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

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.