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?

philosophers

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.

 

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.

 

Business Ethics in ‘Eastern Europe’ – Concluding Thoughts

I have lived and worked in ‘Eastern Europe’ since the summer of 1987, when the region still lay behind the ‘Iron Curtain’. The last years of Soviet-inspired communism were apathetic rather than fervently ideological, and cynicism about public institutions – Government, the law, the media and politics – was the norm.

On the other hand, greed and materialism had little to work with. Following the collapse of Soviet Communism private enterprise emerged and finally flourished, unconstrained, on the whole, by law and morality. The crumbling assets of the former regime were up for grabs, and grabbed they were.

eastern europe

I’ve written four posts on the ethical framework of those years, and have itemised many of the ways in which the cynical businessman might exploit his partners, competitors, suppliers, employees and the state.

Ethics and Business – ‘Eastern Europe’ after the Revolutions

Business Ethics in ‘Eastern Europe’ -Everyday Misdemeanours

Business Ethics in ‘Eastern Europe’ – Further Opportunities for Mischief

Business Ethics in ‘Eastern Europe’ – Tax Evasion and Other Ills

It was within this framework that I built my own company LLP Group in Prague from 1992. Staying ‘clean’ was not impossible, but it was difficult, assailed as one was by requests for bribes, and recommendations by clever accountants of clever tax avoidance and evasion schemes. It was the Wild East, where anything went, and where the Government was always and ineptly in catch-up mode.

As LLP grew and spread across the region – to Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Russia, and Slovakia – I tried to spread the ethical word through frequent visits and by explicitly documenting the company’s policies. In the management manual I wrote as guidance for local managers I made it clear, for example, that if a gift (a bottle of wine at Christmas, a box of chocolates, flowers, a lunch or dinner) could not be declared by the recipient to his or her manager (and so on up the tree) then it counted as a bribe.

Times have changed, and business ethics have reached a much higher standard. By chance we found ourselves, in 2010, involved in clearing up the ethical mess of the UK’s Parliamentary expenses, as the supplier of the expense management system into which all MPs’ must now enter their Parliamentary expenses. I was proud that an Eastern European company was chosen, especially in the light of everything I’ve said. It no longer seems obviously absurd.

I’ve painted a dismal picture of business ethics in Eastern Europe. Most of what I’ve described was common practice before admission to the EU. It’s less common now, but still not infrequent. Business with the public sector is still as corrupt as ever but in the private sector less so. Business with international companies and organisations is overwhelmingly clean.

Joining the European Union (there were two waves of admission – in 2004 and 2007) has helped, and I think the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, are cleaner than they were. I would guess that if you were to award the UK nine out of ten for business probity, you could probably give these four countries six out of ten. Four out of ten, perhaps for the Balkans (Romania and Bulgaria), two out of ten to Russia, one out of ten to Ukraine.

If you’re an investor considering investment in a business in Eastern Europe (or anywhere else, for that matter), how can you judge that a business is ethically sound?

There are audit firms that specialise in ‘ethical audits’ but I am sceptical as to how thoroughly and imaginatively they can do their research.

  • You must look at how a business treats its suppliers, its employees, its customers, and the wider community it operates in.
  • Are its products harmful? If so, does it take steps to mitigate that harm, and inform its market of the dangers of its products (I’m thinking of drink, drugs, sugar, fats, and sex).
  • Is it careful with its consumption of energy?
  • Does it treat the environment well, and clean up the damage it might do?
  • Is it, literally, a blot on the landscape?
  • Does it encourage its employees to study?
  • Does it retain its employees and foster their career development?
  • Is it reasonable with regard to medical absences, maternity, or paternity leave?
  • Are its offices and workshops safe and pleasant?
  • Does it encourage employee feedback?
  • Is staff turnover an indication of care or disregard?
  • Does it pay its suppliers on time?
  • Does it strenuously avoid, or evade tax?
  • Does it contribute to good causes and do so with the active involvement of managers and staff?
  • Does it abuse the EU’s largesse?

These are difficult questions to answer when you’re looking at a business form the outside, and from a distance, but to be really sure that you’re investing ethically, in the wider sense, I would suggest you need answers to them all.

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.