Archive for the ‘politics’ category

Icon of another age

May 2, 2018

If he were still alive, Ralf Dahrendorf would have celebrated his 89th birthday yesterday.

I fear that many readers of this blog will not know who he was, but Dahrendorf was a key political and intellectual figure of the second half of the 20th century. He was born in Hamburg in 1929, and in the course of a full life he was active in the anti-Nazi resistance (and was sent to a concentration camp in consequence), became a German politician (in the Free Democratic Party), was a European Commissioner, was appointed Director of the London School of Economics and later Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and was a Research Professor in Berlin. He was awarded national honours in Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom; in Britain he became a life peer, taking the title Lord Dahrendorf of Clare Market. He died in Germany in 2009.

As a writer and thinker, Dahrendorf engaged strongly with different political traditions, focusing on social equality and integration in his key works. His analysis of this is contained in his seminal bookClass and Class Conflict in Industrial Society.

The political and intellectual tradition to which Dahrendorf belonged and which informed his thinking has not fared well since his death. I suspect he would have been horrified by Trump and Brexit, but also by the language and actions of those making up the opposition to both. We now have an angry society that looks everywhere for treachery and deceit, and has little time for cohesion and a common purpose.

It would be good if Ralf Dahrendorf, and others like him, were not forgotten.

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The will of the people

January 9, 2018

Citizens of the United Kingdom have over the past year or two become accustomed to a particular assertion – that there is one thing beyond argument, because it is ‘the will of the people’; and that of course is Brexit. Let us not re-open all the EU debate for the moment, because that is not the intention of this blog post. Rather, I am interested in how our view of democracy is evolving.

Until 2016 the ‘will of the people’ would rarely have been a topic of discussion in Britain. Of course elections produce governments and all that, but I cannot recall any government ever brandishing its parliamentary majority and proclaiming that its manifesto promises were now ‘the will of the people’. Indeed doing so would be very questionable, since British governments are typically elected with the votes of a less-than-overwhelming proportion of the population. Elections are a process in which the people participate and by which parties or groups of politicians form governments, where they have managed to negotiate the system satisfactorily. It works, and has on the whole provided the UK with reasonable stability and security. But it would be hard to say that elections revealed the will of the people; governments so formed were just less incompatible with the will of the people than any other option.

A referendum is a different class of decision-making. In the UK in 2016 the people voted, and a majority decided on a particular course of action, with profound consequences of course. The people became the government on this issue, having been briefed, with outrageous contradictions in the briefings, by politicians and activists on both sides. And now even elected politicians must, if they are to avoid the unwelcome attentions of some tabloid newspapers, fall into line, no matter who elected them and what views their own voters might have on the issue.

So if the electorate can take this political decision, why not others; indeed why not every major decision? It is not a completely outlandish thought: Switzerland does something that comes pretty close. Many major decisions there are taken by the people in referendums: in 2016 there were nine such referendums, and in 2017 there were three. Of those twelve propositions put to the vote, five were adopted by the electorate, and the rest were rejected. So for example the people decided to smooth the way for third-generation immigrants, and to reconstruct a tunnel; and they rejected a revised corporate tax code.

Should the electorate be taking such direct decisions? On the whole, in our system of government we don’t think so. Then again, the UK does allow its citizens to make proposals for parliament, which parliament must debate if such proposals attract enough signatures. These petitions can be seen here. As you might expect, here you find numbers of people riding their favourite hobby-horses. Of course there’s a whole lot of stuff about Brexit (some of it quite zany). There are a few petitions about hunting. There are several which are, frankly, impenetrable. More to the point, none of these (the recent petitions about the state visit of Donald Trump being an exception to the rule) will ever make any difference, because they won’t attract the required number of signatures. Even those that are brought to parliament’s attention will not in the end lead to anything much.

I think European countries (except Switzerland) were right, in the first place, to establish representative democracies. We elect politicians, and we allow them to exercise judgement. Sometimes their judgement, by a significant majority, will not follow what we must assume is a majority popular view (capital punishment being a good example). But that is also good because while the majority must rule in a democracy, it must not always get its way; because if it did, it would be able to oppress minorities and endanger human rights, sometimes unwittingly. Let us not go that way. The will of the people should not always determine our frame of reference. Not least because popular opinion is fickle: opinion polls tell us that there is, apparently, a degree of buyer’s remorse regarding Brexit.

The mythology of treachery – and its dangerous results

December 29, 2017

In the years after the First World War in Germany a particular view of recent history began to take hold in certain circles – the Dolchstoßlegende (or ‘stab-in-the-back myth’). This suggested that Germany was never defeated in the war, and that the punitive Versailles Treaty was only possible because German troops had been betrayed by the country’s politicians and others. It was this myth that helped to fuel the growth of rightwing fanaticism and ultimately the Nazi party and its takeover of Germany.

It was of course not the last time that some movement or other identified traitors and saboteurs in its demonology, but this has never had good results. It is one of the reasons why the current fashion for denouncing traitors in the United Kingdom needs to be watched with some considerable care. The whole Brexit conversation is full of such language, on both sides, with some quite sinister undertones. Politicians have been accused of treachery, and often threatened personally, for holding views that others disagree with. Most recently the Conservative MP Heidi Allen received an anonymous card in the post in which the writer wished her a ‘long and slow demise’, and calling her a traitor (it must be assumed that this referred to her sceptical stance regarding Brexit). The threatened violence might be abhorrent to all reasonable people, but the general tone is the logical extension of campaigns by widely-read newspapers.

But this focus on alleged treachery is not confined to extreme supporters of Brexit, it has become a common feature of internal Labour Party disputes also. Recently the alternative leftwing news blog, Skwawkbox, decided to suggest that Labour MP Stella Creasy, by attending a concert (Shed Seven, if you need to know) in the company of a Conservative MP and others, was displaying an inappropriate ‘cosiness’ with the enemy. At one level this is playground-like childishness on the part of Skwawkbox, but it also maintains the toxic narrative of treachery and betrayal.

None of this is good. It is time to recover a degree of civility within public discourse and to accept that, mostly, people do and support what they believe is right. We can argue with their views and their judgement, but we should stop making it personal. And for heaven’s sake, everyone should stop constantly being angry about everyone and everything. Lighten up.

Reformed thinking

October 31, 2017

Exactly 500 years ago, on 31 October 1517, Dr Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses (Pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum) to the door of the church in Wittenberg, thereby setting in train the events that led to what is now referred to as the ‘Protestant Reformation’. The accumulation over a short period of time of the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Renaissance, the printing press and widespread debate on issues raised in these processes changed western civilisation fundamentally and permanently.

Luther, like many of the leaders of the Reformation and for that matter many of those who opposed it, was not necessarily an altogether pleasant man. His strongly anti-semitic views gave a toxic prompt to some rabble rousers, with his influence stretching into 20th century fascism. But nevertheless, his actions opened up a new chapter of intellectual engagement and strengthened the position of Europe’s leading universities, as well as their capacity to engage in critical analysis and research – although Luther also opined that universities could be ‘the great gates of hell’.

Theologically, politically and socially, the Reformation was complex, and if it led to intellectual empowerment for some it also prompted narrow-mindedness in others. But the anniversary is worth celebrating, because our freedom of thought and of academic debate was reinforced through the posting of the 95 Theses and what followed. We are, in some respects at ;east, products of the Reformation.

Brexit perspectives in the academy

October 25, 2017

Apparently like all university heads in the United Kingdom, I received a letter this week from Mr Chris Heaton-Harris MP, a Conservative Whip in the House of Commons and, as his own website states, a ‘fierce Eurosceptic’. In his letter, Mr Heaton-Harris asks me to supply him with the names of professors ‘who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit’. He also wants copies of any syllabus and links to online lectures ‘which relate to this area’. The letter gives no indication of why he wants this information or what he proposes to do with it.

The story of this letter has been widely disseminated over the past day or so, and it would be fair to say that he has been roundly criticised for sending it by pretty much everyone, including some who are in favour of Brexit. As a Times newspaper editorial points out, if Mr Heaton-Harris had legitimate reasons, unrelated to any desire to stifle pro-EU voices in the academy, he should have said what they were. In the absence of such details, the fierce Eurosceptic might appear to have motives to limit freedom of expression – though he himself is adamant that this is not his intention (while still not saying what is his intention). Meanwhile the UK Universities Minister, Mr Jo Johnson MP, has spoken on his behalf to suggest that he now regretted sending the letter.

Anyway, yesterday the airwaves and cyberspace were full of people expressing indignation at Mr Heaton-Harris, who, it was suggested, was practising ‘Leninism’. Actually I doubt that Vladimir Ilyich, were he to return now, would regard Mr Heaton-Harris as a soulmate, so maybe we should leave some of the more over-excited responses to his letter to one side. I suspect he was indeed up to no good, but I’m not too worried about his capacity to achieve much.

But Mr Heaton-Harris is not the only star in this particular B-movie. He was preceded by others, politicians, and newspapers, who have argued that in one way or another expressions of opinion criticising Brexit or calling for a continuing membership of the UK in the European Union are not acceptable and undermine the will of the people (which by now may be different from that expressed in June 2016, for all we know). And so while we should all calm down about the MP’s letter, we should reflect a little more about a tendency to incite a public mood of intolerance that may be showing up here. Specifically, a university must always be a safe forum for the expression of all legal views and opinions, however unpopular they may be; and this should not be put at risk either by politicians or, indeed, by groups of students. But more generally, Brexit advocates – even Brexit fanatics – must accept that their views have not become mandatory as a result of the referendum. Freedom of expression must flower, no matter what. And if that bothers you, it means that your position is probably a weak one. Work on that.

Philosopher King

September 18, 2017

It is, I think, not so fashionable these days to consider history in terms of monarchs and leaders. To many, kings and generals have hijacked the ‘story’ that really belongs to those whose lives were more of a struggle and who paid the price for royal vanity or incompetence. Then again, the popularity of novels or television programmes such as Wolf Hall might suggest that we still find it interesting to assess the past through the eyes of the powerful.

Friedrich der Große

For much of my youth I was in the presence of a copy of this rather famous painting of Frederick the Great, by the artist Anton Graff, painted in 1781 when the King was 69 years old, five years before he died.

It hung in our family home. My father was something of an admirer of the Prussian king. I probably never thought about it (or him) to any great extent at the time, except when I encountered some references to Frederick in history lessons. But a friend of mine who was a regular visitor to the house found the portrait disconcerting, and always claimed that Frederick eyed up the modern world with obvious disapproval and kept his gaze firmly on us as we did whatever we did back then.

So although I knew next to nothing about Frederick, he was a very definite presence in my youth. Then I left the parental home and, frankly, forgot all about him and Prussia and the times in which he lived. If I ever knew much about them in the first place. Recently someone gave me a book about Frederick, and I got interested.

As we sometimes wonder about the qualities (or lack of them) of our contemporary politicians, it is interesting to reflect on Friedrich der Große, King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. In many ways one could describe him as the architect of the modern concept of the state. Although some will record him as a military leader who secured Prussia’s place as a growing European power, it is more interesting to note his establishment of a civil service, of his (relatively speaking) support for a free press, of his status as a patron of literature, music and art, of his championing of science and philosophy (his relationship with Voltaire in particular). In addition, he was a composer and performer of music – indeed a composer of music that is still played and recorded, his flute concertos being the most popular.

Sometimes we don’t really know what we want of our leaders. Sometimes we put up with leaders who manifestly will not give us what we need. The ‘enlightened absolutism’ offered in the 18th century by Der Alte Fritz really wouldn’t do today. But the enlightened intellectual engagement might. At least I would like to think so.

I now have the portrait that hung on my father’s wall. I don’t think I’ll take it down.

An educated vote?

August 14, 2017

Research on the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum in the United Kingdom has apparently revealed that ‘university-educated British people tend to vote consistently across the U.K. for remain’ – as areas with higher proportions of graduates voted more heavily against Brexit. The researchers have claimed that if there had been just 3 per cent more graduates, the referendum outcome would have been different.

I am, as readers of this blog know, increasingly dismayed at what the Brexit vote has done to Britain (and may yet do), but that is not the point of this post. Rather, it is the more general question about the status, if there is a particular one, of education in the political process. University constituencies – in which graduates are the voters – existed in the United Kingdom until 1950, and still exist in Ireland in Seanad Eireann (the ‘Senate’). The latter constituencies in Ireland have elected Senators of some note, including the last three Presidents of Ireland at some points in their careers.

We may believe that education equips its students with judgement and insight, and so it may seem right to give graduates some special opportunities to exercise that judgement politically. But we also believe in democracy, which requires us to value the judgement of all people equally when it comes to electoral decision-making. We have also not adopted the view – not yet, at any rate – that all citizens should receive a university education, so we should not welcome a system that implies second class status for those who are not graduates.

I guess that if a higher participation rate in higher education would have produced a different Brexit referendum outcome, then I might have wanted a higher participation rate. But I am uneasy with my own conclusion. I am reluctant to argue that those who have not enjoyed my privileges are less worthy of having their voices heard. And as we try to decide how far into the population higher education should expand, these are questions we must also address. There is no easy answer.