Monday, 24 October 2016

Phillip Blond - Red Tory redux

An excellent piece on the Res Publica website reprints an interview Phillip Blond, the man who dreamed up Red Toryism,  gave to Le Figaro recently about Brexit. You can read the whole thing here, but here's a bit of cut-and-paste (Blond, I need scarcely add, is a Remainer).

Blond believes that had EU leaders like Juncker and Schulz behaved a bit more sensibly after the vote there might have been no need for Brexit at all.  These EU mandarins pretty much killed off the Remain campaign with their hostility, he says. He points out that the much vaunted Four Freedoms (including freedom of movement) are far from absolute, and that France and Germany "have progressively vetoed any real free movement in capital or services". Blond thinks that if the EU made an offer on migration he suspects Theresa May's government "may well put it to the vote, either in another referendum or more likely in a snap general election where the PM decides to argue to stay in the EU".

Personally I think Blond is in cloud cuckoo land here, both on the likelihood of the EU making a renewed offer on migration and of May's government having a change of heart.  As I've written before, the EU leadership is too stolid to grasp that the key to the organisation's survival is flexibility. After all, they didn't budge on migration when the referendum was hanging over them. And anyway can you imagine the uproar in the Tory party if May did a volte face?

Blond writes that "whilst Europe understands the perils of external migration and what importing hostile minorities might mean, (the UK working class) experienced internal EU migration as directly threatening their . . . economic security. . . Britain has functioned as the European employer of last resort as the Euro and German austerity have destroyed the labour markets for so many young Europeans.  But for working class Britons this has meant a direct threat to their . . . livelihoods, which is why low skilled low educated people voted so heavily to leave the EU. If you want evidence of this - try to get served by a Briton in London, it's virtually impossible. All the waiting staff are charming, degree level educated Europeans, no wonder the white working class thought there was no working future for them in such a Europe".

Amen to that. And then, this being an interview in a French paper, Blond proceeds to stick the boot in to France.

"French secularism has been wholly incapable of engaging with and integrating its Muslim population. . . Even after all the dreadful massacres and killings in France you still have the French state insisting that Islamic radicalism is down to economic inequality which is an idealogical fiction wholly without any evidential basis . . . this blinds France to the issues it must confront".

Britain, on the other hand, "is not in the state of incipient civil war . . . (our) mixed constitution allows difference to be expressed and welcomed into the British social compact whereas France . . . allows no place for . . . the development of integrated identities . . . all difference is suppressed in the name of a generic identity . . . France's political identity is too brittle to incorporate others . . ."

And then this interesting passage on the absolutism of Islam, as a contrast to the mediated thought of European Jews and Christians.

"But far too much of modern Islam is dangerous, because much of the modern Islamic mainstream has rejected its mystical or mediated elements and is therefore committed . . . to a form of absolutism which paradoxically is exactly what French secularism is - hence you have a conflict of the absolutes. In Britain we . . . deny any absolutism to politics. In the end though . . . Europe must rediscover its Greek, Jewish and Christian heritage - all of which thought through the absolute and created intermediate thinking that believe we knew but could never completely know the absolute".

I agree that Britain is a less absolutist country than France (the cry of the French intellectual - "This may work in practice; but does it work in theory?!"), but I don't think we are any better placed to engage with fundamentalist Islam - our tendency to try and accommodate, to muddle along just means we are less likely to confront it head on. To our cost.

Blond goes on to deplore Conservatism's fixation with liberalism - the me-first culture.  Globalism hasn't helped either, for "the Western working (and lower middle) classes have not seen any real terms wage rises . . . for a generation, it's the . . . developing world and the very very rich of the West who have massively benefited from the liberal settlement . . . Indeed, coupled with mass migration and the license that social liberalism gives to it - not only are people hit economically but also socially and culturally. Traditional centuries-long identities are repudiated and ignored, and sectarian communities are imported and set up with little or no effort at integration. So it is a great relief to see Conservative party draw a line of distinction between neo-liberal policies of both left and right and to try to set up a conservative offer that seeks to create an inclusive and mutually self and other enhancing capitalism and the social and cultural bonds that such a system needs in order to function . . . (I think he's much too optimistic about conservatism here).  Yes the working classes have been abandoned since the ascension of Mrs Thatcher, even then before Thatcherism the working classes were not well served by their advocates . . ., who began through social liberalism to take apart stable working class communities and attack the extended and the nuclear family as patriarchal and outmoded . . . 

And on to the City, which Blond says "is a massive British financial asset but it does not really serve Britain as well as it might, it has no patriotic capital, no interest except in the centralization and arbitrage of money, and it has no wish or incentive in decentralizing capital to invest in the regions . . . outside of London. So a break with that model of the City would be most welcome and will I think occur".

"In a time of deep insecurity people's identities and cultures need protection and fostering, and part of this does mean the need to limit unprecedented levels of migration, some which is deeply hostile to European values . . . globalisation was hollowing out working class lives and . . . especially on the right we needed to talk about how to re-endow ordinary people with assets and wealth. I think social conservation and economic enfranchisement is the only political offer that can now win a majority and protect us against the extremists".

I think Blond has had it with social conservatism.  Its decline started with Cathy Come Home and gay marriage is the final nail in the coffin. Personally there's a lot of this kind of thing I don't mind, but I'm not so daft as to think that the stuff I don't like can be put back in its box. It can't be, and perhaps shouldn't be.

Blond goes on to talk about multiculturalism, which he thinks will work as a gambit for the Left in London, but not outside, where "it will be a huge negative for the left and will lose it elections. The left basically needs a new answer to modern capitalism that isn't welfare or taxation. There is little sign anywhere in the world of it making this intellectual leap, so . . . it is hard to see a Labour comeback (in either the long or short term).

Here I think he is bang on the money. The left's answer to our problems is tax and spend, or in Jeremy Corbyn's case tax, spend, borrow and print. My own view is that this problem is insoluble for the left, and it's not so much a case of unwillingness to make the intellectual leap Blond talks about as unawareness that the leap needs to be made at all. As it is I don't know of anyone on either left or right who has a plausible way out of the left's dilemma, which is, essentially, that we can't afford our public services in an era when people tend to live into their 80s.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Not I, Daniel Blake

I won't be going to see the new Ken Loach film, I, Daniel Blake.

It's difficult in any story to know how much weight we should load onto a character.  The vicious Indians in Larry McMurtry's wonderful Lonesome Dove, the treacherous Portuguese Jews in John Buchan, feckless Bertie Wooster, conniving Shylock, angry Othello - these are not intended, we tell ourselves, as exemplars of their race, religion or class. To see them as such is to rob the characters of individuality. And yet our suspicion remains that they stand totemically, inviting us to draw unappealing conclusions about their offstage peers.

In Loach's new film the eponymous hero is a good man recovering from a heart attack, who falls through the cracks of the benefits system despite his inability to work. According to the Times' four star review, Blake meets at every turn "pusillanimous jobsworths who can’t see beyond spreadsheets and questionnaires. They impassively grind him down, forcing him into a Kafta-esque form-filling nightmare and ultimately denying him his rightful state support."

What exactly is Loach's point? Is it that all benefit claimants are good and deserving? Possibly not. That Blake or the single mum he befriends are deserving may not be intended to reassure those not on benefits but who pay others to be that their money is well-spent. But if this isn't the aim, what is the point of the drama? To show what happened to these people and these people alone?

That seems unlikely, because the baddie in Loach's scenario is the benefits system itself, and the way that medically unqualified staff are cutting off the needy. Whilst you can argue that a bad screen Muslim, for example, does not stand for Muslims generally, the portrayal of a bad UK benefits system is effectively an allegation that our actual benefits system is bad. That's certainly what the Guardian thought Loach was doing.  Peter Bradshaw's four star review thought the film showed "a system that is almost deliberately planned to create just those desperate, futile shouting matches in the benefits office that lead to sanctions and punishments".

And that may be so. I don't know, because I don't have any dealings with it. But here's something I do know. I know of some people who have been on health-related benefits for years and who are conning the system. She is said to have an untreatable hernia. He is said to have an incapacitating back injury. In fact both are active, hale and hearty, and enjoying an early retirement at our expense. I should report them, I suppose.

Now I don't believe these are typical benefit claimants for a moment. There will be some cheats always. But firstly our system, bad as it may be, has not yet succeeded in finding these two out. It will be even less able to do so when, partly because of pressure by the likes of Ken Loach, the government stops testing the long-term sick at all. Secondly, benefit tests are stringent for a reason. It is that Britain cannot afford its public spending. We are currently borrowing about one billion pounds every week just to stay afloat. We cannot afford to pay people benefits who are not eligible for them.

What does Loach's film have to say about that? Does the budget deficit get a mention? Does Loach show any of the undeserving poor? Does it tell viewers that there are some areas of Glasgow where the majority of the working age population are on sickness benefit?

As I haven't seen the film I don't know. But I'll bet Loach keeps these things well away from the screen. Please someone write in and tell me I'm wrong.

PS "When Daniel fails the initial test by just a few arbitrarily conceived points", writes Bradshaw, "you find yourself thinking, If only he wasn't so honest . . . But in so doing, he would become precisely that kind of TV stock figure, that Shameless or Benefits Street cheat whose presence in black comedy and reactionary political gossip justified the whole setup to begin with".

It's worth noting that Bradshaw's concern is not that Daniel should cheat, but that he should risk becoming a "kind of TV stock figure" in doing so. What are these stock figures? Shameless was fiction (although probably no less accurate than Loach's own fiction). Benefits Street showed real people. What is Bradshaw's point? Is he saying that there aren't any real benefit cheats? Or is he saying he doesn't want Loach to show anyone cheating in case people get the idea that, you know, there might be people actually out there doing it?

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Highland Clearances

As a long-time Hibernophile my view of the tragedy of the Highland clearances was formed by reading John Prebble's famous book in the 1970s. It's a devastating narrative of greed and displacement. In some coastal places you can still see the Black houses, so-called because the tenants were said to have been burned out by avaricious southern landlords.

I'm used to the idea that most of the iconic ideas about Scottish history are more or less bunkum, a phenomenon that finds its locus classicus in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. Bonnie Prince Charlie was not the heir to the throne; he was the son of the heir. He spoke neither English or Gaelic; his first language was Italian. The conflict which followed his landing was not an English / Scottish one; it is better described as a Stuart / Hanoverian, or Catholic / Protestant or Lowland / Highland one. Many of the chieftains who fought with Charles did so reluctantly (as did many of their clansmen). More Scots fought on the government side at Culloden than on that of the rebels.

And so on and so forth. That hasn't stopped the conflict being cast in the popular mind as a product of English wickedness (largely because of the reprisals exacted on the Highlands by the vengeful Hanoverian goverment in London). No doubt it exerts a tendentious mental sway on the Independence movement even today.

But surely the Clearances - that really happened? No?

Well, yes and no. I've just been reading The Highland Clearances by Australian historian Eric Richards, and it's an eye-opener for everyone interested in Scotland, and in this subject. The Clearances did take place, but not in the manner or for the reasons that a resentful national myth perpetuates.

Contrary to popular belief -

- An idyllic agrarian community did not exist in the glens until disrupted by landlords; in fact Highlanders often lived in squalid conditions beset by poverty and famine.

- The property did not belong to the tenants, but to the landlord, who was entitled to remove them upon giving proper notice. Such notice was generally a year.

- The tenants had generally not held their land since time immemorial - on the contrary there was significant turnover.

- Almost always due notice to quit was given.

- In some cases tenants were given years to prepare for removal.

- Many of the people cleared were squatters who had no right to be there.

- In many cases landlords were owed significant arrears of rent, which was often waived upon clearance.

- In some cases landlords spent thousands of pounds providing alternative land by the coasts.

- In many cases landlords spent thousands of pounds trying to set up alternative industries such as fishing and kelp farming.

- Most clearances were not accompanied by violence.

- Property was destroyed or burned after evictions to prevent tenants returning, rather than in order to force them to leave in the first place.

- The only person tried for violent evictions - Patrick Sellar - was accused by a man he had previously caught poaching.  Sellar was acquitted by an Inverness jury.

- Many people left the land voluntarily because they could not make a living. One contemporary writer said that even if the land had been given rent free, it would have been impossible to make a decent living there. Even today it is very hard to get by in the Highlands.

- Almost all the landlords were Scots, as were the overwhelming majority of sheep-farmers who replaced the tenants. Some of these were men from the Lowlands, but a significant minority were themselves Highlanders. Almost none of them were English.

- The most significant English participant, the Earl of Stafford, came into the story only because he married the Countess of Sutherland. The Countess had plans for "improvement" but lacked the means to carry them out.  Her new husband was wealthy, and together they ploughed what were then vast sums of money (from England, for what it's worth) into the Sutherland estates, believing that new coastal communities would benefit both the estate and the tenants.  The Duke and Duchess were horrified by allegations of Patrick Sellar's brutality and he was sacked. The bulk of the money invested was never recovered and by 1820 it had become apparent that the resettlement schemes were a failure.

Of course what is immediately obvious from the above list is that although, for example, "in some cases tenants were given years to prepare for removal", in some cases they weren't. That would also go for removal by violence. Some tenants were violently removed. But overall the picture I have had for years, one in which all landlords behaved dreadfully, is refuted. They did not. They often did their incompetent best in impossible circumstances. The tragedy for the tenants was that there were few other places to go, other than the big cities or, often, Canada.

Moreover the picture Richards paints is of a landscape beset by poverty (as was much of rural Europe), the burden of which in the Highlands fell on the landlord, who was expected to care for his tenants in hard times. And this, incidentally, goes to what I felt was a weakness in the book. Here is a society where the old feudal system of mutual obligation is breaking down. The idea that the relationship with a tenant is a commercial rather than patriarchal one is a modern one. Nowadays for example we are quite used to the idea of a landlord seeking to regain control over his property after giving due notice to quit. Not so in the late 18th century. Where did this modern idea derive? What did people think of it at the time, and how was it formulated?

Nevertheless this is a fascinating story, and a neat marginal destruction of another small piece of the SNP's intellectual jigsaw.

Call me Ali? OK, no problem

A salutary tale.

Last week I needed to order some expensive domestic goods.  A friend steered me in the direction of an Ebay seller in Yorkshire who flogs these items refurbished, significantly cheaper than new.  I phoned the mobile number on the website, and after a few minutes conversation found I had ordered two items. "You can pay by bank transfer", said the pleasant young man.  "If you drop me an email confirming the order I'll send you my bank details".  He gave me his email address, which was an Asian-sounding name followed by  "That's me", he said, "but call me Ali. They all do".

A little later it occurred to me that I was about to wire £500 to someone I hadn't met and who didn't even have his own website. So I googled Ali's name, which took me to a page on social media which was clearly that of the same guy.  You could tell, because amongst the other stuff on the page were some images concerning a kitchen supply business in Yorks.

Feeling a bit of a voyeur (although of course this stuff was publicly available) I scrolled down the photos and posts.  They showed a nice looking young British Asian man with a delightful looking baby daughter. No pictures of Mrs Ali. Quite a lot of stuff about the Hajj pilgrimage, which he seemed to have made. Then things got a bit darker. An unpleasant caricature of Tony Blair with the word "Murderer" written across his forehead. A heroic reference to George Galloway. Some fiery looking Islamic preachers. And finally, inevitably, some stuff about Jews. To be fair, most of it about Israel, but also about Jews, and a hateful picture of one of the Rothschilds lined up alongside the evil Mr Burns from The Simpsons. Something about funding all world wars.

No reference to ISIL's crimes against humanity.  No indication of contact with wider non-Muslim British society.

I sent an email to Ali saying I didn't want to go through with the purchase. "To be clear", I wrote, "I’m not Jewish and I think Israel has often treated the Palestinians shamefully.  On the other hand I know from many conversations with Jews over the years that there is a clear distinction between Zionism and Judaism which some people, both inside and outside the Muslim world, don’t make sufficiently clearly, where they’re willing to make it at all. I don’t really want to do business with someone like that. Sorry."

(I wish now I'd also written, "I would have done just the same thing if there'd been Islamophobic comments.")

Back came the laconic reply: "OK, no problem".

Now I need to go and find another, more expensive, kitchen supply company.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Brexit reflections #13 - how not to negotiate

I owe Sir Keir Starmer, the new Labour MP for Holborn and St Pancras, a great deal.  He is an old friend of my wife's, and it's probably true to say that I would not be married to her without his involvement in a case I helped with when he was a junior barrister and I was a young composer moonlighting as a solicitor's outdoor clerk.

In his capacity as Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir is pressing the Government for parliamentary scrutiny of negotiations. This is fine until you start to think about the practicalities.

In any negotiation the sensible starting position is miles away from where you're willing to end up. Britain's opening position in Brexit talks will bear only superficial resemblance to the negotiated result. If I'm right about this, what will be the point of parliamentary approval or discussion? What attitude should HMG take? "Don't worry chaps, this isn't what we really think. This is just our opening gambit, and we'll settle for anything which gives us full access to the single market"? Or should the Government have to defend a position to which it has no intention of sticking?

No doubt when agreement finally limps into view there will be calls for Parliamentary endorsement. So what do we do if the Government is unable to command a majority? Do we go to Mrs Merkel and say, "Sorry Angela, but you know this deal we've spent years negotiating - we're going to have to start again because parliament doesn't like it"?

Even if Parliament did approve a draft agreement, what if the Lords, stuffed with Lib Dem peers and overwhelmingly hostile to Brexit, keep the issue ping-ponging back and forth with an eye on the 2020 election and the chance to scupper Leave once and for all?

Parliamentary approval at any stage is unworkable where not actually counter-productive. Parliament wants to get involved because even Tory MPs cannot bear to be sidelined on the issue.

But hold on, you say, Parliament is the law-making body in this country. How can the Government do something as fundamental as this without getting Parliamentary endorsement? Well there's the Royal Prerogative, for starters. But in any event the Tories have a mandate. Their 2015 manifesto said that they'd have an In-Out referendum. If Leave won, who did Remainers - inside and outside Parliament - think was going to handle negotiations? The Greens? The Lib Dems? The inference that it would be the Tories doing so is the only reasonable one available.

As for Labour, how can they argue that they deserve the right to interfere with a process they didn't mention in their manifesto and would have stopped outright if they could?

The Tories have a mandate to secure Brexit on the best terms they possibly can according to their own judgment. Politicians and pundits may not like this, but it is the only practicable way available.

Why? Please consider what would happen if, at any stage in the process, there was a vote and the Government was defeated. That would be because they were outnumbered by Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems. Did any of those parties promise a referendum if they were elected to govern? No. To be clear, the will of the people, as expressed in both the referendum and in the 2015 general election, would have been thwarted by MPs with no mandate whatsoever in either forum.

The sovereignty of Parliament has been much invoked in the aftermath, as if that institution were the only source of legitimacy, but pardoxically in this situation I can't think of any better way to bring Parliament into disrepute.

Labour's new Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU has made the mistake of assuming that because there's something unsatisfactory about the Government's mandate for the specifics of Brexit (and clearly it's not ideal to say the least) there must somewhere be a perfect way of dealing with it. There may be (although I can't think of one), but the way Sir Keir proposes is actually less democratic and therefore worse.

Of course, that doesn't mean that Parliamentary scrutiny won't happen. It will. The Tory majority is too small, and God knows the party has enough dim and fractious MPs. Brexit terms will be debated in Parliament, the whole business will be a dog's breakfast of interference and we will get a worse deal as a result.

Many years ago I used to play 5-a-side football against Sir Keir. My abiding memory is of his footsteps approaching at speed: if you got the ball, he would be coming, and if you lingered long enough he would take it off you. I've got no doubt that Theresa May will hear his footsteps coming too, for Keir is a person whose brains and charisma put him in a different league to any Labour politician since Blair.

Brains and charisma aren't the only qualities a politician needs though. Amongst many others, there's also judgment.

PS You can see, incidentally, the way this is going to go by Newsnight's report last night that HMG is willing to pay very significant contributions to the EU in order to retain unfettered single market access. HMG's negotiating position is going to be undermined at every turn, and not just by Parliament.

PPS The financial markets have a reputation for seeing straight to the unsentimental core of politics. How is this? A sixth-former could see that May's Hard Brexit rehetoric is merely the outer skin of the onion. If I had dollars I'd be buying as many pounds as I could afford. At some point it's going to occur to currency traders that maybe the government's position is not quite as tough as it looks.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Brexit Reflections #12 - David Runciman, Michael Gove and the education gap

An excellent article in the Graun here by academic David Runciman has some interesting things to say about Brexit and the education divide.

Runciman points out that the University-educated were overwhelmingly likely to vote Remain, whilst the rest generally voted Leave.  But it's what he says about the significance of this that I find interesting.  Here are some bits:

"The Brexit campaign had its own Trumpian moment, courtesy of Michael Gove, who told [Sky News] that "the British people have had enough of experts". Gove was . . . widely mocked . . . But what he said struck a deep chord, because it contained a large element of truth. The experts . . . had been telling the British public that the risks of Brexit far outweighted any potential benefits. Gove insisted that the voters should decide this for themselves, on the basis of their own experiences, rather than listening to elite voices that had a vested interest in the outcome".


"There was consternation here [in Cambridge] following the result.  It was accompanied by a barely suppressed feeling that ignorance had won the day.  I lost count of the number of times I was told that one of the top trending searches on Google in the immediate aftermath of the vote was "What is the EU?".

"Hearing educated remainers mock those who asked that question the day after the vote was an uncomfortable experience - and not just because the story about Google searches was largely apocryphal . . . The split between the university towns and other parts of the country did not arise because one set of people understood what was truly at stake and the others were just taking a wild guess.  Both sides were guessing.  Even now, no one truly knows what is going to happen."


"The better-educated cleaved to one set of predictions because these chimed with what they already believed in. Polling . . . found that university graduates thought that [a Brexit vote] would produce an immediate financial crash, whereas those with fewer qualifications thought it much more likely that things would carry on as before.  Prior political preferences shape what we think the evidence shows, not the other way round . . . we all have a tendency to favour the worldview that enhances our future prospects.  The preference of university graduates for remaining in the EU echoes the benefits that EU membership gives them: the free movement of labour and easy access to European networks is better for those with the qualifications to take advantage of a knowledge economy. . . [But] Education does not simply divide us on the grounds of what is in our interests. It sorts us according to where we feel we belong.

Higher numbers of graduates, Runciman goes on to say, "have reinforced the education divide by enabling the better-educated to start congregating together: socially, geographically, romantically . . . If you went to university, ask yourself: how many of your friends didn't go . . . ?  And among your friends, how many of those who did are married to people who didn't?"

It's fair to say that I don't personally have any friends who don't have a degree*.  My only acquaintances who don't are the window cleaner, various people who work in shops in the village and some players in the orchestras I conduct.

"Social media now enhances these patterns.  Friendship groups of like-minded individuals reinforce each other's worldviews.  Facebook's news feed is designed to deliver information that users are more inclined to "like".  Much of the shock that followed the Brexit result in educated circles came from the fact that few people had been exposed to arguments that did not match their preferences.  Education does not provide any protection against these social media effects.  It reinforces them."

For me that was the most striking thing post-Brexit.  Time and again I found myself speaking to people who didn't seem to have met a Leave voter.  Ever. Their reactions varied from curiosity ("I must say that had never occurred to me", said one well-educated Left-leaning friend when I pointed out that the jobless and low paid perhaps didn't benefit too much from unrestricted migration) to unfeigned horror and hostility.

"Many of the safeguards that have been put in place to bypass popular politics", writes Runciman, "have had the effect of empowering a new class of experts, for whom education is a prerequisite of entry into the elite . . . not just the bankers, but the lawyers, the doctors, the civil servants, the technicians, the pundits, the academics. Not all of the educated are winners in this world, but almost all of the winners are educated. It gives the impression that knowledge has become a proxy for influence. 

When Gove suggested that the experts should not be trusted because they have a vested interest in what they are saying, that was his point: once knowledge becomes a prerequisite of power, then it no longer speaks for itself.  It appears to speak for the worldview of the people who possess it.  At that point it ceases to be knowledge and simply becomes another mark of privilege . . . Once knowledge is assumed to be just another one of the perks of power, then the basis to trust others to take decisions for us becomes eroded. Asserting the facts and asserting your privilege grow increasingly difficult to distinguish . . . These days the rich find it quite hard to get away with the presumption that their wealth is proof of their virtue. When they seek protection from the system, it is pretty clear what they are up to: they are looking after their interests. But when the educated look out for themselves they can dress it up as something ostensibly better than that: expertise . . . To those on the receiving end, it stinks. It stinks of hypocrisy, and it also stinks of self-interest.

I think this is all very perceptive, and I query only one aspect. I absolutely take the point that the educated tended to be in favour of Remain because they - we - benefit from the EU; and I also accept that the esteem in which knowledge and education are held is diminished thereby, although I very much doubt that anyone (with or without a degree) ever thinks of this in any other than the vaguest way. But because Runciman fails to distinguish between different forms of expertise he misses a narrower point that Michael Gove was making too: why should we believe economic experts when they are almost all almost always wrong?

The great unwashed may be ignorant, but they can detect bullshit a mile off. When economic experts say there'll be a crash if we leave the EU the proles say, "Nah. Don't think so. We'll just muddle through". When experts say, "Migration is good for the economy", those at the bottom end look around them at low-wage jobs, unemployment, queues for housing and the NHS and say, "Well it's not good for me mate".

No-one is expert on the future, and working class Leavers have just as much chance of being right as Mark Carney, George Osborne and David Cameron.

*I do however have a number of friends who only have one degree :)

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

In defence of Paul Gascoigne

Actually, Paul Gascoigne's request to his black bouncer (alleged to have been "can you smile please, because I can't see you") is indefensible. So no, I have nothing to say in Gascoigne's defence.

However just because I can't find anything good to say about Gascoigne's comment doesn't mean the ex-footballer should have got a criminal conviction.

Gascoigne was apparently charged under section 31(1)(c) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. A person is guilty of this offence if he commits an offence under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 which is racially or religiously aggravated.  That's to say to commit an offence under the 1998 Act you must have committed an offence under the earlier Act with some religious or racial aggravation added on.

Section 5 of the POA says you're guilty of an offence if (inter alia) you use "threatening or abusive words or behaviour . . . within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby."  Gascoigne certainly didn't use any threatening behaviour, so the allegation must have been that he used "abusive words".

Is "Can you smile please, because I can't see you" abusive?  It suggests of course that by reason of the bouncer's dark skin he was hard to see.  But that's not exactly abuse.  Calling someone a fat cunt is abuse. Gascoigne's words may have been humiliating and insulting, but it isn't an offence to humiliate or insult someone (actually we know this specifically in the case of s.5 because it contained the word insulting until February 2014, when it was removed from the Act).

If Gascoigne's words aren't abusive he hasn't committed an offence. And were his words likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress?  Harassment suggests a continuous course of behaviour; this was a one-off.  A bouncer employed by Gascoigne is unlikely to have felt alarm. Distress seems a bit nearer the mark, although I'm surprised Gascoigne's barrister didn't argue that distress requires a degree of extreme pain beyond annoyance and offence.

So it looks as if Gascoigne had a reasonable chance of acquittal on either the meaning of abusive or the meaning of distress.  And yet he, presumably on the advice of his brief, decided to plead guilty. Strange.

I worry desperately about the use of the law to impose liberalism's norms on public discourse.  In case you think I'm alone in this, here's Matthew Norman, writing on the Gascoigne case recently in the Independent - "Personally, I think the infringement of the criminal law into matters of taste is clumsy and generally counterproductive, and that the sanctity of freedom of speech outweighs the need to protect people from being offended . . . in what surreal madhouse is an offensive joke automatically conflated with a criminal offence?  Here we find the quality of mercy strained to destruction".

There is a place for constraint of free speech.  Well actually two of them.  The first is that if the words are defamatory you should be able to secure damages in the civil courts.  The second is where the words either put a person in fear of violence, or make it likely that violence will ensue.  Free speech is too precious to mess about with in any other circumstances.

And the best remedy for people like Gascoigne is to know them, pity them and, if persistent, shun and avoid them.