Undeveloping Britain

By Martin Vogel

Back in January 2019, Matt Bishop and Tony Payne at Sheffield University’s Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) posed the question of whether Britain might be the world’s first example of an undeveloping state. By this they meant that the characteristics that sustained the UK’s development over four hundred years as a pioneer of capitalism and industrialisation may have turned into pathologies that hold it back in the modern global political economy:

“Britain could again be first, albeit in a league table not of its choice! It could be the first of the ‘early developers’ to be forced to grapple with the implications of sustained ‘undevelopment’. This is defined here straightforwardly as the dismantling, rather than the building, of a viable, functioning political economy that satisfactorily serves its people.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought this thesis visibly to life. Britons have spent 2020 discovering that the securities they have for decades taken for granted are in fact very fragile. I won’t rehearse the catalogue of incompetence that has characterised the British Government’s approach to the coronavirus. But, lest it becomes too normalised, I commend keeping to hand the excellent Sunday Times investigations whose titles say it all: 38 days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster and 22 days of delay and dither on coronavirus that cost thousands of British lives.

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How to heal polarisation

By Martin Vogel

As part of my recent research into how coaches are engaging with the political sphere, I interviewed a US-based coach, John Schuster, who teaches on coach training programmes at Columbia University and the Hudson Institute. The interview didn’t make the final cut of the published article because the editors wanted to focus on the discussion of coaching and climate change. But John’s work highlights a very different way that coaches can contribute to addressing some of society’s big challenges. John is tackling polarisation: using his coaching skills to bring together people across the Republican-Democrat divide.

A Democrat-supporter, he teamed up in 2016 with a coach who had voted for Donald Trump. They organised a conversation to which each invited three friends from their own side.

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A country gone wrong

By Martin Vogel

The Britain that leaves the European Union tonight is not the same country that voted to leave on 23rd June 2016. The result was a shock, but it was still possible then to imagine that the Government would help the country process it in a mature way and facilitate the emergence of a consensus about how to discharge the mandate. Indeed, in that alarming period when we were a hair’s breadth from the Conservative Party giving us Andrea Leadsom as prime minister, such appeal as Theresa May held was chiefly that she might approach Brexit in a way that could elicit losers’ consent. These hopes were soon dispelled by her speeches to the Conservative conference disparaging “citizens of nowhere” speech and charting a course to a uncompromisingly hard Brexit (a course, it subsequently emerged, she did not understand she was embarking on).

“No state in the modern era has committed such a senseless act of self-harm,” The Irish Times opined yesterday. It spoke of Britain becoming poorer, diminished on the international stage and its citizens’ freedoms curtailed.

All true. But we have lost more than our participation in the European Union and the benefits that flow from that. We have abandoned the norms and etiquette of respectful disagreement, evolved over centuries, which gave substance to our sense of ourselves as a society founded on democracy and the rule of law. From the hasty rush to start the Article 50 countdown with no clear destination in mind, to the demonisation of the judges as “enemies of the people”, the suspension of Parliament and the intimidation of MPs (which began, let us remember, with the murder of one of their number in the days before the Referendum), this has felt like a country recklessly flirting with the darkest of forces.

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Britain’s shame: projections and substance regarding Boris Johnson

By Martin Vogel

On Tuesday afternoon, a friend in Boston emailed to acknowledge that my country was now officially more embarrassing than his. This had been a bone of contention between us: him cringing at how Trump was eviscerating the reputation of the United States; me pointing to Brexit. But the elevation of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson to Prime Minister of the UK had tipped the scales in our favour. Thus was my attempted sabbatical from political engagement brought to an unwelcome end.

On Wednesday, I had a disturbed night. I kept waking to the anxious residues of Johnson’s first day in office, as I absorbed the seizure of government by a clique of “nepotists, chancers, fools, flunkeys, flatterers, hypocrites, braggarts and whiners“ – as Nick Cohen put it, with uncharacteristic understatement.

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Dare to hope

By Martin Vogel

The hounding out of the Labour Party of a pregnant, Jewish MP is both upsetting and unsettling. Who can contradict the despair experienced by Daniel Finkelstein on witnessing the episode?

“When I watched Luciana Berger deliver her speech resigning from the Labour Party I cried because of its integrity and bravery and grace. And I cried because in my entire adult life what happened yesterday is the one of the lowest, most dispiriting political moments for British Jews. I cried because I despair at what has happened. I cried because I don’t think it is over.”

That the formation of The Independent Group of MPs has elicited a doubling down by Corbyn supporters on their intolerant and antisemitic bile only underlines how precarious is democracy’s reliance on the civil resolution of difference. We may not have reached the nadir. Anna Soubry’s denunciation of entryism and tyranny among the Conservatives shows that both main parties are infected. Yet, in the courage of the eleven MPs who have now quit the two main parties, lie grounds for cautious optimism. They are calling time on the violent discourses that have overcome politics.

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We’re better than this

By Martin Vogel

So the Government’s plans for the end of free movement are revealed. Sajid Javid speaks of Britain being open for business. But, in an angry thread on Twitter, Ian Dunt nails the true significance of the measure:

And of Labour’s complicity with Government policy, he says:

I find the anti-immigrant sentiment depressing, the more so when dressed up in liberal rhetoric. Britain doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a positive story of our experience of immigration. If politicians won’t speak up for it, we still have The Proclaimers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y67ZTTRzqVk

The thoughtlessness behind organisational perversity

By Martin Vogel

Robert Conquest’s claim that “every organisation behaves as if it is run by secret agents of its opponents” seems outlandish at first glance. But if you allow yourself to reject the fake news, bullshit (non)sense-making that most organisations try to impose on us, it’s hard not to keep stumbling into the truth of Conquest’s law.

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The leaders we create

By Martin Vogel

It’s a cliché of politics to say that we get the leaders we deserve. If that’s true, it begs the question: what have we done to deserve the myopic and divisive leadership that has taken us to the precipice of chaos? A clutch of articles looking at Britain from the outside provide some answers. The Economist considers how Britain’s European allies are looking on with bemusement at its collective nervous breakdown. For them, it’s not just that they are losing a close partner but also grieving the loss of an idea of what Britain represents. No longer sensible and reliable but a country revealed to be as chaotic and headstrong as any other:

“The biggest worry is not that the world’s view of Britain is changing. It is that this darker view of Britain is more realistic than the previous one. The Brexit vote could almost have been designed to reveal long-festering problems with the country: an elite educational system that puts too much emphasis on confidence and bluff and not enough on expertise; a political system that selects its leaders from a self-involved Oxbridge clique; a London-focused society that habitually ignores the worries of the vast mass of British people; and a Conservative Party that promotes so many pompous mediocrities. The reason Brexit is doing so much damage is not just that it is a mistake. It is a reckoning.”

 

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A moderate proposal

By Martin Vogel

Matthew Parris is worried that the UK is heading for a no-deal Brexit because the moderate majority in Parliament doesn’t know how to face down the Brexit extremists (£). A former MP himself, he thinks it imperative that scared centrists among the Conservatives and Labour find a way to break ranks with tribal party loyalties to make common cause. He has a proposal that would both break the stalemate and allow Theresa May to relinquish her loathed deal with good grace:

“Don’t whip the vote. Declare this decision to be so important, so epoch-making, that only a free vote by MPs could honestly legitimise it. The public will like the sound of this, and there’s a chance Labour might be embarrassed into lifting their whip too. The government is still likely to lose but the defeat then would be far from a ‘confidence’ issue. For May, the can is kicked a little further down the road, which seems anyway to be as far as she wants to lift her eyes.”

The appeal of this proposal is not only that it might create new momentum in the Brexit process but also that it could create a new dynamic in the wider political culture:

“When Remainer Tories walk through the voting lobbies alongside Labour MPs they’ll see opponents who have become co-campaigners, kindred spirits, perhaps even friends. Who can say what might result, but I think that in purely human terms, something might shift within that ghastly Victorian prison they call Westminster. As MPs shuffle past the tellers together, momentarily unattached from party, and in a flurry of shared glances, something might be born.”

I think this is the most likely way that we will eventually overcome polarised politics. For all the talk of a new party, the hunger for new ideas, and the waiting for a political saviour, the most plausible impetus for change will be when people of shared values link hands across traditional divides and begin exploring the possibilities that emerge.

Image courtesy Sandra Ahn Mode.

England’s shame

By Martin Vogel

If you do one thing today, find a way to read Daniel Finkelstein’s column in The Times (alas behind a paywall) explaining why Britain seems to be heading inexorably to a no-deal exit from the EU:

“There is a widespread view that the chance of having no deal is pretty low because such an outcome would be calamitous and, anyway, there is no majority for it. It’s surely too stupid a thing to allow actually to happen? That view is wrong. It is incredibly complacent. Mrs May has returned with the only deal we are going to be offered and parliament won’t pass it. This by itself means that the chances of no deal are very high indeed. Looked at another way, the things we have to do now to secure a deal are looking forbiddingly difficult.”

Incredibly, there are MPs who – even now – do not grasp that no deal means no transition agreement. Britain would crash out of the EU wholly unprepared. And, as The Times revealed last month, the Government’s contingency plans for this – such as they are – include troops on the streets (£) to keep public order.

We have a Government and Parliament that for nearly three years has been leading the UK to a destiny they find contrary to the national interest. Conflicted between the mandate of the referendum and the mandate of representative democracy, they have left it much too late to find a responsible strategy. If Daniel Finkelstein proves right, they will have capitulated to chaos.

No wonder he concludes his piece, “What a disaster. What a disgrace.”

Image courtesy Duncan Hull.