Saturday 2 January, 2020

The lake in Winter

Quote of the Day

”I distrust camels and anyone else who can go a week without a drink.”

  • Joe Lewis, American comedian, 1971

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Corelli Christmas Concerto 2nd movement


On Brexit, grief and moving on

One of my strongest memories of the day after the Brexit vote in 2016 was the number of people who said to me that it felt to them like a bereavement. (Remember that I live and work in a bubble which voted heavily for Remain, and many of my friends and colleagues are, like me, Europhiles.) The word they chose for how they were feeling was interesting and, I think, significant, so over the succeeding four years I often found myself returning to it.

An obvious source to consult was Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s book, On Death & Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy & Their Own Families in which she set out her famous ‘five stages of grief’ model, which postulates that those experiencing grief go through a series of five emotions: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

In the four years since the Brexit vote, I’ve seen my fellow-Remainers going through some or all of these stages. But since 11pm last Thursday evening, it seems to me that the only one that now makes sense if the fifth: acceptance.

In that context, a reader pointed me to an interesting Guardian column by the paper’s Economics editor, Larry Elliott, under the headline “The left must stop mourning Brexit – and start seeing its huge potential .”

The lefties who voted for Brexit see it differently. For them (us, actually, because I am one of them), the vote to leave was historically progressive. It marked the rejection of a status quo that was only delivering for the better off by those who demanded their voice was heard. Far from being a reactionary spasm, Brexit was democracy in action.

Now the UK has a choice. It can continue to mourn or it can take advantage of the opportunities that Brexit has provided. For a number of reasons, it makes sense to adopt the latter course.

For a start, it is clear that the UK has deep, structural economic problems despite – and in some cases because of – almost half a century of EU membership. Since 1973, the manufacturing base has shrivelled, the trade balance has been in permanent deficit, and the north-south divide has widened. Free movement of labour has helped entrench Britain’s reputation as a low-investment, low-productivity economy. Brexit means that those farmers who want their fruit harvested will now have to do things that the left ought to want: pay higher wages or invest in new machinery.

I can see where he’s coming from. During the Referendum campaign two things puzzled me. One was the feebleness of the Remain campaign — it was as if nobody was interested in making a passionate argument for continuing to participate in the greatest geopolitical experiment in European history. As a result, the Remain campaign was essentially negative — as the Europhobes dismissively labelled it — ‘Project Fear’.

The other puzzle was the failure to make a reasonable case against the European experiment. The truth about the EU is that it has always been an elitist, technocratic experiment. It would never have happened as a democratic project — it had to be driven by political elites from the moment the European Coal and Steel Community was established in the early 1950s as a (laudable) attempt to ensure that the nations of Europe could never go to war against one another again. But as it developed into the EEC — and, later, the EU — the project always had a yawning democratic deficit (as Jurgen Habermas lamented in his book The Lure of Technocracy) — a deficit that was only partially filled by the creation of the European Parliament.

In that sense, there never was much in the way of democratic legitimacy for the EU project. And in a number of crises, notably the 2008 banking catastrophe, that lack of legitimacy was painfully obvious. Similarly the creation of the Eurozone was an elite project — it had to be — because its internal contradictions would never have withstood proper democratic scrutiny. (Indeed, one of the really good things Gordon Brown did was to keep the UK out of the Euro, despite Tony Blair’s anxiety to join it.) And then there was the crazily-accelerated post-1989 drive to incorporate the Eastern European states liberated by the implosion of the Soviet empire. And, finally, there’s the fact that all these initiatives and policies were driven or inspired by a Commission staffed by a technocratic elite that had been drinking the neoliberal Kool Aid from the time they’d been in kindergarten.

So in 2016 there were plenty of reasons to debate the wisdom of continuing to belong to such a flawed institution. But mostly those arguments were never made — or if they were they were drowned out by the crude xenophobia of the two Leave campaigns. Worse still, the corollary was never explored — the idea that a Britain governed by a radically reformist regime could forge an interesting future for itself outside of the EU.

But we are where we are: out. So it makes sense to think about the future as one that could have real possibilities for radical improvement — if Britain had a radical reforming government that was competent. It doesn’t have that at the moment, so the question is: where could such an administration come from?

The Johnson administration is incapable — for social, ideological and capacity reasons — of measuring up to the task. All that vapouring about “levelling up” is just sloganeering. They don’t have a clue about even where to start. (Dominic Cummings’s fantasies about the revolutionary possibilities of a British DARPA were the ravings of an elitist technocrat on steroids.) There’s no strategy, or indeed no real understanding of what would need to be done to transform a ‘liberated’ UK into a progressive, successful, fairer, more dynamic society.

So the odds are that the slogans will fizzle out and the decay set out by ‘Project Fear’ will come to pass. The United Kingdom will fracture, with Scotland eventually going its own way; Ireland slowly re-uniting, de facto if not de jure; and a Westminster parliament with just one pocket borough left — England. Or, as Philip Stephens put it in the FT the other day, “Forget the guff about embarking on a new Elizabethan age. ‘Global Britain’ is at present heading towards the rocks of constitutional break-up.”

So what could be done to move on creatively from Brexit? The only answer I can see is a radically revitalised Labour Party that comes to power four years from now. The question then becomes: could Keir Starmer build such a party? And where would its ideas come from?

Long Read of the day

 Where loneliness can lead

Hannah Arendt enjoyed her solitude, but she believed that loneliness could make people susceptible to totalitarianism.

Nice essay by by Samantha Rose Hill

The companies that have done best in the pandemic year

The FT has a list of the companies that did best last year. I was interested in the nationalities of the winners.

Here are the top 6:

  • USA: 33 companies

  • China: 32

  • S. Korea: 6

  • Japan: 4

  • Denmark: 3

  • Germany: 3

And, just for completeness:

  • UK: 1

Could this be the same “Global Britain” about which we have been hearing so much lately?

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