what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, March 21, 2019


Ironic that it’s “The Japan Times” which gives me the first answer to my question about novels reflecting the mood in English society about Brexit – although the article focuses on novels which have appeared since the referendum (a genre now known apparently as “Brex-lit”).
The 2012 novel “Capital” by John Lanchester is a fairly obvious frontrunner for the book which anticipated Brexit and the recently-issued “Middle England” seems a good read by an established writer about the tensions the referendum created…

There are at least two reasons why we might expect novelists to offer more than social scientists in both the anticipation of a major event (such as Brexit) and in its analysis – imagination and vision -two basic “senses” which don’t seem to be given to academics….trapped as they are not just in a single intellectual discipline but, these days, in a tiny field of what is a series of strongly barricaded enclosures.

The most obvious skill-set, however, for these times is probably that of social historians such as David Kynaston - who poke about in the rubbish-bins of popular memory and develop highly readable narratives. One such historian Dominic Sandbrook has even coined a phrase for the genre - The Great British dream factory
The problem is that its coverage (starting in 1945) has (so far) ended in 1979 just when the Thatcherite agenda started to stir things up…

There is, however, one British writer whose well-tuned sensibilities are almost uniquely attuned to pick up the currents of the British mood – and that is Anthony Barnett – one of the founders of the inestimable Open Democracy website. It is only now that I have noticed the important analysis he offered last summer….starting with an open letter 
Our starting point for every argument about the need to remain in the EU should be “Brexit voters were right. The status quo is insupportable”……Brexit will not be reversed by traditional techniques alone. We need to talk with those who think anyone seeking to stay in the EU is trying to “kill democracy”, see January’s vivid Guardian survey. We could create more citizens assemblies on Brexit like the Manchester one and give them national publicity. We need to learn from the Irish referendum. As Fintan O’Toole describes, those who won decided to “talk to everybody and make assumptions about nobody” and they did not “jeer back”.

And, unlike most of those who write on Brexit, you can rely on Barnett to sniff out an important source which is being ignored by everyone else. – in this case a 2007 book The Rise of the Unelected – Democracy and the new Separation of Power by Frank Vibert – who
describes how over the last half-century unelected bodies, from economic regulators, to science and medical councils, and now digital watchdogs, backed by a new range of auditors and ‘risk managers’, have proliferated.
Democracies need regulation for a wide variety of reasons that have grown out of an increasingly complex, science-based, long-range market-place. New relationships are being created between the state and the market, while ethical questions of safety, accountability, privacy and consumer and employee rights have emerged. The internet and the explosion of digital platforms has intensified the process greatly.
…….The need for a process to approve or disapprove products or standards is of obvious importance. The decisions taken can have serious economic, human and environmental consequences… Regulation is an ongoing process. Science and industry keep discovering new techniques and technologies and creating new products. It is not practical to decide each new inclusion on a white list or a black list via a Parliamentary vote, still less a vote by 28 parliaments. The answer to the democratic impossibility of parliamentary voting is expert advice, followed by the adoption of secondary legislation. …
 It seems that the EU has in this way developed over 11,000 regulations, set over 60,000 standards and its different agencies have taken over 18,000 decisions on interpreting regulations and laws….which could take ten years to incorporate into British law, if each is accorded scrutiny. This alone shows that a process has been taking place that is beyond the reach and capacity of traditional legislatures.

Barnett’s analysis is an important and long one which warrants proper reflection – so I will pause it here and resume tomorrow…

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Novel Clues?

What, I asked last week, does Brexit tell us about British – or perhaps more precisely, English - society? And the post duly looked at some titles from the social scientists, think-tankers and the better journalists to see what insights they might offer on such a question. But perhaps I’ve been looking in the wrong place – or rather format?
Perhaps it’s the novel which has the capacity and range to help us “penetrate the soul” of a country? – an issue which these posts have tried to deal with from time to time…..After all we talk of the Thatcher novel.
The French indeed would consider the point so obvious – Michel Houllebecq for 20 years has been the poster-boy of cultural pessimism. I;ve actually read a couple of them – and actually like them! He has somewhere said quite explicitly that the diagnostic skills you expect of non-fiction seems to have transferred to novelists…And if the “gritty realism” of his early novels shocked those used to the more formal tones of le nouveau roman of Duras and Queneau, it was actually thoroughly in the traditions of Emile Zola.

I may not be a great fan of novels but I do my best to keep up with the names and reputations - and have read enough to be able to make the distinction between contemporary Scottish and English novelists – whose countries, of course, voted differently in the referendum…
I’ve started to read the latest collected essays (“The Rub of Time) of one of England’s most famous novelists Martin Amis – who has some similarities with Houllebecq – and noticed that he characterizes contemporary English fiction as….
“hopelessly inert and inbred (apart from the crucial infusion of the colonials)” – and French fiction as …“straying into philosophical and essayistic peripheries”

I’m not an Amis fan (I prefer Faulks, Ballard and even Weldon) – he is so arrogant indeed that I would not put it past him to have included the Scots in his use of the term “colonial”! It can't have escaped him that the prose of Alasdair Gray, William McIlvanney, James Robertson, James Meek, Andrew O’Hagen, Andrew Greig, AL Kennedy - let alone the SF of Iain M Banks - has a raw force only Ballard could match amongst English novelists. Interestingly, 2 of that list (Meek and O’Hagen) have also established a reputation in the wider field eg Private Island.
So the table I have developed below to explore the Brexit issue deals only with the English writers. And I do understand that it is a bit provocative to refer to a writer’s “typical” concerns…..but we all have to simplify!

English novels 1985-2019
“Typical” context
Fay Weldon, Margaret Drabble
Middle class women
“She Devil”; “The Millstone”
Martin Amis
“London Field”
David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Howard Jacobson
University academics
“Good Work”; “History Man”; “Zoo Time”
Ian McEwan
Middle class men
“Chesil Beach”
JG Ballard
Dystopian cities
“High Rise”
Foreign parts
“Birdsong”; “Birds without Wings”
“Wolf hall”
“The Line of Beauty”
More an essayist
Conflictual relations
“My Beautiful Launderette”
Surrealistic worlds
“The Bone Clocks”
Social concerns
Clive James
Poet and essayist
“Cultural Amnesia”

There is a very good short overview of the 1945-1990 writing scene in the UK here
I will now have to give some thought to the sort of picture (if any) which emerges about the “state of England” in the 1985-2016 period and how this might differ from, for example, the French “cultural pessimism” which has been referred to...

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The geography of thinking

Most of the time we imagine we are unique individuals – very occasionally we have a sense that we are but a grain of sand in an endless desert.
An archetypal figure in these most modern of modern times is the character who flits between continents, universities, policy institutes, government and business consultancies and on whom it is difficult to pin any label except that of “technocrat”.

I have, these past 2 days, been absorbed by a book whose title The Dawn of Euroasia – on the trail of the new world order (2018) intrigued me sufficiently to persuade me to fork out 10 euros without too rigorously subjecting its content to the tests I recommend for non-fiction books. Its author Bruno Macaes was unknown to me but seems to be one of the slippery new breed of geographical, linguistic and functional commuters.
A self-styled “adventurer”, Maçães was a Professor 2006/07 at the University of Yonsei in the Republic of Korea, where he taught International Political Economy; then worked at the American Enterprise Institute in 2008. From 2008 to 2011, Maçães helped launch a new international university in Europe, the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin.
Between 2011-2013 he was a policy adviser in the Portuguese PM office whose political connections allowed him, for a couple of years, to be Secretary of State for European Affairs which he left in late 2015. He has held positions at the Carnegie and right-wing Hudson Institutes; and is currently a hedge-fund adviser with Flint Global

I could see that the text covered aspects of China and the Central Asian countries in which I had spent almost a decade of my life - and that acknowledgements were duly made to the geopolitics writer par excellence  Robert Kaplan – although there was no reading list.

I am now on the final chapter and have to say that this is an extremely well-read 45 year old (with the breadth including a range of Russian novels he’s able to build seamlessly into the text)- even if this interview does reveal a certain slickness
Particularly resonant at this time was a section covering the 2015 immigration crisis which was resolved by a formula based on algorithms which weighed for population size, GNP (40% apiece), average number of asylum applicants per million inhabitants in 2010-2014; and the unemployment rate (10% apiece). As he was reading the account of the relevant meeting in his office, he suddenly had the realization that 
the EU isn’t meant to take political decisions. What it tries to do is develop a system of rules to be applied more or less autonomously to a highly complex political and social reality” (p228)

I am surprised, however, that Macaes does not make more of the cultural insights which occur particularly in his “Chinese Dreams” chapter (pages 137-147). His spell in South Korea will have allowed him to become familiar with the literature on the culture of geography - whose principal exponents are de Hofstede, Trompenaars and Inglehart
Richard Lewis’s When Cultures Clash (1996) is my favourite go-to reference whenever the discussion turns to questions of cultural difference – as is Richard Nisbett’s Geography of Thought (2003) who argues that -
East Asians and Westerners perceive the world and think about it in very different ways. Westerners are inclined to attend to some focal object, analyzing its attributes and categorizing it in an effort to find out what rules govern its behavior. Rules used include formal logic. Causal attributions tend to focus exclusively on the object and are therefore often mistaken.
East Asians are more likely to attend to a broad perceptual and conceptual field, noticing relationships and changes and grouping objects based on family resemblance rather than category membership. Causal attributions emphasize the context. Social factors are likely to be important in directing attention. East Asians live in complex social networks with prescribed role relations. Attention to context is important to effective functioning.
More independent Westerners live in less constraining social worlds and have the luxury of attending to the object and their goals with respect to it. The physical ‘‘affordances’’ of the environment may also influence perception.

Most of the writing on the geography of thought hesitates at this stage and seems unwilling to explore the implications of such a startling discovery. The niceties of cultural behaviour on display at global interactions are a safer topic – forming an integral part of most Business School courses. 
But the reviews of The Geography of Thought clearly suggest that all of us need to be thinking much more about the way we all take decisions – whether as individuals, organisations or countries – in full recognition that there are, legitimately, various styles appropriate to particular contexts….…

Further Reading
This is a more eclectic list than usual not just because Macaes is well-read but also for the thoughts his text gives rise to….
Beyond Liberal Democracy – political thinking in an east Asian context; Daniel Bell (2006) is a powerful early apologia for the system of party control in China written by a Canadian political scientist who has chosen since 2000 or so to live in China
The Art of Thinking; Allen Harrison and Robert Bramson (1984) The book which introduced me to the idea that there are, legitimately, different styles of thinking
Decisive – how to make better choices in life and work; C and D Heath (2013). An example of the huge literature now available on decision-making…
Cultures and organization – software of the mind; G de Hofstede (1991) One of the first to explore the cultural aspects of organisations and societies
When Cultures Collide – Richard Lewis (1996) – the full text of the easiest book on the subject
Riding the Waves of Culture; Frans Trompenaars (1996). Another Dutchman rides the waves…
The geography of thought; Richard Nesbitt (2003) – which pushed the ideas further
The Spirit of Russia; Thomas Masyrk (1913 German; 1919 English). An amazing book written before the First World War by the guy who subsequently became President of Czechoslovakia

Thursday, March 14, 2019

forward the people?

When Theresa May became PM in July 2016, she made no effort to try to heal the divisions caused by the referendum – let alone to try to create a larger conversation about the possible principles or shape for the new future facing the country.
There is no place in english politics for words like magnanimity, consensus or cooperation. British Governments take no prisoners….locked as they are into an adversarial culture. It’s one of the distinctive - but not unique – features of the British system. And even the equally adversarial French system was capable this year of opening up a bit with its "grand debat"

But, with parliament deadlocked, some voices are suggesting that any second referendum should have elements of the “citizen assembly” system – which (i) randomly selects a group of citizens who are (ii) able to invite people from respective sides of the argument to give evidence (iii) which is then explored before (iv) the production of a final report and recommendations – all under the auspices of an advisory group which manages the process.
And the Irish gave an inspiring example of how it works in their recent referendum on abortion

Of course, this would need an extension (or revocation) of the famous “article 50” to be agreed with the EU – and by longer than 6 months…..And any remain majority would be a small one – and therefore insufficient to still the loud and insistent voices of leave...
But the argument that Brexiteers have never been able to deal with is that noone knew during the campaign what leave actually meant - hence the sheer insult embodied in the May mantra - "Brexit means Brexit". As the last post said, at least now we have the strong outlines of its implications and it's on that basis that a second referendum could usefully be fought - for all that many people will impugn the motives of an elite which never takes no for an answer......Or indeed warn us of the dangers which the EU now even more clearly poses to the democratic project

Coincidentally, I picked up earlier this week in my second-hand bookshop Decisive – how to make better choices in life and work 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Brexit - What Happens Now?

Any defeat of the central strategy of a British government would normally lead to a vote of confidence which, if lost, would mean a General Election. And the massive 149 vote defeat last night of the government’s latest Brexit wheeze was the second such defeat after its 230 vote massacre in January. These, clearly, are not normal times – with governments now having the protection of the Fixed Term Act of 2011 which allows a general election only when two thirds of MPs vote for it.
The principle of "Parliamentary sovereignty" may be a hallowed one in the UK constitutional law textbooks but has not actually been evident for more than a century......the power first of party discipline; then (since mid 20th century) of the Prime Minister; and finally of European Law...has seen to that. 
But the UK's Supreme Court ruled 2 years ago that the Executive required parliamentary agreement to start the withdrawal process from the European Union. And Theresa May's subsequent failure (in the June 2017 General Election) to achieve a parliamentary majority led to the return of parliamentary sovereignty.

So Parliament will vote today to get rid of one of the three options which are open to it – to crash out of the EU in 16 days without a deal. It will then be asked to vote on Thursday on the option of requesting the EU for an extension.
The EU will only agree to that if there seems good reason for it – one strong reason being the possibility of a second referendum being held.

The People’s Vote has long argued for a second referendum – facing initial anger that this seemed to deny the legitimacy of the original vote but it has now dawned on many people that the inability of the parliamentarians to develop a clear consensus means that there is no other option than returning to the citizen. 
As Chris Grey points out in his forensic Brexit blog, Brits now have a much clearer sense of what they would be voting for – or rather “against”. It was in July 2018 the government published its Chequers’ Strategy – resulting from an away-day held by the Cabinet at the Prime Minister’s country residence. And it is this strategy to which the government refers when it talks about “the deal”.

Most European leaders were (and remain) aghast at David Cameron’s recklessness in allowing the British public a vote in the 2016 Referendum on membership of the European Union. And few of them expected the British government to honour the result. But we all know how eccentric the Brits are!
The 2016 referendum turnout may have seemed healthy at 74% - compared to the 64% of the first referendum in 1975 (and to a 59% turnout in the 2001 General Election and low 60% in 2005 ) - but not compared to the 82% of the 1950 and 1951 General elections and to the high 70% which prevailed until the 90s.
Nor was the experience without its critics – for example for its exclusion from the vote of 16 year-olds; EU citizens; and expats who had been out of the country for more than 15 years;

The 1975 Referendum had broken new constitutional ground – it had never been used before….and was, in most people’s minds, associated with dodgy regimes…..Vernon Bogdanor is Emeritus Professor of Government and author, amongst much else, of The New British Constitution. The grounds he gives for the support of such constitutional referenda do, therefore, deserve our attention. He gave two arguments – namely
- all parties supported membership in the 1970s - but public opinion was divided. A significant section of society had therefore no voice…
- the issue was so fundamental that the legitimacy of government was being threatened
In the 1970 Election, the Labour Party was defeated. Heath was returned to office. At the end of 1970, Tony Benn raised the possibility of the Labour Party committing itself to a referendum on joining Europe at Labour’s National Executive, but he could not find a seconder for the motion.
From 1971 onwards, the very complicated European Communities Bill made its way through Parliament, and in March 1972, a Conservative backbencher who was opposed to Europe, called Neil Martin, proposed an amendment calling for a referendum, and this meant the Shadow Cabinet had to decide what to do about it, and they decided to oppose this motion.  
But the very day after this happened, President Pompidou in France said he was going to have a referendum in France on whether the French people approved of British entry into Europe…and he was doing this for internal party political reasons, to weaken his opponents on the left, who were split on the issue. …. But there were going to be four new members of the European Community: Britain, Denmark, Ireland and Norway. In the end, Norway did not join.
The other three countries were all having referendums. France was having a referendum on whether Britain should enter, but Britain was not. One cynic wrote to the newspapers that when Heath has spoken of full-hearted consent of Parliament and people, he meant full-hearted consent of the French Parliament and people… 
After this, Labour’s National Executive voted narrowly in favour of the Benn proposal. Then, a couple of days later, pure coincidence, the Heath Government announced there was going to be a plebiscite, in Northern Ireland, on the border, on whether people wished to remain in the United Kingdom or join the Irish Republic. At this point, the Labour Shadow Cabinet agreed to the referendum.

So, the referendum came about through a series of really unforeseen contingencies and vicissitudes, completely unplanned, this very fundamental change in the British system.
Some readers may wonder why a referendum was held a mere 2 years after the UK entry into the EU. The answer is quite simply that the 1974 Labour Party manifestos had made very its reservations about several aspects of the agreement which it pledged to revisit and revise. The General Election of February did not give it a working majority and another had to be held (in June) to give it that – after which very detailed negotiations with Europe took place to allow it to campaign successfully in the 1975 referendum  

Although the odds on a second referendum have just shortened, I haven;t actually seen any real discussion about the mechanics - ie the options and question which would be on the ballot paper; or the organisation and timing of the campaign. I hope to explore these questions in my next post

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

What does Brexit tell us about "ourselves"?

It is perhaps a bit too soon to expect good analyses about what Brexit means – whether “about” the UK (in the sense of the socio-historical significance of the referendum for our understanding of the country) - let alone “for”  in the sense of future consequences for) it and the wider Europe. But a few publications have started to appear which, at the very least, offer interesting relief from the grunting and death throes of the political monster which Brexit has become – and this post will direct you to these.
My blog tells me that Brexit forms the 4th most frequent subject of my posts (which suggests that it is perhaps about time I brought them together in one of my little E-books - with some retrospective comments).

What was said 3 years ago
I well remember making a few posts almost 3 years ago - in the weeks before the referendum when it seemed fairly obvious we were leaving. One in particular tried to give a sense of the debate – and identified one article which seemed to give the best sense of the factors at work 
More than 50 years after the observation by the US secretary of state Dean Acheson, there is still too much lingering truth about Britain losing an empire and not finding a role. The more reluctant our embrace of our Europeanness, the more exceptionalist colonial-era British habits of thought and culture linger on, still subtly influencing the way parts of this country think about defence, hierarchy, schooling, foreigners – and Britishness.
We are paying the price of our media. British journalism thinks of itself as uniquely excellent. It is more illuminating to think of it as uniquely awful. Few European countries have newspapers that are as partisan, misleading and confrontational as some of the overmighty titles in this country. The possibility of Brexit could only have happened because of the British press. But Brexit may also happen because of the infantilised and destructively coarse level of debate on social media too.
We are not a democratic republic, with shared values, rights and institutions, a common culture and an appropriate modesty about our place in our region and the world. Ours remains a post-feudal state on to which various democratic constraints have been bolted through history. We therefore lack a shared culture, a settled civic sense, a proper second chamber, symmetrical devolution, effective local democracy and, until the human rights act, a clear and enforceable code of citizens’ rights – which of course the anti-Europeans wish to abolish. 
And we are paying the price of the failure of each of our political parties. The Tories remain trapped by an English-cum-British exceptionalism and a historically aberrant disdain for Europe.
Labour, trapped in its own industrial-era past, has never fully embraced the reformist potential of its place in British politics and government, and it shies away from any difficult question about the modern world, especially under the backward-looking Corbyn.
The eclipse of the Liberal Democrats and the marginality of the Greens deprive the debate of positive, modern pro-European voices

Why is Britain Eurosceptic?
That excerpt rightly refers to role of the English media in developing a Euroscepticism which was in 1975 limited essentially to the Labour party’s left (although strongly expressed with figures such as Tony Benn and Peter Shore) and to the more traditional right of the Conservatives. All British newspapers save one supported in 1975 the country remaining in a European Union which the country had joined just 2 years earlier (the one exception was the tiny Communist newspaper “Morning Star”). It was a very different story in 2016 – by which time the UK had been hectored by an anti-European press for some 30 years!
Vernon Bogdanor is a highly respected UK constitution academic who gives us the detail of that first referendum here – and offers a useful analysis of the growth of British Euroscepticism (both video and transcript). Margaret Thatcher won her famous Rebate (worth an annual 4 billion pounds) at the Fontainbleau summit of 1984. But it was this parliamentary speech of Thatcher’s of 1990 which, according to Bogdanor and others, was probably the catalyst for the Euroscepticism. It was certainly the signal for the patience of Conservative MPs to snap with at least the autocratic style of Maggie’s leadership and she was, a few days later, unceremoniously dumped by the party – to make way for John Major. 
And it was at this point that I left the UK - able to follow the growth of euroscepticism only from afar......
One of the questions I’ve never seen explored is why the British media has since the 1990s been so consistently anti-european. This article makes the important point that the exploration of such a question requires us to distinguish newspaper owners and editors according to the extent of freedom they allow. Rupert Murdoch, for example, stands at one extreme for the extent of the editorial power he exerts on his editors…..

What does it tell us about “ourselves”?
With a narrow 52-48% split in the final vote, the Brexiteers are, of course, in a minority of voting citizens – which makes you wonder why no one seemed to have thought in 2015 of taking a leaf out of Labour backbencher George Cunningham’s book and insisting on a “threshold” of 40% of voters.

The country – as we have always known – is divided by such things as age, income, class and geography. And advertisers have become increasingly sophisticated in the way they cut and splice us into “market segments” – using terms such as strivers, copers, survivors, believers, achievers etc. Even charities now adopt this approach – as you can see from three reports issued a decade ago which were superb examples of just how clever manipulative tools are getting….– Common Cause (2010);  Finding Frames (2010); and Keith Grint’s Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions (2008)

So, 17 days before the UK is due to slide into the Atlantic Ocean, let me offer half a dozen or so good reads which offer some relief from the unrelenting dirge of Brexit….
1.      In January the London Review of Books gave us a fascinating sense of What European say when they talk about Brexit which allowed 15 correspondents to sketch some national histories and contemporary concerns in some of the main countries. Pity there weren’t more such treatments during the referendum campaign!

2.     Modern historians can generally be relied on these days to contribute a fresh perspective on stale topics and “Contemporary European History” produced this month a promising edition on Brexit, with short (4 page) contributions from various European historians - which I expected to throw some new light on the issue. But, despite a nice intro here, I was ultimately disappointed.

3.     One of our best geographers (who writes brilliantly on justice issues) – Danny Dorling – has also just produced “Rule Britannia – Brexit and the end of empire” which certainly challenges some of the current conventional wisdom about voting patterns (he argues that it was the middle-class southern counites “wot done it” – rather than the excluded working class). The book is an easy read and strong on graphics and contempt for the younger generation of privileged and moneyed people who continue to form the English ruling class. Despite its title, a couple of opening chapters and extensive endnotes, it does not pretend to give a real historical perspective – whether of a social history sort or “what’s wrong with Britain” type. You can see him present the book here – although his northern accent is not easy for a foreigner

4.     Finn O’Toole is an Irish outsider who has just published Heroic Failure; Brexit and the politics of pain and it’s interesting to see how he expresses the factors in the referendum outcome
     the deep uncertainties about the union after the Good Friday agreement of 1998 and the establishment of the Scottish parliament the following year; the consequent rise of English nationalism; the profound regional inequalities within England itself; the generational divergence of values and aspirations; the undermining of the welfare state and its promise of shared citizenship; the contempt for the poor and vulnerable expressed through austerity; the rise of a sensationally self-indulgent and clownish ruling class”.

5.     James Meek is a Scottish novelist who has taken in recent years to writing long and fascinating journalistic articles on privatized utilities (collected in “Private Island – why Britain now belongs to someone else”) and his latest book Dreams of Leaving and Remembering seems a bit too self-indulgent with the language – going on at great length about metaphors and story-telling..

6. The issue of the narratives countries use in the search for identity had raised its head in Nov 2016 in a colloquium organized by the British Academy on European Union and Disunion

updates; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/18/bitain-brexit-crisis-public-schools