“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

30 March 2017

On Richard Dawkins and Brexit: confusing science with politics

“One fact of life I have learned over the years is that it is possible to be very clever and stupid at the same time.”

Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP and diarist of the New Labour years, said that in his latest memoir Hinterland, referring to judges who presided over the notorious miscarriages of justice that unravelled in the 1980s and early 1990s, like the Birmingham Six IRA bombing case which he was involved in.

This line has come to mind several times lately reading the outbursts of some of those who are still livid at the EU referendum result.

Now I don’t have a problem with people who feel strongly about remaining in the EU, just as long as they respect those on the other side as legitimate political opponents who have worthwhile arguments and in this case won a democratic battle fair and square. The trouble with the arch-Remainers that I am thinking of – the Labour MP David Lammy, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell and the philosopher A.C. Grayling come to mind – is that they each treat their own opinion as absolute, as a form of law which has been broken by an ignorant population that does not know what is good for it. For them, the EU vote came down to one choice: the right thing or the wrong thing - and they knew absolutely which was which.

Into this fray the respected evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has thrown himself with an impressive enthusiasm, issuing some remarkably abrasive tweets and now writing what is perhaps best described as a frothing rant (otherwise known as an article) for the New Statesman, entitled, ‘We need a new party - the European Party’. In this piece we can see, perhaps as clearly as we will ever see, the troubles that scientists (or quasi-scientists like in the social sciences, including economics) can get into when they fail to respect the limits of their science and start using the authority they have in their fields to pronounce on politics.

Dawkins starts off his article by trying to cover himself from this though, saying,

“I wasn’t qualified to vote in the referendum. Nor were you, unless you have a PhD in economics or are an expert in a relevant field such as history.”

This is a nice bit of double-think, for it says that he isn’t qualified to decide, but also establishes that he is qualified to say who is, which means he can take for himself the authority of those who have the authority. You just pick up on the arguments of whatever authority you choose in those fields that you decide are relevant and you have the authority too: job done.

Now he has gathered up a nice slug of authority for himself, he can properly let rip in the meat of the article:

“I voted Remain, too, because, though ­ignorant of the details, I could at least spot that the Leave arguments were visceral, emotional and often downright xenophobic. And I could see that the Remain arguments were predominantly rational and ­evidence-based. They were derided as “Project Fear”, but fear can be rational. The fear of a man stalked by a hungry polar bear is entirely different from the fear of a man who thinks that he has seen a ghost. The trick is to distinguish justified fear from irrational fear. Those who scorned Project Fear made not the slightest attempt to do so.”

It is difficult to counter arguments characterised by a succession of assertions like this, not because they are good arguments, but because you don’t know where to start. But we can see at the core of his arguments this word ‘rational’ – that his arguments and those of people he trusts are rational, while those of others aren’t; some instances of fear are rational, others aren’t.

For him, the EU referendum question was a technical matter to be decided by the relevant experts (the qualification criteria for which he does not explain, but reserves for himself). As he puts it, “You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land on.”

As I have found in reading and listening to other arch-Remainers, Dawkins does not address the actual arguments of his opponents. He does not quote them or take them on based on their core arguments. Rather he makes his appeal by assertion and insult – thereby departing from the scientific method of analysis which he invokes to justify his authority. He rants about the distrust of experts, but does not address how his supposedly infallible economic experts failed miserably with their predictions for the economic consequences of a Brexit vote.

But worse is the way that he brushes over the core arguments of the Leave side, which I supported. For him, the arguments made about democracy, sovereignty and accountability have no relevance. They do not fit into his schema so must be illegitimate for being irrational (as well as being apparently ‘visceral, emotional and xenophobic’ in character). Dawkins confuses science and politics, trying to reduce the latter to the former, relegating politics to a technical discipline in which we have a surface democracy but the real power is wielded by political and economic experts.

To the elitist accusation, he says,

“Am I being elitist? Of course. What’s wrong with that? We want elite surgeons who know their anatomy, elite pilots who know how to fly, elite engineers to build safe bridges, elite athletes to win at the Olympics for Team GB, elite architects to design beautiful buildings, elite teachers and professors to educate the next generation and help them join the elite.”

By this viewpoint, the ultimate ends of politics and of mankind should be put out of our reach as citizens.

Personally, I think it’s marvellous that a majority of us stuck two fingers up at this sort of view in the referendum. For democracy to be meaningful, as democratic society, what we vote about must also be meaningful. We must be able to make change happen, as a political community, with poorer and less educated people having the same basic power as me or you or Richard Dawkins or his elite clerisy.

Change must be possible, otherwise we are simply living in what the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev called ‘managed democracy’, not so far off from the kind that Vladimir Putin runs in Russia as we might like to think.

So, as I have said here before about my own choice, Je ne regrette rien.

23 January 2017

Brexit and the arts: reflections on a BBC Radio 3 discussion

Listening to BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters programme the other day, I was struck by a discussion they had about Brexit and the arts – and thought it was worth breaking off from my book-writing to reflect on it a little.

The discussion illustrated once more the remarkable hold that ideas and myths associated with ‘the European project’ have taken over the great and the good in Britain. That includes the BBC of course.

As we have come to expect from the Beeb since it was allowed to drop its impressive impartiality during the referendum campaign, the discussion here was remarkably one-sided. All three guests, Cathy Graham of the British Council, composer Gerard McBurney and Emmanuel Hondre of the Philharmonie de Paris, were resolutely anti-Brexit. The only questioning of their consensus came from a short segment of an enjoyable rant from the artist Grayson Perry, railing against the complacency of the arts Establishment for peddling its comfortable ideas and preaching to the converted. 

However, the substance of what Brexit means was for the most part explored only on a plane of abstractions, and Perry's message was assimilated into how ‘we’ need to respond to what a horrible and nasty thing ‘they’ have done to us. Listeners heard from McBurney a fear of how ‘parochialism’ might take over, a wailing about how Leave voters “feel resentful at a world in which ideas flow from one culture to another”, with the strange implication that ideas and people might somehow no longer circulate between these Isles and the rest of the world after Britain leaves the EU.

It was all rather strange. Taking these ideas seriously, you might think that music and ideas and people hadn’t circulated between Britain and the rest of the world before we joined the EU in 1973; as if the arts in Britain were a wasteland before that point and have been some sort of beneficient paradise ever since. It also had me wondering how all these Russian violinists and Chinese viola players and American trumpeters managed to get jobs with British orchestras given that their countries are not in the EU.

But somehow such details didn’t seem to be the point, with the assertions just left hanging, remaining unexplained and unexplored and largely unquestioned by presenter Tom Service (who is generally excellent on this programme and others). It seems that all this was an established consensus (among an Establishment, you might say) – and with established consensus, assumptions are shared and become part of a generally accepted reality, however questionable they are.

Quite clearly, this is what has happened in the arts world. That world, like those of the business and economic elite, mainstream politicians and our major institutions (not least educational), is genuinely baffled by and afraid of the world outside itself. It sees the other half that voted a different way to it as genuinely ‘other’. Existentially, there appear to be two sides which are separate from each other: a new form of a very old class divide.

But that divide is not strictly middle class to working class – and from this Radio 3 discussion I think we could hear some intimations of the lines on which at least one side draws it. The invoking of ‘parochialism’ and ‘provincialism’ by McBurney in particular might be absurd if taken seriously, not least in such a multi-cultural country as Britain, but it points to a slightly different and more substantial political position. That is a political stance of not wanting to be tied down in any way to the land, territory and people of Britain, of not making one’s identity connections on those lines, of subsuming oneself into the much bigger, European entity. This means to a greater or lesser extent sacrificing affiliation to the smaller unit and forsaking the attachment to one’s geographical origins. It is an urge to sameness on a higher, more abstract level, being part of Europe not as a separable part but as indistinguishable from the whole, casting off those embarrassing connections of national identity, which are derided as ‘parochial’, 'provincial' and ‘nativist’.

This mirrors the political integration of Europe of course: of the drive to sameness, of European citizenship rights trumping those of nation states, of the disintegration of nation states and nationalities within Europe.

Even by getting quite involved in the whole EU referendum thing I still gasp sometimes at the extraordinary hold this story and the myths associated with it have come to have. Indeed I am constantly surprised by how many people – especially those in elite positions in our society – do not just approve of these ideas but are wedded to them as a core part of their own personal identity, one which is utterly different to that of those they oversee from their exalted positions.

It is visceral and emotional and in some ways incoherent (which is the nature of attachment), but it is also indelibly attached to what it is not: the most important aspect of who I am is that I am not like them. As an identity relation, this doesn’t have to manifest itself as being better than them in an absolute sense, but it often does – and certainly does here. There is a potential challenge here for the arts as for politics and the other ‘top’ professions: to show they have something to offer to people they seem to have lost all existential contact with - and often hold in contempt as we have seen from the referendum and its aftermath. This is fundamentally problematic though, for a great many of them are deeply protective of and committed to their separateness and higher status, and of looking down on people.

Thinking of classical music as I do (which is why I was listening to the programme) I couldn’t help associating all this with the modernist music movement. Modernism – especially in its atonal form - often seeks to intellectualise music, to take it beyond tunefulness to a place where it can be judged as other intellectual works are: through the use of concepts, thoughts, brain-power – thereby putting it beyond the reach of those who like music more for its musical qualities and placing its adherents on a pedestal with intellectual, ideological backing to justify it.

To me, one piece of contemporary musical modernism generally sounds pretty much the same as another (generally, awful), whoever produced it and wherever whoever produced it came from. It seems to be part of the same general movement as the wish to disappear into Europe: a process of assimilating and integrating, of losing the connection between ourselves as distinctive beings and the place where we come from: the push of globalisation in other words.

To my mind at least, great works of art are more likely to come from rebelling against this drive than going along with it. In that light, Brexit might itself appear like an artistic statement: one of rebellion and reaction against the people who direct our culture, who tell us what to do and what we should like; an assertion of individuality and distinctiveness. Maybe our Establishments are right to feel threatened by it?

10 November 2016

Liberalism isn't the problem, progressivism is

Liberals and liberalism are being given a hard time in the wake of Donald Trump's victory and Britain's Leave vote in the EU referendum. But is it really liberalism and the liberal outlook which is at stake here and which really stands accused? I am not so sure.

Largely, this is about the way words, terms and labels mean different things to different people and get mixed up in interpretation. On the most basic level, the term 'liberal' means something very different in common American parlance from what it does in the classical British or European sense - complicated by how the American version has worked its way into our consciousness and practice on this side of the pond.

In America, being 'liberal' is largely interchangeable with being 'progressive', which is an historical term that aligns us with a version of historical progress, so that our politics are part of a general progression of life from not-so-good to a lot better. That seems fine and good, except that it claims knowledge of this progression. There is a form of absolute knowledge at work here, since it assumes we know where we've come from, where we are, and where we're going - and that where we're going is a good thing. Anyone who gets in the way of this progression is therefore ignorant, irrational and going against history and all that is right in the world. Their wrongness is not a simple judgement call, but an absolute judgement, based on knowledge - of the 'facts', 'the evidence' or 'expert opinion' you might say.

This way of thinking and being is antagonistic to classical liberal conceptions of freedom and tolerance and scepticism. After all, why should we allow people to speak and act in ways that obstruct the rational and righteous progression of history? If we know, fundamentally, surely they must be stopped and prevented? Tolerance stops here, for to tolerate wrongness like this would mean tolerating the intolerable. Freedom stops here, since having wrong opinions is obstructing the freedom of people to live in that better world we know is coming.

This way of thinking is endemic in our public life and has been for some time. One of Stalin's monikers was 'Leader of Progressive Mankind', but seemingly everyone in the mainstream of politics is progressive nowadays. The way our elites talk about free markets, economic growth and globalisation is steeped in the language of progress - though there is never any utopia over the horizon as there was in the original Marxist version. It's just the habit we are in and that almost all our institutions are integrated into.

In musing upon such things, the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott said back in the day that, "What may now be meant by the word 'liberal' is anyone's guess."

He saw so-called liberals enforcing a world - their world - upon the rest of the world through forms of rationalism that claimed to know and know best. Nothing much has changed in that respect.

Liberalism certainly has its problems and issues, not least how it can be led astray like this. But I tend to prefer the version expressed by the philosopher Bertrand Russell here:

“The essence of the Liberal outlook lies not in what opinions are held, but in how they are held: instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively, and with a consciousness that new evidence may at any moment lead to their abandonment.”

Needless to say, Russell's conception is a world away from the liberalism that people are defending and attacking in the wake of Brexit and Trump's victory. Being liberal is not about holding back from dogmatism now, it is about being dogmatic - and attacking those who do not share the same dogmatism. It is not about being cautious with knowledge, it is about claiming absolute knowledge of the state we've come from, the state we're in and the state that will come. In this sense, liberalism has become its opposite.

Certainly, liberalism in its classical sense is much too limited to provide us with absolute guidance about what we should do in our personal lives or in political life - and neither should we expect it to. But it should at least guide us towards avoiding absolutism, towards respecting the views of others who disagree with us, towards tolerance and understanding the limits of our own understanding - towards humility.

That is why I still count myself as a liberal and as someone of the liberal-left. I am liberal as well as of the left. This may be a very different liberal-left to the form that has been dominant in our public life and that is now getting a kicking, but I won't be giving up this version of liberalism any time soon.

Phantasy Quintet by Ralph Vaughan Williams

2 November 2016

On post-referendum regret

I was a Leave voter, and I won. However, since that heady early morning of 24rd June when David Dimbleby announced that Britain was leaving the European Union, reality has dawned.

The £ has fallen sharply; bankers and business groups have despaired and threatened to leave the country; there has been a massive jump in ‘hate crime’; the world and especially our former European partners are horrified at us for having chosen isolation and xenophobia over openness and tolerance. Now we are stuck here with all this uncertainty, not knowing what that ugly word ‘Brexit’ means, while our government is clearly clueless and doesn’t know what it’s doing.

It’s a new dawn, a new day – and the new reality we’re living in certainly isn’t comfortable or pleasant.

That’s the story anyway.

Some of it is true. The new reality does come with discomforts and difficulties, and the fractious nature of our politics on the subject of Brexit is pretty unpleasant. But the idea constantly pressed by ardent Remainers in the newspapers and TV and radio studios, that I didn’t know what I was voting for, is entirely bogus. I voted for change, knowing full well that with change comes uncertainty. That’s the whole point of it. Deciding to do things differently comes with difficulties; change requires people to put some work in – to make it work.

This is what happens sometimes in a democracy. The voters – the people – decide that they want to go on a new course. It happened in 1945 when the people of Britain decided the old elites who had run the war had to go, despite Churchill’s role in winning it; it happened in 1997 when we chose to put an end to 18 years of Conservative government and give the fresh-faced and optimistic Tony Blair a go.

The election of these Labour governments brought uncertainty. ‘The markets’ were nervous, even in 1997 after a prolonged charm offensive towards the City and business community by Blair and New Labour. But now Labour is standing against political change that brings uncertainty like this. Even with the far left now running the party under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour spokespeople have been enthusiastically repeating and recycling British Bankers’ Association propaganda demanding that the big banks get their way so that Brexit barely happens, if at all.

What we have at the moment is a mainstream left (or ‘liberal-left’) that is almost wholly lined up behind the status quo in terms of the fundamentals of how our society operates – despite Corbyn, and however much it talks about change. I think this is partly a function of Labour having been in power for so long (from 1997 to 2010), that it has developed a whiff of entitlement around it that remains even after losing two successive elections. Labour MPs are not an impressive bunch for the most part, but they talk as if them being in power is almost a right, that they deserve it whether or not the people think they deserve it. There is a lack of respect for the voter here which I think comes out again and again in the way that Labour MPs and their allies talked about the referendum vote before it happened and continue to do so now. Alan Johnson is a lovely chap, but when he said as chair of the Labour In campaign that “we are the reasonable people” and “I think in the leave side they are the extremists on this,” he was reflecting a more general view that ‘staying in Europe’ was right in an absolute sense rather than just a political decision reached by weighing up the pros and cons.

In a similar vein, it seems to me no coincidence that Labour people are now lining up to echo the lines of bankers and big business groups, since their aims and approach are broadly the same in seeking to defend the status quo but also in assuming that they are right in an absolute sense and have a right to dictate what happens, even if that means going against the democratic will.

This isn’t wholly about Labour though. Nick Clegg and Tim Farron for the Liberal Democrats and some Tories have been repeating the same lines. There is a broader elite, Establishment entitlement thing going on here, encompassing most of public administration, the media and civil society – where it is no exaggeration to say that the decision to Leave is not seen in a positive light for the most part, despite (and indeed perhaps partly because of) the majority that chose it. They claim they have ‘facts’, ‘evidence’ and ‘expertise’ on their side, and this is true in the sense that elites and Establishments control the dissemination of facts and evidence; they are the experts, they have the existing authority. If you control dissemination of information (for example through government, the media and academia), you can choose which facts to bring to light and which to suppress. You can generate data to serve your own ends (as with the largely fabricated ‘hate crime’ epidemic); you can make predictions for the future and claim the authority of fact for them (which is a contradiction in terms, for facts by definition have happened already).

Ardent Remainers are using all the considerable Establishment power at their disposal to attack the EU referendum result from every conceivable angle, trying to undermine the morale and confidence of people in leaving the EU with view to preventing it from happening or minimising change. Of course, an awful lot of this is down to support for continuing and indefinite mass immigration, which has been major point of crossover between big business interests and the political left since the early years of New Labour.

What free movement and high immigration in general does is maintain a kind of inverse form of job exporting or outsourcing. Whereas in the conventional form, exporting jobs means moving production facilities to other countries where productivity can be higher, mass immigration has opened up the prospect for domestic-focused businesses to do the same sort of thing, but by importing people, and thereby allowing jobs to go to the people of elsewhere but not elsewhere itself.

Along these lines it has become quite clear from the continuing EU referendum debate that one of the biggest attractions for employers in the British economy is that they don’t have to employ British people. We should understand and respect this for the most part from a purely business-related point of view or even just a basic choice point of view. They are making decisions which they think are best for their businesses. But what good does it do to Britons who are passed over and rejected and who find their terms and conditions attacked while also being priced out of housing? In a democracy, as a political left, aren’t these the people (citizens) that we should be looking out for first and foremost? Can we not see a loss of morale in these people? Yet the left in its now-customary technocratic stance repeatedly pulls away from such things to the comforts of the abstract ‘economy’ and what levers can be pulled to make ‘it’ function better, preferring the ‘it’ to the ‘us’.

On 23rd June, I voted for ‘us’ to start having more control over ‘it’, and also over ‘them’ - the people that were managing ‘it’ and continue to do so. I voted against the people who enjoy deriding me and my fellow Leave voters as ignorant, bigoted idiots who shouldn’t be allowed a vote and will hopefully die off so we can get back into the EU. The more they shout and insult and deride, the more my resolution builds. Je ne regrette rien.

On the EU referendum, this article explains my decision to vote Leave while this is a speech made at the London School of Economics proposing the motion ‘This House Believes We Should Leave the European Union’.

10 September 2016

Why Islamists and feminists avoid confronting each other

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of our system of diversity is the way feminists and Islamists avoid directly confronting each other. Their ideologies are utterly opposed to each other, but within the system they are allies, so maintain distance and attack others.

We can see this in how feminists resolutely avoid picking up on specifically Islamic-related instances of actual misogyny and discrimination in action. They nearly always stick to generalities and abstractions about the world or society as a whole, as Fawcett Society chief executive Sam Smethers does in telling Owen Jones that, “We have a very misogynistic culture in the UK.” In this version of reality, there is a single culture – or at least all the cultures we have come from the same root - and it is ‘very misogynistic’.

This is the ‘patriarchy’ theory that is remarkably popular in the upper echelons of the liberal-left, just as it is among young feminists coming out of their Gender Studies courses at university.  You might wonder if Britain is “very misogynistic” what that makes Saudi Arabia for instance, but according to the generalities of feminist theory, they are just two different examples of the same thing – male oppression and female victimhood – but in different forms. The specifics of different cultures come down to the same root.

As Owen Jones puts it in his article:

“Men are conditioned from an early age to feel a sense of superiority over women, and to objectify women. Violence against women is the most extreme conclusion of a belief – nurtured over thousands of years – that women are subservient and exist to satisfy men. Rape, assault and murder exist on a continuum that begins with degrading jokes and comments; cat-calling in the street; images that objectify women; the shouting down of women for daring to have an opinion, often involving insults about their physical appearance on social media.”

This is universalist ideology – or ‘totalising social theory’ as we might call it – talking about the whole of society as something that we understand in its fundamentals – meaning we don’t have to pay much attention to actual reality as it shows itself. Jones’ use of the passive voice “men are conditioned” is instructive, for it abstracts away from any actual action of conditioning to the realm of universals where it just happens, and we all fall in to line doing it. We are all determined by it and have to join Jones and his fellow travellers and start propagating the same ideology in order to overcome it (thankfully of course, we don’t have to do that in reality, which is a relief).

What our actual culture is and our actual beliefs are irrelevant here, for they are conditioned into us – so Islamic codes on women’s dress and how they must live their lives aren’t fundamentally different in character from Western norms about womanhood. But you will rarely find feminists even confronting such questions – or at least when they do it is nearly always in order to withdraw back into the comfort zone of much broader generalities and ideological truisms. One of these is revealed by Jones in his article about male violence. He does bring in Muslims as an interested party, but only as victims – of white men. He says: “Misogynistic hate also intersects with other forms of bigotry: take the targeting of Muslim women on the streets by white men.” Of course, Muslim women are never targeted on the street by white women, and white women are never targeted on the street by Muslim men...that does not fit the narrative so it is not mentioned, while the accepted oppressor groups are highlighted.

This is the feminist standpoint, which is now virtually interchangeable with liberal-left identity and ideology. Both concentrate on what I’m calling ‘the administration of diversity’, which means keeping strictly to favoured/unfavoured identity group categories mapped on to victim/oppressor distinctions. Ideologues tend to call it ‘intersectionality’, as in the intersectionality of victimhood joining up all the different groups who are universally victims.

Islamists avoiding feminists - more about politics

For Islamists the tendency to avoid confronting feminists directly is rather different in character to that of feminists. It is much less ideological and more about practical politics (after all, their ideology concerns Islam and Islamic power and victimhood rather than the administration of diversity as a whole).

From the standpoint taken by Owen Jones above, making sure the correct victim groups and oppressor groups keep their places is a vital function – and it is a function that you can see him and others repeating again and again in what they say and do, almost as if by clockwork. It is a presiding perspective. It gives protection to the favoured groups, including by protecting them against criticism, while directing criticism either to broad generalities about society or to the unfavoured identity groups – of which ‘white men’ is a favourite given that it incorporates at least two unfavoured identity markers – of white skin colour and male sex (and also implies a third, of non-Muslim). 

We can see this protective stance in how liberal-left institutions like the Labour Party and the Guardian choose what to highlight and what they do not, but it also feeds out into general society through taboos of what we should all talk about and avert our eyes from. For us here, the point about Islamists* is that they benefit from this protection as the representatives of Muslims, including through representative organisations like the Muslim Council of Britain, Muslim Association of Britain and Islamic Human Rights Commission. The administration of diversity treats Muslims as a victim group (indeed with double victim status due to Muslims generally being non-white). So whenever these organisations and others speaking on behalf of Muslims claim victimhood – by crying ‘Islamophobia’ for example – they can expect the liberal-left to respond and support them, as with their opposition to the Government’s anti-extremism strategy ‘Prevent’.

These organisations and others routinely segregate women from men at events and invite speakers who preach about curtailing women’s rights in public life and against homosexuality. But they rarely if ever directly confront feminists who take the opposite standpoint. The reason is structural – for the protection and support they receive from administrators of diversity is at the very least allied to feminists if not actively feminist in character itself (as with Owen Jones). Any challenge to feminism directly would bring into question their place in the system and right to support and protection.

So it’s in the interests of Islamists to maintain that protection and access to wider public life and not remove themselves from the system which provides it. This means not offending those who preside over it or challenging the right of other favoured groups to favouritism. In consequence, rather than attacking and ridiculing feminists publicly, they stick to attacking broad generalities in their public pronouncements, like British society, the West, white racism and British foreign policy – keeping to the victimhood narrative. By doing this they do not challenge those who provide support to them, the system remains robustly intact, and politics can continue as it did before.

* I use ‘Islamist’ in the sense of a political standpoint that seeks to maximise the social and political power of Islam and Muslims. It is not the same as being a Muslim extremist or terrorist, but does include them just as the term ‘Irish republican’ includes peaceful nationalists and those who use violence to achieve their political ends. 

23 July 2016

My politics, in music (a Blue ex-Labour playlist)

Music is an important part of my life and an important part of my politics too. Detaching from the political world is a political act after all.

But good music also has magical qualities which can inspire and lead us into seeing connections and aspects of life that we may have been only dimly aware of before. In this way it feeds back into our political world.

My own politics is an amalgam of all the different tendencies out there. I’m of the left for believing in our responsibilities to each other - especially those who find themselves on the wrong end of 'market forces'. I’m conservative for believing that we shouldn’t try to fix what ain’t broke, for respecting people as they are and life as it is. I’m liberal in believing that we should generally avoid interfering with what people are up to unless they are harming others. I’m Green for believing that we need to protect and conserve our environment and value the natural world. I’m UKIP for believing that Britain needs to control immigration and put limits on population growth and cultural change.

Obviously, there's no political party anywhere near satisfying these different tendencies. I left the Labour Party recently, but the Blue Labour strand of thinking has been the closest I have got to any sort of affiliation – and that remains. I have written previously about how Blue Labour would do well to reach out beyond the Labour Party to develop a new politics, emphasising the role of music. In line with these thoughts I've put together a ‘Blue ex-Labour playlist’. It's not a greatest hits list nor meant to be definitive in any way. It's a collection of music which I have associated with the idea of Blue Labour. You can enter the cycle of these tracks below (click on the Youtube icon to create a new window); underneath I have linked to the individual tracks with a few words explaining each of them.

Taking a breath and a break from politics, this lovely little piece is based on a couple of folk songs which Vaughan Williams worked into a larger piece for the massed voices of the National Federation of Women's Institutes, then converted into an orchestral work by his friend Roy Douglas.

A beautiful song written by Danny Flowers, wonderfully sung by Emmylou, it includes my favourite left-wing lyric.

An alternative to mainstream identity politics expressed through the medium of funk music. The video isn’t the greatest, but the song is.

A beautiful Welsh song wonderfully sung by a male voice choir – the sort of tradition that has been largely lost in England and is in danger in Wales too.

Based on John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ and first performed at the height of the Second World War in 1943, this symphony portrays a man on a pilgrimage to the heavenly city. The third movement, the Romanza (from 17 mins), is surely one of the most beautiful movements in all music, and also one of the most quintessentially English, as Vaughan Williams intended. This live performance by the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra is as good a version as you will see and hear.

‘Calling My Children Home’ by Emmylou Harris (live version, with her ‘Spyboy’ band)

A lonesome mother pleading for her children to come back home someday - ever more relevant in these days of mass migration and transitoriness, with families spread all around the globe.

“In high seas or low seas, I’m gonna be your friend, I’m gonna be your friend. In high tide or a low tide, I’ll be by your side, I’ll be by your side.” In our world of constant movement and transitory life, this sort of basic commitment of one person to another is becoming more and more difficult, and is something I think we should look to enable and protect.

I would like to link to a British song or two with the sort of beauty combined with deep honesty about everyday life that this song expresses, but I’m afraid I don’t know any. The American country and blues traditions seem to be a lot stronger along those lines than what we have in Britain.

Vaughan Williams is commonly known as a ‘pastoral’ composer, but the countryside of this symphony is the countryside of Northern France during the First World War, where he served as a stretcher bearer then artillery officer. During the final movement here, the reserved and restrained nature of the music breaks down into an elegy for the lost. For VW, these included many friends, not least George Butterworth, a fellow composer and companion in folk song collecting.

The full symphony is a slow burner, but wonderful.

For more on Vaughan Williams, feel free to check out my previous blogposts, ‘A Symphony for the Labour Party’ based on his Symphony No. 6, and ‘Vaughan Williams: British Music, English Music’.

20 June 2016

I have left the Labour Party - a few words

I left the Labour Party this morning. I won’t go on for ages about why because I don’t want this blog to be about me, but I will say a few words.

Firstly, people who have read some of my witterings on here will be aware that I’ve always been critical of the Labour Party, quite stridently in some cases. I think Labour has deep institutional and cultural problems, albeit I think these are really issues of the liberal-left ‘tribe’ and the systems of identity group favouritism it has spread into much of our public life rather than just about Labour. Labour simply provides a focus and a centre for them.
My 2015 leadership election ballot paper

Nevertheless, in looking at all this as I’ve done here, and on LabourList while I was allowed to write there, I’ve seen myself as a critical friend – as someone who is basically on the same side and wants us to change and become more responsive to all the people rather than just minister to certain groups and our own – mostly middle-class, liberal - priorities.

But as time has gone on I’ve grasped how embedded these practices are in the way we act, talk and organise ourselves. Identity group favouritism – by race (non-white), nationality (non-English especially but non-British to an extent), gender (female) and sexuality (non-heterosexual) provides the core focus and the core identity of the liberal-left now. Protecting and promoting these groups is what we are most passionate about and what excites us most, hence around 80% of Labour members describing themselves as ‘pro-immigration’ while around the same proportion of the population wants immigration reduced.

When you say you think immigration should be reduced or that the systems of favouritism are damaging and unfair, the nicer among these predominantly nice and decent people go silent. To say so is heresy, to breach an article of faith, to slaughter a sacred cow. But some of them – including some otherwise nice and decent people that you might have been chatting happily to a minute ago – get angry and start accusing you of being anti-immigrant, racist, an ally of Nigel Farage and of the far right and fascists.

On social media of course, and Twitter in particular, this is a lot more pronounced. It has been a major feature of the EU referendum campaign – and as someone who came out in favour of Leave, the barrage of abuse but mostly insinuation and innuendo has been quite tough to bear, not least when much of it is coming from fellow Labour members and promoted by senior politicians (although not Jeremy Corbyn, notably). To vote for leaving the EU is to be ignorant, uneducated, racist, intolerant, anti-immigrant, anti-European, choosing the past over the future, supporting the far right and even supporting the murder of Jo Cox MP - so we are told. Seeing so many Labour people leading this chorus has tipped me over the edge, albeit I was already at the edge.

I think the chorus is so strong and loud partly because it unites the different parts of the wider left family. Ideologies of identity group favouritism (which, it is worth saying, have decent origins and good intentions attached) unite the left with most of the centre-left, including the Blairite tendency. Without the politics of identity and support for mass immigration, these different factions would have little in common. So they delight in the chance to howl together.

Not just institutionally but culturally, the Labour Party is bound together with the politics of identity. It is what we do and therefore who we are. I say ‘we’, but for me of course it should now be a ‘they’. Old habits and old tribal loyalties die hard, even if you disagree with the party line as much as I do...

Anyway, I don’t see any of this changing. In fact I think it’s almost impossible for it to change because identity politics is such an integral part of Labour’s institutional fabric now. Once you integrate yourself into ideological and institutional systems, you are stuck there. For Labour to wrench itself out of this situation would take a mighty big and painful effort which would outrage and offend its core activist base no end. I see no sign that anyone with any power in the party has any appetite for even thinking about doing that, let alone trying – and I don’t blame them. So I’m out.

I will leave you with a terrific little clip from The Wire, of a security guard confronting a teenage drug kingpin who has just shoplifted a few lollipops from the store he is working in. The gang leader says to him: “You want it to be one way. You want it to be one way. You want it to be one way ... But it’s the other way.”