Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Brexit reflections #4 - anger and complacency

Having started the EU referendum campaign with an open mind, I've finally come down on the side of Brexit.

Please don't stop reading.

Why? On the principle that it's better to govern your own affairs, unless there are overwhelming reasons why you shouldn't (this seems obvious to me, but I'll enlarge on it below).

What might those overwhelming reasons be?

The two most commonly put forward are security and the economy.

It's said that our security depends on the EU.  I don't think there's much evidence for this.  Our security surely depends on NATO.  The EU has actually very little to say about foreign policy - it has no foreign minister, still less a common security force. Its bungling over Ukraine and hand-wringing over Syria demonstrate how things might play out if our security really did depend on the EU.

But, I hear you say, hasn't the EU helped to keep the peace within Europe generally? Maybe. I find it rather more plausible that because people want peace they look for ways of co-operating with each other; the EU is a consequence of that desire rather than its cause. The real reason people want peace is because they remember the devastation caused by war. If another Hitler should appear, does anyone really think that membership of the EU would deter him? And if so, do they remember how the League of Nations got on?

It strikes me that the biggest threat to intra-European peace has come from the zealots of ever closer union themselves. The Schengen agreement and the wrecking ball that is the Euro are the causes of the immense dissatisfaction which has fuelled the rise of the hard Left in Greece and the hard Right just about everywhere else. Leaving would not free the UK from the consequences of that extremism, but it might make it less likely to happen here. It might also give the Euro zealots pause for thought.

When I read the letters of hundreds of economists urging Remain, I'm reminded of the even larger number of their colleagues who wrote to the Times protesting about the Thatcher government's economic policy in the early 80s. They were wrong - inflation was curbed and the economy began to grow again. I'm also reminded of the profession's woeful failure to predict the 2008 financial crisis. Of its urging the UK to join the ERM, and, 20 years later, the Euro.

Look how those have turned out. That doesn't mean the economists are wrong this time, of course. It just means that their assurances are scarcely the great clunking fist that sinks the Brexit campaign. When the Treasury and the IMF issue dire forecasts telling us how much poorer we'll be in fifteen years, I'm reminded that these are people who can't even tell us what's going to happen in fifteen months.

What would the economic consequences of Brexit actually be? I have a secret to impart: no one knows. We know that we'd face single market tariffs until we were able to do a trade deal. We also know that rEU would make it as difficult as they possibly could for the City of London to carry on doing EU business, which might put at risk some of the many billions the City raises in tax revenue for the Treasury.

However EU tariffs are set at only 4%. And anyway there never has been a single market in services (something we're actually good at), only in manufacturing (something that's less and less important to us). There are able and well-informed City pundits - Roger Bootle, David Buik and Merryn Somerset-Webb for example - who think the Square Mile would thrive after Brexit. We also know that we'd save hundreds of millions of pounds in EU membership fees. Moreover, the value of the pound would probably sink (although the fact that no-one knows how much utterly undermines the bleak economic forecasters), providing a welcome boost to British manufacturing competitiveness, hurting imports and helping our rather parlous balance of payments situation.

But let's say the Cassandras are right.  Let's say the economy would grow more slowly (which is the worst the forecasters can come up with). If a rising tide does not benefit everyone equally, the same must be true when the tide is falling. If things got worse economically in Britain because of Brexit, might there be a strata of society which would benefit?

The short answer is yes.  The long answer is that anyone who can't afford housing, anyone who can't get their kids into their local school, who has to queue for NHS treatment, who is in a low paid job or can't get a job at all would probably benefit. In other words the Britons at the bottom end. These are the people who, funnily enough, you don't see campaigning to Remain, because they know being in Europe doesn't benefit them.

I haven't heard anyone suggest that post-Brexit there would be no migration at all, but if we did leave Governments of both Left and Right would seek to get a tighter grip on numbers. The immediate effect of that would be to stop the crisis in housing, the NHS and school places getting worse so quickly. It would also mean that employers have to start competing for unskilled staff by raising wages.

(I have heard so many half-wits bleating that the living wage would accomplish this that I need hardly say how bitterly funny I found it that within weeks of the announcement employers began to change terms and conditions for staff so that, for example, they were not paid during their lunch breaks; so much for government intervention).

The outcome of the referendum won't affect me very much, but there are millions of people with fairly dismal life chances in Britain who I believe it would help a good deal.

There's a lot to dislike about the Brexit campaigners, amongst other things their predominant psycological state (angry).  But those arguing for Remain present an even sorrier spectacle. Leaving aside the politicians, whose dishonesty, though considerable, has been no worse than expected, and the business elites, whose desire for the endless supply of cheap labour to continue unabated is at least transparently self-interested, the section of Remain supporters I find least appealing is the smug liberal middle-class.

These are the people who do well out of EU. They like the easy travel arrangements. They enjoy the cheap access to the service industries ("such a charming Polish nanny/plumber/barista!"). They enjoy the feeling of cosmopolitanism being on the side of Europe entails. They're in a position to pay their way past the obstacles that uncontrolled migration throws up for the poor (health/education). Above all, it really hasn't occurred to them that the people who do worst out of the EU tend to be people at the bottom end (people, incidentally, many of whom have brown or black skins - British-born descendants of former migrant generations). They are alright, Jack.

If anger is the keynote characterisation of Brexiteers, for the Remainers it is complacency.

As for the Left, with a few honourable exceptions (notably Frank Field) they abandoned the idea of helping the worst off as soon as they realised that doing so might make them look hostile to Johnny Foreigner.  They'll do anything to keep on virtue signalling.

I said I would enlarge on the proposition that it's better to govern your own affairs. The most obvious reason is that if you don't like the laws your government passes, you can boot them out of office. What happens though if some laws persist because your Government doesn't have control over them any more?

The fact that we were committed to free movement of people by a British electorate more than forty years ago, and the absurdity of the proposition that we must, apparently, stick with this arrangement until the rocks melt with the sun, are merely peripheral inanities compared to the central steaming pile of stupidity around which they orbit. That stupidity being that although excessive migration is, according to polls, one of the two principal concerns of the British electorate (the other being the economy), our politicians are powerless to do anything about it.

For that really is the case. If a British government wanted to reduce net migration to the low tens of thousands (and as I said above, Governments of both Left and Right would almost certainly reduce migration if they could), there is no law it could pass to bring that about which would not be struck down by the European Court. Even an attempt to do that obliquely, for example by restricting benefits to migrants, would fall foul of the Court. East European migrants who have never paid into the British system can start claiming tax credits from their first day at work. They can have Child Benefit paid to their children who may have never been here. There is nothing our politicians can do about it.

Now consider the effect of this on the British political process. The issue that apparently concerns us more than any other is one which our politicians cannot fix. This reduces our system to a pretendy-democracy where politicians strut up and down making promises (reducing migration to the low tens of thousands, for example) which we and they know they cannot possibly keep.

Incidentally, although Remainers talk of awful damage the economy if migration were stopped, they forget that if restricted migration weren't working for the UK, we could simply change policy and start allowing more of it again.  Running your own affairs is quite handy like that.

The present situation is a sham which in the long run will do much more damage to the British political process than expenses claims for a duck house. How long before we get our own Donald Trump? In the 2015 general election UKIP won nearly four million votes. I'd be very surprised if, with Labour in navel-gazing disarray, their share of the vote didn't increase in 2020.

I think that the EU referendum offers an opportunity to reverse two decades of growing inequality, but even if you don't agree with me, I think you'd have to concede that, in the absence of overwhelming reasons to the contrary, it is worth restoring accountability to the heart of the relationship between people and government.

That's why I'll vote for Brexit.  Go on, hate me if you like.





Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Why I love . . . Trevor Phillips

There is a story that when the poet and historian Robert Conquest was asked if he wanted to retitle a reissue of his seminal study of Stalin's bloody 1930s purges, his friend Kingsley Amis suggested "I Told You So You Fucking Fools".  

This morning as I flicked through the new Civitas report, Race and Faith, by Trevor Phillips, the former student activist and broadcaster, I wanted to shout out Amis's suggestion on every page.

You can download Phillips' masterly dissection of our failure to manage diversity here.

I haven’t read it all yet, but the thrust of it seems to be that too much tolerance of diversity is a bad thing and that “the different sets of values and behaviours prevalent in some ethnocultural communities present a serious challenge to the process of integration in our society” (no shit Sherlock).

The typical response of Britain’s political and media elite confronted with awkward facts has been evasion”, he writes.  We risk “allowing our country to sleepwalk to a catastrophe that will set community against community, endorse sexist aggression, suppress freedom of expression, reverse hard-won civil liberties, and undermine the liberal democracy that has served this country so well for so long.

I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying reading it. Because this is Trevor Phillips, a black man, a member of the Labour party, not some hatchet faced racist from the Tory shires. Now at last they'll start listening over at the Guardian.

No, OK, that's clearly not going to happen.

“The premise that any kind of under-achievement or failure amongst people of colour must stem solely from unequal treatment by the dominant society implies that all those who come from minority groups have no agency other than that allowed by whites. People of colour, for example, become puppets of others’ prejudices, with no capability of managing or improving their own lives.”

Hallelujah.

“. . . some minority groups hold very different values and ambitions than those commonly held amongst the dominant majority; that those values and ambitions are even further away from liberal ideals than the average; and that because they are sincerely held by those groups, they aren’t going to change any time soon. The European social liberal clings to the belief that we are essentially the same ‘under the skin’ in the desperate hope that, with time, ‘liberal’ values will inevitably prevail amongst people of all backgrounds.”

“And still, our political and media elites appear not to have scented this new wind. We maintain a polite silence masked by noisily debated public fictions such as ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘community cohesion’. Rome may not yet be in flames, but I think I can smell the smouldering whilst we hum to the music of liberal self-delusion.”

I particularly enjoyed that one. Any sentence including the words "liberal self-delusion" is good with me.

Phillips continues, "even those of us on the progressive wing of politics must now surely accept that in the conditions of today’s society, our reflex defence of traditional behaviours and separate communities is actually undermining one of the most cherished of left-wing values – social solidarity."

And on p.32 I am truly transported to heaven.  Mr Phillips writes of the Macpherson report into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, "It used the phrase ‘institutional racism’ to describe what it had found. This was a mistake whose consequences are still felt today."  Oh Jesus. Nirvana. I have been pointing out for years (on this blog; to anyone who would listen) that some policemen were racist, just as some of them were corrupt and incompetent, but that is not the same as the institution being racist. Now at last someone agrees with me.

Where I think Phillips is wrong (and this touches on the recent debates about Ken Livingstone's anti-semitism) is that none of this has anything to do with race.  It’s all to do with culture.  Afro-Caribbean migration worked, in the end, because the migrants had a broadly similar cultural background to the white population, and because of intermarriage.  Muslim migration isn’t working because the migrants have a significantly differently cultural background, one which, moreover, makes intermarriage difficult (if not actually physically dangerous for the participants). We are in grave danger of turning parts of Britain into societies split along religious lines. As if Northern Ireland wasn't bad enough. Anyone who thinks this is hyperbole hasn't been to the Lancashire and Yorkshire mill towns.

The use of the word race, I contend, has actually done enormous damage to our ability to identify the phenomenon confronting us, not only because it obscures its real nature but because it enables those who feel criticised to shut off debate by playing the “race” card.  As Phillips himself writes, "There are costs to this fastidiousness. If we cannot even name some of the aspects of the problems, how can we seriously hope to address them? . . . But the use of these terms has a purpose for those who coin them. They are one more brick in the wall of denial."

There are times in Race and Faith when Phillips seems to be within touching distance of grasping how damaging this has been:

"However, the most dangerous trend in my view, has been the recent over-use of the epithet ‘racist’. This word (and its close cousin, ‘Islamophobe’) is now freely applied to almost anyone who disagrees with liberal orthodoxy on matters of racial and religious difference. A word with such toxic associations should really be reserved for individuals or organisations which are truly malevolent and racially exclusive . . . The widening of the use of the word ‘racist’ has now spread beyond political knockabout to encompass the concept of ‘microaggression’, borrowed from American university campuses."

As a defence against this kind of folly, "Parliament should . . . renew and formalise a presumption in favour of freedom of expression . . . there should be a case for the accretion of limitations and caveats on freedom of expression to be swept aside and replaced by legislation ensuring that only speech and gestures that directly encourage physical harm are subject to legal restriction".  Yes, yes and thrice yes.  Bravely, Phillips sets out what this might mean in practice.  Calling him a "nigger", however rude and offensive, would not be an offence.  Calling out, "Get that nigger over there" certainly would be.

The laissez-faire multiculturalism beloved by the Left hasn't worked, Phillips concludes. "It is time for us to abandon the old idea of organic integration. We have neither the time nor, in the modern jargon, the bandwidth, to allow a natural convergence of so many different cultures and traditions. Nor, in a globalised world, with the aggressive proselytising of Islamist militancy, can we rely on the notion that every community will, with time, come to see the advantages and attractiveness of western values and ways of living."

Correct. For me one of the most perplexing, infuriating and contemptible aspects of non-European migration has been that migrants came to Britain because the values of the countries they left behind had ensured they remained poverty-stricken, sectarian and corrupt basket-cases.

And yet, having arrived here (or having been born here) they persisted not only in clinging to the practices that their ancestors were, wittingly or not, trying to escape, but also tried to elbow aside the culture that made the UK somewhere worth escaping to.




Monday, 9 May 2016

Shostakovich 5 - letting the light shine through

On Saturday I had the great good fortune to conduct the wonderful Wrexham Symphony Orchestra in Shostakovich's 5th Symphony.  I had never conducted Shos 5 before, and although I'd heard it many times I couldn't really claim to have known it in the way I know, say, the symphonies of Sibelius. Learning the piece has been an illuminating experience.

Almost too much is known about the circumstances in which the 5th Symphony was written. The Great Terror of the 1930s, in which Stalin attempted to purge of Soviet society of his opponents, is estimated to have resulted in up to fifteen million shot or sent to the Gulags. Neighbour denounced neighbour and children denounced their parents. Failure to denounce could imply personal guilt.

In this atmosphere of fearful paranoia, Shostakovich's opera The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was the subject of a scathing review in Pravda, written if not by Stalin personally then certainly under Stalin's direction after he had walked out of a performance.  The composer withdrew the Fourth Symphony, then in rehearsal, fearful that it too would meet with the authorities' disapproval, and kept a suitcase packed for when the secret police called. There are stories of him sleeping in the apartment stairwell so that his family would not be disturbed upon his arrest. To cap Shostakovich's problems, the woman he was in love with then married another man.

In these circumstances the composition of the 5th Symphony was an act of almost reckless courage. It's in a less dissonant idiom than the immediately preceding works, and the structure is quite simple (we also played Sibelius's Pohjola's Daughter on Saturday, music of far greater structural complexity and subtlety).  Nevertheless the tone is one of almost unremitting bleakness; when that lets up it is because the orchestra becomes possessed of a manic dysfunctional energy verging on the parodistic. To mark his lover's marriage - to a Spaniard, a Snr Carmen - twisted versions of the Habanera from Bizet's opera are inserted in the outer movements.

For a regime demanding art which exalted the heroic struggles of the proletariat, the 5th reads as a calculated two-finger salute.

And yet the piece ends happily. Out of nowhere a blaze of D major lights up the sky, and the orchestra pounds away in D for a good minute to a thumping conclusion.  It's an ending which was criticised by some as a cop out, and it wasn't until Shostakovich's pupil Solomon Volkov published what purported to be the composer's memoirs in the 1970s that the idea began to dawn that Shostakovich had written a deliberately bombastic ending as if to say, "So you wanted rejoicing?  Well here's some rejoicing for you".

For conductors this presents a problem, because audiences like to go home feeling good, and we are always tempted to wave our arms around to signal the sense of completeness, of triumph over adversity, that the Romantic symphony communicates so well (if so misleadingly: life is not so binary).  Some press on through the D major coda to give a sense of mounting excitement. I didn't want to short-change the William Aston Hall audience, but respect for Shostakovich's achievement (and his suffering) demanded that the conclusion be as rigid and mechanical as, according to Volkov, the composer would have wanted.

In truth, getting the speeds right in the piece is one of its hardest aspects. Pacing is always an issue in symphonic music outside the Classical era. To be clear, pacing is not the same as speed. Pacing is the cumulative effect of a series of different speeds, and in the outer movements of the piece Shostakovich writes great slabs of music which get faster to a central climax and then withdraw once more. It's very hard to get the pacing of these accelerating sections right, not the least because orchestras are long used to having learnt the piece from conductors who don't actually seem to have read Shostakovich's metronome marks.

The opening is a case in point. The upward leaps in the strings must clearly be done in 8 (one beat for each quaver), but the passage which follows feels very slow and lumpy if you carry on in the same way. Most conductors try and get into 4 (one beat for each crotchet) after the first few bars, but speeding the orchestra up from this slow tempo is difficult, and anyway Shostakovich didn't write an accelerando.

I recently saw a young conductor begin - too slowly I thought - in 8, and go straight into a much quicker 4 with an audible and ragged jerk as the strings sought to adjust to the new speed. There's a film on Youtube of Rostropovich (who knew Shostakovich, for Christ's sake) doing it in 4 right from the opening but at a fast speed which bears no relation to the metronome mark. As a general principle I always try and do what the composer asks for unless it palpably doesn't work: and this is one of the instances where you have to bow apologetically to the composer and honour the spirit of the music. Bernstein for me seems to get it about right (the performance is on Youtube again), beginning in quite a direct 8 and going on in 4 with just the tiniest quickening.

However the same Bernstein performance shows the weakness of imposing your judgment on the composer's. In the finale he, like many others, starts too fast and gets faster too quickly. This is exciting to begin with, but leaves the music with nowhere to go. True excitement comes from the gradual accelerando, the feeling that events have got out of control.

I was struck too by Shostakovich's masterful pacing of the orchestration. The piece opens with a grand gesture, but uses only one section of the orchestra to make it - the strings. Now strings playing in unison can be imposing, but not as much as a fortissimo tutti. Yet Shostakovich calculates that since it is a gesture which interrupts silence, it will be big enough. And he is right (Incidentally, Dvorak makes the same calculation at the beginning of the last movement of the New World Symphony). This careful allocation of resources enables him to make even bigger gestures later. True tuttis are actually quite rare in the symphony, and indeed there are many passages where the scoring is confined to a few instruments. I have always liked this in music - it's a bit like a watercolourist using the white of the paper to let light shine through.

For me there is only one miscalculation in the score, and that is the climax in the first movement where the strings and wind play a frenzied version of the opening over enormous brass chords. You really are being beaten over the head here, and, after the first half a dozen bars, the wind/string accompanying figures are too continuous to be interesting and dramatic. Given the same material, Tchaikovsky would have done this much better.

But what do I know?

Unlike novelists, who have regularly faced persecution for their work, there are very few composers who have risked death for writing a piece of music their enemies didn't like. The audience at the first performance is said to have applauded for three quarters an hour. Shostakovich deserved his redemption.


Sadiq Khan - extremists' poodle?

Last week Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London.  This was hailed in liberal circles as an extraordinary and marvellous thing.

I don't find it extraordinary at all.  Nearly half of all people living in London were born outside the UK.  London is now an international city rather than a British one.  Why is it surprising Londoners should elect Khan?

As for marvellous, a barrister friend of mine was once instructed by Khan, in the days when he was merely a stroppy Legal Aid solicitor. He said Khan was "bossy and ranting", at least as interested in pushing the political aspects of the case as acting in the client's best interest.

That might make him a bad lawyer, but it won't necessarily make him a bad Mayor.

The election campaign was, it is said, marred by accusations that Khan had consorted with extremists, and was by implication extremist himself, accusations contested with interest by the Khan camp as "racist" (because obviously if you call someone an extremist that must be because of their "race", right?  And Muslims are a race, aren't they?*)

On this subject I recommend an illuminating article by Maajid Nawaz, head of the Quilliam Foundation, entitled The Secret Life of Sadiq Khan.  Nawaz is as well positioned as anyone to assess whether Khan is an extremist, because Nawaz really was one himself, and because Khan was his lawyer.

Nawaz's verdict is uncompromising and plausible. Khan isn't an extremist, but he sucked up to extremists in London in order to get votes.

This isn't attractive behaviour, but he's a politician now, not a lawyer. It's a dirty job.

My own least favourite Khan moment came in 2009 when, as Minster of State for Communities in the Gordon Brown government, he described moderate Muslims in a TV interview as Uncle Toms. Now this really was pretty repulsive. It suggests of course that Khan did not regard himself as a "moderate Muslim" (whatever that is), but moreover it implies contempt not just for the Uncle Toms themselves but for the societal values Uncle Toms might be said to have espoused.

Values like free speech, education, democracy, the rule of law perhaps; the values, in other words, which had enabled the son of a Pakistani bus driver to rise to be first a human rights lawyer, then an MP, then a Minister of State in the British Government and then Mayor of London.

Uncle Toms indeed.  Amusingly, his own logic appears to make Khan himself an Uncle Tom, a point not lost on Maajid Nawaz. But Nawaz goes further than just pointing out Khan's hypocrisy.

"Today", he writes, "Muslim terrorists kill more Muslims than people from any other faith, after they dehumanize them for being "not Muslim enough".  In such a climate, labeling counter-extremist Muslims as "Uncle Toms", "House Muslims" or "native Informants" is comparable to calling someone a heretic during the Inquisition . . . Degrading the "Muslimness" of someone . . . is a prerequisite to their murder by terrorists . . . Khan knows all of this. He really should have known better".

So no, I don't think Khan's election is all that marvellous, and while Zac Goldsmith struck me as a pallid and lacklustre candidate I'm not sure his opponent's victory says anything good about London or Britain.

I suppose though the rest of us should be glad that Khan's self-interest now apparently lies in being the Establishment's lapdog rather than the extremists' poodle.

*My previous post has some reflections on these tired old assumptions.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Ken Livingstone, anti-semitism and a free society

At the time of writing the Labour party is engulfed in a row about racism, or, more specifically, anti-semitism. The Bradford MP Naz Shah has been suspended, and so, in his contorted attempts to justify her behaviour, has Ken Livingstone. Jeremy Corbyn reacted to Livingstone's transgressions with characteristic sloth. He can't be too happy at the prospect of losing his right hand man.

It won't come as any surprise to readers of this blog (all nineteen of them) that I am a long way away politically from the likes of Livingstone. Yet I have some sympathy with him. Here's why.

Anti-Semitism is popularly regarded as a form of racism, as if the term applied only to Jews. But the Semitic peoples are not confined to Jews - it's a term applied to a number of Middle Eastern countries, including some Arab ones - and not all Jews are from the Middle East.

Nor, to confound the issue still further, are Jews a race. Jews are a religious-ethnic group including people of many races.  There are white Jews from Europe and black Jews from Ethiopia. If Jews are a race, then so are Christians.

For what it's worth I once put this point to a family friend, who is an Orthodox Jew. He agreed with me.

But surely this is nit picking, I hear you cry. We all know anti-Jewish prejudice is bad, so what does it matter which words we use?

It matters a lot, not least because words are the things we use to try and ferry meaning between each other. In this as in so many areas of political conflict the party that controls the meaning of words has the upper hand.

Racism as a form of hatred towards people with different physical characteristics from ourselves is rightly reviled. Describing someone as racist in the West is a term of pejorative heft
only a few steps down from murderer, rapist or paedophile. As a consequence it provides an intellectual umbrella underneath which many have sought to shelter, most problematically in the context of religion.

Amidst the many unattractive features of Islam - its homophobia, its repression of women, its anti-democratic insistence on God-made law - is the insistence that criticism of the religion is racist. But Muslims, like Christians and Jews, are not a race either, and by allowing religions to shelter under the "racist" umbrella we stifle discussion and criticism.

If it's legitimate to criticise Islamic societies which permit (and sometimes institutionalise) FGM, for example, it must also be legitimate to criticise the use of sharia courts, and, by extension, the people who staff them. The problem is that if disliking people on the basis of their religion is racist, then the line between what it's legitimate to say and what society utterly condemns becomes impossibly narrow to draw. People retreat to a safe distance because they don't want invite the R-word. For a politician this is problematic because an allegation of racism can finish a career, but for civilised society it's a disaster, because freedom of speech is both one of that society's causes and one of its consequences.

Racism is incompatible with a good society, because it is wrong to revile people on the basis of characteristics they can't choose. On the other hand a good society can't function without the freedom to criticise people for the choices they make, including the religion they adhere to or the cultural practices they adopt.

Nowhere are the consequences of confusing racism with sectarianism (my preferred term) clearer or more ironic (or funnier) than in the current plight of the Labour party. In areas of West Yorkshire (as in parts of London) the Labour party is dominated by Muslims, many of whom take a dim view of Israel generally and it's treatment of the West Bank Palestinians in particular. Many of those, I would guess, don't make the distinction between Jews and Zionists very sharply.

People like the Bradford MP Naz Shah for example. Ms Shah has done a couple of things on social media in the last few days which I personally find very unsavoury and which seem to suggest anti-Jewish prejudice. She has apologised for her "the Jews are rising" comment, and the Labour party can decide whether or not it wants to keep her.

But Labour is reaping a whirlwind it has itself sown. The Left is so keen on the widest possible definition of what constitutes racism that it has made criticism of Islam very difficult (if you doubt me, look at the abuse heaped on Zac Goldsmith for pointing out that London mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan has shared a platform with extremists) and turned a blind eye to some really very unsavoury people within its Muslim ranks. This is something the Quilliam Foundation head Maajid Nawaz described as "the left-wing bigotry of low expectations that holds Muslims to lesser, illiberal standards". If Labour hadn't been so myopic about Islam, Naz Shah would never have become an MP.

Ken Livingstone leapt to Ms Shah's defence with some comments which have now got him into trouble. He said there was a "well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby" to get rid of Ms Shah, and that it was "over the top" to "think of anti-Semitism and racism as the same thing". On this last point at least I agree with him.

He also pointed out that the Nazis had meetings in the early 1930s with Jewish leaders to discuss the prospect of moving Jews to the Middle East. I don't know whether this is true, still less why Livingstone thought it would be a good idea to make the claim, but it has landed him in hot water, not least with the Labour MP John Mann, who confronted Livingstone angrily on the stairs of a BBC studio and called him "a Nazi apologist" on camera.

(Journalists love this kind of thing, and are much more interested in the spats and resignations than in the substance of the dispute.)

Is there a "well-orchestrated campaign by the Israel lobby"? Danny Finkelstein, a pundit I admire, wrote in the Times this morning that "the idea that the Jews pull the strings, are the puppet masters and have an all-powerful lobby is the most traditional of anti-semitic ideas". Fair enough; except Livingstone didn't say "Jewish lobby" but "Israel lobby", which is not the same thing.

Elsewhere Finkelstein writes, "the oldest theories of Jews as rich manipulators and financiers of evil have been merged with the new ideas about imperialism.  And they have given it a name: Zionism. No longer does that term mean a belief that there needs to be a small Jewish homeland. Now it is used to mean a global conquering force of money-lending, oil-stealing militarists".

Who said words didn't matter? It looks as if Finkelstein, never mind his misquote of Livingstone, is trying to give Zionism a new meaning, one which will immediately brand the user as a conspiracy-theorist fruitcake. Perhaps Finkelstein really does think Jewish and Israeli interests are coterminal, but if he does he can hardly cry foul when people criticise Jews for things Israel does.  Like Naz Shah, it doesn't look as if Finkelstein is making the distinction between Jews and Zionists very sharply.

Elsewhere Labour MP Chris Bryant said, "Only one sane sentence has Hitler and Jews in it.  We'll never forget Hitler was a genocidal murderer who slaughtered Jews in their millions". Is Bryant really arguing that, even if Livingstone got his facts right, it was wrong for him to utter them? Is an open society best served by prescribing what people can and can't say in this fashion? I doubt it. Meanwhile Bryant's colleague Luciana Berger said, "There is no hierarchy of racism". Depressingly, I take this to mean that for her anti-semitism nestles snugly beneath the umbrella of the R-word.

I don't think British politics would be signally worse off in the absence of Ken Livingstone, but there are lot of other people thrashing around on the muddy shores of the race debate, wrestling over the slipperiest of meanings, trying to set the boundaries of the permissible in a way which is thoughtless, ill-informed, tendentious and damaging to a free society.  We could well do without them too.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Brexit reflections #3 - Boris and Barack, Nick Cohen and the dim-witted censors.

Much fury on Twitter in the last 48 hours about Boris Johnson's anti-Obama diatribe.  A lot of writers I admire have poured scorn, mostly from the Left, on Boris's suggestion that Obama's stance on Brexit might be influenced by his Kenyan background. In particular Boris suggested that Obama might have been instrumental in the removal of a bust of Churchill from the White House.

Principal amongst Johnson's accusers was Nick Cohen, who wrote in the Spectator ("Boris Johnson's attack on Barack Obama belongs in the gutter") that the Mayor of London was "a man without principle or shame.  He is a braying charlatan, who lacks the courage even to be an honest bastard . . . but instead uses the tactics of the coward and the tricks of the fraudster to advance his worthless career". Cohen continues, "I'm not someone who throws accusations of racism around . . . But, come now, the fantasy that Obama is the heir of the Mau-Maus with no right to govern is a racist lie" which Johnson "perpetuates".

Golly. Is Cohen right? Certainly the Twitterati thought so. I wasn't so sure, and plunged into the 140 character mosh pit to try and establish what exactly Johnson had said which was racist. Interestingly, the responses tended to dry up on the second or third exchange of views. Typical was the Blairite hack John McTernan, who could manage no more than "It's racist.  Pure and simple".

(Update - the following day McTernan elaborated on his views.  He wrote, "It is sneery, de haut en bas, touch of the tarbrush, straight down the line English racism". I replied, "So you keep saying.  But you don't say why.  Forgive me for finding that a little lame."  Nothing back from McTernan so far.)

So what exactly did Johnson say which was so offensive? Cohen quotes him thus. "Some said (the removal of the Churchill bust) was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President's ancestral dislike of the British empire - of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender".

"Who are the ‘some’ who say that Obama is a Kenyan at heart?", demands Nick Cohen.

Inconveniently for him, one of the most vocal is Barack Obama himself, who, er, devoted a large part of his book Dreams of My Father to his Kenyan heritage. And rather awkwardly for Cohen and his fans, Obama went to Kenya on a state visit in July 2015, and began a speech there by saying, "I am proud to be the first American president to come to Kenya, and of course I'm the first Kenyan-American to be president of the United States". Kenyan-American. There you have it.

When the journalist Iain Martin tweeted these remarks there was some furious back-peddling by Cohen's supporters. You could almost hear them thinking, "Shit, Obama thinks he's part-Kenyan too. What are we going to say now?"

Obama is entitled to be proud of his ancestry (even though his Dad comes across as an utter flake in Dreams of my Father), but on the other hand is it really beyond plausibility to suggest that a man whose father was born in a British colony and whose grandfather was, apparently, imprisoned by the British, might not, well, be too keen on Britain? And yet to suggest that is, for Cohen and his supporters, to step into the gutter.

A much more fruitful avenue for Cohen to explore might have been to wonder whether Johnson was actually right. He might also have pondered what the consequences of Presidential anti-British bias might have been. After all, a President who disliked Britain would surely want the worst for us; and yet here's Obama firmly advocating Remain. Surely Boris missed a trick here. He should have been trumpeting that Obama's anti-British bias must mean he secretly felt it would be best for us to Leave. What an endorsement for Brexit that would have been.

But this is all too subtle for Cohen. "The fantasy that Obama is the heir of the Mau-Maus with no right to govern", he writes, "is a racist lie that appeals to deep, dark traditions in the US. From slavery, through the Civil War, the backlash against Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, the argument has been the same: blacks have no right to vote, and black politicans have no right to rule.  Johnson perpetuates the fraud".

It's worth noting that Cohen not only makes no attempt to demonstrate that Johnson is racist, but also doesn't try to justify his association of Johnson with these repellent manifestations of US racism.

If I were Boris I'd be rather peeved. Even if Kenyans were a race, which they're not, and even if Boris were wrong about Obama's hostility to Britain, which we can't know, where is Cohen's evidence that the remarks were motivated by hostility to Kenyans (or even Kenyan culture, for heavens' sake)?

Boris is not even suggesting that Obama would be wrong about any anti-British antipathy he might have. He's simply wondering whether it might have influenced Obama's views on Brexit. The answer to that might be a very short "no" (and that would probably get my vote), but it is a very very long way from that to suggesting, as Cohen does, that even to ask the question makes you a racist.

You may accuse me of overthinking this, but I'm simply baffled why a journalist and commentator of Cohen's calibre should get this so thoroughly wrong.

One last point. Nick Cohen has an honourable record as an advocate of free speech. And yet his dog-whistle cry has brought out the dim-witted censors in their droves.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Brexit reflections #2 - the Government's leaflet

At last the Government leaflet on the EU referendum has popped through my door.

Should the HMG have spent the best part of £10 million on it? Possibly not. But a genuine attempt to cut through the lies and distortions of both sides of the campaign would have been welcome and, who knows, might even have bolstered the Remain side if waverers had seen it as being candid and even-handed.

So I turned with interest to page 1 of the leaflet, where the following statement appears - "We will keep our own border controls".

We will keep our own border controls.

The mind flaps at this statement like a goalkeeper trying to grasp a spinning ball on a rain-sodden pitch. In what way can it possibly be true?

We, or rather the British electorate of forty years ago, signed up to free movement of people (at a time when the EU had only half a dozen countries, few of whose citizens had any economic incentive to come and live in the UK). We have to let EU nationals come and go freely because of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, and unless we leave we are stuck with it.

So we "keep our own border controls" only in the sense that the British government operates, administers and pays for its "own border controls". The substance of those border controls however is determined by the 1975 British commitment to the EU. The leaflet says we have "the right to check everyone, including EU nationals, arriving from continental Europe". The weasel words there are "check" and "arriving", because although we can "check" them to make sure they're EU nationals we can't put any limits on the number of EU nationals who "arrive".

If a British government elected by the British people in (oh I don't know) 2015 decided to introduce tighter border controls it would very swiftly find itself in front of the European Court of Human Rights. And it would have no defence. There is no better illustration of the powerlessness of the British government than David Cameron's election pledge to reduce net migration to the "low tens of thousands". He failed in that pledge precisely because we don't "keep our own border controls". If we had been able to maintain an immigration policy the Tories said they wanted, net migration would not now have been in the region of 300,000 annually.

"We will keep our own border controls" is then an outright lie.

Why does the Government do this? There is a case to be made for free movement (I don't agree with it, but many do). It is also arguable that post-Brexit a British government would have to accept free movement as the price of a trade deal (some countries have to, although not Canada). Why not make those arguments instead of just lying to us? Is it because they think we're stupid?

I can only assume so. After all, these statements don't appear in expensively printed leaflets by accident. Well-paid people sat for a long time drafting this missive, and at some point someone said, "What are we going to say about borders and migration?" And there was then a good deal of pencil chewing because everyone knows that migration is one of the two political issues (the other being the economy) which poll after poll shows the British people are concerned about most. These apparatchiks knew they had to say something. It had to be appear on the face of it to be true. So someone said, "Well in a sense we do keep our own border controls because we operate and administer them", and this statement, conflating slipperily the execution of border control and its substance, was greeted with relief all round the table.

It is a deliberate, contemptuous and cynical attempt to deceive. I very much hope it doesn't do so, because no Government should lie to its own people.

It's a shame the leaflet is so glossy.  I might have found a use for a cheaper, more absorbent version.