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.”

18 June 2016

René Cuperus on 'the populist revolt against cosmopolitanism'

In 2011, the Dutch writer René Cuperus wrote a chapter on 'the populist revolt against cosmopolitanism' for a Policy Network pamphlet ‘Exploring the cultural challenges to social democracy’. I think most readers will agree that the class divide he identifies appears starkly for us now with our EU referendum just a few days away*.

Cuperus says:

“One could argue, and thinkers like Manuel Castells made this point long before, that globalisation implies two contradicting things at the same time:

1. The world grows more together, becomes more ‘familiar’, interdependent, connected, better-known, better reported and visited and travelled, because of revolutionary changes in transportation, media (the world wide web) and the economy. The world is becoming flat.

2. But, ‘at home’, within nation states, globalisation implies that through global migration or by mergers and acquisitions, national societies become more global, more diverse, more ‘strange’, more fragmented and heterogeneous.

So we see a dialectics of more ‘familiarity’ and more ‘strangeness’ at the same time, caused by the same factors. And if we relate this simply defined dialectics of globalisation to the populist revolt analysed above, we can observe that globalisation in the first meaning, that of more familiarity, is predominantly an experience for those people who are internationally connected, who act on a transnational or global level, i.e. the international business, academic, political (including NGOs) and cultural elites.

The impact of globalisation at the nation state level, however, is predominantly directed towards low-skilled and semi-skilled workers, who are the first to experience job and wage competition as a result of labour migration – towards people living in worn out inner city or banlieue-neighbourhoods where non-expat migrants settle first, and so on. To put it in one badly formulated English phrase: “The world is becoming flat, but national democracies and welfare states are becoming less flat.”

The impact of a globalised world in flux has, in other words, a strong pro-elite bias....

...The ideology of global, cosmopolitan citizenship threatens to downgrade those who cannot connect internationally. So, cosmopolitanism, as a matter of fact, produces second-class citizens. This puts democracy at stake in the long run. Society is threatening to split into globalisation winners versus losers of globalisation among countries and within countries, a fault line running right through the European and American middle class society.

In the context of the contemporary globalisation process, cosmopolitism threatens to become the neoliberal and cultural ideology of international business and expatriate interests, instead of the philosophy of cultural universalism, the global open mind, of, say, Erasmus or Stefan Zweig. Instead of paying homage to cultural openness and curiosity, it tends to become the accompanying song of cultural standardisation and commercialisation. Philosophical cosmopolitism threatens to become replaced by the pseudo-cosmopolitism of the world market and the world consumer.”

* (For an example of this, check out John Harris' excellent article for the Guardian on how 'Britain is in the midst of a working class revolt') 

28 April 2016

This House Believes We Should Leave the European Union - LSE debate speech

I was proposing the motion alongside Dr Gerard Lyons (economic adviser to the Mayor of London), with journalist Hugo Dixon and Professor of Political Theory Katrin Flikschuh on the other side arguing against. Each panellist had seven minutes to speak, followed by questions from the other side and then questions from the audience.
Dr Gerard Lyons making his case for leaving the EU.

[This is an amalgam of what I had planned to say in my speech and what I did say – so I missed out some of this in actual delivery while adding some ‘umms’ and ‘errs’ and various other stuff]

The whole debate is now available to listen via a podcast here.

Hello everyone.

I want to start off by emphasising that I’m actually a pro-European. I always have been. I even like an idea of the EU (as an idea, albeit not the idea).

But on the balance I think we should leave the EU. I’m probably about 80-20 or 70-30 in favour, but this is the political choice I’ve made.

So, why? 

There are a lot of aspects to this debate but the one I’m going to focus on as probably the most important is borders and citizenship.

It’s surely fundamental to any nation and nation-state that it has control over who can come to live, work and own land within its borders. But Britain does not have this in the EU. You can see where accountability lies from David Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’. Whether you agree with it or not, he had a proposal which he put to the people in a manifesto to restrict EU migrant in-work benefits. But he went off to Brussels and 27 other leaders said ‘no way’, so he couldn’t do it. This shows how accountability is working for us in our democracy at the moment: Cameron isn’t accountable to the British people but to these other EU leaders.

Britain is actually a pretty small and crowded piece of land but it is open to pretty much unlimited population growth as we stand in the EU. England is where almost all migrants come to settle and is now the most crowded country in Europe.

In a narrow sense the booming housing market this creates is good for people with assets and for the Exchequer in bringing in tax receipts from all the buying and selling. But for people who are not so fortunate, who are not asset owners and do not earn big wages, the chance of living in the place where you grew up and where your family and friends live is passing out of reach.

A lot of people especially on the liberal-left are in denial about this link, but it’s one of the most basic laws of economics – increased demand puts upward pressure on prices. There’s no way around it.

But it also costs us all, for this throws more and more people on to the mercy of the state. The housing benefit bill in particular has been ballooning recently. In 2015 it hit £25 billion. The places it has been increasing most are here in London and towns like Cambridge, Oxford, Bournemouth and Milton Keynes where population growth has been most pronounced.

This lack of control adds to the character of our politics as something that is done to us, that happens to us without any involvement on our part. It contributes to a general malaise in politics and democracy in which many people cannot be bothered to vote, and there is some reason for that, for what the political parties are dealing with are relatively marginal questions.

For me, the environment is very important. But continual mass immigration means continual expansion into our environment, treating our land as a resource to try and meet the needs of the growing population and economy: for more housing, more roads, more schools, more everything.

The Green and Pleasant Land is becoming progressively less green and more cramped. We are progressively losing the luxury of space and submitting ourselves to a world of urban sprawl, noise, congestion and pollution.

Now leaving the EU will not solve these problems. But it will give us and the people we elect the ability to do something about them. This is a crucial point about leaving. It does not commit us to a type of politics. It simply re-asserts the primacy of the relationship between electors and elected which being in the EU dilutes. This will make our politics and our democracy more meaningful. It would bring back essential political questions to us and to people we elect.

But if we’re going to do anything about these issues, I’m afraid we have to leave the EU.

Also, there is the cost. For ceding control of all this and more through the European Court of Justice and the European Commission, we pay £250 million a week, which breaks down to £480 per household per year. This is not a small amount and could prove useful at home.

Probably the best argument of those who want us to stay is that Britain will lose influence in the world. There is some truth in this, in that Britain’s elites and their allies like in America will have less influence on what the rest of Europe thinks and does. We have a 28th share or perhaps to be more generous and realistic an eighth or maybe even a fifth of a share of influence at the European ‘top table’.

So I think it might be right to call this referendum a choice between having control over our own country or our elites having a share of control over others.

Many thanks to the LSE Forum for Philosophy for the invite.

22 February 2016

Time to declare on the EU referendum

I have changed my mind on Europe. Or perhaps it’s better to say that I have now properly thought about it, looking not through a lens of vaguely liking ‘Europe’, foreign countries and people but for what the EU is and does as an institution.

This forthcoming referendum on 23rd June is not on ‘Europe’ as a place, but the EU as an institution, one which has great power over Britain and whose 27 other leaders have the power of veto over even quite modest domestic legislation here.

We have just seen the latter point with David Cameron’s watered-down ‘renegotiation’ or ‘deal’ demonstrating in stark terms how our government no longer has the power to decide the country’s future in the interests of its citizens. It is subservient not just to veto from the leaders of France, Greece, Poland, Slovakia, Portugal and others, but also to the diktats of the unelected, virtually unaccountable European Commission and European Court of Justice.

We may like some of those diktats, for example on employment protections. But it perhaps reflects the sorry state of the left that so many of us have been happy to trade our own ability to make such rules, while throwing a tidy €10 billion a year or €31 million a day net into the bargain.

The employment protection point is part of the argument being put forward by Labour and other lefty people that the EU is more ‘progressive’ than the British government. But this is an anti-democratic argument – something its advocates seem to be only dimly-aware of. It’s a preference for the EU as a relatively benign if expensive dictatorship over the contingencies of British democracy, less than a hundred years after we become a full democracy.  

Turn to Labourites in favour of leaving the EU and you find Frank Field, Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart: people who when they speak, you listen, because you know they will not be garbling whatever Labour’s narrowed-down consensus view is. They have actually thought about it for themselves and come to their own conclusions rather than accepting the levelled down generic view of the tribe.

On the Tory side too, MPs who are genuinely worth listening to like Sarah Wollaston and Zac Goldsmith have declared for Leave. There is currently a sport going on from Remainers listing all the unappetising individuals on the leave side. Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling may not be attractive bedfellows, but they are no worse than George Osborne, Jeremy Hunt, Phillip Hammond and Michael Fallon on the other side. Throwing mud has a place in politics, but we’re best off sticking to the arguments.

The EU is not all bad and it does facilitate valuable cooperation in many areas. But is that ability to sit in meetings anywhere near worth the extreme expense of it and all the meddling? EU institutions are expert at telling governments and people what they can and can’t do, but have proved themselves completely incapable of dealing with their own problems like the migrants/refugee crisis, the Euro crisis and Greek default.

The restrictions it imposes prevent individual governments and authorities from acting to deal with their own problems. I was watching the Chelsea vs Manchester City FA Cup tie yesterday – a game in which the former put out its first eleven and latter played a bunch of youngsters from its £200 million Academy. Yet only two out of 22 starting players were British, let alone English. Leaving the EU would not solve this problem, but it would make it possible for government and football authorities to try and do something about it.

Football is a microcosm for what has been going on in British economy and society over the past twenty years. We have been importing from abroad rather than nurturing from within; growing by acquisition rather than organically. Leaving the EU would not be a panacea, but again it would give our own authorities more opportunities to intervene and make changes where they see fit. This is about our ability to control our own destiny.

On the other side, looking at arguments from Remain campaigners and you see a consistent theme: of risk, of dangers; but these are the risks and dangers of freedom. Politicians who are afraid of having more power are showing their lack of confidence in themselves and in government, which makes it all the more interesting how liberals and the left have gone this way. It is remarkable how ‘progressives’ have become so conservative.

A BBC News guy who was interviewed on his own channel the other day put it as well as anyone, that those ranged on the Remain side – from the grey leaders of Brussels to President Obama, big business bosses and all the major political parties – have the distinct appearance of a sort of ‘global Establishment stitch-up’.

Remainers have not been backward in throwing more loaded insults at Leavers – Europhobes, xenophobes, anti-Europeans, little Englanders etc. This has mostly been coming from liberal-left In supporters, whose language is remarkably absolutist– as if their position comes from a higher authority and a higher law [EU law?]: conferring morality, knowledge and rationality onto them and immorality, ignorance and irrationality onto their opponents.

This sort of nonsense works both ways: it annoys and alienates those like me who are now genuinely Euro-sceptic, but it also appeals to the tribal, herd instinct of people not wanting to stand out and look stupid in the eyes of their peers. I don’t know which of those tendencies will prove stronger, but it has made me more resolute that I’m for Leave.

13 February 2016

On English identity and Labour

The language of human ‘identity’ often misleads us into thinking about it as something out there which matches something in here – a literal ‘it’ which is identical in both, rather like in a mathematical equation.

In this way you would have an English identity for example if you somehow matched up to a list of English identifiers which we can measure you against. There is an ‘it’ of Englishness out there in this sort of account, and whoever has access to it can decree how English you are by comparing their checklist to you and your likes, dislikes, activities etc.

My point here is that someone else other than you can carry out this operation of identity without involving you at all. It is an authoritarian relation, attained by someone with authority matching their knowledge of what an identity is against you and coming up with a result on their terms of what these ‘its’ - of identity and you - are.

The same goes when we measure up any sort of identity – to Englishness, to the Labour Party or to the left more generally for example – it is our ‘it’ we are measuring up to and it is us doing it. The activity of measuring up and prescribing what measurements apply is what makes the identification.

We might see here how identity is better thought about as a relation. We can administrate it to ourselves and to other people and we can accept the administrations of others, but the essence of it lies in a relation, and relations don’t have to be grounded in any type of authority doling out knowledge and prescribing what ‘it’ is. I may have an intense attachment to the land and/or the music of England for example without wanting to wave the flag around or support the football team or without living in or having been born in England at all.

John Denham

For the Labour Party now, Englishness and England have become live issues that many in and around the party have started to concern themselves with – better late than never we might say. During the week I attended the first seminar of a series at Westminster being run by the former Labour MP John Denham, who has been on the case for a while now and is pushing it further from a new position as Professor of English Identity and Politics at Winchester University. You can see John’s reflections on this first seminar (entitled Does England Matter?), on his website the Optimistic Patriot.

There were some interesting contributions from Labour politicians including Lisa Nandy MP, Camden Council leader Sarah Hayward and other MPs including Caroline Flint, Jonny Reynolds and Gavin Shuker – plus others like the academic Mike Kenny and the Labour research expert Lewis Baston. I also garbled out a few words offering caution on getting too prescriptive about identity and favouring a new English national anthem as a great way to open up the space of identity - in terms of something to be explored in a democratic process rather than administered from above.  Toby Perkins, another Labour MP, has a Private Members’ Bill on a new anthem going through Parliament, but there was little if any mention, let alone support for this, from our gathered politicians.

It is early days, and the whole point of such processes is to get where you’re going through discussion and reflection and further discussion. But I couldn’t help but feel that old politician’s instinct and drive to administrate hanging in the air. We can’t quite help ourselves in trying to nail these things down – to assert and administrate who we are, what it (our version of Englishness or England) is and see who goes along with it and who doesn’t. It therefore becomes subsumed into the political process of drawing dividing lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’, friends and enemies, demarcating who belongs and who doesn’t. In turn this defeats what should surely be the object of letting more positive, inclusive versions of Englishness flourish (than those which are commonplace at the moment).

There are significant dangers for the wider Labour and liberal-left families here, for Englishness as identity at the moment often manifests itself as a negativity (both in relating others and ourselves to it), a defensiveness and as victimhood. Moreover, that defensiveness and victimhood is largely directed at things that the dominant factions in Labour and the wider liberal-left world uphold –particularly continual mass immigration. Labour’s tendency in talking to itself and fixing its own identity relations is often one which goes directly against a large body of the population. Simply positing those on to England and Englishness and saying that what we are is what England is/should be would be disastrous.

In that respect I think it’s important that we shouldn’t be in the business of fixing what Englishness is. However you try and do it, what you fix would not accord with what a great many people feel about themselves and their world – indeed it could easily alienate broad swathes from the start. Rather it is best to seek to open it up, challenge narrow definitions where and when they appear but not fall into the trap of prescribing or defining ourselves around particular alternatives. Among other things this means avoiding the tendency to always revert back to how important immigration and immigrants are to Englishness. There is certainly some truth in this account, but unless you emphasise how important those of non-immigrant backgrounds are too, you find yourselves inevitably narrowing to an ‘us’ and ‘them’ that excludes as well as includes and defeats the whole purpose.

These existential questions are inherently delicate and difficult to deal with, but for Labour they are fraught with difficulty, which perhaps partly explains why so many in the party want to avoid them altogether.

Nevertheless, with polling showing how a consciousness of English identity has risen significantly in recent years, they need to be taken on by any political party with national pretensions, let alone one like Labour which has been showing signs of possible extinction across much of England.