Saturday, November 18, 2017

Brexit and UK government strategy: Imperialistic Pretensions

A good way to assess a country's true psychology is to look at how it treats other nations.

The UK's relations with Europe and the rest of the world are currently going through a radical reconfiguration, thanks to Brexit. But equally, the way that the UK government is handling Brexit and its relations with its near neighbours in Europe is also highly-revealing in telling us the true nature of the country's leaders, and their motivations. As a result of this, European observers of the negotiation process between the UK and the EU are having to sharply re-evaluate their preconceptions about Britain's sense of morality. They are beginning to realise that Britain's honesty and transparency can no longer be taken for granted. They realise that Britain is behaving like a "troublemaker".

Divide and rule

When the chips are down, Britain's government has an instinct for devious behaviour (in particular towards its own population).The British government's negotiation strategy with the EU (if it can be coherently said to have one), seems to follow on from the same tactics, which Britain also once used when it was an Imperial power.
Back in the day, the British government's strategy for keeping the colonies under control was one of "divide and rule". In India, this was about balancing the different ethnic sides off against each other. The tensions between those sides (e.g. Hindu versus Muslim) were then stoked by Britain as a deliberate policy to sabotage the growing independence movement. This then made post-independence violence all the more certain; as we know, millions died in violence during those population exchanges.
The same could be said of Britain's rule over Palestine, where the Arab majority were played off against the Jewish minority. As the violence between them and their British overlords got increasingly out of hand, the British left the whole mess to the newly-created UN, who were totally unable to deal with the situation. The Middle East is still dealing with the after effects of that today.

Britain, as an Imperial power, therefore had a reputation for dealing with its colonies in a Machiavellian manner. The two mentioned, India and Palestine, are just two major examples. There are many others; these two are simply the more well-known ones. Of course, this strategy was common among all "Imperial powers", and Britain was very far from the worst in this regard. However, the cases of India and Palestine are two stains on Britain's colonial record - in terms of the collective human impact of their policies - that stand out even among other acts of colonial infamy by other powers. Yes, Britain did not use torture or oppression on a mass scale like some other Imperial powers, but it would be naive in the extreme to think of Britain as a paragon on Imperial virtue, like as it has been with some, nostalgic over the past.

The manner in which the UK government has dealt with the EU during the negotiations follows the same path. On one hand, Britain's Prime Minister talks of wanting a "deep and special partnership" with the EU based on trust and co-operation. But on the other, while negotiations are ongoing with the EU as a whole, her government (and the PM herself) seeks to drive clefts within the nations of the EU itself. Firstly, Theresa May and her ministers engage in the type of diplomacy that looks for issues that individual members of the EU might agree with Britain on, separately from the rest of the EU; the purpose of this is to build some kind of "inner coalition" within the EU that might be more supportive towards Britain's goals. Secondly, in the case of Germany, David Davis seems to be on a strategy to win over the support of its industrialists that would then act a some kind of "lobby" to pressure Angela Merkel on Britain's behalf. In this case, it is like developing a "cleft within a cleft". His comments just recently, where he blamed France and Germany for holding up the negotiations, support the view that Britain's strategy is to drive wedges between nations, as well as even wedges between interest groups in the nations themselves.
These two examples show not only the glaring lack of tact of Britain's government, but also reveal its government's true motivations: treating Europe as a kind of "colony" that can be manipulated and exploited to achieve its goals.

Looking at this objectively, it paints a very poor picture for Britain as a nation to be trusted. Not only is it being devious; it is being tactless.
It is almost reminiscent of the tactless behaviour and self-defeating diplomatic strategy of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II. When he came to power, he wanted Germany to be a great power, but also one that had good relations with its neighbours. Through a series of misjudgments, Germany fell out of favour with Britain, Russia and France, leading the Kaiser to look for alliances with nations that others were wary to be close to. This left Germany diplomatically-isolated from the major Imperial powers, leading its government to seek self-reliance as the best form of defence. We know where that ended.
In a different context, Britain's government seem to be repeating many of the same kind of blunders: making enemies where it should be making friends; while in seeking to divide existing alliances, the only effect this has is to unite them against itself as their common agitator. This kind of "imperialistic approach" will only end in failure, while showing to others that Britain's motivations are antagonistic in nature.

"Special treatment"

Apart from the Imperialistic strategy of "divide and rule", there is the UK government's (equally Imperialistic) mindset of expecting the EU to do everything for them, give in to all their demands, while offering little in return.
This is the lazily-entitled mindset that Britain had seen in remission during its membership of the EU. In many ways, joining the EU was an admission of Britain's relative weakness in the post-Imperial world. As it was not in a position to make demands, it allowed Britain an opportunity to reshape its own sense of identity. Brexit represents a backwards step to the entitled, patronising attitude that the country had during its colonial past: nothing is ever Britain's fault.
David Davis seems to summarise this mentality well: a monoglot who is incapable of understanding even the basics of his brief, or seeming to care. To him, Brexit all seems like a bit of a lark. As far as he sees it, Britain has already offered "compromises" (I struggle to think of any), and so the onus is on the EU to do the same. This attitude ignores the fact that the EU is simply following its own rules, as clearly laid out in statute in the Lisbon treaty. This has been explained several times already to Davis, who never seems to notice. The EU is not setting out to "punish" Britain; it is simply explaining the rules as they stand, and what is and isn't possible within that framework. But Britain's government wants the EU to ignore its own rules in order to indulge its wishes.
For some reason, Britain thinks it should be entitled to some kind of extra-legal cloud-cuckoo land where it gets "special treatment" from the rest of the world.

Expecting "special treatment" on one hand, while enacting a strategy of "divide and rule" on the other, Britain's government has simply slipped back into the lazy Imperialistic pretensions of a hundred years ago, but minus the Empire.
While the negotiations with the EU continue, the rest of the world (who Britain expects to have preferential trade agreements with) must look on with a mixture of bemusement and bafflement. If Britain can't even negotiate properly with its supposed "friends and allies", what chance has it got against anyone else?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Brexit and British pathology: the "three men in a pub" analogy

I've reached the stage where it feels as though Brexit is government policy organised by three drunk guys in a pub.

If you've ever been in a pub during a week-day afternoon, when it is more likely to be populated by problem drinkers, you might recognise the analogy. After a few drinks, conversation inevitably descends to a few core topics, that all revolve around the issue of culture: sport, identity and history.

When not talking about football, rugby or cricket (depending on the men's background), conversation drifts to broader cultural issues: things like immigration, cultural assimilation of said foreigners, how the face of Britain has changed over the years, and so on. Linked issues like gender identity may get a look-in on the conversation. Of course, politics also runs through all of this as well, as issues of cultural identity also raise issues like Britain's wider place in the world. In short, the narrative can gradually devolve to one of men feeling dis-empowered in the modern age; somehow emasculated, and that a sense of Britain's decline is tied in with their own sense of losing pride in their male identity. Men together, after a few drinks, love talking about themselves, but always in a wider context of their sense of identity and culture. Things that they would never say when sober they feel free to say when drunk, as if their inner id has been unleashed.
This is one of the reasons that British male culture (or pathology) is so schizophrenic - they feel restrained by the wider culture into a certain type of taciturn modesty in everyday life, which then results in a kind of repressed "inner demon" being unleashed when drunk. It also explains the propensity for drunken violence so common on British streets after dark. This "pathology" is something I want to explore in more detail.

"Take Back Control"

This may all sound familiar (hopefully, it does). The "culture wars" that seem to have been unleashed by the forces behind Brexit are the same ones that are behind the wider rise of Populism, and the ugly undercurrent that is somehow "rehabilitating" the politics of Fascism. In a different context, the same could well be said for the rise of Islamic extremism.
Ultimately, it can be argued it boils down to a "loss of masculinity", for what these events all share is a primal desire for "men to be men". The rise of women's rights, the disruptive effects of globalisation and then the financial crisis all accumulated the core issue of loss of power. What this means in a British context (for that is the focus of this article) is about "taking back control", epitomised in the brilliantly-concise and innately-primal slogan of the "Brexiteers". This explains one part of why Britain chose to leave the EU. Apart from the wider cultural context (more on that later), the "Brexiteers" in government knew how to manipulate the "pathology" of the British psyche to make the referendum seem a question of British freedom versus European dictatorship. If we classify "culture" as meaning "history plus identity", we can begin to see how the "three men in a pub" analogy is something ingrained into the British psyche. It's no wonder that part of Nigel Farage's appeal was the constant association of him with a pint in his hand, thus subconsciously putting him on the side of the "man in the street" (or the pub). In a different way, Boris Johnson, as one of the leading "Brexiteers" in government, was able to inject his own brand of charisma into the referendum campaign, thus ensuring that the side for leaving the EU had all the most easily-identifiable personalities.

It was emotional appeals that won the day, rather than rational argument. Like how the "man in the pub" can never be rationally argued against without provoking violence, the arguments of those in favour of the EU were never going to win over the "Brexiteer" ideas that were all about "pie in the sky" thinking. There was never one moment when the arguments for leaving the EU were decisively shot down, because, in a way, there were no real arguments for leaving; there were only "beliefs". In the same way that an atheist can never truly win argument against faith (because it misses the point), Brexit is a faith-based ideology that requires a suspension of disbelief. We'll look at some of those "beliefs" below.

"This sceptred isle"

Part of the identity issues mentioned earlier naturally come down to national history shaping the national psyche. The obvious fact that Britain is an island plays a fundamental part to that, which leads to two well-understood "truths": a) that Britain hasn't been invaded for a thousand years, and b) that we have historically been apart from continental Europe.

Britain's role in the Second World War is still, seventy years on, an integral part of the national psyche. For the "three men in the pub", this is what our national identity is all about, and fundamentally shapes our relationship with Europe. The fact that the country wasn't invaded during that war (as well as Dunkirk - more on that later  - "the plucky underdog") emotionally stands for a lot to "the man in the pub". It infers that Britain is different (i.e. "special"). This lends itself to a complacency about life in the modern world; that because Britain was able to stand apart and free in the Second World War, suggests we'd be able to do the same again today. Because Britain was a victor of both World Wars, it infers that we'd be a victor in the world again today. The fact that all this was possible through a combination of luck, happenstance and outside factors is ignored. In a sense, Britain's experience of war in the 20th century was cosmetic compared to that experienced on the continent.
In the industrial era, Britain never experienced mass displacement of refugees, entire cities levelled, or real starvation. It has never experienced a real "national humiliation", like many nations of Europe have. It has never experienced Fascism first-hand, either. It is this "luck" that the "man in the pub" confuses with "destiny", and therefore adds to the complacency that supports his "pie in the sky" assertions over Brexit, as well as his faith that Fascism could have never happened in Britain anyway.
To take a more recent example of this complacency, Britain winning the Falklands War was, to a large extent, pure luck. If Britain had lost that war (which was always likely), the sense of national humiliation would have been profound. The Thatcher government wouldn't have lasted long, and Britain's national psyche would have been shattered. But we won, and so Britain's belief in its own indestructibility continued to the present day. A "Hard Brexit" would be a real test of that indestructibility.

Likewise, the fact that Britain's success as a nation came about through world empire rather than entanglements in Europe is another part of the narrative for "the man in the pub". Even the term "Brexiteer" sounds vaguely romantic, like the word "buccaneer", evoking the travails of Britain (or more exactly, England) as a vibrant, sea-faring nation of the world. This goes back to the time before Britain's involvement in continental wars of the 18th and 19th centuries, while looking at more recent centuries, evokes instead the successes of the empire. Put in this light, Europe's closeness to Britain feels almost incidental to its history.
More generally, historians understand that Britain's relationship with Europe is complex. While in general Britain's role on the continent was often as a semi-detached observer, it has had a part to play in Europe for centuries, even if only for the self-interested reason of maintaining the balance of power. This is exactly one reason why Britain joined the EU in the first place: to maintain its influence on the major players from inside the club, rather than as an impotent outside observer. But Brexit relegates us to exactly that role, if not worse: by our actions turning ourselves into a "troublesome neighbour". Again, the "man in the pub" is not interested in the wider picture or the more strategic outcome: he is only interested in defending his narrow sense of self.

"The plucky underdog"

As mentioned earlier, there is also an element of the "Dunkirk spirit" to the British pathology and Brexit. For some reason, British psychology is to "stick up for the underdog", which is also an integral part of our sporting culture. Wars that the country has been involved with have often had an element of needing to side with the "bullied" underling in the conflict. The most glaring modern example was being on the side of Serbia against Austria in the First World War (although Serbia was the clear aggressor in being a state sponsor of terrorism against Austria), while it was Germany's invasion of Belgium (as a path to attacking France) that was the ultimate trigger for British involvement.
This strong sense of a "moral code" and right from wrong is a part of British psyche. One reason why many British people still seem set on their course to leave the EU come what may is due to this feeling that to back out would "betray" the point of the vote. No argument can be reasonably put against this belief, as it is exactly that: a "belief". The vote was cast, we are leaving, and that is that. To backtrack on that would be anathema.
Another part of British pathology is the celebration of the "glorious failure". Going back to Serbia, this nation is one glaring example of how "glorious failure" can utterly dominate its pathology. Defeat of the Serbs by the Ottoman Turks in 1389 at the Battle Of Kosovo was given a moment of glory when one of the battle's last acts was the death of the victorious Sultan. Thus although Serbia was defeated, it went down fighting in glory. And this is what led the Serbia's emotional attachment to Kosovo, and all the bloodshed there in the late 1990s.
Dunkirk was a famous example of Britain's "glorious failure", and it is that "Dunkirk spirit" that has shaped the narrative around Brexit. It may be difficult, the "Brexiteers" admit, but it will be glorious. It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees, they might say.

This kind of emotional hyperbole is typical of "the man in the pub".

"Make do and mend"

"It will be fine" Boris said reassuringly about Brexit during the campaign.

Again conjuring Second World War symbolism, the "Brexiteers" conjure up Britain's past in order to describe its future. The misty-eyed perspective of "the man in the pub" looks back fondly to his youth and the "oldern days", and looks at the grim reality that it was through rose-tinted spectacles. Because Britain has a culture of "making do", it implies that even if Brexit is a disaster, people will get by and manage, just as they did during the war.
Sometimes it feels as thought everything about Brexit somehow relates to how things were "during the war". The feeling that people might somehow benefit from "lean times" also explains how many people were once highly-supportive of austerity, as though there is some innate virtue in self-deprivation.
This is another aspect of British pathology that is hard to get to grips with, or to understand its origins. Could it have its cultural roots in the "Puritan revolution", now given a second breath of life as Brexit? Going back to the masculine analogy of earlier, Brexit is also seen emotionally as a way to make people "toughen up" after having softened from years of the good life and European luxuries. It is this line of thought that leans unfavourably into the realm of Fascist ideology. Given long enough, and the drunken conversation of "three guys in a pub" will enter into realms such as "survival of the fittest", cutting away society's dead flesh by one means or another, and the restoration of the death penalty.

This is the real "Brexit Agenda": the drunken fantasies of boorish louts.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Asperger's Syndrome: "Aspies", social behaviour and relationships

Asperger's Syndrome is a complex condition that affects how an individual interacts with and perceives the world. In layman's terms, it makes the person's brain work and think differently from others (who are "Neuro-Typical").
In this post I want to focus on how people with Asperger's Syndrome (or "aspies" for short) deal with relationships with others, in particular personal relations.

Like with some other conditions, Asperger's Syndrome can be measured on a scale, which is why there are tests for such a purpose. But this also means that there can be a wide variation in the "acuteness" of the condition, and how it portrays itself. At the far end of the scale, those with the most pronounced form of this condition are most likely to find everyday life a struggle and may well never have regular employment. At the "milder" end of the scale, those "Aspies" may well not even realise that there is anything that unusual about themselves, especially if they have a successful career in a profession they enjoy: in this case, it may well be that others will observe the individual as being somewhat "eccentric", but think little more of it.
This is why it is rare to find two "Aspies" that are exactly alike: while many aspects of behaviour may be the same, the way it portrays itself can vary tremendously, being as unique from one individual to the next. One key behaviour common among "Aspies" is a focus on special interests; but what those interests are depends on the person.

"Aspies" are typically socially-awkward and introverted, and are averse to social gatherings. They lack the social cues that most ordinary people have by instinct, thus making them often appear rude, self-centred and tactless to outsiders. For this reason, they have been compared (falsely) with narcissists, who also portray many of the same traits in their interactions with others. The key difference is that people with Asperger's Syndrome do not behave like this out of choice - it is because they inherently lack the social cues that make them unable to do things differently. A narcissist, by contrast, behaves in this way simply because he doesn't care - he lacks empathy; "Aspies" care deeply about the world around them, but are often unable to demonstrate it in an easily-accessible form. "Aspies" do not lack empathy; they simply lack the right behaviours to suitably show it. For instance, many "Aspies", if admonished for appearing to lack social affect, may be genuinely horrified by the negative effect of their actions on others, and will quickly seek to make things right. They do not seek to cause offence intentionally; they simply see things in a different way, and see it as their moral duty to explain this.

In short, "Aspies" find social interactions and relationships hard work. Because they inherently lack the social cues necessary (i.e. their brains "work differently"), they often don't know what to say, what to do, or how to react in social situations. "Small talk" and keeping a conversation flowing naturally is something they can find exhausting; partly because they lack the ability, and partly also due to the "logical" aspect to their thinking - if the conversation lacks a "purpose", they may fail to see the point of it.
It is for this reason that, from childhood, they find it difficult to make friends; what friends they may make could be limited to small number of close companions, and those friends could well be soul-mates in the same bind as themselves, or more soulful children who take kindly to their awkward (but well-meant) behaviour.
The flip side to this social awkwardness is that, in childhood, they are much more likely than other children to be bullied for their "odd" behaviour. While there are those children who might make "aspies" under their wing (so to speak), there are those that will seek to make fun of them. This is where the frustration that "aspies" feel in social interaction can turn to anger: this anger may well them be "internalised" in the form of depression and self-seclusion from others. In a world where social interactions seem so difficult and hurtful, the "aspie" child may see the only safe option is to refuse to interact. This is a natural reaction, but also one that would reinforce the negative perspective that the child with Asperger's Syndrome already has to interactions with others: his interactions with others are bad, therefore people must be bad. This is the self-destructive cycle that this can lead to, if allowed to fester.

This "self-destructive cycle" is a manifestation of some of the kind of glaringly-negative headlines that have been seen about "Asperger's Syndrome" in the news: the cases of  "aspie" stalkers, or worse, that have made their victim's lives a living hell. But these cases are self-evidently extreme cases, where any diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome is more likely incidental than an explanation. It is just as easy to find extreme cases of crime for "Neuro-typical" people.

As mentioned, "Aspies" tend to see the world "logically", and so see the purpose of conversation in a similarly-logical manner. On the one hand, they will say what is needed to be said, and often not much more. They will answer a question, but volunteer little more if they see no point to it. They will follow an instruction, but literally, without picking up any social inferences intended. They will find it difficult to know how to react to anything requiring a sudden emotional response. And as already explained, they will find "small talk" an ordeal, or any need to prolong a conversation into areas that they have little interest in.
But equally, when they want to know something, they will continue the line of inquiry until they have explored the subject to satisfaction. Due to how their brains are wired, "Aspies" are lovers of detail, whether it be spatially (e.g. in art or design), scientifically, or otherwise. They will ask questions about things they want to know about, sometimes to the point of incomprehensible detail. Likewise, any conversation on topics of their interest may turn into them going into the minutiae of the subject. For the listener, this may give the impression of having to listen to an excruciating bore.

For these reasons, relationships for "Aspies" can be as difficult for the other person as much as for the "aspie" themselves. As said earlier, "Aspies" have the same capability for empathy as anyone else; they simply demonstrate it in a different way. Due to their "logical" manner of thinking, intimate relationships might be pursued and maintained in a less-than-conventional way: "aspies" are unlikely to see the utility of "romance" or dating in the orthodox manner (partly because they lack the social skills).
If anything, a bonding relationship is more likely to come from the "Neuro-typical" partner's direction. Due to their socially-awkward nature, partners drawn to them may well see them almost as "lost puppies", who can sense the potential in their highly-moral centre, hidden under an eccentric personality. The "aspie" struggles to express his emotions to his partner, even though he will probably care about them deeply.
The key to making a relationship a success is understanding the nature of the condition, and finding methods that allow the "aspie" to express themselves easily. For example, it is about understanding that the "aspie" not regularly using those "three little words" wouldn't be because he doesn't feel them, but because he feels they shouldn't need to be said: if his affection for the partner has been stated once, it is meant to mean forever (😍). To reiterate what was implied before, when an "aspie" says something, it's because he means it! Although an "aspie" may well not always shower their partner with attention (and is likely to highly value - and need - their own space), when that attention is given, it means a great deal to them.

On that heart-warming note, we can say that although "aspies" can find relationships very hard work at times, they can also be all that more rewarding in the long-run, if there is proper understanding.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Brexit and The English Civil War: Populism versus "Papism"?

It could be argued that the seeds of Brexit go back five hundred years.

British Euroscepticism is an old creed which has usually been a mask for English Nationalism, of one sort or another. But at its heart is a paranoia against Europe, and a particular conspiracy theory that centres on an all-powerful, trans-national ("papist") elite.

The paranoiac, Eurosceptic conspiracy theorists of today (i.e. the zealot "Brexiteers") seem to echo with the same kind of dark delusions as those of 16th and 17th century England. The same could well be said of the ancient roots of modern Anti-Semitism, but that's another story.
The Reformation of Martin Luther five hundred years ago was in many ways about "taking back control" from a over-mighty, corrupt and centralizing elite, based in Rome. This movement also crossed the channel to England. It was the personal whims of Henry VIII rather than Martin Luther that eventually brought about the "English Reformation", and he came to see the power of the papacy in England as a direct threat to his own. One direct result of this was the dissolution of the monasteries, an act of barbarous, monarchical thievery masked behind faith. The febrile atmosphere in the country led to Protestant paranoia against Rome and its ally, Hapsburg Spain, and by the reign of Elizabeth, war.

By the time the Stuart kings came to the throne in the first half of the 17th century, Protestant paranoia had to be tamed. "Splendid Isolation" was also self-destructive. This resulted in a more nuanced and pragmatic approach by the Stuarts towards Catholic Spain and the "Papist" threat; it was a period of  English "detente" towards Europe, where relations were improved and connections made. This went so far as leaving some English Protestants into thinking that James, and Charles in particular, were Papists in all but name. Their autocratic actions also fed the view that the Stuart kings were behaving far more like the Papist autocrats on the Continent than the more consensual rulers they had been led to believe in (regardless of the past reality of Henry VIII's reign).
It was this atmosphere of Protestant paranoia over a "Papist", foreign-minded king that led to the English Civil War. The king's forces, the Cavaliers, were seen as foppish, condescending autocrats, while parliament's forces, the Roundheads, were portrayed as sober-minded reformers. The resulting "Commonwealth" of the victorious Roundheads, however, rapidly turned into a virtual Puritan revolution. While the purpose of the Civil war was the restoration of parliament, it actually turned into the autocracy of Oliver Cromwell and his fellow Puritan Protestants where parliament was sidelined; a hard-line faction of parliament had taken control of the country and hijacked its fate. In the end, this situation couldn't last, and we had the Restoration not long after Cromwell's death.

The "new Puritanism"?

We seem to be repeating a variation on the same story centuries later.

Four hundred years ago, while Protestants in England were becoming fed up with James' indulgence of Hapsburg Spain, the seeds were also sown for the Thirty Years' War. This saw Hapsburg (and fellow-Papist) Austria fight against Protestants across the Holy Roman Empire. This Protestant "insurgency" against a centralizing autocracy devastated the heart of Europe.
Ironically, the Hapsburgs also had a part to play in Europe's coming-together after the Second World War. The Treaty Of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years' War and created a peace in Europe that lasted for generations; The Treaty of Rome created the framework for European peace and co-operation after the Second World war.
The Eurosceptics of today wouldn't have missed the historical irony (or implicit symbolism) of the framework for a centralised, European administration being signed in Rome. For the paranoid conspiracy theorists, the whole thing reeked of centuries-old autocratic "Papism", re-imagined in a modern setting. For the paranoid conspiracy theorists, Hapsburg hands even seemed be on the choice of Brussels (and Strasbourg) as its administrative centres; both cities that once were at the heart of "Papist" Austrian and Spanish Hapsburg lands. Belgium is still staunchly Catholic. Eurosceptics' paranoia that the European Union was simply a reconstituted Holy Roman Empire assailed against "democratizing" Protestantism would have been undimmed.
My point is not to argue if these ideas are based in fact (and regardless of any wider symbolism, European integration is a well-established fact); it is that these ideas have been used by paranoid Eurosceptics for the purpose of their own agenda. That agenda seems to be a form of economic and ideological "Puritanism": a kind of 21st century "Commonwealth", with all the potential upheaval that entails.

As with Protestants' suspicion of the allegiance of the Stuart kings of four hundred years ago, Eurosceptics of today would have had their paranoia fueled by the administrations of Blair and Cameron, who were both innately Euro-phile (and ironically, like James and Charles Stuart, both of Scottish stock). Like how Protestants of four hundred years ago would have yearned back to the times of the staunch Protestantism of Elizabeth, today's Eurosceptics yearn back to the certainties of the Thatcher era; another strong woman, they would say, who did not shy from battling Europe.
Like King James, Blair's fate seems to have been to repair relations with Europe, strained after years of quasi-isolation. He otherwise left a long legacy of mixed fortunes during his time in power. James's successor, Charles, took James' autocratic tendency even further, but with far less tact.
Cameron's political fate as the "heir to Blair", in a manner of speaking, also seemed to have gone the way of Charles'. Some of the historical parallels are striking. Foppish and condescending like Charles, Cameron's career at the top was a series of misjudgments. It was trouble with Scotland that started Charles' troubles with parliament in England; after recklessly thinking he had solved the trouble north of the border, Charles thought his troubles with parliament would as easily be solved. They were not, and neither were his troubles with Scotland. The same could be said of Cameron, when his "victory" over the Scottish referendum led him to think he could as easily solve the problem his own faction had with Europe. By acting in a condescending way towards his enemies and behaving like a reckless autocrat, Cameron's fate came to a messy political end.
After being defeated by the "Puritanical" Eurosceptic faction, Cameron was succeeded by Theresa May. The daughter of a vicar, she seemed to match the Brexit Puritans' demeanor for a mean-spirited, petty-minded form of government. In allowing a hostile political environment for the Eurosceptics' paranoia to grow unchecked, she seems to be continuing this inadvertent "reprise" of the mid-17th century narrative: as a female Cromwell, symbolic head of the Puritan "Brexit" revolution that sought to seek out and destroy the remaining vestiges of "Papist" Pro-Europeanism. For these modern Puritans, "Hard Brexit" is their version of the rapture, with their foreign-minded "Papist" enemies rightly deserving of their fate in the rhetorical flames.

The "Brexiteers" of today share the same paranoia towards the continent that the Protestant Puritans had four hundred years ago. The themes are the same, even if the European institutions they attack are different; once it was Rome that was the enemy, while now it is Brussels. As mentioned earlier, the sharper-eyed (and more conspiratorial) Eurosceptics may point to the symbolic "Papist connection" between Brussels and Rome.
Four hundred years ago, the Puritans' allies in Europe were to be found in the Lutheran states of Northern Europe, as they allied against Rome and its Hapsburg allies in Spain and Austria. Today, the "Brexiteers" find their allies in the Populist anti-European movements. These are ideological descendants to the anti-clerical Lutherans that fought against a centralizing Rome, except now their "centralizing" enemies are based in Brussels, with the support of Berlin and Paris.

This is the narrative that has overtaken Britain's politics. These are the "culture wars" that have been fought in the minds of Britain's population, on behalf of a "Puritan" Brexit agenda. The new "English Civil War" has already been fought in the form of the EU referendum: to continue the analogy, the foppish Pro-European "Cavaliers" lost, and the stern-minded Eurosceptic "Roundheads" won.

For the Brexit "Puritans", a new "Commonwealth" beckons; though what it means for everyone else, only time will tell.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Brexit: The Ultimate Blunder? How this is Theresa May's "Poll Tax"

The excellent book "The Blunders Of Our Governments" goes into great depth at how governments get things wrong, often with catastrophic results. The scale of the catastrophe just depends on the scale of the blunder.

One of the biggest (and most famous) "blunders" by any UK government in modern times was the Poll Tax. Looking at the sheer incompetence of how the government is managing its Brexit strategy, it's hard not to to draw parallels with how the Thatcher government blundered into a crisis entirely of its own making, and the current one. Some of the time scale over the issues - how it was a "slow burner" that gradually gained more and more inescapable momentum - also matches. To see how well the events of thirty years ago and today mirror each other, we'll have a look at the basics of what went wrong with the Poll Tax.

The idea of the Poll tax had its formation in the 1970s, thanks to think tanks that looked at "outside-of-the-box" solutions (mirroring what we see today with the government's Brexit strategy). The idea was one of a number of options at reforming "the rates", where council tax was paid only by those who owned property in the area. By early 1985, after the government had began its privatisation agenda, it looked in more detail at reforming local government and the system of "the rates", to make it equitable, so that everyone paid what was fair. In a famous meeting at Chequers, the Poll Tax was one of a few options put to the government, but by a series of interactions, some high-placed people in government saw the Poll Tax as the only true way to fully reform the system; all the other options seemed either unfair or meaningless half-measures. After a period of time, further discussions and discreet lobbying (also - looking at the practicality of the idea - from some in the civil service), it was in the end agreed that the only way for it to work was for a "big bang" implementation. In other words, having some kind of "transitional" arrangement was pointless and administratively confusing; much better to go straight from one system to the next, and iron out any potential glitches along the way. Those in government against all this (and there were a number of them) were silenced by the momentum that gradually built in favour of this radical reform; they were also quick to make their opposition well-known to others in government, to avoid any guilt by association.
Thus the Poll Tax was introduced through a combination of groupthink in government, as well as cultural disconnect. The problems (and the riots) are well-known. It now clear that the selfsame mistakes have took place with Brexit thirty years later, but now on a scale (and potential impact) many times greater.

Like with the Poll Tax, Brexit was a "slow-burner". Initially it was an issue with a small faction of the Conservative Party, some media hacks, editors and the like. But all these people had influence (and with that, gravitas) as well as money to back them up. Like with the Poll Tax, Brexit became an issue thanks to political events: where the Poll Tax came to be seen by Thatcher as a way to reform troublesome local councils, Brexit (or, at least, the initial offer of a referendum) came to be seen as way by Cameron to silence the hard-right in the party that were more ideological kin to UKIP. It took around five years (from the Chequers meeting in 1985 to it being implemented in 1990) for the Poll Tax to fully burst into life, warts and all. Brexit - if we call March 2019 its "implementation" - will have come to exist in the public sphere for a similar period, when the EU referendum was first promised by Cameron in early 2013. Like how the Poll Tax was ambushed on the rest of government, who were then hostages to its fate, Brexit made the same of Cameron, when the referendum made Brexit a reality. His successor, Theresa May, was then even more beholden to the hard-right ideologues in the party, even though she was not a fervent believer in the idea herself. As mentioned earlier with the Poll Tax, it was the desire for a "big bang", as well as the desire to make a radical reform, that led to the chaos of its implementation; the desire among some in government for a "Hard Brexit" without a transitional arrangement follows the same blinkered thinking that dismisses compromises such as staying in the EEA or EFTA as a "betrayal" of the cause. This stubbornness leaves the potential for heaven knows what kind of chaos to the UK economy come March 2019.

Once May succeeded Cameron as Prime Minister, Brexit took on a whole life of its own, like the Poll Tax did with the Thatcher government thirty years ago. Those who opposed the Poll Tax were seen as "wets" or lacking the boldness necessary for real reform; those now opposed to "Hard Brexit" are these days seen as "Remoaners" or saboteurs who are trying to undermine the government. This is the result of groupthink and cultural disconnect, as well as a deferential respect for those in authority, assuming that they must know what they are talking about . If anything, these issues are far worse this time around, given how high the stakes are. With the Poll Tax, those affected could (and many did) ignore their threatening letters from councils, which resulted in an eventual (partial) climb-down from the government; by contrast, the economy of the entire country is at stake thanks to the current "blunder", and the only way to escape it would be to flee abroad.

The Thatcher government had almost a "revolutionary" aura about it at times. Cameron's and May's government have been in some ways even more radical, and not in a good way. The desire for "reform" among the hard-right in government led to various ministers leading their departments as their own pet project. In a sense, Cameron's relaxed attitude to ministers pursuing their own agendas also led to scandal and scandal: the direct result of having an "experimental" government agenda.
This is what marks out the Conservative government of today as being different from earlier incarnations: whereas earlier governments took risks from time to time, the current government seem to actively encourage them. If you are not a risk-taker, it seems, then you lack the drive and radicalism necessary for the government's wider agenda. This kind of callous recklessness and shallow disregard for the wider consequences is unprecedented in any British government of modern times: it's almost as if they want things to fail. While some of it is down to the glaring incompetence of ministers, some of it can only be driven by the agenda of an amoral, manipulative few.

Thatcher's Poll Tax ultimately was a sign of the government losing the plot; it was only a change of Prime Minister, and a little luck, that allowed the Conservatives to stay in power for seven more years from its initial implementation disaster. A "Hard Brexit" would be a disaster on a scale a thousand times more disruptive; who knows what the political ramifications of that would be?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Brexit: the result of accumulated incompetence? Parallels with "Atlas Shrugged"

Following the government's strategy and "progress" with the Brexit negotiations, I was reminded of  the plot to Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" (the author wrote a series of articles on this novel's symbolism).

Ayn Rand's original working title to this mammoth novel was "The Strike". The premise behind the story being: what would happen if all the smartest people refused to work? So the story follows as, one by one, various stalwarts of industry and other brains of American society begin to disappear, as the government of the day slowly takes greater and greater control of the economy. The process becomes self-reinforcing as the government takes up more of the slack left behind as more and more of the "best and brightest" disappear from public life. In the end, left with an over-bearing government led by a mass of collective incompetence, accidents become commonplace as the country literally begins to fall apart. The "best and brightest" finally reappear to save the nation from itself when the government loses control of the situation completely. The reader is left with the implication that these "best and brightest" will then restore the country under a new system where the government is entirely absent from any role in the economy and the public sphere.

The story reads as an indictment on "government" as a whole, as an autocratic system which feeds incompetence and inefficiency; the opposite to how the private sector is meant to be ran. While I'm no fan of Ayn Rand, following the government's handling of Brexit, it's hard not to draw (ironic) parallels with their rank incompetence and descent into chaos, and that of the government portrayed in "Atlas Shrugged". In the same way as the "best and brightest" fled from their posts in light of the fictitious government's actions, the same seems to be true of various parts of industry in the UK during the Brexit process.
Most of industry warned during the referendum campaign that to leave the EU would be bad for the British economy; now that the government seems to be lurching towards leaving the EU with no deal at all, some giants of the economy are reminding the government in stark terms of their own economic interests. If the government pursues this course to leave with no deal in March 2019, they will be forced to make their own "contingency plans": put simply, they will up sticks and leave the sinking ship as quickly as possible. While the UK will leave the EU in March 2019, big business - and the financial sector in particular -  need clarity far sooner: no later than the end of this year, to give them time to make adequate preparations. Similarly, Britain's airline industry needs to know what the "deal" will be no later than March 2018, to make suitable preparations. The government's incompetence and incoherence has been given very short shrift, and will result in real consequences much more quickly than they think. The initial effects of Brexit on the economy may be only a few months away; a harbinger of what is to come.

Since the referendum, it also feels as though all those who supported "Remain" (i.e. much of the intelligentsia) have been quelled into silence by the febrile and menacing feel in the public sphere; like how many "captains of industry" are making contingency plans to flee with their assets, large parts of the intelligentsia have seem to have gone AWOL. It's no coincidence that some of those have also applied for (Irish) EU passports, perhaps to better enable their own flight after Brexit. While the intelligentsia have absented themselves from the discourse (perhaps seeing how impossible it is to reason with incompetents), the country descends into madness. It seems as though industry and the intelligentsia are getting their excuses in early, as if to say "we warned you; you didn't listen. It's not our fault".
The irony here is how the government's agenda is being guided by those who are huge supporters of Ayn Rand's ideology; it is almost as if they want the government to be led by incompetents (as in the plot of  "Atlas Shrugged") - to bring about the economy's collapse, and allow them to take over.

A failure of government

The EU can see how badly the country is being ran, and its strategy now with Theresa May seems almost one of pity. Unfortunately this seems as doomed to fail as any other strategy, for as much as May and her government completely misunderstand how the EU works, the EU seems to equally misunderstand how the Conservative Party works. The EU tries to "make nice" with May over the possibility of a deal (by - wrongly - thinking that this positive mood music will encourage May into making the necessary concessions); meanwhile, May is encouraged to see any sign of "flexibility" on the EU's part as a sign that they are willing to make concessions, so sees no need to give ground. So both sides seem to be feeding each other with false hopes of a deal, to encourage the other to make the kind of concessions which may well be politically impossible. Both sides are in a bind - a kind of "Gordian Knot" of epic proportions.
May may well go down as one of the worst Prime Ministers the country has ever known, certainly in modern times. Her personal characteristics seem to work against the process gaining any momentum at home. To begin with, she has autocratic tendencies, to the extent that any serious debate over the issues is knocked down. This has led to the extraordinary situation where there has been - now sixteen months on from the referendum, and nearly seven months on from invoking article 50 - still no proper debate in government about what its actual Brexit aims are. All that has been said so far is woolly rhetoric to paper over the vast differences in government. The EU doesn't know what the UK government wants because the UK government itself doesn't know what it wants. It is truly astonishing that May could trigger article 50 for the start of negotiations without her government having a clue what its final position was.
This is partly due to the weakness of May's position as well; even when her government had a majority, she was loathe to start a proper debate on Brexit that would lead to open differences in government. The result is that the open differences have surfaced anyway, because she has done nothing to diminish them. Now her government doesn't even have a majority, this has made those differences even more apparent, with the loudest voices from the "Hard Brexiteers" carrying the most sway. In the same way that the intelligentsia have largely gone AWOL in the country at large, in the Conservative Party, the most rational voices have been silenced by the headbangers. And while this goes on, Theresa May sits in Downing Street and does nothing, as she is too weak to act: a hostage to fortune.
It is May's position as a mere "caretaker" presiding over this chaos that fatally diminishes the prestige of the role of Prime Minister of the UK.

This all feels like the inevitable result of the gradual degradation of the quality of political discourse in Britain.
There was a time when politics was inhabited by people of intellect, with ideas and (some) moral standing. John Major may not have been an intellectual giant, but he at least seemed to possess an aura of integrity. Tony Blair may have had an ambiguous moral compass (e.g. Iraq), but at least he was smart, and improved the state of the nation overall. (Doctor) Gordon Brown may have had his flaws, but when the financial crisis happened, he did the right thing at the right time, by saving the economy from imminent implosion.
David Cameron was a sign of the things to come. He treated politics as a game, even to the point of playing with his country's own future. He thought he was smart, but he was merely "lucky"; until his luck ran out. He filled his cabinet with similar chancers like George Osborne, and the rest with people whose loyalty or affiliations were more important than their rank incompetence. Theresa May was so long-standing in her position as Home Secretary for the same reason.
It is this gradual but self-evident decline in the quality of Britain's politics that led to Brexit in the first place: it's what happens when the establishment is left to rule though passive compliance. UKIP's incoherent ideology was allowed to take over the political discourse; the result now is that the government has copied its core agenda almost in its entirety and it's treating our democratic institutions as a complete joke. The government now thinks that democracy is a system where you can ignore the opinions of the people you don't agree with; they think the judgments of experts can be ignored if they disagree with their own prejudices.

If you're not worried, you're not paying attention.

Monday, October 16, 2017

"Hard Brexit": why a "no deal" scenario is a descent to madness

In a previous posting, the author looked at the potentially-sinister motivations that some high-placed figures may have for leaving the EU without a deal (and no transition). This leans towards being a "conspiracy theory", and the reality is more complex, as explained in the article. However, it's also evident that one of the key reasons that a "Hard Brexit" is being seriously considered is because decision-makers in government have been persuaded that the effect will be minimal on the British economy. In other words, a "Hard Brexit" could happen simply because people in government don't understand what they're doing.
So let's have a reminder of what the situation truly is, and what would happen automatically if Britain has a "no deal" situation with the EU by 30 March 2019.

Into a hurricane without as much as an umbrella?

As mentioned in the highlighted article, Britain has been a part of the EU for forty-odd years, and in that time, almost every aspect of the British economy (and life in general) has become intertwined with the EU. In this respect, Eurosceptics' original complaint that Britain has over this time lost its sovereignty hold some water, at least at a technical level: one of the key principles is about transfers of powers. But the trade-off in "losing sovereignty" is the vast opportunities gained for wealth creation across the open borders.
The EU is a single market, but can also be called a "single economy", given how inter-connected the methods are. Companies across Europe rely on its seamless nature: products sold across the EU are made of constituents across various countries, for example. The same is true of British companies, whose companies sell products made of ingredients purchased across the various open borders. To have a "Hard Brexit" means to sever contact with that "single economy".
Leaving the EU means to null and void not only Britain's frictionless border with the EU, but also reverting to WTO conditions would automatically apply large tariffs on a whole slew of products sold to and bought from the EU. To not do this under WTO terms would result in legal consequences for Britain, making it effectively a trade law pariah to the rest of the world. These tariffs would result in large cost increases to all British companies that trade with the EU, meaning either much higher prices or these companies soon going bust. Due to the differing tariffs, some sectors would be hit much harder (and thus much more quickly) than others. And apart from that, there are the checks that the EU would automatically impose on all such products entering the EU from Britain as a "third country". This is where the talk of huge lorry parks in Dover and miles of tailbacks of trucks in Kent comes from, as all transit from outside the EU must be checked as standard, adding time and an administrative headache to the process of entering the EU, which is currently minimal. Again, these are further costs that would have to be factored in by British companies. Put in this way, it's easy to make the case that the British economy could quickly cease to function in the sense we understand today.

Apart from all this, talk of easily setting up trade with the rest of the world is also pie-in-the-sky thinking. Again, as Britain's relations with Europe are intertwined with the EU, so are many of Britain's foreign trade agreements across the world. Many of our foreign trade treaties are courtesy of our place in the EU trading bloc. Once we leave that, we also would revert to WTO rules with all those other nations in the world that had treaties with the EU (i.e. all the important ones).
There is also the problem of the "intellectual shortage" on trade. A recent story of when Liam Fox went to discuss trade with the USA highlighted how the trade negotiators that went with him had little real experience of trade negotiations. As these had all been done as part of the EU, Britain's people took a back seat, with little of a hands-on role. Again, this is due to Britain's role as part of the EU. As we had no need for a large number of trade negotiators when in the EU, it means we have very few now. So this means the government are looking to start trade talks with all the major economies in the world, with few properly-qualified trade negotiators of their own. This is like going to war without even checking that you have a functional army. This is just one example of many demonstrating how unprepared government is for the reality of a "no deal" Brexit, due to not appreciating how much British life has become reliant on our position within the EU.
The basic point is that, if we leave the EU without a deal, many of the treaties and agreements that Britain has signed with the EU and much of the rest of the world over the last forty-odd years will simply no longer apply to Britain. On a "no deal" Brexit, Britain, from a legalistic point of view, would have unilaterally decided to null and void its part in those agreements. Without anything else in their place, Britain would be starting from scratch its relations with not only the EU, but with much of the world. While it's possible that some of these could be restarted quickly, others might take much longer. And Britain doesn't even have that many qualified negotiators.

"The ends justify the means"

Apart from those who see this all as a prime opportunity to make money, there are those that see this in more esoteric terms: as a way to psychologically "reshape" the country.
There is a school of thought, in particular from some of the older generation, that life in the EU has somehow made younger Brits "soft". This thinking harks back to the "Dunkirk Spirit" and hardships endured during the Second World War. This accepts that a "no deal" Brexit would be very difficult on the country for a period of time, but this would also act as a motivation to transform for the better the nation in the long-run, by bringing people together in a better sense of community through adversity.
This is really just another angle on the same agenda as the vulture capitalists, but seen from a social, rather than economic, perspective.
This kind of nonsense thinking is dangerous to the debate over Brexit, as it confuses the motivations of those behind it. It makes Brexit seem as a method to socially transform Britain (i.e. social engineering), and that "the ends justify the means". The advocates of this kind of social aspect to Brexit seem to argue that destroying the economy will be good for society in the long run. It's hard to know what to call this line of thought rationally, except for something dangerously-akin to Fascism. It suggests a radical "purge" of society's indolent and inefficient elements, to something more streamlined.

As a reminder of why this could be called "Fascism" by another name, let's think back to the methods and justifications used by authoritarian regimes. The rationalism for many authoritarian regimes' policies was the ultimate idea that it was for the betterment of society. Yes, they said, some people would suffer, but it would work out better for everyone: no pain, no gain. In a different manner, the neo-liberals in the Conservative Party who support Brexit, also see it in esoteric terms: to transform the nation through tumultuous revolution and return to its lost roots. It will be hard on their countrymen, but they have their best interests at heart! This logic they gained from Ayn Rand and her praise of the "Social Darwinism" of the pure free market. The methods they are using to reach their goal, however, are ultimately anti-democratic: it is the subversion of the democratic process to achieve their own radical vision of society. This manipulation of the institutions of government is what makes them akin to authoritarians; their use of esoteric language in describing their aims is what makes their rhetoric so worryingly-similar to Fascism.
In the present day, no-one in politics uses the word "Fascism" to describe what they are doing, for obvious reasons; this is why the use of euphemisms and esoteric language come in to play instead. But the end result may well be the same.

This is the "descent to madness" that we are seeing at the highest levels of government. Rationalism  has been replaced by esoteric thinking. When people in government can say "we've had enough with experts" the only logical destination to this is government ran on emotions and prejudice rather than judgement and facts. This is the real descent to madness.