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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.