Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

A new solution for Brexit?

At the risk of bogging down this blog (blogging down???) – which is meant to be about the quality of life – in repeated political discussions, I want to offer one more observation about the UK’s current Brexit predicament. I am ‘justifying’ it on the grounds that the political climate is a determinant of the quality of life that its recipients enjoy.

This is to propose an alternative resolution to Brexit, which as far as I am aware has not been discussed elsewhere.

I have no doubt that it will be criticised as being biased from the start, so I had better concede that it is a Remainer’s solution – but I defy critics to come up with a more sustainable one, that does not poison the longer-term climate in this country with perhaps-dire consequences.

My starting point is that the pro/anti EU argument is not symmetrical.

The present situation is that the U.K. is a member of the EU. While sceptics might not be happy with this situation, it nonetheless means that this country can influence EU policy: that is an undeniable fact, and it is now clear that it would end with Brexit. This is why Brexiters oppose May’s settlement. Ity is also fact that EU actions will still affect Britain after Brexit, at least if we want to trade with, or travel within it. It is also worth remembering that the U.K. historically has not opposed the vast majority of EU legislation, and has initiated quite a lot.

One might ask objectors what material negative impact EU membership has on their lives. No doubt they would come up with a long list, from the imposition of ‘foreign’ laws through to the use of metric measurements – and of course immigration. While one should not dismiss such objections, it is necessary to separate those which have some traction from those which are mere myth, the genuinely practical from the ‘merely’ ideological – and attempt to address the former. One might expect (though without much hope) that in the interests of national reconciliation, Brexiters would accept this. If they don’t, they should be ignored with the same compunction that Remainers have so far been.

But what of the practical negative impact EU membership has on the daily lives of euro-sceptic Britons? Apart from minor irritations, I suspect the real answer is ‘very little’ – particularly when offset against demonstrable benefits which even many leavers accept, such as free trade, ease of travel or reduction in mobile phone roaming charges etc, which arguably benefit everyone irrespective of their political viewpoint.

This is not to deny that there are certain groups on whom specific legislation has had an impact, such as certain types of farmer or fisher. But it is necessary to balance the impact (loss of freedom for unrestrained fishing) against the long-term benefits – let alone ecological imperative – from preserving fish stocks. People do not always take a bigger view even when it comes to self-interest.

The reality is that people who do not like their European citizenship are largely free to ignore it in their daily lives – and the fact that this is so gives the lie to the claim that the EU is overbearing.

On the other hand, if the UK leaves the EU, the wishes and rights of the 48% (plus) who are pro-Europeans will be materially affected. Their daily lives will be impaired by the loss of the practical advantages mentioned above, which they choose to value using exactly the same rights as Brexiters use to ignore them – not to mention the matters of identity and citizenship which Brexiters are free to ignore, which will be forcibly removed from Remainers. This is not something that any Brexiter who truly values the integrity of their home nation can afford to dismiss. Reconciliation will not be possible unless a resolution can be found to which Remainers can also subscribe – which is why the call to “get over it” is so objectionable.

There is only one solution that can come close to keeping nearly everyone reasonably content (as most were before the accursed referendum) – and that is something close to the status quo. This might appear to be a non-solution – but remaining in the EU is the only way to provide pro-European Britons with the status they desire. However, this is not to deny that around half of the nation is unhappy with that status, even if they overstate its real impact. Therefore, within any proposal to remain need to be concrete proposals to limit the EU’s role in Britain: in effect to create formal ‘special status’ within the EU for the UK, somewhat similar to the special status that Northern Ireland has within the UK in recognition of the divided loyalties of its inhabitants.

The basis for this could of course be the existing opt-outs. But the possibility should also be explored for formalising the process by which these are preserved or even extended in future. The most obvious of these concerns freedom of movement. The U.K. already has derogation from the process of ‘ever closer union’ – and this probably needs to be beefed-up for the sake of sceptics.

This is not my personally-preferred solution: I have never seen why the U.K. should expect to belong to the club on terms any different from the others, and I tend to believe that had it signed up properly at the start, more of the full benefits of membership would have been apparent in this country. But I have to recognise that many would see mine as an extreme position; it is necessary to compromise. The foregoing is a position which even I as a strong pro-European could live with for the sake of the key elements which I hold especially dear: retention of European citizenship, freedom to travel, the single market, perpetuation of peace in Ireland and the ability to be involved and represented at European level.

As before, sceptics would remain free to ignore the existence of much or all of this at anything other than an ideological level. Indeed such freedom might be bulwarked by the guarantees of special status.

While the EU might also be unhappy at the prospects of special status for the UK, it too needs to accept the reality of British public opinion, and concede that its best hope for longer-term reconciliation is to accommodate the present crisis, while stopping the UK from drifting off into isolationism. Brexit has indeed made a special case of this country.

Whether this is a compromise that Brexiters would accept remains to be seen. But if they won’t, it would blow a further hole in their claims to be defending democracy, let alone the preservation of their beloved nation.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

All those lemmings can still be wrong.

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

One of the many fine things that Winston Churchill never said.

Much though I admire Churchill’s perspicacity, I’m not sure I would have agreed with his rather patrician solutions, for all his advocacy of democracy elsewhere as the ‘least worst’ system. But perhaps ‘events’ are forcing us to confront the difficult possibility that democracy too has its limitations – or at least that it is a great deal more flawed than we in the West have chosen to believe over the past century.

Democracy is normally extolled as a pure virtue, as though the right to collective self-determination is in itself synonymous with good decision-making. Yet there are a number of issues at present of questionable wisdom, that might nonetheless have some legitimate, if simplistic claim to be democratically-based. The obvious one is Brexit, though we might also consider the current presidency of the U.S.A., and also the regimes in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Italy and Russia as part of the same.

But is it possible to advocate democratic decisions where the outcomes are patently malign? I am not primarily thinking of Brexit here, although it still qualifies. If a consenting nation (as with an individual) genuinely wishes to inflict harm on itself, then  as long as there is no damage to anyone else, it can presumably be left to it. But as soon as the decision to do so impacts on dissenting others, then it becomes possible to question the moral legitmacy of the decision.

In reality, there is probably never a situation where such a decision brings no harm to anyone other than its proponents; Brexit is just such an example, because even if it were certain that the move would do no damage to other countries or to the wider integrity of the EU, there are still the 48% (plus?) in Britain who do not support it. And as the present situation shows, when a zero-sum situation of this sort is in prospect, support for the basic rules which democracy needs in order to function (such as respecting the result of a fair defeat) rapidly falls away. And all the more so when there are clear grounds to doubt that the defeat was indeed fair.

Another misconception is that democracy is a single entity when it is not. Almost more important than the basic principle are the means by which it is enacted. While the concept of a majority is simple enough, this is not helpful when there is more than a binary choice at stake. It does not address the problem that has long bedevilled First-Past-The-Post systems, namely that the winner is often the largest minority, rather than a true majority. The side-effects of this have been well-rehearsed, including the fact that binary voting systems effectively totally disenfranchise even large minorities (and sometimes even majorities) – exactly the situation with Brexit. Resentment and dissent are the likely outcome. Conversely, proportional systems often deliver indeterminate results – and while one might argue that this is a more accurate reflection of a difficult reality, it risks simply transferring the real decision-making to unseen horse-trading elsewhere before a result can be declared.

Gandhi observed that truly civilised countries are those that show their weak (and minorities)  care – in other words the compassion that a democratic majority still needs to have for its ‘losers’ if it is to retain any general consent. By this measure, Brexit seems to be leading Britain to a less civilised place, as are other issues in certain other countries.


 

But in a sense none of the above is the real problem with democracy. That is what critical thinkers call the Framing Error. One of a long list of logical flaws, the framing error states that people make decisions based on what they perceive and believe they ‘know’ – which almost by definition is far from being the complete picture of a given situation. This can occur both spatially (we can’t see what is going on elsewhere) and temporally (we tend to draw artificial limits in our minds about where we attribute causality). We compound these difficulties by further framing our outlook with our own psychology, intellectual abilities, and preconceptions.

We then ask people to make serious decisions based on what they think – or think they know. People debate – and vote – in a condition of varying but widespread ignorance, which we all have, but which almost no one acknowledges. At one level it can be argued that this is not important: in a true democracy people should be free to make their votes based on whatever criteria they like, including limited vision or outright ignorance. But when, as discussed above, the repercussions of this right extend to serious impacts on millions of other people, not to mention entire countries, it is hard to argue that there should be no limits.

Faith in democracy rests on the fact that in a collective of millions, outlying views will be rare enough that the ‘sensible’ majority prevails. But as once again in the case of Brexit, one person’s sensible moderate is another person’s extremist. In some parts of the world, this is the stuff of which genocide is made.

Another risk is that ‘sensible majorities’ tend to vote for the status quo, not necessarily because it is the optimal solution, but because it is what falls most frequently within their inevitably limited field of vision – not to mention the innate human aversion to change. But there are plenty of cases where radical action may well have prevented later disaster: had the British electorate not voted against electoral reform and the introduction of elected mayors and other forms of regional representation, it could be argued that many of the discontents that led to Brexit might have found alternative, less harmful outlets. In this case, as with the various causes to which Brexit has been attributed, failure to take a long enough view is a serious impediment to accurate thinking.

Ironically, British democracy, much trumpeted by Brexiters, has never addressed many of the shortcomings discussed above; they certainly seem unconcerned about problems caused by framing errors.

Democracy is normally advocated on the ground of the entitlement that it brings to every person to participate in collective deliberation. But its more important quality is that it also places responsibility for the outcomes on those same individuals.

Neither, regrettably, do many Brexiters seem to possess much awareness, much less concern, for the longer-term dilemmas that this throws up, such as how to reconcile two fundamentally opposing worldviews in a coherent national identity. Telling pro-Europeans to “get over it” does not begin to do the issue the justice it needs – and nor do the current Prime Minister’s exhortations to set aside the differences. Historically, the British model that Brexiters and nationalists trumpet is actually the source of the problem: for many years it only feigned democracy, while ensuring that real power remained vested in the Executive and the social class from which it was mostly drawn. ‘Ordinary’ people had no real say – and correspondingly little responsibility. They could safely lay the blame for the nation’s errors firmly at the door of others.

Nowadays, the situation is reversed: in a pendulum-swing from the above, the people have arguably been given too much say – the ability to make momentous decisions without much awareness at all of the responsibility that goes with self-determination, for being informed and able to deliberate seriously before casting one’s vote. And no number of televised debates will do much to rectify a situation where almost everyone is reduced to voting on confirmation bias simply because they have no ability to do otherwise. This is without the routine rejection of what ‘expert’ opinions are available – the only alternative is (and was) to vote largely on prejudice or ignorance.

From a longer-term perspective, this nation’s travails are largely own-goals. Most of the errors of social and economic policy derive from the prevalence of class-derived vested interests, and many of the supposedly democratic reforms have been hobbled by the fact that Britain has a fundamentally flawed electorate that is used to zero-sum, false-dichotomy thinking, a great deal of shouting and confrontation – and now the ability to make decisions without any appreciation of its responsibilities for informing itself and attempting to address its framing errors first.

It’s not easy to know where this leaves us – but I am reminded of a quote from my favourite psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

“People without an internalised symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers and exploited by anyone who has something to sell.”

A healthy democracy absolutely needs an active, thoughtful, open-minded and articulate electorate. It also needs a system that adequately reflects the nuances of opinion and shifting alliances that result from having this. These are things that Britain increasingly seems to lack; no matter what the mechanics of the system, I suggest that the country can as a result no longer be considered properly democratic.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

A Critical Thinking approach to Brexit – Part 2

After the long discussion in part 1, this is somewhat shorter…

If it is accepted that public debate on the specifics of matters like Brexit is inevitably limited to unprovable matters of belief, one is left with the question of how should it be debated.

Rather than resorting to claim and counter-claim, it would have been much better to establish a set of key principles against which to evaluate competing options. While this partially happened at political level, the difficulty is transferring it to the public arena, and an audience that inevitably has neither the knowledge to evaluate what is being suggested nor (probably) much patience with arcane technicalities.

The proof of this was the failure of Remain to capture public support. And their opposition did not help either its own case or the debate as a whole by being repeatedly unable to convey either a focused, specific definition of what Leave actually meant, or even a set of specific criteria against which its claims could be evaluated.

Add to that a public whose understanding of the issue largely resides in the category ‘unknown unknowns’ (i.e. it doesn’t even know what it needs to know in order to make an informed decision) – and constitutional arrangements that are arcane in the extreme – and we had the recipe for a perfect storm.

Experience suggests that much of the public remains in a state of not wanting to hear what it needs to know either. This is what my book was hoping to address: a relatively non-partisan examination of the physical and psychological state of the nation which is arguably the real problem underpinning the whole issue.

Trying to persuade people whose very position is founded on a rejection of outsiders that they would do well to heed the observations of disinterested third-parties is a good definition of being onto a loser. And so it has proved – no matter that most commentators in ‘friendly’ countries have advised that Brexit is a disastrous move even when seen from a distance, the message fell on deaf ears. So much for trying to advocate the benefits of critical thinking: it seems that you need to be able to think reasonably critically about that too, before you become remotely ‘open’ enough to have a proper debate.

I will end with two things:

Firstly, here is a link to a website that despite its name is an independent media organisation. Its views on the impact of the U.K.’s current position within the E.U. might have been worth considering.

Secondly, given that the debate was not symmetrical – in other words, Brexit was the antagonist as it proposed to change the status quo, and therefore the burden of proof was on it to convince its doubters that such a change was right. This it never did, preferring to rely instead on what it is all too easy to describe as sensationalism and misinformation.

Here are some of the techniques it used to do that:

Hasty generalisation: because there are things wrong with the EU the whole thing is corrupt
Sweeping generalisation: because some immigrants have gamed our systems, that is what they are all doing
Confusing cause and effect: things are bad in Britain because we are in the EU.
Oversimplification of cause and effect: If we leave the EU everything will be alright.
Confusing correlation and cause: because there are things wrong in Britain and things wrong with the EU, the one must be the cause of the other.
Slippery slope: If we stay in an imperfect EU it will be the end of our country as we know it.
Ad hominem: attacking their opponents personally rather than the arguments they were making.
Straw person: misrepresenting Remainers as ardent EU apparatchiks in order to disredit them.
Arguing from one thing to another: Because we don’t like the EU, the EU is therefore abhorrent.
False dichotomy: if the EU is not perfect, then it must be terrible.

This is pretty much the full house of logical flaws – and the Brexit debate seems to have fallen foul of virtually all of them.

The final step of critical analysis is to look for plausible alternatives to evaluate against the main claim. The main one, which seems to be that the EU is a neo-liberal threat/a bullying dictatorship/in the pay of big business/responsible for the decline of Britain/undemocratic, requires answers to certain questions about the current nature and behaviour of that organisation. Here are ten which in my view needed answers:

1. If the EU is ‘anti-citizen’, what is the purpose and effect of social programmes, such as the Social Chapter, the Working Time Directive, the Charter of Fundamental Rights etc.?

2. If it is in the pocket of big business, what is the purpose and effect of programmes such as the WEEE directive, the CE safety mark etc, all of which add costs to all (but especially big) businesses? Why did it, for example, also impose limits on mobile phone roaming charges?
3. If the EU is a centralising body, what is the purpose and effect of Subsidiarity, and why does it pump significant funds into regional aid?
4. If the EU is undemocratic, why does it require unanimity between member states for all of its major decisions (such as approving Brexit)?
5. If the EU is undemocratic, what is the purpose and effect of direct elections to one of its three main institutions, and indirect elections to the second (via national elections)?
6. Why is the unelected status of the Commission (in effect the civil service) so objectionable when the civil service in Whitehall is not elected either?
7. Why is it unreasonable for Britain to pay to belong to the EU when it has one of its largest domestic economies, and it agreed the formula for contribution calculations? (The other two populous large economies (France and Germany) pay more).
8. Why are the investments made in Britain by the EU, such as regional investment, not considered in your figures when costing the amount Britain pays to the EU?
9. Given that Westminster one the one hand has approved around 95% of EU legislation and on the other has been fined for its failure to meet standards and timescales on vehicle emissions, beach cleanliness and waste electrical goods recycling (to name but three) what evidence is there that Westminster would give equal priority to addressing these issues if not held to account by the EU?
10. What reasons were there for Britain seeking and obtaining exemptions from significant parts of EU legislation, such as the Social Chapter (for many years), the Working Time Directive, the Single Currency, the adoption of Schengen and more? Has the country benefited or the opposite from being outside these schemes? (As an example, is it mere coincidence that the country exempted from WTD is now the country with the longest working hours? What effect has this had?) The website linked earlier passes reasonably impartial judgement on some of these matters.

If Brexiters had been able to answer these questions to the standards of rigour demanded by Critical Thinking (and had the population been able to ask them in the first place) then the case for Brexit might have been a lot stronger. As it is, we are largely still waiting.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

A critical thinking approach to Brexit – part 1

For all of the “debate” going on in Britain about Brexit (much of which falls woefully short of any reasonable criteria for being considered to be such), little time has been given to examining the real issues with E.U. membership. The problem here may in many cases be wanton partisanship – but there are bigger matters that all sides of a mature debate ought to be able to agree on.

The principle one is that a position based on fact is stronger than one based on assertion (i.e. belief). It is probably necessary (and wise) to set aside epistemological debates on the nature of knowledge – but the difference between a ‘fact’ and an assertion is that the former is supported by provable (i.e. replicable, thus verifiable) evidence whereas the latter is not. In a sense it is ‘belief without proof’ – a definition best applied to religion, but which is much less advisable when it comes to matters of the national future.

I am not suggesting here (even implicitly) that one side has been more deficient than the other in this respect. A mature position would be to accept that a huge amount of what is being discussed lies in the realm of belief – because in the final reckoning it is impossible for any one individual – most of all the “person in the street” – to be in possession of anything like enough information to be able to assemble a factually-robust overview. Thus we are reduced to arguing over beliefs – which are easily overdrawn and is rarely wise.

Therefore, even as a firm Remainer, I ‘ought’ to be able to accept that cases made for remain that are based on assertion rather than fact do not advance the argument, and may even weaken it. Arguments that draw on factually-robust arguments have little need for weaker ones –and recourse to them might suggest that a better case cannot be made.

The same should apply to Leavers. If I were in this camp, I hope I would equally accept that the case for Brexit is best made on a basis of solid fact. I am intending to be as even-handed as possible here, so I hope it is not too partisan to point out that this case was never made. Part of the reason for this was that proof is impossible to obtain when it comes to things that have yet to happen: we can’t know the future, so the best they could do was predict.

The same was true for Remainers arguing the virtue of their case on the basis of the damage Brexit would do: both cases were predicated on more or less accurate extrapolations of the present – and started from the position of confirming their own existing biases. As such, neither offered a good basis for such a momentous decision.

However, Remain did have one key advantage here: the conditions for remaining in the E.U. were known, as they already exist – though this advantage was blown both by the failure of the Remain campaign to use them effectively – and more so because the vast majority of the electorate had so little knowledge against which to measure the veracity of the various arguments with which it was being presented.

In short, nobody knows what the outcome of leaving will be. We might accept the consensus from the majority of ‘experts’ that it will be harmful – but even they are, in the final reckoning, only offering predictions, albeit ones based on more information and insight than the average member of the public can probably muster. The more honest ones will accept that they too are biased.

E.U. membership is such a complex and diverse matter, that even attempting to reduce it to simple certainties is probably unwise. A more mature position is to accept that membership of the EU is a mixed bag: it has its benefits, but given that it is by necessity a compromise between many different national positions, it is imperfect. It therefore has downsides too. A sensible way forward might involve considered weighing of these issues, rather than bunker-mentality absolutism – but binary thinking is the normal way in Britain. Our traditions and systems encourage it – from our parliament down.

It might be more sensible, too, to accept that a view on this depends not only on what you are looking at, but where you are looking from. What appears to one person or country to be a problem may be nothing of the sort to another. The failure to acknowledge this has been a major source of difficulty: with both sides claiming absolute virtue, there was little chance for a mature, considered debate ever to happen.

In particular, the apparent inability of many in Britain to accept the proposal that the EU is a partnership of equals prejudices any views they subsequently take of that enterprise, in a way that does not necessarily happen elsewhere. It is what has always informed the British presumption for special treatment.

Another classic flaw of reasoning is to embody diverse groups as though they are a single individual. Claiming that ‘the British People’ think anything in particular may be convenient, but it cannot be true since 60-plus million people never think as one. The same is true of ‘Europe’ and the E.U. All those claims about the malicious intent of that organisation ignore that fact that it is made up of thousands of individuals, and the idea that they all have a single, united agenda is probably incorrect. It is probably overdrawn even to suggest that its (relatively few) leaders all think the same either. Dealing with that is the whole point of politics.

In the final reckoning, people’s real intentions are known only to them – and attempting to second-guess them, let alone claiming to ‘know’ them, is pointless.

‘Thanks’ to the Facebook page set up to promote my new book, I have heard from a lot of Brexiters recently. I expected this, and did not block comments – though one might think that people who cannot respect the right of others to differ without needing to sabotage it, make a pretty clear statement about themselves at the outset. If they find people like me struggling to accept their views, they could first start by examining their own approach. They fall desperately short of the standards necessary for mature democratic debate, and on that score alone, I find their supposed desire to re-establish Britain as a self-determining democracy hard to accept. Regrettably, the majority of respondents had not taken the trouble to inform themselves that the book is not even really about Brexit before they started shouting. Few were willing to do any more than wield slogans. They do not seem to understand that making a point means more than who can shout loudest, or be the most aggressive.

There were, however, two who were prepared to debate the issue. I applied the basic precepts of critical thinking to their arguments – conceding points whose logic seemed sound, offering alternative interpretations of contentious material as necessary, and supplying references to third-party sources where I believed factual inaccuracies had occurred or unsubtantiable claims had been made.

Only one person did the same in return. He then supplied a link to this article which refers to a now-declassified document FCO 30/1048 apparently showing that Edward Heath deliberately downplayed the implications of Britain’s joining the EEC in 1973 and suggesting that it would be “too late” to reverse by the time public opinion caught up thirty years later.

I have no reason to doubt the existence of this document. But it needs to be evaluated for credibility using the normal ‘CRAVEN’ criteria:

Corroboration or conflict with other evidence
Reliability of the report (factual accuracy)
Ability to see (what it is claims to have witnessed)
Vested interests of those reporting
• (Relevant) Expertise of those reporting
Neutrality or bias in their agenda

On this basis, the article falls rapidly apart. Not necessarily because it is lying, but because the source (The Daily Express) is known to be biased towards Leave in the first place – and the language used in the report is clearly not impartial. It ‘leads’ the reader towards certain conclusions, which impartial reporting never does. The more strongly it does this, the more it weakens any claim to objectivity. In this case, analysis of the language used shows it is blatant.

Secondly, there is no attempt to identify, let alone discuss, alternative interpretations – such as the possibility that Heath genuinely believed that it was in the national interest to join the EEC, but that he also knew public opinion would struggle with it when memories of 1939-45 were still much fresher than they are today. It is not as though governments never have hidden agendas – even well-meaning ones…

Finally, the source has pre-judged the article and arrived at a conclusion before it begins: the whole point of the article is not to arrive at the truth, but to convince the reader that a certain interpretation is correct. This is the diametric opposite of how mature debate is conducted.

In case Brexiters reading this conclude that I am simply deploying a subtler than usual form of argument against them – well in a sense, yes I am. (Acknowledging the inevitability of bias is the first step to allowing for it). But I also accept that the other ‘camp’ does the same – it is one reason why I very quickly gave up reading the New European: it is just as partisan as the pro-Brexit press. Even if one argues that some counter-balance was much-needed, the effect has nonetheless been to reinforce bunker mentalities on both sides.

Regrettably (I mean that), those individual Brexiters with whom I engaged soon showed that they could not handle reasoned argument. One resorted to ignoring everything I replied with; he then re-stated his opening gambit that “the EU is corrupt and that is all there is to it”, before disappearing. The second appears to have rejected my response to the ‘evidence’ he supplied, and has also disappeared. This does not lend much credibility to any claim they might have had to having a supportable position; in the end, both resorted to assertion rather than counter my arguments. Why does anyone believe this is adequate? This is not a good basis for the formation of public opinion, let alone national decision-making.

I’m not for a moment claiming to be unbiased on Brexit. But if attempts to engage with people on a mature, intelligent basis routinely fail in this way, then the nation has real problems. As a former teacher, I deeply regret that that profession seems to have failed profoundly in its work of developing more thoughtful, considered individuals within our society.

The whole point about critical thinking is accepting that no one is perfect: we all have biases to set aside before we engage, and even trying to be objective is hard work. But it seems that attempting this – or even acknowledging the need for it – is several steps too far for many people.

My own bias will of course continue to inform the view I hold – but I believe that I have based those views on the firmest evidence I could obtain (including visiting the European Parliament numerous times and talking to MEPs of different parties – even Eurosceptics, to counter claims of presentational bias), and considered allowance for uncertainty.

Unfortunately, the majority of those who might want to change my mind seem to have very little idea of how to go about it. Jeering and sloganising will certainly not work. Quite why they think it will is beyond me, and I can only assume they are unable to do better. It is certainly not the way to restore the democracy they claim to want.

In the end, everyone who failed to attempt reasoned debate on this issue is partly responsible for the tragedy that I think is now the likely outcome. We will probably all be the losers as a result – but infinitely more so if we can’t raise the national debate to better levels than this.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Irresistible force meets immovable object? Not at all.

The calls from certain quarters for the nation to unite behind the PM’s Brexit deal is being treated with the disdain it probably deserves. Not because the sentiment is not necessary, but because it trivialises yet again the causes of the division. It represents nothing more than the diminution of the reasons people hold the views that they do, and treats them as little more than superficial differences that can be easily abandoned for the sake of patching up the nation.

It also relies on the assumption that the disagreement is symmetrical in ‘weight’: the irresistible force and the immovable object, perhaps. In a sense, that is why Leavers have been reduced to telling Remainers to ‘get over it’. There is simply no better argument available to them, as indeed there is not in the opposite direction; nothing that can trump the very different values of the opposite camp. It is stalemate.

But the two cases are not symmetrical. The belief of Brexiters that pro-Europeans should just get over their difficulties betrays a fundamental failure to appreciate or care for the nature of identity – of which, given their own claims, one might have expected them to have a better understanding. Nationalism (insidious or otherwise) is based on the call for people to identify profoundly with an identity bigger than themselves, to the extent that the two partially merge. And yet Brexiters simply fail time after time to appreciate that for pro-Europeans, what is being “untimely rip’d” from them is their own version of exactly the same thing.

Here, in one nation, Brexit has exposed two utterly incompatible readings of what our national identity is, or should be. The one cannot but exist at the expense of the other; the only fully practical resolution would be to divide the nation physically in two. And the only less drastic, less satisfactory – but more practicable – alternative is to hold a new vote now that the specific terms of the proposed settlement are known. Mrs May’s greatest error of many, is to fail to appreciate this; if she was really as concerned for the national interest as she claims, she would recognise that a new vote is the only real hope of reconciling the issue – and if that means that two years’ difficult negotiations, let alone the time and expense, are not after all needed, then so be it. A useful purpose will still have been served.

But I fear that is not likely to be resolved or patched up for many a year to come. I have had numerous encounters with people where (not at my instigation) the very first line of conversation sought to establish which camp I was in; that is the depth of division that has been created, and which I suspect will linger for decades.

Neither is the argument as practically symmetrical as some would claim. I challenge any Leaver to show what negative effects Britain’s membership of the EU has had personally on them. They have always had the choice simply to ignore most of the doings, let alone the cultural aspects of pro-Europeanism. While some may rail against the arrival of metrication, for example, the practical effects were small. Undoubtedly there are some whose livelihoods were affected by EU policy. But that argument is easily reversed – and while one might potentially feel sympathy with fishermen subject to quotas, one also needs to reflect on the reason those quotas exist in the first place. British domestic policy on this matter has shown relatively little inclination to deal with issues like the depletion of fish stocks, let alone the environmental aspects of the matter.

On the other hand, Brexit, if it happens, will cause significant real impacts on every single individual in the country. There will be no ignoring it. The increased cost of living, the lower incomes and opportunities, the increased difficulty of physical access to the continent – not to mention the cultural and identity loss for those to whom such things matter – will all be very real and immediate. If Leavers don’t understand this, it is nothing more than a product of their own insularity and limited vision; if they simply don’t care, it betrays the hollowness of their own vision of national unity.

In practical terms, living under the aegis of the EU, even for those who did not like it, had little negative impact on their lives – at least not in ways that were distinct and separable from the damage done by the domestic mismanagement of this country in recent decades. It arguably also balanced any negatives with benefits that were often larger in scope than locally-minded objectors might perceive. Clean air legislation, for example, is not easily appreciated from a determinedly local perspective.

On the other hand, the prevailing of their world view will have significant a personal impact on me and those like me. It will actively deprive me of things that I hold very important, and will make – indeed already has made – the leading of my life more difficult. Why I should suddenly forgive that gratuitous imposition I do not see.

That – apart from any of the bigger arguments – is I suspect why calls for reconciliation will not work, and why this will not be forgotten lightly.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

It’s a bit late for that Now! Announcing my third book.

cover good

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my third book, It’s a bit Late for that Now! Britain’s relationship with the continent (before and after Brexit).

To speed things up, I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is and self-publish this one.

The book is pro-Europe, not specifically pro-E.U., and addresses long-term issues that will be important whatever happens in the political arena. I hope it will be of interest no matter which side of the argument is preferred.

You can purchase print-on-demand copies direct from the publisher here

You can purchase the e-book edition here

You can  read the first fifteen pages online for nowt!

In the next couple of weeks, the book will also be available via Amazon and to order from bookshops.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Who Governs Britain?

wgb

Professor Anthony King’s book Who Governs Britain? is about as even-handed an assessment of the topic as one might hope to find. King is a distinguished and considered expert in the field, as I experienced in a public debate at which he spoke. The book is well-written and entertaining.

And yet one is still forced to come to the conclusion that the system is broken, or at least cracked. And highly inconsistent and illogical. Published in 2015, the book is prescient in its observations, given what has happened since.

There is some discussion going on regarding Theresa May’s deserving of sympathy. King’s book puts this in an interesting perspective. I doubt the criticism that suggests she has put party survival ahead of country – she is not that much of a team player. But she still represents the worst of the Establishment – inflexible, unfeeling and out-of-touch. The government’s response to criticism from Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on poverty, is just another timely reminder of how unresponsive is the British Establishment to real, urgent needs of ‘ordinary’ people. I wonder if it realises how badly its outright denial of the problem appears in the nation at large.

May’s woodenness and emotional illiteracy are thus just par for the course, team player or not. Whatever she really thinks about Brexit, her chosen approach has just reflected the ability of this country’s executive to do what the hell it likes, in between the occasional need to flatter the nation with false promises at election time. She could have chosen to acknowledge the closeness of the vote, and seek to reconcile Remainers with what she thought needed to be done. But as with them all, it was more important to score points than be right, more important to retain power than admit weakness or error, even where the latter might have brought relief. More important to bang drums than admit the country’s weak position and seek collaboration with our supposed partners.

She – and the whole of her misguided type cannot change. Their commitment to the ‘national interest’ is nothing of the sort: it is (perhaps unwitting) loyalty to a certain kind of establishment interest largely unchanged since the days of Empire, and as such not deserving of any sympathy. Even if one sympathises with the personal price she is paying, a lot of it is self-inflicted.

Whatever happens in the coming months with Brexit, it is easy to argue that the whole British governmental and constitutional system is in urgent need of review and overhaul: Brexit has thrown its limitations and contradictions into stark relief.

Unfortunately, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, so the chances of one happening are virtually nil. The only person whom I suggest might be able to instigate one is err…. the Monarch, through a Royal Commission. There is no other mechanism. Not an appealing admission for a republican – and I suspect she’s actually Queen Turkey herself in any case.