Will he or won’t he?

I dreamt last night that I had a talk with David Cameron. It was an after-lights-out talk at a generic Public School (it couldn’t have been Eton, because I didn’t go there) and we should have been snug in our dormitory beds rather than whispering in the corridor. He was kind enough to ask me to call him Dave.

Dave and I had one of those frank man-to-man talks that late nights encourage. He was carrying a cricket bat, which was odd, because sports equipment isn’t allowed in the bathroom or the dorm, and he was practising shots as we whispered.

davecricket

I was very much the Junior Boy in the conversation, though in real life I am older than he is, and I was very privileged to have the brief attention of the Head Boy. I timidly asked him what he’d be doing after Wednesday when he steps down as Prime Minister. Perhaps the cricket bat was a clue, but I can’t now remember what he told me. He agreed that he would neither be offered, nor would accept  a Cabinet post, and he didn’t find the idea of an academic career appealing. Village cricket, it might have to be. But I suggested, sympathetically, that it would be a trying time for him and Sam, whatever happened. I pointed out how utterly bereft I would feel if I were suddenly to have nothing more to do with LLP Group or systems@work, two companies of which, I suppose, I am Head Boy.

So, Dave will travel to Buckingham Palace on Wednesday after Prime Minister’s Questions, leaving from the Palace of Westminster in the Prime Minister’s armoured Jaguar but returning from the Palace to his suburban semi in a Mondeo or something similar. In the UK the trappings of power are removed immediately and savagely. He’ll be putting the kettle on himself come teatime.

Poor Dave. He’s been a decent sort of chap, on the whole.  He puts you at your ease when he’s talking to you, in my experience, at least in dreams.

So, PMQs on Wednesday will be an emotive affair. I well remember Margaret Thatcher’s defiant last performance, and Tony Blair’s nine years ago. David Cameron did a rather decent thing on that occasion, the sort of thing you learn to do at Eton. As Blair’s last performance came to an end, David Cameron urged his Tory colleagues to stand and applaud as Tony left the House. ‘Come on,’ he called out. ‘Let’s show appreciation for his years of public service.’

It was a decent thing to do, and so English Public School, reminiscent of the kind of honour celebrated in Henry Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada (‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’). It was a way of saying, more slyly, that, winners or losers, we’re all in the game together, and it’s decency and how you play the game that counts. It was also cleverly patronising, almost suggesting, ‘We’re the winners. It’s our time now.’

So, my question is, will Jeremy Corbyn do the same thing on Wednesday?

Now as it happens, I did go to the same school as Jeremy Corbyn, the Castle House School in Newport in Shropshire. He’s eight years older than me, so he would have been a very senior boy or not there at all, when I was there at the age of five. Perhaps he, too, was Head Boy. But it was a private school and his parents paid for it. Corbyn’s background is not so utterly different from Cameron’s. And, as it happens, I was at the same Oxford college and at the same time as Corbyn’s strategic adviser, Seumas Milne, who studied at Winchester College, an English Public School almost as illustrious as Eton. But, of course, Lenin was no working-class lad either.

My guess is that Corbyn will be mealy mouthed. He won’t fall for the cliché of decency and we’re all in it together and there’s more that unites us than divides us and Play up! play up! and play the game!. I suspect that he and his cadre will staunchly hold the line. They’ll have nothing to do with all that Public School nonsense. Rather, ‘Tories to the firing squads.’

And my second question is, what will all the other Labour MPs do? Will they break ranks, with their leader?

It’s a tiresome truth that an hour, a day, a week, is a long time in politics. One of the great unknowns is now resolved, and hard-as-nails Theresa May will be PM by Wednesday evening. But the other great unknown, what will happen to Corbyn, is a game that’s far from over.

———-

Vitai Lampada
There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
Ten to make and the match to win—
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;—
The Gatling‘s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the school is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind—
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

Ambition and Greatness

Some days ago I was tempted to write a blog called ‘Et tu Boris’  but the comparison of Boris’s betrayal of David Cameron and Brutus’s betrayal of Julius Caesar doesn’t really hold. Brutus was a reluctant assassin, a late convert to the cause of preserving the Roman Republic from tyranny, and Boris, as far as I know, has never worn a toga. But betrayal it was, in Boris’s case, and I am one of the many who believe, as former Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, argued today in the European Parliament, that Boris brought about Brexit, and thereby potentially brought down his country, and the European Union with it, largely to serve his own Prime Ministerial ambitions. How otherwise can one explain his ruthless dishonesty with the facts – the nonsense about 350 million pounds flowing weekly from Britain into the EU’s coffers, and the putative invasion of Britain by a million Turks? In my eyes he has lost all credibility as a decent man, though I don’t doubt that he is a clever one.

Et-To-Boris.png

Boris Johnson has written about Churchill, and wags have suggested that he sees many of the great man’s qualities in himself – wit, independence of mind, brilliance, and oratorical originality – and for both Churchill and Johnson politics were and are but one facet of a wide-ranging career. Churchill, like Johnson, wasn’t always taken seriously, and had similarly clownish ways when it suited him.

But, consider May 1940, when Neville Chamberlain only narrowly won a vote of no confidence tabled in the House of Commons, when many MPs of his own party voted against him. Churchill spoke passionately in defence of Chamberlain. Deciding that a coalition government was needed Chamberlain sought the support of the opposition party, and when he met with the leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party, as well as with Churchill and Halifax on the 9th May, he was informed that they would support a coalition only on condition that he would not continue as Prime Minister. Chamberlain was willing to resign but had to advise the King on whom he should ask to form a Coalition Government.

Chamberlain greatly preferred Halifax. As Foreign Secretary, Halifax was the obvious choice, and it was said (a relevant consideration in 1940) that he enjoyed the confidence of the King. He was a more predictable, more widely admired politician. So, Chamberlain, Churchill and Halifax met to discuss whom Chamberlain should recommend to the King. Churchill gave Halifax the opportunity to put himself forward and would have been ready to support him. For reasons that are still not wholly understood, Halifax demurred, claiming that as a member of the House of Lords he would not be able to lead the country effectively (though historians point out that there were mechanisms that would have allowed him to speak in the House of Commons, if not to vote there). He also doubted that he had the bellicose qualities that the times demanded and that he would have the support of coalition partners. So, it remained to Churchill to offer himself, and in due course, according to Roy Jenkins (in his biography of Churchill), he became the greatest Prime Minister the country has ever known.

Nothing captures the British attitude to leadership more dramatically than the symbolic dragging of the elected Speaker to his chair in Parliament after his or her election. We do not like our leaders to show eagerness when they assume power.

Boris Johnson, as we have seen, clothed himself in the most convenient policies, told the most effective and appalling lies, and has now set about elbowing his way to the top job.

Greatness was thrust upon Winston Churchill, whilst Boris Johnson is thrusting his shabby mediocrity upon us.

 

 

 

Democracy

brexit2

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.

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.

anxiouscameron

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.

 

 

 

 

Not for All the Tea in China

Who would want to be a politician? The hours are long, the material rewards moderate, the responsibilities great and the scrutiny utterly relentless and unforgiving. Gone is the deference, as if towards our ‘masters’, that characterised the relationship between the media and the political establishment some decades ago. Today’s politicians are derided, harried, hectored, mocked, and despised as if their motives are always questionable, their judgement too often poor, their good faith always in doubt. We demand that they be selfless and infallible, but we treat them as less than human. They may never admit to tiredness, hurt or strain.

Why would anyone want to be a politician?

cameron

I am far from being an uncritical fan of David Cameron and his Tory Cabinet, but I felt sorry for him last week, and sorry to see him stumble rather foolishly as he came clean too slowly, with a gradual drip feed of revelations about his shares in his father’s offshore fund. He’d done nothing wrong, as far as I understand, having paid the tax due on his income from the fund, and on the gain he made from the sale of his shares in the fund, early in 2010.

Offshore doesn’t necessarily mean dodgy. Of course, it can mean dodgy, if the beneficial owners of the fund conceal their earnings and gains. But those who do so are probably a minority. As many experts testified last week when asked sensible questions, most of our pension funds, and all sorts of other institutions, including trades unions, are invested in offshore funds. Such funds are sometimes set up to enable tax evasion, but the majority are set up because offshore funds are more flexible and easier to manage.

So, there was nothing dodgy at all about David Cameron’s ownership of shares in his father’s offshore fund. Moreover, he sold all his shares on becoming Prime Minister. I doubt that all Prime Ministers have rid themselves of vested interests so thoroughly and promptly.

And then there’s the issue of his mother’s gift of 200,000 pounds, a perfectly legal gift that any of us might make or receive. Nothing dodgy about that either.

David Cameron’s mistake was only in not explaining everything immediately, but rather in issuing guarded statements that sounded slightly evasive and that led, inevitably, to further more intrusive and aggressive questioning.

What makes politicians do the jobs they do?

The worst seek opportunities for personal gain through the corrupt and cynical abuse of power. Many politicians and leaders in the developing world, on more or less paltry salaries, are quite inexplicably wealthy. Here in Central and Eastern Europe the scandals are breath-taking in their cynicism. Too few of these corrupt politicians end up in jail.

greedwetrust

Others are driven by ideology, religion, or a wish to forge or save a nation. Too many of these end up as intolerant, repressive dictators with a sense of their own near-divinity and entitlement.

But in our more open democracies, where politicians are expected to be selfless, unrewarded, dutiful, humble and tireless public servants, subject to meticulous scrutiny, and exposed to relentless scorn, what makes it all worthwhile?

In all management roles there is a kind of pleasure in the exercise of power, in the wielding of influence and the responsibility that derives from it. We all like to get our own way with things. We earn respect in virtue of the responsibility we accept, especially if it’s wielded successfully, and this, I suppose, is reward of a kind. In politics, though, success is only ever grudgingly recognised and is always only partial. On the other hand, disrespect and disdain always follow from failure, and, as we are often reminded, most political careers end in failure .

Deriving satisfaction from the wielding of power should not in itself be a disqualification, and some are very good at it. I admire politicians’ capacity to consider issues from many different points of view, and decide, albeit on insufficient evidence, on the least bad course of action, sometimes even on a good course. I could not do it. I like to sit on the fence. It would be unreasonable to expect our politicians to be reluctant to wield power. The traditional dragging of the ‘reluctant’ Speaker to the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons after his or her election is symbolic theatre. A Parliament full of disinterested philosopher kings would be a tired, incompetent, ignorant and conservative body.

We want the impossible. We want our politicians and officials to be motivated only by a sense of public duty, but we also want them to be knowledgeable, clever, energetic, humble, perfect in judgement, never swayed by malign influence, unsullied by scandals past and physically in the prime of their lives. If they are also to be denied any form of satisfaction, what is to prevent them from pursuing lucrative careers in the private sector?

Self-belief is no sin (unless it morphs into pride), and without it no one could manage a household, or a company, let alone a nation. True, self-belief must always be tempered with humility and a sense of potential fallibility. The fawning respect of acolytes and the media are liable to discourage healthy self-awareness, but on the other hand, habitual contempt is undeserved.

Is it perhaps another symptom of the growing inequality of our societies that the ‘alienated’ poor automatically despise those with money or power, believing they can never get there themselves, and believing that those with money or power have no interest other than preserving it.

I was amused by an article I read yesterday on the few admissions of error made by Presidents of the United States. It was triggered by Obama’s admission that he screwed up the aftermath of US action against Libya. I admire Obama, and was delighted to read that he could be honest, even whilst still in office. But the writer concluded that it is never wise for a President to admit error – not ever. A political leader shouldn’t ever admit uncertainty or fallibility. We depend on our leaders being inhumanly perfect. We demand it of them.

In a good democracy we must maintain a healthy disrespect for politicians. When I visited India a few years ago, I was astonished by the noisy, cantankerous, disrespectful argument that characterised political talk shows. It took disrespect to a level even beyond the BBC’s Hard Talk or Newsnight. Compare that with the stage-managed personality-cult political debate of China and Russia.

But healthy disrespect should also be balanced with a little admiration and respect when it’s due. If not, there will be far too few of us willing to take on the dreadful task of governing others.

Brexit or Bremain – An Algorithmic Approach

David Cameron faces 27 of his peers in Brussels tonight hoping to persuade the European Union’s leaders to accept a new deal for Britain. If there’s a deal there’ll probably be a referendum in June. The stakes are high, and whatever happens tonight and tomorrow, the referendum may still lead to Brexit.

I’d say the odds on Brexit and Bremain are close to even. I certainly wouldn’t put money on the issue. Cameron was a fool to promise a referendum, and I don’t doubt he regrets it bitterly, though perhaps he would have lost the General Election if he hadn’t. So, as people say nowadays, ‘we are where we are.’

brexit

News junkies aren’t starved of news and opinions, but it’s hard to know what to believe. I’m usually convinced by the most recent passionately expressed opinion I’ve heard. So I’ll attempt an algorithmic approach and assign a score to a few of the most commonly expressed opinions to reflect the extent to which I believe they recommend Brexit (0) or Bremain (10) and their weight in the overall argument. In respect of some of the more important considerations (economic, for example) I’ve listed a cluster of interconnected opinions. An average below 5 means Exit and an average above 5 means Remain.

First, I’ll make the calculation based on my own judgement, and then again based on my impression of what middle England might believe. Note that all these judgements, both mine and mine about Middle England, are formed two or three inches beneath the skull in a region where both logic and emotion contend (is there any place in the brain where these don’t contend?).

  • Brexit would lead to the dissolution of the United Kingdom, with Scotland demanding a second referendum on independence [8]
  • Brexit would mean economic disadvantage for Britain [6]
  • Brexit would allow Britain to pursue economic policies less ‘statist’ than Europe’s [5]
  • Brexit would strengthen the global role of the City of London [4]
  • Brexit would weaken the global influence of the UK [6]
  • Brexit would enable Britain to control and curtail immigration [8]
  • Brexit would return powers to Westminster [6]
  • Brexit weakens Europe’s political stance in relation to Russia (6]
  • Brexit would slow the regional and global advance of human rights and common cultural values [6]
  • Brexit strengthens the cultural identity of the UK [6]
  • Brexit weakens the military influence of the UK [5]
  • Brexit would lead to the dissolution of the European Union (8)
  • Brexit would lead to German hegemony in Europe (6)

So, my average is 6.15. I’m clearly for Bremain.

What do I think middle England thinks?

  • Brexit would lead to the dissolution of the United Kingdom, Scotland demanding a second referendum on independence [6]
  • Brexit would mean economic disadvantage for Britain [6]
  • Brexit would allow Britain to pursue economic policies less ‘statist’ than Europe’s [5]
  • Brexit would strengthen the global role of the City of London [5]
  • Brexit would weaken the global influence of the UK [4]
  • Brexit would enable Britain to control and curtail immigration [3]
  • Brexit would return powers to Westminster [4]
  • Brexit weakens Europe’s political stance in relation to Russia (5]
  • Brexit would slow the regional and global advance of human rights and common cultural values [5]
  • Brexit strengthens the cultural identity of the UK [4]
  • Brexit weakens the military influence of the UK [5]
  • Brexit would lead to the dissolution of the European Union (4)
  • Brexit would lead to German hegemony in Europe (7)

 

Middle England’s average is 4.85, marginally for Brexit.

It’s going to be close.

But that’s looking at it largely from a British point of view. What’s very clear to me is that Brexit would be a disaster for the European Union. Frankly, I think that matters enormously, but I live in Prague in Middle Europe, not in Middle England.