Friday, July 08, 2016

The View From The Outside

If nothing else, we can agree that there aren't many middle class British writers who will ever get bored with cranking out columns attacking other middle class people for being middle class.

Even so, I note that despite the endless wails and complaints about Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, he is still at least as secure in his current position as leader of the Labour Party as he was last September.  Possibly more so.

Now as I always say, I'm not a member and people who are can accept my advice or tell me where to stick it, as they see fit.

From where I'm sitting however, it looks very much like the Labour right are going to have to come to some kind of accommodation with Corbyn, no matter how much it sticks in their craw to do so.  Or, they can put up a challenger and duke it out.

Simply put, there is no other way

Why do I think so?  Well, a quick recap:

In the leadership campaign last year, the members indicated that they were going to reject the candidates offered by Labour's centre-right.  Maybe this was a wise choice and maybe it wasn't but ultimately it doesn't matter, because that's what happened.

The centre-right of the party were outraged about this, and so they ran to the press wailing and screeching and beating their breasts...

...And they got absolutely walloped in the leadership election, because the members wanted politics that were more like the ones that Corbyn was offering, and less like the austerity-lite ones of the centre-right.  Nor did they much appreciate the wailing and the screeching, and so on. 

Corbyn's leadership victory outraged the party's MPs all over again.  Almost as one, they ran to the press, wailing and screeching and beating their breasts.  They denounced Corbyn and decried the members as a bunch of entryists and loonies.

Now, maybe the wailing and screeching was a good idea, and maybe it wasn't.  It probably wasn't a good idea for politicians to attack people whose votes they might later need to win.  Either way, it doesn't matter whether it was a good idea, because it didn't work.

And unsurprisingly, the wailing and screeching only annoyed the members who had voted for Corbyn, and their support further solidified Corbyn's grip on the leadership.

Finally, after the Referendum disaster, the MPs decided that they'd had enough.  And so they ran to the press, wailing and screeching and beating their breasts.

Again, maybe this was the appropriate response, or maybe not.  I think it was a daft idea but to be absolutely clear, it doesn't matter, because it didn't work.

Worse, the renewed wails and screeches caused another huge influx of new party members, most of whom will now probably support Corbyn, rather than the party's centre-right.

Which leaves us where we are today, with the MPs and the hacks still wailing and screeching and beating their breasts and insulting the party members.

And yet, it looks like Corbyn's position is more secure than ever.

At this point, I have to ask the right of the party - How's that Corbyn Out strategy working out for you, folks?

What's your plan now, and how much wailing and screeching does it involve?

Because the wisest thing the Labour right could do now is this - forget all the complaints about Corbyn's unelectability and his faffing, bumbling public persona.  They're irrelevant.

Put all the outraged cries about his supposedly unacceptable comments to one side, and dismiss the endless garment-rending and teeth-gnashing over his terrible, outrageous personal politics.

All of these are mere details I realise that they're vitally important to some but in the long run, they just don't matter.

There's one cast-iron truth that everyone has to face up to here, and it's this - if the Labour Party is to have any chance of winning a national election in the next few years, then there will have to be a decisive fight.  If not, then everyone will have to plaster on a fake grin and swallow half a ton of humble pie.

Corbyn is not going to go away and barring an unforseeable miracle for the MPs, it looks like no amount of wailing, screeching or breast-beating is going to get rid of him.

The only viable choices are:

a)  Come to some kind of horribly awkward, grudging, mutually demeaning accommodation with Corbyn and hope that you can, for example, agree on a suitable successor for the next election;

b)  Put up a challenger who will espouse vaguely Corbyn-esque politics, and beat him at his own game, or

c)  Keep wailing and screeching and beating your breasts until either Corbyn retires, or you lose the will to go on.

And that's it.

Now, choose carefully.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Chilcot Report Open Thread

An open thread, for anyone that wants to discuss today's Chilcot Report.

Indulge me for a minute of rambling first, though.  I imagine I'll return to this but for now, having wasted a decade bickering and complaining about exactly the type of stuff that Chilcot covers, I'll confess that the headline news is immensely gratifying.

Is it childish to take such a horrifying global issue quite personally?  Very well then, I am childish. 

So aside from the usual backstage politics stuff, the most important of Chilcot's conclusions are surely the sections on planning and provision for wars.  The bottom line - don't invade countries simply because the Prime Minister thinks it's a good idea, because there is a severe risk of getting very large numbers of people killed, including your own soldiers.

I'm also very pleased by the declaration that the Iraq disaster was anything but unforeseeable, and that those who prosecuted it intentionally ignored the - very prescient - warnings of exactly the consequences that might ensue.

Already, I've seen yelps and screeches and loud complaints that this will now make it more difficult for the UK to wage wars, and indeed it probably will.  I say, good: our track record in recent wars is appalling, and substantial reflection is now sorely needed.

I'm also pleased that it's dealt bluntly with the "Did the Government lie?" question, by announcing that the Government "exaggerated" its case for war.  This saves us the long, boring argument about the difference between "Public Relations" and "Lies", and allows us to simply note that misleading PR about wars is a considerably more serious matter than misleading PR about a £3 bottle of shampoo.

For me, its very welcome that Chilcot's conclusions come with the official imprimatur of the British state.  For far too long, any public figure arguing that e.g. the government exaggerated its case for war, or that its case for war was mere PR for a decision already taken, was likely to be mocked as a conspiracy theorist and a nutter.  The suggestion that Britain's involvement in the war increased the threat of terrorism was treated as tantamount to siding with Al Qaeda, if not outright incitement to violence.

That these straightforward points were demonstrably and obviously true, did not help at all with Britain's highly belligerent and obnoxious pro-war party.  Those people will still be belligerent and obnoxious tomorrow, but the difference is that the facts are now decisively on our side, because they're part of the official record.

And on Tony himself, well, what's left to be said?  He was a lunatic and a true-believer when he was Prime Minister and as he demonstrated today, he's still as mad as a box of frogs.

The main accusation against him is, I think, that he preferred to risk the lives of millions of people on his own windy, arse-extracted interpretation of events, rather than listening to the advice of people who actually knew what they were talking about.

So what does Tony do?  He gives a rambling, 45-minute press conference in which he confirms beyond all doubt that the accusation is absolutely correct.  

I used to think that there was method in his madness but now, I'm not so sure.  Looking at him today, he reminds me of people who have been accused of the most serious crimes.  Those people very rarely plead guilty and usually maintain their innocence, even in the face of the most overwhelming evidence.

Why do they do this, when a guilty plea might slash their sentence?  They do this because some crimes are so serious that the reputational damage is too horrible to accept, and because prisons are full of stab-happy killers with lots of time to whittle shivs.

They do it because it's better to go to jail wailing about a non-existent miscarriage of justice, than it is to admit to what you did and face the consequences.

Anyway, on that note, have at it - I'm sure that there are plenty of hilarious attempts to muddy the waters out there today, and there'll be thousands by tomorrow.

But the good news is that at long last, it's them who will have to prove their points beyond doubt.  It's scant comfort, but even that has been a long time coming.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

This Film's Crap, Let's Slash The Seats

One last Brexit post then, before the Chilcot Report reveals all the Mistakes that Were Made, and to what extent they were Made In Good Faith.

On Referendum night, I overheard half a conversation between a friend and her Dad.  I got the other half later:

Friend:  How did you vote then, Dad?
Dad:  I voted Out.
Friend:  Dad!  Why did you do that?  The economy will crash!  It'll cause chaos!
Dad:  That won't bother me hen, I'm retired.
Friend: But it'll affect me!  What about me?
Dad: (Long silence).

And the more that I talk to people about the Referendum, the clearer it's becoming that for many, the calculation was a lot less This is a make-or-break moment for the nation than it was the eternal response of the bored teenager:  

This film's crap, let's slash the seats. 

I was thinking about all this when I was reading Rafael Behr's unintentionally hilarious article about the Remain disaster, in which he details the difficulties that the Tories had in fighting against other Tories and assorted right-wing cranks. It leaves me with the bizarre impression that the Brexit disaster isn't really David Cameron's fault at all, and that the real problem is the strange, alien and suspiciously liberal province of "Remania".

The longer version of it is: Cameron and his campaign fought a brave, principled but doomed battle against an incredibly corrupt and extreme opponent.  They fought nobly but were defeated by the might of the tabloid press; by the chicanery of their adverseries, and finally by their own remoteness from the anger of the ordinary voter, because Remain supporters are all a bunch of pointy-headed, ivory-tower, middle-class, la-de-da woofters who don't understand the populace's manly rage.  Shame, shame on us all.

The short and more accurate version:  It never occurred to Dave and his mates that their own shitty tactics might be successfully used against them, and now politicans and journalists don't know whose arse they should be kissing.

Behr produces a cast of cross-party characters from Remain to express disgust and astonishment that Leave not only turned the EU Referendum into a celebrity bunfight between Johnson and Cameron; not only that they openly lied to the electorate with an actually-racist campaign, but also that the press allowed them to get away with it:

"...More infuriating still was the amount of air time given to claims from the Leave campaign that were either grotesque distortions or flagrant lies - the fiction that EU membership cost £350m per week; the pretence that Turkey was close to EU membership and the denial that the UK had a veto on that point..."

"...Papers normally do so much of the work in a campaign, ripping policies apart," noted a No. 10 source.  "There was nothing new about the (idea of introducing an) Australian-based points system, but the papers just gave it a free pass..."  

"...We underestimated their willingness to be mendacious and xenophobic", ("Stronger In" head of strategy Ryan) Coetzee said". 

You get the idea, and it's probably worth allowing the sheer preposterousness this claim to sink in: that the Remain campaign were surprised to discover that it's possible for British politicians to tell whacking great lies, and that they were astounded to discover that the British press enthusiastically repeats those lies.  Even the racist ones! 

Who could possibly have foreseen this misfortune?

Now obviously, nobody in the Remain campaign was really surprised to discover that Johnson is a liar or that Farage is a fervent racist.  Seasoned political campaigners are not often shocked by the scummery of the tabloids, and any that were should be coerced into committing Seppuku with an EU-mandated straight banana.

Ultimately, this is yet another attempt by various Remain figures to dodge responsibility for their own ineptitude.  The loudest cry from any losing campaign is always We Wuz Robbed.  This is no different, just with a long additional whinge about the alleged death of the supposedly sensible centrism that gave us the damn referendum in the first place.

Nonetheless, it does offer us a glimpse into the real story of the Referendum.

For a long time, the Tories kept their socially conservative faction - a crinkled crowd of resentful sexual shut-ins and retired colonels with unphotogenically racist tendencies, like Fawlty Towers crossed with 28 Days Later - in check with regular pantomime displays.  The type of people who wouldn't trust the government to run a power station, but fully expect it to dictate acceptable rules on procreation and parenting to the populace.  You know the type.

Mostly, the Tories kept these people and much of the rest of us in check by draping themselves in the Union Flag, winning wars, jailing louts, baton-charging protestors and loudly disapproving of the deviancy and profligacy of modern youth. 

Meanwhile, the party's money faction - the part that actually takes all the decisions - set about ripping up every British service and utility that they could find, then flogging them all out of the back of a van to their financier mates. 

And this suited everyone who mattered, for decades - the money men got rich and made sure that kickbacks flowed into the right purses, and the blue rinse brigade at least got to feel like they were in charge.  Whenever the scam got too obvious - which was most days - it was necessary to invent whole menageries of enemies to terrify the crinklies into compliance.

So invent they did: great cackling cavalcades of communist hobgoblins;  flocks of privilege-checking metrosexual students; ravenous, swan-munching Poles and legions of foreign politicians with big funny noses, all of whom had malign designs on the public's money, their nifty cars and their lovely little hobbit-holes. 

But nothing lasts forever.

"This was the first time Cameron experienced what it would feel like to fight a campaign with most of Fleet Street lined up on the opposing side - to receive the kind of ferocious treatment usually reserved for Labour leaders..."

"...Anyone who expressed a view on the hazards of leaving the EU was painted as the hostage of a corrupt Brussels-worshipping establishment...  As one Cameron aide puts it: "If anyone on the left had ever said the Bank of England was corrupt and shouldn't have a view, they would be incinerated, but the BBC gave a free ride to the rubbishing of institutions".  

And so on, with the children of the revolution eating the original revolutionaries.  As you reap, so shalt thou sow.  The monster is throttling fuck out of Dr Frankenstein, you get the drift.

The upshot here is that this has precious little to do with the remoteness of the political class - or the 48% of voters who wanted to stay in the EU - from the public, or any of that malarkey.  This is more like the financial crisis of 2008 - the scam got so big and so unweildy that it could no longer be controlled, and it's now blowing up in the faces of its architects and enablers. 

And as with previous crises, one government or another will eventually bring it back under control, and we'll return to something like business as usual, only poorer, angrier, more vicious and more mean than ever before.  Then, the whole cycle will repeat itself, in an uglier and louder fashion.

But for that to happen, it's going to be necessary to create some new bogeymen to share the blame.

Going by the general tenor of this week's opinion pages, including Behr's article, those bogeymen are going to be disproportionately urban, young, and suspiciously fond of foreigners and wanky cuisine.  Metropolitan hipster types, you know, the sort who might want to force 52% of the population to listen to the diktats of hated auslanders like, say, the European Union.

Just as in the financial catastrophe of 2008, it looks like some folk would far prefer it if we all accepted our own share of responsibility for causing this fresh debacle. 

The alternative would be to admit that our sensible, centrist government screwed up badly, and that the nation was swallowed by the scam that they and their friends had created.  That might include taking a hard look at our supposedly centrist politicians, and at the people who report their innermost thoughts. 

And we could hardly have that.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Very Real

And so to one of the more prominent issues of the Brexit debacle: where now, for the Very Real Concerns of the British public?

(A bit of background here for new readers: every time the issue of immigration comes up, some nutless joker is guaranteed to issue baleful warnings that We Must Respect The Very Real Concerns Of The British Public Or Else, usually while finger-wagging every citizen to the left of General Franco.  It's this that has led to the comical weekly spectacle of entire Question Time panels and audiences all agreeing that they mustn't be prevented from talking about immigration, live on national television).

Leavers and Remainers may not agree on much but in the aftermath of this enormous political and financial catastrophe, I'd like to think that every half-reasonable citizen would at least agree that the Concerns have turned out to be not Very Real at all.

The fact that we've even been discussing the Concerns stems from a political calculation.  Every time a politician or other public figure mentions the public's Very Real Concerns, they're describing the universal phenomenon where notable influxes of people to any area are likely to cause resentment among the residents.  As noted in a previous post, this happens regardless of race and religion.  It's not very nice but it is a real and observable issue, and it's one that should be taken into account in planning for our future living arrangements.

Unfortunately for all of the fans of the Concerns, the EU referendum has graphically demonstrated that the Very Real Concerns don't just include resentment of outsiders and change.  They also cover everything from people being annoyed about hearing other folk on their buses speaking foreign languages, to resentment of new shops catering to immigrants, to outright racist abuse in the streets.

This being the case, it's now become quite difficult* to pretend that the Very Real Concerns are not, you know, a bit on the racist side.  If the R-word upsets you - and God knows, it drives lots of people out of their damn minds - then there are plenty of others: "prejudice", "bigotry", "unnecessarily being a cunt about it"...  You can take your pick.

So this leaves our politicians and public figures in a bit of a bind.  As a cursory glance will reveal, they've been pandering to the public's Concerns for well over a decade, and yet somehow the outrage has grown worse, to the point where Brexit is now endangering the finances of people who actually matter.  As the parties have more and more openly sought to co-opt public racism for electoral gain, it's only made us crazier and more unhinged.

The choice then is to pick - do we continue to pander to an increasingly racist public, or do we instead risk telling the public that they're wrong?

This should be an easy choice for Labour who are, after all, supposed to be in favour of the man in the street and against this kind of thing.  Racism is many things, but it's not a magic lamp that you can rub just right, and then command a genie to help the poor**.

There's no racism Laffer Curve, where you can achieve the maximum public good by pitching your politics at just the right level of prejudice.  You can feed racism or you can oppose it, but you can't co-opt it to your will, because it will end up controlling you and ruining everything that you are supposed to be working for.

Because here's the deal - during the referendum campaign, the Leave campaign quite happily  ripped off actual Nazi propaganda and propelled the nation into an unprecedented crisis, wiping out vast amounts of wealth.

And these are the people that the Very Real Concerners want to get into a game of Anti-Immigrant Bingo with?  UKIP, for example, have shown that there are few depths to which they will not sink.  Are you going to get down into the gutter alongside them?  That's not going to win many votes; it will actively repel your own supporters, and it'll inevitably spark a long downward spiral into worse hate and worse disorder.

In the end, this is what the Very Real Concerns always were - a con, just a not-very-clever way for bet-hedging politicians to keep us all pootling quietly into the sewer at a slow and steady rate.  Any attempt to play at racist one-upmanship with Nigel Farage is going to take us there on rocket propulsion.

So here we are.  The entire nation can surely see that there's no such thing as "a bit racist", only racist or not.  Which way are we going to jump?

I'm assuming that we'll go with "Continue just enough to keep the whole sorry show ticking along", but it wouldn't be the first time that I've been wrong, or the last.

*Difficult, but hardly impossible, if you're thick and shameless enough.

**I had a good think about this and pretty much the only instance of racism being successfully deployed in a way that broadly enhanced the greater public good, is the war in the Pacific in WWII.  And I don't think that's a very helpful example, what with all the mass-murder and destruction of entire cities full of civilians, and so on. 

Friday, July 01, 2016

On Retail Grievance

I've lost count of the numbers of times I've been told this week that the British people are angry, with precious little analysis of what it is that we're supposed to be angry about

So: What are we angry about?

Maybe I can help out here.  I've been speaking to exactly the type of people who voted Leave for years - actively seeking them out and probing them for their opinions on all manner of issues.  I don't do this because I'm keen to reach out to people with different beliefs or to change minds, but mainly because I'm a dick and I enjoy bickering with people.  And if there's one thing I can say about the people I know who voted to leave the EU, it's this - they're always up for a rumble.

There's been a lot of nonsense spoken about the Leave-Remain split, with worryingly large numbers of people on both sides determined to turn it into a straight class issue.  Thankfully, the numbers are pretty clear.  As Flip-Chart Rick will tell you, the main indicators for the likelihood of a person voting Leave aren't economic or based upon status, or even party-political.  The most accurate predictor is a person's opinion on the death penalty...

...The probability of voting Brexit rises from around 20 per cent for those most opposed to the death penalty to 70 per cent for those most in favour. Wealthy people who back capital punishment back Brexit. Poor folk who oppose the death penalty support Remain.

There's a reason why this is, and it's retail grievance.  That is, it's anger as a consumer product that can be bought and enjoyed, much like Wagon Wheels or Irn-Bru.

I'd argue that you can't understand anything about British politics until you grasp that a huge chunk of the populace are basically angry about everything and nothing at the same time, all the time, for no other reason than because they like being angry.

The easiest way to assess whether this is true or not, is just to speak to your friends and co-workers and to sift their opinions for actual, real problems.  As soon as some burning issue of the day comes up, just ask them what they think about it.  Almost everyone will be delighted to tell you their opinion in great detail, because most people are like me and they love a good whinge.

There are plenty of people in this country who have very real problems: sick relatives, terrible jobs, horrible neighbours.  Ask people questions about what annoys them however, and you'll find that those aren't the type of issues that are winding up most of us.

The things that really wind a lot of people up are usually bizarre urban fables; daft outrage stories that they've read, and whatever shite they've seen on TV recently.  Examples:

- Homeless people who beg all day, and then drive home in expensive cars.  Such people are apparently everywhere, because I've heard this one coming from several cities across the UK;

- Shiftless bastards with widescreen tellies.  The average British punter usually encounters these people on TV (unless they're unlucky enough to have job in retail or hospitality, in which case - fair enough).

- How you can't even sing Baa-Baa Black Sheep without the police beating you with truncheons, or

- Some mad Muslim with a hook for a hand who spat on a poppy but gets free Fruit Corners, while British veterans are sleeping rough, or whatever.

I could go on - a personal favourite is people complaining that the benefits system is designed explicitly to denigrate and humiliate them... And then claiming that immigrants can get whatever they want for free, as if foreign nationals had access to an entirely separate system, rather than using exactly the same one, with all the same built-in horrors.

Anyway, go out and speak to these folk yourself.  I guarantee you that of every ten complaints you hear, maybe one will be a real issue that's adversely affecting them personally; another will be an actual, real political issue and the other eight will be a daft deluge of half-true horseshit that they've heard down the pub or that somebody has read about on the internet.

Which is another way of saying that this is consumer grievance.   Most of these people are pissed off because they spend a great deal of time consuming products that have been specifically designed to piss them off.  And they like being pissed off, so they come back for more.

Very few of the issues that people have told me about over the years involved situations that they themselves have experienced.  Almost all of it is the kind of thing that you have to deliberately seek out, in exactly the same way that the worst, most precious Guardianista goes looking for things to be offended by.

And if you want something to complain about, you're not going to be disappointed.  Britain may not build much these days but we're still a world-class manufacturer of outrage.  The TV schedules are packed with it; the newsagent's shelves are groaning with it and you can download it in seventy different formats to whatever device you like.  All of it does pretty much what I'm doing here - it tells you exactly what you  want to hear, in precisely these I'm a proper expert and I'm just telling it like it is mate tones.

These shows and newspapers are barely even a political product, mind.  Most are no more political than Pickled Onion Monster Munch or Heinz Tomato Soup are Marxism.  It's simply a question of supply and demand.  There is a large and growing demand for outrage, and thus there are willing suppliers.  The more successful each new scum-baiting TV show is, the more imitators it will spawn, until the market is saturated with bargain-basement knock-offs.  

To pick just one example - the BBC's show Saints and Scroungers might well be a big hunk of red meat to the average elderly conservative, but it's as apolitical as raspberry jam.  The producers of Saints and Scroungers couldn't give a flying fuck who you vote for or what your opinion on the European Union is.  The only thing they're interested in is keeping you angry, because the relationship between producer and viewer is transactional - they provide you with a boiling sense of hopeless rage, and you give them half-an-hour of your time, and then they get paid.

And you can see proof of this in the demographics of those most likely to e.g. vote to leave the EU.  There's a reason why pensioners and other people who don't work were massively more likely to vote for Brexit than people with jobs.  It's because people who have jobs don't have time to sit around all day winding themselves up about true-ish shite that they've read in the paper or seen on TV.  

Seriously, if you want to find out whether I'm bullshitting you here, just speak to people.  They'll be glad to discuss it, possibly at great length.

You're not going to struggle to find people like this, because there doesn't seem to be any particular personal or economic profile for the type.  They're more likely to be male and middle-aged, I suppose, but wealthy people are just as likely to belong to this perpetually outraged group as poor people are, and the highly-educated love it every bit as much as people who left school as soon as they could.

And I have to stress that these are mainly decent, often hard-working, nice people.  They're more likely to be arseholes about it when they get wound up, but they're not usually ogres or morons.

You can gauge this for yourself, tomorrow.  All you have to do is ask.  You'll find out sharpish that our much-vaunted public rage is mainly based upon pish and drivel - made-up urban myths, overheard scare stories, whiny petulance and a general sense that everybody else except for me and my mates is getting away with murder. 

I'll leave it up to you to decide how far the rest of us should go to indulge this chunk of the population's boo-hoo.  I'd advise taking a long, hard look at the financial news before making up your mind, though.


A couple of other points, which I may or may not add to:

- One of the interesting things this week has been the complete invisibility of people like me in Brexit coverage, by which I mean working class people who went to university. The rush to claim Brexit for the decent, hard-working blahs of whatever have left me feeling a bit stranded.

So the Remainers are snobbish, over-educated pricks, and the Leavers are heavily-accented working people who don't like being talked down to.

I fit both of those categories, so where do I fit in?

- There are also plenty of Remain types who do retail grievance just as enthusiastically and loudly, if not more so, but with a different set of issues.  Reality shopping isn't a left-right thing, any more than it's a rich-poor issue.

On the whole, I'd say that between ten and twenty percent of the populace are just the type of people who are never happy unless they're miserable.  Hell, I'm one of those people.

The big difference right now, of course, is that it isn't the Remainers who have just plunged the country into a political and economic crisis, so they're considerably less topical right now.