Bach’s Bongs

I’m bothered by Boris’s boorish ‘Bung a Bob for a Big Ben Bong’ and all the other brayings of the British Brexiteers. They don’t quite cause me sleepless nights but when I woke in the early hours of this morning to the bonging of Bach’s bells from the Thomaskirche, near my AirBnB in Leipzig, it was a sweeter sound, to my ears, than any Bong for Brexit could ever be.

I’m in Leipzig for Wagner’s Ring, and a preliminary evening of Bernstein’s Candide. Pacing the well-ordered streets of this cultivated German city I sense that its citizens are happily Leipziggers, Saxons, Germans, Europeans and citizens of the world, without the little-England identity angst so many of my fellow citizens feel.

If Big Ben bongs for Brexit it will toll balefully for me.

 

Belonging

I’ve just arrived in Shiroka Luka to take part in, but mainly to enjoy, the annual Children’s Theatre School that LLP Group and systems@work  sponsors. Shiroka Luka is a beautiful village, high in the sparsely populated Rhodope Mountains of southern Bulgaria, a place where, in the days when disadvantage was a political inconvenience, orphanages and other institutions for disadvantaged or disabled children were placed, out of sight and out of mind.

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Through the Theatre School we try, in a small way, to bring attention to, and give confidence to, children who are otherwise marginalised. Many are Roma children (‘gypsy’, to use a word imposed by the majority) and they will face discrimination almost every day of their lives. If we can give them a little more confidence we can chip away at the wall of prejudice that they must overcome, though it will be many years before the opportunities for a Roma child in Bulgaria are the same as for a ‘white’ Bulgarian.

I loathe prejudice and I loathe the marginalisation of any community. Marginalisation breeds despair, frustration, anger, and sometimes even violence. It is the marginalisation of those left behind by globalisation that led to the Brexit vote. It is the anger of the left-behind in the USA that is fuelling Trump’s unexpected, irrational popularity. And dare, I say it. whatever the causes may be, it is the marginalisation of the Arab and the Muslim world that fuels the irrational cruelty of extremism and violence. Religion is not the reason. Religion is simply a convenient justification for feelings that stem from a deeper frustration.

I strongly believe that most people want the same things, whatever their nationality, culture, religion, location, colour, gender, or sexuality. They want freedom of opportunity, access to education, opportunity to travel, impartial justice, free access to information, freedom of expression, health and prosperity for themselves and their families. I do not believe that people are fundamentally different from each other. Those who enjoy these freedoms are usually happy to live and let live, to tolerate colourful difference in any form, as long as it doesn’t diminish their own opportunity.

So, building walls and closing borders, when frustration and rage spill over into appalling violence, as in Nice, will never solve the problem. Isolation isn’t the solution. Inclusion is the only long-term solution.

Here in Shiroka Luka we are bent on inclusion, showing disadvantaged communities that they have opportunities in a society that has hitherto neglected them. It may take us a hundred years to achieve our aims, but we must start somewhere.

Don’t ask me how we can persuade those attracted by the ideology of IS that they belong to the same world as we do, and can be equally successful in it, but surely we must. There is no other solution.

 

Brexit and Me

I opposed Brexit, though my resources were few and my reach very limited. I sat up all night as the results were declared, as bad news was piled on bad news, until, towards six o’clock in the morning, as dawn broke, Brexit was a done thing. The very first result, in Newcastle, augured poorly for the entire referendum, and the pound fell precipitously within minutes, seeming to fulfil the expectations of the scaremongering Remainers.

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But putting aside the emotional scars, which I believe I will survive, how will Brexit affect me and my businesses?

The first falls of the pound and the stock markets were hysterical, and I immediately halted all exchange transactions from GBP into our home, European, currencies. I’m not at all surprised, however, that the stock markets have more than rallied and the pound is back to only about 3% lower than it was (around 1.24 EUR = 1 GBP) before Brexit became real. We may resume exchange a few days from now.

As for my personal savings and possessions, I value my assets in GBP because I plan eventually to live in London. In fact I measure my prosperity against the possibility of buying a two-bedroom flat within a mile and a half of the West End. But my assets are largely located in Europe, and I have some shares in USD, EUR and GBP. So, in terms of personal finance, I’m actually better off after the Brexit referendum. The fall in value of the pound makes the dream of a London flat more realistic. And everyone is saying that UK, particularly London, property prices will fall.

And from the business point of view, the picture is a mixed one. systems@work sells software and services in GBP, largely in the UK market. We price in GBP, so our pricelist now brings us fewer Czech Crowns that a month ago. Our costs are in CZK, so our margin is squeezed. Other parts of the business, such as LLP Group, buy software in GBP, so those parts are better off.

But in any case, now that the hysterical first reactions are over, the exchange rate issue is a smaller one. For now, then, I see no serious immediate issues arising from Brexit. We deferred conversion of GBP to CZK whilst the exchange rate was low, but I believe that in a day or two, with the EUR at 1.20 EUR = 1 GBP we will soon be back to business as usual.

But none of this surprises me. There’s always overreaction. And the economic arguments against Brexit were about the medium and long term, not the few days following. And even if it seems entirely plausible that a mild recession might come in the coming months what will follow is unpredictable. But that’s nothing new.

I was never convinced by the half-truths and half-lies of either Michael Gove or George Osborne, and I feel no sympathy for either of them following their expulsion from the Government. For me the Brexit argument had little to do with economics. It was about European values, joining-in rather than leaving, and accepting that sovereignty, democracy, and global integration aren’t simultaneously attainable in today’s globalised world.

So, so far, from a business and personal point of view, Brexit has done me and my colleagues no harm. I expect mild damage in the medium term, because recession in the UK and Europe is likely. But what the long term promises, economically, I have no idea.

All that said, I think that I will always believe that Brexit is an enormous moral and political mistake.

 

 

Democracy

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If only David Cameron hadn’t promised a referendum (he might well have won the last General Election without it)

If only Jeremy Corbyn had campaigned for Remain more passionately (how different the outcome might have been if Gordon Brown had been in charge)

If only it hadn’t rained in London yesterday (turnout for Remain might have been higher)

If only Scotland’s political leaders had campaigned more passionately (turnout in Scotland might have been higher)

If only the referendum had been only about Brexit (it was inevitably an opportunity for the expression of other frustrations – a protest against austerity, authority, inequality, poverty and alienation)

If only Vote Remain had campaigned more positively (‘project fear’ was the wrong approach)

If only Boris Johnson was less ambitious.

If only MPs hadn’t lost the trust of the people during the expenses scandal (expert opinion is now routinely despised and all MPs’ sincerity doubted)

If only Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande had offered Britain more

If only the EU had been better at promoting its virtues and demonstrating its democratic credentials

If only the media had been more honest about the EU’s virtues and less intent on misrepresentation and the promotion of lies

Democracy is the least bad way of arranging human affairs on a large scale, and there is no purer form of democracy than asking the opinion of the people in a referendum, even if the question that is asked is more complex when taken in its full historical and political context than its simple form might suggest. But however we might analyse the reasons why Britain voted for Leave, the will of the people was finally expressed through a simple binary choice and it must be respected.

All the same, I think less of my countrymen for the decision they have made. It was a naïve, foolish, and selfish decision and I wish the question had never been asked, that the referendum had never been called. I hope that despite Brexit the EU will remain intact, but I fear that British parochialism may be contagious.

The UK will be smaller if it leaves

Absence has made my heart grow fonder, but if Brexit wins today’s referendum my affection for my country will be diminished.

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I’ve lived abroad for more than half of my life. I was born in Germany (West Germany as it was then called), to British parents posted in the late 1950s to Rheindahlen, an outpost of the British Army of the Rhine. If I add the two years I spent as an infant in Germany to the twenty-eight years I’ve spent in Central Europe it amounts to more than half of my fifty-eight years.

But despite the influence of Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic, I am still recognisably British. Culture is surprisingly immune to residency, and if there is one thing we need never fear, however much closer the ‘union’ becomes, it is that everyone will end up being the same.

Over the last twenty-eight years I’ve come to appreciate British culture more and more – justice, fairness, humour, stiff upper lip (though the lip has softened markedly in recent decades), an international perspective, inventiveness, generosity, pragmatism, decency – despite our inability to acquire foreign languages, and our incomprehensible appreciation of the glories of cricket.  Britain argued for the widening of the European Union rather than its deepening, and I have seen European values, to which Britain has contributed more than any other nation, taking hold in all of the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe to the extent that these countries, whilst they have retained their national cultures, have, in their institutions and their prosperity, developed beyond recognition.

If Britain votes for Leave today, the country will be turning its back on the international principles it has lived by for decades, and on its capacity to extend its already enormous influence yet further beyond its shores. It will be a vote for insularism, parochialism, and a little-England outlook that demeans it, in the  belief that ‘full sovereignty’ is both possible and sensible. In my view it is neither.

‘Take Back Control,’ chant those in favour of Brexit. ‘Vote leave on Independence Day,’ shouts the mendacious and ambitious buffoon, Boris Johnson. But from the perspective of the rest of the world, it will be a vote for a small idea, and a smaller place in the world.

I am not offended by the European Courts, or by rules and regulations devised by European institutions. Many of them may be silly, but most of them make snese and bring advantage to millions. Take the abolition of roaming charges, for example. True, the EU may be overly bureaucratic, even corrupt, and I share the view that it has failed to ‘connect’ with its electorate, but let’s stay and change it, not abandon it. Cooperation is the future, not separation.

I came to Central Europe for three months in 1987, and I’m still here twenty-eight years later, still intending, as always, to return to live in London in ‘only five years time.’ For the first time, I fear that I may be returning to a country that is smaller than the one I left.

Vote to Lead, not Leave. Vote Remain!

Wagner for Remain

I saw Wagner’s wonderful Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg at Glyndebourne yesterday – England’s top-notch country house opera house. The British Establishment were out in force, in black bow tie, braving the drizzle as they picnicked on the lawns. I’d seen the opera only once before, in Budapest, in the 1990s. It was a clunky performance with sets constructed, it seemed, from pictures cut out of the back of breakfast cereal packets, and it put me off the opera for two decades, no matter that I love all the others, Parsifal most of all, and live a largely Wagnerian life. Only now do I realise what I’ve been missing. There’s nothing clunky about Meistersinger at all – the Glyndebourne production is lively, joyous and funny. And how apt that it should emphasise Wagner’s pro-Remain sympathies at this dangerous time.

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Though Wagner’s music isn’t whistled in the street, his vision in Meistersinger of art lived hand in glove with craft and ordinary suburban life, is wonderfully tempting, if also utopian. He was never exactly a craftsman himself (at least never a baker, cobbler, locksmith, or tailor), but as a poet and composer he sensed his indebtedness to ordinary German life, craft and culture.

The opera tells the story of an aspirant poet/composer/singer, Walther von Stolzing, who is eager to joint the guild of Mastersingers. To do so, he is told, he must learn and follow the guild’s strict rules of composition. The wisest Master, the cobbler, Hans Sachs, sees that Walther’s talent is too great to be constrained by the guild’s stultifying rules, and he persuades the guild that they must bend and adapt to genius when they hear it. Walther, fails at first to persuade the Guild of his talent, but under Sachs’ kind guidance, he eventually wins them over. But, impatient with their pedantry, he is at first unwilling to accept their accolades. Again, Sachs explains that just as the Guild must reform and adapt, so Walther must accept that his talent exists within a tradition created and preserved by others. He must understand that art and culture belong not only to him but to their lesser guardians, the Guild and the people. He accepts.

Better to remain, and reform, than to reject. Better to lead than leave. Wagner was right.

There’s a lot of Wagner’s theory of art in Meistersinger, and it goes on at length about ‘heilige deutsches kunst’- sacred German art. Many see supremacist nationalism in this, but Wagner would equally have argued that for the English there is also ‘sacred English art’, living and breathing in the English shires. Each to his own. And if we could only live and breathe European values, he might have added, as well as national values, we might also one day create ‘heilig Europäische Kunst.’

The British Establishment, in their black ties, braying and whinnying in their own particular way at Glyndebourne yesterday, no doubt took note that reform is possible and that rejection is the wrong path.

And , as if the great master had cast his spell over the land, the polls look better today. The mood may yet swing in favour of Remain.

I love Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown has intervened in the Brexit debate with an impressive and passionate speech made from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral (preserved as a memorial to the bomb damage of the Second World War – ‘Nazi’ bombing, he is careful to say, not ‘German’ bombing).

I love Gordon Brown, and was sorry that his premiership was such a disappointment. He is everything that Tony Blair is not – deeply clever, thoughtful, sincerely passionate on behalf of the dispossessed and disadvantaged, uninterested in material gain, and honest.

He was right about that ‘bigoted woman’, but his opinions, insecurities and passions too often got the better of him in situations where calm control would have been more effective, and his childish rivalry with Tony Blair damaged the last Labour Government. If it’s true that he flung his mobile phone at the wall whenever he was angry, then he was perhaps temperamentally unfit for the highest office.

He lacked the slick, sly PR skills of his predecessor, lacked the tact and political pragmatism that politics require and which win elections, and in the end he failed as Prime Minister, though he played a crucial role superbly during the financial crisis of 2008-2009. He might perhaps have made an excellent benign dictator. He could have got on with the job without having to pander to public opinion.

Since he lost the General Election in 2010 Gordon Brown has kept a low profile. But it might have been he who swung the vote towards Remain when Scotland was considering secession. In his late intervention he made a powerful, simple, persuasive case, as he does now in this EU Remain video:

 

What’s impressive is that he makes the POSITIVE arguments that the campaign has so far lacked. An audience laughed the other day when Cameron made the ‘World War Three’ claims, but the point about peace in Europe is an important one, and whereas Cameron made it ineptly, here in this video Gordon Brown makes it persuasively and movingly.

He doesn’t mention the economic case at all, as if it’s only a sideshow, despite the fact that as a former Chancellor you might expect that this would be his area of expertise, and he doesn’t once mention immigration.

Rather, he talks up Britain’s moral place in Europe – as the country that fought the Second World War to establish the kind of peace we now enjoy, as the country that established the human rights to which all members of the EU must subscribe, as the country that argued most strongly for the inclusion of the formerly oppressive states of Eastern Europe.

His outlook is international, not narrowly insular. Though he doesn’t use the term ‘European Values’ he unashamedly talks up the idea of a ‘community’ where we are interested in the rights of other peoples even if they live in faraway places. He shames us into accepting that it’s not only about benefits but about responsibilities – Britain, he says, will soon be the largest economy in Europe, and we have a duty to lead not to leave.

He is right.

No laughing matter

Odds have narrowed on Remain in the past few days, and I am anxious. We’re back at about 3-1 for Remain (place a bet of three pounds and you’ll get four pounds back). This suggests that Remain is still the more likely option, and betting odds have recently been a better guide to outcomes than opinion polls, but momentum seems to lie with Leave.

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David Cameron gave an anxious, defensive performance on Sky News last night, where he was (over)aggressively questioned by Sky’s Chief Political Editor, Faisal Islam, and by the audience (what exactly are the rewards of a life in politics?). Although the audience was balanced (a third for Remain, a third for Leave and a third uncertain) the mood was truculent and unfriendly. Much of the questioning centred on the ‘conduct’ of the campaign rather than its substance – and reasonably so, because the conduct of the campaigns, on both sides, has been execrable.

The entire Remain campaign has been defensive, an attempt to instil fear in the minds of the electorate – fear of the economic consequences of Brexit and fear of the security implications – and it has produced exaggerations that have insulted the intelligence of voters.

For example, the claim that British families will be 4,000 pounds ‘poorer’ after Brexit was deliberately misleading. Economic forecasts are highly contentious, but no one is actually suggesting that anyone will be ‘poorer than now’, rather that families will be ‘richer than now…but poorer than they would be if Britain were to remain in the EU.’

And the ‘World War Three’ claim – that peace in Europe is threatened by Brexit – was another foolish exaggeration. But Cameron never actually used the words ‘World War Three’. He simply made the link between the creation of the EU and an unprecedented 70 years of peace in Western Europe and suggested that war between European nations was not impossible to imagine . Not a stupid claim, in my view – the European Coal and Steel Community between France, Germany and other countries just after the Second World War (a precursor of the Common Market, which, in turn, preceded the EU) was an explicit attempt to entwine the largest continental economies and make war less likely. War is inconceivable now, but in a hundred years time, who knows?

When he was questioned on the idea on Sky last night the audience laughed. In fact it’s a measure of how successfully the EU has linked us all together that the idea of war is so ridiculous. It is inconceivable that there could be war in the near future between the nations of Western Europe, but Brexit doesn’t make it less likely. It might be the first small step towards hostility decades from now.

The entire debate has been largely negative. If anything, it’s been the Leave campaigners who have been the more visionary – they paint a sentimental and illogical picture of a lovely Britain for the British, truly sovereign, in control of its borders, pragmatic and efficient, and proud. A Britain that might win the World Cup again, and another World War or two. It’s a sentimental and anachronistic idea, but it resonates with voters. It is at least positive – even if wrong.

But on both sides most of the debate has  been about economic disaster, security, and most recently about immigration. And sadly, it’s the debate about immigration that’s swinging things the Brexit way. Immigration has excited British bigots since Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in the 1960s.

But it’s all so negative. Who is making the positive arguments on the Remain side? Who dares to make a non-Brit-centric argument that for all its faults the EU is a good thing for Britain, for Europe and the world? No one.

Someone at Tory Party Headquarters decided that the Remain campaign should trade on Fear. I fear it might have been a big mistake.

 

 

 

 

Philosophers for Brexit

I read on the news this morning that Britain’s military establishment (or, rather, Britain’s former military establishment) has come out in favour of Brexit. Dozens of former generals have signed a letter arguing that what matters when it comes to defence of the realm is NATO not the EU.

Historians have come out for In. Actors, artists and other luvvies have come out for In. Economists have come out for both, of course, but what should we expect? It is the fashion for groups of all kinds to hold hands and write to The Times in favour of either In or Out. Where do campanologists stand? Ornithologists? Kleptomaniacs? Nymphomaniacs? Meteorologists? Numismatists? Philatelists? Dog lovers?

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But another very important group has also nailed its colours to the mast today. Less well reported, but surely of greater import,  is a letter in today’s edition of Mind, the journal of the British philosophical establishment, signed by members of Britain’s philosophical community (note that there is no such thing as a former philosopher, unless you mean a dead one). They have come out, albeit quietly, for Out. Entitled ‘But it doesn’t mean anything’ the letter decries the philosophical assumptions on which the EU is built.

Brian Goodlittle, Reader in Philosophical Energetics at Bradford University says, ‘I was approached by the editor of Mind and was asked to sign this letter. I did so enthusiastically. I am fundamentally opposed to the continental drift of modern European philosophy. It favours meaningless nonsense so it’s not actually philosophy at all. I favour the bracing style of British Empiricism. It admits no blather, no metaphysical indecency. During the Second World War British Empiricism was one of the fiercest weapons in our intellectual arsenal. It had few uses on the front line, admittedly, but it helped us to break the Enigma code and, with the help of the Yanks, to build the Bomb, whilst the Nazis were literally dreaming up nonsense. It would be a disgrace if we gave in now to continental so-called philosophies such as phenomenalism, existentialism, structuralism and other forms of poppycock. French philosophy, in particular, is a load of merde, in my opinion. It reeks of garlic and doesn’t make a single iota of sense. Let’s face it, Mate, what does ‘European Union’ mean anyway?’

Another eminent philosopher, Fiona Fruitington, Professor of Radical Empiricism at Northampton University, has calculated that works of continental philosophy weigh on average four times as much as works by British philosophers. ‘Being and Nothingness,’ she says, ‘I would rather read a DIY manual on shelving. EU law is just the same. Voluminous, meaningless and impractical.’

British philosophy has for centuries been tethered to good old common sense. You can only understand a statement if it can be verified, Alfred Ayer told us (though he could never quite explain how this claim could itself be verified). Austrian born British philosopher Karl Popper turned the same idea on its head and said that something only makes sense if it can be falsified (science proceeds that way, he pointed out, rather than by verification, but he never clarified exactly how his own claim could be falsified).

The greatest of them all, my hero Ludwig Wittgenstein, said we must look at how we come to understand language and the meaning of the terms it contains. We must examine language ‘games’ in real human communities (though I don’t think he had the EU in mind). Continental nonsense, and most of what the EU has to say, he would describe as ‘language gone on holiday’, ordinary words extrapolated way beyond their safe and practical usage. The role of the philosopher, he believed, is to show the fly the way out of the bottle, the fly being the ordinary man or woman befuddled by EU terminology.

‘Ever greater union.’ What does ever actually mean, Wittgenstein might ask. How have we come to agree, as a community of minds, on its deployment? And how could we begin to understand the many meanings of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘subsidiarity’?

I have great sympathy for philosophers, but in the end I’m not with them on this. When it comes down to it the vast majority of them don’t know how to boil an egg.

 

Two Questions

I spent the weekend in the UK – in Brighton, London, Basingstoke and Salisbury (when you live most of the time in another country your visits home are a mad exhausting and bibulous rush to see all your friends and family). Whilst rushing (and drinking) I asked two questions about Brexit of everyone I met:

  • Will you vote to Leave or to Remain?
  • How do you think the vote will go?

 

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Most of those I asked are based in London,  so it’s hardly a surprise that the answer to the first question was generally Remain, though two of my friends and family hadn’t yet quite decided. Why would anyone want to leave? Interestingly, it wasn’t the argument about independence that attracted them (the ghastly Boris Johnson has already labelled June 23rd as Independence Day). They acknowledge that ‘independence’ is a chimera. Rather, the two issues uppermost in the minds of the doubters were:

  • The undemocratic, inefficient, meddling and corrupt character of the EU
  • Uncontrolled immigration

To which I can only reply that all human institutions are overly bureaucratic, inefficient, fallible and corrupt. Politicians are not the only ones who cannot know the future, and whose expertise is limited and judgement sometimes faulty. Whether you are a politician, or a businessman, an entrepreneur or a civil servant, you are likely to make some serious mistakes in your career. We should not expect otherwise. To cite the idiocies of the Eurocracy as a good reason to Leave, is foolish. We should stay and fight for reform, and accept that we will never fully succeed.

As for immigration, it is surely a cultural and economic stimulus. Most immigrants are young, and they invigorate us. At a friend’s wedding on Saturday evening I met a couple who farm vast tracts of land in the Midlands. They would be unable to bring in the harvest without immigrant labour. And where would our NHS be?

I don’t know if I managed to sway their opinions.

But it should come as no surprise that arguments made from an external perspective (as mine are, made from Prague) carry little weight in the UK. That the EU has entrenched peace in Europe, had impeded extremism (important now, given the direction of travel of Hungary and Poland), and has hugely improved the lives of the citizens of the new member states in ‘Eastern Europe’, is acknowledged as a GOOD THING, but as irrelevant to the argument. Moreover, that Brexit might trigger the dissolution of the UK, and perhaps even of the EU , doesn’t seem to register with most of the Brits I’ve spoken to. To me, of course, as an immigrant in the Czech Republic, and a businessman doing most of my business in the EU, it matters greatly.

As for the question of how the vote will go, almost everyone, including those who might vote to Leave, thinks that Remain will win, if narrowly. I am less sure. I can’t help feeling that the passion that ignites the Leavers will urge them to the polling stations, whilst those who would vote to Remain might simply stay at home and fiddle.

Betfair has odds of 3 to 1 (on) for Remain, which means, apparently, that Remain is the more likely outcome. Bet 3 pounds on Remain and you will get only one pound extra back. But recent opinion polls suggest it is a 50:50 question. I worry.