Sow the seeds of discord, and reap what harvest?

Military Cemetery – Mahn und Gedenkstätte Gardelegen
Military Cemetery – Mahn und Gedenkstätte Gardelegen

I spent some time on Wednesday at a workshop organised by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. It was the first step towards planning next year’s event. One of the resources they introduced us to was the 10 Stages of Genocide (PDF). This is a refinement of an earlier 8 Stages, developed by Gregory H Stanton, President of Genocide Watch.

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I am still pondering this, not least because it makes the process look too sequential. Yes, there is a broad sequence, but many of these can happen in varied sequences, and develop simultaneously. Perhaps it would be better to think in terms of components of genocide, rather than stages.

If we do think in terms of components, then how worried should we be that aspects of stages 1-4 and 6 of this diagram, seem to have formed part of the Brexit aftermath? And play a part in the rhetoric of AfD in Germany, FN in France, and Trump in the USA to name but three.

That’s not to suggest that we or they are on a path to genocide. That would be a ludicrous over-reaction. It is to  ask whether we’re normalising some very dangerous behaviours.

Putting them in their historical and global context might help us realise how dangerous they are.

Brexit and friends: reasons to be frightened

Yesterday I had a conversation with someone who actually seems to share my anxieties (or paranoia). Many people think I (and she) are simply alarmist.

What we share is this.

We see the Brexit vote, and feel that this is simply a glorified opinion poll. It saw many people vote against immigration, against marginalisation, against poverty, against a London-centric nation, against politics as normal, against a distant political elite, against the failures of globalisation. It was a protest vote. That protest vote is not a vote for anything, yet it is being used to try to stamp out dissent, by those who are anti-EU zealots. “The people have spoken. We need to accept the democratic vote.” Bollocks. If they have spoken, it’s with a multiply forked tongue.

We look at the Corbynista take-over of the Labour party, in which Militant have been re-branded Momemtum. We see an appeal to a democratic mandate, while anyone who disagrees with the so-called “mandate” seems to feel themselves threatened with de-selection, and women MPs especially feel bullied, harassed, and threatened. Jewish members, in particular, seem to feel particularly vulnerable, despite Shami Chakrabati’s successful application for a peerage. A long-time member of our local Labour party tells me that virtually none of these new members have turned up for either local party meetings, or for canvassing at elections. They are single-ideology members.

We look across the Atlantic at the Trump phenomenon. God knows Hilary Clinton comes across as a particularly bloodless and unappealing candidate. But Trump appeals to the worst in people: anger, anti-almost-everything, clearly racist, and fundamentally unwilling to accept any degree of scrutiny of his tax and business affairs. Yet, despite all this, he taps into a deep root of anger among those who have lost out of present day American success, while hankering for a mythological and lost fifties’ Pleasantville.

We look across Europe and see an out-of-touch political class and populist anger. In France one incompetent president is likely to face off an equally incompetent (and corrupt) predecessor, while Marine Le Pen and the FN turn more and more Islamophobic resentment into votes. In Germany, Frau Merkel is less and less the respected Mutti of a happy and confident nation, and more and more the resented mother of a rebellious teenager. AfD continues its accelerated political rise, unhappily coincidental with the re-legalisation of the publication of Mein Kampf.

We see these things, and we see uncomfortable and undesirable comparisons with the Germany of the 1930s. A popular appeal to fix things, a populist ability to fix the blame on “them”, an ability to disguise a profoundly demagogic manipulation of the voters as a democratic appeal to the people. These things should be really very scary. They are not politics as usual. They are venomously anti-political, and ultimately de-humanising.

We fear greatly that we have failed dismally to learn the lessons of history. We acknowledge a significant degree of both complacency and arrogance in the European political elite. But we fear, in short, that we are seeing the seeds of failure of Western democracy, sown in a field of anger and disillusionment. Those currently in government seem to us to be sleepwalking into a nightmare.

It may be that we are alarmist, even paranoid in these fears. But what if we are not?

Buyer’s remorse and a second referendum

voteleaveI was in two minds for quite a while about whether to sign the (essentially misplaced) petition to change the referendum rules. In the end I decided to as a rather poor way to register my feeling that some kind of additional referendum may well be needed. However, I don’t think it’s the one this petition asks for: you can’t simply change the rules retrospectively. I think something rather different is needed.

There are plenty of indications of buyer’s remorse, not least from those who used the referendum as a protest vote, believing a vote to leave would never materialise. (I don’t minimise the many true believers who – in my view wrongly – think sovereignty is the all-consuming issue.) In fact, I suspect one of those who has buyer’s remorse, but will never be able to admit it, is Boris Johnson.

There is now quite a bit of noise of early rowing back from apparent election promises – on funding, on immigration, on free movement and trade. I suspect this too will have Farage “spitting blood” (a perennial posture). But as reality sinks in, there is a conspicuous lack of urgency about doing anything to enact what the majority voted for. Cameron, and there is every sign that the leading players in the Tory party are more than happy to acquiesce in this, has effectively imposed a three month breathing space that the markets will hate. Sadly this also creates a space for disillusion and resentment to fester unless people are clear about the commitment of government to the process.

What I suspect could yet emerge is a commitment to spell out what sort of deal HM Government believes it can go for and get. From early noises this is likely to include remaining in the single market, accepting free movement of people, and paying a reduced contribution. At the same time, the likelihood of whether the EU will welcome Scotland to stay as an independent nation could become clearer.

It might then be possible to put this whole process within the framework of a future, much more clearly delineated referendum. Unlike the one we have just endured, conducted hastily between a poorly communicated remain and a passionate but unclear deep blue water leave, this would be conducted through a period of negotiation, which included a debate about what the real future options are, and end with a vote between two clear, and clearly costed and spelt- out choices of a remain and leave package. And ideally one that will be offered to 16-18 year olds too.

If “Leave” is not going to mean what many of those who voted for it thought they were being told it meant, this is not an affront to democracy, or ignoring the will of the people. It an opportunity to deepen and refine the people’s participation in democracy, while – I hope – reducing the appeal of demagoguery. It does what many people said they wanted, but weren’t getting, a chance to decide on the facts.

Grieving for a lost country

referendum-flagsWhat I think I have been feeling all day is something akin to bereavement; grief and anger, a feeling of depression and numbness. I feel I have lost the country I thought I lived in.

I am angry that an internal party squabble has been elevated to a national meltdown by incredibly inept political judgment. David Cameron is right to resign.

Yes, there are some principled arguments to be had about what sort of Europe we belong to and how we or anyone else belongs to it. I haven’t heard those articulated by most on either side of this referendum.

Yes, there are a great many issues of dissatisfaction and disadvantage in a great swathe of the country. Sadly the Remainers seem largely to have ignored or scoffed at them.  Even more sadly the Leavers have frequently appealed to them, stoked the fires of resentment, and stirred hatred of immigrants. But most of the problems of the left-behind and the alienated have their roots in Westminster, not in Brussels. This has been a victory for demagoguery, and not democracy: appealing to base emotion not reasoned debate.

There has been ridiculously apocalyptic exaggeration from the Remain campaign, but there has been consistent and outright lying from the Leave campaign. The idea that this has been an informed, considered decision is simply wrong, witness the number of people who now say, they only voted “Leave” because they thought “Remain” would win. Essentially, it seems, they wanted the frisson of excitement that comes from feeling they had stuck it to the Man: that elite group of politicians and faceless bureaucrats conjured up as a bogey by another equally elite group.

But the dangers of stoking up this resentment is that they too have promised a world they cannot deliver. About the only immediate consequences of the vote are the resignation of the prime minister, the effective devaluation of the pound, the hint of job losses to come, and the new public acceptability of racism such as this.

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In fact, it is almost certainly true that Leave have triumphed by co-opting those who will suffer most from the consequences, and persuading them by piling one lie on another, that all their problems will be solved. The danger of a backlash when this turns out to be untrue is something they don’t seem to care about.

I am not ready for the well-intentioned pieties that seek to smother this grief with a spiritual comfort blanket. I do not feel comforted by saccharine affirmations that God is somehow in charge while we vote to make the world a more dangerous place, to worsen the lot of the poor, and to turn our face away from the stranger.

I don’t know where this will end. The government seem in no hurry to press the red button of article 50 withdrawal. The possibility of Scottish independence, the Irish question, London’s demand to remaining in the single market, the people who are now repenting at leisure, the idiots who only waited till after the referendum to ask “what is the EU?”, the fact (even in this post-fact society) that Nigel Farage thinks 52%-48% is a narrow enough result to need a second referendum: all these things mean that this is not yet anything like a done deal.

Somewhat like John Milbank, but without his slightly bizarre historico-theological reading of national character, I think the legitimacy of this advisory referendum is open to challenge.

Any parliament that felt its action was going to make the country worse rather than better, could not in the end take that step, I think and hope, without feeling the need to go back to the voters with a specific package proposal on the table to say what “Leave” would actually look like. Perhaps saying this is simply the denial of death that is part of grief. But I like to think that there might still be a future for us in Europe. I hope so, and I pray so, but I’m not yet able to lay aside my anger and grief, and pretend it’s all going to be all right.

What David Cameron should say to the British people

Cameron campaigning – copyright unknown
Cameron campaigning – copyright unknown

Dear Voters,

I’m sorry. I really do owe this country my most sincere apologies.

When I proposed a referendum after a renegotiation of Britain’s place in the EU, I was indulging myself in the worst kind of political vote-grubbing. I was, I will be frank, running scared from UKIP, and under a lot of pressure from some of my party colleagues who felt their seat was vulnerable to a Faragiste challenge.

In my defence I will say this. Aided and abetted by the anti-European press, especially the Mail, Telegraph, Sun and Express, the idea of a referendum had started to seem like an inevitable and normal part of politics. It is only now, under the awful reality of trying to conduct one, that I realise they are rare for a good reason. Far from defending parliamentary sovereignty, I’m throwing it away by calling one. Continue reading “What David Cameron should say to the British people”

Rigging the EU referendum. It wasn’t Dave.

I confess to a sense of bafflement by all these claims by the leave camp that Cameron has tried to “rig” the EU referendum.

Cameron had a choice whether to propose that 16 year olds could vote. This idea horrified the leavers, because all polls suggest that young people, if they vote, will vote to remain. Cameron gave way to their protests, despite the evidence of the Scottish referendum that this helped engage a generation in politics.

Cameron had a choice – though it probably seemed a theoretical one rather than a real one – to insist on collective cabinet responsibility, and invite the leavers to, well, leave. Even the remote possibility of this brought howls of protest from the leavers, and so appeared to render the choice to confer respectability on ministers who wanted out an inevitable one. It’s hard to see Tory turmoil and division would have been any less had he gone the other way, but now he has to live with the fact that lower tier ministers like Patel and Raab (whose occupation of office seems mainly to illustrate the shallowness of the talent pool) seem happily to abuse him, and any sense of cabinet collegiality.

Cameron had a choice to propose that as well as British citizens (except those who haven’t lived here for 15 years or more) those of other nationalities who live, work and pay taxes here, should have a right to vote. He might, if he remembered his political history, have heard of the slogan “no taxation without representation”. Sure this would increase those who want Britain to remain in the EU, the anti-EU brigade pressured him to the point where this was never really raised for debate.

Three big choices, all of which are likely to influence the referendum result, probably quite significantly. In each case, Cameron gave the ground to a leave campaign supported by big battalions at the Mail, Express, Telegraph, and Sun.

So yes, there are reasons to suspect that some rigging of this referendum went on in the way it was set up. And that Cameron’s main action was to let the leavers have their way in the hope of maintaining some semblance of party unity. It would be very strange if he didn’t now regret that optimistic pusillanimity in the face of his opponents’ vehement rhetoric laced as it is with personal bile.

The evidence, then, suggests that any rigging that was done was done in favour of those who want to leave. Not that evidence figures largely in the rhetoric of VoteLeave. But it is still there for those who want a measure of fact with their politics.

Why bother with #EU arguments when you can shout?

Earlier today I tweeted a link to an article by John Major in which he patiently explains the arguments for Remain, and points out how much the Leave campaign is engaged in lying, scaremongering and generally playing the man and not the ball.

Do read it, because clearly the people who responded to my tweet didn’t. I confess to being taken aback by the instantaneous and virulent response, which seemed to be occasioned more by the fact that it was John Major making the argument than by my tweet. My timeline busied itself with a relatively small group of people retweeting each other’s tweets, few of which were worth tweeting once.

I illustrate a couple with reference to what John Major said.

Those who challenge statements that are flimsy or demonstrably untrue are either personally disparaged, or accused of being part of a mythical ‘Establishment plot’

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So they personally disparage him and link him to an establishment plot.

Major pointed out the playing of the man (they do all seem to be men) and not the ball:

When Michael Heseltine voiced dismay over foolish and inflammatory references to Hitler, he was dismissed as being ‘from another era’, the clear implication being that, because of his age, his views don’t matter. On that basis, one can only assume that Vote Leave believes the arguments put forward by Michael’s contemporary, Nigel Lawson, don’t matter either.

What response occurred to this group of committed leavers? Yep, you guessed (and with added anti-Eton chippiness):

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But perhaps most baffling was the orthographically challenged personal attack on Major himself:

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Why, you might ask, did I find this particularly baffling? Well, because the cheerleader who kicked off this little storm of response describes herself, in a pithy but grammatically challenged sentence, as “I am a staunch Tory, and in particular of Boris Johnson” and “active in both Boris Johnson campaigns [for mayor]”. This is, of course, the Boris Johnson who is said to be:

“… inordinately proud of his Turkish ancestry and his views on matters such as monogamy are decidedly Eastern,” she writes. “‘I find it genuinely unreasonable that men should be confined to one woman,’ he has grumbled to me, and cannot understand the media’s reaction to his personal affairs”.

But even more so this is the Boris Johnson who, until a few weeks ago was a supporter of staying in the EU. For a fascinating and well-constructed illustration of that, take a look at this Boris vs Boris Great EU Debate.

All of this suggests to me that John Major is quite right that the Leave campaign is not that interested in reasoned argument. It is, I suspect, the fact that John Major is more trusted than most ex-politicians, and makes his interventions rarely, that has caused a particularly outraged and outrageous response to him. As he effectively prophesied,

The tactics of Vote Leave are clear: to ignore the arguments and abuse their critics.

But he really does make the case against Brexit very reasonably and patiently. So, please, go and read that article.

Do mention the war

Last week I was on an ecumenical pilgrimage (which means each day we walked somewhere) reflecting on war, justice and peace. This was organised by our diocese’s German partners, the Evangelische Kirche in Mitteldeutschland, and included most of their other partners from Finland, Sweden, Tanzania and the USA.

Two things, I think have struck me in particular. The first is the seriousness with which Germans in particular treat their history. Far from this being a case of “don’t mention the war”, the commitment to “never again” grows out of making sure there are monuments to the war built in to city architecture and curriculum alike. For example, they ensure that sites of atrocities are maintained and used in acts of remembrance as well as for school visits. The pictures below show a memorial to a local massacre at Gardelegen from the closing days of WWII, and the adjoining cemetery where the victims are buried. We were there on 13 April, the 61st anniversary of the atrocity.

Memorial 2 Memorial 3

Then there are the Stolpersteine. These “stumbling stones” are built into the pavement at sites where Jews were last know to live (or work, in the case below of the Mayor, Herbert Goldschmidt) before being taken to the death camps. The idea is that these stones catch people in the middle of walking around in daily life, and make them momentarily check themselves and remember. There are now 53,000+ such memorials around Europe.

Stolpersteine 1 Stolpersteine 2

Alongside this history of war, there is more recent history. Magdeburg, where we were based, is in the former DDR. The German peace movement, on both sides of the frontier, really took off in the 1980s, when Pershing missiles were brought to West Germany, and SS20s to East Germany. They protested against a divided country in which a nuclear civil war was a visible possibility on their own soil, brought about by the two superpowers which controlled their respective alliances.

This gave most of those we met from the peace movement a commitment to pacifism, rather than simply to peace. It also gave many of them, I think, a memory of the glory days when they actually made a difference, which may not be helping them look at the world as it now is.

Coming from a church which has officially embraced a just war tradition, I found their experiences and views challenging, even if I continue to disagree with them. It was less their arguments and more what they have lived through, and worked for, which made their views challenging because hard won from life’s experiences. It was peaceful means (as well, of course, severe economic pressure) which brought the wall down, engineered the collapse of the Soviet Union, and delivered reunification.

One of the things I take away from the discussion is this: it’s far too easy for us to mistake a relatively quiet and comfortable life (such as most of us Westerners currently enjoy) for peace. A quiet life at home, without justice for the world’s peoples, is only an illusion of peace. There are too many people, not least the thousands of refugees currently seeking safety, who need the real thing.

The ironic language of #Brexit: is it just me?

I have been puzzled by the way the Leave campaign have been using the English language. They seem to have coined, and regularly repeat, two phrases in their argument: “Parliamentary sovereignty” and “democratic deficit.”

Is it only I who find it strange that we are defending “Parliamentary Sovereignty” by giving power to a plebiscite. How can you defend the power of our Parliament, while at the same time insisting that it should be impotent to make the most vital long term decisions affecting our country?

And how many of those campaigners are heard in other contexts (especially on the subject of bishops in the Lords) defending a “separation of powers”? I’m sure I’ve heard Farage and others sounding that American, yet it’s an idea associated with a constitution that divides sovereignty between contending institutions.

Then again, in what respect does Parliamentary sovereignty really work? It has notably failed in recent decades to exercise much control over the legislative programme of an overweeningly arrogant executive, and when it does function (as in the rather less democratic but independent Lords defeating the whipped poodles of the Commons) howls of outrage are heard from Downing Street and its lackeys, whose knee-jerk reaction is frustration with the “sovereignty” of a system that bridles their executive power.

I find it equally ironic that so many Brexiters are talking about a “democratic deficit”. It is those who have resisted European federalism who have done most to ensure the European Parliament is weak. The “deficit” is forced on the EU by those who do not want a strong democratic institution at the heart of Europe, lest it challenge national governments for legitimacy.

Moreover, it is the anti-European politicians like Farage who have treated the Parliament as a useful source of funds while refusing to carry out a properly representative role for their constituents. Those who have often done their best to stop it functioning are more responsible than most for its lack of democratic accountability. It seems strange their should complain about their “greatest” achievement.

And all the while in the UK, for our parliamentary elections, we insist on maintaining an electoral system that means the majority of the population live in constituencies where their vote doesn’t count. I’ve spent the most of the last decade living in a one party state! It seems to me that addressing a “democratic deficit” needs to begin at home. And with something better than the party list PR system that is so problematic for the European elections.

Is it just me, or are we living through a campaign dripping in unnoticed linguistic ironies?

Real life or Realpolitik?

I had unquestioningly accepted the dominant narrative of the West, that Bashar al-Assad is a monster who cold-bloodedly murders his own people and who must be got rid of as soon as possible. In Syria, we talked to politicians of all parties, imams, Christians, the mayors of local towns and people in the street. Some fervently supported their president. Others were critical, but everyone agreed that at this moment he was the key to Syria’s survival. Even his opponents accept that around 70 per cent of Syrians support Assad. Imposed regime change would bring chaos and the victory of terrorism, undermining Syria’s neighbours, Lebanon and Jordan, as the anarchy of Libya has brought instability to Egypt and Tunisia.

I was catching up with the pre-Christmas issue of The Tablet, when I found this stunningly thought-provoking (and in my view seriously helpful) article on Syria from Timothy Radcliffe. I heartily recommend that you read the whole thing.