Chart of the Week: Trumped

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The forces of reaction don’t rest.

The forces of reaction don’t get downhearted, don’t wonder if the effort’s all worth it. The forces of reaction are just there. Everyday. When you can see them. Even when you can’t. Holding back against tide, ready to go again if they see their opponent flagging. The forces of reaction watch. And wait. Sometimes, the forces of reaction win.

The forces of reaction win, because they never rest. And nor must we.

UKIP’s fundamental immigration dishonesty

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I published this post 2 years ago about UKIP and Farage’s then concealed fan-don of all things American. I’ve don’t always call the big events correctly, but I think I was pretty close to the mark with this one.

Making life harder for EU migrants means two things: more pressure on labour, and increased Atlanticism.

Migration – specifically immigration – is not an issue that deserves to be getting the wall-to-wall media coverage given to it in recent days, weeks, months. You could be forgiven for imagining that that Britain was experiencing level of immigration like that of Lebanon, where 1 in every 4 is a Syrian refugee. There are parts of the country where pressure is being put on services by an increasing population, due to migration. This is also true of education services in Birmingham, because of a sharp rise in the birth rate. Yet the UK Independence Party is yet to call for a one-child policy.

Furthermore, when an ‘overstretched NHS’, or similar, is cited in the media, the role played by migrant labour in keeping the NHS running is omitted. It is now firmly established enough that immigrants contribute more in taxation than they receive in state benefits that the issue should be, by now, thoroughly buried.

Many people who are ‘concerned’ about immigration are deploying the word as an acceptable proxy for their xenophobic prejudices. It’s well worth listening to this conversation between LBC presenter James O’Brien and a UKIP voter called Jack right to the end. His fumbling admission cuts to the UKIP quick.

Free movement: about people or profit?

Recent disagreements between Angela Merkel and David Cameron about the free movement around the EU is instructive. One motivation for its status as a founding principal of the EU is that if people can inter-mingle freely, a shared culture will emerge – has emerged? – which will act as a bulwark against future European warring.

Secondly, and not unrelated, is the idea of the free movement of labour. In this conception of a peaceable Europe people are able to move about selling their labour, skills and abilities, forcing countries to innovate and creating a virtuous developmental cycle that will raise all boats. It is a strictly Liberal economic conception of society, but does reflect the EU’s essential nature as a trading bloc.

UKIP like to pretend they are attacking the first idea, whereas in effect they are gunning for the second. This is the fundamental dishonesty of their position.

Any government – UKIP or otherwise – would have to continue to accept economic migration as a fact of economic life  – but their bargaining power would be much lower. By restricting the free movement of people, or making them second class workers, and you will lower their competitiveness. Their jobs will be less secure, and they will be more vulnerable to economic exploitation. Given that economic migrants to this country are often employed in the notoriously badly-regulated agricultural sector, this is a real concern.

Furthermore, these migrants would provide a pool of more easily exploitable labour, which would have a knock-on effect on those workers with a British passport.Conceived like this, UKIP’s anti-immigration stance is an attack on labour of all hues – not simply those who have traveled from overseas for work.

So UKIP contends – or at least don’t stop their supporters from imagining – that Britain can be run in isolation from other nation states, the EU and the rest. They want to give the country ‘back’, cutting ties. It is a pseudo-fascist fantasy, however, to believe that a country can possibly be economically independent – autarky is a total non-starter (just ask the USSR from 1930s or Germany under the Third Reich).

Imagaine for a moment that Britain did bolt the doors and become ‘independent’ of migrants. How else might the UK be independent? In energy production? No. In defence policy? No – still going to be part of NATO. There might be a degree of direct political independence – from the EU –  but the need to trade with our neighbours will impose certain economic requirements whether Farage likes it or not.

So, who would the UK turn to? To the US of course. For everytime UKIP, or the crumbling right wing of the Tory party, talks of loosening ties with Europe, they are simultaneously imaging getting more and more intertwined with the Americans. This latest bout of anti-European sentiment is nothing if not an attempt to see-saw the country back into a cosier cuddle with our North American cousins.

IMAGE: Trump’s descent

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How appropriate that Donald Trump began his campaign on a descending escalator.

As a visual metaphor it said everything necessary. The watching public didn’t have long to wait until he had unleashed his ignorant, calculated vitriol.

“When Mexico sends its people, they are not sending their best. […] They are sending people that have lots of problems. They are bringing those problems to us. They are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime and their rapists, and some are good people, and I speak to border guards and they tell us what we are getting.”

Donald Trump, June 16 2015

The ensuing campaign has been exhaustively documented – ad nauseam – elsewhere. Hillary Clinton maybe not the best candidate for US president there has been. Yet the essential choice that Americans face is between a democrat and an anti-democrat.

My other-side-of-the-pond perspective: Trump has profited from the polity’s tolerance of a sustained attack on the fundamentals of representative democracy. Democratic debate should – must – be able to tolerate all views. Trump’s spoutings do not qualify as views though: they are anti-views. The man has to date: still not said he will respect the outcome of the election; has threatened to jail his opponents, and he has attacked unceasingly the media, the only link most people have to the goings-on of politics.

So am I advocating silencing Donald Trump and his anti-views, thereby violating his 1st amendment rights? Not at all. He should be free, like any number of other conspiracy obsessed types, to express his views. He just shouldn’t be able to use them as a platform for an electoral campaign. If you sign up to play the game, you agree to play by the rules.

Politics without rules, where those who have the available means do whatever they will, has a name. Fascism.

 

High Court Derision

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David Cameron is the one who has caused this constitutional crisis, not the judiciary.

The decision handed down by the High Court today could not have been clearer. In four short sentences of the ruling summary the judges lay waste to the government’s position. “The court does not accept the argument put forward by the government. There is nothing in the 1972 Act [the 1972 European Communities Act] to support it,” they say.

The outcome was wholly predictable. The outrage at the ruling from the Mail, the Express, Douglas Carswell and others is due one of two possibilities. Either they are fundamentally ignorant of the constitution or, more likely, they are trying to provide a smokescreen to deflect away from the devastating blow that has been dealt to Theresa May’s always-untenable position on invoking Article 50 without the involvement of parliament.

In the immediate aftermath it has been plainly put that ‘Remainers’ will use the decision to derail the Brexit process. Insinuation like this makes one fundamental assumption which is entirely false: that a Brexit process exists at all.

When David Cameron’s government drafted and passed the legislation that brought about the 23rd June referendum he massively bottled it. He could have made the referendum binding, instead of advisory as was the case. It could have been an opportunity to put before parliament the various options for leaving, the possible material and constitutional impacts of a vote to leave. It would have been an opportunity to have a genuine, informed debate, with parliament playing its constitutional role of leading debate and providing for representation of the diverse constituencies of the country’s opinion.

Instead Cameron calculated that he would win the referendum, and that therefore the point was moot. We are all living with the legacy of Cameron’s self-serving, short-sighted political arrogance.

More importantly, in failing to meaningfully involve parliament Cameron set the clock ticking on today’s judgement. Though out of office because of his own cowardice, Cameron – along with May – has been served a basic political lesson by the judges. They are doing their job of interpreting the laws as set out by parliament, playing their own constitutional role. The point was so straightforward it is among the first A-Level poltics students learn. “The most fundamental rule of the UK’s constitution is that parliament is sovereign,” they wrote, as if it needed re-stating. This decision was written by Cameron, it has only been delivered by the judges. The tabloids are merely trying to shoot messengers.

One final word from the judges. “The court is not concerned with and does not express any views about the merits of leaving the European Union: that is a political question.” Anyone looking for someone to blame for the self-inflicted, needless and almost certainly paralysing constitutional crisis we’re in the midst of should look no further than those who do make decisions on political questions – and who in this desperate episode have been found so badly wanting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Russia, Putin and the West

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“A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

Such was Churchill’s assessment of Russia and its interactions with the outside world in 1939. The immediate context of his pronouncement was the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact, one of the most outlandish and surprising agreements on world history. Perhaps little has changed since then- Russia’s actions today seem still to stretch the boundaries of normal understanding. Yet as unfathomable as they may seem then and now Churchill added, as a rider: “perhaps there is a key.”

The riddle

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has committed a long list of serious misdemeanours in recent times. There was the Litvenienko poisoning, the invasion of Ukraine, supplying or firing the missile that downed MH-17bombing an aid convoy in Syria, the possibility that they were behind the RNC hack. Just in the last few days Russian warships have sailed through the channel prompting a dire warning from Mi5 director-general Andrew Parker. What is Putin, and by extension Russia, up to?

The comparison of Russia to the archetypal angry, cornered bear is a good one. Russia, ever since it became an major power several hundred years ago, has seemed threatening to the  other great powers of the world. By dint of its scale, as well as its vast human and natural resources Russia was feared as the bear that may awaken at any moment, and crush its neighbours. To Europe of the early twentieth century the Russian army was a ‘steamroller’, slow and unsophisticated, but potentially overwhelmingly powerful.

wp_ss_20161102_0002-2The apparent strength that outside countries perceive in Russia belies the weakness, paranoia and chronic inferiority the country’s leaders have always felt. In the post-Second World War world the USSR under Joseph Stalin was seen to be an ideologically driven, imperial power in-waiting, bent on world domination. It was this assessment, made in George Kennan’s infamous ‘Long Telegram’ that set wheels of the half-century long Cold War in motion.  Stalin and the USSR were in no way justified for their heinous annexations of the eastern bloc states, but the motivation for the control they were placed under was much more to do with consolidating hard-won territorial gains, and providing a buffer against what Stalin perceived, in turn, as American imperial ambitions in Europe.

There is much more continuity than change in global geopolitics. Russia remains a paranoid state, perpetrating acts of aggression in order to mask weakness and home and achieve whatever strategic advantages it feels it can obtain. Russia is seen from the Western perspective as a single, unified country, whereas it is instead a congolomoration of constantly embattled nations and ethnicities, few of whom have ever felt great loyalty to the leaders in St Petersberg or Moscow. Not only are there very real internal enemies for the Russian leadership to contend with, the country has the longest land and sea border of any country in the world. It is surrounded by many countries, all of whom are potential enemies, many of whom have fought Russia in the past. Chess is the national game; Russian foreign policy is like playing simultaneous chess against multiple, better equipped opponents.

The key

What was Churchill’s ‘key’? Russian national interest. Currently that means understanding Putin’s personal interests.

The irony of increasing displays of Russia strength is that they are direct proportion to the country’s actual weakness. Vladimir Putin is a dictator who rules of an increasingly authoritarian and corrupt government. He manages to get around the country’s apparently democratic system by a constitutional sleight of hand – he serves two terms as President and then swaps out for a term with his gym-buddy, current Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev.krugnan-russia-graph

Since the early 2000s Putin’s stongman deal with the Russian population has been a simple one. The political instability of the immediate post-Communist, Yeltsin era would be banished along with political freedoms. Higher living standards were to be the price for the curtailment of people’s freedoms. The relative prosperity that Putin managed to achieve was due to exploitation of the country’ natural energy resources especially in a world of an – apparently – inexorably rising oil price.

Russia was a petro-state, whose economy was massively skewed towards this monolithic industry. In the present context of sharply falling oil prices the bargain with the people is off, and increased living standards have been replaced by a less positive pay-off. Putin now looks to bolster Russian national pride through foreign adventures and stoking fears about external threats. Only last week 40 million people were involved in a nuclear defence drill, with images of people in hazmat suits broadcast on Russian news channels. The self-preservation instincts of Putin, and those around him, are the present-day key to understanding the actions of Russia in the world.

Coda

For a an understanding of the way that Russia is subject to economic, demographic and geopolitical shifts you could do worse than watching Parag Khanna’s TED talk on a ‘mapping the future of countries’. The Russia relevant part is from around the 9 minute mark.

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Lastly a disclaimer, and an extended chess metaphor.

Criticising Putin and/or the foreign policy actions of the Russian state is not to take the side of his erstwhile opponents. Or indeed vice versa.

What is the prognosis for geopolitical affairs in relation to Russia increasingly belligerent global stance? The difficulty for anyone trying to push back against the war crimes, the invasions and the sabre rattling is that Russia is extremely focussed and long-practiced at this game of chess. Playing on Russia’s terms is no way to victory. Morally Putin’s approach is indefensible. But in terms of realpolitik, he has his pieces well-developed and is goading his opponents to sacrifice position and material in an attempt to overcome him. A patient and consistent approach is what is needed, because Putin – despite the apparent strength of his outward position – has his back ranks badly exposed and these cannot sustain a prolonged and systematic inspection.