10 Sept 2016

Yes, Prime Minister

Hello readers!

My previous posts were concerned with the state of my upcoming novel, the Ark, as well as my experiences here in Amsterdam. This post is not about that; there is little to add so far. It is instead about a matter that I will still occasionally address here on the Magical Realm—that of British politics.

I have devised a hypothesis: the more I analyse British politics, the stranger it all seems. I liken it to an addiction; it fascinates me to no end. Anyway, the topics I will be addressing here are threefold. Firstly—the Brexit. (This is obviously the overarching factor behind a lot of this, and it will likely remain an issue for many years to come.) Secondly—the Labour leadership. And finally, May’s plans to bring back the grammars.

The Brexit

These past few weeks have seen three important, if unsurprising, announcements. We firstly know that May’s Cabinet is divided and does not know exactly what it wants from the negotiations (let alone how to achieve it).

Secondly, we have learnt that the US is prioritising trade discussions with the EU before the UK. (Suck it up, Brexiteers.) And thirdly, the Japanese government has published an open letter from its business leaders warning that Japanese companies in the UK—like Nissan—will ‘reconsider their investments’ (i.e. leave) if the UK does not maintain single market access.

So what’s the outlook on all this? It looks rather dim from where I’m standing. The naive amongst us may think this will provoke May (if not the Brexiteers, whose delusion is without bounds) to make keeping the UK’s single-market access a priority. But I do not believe this is the case; May has been adamant that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

What precisely this means if not entirely clear, but it’s safe to assume it will involve some sort of migration controls—and by implication curtailed access to the single market.

From what I’ve seen, a lot of commentators—and it seems some Tories—believe that May is a secret Remainer: that her appointments of BoJo, Foxy and Davey (collectively, the three Brexiteers—like from Musketeers, you know?) are really just a clever ruse to abrogate political responsibility when the negotiations inevitably fail to deliver on the Brexiteers’ insouciant fantasy. Giving them rope to hang themselves with, so to speak.

This may sound plausible, but I don’t find it particularly credible. For me, the skepticism stems from what I know of Theresa May’s personality. She’s not the quiet, sensible and competent woman she likes to pretend she is. Her support for Remain, if we recall, was lukewarm at best.

Rather, what I see in Theresa is Cruella. As Home Secretary, she was involved in many questionable deportations—and was held in contempt of court for one of those deportations (Wikipedia, ‘Deportation decisions’). She planned to introduce a £37,000 a year salary requirement for non-EU immigrants, putting many NHS nurses at threat of deportation. She refused to grant asylum to a Nigerian lesbian who faced serious danger back home. (Telegraph) And—she was a proponent for scrapping the Human Rights Act, something which she can now do outside the EU.

Her support for Remain may have been entirely politically expedient (Cameron was pro-EU after all, and she was a senior figure in the Cabinet). Or, barring that, we can at least say that it was a reluctant position born of political realism.

So in light of this, I see the following scenario as being most probable. Firstly, after a delayed and protracted period, May invokes Article 50; in the negotiations, she and her Brexiteers argue for a cap on migration, but the EU refuses. ‘Free movement or WTO’ is the EU’s position.

So, May pulls the UK out of the EU, and loses access to the Common Market. Not long after, the UK will see recession, followed by stalled growth. The SNP call a referendum, and Scotland leaves the UK in order to keep its place in Europe.

As for the rest... I can only speculate at this point. But I doubt it will be pretty.

Labour Leadership

The other big thing going on is of course the leadership contest. In about two weeks, voting will have closed and we will discover who is leader of the Labour party.

I have already made clear my support for Smith in previous posts, and indeed—I’ve already voted for him. I will therefore address two things here. Firstly, what is the nature of the support for Corbyn—and can Smith win? Secondly, if Corbyn does win, what will happen next?

With regards to Corbyn’s support, I think it is fair to say Corbynism is one of the most misunderstood political phenomena in British history. The commentariat are dreaming about a revived British Trotskyism. Even his own MPs don’t understand the nature of his support—cue Tom Watson’s conspiracy theory about ‘old hands twisting young arms’.

Let’s make this clear: there’s a lot I don’t like about Corbyn’s movement (and for good reason) but Corbynism is not some conspiracy by entryist Trots and Tories. The number of Tories that voted in the leadership contest was vanishingly small. And I don’t believe there are enough Trots in this country to influence an electorate of 600,000.

Rather, Corbyn’s base is made up of what I see as two similar, though distinct, support groups. The first is an influx of generally young, idealistic and politically naive people. Some of them are ‘champagne socialists,’ but from my experience the majority are people who have been continually let down by successive governments: I’m talking about students with £27K of debt, young adults struggling to get on the housing market, and of course the numpties who are still banging on about Iraq.

The second group is made up of long-time Labour party members. I know some of them who voted for David Milliband in the leadership election. I know a lot of them who voted Tony Blair when he was standing for leadership.

The former group should not surprise you, but why, do you wonder, does Corbyn have support from the latter group? Surely, you would think, no one can vote for Blair and then for Corbyn!

Well, the reality in British politics is that electorates aren’t ideological: they judge political candidates not on whether they are socialist, Third Way liberal, or anything else. They judge them on the way the candidate can improve the country and their lives (as they judge it).

Tony Blair was seen as a charismatic and likable politician who beat the Tories. Ed Milliband was seen by many as a bit boring; there was little to recommend in him.

One thing that is true, however, is that the old guard of Corbyn supporters almost universally despise the Tony Blair of today. The Iraq war is a big reason for that, obviously; but just as importantly, I’ve found, were his failures to undo neoliberalism (it’s not stated like that, usually, but the angry words about unions and banks are getting at it) along with his craven support for dictators and big money.

The reason Corbyn appeals to them is twofold. To the young, he speaks a narrative that they have never heard: he speaks of undoing tuition fees, fighting against big business tax dodging, and bringing a brighter future to their cloudy prognosis. To the old, they see the antithesis of Blair: a man with integrity.

So, the million dollar question. Can Smith win them over?

On one level, it should be possible. Smith is compassionate as well as realistic; he understands why people are angry (just check out his plans to scrap tuition fees and help young people with housing) but he also knows that Corbyn is politically naive—his plans to scrap Trident being just one foolhardy example.

Smith is obviously more charismatic than Corbyn. In more normal circumstances, he should easily convince the young to vote for him.

So why aren’t the polls showing this? It’s to do with the circumstances of the leadership contest. Corbyn faced a vote of no-confidence and lost, with 80% (!) of his parliamentary colleagues saying they have no faith in him. Rational people would see this as enough reason to seriously question his role as leader; the fact that many in his Shadow Cabinet resigned, leaving him unable to fill all of the portfolios, should make Corbyn a laughing stock.

Don’t believe me? Just read the articles by Thangam Debonaire and Heidi Alexander. The picture they paint is sobering: Corbyn is incompetent, appointing and then sacking Debonaire without telling her (and while she was getting treatment for cancer!), and repeatedly undermining S. Cabinet positions on air.

But Corbyn’s backers drew the opposite conclusion from these facts. To them, Debonaire and Alexander were dangerous Blairites—not ordinary Labour MPs—determined to backstab the Great Leader and undermine his Holy Mission. (I am exaggerating here, but only a little.)

Owen Smith they saw as a false socialist, a conjuring by the Blairite devils to sway the people from the true path. His policies and ideas could not be genuine, they reasoned. His dealings with Pfizer were proof of that. (By that account, Clement Attlee could not have been a socialist, because he was an aristocrat. In real life, of course, things are more complicated than that.)

I’m not saying Smith is perfect; he has flaws just like anyone else. But I believe the anger and hope that drove people to Corbyn has morphed into something more sinister: a kind of paranoia, so typical of the far left, coupled with a misty eyed appreciation of Corbyn.

Corbyn, it seems, is immune from rational criticism. In my logic classes, we would call it the fallacy of ‘Ad hominem: poisoning the well’. In other words, anyone who criticises Corbyn must be some sort of Blairite/Red Tory/backstabber.

So, personally, I don’t think Smith will win.

But if so, what do we do? Do we united behind Corbyn—and pretend all of this sort of never happened? Do we try and get rid of him through underhand means, with the threat of forming a new party?

Like Smith, I think the latter is a bad idea. Corbyn and McDonnell—along with the Progress rump—are both crazy enough to not stand down, and to actually split. That would be disastrous.

So, we get behind Corbyn. We go along with his policies; we stop penning nasty articles in the rightwing press. (That includes you, Simon Danczuk.) We try and do our best in his incompetent Shadow Cabinet. If Corbyn fails to win the general election, it would be on his account—not ours.

Grammar Grammar

Let us move away from Labour’s internecine conflict, and onto a recent policy unveiled by the dear Theresa.

I am of course talking about the (re) introduction of the grammar school. It is currently a topic of great debate among the commentariat; her political motives are being extensively scrutinised.

I’m not going to pay much attention to that. My intention here is only to consider the grammar school on the basis of its merit, as someone who has been to both a grammar school and a comprehensive.

You know what I think? The grammar school is not such a great idea. I am unconvinced by the claim that grammar schools improve the outcomes of the children who are selected into it (compared to a comprehensive); this is partly due to a lack of convincing statistical evidence, but also because of personal experience.

I was successful academically in my comprehensive. I got very high grades in maths and sciences; I had a strong interest in writing and reading, which the school library was able to suffice (for the most part).

Smart children in comprehensives are not forced to learn with the idiots; in my school, we separated the more academically able children into sets 0 and 1, and the less able going up the sets, until you hit set 6. (The children there were mentally disabled, or had alcoholic parents.)

You might argue that this just selection under a different system. Well yes; that’s the point. Selection in a grammar school is the very worst kind of selection. It happens at age 11; it leaves late developers behind. It places a lot of stress on primary-school age children. And, since the children are not adults and have no motivation of their own, it is basically a measure of how much money the parents put into tutoring their kid.

But that’s not the worst of it. The test is far from infallible; it is not only vulnerable to the efforts of tutors, but it actually requires tutoring. I—who got 12 GCSEs, mainly As and As, am attending a top 100 world university, got poetry published *and wrote a book at 15—failed the 11+! My parents, who are mathematicians, struggled with the so-called ‘non verbal reasoning’.

To top it all off, once the tutoring got you through the 11+, you were thrown into a bubble. Nearly everyone is middle class. You don’t interact with people from different social backgrounds; people who are poor, whose parents are very unlike yours, and who seem to be very different from you.

So you see, getting selected into a grammar school is not necessarily that good for you.

Nor is it any good for the people who don’t get selected: they go to a comprehensive where much of the talent has been creamed off. While enough bright kids usually remain in order to form a class, I do believe that since the majority of the kids are lower down the academic and social pecking order, they—the poor kids—also live in a sort of bubble. They don’t see that much of the bright kids (which are a minority), and think that getting a couple of Cs and Ds at GCSE is somehow acceptable. Their friends did the same, right?

Closing Thoughts

I have written quite enough on British politics for now. I will address it in future, but for now I have work to do on the Ark. Wish me luck. And if you haven’t already, consider signing up to the mailing list.

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