Brex(it) In The City

A flippant headline, because this is a very far from lightweight subject. Sometimes being a conscientious citizen trying my best to understand the world feels like drowning. It certainly does where Brexit is concerned.

So last Friday I headed off to The Council House, as Birmingham’s grand palace of local government is quaintly called, for a workshop on Brexit organised by City-REDI at the Birmingham Business School. City-REDI is concerned with the study of city-regions around the world, with the task of developing a sound empirical understanding of the dynamics of regional economies, and associated political and structural questions.  These are my words, and I may have misrepresented their mission, so, also my words, they are clever people who know stuff. and they have been working on a project to study the economic impacts of Brexit on the UK, its regions, its cities, and its sectors.  Basically all the stuff David Davies said they’d done ages ago, then admitted that he was only kidding, and they’d done sweet FA.

And is it terrifying? You bet. But perhaps not in the terms I had expected.

Firstly, the shock of Brexit to the economy, already being felt, but not nearly as much as it will be once we leave the EU, is likely to be three or four times the impact of the financial crash of 2008.  There’s around £140 billion of UK economic activity each year directly at risk because of Brexit.  We know that the regions likely to be worst impacted will be the Leave voting areas, but I hadn’t also realised the extent to which the jobs at risk tend to be more productive than average, so Britain’s already serious productivity problems will be exacerbated by Brexit. Slide after slide was shown, and pretty much all of it looked bad. And remember, we voted to do this to ourselves.

But I’m not writing about this because I want to plagiarise other people’s numbers. I’m sure you can find lots of information on City-REDI’s website if you want to enjoy the jaw-dropping stats for yourself. What really hit me, right from the start, at this workshop was the absence of politics.

Not the careful non-partisanship of the key speakers; that much is to be expected from policy wonks and number crunchers. Brexit is a highly political project, yet the guiding hand of political leadership was seemingly absent without Leave. Ostensibly about manufacturing in the West Midlands city-region, it was two and a half hours in before anyone even mentioned the Mayor, and central government and Parliament more generally, was scarcely referenced.  Senior planners in the Core Cities and the LGA complain that, “Government won’t speak to us”.  And as for the academic experts, they seemed politely stunned by the low level of understanding of some of the biggest political names.  One economist described the ongoing parliamentary debate about Brexit and trade as a political narrative based on a “Corn Law level of understanding of trade” which is irrelevant to global value chains.  A 19th Century ding dong about 21st Century trading relationships? Hell and handcarts beckon.

So next time you hear all the slogans about “they do more trade with us than we do with them”, and big figures about imports and exports, remember this.  They’re talking in terms that made sense in a long gone world of Lancashire cotton, Welsh iron, and Kentish coal.  Surplus/deficit arguments are irrelevant. There are new phrases which some of us have started noticing, about ‘just in time supply chains’, and ‘global value chains’, and what matters in trading systems which operate in ways which are not regulated by national boundaries; indeed, national boundaries are a serious irritant (don’t mention Ireland).

The Concerned Citizens Club in the audience for this wholly informative, non-partisan event seemed to consist solely of anxious Remainers.  This did surprise me, anxious Remainer that I am.  Surely the Brexit supporters would be out in force to hear how their Grand Project was faring, and to offer their analyses and prescriptions?  Their absence was very telling.  Basically the only argument they seem to have left is “Will of the People”.  They won a vote. End of.  That really isn’t good enough, and you can sense they know it.

The only Brexit voice came from a speaker, Justin Benson of KPMG, who had voted Remain, but claimed cheerfully that he would now vote Leave, if another vote were to be held. His reasons seemed entirely pragmatic.  Like everyone else questioned, he shared the assumption that Brexit would happen. So for him, and for the businesses in the automotive sector on which he advised, it was a simply question of as much certainty as possible in the here and now.  Unfortunately, the way he illustrated this, entirely rationally, was by showing how decisions on new models, and where to build them, were made.  And they are made in Munich, or Tokyo, Seoul, or Mumbai.  If Brexit screws up JL-R Solihull, the vehicles will still get made.  Just not here.

But there is a much bigger political, constitutional question which Brexit has brought into focus.

Although no one said it in these words, there was a baseline assumption that central government, and the state itself, was largely irrelevant.  It had caused the circumstances, Brexit, but it was playing little in the way of an effective guiding role in how the country was responding to Brexit, and was doing even less in the way of detailed planning, including contingency planning for an event ostensibly less than a year away.  Local government was doing its best, but was too fragmented, and had too little power, particularly fiscal power.

So my key conclusions from the day were less about Brexit, than about our entire political culture.  The hollowing out of the state, the loss of capacity, the reliance on outsourcing, the replacement of parties which represented sectional interests with parties which game elections, the growth of a career political cadre, and the associated centralisation, and above all, the four decades long battering of local government, all have wreaked havoc on political legitimacy.  One phrase that came up several times through the day was ‘Devolution works’.  The regional authorities set up by Ted Heath in 1974, the Metropolitan Counties, are now being reinvented as Mayors with Combined Authorities, but they have less power than in Heath’s vision.  There’s an awfully long way to go.

We need root and branch constitutional reform, including electoral reform, regional devolution, a less centralised system overall, and a ban on referendums.

And that is just the start.  But first there’s a little matter of Brexit.

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Rivers Of Bile

Today is the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, and it seems a fitting week in which to look back on the Tory politician’s triumphant achievement.  His “wide grinning piccaninnies” (a racist term recently also used by the Foreign Secretary) are now older people, blinking unexpectedly on our TV screens, or staring balefully from newspaper front pages, their long lives ripped asunder by policies inspired by Powell.

‘Rivers of Blood’ was a deeply political speech, in the very worst sense of ‘political’.  It was written, orchestrated, and performed for a very precise purpose – to advance the purposes and ego of the politician who gave it, and to discomfort his enemies.  (Remember that in politics, your enemies are in your own party; the other lot are just opponents.)  Powell had observed the effectiveness of racism and xenophobia in creating a populist tide which was difficult for political leaders to control.  His former near neighbour as a Conservative MP was Peter Griffiths, who defeated the Shadow Foreign Secretary in Smethwick in a notoriously racially offensive campaign in 1964.  Monday Club member, Harold Gurden, the racist Tory MP for Selly Oak, sat with Powell as a West Midlands MP at the time, and there were others, who walked the walk, and talked the talk well before Powell began to dabble in inflammatory rhetoric.

Powell, the vain dilettante with few real political achievements to his name, was resentful of Edward Heath’s leadership of the Tory Party. ‘Rivers of Blood’ was above all a bombshell aimed at Heath, a liberal, modernising, pro-European politician, who represented a world Powell pretended not to understand, and into which he did not comfortably fit.  Powell took advice from the media savvy, and ensured that he made his speech with an unusually large media presence, timed to make the evening news, and the Sunday papers.

The speech was a sensation, but, at the time, also a failure.  It didn’t rock Ted Heath’s leadership; indeed, it probably made him Prime Minister, when the Tories did unexpectedly well in the 1970 general election.  It didn’t prevent the 1968 Race Relations Act coming into effect.  It exiled Powell from the Front Bench, and eventually from the Tory Party altogether.  Powell ended his career as an Ulster Unionist and ardent Europhobe.

And yet, what a staggering success the speech turned out to be.

It proved that race hate is a potent political weapon for the right.  It reaches the parts of the electorate other policies and attitudes cannot reach.  It mobilises and radicalises people in ways the political Establishment cannot control.  It speaks to the romantic, mythic past of an England that never was.  It is authentically Conservative, because it is a brake upon the hated forces of modernity and change.

Powell’s legacy is Brexit, a victory bought by anti-immigrant mania.  Powell’s legacy is Theresa May, the scourge of the children Powell disparaged and abused in his various speeches on ‘race’.

And yet, might this be both the highest, and the lowest point for the Powellite toxin in the Tory bloodstream?

He could get away with his “piccanninnies” “with no word of English” (really?  From Jamaica?), because the newspaper editors, and the great and the good, knew little of the people from the New Commonwealth in their midst.  But now, in 2018?

The Windrush Generation are people we know, people we are.  The policy of a ‘hostile environment’ on immigration, the obsession with ‘getting numbers down to tens of thousands’, look like bureaucratic heartlessness teamed with political malice.

There is a lesson from 1968, and specifically from ‘Rivers of Blood’, that needs to be learned again.

Heath, the Party leader, and Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, faced Powell down.  The petitions and marches subsided.  The refugees from Kenya were admitted. The Race Relations Act was passed, and later made tougher, in 1976.  The mob was thrown no red meat. And there’s a phrase for that: political leadership.

Stop focus grouping everything, basing policies on polling, following the crowd in search of electorate advantage, and concentrate on principle, and evidence-based policy making.  Political leadership can lead us away from this 50 year dead-end of immigration mania.

So make it happen….

Radicalism Now!

It shouldn’t be necessary to have to say this, but I’ve got news for you! The Twentieth Century is over! The past is always with us, of course, framing our understanding of the world and its possibilities.  We have been made by the past, and can learn much by studying its successes and failures, but that was then, and this is now. Time to face the present – and the future.

The present is an age of crumbling borders. Geographical borders exist, but they do not enclose as once they did, punctured by trade and transport, still more so by new means of communication. Political borders – those lines on maps so at odds with human life as it is lived, but so beloved of 19th Century imperialists – are becoming a nuisance. The very notion of a ‘country’ as a discrete political and cultural entity is just one facet of identity, and one with decreasing legitimacy on a small and fragile planet.

So how do we do politics in these fluid times?  How do we anchor a polity? What is the state, and what are its limits? How do we make democracy nimble and resilient in anxious times? And what are the markers of philosophical difference that distinguish parties, or movements, or alliances, from one another?

There are many answers to these questions, and inevitably we will grasp at what we think might work, and then discard it along the way to remaking a politics that works.  Some of the issues we have to wrestle with are big and difficult, such as whether the global institutions set up to settle the problems of the mid-20th Century make any sense now, and if they don’t, how do we remake them without provoking the nastiest, least controllable kinds of power politics, even war?

But there are things we can do, as individuals, and as groups, to move beyond those things that worked in the past, and don’t – won’t – work now.

The first thing we must do is look unsentimentally, unflinchingly, at our world.

The two big questions, and they are linked, are the natural, and the economic.

The question of the natural world is essentially the question of what humans have done to our shared little planet, and what we can do to tend it more effectively, and equitably.  Climate change is a driver that doesn’t wait around for a change of regime in the White House or the Kremlin.  But there are other questions of natural resources, from water to rare minerals, from fossil fuels to renewables, which must be addressed with more haste and seriousness than we seem able to muster. Every citizen of the planet needs to become informed, expert, even, on these issues.  These are urgent questions to which “the market” is not a credible answer.

The economic question is equally difficult, because it is a matter of the imagination.

There is no ‘invisible hand’, ‘rational choice’, nor any other ‘laws’ which can be turned into models to guide us to prosperity and happiness.  That’s religion, not reason.  Money doesn’t exist, except as an idea, a powerful idea that has built civilisations, and created great institutions, it is true, but the same is true for any religion.  The European Enlightenment challenged unquestioning faith, but somehow we’ve forgotten to apply the same scepticism to the cult of economics.  What matters is the distribution of resources, to whom, for what purposes, and why?  Money, whether coins, or bits of data, is a pretty effective way of making an economy visible and functional for people, but it’s not a ‘natural’ thing like the weather. It’s cultural.  It is what we decide it is.  Time to decide to distribute things in better, fairer ways.

We start answering these big questions from where we are.  I am somewhere in the geographical centre of England, in a state that has a history so weird that the name of the country is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  We’ve managed to deal with some of the tensions arising from the need to transition from empire to fairly populous and moderately prosperous European country through a series of treaties of cooperation with some of our closest neighbours – or at least, we thought we had.  Brexit is the bullet in that essentially benign arrangement that was easing our way towards a new, essentially cooperative position in the world.

There is no upside to Brexit.  It offers no route to a peaceable and meaningful place in the 21st Century world.  The Brexit fanatics of the right are living in a fantasy world, with the exception of a handful of ideologically committed ‘disrupters’ who would upend the lives of millions just to turn a quick (and huge) profit, and that little band were not the drivers of the 17 million.

The Brexit fanatics of the left are even fewer in number. Any open debate involving the membership or the voters of the Labour Party would end quickly with a rejection of Brexit.  All the so-called ‘Lexit’ arguments are weak, and confuse language (‘markets’, ‘freedoms’) with substance. Labour’s programme is entirely deliverable within the EU, and is almost entirely undeliverable in a near future in which we are out of the EU.  An economic crisis dwarfing the 2008 banking crash is no basis upon which to build the New Jerusalem.

What a left radicalism ought to be doing now is sketching out a programme for remaking Britain in Europe from the ground up at home, and offering support and solidarity to our European neighbours in resisting the dangerous forces of right wing populism and authoritarianism currently threatening too many parts the continent.  Indeed, Brexit is our own manifestation of that ‘new fascism’, which is why any genuine person or party of the left would have no truck with leaving the EU at all.  There are some in Labour who smell a bit 1930s Moseleyite, with their talk of ‘bosses using cheap foreign labour to keep down wages’.  Remind them of Cable Street, my fellow radicals….

Brexit is a huge roadblock standing in the way of real and necessary political change.  Real radicals would set to work at once to dismantle it.

Then our real work can begin.

“Just get on with it….”

There are few things that command agreement across the main political parties these days, but there is one that does.  MPs claim that their constituents, whether they voted Remain or Leave in the EU referendum, are now telling them, in reference to Brexit, “Just get on with it!”

Let’s assume that they are telling the truth. It is plausible.  I’ve seen voters in vox pops telling reporters as much.  Opinion polls show some movement towards Remain, and the second referendum option, but the pace of movement is glacial, even as the staggering ineptitude of the Conservative government becomes ever harder to hide.  The voters really do want politicians to get on with it.

The only problem is, what do they mean?

To answer this, and many other questions, we need to do something that Remainers like me are very bad at doing – we have to remember back to before the referendum was called.

There was no popular clamour to leave the EU.  Fed on a diet of press fabrications (many apparently the result of one of the Foreign Secretary’s various incarnations as a breezy gentleman-amateur having a laugh, in this case as a journalist), the public may not have learned to love the EU, but most of us had no strong feelings about it either way. It just was, like the A38, or the Large Hadron Collider.

But the referendum campaign – at least, the Leave campaigns – seemed to ignite a spark of previously unseen anger and resentment, and to pour ever more fuel upon those fires.  There’s no need to revisit just how nasty it got, what damage it has done, and how much still remains to be healed.  That much is more than apparent.

But what is less remarked upon, buried under hyperbolic rhetoric about “the will of the people”, is how slim was the margin of the Leave victory, given the near civil war atmosphere provoked by the vote.  This is partly because we don’t look at it in context.

The road to the Leave victory started in 2014.  The Scottish Independence referendum was a peculiar thing outside Scotland, but on the rest of this island.  Its passion was often reported in incredulous terms to the rest of us. Before 2014, I suspect that most English and Welsh people had an essentially romantic attitude towards Scotland, sometimes affectionate, sometimes incredulous, as in why they seemed so over-invested in sporting victories over England.  But the media coverage of the referendum fed a sense among many, especially in some parts of England, that it was they, not the Scots, who were the oppressed, the culturally marginalised, the economically disadvantaged.  It released a latent sense of English grievance that expresses itself as nationalism.

The 2015 general election campaign weaponised these resentments.

All expectations were of another hung parliament, and another coalition of some sort.  But Cameron, Osborne, and Lynton Crosby made brilliantly effective use of English nationalism (and the SNP rode the wave of their own nationalism, depriving Labour, in particular, of seats, and inadvertently gifting Cameron his win).  It was, we were  told repeatedly by the Tory campaign, a case of keeping calm and carrying on, strong and stable, with Cameron – or a “Coalition of Chaos” with Ed Miliband and Alex Salmond.  It struck a chord with those areas of England and Wales, and those demographic groups,  which voted Leave a year later.

The slogans of the EU Leavers have now become a discourse we hear on phone-in shows.  The parroting of lines about ‘trade deals’, ‘WTO rules’, ‘customs union’, ‘single market’, a whole language freighted with meanings other than the literal ones, has become a sort of patois for English nationalists to signal their in-group membership.

And on the other side are still people like me; people who have also learned an awful lot about the EU we didn’t know before, simply because we feel we have to counter nonsense with facts and evidence. Which may be to misunderstand the problem, if not the necessary task.

Occupying the vast, majority terrain between those poles are people who still don’t know too much, and don’t care too much, because they have other, more immediate matters on their minds.  There’s no point telling them they should care, that their lives, their futures, will be affected.  They are hearing white noise from both sides, and they just want it to stop.

And that is what “just get on with it,” means.  Make it stop. Make it all go away.  Let’s just get back to normal.

But of course the only road to ‘normal’ is to stay in the EU.  Stay in the EU, and call the bluff of the rabble rousers. For behind them lurk the ‘disrupters’ beloved of the gamblers, speculators, and smash and grab merchants who bankrolled, and stand to benefit, from the impoverishment of our country. Brexit means normal will be gone for as far as we can see.

There wouldn’t be riots in the streets if Brexit was halted.  There’d be grumbling in Wetherspoons, followed by a game of darts and a curry.

And unlike actually going through with Brexit, which will prolong the whole nasty, dirty, Brexity business for years to come, rescinding Article 50 and resetting the clock will rapidly do what most voters want.

It will make things go back to normal.  So, just get on with it!

Jeremy Corbyn Is A Blairite

Successful political parties have to have a purpose, and a constituency whose interests they represent.  Having shedloads of money can help to keep awkward questions at bay, but not for ever. Democracy’s a bit of a bastard like that – you can’t fool all of the people, all of the time.

Which brings us to the unholy mess that is British politics as we near the end of 2017. Omnishambles doesn’t cover it.  Malcolm Tucker is a mild mannered sweetie, temperamentally unsuited to our demented times. Alastair Campbell has morphed into the voice of reason.  For these are the End Times.

The total shitstorm, tidal wave, asteroid hit, sink hole, forest fire, flood, drought and zombie apocalypse through which we are living was made by the Conservative and Unionist Party.  Our dire, and deteriorating, position as a nation has its roots in, and its shape defined, by the decisions taken by the Tories.  The party used to look like a winner, a ‘natural party of government’, a shrewd player of the national mood, able to adapt to all the twists and turns of history in order to survive.  A party of aristocrats, firmly opposed to democracy, it invented modern political campaigning and the mass membership party.  Opposed to votes for women, it gave us the first and second women Prime Ministers.  Condemning the socialisation of medicine that was the NHS was quickly followed by the embrace of that institution. It seemed like the party of brilliant reinvention, nimbly able to own the zeitgeist.

It doesn’t feel like that now.  John Smith, Labour’s lost PM, mocked John Major’s government as one in which everything went wrong, from villages slipping into the sea, to the Grand National descending into farce.  But Major won an election when he was expected to lose, and carried on for a full term with his dignity intact.  This is much, much worse, and its quite hard to see how they escape from the mess.

The Tories have a small, elderly membership who lack the capacity for activism.  Their voter base is dying. Their purpose – other than to dread and fear Corbyn’s Labour Party – is hard to ascertain.  It certainly isn’t their purpose to deliver Brexit, because they still don’t know what it is, nor how to get it.  They don’t represent industry, they don’t even represent banking, maybe they represent some hedge funds, but that’s hardly a message to woo the electorate.  They’re a busted flush, dying before our eyes, and doing their damnedest to take the rest of the country down with them, the frightened, idiotic cowards.

But Labour.  Surely they’re in a similar mess?  The narrative of their opponents is that the party is a party of Remain, led by Eurosceptics, with a voter base which is dying a different kind of death – as Northern Leave voters wedded to industries that have gone, or are on their way out.  Contradictions all round.

Except that its not rue.  I remember writing, in 1997, that Blair’s Labour campaigned in denial of its own supporters.  They seemed to hold the Northern industrial working class – the “white working class” as some Westminster-bubbleists put it – at arms length, unwilling to be too closely associated with them and their curious ways.  A no doubt apocryphal story was that Peter Mandelson, taken to a chippy in Hartlepool, mistook mushy peas for guacamole. The story stuck, because true or not, it encapsulated an attitude.

Blair’s party also used iron control to ensure that certain kinds of black, and, particularly, Asian PPCs were not selected, mainly because they were, and looked and sounded working class, or “too black”, or “too Asian”.  The nervous Blairites wanted a party that looked and sounded youngish, metropolitan, and breezily ‘classless’ in the manner of the upwardly mobile graduates in their advance guard.

It was a neat trick to pull off at the time – but it was a trick.  They got small town, socially conservative, working class people to vote for an urban, middle class party.

Twenty years on, and small town, declining, ageing, working class areas that used to be the Labour heartlands, are Brexity places, hostile to immigrants, and receptive to, if still suspicious of Theresa May’s tall tales of ‘caring’ for the ‘just about managing’, and the ‘left behinds’.  The 2017 election gave Labour too little to be complacent about in those areas, even where they remain in the nervous hands of Labour MPs.

But 2017 showed that Corbyn was making Labour the party Blair had always wanted it to be – young, urban, educated, socially liberal.  Labour piled up voters, and new members, in the growing cities.  Its constituency, and its activist base, lies in exactly the demographic which alone can make Britain a successful country in the years ahead.  It’s in these hands – the massed ranks of the city-dwelling, first-graduates-in-the-family, articulate precariat – that both the party and the country’s future lies.

The Tories have reason to fear that their condition is terminal.  Labour ought to be more confident.  And finding a way to remove the spectre of Brexit is the key to their historic mission.  To finish off the Tory Party which has brought this country to the edge of ruin.

The Mysterious Case of the City that Lost Its Voice

In another blog post, by Tom Forth  describing what he saw as the failure of Birmingham as a city, he had this to say:

If a group of lads “looks after you car” in Liverpool, they do it in the local accent. If a similar group in Manchester or Leeds are chatting while listening to happy hardcore on the back of the bus they do it in a suitably filthy Northern accent. One of the most jarring experiences for me in Birmingham is that the same genre of lads speak not like they’re fresh out of Peaky Blinders, but more like they want to be Dizzee Rascal.

And he’s right. Something strange has happened to a city of a million people.  Birmingham has lost its distinctive accent. In the space of, say, thirty years, the accent that once was the hallmark of the city, is now a minority attribute, largely confined to the city’s outer wards; the white edge lands, where the city bleeds into the Black Country, or Warwickshire, or Worcestershire.  Densely populated inner-urban Birmingham no longer says “Tarrah a bit”, “bab”, or “bostin”, whatever the fancy postcards sold in the city’s cultural venues say.  The accent of Jess Phillips resounds with many in her Yardley constituency, but it isn’t the voice of Small Heath, Ladywood, or Alum Rock. Why?

When I happen to be on a bus when the schools come out, which happens more often than I would like, the school kids, a multi-ethnic bunch heading back to the poorer wards in a poor city, have little trace of Jess Phillips in their tones. They sound, to my ears, blandly RP-ish, except when deliberately using Black English.  When I listen more carefully, the older Asians, many educated in the city, have a hint of Brummie in their speech rhythm, but younger Asians often don’t, either adopting the emergent British Asian working class accent, or, if middle class, speaking RP.

It wasn’t always like this.  I can still remember the middle class Birmingham accent. ‘Posh’, we thought it. There’s a hint of it in Enoch Powell, still more in the former Tory MP for Birmingham Northfield, Anthony Beaumont-Dark, a Birmingham stockbroker before he entered Parliament.  The former Liberal Democrat MP Lorely Burt was a rare recent speaker of posh Brummie, as is the one time Radio Four regular, David Stafford.  Frank Skinner’s West Brom accent is close enough, but these accents are now exotically rare.

The city is one of the youngest, most diverse cities in Europe. Herein lies the explanation, I think.  White flight emptied the inner-city of the old white Birmingham working class, depositing them in the housing estates on the city edges, or even moving them out to new towns, like Telford and Daventry.  The Birmingham-accented middle class of old belonged to an era of manufacturing industry, and the regional financial services that once supported them. They too have gone, literally having no business in the city any more.

The city’s new middle class is concentrated around the five universities, the many colleges, the large teaching hospitals, and the major cultural institutions.  They are Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’, more politely described as international, and career-builders in fields where you need to be geographically mobile.  They have accents of where they came from, but their children do not grow up with a local accent, because in the schools they attend, there isn’t one.

The new working class is also international. Diaspora communities of Francophone and Lusophone Africans are present in numbers in the city, with links across the EU, as well as Africa. There’s also a new EU white working class moving into the inner-city wards where once the Irish lived. The older New Commonwealth population from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean has seen class fragment their identities, with the upwardly mobile and economically successful moving into the Edgbaston mansions once occupied by the city grandees, the professional middle classes as accentless and mobile as their white peers, and the black and Asian working classes dividing into those fiercely protecting their identities (often through religious affiliations), and those who have melted into the white working class.  This is a very mixed-race city, and elderly couples in which one partner is white, the other black or Asian, is a fairly common sight.

To go through such an acute and numerically huge population churn in such a short space of time seems to have erased the Birmingham accent, driving it to the city limits, where it merges with the more enduring West Midlands accents of small towns in former industrial shires.

But a city that loses its accent must build its identity in new ways. And that’s another story.

 

What Is True In The Age Of Fakery?

The old model of democratic politics was that democracy, stable institutions, and the rule of law were mutually reinforcing.  Democracy kept the system more or less honest, the stable institutions – basically the state, but going beyond that to civil society more broadly – ensured that political change could be delivered in gradual ways which avoided chaos; and the rule of law was a trusted final arbiter.

No one can say it’s like that now in many places right across the world.  We may, in Britain for example, still have votes. They have votes in most countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.  For a vote to be meaningful, it has to be practical.  There has to be a link between what an electorate wants, who it can vote for, and the policies that result.  Iran, or Russia, let people vote, but the range of available and viable candidates is seriously restricted to ensure that real change cannot occur within their systems.

Our problem is different.  The malaise in our institutions has rotted the connection between votes and outcomes.  The result is Brexit.  Brexit is an ongoing case study in political failure.

Referendums have traditionally been frowned upon as not being consistent with the British constitution, and our form of representative democracy.  We had the first in 1975, and a shabby thing it was, called only to manage an unruly Labour Party.  The second, at the end of that decade, was on Scottish devolution.  Hedged around with caveats and thresholds, it was scarcely a meaningful vote, and it led swiftly to the fall of the Callaghan government, as the SNP threw in their lot with Thatcher and the Tories to pass a No Confidence motion.  Blair held two major ones, Cameron, Blair fan that he was, did likewise.  Cameron, interestingly, held advisory referendums, choosing to disregard the advice given by voters when it was against local mayors, but respecting the outcome over AV, Scottish devolution, and EU membership.

Blair’s referendums were on clear constitutional questions, and voters knew what they were voting for.  Cameron’s referendums were ‘easy’ ways to finesse political management problems – the AV vote to secure Lib Dem support after 2010, the Scottish vote to deal with what he regarded as a noisy distraction, and the EU vote as a copycat Callaghan tactic to neutralise divisions in his own party.  But whatever the political motivations behind the deployment of the referendum weapon, the fact is that their disruptive arrival on the British political scene has been congruent with the decay in our democratic political culture.

On top of all this is the new form of warfare that has been facilitated by technological change.

We’ve always had propaganda.  Governments have often sought, overtly, or covertly, to influence political events beyond their borders.  There’s been the ‘soft power’ of bodies like the British Council, the Goethe Institute, and the diplomacy conducted by pandas and Bolshoi Ballet tours.  But these things are overt, and subject to the law in the countries in which they operate.  We know who is behind them, and for what purpose.

We are now in an age of disruption.  Governments, and private bodies, may wage wars of chaos, deliberately designed to sow confusion, division, and fear.  And, unlike the past, each and every one of us is in the front line.

Can I believe that ‘fact’?  That graph look scary.  Ha ha, share that funny meme!  We are on our own in a sea of ‘stuff’, in which our trusted ‘friends’ and ‘followers’, bestowers of ‘likes’ and emojis, may be bots, or contract workers in disinformation factories, or bored teenagers in far away villages, in the pay of god knows who.

Faced with all this – the difficulty of being an active citizen when we can’t even reliably identify who are our peers; the problem of weak institutions; the lack of a direct connection between our votes and our lives – it is sometimes tempting to just give up.

But that’s the last thing we should do.

We need to build our resilience, maintain our scepticism, get better at distinguishing between truth and noise, and, above all, start demanding better from those who seek politically to represent us.  In that way we can begin to see a way through to a new democratic settlement.

The truth is out there!

Those Brexit Impact Assessments….

“We’ve had enough of experts.”  So said Michael Gove, gentleman and amateur, and self-confessed uninformed cheerleader of Brexitism.  But I’m one of those sad souls who sometimes likes to know things, so I took myself along to an event held by the University of Birmingham as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Festival of Social Science.  On Brexit.

To my surprise, I wasn’t photographed by the Tory Whips on the way in.  No Daily Mail hacks sought a quote from anyone around me in denouncement of pointy headed saboteurs. It was all quite civilised.

So what did Professor Long Hair have to say? Well, there were six of them, or eight, if you add in the PVC for International Affairs (a title probably better suited to Boris J than his actual one), and the Head of School.  50 short of the full set of impact studies, but more hard information than the government has yet released.

First up was Dr. Nando Sigona.  He flew through his data packed slides at a frustrating pace, for I would really have liked time to study them in detail (perhaps he’ll make them available online for attendees of the event?).  His work of late has been on EU families and ‘euro children’ in Britain.  Because of course a relationship of 45 years since Britain joined the then EEC has led to migration, relationships, and families who reflect that history.  Untangling those relationships is impossible – they are literally in the DNA of many British citizens, especially a whole generation of children.  Listening to Dr. Sigona, it was impossible not to think of how the referendum campaign might have played out rather differently if the Remain campaign had used some of these human stories to show the wrenching complexity of the very idea of leaving the EU in an abrupt manner without considering the impact on real lives.  It also set me thinking.  I know that the polls have barely moved on support for Brexit amongst those who voted for it, but it is at least anecdotally interesting that when a small number of people call in to phone-in shows to express regret for voting Leave, they are nearly always men with EU nationals as partners, often longstanding ones, and multilingual children.

Dr. Kelly Hall followed, with research on the impact of Brexit on British pensioners living in Spain.  I could see that her work was useful in enabling preparatory work to be done by the British Consulate to prepare for various outcomes to Brexit negotiations, but in truth, most of them don’t look particularly good for the individuals involved. In a worst case scenario, tens of thousands of frail elderly people with few material resources could end up air ambulanced to Britain, and to an NHS and social care system without the resources to cope.  (I’d have liked to have known how some of these people voted in the referendum, too, and not just to be mean. As with the phone-in callers with their Dutch, or Polish wives, I wonder whether the Brexity pensioners on the Costas had failed to link their votes to their own lives?)

Two presentations followed which concerned health.  The first of these, by Professor Mark Exworthy, looked at the impact of Brexit on patients and the NHS.  His evidence debunked the tabloid view that EU migrants are a strain on the NHS.  Quite the opposite is true, from the impact of their tax contributions, to their labour as clinicians and carers. Whatever might have been written on the side of a bus last year, Brexit doesn’t look like being a bonus for the NHS.

Prof. Exworthy was followed by Professor Jean McHale.  A legal scholar, Prof. McHale looked at the impact of Brexit on regulating pharmaceuticals and clinical trials.  This is an important sector of the British economy, and one of the few which is highly technical and often world-leading.  The integration of regulations isn’t simply a matter of custom and practice arising from four decades of proximity – it is about best practice to ensure effective research and development, and swift and safe routes to market for new treatments.  I did not feel reassured that the tight Brexit timetable is remotely suited to dealing with these vital issues both for our health, and for our economy.

Professor Raquel Ortega-Arguiles offered a broader economic overview of the impact of Brexit on the UK, its regions, cities, and sectors.  Actually, she roamed wider, demonstrating clearly that with the obvious anomaly of Ireland, the UK would be more adversely affected by Brexit than the rest of the EU, and within the UK it would be London and the South East which would be least negatively impacted by Brexit, and the manufacturing and industrial areas, often Leave voting, which would be most disadvantaged by leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union.  The slides she showed were powerful evidence of this; maps shaded to show degrees of impact.

Finally Professor John Bryson looked at the local and regional impact of Brexit.  Birmingham and the West Midlands is a manufacturing area, so no surprises there.  But he did offer an important sense of perspective on Brexit – that in the scale of challenges on the horizon, it is relatively insignificant.  The impact of robotics and AI on jobs is rolling towards us and gathering speed.  He might have added climate change.  Brexit kind of looks like a self-indulgence in face of the real issues the world has to face this century.

And so to audience questions. It seems that there was not a Brexiter to be seen in the house.  We’d been treated to a series of impact studies, with real data, and much serious food for thought, and no politician or voter from the winning side seemed to have the slightest interest in knowing more about their favourite subject.

Funny that.

The English Civil War

Brexit shimmers, or looms, depending on taste, either tantalisingly within grasp, or as an iceberg of stupidity towards which the British luxury liner, captained by a terrified and indecisive Theresa May, is heading at speed.  I tend to the latter view.  The band plays on, conducted by a ‘white face’ Cab Callaway, in the far less elegant form of the Foreign Secretary. Jumping Jive.

The question now is why?  Why are we still in the grip of the Brexit toxin?

The politicians all know it is a catastrophe.  The voters, most of whom didn’t give a toss about the EU either way before 2016, are confused, and, so the polls suggest, are gradually becoming more worried.  They don’t know what is happening, but have an uneasy sense that it is all going wrong.  Business is screaming, scrambling for bases in Frankfurt and Amsterdam, or sullenly hoarding the money the country needs them to invest, for fear that hard times – seriously bad, as Trump might say – are around the corner.  So why not ditch the whole thing?

I got a sense of the answer whilst watching the film, The Death of Stalin.  Like the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1953, our leaders wield their power with assertions of determination, and an inner dread.  They, too, cannot trust their colleagues – every alliance can turn on a sixpence from a strength into a death sentence.  Beyond the walls of the Kremlin were the people.  Some of those people, (shall we call them ‘experts’?) are doctors, intellectuals, artists, scientists.  These are people the politicians hold suspect.  It is imperative to threaten and crush them, to imprison, and exile them.  And then there is the mob, the people they sentimentalise in public, and sneer at in private.  They fear the people.

They fear the people here, and now.  For ‘the people have spoken’.  Brexit is ‘the will of the people’. I heard a Tory MP say, “I didn’t vote to Leave, but the people made a decision, and we must deliver what they voted for.”

There is no way to get around the fact that a vote was held in June 2016, and a simple majority of those voting, on a high turnout, voted for the proposition that Britain should leave the European Union.  Yes, it was stupid to call the referendum at all on such a complex issue, and yes, it was even more stupid not to impose some routine safeguards on a vote of such huge importance, such as thresholds for turnout, and for a 2/3 majority.  But David Cameron’s stupidity is now being compounded, because the Tory Party, and to some extent, the other parties in England, really do think that something called ‘the will of the people’ has been expressed – and it frightens them to the core.

The referendum campaign unleashed sentiments, licensed modes of expression, toxified politics to the point of murder.  Not hyperbole, but fact.  Brexit incited the assassination of one of their own.  Before the referendum I heard it said that politicians are frightened of the voters, and it struck me as true. After the referendum, those fearful ‘leaders’ think their fears were justified.

The Scots obviously don’t share that fear.  In the North of Ireland, different rules apply.  But it is instructive that the Welsh devolved government, despite the pro-Brexit vote in the Principality, also doesn’t fear riots in the streets of Merthyr if Brexit were to be stopped.  It’s a matter of integration, if I can borrow a phrase from the opponents of multiculturalism.  The politicians outside Westminster have integrated with their voters in a way that the priestly caste in London have not.  (This also explains the phenomenon of Corbyn.  Whatever else one might say about him, he doesn’t fear the voters.)

For the referendum in England ignited a kind of English civil war.  Not the one the Tories tried to exploit in the 2015 general election, an English nationalism defined against the Scots.  This is a true English civil war, a war of myriad grievances and many sides, and one over which Westminster has little control, and the London media has little comprehension.  It’s a war caused by political failure on a grand scale.

Most local government in England now has little power, and even less money.  Voters don’t completely understand this, and it suits Westminster to deflect the blame. This has all whittled away confidence and trust in politicians, as they seem (and often are) powerless.  Forces over which we have no control run our services.  Academy chains looting schoolchildren, energy companies raiding our bank accounts, social housing in the hands of businesses with an eye on the bottom line.  It has all weakened the implicit social contract.

Add to all that the generational inequalities now made stark, the specifics of regional deprivation after the deliberate deindustrialisation of swathes of the country, and the growing cultural gap between the city on the one hand, and smaller towns, and the shires, and the coastal belt, on the other, and we have the shape of this messy English civil war.

‘Delivering Brexit’ won’t fix any of that.  It’s already making it worse.

England had a civil war in the 17th Century, too.  The dominant narrative about that time is that there was an Interregnum under Cromwell, after which the natural order was restored along with the Monarchy.  The alternative view is that the English Civil War was a revolution, which led to a fundamental change in the state and its institutions, and in the relationship of the state to the people.

History doesn’t repeat itself.  Which is not to say there aren’t lessons.

Our politicians need to integrate with the people once more.  The state and its institutions must be reformed to be fit for the 21st Century. Power must be decentralised, and democratic accountability for services restored.

We must have fundamental change. And we mustn’t have Brexit.

Theresa May – What’s She For?

Who didn’t feel a bat squeak of pity for Theresa May as her political life ran into the buffers on live TV?  But the instinctive human sympathy we may feel is of a generic, rather than a specific, kind.  For who thinks they ‘know’ Theresa May? The Maybot label stuck for a reason.

A long time ago, though still after she, and her party, had lost power, I had reason to think about Margaret Thatcher.  And I could not get my head around her at all.  Men from the more patrician wing of her party spoke of her as ‘lower middle class’, a shopkeeper’s daughter, a provincial grammar school girl. I’m some of those things, but they gave me no way in to Thatcher’s brain, her motivation, her stubbornness, and her astonishing resilience.  I couldn’t crack the enigma of Thatcher until I read something said by one of her near contemporaries and political opponents, Barbara Castle.

Castle’s diary entry on the day Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Tory Party has the then Labour Cabinet minister describing Thatcher standing before the flashlights of the press photographers, smiling.  “I know that look,” says Barbara Castle of Margaret Thatcher. “She is in love.  In love with power, and with herself.”

Did Theresa May ever look like a woman in love?  She was a bit of a looker at Oxford, if the photograph I’ve seen of her in sultry mood, her pre-Raphaelite locks cascading down her back, is anything to go by.  But politically, May has never seemed to embody that iron self-confidence.  Political love, like political hate, is a powerful, unsentimental thing.  It emanates from a clear sense of political purpose.

And here we have the problem with Theresa.  She doesn’t have any sense of political purpose.

From the time she was old enough to make sense of social conditions in the mill towns of Lancashire, Barbara Castle had burning political convictions, and one way or another, the architect of the Equal Pay Act strove to make them happen.  The young Margaret Roberts might have come of age in Attlee’s socialist paradise, but no mere social climber on the make, the second Mrs. Thatcher wanted to project her vision of individual responsibility and a small state onto the whole nation – and she did it.

Theresa May wanted to be Prime Minister from her teenage years, and was apparently a bit miffed that Thatcher denied her the opportunity to be the first woman in that role.  That much is in the public record.  What is harder to understand is why?  What did she enter politics to do?

May, is a cultural Tory, not an ideological one.  The traditional cultural Tory of her generation thought ideas a little suspect, ideologies rather vulgar, and valued hard work and obedience over natural brilliance and creativity.  May’s views on any issue seem to come from whichever trusted figure is speaking into her ear – Vicar father, teacher, political aide, whoever – rather than issuing from her own core beliefs.

This is evident in May’s ill-fated conference speech this week. She can steal a policy from Labour without the slightest sense of discomfort, because a policy is just a ‘thing’ – what matters is that it is implemented (or probably not) by a Tory like her.

It’s even more evident in her response to Brexit.  Many commentators have spoken of May in Machiavellian terms, backing Remain, but keeping below the radar, better to snatch the crown from Cameron if he lost the referendum vote.  I was prepared to buy that, too, until May showed that we were projecting too much cleverness and guile onto her.  May was able to embrace Brexit, because like anything else – energy prices, social housing, racial discrimination, student fees – Brexit is just a ‘thing’ which can be bodged together as some policy announcements and maybe a bit of legislation to the accompaniment of a cheerleading press.  Easy-peasy.

And so we reach this point. Because politics isn’t a game.  It is about having principles, a view of human nature and what is possible, a clear sighted sense of how we got to where we are, and how we might proceed to somewhere better.  From those things, and those things alone, come policy prescriptions.

May doesn’t seem to have any identifiable principles, she doesn’t have an analysis of the state we are in, and therefore she cannot put together a clear set of policies.  She is out of her depth.  And so is her whole party.