Category: Politics

  1. Cambridge Analytica: A silly statement by a smart man

    Constantin Gurdgiev is a smart man who usually offers an interesting perspective. I say that despite disagreeing with him far more than I agree. He’s too capitalist for me, too “free-market”, but that doesn’t make him my enemy. He comes across as a very decent person whenever I’ve seen him interviewed, and I believe it’s vital to listen to smart, civil people with whom we disagree. That said, his latest thread about Cambridge Analytica on twitter (first post, above) is just silly I’m afraid.

    In the thread he appears to be suggesting… no, that’s not right… he explicitly states that the “main point” to take away from the “Cambridge Analytica outrage” is that we shouldn’t trust the State. He refers to it as the Deep State, of course.

    Cambridge Analytica

    But the “Cambridge Analytica outrage”, let us remember, involves an unaccountable private company financed and run by people (the Mercers, Steve Bannon) that, from my perspective are on the hard-right, purchasing user data from another private corporation (also with fairly hard-right finance in their past; Peter Thiel) and using it to subvert the democratic process in numerous countries while remaining entirely hidden from view.

    Mr. Gudgiev acknowledges (though rather weakly) that “Facebook et al might be culpable in being negligent or even greedy with our data” but suggests that “our media is complicit in fostering the culture that made Cambridge Analytica powerful.” Which may be true but conveniently overlooks the fact that the media in this case is largely made up of private corporations owned by right-wing capitalists like Rupert Murdoch and Paul Dacre, who are also doing their level best to manipulate electorates into voting for right-wing, pro-corporate, “small-State” parties.

    Your former employer: responsible for things you do for your current employer

    Mr. Gudgiev points out, correctly, that Cambridge Analytica used “ex-Deep State professionals”. But he positions that fact as a critique of the State, rather than a savage indictment of the private corporations who hired these ex-spies and used them to influence and subvert elections in pursuit of profit and a right-wing, pro-corporate, pro-free-market agenda.

    State surveillance is extremely worrying; whether carried out by the NSA today or the Stasi 40 years ago. And as technology progresses, more and more states are adopting it in what are often clear cases of over-reach and intrusion. We must guard against it at all costs.

    But to insist that the “main point” we should take away from this story, a clear-cut case of private capitalists actively seeking to disempower and undermine the State through subversion, blackmail, manipulation and propaganda (some of it illegal) is that we should be suspicious of the State? That’s “whataboutery” of epic proportions.

    Both the State and Private Capital can have a corrosive effect on our society if left unchecked. But if smart people insist we look away when Private Capital does it and focus instead on the “main point”… the State… then they risk becoming part of the problem.

  2. Long rambling opinion piece:
    A twitter debate with a Jeremy Corbyn fan

    Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the UK’s Labour Party. He’s fairly left-wing, certainly by the standards of recent Labour Party leaders. He has a bunch of policies that I — as a bit of an auld lefty — broadly agree with.

    Yet I dislike him. Quite a bit.

    An election poster for Jeremy Corby and the UK Labour Party. It reads: Elections are about taking sides, Labour is on yours. I added line saying Unless You are a bloody foreigner!

    I’ve long rejected simple political labels. I agree with Orwell in “Politics and The English Language” when he points out that most — if not all — political labels have no universal definition. A person will say “socialist” or “democracy” and their listeners will all have completely different ideas about what’s being discussed. Worse still, this ambiguity is often used in a consciously dishonest way… deploying the words as weapons or tricks to gain advantage or influence.

    However, we all still have to use those words from time to time or else political conversation becomes impossible. And I do have a basic belief in broad socialist principles. Wealth redistribution, a social safety-net, universal health care, collective ownership of specific resources and services… not all; I believe market mechanisms have their place (indeed; quite a lot of places) so long as that place is well-defined and regulated in the collective interest.

    Importantly however, my socialism* is of the “internationalist” variety. I believe people should — insofar as is practical — be allowed seek a decent life without national borders being an obstacle. And I believe people should have the same rights and be treated equally, no matter where they are. Clearly if you compare Norway to Saudi Arabia, for example, there’s a long way to go before that ideal is even glimpsed on the horizon. But aim high, right?

    Insofar as is practical

    No, that doesn’t mean some kind of “free-for-all”. Right now, it’s practical for freedom of movement to exist within the EU. More than practical, it’s bloody marvelous. It’s also practical — and marvelous — for Europe to offer aid and shelter to refugees escaping war and disaster. None of this comes without problems to solve; occasionally even serious ones. But those problems can be solved, and the benefits (social, moral and economic) far outweigh them in any case.

    At the same time, yes, there are limits to global freedom of movement. Certainly over some timescales. It’s not always practical (or even feasible), especially in a world with such an uneven distribution of wealth. “Wealthy countries” sadly don’t have the infrastructure to resettle everyone who wants to leave a less wealthy country and instantly raise their standards of living. Not overnight. The solution to this — of course — is to find some mechanism to redistribute wealth more evenly from the wealthy nations to those less well-off.

    The EU, incidentally, is arguably one of the first major political projects to have had some success in that kind of peaceful, voluntary trans-national redistribution endeavor. Of course it’s not perfect; but it’s better than what we had before. And it can be made better still. Wouldn’t it be great to have a strong, left-wing, pro-EU Britain helping influence European policy in that direction?

    International socialism again, even if heavily disguised. Sorry.

    And I’m not saying it’s easy to raise the living standards in the most poverty-stricken parts of the world… but if you say it’s “impossible” then we’ll have to disagree. I place a little more faith in the problem-solving capacity of the human intellect than you do. And that’s fine. We can’t break the laws of physics, and our inaction on Climate Change and resource depletion will probably screw us all anyway… but there are solutions to inequality if we try hard enough.

    Wasn’t this supposed to be about Jeremy Corbyn?

    Yes. Yes it was. And yes it is.

    The above tweet appeared in my twitter feed. It’s the first tweet in a thread that clearly and unambiguously reveals the incoherence, contradictions and plain nonsense contained within Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Brexit, as conveyed in his speech to the Scottish Labour Party Conference (click through and read the whole thread if you like; I don’t see anything remotely controversial about it… it’s just facts).

    Corbyn’s Brexit plan mirrors (almost exactly) that of David Davis, Boris Johnson and Theresa May… it’s filled with “have your cake and eat it” absurdities, insistence of British exceptionalism (the right to continued influence over EU policy while standing outside the organisation and cherry-picking which rules the UK will adhere to), and easily as much ignorance about the economic, political, and legal realities of the customs union and single market as is displayed by Liam Fox on an off-day.

    It’s just full of nonsense. But politicians often talk nonsense. That’s not the big problem here. Cake-ism has become such a pervading attitude within the British political scene and media that we’re probably just going to have to accept it and nod politely until they decide to grow up a bit. No, the big problem with the speech — not specifically highlighted in the above thread — was that it contained an unhealthy dose of anti-immigrant rhetoric. This has become a bit of a theme in Jeremy Corbyn’s speeches and interviews since the referendum, and it is the explanation for that dislike I expressed in the first paragraph.

    Corbyn’s Scotland Speech: a tiny bit less unpleasant than previous disparaging comments about immigrants, I suppose

    Here’s that section from the speech in Scotland (a speech in which, prior to this clip, he insisted the referendum vote must be respected… despite Scotland voting solidly to Remain… I know, I know Scotland doesn’t get to decide its own future, but it was still a bit insensitive, no?)

    Anyway, it’s pleasing that he no longer talks about cheap Central European workers being “imported wholesale” and “destroying conditions” for British workers. His PR-person had a word in his ear and “Central European” has become “agency” and while he still thinks of them as commodities to be “imported”, I suppose it’s an improvement that he’s no longer describing them as “wholesale”. He’s still insisting they’re driving down pay and conditions (though he’s careful not to talk about them “destroying” anything… again, the PR-person probably had a word).

    But let’s be crystal clear here… that last bit about destroying / driving down pay and conditions… there’s absolutely no evidence to support it. In fact, the evidence that exists shows absolutely nothing of the sort. Here’s an excellent twitter thread providing sourced-stats that reveal Jeremy Corbyn’s ignorance (or outright lies?) on this matter…

    See, if you’re the leader of a major political party and you pepper speeches and interviews with demonstrable falsehoods about the negative impact of immigrants, you don’t — in my view — get much of a benefit of the doubt. It’s just vile. It’s dog-whistle politics of the worst kind… reminiscent of something… what was it again…?

    Oh that’s right…

    And yet, there’s a veritable army of Labour supporters and Jeremy Corbyn fans who are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. More than that; they’ll defend him to the hilt. I always find it interesting how much blind loyalty can be inspired by a politician willing to play to the unconscious prejudices of his audience**.

    Yesterday I got into a discussion / debate with one of those supporters. As usual, I won’t be linking or posting that person’s tweets directly here***. However I will bend over backwards not to misrepresent the position of that person. I endeavor to be fair-minded and always debate in good faith. Not saying I always succeed, but I try.

    Anyway, the Jeremy Corbyn supporter with whom I was debating made the following three claims in his defence (there may have been other points made; but these constitute the main thrust of the argument).

    • Firstly, Corbyn has a long track-record of “siding with immigrants”.
    • Secondly, the supposed anti-immigrant stuff is actually a criticism of unscrupulous bosses who exploit those workers; not of the immigrants themselves.
    • Thirdly (and this is the one I was most intrigued by), Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t mean what he says in those speeches and interviews. He’s “not in a political position” to say what he really believes and is instead saying whatever he needs to say to get into power; even if he doesn’t mean it.

    One at a time

    That first one sounds like a defence, but is actually a damning indictment. The way I read it is this… Jeremy Corbyn has long-supported the rights of immigrants. He has been consistently on their side.

    Until now.

    Since the referendum his public statements have become at best — and this is being insanely generous — ambivalent about immigrants. From full-throated support to “wholesale importation” in the space of a day at the referendum. The wind changed. Anti-immigrant sentiment went mainstream. 52% of voters appeared to endorse a UKIP view of immigrants and as a result; just when those immigrants most needed a loud, unwavering, unambiguous defender; Jeremy Corbyn flipped and sought to fill Labour’s sails with that xenophobic wind, or at least syphon off enough of it to win a few marginals.

    From siding with immigrants to accusing them of destroying British workers’ conditions. Why? Because it looks like there might be some votes in xenophobia this season? Yeuch!

    Let’s be clear; this isn’t some minor politician altering their position on a local school closure because they realise it gains them some votes (as lacking in integrity as that doubtlessly is). This is the leader of the opposition (and — according to a recent poll — the likely next Prime Minister) of the UK suddenly switching from “siding with immigrants” to launching public attacks on them at the precise moment they’re at their most vulnerable.

    Sign The Brexit Papers!

    Right now in the UK, there is an apparent spike in the number of people being threatened, intimidated, and sometimes physically assaulted because of their nationality or race. And when you see the video posted by a black student, justifiably scared by the vicious arseholes chanting “We hate the blacks! We are the black-haters!” outside her door… and then hear them chanting “Brexit! Brexit! Sign The Brexit Papers!” you realise what an ugly can of worms has been opened by that referendum.

    These vile people have — unquestionably — been emboldened by the vote. That’s not a suggestion that the 17.3 million British people (52% of those who voted) who triggered Brexit are all “the black haters”. It’s just pointing out that one of the consequences of their decision has been to provide a terrible faux-legitimacy to awful people and their hatred. And yes, I think if you chant “We hate the blacks” it’s not hyperbole to describe it as “hate speech”.

    Let’s also be clear… I’m not for a moment saying or implying that Jeremy Corbyn feels anything but disgust at the behaviour of those people. I feel 100% certain that he does. Those people don’t represent him, and he doesn’t represent them. And if someone suggests that; they’re a goddamn moron.

    But every time a prominent politician gives a speech or an interview and whispers into the ear of the British public that immigrants are lowering their wages and destroying their working conditions…? It makes the people who chant racist slurs feel a little bit more comfortable; a little bit more legitimate; a little bit more like they have the backing of those in power.

    For shame.

    But it’s really about unscrupulous bosses

    Is it?

    Jeremy Corbyn has stated that his problem isn’t with immigrants per se, but with the dodgy bosses and employment agencies who do the “wholesale importation”. Immigrants are very possibly decent people exploited by an immigration system that’s destroying the conditions of the British worker. The person I was debating with posted two separate instances of Corbyn making that very point.

    And yes, he says that. But he doesn’t just say that, does he?

    Make no mistake; if that really was Corbyn’s concern, then the answer is to only talk about the unscrupulous bosses and agencies while at the same time maintaining the supposed track-record of always siding with immigrants. The answer is to come up with stronger regulation of the unscrupulous behaviour; to devise policies that raise the pay and conditions of British and immigrant workers; to regularly stress the benefits of immigration during this time when those people most need a strong voice in their corner. To work with the EU to protect the rights of workers, whatever their nationality. But apparently he’s not in “a political position” to side with immigrants right now… it’s more important he sway some UKIP voters into his camp. Even if “the black haters” do feel a bit more confident in their hatred as a result.

    If you abandon the vulnerable because you think it’ll win you votes; then I hope to hell you don’t get a single one. Whoever you are.

    Mock Labour election poster... basically as rebrand of a UKIP anti-immigrant poster

    If it’s really about the unscrupulous agencies, then modify your damn language Mr. Corbyn! Don’t talk about “the low-paid immigrants destroying conditions”. Not ever. Support the low-paid whoever they are. Whether born in London, Leeds, Liepāja or Ljubljana. And demand better workplace regulation and higher pay for everyone. Leave out the scapegoating and the xenophobic dog-whistles. Stop making the racists feel at home. They shouldn’t be welcome in the Labour tent… however many votes they offer. You’re supposed to represent the people who elect you, Mr. Corbyn. So why do you want the votes of the anti-immigrant crowd? The end justify the means?

    Jeremy Corbyn: Will Lie For Votes

    Which segues nicely into the final — and most depressing — defence of Jeremy Corbyn. He doesn’t mean what he says. He’s just saying whatever the hell he thinks will get him elected.

    Really? That’s the big, ringing endorsement is it? Christ… how far the idealistic have fallen, eh? I remember a time when a politician telling lies to trick people into voting for them under false pretences was a solid reason not to vote for them. For Corbyn supporters it’s the opposite… it shows how great he is.

    Guess what, Jeremy Corbyn fans, it doesn’t show how great he is. It shows the complete opposite.

    Remember when Corbyn’s big attraction was his integrity? “You may not agree with everything he says, but at least you know where he stands”. He placed honesty above spin, didn’t he? Well, that’s how Corbyn fans sold him to us first time around. Why has the sales pitch suddenly switched to “You may not know where he stands, but at least he’ll say whatever gets him power”? I understand your desperation, I really do. But I’m not a big fan of the lies and hypocrisy.

    And that’s some really deep hypocrisy you’ve chosen to wade through on your way to power.

    I’ve never been the world’s most vocal proponent of representative democracy. But most of Corbyn’s supporters would be solidly democratic. Yet they are happy to support a leader who’ll subvert it in the name of power. Because tricking people to vote for you — by telling them what they want to hear, not what you truly believe — is a blatant subversion of democracy.

    When Albert Einstein wrote, in his essay, Why Socialism?

    It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

    he was specifically attacking the tendency of private capital to control “the main sources of information”. Nonetheless, having read the entire published output of the man, I will confidently claim he would have put lying politicians in the same bracket when it comes to undermining democratic principles. If people don’t know what they are voting for; if they’ve been misled by lies and propaganda… trickery to con them out of voting for what they actually believe in… then it’s proto-tyranny, not democracy.

    And no, “but everybody does it” does not make it any better.

    But those people SHOULD be fooled

    This was not an argument made by my twitter interlocutor, but it’s one I’m willing to make on their behalf… is it not a good thing that xenophobes and borderline (even not so borderline) racists are fooled into voting for a less extreme party? Does it really matter if those people are deprived, through propaganda and disinformation, of their ability to arrive at “objective conclusions”? In short, shouldn’t we treat them with the contempt they deserve and try and undermine their democratic rights?

    Well, obviously not if you believe those rights are important or universal (the ethical argument). And definitely not (the practical argument) if you want to reduce the extremism, hatred, fear and anger of those people. Yeah, a lot of them are morons. But even morons eventually work out they’ve been conned. And guess what? That doesn’t actually make them any less extreme. Quite the opposite in fact. I’m not telling anyone to treat “the black haters” as reasonable people… but I would urge us all to try and not make them any more unreasonable than they already are.

    Courting the votes of xenophobes, pretending to be sympathetic to their position, and then betraying their trust after you get their vote…? Well, it’s better than courting the votes of xenophobes, pretending to be sympathetic to their position, and then not betraying their trust after you get their vote.

    But you know what’s better than both? That’s right Jeremy… not courting the votes of xenophobes in the first place. Not telling lies about foreigners destroying the jobs of decent British people. Not making racists feel better about themselves.

    Except… well, who’s really being fooled?

    I’m not at all sure my Corbyn-supporting sparring-partner on twitter really got this point. But if Jeremy Corbyn gives an interview accusing “imported immigrants” of destroying British workers conditions on a Monday; then on Tuesday gives a speech about unscrupulous bosses doing the real damage; what makes you assume the former is just a vote-grabbing tactic while the latter is his real position? Why can’t it be the opposite?

    Were people sent a Corbyn-decoder-ring with their Labour lapel-pin when they joined the party? Does he give a secret signal to let his supporters know “this one’s the lie”? Is it dependent on what colour suit he’s wearing? The time of day of the interview? How exactly am I supposed to know that this is a compassionate, internationalist strategically courting xenophobic votes? And not a secret xenophobe strategically courting the liberals?

    From what I can gather the answer appears to be twofold…

    Firstly — and to return to a previous point — his track-record of siding with immigrants. Except… well, when you abandon a vulnerable group in their hour of greatest need, then maybe your support for them was never all that sincere in the first place?

    Leaving us with the second answer… “as a Jeremy Corbyn supporter, when he says something I agree with, then he’s telling the truth. If I disagree with something he says, then obviously he’s just saying it to trick people into voting for him”.

    I’m guessing the Corbyn-decoder-ring is really a state of mind… two parts desperation to three parts blind faith.

    * I’m still bristling at the self-application of the “socialist” label. I’m aware no two people reading this will have exactly the same understanding of that word. And it’s far, far from pure socialism I’m talking about… there’s a whole bunch of other stuff mixed in there; a dollop of anarchism, a soupcon of rugged capitalist individualism, plus lots and lots of obscure ideas from the work of anthropologist Gregory Bateson, as well as a hefty dose of the later Freud. [back]

    ** Freud’s excellent paper on Group Psychology explains why this should be (his analysis of The Church and The Army can be equally applied, with surprisingly few tweaks, to a political party). [back]

    ** I’ll post tweets from public figures / politicians / journalists that I disagree with, and dissect them. Those people consciously put their ideas into the world hoping they’ll make an impact. They invite analysis and critique. I’ll also post tweets of twitter folk when I agree with them, or when they simply contain factual information. Twitter is a public platform and I don’t think it’s wrong to re-post someone’s tweet on a blog when it’s an endorsement, or the sharing of facts. However, taking some random citizen’s words which were directed at me personally or perhaps at a couple of hundred followers, and critiquing them in my own private corner of the web never feels right to me. Of course those people have a right to reply, and I’ll post any comment they make (assuming it ain’t libelous or otherwise legally dodgy). But it’s still a bit “off” I think. [back]

  3. Curried Yoghurt. Northern Ireland and the Irish language.

    I don’t speak Irish. Like almost every Irish kid I was taught it at school, but in my case this was interrupted when my parents moved overseas. Not much scope for learning the Irish language in a British school in Greece in the 1980s. That said, upon my return home to Dublin several decades later I can’t say my Irish is significantly worse than most of my contemporaries. It seems like few of my generation retained the language… even though most of them had daily lessons in the subject right up to the age of 16.

    That’s not intended as a criticism of the Irish language. It’s not even intended as a criticism of teaching or promoting it (though it suggests that if we do wish to increase the number of Irish speakers; whatever the hell the Irish Board of education was up to in the 1970s and 80s should be avoided like the plague). Rather it’s just to illustrate the fact that it’s not something I feel strongly about. If you’re a Gaeilgeoir and that annoys you… I’m sorry; it is what it is.

    I think it’d be very sad if the Irish language died out. More than that; if a strategy was developed (either in the schools or some as-yet undreamt-of community initiative) that was demonstrated to significantly increase the number of people voluntarily learning and speaking Irish, I’d genuinely celebrate it (for all sorts of reasons) and would have no issue with the government funding it. I’m not a strict utilitarian when it comes to public spending… so long as we do a half-decent job of trying to cover the essentials, a society should also try to fund those things, within reason, that are culturally important to it.

    If you’re a libertarian and that appalls you, don’t worry; your views will change quite a lot when you grow up.

    But again, let me stress, if I was shaping Sinn Féin / Republican policy in Northern Ireland right now, an Irish Language Act would not be one of my red lines. If I was them I’d be doubling-down on the “look how moderate and reasonable we’ve become” strategy, all the while quietly putting their faith in the inevitability of a unification referendum after Brexit tanks the British economy. Once they’re part of a united Ireland they can rejoice in their children sharing the same experience as those down south… that of resentfully learning a language they’re destined to immediately forget upon graduation.

    Instant Retraction!

    Did I just say an Irish Language Act would not be one of my red lines? I take it back.

    No seriously, I retract that. Total U-Turn. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that an Irish Language Act is now of primary importance for the formation of any power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. It’s a massive red line. And it is rightfully a massive red line.

    There is an effort in the UK media to portray this impasse as Sinn Féin digging their heels in about a trivial issue. Or worse, something that is simultaneously trivial and explosively sectarian. And when I say the UK media, I don’t just mean the usual suspects.

    The Mail, The Sun, The Express… they are all predictably predictable. But it was reading The Guardian’s shocking editorial on the subject that I felt genuine anger. Here we have the editorial position of what is ostensibly the newspaper of Britain’s liberal left, and it is either a shamefully ill-researched slab of ignorance or it’s a knowing hatchet-job on Irish republicanism.

    I want you to ponder this line from that editorial…

    “The darker truth here is that Sinn Féin has chosen to weaponise the language question for political ends, less to protect a minority than to antagonise unionists.”

    That’s not the darker truth here. Let me explain the darker truth here… and in the off-chance the author of that Guardian editorial is reading this, I will try to use small words.

    No Angels

    Sinn Féin are perfectly capable of trying to make political hay out of any situation. That’s what politicians do. But the darker truth here is that a promise is being reneged upon. And I don’t care which side does it; it’s completely unacceptable. It would be just as bad if the DUP were being painted as unreasonable and aggressive (“weaponising language”) simply for holding Sinn Féin to what they already signed-up to. Pretty sure the editor of The Guardian would have no problem with that. Right?

    More than a decade ago, Unionists, Republicans, the Irish and British governments all gathered in Scotland. At St. Andrews, they revised and eventually agreed the rules by which the Stormont power-sharing executive would function. This included both procedural aspects and legislative ones. Among the promises made by all present was the following…

    (You can download the full text of the St. Andrews Agreement as a PDF from the UK government’s website. That paragraph appears in Annex B.)

    The text that finally made it into actual British legislation — Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 — isn’t as explicit, demanding instead that “a strategy be developed” […] “to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language.”

    Weasel words?

    So the DUP points to the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 and insists (technically correctly) that it doesn’t explicitly commit them to an Irish Language Act.

    But that British law is not what all parties agreed and signed at St. Andrews. That piece of paper, the St. Andrews agreement itself, between the DUP and Sinn Féin (amongst others) clearly and explicitly promises an Irish Language Act. And that’s the context we find this whole farrago unfolding within.

    It’s not about the Irish language. It’s about one side, one community, being told it doesn’t need to honour its commitments. And the other being painted as antagonistic when they call foul. Britain’s attitude towards Ireland has become deeply disturbing. On one side we have the editor of The Guardian openly suggesting the DUP can pick and choose which former agreements they need to abide to, while a senior sitting Tory MP (and former minister) suggests that maybe the entire Good Friday Agreement be jettisoned…

    Culturally speaking, I don’t understand what the hell is going on in Britain right now. I feel bad for my UK friends who largely seem as mystified as I am, but I also fear for the collateral damage this whole British psychotic episode might have on us here. Ireland is a million miles from the country I remember from the 1970s, but I’m far from convinced “the peace process” is 100% finished yet. And it would be sheer lunacy to start picking at that scab now.

    I’m aware that the Irish Language Act is not the only obstacle to the resumption of power-sharing. But even if it was, it’s not something that can be compromised on. As soon as you say one party to an agreement does not have to uphold their promise, there is zero chance power-sharing can have a future.

  4. Trump’s Big Button

    I’m picturing a hypothetical afterlife in which Sigmund Freud is reading Trump’s twitter feed and becoming increasingly paranoid that the commander of the world’s most powerful nation is deliberately mocking him with a crass caricature of his most well-known ideas.

    In this hypothetical afterlife Freud sits at a table in a pub, drinking a Vodka-redbull, and complaining bitterly to Joyce and Einstein who are sympathetic but see the funny side. “Ach, you’ve heard me go off on my ‘cultural relativity’ rant enough times by now”, chimes in Albert when Sigmund pauses to gulp his drink and snort a quick line of coke, “so I get it”.

    Freud shakes his head in a manner both frantic and emphatic. “That’s different though”, there’s a dismay in his voice, “they were still taking you seriously! This Trump guy is just taking the fucking piss. And I don’t understand why!”

    Joyce nods sagely. “Yeah maybe, but sure it could be worse, you could be one of those poor feckers over there”.

    He gestures towards the darkened booth where Marx and Nietzsche sit, pale, unmoving, staring blankly at the wall, a look of horror on their faces.

  5. A time for compromise

    Sinn Féin are doing their utmost to miss an open goal. This right now is the moment in history for them to be at their most adaptable. They need to bend over backwards to compromise – even to the point of acquiescence – because it offers them such a strategic advantage.

    As the effects of Brexit kick in, Northern Ireland is likely to be badly hit, and the DUP will increasingly appear unreasonable and destructive — not just to those outside NI politics, but to a lot of Unionists too. In 3 or 4 years time it is highly likely that Unionism, as a political force, will be at an all-time low. If Sinn Féin spend that time aggressively adopting the “voice of reason” role, I don’t think it’s beyond the bounds of possibility that they might succeed in holding and winning a border poll (surely their ultimate endgame?)

    Brexit makes such a thing possible (even if not hugely likely). But the only way it works (in my opinion) is if Sinn Féin play it right. And that means turning themselves into a party that a reasonable Unionist does not automatically view as The Enemy. They can’t afford to instantly alienate every single non-republican in Ireland if they are to ever achieve their stated aim. Now… I don’t know if that’s even possible; if Sinn Féin can make that change or if Northern Irish society could even permit it to happen.

    But that has to be the goal. And it starts with a willingness to compromise.

  6. Dublin Bus deregulation and why I’m against it

    So there was a discussion on twitter about the disaster that was UK regional bus deregulation. And yes, it was a disaster. A friend of mine from the North of England used to have (and probably still does; I’ve just not heard it in a while) a lengthy and well-rehearsed rant about the catastrophic effects of bus deregulation on Northern cities. By the time he had fully warmed to his theme you got the distinct impression that bus deregulation in the North of England was like AIDS, the Holocaust and Climate Change all rolled into one.

    In stark contrast to this buspocalypse, the twitter discussion held aloft the London model (a model apparently outlawed outside London — something I wasn’t aware of, but I can’t say surprises me) which retains a central authority (Transport for London) effectively managing and setting parameters for all bus routes; ensuring smooth integration with other routes and other modes of transport; but then offers those routes for private tender.

    And it works. From the point of view of the customer (who is always right, after all) London’s bus system is pretty excellent. Keeping a city the size of London moving is a bastid difficult task, and London buses contribute massively to achieving it. That’s undeniable even for an unreconstituted socialist like me.

    I believe public transport, like a lot of other things, should be publicly owned and operated. That’s my starting position, ideologically-speaking. The reason I’ve never been part of any socialist organisation however, is because I prize flexibility above ideological purity (I get more of my philosophy from Gregory Bateson than I do from Marx). See, if there’s a social problem to be solved (let’s say we’re setting up a new transport system in a new city) and there are multiple potential solutions, I will naturally gravitate to one involving collective ownership and operation. State ownership is not a dirty concept to me. In fact it’s generally preferable to corporate ownership in my book.

    However, in situations where you have an existing public transport system that incorporates private companies and is clearly working, then you have to be some kind of maniac to recommend poking it with a stick for ideological reasons. If the London bus system starts failing the city, then I will be on the side recommending more public involvement while others will insist that privatisation didn’t go far enough. But so long as it’s working then clearly the right balance is being struck. So we should all leave it the hell alone.

    I’m not saying that even “above average” systems can’t be improved upon, nor that we shouldn’t try; but there’s also a truth in the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” maxim. Which brings me, finally, onto Dublin…

    Dublin Bus ain’t broke

    Dublin Bus is a state-owned company and it runs all of Dublin’s bus routes, with a few minor exceptions — airport hoppers and a handful of suburban / semi-rural services right on the outskirts of the metropolitan area. Some Dubliners like to complain about Dublin Bus, but having experienced a lot of cities and their buses, Dublin Bus is firmly in the “above average” category. No it’s not perfect. But it covers a wide area, frequently and generally reliably*. So already we’re ahead of the game.

    But not only does it get the basics right, it has a bunch of bells and whistles. The various real-time information apps and text message services — as well as at-stop displays — are, again, above average. In fact they’re pretty damn good. The Leap card (Dublin’s equivalent of London’s ‘Oyster’ — working across bus, Luas and rail) had a shaky start but is now running seamlessly and damn near everyone uses it. You can top it up in almost every newsagents or supermarket in the city, as well as at train stations, Luas stops, online or using the mobile app on any phone with NFC. It literally can’t be made any more convenient until they develop top-up by telepathy.

    The buses all have decent free on-board wifi.

    So it seems to me — and I’ve yet to hear a convincing counter-argument — that introducing deregulation (albeit of the London-style) makes no sense whatsoever in Dublin. Government policy has seen 24 suburban routes put up for tender and I just don’t understand why.

    In this instance, a “convincing” argument would involve demonstrating precisely what about Dublin Bus is requiring a major shift in operating practices. Then providing details of how much better the system will be from a passenger standpoint after partial privatisation; along with solid evidence that the risks of damaging an essential public service are either near-zero or else demonstrably worth whatever improvements will be experienced by passengers. How much money will the change save both passengers and the state? Will the staff of the new companies be as well-trained and well-treated as those of Dublin Bus? If not, why not? Where will the state be spending the money saved by this process?

    Because if this change does not significantly improve the system, or keep it at least as high quality for significantly less money… then it looks suspiciously like we’re poking our public transport infrastructure with a stick for ideological reasons.

    But it’s the cost!!!

    Those familiar with the Dublin Bus situation may be fuming by now… not by what I’ve said, but what I’ve failed to say. Dublin Bus loses money. And it’s got a powerful union which has been willing to take industrial action (it’s only a few months since the last Dublin Bus strike caused chaos in the city). Plus the fares aren’t exactly cheap. In fact they’re among the highest in Europe. Even with the Leap card discount, Dublin Bus fares are significantly above average.

    Naturally the rationale being given for the part-privatisation is to reduce or eliminate losses as well as reduce costs to the end user (though that’s never been explicitly promised, it’s always hinted at… “improved competition will bring benefits to the passenger” being a regularly trotted-out government soundbite). Fine Gael might relish a bit of union-busting but they’re unlikely to be so dumb as to admit it in public, so it’s all about the cost savings — to the state and to the passenger…

    … the private sector will swoop in, reduce costs, reduce fares, improve (already excellent) services and make a profit for their shareholders. All at once.

    Sure they will. Trouble is, that all hinges on that innocent phase… “reduce costs”. How exactly are they going to achieve that? I’m assuming they’ll be required to maintain the same safety and maintenance protocols as the existing routes. If not, I look forward to the criminal charges against everyone involved in this process. So there’s probably not a huge amount of wriggle-room for cost reductions in terms of the fleet itself. I’ve not seen anyone claim that the privatised routes will see a significant increase in passenger numbers, and I’m sceptical of claims that “administrative savings and efficiencies” will generate nearly enough additional revenue to cover fare reductions and corporate profit.

    So it’s looking suspiciously like “staffing costs” will play a part in all this. After all, the Dublin Bus union is so strong that bus drivers earn a bloody fortune. Bloody ridiculous wages for someone who just drives a bus all day! If we slash those wages, we can reduce fares. Right? That’s the implication anyway.

    Except it’s horseshit. Of the highest order. The average wage for a Dublin bus driver is €33,826 (source). This is more than 3 grand less than the average national wage (here) and they don’t get the option of living anywhere other than the most expensive place in the country.

    Nor are staff at Dublin Bus paid significantly more than their European counterparts (despite the constant implication that they are).
    Bar chart comparing European bus driver salaries
    This chart appears in an article that concludes… “the average income of Dublin’s bus drivers ranks a bit above Dublin and Ireland’s cost of living rankings, but not by much.”

    Far from living in the lap of luxury, it seems bus drivers have a union that is just about keeping their members’ heads above water. Which is a damn fine achievement in today’s world and one I salute them for. Driving a city bus may be looked down upon by some in the commentariat, but it’s a socially vital job, and it’s actually a pretty shitty one at times (anyone ever seen the abuse bus drivers occasionally have to deal with on a Friday night after the pubs chuck out? Think you want to handle that crap for less than the average industrial wage? Really?) I, for one, am more than happy to see bus drivers get paid at least the industrial average wage. Not less than it.

    And I can pretty much guarantee that the newly privatised routes won’t be looking to exert upwards pressure on staff wages.

    The solution is simple by the way. And it’s not privatisation. The system is providing a good public service. So just increase the state subsidy to Dublin Bus. That’s all. Put up my income tax by a half a cent if you have to. I earn more than a Dublin Bus driver. Sure, it probably took me longer to gain the necessary skills to do the job, so there’s that… but I’d be deluded if I thought my job was more important to the social fabric of my city, or that my conditions of employment weren’t much better.

    Hell, bump my tax by a full cent and reduce fares while also cutting losses. People like me who use the bus will make the money back… the rest of you? Come join us!

    * I don’t doubt there are routes in the Dublin Bus network that are less reliable than others or always end up overcrowded. But from a passenger experience standpoint, on all of the routes I have taken regularly, I can’t think of any metric that wouldn’t put Dublin Bus near the top when compared with other networks of similar size. Aside from price, but I’ll deal with that separately.

  7. The reasons for Brexit

    This is my favourite of today’s reasons for Brexit. Tomorrow we may be back to blue passports for all I know. Or bendy bananas. Yes, I know you — dear “sensible” Brexiteer — may find such notions risible or patronising. But the great thing about democracy is the bendy-banana woman on Question Time had exactly as much say in the referendum as you did. There were doubtless people on the other side who voted “Remain” for reasons you would find silly.

    But I doubt there’s as many of them. And I doubt they’re as silly.

    Truly, the reasons for Brexit are many and varied. But I’ve yet to hear a single one that rang true for me.

    Anyway; it appears from the above tweet that the UK is leaving the EU — a massive policy shift and one that, even if you’re a fan of Brexit, clearly has the potential to wreak havoc if carried out badly (both on the UK and its neighbours) — and it’s doing it because they think some of the people working in the EU aren’t very nice to them.

    “Arrogant” and “unelected” it seems. And it’s hard not to read that and immediately think of The Citizen in Ulysses… sure, sure he’s the butt of many a joke, but there’s plenty of insight amid the bombast and rhetoric…

    – That’s your glorious British navy, says the citizen, that bosses the earth. The fellows that never will be slaves, with the only hereditary chamber on the face of God’s earth and their land in the hands of a dozen gamehogs and cottonball barons. That’s the great empire they boast about of drudges and whipped serfs.

    – On which the sun never rises, says Joe.

    – And the tragedy of it is, says the citizen, they believe it. The unfortunate yahoos believe it.

    The navy is still there, albeit less fearsome than it once was… but so is the hereditary chamber, the royalty and the belief that Empire was something to take pride in. So is the sense that 52% of the population can make a massive, long-term decision without even considering the impact it might have on a close neighbour (one who has been treated quite shabbily enough already) and then start trumpeting about The Will of The People.

    “Arrogant”? “Unelected”? Is it possible, just possible, that there’s some projection going on here?

  8. A brief question to the BBC regarding “balance”

    Dear BBC News,

    While thankfully you don’t do it as often as you once did, you do still give air time to Climate Change Skeptics / Deniers ostensibly in the interests of “balance”. What’s more, these skeptics / deniers are rarely climatologists but instead tend to be politicians, ex-politicians or business people with no recognised qualification in the field; though often with ideological positions or personal agendas that are fundamentally opposed to industrial regulation.

    However, I have noticed that — when discussing the Holocaust — you fail to provide air time to David Irving so that we may hear both sides of that story (or better yet, perhaps a non-historian, ex-politician with overt antisemitic views… perhaps give Jean-Marie Le Pen a prominent slot next Holocaust Remembrance Day?) In the interests of “balance” of course.

    For the sake of clarity, let me point out that I’m not actually suggesting you give air time to Holocaust-deniers. You have quite correctly accepted that the evidence for the Holocaust is strong enough that it doesn’t merit a contradictory voice.

    What I would like to know, therefore, is precisely what standards of evidence are applied by the BBC that are passed by the Holocaust, but failed by Climate Change? Why does the BBC feel the evidence for Climate Change is lacking? What aspects of the scientific consensus does the BBC find unconvincing or doubtful? If there is doubt about the science, why doesn’t the BBC interview a climatologist on the matter rather than a politician and industrial lobbyist? And — importantly — precisely what further evidence does the BBC require before they stop giving air time to Climate Change Deniers?

    Yours, very etc.

  9. The British Empire Strikes Back

    This right here. This is why Brexit will be a godalmighty disaster. That’s a Conservative Party MEP saying that. Not some random commenter below a Daily Mail article lamenting the end of the British Empire. Check out the banner image on the guy’s profile

    British Empire 2: The Hannansphere

    No, I assure you, that’s not a joke. That’s the flag beneath which a tory Member of the European Parliament chooses to speak to the public. It’s the kind of detail that makes you wonder whether Hannan might not be a character created by Peter Cook, somehow escaped from the pages of an uncommissioned script. But it’s tough to be whimsical for too long when it’s clear from his tweets that this Tory MEP genuinely thinks of Ireland as “belonging” under that flag. And he’s a little put out, quite frankly, that everyone else doesn’t think so too.

    It’s not just Hannan. A 2014 YouGov opinion poll has recently resurfaced — given fresh new relevance by the brexiteering lurch towards isolationism. In this poll, a significant majority of respondents believed Britain should be more proud than ashamed of its imperial past.

    And this is why we find ourselves in a peculiar farce. The British unilaterally* took a course of action that at the very least is causing a lot of concern here in Ireland; and at worst could potentially be catastrophic for our country. And yet a significant portion of the British Establishment and commentariat seem vaguely affronted by the notion that we’re not falling meekly into line behind them. The referendum campaign on the British mainland barely mentioned Ireland. And the subsequent General Election campaign featured Ireland mostly as a 1980s-era prop with which the tories could beat Corbyn.

    I love the UK. I lived there for many years. Went to university there. Worked there. Met many great friends there. Here in Ireland, if I was ever idiotic enough to enter politics, I would be immediately tarred with the term “West Brit” and it’d be a tough label for me to shake. By a great many yardsticks, I would be considered an anglophile for an Irishman**.

    Point being… given the mess of a situation we find ourselves in, and accepting that we can’t change the past… if the argument for Ireland to leave the EU and join some kind of federation with the UK was likely to find any sort of traction here in Ireland, then I’d be exactly the sort of person who would give it some consideration.

    But I’m not. When Irish people are polled on EU membership, you get numbers that would appear baffling to a lot of British people. Even after the frankly unjust and unjustifiable way in which the Irish citizenry were treated during the banking crisis… even then we never polled less than 80% in favour. Right now… it’s creeping closer to 90. At some level we didn’t fully appreciate until quite recently, we Irish are European. And if we leave the EU, it’ll be because the entire thing collapses, or we get dragged out kicking-and-screaming for some other reason. It won’t be because we feel an attachment to the Union Jack, or because it makes logistical sense for us to climb into the boat with the British, even as they blow holes in the hull with an antique blunderbus inherited from their Great Grandad.

    Brexit is a psychotic pitbull the UK brought into the neighbourhood. It’s up to them to make sure it doesn’t hurt anyone else. It’s not up to us to accommodate their delusions that the thing is a harmless poodle.

    The British have seriously screwed up with Brexit. Whatever they have done to themselves (and it may be very damaging indeed), they have likely inflicted a great deal of harm here in Ireland too, risking both political and economic upheaval in a region that might still have a bit of Semtex knocking about in it. And yet the Tories are exasperated when, far from backing them up, the Irish are infuriated. After literally centuries of utterly shameful behaviour in Ireland (Empire-nostalgia notwithstanding), I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to expect Britain to start acting like half-decent neighbours for once.

    Fat fucking chance.

    * Let’s be clear… I am in no way questioning the legal — or even the moral — right of the British people to choose their own path (within reason — you’re not allowed randomly nuke countries even if you vote for it 52-48). However, if something is to be described as truly “democratic” then I’d argue everyone significantly affected by it should be given an equal vote. The Irish were not allowed to vote on Brexit. Again, let me stress, I’m not saying we should have been. I’m just saying you need a different word than “democratic”.

    ** Though it’s a good deal more complicated than that. There are aspects of British culture (the monarchy, the militarism, a huge chunk of the national character surrounding class, self-image and nostalgia for empire) where I would be far more extreme in my dislike than even the most fervent Republican. So yeah, as ever, do be careful with those broad strokes.

  10. Undocumented Irish

    This is a strange one. Conventional wisdom and hearsay suggest that Irish-America generally tends towards voting Democrat. Actual figures are hard to come by and much of the evidence from this is historical, anecdotal or circumstantial. However, there’s no doubt that the major cities which have a significant Irish-American presence have tended towards Democrats.

    On top of that… between Kennedy, Clinton and Obama it has generally been Democratic presidents who have actively courted the Irish-American vote and made a great deal of political hay (both at home and abroad) with high-profile visits to Ireland. Reagan tried the same thing, but his search for his roots down in Ballyporeen alienated as many as it charmed.

    Having said all that; there is no indication that Irish-America is overwhelmingly Democrat. It’s hardly news to anyone that there’s a powerfully conservative streak within Irish Catholicism, and the Republicans get a great deal of support from Catholic America. Indeed, there are indications that a slim majority of Irish Americans may have voted for Trump in the last election. The actual figures are for “white Catholic” (51% of whom voted for Trump) rather than “Irish-American”, but I have to assume that means around half of Irish America supported Trump.

    A Constituency of a lot more than one

    The most recent US census informs us almost 35 million Americans identify as “Irish American”. That’s a pretty big constituency. It’s not the most important demographic for an American politician; but it’s big enough — with a near 50/50 split between the parties — to swing a national election against any party that actively alienates it.

    Which is why Trump’s decision to target undocumented Irish for deportation is strange. While those deported wouldn’t have been able to vote; the wider Irish-American community will feel threatened and betrayed by this move. I predict — if this continues — the Republicans could easily lose a few million votes across the country. Easily.

    And for what? From a purely practical / optics standpoint — an undocumented Irish resident in America is effectively invisible. They look exactly like any other Trump supporter. I’m not saying this should matter from a policy perspective. It clearly shouldn’t. But at the same time… for Trump it clearly does. He’s all about optics, and I can’t see how this is going to look good for him.

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