Saturday, May 6, 2017

Brexit, nationalism and fall of UKIP: a new realignment in British politics?

The results from the local elections have told us a number of things, but perhaps the most important one is that the decision for Theresa May to turn the Conservative Party rhetorically rightwards into UKIP territory has paid off.

That this was a coldly-calculated political decision there can be no mistake; the signs were there in the fiery rhetoric of the Conservative Party conference last autumn. Once the vote had happened, Theresa May decided that she was going to "own" Brexit, with the hope that UKIP supporters would therefore transfer to the Tories, giving them an unassailable advantage over Labour. And this is infact what has happened. On top of the weakness of the Labour leadership itself, the effect of the UKIP vote effectively transferring to the Tories means we are in a whole new political ball park (more on that below).
For Labour, this is another mortal blow. After the Scottish referendum effectively killed off their party's historic dominance north of the border, the EU referendum has brought another blow all across England, leaving them with few "heartlands" left. If anything, Labour has come to represent parts of what its critics call the "urban liberal demographic" (what has also been called "Remainia" as opposed to Tory-held "Brexitland"); however this leaves them fighting over a segment of the vote also divided between the Libdems and the Greens, with the Conservatives now seen as fully representing the interests of "Brexit". In this way, the demographic split between these two ("Remainia" and "Brexitland") could as easily be seen as an updating of the classic conflict that pits "city versus country" and "rich versus poor".

How The UK became like Turkey

Political parallels are always inexact, but nonetheless can be useful. The author has been an observer of Turkish affairs for more than ten years, after having lived there in the past.
Before the rise of the Islamist AKP fifteen years ago, religion was kept strictly out of politics, following in the Turkish republic's secular constitution and traditions. Apart from a brief period in the 1990s, religious parties in Turkey had never been able to achieve power, or anything close to it: simply, the issue of religion was in effect politically off the table.
Turkish politics had always traditionally been dominated by either the CHP (the vaguely left-leaning party of the republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal "Ataturk"), or by a right-leaning party (these changed over the years, but the politics was generally consistently conservative). This left no real room for religion to enter the debate.
This changed when there was an inflationary, financial crisis in Turkey in the late 1990s, which ended up tarring the main secular parties with the charge of corruption and incompetence. The AKP, a newly-established Islamist party, took advantage of this by appealing to moderates (both secularists as well as Islamists) who wanted a change. They also played down their Islamist credentials.

We now know what happened afterwards: Turkey has been ruled by the AKP for the last fourteen years, and looks destined to be ruled by it for the foreseeable future. Why? Because by the introduction of a new dynamic into the mix, politics became unrecognisable: the "old" secular parties became old hat, and their natural electoral base became sidelined by the agenda of the more dominant Islamists. Because the AKP were the only party seen to represent the interests of Islamists (i.e. they "owned" the brand), it meant the AKP could rely on a consistent "base" that would vote for it regardless of how extreme it appeared to the rest of society, or to outsiders. The rhetoric has become more and more extreme as the tendencies of the government became gradually more openly authoritarian. Meanwhile the opposing secular parties remained divided and impotent. The vote for the secular parties have thus been restricted to the relatively-affluent, more liberal urban areas of the country; like in the UK, where the Labour/ LibDem vote has remained more robust in places like London and Manchester, while it has retreated everywhere else.

"Brexit" seems to have had a similarly-radical effect on British politics as what happened to Turkey. The issue of "Europe" had never been something high up in the minds of the British electorate. This began to change slowly, and then seemed to suddenly be taken advantage of by UKIP after the years of the financial crisis and the first difficult years of the Coalition government.
It was the fateful decision of David Cameron to go ahead with the EU referendum that set the ball rolling, to destroy his career.
By opening the issue of "Europe" to the electorate (in effect, "confecting" a political fissure from a previously-unchallenged orthodoxy), it gave all the advantage to UKIP and the Eurosceptics in Cameron's own party.  Like how secularism in Turkey was a previously unchallenged statement of fact, then turned on its head by the AKP, the issue of Britain's position in Europe had been a long-unchallenged fact, turned on its head by the decision to have the EU referendum. This gave an in-built advantage to the "Leave" camp: whatever the problem was, "Europe" was the cause of it. This was how they managed to turn the EU referendum into a vote about everything that people were unhappy with - whatever you were unhappy with, it was Europe's fault! In the febrile atmosphere of Britain in the years following the financial crisis, like in the years of Turkey's inflationary crisis that preceded the AKP's success, it gave an advantage to "outsider" movements, and an excuse for people to vote against the political orthodoxy.

The comparison with Turkey here becomes muddied, because unlike in Turkey where the AKP took advantage of the Islamist vote, UKIP were not the ultimate beneficiaries of winning the EU referendum.
And this shows us something of the chameleon-like nature of the Conservative Party, which never misses an opportunity to cement power. By Theresa May's calculated decision to fully embrace the cause that was UKIP's raison d-etre, she had effectively turned the Conservative Party into UKIP. UKIP no longer had any reason to exist.

In this way, by re-aligning the Conservative Party (i.e. the party of "the establishment") to quickly take full control of this new "fissure" in British politics, it has left the other parties looking out-of-date and moribund. In the same way that the secular parties in Turkey now represent a segment of the electorate that can never have a realistic chance of power, the same could be said of the "pro-European" parties in the UK, at least for the foreseeable future.

Both Turkish politics, and now British politics, have experienced events that have seismically-changed the electoral landscape, but the beneficiaries have been different in each case. In Turkey, the rise of Islamism was partly due to an inflationary crisis that damaged its traditional parties, which have not been able to recover since. In Britain, however, the Conservative Party, after initially being a "victim" of UKIP over the issue of Europe, then took advantage of its own fractured situation to copy UKIP's agenda post facto, leaving it as the "master" of the new political reality. As with the AKP, "moderates" in the Conservative Party had nowhere else to go politically, even as its rhetoric became more and more extreme. The Conservatives now have both the nationalist votes from UKIP over "Brexit", as well as the tribal loyalty of their traditional party supporters, who could never bring themselves to leave: the "moderates" are effectively hostages to the extremist agenda that has been thrust upon them by an opportunistic few.

We have already seen a sign of things to come, from Theresa May's hostile and paranoid rhetoric towards Europe, and her authoritarian tendencies at home, to see where this kind of ugly nationalism could take Britain in the coming years.

This is the other similarity that The UK now shares with Turkey: that Theresa May appears to be copying the nationalist authoritarian rhetoric of Turkey's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the same way that Erdogan's regime has brought about a new sense of Turkish identity that has been called "Neo-Ottomanism", it appears that Theresa May's strategy is turn the country's self-imposed isolation from Europe into some kind of "renaissance".
This would have Britain (or more exactly, England) hark back to a time when Britain was isolated against a hostile Continent, reviving the jingoism of the Second World War. The difference now, of course, is that Britain's isolation is a self-inflicted wound, when the rest of Europe sees us as the "bad guy" by wanting to wrangle our way out of previously-made financial commitments, and wanting to have our cake and eat it. In other words, in some quarters Britain is now seen as something of a bad joke. At the same time, much of the rest of the world sees Britain's choice on "Brexit" as an opportunity to take advantage of its self-inflicted weakness. Meanwhile, the self-inflicted hardships to come can be blamed on "Europe" and scheming outsiders; and like other authoritarian leaders, using a cult of national solidarity and sacrifice (in Britain's case, what's called "the spirit of the Blitz") at home to quell opposition.
Like Erdogan, May and her supporters paper over this weakness with a resurgence in rose-tinted nationalism, which turns to hostile paranoia when concerning outsiders and opponents at home. Erdogan's foreign policy engagement with the Middle East (a re-kindling of historic Ottoman ties) may be seen as a potential inspiration for Theresa May's administration to want to re-kindle former Imperial attachments.
In this way, "Brexit" can be seen by the government as Britain's way to find its own form of "Neo-Ottomanism" from the wreckage of its Imperial influence.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Brexit, The Conservative Party and Theresa May: using Orwellian language and tactics

The author has recently been re-reading Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-four". Apart from the brilliant insights into human psychology and politics, it's now hard not to be struck by how much of what Orwell was warning us about (such as the insidious use of language) is actually used - quite openly - by our political masters.
In one respect, the book represents an astute warning; in another (and in the wrong hands) of course, it may represent more of an authoritarian "manual".

Orwell's influence on British culture has been massive over the decades; his language has permeated many aspects of popular (and political) culture. What is striking, though, is how his insights in language and politics have been used by some modern-day strategists almost as a template to follow, as we shall see below...

"He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future"

Today this is called creating a "false narrative". Orwell's insights here go back to how, for example, the Nazis propagated the myth of Germany being "stabbed in the back". The Soviets, at a whole new level, had people literally "airbrushed" out of existence.

Orwell saw this tendency, as he demonstrated in "Nineteen Eighty-four". In the story, the all-powerful "Party" re-wrote history and talked about the time "before the Revolution" as one of chaos and exploitation; the protagonist, Winston Smith, made the observation that half the population didn't remember, and the other half weren't even born. This was what made the job of falsifying history easier.

In Britain, the "false narrative" has been used by the Conservative Party (by whoever has been in charge) to denigrate the record of the Labour Party. Most commonly, it has used "The 1970s" to represent a time of chaos, inefficiency and mass unemployment, so that any attempt by Labour to make economic or social reforms is seen as taking the country "back to the 1970s".
The convenience here is that anyone over the age of, say forty-five, has no real memory of what the 1970s were like; so for all intents and purposes, the Conservatives may as well be correct in their assessment. The younger generation have no real way of knowing, while even the older generation's memories have probably also fogged over time. Conservative strategists are well aware of this, and this "mythologizing" is an essential part of the repeated message: things are better now; things were worse before.
(That being said, when appropriate, the reverse can also be true: regarding the EU, in order for the "Brexit narrative" to make sense, it must be seen that Britain was a success before it entered the then-EEC, regardless of the reality i.e. that Britain entered the EEC precisely because Britain was weak. In this narrative, it was the EEC - and its successor the EU - that made Britain weaker and more inefficient, and so on. This "false narrative" about Britain and Europe was one of the many reasons people voted for Brexit)

But in the UK, this use of "false narrative" has become even more brazen in recent years. The financial crisis is a very recent event, which happened less than ten years ago. In the same way that Margaret Thatcher blamed Labour for the problems that occurred in the 1970s (when she was actually part of the Conservative government during that very time), David Cameron was blaming Labour for the financial crisis of 2008. This is a little like Stanley Baldwin blaming Ramsey McDonald, the then British Prime Minister, for the Wall Street Crash. It's a nonsensical position.

Labour did not "cause" the financial crisis through massive government overspending, as the Conservatives' "false narrative" claims; if anything, it was guilty of loosening regulations on the banks to the point where banks took ridiculous risks, like in 1929. The Conservatives at the time were, in fact, saying there were too many regulations on banks prior to the financial crisis. They were also matching Labour's spending plans. But the "false narrative" put all that right.
But as we have seen, people's memories quickly fog over, making people want to believe what they're being told; after all, if it's a simple message, it's easier to remember. You can then forget what you "thought" you remembered.

"Who wields power is not important, provided that the hierarchical structure remains always the same"

The above quote describes the organising system of the all-powerful "Party" in Orwell's dystopian novel, "Nineteen Eighty-four".
In the UK, the term used for "who wields power" is often referred to as "the establishment". This term can be applied to any person or institution that supports the ruling status quo. In this way, "the establishment" is not reliant on one person, or even on a small group of people, but is supported more as a system of beliefs and traditions, like a self-contained "culture". In order for this culture to survive in Britain as long as it has, it cannot remain too exclusive or inflexible: it must remain as a marker of prestige for those who wish to obtain power, but the conditions for entry must be seen to be transparent. For this reason, while entry into "the establishment" is often about family and connections, in theory entry can also be attained through the correct educational background. This element of amorphousness is what has kept "the establishment" in its inviolate position as the pinnacle of Britain's social hierarchy.
It is true that in recent years various scandals have tarnished its image, but the all-encompassing nature of its influence has meant that these can be brushed under the carpet or ultimately dismissed as the actions of "a few bad apples" rather than a symptom of the nature of its organisation. In any case, large parts of the media are ran by people who also buy into its "culture".

The Conservative Party is the accepted political wing of "the establishment": anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves. Progression through the ranks of the party should thus be considered in the same way as that as entry into the "establishment": having the right connections and education is essential.
The Conservative Party thus exists as the enabling arm of the "establishment's" interests; the "public face", if you like. The establishment surrendered the democratic franchise in nineteenth century, mainly as a way to prevent the threat of revolution from the masses. From the period after the Second World War to the end of 1970s (i.e. a period of about thirty-five years), the establishment surrendered large areas of the economy to government control, again mainly as a way to go with the prevailing orthodoxy at the time; it had already done so under wartime conditions, and the then-popularity of "Social Democracy" meant it was politically expedient to do so. As we have already mentioned, the 1970s were then used as an opportunity to "re-align" the political orthodoxy away from "Social Democracy" and back towards what might be called "establishment control", which existed in greater purity before the onset of the Second World War.

Since then, as we have seen, a "false narrative" has been created propagating the myths already described. What hasn't been mentioned yet is the necessity for inequality for the hierarchy to remain powerful: this was something that Orwell was well aware of, as he discussed in "Nineteen Eighty-four".
By the end of the 1970s, the level of inequality in the UK was the lowest ever recorded (another fact that has been conveniently "forgotten"). This sent some in "the establishment" into paroxysms of fury, as it came at their expense, and indirectly threatened their status. What was needed was a movement that was both pro-inequality and yet also seen as pro-worker...

"The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and believing both of them"

Called "Doublethink", this is in evidence everywhere. Another word for it might be a "logical contradiction": such as using seemingly illogical arguments to justify a belief.
One example of this is so-called "trickle-down" theory, used by Neo-Liberals in the Conservative Party since the 1970s: this is the idea that by making conditions for the wealthy easier (such as reducing their taxes) this somehow also makes things better for the poor i.e. that the extra wealth available to the rich "trickles down" to the poor through the rich using their extra wealth to invest more and thus create more jobs. The problem is, it's just a theory: there's no actual evidence it's true.
It's not even clear that those in the hierarchy of "the establishment" truly believe it either, but it certainly provides them with a seemingly "altruistic" explanation they can give to the masses for their self-interested actions.
Another example of this is how George Osborne grabbed for the Conservatives the mantle of "the party of the workers"; rhetoric that has been continued by Theresa May. Using the same logic as that of "trickle-down theory", the Conservative Party - the party of "the establishment" - claim to represent the interests of workers because they are interested in a strong economy that "lifts all boats". But the reality is that the kind of economy the Conservatives advocate is one where seemingly high employment is achieved through a highly-insecure, low-paid workforce living on the bread line.

As said by Orwell, it is "a vast system of mental cheating". Those in the higher echelons of this hierarchy have no illusions about what they are doing: they are defending their own interests in the best way they can, by making black seem as white.
While those higher up are under no illusions, those lower down have to be able to convincingly spread this "Doublethink". In "Nineteen Eighty-four", Orwell described how many "Lower Party" members had a kind of "saving stupidity" that enabled them to believe two mutually incompatible beliefs without any difficulty. You can sometimes witness this with some of the less intelligent (but no less dumbly-loyal) members of the Conservative Party: from the "nice-but-dim" activist types, to even members of the government, who get can intensely flustered and confused when their nonsensical contradictions are pointed out by more astute opponents. Those that are able to repeat these contradictions convincingly when challenged, or even better, make their more astute opponents seem like idiots for not understanding nonsensical party policy, are the most valuable to the cause.

"The prevailing mental condition must be controlled insanity"

Continuing from the theme of "Doublethink", this strategy has also been applied to the opposition, in particular the Labour Party, where they are derided as a joke, but also deeply feared as a mortal threat.
This was a theme that Orwell again touched on in "Nineteen Eighty-four", in his portrayal of the arch-enemy of "The Party", Emmanuel Goldstein: seen as both a figure of ridicule and a figure of fear, he was the ever-present threat that nobody had seen; likewise, "The Brotherhood", the mysterious and anonymous ranks of Goldstein's followers that were blamed for every internal setback encountered.
If the Conservative Party were to imagine an opposition of their dreams, they would probably not go far wrong with Jeremy Corbyn, who seems to epitomize everything they hate in the "old" Labour Party; likewise, Corbyn's movement from within the Labour Party, "Momentum", seems like an organisation designed for ridicule, while holding a vice-like grip on the Labour Party itself: engineered, it would seem, to perpetuate the eternal, hopeless leadership of Corbyn and his successors.

In the same vein, parliament is seen as blocking the people's will, and judges are "enemies of the people": in other words, Brexit was initiated to restore the sovereignty of parliament and the rule of law, so the government could take it away.

"Brexit" was a power-grab dressed up as the opposite; giving "power to the people", so they could give it to those who knew what to do with it. An "anti-establishment" vote was hijacked by the establishment before anyone knew what was going on.

"When war becomes continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous"

Or put another way, when a "war" has no feasible end in sight, it also becomes meaningless. Whatever the "war" is, it becomes an end in itself. This may be a "war" from without, such as against an exterior "enemy", or it may be a war from within, such as against forms of internal opposition. Ideally, it must have elements of both aspects. The "war" can never be truly won, for that would defeat part of the main benefit of having the "war". But the main reason for the "war", was the depletion of resources without raising the standard of living.

That was how Orwell saw things in "Nineteen Eighty-four". While once government was engaged in a "war on poverty", these days it would be more accurate to describe an undeclared "war on the poor": "austerity" and all its associated policies, such as welfare reform, and side-effects, such as food banks and homelessness, could be described as nothing less. Because "the poor" tend to vote Labour they are seen as "the enemy" first of all, and secondly, a segment of society that it is easy to stigmatize. This was one reason, privately of course, that George Osborne gave for being against building more council housing - it would only help Labour voters.
Apart from the benefits of making the Conservatives seem keen to get the economy on the right track, "austerity" works on various levels. First, it acts as a form of divide and rule among the masses, pitting the so-called "strivers" against the "skivers". Second, it allows the government to cut back on "non-essential spending" on services and allow the voracious and amoral private sector to fill in the gaps. Third, reduced spending on the criminal justice system means that increased levels of crime will increase dysfunction and chaos at the lower end of the social spectrum, feeding into a self-perpetuating loop of social deprivation, and creating further scapegoats for the government to blame. The constraining circumstances of "Brexit" over the coming years are likely to make this "war on the poor" seem endless.

At a day-to-day level, people are more worried about staying safe and having enough money for the bills and food on the table to worry about why it's happening and who's really to blame.

"From the "proles", nothing is to be feared"

This contemptuous language comes directly from the pages of "Nineteen Eighty-four", but can also found amongst the inner circle of the Conservative Party, which explains why many of the policies are designed the way they are: the last point made in the previous paragraph sums up why this is. The "proles" are seen as a sub-class to be jeered at, despised, and attacked for even daring to enjoy themselves through their own devices. The "culture war" against what was once called the "working class" has made them despise their own kind. The poor - the "proles" - are most dangerous when they are happy through their own devices, so therefore their happiness must be treated with deep distrust.
Instead, their happiness should be manipulated and manufactured: jingoistic nationalism is the "default" setting to distract them from their woes. Having the population united against a common exterior enemy acts as an "opium of the masses", conveniently distracting them from any uncomfortable reality at home - in the case of the UK, the government's ongoing "austerity" programme.
The oncoming situation of "Brexit" therefore acts as a prime opportunity for this to be put into practice, as we can already see from some of the regular headlines in the media.  The masses are deemed to conform to the idea that unquestioning patriotism and simplistic jingoism is their "default setting": conversely, as mentioned, the threat of "war" from without is another instrument at the government's disposal. Not an actual, fighting war: more of a "cultural war" with Europe; therefore, any Europeans living in the UK should be seen with instant suspicion, and any British citizen that espouses any residual pro-European sentiment (i.e. "Remainers") should be seen as being latent traitors to the country. This feeling has been seen in the British press for years, which was part of the background campaign that led to the rise of UKIP (more of an extremist wing of the Conservative Party) and the eventual Brexit vote.

"Big Brother is infallible and all-powerful"

Some fun has been had at Theresa May's expense recently: from her troubles in eating chips with her fingers, to her fear of meeting the public. The strategy the Tories are taking is nothing new - making politics about personality is as old as the hills. What's different about how they are doing it today is that they are making the election much more about voting for "Theresa May" than about voting Conservative than has been seen by parties and the leaders in any election in living memory. In some places, campaign literature is all about Theresa May with barely a mention of her party.

This is no doubt down to Lynton Crosby, architect of the Tories' last election victory. One-on-one, in the public's perception, May wins hands-down any contest with Jeremy Corbyn about leadership.
But there is more to it than that. Partly it is a conscious act of distraction (one of Crosby's "dead cat on the table" tactics): because with a fair segment of the population still bearing doubts about the Conservatives' sincerity (who'd have thought it!), it's better to make it a vote about the person rather than the party. Furthermore, and as mentioned by the author in a previous article, there is a fair amount of "Groupthink" in the air following the referendum: people psychologically want to "get on with it", and therefore want to get behind the leader; regardless of their previous doubts, they will vote for May. Following from that, there is a tendency to therefore see in Theresa May a person that embodies "the spirit of Brexit" i.e. an aspect of "mythologizing" of the national leader in difficult times. Her previous faults are now seen as strengths. With Europe now seen as "the enemy" (again), it's not difficult to imagine some in the Conservative Party wanting to engender an almost Churchillian-like cult of personality around her.

To an extent, therefore, the strategy of minimizing May's real contact with the electorate (rather than meetings with party activists) is not only because the strategists have seen how deeply unnatural she is with people (Thatcher had the same issues, though that is hardly an endorsement). The same tactic was done with Cameron in the last election, but he was more naturally gregarious and seemed to enjoy campaigning; Theresa May seems to enjoy campaigning not a jot, shows strong signs of control freakery. No, the other reason may be to add to the "mythologizing": the less people see of her, the more people will project on to her want they want to see in a national leader. In other words, Theresa May, for the Conservatives, is presented as less of a leader than more of a symbol, almost in the same semi-divine status that some reserve for the Queen. Whether this is truly intentional or merely unconscious is hard to know at this point; strategy-wise, it may well be the first masquerading as the second.

In this way, the seeds have been sown; we will soon know what kind of harvest they bring, and who for.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Brexit, Democracy and "Doublethink": Britain's authoritarian future?

The author posted an article earlier this month calling Brexit a "triumph of the losers". The segments of society which voted to leave the EU were mainly the over-50's, but the largest "swing" vote probably came from lower-skilled workers who traditionally vote Labour.

It's worth remembering that there was a time, about twenty-five years ago, when "Europe" was a subject for cranks. It was still considered an issue for "cranks" fifteen years ago. These same "cranks" were the ones behind a leadership challenge to then-Conservative PM John Major over the issue of Europe (John Redwood! Remember him?), and those "cranks" had succeeded in labelling the Tories as a party "obsessed with Europe" as recently as the 2005 General Election. Well, it looks now as though the "cranks" have won.

A "coup" by other means?

It's also worth remembering that the EU referendum was a purely strategic decision by a former Prime Minister. Political leaders don't have referendums if they think they will lose: this is the unwritten rule about referendums, and why, until David Cameron grew a liking for them, they were considered in Britain to be an instrument of the dictator. The EEC referendum in in 1970's was designed to affirm Britain's membership of the EEC after the event, and thus went the way it was intended.
It tells us a lot about David Cameron's personality that he approved of three referendums in the UK in little more than five years (the AV vote, the Scottish referendum and the EU referendum): he clearly liked the idea of popular affirmation from the electorate. Maybe he just needed to feel loved?

Joking aside, the issue of "Europe", and its perception as the number one cause of Britain's ills, came about through a number of coinciding factors.
For a start, there's even a potential danger in "over-intellectualising" a vote that for the average voter was decided on often trivial and spurious grounds. Most voters, most people, do not think deeply about political issues simply because they have more essential things to think about, such as where the money to pay the electric bill will come from, and so on. Their information about "Europe", such as it is, comes from the tabloids and the Daily Mail, and the occasional segment on the early evening news. That, and their own observation of seeing Polish shops in every neighbourhood and seeing more foreign children at their kid's school.
There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that many people voted "Leave" because of such silly issues as "straight bananas", along with a general feeling that it was a vote for a change and against "the powers that be". When the level of political decision-making is so low, it's hardly difficult to sway a vote with the right strategy and media support. Donald Trump's election last year was further proof of that.

It might be tiresome to re-tread worn ground, but the rise of the Nazis (a bunch of "cranks" if ever there were one) really is "the manual" for how extremist, one-issue parties can gain legitimate power by deceit and subterfuge.
These kinds of groups can only gain prominence through a very specific set of circumstances. In the UK those circumstances led to the rise of UKIP from a fringe political party twenty years ago to the largest UK party in the European parliament in 2014. These same circumstances also led to David Cameron to over-confidently call for an EU referendum, which he then lost through fatally misjudging the mood of the electorate.
With a large segment of the Conservative Party being essentially "UKIP supporters in all but name", it was then politically-inevitable that Cameron's successor, Theresa May, was bound to follow the will of these one-time "cranks". Either Cameron's successor would have been be a "Leaver", or they would be a "Remainer" hostage. As it happened, May read the way the tectonic plates were moving before the referendum vote itself, and prevaricated on her position during the campaign. Thus she was positioned as the "safe" middling option in the leadership election.
It seems clear that, deep down, Theresa May is ambivalent towards the "cranks" as well. But the political reality is that she is bound to them, at least for the foreseeable future. One reason she wants a large majority in Westminster is to reduce their hold over the Parliamentary Party, giving her more freedom in the exit talks.
But the logic of this also cannot be taken for granted. For example, do you assume that people in the forthcoming election are voting Conservative because they want a "hard" Brexit or a "soft" Brexit? If the former, then it gives much more political power to the "cranks"; if the latter, how does that make it greatly different from the Labour position? It's hard to see how that position can be easily clarified either way in the coming weeks, without either becoming a hostage to the "cranks"on one hand, or being accused of subverting the "will of the people" by the "Daily Mail". Besides, there seems plenty of evidence to suggest a large swing for former UKIP (and Labour) supporters switching to the Conservatives. Given what the government has been saying since the referendum, and how May's strategy has been to steal UKIP's supporters, it would be impossible to see this as nothing less than support for the "cranks".

Either way, Theresa May is not offering the "strong and stable" government she is parroting. Instead, she seems to have undergone a Damascene conversion to the ranks of the "cranks". A small group of extremists have effectively taken control of the government through subterfuge and deceit, with the backing of influential media supporters.

"Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers"?

As said before, the surge in support for the Conservatives seems like nothing less than popular backing for Theresa May's strategy on Brexit. So on the face of it, calling Brexit a "coup" would seem ridiculous.
But the public mood is a strange thing. After such a divisive event as the referendum, it is understandable that human nature, like a pendulum, would want to go from one extreme to the other: after experencing great division to want to experience a compensatory unity. This may well be what May has sensed since the referendum, and is another reason for her desire to take advantage of this moment of unique "popular unity" with a resounding mandate. This also explains why there is a mood to now "get on with it" now that the vote has happened, and that those who are standing in the way of are seen as "saboteurs" by the Brexit-supporting segments of the media.

There is something almost unreal in this mood, as though a large segment of the population have been turned into Brexit-supporting Zombies - or more sinister, been cloned into Brexit-supporting imposters like a version of "Invasion Of The Body-snatchers". As a Remain-supporting observer of this, it is quite unsettling.
Human psychology, and group psychology, is what we're witnessing. It has been seen after many traumatic events. At a different level, the raft of quasi-authoritarian legislation in the US and UK post 9/11 was partly possible due to the traumatised national moods. This is something that Naomi Klein discussed in her book ,"The Shock Doctrine": when governments take advantage of a traumatic "event" (either opportunistically or by design) to instigate a radical program. In such a situation, group psychology means that the national population feel emotionally drawn together despite their previous differences. In such a situation, the government enjoys unusually-high levels of good will from the electorate, which governments are all too keen to cash in on. By calling an election three years early (one which she repeatedly said she wouldn't call) Theresa May is doing that right now.

This "Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers" effect won't last forever, which is why Theresa May is striking while the iron is still hot, before the Brexit talks bog down, before the economy slackens off. By the time of the next election, Brexit will have been a fait accompli, a past historical event.
May is hoping that the mood of "national unity" will continue through to the conclusion of Brexit, and when the economy worsens those who blame it on Brexit will be called "unpatriotic" and "living in the past", unwilling to work towards a positive, if arduous, future, outside of the EU. This is how "Groupthink" can overtake the national psyche, and how, with a supportive media, a cabal of one-time "cranks" can control the future.

The same has already been witnessed in the authoritarian psychology of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where opponents are labelled "traitors" and "Gulenists", where self-inflicted economic wounds are blamed on Europe, Goldman Sachs and the "interest rate lobby". Change the names, and you could say much the same about the vicar's daughter, Theresa May.

Towards an "Orwellian" future?

The mood of national "Groupthink" makes it hard to see where an effective opposition fits into this. From an Orwellian point of view, an authoritarian government needs an opposition to be ineffective but also, conversely, seen as all-threatening. We can see this "Doublethink" in how the opposition in Westminster was portrayed in May's address to call for an early election: we can also see this in other countries (which Britain would do well not to want to copy), such as Russia and Turkey. We can expect to hear more if this kind of thing over the rest of the election campaign, where Labour and Corbyn are derided as a joke, but also warned as danger.

May has been described in the past, when she was at the Home Office, of not really having a real personality, and simply being known as being "intimidating" to other ministers, charmless and lacking charisma, and keen to blame others for her failings: what once would have been called "greyness" translates these days into May appearing as reassuringly "normal" and "one of us"; "intimidating" now translates as "strong"; "charmless and lacking charisma" now translates as "serious", and so on.
In reality she is a mediocre politician with a mediocre intellect, with no sense of humour and a tendency towards authoritarianism to cover her weaknesses and control others. But in this age of collective "Groupthink", her mediocrity is what many voters seem to find appealing and reassuring. In serious times, it seems people like a serious politician. And who needs an opposition when they're so useless, anyway? If that's the "will of the people", then who can argue with that?

What we might call the "Brexit cabal" (formerly the "cranks") have an agenda to take Britain out of the EU (tick!) and turn the UK into a low-tax, low-regulation utopia for the rich. With the referendum in the bag, they're already half-way there.
The "cranks" of twenty-five years ago were also the keenest Thatcherites, and many of those still control the largest media banners. Thatcher and her supporters initially supported joining the EEC in the '70s because it was then seen purely as a free trade bloc; once it morphed into a regulatory agency as well, it became as much an "enemy of the state" as the trades unions were. In this sense, leaving the EU was another "coup" for the old Thatcherites (or neo-Conservatives), and an ultimate re-affirmation of the Neo-liberal agenda of Ayn Rand.
With the media firmly on their side (at least those that matter), and the opposition now a plaything for the government, who can stand in their way?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Lazy, Ignorant and Entitled: the real reasons Britain voted for Brexit?

There are a whole host of reasons why Brexit happened. Some commentators focus on the role of David Cameron in allowing the situation to arise in the way it did, and for his handling of the issue as a personal act of political indulgence. Others focus on the economic factors that led to large sections of the "disenfranchised" working class voting Leave almost as a form of protest. Again, others look at the rise of UKIP and the populist tendency since the financial crisis. The second and third points are related, though, and prior to the financial crisis it was the BNP who were also tapping into this previously-ignored segment of society, before being superseded by UKIP.

In some ways, then, Brexit could be called the "triumph of the losers"; those who have "lost out" in the modern world (read; globalisation) and want things back the way they were before (when life was easier for them). It is usually termed as a wish to turn back then clock.
Populism has been on the rise since the financial crisis throughout Europe, and as we have seen with Donald Trump, in the USA. The same could also be said of Turkey, who are soon to have a referendum on turning their country into a quasi-authoritarian presidency. Populism is an ideology in its own right, although often loosely-defined. In another sense, it is also a psychology of its own. It is that "psychology", and the psychology of the Brexit-supporter, that the author wants to focus on.


Many of those who voted "Leave" were unskilled workers, who felt their livelihoods had become jeopardized by Eastern Europeans who have undercut them. This is the claim that many of those voters made, in any case.
It is true that there are agencies that recruit solely non-British workers from abroad, and it is true that many of the Eastern Europeans do work for a lower wage, especially in the unregulated black market. But this is far from the whole story. A recent article (there have been a number like this) spoke of how many sectors of industry recruit large numbers of Europeans simply because so few British workers apply for those jobs. It is true that many of these jobs are not well paid, but they are still legitimate salaries.
A simple - if brutally-frank - conclusion to reach is that low-skilled British workers feel that those kinds of jobs (such as in the hospitality sector, but especially seasonal farming work) are too difficult for them. With anti-social hours ("when can find the time to go out?"; "do I really have to get up a four in the morning?") and often physically demanding ("I'm not getting my hands dirty!"), these jobs compare poorly with the sedentary, generic services sector that many of them may be used to. But the point is that someone has to do these jobs; and if not enough "natives" are willing to apply for them, then employers simply have no other choice. This assessment of the reality reflects poorly on the local labour force, and  makes you wonder what the local employers think of them.

So the complaint of "foreigners taking our jobs" doesn't really ring true; those workers making this complaint simply are making an incoherent argument that - even if their argument was valid - would anyway suggest that foreign workers had greater levels of labour flexibility than them. In which case,  why don't the locals try to do better than the foreigners, rather than try to "fix" the economy into an inefficient model that's more in their favour? But as we have seen, their case falls flat in reality; either way, the locals simply look "lazy".

This might sound like a blunt assessment given that British workers are among the hardest-working employees in the EU (in hours worked per week); but this is also the case because of inefficient working practises, which are likely to get worse outside of EU regulation. So be careful what you wish for!

Many of these workers are victims of the changes that have happened to the British economy over the last thirty years, but the reality is that complaining about it will change nothing; simply, many of these people have failed to react or change to circumstances. It's true that many of them are the "losers" of modern-day globalisation. The easy answer of blaming "Europe" for everything, as was the argument from the Leave camp, explains why this was appealing to low-skilled workers: it required nothing to believe an idea that explains away their own misfortune, while doing nothing to tackle the real issues.
As said earlier, it sounds like they want to turn back the clock. This was why they voted for Brexit. But looking at things objectively, this is simply a set of workers, already shown to be "lazy" and entitled when compared to their foreign counterparts, wanting to "fix" the system yet further in the expectation that they could have control over the supply of the labour force, regardless of the the intellectual incoherence of this idea. In any case, the kind of economy they are supporting by backing Brexit is the type of low-wage economy with fewer workers' rights that would make them even worse-off than they are currently.
This is why "Brexit" was a victory for the lazy anti-intellectualism of the anti-globalisation forces: like in all Populist movements, its supporters want to be "protected" from reality, while being duped into supporting something that actually would work against their interests.

Thirty years ago the comedy series "Auf Weidersehn, Pet" highlighted a serious issue, and showed a simple way to resolve it: move to where the work is, as thousands of other Europeans do every year. Which leads on to another issue that many Brits have...


We've looked at how many of the sectors in industry are reliant on European workers due to a lazy sense of entitlement from the local workforce. Some could even assign this to a "Post-Imperial" psychology of expecting others to do the "hard" work for them (such as exists in the Arab Gulf States). But there is another form of "laziness" that also afflicts many Brits: intellectual laziness.

As we have seen, many of the lower-skilled native workforce are guilty of blaming Europeans for their problems. What makes this worse is that Britain is singularly-exceptional in the EU. It has a population that consciously denies itself the full advantage of one of the EU's "four freedoms"; the freedom of labour, simply because, unlike other Europeans, British people don't bother to learn a foreign language.

While it is true that English is the lingua franca of the world, it is this willful ignorance that reflects badly on the British compared to other European nations. Britain has been in the EU for more than forty years, but most of its population have used the freedom of movement simply to indulge their holiday plans, and then casually expect to be able to speak their language in another country. Put in another way, many Brits' attitude towards Europe is to treat the EU like Post-Imperial "colonies", where they are expected, as Brits, to be treated in a superior manner.

It is this mentality that has fed a lazy thinking towards Europe and Britain's place in the EU. If "Europe" is seen by many Brits and the place "over there" only to go on holiday, buy "duty free" and make fun of foreigners' funny accents, how does this help to create a constructive attitude? Unlike other EU countries' workers, who are happy to travel to work in other parts of the EU, Brits tend to use their freedom to travel simply for leisure or for the purpose of retirement. Of the Brits who do live in different parts of the EU, the vast majority are retirees in Spain. The unwillingness to learn a foreign language is one of the major factors towards this difference.
It is true that the European continent's history of wars over the centuries - and especially the last century - that helped to engender an atmosphere of co-operation and amity. It is true that Britain's cultural history is separated from that in many ways; it could be argued that Britain's relationship with Europe is too influenced by its cultural failure to come to terms with the loss of Empire, as many seeing the EU somehow as a replacement for it. But this does not excuse intellectual laziness.

The intellectual laziness that comes from not learning a foreign language has limited how British people can fully benefit from being in the EU, creating a huge self-inflicted bias against the institution. As said earlier, other countries do not have this problem (at least, not to Britain's extent. Many criticise the French on the same grounds, but contrary to common misconception, many French people know at least some English: they simply don't like using it in their own country).

Put in these terms, many Brits attitude to being a part of the EU could seen as intellectually lazy and entitled, ignorant of what the EU stands for, and willfully-ignorant of the opportunities that being a member of the EU represents. When you are part of a multi-national, multi-lingual labour market and can't be bothered to learn a foreign language, you're simply limiting your own options, especially when the workers in the other countries are doing the exact opposite.
This is what makes British workers' criticism of Europeans who come to work in the UK especially galling; in learning a foreign language to work in the UK, the Europeans are doing something that Brits are too lazy to bother doing; yet they are criticized for bothering to make full use of the European labour market, unlike the British.

No wonder Europeans have found the British attitude so unfathomable: many Brits seem to have chosen to leave a club they never even tried to make full use of (or bothering to fully understand the rules), while criticising the others who did. It makes "Brexit" supporters sound like the kind of people who join a gym to lose weight, give up after a couple of times, then complain that it's the gym's fault that they haven't lost any weight. The cultural ignorance towards Europe that seems prevalent in many Brexit supporters is a result of intellectual laziness, and a narcissistic expectation of special treatment. But again, this is a tendency that appears throughout Populist movements.
Which brings us to the other main issue....


Since Britain has joined the EU, it has been one of the largest net contributors to the fund. This is a point that many Eurosceptic politicians have made over the years, and was a major factor in Margaret Thatcher getting her famous "rebate" after being in "the club" for ten years.
But the fact that the UK is the second-largest contributor (Germany being the largest) is hardly surprising, given the size of the UK economy and its population. France is a famous beneficiary of  the CAP, but as we have seen, there are other aspects of its EU membership where the UK has been holding itself back, such as treating the EU simply as one big holiday destination rather than a huge potential work-zone.
Britain's relationship with the EU since its membership has always seemed "semi-detached", and that's been part of the problem. Of course, the EU exists as an association of mutual self-interest for those involved, so all countries will fight their own corner. The "apogee" of Britain's engagement with the EU was clearly in the early years of the Blair premiership (until Brown's resistance against joining the Euro); since then, and especially under the Cameron administration, it has simply been a matter of the UK trying to get the EU to see things from their point of view i.e. that "Europe" was an unpopular cause at home. It was Cameron's liking of "feeding the crocodile" of Euroscepticism that Europeans found exasperating, damaging Britain's relations with the EU for cheap political gain, and was the (unsurprising) cause of his resignation.

When looking at who voted for Brexit, a clear generation gap can be seen. What's telling about this is that it's the generation who already have a "triple lock" pension (and a holiday home in Spain?) who are still yet unsatisfied with their lot; they are the "have their cake and eat it" generation, if you will, who want their lives protected at all costs. A cynic might add that this is the problem with democracy, when it's the older generation who do most of the voting: in a democracy, a politician must satisfy his voters. This is something that the prize Machiavellian George Osborne was all too aware of.

So David Cameron's "feeding the crocodile" may make some political sense in a way, though it adds up to horrible long-term strategy: after all, Greece got itself into a financial mess by years and years of politicians simply doing what the voters asked of them: giving them more and more money. This is the ultimate route that Populism takes, and why it always ends in tears.
Politicians have to be leaders "ahead of the curve" as well as being responsive to the electorate; this is one reason why many people in the UK bought into the "austerity" agenda, even though it was based on a false narrative of events (that Labour overspending caused the financial crisis, rather than the banks' reckless mismanagement). People believed it because they liked the idea of a politician "taking a lead" on events and telling them what appeared an "unpalatable truth". But Cameron's reasons for backing "austerity" weren't about genuine leadership; it was about opportunistic political "differentiation", making the Conservatives seem forthright compared to the seemingly-evasive Labour party.
And now that Theresa May has inherited that legacy of Brexit, she seems determined to follow the same path, indulging the worst aspects of Populism by turning her party into a re-branded "UKIP" that steals all their clothes. Meanwhile, those who stand against that, it is implied, are "anti-British" and "doing the country down". It is no wonder that the atmosphere in the country has turned uglier towards foreigners, and even countrymen who are worried about their future.

The "Brexit generation", if we can call them that, are those who are also more likely to vote Conservative i.e. the over-50's (who, of course, are more likely to be voters at all): the same people who are concerned about protecting their status, their (paid for) homes (or second homes), and are wistfully looking back to a time of their childhood when "Britannia ruled the waves".
Looking at it rationally, it's hard to know exactly why these people are so anti-European. What has modern-day Europe ever done to them personally? Why do they despise Brussels? The most common complaint, apart from "immigration" (see the points above) is about loss of sovereignty. But as alluded to before, these are the rules by how the club works: you trade in some sovereignty to get greater freedom of movement, trade and labour, not to mention greater employment rights, investment opportunities, and so on. If Brits don't want to take full advantage of that, it's Britain's problem, not Europe's. They simply don't understand the rules of the game, or can't be bothered to do so.

But this is the point: many of these people are driven by emotional prejudice and historical antipathy that pre-dates Britain joining the EU, rather than due to any rational argument. They still hate Germany because of the war, and think that all Europeans are inherently untrustworthy. They want the Britain of their childhood, with their lovely blue passports, and fewer "brown people". Policy made on such fantastical pretensions, and in favour of people who support such nonsensical thinking, is bound to result in disappointment, if not worse.

Britain is about to find out.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Narcissism and modern living: is technology destroying empathy?

A few articles recently have tackled the issue of what effect technology can have on our relations with others and the world around us. One of them, here, looks at the steps that can be taken to lessen our seemingly ever-growing reliance on tech to make us happy and make out life easier in general.

Parents have been accused of over relying on tech like tablets to pacify and keep their young children entertained. There has been research into the effects that this over-reliance can have on young children themselves, trying to analyse if this constitutes an "addiction" that young children (or the younger generation in general) are engendering towards tech. Research findings are mostly either inconclusive or the effect is too marginal to be recorded as being significant in itself.

In general, though, there has been a noticed rise in self-reported narcissism when comparing one generation to the next. What makes this eyebrow-raising is the fact that narcissists themselves enjoy self-reporting their own narcissism; in other words, a clear indicator of potential narcissism is that you consider yourself to be a narcissist - indeed, you may well be "proud" of the label as a form of identifying self-aggrandizement.
Self-aggrandizement and narcissism (and an utter lack of empathy) are features commonly found in psychopathy. Like narcissists, psychopaths (when identified) may well also see the "label" of psychopath almost as a badge of honor. There are many overlaps between the two disorders (as well as some important differences).

The reported rise in narcissism over the last thirty years may have some intriguing (and also worrying) social characteristics that relate to how society is affected by its economic structure. But apart from that, what other evidence is there pointing towards technology's effect of eroding human empathy?

Like how economic structures can affect empathy and narcissism, technology can have the same effect.
A common theme that is found with a lack of empathy (such as in narcissism and psychopathy) is a sense of "detachment". In general, people with a healthy degree of empathy are socially-aware of others' concerns and react accordingly; likewise, they also communicate in naturalistic way, giving thought to what the other person is saying.
Those with a "detachment" from others do not, or cannot, do this. How does modern technology make this more likely?

The internet is a technology less than thirty years old, but in that time has completely changed the way many of us conduct our lives. In both positive and negative ways, the internet acts as a mirror on human nature; but in some darker respects, it can act as a magnifying glass as well. In acting as an almost limitless space of possibilities, limited only by human capability and imagination, the internet can be both our greatest blessing and potentially our worst enemy.

One of the clearest examples of its negative side is the proliferation of pornography at our disposal due to the expansion of the internet. By its nature, pornography is the portrayal of sexual fantasy; the problem occurs when the fantasy on the internet becomes blurred with the same kind of expectation in reality. What effect does this have on the human mind? Research and anecdotal evidence points to anti-social consequences: an unhealthy exposure to pornography, especially at a young age, can result in misogynistic attitudes and behavior, and the objectification and exploitation of women. This then can also become culturally ingrained due to nature of social media, where the de-personalisation of women can become a game of one upmanship in peer groups.

The whole gamut of social media and its effect on empathy is probably beyond analysis by this writer, but the tendency for social media applications to become superficial vehicles for narcissistic self-aggrandizement has been well-documented elsewhere.
Tied to that is the distancing effect that social media has in general, and a feedback loop that makes the viewer more and more insecure, as it appears that everyone else is always having more fun than they are. This is where the link between insecurity, narcissism and depression/ mood swings is clear.
In a different way, others have also criticized social media as a vehicle of psychological self-reinforcement: that social media technology is used by people in need of "safe spaces" and "echo chambers". This is a form of narcissism where the viewer wishes not to be challenged, and will cite their "human rights" as an excuse.
The same point has been leveled against universities, and one wonders if the younger generation, accustomed to the "echo chamber" of social media, are simply seeking to extend the same construct of "safe spaces" from the internet into reality in academia. If so, it is a worrying precedent. This is also another form of distancing, when the individual seeks to disconnect themselves from those who would dare to challenge their point of view. Such behavior can only lead to a polarisation between groups, where dialogue with the opposing ideology is seen as tantamount to treachery; likewise, distancing from others also encourages an amplification within this closed "echo chamber", and can explain how this form of narcissism leads to ideological extremism. Looking at things from a different angle, it's also worth considering why many of the extremists in the news also tend to be narcissists with misogynistic tendencies.

The "distancing" element of modern technology such as the internet allows for another dark side of human nature to rear its ugly head: "trolling". The impersonal nature of the internet allows the ability to create "false realities": at a more mundane level, this is simply the "public window" that social media users show to the outside world: the version of themselves that they would like other to know them by.
However, "false realities" also allow for false or hidden profiles, which allows the user an amoral sense of omnipotence. They can verbally and psychologically attack others without fear of reprisal, if they know how to hide their tracks. Again, this application of technology reinforces anti-social narcissistic behavior, giving a vehicle for this dark side of human nature. It is also worth noting the potential link between the misogyny mentioned earlier with the kind of misogynistic trolling that can be seen on the internet on a daily basis.

As mentioned earlier, the internet is a mirror for human nature. It allows people to seek out and discover in a way never possible before; it also allows people to connect with others as never before. However, as we have seen, this also allows for people with malignant ideas to easily contact others of like mind. It is no coincidence that the "dark web" is used as a space for all manner of nefarious deeds.

These are just a handful of the issues that tie together narcissism with the use of technology. The article has mainly focused on the internet, but modern technology has also been blamed for bad parenting (mentioned at the start), children lacking in fully-functional social skills, and worse. As said earlier, the research is as yet inconclusive on such as wide-ranging issue. We will probably only have a better perspective on this when the next generation after comes along.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Donald Trump: Is he the Kaiser Wilhelm of our time?

This isn't the first article to be written on the subject (one of the earliest articles, from more than a year ago, is seen here). There have been numerous articles written on the personality and psychology of Donald Trump, claiming that he is a narcissist or, worse, a potential sociopath. The author instead looks to explore the personality and psychological parallels between Donald Trump and Kaiser Wilhelm in more detail, and let the parallels speak for themselves.

The author wrote a piece on Kaiser Wilhelm's personality a few years ago, in particular looking at the relationship that developed between him and Enver Pasha, a like-minded belligerent in effective control of the Ottoman Empire's war machine.

Observers and historians have noted some of the personality similarities between these two leaders, separated a hundred years apart, highlighting the similar tendencies in character towards arrogance, boorishness, shallowness, exuberance and unpredictability. Other similar details of both their life histories are worthy of study.
In some senses, these two men came of age at around the same time: Donald Trump becoming the figurehead of his family's company in his late twenties, and Wilhelm II becoming Kaiser of the German Empire around the same age. Likewise, they also had some similar traits in childhood and while growing up. Both Donald and Wilhelm were troublesome children during their schooling, showing some violent tendencies, as had been recorded about Wilhelm, and as Donald himself has openly alluded to. Equally, both took a period of military schooling to iron out these anti-social traits into something more productive. In Donald's case, it could be argued that the disciplinarian atmosphere helped to channel his energies into focusing on the family business; with Wilhelm, the military aspect took on a wholly-absorbing character, which stayed with him for the rest of his life.

In other ways, it can be argued how each person's relationship with their parents affected their personality as an adult.
Wilhelm's parents - his father, the heir to the throne (who would later die after only a few months as Kaiser), and his English mother, a daughter of Queen Victoria - cared very much for their son, who was tragically disfigured with a withered left arm from a botched birth. However, it appears that Wilhelm did not return the sentiment, seeing his parents as soft liberals. In particular, he had a very troubled relationship with his mother, which later would become evolve into a conflicted relationship with the land of her birth.
So we see that Wilhelm's embrace of the military and his "strong" Prussian sense of identity could be traced to the rejection of his father's perceived "softness"; equally, his love-hate relationship with Britain, and ultimately an integral part of Germany's foreign policy, arguably came from his rejection of his mother. He initially wanted Britain as a strong German ally, and when that failed, Britain had to be beaten.
Donald Trump's parentage is also interesting, as he is of German stock on his father's side, while his mother is Scottish. In other words - and by strange coincidence - Trump, like Kaiser Wilhelm II, is from a "German" father and a "British" mother.
However, it is clear that Donald's relationship to his parents was much more conventional. His mother and father were seen as nothing if not role models, once Donald had developed into a more disciplined adult. The drive he developed for business seems to have come from his innate competitive spirit, and the desire to make a name for himself. He has in the past called himself a "warrior", and talked of his formative experiences with his father's business as a youngster being key to developing his dog-eat-dog view of the world. In that sense, it could be argued that his drive to expand the Trump Corporation into Manhattan from its roots laid by his father in Brooklyn and Queen was the wish to supersede the successes of his father: he would use the "good name" that his father had established to create an empire of his own. In that respect, he certainly succeeded. In Frank Trump, Donald Trump had the kind of father figure that someone like Kaiser Wilhelm probably wished would have had: instead of wanting to emulate his father, like Donald Trump did, Wilhelm turned to the military and his own Prussian identity to make up for what he perceived as his own father's "failings".
In this comparison, we can see that the roots of Wilhelm's insecurities and malignant narcissism may well have come from this aspect of his childhood; on the other hand, Donald Trump's gross narcissism may well simply have been something that was always there.

Donald Trump's relationship with his mother's home country is also worth mentioning, as it can be argued that, at least to some extent, he shares the same "love-hate" relationship that Wilhelm had for Britain. Trump's property empire is international in scope, and includes golf courses in Scotland. He famously has had controversies with the building of a golf course in Aberdeenshire, which can also be seen as a result of Trump's driven personality. More recently, he traveled to Scotland a few days after the Brexit vote to congratulate Scotland, seemingly not realising that Scotland had, in fact, mostly voted to remain in the EU. Since becoming President, his relationship with Britain as a whole has become even more tortuous: receiving the attention of the British Prime Minister for trade talks and an official invite, while receiving an "un-invite" by the British Speaker of parliament. Such grating diplomatic blunders and mis-steps were also characteristic of Kaiser Wilhelm.

We have talked about the driven aspects to both Donald Trump and Kaiser Wilhelm's personalities. Both share a strong desire to lead, and to be seen to be a leader. In Wilhelm's case, this was seen with his admiration for the the Russian Tsar and the autocratic model, going so far as to wish to become allies (he abjectly failed in this mission). While Germany was not an autocracy, the Kaiser still had personal control of the military and the cabinet, if not the parliament. It was due to this that he was able to personally mould German foreign policy without oversight, and surround himself with like-minded belligerents.
It could be argued that Donald Trump sees his Presidency (or would like to see it) as being able to mould the country and the world as he sees fit, as the de facto "leader of the world". To an extent, all Presidents may like to see it this way, though the US Constitution clearly marks out the limits of a President's mandate. However, it is also evident that Donald Trump sees himself as different: he has all the hallmarks of being a demagogue in the mould of, for example, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan. So far, his slew of "executive orders" indicate a desire to trample on the limitations that ordinarily restrict presidential powers, even if that is unconstitutional or even illegal.
Like Wilhelm, Donald Trump's political role models appear to be "strongmen": Trump has professed respect for Vladimir Putin and his manner of ruling, and seems to have adopted a flexible ("realpolitik"?) approach to Russia. His policy of "America First" is in the mould of many other authoritarian leaders, while also shadowing some of the foreign policy aims that Kaiser Wilhelm had, such as protectionism, military might and defense of national interests.

Lastly, both these individuals seem to have shared a chaotic and impulsive style of governing. We have already looked at how Kaiser Wilhelm took personal control of military and diplomatic affairs, even against the advice of his generals and diplomats. The same signs can be seen in the first weeks of Donald Trump's administration, with his senior staff seemingly unable to keep up with his frequent contradictory statements.
With these unpredictable personalities as leaders, both saw the result being that individuals like-minded to the leader would prosper; Wilhelm surrounded himself with belligerents, while Trump seems to have as his key advisers those who share in his, at times apocalyptic and fatalistic, world-view.

It's early days in the Trump Presidency, and already people on his own side are wondering if (or rather, when) it will all end in tears...

Monday, October 24, 2016

Narcissism and politics: David Cameron's resignation and the EU referendum

David Cameron's career is, in many ways, a parable of the ascent and (inevitable) demise of the narcissist as politician.
In a previous article, we've looked at Cameron's rise to party leader and Prime Minister, through the prism of the narcissist. The nature of his fall was as much the result his own personality and narcissism as any other part of his career; in some ways, even more so.

The article mentioned looks at how Cameron took control of his party by effectively making the success of the party reliant on the success of the leader; the party became popular because he was popular. In this sense, like many narcissist-politicians, the party became a form of "personality cult". He modernised the party, becoming known as the "heir to Blair" in the process. He took a look at how to make his party popular, recruiting Steve Hilton in the process; this was the "hug a hoodie" period before the financial crisis. These were the positives that Cameron brought to his role; but there were far more negatives in the long run.

Over his career he became known as masterful at tactics, but hopeless at strategy. His superficial charm was noticeable and what gave him an automatic sense of gravitas. The problem with this was that it perhaps too often it gave him an automatic sense of invincibility. We'll look at this in more detail in a moment.
The superficial charm, along with some other more unpleasant characteristics, have seemed to point to a darker aspect of Cameron's personality. While he has plenty of admirers and his circle of supporters are fiercely-defensive of his character and motives, a more distanced look at his career at the pinnacle of politics for six years (plus his four-and-a-half years as leader of the opposition) leads to a less sympathetic assessment. While he himself said that "all careers end in failure", his own failure was one he brought about on himself. It is this seismic failure that will always define him.

Politics as a poker game

Some see politics and power as a game of chess; others see it as a game of poker. A famous example of the former would be the cynical "grand master" of geo-politics in the early 21st century, Vladimir Putin. This is a man who will do whatever he needs to in order to preserve power, exploit weaknesses in his enemies, and grab opportunities to extend influence. Cameron's partner-in-power, George Osborne, is someone who also played politics as a chess game, using his position as chancellor to trap and destroy his enemies.
David Cameron, though, sees it as a game of poker, He would never admit this himself probably, but the evidence is there to see when you look at the judgments and decisions he has made as leader of his party and, more significantly, as Prime Minister.

Cameron is the ultimate "risk-taker" as politician. It is easier, and more instructive, to look at the progress of Cameron's career as a series of decisions and judgments (or "gambles"), and how this affected (or reinforced) the somewhat callous, risk-taking aspect to his character, ultimately resulting in an explosive "ultimate gamble".
This goes back all the way to his initial rise to the leadership of the Conservative Party. His main challenger for the leadership in 2005 was David Davis. As Davis was known as an arch Euro-sceptic, and Cameron's views on Europe were more nuanced, in order to win the support of the party's hard right, he declared that if he became Conservative leader he would take them out of the European People's Party (EPP), the EU's largest group of conservatism in the parliament. This declaration was key to getting the support he needed, and then he carried through with his promise to take his party out of the EPP. This was largely unremarked on in Britain at the time, but it was not in the Europe. It was never forgotten in Europe's major capitals how Cameron played to his party's anti-European instincts for his own personal gain; as would be repeated ten years later.

While this decision might not be a "gamble" as such, it was a judgement that would start a ball rolling and have long implications.

Cameron's relationship with the parliamentary party was almost always unstable, due to the distrust they felt over what they saw as his instinctive "Europeanism". Like during John Major's tenure, he was always having to play a balancing act between doing things to remain popular with the wider electorate (and thus in office), and doing things to stay on the right side of his MPs. His instincts were to the former, with the occasional piece of red meat thrown to the latter when the need arose. It was this strategy of effectively "winging it" with his own MPs (and thus the fate of the country) that would lead to the fateful "Bloomberg Speech" in early 2013.

His parliamentary party were taken aback when he failed to win the 2010 election outright; when Cameron then took the decision (and thus his first real "gamble") to join in a full coalition with the Liberal Democrats, many of them were incensed, and it took all his charm to keep them on his side. But even that was only temporary.
This "gamble" of coalition government led to a further "gamble" the following year, in the form of the AV referendum. This referendum on changing the voting system was one of the LibDems' terms in the Coalition Agreement; Cameron was taking a risk, for if he lost it, his party would have permanently fewer seats in parliament (and he would, one assumes, not be long in his job). Luckily for him, the risk was in fact over-stated, and due to the winning over the support of the Labour party, the "no" side won comfortably. Cameron had taken his first major domestic gamble, and won.

By 2012, though, the LibDems were causing trouble. After accepting austerity and losing the AV referendum, their leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was becoming increasingly unpopular, and so needed something to raise his party's profile than being seen as the Conservatives' "enabler". According to the Coalition Agreement, the AV referendum was tied to changes on constituency boundary reform, which would benefit the Conservatives (at the expense of Labour and the LibDems). However, the LibDems now said that boundary reform was tied to House Of Lords reform; they would not support boundary reform without Lords' reform.
This led to boundary reform can being kicked down the road till after the 2015 election after the LibDems' Lords' reform failed, which infuriated many of Cameron's MPs. They were further infuriated by another decision (read "gamble") that Cameron took, to support gay marriage.

It was partly due to these factors (and the rise of UKIP) that led Cameron to feel the need to give his rebellious MP some "red meat"; the result of this was the fateful "Bloomberg Speech". In other words, his "gambles" in one direction had led to the need to "hedge" in the other.

Meanwhile, Cameron took his first foreign policy "gamble" early in 2011, with the intervention in Libya. The "Arab Spring" affected him quite strongly and, with the support of Nicholas Sarkozy, took the war in Libya to be a kind of personal crusade. It was a largely Anglo-French operation, but what was meant to be an operation that had learned the mistakes of Iraq turned into one that simply repeated them, albeit in a slightly different form. Once Muammar Qaddafi was gone, Cameron's attention rapidly waned; even before that, Cameron's "strategy" in Libya was proving to be almost non-existent. To be blunt, while Cameron may have had good intentions, to outsiders it looked like an exercise in foreign policy "attention seeking". The fact that Libya quickly collapsed into civil war due to a lack of Anglo-French guidance or oversight told its own story. Cameron's "gamble" in Libya is something that Britain seemed to quickly forget; meanwhile, Libyans are living it every day.

That trend of Cameron "taking his eye off the ball" did not get any better with the vote on war in Syria two years later. Again, Cameron's character flaws shown themselves to lead to a blunder of his own making. This was another case of him rolling the dice with high stakes in foreign affairs, and losing.

Raising the stakes

So far, Cameron's "gambles" had either paid off, or (at a superficial level) his "losses" had not critically damaged his position; he would lick his wounds and move on. In this sense, you could see where Cameron might get the impression that he was "getting quite good" at making judgement calls, in spite of the reality. He seemed to be quite good at shrugging off the occasional knock-back as part of a learning curve. The problem with this was that it might lead him to think his judgement was getting better with each "gamble" he made. It wasn't; it was simply that the stakes were getting higher each time.

Cameron has been called an "Essay Crisis" Prime Minister: he would often lack the drive and attention to deal with a problem until the last minute, when he would suddenly bring it all together as if by magic. It also meant that he was liable to panic at the final moment.

This was true of the Scottish Referendum, when during the negotiations with Alex Salmond he gave way on some issues, as long as the vote was an "either-or" and London would decide the timing of the vote. As the polls suggested a comfortable majority for staying part of the UK when the campaign started, Cameron saw this as a way to "lance the boil" of Scottish independence, while also catching Alex Salmond on the back foot.
As we know, the polls narrowed dramatically in the final weeks of the campaign, resulting in Cameron's panicky "vow" with the other major party leaders for more powers for Scotland to stay part of the UK (as an aside here, with Scotland being the only other kingdom in the "United Kingdom", Scotland leaving the UK would effectively mean the name would no longer have any meaning; so Scotland was effectively voting to abolish "the UK").
Again, this was another moment when Cameron was truly "risking it all". But no sooner had the referendum been won that he was again "hedging" with his own troublesome backbenchers by calling for EVEL; currying favour with Scotland one day, and with the English shires the next. No wonder people saw him as untrustworthy.

As we have seen, Cameron had been a "lucky" Prime Minister. The after-shocks of the referendum had huge effects on the politics of Scotland, with horrifying effects for Labour. Come the general election, it meant that Labour had to win dozens of seats in England to stand a chance. Cameron's use of Lynton Crosby, combined with a ruthless assault on the seats of the coalition partners, meant that his party was able to create an almost "perfect victory".
The strategy Cameron used in the election campaign was risky, especially as - in relentlessly attacking the LibDems - they were undermining the very party they thought they would need to form a functioning government. And, indeed, the "perfect victory" was almost too perfect: for it meant that with the LibDems no longer there in government to block an EU referendum, he would have to go through with his promise. This would prove to be a hideous irony.

And so Cameron arrived at his biggest gamble of all. As he had won so many other battles, and often played his hand with mastery over the past six years, he thought he had done enough to win the referendum, so he could go on to the final, glorious years of his premiership. In many ways, he used the same strategy ("Project Fear") in the EU referendum as he had in the Scottish referendum. He made many assumptions - mostly false -  about the state of politics in the UK. Forgetting that UKIP were doing to Labour in the Northern England what the SNP had done to them in Scotland was a huge error of judgment on Cameron's part. This meant that Labour could not "rely" on "their" voters to vote the way they wanted, to fateful effect.

It was Cameron's "Essay Crisis" too many. He had looked at his hand of poker, and misjudged the table when he needed his judgment the most, when the stakes could not have been higher - for him or the country. The tendency for Cameron to be the expert of "winging it", of recklessly assuming "everything will be fine", of over-estimating his own judgment, finally came to destroy him.

In the end, also the manner of his resignation was told us something of his character. He was infamously quoted as saying after the result was clear "I'm not here for the hard shit", or words to that effect.