The best things I’ve read recently (22/08/16)

This week: Marx and Corbyn, Democrats and Tammany Hall, and indecisive movie studios

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion by Gareth Stedman Jones – review by Oliver Bullough (the Guardian)

“Stedman Jones eventually comes to the conclusion that the pioneers of 20th-century socialism would have found Marx’s true dreams incomprehensible, since they were formed in a pre-1848 world that would have had little if any relevance to them. The eventual message is that Marxist ideology and Marx himself were very different things.

I couldn’t help noticing while reading the book, however, some clear parallels between modern leftist politics and the habits of the old man. Thanks to his obsession with minute points of ideological deviation, his determination to cling to leadership positions despite the increasing irrelevance of the groups he led, his conviction that victory was imminent despite near-overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and his repeated estrangement of potential allies for no apparent reason, Marx would surely have felt at home in today’s Labour party.”

Cinemautopsy: What Went Wrong With ‘Fantastic Four’? by Matt Singer (Screen Crush)

“History seems to have repeated itself this summer. Just 10 days ago Warner Bros. released Suicide Squad, another heavily hyped and very expensive comic-book adaptation with a massive identity crisis. Like Fantastic Four, Suicide Squad feels like two totally different movies sutured together. Some scenes are grim and cynical; others are colorful and jokey. Combined, the two movies suggest the beginnings of an alarming Hollywood trend: Studios greenlighting challenging takes on material, getting cold feet during production, then trying to backtrack to something formulaic and familiar after it’s too late to start from scratch.

With so much money on the line, it makes sense that executives would want to protect their investment (and, by extension, their own jobs). But I’m baffled why they don’t just play it safe in the first place. How do you start with a weird, serious Fantastic Four and wind up with the Thing punching Doctor Doom into a giant sky laser? I reached out to Jeremy Slater, one of the three credited screenwriters of the film, who offered a few insights into early versions of the script, and the thinking behind these massive tentpoles.”

Democrats Should Bring Back Political Machines by Kevin Baker (the New Republic)

“Politics, like any war, is best conducted by professionals. But liberals and the left continue to place their hopes in “outsiders” and “insurgents,” amateurs who rail against the system without the means to reform it. The Green Party, for example, has embarked on yet another presidential campaign to nowhere; as its presumptive nominee, Jill Stein, recently boasted to The Village Voice, “I’m a physician, not a politician.”

Stein seemed to consider this a point of pride. [Tammany Hall boss] George Washington Plunkitt would have set her straight. “Politics is as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or the drug business,” he observed. “You’ve got to be trained up to it or you’re sure to fail.”

7 ways to fix the Bourne franchise

 

*Spoilers for Jason Bourne and all the proceeding Bourne films*

The Bourne films are clearly popular. Therefore, a lot of people like them. I, however, love them. While I don’t care for the Legacy, the peculiar semi-sequel with Jeremy Renner rather than Matt Damon, I’ve watched each of three ‘proper’ Bourne films – the Identity, the Supremacy and the Ultimatum – at least a dozen times. Including one New Year’s when I binged them all in a single sitting.

Despite this I had reservations about a fifth film. When it was first announced I wrote that[1]:

“Beneath all the shaky cam, parkour and killing people with pens; the Bourne films had a very human narrative arc. When at the start of the Identity we first encounter Jason Bourne on a fishing boat in the Mediterranean, he has absolutely no recollection of who he is. By the end of the Ultimatum he has looked into the eyes of the man who effected his transformation from ordinary soldier to superior assassin and told him “I remember.” Bourne’s very literal identity crisis was the motor of the films and by the close of the trilogy it had been fittingly resolved. Further films are superfluous.”

But things started looking up. Paul Greengrass – the director of the Supremacy and the Ultimatum­ and crafter of many of the franchises’ most recognisable traits – was brought onboard and the trailer looked cool. So I began to doubt my doubts.

Sadly the finished product is deeply underwhelming. Partly that’s a function of the fact that the novelty has worn off. Things that once seemed revelatory now look merely competent. Not of course that we should take for granted the kind of competence Paul Greengrass has. But even the best of the scenes he creates this time round lack the punch of their predecessors. It’s also strangely cold.

Nonetheless, the early indications are that it will make enough money that a sixth film is at least a possibility.[2] If that happens here are some of the ways I feel it could be more interesting than Jason Bourne.

1. Hire a proper scriptwriter

Jason Bourne was the first film in the franchise not to be written or co-written by Tony Gilroy. The job was instead done by Greengrass and his editor. It goes without saying that both of these men have talent to spare but not necessarily as scriptwriters.

Gilroy could make bureaucrats bickering spark with a kind of workaday Sorkinism. For example:

Ward Abbott:       Can you really bring him in?

Conklin:                  I think we’re past that, don’t you? What, do you have a better idea?

Ward Abbott:   Well, so far, you’ve given me nothing but a trail of collateral damage from Zurich to Paris. I don’t think I could do much worse.

Conklin:               Well, why don’t you go upstairs and book a conference room. Maybe you can talk him to death.[3]

In Jason Bourne we instead get dialogue like “we should work together Bourne. We both want to bring down the corrupt institutions that control our society” that is so obviously functional that it sounds like a placeholder added to an early draft of the script that no one got round to replacing. That means that the scenes centring on Bourne’s CIA antagonists – which are essentially all dialogue – subtract rather than add tension.

Fixing this doesn’t necessarily mean bringing Gilroy back. He may be too busy with Star Wars or simply have given this franchise all he has to offer.[4] But the next film ought to have a professional script writer on board. How about  Gregory Burke? He who wrote the very Greengrassian ’71 after all.

2. Bring back Joan Allen

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs then you might be Pamela Landy. The steely CIA trouble shooter with a moral centre played by Joan Allen was one of the best parts of the Supremacy and the Ultimatum. She gave us someone to root for in the CIA sequences and her return would likely improve any new film.

3. The villain should be played by someone who wants to be there

The Bourne franchise has had a run of interesting and distinctive villains. They’ve all been shadowy CIA figures. However, each actor put a different twist on them. Chris Cooper played his as an unhinged missionary, Brian Cox as a venal figure taking what he can under the cover of official secrecy and hiding his theft under a growing pile of corpses, David Strathairn a loyal agency man – a sort of Sir Humphrey of the CIA – and Edward Norton a sort of dark reflection of Pamela Landy, he efficiently solves problems even if those problems are people and the solution is killing them.

By contrast, in Jason Bourne we have Tommy Lee Jones looking bored. He does things. Those things generally advance the plot but they don’t add up to a portrayal of a real feeling character. That’s partly a product of the poor writing. But mostly its Jones’ responsibility. When he chooses to be, he is a great actor. But of late he seems to be doing a lot of showing up to collect the cheque. When he does he’s pretty unengaging.

So the next instalment needs a better villain. That may well be Alicia Vikander’s character making a return. Overconfident prodigy certainly would be a new kind of antagonist. But there are other actors one could look to. I’d love to see Michelle Yeoh, Mark Gatiss or Peter Dinklage give it a try but only if they are genuinely interested in their character.

4. Draw inspiration from the news. Don’t copy it!

The Bourne films present a rather cynical depiction of the American intelligence agencies. They are shown as corrupt, homicidal, error prone, reckless, disrespectful of both American and international law, and willing to abuse their authority to keep all of that hidden.

Subsequent events have vindicated much of this depiction. The Iraqi WMD programs the CIA verified the existence of turned out to be a hoax. It transpired that the CIA was abducting terrorism suspects of the streets of European cities so they could be tortured by allies with dubious human rights records, a process known as ‘extraordinary rendition’. Edward Snowden revealed a pattern of quite possibly illegal mass surveillance. This was actually less damning than the fact that before Snowden went to the press, a number of other whistleblowers had gone through official channels and been prosecuted for it.[5] And assassination has become a central plank of the war on terror, it’s just been conducted with drones rather than spies.

But whereas the original trilogy was prescient, Jason Bourne is reactive. Real people, issues and organisation are more or less transcribed into the plot. There are stand-ins for Julian Assange and Mark Zuckerberg. Snowden is actually mentioned by name.

That makes the parallels the film draws a) jarringly obvious and b) decidedly unoriginal. Popular culture has already digested the repercussions of the Snowden leak: think of Captain America: Winter Soldier or Person of Interest.

Given Greengrass’ background as a journalist you’d hope for some new insight. In earlier films, he and Gilroy picked up on how the War on Terror was militarising the CIA and imagined why that might be dangerous. This was a process perhaps assisted by the fact that Greengrass had previously done a lot of work focusing on Northern Ireland, so had seen how a war on terror can corrupt security forces. Jason Bourne conspicuously lacks a similar leap of imagination. Which is a pity. It would have been interesting to see Greengrass grapple with say the idea of a return to geopolitical competition between great powers. How would Bourne fit into that world? Might he, for example, encounter a Russian or Chinese treadstone?

Whatever direction they take the Bourne franchise should aim to be ahead of the news not behind it.

5. Bourne needs to grow not regress

A big problem with Jason Bourne is that the eponymous hero doesn’t really develop as a character. Stuff happens to him and his status quo at the end differs from the beginning. But none of this change really gets at who he is. Todd VanDerWerff puts this well in his review of the film for Vox:

..the worst decision Jason Bourne makes is smothering all of this [plot development] with a heaping helping of daddy issues. Bourne wasn’t just made a super spy, see. No, it turns out his father was involved in the creation of the Treadstone program that trained him and took his memory. And, of course, Bourne’s father is dead, so he has no real way to process these emotions.

The sins of the father being at the root of the son’s issues is a very old one in fiction, but it’s rarely done as lazily as it is here. The “Bourne’s dad was maybe evil?!” plot feels so perfunctory that it’s a surprise any of the actors can play it with a straight face.

Even worse is that the film has an effective story it could use to motivate Bourne — his clear questioning of whether the truly patriotic thing to do is remain a rogue CIA weapon. Couldn’t he do some good working for the government again? The film introduces that idea, then shrugs it off in favor of the dead dad stuff. It’s enervating.

In my opinion worse still is that Bourne’s development from previous films is actually undone.

In the early stages of the Supremacy, Bourne’s romantic partner Marie is killed by an assassin targeting Bourne himself. This sets him on a quest for revenge. But along the way he realises that killing on Marie’s behalf would betray her memory. He eventually decides that the way to honour her is not to punish people for their sins but to make amends for his own.

Jason Bourne also sets him on a quest for revenge only this time he kills the people he’s after. It never even tries to square that with his decision in the Supremacy.

 6. Keep it grounded

In general, Jason Bourne is a step down not only from the original trilogy but also the Bourne Legacy which did at least have a properly realised plot and cast of characters. But it made the unfortunate decision to devote a lot of attention to the mechanics of creating super-assassins. All the talk of genetic enhancing pills or whatever took the franchise perilously close to sci-fi which is an awkward fit for a series that’s principal selling point had been being down to earth. Jason Bourne avoids this error and any future films should follow it.

 7. Go somewhere new

Bourne films have a formula. As it has produced 3 great films and 2 ok ones, mucking around with it too much would be a mistake. There should always be fights with improvised weapons, people staring at monitors whilst speaking quickly and a score that is 90% bassline. But Jason Bourne shows signs of staleness. This becomes especially apparent when Greengrass begins self-plagiarising. Dewey’s confession is like Abbot’s, Nicky Parson’s death by sniper recalls Marie’s and the huge car chase through Vegas is basically the same as the one through Moscow at the end of the Supremacy. They both feature Bourne in a car duelling with someone who killed a loved one and has an advantage over him because they are in a larger car. That allows them to trap Bourne’s car on their bumper but just before they can slam him into something, he manages to free his car, so it is his opponent that goes crashing into an obstacle.

But avoiding recreating past scenes isn’t really enough. Even when the scenes don’t appear to be replicas, they still lack freshness. The franchise needs to find a way to reinvigorate itself. I don’t know what that is. But until Universal do they probably shouldn’t greenlight any further instalments in the franchise.

 

 

 

 

Notes:

[1] https://matteroffactsblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/the-bourne-prolonging/

[2] http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2016/08/01/box-office-jason-bourne-is-a-hit-but-the-series-has-to-stop-remaking-itself/#1768233976c6

[3] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0258463/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[4] http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/rogue-one-drama-writer-tony-916695

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/may/22/how-pentagon-punished-nsa-whistleblowers

The idea for this post is shamelessly ripped off from Screen Junkies

 

Hanoi ought to ban cars not motorbikes

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A number of reputable news organisations are reporting that Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, is proposing banning motorbikes from its city centre. I’m hesitant to venture an opinion because a) these reports are not especially detailed and b) while I did live in Hanoi for a while it’s a complicated and rapidly changing city that I only partially understand. Nonetheless, I’m wary of the idea.

The BBC reports that:

The local government wants streets to be motorbike-free by 2025 as part of efforts to tackle congestion, the Thanh Nien News website says. The Vietnamese capital has notoriously chaotic roads, with around five million motorbikes vying for space alongside half a million cars.

That situation is forecast to get worse in years to come: the authorities estimate that by 2020 there will be seven million motorbikes, and the number of cars will double. “This means the traffic situation in Hanoi will become extremely complicated in the next four to five years, so we really need a timely solution to this,” says mayor Nguyen Duc Chung.

The city’s transport authority wants to reduce the number of individual vehicles and boost public transport instead, and its chairman wants the number of buses to double. Construction of a new urban rail system is already under way.

I can’t quite imagine that. Motorbikes so suffuse my memories of Hanoi that I can’t really imagine it without them. It’s basically impossible to go anywhere in the city without seeing them: they are on every road and every pavement. From a distance most shops and restaurants appear to be motorbike showrooms because virtually all their customers arrive on bikes that then get parked outside. There are of course also masses of actual motorbike shops.

I actually rather liked this aspect of the city. While I had a pedal bike rather than a scooter, I appreciated the impact their near universal ownership had on the transport ecosystem of the city. It meant you were allowed to take bikes more or less everywhere and everywhere provided parking for them. There’s also a less tangible aspect to my affection for Hanoi’s bike culture. For reasons that will become apparent there are many reasons that many people disagree but for me bikes are a key part of what gives Hanoi the bustle I so enjoyed.

Of course, if banning bikes really would contribute to improving quality of life then my sentimental attachment to them would count for naught. And the case that it would hinges on a legitimate issue: air quality. The pollution in Hanoi is not at the level of industrial towns in China or India. It forms a thin haze not a thick smog. Nonetheless, it still kills thousands of people a year. Surprisingly, even though they burn less fuel than cars, motorbikes actually emit more of the micro-particulates that cause lung damage. This is apparently a legacy of the fact that governments have tended to regulate them less carefully than cars. Getting people off bikes and scooters and onto public transport (and potentially back onto pedal bikes) might therefore improve air quality.

My fear, however, is that the slack will be taken up instead by cars. Vietnam’s very rapid economic growth is rapidly expanding the number of families who can afford them. Unless that growth falters in a pretty remarkable way, it seems likely that the number of cars on Hanoi’s street will rise inexorably. By contrast, the ability of public transport systems to expand fast enough to match the growth of the city’s population is a much more open question. The opening of the city’s metro is already significantly behind schedule.

Replacing scooters with cars might improve air quality but it is likely to worsen everything else. I’d be especially worried about congestion. Bikes are well suited to Hanoi’s narrow, crowded and often chaotic streets. Even on roads that are packed solid with scooters, their drivers will generally still be able to manoeuvre around each other. Cars can’t. So if you get caught in a traffic jam in Hanoi, after a lot of stopping, starting and waiting, you usually catch up to a car or lorry that was constricting the flow of traffic. Once you get ahead of it you’ll generally find the road a lot clearer. So more cars would be bound to lead to more congestion. That would not only be a hassle for the city’s residents and a drag on business activity but it would also create air pollution problems of its own.

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Not only do cars take up space when they are being used but also when they are not. If the number of cars grows, so will the space that needs to be given over to parking. That means turning over land that could be used for housing, businesses or amenities to the storage of metal boxes. Scooters by contrast are small enough to be stowed in hallways or on patios. Indeed, because they are such a part of Hanoian life such spaces are usually already provided.

Banning scooters but not cars would also have the unfortunate impact of essentially rationing the ability to drive in central Hanoi by income. While many more Vietnamese can afford cars than before, it will be a long while still until everyone can. For some of those who can’t, using a push bike may be an option. But the temperature can hit 40°C in summer and many people use their motorbikes to carry passengers or luggage. So for many Hanoians that won’t be a substitute.

My inclination is therefore that motorbikes still have a constructive role to play in Hanoi’s transport system. Adding railway lines and buses is clearly a good idea. But getting them to the scale where they can replace scooters will take a long time. Longer, I suspect than the cities authorities are allowing themselves. By contrast, cars seem likely to add nothing but congestion. Many cities around the world are trying to wean themselves off reliance on cars. Hanoi is in a position where it can avoid getting addicted in the first place.

Blogging about faith: What do you want to read?

 

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St Mark’s Basilica in Venice

In the 3 years I’ve been writing this blog I’ve written more than 700 posts. Some of my favourites have dealt with religion and in particular Christianity. Among them:

But of late I’ve written about it a lot less. That’s partly been because there’s been a lot of politics to discuss lately and that’s a subject I find it easier to write about, so I get drawn to that. But mostly it’s been because I’ve been struggling for inspiration.

I regret that. While I’m very far from being any kind of theology expert, faith is a topic I like writing about. There’s a much greater plurality of views amongst my readers on religion and philosophy than there is on politics and (surprisingly) of the two it seems to be the one where it’s easier to have frank but friendly discussions between people of different views.

So I’d like to go back to writing about it but for that I need topics. So for the first time I’m throwing this blog open to requests.

Are you a non-Christian who’d like a Christian perspective on something? Are a conservative Christian looking for a liberal Christian perspective? Are you a liberal Christian looking to have your prejudices reinforced? Are you interested in agnosticism? If so let me know and I will see what I can do.

I’m also very open to hosting guest posts if there is something you want to write and want a place to host it.

 

Photo credit: By Ricardo André Frantz (User:Tetraktys) – taken by Ricardo André Frantz, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2292943

Let’s ban referendums

Britain has traditionally done without referendums. It’s time to reinstate that tradition.

One of the perils of being a Brit abroad at the moment is being repeatedly asked to explain Brexit. I got a small foretaste of this a few years back, when I was travelling in Southern Europe during the climax of the vote on Scottish independence. I was in Italy for the vote itself but a few days later moved onto Slovenia. As it turned out Slovenes had taken quite an interest in the vote. I was told more than once that the referendum reminded them of Slovenia’s 1990 referendum on leaving Yugoslavia.

This comparison has also occurred to Fedja Buric, a historian of the Former Yugoslavia, who has written a provocative post for Sheffield University’s Why History Matters project. Essentially he argues that:

The UK has a lot in common with Yugoslavia. Like Yugoslavia, the UK is a complicated multinational state born out of a contentious historical project that often overlapped with the imperial project of the country that would form the core of the multinational federation. For Yugoslavia, this was Serbia, and for the UK, this was England. Like the English in Scotland and Ireland, the Serbs in Croatia, Kosovo and Bosnia were sometimes perceived as brute conquerors.

This is a concerning precedent because Yugoslavia would eventually disintegrate. The departure of Slovenia removed a chunk of non-Serb voters from Yugoslavia’s population, which left those non-Serbs who remained feeling even more vulnerable. So Croatia followed, then Macedonia and on until Yugoslavia ceased to exist.This would not be a benign process  A number of the departing republics had large Serb populations and many of them were not prepared to be separated from their kin. So – at the behest of Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslav government – they began trying to create ‘ethnically cleansed’ enclaves within the new republics that could be attached to a ‘Greater Serbia’ in the future.

The odds of any breakup of the UK resulting in such violence are remote. Though at least with regards to Northern Ireland, violence is a very real prospect. But peaceful is not the same as desirable. Unpicking a four hundred year old political union would be a hugely disruptive process.

Buric identifies a common problem in both the British and Yugoslav cases: the use of referendums.

These brief exercises in direct democracy not only fail to solve existential societal questions, but they bring to the fore societal divisions that had previously been channeled into civil political discourse (like in the UK) or, yes, been politically repressed (like in the case of Yugoslavia).

Because they are almost always organised around issues that seem existential, their disruptiveness is also due to the fact that they are, mostly, irreversible. Unlike in elections, the losing side cannot redirect its anger into winning the next round because the matter had supposedly been settled forever.

Take the example of the Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia. In 1992, the newly, democratically elected, Muslim-Croat government organised a referendum on whether or not Bosnia-Herzegovina should leave the Yugoslav federation after two of its richest republics, Slovenia and Croatia, had already opted out. The Bosnian Serbs, overwhelmingly in favour of staying in Yugoslavia where they could maintain their links to Serbia, boycotted the referendum knowing that the fact that they composed slightly over 30 percent of the population. Their participation would see them outvoted, but still legitimise the referendum. Predictably, the referendum returned an overwhelming ‘yes’ for independence. Equally predictably, the referendum led to war, as Bosnian Serbs carved out their piece of Bosnia which they wanted to remain in Yugoslavia.

The allegation that referendums threaten democracy is not a new one. In 1975, Margaret Thatcher called them:

[A] device of dictators and demagogues.

And when Churchill suggested holding one in 1945; his eventual successor, Clement Attlee, responded:

I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum

Their hesitancy was likely born of having seen the role referendums played in Hitler’s rise. The would-be Führer used them to pull Germany out of the League of Nations, legitimise the merger of the role of Chancellor and President with Hitler filling both roles, and to approve Austria’s annexation. Similarly, both Emperor Napoleons used them to legitimise their seizures of power.

What these cases illustrate is that precisely because referendums are such a pure expression of democracy their symbolism can become a threat to democratic government. They appear more legitimate than the checks and balances that a constitution provides. That allows ‘dictators and demagogues’ to use them as weapons to break the restraints that keep them from obtaining absolute power.

Now clearly that is not what happened with the Brexit referendum. Rather than granting a leader absolute power, it triggered his resignation. Nonetheless, the same dynamic is visible. A slight victory for Leave over Remain has resulted in a situation where Remainers now have to defend their right to still express a view on the situation:

This creates problems when it is combined with the mundane fact that referendums are harder to hold than votes in parliament. It means they are only held very occasionally. In the UK, for a proposal to become law it must be voted on at least three times by both the House of Commons and the Lords, as well as being considered by committees and receiving assent by the monarch. By contrast, the referendum is a single vote on a single day prone to whatever perculiar factors happen to be in play in that narrow slice of time.

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Check and balances are not just designed to prevent the emergence of dictators. They are also supposed to improve the quality of the decisions made by democrats. They allow for compromise and reconsideration. Yet a narrow Leave victory in a referendum seems to have foreclosed the possibility of either. Most of our political class now seems to consider the UK leaving the EU to be the one immutable fact of our political life. Regardless of an impending recession, the apparent inability of leavers to deliver on their promises and the number of leave voters who now regret their decision, we must drive on towards what increasingly looks like a cliff edge because there was a narrow majority for it in a referendum.

So I want to propose banning referendums. I generally think it’s a strength of the British constitution that it is not codified into a single document but maybe we could create one with a single provision: no referendums. Or if we want to stick with doing everything by informal conventions, how about a new one that says that a government that proposes holding a referendum is deemed to have resigned. That seem fair to me because if you want to be the government then you ought to govern rather than kicking decisions back to the very people who elected you to make decisions.

Would there be a price to pay for this? Sure but not a very high one.

The British experience is that Prime Ministers use national referendums to achieve party unity not to promote the national interest. And it doesn’t even achieve that. Wilson called the 1975 referendum on British membership of European Community with a view to reconciling pro and anti factions within his own party but only a few years later continuing tensions over that subject would contribute to Labour MPs breaking away and forming the SDP. The 2011 vote on AV reflected divides within the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition but only heightened them with many Lib Dems bitter about the way the ‘No’ camp targeted Nick Clegg personally and their claims about the exorbitant cost of fictitious voting machines. And  it remains to be seen whether the referendum just held can stop the Europhobic Tories from trying to destroy their Eurosceptic brethren. Personally I’m dubious.

Now, there is still a theoretical case for referendums in that they allow for ‘unbundling‘. Essentially, when voters choose a party in a General Election they are selecting between set menus of policies. Referendums make more ‘a la carte’ choices, for example, selecting the SNPs approach to social and economic policy but rejecting its desire for independence.

But this theory doesn’t translate very well into practice. It often is not possible to select individual policies because they need to be taken together to work. California’s system of ballot initiatives made it politically and legally possible for the state’s voters to increase spending without raising taxes but that did not make it financially sustainable. And as the current Brexit farrago illustrates it’s generally better to line up policy and personnel. Requiring remainers to take Britain out of the EU is not only strange but it muddies substantially the issue of accountability. If Brexit results in a deterioration in the UK’s position is that an indictment of their implementation of the policy or a vindication of their initial opposition to it? Witness how the SNP insulates itself from scrutiny by attributing anything bad that happens to Scotland to ‘the Tories in London’.*

Now you might reasonably object that this post is the product of my bitterness at the outcome of the EU referendum. That’s clearly partially correct: I didn’t write this when the Scottish Independence referendum produced an outcome I liked. But truth be told I’ve never liked direct democracy much. A feeling that the Brexit vote has intensified not only because I object to the decision it has resulted in but also because it was clearly a bad way to arrive at that decision. The election of a pro-Brexit government with a majority in the Commons would have been preferable. We could have planned better for our departure and avoided the period of transitional instability. It would also avoid the weird dynamic whereby MPs are having to second guess their judgements based on what they take Leave voters’ motivations to have been.

Despite all of this I would not dispute the notion that referendums are in important regards a purer form of democracy than conventional elections. But in politics purity is rarely a wise thing to seek. We need balance: a market economy softened by a welfare state, the ability of governments to make decisions tempered by the rule of law, and majority rule given stability and coherence by being funneled through appropriate institutions. Direct democracy negates those institutions and the valuable function they perform. It removes checks and balances, makes our policy making less responsive to circumstances, convinces people they face existential crises and encourages mutually incompatible policy choices.

We’ve now had three UK wide referendums. Let’s leave it at that.

 

*Though of course there are occasions on which this is a legitimate point and Brexit is definitely one of them.

 

 

Now what?

We shouldn’t have a second referendum, Scotland shouldn’t become independent and Boris mustn’t become PM

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Having made a monumental mistake, what is a nation to do?

We don’t have any good options and of the miserable options available, it’s hard to tell which of them is the least ghastly. Even were I less of an emotional wreck, I’d have difficulty making a sensible choice between them. But these currently seem like prudent things to do:

1: Do not attempt to overturn the referendum result

It breaks my heart to say this. There would certainly be just cause for trying. Leave’s victory was small, rested on demographics that are being progressively eroded and was only achieved by telling demonstrable untruths. And there’s precedent for this:  EU related referendums have been re-run in the past. And legally speaking, Parliament could just ignore the referendum result.

But let’s be realistic about the politics of this situation. When previous referendum results have been reversed that was following a protest vote about some relatively minor treaty modifications. Voters weren’t that fussed about the substance of the issue, so getting them to change their mind about it wasn’t that hard. By contrast, the vote we just had clearly represents something of greater significance.

Trying (and most likely failing) to erase their choice will only feed a narrative that they have been disempowered by a craven elite. And it will prolong the uncertainty about Britain’s future.

If the rest of the EU offers us substantively different terms then that would be a different but they probably shouldn’t as that would invite other member states to start trying their own brinksmanship.

2: Scottish independence remains a bad idea

England and Wales have put Scotland in an invidious position. We’ve made them choose between the Union and the European Union. Rightly Scots are angry and I quite get why there are calls for a 2nd Indy referendum. I think it’s also pretty hard to disagree with the notion that a Brexit is a legitimate reason to hold another vote so recently after the last one.

But notwithstanding Brexit, the case for Scottish independence. While it does a lot of trade with the rest of the EU it does an order of magnitude more with the rest of the UK. Ditto for the movement of people. And it is far more integrated into the British state than it is with the European Union. Leaving the UK would disrupt the lives of Scots more than leaving the EU. So I reluctantly recommend to them that they stay with us even as we take them out of Europe.

Indeed, Brexit arguably makes independence a riskier proposition because it creates the possibility of Scotland being in the Single Market and the remaining UK being outside it. Tariff barriers between the two nations is not worth contemplating.

4: Johnson must not be allowed to become PM

Following Cameron’s resignation, the Conservative Party will now elect a new leader. Under no circumstances should that person be Boris Johnson. He proved himself inept in his handling of the relatively insubstantial role of London Mayor belying the notion that Conservatives are fiscally prudent with a series of expensive vanity projects. But his competence (or lack of it) is less concerning than his character. He has lost his job for telling lies. Twice. He has made racist statements. A Conservative member of my acquaintance once yelled at him for using a homophobic epithet. And he has been caught on tape giving a criminal information he can use to beat up a journalist:

 

4: Corbyn has got to go

Historians will debate whether Corbyn was a covert Brexiteer or just a crap politician.  I favour the latter option but whatever the reason his waffley, half-hearted defences of the EU were basically no use to Remain. His inability to manage his party meant it fell apart when put in the spotlight. And worst of all his tribalism prevented Labour playing a full and effective role in the Remain campaign, which in turn made the whole debate seem like an internal Tory squabble.

By taking Britain out of the EU, the Conservatives have unleashed a monster. Its negative consequences will doubtless turn many voters off the party and that creates an opportunity for Labour. But only if they choose a less useless leader.

 

5: We need economic stimulus. Lots of it.

The fundamental economic problem that Brexit creates is on the supply side. If Britain leaves the Single Market then tariffs and regulatory mismatches will raise the cost of trading between the UK and the EU. But that will not be the most immediate effect. Businesses will perceive these future losses coming and will cut back on investment and perhaps even reduce their existing activities perceiving them to now be unprofitable. That will create a demand hit.

There are steps that can be taken to reduce this impact. The Bank of England can cut interest rates and engage in quantitative easing. The Government can raise its spending and/or cut taxes. The optics of these won’t be great. They will further reduce the value of the pound and will beget a further round of complaining from savers about their terrible returns. It will also push up the deficit. But we are in a crisis and our priority needs to be protecting people’s jobs and avoiding getting the UK stuck in a prolonged downturn.

 

6: Britain’s young people need to be offered something

Work, study and travel within the EU now join the list of opportunities that have been snatched away from the generation that came of age during the financial crisis. This is a breach of the social contract between generations and something ought to be done to compensate them. Perhaps break the break ‘the triple lock’ guaranteeing increases in the state pensions and use the money to fund tax credits or extra education spending.

 

7: Secure the rights of EU citizens already in the UK and UK citizens already in the EU

It seems particularly cruel to evict people from lands where they have established lives. Even leaving them worrying about the possibility is unpleasant. Resolving this should be a priority perhaps even to the extent that we should make a deal with the EU on this issue ahead of a broader agreement on post-Brexit relations.

 

8: Apply for EEA membership

As I’ve written before I think that EEA membership has more or less no benefits vis a vis actually being in the EU. But keeping Britain in the Single Market would negate many of the potentially dangerous economic consequences of Brexit and would go a long way to mollifying discontent in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It would also be a magnanimous gesture on the part of Brexiteers that acknowledged the fact that their victory was narrow. It would also provide a staging post for Britain to rejoin the EU at a later date.

It would be a hard sell politically as it would involve keeping intact free movement of labour (at least to some extent) and creates sovereignty problems that are arguably worse than those involved with EU membership. But as I said we don’t have good options and this seems like the least bad.

The 3 best cases for ‘Remain’ in less than 3 minutes

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So today is the day Britain decides whether or not to leave the EU. This prospect fills me with dread. The EU is a flawed but very necessary institution. It facilitates trade, soothes political tensions and makes it easier for countries to co-operate. By contrast, the supposed benefits of exiting disappear when subjected to real scrutiny.

That’s a case that’s been made by a lot of people in recent months. But never as persuasively as by the three videos below.

First up is actress Sheila Hancock explaining why the UK can achieve more working with our neighbours against them:

And here’s entreprenuer Richard Branson explaining why most businesses – large and small – support EU membership:

 

And finally Ngaire Woods, Professor of Global Economic Governance at the University of Oxford, explaining why Leave’s notion that we will get better trade deals if we leave the EU is so fanciful: