Archive for the ‘politics’ category

Things turning out right

April 24, 2017

The past 24 hours or so have brought me two pieces of good news. For an unreconstructed old liberal like me, the prospect of Emmanuel Macron making it to the presidency of France via the run-off elections in two weeks is hugely heartening, provided he manages to defeat Marine Le Pen convincingly. The main jarring note in all this was sounded by defeated left wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who appears to believe that Macron and Le Pen are equally unacceptable; thereby confirming my wariness of what the media describe as the ‘hard left’ in European countries (including the UK).

And secondly, Newcastle United FC, by beating Preston North End today, have qualified for promotion back to the English Premier League.

Not everything at the moment is bad news. Though there is still a lot of it.

The Brexit story

March 29, 2017

On this day the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, will trigger the process that will see the country leave the European Union, implementing the referendum decision of a majority (albeit a narrow one) of the United Kingdom electorate. I am no fanatical supporter of the European Union, but I believe that this decision and its consequences will define Britain for generations to come; and while the result may turn out to be benign, the risks are huge and the pitfalls are many. What more than anything else will make those risks and pitfalls more potent is the continuation of the easy optimism and bizarre over-confidence that has characterised much of the rhetoric of Brexit supporters; alongside their aggression when that is challenged. This process needs to be managed with realism and sensitivity (which includes sensitivity towards those people and those regions, including Scotland, who took a different view of Brexit).

What really must not characterise the Brexit story is the xenophobia and jingoism displayed by some of the more objectionable elements in the media and by some politicians, such as the appalling (but I hope now inconsequential) Mr Nigel Farage. If this story is to have a good ending, the dramatis personae must display generosity of spirit and a willingness to engage with those who think differently. And a message for the UK Prime Minister might be that this is not the same thing as telling these people (such as me) what we should be thinking; it is understanding, and responding generously to, what we actually are thinking.

Quid est veritas?

January 24, 2017

‘What is truth?” This is what Pontius Pilate is recorded as asking Jesus before the Crucifixion (John 18:38). In the millennia since then, politicians and philosophers have tried to supply answers, or at least further analysis. This has included considering whether truth should be assessed as a concept in epistemology (the theory of knowledge), which would address validity and evidence; or metaphysics (the theory of abstract concepts of being and knowing). The academic community more widely is charged with identifying truth, using available evidence to sustain or reject hypotheses. Truth is central to academic study and scholarship.

In the political field, this debate has just been given an unexpected prompt. Ms Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s special counsellor, suggested on the US television programme Meet the Press that when the new White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, insisted on re-stating claims of easily rejected accuracy he was in fact providing ‘alternative facts’. The phrase, as many pointed out quickly, has significant Orwellian undertones, and must alarm anyone who feels that the interaction between politicians and the media is moderated by the production of evidence. But if Ms Conway’s philosophy holds sway, truth is neither knowledge nor belief (in that Mr Spicer cannot himself have believed the information he was peddling in the White House press briefing) but a matter of choice: the truth is what I tell you it is; its relationship with anything verifiable is not important.

In the run of human history, we have been here before. Now, as then, it is the duty of the academy to intervene, and to reinforce the integrity and importance of truth. There is an interesting task ahead, and one much more difficult (given the public mood) than any statement in a blog post may suggest. But very important.

Universities in the uncertain world of Brexit

January 16, 2017

There was never any doubt where the higher education sector stood on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Right from the start, Universities UK took a strong position in favour of the EU, and sponsored a campaign group entitled Universities for Europe. This almost certainly aligned with a widespread view amongst academics, as reflected indeed in guest posts in this blog.

But of course the UK electorate narrowly opted for Brexit, and it is now going to happen. But what that means for universities is still far from clear. The message from the academy hasn’t changed, and the theme still is that leaving the European Union will prove damaging and costly. Right after the vote, a senior Cambridge professor estimated that Brexit would cost his university around £100 million a year. Others have pointed to a whole list of potential issues, including staff recruitment, international student admissions, research funding, and so forth. Even an international university rankings website has regularly listed the issues arising from the referendum vote, all of them representing risks or disadvantages.

The question for universities now is how to handle this agenda. There may well be a risk that those needing to be influenced will find the flow of jeremiads to be uncongenial to the stimulation of second thoughts. There are no signs, for example, that the universities’ repeated warnings about the impact of immigration restrictions on the sector’s financial and cultural wellbeing have had any effect at all on the UK government.

The problem is, I think, that very little about Brexit is concerned with reasoned argument: it is more about emotion. It is the product of the fears of those who believe the integrity of their culture to have been compromised, who see sovereignty as an abstract ideal rather than a decision-making mechanism, who fear the impact of immigration. If your frame of reference is governed by abstract principle, then the technical or financial drawbacks of the project may not much interest you.

It may therefore be that those who are alarmed by the impending Brexit – and I am amongst them – need to recalibrate our language, and need to speak in terms of principle rather than of operational impact. This campaign may need to be re-thought.

Left or right, and does it matter?

January 3, 2017

Here is a policy document by a British political party: suggesting that people should vote for it because it would ensure ‘fair conditions in industry’, the better representation of women in Parliament, ‘increased prosperity’ and ‘better wages’, the abolition of slums, better ‘maternal and infant welfare’, ‘shorter working hours’, equal pay for equal work, ‘decent homes at economic rents’. So, which party was advertising all of these progressive policies? Well, it was Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. Ask anyone at all, and they will tell you that Mosley led a bunch of ultra-rightwing extremists. But look at these policies, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party could sign up to all of them. Of course I am not suggesting that today’s Labour Party is fascist, and indeed Mosley held all sorts of racist views that would be anathema to any true member of the Labour Party – but he did describe himself to his death as a man of the left.

When I was beginning to form my own political views in my teens, with the Cold War in full swing, identifying the left and the right was simple enough. The left supported or to a degree tolerated the Soviet Union and/or Chairman Mao, believed in the common ownership of key industries and services and argued for workers’ rights in their struggles with big business. The right supported the United States and NATO and believed in the value of free trade and capitalism and individualism. You supported one or the other of these positions, and that was it.

But the certainties of the Cold War world have been turned upside down. The USSR’s successor, Russia, now has as its admirers a mixture of old left nostalgia addicts, but also Donald Trump and what the media like to call the ‘extreme right’, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France. The latter, a little bit like Mosley’s fascists, mix anti-immigrant rhetoric with vague policies suggesting social concern; and for former (or nostalgic) communists, it has substructures that will sound comforting and familiar: a ‘politburo’ and a ‘central committee’. And its senior politicians are every bit as opposed to ‘neoliberal’ policies as the most committed member of the traditional left.

If the dividing line between left and right is geopolitical, then goodness knows how you would classify today’s politicians and parties: Putin, Trump, Farage, Assad, Le Pen are all on one side, but what side is that? And what about Angela Merkel, is she left or rightwing? If it’s all about economics, then how do we handle globalisation, freedom of movement (for workers and refugees), international trade?

In fact, the dividing line between ideologies is now almost certainly globalisation, though it is hugely complex. In America the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ movement shares with various voices of the ‘left’ a dislike of military interference in other countries, but more significantly than that wants to protect traditional cultures, and in particular the perceived (or claimed) ‘white’ history of the United States. Migration rather than economics is the new battlefield in the fight for votes. But it is really hard to identify the combatants, because the causes range from what is really just racism, to the fear of losing one’s culture, to a rampant nostalgia for some perceived golden era in which everyone kept to their ‘own’ places, to the suspicion that migrants take jobs or depress wages.

I am, though in no party political sense, a liberal. I believe in freedom and tolerance, in enterprise and innovation, and in fairness and justice. I believe that this outlook has brought progress, prosperity and enlightenment when it has been allowed to flourish.  But I am increasingly concerned that this kind of manifesto has almost no committed defenders in the global theatre of politics (though in Scotland I may not be so alone).

I doubt that the old left-right taxonomy still has much meaning. But I fear that the absence of any clear political direction will make this world a much less pleasant and a much more dangerous place. In the past, much of the key ideological debates came from the contributions of academics: Hayek, Friedman, AJP Taylor, Hobsbawm. Where are we academics now, in this new world of ideological disarray?

Should we think outside the tank?

December 13, 2016

Denis Healy, then Deputy Leader of the UK Labour Party, once said of a Margaret Thatcher-supporting think tank that it was ‘all tank and no think’. This critique might perhaps have pleased Michael Gove, who famously suggested during the Brexit referendum campaign that ‘the people in this country have had enough of experts’. In this setting, assuming that Mr Gove correctly interpreted the public mood, a public policy centre might well gather more support by boldly clothing what is just dogma in the vestments of truth: the ‘tank’ may be more congenial than the painful analysis of evidence.

Michael Gove maybe does not quite hold the view now attributed to him. But many do – some influential people, in the UK and elsewhere, are clearly exasperated by political procrastination where decision-makers are trying to get to grips with the complexities of the issues of the day. And there is a whole infrastructure of policy analysis institutes and centres, each of which is eager to offer expert advice. In the UK these include such well known names as the Centre for Policy Studies, Demos, the Institute for Public Policy Research, or the Social Market Foundation.

Think tanks are not of course peculiar to the UK. There are countless ones in the United States for example, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, or the Cato Institute. Interestingly a good few of the American think tanks are based in universities – such as the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs, which is part of Harvard University.

In our current post-expert mood, think tanks may increasingly be seen as representing an intellectual elite casting around for reasons not to do what a majority – or at least a majority of those making noise – want to see happen. There are signs that their services are not so much appreciated by those in power or those about to assume power. Many of them rely on at least some public funding.

So what should universities do? It is my view that higher education institutions should not get involved in partisan politics, but they should offer the intellectual support that allows politicians to take reasoned decisions. In some universities this is already happening. But as think tanks may become a less popular feature of the public policy landscape, universities could pick up some of the slack. Thinking, and disseminating the thoughts, should not go completely out of fashion.

Fidelity

November 28, 2016

Occasionally there is an event where the responses to the event are almost more interesting than the event itself. That was the case this weekend with the death of Fidel Castro. He had been, as some of the obituaries noted, the longest serving head of state in the world; though it would probably be fair to add that this is not quite so much of an achievement if your country has no elections.

I have my own history with Fidel. As a teenager I had the iconic poster of Che Guevara, the famous Guerrillero Heroico, in my bedroom, and not far from it was a photograph of Che and Fidel. I also had Mao’s little red book. Today I wouldn’t regard any of these as heroes, though equally I wouldn’t consider Fidel one of the world’s worst tyrants.

But it seems hard for many people to offer a balanced critique right now. Fidel Castro was a dictator, and he was guilty of significant human rights abuses. But he also led a country that managed, given its resources, to establish highly effective systems of education and healthcare. He was not the devil, but neither was he a hero. His death however seems to have reignited, at least for a moment, the spirit of the Cold War, with numerous politicians and celebrities suggesting he was one or the other of these. Irish President Michael D. Higgins was quick off the blocks, suggesting this, at the very best somewhat surprising, assessment:

‘Fidel Castro will be remembered as a giant among global leaders whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet.’

That Castro was much exercised by freedom for his people is doubtful. But the Irish President was not alone: similar epitaphs were suggested by other politicians from the international socialist community, including British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.

Others were less effusive. The US President-elect suggested that Castro was no more than a ‘brutal dictator’.

The truth of course lies somewhere in between. Fidel Castro toppled a corrupt and repressive régime when he took power in 1959. He subsequently had to grapple with the completely unreasonable campaign by the United States to remove him and isolate his country. He was nevertheless able to develop a society of well-educated people with a very effective system of health and social care. On the other hand his own government was repressive and  undermined basic freedoms; his treatment of the gay community is a particular example. And he also practised the oppression of political dissenters and controlled the media.

As for me, on Saturday I neither rejoiced nor mourned. But I did note Fidel Castro’s passing, and maybe mourned the gradual disappearance of my youth over the horizon.