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.

Screenshot (63)

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.



The end is just the beginning

Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History remains an insightful and compelling book but only because its author seems so unconvinced by his central thesis.

I have reached the end of the End of History. Alright not the very end – I gave the end notes and the bibliography a miss. But I’ve now read the body of this controversial book.

It was first published in 1992 just after the crumbling of the Soviet bloc. Fukuyama saw this as a particularly dramatic example of a worldwide trend towards liberal democracy. He argued that this was not merely a series of historical events but the culmination of History (note the capital H). Like Marx, he thought societies had to pass through various stages of development. Where they differed was that Marx thought bourgeois society – with an elected government and a capitalist economy – was a transitional phase. By contrast, Fukuyama argued it was History’s endpoint.

What do you write after the End of History?

The grandeur of this thesis ensured it would be discussed mostly to be disparaged. He came to be seen as the intellectual exemplar of the triumphalism that afflicted America in the 1990s. So it was common for the authors of comment pieces to note that such-and-such events showed that despite Fukuyama’s prediction, history was still very much in progress.

It was in that way I first become aware of him. What spurred me to start reading his actual books was – like some many other aspects of my political evolution – the Iraq War. As an angry teenager, I’d naturally been against the invasion from the start. But I’d been unhappy with the prevailing reasoning of the anti-war movement. The notion that it was being fought to capture Iraq’s oil was clearly a feeble conspiracy theory. I also saw nothing inherently immoral about replacing a psychotic butcher with someone democratically elected. I just didn’t see this project working out like it was supposed to. And that was what Fukuyama expressed – albeit with far greater sophistication – in his book After the Neocons. To a European liberal in their 2000s, the neocons where uniquely sinister seeming cabal of right-wing thinkers. So reading the recantation of one of their number was tantalising. What I found in it was Fukuyama brutally highlighting a core discrepancy in the movement. Its roots lie in scepticism about the ability of government to tackle urban deprivation. Yet by the (W.) Bush years it had gone from arguing that the American state couldn’t tackle poverty in its own cities to believing that it could conjure liberal democracies into existence in the harsh thousands of miles from its borders.

This call for humility in foreign policy is still one that shapes my views today and it intrigued me enough that I began seeking out Fukuyama’s other books – though strangely not till now the End of History. I became particularly interested in an argument he makes in several works, but especially in 2004 book called Statebuilding, that we understate the importance of state capacity. In particular, we tend to focus on whether the state is small or large not on how effective that state is. The Danish state does far more than the American one but life in both is generally tolerable because both states can usually execute their functions. By contrast, in many developing countries the problem is that the state struggles with pretty much all its functions including even quite basic ones like security and public health.

I used a blend of ideas from After the Neocons and Statebuilding in my master’s thesis. Essentially I wound up using the British in India as a metaphor for the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. I looked at why despite the British attempting to replicate their own education system mass illiteracy persists in India more than a century after it was eliminated in the UK. My very Fukuyama-esque conclusion was that the colonial state lacked information, finances and an effective decision making structure. It therefore didn’t have the capacity to implement its supposed civilising mission.

Less Machiavelli, more Plato

I have taken this tour of Fukuyama’s later work and my interest in it so you can understand why reading the End of History was such a surprise. I’d read him as a man who writes from an empirical standpoint about the challenges – perhaps even the futility – of translating ones ideas into reality. But the book that made him famous was about the grandest of ideas.

There’s still an empirical component to the End of History. Fukuyama feels the need to establish that there is indeed a long run trend towards liberal democracy. And his arguments for why this is happening is partly economic. He suggests that the collapse of the Soviet Union was to some extent the ‘victory of the VCR’ – lest you had forgotten this book was published in the early 90s. But he doesn’t put that much weight on this aspect of his argument. He suspects that technocracies may actually be somewhat better suited to generating economic growth than democracies. And strikingly for someone who thinks bourgeois societies are the endpoint of History, he’s pretty contemptuous of a ‘bourgeois’ mentality focused simply on the satisfaction of personal desires. These practical matters aren’t the core of his argument.

Indeed, he writes more as a philosopher than a social scientist. And it’s not just any philosophy in which Fukuyama dabbles. Strikingly for someone often presented as an apologist for America, he rejects the defence of liberty offered by those Anglo-Saxon staples Hobbes and Locke and instead turns to the world of cryptic continental metaphysics.

In particular, he is influenced by Hegel. Fukuyama takes from the Prussian a version of History in which the human quest for recognition is primary. According to this narrative, initially those willing to risk their lives – and therefore to fight – subjugate their more pacific neighbours. The former class become masters, while the later become slaves. But both classes become dissatisfied because neither is getting the kind of recognition it craves. Slaves are not recognised at all and the recognition masters receive is that compelled from slaves rather than freely given by equals. Democracy provides a way out of this impasse. It makes us all masters and thereby recognises us all as equals.

What if we get bored without History?

I don’t find this notion all that convincing. In particular, I didn’t feel Fukuyama provides any real evidence that masters did in fact become dissatisfied with being recognised as superiors rather than equals. But what makes his book interesting is that he seems rather unconvinced himself.

He spends many pages meditating on Nietzsche’s critiques of Hegel. Essentially, the great iconoclast worried about the triumph of ‘slave ideologies’ like Christianity and liberalism, and felt that their demands for equality would lead to mediocrity. While Fukuyama rejects the ethical conclusions of this theory, he’s concerned by its political ramifications.

He worries democracy might actually undermine itself. It delivers us comfort, stability and equality. But what if there’s something in our souls that really craves the excitement of the struggle for supremacy?

We can’t easily dismiss this notion by looking at actually events. Russians seem happy enough to pay a big economic prize so they can once again see their country swaggering on the international stage. A certain section of the American electorate seems thrilled with Donald Trump’s critique of Obama’s foreign policy even though it often seems less focused on concrete results than with a gangster like fixation on whether America is being shown enough respect.

[As an aside at one point, Fukuyama argues one of the advantages capitalism has for a democracy is that many of the atavistic, egoistical and status seeking individuals who could cause havoc in politics instead become entrepreneurs. I’d therefore be fascinated to hear his views on Trump’s surprising rise].

And the following passage couldn’t help but make me think about current British politics:

Those students who temporarily took over Paris and brought down General de Gaulle had no “rational” reason to rebel, for they were for the most part pampered offspring of one of the freest and most prosperous societies on earth. But it was precisely the absence of struggle and sacrifice in their middle class lives that lead them to take to the streets and confront the police. While many were infatuated with unworkable fragments of ideas like Maoism, they had no particularly coherent vision of a better society. The substance of their protest was a matter of indifference; what they rejected was a society in which ideas had somehow become impossible.

That seems to me all too reminiscent of the Corbynites who seem to demand not results but self expression.

Maybe part of what has propelled the intense dissatisfaction with democratic politics is that in the end of History, it has come to seem mundane. It was perhaps easier to fight for democracy even with all its imperfections, when by doing so one was struggling against communism and fascism.

There is an alternative (and it scares me)

With that in mind, it’s worth considering the most common objection to Fukuyama’s thesis. Pretty much as soon as it was published people began pointing to such-and-such event – 9/11 and the rise of China are the most common ones – and saying that they show History is still in fact in progress.

Two things need saying in response to this line of argument. Firstly, Fukuyama is pretty explicit that his theory does not require all nations to become democracies in order to be true. There will be some that are too chaotic and divided for power to pass peacefully between groups following elections. Others will see it as a threat to their culture and reject it. In Fukuyama’s terms this is not History but history. History is the grand schema underlying the events that make up regular history.

He’d probably see someone like Robert Mugabe as deviating from the path of History rather than changing it. These democratic refusniks only begin to constitute a challenge to his theory if they coalesce into a coherent, potentially universalisable alternative like communism. It might have initially won power in Russia but its appeal could spread to groups as diverse as Cambridge professors and Laotian peasants. Very few of the autocratic governments that held power after 1989 had an ideology that appealed much outside their own circumstances.

The other point to note is that Fukuyama is a lot smarter than most of his critics. Indeed, it’s striking how often he predicts the events that supposedly contradict his theory.

Take this written almost a decade before 9/11:

“Islam has indeed defeated liberal democracy in many parts of the Islamic world, posing a grave threat to liberal practices even in countries where it has not achieved political power directly…however, it remains the case that this religion has virtually no appeal outside of areas that were culturally Islamic to start with”.

Or this, written when China’s economy wasn’t even amongst the ten largest in the world:

if Asians become convinced that their success was due more to their own than to borrowed cultures, if economic growth in America and Europe falters relative to that in the Far East, if Western societies continue to experience the progressive breakdown of basic social institutions like the family, and if they treat Asia with distrust or hostility, then a systematic illiberal and undemocratic alternative combining technocratic economic rationalism with paternalistic authoritarianism may gain ground in the Far East.

He even fingers the late Singaporean premier Lee Kuan Yew as a potential ideological guru for this new model as he has proven to be.

Where I think Fukuyama goes wrong is in seeing both these cases as localised deviations. Islamism clearly is but this Confucian model appears to appeal to people with no Confucian heritage. For example, Rwanda’s Paul Kagmae seems to be using Singapore as an explicit model. Indeed, it appears to have even found advocates in the long established democracies of the west.

Ironically that might actually strengthen democracy in the places it’s been longest established. If we have to defend our system against a new rival then that might be just the kind of struggle needed to reanimate our enthusiasm for it.

The best things I’ve read recently (19/08/15)

The fallacies of multi-taskers, Republican voters and Francis Fukuyama.

Multi-tasking: how to survive in the 21st century by Tim Harford

There is ample evidence in favour of the proposition that we should focus on one thing at a time. Consider a study led by David Strayer, a psychologist at the University of Utah. In 2006, Strayer and his colleagues used a high-fidelity driving simulator to compare the performance of drivers who were chatting on a mobile phone to drivers who had drunk enough alcohol to be at the legal blood-alcohol limit in the US. Chatting drivers didn’t adopt the aggressive, risk-taking style of drunk drivers but they were unsafe in other ways. They took much longer to respond to events outside the car, and they failed to notice a lot of the visual cues around them. Strayer’s infamous conclusion: driving while using a mobile phone is as dangerous as driving while drunk.

Less famous was Strayer’s finding that it made no difference whether the driver was using a handheld or hands-free phone. The problem with talking while driving is not a shortage of hands. It is a shortage of mental bandwidth.

Yet this discovery has made little impression either on public opinion or on the law. In the United Kingdom, for example, it is an offence to use a hand-held phone while driving but perfectly legal if the phone is used hands-free. We’re happy to acknowledge that we only have two hands but refuse to admit that we only have one brain.

Regicidal Republicans (the Economist)

…while Republican voters are exceedingly angry and mistrustful, their lynch-mob rage is selective. Mr Carson could hardly be less fiery (though he primly disapproves of many things), yet he is surging. And the same conservative activists who disbelieve the establishment on all fronts are startlingly willing to give outsider candidates like Mr Trump, Mr Carson or Ms Fiorina, the benefit of the doubt. So highly trusting are rank-and-file Republicans that—to the despair of pundits and fact-checkers—they shrug when Mr Trump refuses to provide any details about how he would handle foreign affairs, breezing that once he is president: “I will know more about the problems of this world”. Nor do they seem fussed to be told that Ms Fiorina’s time as a CEO was marked by massive job losses, after a bungled merger. A fourth anti-establishment candidate, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, seems able to tap into this mood of strangely extravagant trust, by playing up his credentials as a serial rebel and critic of party leaders in the Senate.

Republican primary voters are not in a revolutionary mood, then, but a regicidal one. They think their rulers are corrupt, inept and mendacious, if not actually treasonous. But they are at the same time ready to swoon before new rulers promising to fix America in an instant. The key credential required to earn that trust is a lack of experience. Will those outsiders disappoint their followers in their turn, triggering a still deeper loss of public trust? Probably. This is going to be a bumpy year.

It’s Still Not the End of History by Timothy Stanley and Alexander Lee (the Atlantic)

If liberalism is to survive and flourish, it has to be rescued from Fukuyama’s grasp and from the perils of historical determinism. It has to be defined and defended all over again. This of course raises the question of what liberalism actually is—and it’s notable that so many liberals skip this step in debate as though it was unimportant. In a recent issue of Foreign Policy dedicated exclusively to reevaluating Fukuyama’s legacy, the unresolved problem of “the liberal identity” was conspicuous by its absence. Article after article foundered in their attempts to defend liberal alternatives to populism or socialism precisely because they offered no satisfactory post-Fukuyama understanding of liberalism. But it is impossible to defend liberalism against its critics without making it clear precisely what it stands for. Skeptics can hardly be won over if liberals can’t tell them what they are being won over to or how it differs from the uninspiring mess created by Fukuyama and his continuators.

Bitter Lake (review)

Adam Curtis’ new film contains plenty of interesting material but is undermined by a compulsion toward epicness.

“Increasingly we live in a world where nothing makes any sense, events come and go like waves of a fever, leaving us confused and uncertain. Those in power tell stories to help us make sense of the complexity of reality but those stories are increasingly unconvincing and hollow. This is a film about why those stories have stopped making sense and how that lead us in the West to become a dangerous and destructive force in the world. It is told through the prism of a country at the centre of the world: Afghanistan.”

These are the words with which Adam Curtis introduces his new documentary Bitter Lake. They are, however, misleading. Rather than an account of the alienation of Western electorates told through the prism of Afghanistan, what we get is an interesting history of outside interference in the country plus annoying and unconvincing forays into tangentially connected areas most of which have a Saudi connection.

If you’ve seen an Adam Curtis documentary before this probably won’t come as a surprise. He has a phenomenal talent. He can find footage most filmmakers would never think to look for and use it provide a way into complex topics. His visual style has its detractors but it has a transfixing effect on me. However, this aptitude is annoyed by a succession of rather annoying habits. His narratives often flit between topics connected mostly by Curtis’ imagination and big stretches of his narration amount to little more than a succession of glib statements.

This send up distills these problems very well:

His virtues are certainly on display in Bitter Lake. One cannot imagine anyone else illustrating the unreality of Western perceptions of Afghanistan with clips from a 1971 episode of Blue Peter devoted to a club of Afghan hound owners preparing to present their dogs to the King of Afghanistan during his visit to London. Nor had I heard before that one can only grow poppies in Helmand because of American irrigation projects in the area, nor had I seen the parallels between the Soviet and NATO projects in the country made so forcefully, nor had I heard the suggestion that British forces in Afghanistan were in fact not fighting the Taliban at all.

However, in places his narrative thread begins to visibly fray. To hear Curtis tell it the Taliban was exported directly from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan. We are told a lot about the Saudi radicals who went to fight and the support their government gave them. These, however, constituted a small part of the resistance to the Soviets. More significant was that the Americans were conveying their support to the Mujahedeen via Pakistan’s intelligence agency, The ISI. This organisation was riddled with Islamist sympathisers and they pushed the aid towards organisations that shared their viewpoint. Yet Curtis doesn’t mention the role of the ISI or even its very existence at all. The only reason I can see for this omission is that spread of Wahhabism is a passion of Curtis’ – it was the subject of one of his previous documentaries –  and that Saudi Arabia features more prominently in that story than Pakistan.

This is not, however, the worst example of Curtis’ peculiar focus.  The fact of Saudi influence is indeed relevant to the story, it is just not less relevant than other factors he neglects to cover. Stranger are some things that Curtis includes but which seem wholly irrelevant. Consider the following part of his narrative. In 1973, Israel goes to war with its Arab neighbours. In protest at American support for Israel, Saudi Arabia dramatically scales back oil production. This in turn leads to a spike in oil prices which leaves the Saudis with vast amounts of money. They spend much of this bounty on weapons from British and American arms companies. However, when menaced by Saddam Hussein it becomes apparent that despite all these massively expensive purchases, the country would still need American assistance to defend itself. Osama Bin Laden was appalled by the prospect of infidel soldiers being stationed in ‘the land of two holy cities’ and this becomes the catalyst for him to take up arms against both his own government and the Americans. The problem with this is that the first part doesn’t actually relate to the second. Whether or not Saudi Arabia had bought planes from BAE systems it would still have needed American troops to protect itself from Iraq and Osama Bin Laden would still have been radicalised by that. Curtis appears to be talking about arms deals with Saudi Arabia solely because he wants to talk about arms deals with Saudi Arabia.

This is far from the most stretched connection. We get long digressions on the increasing power of the financial sector, a strange inclusion in a story about a country where 90% of people don’t have bank accounts.

Now in a digression whose apparent randomness even Curtis would have to admire, I want to talk about Michael Bay. In the video below the cinematographer Tony Zhou explains why the Transformers director makes such consistently bad films.

Zhou argues it’s not because Bay is lacking in technical skill. In fact, when it comes to injecting a sense of scale and movement into shots nobody can better than Bay. Rather the problem is that he’s good at it, so he does it even when shooting a scene to look massive and dynamic undermines the story it’s supposed to be telling.

I’d argue that Curtis has a similar problem. He is great at finding surprising connections and stories that span vast canvasses. However, this gives him an overwhelming inclination towards huge stories that try to explain everything. This is a shame because his best films like the Century of the Self and the Power of Nightmares have pretty clear topics that encourage him to be coherent and convincing. By contrast, his more recent films with nebulas topics like computing or freedom have brought out the worst aspects of his style.

Bitter Lake is about 2/3rds the better Curtis telling a compelling story about Afghanistan. Unfortunately for much of its run time the bad Curtis turns up to warble about “how politicians have lost control” or banks or something. I can’t say I cared very much what it was.