Category Archives: International

102 years on, we have learned nothing from WW1

The lights went out across Europe this day 102 years ago. A generation never saw them lit again.

The tragedy is not just the 17 million lives lost in that war and the 50 million lost in the one directly consequent to it. The tragedy is we have not learned.

I wish I could disagree with Tobias Stone in this article about how history is bound to repeat itself. Indeed, I have written similar myself, though not as effectively.

I am not by nature particularly a pessimist, but 102 years on the lights are about to go out again. Post-factual eras where people ignore those who actually know what they are talking about and turn to strong men always turn out the same way – in revolution and war. We can only hope it will not take as long this time for the light to return.

UK should negotiate new relationship, not “Brexit”

I am increasingly perturbed by the number of people coming up with all kinds of technical ways to try to stop “Brexit”, up to and including a weird and wonderful (and utterly ludicrous) plan by one academic for Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain in while England and Wales left.

I am perturbed because we should not waste time with technical (and actually ludicrous) ways to try to stay in the EU, when there are perfectly reasonable cases to be made for doing so. (And it is perfectly democratic to make them – just as it was for Leavers to continue to argue their case after a resounding referendum defeat in 1975.)

A month ago there was a referendum and, albeit by a narrow majority, the UK electorate backed the motion “the UK should leave the EU”.

That means those who want to leave the EU get first try, and the new Prime Minister has wisely accepted this. Some big beasts of the Leave campaign now occupy all the relevant “Brexit” ministries, giving them the chance to come up with a coherent plan whereby leaving the EU is better than remaining in it.

However, the fact is they wil almost certainly fail. After all, what were the main reasons for leaving the EU?

  • We now know there will not be £350 million a week extra for Health, or anything like it, so that key argument for “Leave” no longer applies;
  • We now know that Turkey will not be joining the EU, or anything close to it given what happened last week, so that key argument for “Leave” no longer applies;
  • We now know that, far from “being able to do our own trade deals”, the UK will in fact have no trade deals at all even in formal negotiation (far less complete) on the day it leaves the EU, so that key argument for “Leave” no longer applies either.

Of all the key arguments for leaving the EU, that leaves just one intact – immigration. Objectively, that key argument for leaving the EU may still apply, even if it is worth emphasising that it also means leaving the Single Market altogether (which wasn’t actually on the ballot paper).

So it is obvious what should happen now. The UK should start discussions with the EU, as a member state whose population wishes currently to leave, around immigration. The UK could indeed argue that it has a unique status – given additional favourable status for people coming from the Commonwealth; the generosity it showed to citizens of new member states immediately upon the 10-member expansion in 2004; and the fact that it is geographically isolated. But it could also argue more broadly that absolute free movement of the scale currently in place across the EU (actually, the EEA) does not work and is in fact leading to hostility to the whole Single Market project across the continent, not just in England and Wales.

The underlying point is obvious. If the EU refuses to heed the warning from the UK electorate on immigration, the UK will have to find its own way somehow but it probably will not be the last to go. On the other hand, if the EU is willing to listen (and every national election which takes place across the continent will only make it more willing to) and to rethink just how absolute “free movement” has to be, then all options including maintenance of the UK’s membership remain on the table. If, after all, the EU proved willing to meet the concerns of those who voted to leave it last month, why actually leave?

The case for leaving the EU is just as poor now as it was a month ago. However, that does not mean that many of the concerns of those voting to leave were not legitimate. If we really wish to remain in the EU from this inauspicious political position, we have to address those very real concerns, not just bleat about academic technicalities.

Brexit Op-Ed

Full text of an Op-Ed for the Belfast Newsletter.

The Newsletter has right led the way on demanding devolved institutions in Northern Ireland prepare themselves for a changed future in the light of last month’s referendum on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

It is absolutely correct to say that this is no time for our Executive Ministers and public servants to be treating themselves to a two-month holiday. Having evidently failed, disgracefully, to come up with any contingency for a Leave victory, despite the fact one of the Executive parties was advocating one, sacrifices will have to be made so that the business of government can proceed smoothly from September.

Firstly, as the Newsletter has rightly suggested, Committees should be continuing to meet – even if by allowing deputation of members by party colleagues in some cases. These meetings should have the specific initial objective of assessing exactly what the exposure is of each Department to the European Union. Are there funds, information streams, knowledge exchanges which are endangered by leaving?

Once this work is done (and there is no reason it should not be by early August), the Executive should then assess which aspects of our relationship with the EU are essential, and which can be replaced. This will then determine the position the Executive takes in advocating for Northern Ireland when the UK/EU negotiations take place. How important is it to our young people’s futures that our further education institutions (and students) are treated as if they were in the EU; to our small businesses trading across the border that we remain within the Customs Union; to our exporters that we remain within the Single Market? What exactly do we need to do to maintain access to European Clinical Trials, pan-European medical research and interventions for rare conditions? What do we propose to do about the European Arrest Warrant, access to shared intelligence and hot pursuit protocols which will keep us safe from international crime and terrorism? Is there even a case for Northern Ireland-only work visas, EU customs access or reciprocal health care arrangements?

Having established what aspects of EU membership are vital to Northern Ireland’s future, we can then pursue our case. We may be able to make common cause with Scotland, or even Gibraltar or London, on many of these issues. We should almost certainly be arguing for a UK Constitutional Convention and an all-island Civic Forum to help this work and ensure compromise in key areas. The Executive Office in Brussels should long ago have been building bridges with other European regions in similar positions to add to pressure across the EU for a “Special Access Arrangement” for Northern Ireland, given its unique constitutional status and geographical location. We also need to consider implications for corporation tax, infrastructure investment and skills development – but this must be done as part of an overall strategy, not in isolation.

The issues, for households, businesses and service deliverers across Northern Ireland, are far too important to be ignored for two months. Contingency plans must be put in place now, and delivered upon immediately in September.

#Brexit and the rise of Russia

“Stay in the EU and there’ll be an EU army” was yet another Leave lie. But EU cooperation on defence is of course essential. Its eastern frontier is now directly challenged by a crazy dictator, launching cyberattacks on government website and taking chunks of neighbours’ territory.

The UK offered the best intelligence and the joint largest military response to this threat to our allies, to which the EU brought democracy in the 1990s and 2000s.

Not only is the UK now on course to split from the EU, creating practical difficulties to cooperation to counter this obvious threat, but it is also on course to fall apart itself – something Russia knows all about but will thoroughly enjoy for all kinds of reasons.

Giving prominence to crazy dictators is not a very wise move in the current, uncertain world. Of course, the UK may soon effectively have one of its own.

The people misspoke last month.

EU Op-Ed (News Letter)

Full version of my Op-Ed in Thursday’s Belfast Newsletter:

Many people are asking now what the vote to leave the EU means to them. Of course, the answer is always “It depends” – on what the UK’s new relationship with the EU is, on when it is resolved, and on what exposure households and organisations have to the EU.

One point needs clarification: the EU is an association of 28 member states. If one member state decides to withdraw, then all of its territory ceases to fall within the EU, and its citizens cease to be EU citizens. What precisely this means depends on the exact nature of the relationship subsequently negotiated, but we should be in no doubt that if the UK proceeds to leave the EU, the only way for Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain within the EU is to leave the UK.

It should not be doubted either that the UK-wide vote will be taken as an instruction by the new Prime Minister to begin negotiations on withdrawal from the EU. It is anyone’s guess how these negotiations will be carried out, or what outcome they will arrive at. We are hearing much about ‘Article 50’, which may be invoked by the Prime Minister as the most obvious means of withdrawal. However, this gives the UK and the EU only two years to negotiate terms. Thus, such a move would instantly weaken the UK’s negotiating hand, as it would be out at the end of two years even if nothing had been agreed.

A disproportionate number of people in Northern Ireland will be exposed in some way to EU funding. In an extreme case, that the UK leaves the EU relatively quickly with no subsequent trade deal in place, this funding would simply disappear. This possibility has to be considered, but is unlikely.

Another possibility is that the UK will leave the EU but remain in the EEA (the so-called “Norway Model”), thus maintaining free movement, a contribution to EU budget (but also access to Structural Funds) and a requirement to implement some (but not all) EU Law. This would mean that some current funding (e.g. PEACE) would probably be secure, and that there would be some chance of maintaining access to specific other funding streams, albeit at a reduced level (e.g. for business R&D or infrastructure).

Unfortunately, the downgrade in the UK’s credit rating alone had the effect of requiring the UK now to pay more merely to service the interest on its debt than it pays into the EU budget. Notably, even in the EEA, there is no access to Rural Development Funds (such as CAP), which will now in effect have to be replaced from within Northern Ireland’s devolved budget.

It remains possible, though unlikely, that the UK will remain within the EU in the end. An incoming Prime Minister, faced with economic recession and constitutional chaos (and, thus, a tarnished legacy), may seek a new EU deal and put it back to consultation with the people. However, even this may mean some withholding of EU funds and continued economic uncertainty during negotiations.

There is opportunity is every risk, however, and now may be the time to engage in real reform of public services and in appropriate consolidation of provision within the voluntary/community sector.

UK not yet out of EU…

In my scenarios two days ago I noted that there is still a scenario – though very much the least of the four – where the UK remains within the EU. It is unlikely, but not as unlikely as some think, given that the whole process of extracting the UK from the EU is so complex and damaging. (To be clear, my “central forecast” would be the UK out of the EU and into some form of associate arrangement with the EEA by May 2019.)

To be clear how remaining in the EU is not going to happen: there is certainly not going to be a second in/out referendum; there is almost certainly not going to be a General Election won by a Remain party or coalition; and UK withdrawal cannot be blocked by Scotland. There is some “buyer’s remorse” among Leave voters but there are also Remain voters who are no particular fans of the EU. There was a referendum and Leave won, so it is the political position that the UK (all of it) will now proceed to leave the EU. End of.


The assumption now is that the UK will leave the EU but remain in the EEA Single Market – known as the “Norway Model”. This is of significant benefit to many of those who voted Leave on grounds of sovereignty, because it means EU Law no longer has primacy (although in practice much of it still has to be adopted), UK citizens are no longer European citizens, and the UK can do its own trade deals and agricultural subsidy programmes. Single Market Access is also essential to keeping Scotland in the Union and to any hopes of maintaining London’s status as a global financial centre. However, it is hopeless for those who voted Leave on the grounds of immigration or border control, because a founding principle of the EEA is free movement of labour; additionally, only EU members can veto new EU members (who automatically also join the EEA upon meeting its requirements), yet each new member adds to the EEA membership fee.

Currently, Leavers are trying to argue that they will be able to join the EEA Single Market while at the same time implementing border control. Such a deal simply is not possible.

Ironically, it could be that the only way the UK can stay in the Single Market while implementing some form of inward border control is by remaining in the EU – not least since other EU countries may be minded to trade some form of border control in return for not losing their second largest member (and thus risking complete break-up).

As a pesky Liberal, the whole notion appals me, but here is how such a negotiation could go.

The UK could argue exceptionality on the grounds that, firstly, it particularly has to manage immigration from the Commonwealth; secondly, it was one of only three countries that allowed fee movement immediately to the new ten member states in 2004; and thirdly, it consists almost entirely of an island.

Here is a thing: as it stands, not all UK citizens are actually entitled to workers’ rights across the EU. As the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have severe restrictions on those who may live and work there, they are outside the EU and people attaining UK citizenship only by association with them have their passports “endorsed”, marking them as not qualifying under free movement of labour.

The UK could argue that, given the above exceptionality and that, in any case, some of its own citizens have “endorsed” passports barring them from free movement, that it too should in effect be allowed to “endorse” passports from other EU member states where these were given out on grounds other than “native qualification”. Politically, an obvious example to use would be a Syrian refugee who would not qualify for a UK passport but did qualify for one in Germany due to its more liberal approach; the UK may wish to argue that it does not wish to recognise that passport as one of an “EU citizen”, since it would never have allocated one in similar circumstances.

On top of that, the UK may wish to argue that its generosity in 2004 in particular should now be countered by an agreement that it would not have to give free movement to citizens from any new EU member state (effectively all Albanian passports would be deemed “endorsed” by the UK, for example).

It could argue all of that as part of its negotiation to remain in the Single Market, but the chances of a sympathetic ear from other EU member states are absolutely zero. After all, two years after invoking Article 50, the UK is out, agreement or no agreement – so why on earth would other member states even begin such a negotiation, unless it were in return, say, for excluding financial services from the Single Market (as per Switzerland) and thus delivering a clear economic penalty to the UK?

However, what if the UK were to suggest that such an arrangement, giving it greater control of its border and calming fears about the immigration impact of EU expansion, would mean it could stay in the EU after all (albeit under an arrangement branded something like “Associate Membership”)? There would be something in that for other EU member states, whose native citizens would still have free movement and who would have thus limited the chances of the UK’s withdrawal leading to further departures. And there would be something in it for those who voted Leave on grounds of immigration – in fact they would have greater control of the border (as well as a veto of new members) inside the EU than outside.


I wouldn’t be putting the house on it, but in these crazy times such an outcome is not entirely inconceivable.

Should we dare to imagine another Europe?

The constitutional and economic sabotage the British people have brought upon themselves through last week’s referendum shows no real sign of abating. Rarely has a population inflicted upon itself such immediate suffering.

Nevertheless, we are where we are and it may do no harm to use our imagination now.

One of my frustrations about referendums is they offer a binary choice on issues which, very often, are more complex.


As we can see above, Europe is vastly more complex than just EU and non-EU!

It has always struck me that Europe is split more sensibly into groups, based on geographical and linguistic/cultural proximity. As can be seen above, many of these already exist – the Nordic Council, the Common Travel Area, the Baltic Assembly, Benelux, the Visegrád Group, Central Europe (CEFTA; the former Yugoslavia outside the EU plus Albania) and the Black Sea (BSEC above). There are even natural groupings among the remainder – German-speaking Europe, for example.

If we were to put all those together from scratch, would we be trying to group almost all of them into a single Union with its own parliament, bank and currency? I suspect not. Already Switzerland is in a markedly different position from Austria; and Norway from Denmark; despite the obvious geographical, cultural and linguistic similarities. Even within the European Union, we have Slovakia in the euro but Czech Republic not yet; Finland in the euro but Sweden probably never; Ireland in the euro but the UK formally opted out.

In fact, if we were trying to build single currencies into the equation, we would probably have single currencies for the different groups – a “Krone Zone”, a “Sterling Zone”, a “Balt zone”, a “Eurozone”, a “Zloty Zone” and so on. It is quite possible that those blocks would peg their currencies to each other and would even gradually merge; perhaps Benelux with German-speaking Europe, for example. Whether you would ever put Portugal and Latvia in the same currency is debatable, however.

We are not starting from scratch, but I do wonder if some non-euro EU member states will be tempted by the UK’s new post-EU status, which will probably (though who knows?!) be akin to Norway’s. At the same time Norway had a referendum to oppose EU membership in 1994 (coincidentally by 48:52!), Sweden passed its narrowly by the reverse margin. But would Norway’s and the UK’s (and for that matter, topically, Iceland’s) status not make more sense for Sweden, given it too has a not dissimilar intra-EU immigration profile and no intention of ever joining the euro? Then what about Poland and Hungary; might they too, as close allies of the UK in the EU, not also benefit from staying outside the euro and thus formally leaving the EU to join the new EEA satellite states? It is not crazy.

There are even states within the euro which may begin to feel they should be in another currency zone. Would Finland not be better sharing a currency with Sweden and/or other Nordics, having not had the tools to cope with the recent economic slowdown the way the rest of the Nordics did? And the oft-mentioned David McWilliams has long hinted that Ireland would be economically better off in the Sterling Zone, a view surely enhanced by the fact that instinctively economically liberal Ireland will find the EU top table colder without its British allies at it – unimaginable now but maybe not a decade or so hence. Should we then turn to whether Greece, Italy and other Southern European countries are really better off being unable to devalue their currency against Germany’s, once a core economic lever without which they have unquestionably suffered? It is at least worthy of consideration.

The question worth asking, in other words, is whether the UK’s imminent exit simply means the EU has become too large, not least because it was the UK itself which was prominent in arguing for a larger rather than a deeper Europe. There is at least an argument for the European Commission, Parliament and Central Bank to cover only the core Eurozone (in other words, the EU formally shrinks to cover only the Eurozone), with other parts of the EEA covered by the Nordic Council, the British-Irish Council, the Baltic Assembly or perhaps a Visegrád Council each with their own Commissions and Central Banks; these would then cooperate, perhaps via the European Council, to ensure the smooth and fair functioning of the European Single Market.

The crux of the issue is that the EU cannot possibly lose its second largest member and then proceed as if nothing has occurred, no matter how carelessly it happened. Clearly, there are a lot of people for whom the EU and its institutions are too distant, and it would be foolish to believe those people only live in England and Wales. Perhaps a more core Union, with other interrelated groups of countries forming a clear single market (and environmental alliance) in cooperation with it, would make for a more stable and relevant way to ensure European harmony into the 21st century?

Such things should at least now be considered, surely? And it would be wise for the UK to stay at the table while they are.

Lessons from Swiss German

Last week’s discussion led to one correspondent, who already has the coolest Gravatar ever, introducing Swiss German into the equation – something I had only ever previously done when discussing Ulster Scots.

My piece on “language interference” only really applies to lamguages of roughly the same standing – large national languages, in that case. Regional or minority languages, such as Catalan and Irish, are somewhat different, partly because they are in more limited use but probably mainly because speakers of such languages are always fluent and often in fact native speakers of another language. It is easy for two people speaking Irish as a second language to throw in an English word they know both will understand; or indeed for a foreign learner of Catalan just to switch to their fluent Spanish rather than hazard a guess at the Catalan in the knowledge that the Catalan listener (who will invariably also speak Spanish) will understand. This is a very different type of interference.

Of course, Scots (or Ulster Scots as it is known in Northern Ireland and Donegal) suffers this severely, as it is not just regional but also closely related to English, the most prominent global language. There is a fuzzy line and significant confusion between what is Scots and what is in fact Scots-influenced English, leading to wide (and frankly understandable) dismissal of the former’s claim to “language status” by the vast bulk of the population on both sides of the Sheuch (see what I did there?!)

So what about Swiss German?

To cut a long (very complicated) story short (so as to simplify it outrageously), Continental West Germanic constitutes a continuum of mutually intelligible dialects running from just beyond Ostend in northern Belgium to just beyond Graz in southeastern Austria. Speakers at each end of the continuum cannot understand each other, but all the way along there are speakers of different dialects who do.

Nevertheless, there is a significant dialect boundary running along a roughly horizontal line around Frankfurt am Main. This is not a perfect line, but a somewhat fuzzy one. Nevertheless, what is spoken to the north of it is undeniably “Low German”, and to the south is “High German”. The difference is marked in a sound shift – north of the line has “water”, “pepper” and so on as in English; south of it has “Wasser”, “Pfeffer” and so on as in modern Standard German; there are also fairly clearly defined grammatical and vocabulary differences.

As Holland (the area around Amsterdam and Rotterdam) rose to prominence, its “Low” version became the educated standard for the whole of the Germanic-speaking Low Countries (what we now refer to as the Netherlands and northern Belgium) – what we now refer to as “Dutch”.

What is now Germany, however, adopted a central standard which was, in most ways, “High” (i.e. southern); Austria and Switzerland (assumed for linguistic purposes to include Liechtenstein) also came to adopt this “High” standard – what we now refer to as “German”.

This presents the curious linguistic situation that the two largest cities in German-speaking Europe, Berlin and Hamburg, are in fact in traditionally “Low” German areas but had “High” German foisted upon them. Because the “High” Standard was for generations in effect a foreign language to be learned by northerners in those cities and elsewhere, northern German speech when speaking “High” became much more regularised (and is in effect the “standard” pronunciation recommended to foreign learners), where southern German speech retained significant regional variation (and is thus now seen to deviate more markedly from the High “Standard”, even though it is fundamentally more southern than northern).

One southern set of dialects which remained, in spoken form, significantly distinct from the Standard were those found in Switzerland, where over two thirds of the population are deemed “German speakers”. They do write Standard German (with minor variations), and speak an albeit markedly accented version of it when in the presence of non-Swiss or non-German speakers (such as in the national parliament), but in fact to each other they all speak Swiss German. This is not a single form but in fact a series of dialects characterised by the fact they underwent the aforementioned sound shift even more thoroughly and happen to be spoken in Switzerland and Liechtenstein (and also in the small neighbouring Austrian province of Vorarlberg). Notably this is the case just as much in urban areas as in rural.

You cannot learn Swiss German in the way you can learn Catalan, nor is there any serious movement towards formal writing (nor, thus, towards any form of written standard). It is a spoken language (albeit used in informal writing, such as internal tourism adverts, newspaper birthday greetings or unofficial emails), and a growing one. On German-language television and radio in Switzerland only news (of local Swiss content) is in Standard German; everything else, from political chat shows to traffic reports, is in Swiss German.

In practice, people from neighbouring parts of Germany and Austria (e.g. Swabia or the Tyrol) have no real difficulty understanding Swiss German, although even they would switch to Standard German in conversation with a Swiss. For Germans from further north or even Austrians from further east, however, comprehension can be difficult without some time taken to gain familiarity.

The main issue is pronunciation, which is broadly more gutteral and has marked differences in vowels (for example sein is pronounced more or less as “sine” in Standard German but similar to “seen” in Swiss). There are also minor differences in syntax (around word order in the clause and particularly a peculiar system of verbal duplication in some cases), in past tense verb forms (for example Standard German gewesen becomes Swiss gsi “been”), and in the range of meanings applied to a given word (for example “schaffen” means something between “to create” and “to accomplish” in Standard German, but more like “to work” in Swiss). Swiss also generally follows southern dialects for its food terms and pronouns, which can be quite different from the Standard usage; it also sometimes has its own optional dialect terms (which can vary from place to place), although in practice very few southern Standard German words are not also used in Swiss (with appropriate phonological adaptation).

Underlying all of this is a (probably subconscious) desire on the part of the Swiss to mark themselves out as distinct (something which characterises the country in many ways and even defines it, but which appears to be sociolinguistically specific to German speakers). Swiss German (to be specific: the distinctiveness of speech from Standard German even fairly well up the social and formal scale in Switzerland) has gained ground since the War while most minority languages and dialects in Europe were losing it. This matches a widely reported general antipathy between German-speaking Swiss and Germans generally; no such antipathy exists between French-speaking Swiss and the French nor between Italian-speaking Swiss and the Italians, and there is no linguistic parallel there either – and so the French of Switzerland is not notably distinct from that of France, and likewise for Italian.

So distinct are Swiss German speakers that, as reported in the comments section on this blog, they will often selected English (or French) words in preference to importing a German innovation. This tendency appears even to have crept into Swiss Standard German (which, for example, prefers English “tram” to Standard German “Strassenbahn” and French “velo” to Standard German “Fahrrad“, “bicycle”).

For all that, there is no question that foreigners and non-German-speaking compatriots will be addressed in Standard German; Swiss German is seen as specific to German-speaking Swiss and is not to be foisted on anyone else (indeed quite the contrary, it is as if outsiders are to be shielded from it). This makes the approach to and purpose of its development quite different from the approach to Catalan (an obvious linguistic parallel) or even seemingly Scots, as there are no notions of standardising the written form or competing generally with the Standard written variety.

Is it a language or a dialect? I asked a German-speaking Swiss that once, to be told politely in effect that the question was irrelevant. “Standard German” is “Standard German” and “Swiss German” is “Swiss German”. And that’s that.

What is the relevance of Swiss German to the rest of us? That is something to ponder as we eat our Muesli…

UK media’s referendum coverage is a disgrace

There is a widespread view across the UK that the referendum campaign is boring (and even pathetic) because people have neither facts nor reliable information. That is where the (broadcast) media are supposed to come in.

With the odd exception, however, the media’s coverage has been a disgrace. Focused as it is on personalities rather than on issues, and on the narrow interest of the political bubble rather than the very real social and economic consequences of the forthcoming vote, the media have failed us utterly.

BBC Newsnight last night was just the latest pathetic example. Who the hell cares what Chris Patten has to say about Boris Johnson?!

What a washed up politician who lost his seat a quarter of a century ago has to say about a buffoon who can’t even do his own shopping is totally and utterly irrelevant. It is not going to help pay the grocery bill if prices go up, or help young people’s education if they cannot move freely across the continent, or keep us safe if we cannot share intelligence! Nor does it speak to the EU’s great accomplishments of spreading democracy southward and eastward, clearing roaming charges or growing per capita income faster than anywhere else in the Western world; nor indeed to its unquestionable failings around the refugee crisis or even the pure unnecessary nonsense of maintaining institutions in Strasbourg.

The obsession with Conservative politicians is disgraceful because fundamentally it speaks to laziness. It is much easier to do a cheap interview for a cheap quip than it is to do proper research into the issues which really matter to people. Politics in general is covered like a soap opera of traded insults and mini-scandals, rather than the exchange of ideas and assessment of governmental competence that it is supposed to be. Worst of all, the media clearly has not considered that our future inside or outside the EU is not fundamentally a political issue at all, but a socio-economic one.

It is this failure to research the issues at stake properly which leads to the other nonsense of the campaign – namely that claims from each side are automatically afforded equal legitimacy. Actually, they should be assessed against the facts and anyone stating a blatant mistruth should be derided for so doing. Not all opinions are equally legitimate – some are informed by reason and evidence; others, well, aren’t.

And that is all to leave aside the fact that all the main players in the media’s soap opera are men. Is that not shameful?

All over the world now, from Trump to Hofer, we are seeing the rise of people who can manipulate the media easily because it refuses to be informed and refuses to tackle nonsense. The crisis in democracy across the world, in other words, is partly the responsibility of the media. The results could be very frightening.

Austria real cause for alarm

Bist du schwarz oder rot?” (“Are you black or red”) was the first question I was asked upon arrival to stay with a family in the Vienna suburbs in 1993. I have never forgotten it. Now, it really matters. 

For all our parochial concerns about devolved elections and even “Brexit”, perhaps the most significant political event in our lives occurred yesterday, in the form of the resignation of the Chancellor (head of government) of Austria.

Post-War Austria developed a system of “pillarisation” known as “Proporz”, whereby almost everyone was identified politically as “black” (centre-right, a supporter of the People’s Party) or “red” (centre-left, a supporter of the Social Democrats). Those two parties dominated elections, after which they almost invariably formed a Grand Coalition and dished out initiatives, ministries and even appointments in everything from the civil service to banks in proportion to size. (Indeed it was believed that even foreigners fell into one or the other, hence the question above.)

As the generations passed and memories of post-War occupation receded, younger people began to turn away from the two great monoliths and the allocations of appointments associated with them (one man’s “fair apportionment of appointments” is another man’s “corruption”), and parties such as the Liberals and Greens saw their chance. Unfortunately, the party which best grasped the opportunity was the Freedom Party, nominally liberal but really populist-conservative, led by the late Jörg Haider. He developed his own political base in the south of the country and rose from there to come second in the 2000 elections, thus securing a place in government. As Austria is associated in most outsiders’ minds with another right-wing leader of a not dissimilar name, foreign governments were appalled but there was little they could do.

Herr Haider was killed in a single-car crash, and so it was thought his movement would decline. This was another lesson of history not learned. Renewed and reunited, it won the first round of the presidential election last month ahead of an Independent Green, with the two great monoliths placed fourth and fifth behind another centrist independent.

Inevitably, below all this, there is a strong cultural and historical imperative. Austrians celebrate the fact, for example, that Ottoman Muslims made it as far as Vienna in the mid 17th century but no further; thus, the underlying notion that it is a Christian country is strong. There is also, among large sections of the population, an acute sense of loss; Vienna is the capital of a country of only 9 million, but any visitor can see it is obviously designed and built to be an imperial capital (as it was for centuries). Austria also never underwent the process of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” taken on in neighbouring (West) Germany after the War.

Why does this matter to us? By some measures, Austria is the most prosperous country in the EU except tiny Luxembourg. If its democracy is collapsing into crazed anti-immigration populism, no democracy is secure from it. It is also a significant warning to those who believe that collapse of the established political order is necessarily a good thing – in fact, if it is not properly managed and planned (as inevitably it isn’t), it is invariably a recipe for chaos.

For us in Northern Ireland, the post-Agreement generation is finding not that our politics is becoming more like everyone else’s, but that everyone else’s is becoming more like ours. In response to ever more complex issues (such as the refugee crisis), the population is turning for comfort to people offering ever more simplistic answers.

This is a bad time to be a liberal democrat.


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