Cair Paravel

Boris Johnson’s vision of Albion reminds me of Cair Paravel, the turreted castle and court at the heart of C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’s nod to a chivalrous past that never, of course, existed. Boris, naturally, is High King Peter, ‘head of the world’ at last, rousing his subjects to a frenzy of patriotism with talk of a new era, a new dawn, a new beginning (an old cliché).

Cair Paravel is lovely. Primary colour standards flutter in the breeze. Boys can be Kings, and girls can be Queens. Whether boys can be Queens too, or girls, Kings, is never made clear, but C S Lewis, I suspect, might have given short shrift to Diversity and Inclusion Policy, even if not to gender equality. Queen Susan, after all, is a dab hand with a long bow, though Queen Lucy must rush about the battlefield like a courtly Florence Nightingale with a tiny bottle of Chanel No. 7 that cures even mortal wounds.

Everything in Narnia is noble and nice, and everyone is gracious. The Royals speak with the clarity of a BBC English of the 1950s, with a sprinkling of ‘prithees’, ‘nays’ and ‘verilies’ to make it even nicer. No one squabbles. For spiritual and ethical guidance there’s a talking lion.

Everything is good and wholesome at Cair Paravel, even if just a tiny bit priggish and smug. There are sometimes battles to fight, against envious oiks who want what Narnia has, but don your cuirass, your sallet, your fauld and your spauldron, parry and thrust awhile, and the oiks, natural cowards that they are, will retreat in shame.

Puberty is as yet a distant threat at Cair Paravel. Indeed, nothing sullies the loveliness. No one counts the debits and credits, there are no interfering bureaucrats, no constraining regulations, no spending reviews, no deficits, no cancer, no garlic, no cocaine, no coronavirus. And whilst not everyone is equal (after all, you can only be royal if you went to a good school) everyone seems happy enough, banqueting and quaffing mead together in the great hall of the castle – only enough, mind you, to make them merrie. No one is drunk and boorish at Cair Paravel.

I loved the Chronicles of Narnia until I was about sixteen (far too long, you might say). The muscular Christianity, the moral certainty, the nobility of it all – the clothes, too, and the talking animals. But in reality it has all the verisimilitude of Katharine Hepburn as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, make-believe nonsense that does a disservice to the multi-faceted, complex, competitive world we live in.

The oiks, after all, have their own point of view, their own moral certainties, their own talking animals, their own ‘good schools’. Is there anything as dangerous as righteousness, certainty or nationalism masquerading as patriotism? Better by far to compromise and cooperate, and to pool our sovereignty. We’re all of us oiks after all.

I dream of a time when the flag of the EU will once again flutter above the parapets of Cair Paravel.

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.

Fear, Trembling and Blunt Instruments

It seems that someone at Remain headquarters has decided that the only useful weapon available to those who want to avoid Brexit is the blunt instrument of fear. Yesterday George Osborne put forward the Treasury’s view that GDP will be ‘six percent lower’ in 2030 if Britain leaves the EU and families will be on average ‘4,300 pounds poorer’.

And this is how BBC News reported it at first, only in later bulletins adding ‘than would otherwise be the case,’ because, of course, the Treasury doesn’t mean ‘poorer than now‘,  or ‘total GDP smaller than now‘. Rather, they mean ‘poorer than we would otherwise be‘ and ‘smaller than it would otherwise be.‘ Without that qualification, Brexit sounds alarming indeed.

bluntinstrument

But even so, it’s a very contentious claim. Have we ever been able to trust Treasury, EU, IMF or Word Bank economic projections for 14 years ahead? Who’s to say what busts and booms, dotcom or subprime, will trip up the world economy between now and then. What about natural disasters, or global warming? It’s speculative crystal ball gazing. No one can look that far ahead with any confidence.

In any case, consider these calculations:

Average real UK GDP growth over the last 60 years has been 2.47%. Projecting the same rate forward we can expect the economy to be nearly 41% larger in 2030 than now. Even if the economy is six percent ‘smaller’ it will still be nearly 35% larger.

The UK’s average salary has risen by about 2.96% a year over the last sixty years. Projecting forward to 2030, we might expect the average salary to rise from around 26,500 to 39,900 GBP. Even if the average family (I take that to mean two adults on an average salary) is 4,300 GBP ‘poorer’ the same family will be richer by 22,500 GBP.

Overall, I find the economic arguments petty and confusing. Frankly, I think no one really knows what the impact of Brexit might be, short term, medium term or long term, local or global. I am swayed one way or the other by whoever is currently pontificating on the subject. But one thing is clear – everyone seems to have decided that it’s the only topic worth arguing about. So Remain paints a picture of catastrophe, and Leave talks up the economic freedom we will enjoy on Brexit. No one really knows, but no one talks about the other, more important, benefits of Remain.

I’m very definitely for Remain, and not because of any economic arguments one way or another. I’m an admirer of supranational European values and justice (admittedly a work in progress). I’m also for radical reform, for more obvious democracy, less corruption and less waste. I’m also for expansion eastwards to include Ukraine, Moldova and Turkey, perhaps even Russia (post-Putin!). Europe has kept the peace for 70 years and established an admirable and increasingly comfortable way of life for hundreds of millions of citizens. I’ve seen former Soviet bloc nations embrace and enjoy nearly everything that Europe stands for. And if Europe is to continue to play a significant role on the world stage in the decades to come, as China rises, it would be better if we were to stay together. It’s not just about Britain. Brexit will damage whatever survives of the EU.

Everything depends on how you put things, and journalists are sometimes slow to understand the implications of, and the assumptions behind apparently simple statements. There was another report on the BBC website that annoyed me yesterday – Three Day Working Week ‘optimal’ for Over 40s. It explains that researchers in Australia have found that part-time workers over 40 do better in intelligence tests than full-time workers over 40.

It was bad reporting because the writer doesn’t challenge the obvious question (which, I hope at least the original researchers have considered) – isn’t it the case that those who choose part-time work are more intelligent, have pursued more lucrative careers and therefore possess the economic resources that enable them to go part-time? It needn’t, surely, be the part-time work that is ‘causing’ their greater intelligence.

 

Faceless Bureaucracy – the EU Trough and What to Do About It

If I’m honest, I couldn’t with certainty name a single Member of the European Parliament, though I’m pretty sure that UKIP’s unlovely Nigel Farage may be one of them (it’s a cruel irony that the only one I can name is amongst its most vociferous critics).

I couldn’t tell you much about the EU’s mechanisms but I know they’re inefficient, interfering, lavish and – dare I say it – from time to time, corrupt. Brussels is a trough at which politicians and civil servants of all stripes feed.

And then there’s that occasional, inexplicable, and expensive flit to Strasbourg.

faceless bureaucrat

Even so, I strongly support the idea and practice of the EU, for all its faults. I admire the (secular, not Christian) European Values of democracy, freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary, and human rights.

I greatly admired the EU’s role in restoring the former Soviet bloc nations to their rightful places in Europe. I believe the free market is generally a good thing, but I’m less sure of the Euro, since if it’s to work really well there would need to be closer political union, and I don’t think most countries want that. I would like to see tax harmonisation. I would like to see Turkey join, because it would be good for the world and a triumph of universal secular values. And, of course, I want the UK to remain inside it.

In case you’re as ignorant as I am, there’s a useful two-minute introduction to the workings of the EU on the BBC’s News Website (you can find it somewhere near the bottom of this page). Watch it and perhaps you’ll come to understand the relationship between the Commission (the civil service and the origin of most of EU law), the European Council (made up of heads of Government), the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice.

Having watched the video, I almost understand the different roles of the President of the European Commission (Jean-Claude Juncker) and the President of the European Council (Donald Tusk).

The Commission is the executive arm (but also proposes law, which is strange).

The Parliament passes law.

The Court adjudicates on law.

The Council, comprised of the EU’s 28 Prime Ministers or executive Presidents, provides political direction (but also makes some critical decisions).

It would take more than a couple of minutes, I fear, to understand how all of these work together.

The EU’s evils, such as they are, are not unique to the EU. You can find inefficiency and corruption to varying degrees in every political institution, indeed every human institution. But with determination these could be tackled. Making recognisable people accountable for mistakes might help.

The greater problem lies with the EU’s facelessness. We simply don’t know the people who are debating policy at the EU’s Parliament, and we know even less about the people who are executing it. I couldn’t tell you when the Parliament sits or anything at all about the laws it’s passed. The result is that nobody cares very much about it. And yet, they resent the result.

So, why not replace all these unknown members of the European Parliament with the domestic politicians we’re familiar with? Why not have three or four brief sessions each year (a week at most) at which our domestic Prime Ministers, Ministers, and Members of the Opposition  can represent us (in proportion to their representation in domestic Parliaments and the population of their countries). We might listen to them. There would be much less law, but I don’t think anyone would mind about that, and I’ve no doubt it would cost a lot less. It might even lead to a shrinkage of the Commission. The important thing is that we might, finally, take a little more interest in what’s happening in the European Union. We might just feel ‘connected’.

Anyone got a better idea?

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.

Flying the EU Flag

I’m delighted to see the European Union flag flying (or, more accurately, hanging limply) in the foyer of our office building in Prague. Part of a Czech Ministry has taken up residence just a few metres away from my desk. I look forward to the happy buzz of busy bureaucrats.

euczflag

A few weeks ago a Romanian friend asked me, with an unfeigned air of perplexity, if I thought it likely that the United Kingdom would leave the EU. I said I thought it very possible, perhaps even 40% likely, though I, myself, would be sorry if it were to happen.

For Romanians, and for many citizens of the new member states, most of them formerly members of the Warsaw Pact or the Soviet Union, joining the EU felt like a homecoming, the reassertion, in many cases, of values they had once lived by or aspired to live by. ‘Joining Europe’ has brought economic benefits, as investment and subsidies have flowed eastwards, and as new markets have opened, but it’s the emotional sense of belonging to Europe, of a belief in common values, that fixes these nations in the Union.

Though the average citizen might find it hard to articulate the meaning of ‘Europe’ if stopped in the street and asked, it’s more or less obvious to the newcomers what Europe stands for – very often things they didn’t have, such as freedom of speech, human rights, democracy, an independent judiciary, a free press, property rights, the rule of law (including equality under the law), open and efficient Government, qualified capitalism, equality of opportunity. And more, no doubt.

By contrast, the argument in the UK is presented as a technical one, not an emotional one. Will we be better off or worse off, in or out of the EU? Perhaps because the values and standards I’ve listed are second nature to the British, any politician who recited them would be ridiculed as talking sentimental piffle. We take these values for granted, as if they’ve always belonged to us, were even invented by us. We’ve lived by and fought for these values over centuries.

For us, these ideas are endemic, so there’s no sense that we’ve gained very much by joining a club that promotes them and protects them. We’re up to the task of protecting our way of life without the help of others. So the idea of ‘Europe’ exerts no strong magnetic attraction, certainly insufficient to prevent the United Kingdom drifting off into the Atlantic. In fact, we seem only to resent the EU’s administration of these ideas, and especially if we disagree on their detailed interpretation.

The real shame is that the EU has failed to blow its own trumpet. It’s been useless at promoting itself and the hugely successful, hugely precious values that underpin it. My own view is that ‘European’ politicians lack the stature and celebrity of our national representatives. I would like to see a short European Parliament peopled by the heavyweight politicians we already know. That way we might feel part of it.

Sadly, the current debate in the United Kingdom is dominated by those who want Out, and no one argues passionately for the In case on matters of principle, preferring merely to rubbish the case for Out. We need some positive rather than negative arguments.

I see the EU’s circle of stars here and there as I travel about Europe, even in countries outside the EU where money is being spent to raise the standards of education, transport, and other institutions. For example, in  Moldova, the EU’s investment is a benign political influence, and as the EU’s values spread, so the world will become a better and a safer place.

It’s great to see limp EU flags hanging in the foyers of Government offices, but seeing them only reminds me of how much more work the EU must do to convince the British and many others that the whole project is worthwhile.