Comments Off on Rhetorical Contagion (Britain is not America)

Rhetorical Contagion (Britain is not America)

British politicians, I suspect, feel a degree of envy towards their American counterparts. An MP who proceeds along the time-honoured route through Eton and Oxford to the Palace of Westminster will spend most of their lives surrounded by the same sort of people in the same sort of architecture, and eating the same sort of curious canteen food.

American politics is different. It is glamorous; senators and congressman wheel and deal across our TV screens. It is expensive; money pours into campaigns seemingly (and legally) without limit. It is high stakes and high powered. And best of all, the Americans very rarely have to field questions about the punctuality of the fortnightly bin collections in Upton Snodsbury, or take to the stage with a candidate wearing a bucket on his head.

It’s probably unsurprising then that some British politicians seem to make strenuous efforts to make their lives more American, at least as far as the trappings of power go. They hold televised debates and fix the dates of elections long in advance, bringing in the long campaign trail common to American politics. They hire American campaign gurus like David Axelrod and Jim Messina. Backbench MPs appoint chiefs of staff. And, of course, ministers like Boris Johnson make pointed comments about wanting their own government plane.

Longing for the glamour and accoutrements of American politics is fine so far as it goes. It might be crass and even slightly embarrassing to see our politicians cosplaying their cross-channel counterparts, but it isn’t actively harmful. The obsession with American political argument is.

For all our shared heritage and all the similarities, Britain and America are still very different countries. Our Prime Minister is not a President. There is a totally different set of powers accruing to the position. Our highest court – however American in name – is appointed and functions in a way utterly unlike it’s US counterpart. Our devolution of powers is unlike theirs. We do not have a written constitution, but instead a web of documents and norms and pieces of legislation that come together into a system that functions so long as you don’t look at it too closely.

We do not share the same fraught history around issues of race. We do not share their demographic make-up. We have a very different set of values on environmental issues. On social issues. On economic issues. We already have single-payer healthcare, government caps on tuition fees, subsidised loans for poor students, generous maternity and holiday allowances.

Many of the battles the Americans are fighting, in short, are on political terrain utterly alien to us. They take as read the various powers of the different American branches of government, the political and social history of the nation, the mood of the population towards the issue. They are, in other words, just the tip of an enormous iceberg, resting upon a vast mass of assumed knowledge and context and fact. And if you immerse yourselves in these arguments and then deploy them in Britain, you do so on foundations of thin air. The assumptions that underpin them are gone.

Political ideals may be universal, but contexts are definitely not. We would probably agree with Americans that it is a good idea to drive on the right side of the road. It’s just that by right, we mean left. The action which best achieves an ideal is dependent on where you stand – and so will the arguments you make.

This rhetorical contagion is where Britain’s cultural obsession with America becomes unhealthy. When British politicos spend their time thinking and reading and arguing about American policy, then it is all but inevitable that this begins to shape their thinking on British issues. American rhetoric is adopted and employed in an environment with which it is fundamentally at odds. And are all the poorer for it.

Header image courtesy of ehpien, used under a creative commons license.

Comments Off on Brexit’s contradictions trap May between border and sea

Brexit’s contradictions trap May between border and sea

With four months remaining until the UK leaves the EU, Theresa May is caught between the devil and the deep grey Irish sea. The November meeting of EU heads of state, originally pencilled in as the date when Brexit negotiations would be signed off on, could now become an emergency response to a potential no-deal Brexit.

The major obstacle to closing a deal is the Irish border. Leave won the 2016 referendum by promising voters new trade deals around the world, the continued territorial integrity of the United Kingdom, and a frictionless Irish border. As these promises cannot coexist with one another, May faces the unenviable task of choosing which to renege on.

If Britain leaves the customs union and the single market, then it must have customs procedures for trade with the EU. This means either checks at the border, or on goods crossing the Irish sea. And if Britain stays within these institutions, there is little point to leaving: the EU rulebook is retained, there will be no new trade deals, and a large chunk of the voting population will be left feeling betrayed and angry.

The main thrust of the Brexit negotiations has revolved around squaring this circle. The most recent proposal involved keeping Northern Ireland within the single market, and Britain in the customs union.

This still leaves major issues to be resolved. Quite apart from stifling cross-sea trade, it would involve accepting illegal migration into Britain. The government says there will be no special immigration treatment for EU nationals after Brexit. That means work visas. And that also means that the lack of ID checks on travel from Northern Ireland would become a glaring loophole in Britain’s new migration regime, with little chance of checking if EU nationals are overstaying their welcome.

The alternative would be to introduce passport checks on journeys from Belfast to Liverpool – political suicide for a government dependent on unionist votes, and a threat to the peace process.

This, ultimately, is the great flaw with every suggestion made to date. Whichever side loses out in the negotiation, the peace process is put at risk. While the EU is focused on the need to prevent border infrastructure becoming a target for republican bombs, hardline unionists are unlikely to be amused by a regulatory and travel regime that leaves Northern Ireland more closely aligned to the Republic than to the United Kingdom. If the government insists on a full separation from the EU, then there is an argument that a second referendum should be held: a border poll on reunification.

The assumption underlying the current settlement is that is equally possible to feel British or Irish within the six counties. If Brexit means introducing barriers within these islands that have not existed for decades, then this will no longer hold. In a vacuum, such a poll could reignite sectarian violence. But with Brexit throwing the region into turmoil, a border poll could have the effect of legitimising the new arrangements – or replacing them with ones more to the populations liking.  

If the Conservative and Unionist party decides it wants to live up to the second half of its name, then it does have two other options. It could scrap Brexit entirely, or it could keep Britain in the single market and customs union.  While the latter might be more palatable to May’s backbenchers, it would contain a delicious irony; at long last, London would be ruled from Dublin.

Header image courtesy of Greg Clarke, used under a creative commons license.

Comments Off on How bad politicians drive out the good

How bad politicians drive out the good

One of the best known laws of economics is that bad money drives out good. If a country debases its coinage, mixing the gold and silver in new coins with lower value metals, people will hold onto the older and more valuable coins and spend the new ones. The bad money flushes the ‘good’ money from circulation. As Britain prepares to leave the European Union with its weakest crop of parliamentarians for decades, it’s worth wondering whether a similar principle might apply in politics.

The application of this law to elections could be termed a cycle of mediocrity – or possibly a ‘Chris Grayling spiral’, and it goes something like this. Becoming an MP is objectively a bad career choice for top talents. The pay, while generous, is nowhere near what they might earn in business or finance. Opportunities to add on high-paying consultancies or newspaper columns, before or after serving in Parliament, accrue only to a lucky few.

Moreover, becoming an MP costs a small fortune in time and money. In 2014, you could expect to drop a neat £34,000 on your bid to win a seat. You have to take time off work, hit the doorsteps, print the leaflets, put down your deposit, keep up with the local politics, while maintaining your primary career in case you lose. The job security is variable at best, and tied to the fortunes of your wider party – including factors which have absolutely nothing to do with you.

And even if you have a strong motivation to serve the public good, there are better paying options available. You could be a director in a local council. You could work for an NGO. Work in the civil service. Become a lawyer and take on pro bono cases. All of these would give you that pleasant sense of making a difference, while leaving your wallet far heavier. And each of them would come with a second huge advantage: generally speaking, if you take up these careers then you will not – as an individual – have to deal with the British press.

For all that our newspapers pride themselves on their fearless reporting, quite a lot of what they do could be classed as ‘spirited attempts to destroy the personal lives of political opponents’. If you work in a bank, you are unlikely to see the sort of treatment meted out to Chuka Umunna, who saw his grandmother doorstepped when he considered running for Labour leader, or Carrie Symonds – whose fling with Boris Johnson saw her traduced on the front pages. Even better, you don’t have to deal with the toxic work culture: the archaic whip system, the bullying, and the backstabbing needed to climb the greasy pole.

And this is where the cycle begins. When Parliament pays poorly and is an unpleasant place to work, it implicitly selects for people with a strong intrinsic motive to undertake that work. In turn, this often means highly partisan views about how the world should be. People who probably don’t play nicely with people holding different views. And people who make the idea of choosing a different career far more enticing.

The end result is that Parliament is increasingly filled with Boris Johnsons and Chris Graylings; power hungry public schoolboys, and mediocrities with strong views. And the bad currency drives out the good.

The kicker is that just as debasement of currency can eventually trigger a financial crisis, the debasement of parliament can trigger a political crisis. Highly partisan mediocrities are the type of politician most likely to launch grand schemes to reinvent the country – and also the type least capable of seeing such a scheme through.

Remind you of anything?

Header image courtesy of patternghosts, used under a creative commons license.

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