Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Michael Gove

Brexit Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday July 14 2016

Colman's Column3

 

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Grievance Vote against the Elites

When Mrs Thatcher came to office in 1979, manufacturing accounted for almost 30% of Britain’s national income and employed 6.8 million people; by 2010, it accounted for 11% and employed 2.5 million. In no other major economy was industrial collapse so drastic, speedy and long-lasting. There used to be a working class; there used to be a working class culture. Ian Jack writes about the life of the manufacturing towns: “much of the country’s former character was also owed to them – non-conformist chapels, brass bands, giant vegetable championships, self-improvement, association football. Surely nothing as significant to the nation’s economy, culture or politics would ever emerge from them again? And then it did: grievance.”

British politicians in the past had a hinterland: Macmillan and Attlee served with honour and were wounded in the First World War. They saw the poverty in the land and tried to do something about. Today’s politicians go straight from university to think tanks or to work for politicians. They have little contact with the real world. Johnson and Gove were journalists who wrote op eds not well-researched investigations.  Politicians like Cameron, Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith see it as a noble mission to dismantle the welfare state that Attlee and Macmillan built and privatise public good for the profit of their cronies. In his 1991 book The Rise and Decline of the English Working Class 1918-1990, Eric Hopkins shows how the affluence of the Macmillan years became the bleakness of the Thatcher years. Manufacturing industry was replaced by the service and financial industries and the working class lost its sense of community with unemployment and the emasculation of the trade unions. There is an unpleasant view on YouTube of Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party haranguing fellow MEPs, telling them they do not know about real life and have never done a proper job in their lives. The man sitting behind him was a cardiac surgeon who was born in a Gulag. Farage was a commodities broker.

Sunderland was the first to declare a result in the referendum and it was overwhelmingly for leaving as were many other areas devastated by Thatcherism and its aftermath – areas kept alive by massive EU subsidies. Wales as a whole voted to leave. Michael Sheen, the Welsh-born actor (who played the role of Tony Blair) from Port Talbot, tweeted: “Wales votes to trust a new and more rightwing Tory leadership to invest as much money into its poorer areas as EU has been doing.” Many people voted Leave as a way out of seemingly hopeless circumstances. Cornwall, which voted solidly for Leave, has already demanded British government “protection”.

Economic Consequences

Standard & Poor’s stripped Britain of its triple-A credit rating. The Conservative Party set great store by London’s position as the world’s leading financial centre. Banks are preparing to shift jobs out of London amid the uncertainty about whether the UK can keep its “passporting” rights allowing them to operate across the EU. Ironically, although the UK was proud of keeping out of the euro, leaving the EU could mean the City will have rules imposed upon it by eurozone countries.

There is no doubt that some financial services jobs will be relocated to Dublin, Frankfurt, and Paris. US bank JP Morgan has warned 4,000 jobs will go from the UK and HSBC has said 1,000 City jobs will move to France. An Irish friend long resident in France tells me that Paris estate agents are being swamped with enquiries from large financial institutions in London looking for apartments for their personnel. “Whatever Osborne might say, that is the reality”. Rumours are sweeping the City that alternative trading sites are being set up in a number of other financial centres, including Luxembourg.

A survey by the Institute of Directors (IoD), found that nearly two-thirds of those polled said the outcome of the referendum was negative for their business. A quarter of those polled were putting hiring plans on hold, while 5% said they were about to make workers redundant. One in five respondents, out of a poll of more than 1,000 business leaders, were considering moving some of their operations outside of the UK.

There will be an immediate, and downward, impact upon GDP as uncertainty about the UK’s terms of trade with the rest of the world will deter even British firms from investing. If businesses stop investing there will be less employment in the UK economy. This will have a bad effect on consumer spending.

Immigration, Stupid!

Many in Ebbw Vale, the constituency of those left-wing icons Nye Bevan and Michael Foot, voted UKIP in the last general election – a town with almost no immigrants that voted to get the immigrants out. A recent survey showed that 77% of UK citizens are concerned about immigration above any other political/economic topic – and concern is strongest and most widespread in constituencies with virtually no recent immigration.

One can, without wanting to join a fascist party, empathise with those white working class people who feel in their gut that decisions that they were powerless to influence were made by people who were cushioned from the consequences of those decisions. One can understand their sense of insecurity as they see familiar areas changing because of immigration. I was shocked to find that the part of my hometown, Gloucester, which had been the birthplace of the poet and composer, Ivor Gurney, was full of Muslims and mosques. However, in the early 50s it had been full of West Indians.

The austere and donnish classicist, Enoch Powell, had dockers marching through the streets in his support. In the sixties, he became the unlikely spokesman for the beleaguered white working class, even winning the endorsement of Eric Clapton. Because he was a contrarian and mischief-maker, it is likely that Powell took delight in raising issues that both parties shrouded in complicit silence. His “rivers of blood” speech raised matters of real concern. In particular, he was right to suggest that areas like Wolverhampton were experiencing acute problems in adjusting to the concentration of recent immigrants.

Whether or not people voting Leave had legitimate concerns about immigration, there is no doubt that the referendum result seems to be giving licence to racists. Many MPs received reports from their constituencies and communities of migrants being intimidated or “told they need to go home”.  Many people, whose parents or grandparents were born in the UK, now say they feel less secure.

Boris Johnson tells us in his Daily Telegraph column (for which he gets paid 5,000 pounds a week) that he wants a “balanced and humane points-based” immigration system, but that’s for the extremely indeterminate future – and everyone can meanwhile look forward to ‘intense and intensifying’ co-operation with Europe, and opportunities to live, travel, work and study on the continent just as they please. The only pledge the Leavites could honour is a points-based immigration system, which the UK has had since 2008.

A likely scenario is that many elderly people living abroad will have to return to the UK, thereby placing a burden on the NHS (which will not be getting the extra funding promised by the Leavites), while young people currently working and paying taxes will leave the UK.

Conclusion

I respect anybody’s right to vote the way they choose. I am angry at the hypocrisy of those who are dismantling the welfare state and the NHS for the profit of their cronies but pretending to be saving the nation from Brussels bureaucracy.

Many who voted to leave the EU blamed immigrants for their reduced circumstances. There are real problems in the areas that voted to leave. Those problems were not caused by the EU or by immigration. They were caused by the deliberate policies of successive UK governments.

It is distressing to watch the rancour generated by this referendum. George Szirtes is a distinguished poet who found a welcome in England when his family was displaced by the Hungarian uprising in 1956. George sees a very different country today and finds it hard to forgive the Leavites: “You have changed not only my life but a great many people’s lives, both here and elsewhere, for the worse. I am not going to shake your hand for that.”

 

 

 

Brexit Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday July 7 2016.

Colman's Column3

George Bernard Shaw, an Irishman, once wrote: “Do not believe the laws of God were suspended for England because you were born here.”

david-cameron-487174

David Cameron has post-dated his resignation as prime minister of the UK until October. English football manager, Roy Hodgson, resigned immediately after his team put in an appalling performance in the European Championship against Iceland.  Iceland has a population of 330,000 and 100 professional players. Diehard England football fans always think that this time the World Cup or the Euros will be different – until they’re not.

 

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 03:  Roy Hodgson, manager of England looks on prior to the International friendly match between England and Norway at Wembley Stadium on September 3, 2014 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Many in the EU will be grateful for the UK’s departure, breathing a sigh of relief that they will be spared British exceptionalism and superiority. They will be grateful that the fantasy that Britain is doing the EU a favour is at an end.

In the early 90s, I was talking to a EU insider who compared the behaviour of delegates from the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The Irish went to all the social events in Brussels and got to know everybody, and generally got what they wanted by way of charm and intelligence and working the system. The Brits complained a lot and went to bed early.

Cameron’s Legacy

David Cameron promised to have a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in order to appease the Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party – those John Major called the “bastards”. This cynical ploy has not only led to the possible fragmentation of the EU, with far-right parties, which are strongly represented in the European Parliament, calling for similar exit referenda in their own nations, it certainly means the end of the UK.

Scotland, Northern Ireland and most major cities, including London, voted Remain. The referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014 resulted in a victory for those wanting to stay in the UK. I warned at the time that, although the victory could not be challenged, there could be serious consequences if the views of the 44% who wanted Scottish independence within the EU were not considered. In the general election of May 2015, the Scottish National Party won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats to become the third largest party in the Commons.

Cameron’s legacy on Ireland could be an end to the peace process. An important element of the Good Friday Agreement was that the terrorists’ goal of a united Ireland was subsumed  because the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland were both co-operating within the EU. Cameron’s legacy will be the re-erecting of the border between the six counties and the 26 counties – with all the tensions that will bring. Another scenario, however, is that Northern Ireland might join the Republic – Sinn Fein have already called for a referendum on removing the border. In a bizarre twist, Ian Paisley Jr, son of the fire-breathing pastor who bellowed “No surrender!” has advised his constituents to apply for Irish passports. Another border issue now looks rather different – in Gibraltar, 95% voted to Remain, so that outpost of doughty Englishness may become part of Spain to stay in the EU.

What Was the Plan?

Some of the more cogent arguments for remaining made by derided “experts” indicated that a divorce after 43 years of marriage was likely to be extremely complicated, messy and acrimonious. Disentangling trade agreements and establishing a host of new bi-lateral agreements with individual states will be a nightmarish task which will take decades and require the input of armies of experts and bureaucrats.

The foreign secretary, Philip Hammond warned that the Leavites needed to tell voters how they planned to reconcile “mutually incompatible” promises made during the referendum campaign over restricting immigration at the same time as continuing free trade.

That Is Not What We Meant at All

As soon as the result was known, the Leavites started backtracking. The 17 million or so who voted for Brexit were being told almost from the moment the polls closed that they weren’t going to get any of what they had voted for anyway. Michael Gove had been happy about leaving the single market and damn the economic costs. Others now concede the UK will have to stay in the single market. Daniel Hannan MEP admitted that free movement of labour might continue. While votes were still being counted, Nigel Farage of the UK Independence Party confessed that it had been “a mistake” for Vote Leave to pretend that there would be an extra £350m a week for the NHS. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s promise to scrap VAT on energy bills were obviously fanciful with an economy slowing down and they are irrelevant when there is no government.

Take Me to your Leader

Who is in charge? Cameron quickly announced his resignation but he will be hanging on until October. Michael Gove and Theresa May have announced they will be running for the leadership of the Conservative Party but Boris Johnson has said he will not run – apart from running away from the mess he has created. The opposition Labour Party is in disarray with a majority of MPs calling on Jeremy Corbyn to resign from the leadership.

Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty


Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty sets out how an EU country might voluntarily leave the union. The UK will be the first full member state to invoke Article 50. The only precedent is Greenland leaving the EU in 1985 after two years of negotiation. It has a population of 55,000, and only one product: fish.

Failure to conclude new arrangements within two years results in the exiting state falling out of the EU with no new provisions in place. If negotiations are not concluded within two years, Britain risks having to leave the EU with no deal at all.

Leavites and Cameron seem reluctant to get the withdrawal moving. However, some EU bigwigs do not want to indulge their delaying tactics. Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU commission president, said: “It doesn’t make any sense to wait until October to try and negotiate the terms of their departure. I would like to get started immediately”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi insisted there could be no formal or informal talks about Britain’s new relationship until the Article 50 had been activated.

The UK will have to renegotiate 80,000 pages of EU agreements, deciding those to be kept in UK law and those to jettison. This will keep parliament busy for decades. Successive governments have made swingeing cuts in the civil service supposedly in the interests of economy and efficiency. The Leavites have excoriated “Brussels bureaucracy” and it is a karmic irony that they have succeeded in unleashing a bureaucratic hell on Whitehall with too few people to deal with it.

Any Turning Back?

The result of the referendum was, legally, purely advisory. To put withdrawal into action it requires the endorsement of parliament. There is another irony in that. A major theme of the Leave campaign was bringing back sovereignty to the UK. The sovereign power of the UK is the monarch in parliament. Lord Heseltine has pointed out: “There is a majority of something like 350 in the House of Commons broadly in favour of the European relationship …There is no way you are going to get those people to say black is white and change their minds unless a) they know what the deal is and b) it has been supported either by an election or by another referendum”. Another estimate is that less than 200 of the 650 MPs supported leaving.

Geoffrey Robertson QC writes: “Before Brexit can be triggered, parliament must repeal the 1972 European Communities Act by which it voted to take us into the European Union – and MPs have every right, and indeed a duty if they think it best for Britain, to vote to stay.”

http://epaper.ceylontoday.lk/TodayEpaper.php?id=2016-07-07

 

More next week on why this happened.

Two Cheers for Facebook

This article was published in Ceylon Today on January 29 2014.

Colman's Column3

Enemies of promise?

UK education minister Michael Gove recently had an article in the London Daily Mail in which he wrote: “Exactly 75 years ago the great English writer and thinker, Cyril Connolly, published his most famous book – Enemies of Promise. Connolly’s work explores the ways in which the talented individuals of his time were prevented from achieving their full potential.”

Well, Michael, up   to a point. I cannot help wondering if you have actually read the book. The most famous quotation from the book is: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

Mr Gove says: “It’s time someone produced an update.”Who are the guilty men and women who have deprived a generation of the knowledge they need? Who are the modern Enemies of Promise? Well, helpfully, 100 of them put their name to a letter to The Independent newspaper this week. They are all academics who have helped run the university departments of education responsible for developing curricula and teacher training courses… Sadly, they seem more interested in valuing Marxism, revering jargon and fighting excellence.”

This has little to do with what concerned Connolly. He was not much interested in who was guilty of depriving a generation of essential knowledge. Connolly was writing about himself. The overarching theme of the book is the search for an explanation of why Connolly failed to produce a major work of literature. Connolly confronts the evils of domesticity (symbolised by “the pram in the hall”), politics, drink, and advertising. Connolly provides a list of things that can distract a writer can use as ways to drift away from writing.

What are the real enemies of promise in the 21st cewntury? What is the equivalent of “the pram in the hall” today? Social media must be a strong contender as a major distracter and disrupter.

About 75 percent of 12-17 year-olds in America own a cell phone. Half of them send 50 or more text messages a day and one-third send more than 100 text messages daily. I do not text much or use a mobile phone unless I have to. However, I do recognise the power of social media in preventing me from writing the greatest novel of all time. I started blogging in 2008 on a site called Open Salon, which invited contributors on the basis that it offered a platform for writers, photographers and other artists. That was not how it turned out. The site policy of openness left the doors open to flame wars and obsessives. I withdrew and started using Facebook.

Why write that masterpiece (or fill in your tax return) when you can read recipes, look at pictures of cute kittens or discuss TV programmes? Some people just post to say they are having a coffee or that the sun is shining. Some argue that technology alters our brains. In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argued that the Internet might have detrimental effects on cognition that diminish the capacity for concentration and contemplation. Nietzsche’s prose style changed when he started using a typewriter. Carr ventures that the cognitive impact of the Internet may be far more encompassing than any other previous intellectual technology because it is replacing them all. Carr contends that ads and obtrusive notifications significantly hinder the capacity to concentrate. These detrimental effects on concentration are compounded by traditional media because they  mimic the Internet, in order to remain competitive.

I have been comfortable on Facebook, although there are many opportunities to be irritated. However, the most irritating thing for me is people who make condescending remarks about Facebook on Facebook. I fully understand that someone might object to such social media sites on principle but I would have more respect for that viewpoint if they just stayed away from Facebook. There are real issues about privacy and Facebook does not have a good record of responding to concerns about technical “bugs”.

There are those who see conspiracies everywhere and believe that the CIA set up Facebook for its own fell purpose. They may have a point. Facebook has willingly provided information in response to government subpoenas or requests. The 2013 mass surveillance disclosures instigated by Edward Snowden identified Facebook as a participant in the U.S. National Security Administration’s PRISM program. Facebook now reports the number of requests it receives for user information from governments around the world. There has been concern about Facebook selling users’ data to private companies.

I found my experience of Facebook mostly positive. “Experts” worry that lack of face-to-face social interaction might be psychologically harmful.  It might even cause the part of your brain that controls speech to atrophy. However, I have been lucky enough to interact with people whose witty banter keeps my brain stimulated.

Another remarkable phenomenon is the kindness of strangers. One of my Facebook friends is suffering from a horrible illness. The outpouring of affection reinforced by practical and financial help that flowed to her was awe-inspiring. A support group was set up to get another Facebook friend out of jail in Africa. The group raised money to get him to the UK and found accommodation for him. He is now reunited with his wife and children and undertaking  an AA 12-Step programme. In less dramatic circumstances, other writers more celebrated than myself have shown me great kindness and support.

I have to confess that I am going through a jaded phase. Did Noel Coward not say: “A man who is tired of Facebook is tired of life”? No, he did not. He was talking about London. Sometimes the witty banter fades as people think they have to make a million jokes every day or to express an opinion on every topic, speculate about the private life of every Z-list celebrity.

Even in those positive instances I cited, vicious flame wars erupted between members of the “support group” which had nothing to do with the people being supported.

A joint study conducted by two German universities found that one out of three people felt less satisfied with their lives after visiting Facebook. Social envy was often the cause. Some resented the fact that their Facebook “friends” were posting vacation photos of destinations they themselves could not visit. On Open Salon, there was much anger about the award of Editor’s Picks and spaces on the cover. Facebook users compare the number of birthday greetings they get.

Gloomsayers argue that social networking keeps our minds off important matters and encourages apathy. Sherry Turkle argues that social media bring people closer and further apart at the same time. Peoples’ expectations of each other tend to be lessened.  Although people network they get a feeling of loneliness in spite of being together.

One has to learn to step back and avoid obsession. A 2013 study in the journal CyberPsychology, found that some users actually decide to leave social networking sites because of their feeling of getting addicted.

Many people confuse debate with diatribe. Anger that would be suppressed in face-to-face contact is given full expression online. I nimbly stepped back from what looked like a long war when a stranger in the American Mid West disagreed with my views on punctuation. I have seen otherwise rational people (perhaps over-rational) writing long essays in comment threads about the most abstruse points, the equivalent of the number of angels on the head of a pin. One thread had over 600 of these lengthy comments. Who has the time for this? One has to accept that some people will not be persuaded to change their minds whatever rational arguments are put to them.

Psychologist John Suler coined the term “online disinhibition effect.” Anonymity allows a disconnect between the commenter’s identity and what he is saying. The moment you shed your identity the usual constraints on your behavior go, too. Arthur Santana, a communications professor at the University of Houston, found that a full fifty-three per cent of anonymous commenters were uncivil, as opposed to twenty-nine per cent of registered, non-anonymous commenters. Anonymity, Santana concluded encouraged incivility.

Substantive debates are one thing, but negative, vile comments—especially personal attacks—are something else.  To eliminate or censor comments, however, does not seem to be the answer either. More about the serious implications of this next week.

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