Category Archives: European politics

Brexit

The economic case is firmly with Remain. Not by the ludicrous margin the treasury suggest, but it is with Remain nonetheless. Some of the EU is pretty wasteful – the CAP for example at once wastes money and harms farmers in the developing world. Overall, though, they represent pretty good value for money, when you consider they run an entire continent.

Britain will negotiate trade deals, but if we do so with the EU we’re gonna have to give in on budget and free movement anyway. Other trade deals are also possible, but they do take ages to sort out. Still, we and most other countries are in the WTO, so we have the bare bones of a trade agreement with most places anyway. It’s not gonna be a catastrophe, just a pointless expense.

What has been disappointingly lacking from this debate is a sincere economic analysis of the impact of Brexit on the worst off, the lowest paid. While migration has, in general, been good for the country economically (and, in my view, culturally) it’s not likely to have made things better for the lowest paid.

However, it’s not fully to blame, or even mostly. The last 30 years have seen a steady decline in wages and working conditions, and the principal beneficiaries have not been migrants. Instead of blaming each other, we need real resistance to this deliberate policy of putting profits before people.

We talk about democracy and sovereignty a lot. The UK has a very concentrated political system compared to most countries. We only have one elected House – the US has two elected Houses, a president, a powerful judiciary and states which each have two elected Houses and an elected governor. So the influence of another body, even if it’s not the best, can help democracy overall.

International agreements are hard to come by, and a (basically) working group of countries is something to be cherished. Put bluntly, in the latest round of climate change talks, we struggled to commit to a target that isn’t strong enough and will be broken anyway. The latest round of WTO negotiations started in 2001, and remain unfinished. That’s well over half of my lifetime.

Put 200 countries together like that and one bastard will always think they can ruin it for everyone (looking at you, America). Only by working together over the long term with a political structure that binds us can we workably produce the international response we need to these issues.

The EU isn’t perfect. I hate what it did to Greece. I hate what it’s doing with TTIP, and I hate its continued resistance to democratic reform. Yeah, a freedom from its more restrictive pro-market policies could open up the space for a socially beneficial reindustrialisation of the UK, but that is more a dream than a plan. So, with a heavy heart, I’ll be voting Remain.

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Brexit, identity and the post-truth media

For many people, Brexit is not a battle of facts, numbers and figures, and that goes for those on both sides of the debate. For many Brexiteers, this vote is about an expression of British identity. For many Remainers, the vote is, similarly, about an expression of a liberal, cosmopolitan identity. In fact, the people most passionate about the referendum on both sides are probably more enamoured with these ideas of identity than they are with the cold, hard facts of their case.

Those facts, in reality, are a secondary consideration. We are living, in some ways, in a post-truth media environment. The line between journalism and activism is often blurred. I think often those blurring the lines see themselves as doing a good deed – in presenting a single side of the story they see themselves not as spreading mistruth, but as correcting a flawed narrative.

After an incident of Islamist terrorism, many on the left will blame the attack on the West’s history of colonialism and war. This elicits a reaction from the right that people are in denial about “the nature” of Islam (insofar as a billion people can, collectively, have a nature) being violent. It’s not that people on the left don’t understand that passages of the Quran are used to justify these atrocities and that yes, there is some connection between Islam (not mainstream Islam, though) and them.

Rather, they see a regrettable reduction of these complex issues into “Islam = bad”, and worry about the effect that this reductionist view of the problem will have on ordinary, peaceful Muslims who don’t wish harm on anyone. Seeing the risk for each incident to provoke an Islamophobic reaction, they offer a counter-narrative that seeks to provoke reflection on the complexities of what’s going on. The internal truth of any one piece is secondary to the overarching truth of the narrative.

Of course, this form of narrative-focused journalism provokes an equal and opposite reaction from the right. Concerned about a namby-pamby PC-gone-mad narrative that they can read in leftist thinkpieces, they push back the other way, with rightist thinkpieces that are equally as narrative-focused, and assert that in fact Islam is “to blame” and that the left is too for being too afraid to criticise it. All this creates an atmosphere of shouty distrust, a vicious cycle of thinkpieces constantly reasserting the chosen side of the argument so as to try and create what they consider to be an overall balance.

The same is playing out with Brexit. Each side makes ever more ludicrous claims – both have invoked Hitler, for fucks sakes – and the only real loser is the public. George Osborne’s dismal treasury predictions were all worst-case scenarios – it seems to me that he massively overplayed his hand. Why not quote a smaller but more believable figure and say “look, this isn’t a huge amount, but would you rather have it in your pocket or not?”.

Trapped between two sides selling narratives, nobody knows who to trust. Back to the clash of identities. With the increasingly less believable claims emanating from both the Leave and Remain camps, people  can’t realistically assess “the facts” because the obvious question then is “which facts?”. Instead, when facts fail we retreat to identity. Am I a proud, down-to-earth Brit or a cosmopolitan European?

The endless panopoly of experts telling people to vote remain are associated, rightly or wrongly, with the liberal cosmopolitanism of Remain. So, their views are discounted immediately by those who see this vote in terms. Similarly anyone talking about the fact that, actually, free movement of labour might be good for those at the top but not for those in low-paid, insecure jobs can be discounted as a “little Englander”. I’m fucking sick of it all, and I can’t wait for it to be over.

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Why I don’t want to republish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons

It should go without saying that there is no excuse for the Charlie Hebdo massacre. It’s a vile, murderous act, and completely unjustified. That does not in any way, however, make it right of Charlie Hebdo to have published the cartoons, nor does it make it a good idea to republish them as some form of protest, though I fully respect the motivations for doing so. Free speech is protected, and almost nobody thinks this was in any way justified. The right to say what you want without violence is not now and has never been in question; the awkward truth is that, like the freedom to not suffer other forms of violent crime, it is virtually impossible to protect against those who do not care about the legal consequences of their actions.

It is pretty plain, given the reaction to cartoons of Muhammad in the past, that publishing mocking cartoons of Muhammad is incredibly hurtful to a lot of people. Whether or not that hurt is, in your opinion, sensible doesn’t matter that much; these people are human beings with feelings and they are likely to be hurt by a widespread campaign of republishing these cartoons. These are people who have done nothing, and yet will still be hurt by these actions. This would be a different matter if the act of republishing somehow protected people; it does not. There is no herd immunity, for it will still be the creators and must high profile publishers of content who are the most likely targets.

All it does is fuel a belief that Western culture is contemptuous of Islam and feed into an already pervasive atmosphere of distrust. The “satire” itself is childish and unfunny, designed purely to provoke reactions, not to provoke discourse. How can meaningful discussion arise when the image is created in such a manner as only to cause offence? What does it prove? That many Muslims find depictions of Muhammad offensive? Adding fuel to the fire in this manner only creates a toxic environment in which legitimate discussion of the coexistence of Islam and modern liberalism becomes ever harder. Those with legitimate things to say are silenced by association with this intolerance.

Charlie Hebdo came from a position of power and mocked a minority within French society. They are essentially an example of the worst that free speech has to offer. They of course do not in any way deserve what happened to them, but they don’t deserve much praise for this either. Constantly sharing this ties acts of oppression like this to the idea of free speech itself; we are fighting oppression with oppression. Three people were so upset they did something awful, thousands more are likely to just be upset and doing nothing wrong. That offence is only increased now that this is some broad campaign, rather than some rogue cartoonists.

Furthermore, we are standing up for rights that already exist: a curious form of civil obedience. All three gunmen are, it would seem, dead. The French state could not be said to have left this issue alone. Where were the same voices standing up for all free speech when radical Islamist sites that got shut down by governments? Why do we not defend this blanket right to say hateful things when the situation is different? Further, would we be so keen to share the work of a cartoonist who had published mocking caricatures of black or Jewish people and then been attacked in this manner? I feel probably not. Even though we support the right of individuals not to suffer attacks, we do not have to support what they do.

However, republishing these cartoons doesn’t protect anyone, it just reasserts the right to be hurtful towards Muslims. If we are so determined not to allow our speech to be controlled by violence, we should ask ourselves why we are endorsing hateful, intolerant speech that we would never normally share. Is this too not a form of control? Ultimately, the danger here is not from the wider public, but from individuals who are not concerned by the legal consequences of their actions. Popular will is very effective when governments suppress speech. Doing the very thing that inflamed the tensions in the first place only preaches to the choir on the one hand and ignites anger on the other.

Je ne suis pas Charlie. I won’t be sharing the cartoons, not out of fear and intimidation, but because I wouldn’t have been sharing these hurtful images to begin with.

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