Grounds for optimism

Not everything about chaos is miserable. We may be living through an epoch-defining collapse of the socio-economic settlement we have known for four decades. A reckoning with free-market, shareholder value capitalism is long overdue and it is happening in more disruptive ways than was needed. Things may look disturbing and confusing. But, as David Brooks reminds, out of chaos comes hope:

“There have been many moments in our history when old ideas and old arrangements stopped working and people chopped them up. Those transition moments were bumpy, and it was easy to lose hope, but then people figured it out. Never underestimate the power of human ingenuity.”

He doesn’t mean the kind of blind-faith, glib, muddling-through, bulldog-spirit, groundless hope that keeps churning out the same answers to new problems. He’s not British. He’s talking about the application of imagination to the invention of new paradigms; meeting a new reality with new strategies.

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We’re better than this

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.

The thoughtlessness behind organisational perversity

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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Tracking down Conquest’s law on organisations

The more it is cited, the more frustrated I become about “Robert Conquest’s Third Law of Politics” which is said to state:

The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

The aphorism strikes me as so profound and relevant that I have often tried to verify its attribution. Conquest was a renowned historian of the Soviet Union, so his opinions on the politics of organisations carry considerable credibility.

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The leaders we create

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

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

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.

Shaping disaffection is the way to mend broken politics

Kenan Malik has an insightful critique of the failure of moderate politicians to provide an answer to populism:

“It’s not populist disaffection that is unreasonable, but the policies and institutions that have created that disaffection. Policies that have driven up inequality and driven down living standards. Institutions that have excluded people from the process of decision-making. There has been much talk of ‘out of touch’ politicians. Little expresses that out-of-touchness more than the fact that for almost a decade politicians have spent more energy worrying about populism than about the policies that have nurtured disaffection.”

That there is widespread demand for politics that addresses the disaffection is underlined by a YouGov opinion poll in The Sunday Times which suggests that nearly half of people think politics is broken. Only one in seven think the Conservatives and Labour represent the views of the public.

Two thoughtful pieces during the year gave shape to the kind of thinking that could rejuvenate the two main parties.

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Political renewal needs more than bland centrism

Burke ‘n’ Marx.

What kind of politics do we need? Between left and right populism, it’s perplexing that there’s nothing inspiring emerging from the middle ground.

Is part of the problem that current hopes of an alternative are invested in something called centrism? There’s nothing to lift the spirits in that term. It suggests a bland splitting of the difference between the extremes or, worse, nostalgia for the discredited status quo ante.

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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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