Monthly Archives: March 2016

On a train bound for nowhere

I don’t often think about primary school. Well, it would be more accurate to say I can’t. I have scattered memories of those years – a game of tig here, a pair of broken glasses there – but nothing to dwell upon. At that age, the memory is like the broad, clumsy brush-strokes on the Van Gogh pastiches we made when we were seven: bright colours, vague impressions, little coherence.

I do remember one moment quite well. I was perhaps nine, and the school had decided to teach us something practical: in this instance, we were called upon to put together little boats capable of traversing a trough of water, using only balsa wood and elastic bands. My teacher found my response to the creative writing task I’d been working on before that amusing and gave me some extra time to finish it (some arch comedy I had ripped off from a video game). By the time I got my hands on the balsa wood I was well behind everyone else and had to work alone.

I fiddled and worked at it for days, but try as I might, I couldn’t get the propeller working. The fat chunk of wood I had tried to use for the purpose splashed about hopelessly, spraying my little blue polo shirt with ice-cold water. On the upside, it cooled me down a little bit, after the quiet, burning, humiliated tears had receded. So I gave up. On reflection, the boat had been badly designed from the start – too heavy at the front, too prone to weakness at the back. It would never have got to the finish line anyway.

Then I got home and watched Pokémon, I imagine. That was pretty much all I watched at that age. As I recall, Ash usually won against all the odds. It’s funny that the odds were never, never in his favour. Yet he always won. Isn’t that interesting?

 


 

Tristram Hunt’s article in the New Statesman on the European referendum, deriding Brexit as a “self-defeating dereliction of duty and history”, is an impressive piece of work. Its rousing defence of the EU as a unifying force for liberal democracy dovetails with his cool dismissal of Michael Gove’s purportedly Whiggish view of British history and Daniel Hannan’s slurping plutophilia. It is almost convincing. Yet an impressive piece of work is still a piece of work, so to speak, and Mr Hunt replaces Rhodesian Anglocentrism with Whiggism of his own.

Mr Hunt’s thesis, in essence, is that the EU is an institution of reform, of blunting the sharp edges of capitalism. He sets out his stall thus:

As a progressive, I want to remain within a supranational institution that has the capacity to help reform capitalism for the digital age. On issues such as tax justice, workers’ rights, climate change, environmental protection, international trade and poverty alleviation the EU plays a positive role.

Anticipating the objections, however, this statement of the obvious is immediately qualified by the following:

Yes, it is difficult for us liberals to defend its recent treatment of Greece, its inertia on the refugee crisis, or its institutional lethargy towards proper democratic accountability. But social justice requires co-operation beyond our borders, and the fact remains that the only sustained period of peace in modern European history directly coincides with the EU’s creation.

This is the case in a nutshell, really. I have bolded the words ‘institutional lethargy’ above, because it is not that institutional lethargy is, as Mr Hunt implies, a bug in the EU’s system, a thorn in its side, a fly in its ointment. Far from being something that prevents the system from solving the refugee crisis or sorting out the vertiginous scale of European debt, institutional lethargy is the EU’s system.

Why? In 1945, Europe lay in ruins, utterly exhausted by the most savage conflict in human history. There was, however briefly, the opportunity for the occupying American forces west of Berlin to impose a new sovereign state on West Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux: the ‘United States of Europe’ coined by Churchill in his Zurich speech in 1946. This would be the state of the future, the one that through gradual, measured expansion could lead the world towards progress, sweeping away the nationalisms of the past as one more ideology that had been utterly defeated along with Nazism and fascism. It would manifest a destiny for humanity itself.

But this was bottled, of course, as these things usually are. Instead we got gradualism: first the Coal and Steel Community, with its noxious air of strapping, 1950s industrialism; second the Economic Community, a gentle, unassumingly technocratic creature in the background of the Cold War; lastly the Union, our Union, Maastricht and Lisbon duetting the harmony that serenaded the end of history and the nuclear peace. With gradualism came intergovernmentalism, and with intergovernmentalism came a big, dripping, juicy platter of pork, farmed through the Common Agricultural Policy. Worse still came a regulatory environment which punished experimentation and stifled the development of economic systems to rival the Union’s unambitious own. All roads led to Rome – and it was those roads or the high road, buster.

Instead of a system which serves the people of Europe, we have a system which serves its governments. Every item of European policy is created through horse-trading between governments, in arduous negotiations that eventually reach a limping settlement for ministers to sell to their parties and their people: look at David Cameron’s pathetic renegotiation for an example of this in progress. Yet if we needed an example, Greece has been the butt of the EU’s institutional incompetence for years – not just in the ongoing failure to resolve its debt crisis, but the abject chaos unfolding on its islands as Europe scrambles to make up for the consequences of Germany’s unilateral (and democratically-endorsed) embrace of open borders. The German drum is the loudest beat on the Continent, but there aren’t many states who can keep up any more.

In a functional system, countries would be able to be flexible, play to their strengths, and operate in an air of competition and open dealing. Instead, far from creating a shining beacon of free trade and democracy, we have generated a system so laden with rules, processes and legal challenges that it replicates the deadlock of another federal government a mere ocean away. And just like that mighty republic, we work with filthy criminals to mitigate the impact of our own overextension. Rather than being the great peacekeeper on the Continent, the last few years have proved how wholly reliant on a NATO-enforced peace the EU is. Take away its air of tranquility – threaten it from the east or the south – and it proves incapable of even adapting its own system, let alone contributing to international stability. There was, of course, a precedent for this, but faced with the havoc erupting in the Mediterranean we have even less excuse.

 


 

Mr Hunt continues:

When even the United Kingdom itself faces an uncertain future, I believe we need to stand up and renew the ties that bind. To walk away from Europe in its latest hour of need would be an entirely self-defeating dereliction of duty and history; a betrayal of our traditional role as a force for peace, security and the proper balance of powers. Brexit is the politics of defeat and the philosophy of decline. We must resist those siren voices and lead both ourselves and the Continent towards a more open, liberal, democratic, freer, fairer and stronger future.

It would be nice if the European Union could be led to a more open, liberal, democratic, freer, fairer and stronger future. But it cannot be led at all. It is set up precisely to frustrate being led by anyone, because every state obeys their rational individual incentives to change nothing at all and preserve their own privileges. Like my boat, it’s too big, too heavy, and its propeller judders limply as the vessel floats with all the others, becalmed, somewhere in the Mediterranean.

If Europe became a sovereign state of the core six, then perhaps – perhaps – it could be rejoined. But the EU as it stands is just not good enough, and calls for a stronger European Parliament just delay the issue – and run up against the fact that the Council and Commission have no reason to give up their power. The longer the EU exists, the weaker Europe becomes, more and more vulnerable to Erdoğan’s thumbscrews, the long, dark Russian winter and the sheer entropy of its own economic ennui.

The boats of Europe lie rather low in the water, and time is running out. When confronted with the proof that great projects like the Eurozone (a Franco-German confection) and eastern expansion (Britain’s fault, mostly) are not working, the EU has no way to give up on those projects and try different ones like a nation-state can. Instead, it has to bet all the harder on a change in its fortunes: the gambler who, sure his losing streak will run out soon, divests himself of his wallet, then his car, then his house.

The odds are no longer good enough. Every hand’s a loser. It’s time, after forty years of gambling, to leave the table.

 


 

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.

-TS Eliot, Little Gidding (from Four Quartets)

 

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On us, and our not taking it

Janan Ganesh, the FT’s political columnist, was born in 1982 (probably). At 33 or 34, that makes him just young enough to count as a Millennial, if Strauss and Howe’s grand theory of eternal return is taken as read, or at least pretended to have read. Perhaps this is, in part, why Ganesh’s column on why Millennials don’t know they’re born has produced such a stir: a convert is always more influential than a mere priest.

Ganesh’s piece is, as always, beautifully written. He understands the economy of words better than any prominent political writer in the UK. And to give him his due he is, of course, right when he seizes the pulpit to denounce the eschatological heresy of looming intergenerational Armageddon:

The fracturing of public life along generational lines has felt imminent for some time. And it will continue to feel imminent. Generational politics will never take off because no normal person identifies with a collective as large and internally diverse as their age cohort. It is too tenuous a bond to spur concerted civic action.

Yet despite this bracing good sense, his argument – that Millennials should be grateful for our luck of having been born in (for instance) 1990 as opposed to 1960 due to the “dazzling consumer gains that come with technology and competition multiplied by the passage of time” – fails to convince. Ganesh supposes that these consumer gains are in some way a cosmic compensation for the relative abject asset poverty into which my generation has been born, but to do so misunderstands the nature of the injustice which has been done to us.

Ganesh’s argument would hold if generational injustice was necessary to lower crime rates, reduce the cost of flights and accelerate the development of the smartphone, the iPad and Skype. This might excuse the imbalance as a payment we (unwillingly) made for our living standards – but Ganesh never proves this, or even adduces any evidence to that effect. It is no good saying to someone whose house has been burnt down by arsonists to cheer up because it’s a sunny day outside: it was always going to be a sunny day, thank you, and I’d rather have lemonade on the front porch than rubble and a suntan.

Of course I (on balance) would rather be born in 1990 than 1960. I’m less likely to get beaten up or robbed; I’m less likely to die abroad; I have access to the sum of all human knowledge at my fingertips. But unless stagnant wages and low house prices were necessary for me to have these things (not, in fact, a ridiculous supposition given how capitalism and competition operated in the West), I’m more than entitled to be angry with my lot. So is my cohort. Until research can confirm this hypothesis, the last word should be Ganesh’s:

Beneath the pose, there is nothing there.

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The nEUclear option

A comrade for Leave argues that repeal of the European Communities (EC) Act 1972 instead of activation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is “not an option“, calling it “irresponsible”, “unthinkable”, “thoroughly un-British” and “a political and economic disaster”.

This is strong talk, and accurate too as far as it goes. There’s no doubt that an act as extreme as unilateral withdrawal from the EU outwith the provisions of the Treaty would be an internationally wrongful act earning us severe opprobrium and probably massive economic reprisals around the world. This is why it is not generally mentioned as the first resort for British disentanglement from Brussels. But it remains possible for the one reason Ben neglects to mention in his post.

The European Union rests on its processes and institutions making ongoing membership more attractive and (crucially, for democracies) less politically painful than reaping the potential benefits of flexibility outside is structures. Accordingly this requires the Member States to pressure each other not to give up on the project. It is comparable to unionisation: the many can only retain the benefits so long as individuals don’t break off and bargain on their own to undercut the others.

A unilateral British withdrawal, though painful in the short run, would remind other Member States that they retain their sovereignty, and accordingly the right in domestic law to quit the EU whenever they want. It operates, not as a thoughtful tool of public policy, but as a weapon, an earthshaker to disrupt the very foundations of the European project. In the aftermath of a British withdrawal, it seems likely that other countries with strongly Eurosceptic tendencies like Denmark and the Netherlands would start sabre-rattling over their own place in the EU, with government ministers perhaps issuing menacing innuendoes about leaving by fiat unless the EU gives them what they want. Doubtless the British government, sensing an opportunity, would be wooing these nations with promises of trade deals and alliance to counterbalance the ailing Union to the south.

It isn’t accurate to say that withdrawing without recourse to Article 50 is “not an option”. It is not a pleasant option, and it’s one we ought not to use without regard for the consequences. But it’s there like a hand grenade at a Mexican stand-off, and should be treated in the same way. The SALT treaties were only negotiated by accepting that the use of nuclear weapons was not just not unthinkable, but eminently thinkable. Only by doing so can we hope to avoid catastrophe.

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