#Brexit thread from November 2017

A Twitter thread I wrote on 16 November 2017 has begun attracting attention again – probably because so little of the Government’s thinking has meaningfully changed since! It ran like this…

This evening in Germany, David Davis has demonstrated a frankly humiliating misunderstanding of even the basics of the EU. A quick thread. 1/

Firstly, even if somehow Angela Merkel were scared that the German economy could be crippled by, er, not being able to export freely to a smaller country like the UK, she cannot intervene to offer the UK a special deal. No one can. 2/

Let us repeat: the EU is the Single Market and the Single Market is the EU. Let us also repeat: the Single Market is a market of *rules*. This is the fundamental point David Davis has still failed to grasp. 3/

For that reason, participation in the Single Market by any non-EU State is determined by which rules that State is willing to adopt. And that is the end of it.

(Norway adopts nearly all of them, for example; Moldova just a few.) 4/

David Davis therefore still hasn’t grasped that this negotiation is not “We give a bit, you give a bit”. It is essentially “Here are the rules of the Single Market; tell us which ones you no longer wish to apply and that will determine your level of participation in it.” 5/

This really should be obvious. How otherwise could a 27/28-member bloc function if it did not have *rules*? And those rules cannot be amended other than with the support of the whole bloc. 6/

This is all to leave quite aside that David Davis vastly overstates the UK’s economic importance. Germany sells many multiples more cars in China and the US, for example. That is a basic matter of fact. 7/

UK really should have worked out by now, more than halfway between Referendum Day and Brexit Day, that this whole “They’ll bend to our will” stuff is a *myth*. It can’t happen – and wouldn’t, even if it could. 8/

And for any UK Minister to go anywhere else and tell the locals not to put “politics before prosperity” is, right now, to set a new world record in gross hypocrisy. For that is precisely and embarrassingly what the UK alone is doing with #Brexit. 9/

David Davis’ call for co-operation in the interests of mutual prosperity was met with an obvious first question from a German journalist.

“If that is what you want, why are you leaving?”

Quite.

10/10

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UK has profound crisis of government which goes beyond Brexit

I have pulled this blog from retirement again because I remain unsure that media coverage of the latest political farce really does justice to the scale of the breakdown. Brexit is merely a symptom of a much larger problem in the UK – the political system is broken, and quite profoundly.

This is for a number of reasons which include, but are far from limited to:

  • a “London bubble” – from the Civil Service to the broadcast media, the focus is astonishingly biased towards London, which leads to a very genuine sense in much of the rest of England of being distant from power (hence “take back control” resonated so strongly);
  • coverage as a “soap opera” – there is a tendency to cover politics rather than government, and to promote to positions of media prominence people are are entertaining in preference to those who are knowledgeable (and to cover issues in terms of their political rather than social consequences, hence even Brexit becomes all about jostling for position rather than educated debates about its impact on food on shelves, welfare budgets or health recruitment);
  • a farcical education system – which, as The Economist puts it, means positions in senior office all too often go to people from a small number of schools and universities whose position is in fact based on pure confidence and bluster rather than on actual competence and knowledge;
  • a lack of civic input and engagement – that same education system also does not teach people even the basics of politics and government, meaning people all too often leave it to others;
  • the electoral system – which, in England at least, promotes two large parties unable to respond to the range of complex interests which now exist in plain view across the country.

The result is that we need to ask far more profound questions even than “Who will lead the Conservative Party?” or “What sort of Brexit will we have?”

We are now in a position where neither large party can ever conceivably be coherent enough to form a parliamentary majority of MPs with genuine confidence in its Leader. There is literally not a single MP who could command the confidence of the House of Commons now. Even a new election would be little use. For as long as the electoral system remains as it is, each party will remain a grossly unstable coalition unable practically to govern with any coherence. Only a German-style PR system, allowing MPs to form coalitions after the election based on the priorities of the day, can restore any coherence. Yet there is scant prospect of that.

Thus the only hope is to return decision making to the people, but even this is fraught with danger given the aforementioned point that, in the UK, the people are not used to such decisions (“They didn’t do enough to inform us” was a familiar cry in 2016 – which should immediately make you wonder who “they” are who should be doing the “informing”). Returning decision making to the people requires tools other than just crude binary referendums. Cititzens’ Conventions and other forms of local deliberative democracy are surely necessary to counter the distance and gridlock of Westminster.

This is a deep and profound crisis not just of politics but of Government itself. In fact, bluntly, the UK has become ungovernable. It will take radical thinking and an ability to work across partisan lines for the greater good to overcome this.

 

Remainers need to *think*

I have largely retired this blog, but I did feel it necessary to write one brief piece stating my concern that far too few people on either side of the Brexit debate are actually thinking.

Brexit is a far more profound shift than, for example, Suez, with which it is often equated. If carried out, it marks a complete change in direction for the UK from its foreign and trade policy since the War. It will have a profound impact on everything from recruiting staff for the Health Service (making a purely taxpayer-funded service an impossibility) to satellite navigation systems. It may well force the UK itself to break up.

Yet in public debate it is still seen too often like a football match, with “fans” of “Leave” and “Remain” debating it in much the same way as Arsenal and Spurs fans or Liverpool and Everton fans debate the outcome of Sunday’s derby matches. All that matters is winning, and never mind the practical social and economic consequences for millions of people up and down the country. A lot of people are to blame for that – from a media which seem intent on reporting politics like a soap opera to politicians themselves who are so caught up in the Westminster bubble they have lost all connection with the daily lives of the citizens they claim to represent (witness this weekend’s incredible episode of Conservative MPs visiting foodbanks to applaud rather than bemoan their existence). It is worth noting that Brexit is in fact a symptom of a gradual political failure, not the cause of it.

One reason the whole thing has become so ludicrous is that it has become so tribal – and each side merely blames the other for making it so, rather than taking responsibility for the necessary “de-tribalisation”. Here, generally speaking, the broadly “Remain” side is guilty too; this is something it will need to fix if it is ultimately to save us from the calamity lying ahead.

Having a go at Leavers for being stupid on social media does not constitute a serious (or successful) campaign strategy. Many people voted Leave with good reason – ranging from a very genuine concern about the distance of decision makers in Brussels from those affected by the decisions, to a more emotional but no less genuine one about the scale of immigration into an already very densely populated country. It is not wrong to be concerned about the quality of democracy when it is so distance (although I do think it is hypocritical to be so without being concerned about the quality of democracy in London, which is “distant” from most parts of the UK); nor is it even wrong to ask a question about whether levels of immigration into such a densely populated country are sustainable (although I look at it the other way around; the UK needs to invest hugely in infrastructure, particularly housing, in order to accommodate what will, inevitably, be a rapidly growing population). A bit of understanding – and remembering that we have two ears and one mouth and we should probably use them in that proportion – would do no harm.

Most fundamentally, whatever we think of the lies told during the campaign or indeed of the illegal funding activity around it, the fact will always remain that a clear snapshot of public opinion in the UK in June 2016 returned a majority preference for not being in the EU. There is little doubt, for me, that that was a fair reflection of the public view, however unfairly I think it was arrived at, because there were also people who voted “Remain” not particularly because they loved the EU but because they wanted to avoid chaos (ahem, how right they were).

Yet it looks as though the “Remain” side may be on the verge, whether through luck or skill, of securing a further vote of some kind. However, in just the same way that Leavers had not thought through the detail of what leaving would actually entail and how it should look, I have heard little detail from Remainers about what exactly the next vote should ask.

The assumption, at this stage (and assumptions are always dangerous), is that the Prime Minister’s deal will not clear the Commons. I am a hugely reluctant convert to the case for a further referendum (in a democracy with parliamentary supremacy I am unclear what purpose any referendum is supposed to serve), but if the Prime Minister’s deal fails it is clear too that Brexit has failed. In June 2016 people may have voted to leave the EU, but only a tiny minority thought this meant doing so with absolutely no future relationship in place; and it is not unreasonable to suggest that had “Leave” specifically meant leaving with no such relationship, more than the few hundred thousand necessary to switch sides for a “Remain” victory would have done so (and of course if there is any doubt about that, it is reasonable to test it now – the very case for a further referendum).

However, it would be as ludicrous as anything else to go back to the people with a straightforward second choice of “Remain” versus “Leave” where the former means continued membership of the EU with no further questions asked and the latter means leaving with no arrangements at all in place (to secure not just future trade, but also relationships in all kinds of other areas from aviation to health research). Those two options are simply far too far apart for either of them to be a reasonable way forward likely to earn a broad consensus of support.

For me, the question has to be more clearly something like this:

The UK is negotiating a new relationship with the EU. To enable the basis for this negotiation to continue, should the UK now:

REMAIN in the European Union

LEAVE the European Union

This clearly states that the status quo ante is not an option and that consideration will continue to be given to the outcome in 2016 (as no such renegotiation would be necessary without that vote having gone the way it did). However, it also offers the people the frankly safer choice of remaining in the EU while a new relationship is sorted, with the people able to assess whether they are happy about that renegotiation at future elections.

It is just a first thought and I could well be persuaded from it, but the key point is this – both sides need to stop trying to “win”, and instead start to think.

Ryder Cup 2018 was an annihilation – US need game to go global

The 2018 Ryder Cup was in some ways the most one-sided since the current format (28 matches with Europe) was introduced in 1979.

Europe in fact won 29 more holes than the United States (more than one per individual match), the biggest gap ever under the format. Typically, a gap of that nature would have seen the largest ever match score, of around 19-9. In other words, 17-10 was comprehensive – but actually kind to the Americans.

In this sense, the competition has changed and now Europe is unquestionably the dominant team. In five Ryder Cups staged in Europe this century, not only have the Americans lost all five but they have in fact been thrashed four times.

This is different from thirty years ago or so when, even though Europe won on several occasions, the Americans were still in general equal to or even better than their opponents. In fact, from 1987 thru 1999, the Americans actually won more holes in every single Cup (even though they lost three times out of seven and tied once). What was happening then was that the Americans were in fact scoring marginally better, but the Europeans performed better under pressure in clutch situations (thus tending to win the huge majority of close matches).

It remains a quirk that Europe has never lost the Ryder Cup having won more holes, but has quite often won or at least retained it while losing more.

With the extraordinary exception of 2012 (the Miracle or Meltdown at Medinah, depending on your view) when the Americans actually won in terms of holes more heavily than they had since 1981 but contrived to lose overall, this century has belonged clearly to the European side no matter how you calculate it, and is becoming more so. The team which has won more holes has also won the Cup on every single occasion otherwise (and that has been Europe six times in eight) and the overall match score has rarely been close (whereas the previous seven and eight of the previous nine had been settled by two overall match points or fewer).

Why is this? The most obvious reason, which has already been discussed, is that the American locker room had a reminder to “leave egos at the door” but as ever it was the Europeans who actually did so. Tied to this is, however, the potential reason that the Americans are not actually as good as the rankings suggest.

We should remember that three of the four majors and most of the other biggest tournaments (world championship events, the Tour Championship etc) are hosted in the United States. These carry the highest ranking points, with Americans having an in-built advantage of playing at home.

The Americans have to consider, therefore, whether it would be good for the global game and even for their own Ryder Cup team if more high-ranking events (including all World Golf Championship events and quite possibly the PGA Championship) were hosted away from the United States. This would take Americans out of their comfort zone if they want to earn the big rankings points, and would get them used to playing away from home. Such a move would surely then give them the experience required so that no future United States team goes an entire generation without winning a Ryder Cup in Europe…

Worst thing Brexit demonstrates? Rampant “classism”

I still intend to make very little political comment on this blog, as there is very little more about it to say. Any rational person can see that the English-speaking world has succumbed to crazed populism, and every further issue – from what to do about mobile roaming charges to how to restore the Northern Ireland Executive, derives from that basic problem.

However, for me the most appalling thing brought home by all of this in the UK has been the British media’s rampant classism (is that a word? It is now).

Ultimately, there used to be a basic deal with the media that they would report the words of senior MPs because it was reasonable to assume they carried some expert weight. Perhaps this deal was always an illusion. Now, it is obviously ridiculous.

Almost all of the Conservative back-bench MPs given prominence by the media on the subject of Brexit speak with upper-class accents. Not one has a single iota of expertise to offer on the subject. Nor will any suffer the consequences.

So why are they covered? At all?

Indeed, last week, a “research report” from a group of them was covered as lead story on the news. It is a basic fact that the report was complete rubbish. That fact was not reported.

In fact, it was reported rather ludicrously that “economists [plural, even though only one was cited] see benefits of Brexit” and that a “customs expert [one Dutch lad whose actual experience was never outlined” had been involved in some research about technology. Actually not a single economist believes Brexit will cause anything other than damage to the UK economy; indeed, not a single person with even an ounce of common sense (quite obviously if your main competitors can trade freely and you can’t, you will be at a disadvantage). Not a single customs expert believes customs frontiers can be managed solely through “technology”, and again anyone thinking about it can see why not and understands that not a single customs frontier works that way with good reason.

Why, therefore, are MPs with no expertise and no basic understanding of society wheeled out and given priority by the media for comment? The common link is that they all speak with upper-class accents.

Underlying this, therefore, is the notion that because someone speaks with an upper-class accent, they must have something expert to contribute (and conversely, that those who do not speak with such an accent should not be given priority and should therefore yield the air waves to those who do). This is plainly not the case. In fact, in the case of Brexit, those given such priority have not the first clue what they are talking about – zero experience, zero expertise, and actually zero interest (the outcome is of no concern to them after all).

They also tend to be men, by the way. Indeed, referendum coverage saw men given 84% of the air time. Is that not a scandal?

It would make for a much more interesting public debate if MPs you constantly hear of were not given priority media coverage, and instead others – with different accents, and a few women – actually were. You may then receive real expert input, and encourage a meaningful discussion.

As it is, the media continue to report this as an upper-class soap opera. We have Downton Abbey for that. The issues around Brexit are of profound concern to millions of people. We need a proper debate, involving people who actually know what they are talking about. Is that not what we pay the licence fee for?

Glider will work – but not always for rational reasons

Last Friday I had some work to do and I was in the eastern part of Belfast City Centre. I decided to do it in a coffee shop – in Ballyhackamore.

Why? Well, because I could via the new Glider. I would do it again too – I met three people I knew while there and that led to some useful additional points for the research work I was doing. Ballyhackamore is a hub – and it will only become more so because it is now so obviously easy to get to.

It is not, of course, that it wasn’t already easy to get to. The Glider, as one traveller put it on the BBC, “is only a bus at the end of the day”. The reason it will succeed is more emotional than rational.

92343BBA-CABC-4AD4-9709-A80740F40F58

Ultimately, the basic reason may be the simple map above. Compared to the Belfast Metro (Citybus) network, it is a lot simpler. People choosing locations to go, as I was, will choose from the map. Next week I may well choose the Kennedy Centre; the following Dundonald; and so on.

Comfort matters too. The bus is newer and more spacious – for example, people can bring on prams at off-peak times without any disturbance, as they could on a train but not on a double decker.

Part of it is pure branding. I overheard one child expressing delight at the very notion of “gliding”.

This is not to discount the rational reasons for liking it, from the at-level platforms to the USB ports. But in the end it plays to emotion rather than reason. For that, it will likely succeed.

 

Serena needs to stop hiding behind accusations which harm her supposed cause

On Friday evening I popped along to Carrickfergus Amphitheatre to watch the home ladies hockey team, Castle, take on Irish hockey league side Ards. This was an opportunity, in the land of the World Cup Finallists after all, to see the game played at a very high level. Ten minutes before the game started, it emerged they were short of one umpire, and so it fell to me to help out.

Hockey has a four-warning system – verbal warning, two-minute suspension (green card), longer suspension (yellow card), and permanent expulsion (red card). My personal preference even with top-level teams is to try to avoid using the cards at all, if possible, managing the game as best I can by friendly chats rather than disciplining.

Here is the thing, however: if a player ever referred to me as a “liar”; ever suggested I had “stolen” something from them; or ever suggested I “owed an apology”; or certainly ever said they would see to it that I “never umpired on [their pitch] again”; I would have the red card out in an instant.

This brings us, of course, to Serena Williams. On Sunday, in a major final, she used each and every one of those terms – having already been correctly warned for coaching, and then correctly docked a point for breaking her racquet.

Unfortunately Serena, rightly a role model for many good reasons, is frankly being untruthful. She did not lose a game for using the word “thief”; she lost a game because of a series of warnings (for coaching, breaking a racquet and then verbal abuse) and the warning for verbal abuse came after a litany of outrageous accusations directed at an umpire powerless to answer back other than through the warning system. She was also untruthful even with what she said as she launched her abuse at the umpire – in fact, she had looked at her coach by her own admission, but caught on camera he had no option but to confirm he had not given her a “thumbs up” as she claimed.

Therefore, Serena is entirely responsible for a gross lack of discipline and an outrageous lack of respect for one of the most senior and respected officials in the history of the game. As she is a role model, this is worrying. It is inevitable that others will adopt a similar tone, and believe that they too can launch abuse at an umpire, over and over again, and somehow expect not to be penalised (to the extent even of dictating who umpires their matches). Nor, unfortunately, is this even the first instance within the current season of a senior woman player suggesting that a particular umpire should not be allowed to officiate her matches ever again – an appalling notion.

To try then to dress this all up as “sexism” is then a further outrage, not because sexism is not a problem in the game but rather because it absolutely is. Serena herself raised some legitimate examples post-match and there was much truth in Billie Jean King’s tweeted response in support of Serena noting differential coverage and reaction to female players versus men. However, to try to present outrageous abuse of an official as somehow part of a battle for women’s rights is offensive to those who are battling for women’s rights. It is also a shift in Serena’s position, from initially denying she had received coaching  to claiming instead that she had but somehow was treated differently for having received it. This specific case had nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with a senior player trying to abuse her position to attack an official and have the crowd join in. We may only be thankful that her opponent, Naomi Osaka, was not put off and went on to claim a thoroughly deserved victory.

There is another important issue here. What we saw on Saturday night was utterly inappropriate abuse of an umpire. It is no surprise, therefore, that tennis and indeed other sports like hockey are struggling to bring through officials (as evidenced by my own call into action on Friday) – who on earth would take on a role which, when done correctly, sees you accused of stealing, lying and sexism all while being treated as a pantomime villain?

Serena is plainly not a fundamentally bad person, as her post-match defence of her opponent showed. She still has time to put this right by simply apologising to the umpire and accepting publicly that her conduct was unacceptable and should not be held up as an example to anyone. However even if she does not, everyone else must come to terms with the fact she stepped well, well over the line on Saturday – not least because the cause of tackling sexism in sport deserves better than a nonsensical association with poor behaviour, and because sport itself simply cannot be played without umpires.

French (and Italian) grammatical “absurdity”

Two Belgian ex-teachers in the French-speaking part of the country published an article (in French) seeking to achieve what is surely the impossible – to change a ‘rule’ of French grammar. They are doing so because, they claim, the rule is ‘absurd’.

The rule concerned is usually known in English as the “Preceding Direct Object” rule. It is a peculiar rule and one which will have caused some consternation among most who studied French to advanced level.

The rule concerns the agreement of the past participle in the perfect aspect (the usual way of indicating the past in spoken or all but the most formal written French). In a straightforward sentence when the main auxiliary verb is avoir ‘to have’, such as j’ai acheté les chaussures ‘I (have) bought the shoes’ the basic (actually masculine singular) form of the participle (acheté) is used.

However, if the verb requires être ‘to be’, used with certain verbs which are intransitive (cannot have a direct object), the participle ‘agrees’ with the subject: il est monté but elle est montée (and ils sont montéselles sont montées).

This also applies to reflexives: elle s’est lavée ‘she washed herself’. This means in effect that the participle is ‘agreeing’ with the direct object as well as the subject (in a reflexive clause they are the same).

However, the notion of the participle ‘agreeing’ with the direct object is then carried over in the modern language to include when the direct object is a pronoun (in which case it appears before the verb): thus j’ai acheté les chaussures but je les ai achetées (assuming we are still referring to chaussures). In fact, French has since the 17th century at least adopted an outright rule that the participle ‘agrees’ with any direct object preceding the verb in the sentence. Thus it is even: les chaussures que j’ai achetées.

The fundamental principle is sometimes said (by prescriptive grammarians) to be that a participle with avoir after the direct object is in effect an adverb (and thus unchangeable), whereas one after a direct object or the subject of être is an adjective (and thus ‘agrees’). Quite where this idea came from is unclear.

The Belgian teachers’ argument here is that for all this complication (and it took long enough to write the above), there is generally no difference in pronunciation whatsoever (with minor exceptions: the participle in j’ai pris les chaussures ‘I took the shoes’ is pronounced differently, at least in careful speech, from the participle in les chaussures que j’ai prises; but this is a rarity). Their argument, therefore, is that the whole thing is basically an unnecessary complication, an irrelevance, and in any case an aberration borrowed for no particular reason from Italian.

They unquestionably have a point. Spanish, for example, manages perfectly well constructing its perfect through the auxiliary verb haber and an invariable past participle: he comprado las zapatas; las he comprado; las zapatas que he comprado. No difference. Easy. (It was not ever so, however, and in fact we still see vestiges of the old system of ‘agreement’ in modern Spanish: it is still the case that if tener is used as the principal verb rather than haber to emphasise the change of state, the participle agrees with the participle: tengo compradas las zapatas ‘I’ve got the shoes bought’; however, this is regular because the participle agrees regardless of the position in the sentence of the direct object.)

What is interesting, however, is that if the rule was borrowed from Italian, it was probably borrowed in error. Modern Italian, with some minor exceptions, does not require (although it does permit) agreement of the participle with a preceding direct object as in French; and it is questionable whether it ever did.

Modern Italian does require ‘agreement’ with a third person direct object pronoun: ho comprato le scarpe; le ho comprate. The reason for this is understandable; in speech, the third person direct object pronoun sounds the same before any form of avere ‘to have’, and thus it is the participle which indicates the actual form: l’ho comprato is masculine singular; l’ho comprata feminine singular; li ho comprati masculine plural and le ho comprate feminine plural – in each case, in general speech, the only difference clearly heard between each of those is the final letter.

Otherwise, however, Italian does not require ‘agreement’; some speakers prefer ci hai visti (with agreement) and others ci hai visto ‘you have seen us’. Generally, in fact, Italian prefers non-agreement if the direct object is not a pronoun: le scarpe che ho comprato would be preferred by most speakers to le scarpe che ho comprate, although neither would be seen as an error.

Italian, therefore, has maintained the preceding direct object rule as an option, but absolutely requires it only where it specifically assists understanding by enabling a clear distinction in pronunciation. French, on the other hand, insists on maintaining the rule in all circumstances, despite the fact that in almost all cases it makes no difference to pronunciation whatsoever (and thus cannot be decisive to understanding).

The Belgian teachers clearly have a point, therefore. There appears no reason whatsoever, therefore, that French would not in fact adopt the Spanish rule over the Italian one, not least because the Italian one is not even a rule but rather an option! However, it is unlikely much will change – the fact is we as human beings become very accustomed to grammatical rules, even the plainly ‘absurd’ ones!

Donegal Ulster Scots

For the day that’s in it…

Wee Hughie

He’s gaen tae schuil, wee Hughie,
An him no fouwer.
Shuir A saa the fricht wis in him,
Whan he left the deur.

But he tuik a haund o Denny
An a haund o Dan,
Wi Joes auld coat upon him –
Och, the puir wee maun!

He cut the quaerest feigur,
Mair stout nor thin;
An trottan richten steadie
Wi his taes turnt in.

A watcht him tae the corner
O the big turf stak,
An themair his feet went forrit,
Still his heid turnt bak.

He wis leukan, wad A caa him –
Och ma hairt wis wae –
Shuir it’s losst A am athout him,
But he buid tae gae.

A follaed tae the turnin
Whan thay past it aa,
Goad help him, he wis cryan,
An, mebbes, sae wis A.

Original: Elizabeth McShane

#WeDeserveBetter – or do we?

I have brought this blog out of political retirement to say just one thing. Delivering good government is complex.

This should not be a controversial statement. To manage a health service while adapting to new treatments, new equipment and new medical conditions while dealing with an ageing population presenting with ever more complex care needs (my father alone has prostrate cancer, dementia and diabetes) is difficult. To manage an education system which meets the needs of the economy, the expectations of parents and the interest of children all while ensuring those who emerge from it are genuinely educated and able to adapt in a fast-changing world is difficult. Even to put in place a new guided bus system in one city which will attract people out of their cars, improve traffic flow and help the environment while meeting the needs and expectations of people through both the delivery and the transition is a project fraught with immense difficulty.

Delivering these things, and managing the people and systems required to do so, is a hugely complicated and difficult task requiring a significant base of skills and experience.

To repeat, this should not be controversial. And yet it is incredible – incredible – how many people do not take account of it and go about their daily lives as if these things are easy and straightforward. They are not.

This brings us to a problem afflicting the Western World, particularly the Anglosphere – populism. Populists do not come forward with solutions. They come forward with problems and then, given the complexity actually involved with resolving those problems, they pick instead on something simplistic (or, worse, on a particular minority group) to blame. “These things are actually simple”, they say, “except the elite/the establishment/the foreigners/the gays/the weak moaning group-of-your-choice are telling you otherwise!”

Pointing at things which are wrong, they simply point out they are wrong and that they must be put right – but never bother to explain how. So it is in Northern Ireland. One side points out the damage caused by terrorists and the other side points out the damage caused by the denial of rights. But neither gives you a coherent plan to fixing it or even moving on from it. People all over the Western World would no doubt recognise that general problem in their own political system, or at least one very nearby.

In Northern Ireland, what is remarkable is how little public reaction there has been. There are no industrial actions, no protest marches, not even really public discussions of any kind.

Stepping into the void was, supposedly, the #WeDeserveBetter campaign. To its supporters, this looks like an obvious common sense campaign saying that politicians should get back to work.

Yet here is the thing: to DUP supporters it is common sense that it is Sinn Fein which is solely responsible for blocking restoration through its pre-conditions; to Sinn Fein supporters it is common sense that it is the DUP refusing to ensure equal rights as part of government. No one doesn’t want to do the job – it is just the other side is blocking them from doing so. What has #WeDeserveBetter to say about those viewpoints?

Sadly it became apparent almost instantly that #WeDeserveBetter is just as populist as the very populists who are holding us all up.

Firstly, they pointed out how much MLAs have been paid since the Executive fell. Those are, of course, the MLAs we elected, carrying out the platforms under which we elected them. As it happens, comfortably more than half elected under the broadly proportional system we operate were from the two largest parties required to form an Executive. So what does #WeDeserveBetter propose to do about this fact? Ignore popular mandates? Sack the politicians the people elected? Abolish democracy?

Secondly, they then decided to host a rally calling for some common sense changes in line with the rest of the UK and Ireland – primarily reforms to marriage and abortion legislation. This is, in fact, somewhat more complex than it sounds. Presumably, marriage legislation should allow same-sex couples the same rights to civic marriage as any others, but should protect churches from any obligation in this regard (which may require slightly different drafting from the rest of the UK given Northern Ireland’s distinct equality laws, both in terms of the legislation applicable and the legal judgments applied here to it)? On abortion, are we proposing to follow a 50-year-old law in Great Britain which quite specifically does not give the woman the right to choose (taking the risk that courts in Northern Ireland will set the same precedent as they did in Great Britain five decades ago) or something more like the Irish proposal (itself in fact seemingly based on German law, which is much more restrictive than Great Britain’s in terms of timing but establishes more clearly the woman’s right)? What precisely, here, is the #WeDeserveBetter campaign proposing?

Of course, it then turned out that even having the same rights for LGBT and women as in the rest of the UK and Ireland was “divisive”, according to some who believe #WeDeserveBetter. (It should be quite obvious, by the way, that those who have suffered from the denial of basic civil and medical rights definitely “deserve better”.)

So when people came to demand “better”, the fact is they could not even agree on basic principles of social policy. When you then get to the very real and difficult complications of transforming an entire health and social care service; reforming the schools estate and skills; or even implementing a guided bus system; and doing all of this within a budget already well above what we actually raise in revenue, what have they to say? How on earth would they be expected to agree on those highly complex matters, if even basic social policy and rights are too difficult?

Therein lies the difficulty!

At the last election, almost two-thirds of the population voted for the two “problem parties” (defined as those required to form an Executive but unable to agree how to do so) despite knowing that they were the problem parties – indeed, almost 30% voted for a party on the very specific proposition that it would not take its seats in the legislature. Neither party is particularly keen on forming a government because, of course, government is actually complex and difficult. Both remain more popular by not forming a government.

Yet those who would oppose them then fall into the same trap. Just like the DUP and Sinn Fein, they present apparently common sense propositions (“MLAs are paid too much”; “politicians are useless”, “#WeDeserveBetter”), only to find that as soon as a single one of those propositions is tested (“Well obviously we should have a more progressive social policy…”) the whole thing falls apart. Just as with the DUP and Sinn Fein, it turns out to be much easier to oppose the government with some basic slogans no one could be seen to disagree with, than actually form a government to deal with the very real complexities and difficulties of delivering public services and social policy (never mind economic strategies – no one even pretends to bother with those) on behalf of a diverse population.

Thus, even the very basic proposition is ultimately populist, however well meaning it is. We all like to think we “deserve better” – the people opposing that proposition will be as numerous as those opposing the proposition that “terrorists are bad” or that “equal rights are good”! The problem comes when we start defining those terms…

And so it is that when I campaign at elections what I see is a vast majority voting for the very two parties who are quite obviously the problem; when I hit the doors between elections I find very few people prepared to give up their time and join me; and when I propose think tanks to look at very real issues of health, education and jobs no one shows any real interest. It is much easier to tweet angrily about radio programmes playing to our base instinct of “identity politics” where we can just blame an “out group” of our choosing.

I understand. We are all busy. But based on our voting record, our campaigning time and our ability even to think through the complexities and difficulties faced by those trying to deliver a functioning health service, education system and transport infrastructure on a budget limited by what we are ourselves prepared to pay in rates and taxes, I have to wonder – if “we” deserve better, who precisely are “we” and on what basis do we “deserve” it?

 

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