British Left-Liberalism has to learn fast

Guest Post, Reaction:

Theresa May has not said much during this election campaign that I agree with. She hasn’t really said very much at all. However, one thing she did say was fundamentally true: work is the best route out of poverty.

The middle-class left jumped on this with the usual comeback that most people who are “in poverty” (actually, “whose income is below 60% of the UK median”) are in work. Ha! Take that Theresa! You’re wrong!

No she is not wrong, and what is more people who actually experience poverty (be that low income or social exclusion) know it better than any. After all, certain so-called “lefties” can literally afford to treat politics as a game to make themselves feel good about their own advanced education and comparatively high income; people who experience poverty day and daily cannot. It matters to them that those governing the country show some knowledge of their plight and of their ambitions – including ambitions to gain self respect (not least through work) and to have their identity and that of their community respected (not least if this identity is “English”).

Instead of understanding those ambitions, too many self-identifying as “Left” (but themselves not experiencing poverty of any form) appear to sneer at them. Their suggestion that work is not the best route out of poverty is heard by those who actually experience it as a suggestion that they should not have any aspirations; they should, so it seems, exist merely as clients of the welfare state and not as people with ambitions and identities of their own. Add this to the implicit (and occasionally even explicit) suggestion that displays of identity (such as the display of England flags) are to be frowned upon or even linked to racism, and all you have created is an even more marginalised group – and one which will most certainly not turn to the Left for answers.

This brings us neatly to two myths. Firstly, there is the notion that the Conservatives do not understand anywhere outside the M25 – yet London is the only region in England and Wales where the Conservatives are polling below 40% (noting that no party has scored that in England and Wales as a whole since 2001). Secondly, there is the notion that the Conservatives only exist for the elite or the rich – yet in fact the Conservative polling score is identical among all classes (as is Labour’s).

I think a Conservative landslide, read as a mandate to pursue Brexit and continue public spending squeezes come what may under the leadership of an inadequate Prime Minister who has no original ideas beyond a sound byte, would be a disaster for British democracy. Yet the Left – all talk, no listen – is about to let that happen.

Brexit will deprive agri-food sector of exports

There is very little we can be sure of about Brexit. A Free Trade arrangement of some sort accompanied by a deal on free movement would mean that it made very little practical difference for many of us; a straight-out departure falling out of and with the EU would be considerably more problematic.

However, for the agri-food sector and farmers in general, it is hard to see how the situation can be salvaged. The reason for this is CAP (and CFP); this is designed precisely as a protectionist policy for European agriculture and fishing. There is no precedent for any country outside the EU to have free access to the Single Market for agriculture precisely because of the purpose of EU policy – protectionism.

It is being suggested that, given the balance of agricultural trade, perhaps the UK could be the first exception and receive free access to the Single Market in this area. Leaving aside that the whole point of leaving the EU, according to the likely next UK Government, is doing trade deals (which would surely include agriculture), this is politically unrealistic. EU protectionism will see UK produce discriminated against within the remaining EU, and that will be that. This means, regardless of subsidies, UK farmers will simply have no one to export to (at least without tariffs being applied).

Why did no one tell them that before the referendum? They did. Leave-voting farmers will have brought this upon themselves.

Legal aid should not delay democracy

From News Letter a week ago.

The ongoing appeals of a self-acclaimed ‘conservationist’ against the construction of the much needed A6 expressway make a mockery of democracy; and we need to be clear about who is paying for this farce.

Proposals to link the end of the M22 and Randalstown and Castledawson Roundabout with a high quality dual carriageway have existed for half a century. Detailed work progressed to the stage, already fully a decade ago, where the route for the link had been agreed and work was ready to proceed once funding was available. Both an Ulster Unionist and, subsequently, a Sinn Fein Minister gave the go ahead for the new road to proceed and allocated appropriate funding to enable this to happen with the full consent of a DUP Finance Minister and all other major parties commanding the support of over 90% of the electorate. Tens of thousands of people in Mid Ulster and the North West stood to benefit from the new road, making their journey to the Greater Belfast area more comfortable, faster, and most of all safer.

As is absolutely their right in a democracy, a small minority opted to oppose the road. They challenged it, albeit curiously late, by mounting a democratic campaign to try to get politicians to change their mind. When that failed, they moved to try to demonstrate that the route had not been correctly selected by officials. They failed even to crowd-source enough money to pay the legal fees, yet somehow the legal challenge went ahead – and it too failed. It is therefore essential, in any democracy with the Rule of Law with both political opinion and legal judgment in favour, that the road proceed without delay and the benefits of it be accrued quickly.

It is entirely unacceptable that a minority of one person should be able to continue to challenge the road legally at great expense just because he does not like it. Democracy fundamentally requires us as good citizens to accept political decisions and legal determinations even when we dislike them.

We need now to be told clearly who is paying for these endless and spurious legal challenges (if they were anything other than spurious there would by now have been a clear legal reason for the appeal); and to learn the lesson that such selfishness is intolerable in a democratic society.

Corbyn has no ideas and no plan to tackle poverty

Yes, Prime Minister, the BBC sitcom, gave us many memorable lines but the one I am most frequently inclined to recall is Sir Humphrey’s “Things don’t just happen because Prime Ministers are keen on them! Chamberlain was keen on peace!

Jeremy Corbyn is often defended on the basis, essentially, that he is “keen” on helping poor people.

It should be noted that even this is dubious. In fact, much of his career has been spent focusing on ideological struggles, often (although not always of course) in faraway lands and often involving the endorsement of some pretty shady characters intent on causing rather than resolving suffering.

Let us, for the sake of argument, give him the benefit of the doubt. If Jeremy Corbyn is keen on helping poor people, presumably he has a well thought out and practical plan to do so?

Well, no.

In fact, his highlight plan is to remove University tuition fees. Yet those tuition fees would have to be paid from somewhere, presumably from general taxation. This means the majority who do not go to University would end up subsidising the minority who do. Is Mr Corbyn not supposed to be helping “the many” versus “the few”? How on Earth does this policy accomplish that? In fact, it does the precise opposite. (It is popular with the Guardian-reading middle class, of course, and may indeed be responsible for a slight improvement in his polling numbers – but that was not supposed to be the point.)

Another one is free hospital parking. This is certainly theoretically more progressive, but in fact it is impractical. How does one then ensure that people using hospital car parks are there for the purposes of visiting the hospital? How does one manage (and/or enforce) the necessary turnover in parking spaces so that everyone who needs to can visit? And indeed, where is the money thus taken from the Health Service to cover the loss of revenue (and, presumably, cost of enforcement) returned from?

Then we get, of course, to the retirement age. Holding it where it is would only mean those earning would have to be squeezed still further. So much for helping the “squeezed middle”!

And so it goes on. There is in fact no coherent basic analysis underlying any of these policies of what it is that drives poverty, nor indeed even a specific definition of it. Does it mean inequality exclusively, or social exclusion, or something else? What in fact are the issues around education, health or even housing and transport which force people into poverty and then keep them there? In fact, we get nothing beyond vague and obvious notions that it is bad; but we are left with no ideas and no coherent plan to overcome it, just a set of populist policies that no one could disagree with if only money were no object.

Even really quite good policies, such as a focus on early intervention in schools, are thus overshadowed. This is because fundamentally the left everywhere in the Western World has no new ideas at all beyond some vague (and, as the generations go on, undeliverable) promises about spending more money.

Again, on the left as on the alt-right, we are faced with a populist intellectual laziness. This is not something we can afford.

 

SNP at sea on EU

It seems odd to say this of a party set to win the second most seats ever in Scotland at a General Election, but the SNP’s self-assurance is not what it was. One reason for this is the issue of EU membership where, in common with many Remainers, the SNP is now finding itself struggling to clarify its exact position.

62% of Scots voted Remain but, for all that, turnout was considerably lower than it was in England. In fact, as a total share of the electorate, the Remain vote in Scotland was not much higher than in England. As a result, the underlying idea presented by Remainers (and, often, the media) that Scotland would go for independence immediately in order to remain in the EU was always laughable. After all, judging by referendum turnout, Scots were disproportionately uninterested in the whole issue of Europe.

Widely missed also have been the polls and surveys showing that support for remaining in the EU bore almost no relation whatsoever to support for independence. In other words, how someone voted in the 2014 independence referendum tells us very little about how that same person voted in the 2016 EU referendum. More simply: supporters of Scottish independence are not particularly keener to remain in the EU than opponents of it.

Hence Nicola Sturgeon’s unusual lack of assurance during this campaign. She cannot simply say that an independent Scotland will re-enter the EU. Less than a third of Scotland’s voters chose independence and then “Remain”; and, in any case, Scotland does almost four times as much trade with the rest of the UK than it does with the rest of the EU. As we saw last June, referendums are not decided solely on economic interest, but that combination of public opinion and economic interest does mean that a simple swap of UK for EU would be deeply unpopular. The SNP knows it.

In some ways, the SNP’s uncertainty reflects that of many Remainers. It is by no means clear even across the UK that there really is a “48%”. The Conservatives’ gamble that internationalist centre-right Remainers would stay with them while Leavers join them seems set to pay off (not least in Scotland); there is no parallel the other way around.

Therein lies a massive challenge.

Scotland the place to watch on 8 June

One of the prime cases for Scottish independence is simply that Scotland is different from the rest of the UK. This case is, of course, debatable, but one area where it is clearly different is local government.

Scotland, like Northern Ireland, now uses the Single Transferable Vote system (mistakenly referred to sometimes as “Proportional Representation”; it is not that). The inevitable outcome is that it is extremely rare for any Council to have an overall majority (indeed none on the Scottish mainland or in Northern Ireland has), thus rendering the BBC’s front results page redundant.

IMG_9868

The above figures are perhaps the interesting ones. These indicate the first preference vote by party. Even at that, we should note that in much of rural Scotland Independents predominate.

Those figures give the SNP 32%; this is interesting because it is the same figure as last time (in 2012). Much has happened since yet, interestingly, the SNP first preference share remains stable.

The big swing happened of course among the “Unionist” parties. Labour was neck and neck with the SNP in 2012, and yet crashed to just 20% this year. The Conservatives benefitted from this in the main, rising to a quarter of the vote, a figure unthinkable even two years ago.

Notable also was the lack of clear direction for the “Unionist Remain” vote in Scotland, where those who voted Leave seem to be swinging behind Ruth Davidson’s party (despite the fact she herself was one of the most eloquent Remain activists).

The ongoing split in the “Unionist” vote is good news for the SNP, who are so far ahead in many of its Westminster seats that at least 45 or so are surely utterly safe. Elsewhere, however, tactical voting will be important and the Scottish Conservatives will almost certainly gain some seats and finish second in Scotland.

The scale of this turnaround, and whether it can then be maintained, will be interesting to watch.

Beware false news – and false analysis

BBC Talkback host William Crawley is very keen to make the distinction between ‘false news’ on one hand, and outright misinformation on the other. There should perhaps be a third category – ‘false analysis’.

This category would belong to the type of ‘analysis’ presented by politicians or pundits (sadly, quite often the latter in fact) which is in fact nothing of the sort. What it is, in fact, is a regurgitation of an already pre-determined viewpoint by trying to fit some selective ‘facts’ to a pre-existing opinion and then presenting it as ‘analysis’. The media (and indeed, the citizenry at large) need to be careful about this.

One example occurred last week when it was suggested that the Northern Ireland Health Service would be as bad as the Republic of Ireland’s within ten years because of ‘Tory austerity’. There is so much wrong with that ‘analysis’ that it is hard to know where to begin – some of it is highly questionable and some of it is simple error (all of it designed to fit pre-existing bias).

Let us start with the simple errors, of which incredibly there are three categories in that simple statement alone. Firstly, since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, we have not experienced ‘austerity’ with regard to Health spending (‘austerity’ is defined as a closing of the gap between revenue raised and public spending, and that has not happened with regards to spending on Health or, in most cases, at all). Secondly, again since 2010, Health spending in Northern Ireland has risen significantly more slowly than in England despite every rise in England being passed on to the Northern Ireland Executive in equivalent per-head terms – this is because the Northern Ireland Executive has elected not to spend all of the additional spending meant for Health on Health (indeed on some occasions it has allocated none of the uplift at all to Health); so any comparative decline in Health spending is entirely the fault of the Northern Ireland Executive led by the DUP and Sinn Fein throughout that period. Thirdly, the Northern Ireland Health Service’s problems do not derive fundamentally from a lack of spending – it has been noted constantly that just leaving things as they are would see Northern Ireland’s entire devolved budget spent on Health within a couple of decades; in other words, the issue is not the failure to allocate money to keep the current system running, but rather the failure to reform the current system in line with multiple expert reviews. So three errors – there has not been ‘austerity’ as defined (particularly not with regard to Health); the comparative reduction in spending versus the rest of the UK is the fault of the DUP and Sinn Fein not the ‘Tories’; and in any case the fundamental issue is the need for reform, not spending.

On top of that is the assumption made that Northern Ireland’s Health Service is superior to the Republic’s. This is, at least, arguable, but it is by no means certain. Life expectancy in the Republic has drawn level with Northern Ireland in recent years, which would at least suggest that its service is not notably poorer. The Republic’s system of having the better off pay for Health services while covering the poorest is arguably considerably more progressive than Northern Ireland’s; indeed, it could be argued that Northern Ireland is heading this way in any case because, as waiting lists become so long, the better off are choosing to pay to go private anyway. The notion that the Northern Ireland service is superior is perhaps defensible on the evidence, but that evidence should at least be tested and it must be recognised that there is also a counter-argument.

There is just one of many cases where what is passed off as ‘analysis’ is in fact not just ‘opinion’, but opinion based on fiction. As the old maxim goes, you are entitled to your own opinions but not to your own facts; free speech is one thing, but if the media are presenting something as ‘analysis’ they must ensure it is soundly reasoned for fair and rational debate to take place. Otherwise they are just building on the ‘fake news’ problem.

Do not overstate value of Macron’s win

I was very pleased Emmanuel Macron was elected President of the French Republic. I would have happily voted for him in both rounds – as a well rounded, liberal internationalist.

Nevertheless, we should not understate how close France came to another political disaster.

In the first round, anything could have happened. A populist from the Far Left (look to Venezuela for how that works out) and a Thatcherite came within a whisker of being Le Pen’s rival in the final round rather than Macron.

In the second round, faced with an obviously competent centrist candidate, a far right nationalist (someone worse than Farage, who has never been directly elected to anything) received over a third of votes cast.

We may express relief that the outcome in France was what it was. But the narrowness of the new President’s passage in the first round and the shock of 11 million people choosing Le Pen (a lot more than 15 years ago) should not be ignored.

Democracy and civilisation remain under attack from populists and extremists. Be in no doubt about that.

How to learn languages – Review

Every Friday this year, I have run through how to learn the major Western European languages.

General

It is important to emphasise that, in terms of learning, the story starts with this general vocabulary list and overall introduction. Without it, the other introductions to each individual language and language group make sense, but have limited value.

Indo-European

Then we need to note that all the languages referred to – the entirely of  both the Romance/Latinate and the Germanic language family (as well as many others) – derive from a single language known by modern linguists as Proto-Indo-European.

Esperanto

Anyone embarking on learning several languages – particularly if these are Romance/Latinate, Germanic and/or Slavic – may consider first learning the constructed language Esperanto. This is relatively simple, but offers some introduction to the principles and complexities/challenges/fun of language learning (from tricky phonology to the subjunctive mood, alongside some unintentional irregularities). It can also be useful for vocabulary, drawn as it is largely from Latin or Latin-based languages but also in significant part from Germanic and Slavic.

Romance/Latinate

What are usually referred to as “Romance” languages are those derived from Latin – among national languages, this means (from west to east in Europe) Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian and Romanian. They all carry over complex verb systems (with three tenses and a range of moods, and full verbal agreement) and two noun genders (with full adjectival agreement). In fact, almost half the linguistic change between Classical Latin and each of those languages had occurred by the time they split apart; thus they are not only derived from the Classical Latin of Cicero and Caesar but in fact from the Late Latin still in some use at the time of Charlemagne – having some comprehension of that late version (also known as “Vulgar Latin”) is a huge advantage to anyone wishing to learn any Romance language, and particularly to anyone wishing to learn more than one.

All other things being equal, perhaps the best Romance language to start with is Italian. It is the most conservative of the main national Romance languages, and therefore includes most of the features found in the others.

On the basis that it is easier to learn a relatively complex language before a structurally more straightforward one, next may be Portuguese. From a purely European point of view, this one seems marginal, but the growing role of Brazil as a regional power perhaps gives it as much significance as any other in the modern world.

Structurally more straightforward (comparatively) is arguably the most useful foreign language for English speakers to learn, Spanish. The main complication is that the phonology of Spanish has changed markedly since the Golden Age, although spelling has (broadly at least) kept up. With almost half a billion native speakers worldwide, and a significant role also within the United States, this is rapidly becoming the first language in schools in the English-speaking world with good reason. Its only drawback is that learning other languages having learned Spanish generally takes longer than the other way around.

For all that, in the British Isles French generally remains the first foreign language, with its remarkable cultural power and astonishing phonological development. This is not particularly linguistically helpful, however, as its distinct phonology (a product, at least in part, of notable early Germanic influence) means French is further from the other three modern Romance languages looked at here than any of the other three is from any of the others.

Germanic 

Germanic languages derive from what is referred to by linguists as “Proto-Germanic”, spoken at the same time as Classical Latin. They display simpler verb forms (with only two tenses, rare use of subjunctive mood and even in some cases elimination or near elimination of verbal and some adjectival agreement) but a broadly more complex noun (albeit simplified in some modern standards), with the neuter case maintained at least in some form across the board. The first major written text in Germanic is in fact in the now extinct East Germanic language of Gothic, contemporaneous with the Roman emperor Constantine.

The first written version of any Germanic language still in existence was in fact the West Germanic language of Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, from which modern English (and also Scots) is derived. Old English bears almost no more relation to modern English than Gothic does, but the intermediate period gave us the language of the first great English literary figure, Chaucer. This is known as Middle English, but is markedly further removed from the modern language that the Early Modern English of Shakespeare as the speed of language change slowed down after the invention of the printing press.

Modern English is, of course, something of a hybrid given the influence on it of Latin, Norman French and other languages; like French, it is complicated by the fact it is written to reflect medieval rather than modern pronunciation, and there has been a sound shift since. The most widely spoken West Germanic language other than English, and the most conservative and obviously Germanic language still widely used, is German, with the remarkable ongoing complexity of its noun system; it is grammatically complex, but at least its written form reflects its sound shifts.

Another less complex West Germanic language is Dutch, interesting in its own right but also because of its even more grammatically reduced daughter language spoken in Southern Africa, Afrikaans. This is the nearest national language in existence to English (but the reverse does not apply).

There is also a group of North Germanic languages, split between the Western or Insular ones (Icelandic, Faroese and arguably one standard of Norwegian) and the Eastern or Scandinavian ones (Norwegian, Swedish and Danish). To some degree each group of these is mutually intelligible (they are significantly more conservative as you move northwest), but Danish is outstanding for its remarkably reduced/progressed phonology.

Review

It has been my contention throughout that tying the knowledge of the basic vocabulary at the outset to an overall historical overview and then a fundamental grammatical outline gives us a much faster route to becoming at least proficient in several foreign languages without having to learn each from scratch. This way, language learning need not be such a chore, and in fact takes on a much more interesting route.

Nevertheless, as ever, I am open to any corrections, queries or contrary views!

 

#GE17: Why the Conservatives may not win such a landslide

Note that like any sensible person I have given up making political predictions and, to be clear, what appears below is not one. However, as we pass the twentieth anniversary of Tony Blair’s Labour Party enjoying the biggest post-War landslide election win ever (an absolute majority of 179), it is worth presenting the case for why the Conservatives will not enjoy anything like that kind of margin on 8 June.

Let us start with the dangerous assumption that the polls are roughly correct. Work has been done since they underestimated the Conservative vote share by roughly four points in 2015 to correct certain assumptions made, and it should be noted that even in a bad year they are never so well out as to suggest anything other than a comfortable Conservative lead on polling day. There has also been considerable work on polling for people switching vote (to which we will return) noting that 2016 Leave voters and particularly among those 2015 UKIP voters are indeed intending to switch to the Conservatives. Therefore, the current poll of polls suggesting that the Conservatives are currently on around 46% in Great Britain and Labour on 29% is a reasonable, if probably not absolutely accurate, starting point.

(It should be noted that the figure of Conservative around 46% and Labour around 29% is universal across all class backgrounds. The notion that the Conservative vote is predominantly middle class has long been flawed, and is particularly so post-referendum. It is in fact the Liberal vote which is clearly predominantly middle class, and has been for some time; and the UKIP vote which is predominantly working class.)

There are three prime reasons Labour may not come out quite so poorly (and the Conservatives may not come out quite so well).

The first is in the figures themselves. Unmentioned in the top-line figures is that polling is picking up an unsurprisingly but notably high number of ‘undecideds’. Of further note is that these ‘undecideds’ are particularly weighted towards people who declare that they voted Labour in 2015. This suggests that a very high number of Labour voters last time are unsure they wish to do so again in 2017 (in terms of polling, we should make no assumptions about why that is). However, there are very few direct Labour to Conservative switchers even among those declaring a preference (the Conservative uplift is primarily from UKIP and non-voting); therefore while we should not assume that these Labour-leaning undecideds will necessarily break Labour, we can be fairly sure they will not break Conservative. In other words, the Conservative figure of 46% is the highest they could possibly score (as the best case scenario for them is that current ‘undecideds’ break evenly or do not vote at all).

The second is that in every case where a ‘snap election’ has been called in post-War Britain (and generally in other comparable Western democracies), the governing party has lost a disproportionately high vote share in polling during the campaign itself. Typically the vote share at the start of the campaign is fairly accurate (at least insofar as the polls themselves are) as most people make up their mind between elections, but a ‘snap election’ gives them less time (hence it is unsurprising to find a higher than usual number of ‘undecideds’). What appears to happen is that supporters of the party calling the snap election declare their support quite contentedly from the start (perhaps on the assumption that they would not have called it if they were not reasonably sure of winning); however, people not pre-disposed to voting for the governing party take longer to make up their minds (since they have, by definition, not had a full electoral cycle to settle on a particular party preference).

The third (and all of these reasons are linked) is simply that the Conservatives, having absorbed much of the UKIP vote, cannot possibly benefit from tactical voting (except, perhaps, in Scotland). On the other hand, all the broadly ‘open/left’ parties can expect to do so – people who definitely do not like the Conservatives may not be sure whether they really prefer Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens, but they may well be willing to vote for whichever one has the best chance of defeating the Conservative. In other words, even if the polling numbers to end up something like Conservative 46% Labour 29% (a considerably larger margin than Labour 43% Conservative 30% as was the case in 1997), the Conservatives would come nowhere close to the sort of landslide Tony Blair enjoyed.

In other words, the chances are that the Conservative figure of around 46% is already a little inflated; it is likely that during the campaign it will slip (whereas the campaign rarely makes much difference); and in any case tactical voting may see them win fewer seats than they may typically expect for whatever vote share they achieve.

To be clear, I predict nothing but even the above suggests nothing other than that the Conservatives will be comfortably the largest party on 8 June. However, the current betting suggests that the even chance is a Conservative landslide majority of around 124. I am not only predicting nothing but I was never a betting man – if I were, however, I’d be inclined (just inclined, mind) to go a little lower than that.