The best advocates for migrants are migrants

In July 2015, Angela Merkel was speaking a town hall style event on the “Good life in Germany” at a secondary school in the coastal town of Rostock, when:

Reem, a Palestinian, told Merkel in fluent German that she and her family, who arrived in Rostock from a Lebanese refugee camp four years ago, face the threat of deportation.

She said: “I have goals like anyone else. I want to study like them … it’s very unpleasant to see how others can enjoy life, and I can’t myself.”

Dr Merkel is indisputably a very skilled politician. However, in this situation she floundered:

…saying she understood, but that “politics is sometimes hard. You’re right in front of me now and you’re an extremely nice person. But you also know in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are thousands and thousands and if we were to say you can all come … we just can’t manage it.”

Not unsurprisingly this answer reduced Reem to tears, and Dr Merkel was left stroking the crying girl’s shoulder, whilst lamely reassuring her that she had presented herself ‘extremely well’. As well as being a bad look for the Chancellor, it seemed to affect her personally.  Less than a month later, she made the momentous decision to open Germany’s borders to over a million Syrian refugees.

This incident came to mind as I was reading a column by Simon Kuper in the FT about how cosmopolitans can stop losing the communications battle to populists. Among his suggestions is that we:

Don’t use elite spokespeople. The gay-marriage campaign — a rare liberal persuasive triumph — showcased ordinary couples in love. Likewise, the best spokespeople on migration may be ordinary integrated immigrants. On issues of migration, more Britons would trust a migrant who has been in the UK 15 years than would trust any party leader, reports British Future.

Immigration activists in the US have quite explicitly modeled their approach on the equal marriage movement:

Gay-marriage campaigners have long favoured unthreatening, often grey-haired monogamous gay couples as spokesmen (the “lesbians next door” gambit, as a study of the cause dubbed it). Immigration reformers promoted Dreamers: young campaigners named after the DREAM Act, a proposal to offer fast-track legal status to migrants brought to America as children, as long as they go to college or into the armed forces. Advocates such as Mr Sharry credit the prominence of wholesome, college-bound Dreamers with helping reshape the national debate.

Perhaps for that reason, the Obama administration’s first major action was to protect Dreamers from deportation. Despite the Trump administration’s hostility to immigration, even it was hesitant to rescind these protections and dithered before doing so. That decision proved unpopular even with some generally pro-Trump Republicans and it seems possible/likely that legislation will eventually reinstate those protections.

We have also seen this approach used in the UK. For example, the I am an Immigrant poster campaign:

immigrantposter

Immigration advocates have to wrestle with powerful preconcieved notions. The combination of our inherent prejudices against the unfamiliar and years of conjuring by tabloid bile merchants has created a powerful, emotionally resonant negative image of immigrants. Trying to slay these monsters with a stream of counter-vailing information seems likely to backfire. A better way to show voters the reality of migration is to show them real migrants. As Angela Merkel discovered, it is hard to defend our inhumane migration when face-to-face with an actual decent human being it’s hurting.

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Ratko Mladic deserves to die in prison

He was both a shocking throwback to Europe’s dark past and a disturbing herald of the power ethnic grievance still had in the continent

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A cemetery for victims of the Srebrenica massacre (Photo credit: author)

“People are not little stones, or keys in someone’s pocket, that can be moved from one place to another just like that…. Therefore, we cannot precisely arrange for only Serbs to stay in one part of the country while removing others painlessly. I do not know how [Speaker] Krajišnik and [President] Karadžić will explain that to the world. That is genocide”

Ratko Mladic

 

The BBC reported yesterday that:

Former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic has been found guilty of genocide for some of the worst atrocities of the 1990s Bosnian war.

Known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”, he faced 11 charges, including crimes against humanity, at the UN tribunal.

He was convicted of the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 and the siege of Sarajevo in which more than 10,000 people died.

I hope that this is a case where life means life. Mladic’s crimes were so enormous and so without justification that nothing else feels adequate.

A heart of darkness

A few years ago I took part in an inter-faith visit to Bosnia. Srebrenica was one stop on our itinerary. We visited the cemetries, museums and the battery-factory where so many of the shootings took place. We also met some survivors. They were a group of otherwise normal seeming young men, nonetheless haunted by horrors they would have faced while they were still children.

Srebrenica was supposed to be a safe haven for Bosniak’s fleeing a program of ethnic cleansing. A UN Security Council resolution had decreed that it “should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act“. UN peacekeepers guarded it. And it soon became home to thousands of refugees.

However, rather than affording protection to its inhabitants, the town became a trap for them. Mladic’s forces surrounded it, cutting it off from supplies. Refugees began to starve. The UN forces in the town were outnumbered and running out of food, ammunition and fuel. In a separate battle around Sarajevo, a group of French soldiers were captured. Mladic threatened to kill these men in the event of Western airstrikes on his forces. That removed the last serious impediment to a Bosnian Serb takeover of Srebrenica and Mladic ordered his forces to take the town. Aware of the weakness of their position and with many of their members captured, UN forces struck a deal with Mladic. In exchange for being allowed to withdraw from the city, they would turn over thousands of refugees, supposedly to be transported into Bosnian territory.

In fact, what happened was that the Mladic’s soldiers began splitting the refugees into two groups. Men were seperated from women and children. They supposedly needed to interogate the men about purported war crimes. The women were ‘spared’ – that being a relative term as many were raped – but they were eventually given to the Bosnian government. However, the men were being taken to the battery factory, shot and buried in mass graves. Thousands of them. As news of this spread throughout Srebrenica, thousands more of the men began fleeing into the hills and trying to make it towards government held territory. Many of them made it. Many didn’t.

It took less than a fortnight for the massacre to unfold. In that time in a single town, Mladic had overseen the massacre of as many as eight thousands souls.

These and the crimes the army Mladic led, were to constitute his legacy: an instigator of genocide, who drove tens of thousands from their homes, enabled mass rapes, ran concentration camps, defied international law, used peacekeepers as human shields, and had his forces shell the homes of ordinary people and architectural treasures. In order to commit these crimes, he flat out lied. He told both the international community and the Bosniak refugees in Srebrenica themselves that he would spare them. That he only wanted to move them from Serb territory. All this while already having made the decision to massacre them.

A warning from history

On the surface Mladic can seem like a throwback to an earlier period of European history, a figure from the 1930s/1940s somehow making misery in the 1990s. One imagines that had he been born in a different time or place, he would have been helping Hitler to murder Jews or Stalin to starve Ukranians, and that the manner in which he approached that grim task would have been much the same.

However, he also presents a disturbingly contemporary figure. He and the other leaders of Serbian nationalism were amongst the first in the Europe that emerged after the fall of communism, to harness the power of a fusion of ethnic chauvanism and Islamophobia. In videos of his arrival in Srebrenica, Mladic refers to the Bosniaks as ‘Turks’ and presents the capture of the town as revenge for the centuries during which Serbia was ruled by the Ottoman Caliphate based in Istanbul. At his war crimes trial, he and his lawyers would attempt to excuse his actions by suggesting he was defending Serbs from “ethnic and religious fanaticism” and point to the prescense of a handful of foreign “mujahideen” in Bosnia as evidence.

Across much of Europe democracy, human rights and the rule of law are under enormous pressure. As in Bosnia, the culprit is a toxic mixture of national, ethnic and religious sectarianism.

Clearly as bad as these situations are, they are not remotely close to approaching the horror that was unleashed in the former Yugoslavia. However, taking precautions against such darkness is worthwhile, and perhaps Mladic’s conviction can serve as a warning to would be strong men and demagouges across the continent.

Plus, the fact that someone as richly deserving of justice as Mladic has recieved it, does give one hope that perpetrators of atrocities in Syria, Myanmar and North Korea might also find themselves in the prison cells where they belong.

 

 

 

 

 

Meritocracy for thee, a leg-up for me: conservatism and the academy

What right-wingers usually think of positive discrimination

As a general rule people on the right tend not to like so-called ‘positive discrimination’. Take this op-ed from America’s most venerable conservative magazine, the National Review:

Excellence should be celebrated wherever it is found, and affirmative action policies undermine colleges’ ability to search for it.

Or the British conservative columnist Toby Young on getting more working class students from state schools into the UK’s top universities:

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that universities should not lower the bar for state school applicants because that would effectively be sending a message to state schools that they can never be as good as independent schools. Rather, they should have the same expectations of all their applicants, regardless of their educational background, and encourage state schools to compete with private schools on a level playing field.

A double standard

However, there is one group that many right-wingers are comfortable demanding university’s show a special preference towards: themselves.

Take this example from the US:

A bill in the Iowa Senate seeks to achieve greater political diversity among professors at the state’s Board of Regents universities. Senate File 288 would institute a hiring freeze until the number of registered Republicans and Democrats on the university faculty fall within 10 percent of each other.

“I’m under the understanding that right now they can hire people because of diversity,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Mark Chelgren, R[epublican]-Ottumwa. “They want to have people of different thinking, different processes, different expertise. So this would fall right into category with what existing hiring practices are.

This is an unusually stark proposal, but its subtext has been around for decades. In 1951, the National Review’s founder wrote a book called God and Man at Yale that argued that the curriculum of the famous university was biased in favour of liberalism and atheism. Since then universities have regularly been a been targets of conservative attacks on America’s coastal elites. As far back as 1989, the first President Bush attacked his Democrat opponent for having ‘the views of the Harvard Yard.’

As these things tend to, that idea has now made its way across the Atlantic. And we get outpourings like this:

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Do not mistake discernment for discrimination

The unexamined assumption underlying these accusations of bias is that universities – or rather the staff and students they are constituted from – should be treating all views equally. In fact, the opposite is true. While I deplore attempts to exclude views from universities through coercion, it is a natural part of how academia works that some ideas will first be attacked and then ignored. It would be absurd for universities to, for example, provide balance between mainstream earth scientists and flat earthers.

As Robert C. Post, a Yale Law professor, recently wrotes for Vox, universities exist precisely in order to help society discern which views have merit and those which don’t. As Post notes the people who make up a university simply can’t fulfill that function without giving greater prominence and respect to certain ideas than to others:

…universities can and must engage in content discrimination all the time. subject my students to constant content discrimination. If I am teaching a course on constitutional law, my students had better discuss constitutional law and not the World Series.

Professors are also subject to continual content discrimination in their teaching and their research. If I am hired to teach mathematics, I had better spend my class time talking about my equations and not the behavior of President Donald Trump. If I am being considered for tenure or for a grant, my research will be evaluated for its quality and its potential impact on my discipline. Universities, public or private, could not function if they could not make judgments based on content.

Critically scrutinising an idea like ‘Brexit is a desirable outcome’ fits with that mission. It is definitely the sort of thing university humanities and social science departments should be doing. The purpose of that enquiry is not necessarily to pass a singular judgement on the idea. However, if the majority of academics who look into it, come away unimpressed, then that does reflect poorly on the idea.

The closing of the conservative mind

Now confronted with this judgement, people who hold that idea dear have two basic responses. These are the same options that anyone confronted with criticism has. They can take the criticism on board and try to use it to help improve. Or they can get defensive and begin to deny its validity. Or put more metaphorically, you can either get mad with the bathroom scales, or try to eat better and do more exercise.

Not all right-wingers are of the yelling at the scales variety. For example, the conservative MP David Willetts changed his mind about whether income inequality was a problem in response to a pretty consistent finding by social epidemiologists that it was. And clearly, being reluctant to update your views in the face of contrary evidence is not something only people on the right do. There are examples, of it occurring on the left too. Indeed, it is probably something everyone does at some point. However, at the present moment in the US and the UK, it does seem more prevalent amongst conservatives. Take for example, attitudes to science:

A 54 percent majority of Democrats, compared with just 13 percent of Republicans, say they have “a lot” of trust that what scientists say is accurate and reliable. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans trust scientists at least “a little,” with 5 percent of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans saying they don’t trust them at all.

As Ezra Klein has noted, whilst causes like climate change denial have become mainstream amongst Republicans, Democrats have largely managed to resist buying into anti-science messages – such as on GMOs – that might appeal to left-wing inclined voters.

The difference is that conservatism’s mistrust of climate science has taken over the Republican Party — even politicians like Mitt Romney and John McCain have gone wobbly on climate science — while liberalism’s allergy to messing with nature hasn’t had much effect on the Democratic Party. And part of the reason is that the validators liberals look to on scientifically contested issues have refused to tell them what they want to hear.

Klein thinks the emergence of scientists like Bill Nye and Neil De Grasse Tyson as liberal opinion formers is especially important in this regard.

This dynamic is appears less severe in the UK. Perhaps for that reason, it has received less quantitative study. At least that I can find! Nonetheless, you still see signs of it. While prominent scientists and science popularisers, like David Attenborough and Brian Cox have voiced progressive views and opposition to Brexit, climate change denial has become mainstream amongst both Conservative MPs and their allies in the press. Indeed, the power within the British right of tabloid newspapers that combine reactionary politics, a penchant for pseudoscience, and a generally loose attitude to accuracy makes it kind of inevitable.

The mirage of ‘politically correct’ bias

Now it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the possibility that there is real bias in academia and research. Sometimes your bathroom scales are broken, and sometimes universities favour ideas for reasons other than them being more truthful. This issue is probably clearest with regards to funding. For example, we almost certainly think the average medication is more effective than it is, because many clinical trials are funded by the people who make those medicines. Right-wingers have a theory for why academia might be biased against them. Universities are in the grip of a form of ‘politically correct’ groupthink. Academics do not want to voice conservative views, lest they incur the disapproval of their left-wing colleagues and students.

I find this unconvincing because:

  • It does not account for why left-wing ideas would have become dominant in the first place. If right-wing arguments were coherent and well evidenced wouldn’t they have become the dominant ones with which it is risky to disagree.
  • Many academics do produce work with ‘right-wing’ conclusions such as that children typically do better if their parents are married rather than cohabiting, tax increases being bad for economic growth or immigration depressing wages.
  • There is a well-funded ecosystem of media and think tanks promoting right-wing ideas that should not only foster ideas that could make their wake into academia. Plus that same funding could be directly applied to funding academic research.
  • The conservative tendency to pick fights with research applies as much to what are essentially empirical questions as ones that centre on values.
  • In academia as in many fields, being confirmist lowers not only risks, but also rewards. The most celebrated researchers tend to be iconoclasts, who overturn recieved wisdom. Therefore if academia generally ziggs left, there are incentives for individual academics to zag to the right.

All of which makes me think that the reason that right-wing ideas find so little support in academia is that they mostly don’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Instead of engaging in the hard, boring work of coming up with proposals that account for uncomfortable information, contemporary conservatism has chosen the easy comforts of conspiracy theories and tribal epistimology. ‘Alternative facts‘ are treated as if they are as good as the real thing. Institutions that raise questions about the movement’s proposals – including but not limited to academia, the media and the judiciary – have their legitimacy questioned. Rather than coming up with a conservative solution to the problem of climate change – probably the gravest one currently facing the world – many conservatives have opted to pretend it isn’t happening. The Brexit campaign was marked by claims that sounded just about plausible to a voter with a modest amount of attention to devote the the subject, but not to anyone able to study it in any kind of depth. We were told that the UK could save itself millions of pounds in budget contributions that had already been remitted back to us. Likewise we were warned that the UK didn’t have a veto on Turkey joining the EU, even though the treaty article governing the accession of new member states explicitly says that it can only happen if exist members including the UK “shall act unanimously” in support of it. Michael Gove’s notorious assertion that “Britons have had enough of experts” may have been true of the country, but it was definitely true of a campaign that had many reasons to face focused scrutiny, including from academia.

Role-models

The sad part about contemporary conservatives developing such disdain for universities, is that they are attacking the very places that previously incubated many of the most important right-wing ideas. Here are some examples:

  • It is hard to imagine the Thatcher revolution, and the monetarist economic policies which accomponied it, without the work of the Nobel Prize winning economists Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek. Indeed, legend has it that Thatcher once interupted a presentation she felt misrepresented conservative thinking, by slamming one of Hayek’s books on the table and declaring this is what we believe!
  • Michael Oakeshott wrote his philosophical defences of a conservative disposition as a professor at the LSE.
  • Henry Kissinger went from Harvard to being Nixon’s most important foreign policy advisor.
  • The first generation of neoconservatives relied heavily on the work of Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell, and his critiques of sixties counter-culture.
  • The concept of Broken Windows policing – espoused most famously by Rudy Giuliani – was first developed by two Harvard criminologists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.
  • Public choice theory, the notion that you could use the tools of microeconomics to study the public sector as well as private markets, is relied on by many scholars from across the political spectrum. However, it was originally developed by conservatives working as academic economists, who were looking for a tool with which to critique the expansion of welfare programs. They included James M. Buchanan who would win a Nobel Prize for his work.

Take your own medicine

That the right has largely disengaged itself from that kind of serious academic work has hurt it. I don’t think it is a co-incidence that Thatcher and Reagan came in with a clear program they could implement, whilst the Brexiteers and Trumpians are flailing incoherently. Had either group engaged seriously with academics who work on public policy, they would almost certainly have been better prepared for the challenges they faced.

Thus the conservative movement would not benefit from positive discrimination in academia. Quotas for right leaning academics and attempts to root out imaginary ‘liberal’ bias, would just make the right even more intellectually lazy than it currently is. Instead it must practice itself, the message of tough love it preaches to others. Rather than asserting that they have a right to the respect of academia, right-wingers should set out to earn it. The way to do that is with good ideas backed up by convincing evidence and cogent arguments. The likes of Hayek, Oakeshott and Kissinger did that in the past. If their heirs cannot do that in the present, the fault is their own, not academia’s.

 

Self-determination is overrated [Repost]

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Dark clouds over Barcelon (Source)

In March 2014, against the backdrop of impending referendums in Crimea and Scotland, about why claims of a right to secede grounded in self-determination are problematic. Given the current crisis in Catalonia, I felt the argument was worth revisiting:

In a few days the Crimea will go to the polls in a referendum on whether to join the Russian federation. Leaving aside the difficulty of conducting a free and fair election in a region under military occupation, even if a majority of the population in the Crimea legitimately did wish to join Russia this would not in and of itself be enough to legitimate the annexation. For good reasons international law balances the right of a people to self-determination with respect for the territorial integrity of nations.

History furnishes another of good examples of where self-determination was clearly a noxious doctrine. Perhaps most notably the South’s bid for independence during the American Civil War was justified in terms of self-determination. However, virtually everyone would now accept this demand was trumped by concerns for the territorial integrity of the US and the human rights of slaves.

One of the best expositions of the legal issues involved in questions of self-determination comes from an opiniondelivered in 1996 by the Canadian Supreme Court.* It was asked to deliver a judgement on whether Quebec could unilaterally secede from Canada by voting to do so in a referendum. They argued that international law gave them no such right:

[A] right to secession only arises under the principle of self-determination of people at international law where “a people” is governed as part of a colonial empire; where “a people” is subject to alien subjugation, domination or exploitation; and possibly where “a people” is denied any meaningful exercise of its right to self-determination within the state of which it forms a part.  In other circumstances, peoples are expected to achieve self-determination within the framework of their existing state.  A state whose government represents the whole of the people or peoples resident within its territory, on a basis of equality and without discrimination, and respects the principles of self‑determination in its internal arrangements, is entitled to maintain its territorial integrity under international law and to have that territorial integrity recognized by other states.  Quebec does not meet the threshold of a colonial people or an oppressed people, nor can it be suggested that Quebecers have been denied meaningful access to government to pursue their political, economic, cultural and social development.  In the circumstances, the “National Assembly, the legislature or the government of Quebec” do not enjoy a right at international law to effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally.

To see why this is almost certainly the right- as opposed to merely the legally correct – position consider the Supreme Court’s Judgement on what allowing unilateral secession would do to the principles underlying the Canadian constitution:

Quebec could not, despite a clear referendum result, purport to invoke a right of self-determination to dictate the terms of a proposed secession to the other parties to the federation.  The democratic vote, by however strong a majority, would have no legal effect on its own and could not push aside the principles of federalism and the rule of law, the rights of individuals and minorities, or the operation of democracy in the other provinces or in Canada as a whole.  Democratic rights under the Constitution cannot be divorced from constitutional obligations.  Nor, however, can the reverse proposition be accepted: the continued existence and operation of the Canadian constitutional order could not be indifferent to a clear expression of a clear majority of Quebecers that they no longer wish to remain in Canada.  The other provinces and the federal government would have no basis to deny the right of the government of Quebec to pursue secession should a clear majority of the people of Quebec choose that goal, so long as in doing so, Quebec respects the rights of others.  The negotiations that followed such a vote would address the potential act of secession as well as its possible terms should in fact secession proceed.  There would be no conclusions predetermined by law on any issue.  Negotiations would need to address the interests of the other provinces, the federal government and Quebec and indeed the rights of all Canadians both within and outside Quebec, and specifically the rights of minorities.

This could be applied to the Crimea in a number of ways. In particular, we should be concerned about what happens to minority populations like the ethnic Ukrainians and Tartars if the province is annexed to Russia.

However, these matters are relevant far beyond the Crimea. For example, they raise questions about the validity of claims for independence by wealthy regions (such as Northern Italy or Catalonia) who resent supporting their poorer compatriots. Therefore, I have sympathy for Madrid’s refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the proposed referendum in Catalonia.

And while I believe that a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum should be respected, the path to independence would still require negotiation. This means that statements from the SNP about what will happen after independence need to be treated with caution. They cannot dictate the terms on which it will happen and London will have its own objectives in any negotiations.

Self-determination is just one value and it is not (and should not) be some kind of trump card. It has value when it makes democracy possible. However, it is not a valid way for groups to avoid the impact of democratic decisions that have gone against them.

Hat tip: http://opiniojuris.org/2014/03/10/ukraine-insta-symposium-crimea-ukraine-russia-self-determination-intervention-international-law/

Postscript (september 2017):

Looking back after more than three years, I feel confident in my negative assessment of the referendum in the Crimea. Not only does the poll itself appear to have been a sham, but it proved to be the first stage in a broader attack on Ukraine’s independence and integrity. The conflict that followed has claimed thousands of lives so far.

I am less confident applying these arguments to the current crisis in Catalonia. I have only a cursory knowledge of Spanish politics and could easily see myself discovering things that change my assessment of the situation.

However, my strong inclination is that the assertion that Catalonia has the right either to secede or hold a referendum on that question are mistaken. The Catalans are not the subjects of a colonial regime. Instead they are citizens of a democracy in which they enjoy the right to participate in government, and their region overratedhas significant autonomy.

As no right to secede or hold a referendum on the topic arises from international law, one would have to look for such a right in Spanish domestic law. As the nation’s constitutional court has ruled that the law authorising the Catalan government’s proposed referendum was illegal, I infer that no such right is found there either.

If a regional government is acting unconstitutionally – and has been found by the judiciary to be acting thus – then it does not seem unreasonable in the slightest for a central government to step in and uphold the rule of law. The accusations that this is ‘dictatorial’ or even ‘fascistic’ seem overblown to the point of absurdity.

 

See also:

Let’s ban referendums and Jihad or Jenga? which explore how the adverse consequences of secessionism and referendums spiraled out of control during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

What I learned from being Vince Cable’s intern

Photo with Vince

I have almost certainly written more letters and emails as Vince Cable than I have as myself. Back in late 2006/early 2007, I spent four months of my gap year as an intern in his Westminster office. My main job was to draft replies to correspondence for him. Me and another intern would print out our drafts, so there was a big pile of them for him to either sign or make amendments to when he came into the office.

That does not make me a close confidant of his or anything approaching it.

Dozens of other people will have filled the same role since I did. I have spoken to him

So what did I learn from working for the new Lib Dem leader?

 

His public persona is pretty close to the one he presents in a professional setting

If you are expecting anything shocking from this post, you are going to be disappointed. Basically, nothing I saw him do or say jarred with the impression I’d formed from seeing him on the telly.

If you ‘judge a man by how he treats his waiter’ then the judgement on the new Lib Dem leader is positive.

Researchers, interns and caseworkers are the proverbial waiters of Westminster. I heard stories of them being yelled at, given impossible instructions and expected to do strange things unrelated to their job description. Indeed, the waiter comparison is not entirely figurative: one researcher apparently had to wait their boss’ dinner party.

However, none of these stories were about Vince. The people who worked for all seemed to like and respect him, and felt in turn that he respected them. I’d be lying if I said his employees never griped about him – that’s what employees do about their employers – however, the tone of these complaints tended to be affectionate rather than seriously aggrieved, more like pointing out a foible than anything else.

Having a rather distant relationship with technology does not prevent you becoming the Cabinet minister responsible for it

Of those foibles, the one that stands out in my memory is his relationship to technology. I recall another member of staff saying with mild exasperation that ‘he theoretically understands what you can do with computers, but not how’.

The best symbol of this attitude was probably his mobile phone, which he’d kept despite it being several years old, and having a cracked screen, because ‘he knew how to use it’.

This seems rather ironic given that he went on to be Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills which had responsibility for science and technology. He was by all accounts pretty good at that aspect of the job, so maybe specific subject knowledge isn’t all that important a quality in a minister.

Delegation is the heart of good management

His attitude to both his Westminster and Twickenham offices seemed to be to pick people he liked and trusted to run them, and let them get on with it.

Politicians should emphasise common ground (even with people they disagree with)

As an awkward but ‘intellectually self-assured’ teenager my inclination was to reply to emails expressing illiberal views with a forthright explanation of why the correspondent was mistaken. When Vince rewrote these letters, he’d not only tone them down, but also look for points on which he and letter writer did agree, and put them up top. This seemed to make our correspondents less defensive and more open to changing their minds.

It turns out that ‘to tell someone they’re wrong, first tell them how they’re right’ is a well-established approach that’s been discussed since at the 17th century, when the philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about it, and is now backed up by psychological research.

When I later read that Vince had met his second wife when she asked him a critical question about his views on farm subsidies at a Lib Dem event that didn’t surprise me all that much.

It is really hard to explain things to voters without talking down to them

Because Vince was at the time Shadow Chancellor, a lot of the messages I drafted were to do with economics. I had done an A-level in the subject and was going to study it at uni, so I had been reading an awful lot about it. Thus many of my answers, incorporated the kind of “imagine we both have three burgers and four bananas…” metaphors that are a staple of popular economics writing. Vince would invariably take them out again because they come across as patronising. Explaining positions on complicated issues like economic policy with clarity but without seeming like you are lecturing voters is really tough. Vince has that ability. Not many other people do.

I may still have a career as a ghost writer ahead of me

When I started my internship, the drafts I was writing would have been equally applicable to any Lib Dem MP. They would often come back with a note from Vince outlining a personal touch he wanted added to the final message.

By the end of the internship, I had seen hundreds of such notes, and more often than not I could add these ‘personal’ touches myself before Vince ever saw a draft. The example that springs to mind was beginning an email on the ivory trade with something like: ‘Having lived in Kenya for a number of years, I have a deep respect for these magnificent animals…’

Even if you ignore Vince’s political career, his life has been genuinely eventful

There was a lot of material for these personal asides. He came from a working-class family, he was the father of three children, his father disowned him for marrying someone who wasn’t white and it was years before they were reconciled, he lost his first wife to cancer, he was in the Ibrox stadium during the deadly stampede that killed 66 people, he worked for the Kenyan government, he was chief economist at Shell, and that was all before he was a contestant on Strictly!

The impact of your email to your MP has will be proportionate to the time you put into producing it

Most of the emails Vince received were the product of campaigns by pressure groups and charities. These generally involved getting people to put their name and email address into an online form that would then automatically generate an email to their MP. The result was that we got many identical emails. I remember one email, the sender of which had neglected to delete a line saying ‘<Add details of your personal experience here. It will make more impact on your MP if you do>’. Another came in with a note saying, ‘apologises for sending a standard email, I hope you won’t mind’. I was tempted to start the reply with ‘Not at all. I trust you will not mind receiving a standard reply’.

And that’s the problem with sending an MP the same email as a dozen other people. You will all get the same reply. Each additional message requires very little from the MP who receives it and its impact will be limited.

If you really care about an issue, compose your own unique email. It shows far more commitment than does typing your name and email into a website. Furthermore, it is very possible that your MP and his/her staff will produce a reply specifically your message. That involves them spending additional time thinking about the issue you raised. It’s obviously harder, but there’s a payoff to doing it.

There is a definite pre/post ‘Stalin to Mr Bean’ switch in how well-known Vince was

Before, during and for a few months after I did my internship, if people asked me which MP I had worked for, my answer would leave them blank. Then came Vince’s stint as interim Lib Dem leader and the PMQs that included his jibe that in just a few weeks, Gordon Brown had gone ‘from Stalin to Mr. Bean, creating chaos out of order, rather than order out of chaos.’*

Suddenly not only did anyone who read a broadsheet paper know who he was, but I enjoyed (unearned) kudos from my association. Strangely, the fury over the tuition fees hike – a policy implemented by the department he was Cabinet minister for – only partially dented this.

Vince was a remarkably diligent correspondent

I don’t know what the situation is like now, but in 2006/07 if you wrote Vince an email you would get a reply even if:

1) You didn’t live in Twickenham;

2) You were writing about something he couldn’t really help you with and in which he’d never taken a particular interest;

3) You weren’t clear about what you wanted; and

4) You weren’t polite about it.

Indeed, if you replied to that reply, you could find yourself exchanging multiple emails.

At the time, I didn’t understand why he devoted so much effort to randomers. My answer came a few years later, when Susan Kramer, then MP for a constituency that bordered Vince’s, came to speak to my university Lib Dem society. She recounted Vince telling her that shortly after he was first elected, a Labour MP who had been in parliament for ages, warned him against replying to letters because ‘it only encourages the bastards’. I now interpret Vince’s studious replying as the sign of a determination to be a very different kind of MP.

 

 

*Despite the brutality of that put down, my impression is that he actually respected and liked Brown.

Tim Farron and the search for an equilibrium that wasn’t there

Tim_Farron_Glasgow_2014

One of the sub-plots of the recent General Election was the discomfort of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron any time he was asked about LGBT issues. It reached its  endpoint today with his resignation. In an e-mail to party members he reported that:

To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.

I wrote back before his election as leader, that there were issues when Farron’s faith became politically relevant. Nonetheless, I would still endorse Jennie Rigg’s defence of his actions as a public servant. I also share Isabel Hardman and Nick Cohen‘s sense that there’s something (ironically) retrograde about our unwillingness to let a man’s private thoughts stay private.

I would also stand by his performance as leader more generally.

In many ways, he became leader at the wrong moment. A personable northern bloke in a wax jacket representing a farming constituency in the Lakes who had stayed aloof from the coalition, would have been the perfect antidote to Nick Clegg in 2015. Likewise, he would have worked well in a 1997esque period of progressive harmony, in which the Party’s ambition was to defeat the Tories in individual constituencies where Labour would fear to tread. But as an alternative-alternative Prime Minister in place of the (apparently) doomed Corbyn, or as a spokesperson for upmarket remain voters? For that we needed someone urbane, a bit posh, someone who’d have convivial lunches with Times opinion columnists and get puffy columns in return, basically an Emmanuel Macron from Southwark, or a Nick Clegg from an alternative dimension where the coalition never happened.

Both of those figures being figments of my imagination, Tim Farron stepped up and, while not ideal, still made a series of broadly correct decisions. He realised we needed a clear answer on Brexit. And that we continued to need it after the vote. That decision allowed the party to (modestly, electorally and in the short term) co-exist with a Corbynism that proved to be much stronger than we imagined. Angry remainers gave both Labour and the Lib Dems opportunities to make gains off the Tories. It will also – I hope – ultimately serve to solidify the party’s identity.

Nonetheless, he still had to go. I say that regretfully and as a matter of political calculation, rather than convicition. The reason is not Farron’s views. It’s not even their potential unpopularity. They did not represent some huge inundation that would sink HMS Lib Dem, but an ongoing problem that would have required the leader and his followers to be constantly bailing out water. Using up energy that might carry the party forward to stop it sinking, is not something a party with as many head-winds as the Lib Dems could afford.

It might have been different if Farron had been more assured in his stances, but as his resignation email made clear, he was wrestling with internal conflicts. Indeed, let’s be honest, the interviews he was giving before the election made that pretty clear too. It is hard to watch them and conclude that Farron was ever going to find a stance from which he could have dodged, repeled or absorbed those questions. Had he stayed on as leader, he would have been signing himself, and the party, up, for an ongoing beating. His decision to forestall that was correct.

 

My hurried, ill-thought through and provisional reactions to the election

Written in a rush, so expect errors of fact and grammar. Also, full disclosure I have been out of the UK since February.

General

1 – There is a (possibly apocraphyl) story that during a state visit to Paris in the 1970s, Zhou Enlai – Mao’s Primeminister – was asked what he thought of the French revolution. He is suppposed to have replied that ‘it was too early to tell’. I basically feel the same way about this election.

2 – Relatedly, this election feels like it marks a transition from one phase of British politics to another. Like when we moved from Butskellism to Thatcherism. I confess I cannot really tell what the new epoch is however (and I suspect neither can you!)

3 – Can we all just agree now that First-Past-the-Post is an unbelievably crap electoral system! Even with the two main parties winning a far higher share of the vote than they normally do, we still haven’t got one of the stable, single party governments that are supposedly its benefit.

Conservatives

4 – Regardless of my more sobre assesement of who would be a better Primeminister, I find it intensely gratifying that voters didn’t reward May’s defensive, condescending and cynical campaign.

4 – I do not envy Theresa May having to try and run a government. The Tory/DUP alliance has a tiny commons minority. A figure I saw recently was 5. By-election loses and the like will likely chip away at that. That means that she must ensure that the entire spectrum of Tory opinion is content, from the most rabid right-winger to wettest wet.

5. This is not a straightforward defeat. The Party gained a strikingly large number of seats including from Labour. That suggests that like Labour it is metamorphising. The resulting butterfly seems to have a rather Trumpian hue:

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6 – This seems like a reasonable criticism:

7 – Whatever else good comes out of this, I suspect that May and Timothy haven’t got the votes to bring back Grammar Schools. For which thank goodness!

Labour

8 – This result challenges my preconceptions about what voters in the UK would accept, as much as Trump’s victory did about the tolerances of American voters. I genuinely assumed that both Corbyn as an individual and his platform would be toxic. I was clearly wrong.

9 – However, it does not follow from the above that Corbynism is not electorally problematic. Merely, that we potentially need to substantially revise downwards the size of that problem. We should expect oppositions to gain seats. That’s what oppositions generally do. Especially, when faced with a Primeminister who campaigns with the caution of a gambler but none of the flair. Not saying that he wasn’t an electoral asset mind. Simply, that we have to explore the question more.

10 – Labour supporters do need to remember it got fewer votes and seats than the Conservatives. What many in the part have achieved is objectively impressive. However, a way milder than expected defeat is still a defeat.

11 – Speaking of which, my sense is that the next step for Labour is going to be harder. They have convinced the electorate to trust them as an implement to humble the Tories. Now, they must persuade voters to they deserve to take power in their own right. That is a bigger ask, and I don’t think they are ready yet.

Lib Dems

12 – I’ll write about my own party’s performance in more detail elsewhere. But suffice to say, what a relief! That was looking scary for a moment, a further loss of seats would have made a return to relevance into something like the ascent of Nanga Parbat.

13 – Despite my previous support for him, I suspect that Farron probably needs to go. I suspect that Swinson is the right person to replace him but I reserve judgement for now.

Sinn Fein

14 – I’m curious (as an ignorant outsider) whether they will start to face pressure from within their own community to take their seats in Westminster. I appreciate that there is a lot of history behind the decision not to. However, if the price of that is letting the DUP hold the balance of power in the Commons, then surely the temptation to start voting must be there?