Category Archives: Politics

European Disorder.

Reviewing Prof Simms New Statesman article 24-30 November 2017.

 

JR Max Wheel

30 November 2017

 

Amongst the near endless name-calling and brickbats over Brexit in the UK, a very interesting and insightful article appeared in the New Statesman this week, written by Prof. Brendan Simms, from the University of Cambridge’s politics and international studies department.

Since the UK remains so deeply divided on this issue, it is good to have a take on the EU which throws some light and not heat.

 

Most mainstream media outlets have pinned their colours to the Leave or Remain mast and hence are even less trustworthy than normal as sources of information, but have degenerated into presenting emotive and deliberately slanted presentations- click-bait.

 

Simms points out some important messages, one, that populism far from going away is now rife in many (most) member states, sometimes powerfully so, whether in the splintering of a broad political consensus; Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Greece have suffered from it as well as the UK. Poland and Hungary are in near open revolt at EU rulings from Brussels. Worse still, there is now a strong regional identity issue in Spain over Catalonia, the North in Italy, as well as the ever-present issues between Walloons and Flemings in Belgium. This is disturbing as the EU was supposed to have substituted the nation state with the prospect of an overarching federal Europe. That now looks impossible. The creation of the Union to supplant the nation state was never the foregone conclusion that many of its proponents believed. Indeed, as Simms argues powerfully far from transcending the nation state, the EU has thrown a lifeline to it after a near death experience in two world wars of the 20th.C. De Gaulle viewed the Union as a “L’Europe des Nations”, not what its founding fathers envisaged at all.

 

Suddenly regions matter as well as nations. This is a unique achievement, the EU has spawned the very opposite of what it promoted, a “Balkanisation” of Europe instead of a cohesive Union.

 

In large part this stems from its messy single currency, which has aggravated many of the underlying economic issues between members since the Crash of 2007/8. This has driven up unemployment, meant that achieving competitive balance is impossible and works only in favour of the most advanced and productive countries, especially Germany.  So, we have a common currency and a common travel area administered by a de facto confederation, not a federation, and on frequent occasions, an agenda driven by a key member State, Germany or in the past, France. The founding Franco-German axis may rebalance or not, what is certain is that the status quo cannot persist in an era of mass migration, globalised trade in goods and services. Many parts of the EU economy are still not open, in services especially, but also in the protectionist tariff wall, which also masquerades as a harmonisation of standards. Such standards largely emanate from UNECE anyway and are transcribed into EU law.

 

Large swathes of industry in individual member states have languished economically, the economic decline being mirrored by the rise of an angry electorate, ready to punish its leaders for falling to recognize the economic damage or seeming to care much about it.

 

It is worth looking at the problem of post-election politics in Germany.  After 12 years in power as Bundeskanzelerin, Angela Merkel seems vulnerable. Never a political visionary, Merkel was always a cautious political manager, seeking a consensus, when she did act decisively according to her instincts, in opening the borders to a massive immigration wave, it spectacularly rebounded threatening to stymie a largely cohesive system. The Centre Right CDU/CSU party and the Centre Left SPD have been outflanked to the left and right. Far from being the bastion of free trade and stability in the wake of what is painted as populist upsurges in the UK and US, she is likely to be overwhelmed by it. Simms also uses an interesting analogy for these times, that of Klemens von Metternich, Austrian Chancellor after the Napoleonic Wars. Metternich’s aim was to stifle uprisings, contain radicalisation and revolutionary movements until it hit the buffers of the 1848.

 

Brexit was never the real catalyst for a break-up of Europe, even if some of its wilder promoters desired it, it was always the underlying political and economic factors affecting real people.

 

There are only a few choices, accept that there are limitations to the Federal Project as conceived or to try to forge a smaller and consensual European Union, which may have to be a lot smaller and economically, and politically cohesive. Even that is unlikely to be acceptable or sustainable without deep-rooted changes.

 

Corbyn’s Labour: an unholy mix of the seductive and the sinister.

JR Max Wheel

 

28 September 2017

 

The finale of the Labour Party conference in Brighton with its triumphalist rhetoric has shown, at least to true believers, that the party has found new energy and direction. Corbyn has surprised most critics that he is able to appeal across a much wider spectrum of British politics than one would have believed possible for an avowedly left-wing opposition leader. This is another populist movement, feeding off the backlash and division sown not only by Brexit, but also the sense of deep frustration and anger which has flickered on and off since the crash of 2007/8 and its subsequent austerity policies. It is easy to blame struggling public services on highly constrained public finances.

 

This is socialism dressed up in a way, which cleverly targets disaffected groups and exploits their grievances, but also highlights areas where many mainstream voters also feel distinctly uncomfortable, whether it be the housing crisis, cost of higher education, the badly implemented Private Finance Initiatives contracts (PFIs) or poorly performing privatised services, energy, railways and Britain’s most notorious sacred cow, the NHS.

 

Behind the scenes is a grouping of activists typified by Momentum, but strongly backed by the Trades Union, this vociferous group have effectively seized control of the Parliamentary Labour Party, its MPs and embedded it in the membership, now some 600,000. Momentum claims membership alone of 200,000 through 120 regional groups. The Governance of Momentum is via a National Coordinating Group of 26, which must include, BAME, women members as well as regional representation. It effectively sets the agenda claiming its legitimacy from its democratic base. Looked at another way, this group has made a highly successful power grab from the MPs, who will have to respond to this new Politburo. Unsurprisingly, Unions which have felt marginalised since the reforms of the 1980s are also committed to a grass roots led campaign to get Labour elected on a programme which by any standards is an extreme left-wing one. It is an anti-business, pro-worker, large State model which it sees as both necessary to counteract the excesses of the 1990s and 2000s, to rub out all vestiges “New Labour”, now seen as a revisionist aberration.  This, despite the fact that New Labour was arguably the Party’s most successful period in winning 3 elections, a feat that no Labour administration has ever done before. Momentum has been skilfully “managed” by media savvy political wannabes like ex-BBC Newsnight reporter Paul Mason and control freaks like Seamus Milne, son of ex BBC Director General and with the usual upper-crust educational background of Winchester and Oxford. Momentum carries within it all the hallmarks of class warfare, and committed Marxism.  It elevates disaster economies like Venezuela as an example of the people struggle and refuses to condemn terrorist outrages.

 

That the Party should have attracted such a large membership is an odd mix of opportunistic cultivation of the youth vote, depressingly often those whose views are understandably naïve and untutored, those who have a deep-seated loathing of capitalism and anti-establishment intellectuals, like Guardian columnist and author Owen Jones. The Corbyn Labour Party can exercise via its membership effective control over selection of candidates and even deselect them. There has always been an undercurrent of left wing politics in Britain as in most countries, it has rarely amounted to anything.  This time it is different. Use of social media allows dissemination of ideas cheaply and simply. In a period when “fake news” has become the norm and main stream media is often a megaphone for over mighty Press barons, the failure to expose and challenge the Labour Party for what it has morphed into, is utterly lamentable.

 

 

Death of a Chancellor and the struggle to maintain the European dream

 

JR Max Wheel

6th July 2017

 

On the 16th June 2017 Germany mourned the death of Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor who oversaw the reunification of Germany; perhaps he was not the greatest German post-war Chancellor, but one who will be fondly remembered for his down to earth qualities, domestic political acumen and the extraordinary responsibility of integrating the two Germanies of West and East into one cohesive country. His place in history will nevertheless be secure. Significantly he chose to be buried in the cathedral of Speyer in the heart of the Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz), by the Rhine and not in his native City of Ludwigshafen, further upstream.  The reunification, presaged by the implosion of the Soviet Union and the collapse of its vassal states in central and eastern Europe marked the true end of WWII and 1989 should rightly be seen in the same light as 1789.

Speyer Cathedral: Courtesy Wikipedia

After Germany’s disastrous history in the 20thC, the creation of the largest and most powerful economy in the EU was not greeted with universal enthusiasm by the former Allied Powers, in particular, France, the UK, Netherlands and Poland as well as in Israel. Indeed, the notion of unity – or “Einheit” was a near toxic word with its quasi Third Reich overtones, such that “die Wende” or change, transition was preferred.

Whilst the unification preceded the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, with its ambitious political and monetary aims, it placed France and Germany, effectively Kohl and Mitterand as the key representatives of the proto European Union. In the following years the costs of reunification meant Germany exceeded the threshold levels for debt enshrined in the Growth and Stability Pact: the first of many to violate them over the next 25 years.

Fast forward to 2017, and after years of feeble economic performance from France, it was now crystal clear that the leadership of Europe was de facto in German hands. It was not meant to be so, since it was rashly assumed, at least by France, that the EU would be a “German horse with a French rider”, reflecting France’s long-honed diplomatic skill and expertise and as the designer of many of the EEC institutions, which subsequently morphed into the EU.  This Franco-German axis has always been the core with other member states being important but peripheral, especially the UK, with its radically different history, political systems and law.

Why is this important? Mainly because the EU is now notably unbalanced in terms of relative economic strength and influence. It’s eastward and south eastward expansion to include Poland, Czech and Slovak Republics and the Baltic states to the Balkans and admission of Greece, Romania and Bulgaria has tilted it towards members whose history, culture and identities vary notably from the largely contiguous borders of the founding six. Those member interests are not necessarily those of the core, this is especially true of the Central European [Visegrad] Four, as well as the UK.

One is loath to add to the entire and poisonous Brexit debate whereby the UK voted to leave in a hotly disputed referendum, but it has to be understood that the desire if not the reality of a shared federal future, long a cherished dream of its founders, Monet and Schuman was never shared by the UK. Here lies an important ironical twist, the quasi Constitution, opposed by France, Ireland and the Netherlands and then hastily cobbled together as the Lisbon Treaty 2007 was never offered to the UK in a referendum. This was a major missed opportunity, since a putative EU constitution should have always been offered up to all member states’ electorates, but was cynically avoided in the UK or meekly accepted elsewhere.

Thus, no proper debate was ever held in the UK until its own in/out referendum. The British, ever the unplanned pragmatists thus did not get to engage on this fundamental aim which was always the core of the European Project. It is remarkable, but inexcusable that the powerful British media never elevated European matters and aspirations as either important enough to warrant serious discussion or to inform its electorate appropriately. Its outcome and consequences were both dramatic and less surprising in retrospect.

The UK is the first member to voluntarily withdraw from its membership. There has always been a long streak of Euroscepticism in Britain, but the fallout demands more than its tortuous disengagement under the one-sided and deeply flawed Article 50 procedures, it argues for a radical shift in British politics away from the adversarial first past the post system to a more consensual PR system and an overhaul of the Commons (viz. a massive reduction in numbers) and Lords ( abolition and substitution by a Senate comprised of all devolved administrations and England) which would reflect the wishes of all the constituent countries of the UK.  It is astonishing that the UK played a leading role in constructing a successful federal constitution for the then West Germany, but failed to recognize any need for change in its backyard.

The outcome for the UK is highly uncertain, as it is for much of the EU, but a collective failure of imagination and will may result in a sub-optimal solution for both, weakening both parties at a time when the old order and institutions that have prevailed since the end of WWII are reaching the end of their life span and usefulness.

 

 

Death of a Chancellor and the struggle to maintain the European dream

Rebuilding a Broken United Kingdom- A tale of 4 Kingdoms.

JR Max Wheel

 

14 March 2017

 

The UK’s proposed exit from the EU has thrown up some serious fault lines inside the Union.  A core reason is a failure that goes back years, the infamous West Lothian question so eloquently described by its own MP. Tam Dalyell, whereby the devolved administrations MPs sitting in Westminster can vote on English matters, yet English MPs cannot vote on those arising in those administrations. The movement towards decentralised power in the UK was in principle fair enough- to move decision-taking closer to the people, but as with many important issues it was not thought through, thereby creating another anomaly in the quirky nature of the UK’s unwritten constitution.

 

Despite sitting for a Scottish seat- West Lothian, Dalyell opposed both plebiscites in 1979 (Callaghan Government) and in 1997(New Labour- Blair). He was right. Nonetheless New Labour pursued the devolution agenda in Scotland and Wales creating a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. The tortured politics of N.Ireland was subject to a separate agreement. The critical failure was to confine the plebiscites to the constituent countries only and not open to English voters. This might be seen as a cynical ploy to entrench Labour votes in its traditional heartlands especially Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, all it has done is the reverse, encouraged a nationalist and separatist movement, based on actual and perceived historical grievances. The situation in Wales has not (yet) resulted in a similar upsurge in nationalist feeling. Had the devolution argument been aired properly it would have queried the relationship of all the constituent parts, not just the devolved regions.

 

Thus, rather than redefining the United Kingdom for the future, it has created confusion and mutual suspicion. A much better solution would have been to have redefined the role of the Upper Chamber, long a parking lot for the great and the good and a handy way of rewarding party political participation. Its role as a revising chamber is a valuable one, but it has become a bloated anachronism, with over 800 members. In addition, it contains bishops, law lords and hereditary peers. Why so many when the US can have an upper house of 100 in the Senate and other parliamentary democracies make do with many less than the UK. There have been endless attempts to re-legitimise the Upper Chamber by direct election, none has really succeeded.

 

What is needed is a Chamber that reflects the diverse interests of all the countries, and thus represents regional interests which cannot then be over-ridden by solely English interests, nor vice versa, this would force a level of real debate and concerted decisions. Needless to say this would provide a perfect opportunity to reform the Chamber and to rid the UK of its excess peers, and to concentrate their minds on issues of real importance.

 

This matter acquires an extra urgency as Scotland contemplates a second independence effort and whilst N. Ireland faces a very difficult problem arising from Brexit. It suits no one except those willing to frustrate the electorate’s result, of which there are plenty, with quite specific and anti-democratic views.

 

Media Lies and our growing inability to discriminate.

7 January 2017

 

JR Max Wheel

 

If you google the word “discrimination”, you will find pages of information on racial and social issues, you will not so easily find it in its primary sense of the “ability to see a distinction or differentiate”, or a further important sense is “observe distinctions carefully, to have good judgement”. Why does this matter, words change meaning constantly don’t they?  This is undeniably true but it obscures an insidious trend, one where precision is unimportant, sloppy writing is good and meaning is lost or manipulated in the interests of the writers’ agenda. The reader’s job is not merely to swallow the content, but to use their critical faculties to tease out bias, half-truths, and outright falsities.

 

This is hardly a new complaint. It is one however that has become more important since the age of 24 hour infotainment. Political words are especially subject to misuse.

Here is George Orwell writing in April 1946 in an essay on Politics and the English language:

“Language”, he writes, “is being used in an improper way, political words are being abused. The words, democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings, which cannot be reconciled with one another. Words like this are used in a consciously dishonest manner”. Examine any of current big issues; the election of Donald J. Trump, Brexit, climate change, there is plenty of evidence of descriptive manipulation, not to enlighten or inform, but to promote the writer’s view and usually to denigrate the opposition. How many swivel-eyed racist xenophobic loons does it take to change a light bulb? Discourse has degenerated to the trading of insults. This is perhaps unsurprising since so much of the writing is poor quality, careless and dashed off to meet a deadline. Also missing is a sense of balance, such that media stories are disproportionately skewed to the trivial, air-time is wasted on vacuous celebrity non-stories. Do you start to listen to who edits and produce BBC news or other media stories let alone who owns the media outlet? This is important. Here is Orwell again. “In our age, there is no keeping out of politics, all issues are political issues and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”. This is a killer observation. Language needs to be used as an instrument for expressing, not concealing, or preventing thought. One hesitates to imagine what Orwell would have thought of Twitter, but one can guess.

 

Whether we heed and act on Orwell’s advice is surely important, to be able to seek out cant and the agendas of the self-interested. Welcome to all-pervading “ Newspeak”.