oxford or otherwise, yet perfectly understandable within the context of the government’s “hostile environment” policy that has turned universities, hospitals, schools, landlords, employers, even homeless charities, into immigration police and created a climate of suspicion under which everyone is assumed to be guilty until they can prove themselves innocent.

To have to show a passport before giving a talk is a minor irritant. For many people, as the Windrush scandal exposed, and as EU citizens in post-Brexit Britain may find, such checks can be a life-changing experience, denying them hospital treatment or welfare benefits, even leading to detention…

I’m a bit puzzled, though. The demand he quotes suggests that the college that invited him was employing him to give a talk — i.e. for a fee, and in a way that’s understandable given current legislation. But if he was just coming to give an invited talk without pay (but with travel expenses) then the demand is indeed outrageous.

‘Middlemarch’ then and now

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mary Ann Evans, a woman whom we all know better as George Eliot. The New Yorker has a lovely essay by Rebecca Mead about Eliot and in particular about her great novel Middlemarch. Mead has already written a book about her own encounters with that novel — how she saw it differently each time she returned to it at various times in her own life. Middlemarch, she says “is a book that grows with the reader as the reader grows, which is why, two hundred years after Eliot’s birth, a reader can find it always has something to say to her or to him.”

But now she sees it in another, contemporary, light:

Lately, though, I have found myself thinking less about Eliot’s depiction of individual characters and more about the novel’s subtitle, “A Study of Provincial Life.” When Eliot set out to write “Middlemarch,” what she seemed to have in mind was a panoramic examination of a small town and its inhabitants that would capture not just the stories of individuals but would also say something about the way a community works, and about the state of the nation. “I am delighted to hear of a Novel of English Life having taken such warm possession of you,” her publisher, John Blackwood, remarked, when Eliot conveyed her intentions to him. Revisiting “Middlemarch” in the England of 2019—a year in which Britain was due to leave the European Union but instead has been mired in parliamentary paralysis, which the forthcoming election may or may not resolve—Eliot’s ironic observations about the electoral system have a new piquancy, and her representation of the innate conservatism of English provincial life has a topical relevance.

The parallel Mead sees is between the current UK government’s attempts to leave the European Union and the first Reform Bill of 1832. She focuses on one of the lesser characters in Middlemarch, Mr. Brooke, Dorothea Brooke’s uncle and guardian, who is a comfortable member of the landed gentry, and decides to run for office under the banner of Reform.

“There is no part of the country where opinion is narrower than it is here,” Mr. Brooke tells a reproving neighbor, Mrs. Cadwallader, the rector’s wife. Eliot shows, however, that Mr. Brooke’s commitment to reform is, at best, insubstantial. Having read theorists whose ideas underlie the movement, Mr. Brooke is inclined to ideas of liberalism, but, being a comfortable member of the landed gentry, his instincts are less than disruptive. (“Let Brooke reform his rent roll. He’s a cursed old screw, and the buildings all over his estate are going to rack,” one of the burghers of Middlemarch scathingly observes, when Brooke announces his forthcoming platform.) “This Reform will touch everybody by-and-by—a thoroughly popular measure—a sort of A, B, C, you know, that must come first before the rest can follow,” Mr. Brooke argues, to a voter, with “a sense of being a little out at sea, though finding it still enjoyable.” The hallmarks of Mr. Brooke’s character, and of his political campaign, are an inconsistency of mind and an absence of intellectual rigor.

Well, well. Which contemporary political figure does that bring to mind?