Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Future Tense

I think the major shock about the UK vote to leave the EU was the transformation in British culture that the vote seems to represent. From having been in the vanguard of the global economy and the globalized society, the UK seems to have rejected much of what it seemed to stand for. The aftermath of the vote- racist statements, racist attacks and all seemed to have turned the conventional wisdom about Britain on its head. The country was not as open or tolerant or globalized as it purported to be. This is despite the fact that a significant faction of the Leave campaign believed that the the problem with the EU is that it is not globalized enough. The reality is that whatever the Libertarians amongst the Leave camp thought they were getting, it is now all too clear that the isolationists, not the globalizers, are the big winners from the vote... at least so far.

If Brexit is a process, not a destination, as we are now being told, then it is still totally unclear what the destination might be. One nasty shock for the incoming May government has been that the option that would probably be accepted by the majority of the the UK- a kind of associate membership of the EU, via either the EEA or some kind of bespoke agreement- now looks by far the most difficult solution to bring off. The confrontational attitude adopted by the UK government has met its match in the Juncker Comission, which has wasted little time in inflicting as many petty humiliations on the new PM as possible. The appointment of Michel Barnier as the Commission's negotiator was the first, followed by the repeated cold shoulder to the UK at every meeting, including forcing Theresa May to wait until 1 am to address the meeting of the European Council. I suppose we can hardly blame the Commission for taking the hump against the UK, particularly since it reflects the deep anger that many governments feel about what the UK is trying to do. As Xavier Bettel, the Luxembourg Prime Minister Minister puts it  "Before they were in and they had many opt-outs; now they want to be out with many opt-ins.

Meanwhile Conservative blow-hards, such as Bernard Jenkin, insist - with precisely no evidence- that a total withdrawal from all form of EU collaboration was what was voted for on June 23rd. 

The choice is becoming stark: national humiliation as we create mayhem in much of our economy and face a serious and prolonged economic crisis through breaking all ties to the EU, or national humiliation as we seek to reverse the decision taken on June 23rd. As the storm clouds gather, there are more than a few people in London and in Brussels who believe that the UK may indeed change course. The Conservatives have sought to own Brexit, but now it is clear that whatever Brexit does in fact mean, it is bad and the Tories will get the blame. The big swing in Witney and the likely gain of Richmond Park is putting the Lib Dems back on the map, and despite the current high poll ratings for the Conservatives, the reality is that these leads could be very shallow indeed. 

Yet despite the growing economic and political storm in London, we can not ignore the abject failure of the Juncker Commission. The hapless former Premier of Luxembourg has now presided over the debacle of Brexit and the seeming collapse of CETA with Canada. This second failure is possible of even more moment than the first. The fact is that the crisis in CETA speaks to the very worst paralysis of the EU, and a failure to ratify would demoralize even the most fervent defenders of the Commission. Whereas the Commission has little choice but to be reactive to the UK, they have proven unable to be proactive to address the problems with CETA ratification. Clearly this bodes very badly for the far more complicated discussions to come with the UK. The fact is that the Commission may not be able to deliver any kind of soft Brexit- regardless that this is the majority will in both the UK and the rest of the EU.

Faced with the choice, it may become literally impossible for the UK to withdraw. Certainly there are voices on both sides of the channel that are beginning to think that, as the political pendulum swings in the UK strongly away from Brexit, that the British may opt for the economically less painful version of national humiliation rather than another. The paralysis that the Juncker commission has engendered does not seem to have been shaken by the prospect of the British departure, but just possibly it might be shaken up by a British lack of departure. 

Maybe the Brits will return to the global future after all.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Markets verdict on Brexit is coming & it will be ugly

80% of the British press is under the control of off-shore domiciled billionaires. These shadowy figures: the pornographer Richard Desmond, the sinister Barclay Brothers, the oafish Harmsworth, and the borderline criminal Rupert Murdoch have established a hard right-wing agenda. The press, especially titles owned by the creepy and boorish Mr. Murdoch, have a well merited reputation for powerful lobbying in support of an extreme right-wing agenda. Since the referendum, their shrill support for the ending of all ties to the European Union- the so-called hard Brexit- has pushed the Conservative government to ever more hardline positions.

However, despite the propaganda and the contempt that these newspapers have directed towards the near majority that preferred to stay in the EU, reality is- finally- beginning to bite.  The extreme position adopted by the May government has a price, and it is one that very few people on any side of the referendum debate would have been prepared to pay. The fact is that there are many fundamental reasons why a "hard Brexit" would cause significant economic damage, and the problem is that even the large-scale devaluation of Sterling that has taken place since the referendum debacle will not much ease the crisis to come.

The conventional wisdom is that the fall in Sterling will reduce costs and make exports competitive, but this is to misunderstand the huge changes in the global supply chain over the past few years. British exports in manufacturing are largely made from components that are imported, therefore the conventional wisdom that a devaluation makes the UK a more competitive exporter no longer truly holds. All that is going to happen is that the country will reignite a level of inflation that will erode the currency still further, without any improvement in the UK current account. In the quest for greater productivity there will be a need to shed jobs, while the government sector now faces a double whammy of a lower tax take, a higher social security bill, and rising gilt yields, and confidence in the UK continues to fall. 

Hard Brexit is a vicious circle. The expulsion from the single market that  Mrs May now says could happen in January 2019 is going to cause a rout in several critical sectors of the UK economy. Confidence is being eroded to the point that Credit ratings are coming under critical review and the negative outlook is being priced in. As long as Hard Brexit is the policy, there is no technical support for Sterling in the medium term above about 95 Euro cents, and if the Market continues to take a dim view of the competence of the May government, we could even see Dollar Parity in the short/medium term. The currency rout now taking place is already beginning to see the beginning of a rout in gilts- a 5% yield may be surprisingly close, and as we know this could in turn lead to the overstretched mortgage market also being pushed to breaking point, with a breakdown in property prices quick to follow and a major banking crisis the inevitable coda. Meanwhile the lackeys of the right wing press, like Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, suggest that the prospect of this major discontinuity is a good thing. According to their world view- backed up by whatever bat-squeek of hope they try to find in the gathering gloom- the UK was over indebted and living high on the hog, so that a collapse was inevitable. Yet the fact is that the market is delivering a verdict on the politics. Any sign that Brexit may be soft rather than hard and Sterling recovers a smidgeon. 

Yet Mrs. May made her case: "If you are a citizen of the World, you are a citizen of nowhere" is a phrase that will haunt the rest of her premiership. Business hates it. Universities loath it. It is a contemptible manifesto of Little Englander provincialism, and it will ultimately fail. The price, however, will be the prosperity and the stability of the the UK.  On June 23rd the British people did not vote to make themselves £66 billion poorer- and the absurd lies published by the verminous Mail, Express et al does not change the fact that the consequences of the vote will be deeply unpopular.

Mrs May currently has a Parliamentary majority of 12. Over twenty seats are currently the subject of Police investigations as to the legality of the Conservative expenses claims. That is not something the right wing press wishes to discuss.

As the chill winds of the Brexit Autumn turn into the bitter frost of Winter, one wonders how far the Tories can push the Bond Market before it bites back. Then the posturing fools of the billionaires' supporters club can face the wrath of the rest of us.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Eternal vigilance

The United States Presidential debates seem to have confirmed two things.

The first is that Donald Trump is totally unsuitable to be the President of the United States. 

I mean, not just inappropriate for the job, but most likely utterly catastrophic. His contempt for the niceties of the US constitution was just the cherry on a particular odorous cup cake of crap. His demeanor- petulant, childish, and his opinions- ignorant and boorish, suggest that as President he would respond to the slightest provocation with over reactions that could lead to breakdown domestically and war internationally.

The second thing the debate confirmed is that he could still step into the oval office next January. Despite the fact that literally no business leaders back him, despite his failure to release his tax returns, and despite his insulting and patronizing comments about more or less anyone who is not Donald J Trump, this man could become the President of the United States.

Even though the chances still favour Mrs. Clinton, the fact that it is even remotely close changes everything. The fact is that even if Mr. Trump is defeated this time (Please Lord!), there remains a huge block of voters that is prepared to consider possibilities that should be unacceptable in any sensibly governed democratic state. This challenges the whole basis of the global international order. The United States has been a force for democratic will and the free society since at least the second world war. If the US can not be relied upon to defend freedom, no matter what the cost, then we genuinely risk a collapse of the Pax Americana and a descent into a nuclear armed instability that risks the entire planet.

In the event the Alt-Right and the other post truth politicians may not get their man this time, but the shock of what is happening underlines the urgent need to develop a new kind of politics that can balance the political interests of society without the emergence of irrational and dangerous demagoguery.  

The price of freedom was, and remains, eternal vigilance. In a world where Vladimir Putin is attempting to subvert Western democracy, we must now drastically increase our guard.

Electing Trump would be a disaster as great  as May 1940 for Western Democracy.   

Friday, September 23, 2016

Punishing the Conservatives

A Conservative government has caused the greatest political and economic disaster in 50 years. The Prime Minister responsible, David Cameron, has resigned. Theresa May's ministers are consistently suggesting that the vote to leave the European Union means the withdrawal from all EU mechanisms- the "Hard Brexit". The result will be the exit of the car industry from the UK and severe damage to the City of London.

It is totally irresponsible.

It will cost the country millions of jobs and billions of pounds. The Tories now own the Brexit fiasco.

Voters are noticing: some major shifts in local elections suggest that the Liberal Democrats may be recovering fast.

Just maybe the new Tory programme of back to fifties- imperial measures, grammar schools et al- may end up destroying the party that is proposing this drivel. Backward looking provincialism deserves nothing more than contempt.

I bloody hope so.

In other news.

Last night hundreds of children went to sleep alone and hungry in the Jungle at Calais- a humanitarian mess that the UK is responsible for. Last night the food banks were doing good business. Last night the NHS faced just another day of strain and pain. Last night millions of workers in the UK were facing renewed threats to their livelihood because of the Brexit fiasco. 

This morning the British right wing press: 80% supporting the Conservatives and funded by five off-shore billionaires, decided that the marriage split of two actors was the chief story their readers needed to know about.

Contemptible. Disgraceful. Outrageous.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Burns and the charms o' nature

I was interviewed yesterday on the subject of the poetry of Robert Burns by the Scottish Cultural Society in Tallinn. This is a good organisation that promotes a wide variety of things Scottish with a fervour that should embarrass even the most intransigent nationalist. Whether ceilidh dancing or singing the songs of Burns, or even kilt wearing, this small group constantly delight with their enthusiasm and passion for the subject of Scottish culture, broadly defined.

Since I was a teenager I have read the works of Burns and felt that he deserves a wider audience than the annual festival of the unco' guid that marks his birthday each year on January 25th. Like the Slovene poet, France Preseren, Burns speaks not just for some exclusive national feeling, but the universal themes of love, nature and politics. Yet whether the lovely pastoral of Westlin Winds or the epic song of brotherhood a Man's a Man it has seemed until recently that Burns was condemned to the shortbread tartanry that makes him seem more of a museum piece than of any modern relevance. In the end though, Burns is really a bit of a rock star and though Holy Willies Prayer and Tam O'Shanter were radically subversive at the time, it really is the songs that make Burns so accessible. Possibly my favourite (and certainly my Grandmother's favourite) is Ae Fond Kiss

The links will take you to some modern performances of these great songs. Enjoy!      

Monday, September 19, 2016

Fighting the Culture War

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the creation of a raft of new liberal and democratic states in 1989 and 1991, the argument about the values of the open society went into a kind of stasis. The debate was deemed by many to be closed, and the virtues of liberal democracy self-evidently triumphant.

25 years later that "end of history" seems at best more nuanced. At worst, the closed authoritarian model seems to have made a spectacular come-back.

This blog references Cicero, and in previous posts I have explained why. I have feared for a long time that the values and virtues of democracy are being eroded from within and without. The fact is that mass societies can be manipulated and subverted. Vladimir Putin spends billions of dollars on propaganda, and while much of this is to persuade Russians not to challenge his regime, equally his purpose has been to undermine confidence in the states of Europe and North America that he deems to be his enemies. He is achieving a remarkable success in promoting closed, right-wing models of society. His admirers are a rogues gallery of anti-democrats: Marine Le Pen, Diane James, Geert WildersDonald Trump, the Vlaams Belang in Belgium and many members of the Cinque Stelle in Italy.

The weakness that this subversion is demonstrating should give all of us some pause for thought. The fact is that both our media and our education system have already let us down severely. 80% of the UK print media is in the hands of foreign or off-shore ownership, with an extreme right-wing agenda. On my recent visit to London, I was staggered how many people read the Mail and the Express- two newspapers who seem to have given up on the truth altogether. The fact is that in a world of post truth politics, our general education level seems simply too low to challenge the false narratives that the biased and self-serving media is promoting.

When people ask me why Estonia is so much more successful than, say, Russia. I generally reply by pointing out that Estonian culture so strongly promotes education. It is a history of Lutheran respect for education, combined with strongly rooted values of hard work, discipline and openness. It is next to impossible to beat a bright kid with a good work ethic. Yet even in Estonia, I see signs of a culture being assailed. The astonishing growth in graffiti in recent months is one example, the rise of EKRE- an unpleasant and intolerant right-wing nationalist party- is another. Of course both are still much weaker than in the UK, but the fact that they even exist in Estonia is reflective of possible problems ahead.

In the end, across Europe and North America, the heartland of the West, it is our values, our culture and way of doing things that is being challenged. Some of this is the subversion of openness by the enemies of the open society, but we must also admit that we have made too many mistakes. The promotion of the Bush-Blair war agenda, against strong internal resistance was, in retrospect, the beginning of a crisis of confidence in democracy. Cynical politics has created a cynical society. Amoral decisions have contributed to a climate of moral indifference which is highly corrosive of the open society. The result has been the growth of an alienated and angry electorate. The result has included the economic, political and moral mistake of the Brexit referendum result.

As we contemplate the challenge of Putin, and indeed the coming challenge of Brexit, it seems to me that we will need more and more to renew our national political cultures. The cheerless and backward-looking managerialism on offer from Theresa May already looks dated, and such values as she offers- a return to the 1950s- are hardly robust enough to meet the demands of the new century. Although Taavi R├Áivas, the Estonian Prime Minister, offers a younger face, he remains the captive of older figures, and Estonia too needs to renew its political culture. The party-list electoral system is too closed for the increasingly open society that Estonia wishes to be, and the three ring circus of the current presidential election has shown just how locked-out the voters are from the process. 

In both countries a voice that reiterates the values and virtues of openness is much needed. The complications of a tolerant and free society must be explained, and that is difficult enough in thoughtful and educated Estonia, never mind the shrill and poisoned atmosphere of British politics. However, if we do not renew our culture and reinforce our values, I fear that all the gains of the global society could be rolled back and the locust years will be upon us. It is not just a question of economics, it is a question of ethics and morality. It is a question of good and bad. 

Cicero lived at the time of the death of the Roman Republic. The Republic had existed for 500 years in turbulent vigour. Cicero was instrumental in defeating the first conspiracy against the Republic- the Cataline conspiracy- but though he knew the Republic needed reform, he could not provide the leadership to thwart Caesar's coup d'etat. Within a very few years Rome was the prisoner of its Emperors and the power of the Republic was broken. Cicero, and his ally Cato had failed and the decadence and corruption of the Empire lingered in place of the vigour of the Republic. 

Is that to be the fate of the West?  In the end we could fail and with the failure of the global society a smaller, weaker, more violent world could come. Instead of creating a more open and integrated planet we could fall back on the failures of the past, possibly not excluding war and the eventual use of nuclear weapons.

Thus it is not for small stakes that we must fight. The renewal of our values in a world where virtually limitless data or information is free, but knowledge and understanding just as difficult as it ever was cannot be easy. Yet now- in a world of surveillance, both overt and covert-  we need to set the limits of power more than ever. It comes down to renewing our philosophy and living rigidly to our values. We must not let political compromise become moral weakness. Whether the challenge comes from Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or our own media-political complex, we have to understand the scale of the problem- and the terrible price, if we fail. In the new cultural war, we cannot afford to fail.  
   

Monday, August 29, 2016

Back to School

September 1st is the traditional date when schools in Estonia reopen after the summer break. It is not only of significance for children, because for most adults, the summer is also definitively over. The season is one of the end of leisure and the beginning of work. So, after a long break from blogging, I return. 

However I do not hold out much optimism for the new season. Most of the things that I would like to see for the country of my birth- a more open society and a more Liberal (and indeed liberal) politics- have been defeated so heavily in recent years that any ultimate success seems to be years, and maybe decades, away. Of course some things can change suddenly, and by definition Liberals are required to be optimistic. Yet, as Theresa May settles into office as Prime Minister, it is clear that the UK will continue to be pushed further way from the kind of changes that it needs in order to create a more prosperous and harmonious society. "Hard Brexit" or not, the fact is that the Conservatives will continue to inflict policies that will create more inequality and less social or political harmony. Post Brexit Britain is set to struggle even to define what kind of country it wishes to be. After the phony war of the summer, the new season will reveal to London, as much as to the rest of the European capitals, just how daunting the scale of the task ahead truly is.

And I have not recovered from the anger that the vote brought me. We rejected our friends and pleased our enemies. We will now be diverted for years into a self-destructive mess. The worst leaders in the UK: George Galloway, Nigel Farage, Bernard Jenkin - a rogues gallery of shits- have come out on the winning side, but the thoughtful and the intelligent, from Mark Carney to Delia Smith, have been forced to take the abuse of the triumphantly stupid. 

On a wall in the old town of Tallinn some Brexit cretin has written "Rule Britannia, down with the Euro-Socialist EU". I tend not to take political lessons form those who write on walls, but what ignorance it is to write such drivel in a country that has just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of genuine socialism. The temptation is just to mutter "arseholes" under the breath and pass on down the street, yet actually I feel that this arrogance and stupidity is actually the dominant characteristic of the political discourse in Britain. 

They call it "post truth politics", and I find it hard not to becomes outraged at the way it pervades so much of what is happening in the UK. For example, the Daily Express is a newspaper that attracts a certain kind of readership, it pretends to an intellectual equality with other newspapers. Yet it refuses to comply even with the voluntary- and extremely light- code of press regulation that other newspapers do accept. The fact is that the Express prints stories which it knows to be totally false. It is a propaganda rag. It is a contemptible piece of crap, and yet it is treated as though it actually had something valid to say. The problem is that, although extreme, the Express actually reflects the way the majority of the British press does its business: the Mail, the Sun even broadsheets such as the Telegraph and the Times knowingly twist the facts to suit their predetermined point of view. This is not just the op-ed pages, but across the newspaper as a whole,facts are ignored, balance is ignored, honesty is ignored. Cheap laughs, cheap journalism and a profoundly cynical contempt for the truth characterizes the British press in a way that would appall a previous generation. In the end the huge economic and political mess we are setting up for ourselves can and should be laid at the feet of the foreign-owned (Murdoch), foreign domiciled tax avoiders (Rothermere, and the Barclay brothers) and fraudulent (Desmond) hypocrites who dominate press ownership in the UK. Unless this festering pus-filled canker can be lanced, I have come to think that the future of the UK will continue to lie in the hands of people who have little care for the best interests of anyone except themselves, and certainly not the country.

So where does that leave us?

The phony war, as I say, is now over. The three Brexiteers- Johnson, Fox and Davis that Mrs. May has, perhaps cynically, deployed to negotiate have spent the summer engaged in a turf war, but even they must now see that the next few years will be nothing but a slog. The European Union -continuing and possibly reinforced, despite Farage's schtik that it would simply collapse, post Brexit- is not prepared to roll over in negotiations. When Australia announced that it could- kinda, sorta, maybe- consider a UK free trade pact, this was taken by Dr. Fox as a sign that the UK could negotiate a pact "10x the size of the EU". He obviously did not understand that such a pact would have to include neighbouring star systems, given that the EU is a part of 40% of global trade flows. Incidentally, Australia has an economy smaller than Spain. New Zealand- another "Commonwealth hope" has an economy smaller than Romania. Both antipodeans are mostly primary producers, and it is the 1.3 billion of China, not the 65 million of the UK that can support those economies. We do 60% of our trade with the EU, but the Brexiteers stupidly believe that we can unpick our trade from our neighbours and rebuild it with countries that are as far away as you can get on this planet and which do not want our goods anyway. With such generals in place, the next step will be a retreat to Dunkirk and the comprehensive trashing of the Brexit idea- too late of course, but hey, the crushing of UK asset prices and employment will just be collateral damage. 

In the face of such a mess, one might expect Her Majesty's loyal opposition to be making hay. 

Err.. not quite.

It is not just that Jeremy Corbyn is an obvious dud- a politician who has been wrong about everything and whose incompetence alienates on a daily basis his entire Parliamentary party. It is that Owen Smith is a dud too- his left wing platform, however insincerely held, is an absolute gift to the Tories. The fact is that none on the Labour front bench have what it takes: mealy-mouth cowardice, even in the age of post-truth politics, is pretty hard to hide. The childish attempts to re-run Thick-of-It sketches as some kind of The Office-style documentary is about as painful as watching David Brent dance. If ever you had a doubt that Labour were past-it, then your worst fears are exceeded by the grim reality.

As the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness draws in, we see the naked British Emperor in all his stunted and flaccid glory. For the problem of government, press or opposition are linked by a failure so huge and so clear that sometimes it takes a second or two to grasp it. As David Cameron hummed his way off the Downing Street stage, (aged, let us not forget, only 49 after just over six years in office) the horrible truth began to dawn.

These people are not up to the job

Neither is it just the failed entitlement of the Etonian Jeunesse Doree. This is a systemic failure, not only of Tories but of our entire political-media complex. Whether the economic illiteracy of the Brexiteers, or the hypocritical calumnies of the press, or the tiresome playground antics of the Labour party, the UK faces a leadership vacuum on an industrial scale. Ignorance and arrogance are endemic across the media and across the political establishment. It is a poisonous brew to be taking into negotiations where we are much the weaker party.

So what should I say to the arseholes who write on a wall in the old town of Tallinn; those who buy the shitty Kardashian laden scandal sheets of right wing cant that masquerade as newspapers; those who call Corbyn "Jeremy", instead of "get out of the way you shit"; those who are prepared to see Theresa May eviscerate any pretense of Parliamentary sovereignty as she leads us out of the EU?

Well probably I should say that it will get worse. The redrawing of constituency boundaries over the next three years will probably reduce Labour to a rump, and may remove all other parties except the Tories from England and Wales. Mrs. May, despite leading the stupid party at prayer, will not flinch from what is necessary to hold power. Those who I despise will continue to dominate for some years to come- to the huge cost of our country. 

Secondly though, I ask myself some fundamental questions. Once day, I hope that those who have caused this catastrophe will be thrown out bag and baggage- preferably with a level of ignominy that prevents their return. However I don't think I want to return to the UK while the lunatics continue to wreck the asylum. I see many intelligent youngsters reading the same runes and coming to the same conclusion. I devoted decades of my life to fighting for a more open society in the UK, but in the face of the entrenched evils we face, I feel dejected and very angry.

Still, it is a new term and I have much to learn. If I can pass the exams I can at least settle here. Perhaps I should. The Estonian fight has always been my fight, just as much as the fight for openness, tolerance and freedom anywhere else, and for the same length of time. However it comes with the bitter sense that these fools would have taken my birthright away from me. Their self serving drivel would have driven me and many far better than me away from a country that for all its faults I still profoundly love. 

One day, one day, maybe the storm-tossed green hills, the moors and the great cities will host a people great enough to overthrow the imbeciles and poltroons who govern them and those in the media whose twisted lies support the whole disgusting structure.

We will see.