Friday, September 23, 2016

Punishing the Conservatives

A Conservative government has caused the greatest political and economic disaster in 50 years. The Prime Minister responsible, David Cameron, has resigned. Theresa May's ministers are consistently suggesting that the vote to leave the European Union means the withdrawal from all EU mechanisms- the "Hard Brexit". The result will be the exit of the car industry from the UK and severe damage to the City of London.

It is totally irresponsible.

It will cost the country millions of jobs and billions of pounds. The Tories now own the Brexit fiasco.

Voters are noticing: some major shifts in local elections suggest that the Liberal Democrats may be recovering fast.

Just maybe the new Tory programme of back to fifties- imperial measures, grammar schools et al- may end up destroying the party that is proposing this drivel. Backward looking provincialism deserves nothing more than contempt.

I bloody hope so.

In other news.

Last night hundreds of children went to sleep alone and hungry in the Jungle at Calais- a humanitarian mess that the UK is responsible for. Last night the food banks were doing good business. Last night the NHS faced just another day of strain and pain. Last night millions of workers in the UK were facing renewed threats to their livelihood because of the Brexit fiasco. 

This morning the British right wing press: 80% supporting the Conservatives and funded by five off-shore billionaires, decided that the marriage split of two actors was the chief story their readers needed to know about.

Contemptible. Disgraceful. Outrageous.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Burns and the charms o' nature

I was interviewed yesterday on the subject of the poetry of Robert Burns by the Scottish Cultural Society in Tallinn. This is a good organisation that promotes a wide variety of things Scottish with a fervour that should embarrass even the most intransigent nationalist. Whether ceilidh dancing or singing the songs of Burns, or even kilt wearing, this small group constantly delight with their enthusiasm and passion for the subject of Scottish culture, broadly defined.

Since I was a teenager I have read the works of Burns and felt that he deserves a wider audience than the annual festival of the unco' guid that marks his birthday each year on January 25th. Like the Slovene poet, France Preseren, Burns speaks not just for some exclusive national feeling, but the universal themes of love, nature and politics. Yet whether the lovely pastoral of Westlin Winds or the epic song of brotherhood a Man's a Man it has seemed until recently that Burns was condemned to the shortbread tartanry that makes him seem more of a museum piece than of any modern relevance. In the end though, Burns is really a bit of a rock star and though Holy Willies Prayer and Tam O'Shanter were radically subversive at the time, it really is the songs that make Burns so accessible. Possibly my favourite (and certainly my Grandmother's favourite) is Ae Fond Kiss

The links will take you to some modern performances of these great songs. Enjoy!      

Monday, September 19, 2016

Fighting the Culture War

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the creation of a raft of new liberal and democratic states in 1989 and 1991, the argument about the values of the open society went into a kind of stasis. The debate was deemed by many to be closed, and the virtues of liberal democracy self-evidently triumphant.

25 years later that "end of history" seems at best more nuanced. At worst, the closed authoritarian model seems to have made a spectacular come-back.

This blog references Cicero, and in previous posts I have explained why. I have feared for a long time that the values and virtues of democracy are being eroded from within and without. The fact is that mass societies can be manipulated and subverted. Vladimir Putin spends billions of dollars on propaganda, and while much of this is to persuade Russians not to challenge his regime, equally his purpose has been to undermine confidence in the states of Europe and North America that he deems to be his enemies. He is achieving a remarkable success in promoting closed, right-wing models of society. His admirers are a rogues gallery of anti-democrats: Marine Le Pen, Diane James, Geert WildersDonald Trump, the Vlaams Belang in Belgium and many members of the Cinque Stelle in Italy.

The weakness that this subversion is demonstrating should give all of us some pause for thought. The fact is that both our media and our education system have already let us down severely. 80% of the UK print media is in the hands of foreign or off-shore ownership, with an extreme right-wing agenda. On my recent visit to London, I was staggered how many people read the Mail and the Express- two newspapers who seem to have given up on the truth altogether. The fact is that in a world of post truth politics, our general education level seems simply too low to challenge the false narratives that the biased and self-serving media is promoting.

When people ask me why Estonia is so much more successful than, say, Russia. I generally reply by pointing out that Estonian culture so strongly promotes education. It is a history of Lutheran respect for education, combined with strongly rooted values of hard work, discipline and openness. It is next to impossible to beat a bright kid with a good work ethic. Yet even in Estonia, I see signs of a culture being assailed. The astonishing growth in graffiti in recent months is one example, the rise of EKRE- an unpleasant and intolerant right-wing nationalist party- is another. Of course both are still much weaker than in the UK, but the fact that they even exist in Estonia is reflective of possible problems ahead.

In the end, across Europe and North America, the heartland of the West, it is our values, our culture and way of doing things that is being challenged. Some of this is the subversion of openness by the enemies of the open society, but we must also admit that we have made too many mistakes. The promotion of the Bush-Blair war agenda, against strong internal resistance was, in retrospect, the beginning of a crisis of confidence in democracy. Cynical politics has created a cynical society. Amoral decisions have contributed to a climate of moral indifference which is highly corrosive of the open society. The result has been the growth of an alienated and angry electorate. The result has included the economic, political and moral mistake of the Brexit referendum result.

As we contemplate the challenge of Putin, and indeed the coming challenge of Brexit, it seems to me that we will need more and more to renew our national political cultures. The cheerless and backward-looking managerialism on offer from Theresa May already looks dated, and such values as she offers- a return to the 1950s- are hardly robust enough to meet the demands of the new century. Although Taavi R├Áivas, the Estonian Prime Minister, offers a younger face, he remains the captive of older figures, and Estonia too needs to renew its political culture. The party-list electoral system is too closed for the increasingly open society that Estonia wishes to be, and the three ring circus of the current presidential election has shown just how locked-out the voters are from the process. 

In both countries a voice that reiterates the values and virtues of openness is much needed. The complications of a tolerant and free society must be explained, and that is difficult enough in thoughtful and educated Estonia, never mind the shrill and poisoned atmosphere of British politics. However, if we do not renew our culture and reinforce our values, I fear that all the gains of the global society could be rolled back and the locust years will be upon us. It is not just a question of economics, it is a question of ethics and morality. It is a question of good and bad. 

Cicero lived at the time of the death of the Roman Republic. The Republic had existed for 500 years in turbulent vigour. Cicero was instrumental in defeating the first conspiracy against the Republic- the Cataline conspiracy- but though he knew the Republic needed reform, he could not provide the leadership to thwart Caesar's coup d'etat. Within a very few years Rome was the prisoner of its Emperors and the power of the Republic was broken. Cicero, and his ally Cato had failed and the decadence and corruption of the Empire lingered in place of the vigour of the Republic. 

Is that to be the fate of the West?  In the end we could fail and with the failure of the global society a smaller, weaker, more violent world could come. Instead of creating a more open and integrated planet we could fall back on the failures of the past, possibly not excluding war and the eventual use of nuclear weapons.

Thus it is not for small stakes that we must fight. The renewal of our values in a world where virtually limitless data or information is free, but knowledge and understanding just as difficult as it ever was cannot be easy. Yet now- in a world of surveillance, both overt and covert-  we need to set the limits of power more than ever. It comes down to renewing our philosophy and living rigidly to our values. We must not let political compromise become moral weakness. Whether the challenge comes from Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or our own media-political complex, we have to understand the scale of the problem- and the terrible price, if we fail. In the new cultural war, we cannot afford to fail.  
   

Monday, August 29, 2016

Back to School

September 1st is the traditional date when schools in Estonia reopen after the summer break. It is not only of significance for children, because for most adults, the summer is also definitively over. The season is one of the end of leisure and the beginning of work. So, after a long break from blogging, I return. 

However I do not hold out much optimism for the new season. Most of the things that I would like to see for the country of my birth- a more open society and a more Liberal (and indeed liberal) politics- have been defeated so heavily in recent years that any ultimate success seems to be years, and maybe decades, away. Of course some things can change suddenly, and by definition Liberals are required to be optimistic. Yet, as Theresa May settles into office as Prime Minister, it is clear that the UK will continue to be pushed further way from the kind of changes that it needs in order to create a more prosperous and harmonious society. "Hard Brexit" or not, the fact is that the Conservatives will continue to inflict policies that will create more inequality and less social or political harmony. Post Brexit Britain is set to struggle even to define what kind of country it wishes to be. After the phony war of the summer, the new season will reveal to London, as much as to the rest of the European capitals, just how daunting the scale of the task ahead truly is.

And I have not recovered from the anger that the vote brought me. We rejected our friends and pleased our enemies. We will now be diverted for years into a self-destructive mess. The worst leaders in the UK: George Galloway, Nigel Farage, Bernard Jenkin - a rogues gallery of shits- have come out on the winning side, but the thoughtful and the intelligent, from Mark Carney to Delia Smith, have been forced to take the abuse of the triumphantly stupid. 

On a wall in the old town of Tallinn some Brexit cretin has written "Rule Britannia, down with the Euro-Socialist EU". I tend not to take political lessons form those who write on walls, but what ignorance it is to write such drivel in a country that has just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of genuine socialism. The temptation is just to mutter "arseholes" under the breath and pass on down the street, yet actually I feel that this arrogance and stupidity is actually the dominant characteristic of the political discourse in Britain. 

They call it "post truth politics", and I find it hard not to becomes outraged at the way it pervades so much of what is happening in the UK. For example, the Daily Express is a newspaper that attracts a certain kind of readership, it pretends to an intellectual equality with other newspapers. Yet it refuses to comply even with the voluntary- and extremely light- code of press regulation that other newspapers do accept. The fact is that the Express prints stories which it knows to be totally false. It is a propaganda rag. It is a contemptible piece of crap, and yet it is treated as though it actually had something valid to say. The problem is that, although extreme, the Express actually reflects the way the majority of the British press does its business: the Mail, the Sun even broadsheets such as the Telegraph and the Times knowingly twist the facts to suit their predetermined point of view. This is not just the op-ed pages, but across the newspaper as a whole,facts are ignored, balance is ignored, honesty is ignored. Cheap laughs, cheap journalism and a profoundly cynical contempt for the truth characterizes the British press in a way that would appall a previous generation. In the end the huge economic and political mess we are setting up for ourselves can and should be laid at the feet of the foreign-owned (Murdoch), foreign domiciled tax avoiders (Rothermere, and the Barclay brothers) and fraudulent (Desmond) hypocrites who dominate press ownership in the UK. Unless this festering pus-filled canker can be lanced, I have come to think that the future of the UK will continue to lie in the hands of people who have little care for the best interests of anyone except themselves, and certainly not the country.

So where does that leave us?

The phony war, as I say, is now over. The three Brexiteers- Johnson, Fox and Davis that Mrs. May has, perhaps cynically, deployed to negotiate have spent the summer engaged in a turf war, but even they must now see that the next few years will be nothing but a slog. The European Union -continuing and possibly reinforced, despite Farage's schtik that it would simply collapse, post Brexit- is not prepared to roll over in negotiations. When Australia announced that it could- kinda, sorta, maybe- consider a UK free trade pact, this was taken by Dr. Fox as a sign that the UK could negotiate a pact "10x the size of the EU". He obviously did not understand that such a pact would have to include neighbouring star systems, given that the EU is a part of 40% of global trade flows. Incidentally, Australia has an economy smaller than Spain. New Zealand- another "Commonwealth hope" has an economy smaller than Romania. Both antipodeans are mostly primary producers, and it is the 1.3 billion of China, not the 65 million of the UK that can support those economies. We do 60% of our trade with the EU, but the Brexiteers stupidly believe that we can unpick our trade from our neighbours and rebuild it with countries that are as far away as you can get on this planet and which do not want our goods anyway. With such generals in place, the next step will be a retreat to Dunkirk and the comprehensive trashing of the Brexit idea- too late of course, but hey, the crushing of UK asset prices and employment will just be collateral damage. 

In the face of such a mess, one might expect Her Majesty's loyal opposition to be making hay. 

Err.. not quite.

It is not just that Jeremy Corbyn is an obvious dud- a politician who has been wrong about everything and whose incompetence alienates on a daily basis his entire Parliamentary party. It is that Owen Smith is a dud too- his left wing platform, however insincerely held, is an absolute gift to the Tories. The fact is that none on the Labour front bench have what it takes: mealy-mouth cowardice, even in the age of post-truth politics, is pretty hard to hide. The childish attempts to re-run Thick-of-It sketches as some kind of The Office-style documentary is about as painful as watching David Brent dance. If ever you had a doubt that Labour were past-it, then your worst fears are exceeded by the grim reality.

As the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness draws in, we see the naked British Emperor in all his stunted and flaccid glory. For the problem of government, press or opposition are linked by a failure so huge and so clear that sometimes it takes a second or two to grasp it. As David Cameron hummed his way off the Downing Street stage, (aged, let us not forget, only 49 after just over six years in office) the horrible truth began to dawn.

These people are not up to the job

Neither is it just the failed entitlement of the Etonian Jeunesse Doree. This is a systemic failure, not only of Tories but of our entire political-media complex. Whether the economic illiteracy of the Brexiteers, or the hypocritical calumnies of the press, or the tiresome playground antics of the Labour party, the UK faces a leadership vacuum on an industrial scale. Ignorance and arrogance are endemic across the media and across the political establishment. It is a poisonous brew to be taking into negotiations where we are much the weaker party.

So what should I say to the arseholes who write on a wall in the old town of Tallinn; those who buy the shitty Kardashian laden scandal sheets of right wing cant that masquerade as newspapers; those who call Corbyn "Jeremy", instead of "get out of the way you shit"; those who are prepared to see Theresa May eviscerate any pretense of Parliamentary sovereignty as she leads us out of the EU?

Well probably I should say that it will get worse. The redrawing of constituency boundaries over the next three years will probably reduce Labour to a rump, and may remove all other parties except the Tories from England and Wales. Mrs. May, despite leading the stupid party at prayer, will not flinch from what is necessary to hold power. Those who I despise will continue to dominate for some years to come- to the huge cost of our country. 

Secondly though, I ask myself some fundamental questions. Once day, I hope that those who have caused this catastrophe will be thrown out bag and baggage- preferably with a level of ignominy that prevents their return. However I don't think I want to return to the UK while the lunatics continue to wreck the asylum. I see many intelligent youngsters reading the same runes and coming to the same conclusion. I devoted decades of my life to fighting for a more open society in the UK, but in the face of the entrenched evils we face, I feel dejected and very angry.

Still, it is a new term and I have much to learn. If I can pass the exams I can at least settle here. Perhaps I should. The Estonian fight has always been my fight, just as much as the fight for openness, tolerance and freedom anywhere else, and for the same length of time. However it comes with the bitter sense that these fools would have taken my birthright away from me. Their self serving drivel would have driven me and many far better than me away from a country that for all its faults I still profoundly love. 

One day, one day, maybe the storm-tossed green hills, the moors and the great cities will host a people great enough to overthrow the imbeciles and poltroons who govern them and those in the media whose twisted lies support the whole disgusting structure.

We will see.     

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Know-nothing Arrogance or Machiavellian machinations?

As Theresa May forms her new government, she has certainly sprung a few surprises. The appointments of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, David Davis as the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU and Liam Fox as International Trade Minister have placed a large part of the future interaction between the UK and the EU in the hands of the Brexit campaigners. Some regard this as a subtle plan to ensure that the Leave campaign takes responsibility for what they have wrought. To be honest I think the jury is still out. The utter chaos of the last few days has been largely down to a proven lack of responsibility amongst the leaders of the Leave campaign. Mrs. May is given points for Machiavellianism in forcing the Leavers back into the Conservative tent, however what she has also done is that the Conservatives must now take responsibility for the future process of EU-UK relations. The Tories are now irrevocably the party of Brexit.

The problem with the "Brexit mean Brexit" discourse is that no one has yet determined precisely what Brexit does actually mean. Even now there is a clear difference between the ideas of an associate membership, an EFTA solution, and EEA solution or a complete exit from all EU-led structures. It is by no means clear what version carries with it the support of the Conservative Party. Increasingly there seems to be some traction that the "Brexit means Brexit" narrative actually means complete withdrawal. If so, then Mrs. May's "safe pair of hands" risks being the instrument of strangulation of the economic well being of our country and its political survival as a single unit.

While 51% were not clear about what version of Brexit they wanted, 48% - led by the young and the better educated- did not want to lose any of the features of the European Union. A complete exit is a very clear minority position. The appointment of Mr. Davis- who apparently does not understand that Germany and France will not do any trade agreements separate from the rest of the EU, because that is the whole point of the EU- is nearly as controversial as the appointment of Mr. Johnson, and potentially even riskier.

Mrs. May has squared the circles of her party, at the cost of irritating all the UK's international partners. The fact is that the ignorant who have wrapped themselves in self righteous tosh about British democracy fail to recognize the idealism that also lies at the heart of the European project. That cynical and lying journalists may have persuaded the old and the poor that the EU is all about bureaucracy does not remove the fact that the rest of Europe regards the Union as a noble project designed to support European prosperity as a whole. Lecturing those who believe in the European ideal in the way that many right-wing Conservatives have often tended to in the past will isolate Britain still further, and the divorce could become very bitter indeed.

As the new government takes its first baby-steps, Mrs. May must know that, despite the current implosion at the heart of Labour, it is the Conservatives who stand to be tarred with the contempt of history if a suitable and moderate path is not established soon. 

Even Machiavelli ended up in exile.    

  

Monday, July 04, 2016

Open Politics

The rumble of the Brexit earthquake continues.

As both Labour and Tory politicians jockey for leadership in their prospective parties, it is becoming all too clear that a new political system is now struggling to be born. The traditional left-right split has for some time been overlaid with a different matrix. Partly one might call this a socially liberal vs socially conservative spectrum. David Cameron, by campaigning on issues such as gay marriage, laid claim to a socially liberal stance, and such issues were not always split on conventional party lines. More to the point there are now far wider signifiers- it case become a matter of an entire political culture. 

In short the Brexit has revealed a totally different political spectrum: those who support globalization and the open society and those who oppose it. Broadly speaking, the metropolitan, young, educated remain voters are supporters, while the rural, older and less educated leave voters are not. This cultural split seems set to create still further upheaval.

The political system, as currently constituted, does not reflect this fundamental split. Jeremy Corbyn's reactionary Socialist dogma barely even recognizes the growing power of the open society, and to be honest, Theresa May is not exactly in touch with the open minded concerns of youth either.

Thus there is now an obvious opportunity to recast British politics in a more modern and responsive form. Though the Brexit crisis is only just beginning, the result may lead to some fundamental changes in the future. As Corbyn continue his stubborn resistance, it seems more and more likely that a Labour split might form the core of a new grouping- though not necessarily a particularly cohesive one.

The tedious managerialism that has been the bill of fare in the UK since the fall of Margaret Thatcher and the Berlin Wall has led nowhere.

The new politics will not rest on questions of administration but of philosophy. Those who believe in the open politics and the open society will still need to carry the unconvinced, but in the end the closed society can not deliver the prosperity that the open can. 

I shall return to this debate, but the political sea change may throw up some big surprises in the coming months and years. Though Theresa May offers the comfort of a pause for breath today, by 2020 the pressure for real change may have out played her caution. 

The Brexit campaign leaders- Farage, Gove, Johnson- have demonstrated both a cowardice and a dishonesty that will rightly blacken their name for the foreseeable future, Brexit may be their victory, but it is already a Pyrrhic one, and as their hollow promises are revealed for the lies they were, there will be little forgiveness for any of them.

The vindication of the Liberal Democrats has been far swifter than they hoped, albeit that it has come with such a price for the UK. However, the party can now lay claim to being in the vanguard of political change. The game's afoot.   

Monday, June 27, 2016

As the political vacuum in the UK continues, the markets are filling the gap

The UK fiasco has continued unabated. Neither the Conservatives nor the Labour party have any effective leader. It is quite clear that the victorious Leave camp is totally divided as to what should happen next, and there is no clear plan as to what level of engagement or disengagement the UK will have with the European Union.

The market collapse that is taking place is the responsibility of the utterly irresponsible leaders of the Leave campaign. So, it could well be that having wielded the knife against David Cameron, Boris Johnson may yet go the way of a previous Tory challenger: Michael Heseltine. Perhaps Theresa May as leader could provide some reassurance, but in the face of economic meltdown, the calls for an early general election -which under the circumstances is clearly necessary- may create an untenable situation for any party. The fractious and divided body politic of the UK is on the brink of collapse. The cowardly, but sullen and determined Jeremy Corbyn is facing the total breakdown of his leadership, but there are few amongst the Labour leading lights who can inspire in the face of the national catastrophe that we now have to face.

Into this chaos the markets are injecting their own commentary. Despite the brief reemergence of the Prime Minister and his Chancellor, the market collapse is now assuming a very dangerous shape. Some are suggesting that the cable (USD/GBP) rate is now headed to parity, which implies a fall of one third from Thursday night's close. The implications are startling. The UK will fall from the fifth largest nominal economy to eighth, just above Italy. The recession that this implies is into double figures. It implies the implosion of the UK property market, it implies cuts in the government budget of the order of 10-15% across the board- a level of austerity that could seriously test the social order of the country. All of the gains made since the early 1990s will have gone over the course of a few weeks. UK bank stocks are now in deep decline- over a third of the value of the UK banking sector has gone in two trading days. The rout is expanding into construction, property and any business that relies on imports, which in the UK is pretty much all of them. The Brexit shock could push inflation very sharply higher. The scale of the meltdown is mind boggling and since there is still no clear plan emerging in London, there is no bottom on the market.

Nor have other European markets been immune- there remains considerable uncertainty as to how the impact of the UK exit can be contained. Wisely, Mrs. Merkel has shown a cool head, suggesting that there was no immediate hurry and that it would be counter-productive to seek to punish the UK for this disaster. She is, of course, right: the punishment being meted onto the UK already is severe enough. However within a few days London must set out a timetable for what is going to happen next- and there is no such timetable. It is not even clear if any new Prime Minister would be able to enact an article 50 notice without a new general election. Paradoxically this chaos may stabilize the European Union itself, as other nationalist movements see what could happen to them, if they push things too far. 

Yet even if the UK general election chose a solidly remain government and the referendum was indeed rescinded, the damage and humiliation being visited on the UK will not go away. Even though Scottish separation in the immediate future would be an economic neutron bomb if it was done too soon, there are hot headed calls for an immediate rerun of the independence vote: and the only leadership in the UK at the moment is coming from those who want to destroy it. 

Personally I think that a lot of people now want to the Conservatives destroyed- they and their UKIP cronies are responsible for this catastrophe. Yet the pathetic response from Labour reminds us that politics as usual is not an option. Any election, however necessary, could throw up a Parliament that can not form a government of any kind.

The fact is that we may still not have reached any understanding of where the bottom of this crisis is going to be, and for as long as that remains the case, the markets will be in turmoil.