Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker: Last Tango The Video

What if Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker were characters from a scandalous 1970s movie? What sorts of things might they say to each other as they exchange knowing glances? This parody answers that question… Later, we discuss Theresa May’s approach to Brexit, and whether there’s a scientific explanation for why Brexit seems to have caused the political process to break down.

Having advertised the video in a “coming attractions” post, I’m glad to have completed it. Maybe not everyone shares my “out” sense of humour or will take the film references, but once I got the idea and made some preliminary sketches, I had to see it through.

What was most interesting was working on the graphics, spending a lot of time in Dynamic Auto Painter and Photoshop to come up with things that worked. The main image visible for most of the video is a composite of several versions done in DAP, then combined on layers in Photoshop, painting with white or black paint on the layer masks to bring out the best features of each. This is a good way to use tools like Dynamic Auto Painter. Keep experimenting until you have a few different versions that you like, then work on combining them into a composition that reflects careful aesthetic judgement, and is not merely a pushbutton exercise.

The final (abstract) image in the video is based on customising the “Sunflowers” preset in DAP, then adding more texture in Photoshop, running the Texturizer filter with different channels loaded, and combining the results using layers and modes.

When trying to create a more 3D paint texture in Photoshop, you usually want to inspect the different channels and choose the one which shows the most variation and contrast. In this case, even though the underlying image was RGB, I ended up converting it to CYMK and saving the yellow channel as a texturizing source.

Sidebar: Theresa May, Brexit, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

I heard an interesting discussion on LBC regarding whether Theresa May could have handled Brexit differently, or whether she was compelled by political circumstances to follow the course that she did:

This is the episode of James O’Brien’s call-in show where the now famous “Dino The Doctor” made an appearance (toward the end), and was subsequently written up in the Grimsby Telegraph. There are other good callers from diverse backgrounds who help round out the discussion. O’Brien’s riffing is in top form. (Do the Brexit Okey Cokey!)

In theory, in a universe in which we each have absolute free will, Theresa May could have done things quite differently. But most of us tend to be bound by our past choices and the institutions to which we’ve hitched our fate. In practice, we are more like the man caught in a net who has only limited freedom of movement, which he might use to try and free himself.

One can find many things to admire about Theresa May; yet, she did not have the degree of insight or strength of character that would allow her to break free from her assigned role as deliverer of Brexit. Indeed, that was a role she volunteered to play for the Tory party. She may genuinely believe that Brexit was the product of a praiseworthy democratic process, and therefore must be delivered “for the people.” But to what extent does this view reflect institutional blinders, and the blinders that come from personal ambition? Once she saw herself as the hero-bureaucrat who would deliver Brexit, how could she bear to face the truth that Brexit is bad policy, and that lies and corruption played a considerable role in winning the vote for Leave?

I’ve also been pondering the myth that the day after the referendum, the 48% who voted Remain were supposed to roll over and play dead. Brexit is not the kind of issue that can be settled by a one-time referendum. The UK has been involved in a relationship with the EU for over forty years. Many individuals and businesses are deeply invested personally, emotionally, financially, even spiritually in that relationship. They care. It was never reasonable to think they would meekly consent to having that relationship ripped away from them. Contrary to claims by Nigel Farage, that’s not how democracy is supposed to work. The rights of a significant minority need to be respected. Difficult issues require nuanced solutions in order build consensus, and Brexit was anything but nuanced. Changes which are fundamentally destructive of an existing long-standing relationship should be difficult to enact, and should require a confirmatory vote.

Granted that the initial referendum was a terrible idea; still, I find myself wondering in hindsight if it would have been fairer had it been subject to the following conditions:

– Three fifths majority in the popular vote
– Majority of nations must vote Leave

I do think that would have been fairer, and obviously would have been a win for Remain. Where we are now, with Leave winning by a slender 4% majority in the popular vote, and two out of the four nations voting Remain, it’s a hopeless muddle that will take years to resolve, and a great many people who are barely surviving today may go under in the interim.

Now, is there any scientific reason why Brexit might cause the system to break down? The answer is yes. A parliamentary system of government is a type of formal system, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem tells us that every formal system is incomplete. A corollary to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is that it’s always possible to introduce a formula into any formal system which will cause it to break down.

I learned about this stuff by reading Douglas Hofstadter’s excellent book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid back in the day. He manages to be entertaining and funny while dealing with some profound concepts. He constructed a wonderful dialogue to illustrate exactly the point I’m making about formal systems and how you can feed them a proposition that will cause them to break down. Read it here. He uses the metaphor of a record player, i.e. phonograph (you know, like vinyl… what your grandparents still have.)

His dialogues often feature Achilles, the Tortoise, and the Crab. Here, a smooth-talking salesman has persuaded the gullible Crab to purchase a phonograph alleged to be Perfect — able to reproduce any sounds whatsoever. However, the shrewd Tortoise quickly dashes the Crab’s unrealistic expectations by bringing over a record entitled “I Cannot Be Played on Record Player I.” Sure enough, when the Crab attempts to play the record, the sounds produced create vibrations which cause the phonograph to self-destruct into a gajillion pieces!

Now, a democratic government is not a formal system in the precise way that Principia Mathematica is a formal system. Still, many people believe their system of government is Perfect and can withstand any shock, when the truth is that it’s possible to seriously foul up the system by feeding it garbage like the Brexit referendum or Donald Trump.

While no formal system is perfect, democratic political systems can be beefed up so that they’re more resistant to certain types of attacks. Democracy is more likely to flourish where you have:

– A well-educated public that doesn’t easily fall for racist propaganda or other appeals to base sentiment.

– Strictly enforced campaign finance laws which prevent dark or foreign money from influencing elections, and nullify the results if violations are uncovered.

– A free press which takes its responsibilities seriously and actively “truth-squads” claims by politicians, not permitting blatant lies to gain equal footing with established facts (a problem sometimes known as “false balance”).

Arguably, the way the Brexit referendum caused the system to break down is that it attempted to take a complex, multi-dimensional and highly technical issue about which people also feel passionately, and reduce it to a one-time binary choice — based, furthermore, on often misleading information. There is an element of falsity to doing this which is similar to introducing wrong figures into an equation, or attempting to divide by zero. Hence the breakdown.

It’s not easy to put Humpty Dumpty back together again after a rupture of this magnitude. Somewhat paradoxically or non-intuitively, a second referendum may actually help. The thinking is that a second referendum held three years later would be based on more accurate information, a more realistic assessment of what leaving the EU would actually mean, and a recognition that it would be a process which would take years to complete, and would involve “reinventing the wheel” in many areas of daily life where the UK already enjoys good solutions based on EU membership.

Then too, Brexit has been called “a solution in search of a problem.” One of the problems invented by politicians selling Brexit door-to-door was the notion that the UK had somehow lost its sovereignty and needed to get it back by leaving the EU. Such claims may have lost their lustre in the face of increasing factory closures and job losses due to Brexit.

Immigration was portrayed as nothing but a bother (or even a danger); but now that restaurants are closing because they can’t find sufficient wait staff, and the NHS is challenged to fulfill its social care mission due to lack of nurses, some Leavers are realising that European immigrants were performing vital functions in jobs that native-born Britons don’t want and won’t take.

Admittedly, there’s still the “fact vs. feeling” hurdle to get over. As I discuss elsewhere, the real world data flowing in mostly favours Remain, while Leave sentiment is still being aggressively stoked by Nigel Farage et al. If that’s not a breakdown, I don’t know what is.

Another concern about a second referendum is that Leavers will trot out the same bag of dirty tricks which (let’s face it!) worked so well for them during the first referendum. Would we see a Breaking Point II poster, and would another MP be assassinated by a crazed right-winger? Or has the general public become less gullible, less excitable in the intervening years, and would campaign finance violations be monitored more closely second time ’round?

I remain optimistic that truth will gradually out, and real world data will eventually overtake the type of faux patriotism (read jingoism) which Farage is peddling. If Brexit cannot be stopped today, then delay, delay, delay! Perhaps it can be stopped tomorrow through democratic means. Democracy includes a rich palette of tools, and it’s absolutely wrong when Leavers claim that a one-time referendum is the only tool in the kit that’s relevant to deciding the issue of Brexit. The UK’s relationship with the EU is something living, vibrant, and essential in the lives of millions of people. It will take more than a one-time binary referendum to kill it off. When MPs take a firm stand by voting against Brexit, that’s just as much a part of the democratic process as was the original referendum. They are not being undemocratic (nor are they “traitors”) for trying to protect against a bad policy that would actually harm their constituents. Indeed, under a parliamentary system it is their obligation to do so. If anyone can be accurately described as traitorous, it’s those who give in to the tide of populism and support Brexit in spite of privately admitting that it’s bad policy.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Good Energy at the Change UK Presser on April 23

Discussing the breakdown of the two main UK political parties, and what recent local elections may tell us about Brexit. Also asking the trenchant question “How do you fight feelings with facts?”

I’m not saying I believe in politics to the nth degree. Often times, politics is where hope goes to die. It’s a rough business. So I continue to be amazed at the degree of hope (or hopefulness) expressed by the new Change UK party (affectionately known as the Tigs or Tiggers). I can only say that the sun continues to shine on them.

When someone starts a new venture, I’m a firm believer in looking to the consciousness with which that venture begins — the consciousness of the people involved. The consciousness of Change UK is very good. There’s a spirit of dynamism, cheerful cooperation, even joy. This differs greatly from the two major parties, who seem locked in extreme positions on many important issues, and who often find it difficult to get beyond politics as usual.

Both the Conservatives and Labour support Brexit (or at least their leadership does). What’s that about? Politics as usual. The truth that Brexit is bad policy and will hurt the UK and its people is a politically inconvenient truth, so it is ignored (or perhaps not even seen) by leadership of the two main parties.

When political parties ossify, they act to a considerable extent like blinders. Members can’t see or won’t see the truth which is right in front of them. It is sometimes necessary to break away and start a new party in order to embrace a new or modern vision of the world as it really is — not as it once was, or as various hardened political and economic theories would have it be. Of course, none of this is to suggest that there aren’t good people in the Conservative and Labour parties. Certainly there are, but they’re often constrained by the political machine.

At its best, Change UK is a group of former Labour and Conservative MPs who have now taken off the party blinders and walked out into the sunlight, metaphorically holding hands. There’s joy and freedom in that. That sense of joy and freedom is palpable in the way they present themselves.

There were many excellent speeches delivered by the women and men of Change UK on April 23. I happen to have been struck by a couple of comments from Chuka Umunna and Mike Gapes which I found forward-looking and reflective of a true and accurate picture of the world as it is:

If you (like us) love your country, and you believe the UK is a kind-hearted place, generous in spirit, and should be open to new ideas — people of different backgrounds, creeds, colours, and religions; if you are proud of our history, but also determined to embrace the future, and transform the UK into a place where all our citizens get to enjoy the benefits of modern Britain; if you believe absolutely key to achieving these things is working at an international level through the EU and other international partners, keeping our seat at the top table, then sign up as a supporter and campaign for us in these European elections. We must change our politics. We have to change the trajectory we’re on. If you want to bring an end to this Brexit nightmare, vote for us because we are the party of change. Thank you very much, everybody. – Chuka Umunna

One of the tragedies in British political history is that we have never discussed the reason why the European Community (and then the European Union) was established. We’ve never really put across the importance of bringing together France and Germany, and preventing war on the continent, and the fact that the European Union has been one of the greatest peace projects. And when the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in other European countries that was regarded as a badge of pride. In this country, we had cyncial sneers from the mainstream media, or even no recognition of the importance of that. And our [older] generation has to remember that these debates today are not about us. They are about future young people in our continent, and insuring that we maintain that peace, as well as the economic prosperity, the good environmental standards, the international cooperation, and the vision that the European Union provides to the rest of the world of a successful, peaceful cooperation between twenty-eight countries. – Mike Gapes

Listening to their comments, my reaction was Yes! They get it! They’re seeing the world as it really is today, and looking rightly toward the future.

Now, politics breeds cynicism as proliferously as rabbits breed more rabbits. The cloud of cynicism which envelops UK politics does indeed extend to journalists, who may well be sceptical that a small band of dissenters can be of much use.

I find it helpful to distinguish between political power on the one hand, and being right on the other hand. The two do not always go together. Often, those with political power have gotten it by foul means, including telling blatant lies to the people, or making compromises with the devil. Those with a clear vision of what is right and true often do not have much political power, but this doesn’t mean they are without influence.

This is a place where the political world meets the spiritual world. We desperately need visionaries, people who see the world as it is — not in the mundane sense of the price of halibut or the efficacy of rhubarb subsidies, but in the more profound sense of what brings us together as human beings, and how we can make the world a better place, not just locally but globally.

Of course, most politics is local and tends to be governed by self-interest. (‘And what will you give me?/ Say the sad bells of Rhymney.’) But in order to make the world a better place, we need to rise above petty self-interest and momentary advantage or gain, and embrace a vision for the future which we must first endeavor to see.

Politics is only one facet of that vision for the future, but politics plays an important role in how we move forward (or fail to do so). Politicians whose vision for the future is dynamic, enlightened, and consonant with that greater vision which proceeds from spiritual insight are really the gold standard among politicians, whether or not they hold much power. By being right and speaking rightly, they can move things in a good direction, even when acting from the margins. Plus, there is great personal salvation in speaking up for what you believe, even if no one listens!

Members of the UK’s two main political parties often have to “go along to get along.” This becomes distasteful to some people who hunger after truth. So, it becomes a personal decision whether one cares more for the old school tie and a safe home in politics (recalling the Peter Hamill song), or whether one cares more for truth unvarnished by political expediency. As the two main parties become increasingly shrill and wedded to inflexible ideologies, it stands to reason they will chalk up more defections from people who care more for truth. Perhaps there’s some indication of this in Friday’s local election results, where Tories and Labour lost ground to Lib Dems, Greens, and Independents. The numbers are impressive and are being interpreted by some as an anti-Brexit vote — if so, good news!

The BBC’s ‘England Scoreboard’ showing who lost and won in local council elections, May, 2019

There’s a very odd disconnect between those actual results — in which staunch Remain parties chalked up the greatest victories — and the claims of both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, who are trying to spin this as a “just get on with Brexit” vote. If you want Brexit to happen, you certainly don’t vote for Lib Dems or Greens. (Change UK were not standing in these elections. Their first major test will come in the European elections three weeks hence.)

I want to discuss one other item from the Change UK presser. A trenchant point was made by audience member Simon Knighton, who chairs a not-for-profit health and social care facility. He said:

I believe that you cannot challenge emotion with fact. So, one of the mistakes I think that we’ve made consistently in the United States and in the referendum here was that we tried to challenge the emotion of the right with facts and experts, and everybody saying this, this, and this, and we wheel out the next expert. I think what we need to do — Chuka said it — there are two visions of Europe: We need to accentuate the positive vision of Britain as a free partnership, modern demcocracy in a global world in which our young people are equipped to move from job to job to job. And those become the defining policies of our future.

Knighton’s point is similar to George Lakoff on not responding to negative framing, but rather creating your own positive frame. This is helpful, but not a universal panacea. As LBC broadcaster James O’Brien has pointed out, much of the Leave campaign amounted to telling working class folk that European immigrants are out to nick your biscuit, and the only way to stop them is to vote Leave. It’s not clear that talk of Britain as a free partnership, modern democracy in a global world, etc. would entirely dispel the fear of biscuit-nicking, which is more immediate and less abstract. Still, offering a positive vision is helpful. Facts are also helpful to people who are halfway reasonable. A few people do change their minds in response to higher quality information about Brexit as that flows in, dispelling fantasies of sunny uplands and a massive windfall for the NHS.

Knighton’s comment that “you cannot challenge emotion with fact” really got me thinking — not just about politics, but about my own activities favouring religious tolerance. There’s often a tacit assumption among intellectuals that simply explaining the facts should dispel hatred, intolerance, religious bigotry, or even belief in the much-storied Brexit Unicorn. In an article mostly about US politics, I wrote:

In his testimony before a British House of Commons committee, whistleblower Chris Wylie explained that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica (of which he is former research director) doesn’t have to turn a profit like a normal company because it’s subsidized by New York billionaire Robert Mercer. It can therefore act as a covert means of funneling huge contributions to political causes handpicked by Mercer, regardless of supposed limits set by law. This is a concrete example of dark money being used to rig elections, employing hi-tech means as well as the latest psychological theories about how to manipulate voters by getting inside their heads and playing to their fears, using personal data scraped from Facebook.

This is the brave new world in which we presently live, where thinking people are held hostage to a populist majority which reacts slavishly to psychological stimuli supplied by political operatives obsessed with kingmaking. It is an ugly world, and just as we have a duty to leave our children a clean environment, we also have a duty to apply an emissions test to our politicians, rejecting and removing those who cast an odiferous pall over our nation, or pollute the seas of discourse with the toxic sludge of “alternative facts.”

At what point does political science become the science of psychologically manipulating the masses using lies, propaganda, fear, hatred, high technology, and stolen data? When people have been subjected to extensive psychological manipulation, including a large quantity of false and hateful depictions (such as graphics which Cambridge Analytica takes credit for, showing Hillary Clinton in handcuffs), how genuine are the resulting emotions?

These are difficult questions since at the populist level, people are taught to treat their emotions as sacrosanct. If the motto of the intellectual was once “I think, therefore I am” the motto of the Facebook consumer may be “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Yet, emotions can be manipulated. How can we judge their genuineness?

Democracy works best in an environment of openness and honesty. Too much money (especially dark money) is one universal surd in the political mathematic. The use of covert psychological manipulation employing hi-tech means is another significant threat. It remains to be seen whether democracy can survive the dual onslaught of billionaires funding covert psyops to shoe in their handpicked candidates.

An enduring question for our time: How do you fight feelings with facts? How do you get people to look more deeply into their responses to political advertisements or other forms of propaganda which try to bypass reason and appeal to their least noble selves, their fears and prejudices?

Insight is needed, but insight cannot be bought as cheaply as propaganda. Insight can come from many sources, including meditation, spiritual readings, and self-reflection.

Insight can also come from better education in civics. Civics courses need to be updated so that people emerge from the educational system better-armed to deal with propaganda, including propaganda which may target them via social media. It seems plain that technology has moved faster than our ability to understand and assimilate it. While progress in technology is good, it also leads to new problems which must be soberly addressed.

The freedom of the Internet includes the freedom to spread propaganda in ways hitherto undreamt of. Propaganda has always been a danger to democracy because it leads people to vote not for the best-qualified candidates or those who appeal to our noblest selves, but rather for candidates who put forth false but tempting arguments, or who appeal to our base emotions and least noble instincts. At its worst, the Internet is propaganda on steroids, injected with greater precision using so-called “psychographic profiling” or other discreditable techniques which seek to identify extremists and rally them to a dubious cause:

One of the problems with politics as a dirty business is the potential for dirt to be done with plausible deniability. The Internet amplifies this problem. If you see a Facebook ad suggesting that the UK will be overrun by criminal aliens unless you vote Leave, is that ad being paid for by an authorised UK group, American billionaire Robert Mercer, or elements of the Russian government? Who really knows these days? It pays to be sceptical. Democracy can best flourish when there is open, respectful dialogue with voters, not when voters are subjected to psyops targeting their subconscious fears.

I don’t claim that Leave used nothing but illegal tactics. Much of what was done was simply politics as we know it. Quoting Leave campaigner and money man Arron Banks (who is under investigation by the National Crime Agency), “It was ruthlessly executed in a businesslike way, and we stayed on message.” But in a crooked game of poker, a hypothetical cheater doesn’t need to produce all aces all night long, in every hand. He can afford to pick his spots. In a referendum that was decided 52 to 48, how many percentage points are attributable to lies, cheating, illegal or immoral tactics? One percent? Two percent? Five percent?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and neither do Change UK. But they do seem to have above average insight, are asking many of the right questions about Britain’s future, and do dialogue respectfully with voters. They’re off to a rollicking good start. May the sun continue to shine on them!

Note: I have not elaborated on the relationship between political propaganda and religious intolerance, but propaganda vilifying some purported “other” is certainly a connecting link. At the present time, much political propaganda targets immigrants as the “other” to be feared and hated. Anti-religious propaganda similarly targets particular religions, leading to the horrific acts of violence we have seen targeting mosques, synagogues, and churches.

Insight and education are tools that can be used to lessen religious hatred. A high school and college textbook like Mary Pat Fisher’s excellent Living Religions can help people gain insight into the world’s religions. Where there is insight and understanding, it is difficult for intolerance to take root. The feeling vs. fact dichotomy is not insoluble. Where people are exposed to an environment which stresses tolerance, this can have a mediating effect. Understanding which encompasses both head and heart may ensue. Persons sought can be found. Help is available. Clarity is pleasurable. 🙂


Sidebar: The Independent Group and Mrs Pritchard

In February 2019, a group of Labour MPs defected from the party and formed their own centrist Independent Group (now Change UK), soon to be joined by a few Tory MPs. This has spawned vigorous debate about the role of independent parties, whether they can survive and thrive, what role money plays in UK politics, and how refugees from right and left-wing parties can coexist together. Many of these questions have already been addressed in the 2006 miniseries The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, written by Sally Wainwright. This clip consists of edited highlights from Episode 1, framing the issues for purposes of political discussion. Its relevance to Change UK is enhanced by the sense that both the fictional Purple Alliance and Change UK share a strong feminist component.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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The Brexit Unicorn – Doctor Who vs. Boris Johnson

That pesky Brexit Unicorn has been sighted again! Is it real or a legend? Should we believe in it? Who would think up a crazy notion like this? And in a contest of wits, who will win: Doctor Who or Boris Johnson?

BREAKING: The Bear & Staff changes its name to The Brexit Unicorn:

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Brexit: Irish Backstop For Dummies (video)

With a little help from The Cranberries, and footage from the People’s Vote March, London, 3-23-2019

In my (literally) fevered brain, I’ve been searching for a way to make a statement about the People’s Vote March, the Irish Backstop, and the seeming lack of concern among politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg over the violence which could ensue in Northern Ireland if things aren’t handled just right. This is it:

Full screen it for best effect, and choose 720p. Any problem with the embedded video, try this Dropbox link:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/96u0is2hoka9gdr/Irish%20Backstop%20For%20Dummies.mkv

I also made an animated GIF for added exposure:

During peacetime, we don’t recognize how fragile and precious peace is, and how easily the peace can be lost. To use a stupid pop analogy, it’s like a game of Jenga, where removing the United Kingdom from the European Union may cause a chain reaction which sends the Towers of Peace crumbling.

In the video, different media sources are blended to create an ironic commentary in the guise of a “for dummies” book, with British MP Jacob Rees-Mogg cast in the role of dummy (or zombie). The French version of “for dummies” is “pour les Nuls,” as was kindly explained to me 20 years ago by my then workmate Virginie Ducrot.

During the time of the “Troubles,” a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was a source of constant fighting in which thousands died, including innocent children. Then the Good Friday Agreement established an open border and fighting ended. Yet, the same forces still exist in Northern Ireland today, and might easily be re-ignited by Brexit. But the Brexiteers gave no thought to the Irish border, and don’t take seriously the need to avoid a hard border at all cost. What’s in their heads?

The Cranberries’ music video “Zombie” was banned by the BBC. It’s not hard to understand why. It’s one of those pieces of art that forces you to confront difficult issues. At first, I worried that the Crucifixion theme was sacrilegious. But while some of the imagery is garish, it makes the powerful point that innocent children are being crucified, and the consciousness behind this killing is not noble or heroic — it’s more in the nature of a gnawing spirit of hatred that knows no mercy.

This January marked the one year anniversary of Dolores O’Riordan’s tragic death at the too young age of 46. Her song “Zombie” transcended the Irish Troubles and became an anthem decrying senseless violence between warring tribes wherever it occurs — from Bosnia to Rwanda. As she hailed from Limerick, I offer her this sincere tribute:

There was a young girl named Dolores,
Who echoed a powerful chorus;
She protested the killing,
And in Heaven, God willing
She’ll put in a goodly word for us.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Serious Talk About Brexit – Part 2

(Well, mostly serious — with a sidebar on RINOs, WINOs, BRINOs, TINOs, and Tiggers.)

(Part 1 here.)

UPDATED! Those making an honest, fact-based cost-benefit analysis of Brexit are coming back to say, “Leave the EU? Are you barking?” But those wedded to Leave as a political ideology (almost a religion) are turning every fact-based study counterclockwise (putting their thumbs on the scale, so to speak) in order to continue stoking the emotional fervor for Leave. Apparently, “It’s all about democracy.” Toffee-nosed Tories like Jacob Rees-Mogg are transformed almost overnight into humble servants of the common folk — the latter demanding that politicians deliver Brexit or else.

But who was it who aggressively propagandized the common folk (sometimes using dark or foreign money) in order to persuade them that Brexit was something like re-fighting the Second World War or repelling an invasion of terroristic foreigners? I admit this is an oversimplification, but to me Brexit looks like something dreamt up by a clique of eccentric millionaires of the English aristocracy, then put over on the common people by appealing to the worst sentiments in human nature.

(Note: To describe the architects of Brexit as eccentric millionaires may be misleading in that it suggests they act without rhyme or reason. One theory is that at least some of them act with the quite specific intent of turning the UK into a so-called “low-regulation” country where workers’ rights and environmental protection standards are gradually eroded, taxes are lowered, government services are drastically reduced, the NHS is privatised, and food safety falls well below EU standards. Perhaps the mascot for UKIP should be a chlorinated chicken!)

There is presently a similar populist phenomenon in America. Donald Trump has got millions of people begging the government to make them poorer by taking away their health care and lavishing billions on an unnecessary border wall with Mexico. Trump seems increasingly unhinged from reality; to subscribe to his views and policies, one has to intentionally blind oneself to the real world data coming in from reputable professionals whose life work has been to know whereof they speak. So, we can take this as a symptom of populist movements which lead to a dangerous disconnect between real world facts, and policies based on unicorns or folk devils: That symptom is increasing reliance on “alternative facts” and spinning the tale.

I am an American, and am familiar with the “ugly American” and “oafish American” memes which at some points in history have been absolutely spot on, and whose ingredients include imperialism, disdain for anything foreign, and a desire to dominate rather than participate coequally. But have a gander at this video of MEP Nigel Farage addressing the European Parliament just after the 2016 referendum:

Doesn’t he seem to be acting out the worst stereotype of an ugly Britisher? Yet, this type of snide, superior attitude (and corresponding disdain for the EU) is an oft-encountered feature of the Leave movement.

To high EU officials, Farage is both Mr Brexit and Mr Big Mouth. He’s well-known to go out of his way to insult and abuse people just for sport, to be loud, obnoxious, and obstreperous. In the above clip, at 4:10 he famously tells the EU Parliament: “I know that virtually none of you have ever done a proper job in your lives, or worked in business, or worked in trade, or indeed ever created a job. But listen, just listen…”

To the average viewer possessing sense and sensibility, such massive put-downs worthy of an insult comic would be the main takeaway from his speech (plus the loud boos Farage certainly earned). Here’s a quick mashup of the same event, with more comments from MEPs:

But strangely, just after this eccentric performance Farage was interviewed by BBC News, and the accompanying chyrons seem to treat him as a sober statesman, e.g.: “Nigel Farage: The UK is a beacon of hope to democrats.”

Farage is proud of being the perennial “pantomime villain” in EU Parliament, but how does this set the table for Brexit negotiations? Keep in mind that his music-hall comedy act does not consist only of personal abuse.

He’s on record wanting the European Union to fail and die, and never misses an opportunity to gloat over any setback. Thus, he’s about as welcome as a skunk at a garden party; yet he’s arguably the most visible (and audible) face of the UK in Brussels, sapping good will at every opportunity.

To the EU, Brexit represents the odd, temporary victory of no-nothing big mouths like Farage. The EU is committed to minimising the damage incurred from UK withdrawal, while remaining true to core principles.

Compared to Farage’s Eurosceptic or Europhobic view, most young people (who will be the inheritors of whatever policy is adopted) have a completely different view of the EU. They have their British identity, true. But they don’t see that identity as being fundamentally in conflict with the EU. Having grown up with things like open borders, hassle-free travel, cheap and easy access to food and medicine produced in the EU, and close friends who are from the EU, their attitude tends to be open and welcoming. They too want the best deal they can get from the EU, but they’re more apt to believe it can be gotten by staying in. They don’t see the UK as being in a geopolitical conflict with the EU, and don’t agree with the far right that those who fail to support Brexit are “traitors.” Nor do they think the EU is run by (pick your stereotype) Nazis, Soviets, or George Soros. Their daily experience does not lead them to believe that British sovereignty is in danger from EU membership. The two can easily coexist.

The genius of James O’Brien’s Germany+ reframing (see Part 1) is that it gets us beyond the Leave/Remain dichotomy and returns us to the fundamental question: What’s the best deal? Imagine you put a diverse group of voters to a blindfold test of different deals available, using neutral labeling such as Option A, Option B, Option C, etc. Each option would be summarized in neutral language, with no appeals to sentiment, patriotism, or bias of any kind, and no promises of unicorns — only facts that can be agreed upon as accurate by a neutral regulating body composed of respected figures representing diverse views, but no obvious crackpots, demagogues, or politicians-on-the-make.

Under those conditions, it wouldn’t surprise me if a majority of voters chose the option which (when the blindfold was removed) turned out to be Germany+, a.k.a. Remain.

The sad and absurd fact is that after three years of messing about with Brexit, trying to figure out what it would actually mean in practice, a great many experts have concluded that it would mean a poorer UK with a reduced standard of living — especially for those already living in poverty. Under one scenario there would be further depreciation of the British pound, as well as a rise in prices for fruit and veg imported from the EU during late winter/early spring. Under that scenario, some working class families might be reduced to a diet of mostly beans on toast. (Call it Project Fear if you like; it remains a possibility.) And as noted in a lovely dance with language by Baroness Bull in the House of Lords:

Perhaps the biggest threat to women is dependent on what happens to our economy if — and after — we leave the EU. Any negative impacts of an orderly Brexit, or, in the worst case, of leaving without a deal, will hit women — specifically, the most vulnerable women in our society — hardest. Reductions in public spending have a higher impact on women, as the primary users of public services. Cuts in public sector employment or pay disproportionately affect women because of their greater concentration in this sector. Strains on social care increase pressures on women because they are more likely to care for elderly or disabled family members.

Baroness Bull of Aldwych

Again, the problem with large, complex systems with many variables is that no one knows for sure what will happen when you throw the switch on a massive, fairly sudden change. It might come right in the end, but that could take years. In the meantime, a great many individuals and small businesses could go under; and some global firms might minimise investment.

There’s an increasingly odd disconnect between the happy talk of Brexiteers and the real world data coming in. According to The Times, the government have now quietly drawn up plans for a “hardship fund” to be used to offset the negative effects of a no-deal Brexit:

No-deal hardship fund planned for surge in jobless

Ministers are planning a “hardship fund” for Britons impoverished by a no-deal Brexit.

A leaked document from the cabinet committee dedicated to preparing for a chaotic rupture with the European Union reveals the extraordinary scenarios being prepared for in Whitehall.

Other measures under consideration include using “tax and benefits policy” to offset rises in the cost of living, protection for parts of the country “geographically vulnerable” to food shortages and sourcing alternative food for schools, prisons and hospitals.

The plans were drawn up at a meeting this month of the EU exit and trade (preparedness) committee, which is chaired by Theresa May and attended by almost every cabinet minister.

–Henry Zeffman, Political Correspondent

Pity that bit about hardship not being on the big red bus. 😉

Only a few years ago people were saying: “Brexit — What a lovely idea!” Now they’re saying: “Brexit — We made it through the Blitz, we can make it through this.” That’s a scary lesson in how expectations are being managed. Good news, citizens! Your chocolate ration has been raised again: from 30 grams to 20 grams per week.

How We Got Here

It troubles me that lately both the the UK media and politicians seem to have given up questioning how we got here — how the nature of the referendum and the means used to win Leave have led us to the present morass, this inability to reach some kind of deal or consensus. Of course, any reckoning of how we got here must include the “ugly Britisher” act performed by Nigel Farage at EU Parliament for years on end.

I suspect most EU officials are mature, practical people who don’t want to respond with ill will toward the UK, and are trying in good faith to negotiate a withdrawal deal which is fair to all parties. But how many daily insults from the likes of Farage can they withstand, knowing that his style of rhetoric leads to the burning of EU flags in the streets of Britain, and on social media?

Neither the Tories nor UKIP, nor those even farther right, have a clear sense of the ideals upon which the EU was founded, and toward which it tries to gravitate. Quoting Lord Davies of Stamford:

The Tory party has never understood the moral force or the genuine idealism behind the European Union, or its genuine commitment to the concept of solidarity. … The idea that the EU would take a permanent stand on behalf of the Irish, who are rightly defending their right not to have their country divided in half by a hideous permanent border, will not have occurred to them. They will have said, “Oh no. There’s no way that the EU, with 500 million people, will allow a country of 2 million or 3 million to stand in its way”. They were completely wrong on all those points — disastrously wrong.

Brexit is not just bad policy, but bad policy arrived at by questionable means, and championed by questionable figures.

Due to the considerable deception involved in selling Brexit to UK citizenry, when it comes to actual implementation the pieces just don’t fit. There doesn’t seem to be a deal which can be cobbled together to satisfy all (or even most) factions.

Brexit as a concept has built-in structural problems. It was always likely to be deeply divisive; always likely to reanimate the Irish “troubles” and reinvigorate the call for Scottish independence; and as Tony Blair has pointed out, at one end of the Brexit deal spectrum you get a “pointless Brexit,” while at the other end you get a “painful Brexit”:

More and more, Brexit comes to resemble the thing that couldn’t be done, the carpet that couldn’t be laid. You tack it down in one place, it just sticks up in another.

What strikes me as particularly shameful is that leaders of the two main political parties seem engaged in a massive reenactment of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Neither is willing to face the naked truth that Brexit is a sham solution to some very real underlying problems — problems which are best solved whilst remaining in the EU.

If what we truly have is an Emperor’s New Clothes problem, this explains why compromise is so difficult. Those who smile wanly and commend us to adopt pleasant compromises are (in effect) suggesting that the Emperor is partially clothed — a view which pleases no one. (Perhaps he’s wearing only a jockstrap and a clown hat.) The 2016 referendum has arguably created a rift which — like the Catholic/Protestant rift among the Irish — leads to a binary split: Brexit is either the greatest thing since sliced bread, or else it’s total rubbish. Lord Davies claims it’s total rubbish:

This is rubbish. That is the point: this is total rubbish. We are buying hot air. There is nothing in it at all. There are no countervailing economic benefits from Brexit, no economic gains or economic revenues. Not one has been mentioned in the months of discussion here, and not one exists. None exists outside the fantasies of the Government. It is a very serious matter. I do not know whether the Government have deceived themselves, ​but they must not be allowed to deceive the British people.

–Lord Davies of Stamford

Some “good government” types take the position that yes, Brexit is mostly rubbish, but the people did vote for it, so we have to respect their wishes and enact it anyway. But to do so is to reject the very benefits of parliamentary democracy over direct democracy: The Greek philosophers were highly suspicious of direct democracy, having observed firsthand that the common people can easily be misled by false arguments or the arousal of base passions. (Perhaps a big red horse?) Such is the case with Brexit. In a parliamentary democracy, the duty of elected leaders is not to be a rubber stamp for popular sentiment, but to make decisions that will most benefit their constituents. Now, a tough question: Are the MPs who admit that Brexit is mostly rubbish but vote for it anyway really “good government” types? Or are they cowardly politicians, afraid to do the right thing lest they be punished by rowdy Leave voters?

It is in this context that we have to admire members of the new Independent Group. They’re like canaries in the coal mine, giving us all valuable feedback on how toxic British politics has become. They’ve defected from both Labour and Conservative parties, and have coalesced around the need for a People’s Vote. Such a vote, if politically feasible, would not solve all Brexit-related problems; but it would at least clarify whether — after seeing what Brexit looks like in the doing (and the government’s incompetence to implement it) — the people still want the government to proceed. If (as I’ve suggested elsewhere) Brexit is a phenomenon related to the madness of crowds for tulip bulbs and Internet stocks, then the hope for Remainers is that the fancy has largely passed, dampened perhaps by economic reports which trickle out (or are leaked by government officials) that Brexit will likely entail hardship and a lower standard of living for the British people.

The End Game

For both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit may have become a no-win issue. If Brexit is actually implemented in some form, the results may range from suboptimal to catastrophic. Better in the end to find some way of avoiding Brexit, perhaps via a People’s Vote. But whilst a Remain solution may yield better results for most Britons (and avert problems with Scotland and Northern Ireland), both May and Corbyn fear the political repercussions of turning back from the brink. Having hitched their wagons to the black star of Brexit, they fear looking weak, foolish, and indecisive. They dread the backlash from those common folk who have been propagandized to believe that Brexit is “all about democracy,” and that any failure by government to deliver Brexit should be greeted with violence in the streets, and more death threats to politicians.

It’s hard to see how this ends well. But truth will out in the end, so better to be on the side of truth, even as a latecomer, and even if it costs you votes. Perhaps some coalition of Tory Remainers, Labour Remainers, and fledgling Independents will do something brave and noble in the end. But there’s not much time left. (The House of Commons has plenty of green benches, but sadly, only one Green MP: Caroline Lucas.)

The EU can’t tell May in an obvious manner how to resolve the present impasse. But they’ve strongly hinted that they would be willing to reopen negotiations if she were to relax her red lines and work with Labour to come up with a soft Brexit that could garner wide cross-party support.

A soft Brexit is what Tony Blair also calls a “pointless” Brexit. He’s mostly right; but a soft Brexit is also a relatively harmless Brexit. At some point, the majority of politicians — both Conservative and Labour — may want out of this Brexit debacle. But they’ll want a fig leaf for doing so. So, a soft Brexit is also a fig leaf Brexit. If May and Corbyn reach a soft Brexit deal whereby the UK remains in both the Customs Union and the Single Market (or some variations thereof possibly renamed for cosmetic purposes), they can adopt the public stance that they’ve delivered Brexit for the people. Hoorah for Democracy, and let’s move on! Remain would be better, but political leaders fear it. It would leave them standing “alone and naked” (to coin a phrase).

So an extension of Article 50 followed by a negotiation leading to a soft Brexit is another possible end game scenario — maybe the best we can hope for, given the political realities.

I vote we call it a “Meat and Two Veg Brexit.” The “meat” would be an agreement (at least in principle) to exercise greater control over immigration. (The details can be fudged.) The “two veg” would be membership in the Customs Union and Single Market. Don’t mention Norway, or Germany, or the war, and people just might go for it! “What about that Theresa May, then? She gave us a right proper Meat and Two Veg Brexit. How’s that for democracy, mate?”


Sidebar: Night of the BRINO

Here in the states, we’re used to strife between the Republican right and far right. Moderate Republicans (a nearly extinct breed) who fail to support far right causes are often accused of being RINOs: Republicans In Name Only.

You may also know that our lunatic president, Donald Trump, is obsessed with building a huge, multi-billion dollar border wall to keep out Mexicans purported to possess excessive amounts of duct tape. The question has arisen: How do we pacify him, shut him up? One answer: Put up a Fotomat, call it a wall, then get the hell out of Dodge!

The Fotomat, an extinct structure belonging to an era when family snaps needed to be developed in a photo lab. It is here memorialised in oils by Skowhegan, whose technique is unusual — the clouds being fashioned with a palette knife, the medium being a mixture of Brylcreem and ground Lifesavers. Reproduction courtesy https://www.fotomatfans.com/fotomat-1984/

The Fotomat solution, if implemented, would be a WINO or Wall In Name Only. (Obvious headline: TRUMP BORDER PLAN SAVED BY WINO.)

Likewise, the BRINO acronym (attributed to Jacob Rees-Mogg) stands for Brexit In Name Only. Picture a Brexit so soft and delicate that its breath can barely be detected against the bright-burnished vambrance of a suit of armour. Who knows? March 29 could turn out to be the Night of the BRINO:

Typical false advertising. What they don’t tell you is that Night of the Lepus includes a cast of thousands… of bunny rabbits!

One thing’s for sure: If a you’re a politician who’s been selling Brexit door-to-door, a suit of armour is recommended attire. 😉

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

P.S. Hate to ask, but since Anna Soubry is a Remainer and favours a People’s Vote, might she be a TINO? A dated joke, as she’s now left the Tories and gone Independent or “Tigger”:

There’s a new bill to ban dog meat consumption. Would that apply to Brexit as well? Is there an ethical way to dispose of dog meat like Brexit, without eating it raw as some are doing?

* * *

Serious Talk About Brexit – Part 1

With a sidebar about The Independent Group and Mrs Pritchard

I continue to care about Brexit for a number of reasons:

– It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck, but with some possibility that the wreck might still be averted, perhaps by getting the Conductor to stop sleepwalking or robot dancing.

– It’s very sad for the UK, the EU, the world at large, and all the people who are likely to be adversely affected.

– I want to see the UK thrive in the present and in the future, but Brexit looks to me like a retreat into the past. That never works. (Maybe it should be called brexosaurus rex.)

I take the subject of Brexit seriously, but often treat it with humour because that’s my approach to reality in general. Humour is not just entertainment, but also a way of stepping outside the system and looking at things in novel ways that the bureaucratic process (or a purely logical mindset) might filter out.

So much has been said about Brexit, and I’ll try to avoid stating the obvious or oft-repeated. Still, let me begin by discussing a couple of terms which have arisen during the Brexit debate:

Blindfold Brexit: This term suggests that by and large, people don’t really understand what Brexit is or how it will affect their daily lives. Before we can really understand the concept of leaving the EU, we need to understand what it has meant to be part of the EU for 45 years. This is, to some extent, specialist knowledge. One needs to examine all the ways in which the UK and EU are intertwined after nearly half a century of intense cooperation. It’s a study of complex systems, including how the two are joined economically, politically, legally, culturally, and even physically (via the Channel Tunnel) — taking into account things like frictionless trade, ready access to health care for the 300,000 British pensioners living in Spain, and the sense among the younger generation of Britons that they can easily live, work and study anywhere in Europe and greatly benefit from the experience.

Understanding what being in the EU has meant also entails fully valuing the peace dividend — that benefit conferred when European nations engage in a long-term strategy of cooperation. It means recognizing that the tide of history post-World War II is toward greater cooperation between nations, in order to avert further world wars and tackle global problems with global strategies. The UK can express its leadership qualities most effectively through participation, not isolation. Decisions are made by those who show up.

By contrast, the Leave campaign seemed to mischaracterize the nature of historic cooperation between the UK and EU, to frame issues deceptively, and to play on jingoistic passions which discourage fact-based inquiry and obscure the genuine issues at stake.

The concept of a “blindfold Brexit” gives rise to the terms “Brexit fantasy” and “Brexit reality.” Voters were arguably subjected to a marketing blitz which tried to hook them on Brexit fantasy. Three years later, as the data comes in from economists, industry leaders, and affected citizens, Brexit reality seems far harsher than the pleasant fantasy voters were spoon-fed. This naturally spurs interest in a second, fact-based referendum, or a super soft (Norway style) Brexit which does minimal harm.

Questions of national identity and how people feel about the EU are certainly important. It is a matter of balance. The trouble is, the Leave campaign seemed to stress nationalism and fear of foreigners, while making unrealistic promises about economic benefits, and downplaying the complex problems which might arise from Brexit.

It is not a simple matter, and may be likened to a difficult surgery about which expert advice is desperately needed. In this sense, it may be argued that Brexit was not an ideal question for a referendum in the first place. Suppose I have heart trouble. I know full well that the experts are often wrong. But should I put the question of my surgery to a footballer, a manicurist, and a pub crawler? On balance, I place more stock in the opinion of a heart specialist, even knowing he or she might be wrong.

There is also this to be said about large, complex systems: When making major changes that are untested, no one can be certain of the outcome. An outgrowth of this view is that those championing Brexit are not true conservatives, but rather reactionaries. (Nod to Anna Soubry*, who might agree.) They are steeped in foolish derring-do. “Full speed ahead, and damn the torpedoes!” But if, as experts predict, Brexit will mean a poorer UK and at least some breakdown of existing systems, it is not Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, or Jacob Rees-Mogg who will feel the shock. Rather, it is those who are presently just getting by, but will go under should economic conditions worsen.

*I sometimes indulge in a stereotyped view of the Tories, but there are some like Anna Soubry whom I genuinely admire for their courage and integrity. (See below for exciting news about Soubry!)

Given that the existing relationship between the UK and EU has been built up over 45 years, it may be argued that the true conservative position would be to make any changes gradually, preserving as much as possible of what is beneficial, and avoiding any sudden shock. But what we appear to see is a reactionary approach gaining the upper hand. The choices presently being pushed by the ruling party are not between good and bad, but between bad and worse — between shooting ourselves in the foot, or both feet.

This brings us to two other terms: “blackmail Brexit” and “sleepwalking to no-deal Brexit.” The basic stance of the blackmailer is to say, “If you don’t do X, then I shall do Y.” As has been repeated ad nauseum, Theresa May’s strategy seems to be running down the clock to late March, then hitting MPs with a binary choice: either my deal or no deal. She is like some digitised rhinoceros ramming a shed, trying to get her deal through by sheer force and dint of repetition. But imagine if her deal should win the day! How excited can one get about writing home to say, “Good news! I only shot myself in one foot and not both feet”?

The position of the Tory party is that no-deal must be left on the table as a negotiating tactic with Brussels. But this is very dangerous due to the strong possibility of sleepwalking to a no-deal Brexit. To understand this danger, we need to recognize a fundamental problem with political bureaucracies. Far from being adroit and able to stop on a dime, they tend to be clumsy and subject to inertia. They are like huge ships whose course is quite difficult and time-consuming to correct, even where the will exists to do so. You can switch off the engine, but the vessel may continue in the same direction for several miles.

On an issue such as Brexit, positions tend to harden over time, rather than becoming more flexible. Just look at the history of warfare, including World War II, the Vietnam War, and the War in Iraq. One would have expected cooler heads to prevail, or deals to be reached at the last minute; but instead positions hardened and leaders found no way out. Perhaps some leaders wished to avoid or quickly end these wars; but neither they nor the institutions they represented possessed the necessary creativity and brinksmanship. In this vein, if we look to both the May government and the House of Commons, do we really have faith that they can come together at the eleventh hour and avoid a no-deal Brexit? This seems highly doubtful, especially since some in May’s own party are clamouring for no-deal — not as a negotiating tactic or empty threat, but as a consummation devoutly to be wished. Given the deceptive nature of the Leave campaign, Brexiteers are not much trusted outside their own circles.

A no-deal Brexit is like a gun which some moderate Tories claim Theresa May only needs for protection. Meanwhile, ERG members are saying, “Yes! Yes! Give us the gun! We want to shoot it off. If we run out of feet, we can always shoot our arms and legs!” This naturally puts non-certifiable MPs in mind of gun control. 😉

So the risk is high, but what is the reward? What crumb might Brussels throw at the last moment to justify the risk of a no-deal Brexit? Caving on the Irish backstop? Is that likely, and would it even be beneficial in the long run? A cost-benefit analysis suggests that the risks greatly outweigh the rewards, and that the right course for Parliament is to take no-deal off the table through binding legislation.

The nature of the political forces at work is that we are gradually being groomed to accept a choice between bad and worse. We need the insight and courage to step outside the system and return to fundamental questions about Brexit: What is it really (in the doing, not the selling), and will it really benefit the UK? If not, then by all means change course, rather than being carried along by the inertia of entrenched political interests, whether Conservative or Labour — both of which have grown increasingly strident and extreme. Quoting Tony Blair: “We’re not in a state of hypnosis to do this. We can assume consciousness. We have free will, and it’s past time to exercise it.”

brexit-may-corbyn-boat-throwing-up-bertrams

The Four Nations of the United Kingdom, The English Aristocracy, and Hubris

I love the English, and indeed the United Kingdom with all its complications. Most readers will know that the UK consists of four nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But much of the power remains with the central government in Westminster. It rests with the English, even though the other nations have so-called “devolved governments” which allow them to make many decisions locally.

When you love someone, you get to know their best qualities, but also their worst qualities as well. The worst quality sometimes exhibited by the English aristocracy is a sense of superiority which can lead to arrogance, superciliousness, and hubris.

In hubris, one badly misreads a situation due to excessive pride or self-will. Now, truth be told, the Welsh, Scots, and Northern Irish view Brexit as primarily an English invention. Some support it, some don’t. Of crucial importance, the majorities in both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The Scots in particular are hopping mad about being dragged kicking and screaming out of the EU by the English, and are threatening to secede from the Kingdom.

But out of hubris, some Brexiteers wrongly assume that the thread which weaves together the four nations is so strong that nothing they could do would rend or tear it. Whatever the English aristocracy decides (their thinking goes), the other nations will have to go along with in the end. This way of thinking is wrong. The alliance between the four nations is a fragile one, and if the English forcibly pursue a major policy initiative (e.g. Brexit) which the Scots and Northern Irish oppose, this may have the long-term effect of tearing the Kingdom apart. The same nationalist sentiment which Brexiteers have unleashed to justify leaving the EU can easily arise within individual nations, so that they too vote Leave: Leaving the UK.

Peace in Northern Island is also fragile. The legendary “troubles” can easily start up again. The opposing forces which fought bitterly for three decades have not gone away, and the Good Friday Agreement was not a permanent solution, but rather a long-lasting truce which has (thankfully) held until the present time, with passions still running high beneath the surface.

“Zombie” Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg seems oblivious to the human suffering which could ensue in the event Brexit leads to a hard border:

As ERG members like Rees-Mogg have pulled the Conservative party farther to the right, Theresa May has responded by pandering to their demand that the Irish backstop be removed, weakened, or replaced by unspecified “alternative arrangements” which critics claim don’t currently exist.

Do not doubt that Northern Ireland is still like a vial of nitroglycerin. Don’t even think about a hard border between NI and the Republic of Ireland, or you may set off an explosion. This is why the EU 27 remain strongly opposed to any compromise on the Irish backstop.

The Germany+ Option

If you follow Brexit, you may have heard of options like Norway+ or Canada++. James O’Brien, a broadcaster with LBC (Leading Britains’s Conversation), has come up with something he calls Germany+:

Whether as a thought experiment or an experiment in framing, it’s a valuable addition to the debate. You can read more about it in this Twitter thread:

In case you missed the reveal, or the penny hasn’t dropped, O’Brien is actually describing Remain, i.e. the deal which the UK presently enjoys with the EU. He’s calling it Germany+ to see who bites. Very clever!

This helps us focus on the underlying question behind Brexit: Can the UK get a better deal than it already has with the EU? If not, what would be the point of Brexit? Unless (as was sometimes said of fancy handkerchiefs), Brexit is for “showing, not blowing” — an attitude (of defiance) toward the EU, rather than a substantive policy proposal which (if implemented) would actually benefit the UK.

This way of framing things highlights the oddness of voting Leave based on sentiment, when most of the practical questions surrounding Brexit involve trade, borders, health care, employment/unemployment, appreciation/devaluation of the pound, and attracting or discouraging business investment.

Here’s a thought: Is it possible that some Brexiteers who are wedded to Brexit for purely sentimental reasons (e.g. nationalism, racism, or belief in the natural superiority of the English aristocracy) might be shading the facts in order to boost the popularity of Leave? Could they be deceiving the fellows at working men’s clubs into thinking that in addition to being some sort of patriotic revival movement, Brexit will also make them richer and improve their quality of life? Don’t the facts suggest the very opposite?

As regards Brexit fantasy versus Brexit reality, this leads back to the oft-posed question, “Did people really vote Leave knowing it would make them poorer?”

Increasingly, businesses are shouting right out loud, “We’re closing this plant because of Brexit. We’re shuttering this airline because of Brexit. We’re moving our facilities to Amsterdam because of Brexit.” Here, the evidence that Brexiteers are sentiment-based rather than fact-based is this: As the data comes in from businesses saying point blank that they’re closing or leaving because of Brexit, the argument from Brexiteers is: “Oh, these were just badly run companies in highly competitive fields. They say they’re folding because of Brexit, but we shouldn’t believe them. They’re only using Brexit as an excuse.”

So, the party of business no longer trusts businesses to give honest feedback about why they’re leaving. Blame has to be relocated away from Brexit at all cost. Media spinners must come up with “alternative facts” to explain away the frank complaints from business owners that Brexit is already costing them millions.

brexit-uk-closed-for-business_v2Another way of deflecting these complaints is to blame it all on Remainers, or even on those Leavers who don’t agree with the Prime Minister’s withdrawal plan. According to this manner of spinning, Brexit would have gone swimmingly well if only everyone had gotten on board. Brexit isn’t bad for business, only uncertainty is bad for business. Therefore, don’t you dare put the brakes on Brexit, or rethink the wisdom of the policy. Just conform, conform, conform. If you won’t vote for May’s deal, we’ll strap you down and inject no-deal intravenously. Belt up and eat your Brexit! But in truth,

1. Brexit was always flawed policy.
2. That Brexit would be highly contentious was entirely forseeable.
3. Even at this late date, the emphasis should still be on getting the best deal possible for the British people, even if that turns out to be Remain.

Even the most wackadoo Brexiteers aren’t suggesting that the UK should have no trade with the EU, that travel to EU countries should be banned, or that all security arrangements should be scrapped. These things will always continue in some form, and that form will always constitute a “deal.” The Leave/Remain dichotomy tends to obscure this essential fact.

I would rephrase the question asked in the initial referendum thusly:

If the UK can get a better deal and improve its standard of living by leaving the EU, would you support that decision?

The key word is “if.” It would then have been up to experts in diverse fields to study the problem exhaustively and reach a consensus not based primarily on sentiment, unicorn worship, magic beans, or EU hatred, but on what genuine benefits can be achieved, and at what risk or cost. This would include the long-term benefit of the peace dividend which comes from EU membership, and the long-term risk that leaving the EU might fracture the Kingdom.

Some data from experts is flowing in now, in the final days before the March 29 deadline. But unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between the real world data and the sentiment-driven political momentum for Leave. The experts are increasingly telling us that Brexit is (to use the technical term) “bad mojo.” But Leavers are swinging the lamp and spinning the tale, claiming the experts are wrong and businesses who say they’re leaving because of Brexit are just fibbing.

The facts are moving in one direction, but the political demand for Leave is moving in the opposite direction. This is very bad, and does suggest that UK politics is currently broken. Yet, there are exciting developments!


Sidebar: The Independent Group and Mrs Pritchard

Call me a terrible UK politics geek, but I’m genuinely excited that the self-proclaimed “three amigos” — Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, and Heidi Allen — have defected from the Conservative Party and joined the new Independent Group alongside several former Labour MPs who likewise defected. It’s a sort of Amazing Mrs Pritchard moment:

The sun seems to be shining on these new independents.

One senses their joy in breaking away from the rigidity and extremism of their respective parties, and trying to create something new based on shared human values, not the old party machine. May their efforts be crowned with success, and may many more join them!

I don’t want to go completely bendy bananas over them, or fall victim to “any port in a storm” syndrome. It remains to be seen whether they can keep their movement relatively pure, when much of the political system revolves around money and entrenched interests, and treats anyone who tries to change that as a threat to be put down.

Calling it an Amazing Mrs Pritchard moment actually implies this dual nature of new political movements. They may begin with great hope and promise, but are sometimes brought down by money matters or internal strife. It takes a lot of love and shared human values for refugees from both the Tory and Labour parties to form a lasting coalition which works. That being said, I do see in them genuine idealism and a real longing to change things for the better. We shall see!

Here, my identity as a spiritual seeker overlaps with my occasional role as a political commentator. I know that if you try to change things for the better, you may be subjected to hatred and harassment. At least three members of the new Independent Group — Luciana Berger, Anna Soubry, and Sarah Wollaston — know this all too well. The threats they’ve received in the past can’t be brushed aside so easily, given that MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered in 2016 by a political extremist. Three years later, Twitter abuse hurled at politicians is often punctuated with the hashtag #JoCox as a grim reminder.

Politics in the UK, the US, and many other nations has become toxic. We seem to be going through a cosmic period in which people are driven to extremes of difference or polarity. As in Yeats’ immortal poem “The Second Coming,” the centre cannot hold, and the worst are full of passionate intensity.

I’m tempted to switch poets in midstream and say: “Well, what can a poorboy do/ ‘Cept to sing for a rock n’ roll band?” But I’ll quietly resist the urge. Better to quote the immortal Sri Chinmoy:

No more am I the foolish customer
Of a dry, sterile, intellectual breeze.
I shall buy only
The weaving visions of the emerald-Beyond.

–Sri Chinmoy, “Visions of the Emerald Beyond”

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon (we hope).

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Brexit and the Bells of Rhymney

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair and MEP Ska Keller make a persuasive case for a second referendum, and why the U.K. will always be welcome in the E.U. Theresa May and Rupa Huq take Prime Minister’s Questions to a new level. Plus, we listen to (and discuss) the Welsh mining song ‘Bells of Rhymney’. (Yes, there is a connection!)

In my previous magnum opus on Brexit, much of my focus was on how E.U. membership benefits the U.K. After all, the nature of politics at the populist level is all about self-interest. (‘And what will you give me?/ Say the sad bells of Rhymney’.)

Yet, there’s a quite different way of exploring the Brexit question, based less on self-interest and more on the visionary aspect. In a representative democracy, one ideally tries to elect leaders who have vision, who understand the direction in which the world is headed, and who try to align their nation with the right tide of history. Despite many practical problems with E.U. membership which need ironing out, the E.U. represents a noble effort at cooperation between nations who had previously engaged in open warfare. It’s also a response to the burgeoning awareness that many pressing problems, including climate change, can only be tackled at a global level.

Aside from practical benefits, the E.U. offers each member nation an opportunity to come together with other nations and contribute its unique qualities, while not losing its individuality. This coming together of nations and peoples, which may be described as ‘oneness in diversity’, is the right tide of history, the good direction in which the world is moving post-World War II. In this visionary understanding of what the E.U. represents, Britain is a beloved member nation which has many good friends among other nations, and which has something most meaningful and special to contribute to the mix.

From this point of view, Brexit represents a retreat into the past, a rejection of the sometimes challenging, but ultimately fulfilling promise of the future, in which cooperation between nations is understood to be the highest political good, and a necessity for survival of the planet. If Remainers are sometimes tearful and angry, it’s because they love their country and know that Britain has a big heart, a heart which has the capacity to identify with broader Europe and not cordon itself off. From the point of view of Remainers, the Brexiteers have fooled the people into making a retrograde decision which is bad for Britain, bad for the E.U., and bad for the world. The result will be salt and vinegar, not any kind of cake feast or champagne breakfast.

When did Brexit (which was supposed to be such a lovely idea) take on the character of an unstoppable juggernaut to which we are all chained? As Tony Blair recently noted, “Things do not need to be like this. We’re not in a state of hypnosis to do this. We can assume consciousness. We have free will, and it’s past time to exercise it”.

Between working and raising a family, the average citizen may not have time to ponder these deep matters. That’s why it’s so important that political leaders elected to do the job bring out the best in themselves, respond dynamically to the changing situation, and not be afraid to admit mistakes while there is still time to rectify them. When government economists considered the worst-case scenario of a no deal Brexit, even then they did not look into the future and weigh the possibility of new troubles in Northern Ireland, or a second referendum in Scotland which might result in that nation leaving the U.K. In a chess game one must look several moves ahead, but too many in government are only playing ‘Chequers’.

I admire Prime Minister May, but she has a deeply bureaucratic streak in her nature such that she will not deviate from plan. The ‘Maybot’ sobriquet has stuck because she keeps delivering the same speech over and over again, and during PMQs often gives the equivalent of ‘I am not programmed to respond in that area’. Her lack of creativity and flexibility in a time of crisis naturally causes other leaders to step in to fill the void.

It is uncharitable of her to savage Tony Blair for stating what is becoming increasingly obvious, even to some of May’s own allies: After two years of discussion in which Brexit reality has gradually come to replace Brexit fantasy, the people deserve a final say on a decision which will impact their lives for generations to come. It’s not a ‘do-over’ or mere repeat of the first referendum. History is not static, and neither is democracy. It turns out that the Brexit which can be delivered is much different than what the people were promised. Those who led them down the garden path should at least give them a final say before plunging them over the abyss.

Adding ‘Bells of Rhymney’ to the mix

Welsh miner turned poet Idris Davies penned ‘The Bells of Rhymney” in 1938. It was later revived by fellow countryman Dylan Thomas. American folksinger Pete Seeger set the words to music circa 1959, and his tune is the one used for numerous cover versions:

There’s also a version by Bob Dylan and the Band from 1967, but I’m guessing it’s pretty well locked down by copyright Nazis. 😉

As for the poem itself, it is perhaps best understood as an impassioned response to a Welsh mining disaster, with the church bells in different cities pealing out different reactions to the tragedy. These responses are variously political, legal, metaphysical, and so forth, creating a kind of geographic tableau which also reflects the poet’s inner dialogue. ‘Even God is uneasy, sang the moist bells of Swansea’.

‘Is there hope for the future?’ This is a question oft asked in times of crisis, bringing us back to Tony Blair’s speech defining Brexit as such a time. There is always hope, and as Ska Keller said when interviewed by Channel 4:

Of course, [a second referendum] is up to the people in Great Britain to decide. But if they were to decide to change their minds, then they need to be welcomed back. There should be open doors for the people of Great Britain. Absolutely! But that is up to Great Britain to decide. If the people of Britain were to change their minds, then our doors and our hearts and arms are very welcoming, very open to them. For me, the Brexit is a real tragedy. We have so many great friends there, but also Great Britain is not going to move away. It’s very close to the rest of us, and we’re linked in a partnership, we’re linked together in geography, and for creating a better future we need each other. That’s why I think it’s such a tragedy. [If nationalism rises in Europe] I wouldn’t blame the Brits. I would still think it’s a tragedy that they have left, and I would always want them to come back.

In her comments we can see much of what’s good about the E.U. Where there is love, forgiveness, and oneness in diversity, eventually practical problems can be overcome.

This is Michael Howard ringing in the Christmas season, and hoping that the bells which ring for you are joyful ones.


Sidebar: The Bells of Rhymney – Further Reflections

When I first heard the song performed by Pete Seeger, I was about 14 years old and he was a guest artist on WBAI radio, helping them out during one of their interminable fund drives. I liked it for its poetic images — the bells of different colours sounding out different messages, and picturesque town names like Caerphilly and Swansea — but I didn’t really understand it. Or, let us say, I understood it at a surface level (which is not always bad). Some singers have beautiful voices, but don’t know the history or meaning of what they’re singing. Here are two more cover versions of ‘The Bells of Rhymney’:

The Cher version is rather insipid, but no need to dwell. The John Denver version strikes me as somewhat prettified, and his introduction fortifies misimpressions about the song: that it was written by Pete Seeger (no mention of Idris Davies), and that it’s primarily about local colour. You can easily picture him crooning ‘They were buried alive/ Said a Belgian endive…’ without batting an eyelash. Still, the bell-like guitar harmonics are a nice touch. Some fancy fingerpicking, but I wonder if it doesn’t detract from the meaning.

For me the song imparts a rare dual memory — of what it sounded like when I was 14, and what it sounds like now. Having learned more about poetry, I now know that the speech of bells can be a stand-in for the speech of men and women who might gather at churches in different towns the first Sunday after a mining disaster, and speak out in a myriad of voices. As with church bells, these voices might not exactly harmonise. Some might trail off or speak at cross-purposes, but their collective clanging would signify that some momentous event has taken place. Fire! Flood! Or Mrs Cropley putting anchovy paste in her lemon curd tartlets.

Maybe on some deep level, that’s why I thought to connect the song with Brexit. After all, Brexit is a slow motion political disaster, and is typically accompanied by a school of porpoises from the University of Wales banging on about this or that option on the BBC. “I prefer Norway Plus Plus, but without the Norwegians, and a side order of Canadian bacon gently sautéed in a litre of Glenfiddich Gran Reserva.” Ding-dong.

Like any good disaster, Brexit also has its share of junkies tuning in to the news every five minutes, hoping against hope that someone will insert a new punch card into the Maybot, and maybe she’ll say something genuinely new for a change. You can make better book on the 3:30 at Ascot, though now and then she does surprise:

As for ‘The Bells of Rhymney’, I’m convinced there’s a Gordon Lightfoot version stashed somewhere in the compilation Gordon Lightfoot Sings Every Song Ever Written:

I’m avidly rummaging through all 379 discs, but oh wait! There’s an interview with Nyle Hogg-Filth on ITV. Apparently, he’s found a new solution to the Brexit problem which involves nuclear physics and buggery. I just have to watch…

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Brexit Drama, Brexit Humour

Catching up on the latest Brexit developments, with talk, videos, and a bit of a laff

What does BREXIT stand for? Those who follow the news closely know it stands for ‘Brazen Revolt Eliminates Xylophones In Tasmania’, a story originally aired on ABC Australia. Sometime later, people realised it could also stand for Britain exiting the European Union. That’s when the acronym really took off.

An old TV commercial used to go ‘You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s real Jewish rye’.

Likewise, you don’t have to be British to love watching how the Brexit drama is unfolding. It’s a ‘seedy’ occupation for Americans who may not feel the results directly in their breadbaskets, but are fascinated to observe all the twists and turns. (Maybe bagels would have been a better analogy.)

Lest I be accused of chuntering from a sedentary position, I should explain that I do have friends in the U.K. who are affected by Brexit, and I always hope the nation as a whole will listen to its better angels.

I admire Theresa May for her perspicacity and determination, but being both American and sympathetic to Labour (though not a big Corbyn fan), I could never vote for her. Still, I suppose the essence of my reason for liking her is her perseverance in attempting The Thing That Couldn’t Be Done:

That’s the thing about Brexit: More and more it comes to resemble the thing that couldn’t be done, the carpet that couldn’t be laid. You tack it down in one place, it just sticks up in another. You try to backstop Northern Ireland, and the Scots get skittish and want to depart the Kingdom again.

No good compromise between the various factions can be found, and the British people (eminently practical) are beginning to realise that proposed solutions are typically worse than the (much exaggerated) problems of simply remaining in the E.U. and getting on with daily life, working toward reforms (where needed) within the existing structure.

Yes, E.U. membership has its share of problems (which must be taken seriously), but also many benefits — including the huge benefit of avoiding the world wars which used to break out between European nations before they developed a comprehensive strategy of cooperation. The value of this ‘peace dividend’ is inestimable, as is the progress made in human rights:

There is, moreover, a point at which Leavers’ determination becomes mere foolish obstinacy. America spent years fighting the Vietnam War because politicians were too stubborn to admit it had been a grievous error. The historical lesson is clearly ‘Cut your losses’.

Even fellow Tories stare at May’s Brexit deal with icy disapproval. Some have grown quite red-faced over her alleged ‘betrayal’ of their vision of a Brexit in which Britain calls the shots, rather than being like fish to the fryer. (No Nicola Sturgeon jokes, please!)

As an outsider, I’m gobsmacked that there’s still no new referendum on Brexit, as this seems the best way forward. I’m convinced a second referendum would result in a vote to remain. Why?

– The first vote had something of an air of the madness of crowds about it. It was a mania for a novel idea whose downside had yet to be fully grasped. Two years later, that downside is far more apparent.

– Many people voted Leave as a kind of protest vote or middle finger to Brussels, without really believing Leave would win the day. No one was more surprised than Boris Johnson, who adopted Leave as a means to stoke his political career, but was left looking rather sheepish the day after.

– Brexit was sold by rock star conservatives with no real plan for implementation. After the sugar high of excessive nationalism came the inevitable crash: into the harsh reality that Brexit may mean economic stagnation for Britain (as the latest Treasury report would indicate).

– In retrospect, it appears that some pro-Brexit propaganda crossed the line into psychological manipulation covertly funded by non-U.K. sources, thus flouting British campaign-finance laws. There seems to have been an international campaign to misinform voters about what Brexit would actually entail, and to inflame jingoistic passions rather than rely on neutral facts. In hindsight, Leave looks more like a ‘grassroots’ movement funded by eccentric millionaires.

– It is also claimed that a number of supposedly independent pro-Brexit groups (Vote Leave, BeLeave, the D.U.P., and Veterans for Britain) pooled their resources illegally, spending a collective £3.5 million to hire a Canadian political consultancy and data research firm, AggregateIQ, to leverage the outcome. See ‘How a tiny Canadian IT company helped swing the Brexit vote for Leave’ in The Telegraph.

– Brexit was arguably a product of the same sort of nationalist sentiment which served to install Donald Trump in the White House. There may be those in Russia who would rather see Britain, America, and the E.U. all bitterly divided, rather than cooperating to build a world which is peaceful, free, and poised to deal with the very real problem of climate change (and is unified against Russian military expansion).

– One ought to get past the view that ‘the people voted for Brexit, therefore it must be the Will of the People.’ Serious questions have arisen as to whether the people were badly misinformed, and whether the policy can be successfully implemented. A second referendum two years later (in light of all the revealed facts) is entirely appropriate, and is the best way to honour the Will of the People.

– Plan A, Plan B, Plan C… If we count all the plans advanced by warring factions, we’re probably up to Plan 9 by now:

– It’s easy to say ‘We don’t like all them foreigners, so we’ll take our puddings and go home!’ But it turns out it’s much harder to actually do it. In a second referendum, cooler (and better-informed) heads may prevail — always assuming dark money can be kept from buying the results (or buying the marketing and advertising which determines the results).

Quoting from a Washington Post article:

‘What was always an illusion on the Brexiteer side was that the kind of world you could return to was when Britain had an empire and was a global superpower in the world economy’, said Fabian Zuleeg, the chief executive of the European Policy Center, a Brussels think tank with close ties to the E.U.

In short, Brexit was a pipe dream — well-intentioned perhaps; sentimental, nationalistic, but not geared to practical economic reality. Globalisation is no unalloyed joy, but the challenge for Britain (as for all nations) is to compete as effectively as possible, rather than pretending one is still living in the old world. The retro quality of Brexiteers is underscored in this interview from Fox Business where the tune being hummed is ‘What would Maggie do?’

Those nostalgic for the Thatcher years might want to watch this video:

No, not even the ghost of Maggie Thatcher (or her imitators) can rescue the British people from the throes of Brexit. What’s needed is a new referendum.

In the face of enormous, throbbing problems with the Brexit deal, some cabinet members are voting with their feet:

An unusual resignation speech delivered by a member of the May cabinet

For singalong purposes, let us recap the essential points:

You need feet to be a Tory,
You need feet to kick your friends;
You need feet to pull your socks up,
And stop the deal from fraying at the ends.
You need feet to switch positions,
You need feet to dance the hoochie-koo;
You need quite big feet to cast your vote for Brexit,
And I need feet (are you listening, Theresa?)
To run away from you.

What some people’s feet are running away from is a logical inconsistency known as “having our cake and eating it” — a Boris Johnsonism regarding Brexit. This is where I feel a tinge of sympathy for Mrs May. She’s been dispatched to Brussels to extract all the benefits of being in the E.U., while simultaneously up and leaving it — a two-step which no one, no matter how blessed by the Terpsichorean Muse, can manage to perform. How does cheery Donald Tusk respond to all this cake-eating?

Or if the The Donald leaves you unpersuaded, consider this helpful puppet demonstration courtesy the ever-helpful Germans:

How many Britons were sold on Leave through false assurances that they could still reap the benefits of E.U. membership? Five percent? Ten percent? And how many of those now see the reality more clearly? Democracy is not just about choice, but about informed choice. That’s why a second referendum is the best way forward.

Suppose I order an item from Freemans, based on an advert which promises a certain size, colour, and style. Then the merchant contacts me and says, ‘Well, we don’t actually have that size, colour, and style. Can we send you something else instead?’ If the original item is undeliverable, I want that second chance to choose.

What if the Brexit people voted for is undeliverable? Should they be given some substitute made of tofu, toffee and pigswill, or should they at least be given some final say in the matter? A second referendum is not anti-democratic. It respects the right of the people to choose from available options, rather than the pie-in-sky Brexit that was promised them.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Next time: The Fishy Commoners Policy – Can It Work?

‘There are no Thatcherites in foxholes’. –old Ojibwa proverb

Links

Greenspan Bobblehead Shocks Nervous Britons – UPDATE
David Tennant Reacts To Brexit Vote
British MPs Need Stronger Passwords
Queen Elizabeth Plans for Trump Visit

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