Send In the Clowns

There was a time, until very recently,  when the Conservative Party was the competent party. They were the ones you called out to clean the drains that Labour had blocked, because unlike Labour they were the ones who acted in the national interest rather than out of ideology or misguided sentiment.  They had gravitas, political nous and common sense.  They took the hard but necessary decisions that others were too squeamish to take, because unlike Labour they actually understood the economy.   They knew that a nation couldn’t live above its means, that there were no magic money trees, and that there were times when ‘we’ all had to pull our belts in.

This reputation was always surprisingly impervious to reality. Throughout the Coalition and Cameron governments, the national debt continued to rise, even though Tory politicians insisted that austerity was the only way to reduce it.   Even when the government’s own advisors argued that austerity had harmed the economy, they still continued with it.  Even when social care floundered and the NHS continued its slow-motion collapse, the Tories still managed to convince the public that the damage they were inflicting on society was for everyone’s good.

Now, as a result of Theresa May’s catastrophic campaign and its unexpected denouement last Thursday, the myth of Tory competence has been well and truly shattered.   It is now clear that these are not politicians who know what they are doing.

First the feckless gambler Cameron inflicted a divisive and unnecessary referendum on the country to resolve a quarrel within the Tory Party. As a result the historic defender of British business is now responsible for an economic slump that has transformed the UK into the worst-performing economy in the industrialised world.  Theresa May then seamlessly and cluelessly transformed herself from quiet Remainer into the hardest of Brexiters, and did everything possible to antagonize and alienate her European negotiators.

After spending ten months promising to achieve the impossible, she then called an election that the country did not need in order to consolidate her party’s power into the next generation, only to lose her majority as a result of one of the most tin-eared and dim-witted campaigns in British history, and she leads a minority government propped up by the DUP

To say that this train-wreck is not competent does not even begin to describe it.  Faced with this self-inflicted calamity, the Tory Party is desperate to save itself. That is why we heard about May’s tears over the weekend.  That is why her MPs are insisting in the same dismal chorus that she showed her ‘human side’ at the 1922 Committee meeting yesterday, and why she is showing contrition – to her party, not to anyone else.  That is why the new Minister for the Environment (you at the back, stop sniggering, this is serious) Michael Gove now says the government is in ‘listening mode.’

Now every Tory MP or minister exudes gravitas,forgiveness and seriousness.  Even Sarah Woolaston – an MP who has at least tried to stand up for the NHS – refused to admit on C4 News yesterday that Brexit might have caused the incredible 96 percent drop in  applications from EU nurses for UK jobs – this at a time when there is a 30-40000 shortfall in British nurses.

Now we hear that austerity is over, that the government will be listening to public sector workers who Corbyn mysteriously ‘tapped into.’  Now there will be school meals again, freedom for foxes, soft Brexit, red carpets for migrants, fluffy unicorns and beautifully-coloured Tory rainbows.   No longer will hard-faced politicians taunt nurses with talk of magic money trees or throw back their shoulders in weird laughing fits. No longer will May seek to exclude parliament from Brexit discussions or threaten to ‘walk out without a deal.’

Now she seeks not to rule the country, but only to serve her party, as she has been doing since she was a 12-year-old girl stuffing envelopes and running through fields of wheat.   All this is a massive victory for Corbyn’s Labour Party, but let no one be fooled by this apparent contrition.  The only reason May & co are contrite is because they failed to achieve their objectives. The only reason they are in listening ‘mode’  is because they have been badly weakened.

But this is not a government that has any more idea about what it is doing than it did before, and it has no more concern for the national interest or the interests of British society than it did last Thursday.  It has driven itself and the country into a hole and it has no idea how to get out. It is now entirely dependent for itself survival on the DUP, whose support it is cultivating regardless of the possibility that it may undermine the Good Friday Agreement.

These arrangements are unlikely to work.   The DUP has apparently ‘parked’ its sectarian demands and its antideluvian social agenda in the negotiations for the time being, and intends to concentrate on financial demands – presumably to make up for the money that Northern Ireland will lose as a result of Brexit.  If the government makes payouts to Northern Ireland, then other regions such as Cornwall and Wales are likely to do the same.

As far as Brexit is concerned, the DUP, like the government – and to some extent like the Labour opposition – wants to have its cake and eat it.  It wants out of the things it doesn’t like and inside the things it does like.  Crucially it wants a ‘soft’ border and free movement with the Irish Republic.   If the government agrees to include this in its negotiating position, then it will have to make concessions that May insisted she would never make, and that the Europhobic wing of the Tory Party will not accept.

Meanwhile, it is difficult to believe that the DUP won’t try to use its position to undermine Sinn Fein, or that Sinn Fein won’t see a DUP-Tory government alliance as a threat to its own constituency.  It remains to be seen whether the DUP continues with its attempt to exclude members of the security forces from investigation for actions carried out during the Troubles – an aspiration that many Tories share – but if it does, and the government agrees, then Northern Ireland may be headed for very choppy waters.

And now the Brexit negotiations loom and May’s crippled government faces the challenge of getting the ‘best deal’ – an all but impossible task even before this debacle. In short, ladies and gentlemen, this is a monumental political car-crash, like one of those scenes from Die Hard when the roads are strewn with overturned vehicles, and it should never be forgotten or forgiven.  It is absolutely inexcusable.   The Tory Party created it, and they own it,  and no amount of grovelling or fake-contrite messaging should ever conceal the fact.

On one hand, the fact that Labour did not actually win last Thursday may turn out to be a blessing, as May and her hapless team lurch forward with staring eyes and frozen smiles on the road to international ridicule and humiliation, because otherwise a Labour government would have taken all the blame that will now be heaped on these duplicitous buffoons.

But that doesn’t mean that Labour will glide smoothly into power when the last wheels come off the Tory machine.   Faced with the prospect of another election and the possibility of defeat, the Tory Party will close ranks. Some individuals may go – May being the most likely, but others will take their place.   They will obfuscate, lie, and distort, blame the opposition and do whatever it takes to preserve their careers and ensure that the Tory Party survives.

And next time they will do it better.  They will not underestimate Corbyn.  They now understand that they are facing a movement that is not like anything this country has seen before.  They will develop tactics, messages and strategies to deal with it.

Hopefully none of this will be able to save them, but they should not be underrated either.  Because if clowns like these can win more than thirteen million votes, then they cannot be written off, and there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that they get the political punishment they surely deserve.

 

Why I’m voting Labour

What a difference a month can make.  When Theresa May broke her own pledge not to call an election I thought that yet another political calamity was about to unfold.  The justification for the election was that parliament was ‘blocking Brexit’ and that a new mandate was necessary to allow May to negotiate Britain’s exit from the UK more effectively.

Like so much that comes from May’s mouth and from the Tory party in general these days,  this was a bare-faced lie.  Labour had accepted the referendum result and allowed May to trigger Article 50 entirely on her own terms.   May’s real intentions were more sinister and devious: in seeking a bigger majority and appealing to the ‘will of the people’, she intended to remove the entire Brexit process from parliamentary scrutiny altogether and ensure that the electorate gave her a rubber stamp to enact a ‘plan’ that she was not and is not prepared to reveal to the public, most likely because she doesn’t actually have one.

Instead, showing a gall and an arrogance rarely seen in British politics, she asked the public to vote for her without explaining what they were actually voting for.  All this was supposedly for our own good, but like the referendum itself, it was entirely dictated by the interests of the Tory party.   May clearly calculated that the economic impact of Brexit would be kicking in by 2020, and decided that now would be a good time to destroy a divided Labour Party and ensure that her own party was able to ride out the storms that will certainly ensue over the next three years.

This is what the Tory papers clearly hoped for too when they applauded her Machiavellian brilliance. Like May, they believed that a massive Tory majority was a fait accompli.  All that was required was for May to intone ‘strong and stable’ and ‘coalition of chaos’ before hand-picked audiences and the glassy-eyed voters would stumble towards her with their hands outstretched in front of them.  A good plan – in theory – but now, astonishingly,  it has unravelled to the point when May may not get the massive majority she wants, and there is even a discussion taking place about whether she will actually lose the election.  

What explains this incredible turn of events? Firstly, there is the deeply unattractive and unappealing figure of May herself.   When she first put herself forward as a successor to Cameron last year she presented herself as a safe pair of hands, a competent non-ideological technocrat surrounded by buffoons and conniving chancers who ‘ wear her heart on the sleeve’ and ‘got the job done’.

That carefully-cultivated image has now dissolved.   Again and again throughout this campaign May has shown that the reason she doesn’t wear her heart on the sleeve is because she has no heart at all.   The best that can be said of a woman who says that ‘people use foodbanks for complex reasons’ when asked why nurses are using them, or who tells a nurse asking why she hasn’t had a pay rise in years that there is ‘no magic money tree’ is that she has something of an empathy deficit.

The worst is that she is as callous and uncaring as the Tory governments that she has been part of have shown themselves to be these last few years.  Either way it’s not a good look, especially for a politician who has placed herself at the centre of the campaign.   Like the Wizard of Oz, May would like the outside world to see what she wants them to see, but she has already shown the public more than even many Tory voters can bear, and the more she has revealed of herself, the more she has shown herself to be a callous, reactionary, dishonest, vacillating, opportunistic, cowardly, conniving control freak.

All this would be bad enough, but it has been compounded by the most arrogant, lazy, and incompetent campaign that I can remember,  which offered voters nothing but a back-of-a-fag-packet manifesto, ‘coalition of chaos’ messaging and shameful sarcasm about ‘magic money trees’ in response to every question about the manifold social failures that are unfolding before our eyes and the ongoing collapse of public services.

In contrast to this, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party have exceeded the expectations of many, including myself – and fought a superb campaign, based on a positive message and a return to genuine social-democratic principles. Corbyn, unlike May, is a natural campaigner, with a warmth, humanity and sincerity that neither May nor any of her crew can ever match.   He has shown tremendous courage and good humour, in enduring one of the most vicious onslaughts ever directed against a British politician.

Place someone like that against a woman who sends her bereaved Home Secretary into a tv debate because she hasn’t the guts to appear herself, and voters will take notice, even if May assumed they wouldn’t.   But character isn’t everything. For the first time, Labour have presented the electorate with a genuine alternative to the neoliberal austerity model which has wrought such havoc for the best part of a decade.

The result is that against all the odds, and despite the opposition of the majority of his own MPs, Corbyn has slashed the Tory lead in the polls.  Personally, I have had my reservations about the Corbyn project and the Labour party in general, and still do.  I don’t like the lack of clarity on Brexit.  I think there should be another vote on a final deal.  I also think that a Labour government will struggle to implement its program outside the single market.   I don’t agree with Labour’s position on free movement.

Despite these caveats, I will most definitely be voting Labour tomorrow.  I will do it because this zombie government cannot be allowed to have a majority that will enable it to inflict even more damage on British society than it already has.   I will be doing it because Corbyn has courageously raised the possibility of a different kind of foreign policy to the endless Groundhog Day horror of the ‘war on terror.’

I will do it because if May gets the majority she wants, it will leave the country in the hands of people like Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davies and – offstage – Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks.  The result will be the hardest of Brexits, and a national disaster that will most likely result in the UK crashing out into WTO rules.  A May majority will transform the UK into a corrupt banana republic – a deregulated tax haven flowing with Trump hotels and Saudi money and ruled by men and women without a trace of humanity or concern for anyone except a narrow wealthy clique and the Tory party itself.

If May wins then more schools will be asking parents to pay for their children’s education, as many are already doing.  It will mean the destruction of the NHS and the collapse of social services. It will mean reactionary clampdowns on civil liberties. More stigmatisation and persecution of migrants.   The rolling back of rights for EU nationals.

In short, a Tory majority will accelerate and continue the ongoing transformation of the UK into a dystopia, and I will vote for anyone and anything that can prevent this.  Can Labour prevent it?   Could a Corbyn government cope with the immense challenges of trying to implement a social democratic program and stave off the disaster of a hard Brexit?

I don’t know, but right now it seems a possibility worth voting for, and that’s something I haven’t felt about Labour for a very long time.

 

When the Brexit Bubble Bursts

Individual folly is very different from political folly.   When an individual acts in an openly self-destructive manner, or engages in behaviour contrary to his or her own interests or to those of the people around them, they are likely to get criticism or advice from their friends or family, or from other people who might hold up a mirror in front of them and o show them the error of their ways.   Such interventions might be able to bring our troubled individual to his or her senses, and  convince them of the harm they are doing to themselves and to others.

But when whole communities or societies are behaving in a foolish, destructive or self-destructive manner, it’s very difficult to change or reverse the trajectory they’ve embarked upon.   Consider Theresa May’s ‘Brexit dinner.’  If the leaked revelations in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Sonntagszeitung were a correct rendition of what actually happened that evening – and few people seem to be denying that they were – it is clear that

a) The Prime Minister who is asking the British public for a mandate to reinforce her position in the Brexit negotiations does not actually understand what these negotiations actually entail, in which case she is dangerously ignorant or ill-informed

b) That both her timetable and her objectives are unrealistic and not accepted by the European Commission – in which case she is committed to a course that has very little possibility of a positive outcome

c) that May’s negotiating partners are genuinely shocked, worried and even horrified at the UK’s ‘delusional’ approach to Brexit.

Given the scope and the importance of the forthcoming negotiations, you would think that a country that was seriously interested in bringing them to the best possible conclusion from the point of view of its own material interests alone would take these criticisms very seriously indeed, and that it ought to take a long hard look at Theresa May and her team before voting for them.   But that is not the kind of country that we have become.

Instead these revelations have provoked the usual frothing outrage in the Tory press, in below-the-line comments and on social media at the perfidious Europeans and cognac-loving foreigners who have been ‘arrogant’ enough to criticize us and attempt to ‘interfere with our election’.

No one should be surprised by these puerile and infantile insults.  To pay any serious attention or give any credence to the criticisms of Juncker and Merkel would entail acknowledging the enormous risks and limitations in the Brexit project,  raising doubts and a capacity for self-analysis that are entirely absent from the collective mindset that produced the project in the first place.   As a result any doubts and criticisms can only be attributed to ill-intentioned foreigners engaged in a ‘New Project Fear’, as the Telegraph called it, supported by what one moronic commentator in the Independent called ‘EU Quislings.’

This is how collective folly works.  Where individuals have to deal with social criticism and censure, communities and societies engage in collective groupthink, sealed off from any thoughts or ideas that might contradict the basic assumptions that hold the group together,  so that its members combine to reinforce the worst instincts of the group.   Charles Mackay once recognized these tendencies in his classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.   In a chapter on the ‘South Sea Bubble’ of 1720, Mackay described the various joint stock companies that sprung up that year in addition to the South Sea Company, which induced thousands of people to invest their money in scams and fraudulent companies that had little or no possibility of success.

Some of the ‘Bubble Companies’ that were subsequently abolished by Parliament were superficially plausible:  One company proposed to pave the streets of London; another raised capital to invest in Cornish tin mines, and another ‘for sinking pits and lead ore in Derbyshire’.  But there were also companies that sold shares for enterprises such as ‘trading in hair’, ‘improving of gardens’, ‘furnishing funerals to any part of Great Britain’ and even – an enterprise that seems particularly appropriate to our own predicament –  ‘for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage; but nobody to know what it is.’

In his consideration of why so many people were attracted to these schemes, Mackay commented on the ‘unwholesome fermentation’ of the British public, and  asked rhetorically whether it was ‘ a dull or uninstructive picture to see a whole people shaking suddenly off the trammels of reason, and running wild after a golden vision, refusing obstinately to believe that it is not real, till, like a deluded hind running after an ignis fatuus, they are plunged into a quagmire? But in this false spirit has history too often been written.’

It has indeed, and now it is being written again, as the UK lurches blind into a negotiation process that its leaders do not understand, in pursuit of illusions that have very little possibility of realisation.   In her study of self-inflicted historical wounds The March of Folly, the historian Barbara Tuchman, attributed ‘the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests’ to a failure of leadership, and argued that’ Intelligent government would require that the persons entrusted with high office should formulate and execute policy according to their best judgment, the best knowledge available and a judicious estimate of the lesser evil.’

No one can plausibly argue that what Theresa May and her government are doing any of these things.   For that they can and should be blamed right now – just as they undoubtedly will be blamed when historians pore through the wreckage of the trainwreck that is British politics for clues as to how it happened.  But the political tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes is not merely due to the machinations of the Tory party or the raw ambition of little men and women who have put their own careers and interests above any notion of the common good.

If the British public refuses to acknowledge any truth in the EU’s criticisms, and accepts May’s presentation of herself as a ‘bloody difficult woman’ valiantly standing up to the same corrupt foreigners who we fought in so many wars, then it will reinforce the worst tendencies of her government, which will in turn reinforce the worst instincts of the public.  If it gives May a mandate, without even asking what the mandate is for, it will be no different to the investors who once bought stocks in ‘an undertaking of great advantage; but nobody to know what it is.’

History is not kind to societies that behave like this.   In its account of the collapse of the South Sea Bubble, the Parliamentary History at the time once observed:

‘And thus were seen, in the space of eight months, the rise, progress, and fall of that mighty fabric, which, being wound up by mysterious springs to a wonderful height, had fixed the eyes and expectations of all Europe, but whose foundation, being fraud, illusion, credulity, and infatuation, fell to the ground as soon as the artful management of its directors was discovered.’

A similarly precipitous fall awaits us over a much longer period, unless we can find a way to come to our senses and recognize that what the UK is currently seeking through leaving the EU is very unlikely ever to happen, and was never likely to happen, and that the country is about to commit an immense act of self-harm that will be very difficult to escape from. One very simple way to do this would be to deny May the mandate that she wants, and that she and her team are blatantly ill-equipped to receive.

Because otherwise we will put our collective fate in her hands, and in the hands of Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, and the very least that can be said about this is that it is not a sensible decision.   Otherwise we shall have to wait for the Brexit bubble to burst.  And when that happens, and its consequences become clear, it is very unlikely to lead to reflection and analysis of what went wrong,  or whether the expectations behind it were ever realistic in the first place.

On the contrary, it’s far more likely that the mood of the public will turn even more bitter and rancorous than it already is, whipped on by the same irresponsible politicians and newspapers that are currently vilifying Juncker, and that failure will be blamed on ‘EU Quislings’, foreigners, immigrants and ‘Remoaners’ who ‘stabbed us in the back.’

History ought to tell us where sentiments like that can lead, but for the time being it seems, too many politicians seem unable or unwilling to learn from history or halt the headlong rush towards a very painful collision between our collective illusions and reality.

But we can.  We can look at May and her party, and we can just say no, before it’s too late.

 

 

 

Mayday! Mayday!

There are some politicians who look better from a distance, and Theresa May is definitely one of them.  May and her advisors are clearly aware of this, and they have done their best to shield her anything approaching close scrutiny. They have refused to let her participate in political debates. In an absurd attempt to present May as a politician in touch with ‘ordinary people’,  her team have arranged a series of increasingly bizarre stage-managed encounters with party loyalists in factories and other public places from which the public has either been removed or forced to remain silent about what it heard.

Not that there has been much to hear, except for incantations and soundbites.  But even if these theatrical flourishes have a tinny North Korean-style echo to them, Tory Central Office clearly prefers that hollow sound to anything approaching intimacy or proximity – and with good reason.  Asked on Radio Derby whether she agreed with the arch-buffoon’s characterisation of Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘mugwump’ she replied ‘What I recognise is that what we need in this country is strong and stable leadership.’

That wasn’t an answer, but it is pretty much the only answer May has to any question these days.   Well not quite.  On the Andrew Marr show on Sunday she was asked what she thought of the fact that many British nurses use foodbanks.   May’s immortal answer was: ‘People use foodbanks for complex reasons’.  These words really ought to be trailed in blazing letters across the sky or put on the side of a bus and driven from one end of the nation to the other, because they capture not only the essence of Toryism, but the essence of May herself.

Remember all those months ago, when May demurely announced her leadership bid, oozing sincerity and humility as she told the world that she wasn’t one of those politicians who ‘wear their heart on the sleeve’ but someone who just ‘got on with the job in front of them’?  How appealing those words sounded then – to some at least.   Remember last year’s Tory Party conference when she railed against ‘international elites’ and promised to stand up for ‘ordinary working-class people’?   Her observations on foodbanks make it clear – if there was any doubt – that the reason she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve is because she has no heart at all, and that she doesn’t have the remotest idea who ordinary working class people actually are or what is actually happening to them.

In that sense she is not much different from her predecessor, or from the cynical clowns who she managed to fend off to get the Big Job.   But May’s aura of can-do competence last year had an immediate post-Brexit appeal to an anxious British public that was feeling nervous about what it had just voted for, and desperate for any politician who seemed to know where the country was going and how they were going to get there. May seemed confident and superficially competent enough to suggest that she might be that person – especially given the competition.

In addition, her meaningless tautological insistence that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ appealed to those who don’t care where we’re going as long as we get out of the EU.  So all good, except that it wasn’t.  May’s image of competence was already looking tarnished long before she called the election.  No sooner had she become PM than she appointed a succession of chancers, idiots and ideologues to her cabinet who were patently unworthy of their positions.   She then went on to make speech after speech alienating her European negotiating partners and pandering to the popcorn-munching gallery of Farageland.

True, she was good at throwing puerile Mean Girls insults at Jeremy Corbyn in PMQ. But the more she appears in any other format that is not controlled or scripted, the more it becomes painfully clear that she is yet another rabbit peering into the oncoming headlights of history, who is as out-of-depth as her colleagues and equally unwilling to listen to anyone who tells her things that she doesn’t want to hear.

If there was any doubt about this, the leaked reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAZ) on the Downing Street ‘Brexit dinner‘ ought to lay them to rest.  OK, I know this is a German newspaper, and nowadays we know that Germany is only using the EU to get what it didn’t get during World War II and all Germans are closet Nazis and therefore can’t be trusted.  But apart from that, there is no reason to dispute the genuine shock and incredulity of Juncker and his colleagues on realising how little May understands about what is at stake over the next few months and years and how little leverage she actually has.

Given the kind of country that we have become, and the kind of newspapers that have done so much to bring us to the cliff-edge that we are now looking over, no one will be surprised that some have tried to spin this debacle as yet another example of the sheer iniquity of these damned foreigners.  Whether it’s Tony Parsons ranting on about the war and calling Jean-Claude Juncker a ‘puffed-up political pygmy’ or the Daily Mail venting about the ‘bully boys of the EU’, we have become accustomed to an extremely low-level debate – usually sloshing somewhere around the gutter – about all things European for a long time now.

Others will recognize that it is not a good look to have European politicians suggesting that the Prime Minister of the UK is ‘delusional’ and ‘living in another galaxy’, and that such accusations do no bode well.   They may wonder why May’s timetable seems so blatantly at odds with that of her negotiating partners, and why it is that she seems incapable of understanding the things they are telling her, and why she refuses to listen to people who tell her anything different.

Given these terrifying limitations, you can see why she has chosen to campaign as a robot programmed by Lynton Crosby that simply utters the words ‘strong and stable…strong and stable’ over and over again, like a soothing mantra for a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown to mutter to itself before slipping into another night’s fitful sleep.

If you or I were Theresa May we would do the same. But fortunately we aren’t.  We are in possession of our faculties, and we can still vote against her.   It may not be possible to vote her out of office, but her majority can certainly be reduced.  If it was, that would be a kind of victory.   And we need to try, because this hologram-robot is asking for a mandate to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations, even when she clearly does not know what she is doing.

Giving into such a request would be like putting your hands on a steering wheel, driven by a would-be suicidal maniac screeching at high speed towards a brick wall.  Normally, sensible passengers don’t accept requests like that, but these are not normal times, and there will be those who will blame the looming disasters on the EU and the ‘saboteurs’ or ‘EU quislings, rather than the madwoman at the wheel.

May is clearly attempting to make us complicit in her madness, and it isn’t too late to come to our senses and vote for anything and anyone that is not Theresa May and not Tory.

Alternatively, we can just accept her invitation to grasp the wheel.  We can stare into her glassy eyes and mutter over and over again ‘strong and stable…strong and stable’ in the hope that it will all just work out somehow, despite the mounting evidence that it really won’t.