Further thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s (un)electability

Yesterday I published a post arguing that a “comforting delusion appears to have afflicted some of those supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to be Labour leader: maybe his far left ideology isn’t electoral liability at all, maybe it’s even as asset.”

The basis for are some opinion polls indicating broad support for his positions on issues like tuition fees, rent controls and renationalising the railways. I suggested that this didn’t mean much: voters for appears to choose parties based more on a broad impression of them rather than on individual policies. With the British Social Attitudes survey indicating that support for tax and spending now a minority position, it is hard to see the belief that the British public are latently socialist as anything other than wishful thinking.

It appears that this may not unduly bother many Corbyn supporters. There’s evidence that, surprisingly for avowed socialists, they prioritise individual expression over social change: they are more interested in whether Corbyn is saying things they like than in whether he’s ever likely to be in a position to turn those words into actions. So unsurprisingly the efforts to argue he can win have tended to be pretty shallow and bluntly not worth dealing with.

An exception to this rule is a piece by my friend Robin McGhee. He suggests that:

I’m not saying Jeremy Corbyn is wonderfully electable. I’m not saying he is necessarily more electable than his opponents. I’m not saying he will lead the Labour party to triumph if he wins its leadership election. I’m not even necessarily saying he’s very good. I’m only saying it’s not true he will be an electoral disaster for the party compared to his opponents.

I find his reasons more persuasive than most yet I am still unpersuaded.

Andy Burnham , Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall are all perfect examples of the slick professionalised politician. This doesn’t mean they are actively bad communicators or necessarily come across badly- they aren’t and don’t- but it’s fair to say they will struggle to stand out against the Conservatives.

It seems to me simply obvious that Jeremy Corbyn’s unslick, unprofessionalised, more honest image will be a major advantage against his opponents in the Conservative party, and will likely lead to greater respect amongst, at least, the part of the country which does not hate his views so much they would never contemplate liking him.

Is it so obvious? The blandness of his rivals did not come about by accident, they’ve deliberately cultivated it. It’s their armour against constant media probing for a gaffe. And the less distinctive they make themselves, the fewer potential lines of attack they open up. By contrast, Corbyn will be vulnerable from myriad angles.

If the government becomes unpopular then the Conservatives could turn the next General Election into a referendum on Corbyn as PM. By contrast, I doubt many people have a strong enough view on Andy Burnham to do the same to him

… there is lots of evidence to suggest Corbyn’s policy positions are widely popular amongst the electorate, with majorities supporting them. The day after the release of the poll showing Corbyn with a large lead amongst Labour members, both the Independent and Wings Over Scotland published posts highlighting polling evidence showing support for many of his positions.

As I discussed yesterday this just doesn’t seem all that important. Not only are policies not what drive most voters but the issues on which the public seem to agree with Corbyn don’t seem all that electorally salient.

Corbyn will, less controversially, also be very useful at reconnecting Labour with its increasingly disloyal core vote. Meanwhile, research by the highly-respected academic John Curtis shows Labour’s defeat in 2015 was closely related to the drop of its traditional working-class support between 2005 and 2010, which was not reversed in 2015. Support amongst affluent voters held up in 2015. Obviously a lot of this failure to recapture working-class voters was due to the rise of UKIP and fear of immigration- but it seems absurd to assume that pursuing an economic policy which is against these voters interests’ will be very effective in bringing them back to Labour.

My problem with this is that if you create a polarity between affluent idealists/traditional working class voters then Corbyn seems to belong firmly to the former. He’s from Wiltshire, the son of middle class peace campaigners and now represents of all places Islington.

The suite of policies that are supposedly so popular – scrapping tuition fees, rent controls and renationalising the railways – seem aimed more at a graduate renting a house in the Thames Valley and catching the train into London for work than at anyone else.

It also seems likely that his views on immigration (and perhaps also the monarchy) would alienate traditional working class voters even further.

It is worth remembering Labour lost twice as many MPs to the SNP in 2015 as it did to the Conservatives: it’s clear it needs to make up ground in Scotland at the next election in order to become a bigger parliamentary bloc.

As astonishing as Labour’s collapse in Scotland was, it’s actually a side issue. If Labour had won every seat in Scotland then instead of having a Conservative government with a majority of 12 seats, we’d have had a Conservative government with a majority of 11 seats.

…. a huge proportion of the mainstream print media, not to mention his political rivals, depicted Miliband as a wildly insane “Red Ed” who would destroy the economy with his radical left-wing policies.

The evidence from Ed Miliband’s tenure, therefore, implies that any Labour leader from the current crop of candidates- except possibly Kendall- would be depicted as far more extreme than they actually are. It doesn’t matter what they say or do. The only way Labour could get around this is by electing the most right-wing candidate, Kendall, and even then there is no guarantee it would work due to the die-hard partisanship of an important part of the print media.

I have three distinct responses to this:

1) It sounds like a good argument for voting for Kendall.

2) You can give your enemies more or less to work with here. Corbyn gives them loads.

3) Was it really the perception that he was ‘Red Ed’ that damaged Miliband or was it the view that he was weird, weak and potentially dominated by Nicola Sturgeon?

Finally, Robin adds the caveat that:

Corbyn would still damage the Labour party severely in the short to medium term if elected, because the right of the party would likely go apeshit and cause a civil war, constantly attempting a coup against him and making it difficult for him to govern properly.

I’d suggest that actually understates the problem. Corbyn would also have a lot to fear from his own backers, who I’ve already mentioned seem to prize purity over success. They’re, therefore, likely to punish him for the compromises he will inevitably have to make both to placate Labour MPs, amongst whom he enjoys conspicuously little support, and to begin broadening his appeal enough to potentially win a General Election. It seems likely that a Corbyn led Labour Party would be deeply unstable and therefore distracted by internal infighting.

I suspect that regardless of who become Labour leader, the next election is the Conservative’s to lose. Nontheless, a Corbyn led Labour Party would make it harder for them to bring on their own defeat. He’d have a polarising affect that would allow them to mobilise their own voters and prevent them defecting; Labour would find itself defending its own leaders more out their ideas when they would want to be talking about the government’s deficiencies; and that’s assuming the Party could avoid an all out civil war.

There are in short plenty of reasons to think that Burnham, Cooper and (especially) Kendall are indeed more electable than Corbyn.

Britain is NOT waiting for its socialist saviour

A comforting delusion appears to have afflicted some of those supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to be Labour leader: maybe his far left ideology isn’t electoral liability at all, maybe it’s even as asset. The empirical basis for this are opinion polls indicating broad support for his positions on issues like tuition fees, rent controls and renationalising the railways.

Writing for Left Foot Forward, Robert Priest ably dissects this wishful thinking:

It goes without saying that the same opinion polls persistently overstated Labour’s popularity and suffered deep methodological problems, but this does not entirely discredit them. Individual findings are certainly questionable. Yes, polls showed that the public was opposed to the tuition fee rise and broadly supportedLabour modestly reducing tuition fees to £6,000. (By the way, the same polls showed voters thought this would most benefit the well-off.)

But this is not the same as the electorate supporting Corbyn’s total abolition, which he has costed at £7bn. If pollsters offered this much stronger policy to the public with its price-tag attached, it is reasonable to assume reception would be more lukewarm.

We do have an alternative index of public opinion: the British Social Attitudes survey, held every year since 1983 and co-authored by pollster-of-the-moment John Curtice. The most recent BSA showed that a mere 21 per cent of people share Corbyn’s belief in the abolition of tuition fees. People might favour lower fees but they do not oppose them in principle.

Most pressing for the Left is the big picture: the proportion of people in favour of higher taxation and spending has collapsed from 63 per cent to just 37 per cent in the ten years from 2004 to 2014. Support for welfare spending has plummeted. Those who remember Blair-era clichés about a ‘social-democratic majority’ should consider whether they still stand up to scrutiny.

He goes on to discuss a broader problem with the apparently positive polls for Corbyn: voters don’t appear to make their decision on who to vote for based on individual policy positions. Many of the Coaltion governments most popular policies originated with the Liberal Democrats yet the Party still found itself reviled for its perceived treachery and unreliability. Likewise a Corbyn led Labour Party might well find individual policies like nationalising the railways and introducing rent caps were popular but that it was itself unpopular as it was percieved as extreme and economically incompetent.

To be clear, the reason that the British electorate keeps electing broadly centre-right governments is that it is itself broadly centre-right. The Labour Party either needs a plan to change that fact or to win in spite of it. Wishing it away is not a sustainable strategy.

Just how did the BBC’s popularity become an argument against it?

The BBC’s popularity, both in the UK and abroad, should be welcomed not disparaged.

The political soundtrack surrounding the BBC has once again turned ominous. John Whittingdale. The Culture Secretary has implied that the Corporation has become too large and has strayed from its core mission. He’s even discussed moving from the licence fee to a subscription model.

Responding to this torrent of depreciation in an article for Den of Geek, Simon Brew skewers the most counter-intuitive argument that’s made against the Corportation:

Yet it seems the popularity of the BBC – certainly in the current political climate – may yet be its Kryptonite. There appears to be a growing feeling amongst the current government that the BBC should be using its substantive receipts from the licence fee to fund more niche programming, rather than chasing ratings. In the last month, we’ve learned that over £600m from the BBC’s coffers is set to fund the licence fee for over 75s, at a time when job cuts at the corporation are already being announced. Yet that’s just the beginning of what most concede to be times of real change for the organisation.

Ultimately, on the surface at least, it’s the high ratings that continue to paint a target on the BBC’s back. The argument runs that the BBC should use the bulk of its money – as it actually does, but let’s go with it for a second – on more niche programming. Why spend the money on shows like Doctor Who and EastEnders, when there’s no commercial organisation that wouldn’t? (overlooking, of course, the fact that the BBC took a gamble on both to start with. And that through its most popular show, EastEnders, it’s given a voice to issues that struggle otherwise to get an airing).

It’s not tricky to see the road ahead with the argument here, and it doesn’t point to a happy future for the corporation. Let’s say the BBC stops mixing in populist output amongst its content. It would be fair to assume that its ratings would drop. When said ratings drop, in comes the next argument: why should everyone have to pay a licence fee, when the programmes just aren’t as popular any more?

I not only wholeheartedly agree with this argument but actually think it can also take on a global dimension. I’ve already blogged this week about how the BBC helps to raise the UK’s prestige and status around the world. We tend to think of this as being about news but it’s much wider than that. Top Gear has/had (?) a larger audience than the entire World Service. Budget cuts may already have forced the BBC to stop broadcasting in Mandarin (because Mandarin speaking people aren’t an important audience right?) and the Communist Party may block its website but there’s still a Sherlock themed café in Shanghai. So even if you think ITV can pick up the slack at home, you should still want the BBC to flex those mass appeal muscles so it can remain popular abroad.

Indeed, this is part of the reason why a subscription model misses the point. Whether or not you watch the programs the BBC makes, you are still benefiting from the work it does as an ambassador for our country.

Fewer immigrants live in the whole of Vietnam than in the borough of Westminster

I’m reminded on a pretty much daily basis that I’m a minority here in Vietnam. People double take at the sight of a caucasian walking or cycling past. One time I was unlocking my bike when someone walked past and glanced over at me, they walked on for a few steps more before scooting backwards and looking again to check that yes they really had just seen a white person. I’ve also had strangers ask to have their photo taken with me.

[I should make clear, this interest is almost always benign and that you generally don’t get harrassed by touts and the like the way you do in many other developing countries.]

The context for this is that according to UN figures just 1 in a 1000 residents in Vietnam were born in another country. They suggest that only Cuba has a lower share.

To put that in context, that’s 32 times smaller than the share of the global population that live outside their country of birth and 142 times smaller than the proportion of immigrants among the population back home in the UK.

Or put another way, there are probably about 90,000 foreign born residents in the whole of Vietnam (the 14th largest country in the world by population). That’s fewer than in the borough of Westminster in central London (which is only the 69th largest municipality in the UK, a country that is itself only two-thirds of the size of Vietnam).

This tallies with my experience. For example, to apply for my work permit I had to go to the ominously named ‘department for alien elements’ at the interior ministry. I followed the signs to the department and eventually wound up in a room that could easily be mistaken for a medium sized post office. A rather modest outfit to be dealing with immigration issues for an area that’s home to millions of people!

At the other end of the spectrum from Vietnam and Cuba is the Vatican City whose entire population is thought to come from elsewhere. That’s followed by various wealthy Gulf states and island territories.

Source: FiveThirtyEight

Caveat: the UN data comes with the warning that “[b]ecause the database is based on different sources, discrepancies between tabulations are inevitable”. My Vietnam/Westminister comparison is potentially rather dodgy because I’m comparing figures from two different datasets. Nonetheless, I don’t think anyone would seriously disagree with the proposition that the foreign born population of Vietnam is very low.

Britain is still the most powerful nation on earth (in this one regard)

Britain long ago ceased to be a regular superpower but no other country has more ‘soft power’. The small mindedness of the present government is putting that at risk.


When we talk about the power a nation wields, we normally mean its military or economic strength. But as well as being able to force other nations to do something or paying them to do it, there’s another way to exert influence: soft power.

The term was coined by the political scientist Joseph Nye. He argued that:

A country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it. In this sense, it is also important to set the agenda and attract others in world politics, and not only to force them to change by threatening military force or economic sanctions. This soft power – getting others to want the outcomes that you want – co-opts people rather than coerces them.

The Economist recently reported on an effort to quantify this kind of power:

[This index was produced by] Portland, a London-based PR firm, together with Facebook, which provided data on governments’ online impact, and ComRes, which ran opinion polls on international attitudes to different countries.

Surprisingly the nation emerged on top was not a behemoth like the USA, India, Russia or China. The latter nation actually came bottom of the list. Instead, the nation ranked first was the medium sized country on the periphery of Europe from which I hail.

The Economist explains that Britain ‘won’ because of its strength in a range of categories:

Britain scored highly in its “engagement” with the world, its citizens enjoying visa-free travel to 174 countries—the joint-highest of any nation—and its diplomats staffing the largest number of permanent missions to multilateral organisations, tied with France. Britain’s cultural power was also highly rated: though its tally of 29 UNESCO World Heritage sites is fairly ordinary, Britain produces more internationally chart-topping music albums than any other country, and the foreign following of its football is in a league of its own (even if its national teams are not). It did well in education, too—not because of its schools, which are fairly mediocre, but because its universities are second only to America’s, attracting vast numbers of foreign students.

That tallies with my experience living in Vietnam. This is a country in whose history Britain has played a relatively modest role* and to whose present it is almost irrelevant. The two countries are geographically far removed, do little trade with each other, the Vietnamese diaspora in the UK is small and the UK is not a big aid donor. Despite this, due to customer demand, the language centre I work at teaches British rather than American English: parents want their children to be able to pass the battery of tests like IELTS run by Cambridge University. It’s touch and go whether British or Korean bands deliver more soft pop auditory torture. And it’s rare for me to teach a class in which a kid is not wearing an Arsenal/Man Utd/Chelsea football shirt.

Sadly for a patriotic Brit, I have to wonder if this might be waning:

….many of the assets that pushed Britain to the top of the soft-power table are in play. In the next couple of years the country faces a referendum on its membership of the EU; a slimmer role for the BBC, its prolific public broadcaster; and a continuing squeeze on immigration, which has already made its universities less attractive to foreign students.

This is one of the less discussed but most concerning legacies of David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister. It should be the subject to more debate: Conservatives ought to be called out for their failure to conserve the cultural institutions that give Britain a role on the world stage it could not get simply from its economy and military. It might be better to be feared than loved but if the present government isn’t careful Britain may wind up being neither.

*At some point I will write a post on why Britain has actually had more of (a generally malign) influence on modern Vietnamese history than is often supposed. Nonetheless, the point stands that compared to China, France, America, Russia and Japan it has been a bit player.

Farron’s faith

There’s nothing illiberal about being a Christian. Nonetheless, the new Lib Dem leader is still prone to making mistakes where his faith and politics intersect.

So here are some hastily thrown together thoughts about the kerfuffle that has emerged following Tim Farron’s interview with Channel 4 news. They involve quite a bit of conjecture. I’m not privy to my leader’s private thoughts. Nor can I be considered an expert on the man, I once went to Wagamama with him but that’s the sum total of my direct experience of the man. So I’m making some educated guesses based on what he’s said publically and on what I’ve learned from spending a fair amount of time hanging around churches.

1. The personal is not (necessarily) political

While taking evasive action around Cathy Newman’s question Tim invoked Gladstone as an example of someone combing a strong faith and liberal politics. The Grand Old Man is indeed a rather good illustration of this point: when the atheist Charles Bradlaugh was elected to parliament Gladstone fought for his right to sit and eventually changed the law to ensure it. Nonetheless, he found the notion of atheism so repulsive he would not actually speak directly to Bradlaugh.

This is not only an idea with a long pedigree but great contemporary relevance. Indeed, anyone who isn’t a totalitarian to some extent buys into it. We just don’t ask whether given that Farron evidently personally disagrees with people voting Conservative he would want to legislate to obstruct people from doing it. However, when sex and religion become involved we tend to forget this.

Farron pointing out the distinction between his personal convictions and his political views is not some kind of cop-out; it is the very essence of his politics.

2. Tim probably doesn’t care about your sex life

I suspect that the obvious explanation for Tim’s failure to answer Newman’s question is the correct one: he does indeed think gay sex is sinful. In fact, given that he’s said “the Bible is clear about sexuality of all sorts” and that “the standards that define my personal morality as a Christian are not the standards of public morality”, I imagine he thinks all sex, gay or straight, other than that between married couples is sinful.

[Side note he’s wrong about that: the Bible’s spectacularly unhelpful when it comes to getting clear answers about questions of sexual morality.]

But intellectually assenting to a position and having a deep conviction in something are two different things. If Farron really was disgusted or outraged by same sex relationships then I imagine he’d find it pretty taxing to play such an active part in a political party with such a disproportionate number of out gay activists, at least without resorting to the kind of disdain that Gladstone showed Bradlaugh.

I also doubt he’d have been able to bring himself to vote for equal marriage not once but twice.

I suspect the way he deals with the discordance between thinking the Bible says that homosexuality is malign and being able to see in his day to day life that it isn’t, the same way many other Christians of my acquaintance do: by thinking about it as little as possible.

3. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem for Farron to deal with

Firstly, there’s perception.

Secondly, there does seem to be a pattern whereby Tim is lobbied to do something by Christian groups, does it and then on reflection realises he shouldn’t have.

The most obvious example of this is his having abstained on the third reading of the legislation to allow equal marriage, when he now admits he should have voted in favour. But there’s also the small but telling example of him signing a letter defending faith healing that he later admitted was ‘crass’ and that he shouldn’t have signed it as written.

I quite understand how this happens because it happened to me in my rather less illustrious political career. When a proposal came forward to open a lap dancing club in the ward I represented as a councillor, my liberal instinct was that as distasteful as I found such places, they were conducting a legal business involving consenting adults and therefore I shouldn’t oppose it.

However, I then began being lobbied both by the local churches, one of which was next to the proposed site, along with student union and various feminist groups. At which point I began re-evaluating my view. I would up concluding that it wasn’t a private issue after all; there was a legitimate public concern regarding the impact on the neighbours. I began campaigning against it on this basis and if memory serves correctly, I was quoted in one of the student papers saying something like “this isn’t about the morality of lap dancing but keeping the area safe and pleasant for all its residents and visitors”. The worse part was that I put pressure on other Lib Dems, many of who saw the situation with much greater clarity than me, to take positions they were uncomfortable with.

In the end the club operated at two locations for a number of years and I never saw any evidence that it was adversely affecting either the public at large or its neighbours specifically. Which is what I would have predicted when the issue first arose. But when a lot of people I liked and respected began telling me I ought to be actively opposing it that made it hard to stick to that position. Surely their conviction was a good guide to what mine ought to be? And at a certain level it’s just really awkward and uncomfortable to say no to people, especially people who you feel are basically on your side.

So I can empathise with how challenging it must be for Tim when fellow Christians come to him with unfounded worries or unreasonable requests. Telling members of a community that you’ve been steeped in and which has to a great extent defined your life that you’re not going to help them because they are wrong (in this case) to think they deserve help must make you feel like a traitor. There’s thus a strong psychological temptation to find a way to feel like you’re helping them at least a bit.

Nonetheless, it is a temptation that Lib Dems can and should expect our leader to be able to resist. We need consistent good judgement from him rather than having it periodically suspended on behalf of a community he has strong emotional attachments to.

Don’t dream federalist dreams

The European Union is an immense force for good. A European state could well wreck all of that.

The European Union is curious thing. It’s not a state but nor is it a mere international organisation like the World Health Organisation. It has a currency but doesn’t collect its own taxes. Its laws override those of its member states but it has no police force to enforce them. It has a foreign policy but not an armed forces.

In a recent article for Vox, Dylan Matthews makes it clear he wants to see that change. He sees the Greek crisis as evidence that the EU’s semi-state status isn’t working: it constrained Greece from devaluing its currency and lowering its interest rates but did not enable automatic fiscal transfers from less battered parts of the Union. He wants to see the EU become a federal government al la the USA.

His case is partly economic:

A European superstate…. would create a common banking system and establish redistribution at the national level. Imagine if such a system had been in place when the 2008-’09 recession hit. Greece still would have suffered more than Germany — but its banks would not face the same risk of failure, and it’d be getting billions upon billions in welfare payments from the federal European government. They’d still have a recession — all of Europe did, after all — but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as bad.

And also political:

Even since the European Coal and Steel Community, the idea was to grow closer economically so as to grow closer politically and culturally. After World War II and the generations of European wars that had preceded it, ensuring that war on that scale could never happen ever again was an absolute imperative.

European integration was a way to do that. It appears to be working. But the economic crises that have plagued the EU in the past few years are inherent to this current model of partial unification. In order to fulfill the European project of replacing the old, war-torn Europe with a new, peaceful, stable Europe, it has to complete the process of unification.

The EU has indeed been a great success. But what it has successfully done is provide a mechanism by which European states can co-operate. It does not follow from that it would be a good idea for it to supersede those states.

‘The United States of Europe’ (USE) would almost certainly be a dysfunctional entity. This point is illustrated by precisely the precedent Matthews invokes for it. America is still hobbled by the compromises made two centuries ago that made its initial inception possible. The fear of the states that their voice would not properly represented within the new union created an exhaustive set of systems to ensure they were. The problem was that all these supermajorities, constitutional restrictions of the role of the federal government and the like was that they make it hard for the US to make necessary decisions. Witness, for example, the absurd the spectacle of the federal government shutting down if no less than three separate entities cannot agree among themselves about the contents of the annual budget.

Now the new European State could theoretically avoid these pitfalls and create a constitution that allowed for effective decision making. However, that seems unlikely because the current EU certainly hasn’t. The treaties that serve as its constitution can only being amended with the unanimous agreement of all member states. Therefore, any change could theoretically be blocked by a Maltese government that represents just 0.08% of the EU’s population. In this context, it seems likely that the mechanisms for redistributing resources from rich to poor members would have to be pretty miserly not to be vetoed by those who’d wind up paying for them. Thus the USE flounders: its creation as a successful entity would require finding a solution to a problem for which it is supposed to be the solution!

Indeed, the entire notion that greater trust will arise from deeper integration looks suspect. The creation of a monetary union has lead Greece and Germany to share not in fraternal feelings but in misery and resentment. Unfortunately, the USE would probably be unusually prone to such mistrust because it doesn’t have a lingua franca:

A new paper* by Bodo Steiner and Cong Wang, two economists at the University of Southern Denmark, reach the conclusion that less linguistically diverse countries tend to prosper (rather than the other way round). Messrs Steiner and Wang set out to find the relationship between linguistic fragmentation and social capital. Social capital itself can be hard to define, but a few scholars have nonetheless put a number on it. Three scholars led by Dan Lee of Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea created an index** of 72 countries across criteria like trust (a feeling of societal fairness, confidence institutions like government, political parties and the press); norms (corruption, the rule of law, the prevalence of tax evasion and benefit fraud); and networks (for example how likely people are to join religious groups, arts and sports clubs and the like). Countries with high levels of social capital tend to be richer.

They also tend to be more linguistically homogeneous. Messrs Wang and Steiner found that the number of language spoken in a country is significantly negatively correlated with social capital…the authors…[plotted]…the probability that two citizens will speak the same first language against social capital. These measures….[were]…closely (negatively) correlated. Despite headline-grabbing levels of immigration, countries like Denmark and the Netherlands remain linguistically highly homogeneous; they also have the highest rates of social capital in the data set.  Uganda and India fall neatly along the trendline at the other end.

This makes sense: how much harder must it be to bridge social divides when those on each side can’t talk to each other?

Now, one could reasonably argue that many nations started out culturally disparate and later became more cohesive. In fact Matthews does:

It’s not unheard of for a young political union to be disharmonious, and for that disharmony to be worsened by its decentralized political institutions. In 1950, just a year into the European experiment, the Norwegian foreign minister wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs comparing Europe at the moment to the early American colonies, which were in some ways even more disparate and divided than the European nations. The foreign minister didn’t quote Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 “Join, or Die” political cartoon, but he might as well have. The colonies unified to fight the British, and then over the next century continued to build an ever-closer union because it was more effective, and because a weak union created too many problems.

Yes but a clear majority of citizens of the new nation already spoke English. And even then it took two wars to create a cohesive USA.

There are examples of successful examples of building nations from a polyglot population: Indonesia is perhaps the best example. However, the process of achieving this has often been rather unpleasant. It usually involves the suppression of national minorities and allows people who already speak the national language to gain social privilege. It’s not something that’s really compatible with the EU’s commitment to equality and diversity. So it seems likely that the USE would have to muddle through Indiaesque with its populace living in linguistic silos and needing an army of translators to make its government work.

There’s also the rather unfortunate fact that efforts to instil patriotism in the people of a new nation can easily tip over into creating an unfortunately aggressive form of nationalism. This perhaps explains America’s propensity to brash unreflective “USA, USA, USA”ing. Or looking at a vastly more extreme example: it’s probably not a co-incidence that the two European nations that spawned fascist regimes had only a few decades before been united from a succession of smaller principalities. It would be a cruel irony if a Union that has so successfully contained the harm European nationalisms cause, were itself to give rise to a harmful European nationalism.

It’s also probably worth noting that the greater demands of nationhood would probably exclude peoples who might otherwise belong to the Union. Are the French or Austrians really going to want Turks, Serbs and Macedonians as their compatriots? Countries like Britain and Greece that already find the being part of the club a difficult prospect would probably choose to depart. Thus an attempt to deepen European integration would probably wind up narrowing it.

All of which is to say that Europe is not a nation and should therefore not become a state. There are less difficult and dangerous routes out of the present difficulties in the Eurozone. Its members could push forward with a banking union and create better mechanisms for transferring resources to member states in distress. Or failing that the currency union could be dismantled, a painful enterprise fraught with risks. Nonetheless, the risks of returning to a recent and tolerably functioning past would be fewer that striking forward on the basis of dubious speculations about a future that might be.

How the world’s population is going to change

So this graph from the Economist showing how the distribution of the global population is projected to change is pretty interesting.

The stand out facts for me are:

1) Africa is expanding, whilst Europe will relatively speaking decline. In 1950, there were no African countries among the ten most populated countries in the world. By 2050, there are expected to be three. Conversely, there were four European countries – five if you count Russia – but by 2050 there won’t be any.

2) Speaking of which. Russia looks set to drop out of the top ten. Which means its claim to great power status is likely to become progressively more tenuous.

3) A nuance (or possibly more) that needs to be added to the narrative of ‘the Chinese century’ is that at some point India will replace it as the world’s most populous nation.

Same sex marriage is not a gateway to polygamy

The two issues are not the same: one is about who can get married, the other is about the nature of marriage.

The increasingly feeble efforts of opponents of equal marriage to find (apparently) non-homophobic grounds for their belief often seem to lead them to a slippery slope argument: if we allow gay people to marry then it logically follows that we have to allow polygamy too. No less a figure than John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, made this argument in no less a place than his dissent from his Court’s decision to legalise equal marriage.

More strangely, this argument has now been adopted by those of a more liberal disposition. Take, for example, this piece from the Economist arguing that:

Now that gay marriage is finally legal from sea to shining sea, it’s time for liberals to refine their arguments against polygamy. We need better, more rationally compelling arguments if we wish to be fair in shutting against would-be polygamists the libertarian door that we’ve just blasted open.

I confess I just don’t see the strong connection between the issues that proponents of polygamy and opponents of SSM do. In only the vaguest sense are the issues analogous.

For starters, the nature of those supposedly discriminated against is profoundly different. Being gay is an immutable and fundamental element of a person’s identity. Yes, most individuals probably have some fluidity as to their sexual identity but not enough to prevent a societal norm that one must be straight causing psychological damage to vast swathes of people. For this reason, virtually all legal systems treat sexuality as one of a number of characteristics (the others being race, sex etc.) that require special protection.

Desiring to marry more than one individual is not such a characteristic. It is an opinion or lifestyle choice that generally attracts no special protection from human rights law. It might be that those with religious motivations for their polygamy may be an exception because faith is generally a protected characteristic. However, if they could clear this hurdle they would face another.

Despite the frequent howls from its opponents that same sex marriage was a ‘redefinition’ of marriage, it actually leaves the institution itself almost wholly unchanged. What it does is allow access to the institution to those who were previously denied it. To give it legal effect all that is required is to replace gender specific pronouns in legislation.

In an article for the  Atlantic, Conor Friedersorf explains why permitting polygamy would be a vastly more complicated matter:

….the legal institution [of marriage] is largely concerned with the “designation, without elaborate contracting, of a single other person third parties can look to in a variety of legal contexts.” Three-, four-, or five-person unions would require abandoning that aspect of marriage.

Americans can presently marry a foreign citizen and bring them here, after jumping through bureaucratic hoops, eventually sponsoring them for U.S. citizenship. Would the advent of plural marriage require that this practice be ended? Or would group marriages include the right to confer unlimited citizenships?

When I got married I was eligible to add my wife to my employer-sponsored health insurance. In a world of plural marriage, would this benefit of the institution end, or could I add as many people as I liked to my employer’s insurance plan?

If the parties to a plural marriage disagree about a medical decision that needs to be made on behalf of an unconscious spouse, who would get to decide the matter? Who would receive the Social Security survivor benefits if the patient died? These logistical matters add real costs to recognizing plural marriages––and they lessen the simplifying benefits that marriage confers on society. They also suggest that expanding the definition of civil marriage to encompass more than two parties is a far more radical, fundamental change than was recognizing unions of same-sex couples.

It thus follows that a prohibition on polygamy is not an arbitrary act of discrimination but a decision as to the nature of one of our most important legal institutions.

Which is not to say that polygamy is undesirable.* There is a big difference between saying something is not a human right and saying it is not right. However, that means it’s a subject for democratic debate. And as the ones advocating a change, the onus is on advocates of legal polygamy to provide positive reasons for allowing it. They cannot, as some hope and others fear, simply point to the advent of equal marriage and claim it necessitates their position.

*Though as it happens I would indeed make that argument.

The book of Genisys

Terminator: Genisys is essentially the Terminator mythology retold as an episode of Doctor Who. It mostly works.

Spoiler warning: I’ve avoided giving away anything that hasn’t been in the trailers but frankly that wasn’t difficult. If you’ve been lucky enough not to have seen them, don’t read this before seeing the film.

Let’s start with the obvious: no, the latest Terminator film is not as good as the original film or its first sequel. But that’s a high standard to told it to. The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day didn’t become iconic by accident. The T-800 was a character that needed to be massively strong, wooden and engaging, that gave Arnie a chance to shine. The first film had an impressive (and at the time original) conceit that it played to near perfection. The second one was revolutionary. Firstly, it was one of the first films to successfully use CGI. Indeed, it’s still a role model for how to use the technology: it’s for shots that couldn’t be done with practical effects, not for every last bloody thing. In a Sarah Connor traumatised and hardened by the events of the first film we got one of the first mainstream female action heroes.

But not being great doesn’t mean that it’s bad. It’s perfectly passable and I found it an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours. It matches up without surpassing standard multiplex fair. So as you’d expect the action overuses CGI in precisely the way T2 indicates one shouldn’t. But it’s entertaining nonetheless and a new variant of Terminator allows for some new kinds of fights.

The cast is fine. The intensity that means Emilia Clarke works as Game of Thrones’ mother of dragons also works for her as Sarah Connor. Indeed, given that pretty much every tough female character in sci-fi and fantasy, including Daenerys Targaryen, has some of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in their DNA her casting represents a circle being closed. Jai Courtney and Jason Clarke are serviceable in their roles, though the later is conspicously less scary as a villain here than he was as a hero in Zero Dark Thirty.  But Arnie is on very good form. The last time we saw him in a Terminator film, his mind appeared already to have wondered from acting to politics. Yet in Genisys, he forcibly reminds us that things that made him perfect for the role back in 1984 still apply in 2015. Much has been made of the original director James Cameron choosing to endorse the film. But for me, it’s Schwarzenegger’s renewed commitment to his iconic role that does more to stamp it as an authentic Terminator film.

There has been plenty of criticism of the film for simply retreading the course of its predecessors. That does the film a disservice. True, no aspect of it is especially original but that’s a quality that’s rare in blockbusters. It’s also true that it’s saturated with the mythology from which it springs but that’s hardly unsurprising for a sequel. It provides a different take on that mythology. The Terminator was at least as much a horror and an action film as a sci-fi one. T2 moved in a more sci-fi direction with Cyberdyne and its creations playing a large part in the plot. But it was still a film that was much more about the present than the future.

By contrast, Genisys is essentially the Terminator story retold as an episode of Doctor Who. That’s partly a reflection of the softer tone. It also helps that Matt Smith turns up in a small but pivotal role. And people familiar with his tenure in the Tardis may find some aspects of the time travel induced complexity of Connor-Reese family reminiscent of the Ponds. But where the Whoness becomes really evident is in the centrality given to time travel. Indeed there’s even a scene where Arnie more or less explains that ‘time is actually more like a ball of wibbly wobbley timey whimy stuff’. In previous films, time travel was a mechanism that was necessary to get characters into the past (or in the case of the TV show, the Sarah Connor Chronicles into the future). It was something that happened mostly off-screen as a prelude to the action. In Genisys, it moves from plot device to being the plot. That comes at a price: the fleeter footed story lacks the stark simplicity of the first film and the sense of the dread that purveyed 1 and 2. Instead it becomes more about hope than fear, a very Doctor Who like shift incidentally, which gives it a very different feel. Nonetheless, I don’t really see how one can credibly claim it’s simply a botched attempt to recreate its predecessors.

Now I prefer the first two Terminator films to a typical episode of Doctor Who. But I still like Doctor Who and enjoy watching it. Similarly, I enjoyed watching Terminator: Genisys, while at no point thinking it was the kind of the seminal success its predecessors were.

Before ending, I want to throw out a potential explanation for the unnecessary harshness thrown Genisys’ way. I wonder if the backlash is more against the marketing than the film itself. From the announcement that the title would intentionally misspell the word ‘genisis’ onwards it’s been appauling. The low point was the second trailer spoiling the key plot twist, a decision that has rightly provoked squawks of outrage from many including the film’s director. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s actually a reasonable film.

Verdict: 6/10 – I have watched the first two Terminator films over and over again on DVD. I won’t be buying this one. But I’m glad I went to see it and if you have the time I’d suggest you do too.