Category Archives: International

Identity politics work – sadly

In the UK yesterday, many people from the “Remain” end of the spectrum expressed disbelief that UK passports will be blue from October 2019. Some, the current author included, noted that they were not blue in any case before they switched to their current burgundy; others suggested there were other priorities in national life; still more tried to pin a cost on the change (we will come to that…); and pollsters said people did not really care that much.

Meanwhile, in the US, the President was arguing for the term “Merry Christmas” in preference to “Happy Holidays”. There was a similarly disdainful reaction from Liberals; and pollsters again said people did not really care that much.

However, I suspect people do care. That is why the UK Prime Minister and US President are getting up to such antics around “identity politics”. As we know only too well in Northern Ireland, identity politics work.

A few years ago, at around this time of year, Sinn Fein decided to switch its stance on the Union Flag at City Hall, thus meaning that an Alliance amendment in line with its own policy would see it flown only on designated days. Very few people would have expressed much interest in the subject to pollsters, but Sinn Fein was deliberately pulling at emotions and identities; and the DUP responded. The result was economic chaos – and both parties improved their position at the subsequent elections. Having messed around for a year now while Health goes unreformed, Education becomes unsustainable and the economy fails to grow, the two parties should be being punished by the electorate for their callous unwillingness to get on with the job – yet both, in fact, are scoring record poll numbers. Identity politics work.

I was in the US last month and I did notice the preponderance of the word “holiday”, to an extent that it is now plainly ludicrous. A market outside the Smithsonian in Washington DC plays Christmas music, sells Christmas gifts, is based on German Weihnachtsmaerkte (“Christmas markets”), yet incredibly is referred to as a “Holiday Market”. This, to people of even slightly Conservative leanings, is surely an example of political uber-correctness, and a reaction is unsurprising. This notion that things which are obviously one thing cannot be referred to as that thing for fear of causing some kind of “offence” genuinely and often in fact legitimately annoys people, even though they overtly make little of it. So, when someone actually appeals to that covert annoyance, it is unsurprising that that appeal is successful. Identity politics work.

And so it was with the response to the blue passports. Firstly, there is the somewhat academic factual reaction (“Ah, but Croatia has its own colour and it is in the EU”); but for people like last week’s Question Time audience in Barnsley, that misses the point and just looks smug. Secondly, there is the (entirely legitimate) mockery of the notion that the colour is “iconic” for the simple reason that UK passports were never that shade of blue; but perhaps this too misses the point, which is presumably that at least they will not be burgundy like the Continentals. Thirdly, there is the notion that there are other priorities; but here we have the Remainers/Liberals engaging in fake news of their own. Although the new passport provision contract will indeed cost nearly £500m, the fact is it would cost that regardless of the colour – so the notion that not changing the colour would leave £500m over to tackle homelessness or to spend on the NHS is no more accurate than the infamous £350m claim on the Brexit bus.

In fact, we all get embroiled in identity politics – even those of us who claim to be above it get embroiled in it, even though we tell ourselves that we only do so to try to emphasise why we are above it. In fact, I do think it is worth making the point that having a big fuss over changing a passport colour does make the British themselves look rather insecure and their government look pathetic. If anything, however, even this is merely a representative symptom of the broader problem – that the British are fundamentally insecure and their government is pathetic. To be clear, I could not care what colour my passport is, which means it does not bother me to change it; what bothers me are the ludicrous fantasies of “bringing back”, “iconic colours” and “independence” when we should not be seeking to “bring back”, there is nothing “iconic” about the colour, and the fact the passports will be made abroad to standards set abroad rather demonstrates the absurdity of the notion of “independence” in an interdependent world.

For all that, in fact what has happened is the Prime Minister has successfully diverted attention from the real story, which is that David Davis’ impact assessments have now been shown beyond doubt not to, er, assess impact. Since one Cabinet Minister has gone for lying, there is a cast iron case for a second going. But we are not talking about that. Identity politics can be a lovely diversion when you want to shield some other story – which is why they work. Sadly.


Can Grieve and co save the Centre Right?

Last night’s parliamentary defeat for the UK Government must have been significant, since it sacked one of those defying the whip almost immediately. Perhaps it was significant for Brexit – that may come in another blog post.

Notably, however, I suspect it was more significant generally for centrism, moderation, and basic democracy. That is very important.

Across Europe in recent years we have seen the annihilation of the Centre Left. Usually, this has taken the form of harder left parties taking over from more established centre left ones – as in Greece, Portugal, even Ireland and to a large extent Germany. Occasionally in fact the populist-right has taken what were once centre left votes – in France, Austria and elsewhere. In some cases what were centre left parties have been taken over from inside by hard leftist populists, most obviously in the UK.

What has perhaps been less evident has been the risk of a similar, perhaps consequent annihilation of the Centre Right. It has already happened, albeit along its own already right-leaning spectrum, in the United States. Many in Europe who were once inclined to shield Trump-like views, such as UKIP in Great Britain, the DUP in Northern Ireland or the Danske Folkeparti in Denmark, have become much more inclined to state them openly. The problem with the prominent election of a sexist, racist, xenophobic psychopath is it tends to encourage others to try the same path. Why moderate if it makes you less likely to win?

This has left many of us in the UK totally mortified at what it appears our country is becoming. With newspapers categorising judges upholding the law and MPs upholding democracy as “traitors”, social media closing down meaningful debate merely by casting people into camps without in fact considering their actual positions, people decrying education and knowledge and demeaning those with them, and facts themselves becoming devalued almost to zero, UK political discussion has become a pathetic and appalling cesspit to match that on the other side of the Atlantic. One ridiculous “commentator” with more followers than sense suggested an MP should lose his job simply for one vote (and a vote, note well, which did not counter his party’s manifesto under which he was elected).

Yet two things happened yesterday. On one side of the Atlantic, in the most unlikely of places, a pro-choice Democrat appealing for cross-community support came from nowhere to unseat a xenophobic, racist Republican incumbent. On the other side, a Parliamentary vote ensured it would be Members of Parliament, not incompetent lazy Ministers, who “take back control”.

It was close, but decency and democracy won in each case. Politics is all about momentum. There is hope yet…

Catalonia and Northern Ireland – both cases of two nations in the same space?

In my response to the Haass Talks I suggested that they would get nowhere without first agreeing what Northern Ireland is. I posited that Northern Ireland is a “multinational state”, exemplified by the town centre of Downpatrick, where at one location three streets meet – Irish Street, Scotch Street and English Street. That, right there, is Northern Ireland.

You cannot begin to make any argument around the future constitutional status or broad cultural policy of this place without starting from there. We are the crossroads of three nations (albeit for most purposes “English” and “Scotch” here are content to share the designation “British”), and the best we can do is make the intersection between them as freeflowing as possible – allowing expression of Irishness and various forms of Britishness, without doing so in a way which is provocative or simply unreasonable.

This has not been wholly unsuccessful by any means. The parades issue (profoundly one of reasonable expression of identity) has largely been resolved, even if it took the best part of two decades. However, many so-called “debates” never truly get started (as the Haass Talks didn’t) because they do not agree on this fundamental starting point.

I am very frustrated by the way in which people elsewhere in Europe, and most obviously in Scotland and across Ireland, have approached the breakdown in Catalonia merely by foisting their own prejudices upon it. This is all the more frustrating because the situation – and the assumptions around the situation – are profoundly different there, and elsewhere in Spain. The history, the culture, the role of the security forces, the attitude towards voting are all different – sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly – so as to defy detailed understanding from afar. One thing does strike me as a parallel, however – Catalonia is also a location where two nations (I accept this is a controversial word there!) share a single region.

The answer in Northern Ireland – and it is the answer whether people care to accept it in full or not – is to allow people to choose either nation, and while accepting sovereignty will be determined by the majority in a referendum also reflecting this dual nationality in the institutions (such as cross-border bodies, etc). Absolutism one way or the other – demanding everyone be of just one nation and utterly ignoring the other – did not and cannot work.

That, inevitably, will also be the answer in Catalonia. You cannot “stand with the Catalans” without reflecting that, by nationality, some are Catalan but not Spanish, some are Spanish but not Catalan, and some are both. “Freedom” for one nation inevitably means oppression of the other. Any constitutional outcome, therefore, cannot consist of absolutism – but rather will have to reflect the dual Catalan-Spanish national identity of the region. The truth in the end is that the Statute of Autonomy, similar to Northern Ireland’s “Good Friday Agreement”, is the answer – or, at least, a good deal closer to it than either Direct Rule from Madrid or outright independence outside the EU.

The other current parallel is that in both cases there are two Leaders insisting on their own absolutism with no real sense of give and take. However in Northern Ireland, exceedingly frustrating though it is, at least they are talking to each other and perhaps even seeking to mend relationships. As we look to Catalonia we may usefully reflect that we are, in fact, the lucky ones.


Las Vegas – the anger trumps the sadness

To be brutally honest, I found anger trumped sadness in my reaction to the Las Vegas massacre at the weekend. To express horror, grief and condolence is natural when people simply attending a concert are mass-murdered – yet the number of Americans who seem to find such levels of violence acceptable is astonishing. The number murdered in Las Vegas will be only a small proportion of those murdered across the United States this week.

It is worth emphasising a view I have expressed here before. Essentially, I do not think Americans are particularly violent because they have guns; I believe they have guns because they are particularly violent. There is a profound culture of using violence first and asking questions later, which in large swathes of the country engulfs everyone from law enforcement officers to average citizens. In a country where almost every administrator is elected or appointed by someone who is elected, it is this which blocks serious action on gun control, or indeed on many other things (such as proper police oversight). Quite possibly, this culture has a historical (and thus understandable) origin, but its continued political resonance in an otherwise civilised society is a mystery of horrific consequence.

Arguably, every country has its blind spots. The UK has its binge drinking, France its racially segregated banlieues, and the United States its culture of violence first. Yet for as long as a country as economically and technologically advanced as the United States cannot work out that everyday violence cannot be part of civilised culture, there will be more Las Vegas-style horror stories – and more grief overcome by anger.


The tragedy of Catalonia

I had the great fortune, from 1992 to 2008, to visit Catalonia for one reason or another every two years on average. On occasions it was for research work (democracy in regions, multilingual systems and so on); once for a conference; once to visit the centres for “linguistic normalisation”; occasionally just on holiday. I stayed with families there, worked in offices there, lunched with friends there, and so on.

For all that, I am not remotely qualified to comment on the current situation there, even though I am in direct contact with residents and activists in and around Barcelona.

Nevertheless, I have to say that people who are even less qualified to comment are, for some reason usually linked to justifying their own political positions in their own home regions, choosing to do so. People are free to comment as they please, of course, but uninformed (or worse still misinformed) comment is becoming a serious problem of our age. We are not in fact imparting knowledge or ideas, but rather reinforcing misconceptions. This is not good.

It is not good not least because it leaves no room for moderation. On one hand, we have the straightforward argument (advanced broadly by the Spanish Right) that independence referendums are unconstitutional and thus illegal. On the other, we have the notion that “self-determination” is both absolute and a synonym for “freedom”.

At great risk of wading into uninformed waters, I will address that latter first. Catalonia has not remotely begun to prepare for independence. The process of forming an independent state there would make Brexit look like a cake walk. Basic issues, like the fact a significant minority of the population are not Catalan, are simply wished away. The reverse is also true – many of the culturally “Catalan lands” are not in Catalonia. Even staunch Catalans had in fact generally if uneasily talked up “sovereignty” rather than “independence”, implicitly understanding the former to mean an equal place for Catalan language and culture in a federal Spain rather than the creation of a new nation state – a much tidier outcome given that “Catalonia” and “Catalanismo” have obviously distinct boundaries. So people abroad arguing for “Catalan freedom” as if there was a longstanding and well planned desire in Catalonia for outright independence are merely casting their own prejudices on to Catalonia, without any real interest in the complexities of the region or indeed the interests of its people at all.

Of course, the same applies in reverse. Simply to declare an independence referendum “unconstitutional” is bizarre – by definition (with the noble recent exceptions of Canada and the UK) independence/separation will always be unconstitutional, as it is in itself an expression that the constitution is deemed to have failed. Despite the removal of some polling boxes and the violence at some stations, it seems around 38% of the Catalan electorate voted for independence – compare 37% who voted for Brexit in the UK! That fact can never be undone. Given the choice of remaining within Spain under the current constitutional arrangement (which does not give Catalans, as they see it, linguistic and cultural equality), or leaving it, a lot and indeed probably a majority of Catalans would rather leave.

The blame game is also unhelpful. The failure of the Catalan police to follow legal direction is extremely worrying, and should concern anyone considering trying to build a new sovereign nation-state there. The more globally obvious failure of the Spanish police to follow that direction without allowing and even resorting to violence leaving hundreds injured has caused Spain a serious reputational problem made only more serious by its government’s apparent failure to recognise it.

A solutions game would be more helpful. It remains fundamentally the case that neither side – broadly “Catalonia” (represented by the Catalan regional government) and “Spain” (represented by the Centre right minority government of Mariano Rajoy) – really wants Catalonia to have to leave Spain, but this would now be an inevitable consequence of inaction. Yet it is extremely dubious whether the current leaders on either side are willing to look at the requisite action as this would inevitably require compromise – something which, sadly in the modern world, is rarely politically popular.

How they pull back from the brink with the fingers hovering over the button remains unclear, and that is Catalonia’s tragedy. On this day of unity, let us just hope that this region of sublime high culture can find some clarity in the days and weeks ahead.


Germany’s “Schwarzer Sonntag” election destabilises things further

Germany has voted and, as probably should have been expected but was not, the UKIP-like Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has done better than the polls anticipated, apparently at the expense of Angela Merkel’s CDU. As ever, much of the analysis on this will be flawed.

Firstly, what is generally missed is that AfD (and to an extent the leftist Die Linke) are protest parties favoured by Easterners.


That point is evident above, although my phrasing is specific – AfD and Die Linke voters even in the West are disproportionately Easterners.

This is important not just for the obvious reason that disenchantment is greater in the former East. The East, in broad terms at least, is different and always was (and this was evident electorally even pre-War and there are obvious historical reasons for it going back centuries). It is inevitably less enamoured with concepts such as the European Union, not just because it was not part of it at the outset, but because it naturally looks East (towards Russia) rather than West (towards France).

German reunification remains a staggering achievement, but the fact remains it was unplanned and was never thoroughly accomplished. Most obviously, Easterners never went through the process of post-War Vergangenheitsbewältigung that Westerners did, and thus have a much lesser sense that they have making up to do. Indeed, they are disproportionately likely to descend from Germans expelled from elsewhere.

Secondly, results like this are often assigned economic reasons. That is a mistake. They have much more to do with an emotional sense that somehow things are changing too quickly and even that identity is being taken away than any rational notion that jobs are less secure and finances less balanced. Germany after all still runs a hefty surplus while maintaining full employment even among young people.

Thirdly, the CDU/CSU did not lose all the votes AfD gained. In fact, it is likely that more of AfD’s extra votes came from the SPD than the CDU/CSU. The latter’s losses will have ended up primarily with the Liberal FDP which, like AfD, just missed out on the 5% hurdle for parliamentary seats last time. There is this bizarre tendency, despite all the evidence to the contrary from all over Europe and beyond, to assume that because we describe parties like AfD as “far right” their gains must come from the “centre right”. Actually as often as not they come from the “centre left”, which is in stark decline in Germany as everywhere else. Presenting the whole thing as linear from left to right hinders our ability to understand just what drives AfD (or UKIP or FPÖ or wherever) voters, most of whom take profoundly left-wing positions on many issues.

Fourthly, describing AfD voters dismissively as “idiots” or even “Nazis” is no way to tackle the problem. It is true that progressive liberal types will never really grasp what causes someone to vote that way. However, we do need to try at least to grasp the issues on which a decision to vote that way are based. If someone tells us that, for example, immigration is an issue, we may well suggest that in fact immigration is a positive; but have we really grasped the issue raised? Perhaps the issue is not so much immigration itself, but the consequences for people in certain types of community who feel that community is changing to their detriment? How do we address that, if we are ourselves not from that community?

In conclusion, the election campaign was very boring but the result suggests a Germany which is not as at ease with itself as many outsiders assumed. Of course, 87% of voters did not vote for the nationalist populists, and we should note that. But Germany is a country where divisions still run deep, and this election has brought them into the open. They will have to be addressed in a way more managed than reunification was 27 years ago next week.


Chlorinated chicken shows how prejudiced *both* sides are in Brexit debate

I am going to let you into a secret. I don’t know the first thing about food standards and even less about the use of chlorine in the preparation of chicken.

Here is thing, o Twitter users: in 99% of cases, nor do you…

Yet somehow last week half the people in social media appeared to have become experts. Their knowledge was such that they were able to tell us, beyond doubt, that allowing chlorinated chicken into the UK would constitute a “decline in food standards”. But what was this “expert opinion” based upon, exactly?

In the same way as some on the Leave side exhibit all kinds of prejudice against all things Continental, this looked suspiciously like prejudice against all things American. The assumption is that chlorinated chicken is a big food standard problem (because the EU banned it) and, implicitly, that American standards are generally lower anyway. Are they? Well, I don’t know. How do so many people in social media seem to know?

As it happens, chlorinated chicken was banned in the EU in the late 1990s. Do you not remember the big fuss at the time? Well, actually, nor do I.

It appears, in fact, that subsequent advice to the European Commission has been that chlorinated chicken is not, in fact, a major hazard. Presumably, this is why Americans eat it quite happily. Although of course it is a well known fact that European visitors to the United States avoid chicken there in the knowledge that it is chlorinated. Or maybe not so well known fact. Or maybe that they don’t actually avoid it at all?

Implicit to all of this is the widely held view in Europe that North America is an unregulated free-for-all. I can only conclude that most people who think that have never actually been to North America. My own experience of it, in fact, is that you are constantly being instructed everywhere you go – you cannot even enter a car park with all sorts of instructions about which zone to go to if your ticket is green, your car is blue, or your plate ends in the letter “K”. Regulations and bureaucracy are in fact everywhere.

Because I know nothing about food standards, it is absolutely possible that allowing chlorinated chicken would constitute a decline. However, what was noteworthy was how many people who had clearly never before had any knowledge of the issue were suddenly jumping on the issue like seasoned experts. This, as is a constant theme on this blog, betrayed (in the very precise meaning of the word) a blatant prejudice.

I would still very much like to remain in the EU. But you know one thing which definitely does not help that already uphill task? Blatant prejudice.


We are all guilty in “post-truth” society

The year is not very old, but this is probably the most important and challenging article you will read during it:

The Death of Expertise

The problem is, we all know the “Death of Expertise” is going on around us, yet few of us recognise it afflicts us ourselves.

For example, I have now seen well educated, highly able, very professional people sharing this picture (originating, I believe, from the Bernie Sanders campaign) countless times:


In the words of Blackadder: “There is just one problem with it. It’s b*****ks.”

Excuse the extreme language, but in this case it is necessary. We are, as human beings, inclined to believe what we want to believe. The “Death of Expertise” article above notes the essential point here: it is not that we are lying, it is that we are all engaging in the fallacy that the world is as we think it ought to be. It is not.

To re-emphasise, there is nothing at all accurate about the above. The average Danish worker works a 37-hour week; there is no minimum wage (industries negotiate with trade unions for what is in effect a voluntary living wage in certain sectors, which is typically around $11); universities, health care and child care are not free but are paid for through extremely high taxes (many people may over half their income in tax, plus everyone faces a VAT rate of 25%).

There are many reasons Denmark is the fantastic country it is, but it is simply unacceptable to say “Here is my political platform; here is a happy country; here is the utterly deceptive pretence that that country is happy because of my political platform”.

And highly educated, well respected, professional people (the “Guardian-reading lefty liberals” as well as the Mail-reading white van man) can be just as likely to fall for it. That, perhaps, is the most scary part of all in the “death of expertise”.


UK has never been “independent”

2017 will of course be an interesting year because the UK will start along the road to what the victors in June’s referendum often describe as “independence”. Thousands of miles away, Jamaica will likely choose to join other Commonwealth Realms in the Caribbean in a move towards a Republic. The two are linked interestingly.

Leavers tend to omit the point that, on their own terms, the UK has never been independent. In the 17th century, Jamaica and other Caribbean islands became the first English colonies – and they were English, not British, because the UK did not exist yet.

The Union, in its various forms, therefore always relied on free trade. This was, of course, usually on its own terms as an imperial power, as crucial raw supplies were brought in, typically under protection of the Royal Navy, from the Americas, the Middle East, South Asia, the Far East and Australasia.

Decolonisation after World War Two saw the British recognise that they still needed free trade and supplies of what they themselves could not produce to prosper, but they could no longer do it on their own imperial terms, and thus doing it from great distance became rather pointless. They were not alone – countries such as France, Belgium and Portugal faced the same reality just as Spain had already faced it. Thus, in trading terms, the faraway Empire was swapped by necessity, but absolutely consciously, for the European Economic Community by the UK and other European (former) powers. It was this Community which, collectively, allowed them to continue to trade with the rest of the world while still largely dictating the terms, all while allowing for the adjustment to nearer trade between European powers of roughly equal economic size and living standards.

Put simply, some time between 1956 (Suez) and 1972 (European Communities Act), the UK got around to making the only realistic adjustment available to it. During those wilderness years, living standards in the UK slipped from the highest in Europe to the sick man of Europe but, backed by its new economic might within the European Community/Union from 1973, it saw per-capita income grow faster than any other major comparative (G7) economy. The UK swapped, by necessity, “imperialism” for “interdependence” – and it in fact proved rather good at the latter.

The UK, as an entity, has thus either been “imperial” or “interdependent”. It has never been “independent” – recognising always that this would be a rather foolish status for a soggy peripheral island with almost no natural resources and limited land area.

So, this “independence” lark could be intriguing, because the Union as we know it has never before experienced it. Only one thing is for sure – those hoping to “take back” something will be disappointed.


Story of an Airport debacle

In the early 1990s, it was decided that a new hub would be ideal. Nevertheless, big planning applications ranging from public transport links to tendering for construction led to fifteen years passing before construction began in 2006. It was decided to name the new project after a grand statesman and all seemed set for completion by 2014.

However, a combination of everything from utterly incompetent project management to political gameplaying to what most regard as low-level corruption saw the project stalled time after time. Project estimates proved hopelessly inadequate as time passed by, and chaos ensued. Even a start date of late 2017 (remembering this all started a full generation ago) has been delayed by a public transport planning dispute, with a possibility now that the whole farce will extend into the ’20s.

It is quite possibly the single most embarrassingly ridiculous example of project management in the post-War Western World.

Yet no, this is not Northern Ireland! The hub in question is Berlin Brandenburg Airport. It was supposed to replace two airports but will now only replace one because passenger estimates are now so hopelessly outdated.

Have a think about that the next time a Northern Irish person tells you that the Northern Irish are uniquely useless, or even that the Germans are efficient…

(The statesman was Willi Brandt. His foundation is currently considering withdrawing its permission to use his name, given the scale of the scandals around the airport’s construction.)

Dies habe ich vor dem schrecklichen Anschlag am 19./12. bei einem Berliner Weihnachtsmarkt geschrieben. Es ist wichtig, dass das freie und demokratische Leben so weitergeht, wie vor dem Horror. Berliner haben wie keine anderen Bürger für diese Freiheit und diese Demokratie gekämpft und gelitten. Dementsprechend sind meine Gedanken bei den Opfern und Angehörigen, und allen Berlinern möchte ich mein herzliches Beileid aussprechen und ein freies und friedliches Fest wünschen.