Category Archives: International

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.

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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?

Youthful France’s victory exposes another English myth

On Saturday, the ITV commentary team explained away England’s second defeat to Belgium (whose team is drawn from a population a fifth of its size) by noting that Belgium’s side is “seven or eight years further on in its development”.

The next day, France won the World Cup. Its team had an average age lower than England’s.

Somehow or other France, a country which in general does not take football as seriously as England, has managed to reach four major finals since winning the World Cup for the first time 20 years ago, winning two (and losing another on penalties). England celebrated a place in the semi-final – the first it had reached in any tournament in that period – as if it was a spectacular achievement.

To emphasise, it was not a terrible outcome for England by any means. The team coach earned it support from unusual quarters; the attitude of the “young” players suggests that they are aware of the need to improve markedly; and the hopelessness that had shrouded the team for four years or so has been lifted.

However, there remains a peculiar and pervasive attitude that somehow success will occur if we just, well, “believe in it” or something. The task now is simply to wait for the next tournament (whose Final and semis happen to be in London) and then, well, basically “hope” that the team has learned a bit. That is no more a strategy for international football success than it is for negotiating Brexit.

Indeed, it is not hard to see that the two attitudes are peculiarly linked. There seems – in football as in broad society and politics – an odd unwillingness in England to learn from Continental Europe. When comparing health systems, public debate suggests that it is the NHS or America; not once are Continental European countries – with their better outcomes and higher life expectancies – ever given a second glance.

So it is with football. Continental Europe has provided every single European Champion and the comfortable majority of World Champions, including each of the last four (and in fact seven of the last eight finallists, constituting six different teams). Not once do I recall hearing any sort of discussion as to how, exactly, they do it. Indeed, England’s elimination was met with a bizarre debate about whether the term “It’s Coming Home” had somehow particularly motivated the Croats, in a way they would not anyway have been motivated when playing in a World Cup semi!

So again pundits retreat to an odd safety blanket of a “young team” (even though it is older than the one which won) and an underlying notion that all would be well except for those pesky foreigners particularly raising their game against England because of some tagline. Not once is there any consideration of what it takes to develop a team with tactical nous, technical ability and indeed raw hunger – the type of nous, ability and hunger which saw tiny Croatia (hardly backed by world-class facilities or a world-class league) achieve a level England have literally never reached away from home – actually beating their own best, which was already better than England’s!

As one correspondent implied on this blog, as of next week England’s World Cup victory will in fact be closer to the beginning of World War One than it is to today. A fine story though it is, to the rest of the world the constant harping on about it has become beyond embarrassing – but in fact, as Fabio Capello noted, it is the English themselves who are harmed most of all by the “ghosts of ’66”. It is as if international football should remain petrified there, in its natural place with England at the top of the pile, and no further effort should be made to invest in coaching, facilities and analysis which may enable a serious challenge for honours to be maintained on as regular a basis as it is in other countries of similar size and resource.

In football as in government, it is long since time England thought not about running away from the Continent, but of embracing the concept of humility as its coach so ably did and learning from those who do things better.

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.

IMG_0382

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.

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