England’s shame

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.

Messages from history for Brexit Britain

What are we to make of the chaos and uncertainty facing Britain this weekend as Parliament prepares to approve or vote down Theresa May’s deal on Brexit? Two contrasting views are on offer from writers who, curiously, both reference the Sex Pistols’ song God Save the Queen. Johnny Rotten’s punk anthem from the 1970s is a message from an era of division and chaos that ultimately led to the Winter of Discontent. Are we on the brink of returning to the abyss?

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The benefits of dual nationality

Daniel Finkelstein writes in The Times about why he won’t be joining the rush for dual nationality (£) among those Britons who fear for their country’s future. Like me, he is the son of a refugee from the Nazis and perhaps this explains why he is able to define clearly, while not sharing them, the motivations of those – like me – who are exercising their right to another nationality:

“Their application is a sort of protest against Brexit and an insurance policy in case Brexit presages a less tolerant Britain or a calamitously poor one. And there are also some Jews who worry about a Corbyn government.”

He recalls in his childhood reading with his mother about the kings and queens of England:

“Only as an adult have I reflected that when the Tudor monarchs reigned, or even the Georgians, my family wasn’t here. We lived under distant emperors. But still, I reflect, we chose these great Britons and they chose us. Their countrymen gave us a home and our liberty and peace. And I’m never going to be part of something else.”

I can certainly relate to this sentiment. My father recalls his arrival at Dover in 1939 when he was eleven years old and had escaped with his parents from Czechoslovakia after it was occupied by the Nazis:

“There were no inquisitions into whether we had any rights to be entering Britain, or the type of unwelcoming unpleasantness present-day refugees and immigrants have to experience. There was no waiting about while officials decided whether we were to be allowed to enter the country. Quite simply: we were welcomed and that was that, and we were very, very grateful to be in England.”

That gratitude to the UK has stuck with him to this day and certainly informs my own attachment to this country.

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The insurgency of decency

The march for a people’s vote on Brexit was a heartwarming occasion with 100,000 radical moderates quietly expressing their outrage with characteristic British understatement, self-deprecation and civility. Unlike the demonstrations of my younger years, there wasn’t a Trotskyist in sight to subvert the decency of protestors to their own ends. For a brief, glorious summer afternoon, it was possible to believe that Britain could find a way through the chaos it has brought upon itself and heal its wounds. People speculated whether the movement would be sufficient to bring about a change in course. I suspect not, at least not in the time left before Brexit is effected as a matter of law.

But in any case, there can be no going back to the world before 23 June 2016. Britain is already changed by the referendum, divided against itself and with the disinvestment plans of major employers at an advanced stage. More pertinently, there are other players in this drama. The EU shows every sign of wanting to cauterise its Brexit wound so that it can turn its attention to more pressing concerns. And the wider outlook for democracy and international solidarity has never looked so precarious in my lifetime. The Brexit referendum result, it turns out, was by no means an outlier but a precursor of a nationalistic and populist impulse which has swept through Western countries. Were we to decide against glorious isolation after all, and advocate once again for the rules-based order, it’s by no means clear that the world would want to listen.

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18th Century insight on 21st Century complexity

Who, these days, speaks for conservatism, the philosophical orientation that is cautious of change? We have an answer in the small band of Tory rebels, led by Dominic Grieve, who have won for Parliament a right to decide on the final Brexit deal. But the very fact of their struggle against their own party shows that cautious conservatism is not much in vogue.

My question is prompted by reading Jesse Norman’s 2013 biography of Edmund Burke, one of the founding thinkers of conservatism. Jesse Norman is a Conservative MP and current government minister. But I imagine he might be out of sorts with his party since the philosophy he describes is not much reflected in current Conservative practice. His book demonstrates, though, that even if Burke is out of fashion with the Tories, he still has much to say to contemporary Britain.

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England: the nation with a special place in Europe

The English and Their History by Robert Tombs is a monumental book covering the story of England from the 7th Century to the present day. Published in 2014, it’s a pertinent insight into our national identity. While the whole of the UK is leaving the EU, it is English nationalism that is a driving force behind it.

Tombs shows that an English nation was established well before 1066 using the language of old English which was suppressed by the Normans but revived in the fourteenth century. A long history of conflict with Scotland overhangs much of the story prior to the Acts of Union. The union is sometimes portrayed in the nationalist perspective as something close to England’s annexation of Scotland. But the union also meant England was subsumed into Britain. Scotland retained a national identity, England less so. And Tombs’ history becomes more blurry after union: it’s hard to pick out England’s story from that of the broader UK.

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Brexit complexity

uk ireland eu

Brexit is shaping up to be the object lesson par excellence in how not to lead in complexity. First this week we have seen the Government’s negotiating strategy (if one can call it that) for getting to Phase 2 of the Brexit talks blown to pieces by its negligence of the Irish border issue. Then the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, admitted that the Government had made no assessment of the impact of Brexit on the various sectors of the economy, despite having previously insisted on several occasions that such assessments were in hand. So the Government is navigating what is the biggest peacetime challenge that the UK has faced in generations, not just with no real understanding of what its impact will be but no attempt to understand. It’s almost as if the truth would be too frightening for ministers to know.

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The oblique path to a better way

scapegoat

This is the third of a three-part series on the consequences of Brexit for leaders. Part 2 discussed the challenge of self-leadership to preserve ones values and imagine a better future.

In imagining a future that is better than demagoguery and despotism, we need to be patient with ourselves. The Brexiteers and the Trumpistas offer beguilingly simple plans. Our reticence is founded on the realisation that things are more complex. It is not a sign of ignorance but wisdom that the way out of this mess is not immediately apparent. We will reach the higher ground through persistent but adaptive intent – or, as John Kay would have it, by taking the path of obliquity:

“In obliquity, there are no predictable connections between intentions and outcomes. Oblique problem solvers do not evaluate all available alternatives: they make successive choices from a narrow range of options. Effective decision makers are distinguished not so much by the superior extent of their knowledge as by their recognition of its limitations. Problem solving is iterative and adaptive, rather than direct.”

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Navigating dark times

This is the second of a three-part series on the consequences of Brexit for leaders. Part 1 explored the anxiety that political upheaval can evoke.

I am not in denial about Brexit. I am an enthusiast for the intent of the European Union, to work together to overcome nationalism and avoid war, but not for its sclerotic inability to reform itself. I accept that, for now, the Government is obliged to try to make Brexit happen. I could see some opportunity in this if Britain and its European partners were able to enter into negotiations fully engaged in understanding what the Brexit vote has to say to both sides.

But I am alarmed that leaders in public office are conniving with the populist mood to shut down collaborative enquiry as to what Brexit could be. Instead of bringing the nation together in common endeavour, the Prime Minister aligns with those who shout down any expression of scepticism and who inflame fears that the referendum result might be subverted.

I have no illusions about the shortcomings of the status quo ante. It’s long been our contention here at Vogel Wakefield that the socio-economic settlement of the past three or four decades has broken down and we are in the midst of an inter-regnum. The existing order suffered a collapse of trust after the financial collapse. Not just the banks but organisations of all descriptions and across sectors were revealed to be dysfunctional and self-serving. The system as a whole was seen to have been reconfigured around the interests of crony capitalism.

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