Brexit: A Shattered Dream

Doomsayers, derided last year for heralding the collapse of Britain’s economy, the rise of ineffective and divisive politics, and the undermining of Britain’s global position, are returning from their spots safe from Twitter trolls. Their prophecies, which sounded so madcap a year ago, now beginning to be backed by the facts of being outvoted at the UN (with much of the EU abstaining), rising inflation, and the chaos of our government’s administration. Most important is the news coming from the Brussels negotiations. Britain’s negotiating position, touted as so strong during the referendum because of our trading links, has been shown to be as strong and stable as our Prime Minister.

The news has recently been full of tortuous decisions, most notably Britain’s exit from Euratom, the pan-European institution which oversees the use of nuclear technology and substances. It’s highly technical and important functions. These include covering the transport of nuclear fuel across the EU, important for the UK, which has no nuclear fuel source itself and relies on nuclear power for 21% of its power. It also organises the use and transport of nuclear isotopes from reactors on the continent to Britain, which relies on great speed, as these isotopes can decay rapidly. Without access to these fuels, many tests or cancer treatments cannot take place. It has also been noted that the UK doesn’t have the regulatory framework to oversee its nuclear power plants’ safety regulations, something that would have to be scrambled together over the next year. Whilst this may be a dry and relatively obscure topic – brought to light by good journalism – its complexity speaks volumes as to how much more difficult these negotiations are going to get. This paper from the Nuclear Institute is an instructive case in this regard. Our negotiating team’s brief needs to be longer than he allowed when he dropped by as negotiations began two weeks ago. And the reason for this whole kerfuffle? The government hasn’t made that clear (a surprise) but is most likely that it is under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, the EU’s top court. This maddening abhorrence of any ties to the EU, this sudden distrust of all our European partners, is crazy. The mutual trust and respect promised is being thrown out of the window so as to placate the most Europhobic Conservatives.

Whilst our incompetence has become legendary across Europe, we don’t need them telling us how bad we’re doing. It is plain to see from the way negotiations are going. With the issue of money now rolling around, most expect it to just roll right over Britain. Our own government’s confusion over Brexit extends so far as to blur into the horizon. Finding an edge, a hard negotiating position, is too difficult. Any attempt to find one leads on endlessly – the ‘definite’ in negotiations quickly becomes ‘under negotiation’, and finally ‘conceded’ in light of our terrible negotiating position. Looking at the facts objectively, if you voted for Leave because you believed that Britain could get a deal that propelled her to greater things outside the EU, then it might be coming clear that such a deal is illusory. Any deal negotiated will more likely be an albatross around our neck, marking us out as much a ‘grey-beard loon’ as the mariner, excluded from the party that is the EU, stuck accosting the guests with our tale of woe.

Our negotiating position, which I’ve mentioned is weak, is so for several reasons. We don’t have a coherent government. Our European counterparts can read the Times, Telegraph, or BBC well enough to hear the spats coming originating from our government. Most recently, the split between the chancellor Philip Hammond and international trade minister Liam Fox over the length of any interim deal has been a very public disagreement over Brexit. Our Prime minister is a lame duck, more useless than an American President in the last months of their office with their replacement already voted in. What’s more, she only survived because there is no one good enough to replace her in the Conservative party. This does not make for good leadership. Furthermore, her key advisors, which before the election had been touted as fresh and full of ideas, have quit. And the exodus continues. Our economy is, whilst not doing atrociously, is certainly not worth touting to the EU. Britain’s lack of credible alternatives constrains us further. Trump’s government has been unable to pass any major legislation, and even has trouble implementing its own executive orders. The odds of getting any deal is slim. And getting a good deal with a man who was elected on a platform of negotiating ‘fair’ trade deals for America is like trusting that the farmer, as a turkey at Christmas, won’t lead you to the slaughterhouse. And no Harvey Spectre-esque character can come along and save us in negotiations. The weight of the EU’s preparedness set against our own chaotic planning means that they have an overwhelming advantage. We’ve shot ourselves in the foot, and in our contest with the EU both of us can hear the bones grinding, blood lapping, and our own whimpering.

As a citizen of the UK, knowing the mirth Europeans are having at the stupidity of our country’s predicament is galling and understandable in equal measure. We Brits mock the likes of Trump enough. Indeed, humour is the only thing that will brighten our situation. For positive steps towards a sensible plan are not being taken by the government. Our best option would be to scrap the negotiations, cry ‘Mulligan!’, and act as if its all been a terrible misunderstanding. But I know as well as you that such a situation is unlikely to occur for the foreseeable future (although we still have almost two years of negotiations to fumble…). There are too many individual opt-outs for every minister to demand and receive the special treatment that their sector needs, too many inconsistencies with the government’s current negotiating platform. In reality, fresh personnel are needed. There is potential in every party. But the current stranglehold of the old guard – think Johnson, Davis, and May – is stifling.

Staying as close to the EU as possible must be a key tenet of any deal. We would be paying into an organisation in which we’d have no say. We’d still lose the EU’s regulatory bodies’ headquarters. We’d probably lose a good deal of the EU investment that has been so important in helping areas like Wales, Cornwall, or Northern Ireland. But those all point to the very oddity of our decision to leave. If we find leaving the EU’s markets and regulations to be silly, and complain about the benefits we’d lose leaving, it begs the question: why are we leaving? It’s well-known people were deceived during the EU referendum campaign. Making an informed decision was almost impossible. Both EU referendums, 2016 and 1975, have been criticised for failing to convince enough people to settle the debate either way. Well, if those campaigns didn’t, itemising each and every benefit the EU brings that we shall lose and every cost incurred in leaving should convince Britons of why we should stay.

The government will listen to calls such as these, should enough people make them. A weak government has to listen to calls such as these, as it has to listen to all manner of interest groups it doesn’t want to. Our MPs, backbench and frontbench, opposition and in power, all have the power to shape the deal that comes out at the end of 2 years. And most importantly they can push for whatever deal is made being voted on in another referendum; between the deal negotiated, and remaining in the EU. Once people see the shambolic deal laid down in front of them, few will want to take it. Two years is a long time. Enough time to shape Britain’s future for the next decade. Enough time to make that future successful, at the heart of Europe.

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Is Brexit the new political axis of Britain?

It was the biggest political event in living memory. It shakes the very political foundations of the country. And it will come to shape our culture, foreign policy, and prosperity. The referendum last year has an importance unmatched by any other event on the British political scene. In the 2014 Scottish Referendum demands for independence – long-harboured, passionately aroused – were ultimately was defeated by the economic and social rationale of union, to lie dormant for another generation. The 2015 general election, where Labour lost what they believed could be a tight race, the Lib Dems collapsed, UKIP failed to advance, the SNP emerged as a new force, and the Conservatives stood bruised but standing from 5 years of coalition government, was one of the most exciting (if tiresome) contests since 1997, yet still soon receded into memory. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour party 4 months later emerged as the more important development of the year, heralding the wasting away of the once healthy Labour corpus to the attenuated figure that lies before us now.

Yet whilst these have all become inalienable parts of the political landscape, each demanding its own attention and providing its own thorny issues, none dominate the political scene like the EU Referendum of 2016. Unlike these other events, nothing polarises voters in as divisive a fashion. It dominates the proceedings of Cabinet, the time of the Civil Service, and debates in Parliament. Our airwaves grow thick with speculation and discussion, our public fora rowdy over it, our box sets filled with the latest gossip. If the atmosphere grows heated with all the hot air spilled over it still, then it’s perhaps balanced by the chilliness that pervades formerly cordial relationships across the UK. 9 months on and it continues to hog headlines, never absent from the inside pages. Its battles are relived and refought on fields still fresh with recent wounds, with the release of every growth forecast and every immigration swing. It’s not just an economic argument, technical and limited in scope, whose intricacies most of us don’t have the time to investigate. It reveals a cultural divide: those of us worried for our futures, for the future of our culture, for our liberties and sovereignty; and then those of us who aren’t nearly so concerned.

The reason it remains so divisive after so long a period is that it touches on a real political divide in this country. Our politics is dominated by parties formed from the events of at least century ago. They have evolved, but haven’t kept up with the rapid social change we’ve undergone – the fact that only 29% of MPs are women is evidence enough. Our political issues, those that we feel most passionately about and that most likely determine how we vote, have changed as well. The parties fight along a left-right 2D spectrum, whereas most of us subscribe to a good chunk of both sides of the divide, in its classical definition. Taking the last general election; the campaigns revolved around economic issues and competency. The Conservative’s mantra was their “Long-term Economic Plan”, whilst Labour’s was a “Better Plan for a Better Future”.  But in reality, as the recent referendums show, we are holding our cultural and moral politics as increasingly important. This isn’t to say economic competency is no longer important, just that it now shares the stage with culture and values, forming an uneasy double act. The Conservative’s election in 2010 was on the back of their switch to a socially liberal platform. The SNP’s was an emotional cry for Scottish culture. And the Leave campaign, the focus of this article, won by leaving the economics to Remain, and focusing solely on the cultural argument.

Now a quick aside must be made to explain what’s the “culture” and “values” that I am referring to. By this I don’t so much refer to what we watch, read, and listen to – though they are somewhat reflective of our “values” – but what we hold deeply as most important. This could be an attachment to elements of our culture and way of life. It could be helping those in need. It could be the principle of fairness or equality. It’s what you’ll get riled up at if someone seriously challenges you on it, and a maxim for your life. It is above monetary value; for instance, if I offered to give you money for your child, your wife, or your faith, you’d be furious. However, if I offered you an equal amount never to be able to eat a yorkshire pudding again, or listen to Adele, you’d probably take me up on the offer.

The arguments have lasted so long, become so heated surrounding membership of the EU precisely because of how it touches on cultural sensitivities, and how it has become embroiled as, to some, a threat to their culture. The EU stands for so many different things to different people. It sees itself as a harbinger of peace and defender of human rights. In Romania it is seen as a bulwark against political corruption. In Germany as a means to protect Europe from external and internal threats. Yet at the same time, more negative views have become widespread. In Greece it’s equated with chastening austerity measures, in Russia as a strategic threat, and in Britain it has been portrayed as the fifth horseman by some; consistently identified for the past four decades since our ascension as limiting our sovereignty, as clogging our industry by red tape, and as subsuming our culture to a pan-European conglomerate. You’ll note that these are not primarily economic. They are diverse, covering all aspects of how Britain imagines itself – forward-looking, industrious, and somewhat unique in Europe – cultural and economic. Tabloids have presented the EU as the very antithesis of these mentioned values, and have immeasurably poisoned public opinion against it.

Yet popular Euroscepticism – not elite – was slow to develop. UKIP was formed in 1993, over 20 years before the EU referendum. It’s first real electoral success came in winning the 2014 EU election with over a quarter of the vote. However, two events have caused the growth of eurosceptic opinion to its current level. Firstly the Great Recession in 2007/8 and its aftermath in the EU debt crisis. This directly provided fodder for accusations of elite indifference. The rigidly enforced rules for Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland drew much ire for the effects it had, and still has, on the lives of those living in those countries. It was also a clear example to Eurosceptics of the supposed imperial ambitions of the EU. The EU seemed to overstep its competence into matters of national control. It was resented for how it acted as -it seemed to those on the receiving end – a vengeful institution. The second, and perhaps most damaging, accusation it provided evidence for was that the EU was incompetent. Unemployment in Greece, Spain, and Italy are all still in double digits, and is much higher amongst young people. All the while, statistics of economic growth released by statistics offices, stock market records announced proudly by reviled bankers, and daunting salaries to executives quietly offered once more by corporations have eroded trust in those in power, and tarnished the already fairly blackened reputation of these institutions.These elites, as a class, partaking in and having close connection with these industries, by association sully their reputation. And its effects aren’t limited to the continent. Britain too suffered the effects of these twin crises, though obviously we were insulated somewhat from the EU debt crisis. Whilst some communities have recovered quickly in Britain – take Cambridge or London, who voted strongly to remain – others, such as Wales and the North East have recovered far more slowly, or not at all. Taking the house price rise as a metric for regional recovery, even in just the past year Yorkshire house prices rose 4.7%, compared with 13.2% for the East of England. It’s clear that certain regions, and certain sections of society, have a relatively confident economic outlook, whereas many feel under financial strain. Real wages haven’t risen for more than a decade, inflation rising again, and consumer debt is increasing.

Simultaneously with, and to an extent because of, economic damage, cultural fears have arisen across the UK. Radical Islam and immigration have been regularly touted by populist politicians, who appeal most strongly to those citizens feeling ignored. Fears of radical Islam really started before 2007, having been incensed by the rare and notorious large-scale terrorist attacks of the 2000s. Of course, 9/11 stands foremost amongst those, yet Britain endured also its own, with the 7/7 bombings. It has become the “anarchism” that plagued the late 19th century, the “socialism” that haunted our 20th century history, or even the “witchcraft” that perturbed our predecessors in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is painted as a force that seeks to violently overthrow and destroy our “civilisation”, as scaremongers delight in proposing. Its tiny adherence, its lack of popular support even in most of the Middle East, and the emptiness of most of its threats have little bearing for these commentators. It does, however, have a shock factor that can inflate the threat out of all proportion. The brief surge of the BNP in the 2009 EU elections is a testament to the potency of this kind of threat.

The debate surrounding radical Islam has pervaded the debate on immigration – again, both drawing from it, and contributing to it in a symbiotic relationship. The antipathy felt to this one particular foreign culture has done much harm to all. It is easier to justify measures and feelings against one culture when there are obvious parallels to draw on concerning Islam. They have become punching backs to those communities, with enormous targets painted on them by politicians seeking to exploit them for electoral success. Nothing could be easier than blaming immigration for economic hardships that many now face, for the mounting concerns surrounding the NHS, or declining prospects for young people. And mirrored on the cultural aspect, fears of radical Islam convince many that British culture is under threat, that Muslims don’t support our political system, want to abolish our way of living, and that they threaten our values. When immigration is from those not of our culture (ie. almost all of it) then they intertwine for double the potency. This has become one of the most powerfully felt sentiments in British politics, and many (though obviously not all) felt at the very least one of these on the 23rd of June.

The second of the key events contributing to widespread Euroscepticism is the Syrian refugee crisis. This succinctly linked these two fears together. Beginning in 2015, hundreds of thousands fled from the horrors of war in Syria to the safety and security of Europe. Their numbers overwhelmed the response offered by the Balkan EU states, and the Schengen area allowed migrants to travel freely within the EU once they had arrived. The EU’s response itself was muddled and chaotic – the Eastern European Slavic countries taking a much harder stance against collective action to resolve the crisis, or indeed accepting any quota of migrants than Germany in paticular. This led to political deadlock that only worsened the situation on the ground and further discredited the Union. Germany’s acceptance of as many migrants as arrived was most contentious of all. The Chancellor Angela Merkel, being the leading politician in the EU, attempted to throw the institution’s weight behind her proposals for accepting those having already arrived and instituting a hard external border. This linked in the minds of British voters this munificent policy with the EU, much as it had already been by the location of the crisis. The sheer volume of refugees, mostly young men, mostly Muslim, was seized upon by the alt-right as an example of a threat to our culture. 1.5 million refugees arrived in the past year, and when concentrated in countries like Germany, who took in 800,000 in 2015, it shocked many here and abroad. They made predictions we would become a Muslim majority country. Much like a “non-Newtonian” liquid, such as custard or cornflour and water, cultures change and flow over long periods of time, but with a big enough shock become hard and brittle. Just such a shock caused just such a reaction all across Europe, even here in Britain, where we accepted few migrants. Now identified with EU those who already feared this surge in migration channeled their ire in addition to the EU.

It’s easy to make someone hold an attitude or opinion, so vociferously that they will defend and expound it even in the face of the most widely-arrayed opposition. All you have to do is publicly challenge, deride, and humiliate someone and their opinions. As you can imagine, once that happens, it is not an experience anyone could forget, and rarely forget. And that is the overwhelming response that came from both campaigns in the referendum, to humiliate and denigrate the other side. When people started shouting at each other, their opinions hardened until they set. When some on the Remain campaign pointed out how parts of the Leave campaign utilised material bordering on racism people felt aggrieved to publicly labeled i as such. This is irrespective of whether they did or not – no one ever thinks that they themselves are racist, and so they felt aggrieved either way. Therefore it only reinforced these opinions and soured the debate. For voters, this will have fired opinions that remained even after the vote took place, further re-enforcing the importance of the EU to our current political situation.

These trends coincide with growing inequality and a hardening of class divides, largely caused by the slow economic growth. As people become more and more educated – with over 50% of school leavers going to university – their expectations rise commensurately. Expectations for a house, a good job, for a place amongst the community perhaps. However, when people increasingly fail to achieve these aspirations, inevitably they turn for reasons why. Migration, refugees, the EU have all become scapegoats for the problems that the coming generations face – lack of employment primarily, but also longer working hours, less secure jobs, worse-paying jobs, and rising house prices. Seeing as the underlying trends that in reality cause these problems aren’t going to be rectified and ameliorated in the foreseeable future, and neither do we seem to have widely recognised these far more complex issues yet, the same issues that drove the Brexit vote, and that continues to make it such an important issue now, will retain their relevance. The same results, same parties, and same politicians will profit.

These sentiments were channeled, in particular, throughout the EU referendum campaign by Leave politicians. After the campaign, this rhetoric has continued, spurred on by the election of Donald Trump and wrangling concerning the triggering of Article 50. The EU now touches on the biggest questions in British politics: Between those who feel confident economically and open culturally, against those who feel under threat on both accounts. The EU has come to epitomise the divide. Whether or not it fulfills the liberal ideals that are painted on it I offer no comment here. However, continued membership of the EU, or at the very least the single market, has become more than just the battlefield over which our politics is fought. It is the whole war, the motivation, and part of the casus belli. Whilst not every issue that we face now, nor in the future, may directly relate to Brexit, most will become related to it in the course of debating it.

Yet for all the importance of the issue – though, it must be noted, it is not the sole challenge that lies before us – the UK’s political scene remains broadly the same. Whilst Labour has fallen in polling from ~30% to ~25%, and the Conservatives rising equivalently to ~40%, the broad outlines of the parties remain. Only the Lib Dems have radically altered their platform to accommodate this momentous occasion, becoming the party of ‘Remain’. For most other parties the referendum presents just another political landmine to avoid treading on (which Labour, adopting Stalinist tactics, drives their forces over in human waves, managing to trigger every single one). For an issue that now characterises our politics, and whose importance is genuinely greater than any other, why has there been this political hiatus?

Each of the parties are limited for their own reasons. Labour’s incompetent and contradictory leadership has caused it to absent itself from the entire debate. They fail to confront the important problems raised by Brexit, as their base is torn between the socially liberal middle class (who support remaining) and those described above (in favour of Brexit). Jeremy Corbyn is a politician from the 1970s, whose political understanding is rooted there. This can be inferred some of his policy proposals, such as his suggestion during his leadership campaign to reopen the coal mines. Meanwhile, the Conservative government’s only worry is that their hardline MPs force such a “hard” Brexit that the party suffers at the ballot box. They have free reign to continue with their policies as before, and feel no compunction to rock the boat of their high approval ratings and fragile Parliamentary majority.  The two parties who already are occupying this axis, the Lib Dems and UKIP, are both hampered by their own circumstances. The Lib Dems, still reeling from their rout in 2015, and no longer the anti-establishment party of the angry (a mantle taken up by UKIP), have yet to find its voice in the wake of the vote. They have achieved a notable success in winning the Richmond Park by-election, but they have a long struggle ahead of them. UKIP also are failing to connect with voters. Whilst both parties have leaders that have failed to connect, the organisation and coherency of the Lib Dems promises a greater future for the party than UKIPs. Their ground game, canvassing, leafleting, noting, calling, visiting, were very poor in their recent Copeland by-election defeat. This, alongside their disastrous leader. Nutall is perhaps the exception to the rule that populist politicians can say what they want. The blatant and insulting lies he made up has cemented him as a figure of absurdity and ridicule that will not be easily shifted, if at all.

It has been written that the affairs of the great powers shape those in their orbit and feeling its gravitational pull. It moulds and fashions their politics by presenting two alternatives that are sufficiently disparate that factions form. Between their most important trading partners, their political allies, and their ideological friends, factional rifts grow between those seeking the contrasting diplomatic visions, until politics is stretched to breaking point. The history of the Italian city-states is littered with such situations, with the Ghibellines vs the Guelphs of the Medieval periodand again in the Netherlands, with the Hoeks (Hooks) vs the Kaabeljauws (Cod-fish) of the c.14th and c.15th. Perhaps Britain now is facing a similar situation. Now no longer a great power, we shall be torn apart by our differences of opinion regarding the EU and the rest of the world.  Insulated for the past two decades by the absence of a geopolitical alternative, where a clear foe – the USSR – kept the coalition against it – The USA and EU in particular – bound together. Now China, India, Brazil, the nations of Africa, and the states of the Middle East all present themselves as partners of importance. The integration of the EU, that sped up in the 1990s, has to an extent forced the issue to a head. Those opposed to the EU became increasingly shrill in their dire warnings. Now with an actively hostile Russia, that funds and supports the breakdown of the western coalition, has found increasing openings for its intrigue. This, sadly enough, is likely to further polarise debate, as relations with Russia becomes an issue of the greatest importance again. However, given we are a democracy of the people for whom our immediate material circumstances are of great importance, foreign affairs, which has only an indirect effect on these circumstances, is never going to become the sole issue of an election. But it will become an issue of ever-growing urgency.

Ultimately, however important Brexit is as an issue it won’t be the new axis itself. It will, however, betray the real stances of the parties. Not just in the old left-right split, which amalgamates so many cultural and economic outlooks, but instead in a new split along these separate issues, cultural and economic. Electoral Calculus, a website focused on political data run by Martin Baxter, has investigated this and found the “left-right” axis fits well economically – on benefits, tax, and regulation – and provides the “internationalist/nationalist” axis as well. Clearly from this analysis the EU emerges as the key issue on the latter axis, if not so much the former. Brexit is the symptom of issues that are coming to the fore in British politics, and that shan’t leave for decades. Both politicians and voters would do well to catch on.

 

A Brave New World’s Arrival

Is ours a Brave New World?

The three great dystopian novels of the 20th century all betray their authors’ outlook on life through their outlook on our future. Orwell must have been profoundly pessimistic to set 1984 in the eponymous year, clearly not holding out much hope for our ability to resist the slide to dictatorship. Bradbury might have been slightly more positive to have set Fahrenheit 451 in 2053, hundred and one years after he wrote it. Adolphus Huxley’s A Brave New World, set in 2540, five hundred and eight years after he wrote it, would tempt us to conclude that he was more optimistic than the others. But, alas, as with the others, his world was baptised in nuclear fire before it reached the drug-induced “paradise” that we read about. Whilst we’ve surpassed their most depressed of outlooks, both long-term trends and recent events conspire to draw us ever closer their grim futures. How far have we come to one of these authors’, Huxley’s, imaginings?

One of the most intriguing parts of a Brave New World is that it is so strangely enticing. It crosses all readers’ minds at some point that what if the authorities are correct? that a drug-induced tranquility isn’t so bad after all? Taken individually, many aspects of peoples’ lives are far from troubling in the book. Citizens enjoy freedom from disease, from genetic disorders, from pain and suffering. There’s a community, there’s entertainment, and there’s plenty of time to enjoy it. People’s lives, whether the lowest Delta or a high Alpha, are without cares and worries. Unlike the other novels mentioned, Brave New World is not so clear cut a dystopia. Only once the reader becomes aware of the shallow and stunted extent of their culture, the debauched retardation of foetuses, and the ambitionless leadership – once the society is seen as a whole – do its faults become clearer. Yet this ambiguity begs the question. How far do we have yet to go towards Huxley’s fantasy before it becomes, as far as a fictional book can, reality?

We’ve come no closer than in Huxley’s day to the totalitarian authority that rules the globe. No political consolidation, hinted at by all of the authors mentioned initially, has come about in any part of the globe. It took a world war, a devastatingly terrible war that ravaged the globe and all in it, to convince the world leaders to unite to prohibit such a war’s reoccurrence in Brave New World.  Agglomeration of states, which seemed under wartime pressures so obviously near, in utopian dreams so rational, and in dystopian imaginings so worrying, now cannot seem a more distant a reality. The EU barely struggles onwards towards its goals of “ever greater union”. The UK has voted to leave, and though this may take years, there seems little reason why it shan’t go ahead. Indeed, it has inspired, and is inspired by, the many other nationalistic parties that abound on the continent, that seek to escape from the EU. Financial worries in Greece, Spain, and Italy threaten even those states that remain on that path with economic collapse. Security concerns abound on what the EU’s reaction to any Russian aggression to the Baltic States or Finland should entail. Clearly then, the organisation that has come closest could hardly be farther from its ultimate purpose. Further expansion of the EU is more unlikely than ever, not just because of how unpalatable it is to EU voters, yet also because of the illiberal turns of the EU’s surrounding states. Further afield, it’s needless to say no other countries are progressing towards as close a union.

Scientific advances abound that echo with both the most desirous and troubling elements of the birthing process of Brave New World. The CRISPR technique, developed at MIT and Harvard, allows for efficient, cheap, and accurate genome editing. The potentials for this technology are enormous – effectively the ability to cure all hereditary diseases, and even, if allowed under ethical guidelines, to change human DNA in other cases. Dangers are inherent in it, and what will be the most pressing ethical question of the next two generations concerns it  -how far should we be able to “improve” a baby, not only to cure disease, but to alleviate it of certain undesirous attributes – perhaps make the potential human taller, more intelligent, more athletic. I am in little doubt that without substantive preliminary legislation internationally such incremental “improvements” shall become widespread amongst those that can afford it – and as past international agreements show, that is an exceeding rare scenario. From here it’s but a small step to start to make and fulfill quotas – through market forces, international disparities, or national oversight – that would usher us into a Brave New World.

The breakdown in the family has certainly come closer than during Huxley’s day. Divorce rates are higher, and more children are born out of wedlock. But these things are a consequence of the greater freedoms that women have been able to achieve. Therefore, the rates before this third Feminist wave must be considered artificially raised, and their decline from the 1930s not all that disturbing. It’s no good to be stuck in a loveless relationship for decades, unable to escape. In fact, in recent times divorce rates have fallen. In Britain, they have since 2003. Does this herald a slow normalisation of marriage rates following a sharp initial drop? The positives that comes from living in a functioning family are enormous, that would be lost by a Brave New World. But there is little to fear in all likelihood. For anyone to give up their child to the state, to be so almost brainwashed, is unthinkable for us.  

Yet the most pertinent aspect of Huxley’s writings concerns culture, and how culture defines the civilisation of Brave New World. Culture in that society is not so much picked up from the environment – from years of play, conversation, and immersion – as spoon-fed at night via the sci-fi method of “hypnopaedia”, or sleep-learning. It is a rigid and mono-faceted syllabus, that teaches the same rote phrases and behaviours to every member of a caste. It inculcates as strong a learned reaction as is possible, with reflexive sayings for every possible situation in life. Even the Alphas, the most intelligent of all the castes, are unable to advance past the use of these stock phrases. Phrases range from the innocuous “a doctor a day keeps the jim-jams away” to the far more troubling “…Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse. They’re too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides, they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I’m so glad I’m a Beta…”.

Whilst our children’s programmes contain a more wholesome message than this, we as adults most certainly are deceived often by a restatement of facts over and over, even when it is completely contrary to the truth. Whilst not every political mantra is devisive, simplistic, or important to a movement – like Obama’s “Hope” – short, reflexive answers to deep and complex political and social questions are distressingly common. Take, for instance, the “£350million a day to the NHS” claim made by the Leave side of the EU referendum campaign. Despite the statistic being false, the intention being misplaced, and with the benefit of hindsight, never secured, it was widely believed that the NHS would be better off outside the EU. Likewise the Remain’s “scare campaign” that they ran equally relied upon set phrases

In fact, much of popular Euroscepticism is built on a reliance on these set phrases. James O’Brien’s interview with a Leave voter is a classic example of this. Just as Bernard challenges Lenina whilst hovering over the English Channel Brave New World, whose stock phrases are unable to cope with his searching questions, this Leave voter’s deeply held sentiments, held in good faith and good intentions, are revealed as having been inadequate to stand up to penetrating inquiry. Of course, many Leave voters had an able grasp of facts, but there was remarkably little substance to most of those “facts” regarding the EU. Indeed, the European Commission set up a website debunking many of these infamous claims. Our concerns regarding immigration, that our system of welfare might be taken advantage of, have been shown time and again to be false  Our fury was whipped up against migrants in the stead of far more complex problems. The”scare campaign” elements of the Remain campaign equally relied upon set phrases; that the present situation is better than the contrary, that the banks and other companies would desert Britain immediately, and that the economy would be thrown into chaos. Most voters, on the Leave side especially, ended up voting according to ingrained mantras – disguised as gut feelings – that had little bearing on the complexities of the debate.

Have we regressed since Huxley’s age? 1932, the year of the book’s publishing was the year before Hitler came to power in Germany. We’ve certainly come little further since that time. Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, and “Build a Wall” have come to encapsulate this phenomenon. The complex issue of immigration reform in America is supposedly settled by stopping new arrivals – via the aforementioned wall – and deporting all 13 million illegal immigrants living in America. The reliance on the 10 second soundbite for the news and our plummeting attention spans would merit a more despondent assessment of our progress since those dark times.

Another key component of Huxley’s world is our desire of simple pleasures. In Brave New World, citizens are offered the simplest route to happiness at all opportunities. Soma, a pleasure-inducing drug, is taken with abandon. People’s free time is packed with inane games and gossip. Whether visits to the 26th century iteration on the cinema or a match of centrifugal bumble-puppy, they can choose from an endless list of equally vapid activities. Their society is geared towards the maximal deliverance of immediate pleasure. In this regard, we have most disturbing progress.

It’s no secret how digital media has transformed how we read, watch, and play. Think back to the last time you finished a book; about a hobby that you’ve practiced for years; about a subject that you immersed yourself in; or finished a project you set yourself. All of these things are increasingly rare. They are also all examples of some of the most satisfying things we can do. We’ve become drawn, not always consciously, instead to our digital selves and our digital lives. Our smartphones have become our leisure hubs, replacing in many cases all the other multitudinous forms of entertainment and fulfillment. News, games, socialising, work, television, sport – all these functionalities, and so many more, are contained in those devices. It is so easy and convenient. To be convenient, to be easy, is certainly no bad thing. Dealing with a physical dictionary, finding an answer to a factual question, or a recipe for some foodstuff all have been immeasurably easier by our digital assistants.

Yet, with Brave New World as the ultimate end, acting as a lighthouse that wards us from the perilous rocks, we sacrifice much to use these. It’s been well-publicised (but with much controversy) that our attention spans have dropped significantly since the digital revolution. Apps are designed to grab our attention, by providing intriguing, funny, or witty notifications. No doubt you have been working, only to be interrupted by a Facebook notification or a Twitter alert that’s diverted your attention by providing immediate gratification. Our brains are being shaped by our browsing habits, to seek the instant gratification that accompanies browsing Reddit, Facebook, or Imgur. Clickbait headlines are another symptom of this. Newspapers rely on sensationalist headlines to grab our attention. Of course, it’s a self-reinforcing relationship between those titles and our falling attention spans. Attempts to limit their use are unsuccessful, as fewer people would read the articles without some inventive line to tantalise us. As I’ve mentioned before, most of us read only the headlines of news items. To convince us to invest the time and effort to read an article online is most easily done by using such a title. These are just a couple of examples that illustrate our larger predicament.

Now, I am no technophobe. This is indeed a blog, written online, being read by you on a screen. But that doesn’t mean that our move to digital platforms is without consequence. Yet precious few of us are aware of the logical conclusion of our infatuation with the cheap thrill and the quick fix. For these activities aren’t satisfying. We ‘achieve’ watching a funny cat video on youtube, scrolling through our Facebook feed studded with funny memes, or tweeting in anger about Trump’s latest outrage. Yet no doubt a couple of minutes, an hour, a day later has this had an emotional impact? Has it enriched our lives in a way that you could tell someone about? Has it ever satisfied someone on par with any of those activities I mentioned before – finishing a book, or a project, practicing a hobby for years, or learning a language? I doubt it has ever come close. This is no idle preoccupation, no inconsequential paeaning for a former lifestyle and age that, not only unattainable in an ever changing world, but that misses out on the vast quality-of-life improvements inherent in the powers of these objects. Our lives are enriched by these momentous achievements and attainments. Our satisfaction, contentment, and happiness is contingent on retaining a modicum of these former virtues. Yet not just personally, but professionally and culturally, our endeavours rely on sustained concentration, vigour, and drive, that finds this present trend to idleness inimical.

But in so many others our technology, society, and culture tempts us to such a New World. Each of us, a member of a huge herd of cattle drive ourselves onwards towards a cliff’s edge. Stampeding, we’re impelled by the need to keep pace with the herd, unwittingly and unceasingly drawing ever closer to Huxley’s unsettling vision. There isn’t a global conspiracy, not even a concerted effort maliciously driving us onwards down this path. The impetus comes from a natural impulse to be at leisure, make our lives easier, seize a quick dopamine hit. But in doing so we risk the perils that are concomitant with it. We chance, and rarely avoid, the pitfalls that await an unsuspecting consumer. We’re threatened by a future that the more prescient have predicted – and with the unfulfilling and vacuous consequences inherent with it.

Just like the deforestation of Easter Island, it shall advance imperceptibly. The one day we will realise we are without the most precious and vital aspects of our lives – we’ll be without the trees for our buildings, our fuel, or our wildlife. Instead, we’ll have spent it on our own Moai heads – the vain, ironic tombstones of our civilisation in a tailspin to inanity. It doesn’t have to be that way. By preserving the habits of the past, limiting our digital exposure, and challenging ourselves once in a while we can do much to ameliorate the worst effects our march to a Brave New World, whilst preserving its best parts. For unlike in Huxley’s vision, limited in technological prowess, in scope, in ambition we inhabit a society that can look forward to, if we endeavour to do so, space flight, quantum computing, and so much more.When we get there, let’s make sure we are ready for it.

 

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Stoke and Copeland might just be important.

The world of political results is filled with caveats. A poll has a margin for error, and could suffer from sampling problems, whilst election results outside of a general election often have an inconsistent reflection in major elections. However the by-elections on the 22nd of February are fascinating in their implications and in their events.

On a very shallow inspection Copeland looks to be the more interesting by-election. The by-election takes place in a Labour-held northern rural constituency, which has a large reliance on the nuclear industry. It is a Tory-Labour marginal, that on a uniform swing the Conservatives would win at a General Election. However a governing party barely ever gains at a by-election, the last time a governing party, without the aid of some extraordinary electoral circumstances, gained at a by-election was in Brighouse and Spenborough in 1461, and that was when the previous majority was just 0.2%. Matt Singh covered well the possibilities of Copeland here.

This all being said Stoke-on-Trent Central has recently gotten most of the attention of the two by-elections, and is generally more hotly anticipated. The by-election has interesting circumstances with Tristram Hunt going to take a reputable job in London, which is usually an unpopular move, and the by-election is far more accessible and centralised than Copeland. The attention was further drawn to Stoke by Paul Nuttall announcing that he would run as a candidate in the by-election, prompting great speculation over his chances, and constant chatter about the vulnerability of Labour amongst its old core vote. It is also the first major test of Paul Nuttall’s strategy to focus on post-industrial Labour cities as Stoke.

The by-election has seen great amounts of drama, from the debacle over Nuttall’s empty residence to Nuttall having to defend himself over claims that he lied about being present at the Hillsborough Disaster, and has been an intriguing spectacle to the onlooker. The race is considered to be tight between Labour and UKIP.

The speculation is rife about the results, and so naturally we must consider the 4 different possible outcomes of these two by-elections, held on the same day, and what they would mean for Labour firstly, but also for UKIP and to a lesser extent the Conservatives.

Possibility A: UKIP Gain, Con Gain

Media Attention: Labour’s general collapse, and their Brexit position.

Electoral Implications: Strong Con Ground Game confirmed, Nuttall not poisonous, possible UKIP momentum in Labour seats that voted to leave.

In the scenario that Labour take two losses, the 22nd February will prove conclusively that Jeremy Corbyn is not electable, and could trigger further Labour leadership elections. If Labour lose both by-elections it would be catastrophic, the Conservatives would make history in Copeland, and a particular shine would be put on the apparently unpalatable nuclear policy of Corbyn. At a General Election Copeland would be a key battleground to hold, losing it would destroy confidence in Corbyn’s ability to take on May at the next General Election.

Furthermore Labour would have been overcome by UKIP and their incredibly poor ground game and electoral difficulties in Stoke. It would confirm two of the three problems that Labour are meant to be scared of in the current political climate. UKIP would claim that they are becoming the party of the working man in the north of England, with a view to taking other marginal seats with similarly high leave votes from Labour. Nuttall’s claims that Stoke-on-Trent Central is 72nd on the UKIP target list are probably rubbish, from a mathematical point of view the seat is the 12th target seat for UKIP in terms of swing. Given Nuttall’s focus on Labour-held seats it may be as high as 10th on their list. With this information we do not necessarily have to believe that UKIP would bring a revolution to Labour in 2020, and if it is a marginal gain, it may only point to UKIP standing at less than 5MPs after the 2020 General Election.

The media narrative after this eventuality would most likely highlight Labour’s unconvincing Brexit stance, and might lead to a knee-jerk reaction where Labour takes a stronger stance on Brexit, to do so either way would be to abandon one part of Labour’s key coalition. If they joined the Liberal Democrats in attempting to fight Brexit and for Single Market Access, they would simply get further trounced by the Conservatives, and give new life to UKIP. Meanwhile, if Labour goes too far to appease the Leave voters within the party then it may well face defections and give the Liberal Democrats more momentum than they already have amongst Remain voters. Neither outcome is good, and the most damaging result of this possibility is not the precedent set by the by-election, because by-elections are unpredictable, but the reaction to it by the media and subsequently by the Labour Party.

Possibility B: Lab Hold, Con Gain

Media Attention: Corbyn’s view on nuclear energy

Electoral Implications: Strong Con ground game, polling showing Lab weakness confirmed.

This eventuality is looking increasingly like a possibility if we are being pessimistic for Labour, with Paul Nuttall making headlines for all the wrong reasons, Labour’s weakness might be in Cumbria.

In this scenario the emphasis will go straight to Jeremy Corbyn rather than to Labour’s Brexit stance. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour will have lost a seat reliant on the nuclear industry and the microscope will burn on just that fact. The Labour candidate for the by-election Gill Troughton has said that she is completely pro-nuclear and that her husband relies on the nuclear food chain in the area, but the press will doubtless say that Corbyn’s appearances in Copeland had put people off so much as to lose a seat they have held since 1935.

If Labour handily keep Stoke-on-Trent Central away from UKIP then little emphasis will really be put on the fact that Copeland had the highest Brexit vote in Cumbria at around 62.5%. In fact Labour and Corbyn might be saved quite some embarrassment from the abysmal Copeland result by Paul Nuttall’s impressively poor campaign in Stoke, and by people calling for him to resign if his performance is poor enough. Labour candidate Gareth Snell has made comments about Brexit and Women and shown public disdain for his own party leader, which are all opportunities for Nuttall. If Nuttall does not capitalise on any of these and falls well short then he might be just as electorally poisonous as Jeremy Corbyn. Nevertheless it should be stressed that UKIP failing to take the seat would not be a huge surprise.

Possibility C: Lab Hold, UKIP Gain

Media Attention: New party of the people narrative, Labour’s Brexit position.

Electoral Implications: Possibility that UKIP make great advances in former Labour territory.

According to the betting markets this possibility is becoming less and less likely as the UKIP campaign grinds to a standstill, however if Labour  has a bad evening it would not be as shocking as one might think, given that a government struggles to ever increase their vote share at a by-election. This fact would no doubt be picked up on in the aftermath of this eventuality. However if Labour lose Stoke alone it will do little to convince the public they are electorally powerful, and given Paul Nuttall’s unpopularity it would show that Labour’s ground game is simply awful, there would be no two ways about it. Unless Paul Nuttall has an exceptional turnaround of events or Gareth Snell is embraced in an incredible scandal, then a Labour loss to UKIP would simply be catastrophic. Frankly put the Copeland result just would not matter if there is a loss to Paul Nuttall in a safe seat. Expert projections put Labour ahead before Nuttall’s campaign started to come apart at the seams and him becoming a figure of ridicule, at this point Labour should hold the seat.

If Nuttall succeeds he and Nigel Farage will likely dominate the cameras for the next day, celebrating what they will likely call a new era for the forgotten voters of Britain.

Possibility D: Lab hold both

Media Attention: Less attention than otherwise, focus on Nuttall’s failure

Electoral Implications: Con ground game has weaknesses, core Lab voters less persuadable than thought.

This surprisingly likely outcome is obviously the best for Labour, but depressingly it does not really lead to any positives for them. Life will mostly continue on, with Corbyn claiming success and his critics pointing out that the Labour candidate disagrees with him on nuclear energy. Corbyn is unlikely to capture much positive media attention with success in seats that they should probably win anyway.

The media will probably prefer to listen to Paul Nuttall’s concession speech, which will be by far the most interesting moment of the night if Labour keep both of the seats. Nuttall is an unlikely character for being humble and if Nigel Farage’s speech after he failed to win South Thanet in the 2015 General Election, is anything to go by then Nuttall will claim victory whatever happens. As long as Nuttall does not actually decrease his vote share, he will claim that the UKIP revolution of the North is still coming and proceed to say that this by-election might have been a failure, but that it somehow shows that UKIP is electorally strong. Of course it is complete rubbish that UKIP are electorally strong if they lose the by-election nevertheless Nuttall is unlikely to back down, and his speech will be picked apart the following day by politicians and media figures. Corbyn will get relatively little coverage.

Of course if the by-election is a complete and unmitigated UKIP disaster then Nuttall may well be replaced, although at this point UKIP are probably quite tired of by-elections.

Projecting by-elections mathematically can be quite difficult given their unpredictability. There are some good estimates that explain recent results and what we might see in Copeland and Stoke. Each possibility brings unique and far-reaching consequences, with some doing so more than others, in light of this the by-elections are justifiably worth watching for their implications.

 

 

 

 

The Bercow Ban

Bercow, who had the right to speak out, was not right to speak out.

“I would not wish to issue an invitation to President Trump … our opposition to racism and to sexism, and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations in the House of Commons”

These comments don’t come from a member of  Labour, the Greens, or the SNP. Instead, it comes from the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. The ramifications of his comments are graver than the now regular peal of condemnations that have been flung across the Channel. They come as a crack of thunder in the menacing storm of Britain’s relationship with the US. They threaten May’s diplomatic detente and, more importantly, his own political independence.

It is the latest in a string of blows to May’s charm offensive against the US. It lies in tatters, as it becomes clear to the new US administration that the May doesn’t have the political strength to stand behind Trump. On top of the petitions, comments from opposition MPs, and protests, May seems weaker and weaker to an administration in America that seems to value strength and loyalty. This criticism is the most obvious, that it damages British diplomacy. But it is also the most short-sighted, and least important. He is still one MP among 650, however prestigious his position. But was he within his rights to make such a statement? And was he right to do so?

As Speaker of the House of Commons, it is Bercow’s responsibility to issue invitations to speak at the House of Commons. So Bercow has the technical right to do so. By making these comments he has effectively denied Trump this prestigious opportunity during his upcoming state visit. But the strongest criticism of his conduct is that he has infringed upon  the speakers’ political neutrality.

The speaker of the House of Commons “must be politically impartial”. Bercow has most obviously transgressed in this regard. Calling Trump a “racist” and a “sexist”, whilst backed up by a copious amount of evidence, clearly places Bercow on a political battleground he was meant to stay well away from. Whilst he may have the power to veto Trump’s address, in reality, much as the Queen does, he ought to eschew making statements of such an overtly political nature.

Bercow’s statement was greeted by cheers from Opposition MPs. Most likely they were agreeing with Bercow’s damning judgement of Trump, rather than lauding the other ramifications of his comments. For the Houses of Parliament rely on a speaker to mediate debate, as all Parliaments across the world do. Without one, chaos would ensue. Yet a partisan speaker is almost as bad. It creates fears that one political view is favoured above another, that one party is a victim of another, and that the constitution being misused and undermined. These all damage the legitimacy of the position of speaker, of Parliament, and of democracy entirely. And here lies the consequence of greatest importance.

This is perhaps a tad hyperbolic, British democracy, famed for its resilience to extremism is under no such immediate threat. And Bercow has been an accomplished speaker for most of his tenure. His decorous manner, his light wit, and his commanding presence during debates has graced the chamber for eight years. Despite the protestations of some Conservatives, he has until now shunned partisanship or political intervention, and ensured healthy criticism of the government. Yet this should not permit us to overlook his lapse in judgement.

As is the depressing norm, we have only to look across the channel to see the ultimate ends of a politicised speaker. These chambers are home to many issues that clog their proper functioning, yet a partisan speaker more worryingly drains the legitimacy of the institution he speaks for. The Senate and Congress, assemblies whose activities are locked in a partisan mire, routinely bend (far stricter) constitutional rules to ensure ‘correct’ procedure. Take Elizabeth Warren’s dismissal from the floor of the Senate earlier this week over the application of an obscure and inconsistently applied rule governing criticism of senators. Last year, the Senate Democrats staged a 25 hour sit-in over Gun Control, having been shut out of debate by the speaker.

A further criticism of the Speaker is that he is purporting to represent all of 650 MPs and 805 Lords, or at least the majority of them, by objecting to Trump’s invitation. In reality, it is doubtful that the cheers heard following Bercow’s statement reflect more than a select number of opposition MPs. The government certainly does not agree. For many MPs, this is the most grievous insult, that he spoke for those that vehemently disagree with him. Pity more the Lords, who were open to Trump’s address, and whose speaker rebuked Bercow for his commentsCalls for Bercow to step down  from a select few of them are, however, exaggerating the punishment due an offence of this scale. It’s not even clear that Trump, whose oratory has never been a particular strong suit, would have wanted to address Parliament in the first place. Nor is it clear when, or indeed if, the state visit will take place. These discussions may turn out to be moot.

As always with constitutional matters, it is rarely the action itself which most damages our democratic edifice. It’s the precedent, precedent that can be invoked to push further and further from what was once considered the margins of politically acceptable behaviour. However distasteful, however vulgar, however despicable you may find Trump, it’s clear that Bercow was not the one to voice such criticisms. The Government, opposition MPs, the Lords, the media, the public – all of these, all of us, are better placed to make such a comment. Bercow, who had the right to speak out, was not right to speak out.

 

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Have the Populist Right reached their Peak?

populist-logos

It was remarked countless times that 2016 was a year like no other when it came to political results. In British minds, there is no escaping the EU Referendum or the 2016 US Presidential Election, both of which were gigantic victories for the populist right which ultimately realised the ambition of two men: Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. Of course, these events are neither the only events of the populist wave of 2016, nor are these two men the sole reasons for their respective election outcomes. However, they are indicative of the feeling that the political ascendancy and momentum is owned by those who are able to control a strong anti-outsider sentiment being felt throughout Europe and America.

This view is the prevailing one, but the possibility for the populist right to lose their momentum could come within the next two years, and by the 2020 Presidential Election Donald Trump could be the last bastion of his kind. The boom and bust cycle is quick for parties who have very little groundwork historically, and populist right-wing parties tend to have very poor infrastructure.

In the UK the United Kingdom Independence Party has abysmal ground game in elections, and beyond Nigel Farage they have struggled to maintain a leader, which the country really cares about. Paul Nuttall is currently sitting at a -22% satisfaction rating, even though only 44% of those asked had a view on him. Their electoral chances are slim, and the upcoming by-elections in Stoke Central and eventually in Leigh may prove this. Therefore they may be consigned to sit as a fringe party, occasionally getting air time when a Brexit discussion comes up. The Conservatives largely do what UKIP does, but they are organised and powerful electorally, so UKIP becomes defunct.

Headlines were made in France last year when several mayors attempted to ban the burkini because it did not fit with French values. This was said to be a symptom of France’s populist right wing attitudes, and would suggest great possible victories in 2016 for the Front National. However, whilst Le Pen commonly has the single highest support of any candidate in the French Presidential election, the French Presidential Election is based on a runoff of the top two candidates, and here she is yet to be ahead in a single poll no matter if she is compared to Emmanuel Macron or Francois Fillon. She even loses to the socialist Manuel Valls, which is incredible given he is dogged by the mightily unpopular Hollande administration.

Le Pen’s problem indicates a common issue that parties as controversial as UKIP or the Front National are. As soon as they get even slightly close to winning any sort of power, they are faced with mass tactical voting to stop them. In Le Pen’s case, Macron’s and Fillon’s voters are almost certainly destined to support each other over Le Pen, and Le Pen would have to break open a completely new section of the electorate, which is unlikely to happen in the next few months, and this does not seem likely, as Le Pen would have to upkeep further time in opposition and wait for a crisis of the same type and of an even greater magnitude than the refugee crisis.

The same can be said for Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom who are unpalatable for a coalition, and so have to get many more votes than any other party to get a foothold on power.

By 2016 the refugee crisis had sparked anti-immigration parties that finally had a serious ferocity and support with them. The Austrian Presidential Election saw Norbert Hofer’s Freedom Party of Austria win the first round in much the same way as Le Pen is projected to in France, different from Le Pen however, is that he was actually in the lead in the Presidential runoff before postal votes had been taken into account. His opponents dramatic win by just 30,863 votes by the final tally was so small that the election was annulled for fears that the number of voting irregularities was actually twice the winning margin, and the wrong person may have actually won. However, this is not the interesting part of the Austrian Presidential Election, the interesting part is that when the run-off between Van Der Bellen and Hofer was held again in December 2016, Hofer lost by 348,231 votes, and Hofer’s vote share decreased. The polling actually overestimated Hofer considerably, which meant for the first time we can see the power really slipping away from the populist right during the refugee crisis.

It is possible that this is not indicative of a trend, but simply a symptom of having an election re-done bringing less support for more radical right-wing parties. It cannot be denied that this result could be significant, and herald the start of the downfall of anti-immigration and in Europe anti-European Union parties.

Right now right wing populist support will require a new foreign affairs crisis to breathe new life and new electoral chances into them otherwise they will slowly fade out of public view and popularity towards oblivion. The next important election to judge this matter on will be the German Presidential Election where the Alternative for Germany (AfD) who will seek to make their mark in the Bundestag, the way that the party’s support changes from now to the election will be one of the most important political indicators of 2017.

To finish we must return to the single biggest character of 2016 once again: Donald Trump. Trump enters office as having the lowest job approval rating of any US president in the modern era in the immediate aftermath of his inauguration at 45%, compared to Obama’s 67% in 2009, whilst he may wish to dismiss this as ‘fake news’ he is almost certainly misguided in this label. Given that four years in office are unlikely to improve his popularity, then he is unlikely to win in 2020 when he runs for re-election, however, by then the wheels of public opinion may have turned against his ilk anyhow, with decreasing electoral support in key countries. The 2020 Presidential Election may be the vote that brings an end to a brief and ferocious political era in the western world. However the evidence either way is as of yet not conclusive.

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How should the media cover Trump?

There are many ways that Trump has disrupted the normal mode of operations, whether pioneering a successful social media campaign, global investment patterns, and American politics more generally. Yet one sector has stayed relatively unfazed by Trump: The media.

Trump has been covered, throughout his campaign, as a normal politician would be by most journalistic outlets. They report what he’s said, a bit of context on why he’s said such things, and then go onto to report what those who disagree with him have said. Most journalists don’t stray from this standard method, concocted from decades of work to balance transfer of knowledge, objectivity,  and safety from libel lawsuits.

Yet can this continue, when dealing with a man (and his associates) who flagrantly disregard all notions of truth and objectivity himself; who wants solely to steal the attention of those who read the headlines, angry or otherwise; who obfuscates whenever possible the truth behind a smokescreen of lies?

Take the reaction to Trump’s comments that his inauguration was better attended than Obama’s, with, according to him “a million and a half people”. It is objectively false: The number of trips on the Metro was significantly lower, and photographic evidence clearly shows the depreciation in turnout.

Image result for obama's inauguration vs trumps

Given that most people will not read past the headline on any given story (Here’s an interesting article on the topic), this is possibly the most important part of the article. Not only does it reel people in, it sets the tone in the reader’s mind for what they are about to read. The headline is key.

So what were the media’s headlines? The Daily express’ was “Donald Trump inauguration crowd largest EVER spokesman says in attack on ‘FALSE REPORTS'”; Vox’s was “Trump claims 1.5 million people came to his inauguration. Here’s what the evidence shows”.; The BBC’s was “Trump claims media ‘dishonest’ over crowd photos”.

Whilst these headlines range from the Daily Express’ very misleading to the BBC’s more staid style, to anyone scanning the headlines, the impression they would be left with would be very different from both the truth and from what they would find if they read the article. Yet, given that headline is the most important part of the article, this discrepancy is clearly worrying.

The issue goes to the heart of what reporting should be when information is abundant, false claims and propaganda equally so, yet we have little enough time to sift and digest it all. Should it be a faithful report of what has happened, devoid of comment? Or comment pieces with the news interwoven? Both of these have their benefits, but most of all problems. Too faithful, and you mislead those who read the articles. Too much a commentary and readers become susceptible to manipulation, polemic, and even just losing track of the news.

Instead, it’s best if media outlets can fact-check as they go, and make it clear the verdict they’ve reached. Take Trump’s false inauguration crowd claims. A couple of outlets published their headlines just this style: The Washington Post’s “With False Claims, Trump Attacks Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift”, or Buzzfeed’s “Donald Trump Lies About The Number Of People At His Inauguration“. These convey the point Trump made, that he claims many more people attended his inauguration than actually did, whilst also making clear to people that, in fact, he is making it up. Those skimming the headlines get the most accurate information, and Trump’s attempt to manipulate the media and public is combated.

With such a history of lying, propaganda, and falsification, should the media stay ‘neutral’? Should they judge a statement or policy of Trump’s as they would a statement or policy of any other politician? Clearly not. Trump probably spends more time in a sunbed than he does telling the truth. With such a history of ignoring the truth, he’s lost any ‘benefit of the doubt’ that might be afforded to another politician. Treating his speeches with a high-powered lens, to investigate and expose him, would be advisable.

The news runs on a short time span. Imagine what was the biggest news stories last week. Difficult enough. Now last month. Very challenging. Now 6 months ago. You’d do well to get more than a couple. Yet many of Trump’s most heinous statements – that he groped women, he hasn’t released his tax returns, his bigoted comments about Mexicans, Muslims, and disabled people, his hypocrisy of not manufacturing in America himself – are quickly forgotten by most. The pomp and authority of the presidency, and perhaps a willful amnesia of Trump’s faults, to lessen the fear and dread, combine to obfuscate Trump’s past behaviour. For this reason, it’s clear that a running tally of Trump’s many issues, hypocrisies, and statements would be of great use. A compendium to draw upon when needed.

Perhaps you think I am being partisan, naive, or just plain dumb. Perhaps I am. But I’d say that democracy can’t function when there are ‘alternative facts’; when two people of different parties can no longer understand the other’s opinions; when the rivalry of parties becomes actively hostile; when a demagogue and propagandist is head of the government. We need to take action to halt Trump’s utilisation of the media as a propaganda mouthpiece. The longer we linger, the more pressing the problem. Trump has shown from his first few days in office he has no intention to rule as a “One-nation” president, as most politicians try to.

The media is one of the most effective ways to hurt Trump. His ego drives him, and he becomes enraged by those who oppose him, belittle him, or point out his flaws. The media his conduit to deliver his message. And the media has a job a responsibility to act with  the integrity that comes with the power they wield.

The next 4 years will be formative for this century. I certainly don’t hold consider the possibility that Trump will govern well. But will we, as a society, emerge stronger, energised to resist any other attempt to subvert democracy? Or more divided by the legacy of he who tried? I hold out hope that the former may come to pass.