Remember, remember the ninth of November

I can’t imagine I’ll forget any time soon where I was on the morning of 9th November 2016 when I saw the news: “Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States of America.” The only time I can recall being more shocked and horrified by a piece of news out of America was on 9/11.

(As an aside, what a strange coincidence that the two dates should mirror one another: 9/11, 11/9. Particularly striking, perhaps, for us Brits, for whom 9/11 was always 11/9 anyway.)

For one nation in particular, the date of Donald Trump’s victory will have rung a bell. Not coincidentally, that nation is Germany, the country that progressives worldwide now find themselves turning to for succour. Since Trump’s victory – and Merkel’s dignified response, in stark contrast to our own government’s craven sucking-up – there has been frenzied talk of Germany becoming the last, best hope of liberal democracy.

This is almost certainly nonsensical hyperbole. Merkel shows no signs of wanting to step into the role of global saviour – and little aptitude for the role even if she were willing to take it on. Announcing that she would run for a fourth term as Chancellor, she dismissed the notion that she was the liberal world’s saviour as “grotesque and almost absurd.” She’s a chronic, self-acknowledged hesitator – The Economist recently dubbed her the “iron waffler”. She has no grand vision, no strong ideological mission – though that’s a strength of sorts as well as a weakness.

Still, we should look to Germany as an example in these dark times – but for a different reason. Creating a personality cult centred on Merkel is precisely the wrong response to the advance of Trumpian populism. Instead, we should admire – and learn from – Germany’s historical self-awareness.

Back to dates. The 9th of November has two contrasting meanings in Germany’s national memory. It is, first, the anniversary of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass. On a single night in 1938, hundreds of Jews were murdered, tens of thousands arrested and sent off to concentration camps, a thousand synagogues burned down, Jewish homes, schools and businesses attacked and ransacked. Nazi thugs armed with sledgehammers smashed windows – hence the name Kristallnacht.


Precisely 51 years later, on the evening of 9th November 1989, the Berlin Wall was decisively breached. Many East Berliners burst through the checkpoints to celebrate their newly won freedom of movement. The mood in West Berlin was delirious as Ossis and Wessis drank together long into the night. But the historical resonance of the date was by no means lost on all Germans. A couple hundred kilometres south of Berlin, in the city of Leipzig, a candlelit procession of peaceful protestors marched from the Nikolaikirche – where JS Bach had once been organist – to the site of what had once been the city’s main synagogue, now a memorial to the 14,000 Leipzig Jews murdered during the Holocaust. The synagogue was burned down on 9th November 1938.

The historical self-awareness of those 1989 Leipzigers lives on in Germany today. As the former foreign minister Joschka Fischer put it recently to The Economist, “we are protected by our terrible history. You cannot say, ‘Make Germany Great Again’.”

In the same issue of The Economist, there was a totally unrelated story about Brexit that quoted a Margate taxi driver called Clive: “All the Europeans do is leech off us,” he told the reporter. “They can’t even win their own wars.” I was struck by the contrast and reminded of a comment made by Neil MacGregor – the former British Museum Director and author of a highly-acclaimed book on Germany. At a press conference in Berlin in October, he described Britain’s tendency to focus exclusively on “the sunny side” of its history as “dangerous and regrettable.”

If Britain’s historical self-ignorance is worrying then America’s is downright terrifying. What we are now witnessing is the ghastly, inevitable endgame of a society brought up on the poisonous notion that it is the greatest on earth. The idea of American exceptionalism was initially intended to connote American difference from Europe, but it has been misappropriated into public discourse: too many Americans today believe their country is exceptional in the sense of being better than all others. (See right-hand column in the chart below.)


Attempting to burst America’s bubble of historical self-ignorance seems mostly to be a game played by satirists these days. Witness the two internet memes below (both of which have appeared in my Facebook feed since election day):


And this one a couple of days before Thanksgiving:


Joking aside, let me make one thing clear: there is nothing wrong with patriotism. “My country, right or wrong” is a perfectly admirable worldview, so long as you are willing to countenance the fact that your country is frequently wrong. Germany learned this lesson the hard way. Let’s hope that other nations can choose an easier path to enlightenment.

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The shame of being British

On the morning of 24th June, like many who had voted to remain in the EU, I felt a range of unpleasant emotions: shock, sadness, anger, dejection, despondency. I spent most of the day lapping up the anti-Brexit commentariat’s outpouring of indignant “well-good-luck-getting-out-of-this-hole” articles. ‘It will take an age to recover from this victory for the exit fantasists’ was the headline of Philip Collins’ piece in The Times. Damn right, I thought.

But one thing I did not feel on 24th June was ashamed of being British. Sure, I thought that, on balance, 17 million of my fellow countrymen had made the wrong choice – but not a morally reprehensible choice. I knew remarkably few Brexit voters personally, but from talking to those that I did know, I was well aware that there were respectable – in some cases, even admirable – reasons for voting to leave: a desire to preserve parliamentary sovereignty, a belief that immigration should be managed (which is very different from a belief that it needs to be abruptly stopped or even reversed), a legitimate sense that the European Project had taken several wrong turnings, that Brussels needed a wake-up call before it sleepwalked over a cliff edge. True, there was a certain bloody-minded desire to stick it to “the experts” among many Brexit voters, which I neither admired nor respected. And there was a troublingly cavalier willingness to vote without bothering to acquaint oneself with anything resembling a fact. The news that the number of people googling ‘What is the EU’ or ‘What does it mean to leave the EU’ surged in the hours after the referendum result was announced did cause me to despair somewhat.

But there was – and is – no evidence to suggest that more than a tiny minority of people who voted for Brexit did so because they’re xenophobic bigots who hate foreigners. There was – and is – no evidence that the British people voted en masse to turn their back on the world. There was – and is – no evidence that the Brexit vote meant that we, as a country, had become hard-hearted overnight and opted out of our humanitarian obligations.

So I felt no shame in the immediate aftermath of the vote. A bit of awkwardness, certainly: I was in Germany at the time and, for the next couple of weeks, I did feel compelled to explain to everyone I met that I had voted to remain. Incidentally, they mostly didn’t care. They were much more interested in laughing at me for the fact that England had just been knocked out of the European Football Championship by Iceland.

Even the spate of racist attacks in the weeks following the referendum – lamentable and horrifying as they were – did not make me feel ashamed to be British. I knew that they were the acts a very small handful of malign individuals. This was not behaviour that was condoned by the vast majority of British people any more than the appalling murder of Jo Cox by a psychotic madman had been.

So what changed? Four and a half months on from the referendum I do now feel ashamed to be British. Not because I’ve belatedly woken up to the true meaning of the referendum result. The Brexit vote was a legitimate populist protest (albeit, in my opinion, a wrong-headed one). Those who have missed out on the proceeds of globalisation and neo-liberalism for more than a generation had every right to revolt. But Brexit has been hi-jacked. This is no longer a populist movement. Instead the initiative has been captured by a small cabal within the British elite. Theresa May and several of her ministers seem hell-bent on wilfully misinterpreting the nebulous ‘will of the people’. They use the referendum result to provide political cover for policy positions that would be truly despicable were it not for the fact that they are largely rendered toothless by the government’s incompetence.

It was easy enough to say that racists in the street represent neither me nor my country. But, even though I did not vote for it, the government does represent me and Britain as a whole. That’s the point of government in a democracy. So enough’s enough.

It started with Theresa May’s refusal to rule out the possibility that she might expel citizens of other EU countries already resident in Britain. Even the pro-Brexit, centre-right Spectator called this position ‘shameful’. Presenting it as a negotiating position is no excuse. Remember Theresa, we – they – are people, not pawns in your pathetic game of chess with Jean-Claude Juncker.

Then came the news – in the midst of a US election campaign dominated by the loathsome Donald Trump, whose totemic policy, derided by every Brit I know, is to build a wall along the length of the Mexican border to keep people out – that our government was spending £1.9 million on (guess what?) building a wall at Calais to keep people out. The Americans will hopefully reject Trump on Tuesday, but we’ve already got a Trumpian government – and hardly anybody seems to have noticed, because they’re Trumpians hiding behind the impeccably respectable brand of the British Conservative Party. That’s perhaps the ultimate irony of David Cameron’s downfall: he did succeed in detoxifying the Tory brand, only to squander it and hand it over to a far nastier and more illiberal bunch than the original nasty party gang.

And then came this week’s clash between the government and the high court, surely the ultimate perversion of the Brexit so many Britons voted for. The high court justices upheld the principle of parliamentary sovereignty – the very thing that was at the heart of the positive campaign for Brexit – against the government’s determined efforts to push through its noxious agenda by executive fiat. Even now, instead of accepting this patently sensible ruling, the government intends to waste yet more time and yet more money appealing it.

The role of the press in all this concerns me too. While I take some comfort in the fact that I can categorically say that The Sun and The Daily Mail do not speak for me, I don’t feel entirely sanguine about the vitriol they spread. A healthy democracy requires a healthy press. A press that fosters informed debate and discussion, that holds the powerful to account by testing their assertions against factual evidence, that safeguards a public sphere defined by common values of decency and fairness.

The wanton vilification first of unaccompanied refugee children from the Calais camp allowed – in woefully small numbers – to enter this country, and second, of the three high court justices who ruled that the government must consult parliament before triggering Article 50 is a sign that a large section of the British press is no longer fit for purpose. The Sun, The Mail et al have transgressed their licence to operate. The doctored version of The Mail’s ‘Enemies of the People’ front page that has been doing the rounds on social media (in which the faces of the three judges are replaced by pictures of the owners and editors of the Mail, Sun and Express) seems to me to be spot on. Freedom of the press should not mean that powerful newspapermen on a pathological mission to undermine democracy go unchallenged. They have gone beyond the pale and deserve some form of official censure. But, of course, our Trumpian representatives wouldn’t dream of doing that.


So where does all this leave us, apart from feeling angry and ashamed? In a one-party state (which is what Britain currently is thanks to Jeremy Corbyn and friends), it’s the enemy within that is more potent than the enemy without. That’s why I’m heartened by the resignation of pro-Brexit Tory MP Stephen Phillips. It may just be an early indication of an important realignment to come.

For the last four and a half months, the focus has been on the divide shown up by the Brexit vote. The 52% versus the 48%. Phillips’ resignation underlines the fact that Leavers versus Remainers is no longer the most significant divide in British politics. The Brexit camp has grown since the referendum, in the sense that many Remainers, myself included, accept that the referendum result must be respected. But it is now decisively fracturing.

On the far right stands the prime minister, backed by the anti-immigrant press barons, burbling her tautological mantra: “Brexit means Brexit means Brexit means Brexit means…” On the far left is a rump of diehard Remainers who refuse to accept the referendum result. In between these two camps is a nascent coalition that is representative of the broad mass of British people. It hasn’t got itself properly organised yet. It hasn’t got an agreed upon leader or a detailed manifesto. Its members are currently scattered across all the main political parties. But it needs to get its act together soon. I want to feel proud of being British again.

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Crisis? What crisis?

The New Statesman this week has a special section devoted to ‘the crisis in Labour and the future of the Left’, with contributions from all twelve remaining members of Britain’s centre left. It’s not exactly a diverse group of contributors: with the exception of Paul Mason, who, since he left Channel 4 News has come out as a Corbynite radical (he writes about his working-class grandfather drinking pints at the pub to prove he’s a proper man of the people), they’re all men (and a couple of women) of the metropolitan liberal soft left. In other words, my kind of people.


So kudos to Philip Collins – formerly an advisor to Tony Blair and now a columnist for The Times and therefore, in the eyes of the Corbynite Labour Party, Satan’s poodle twice over – who manages to stand out from this most homogenous of crowds. He does so by employing a trick familiar to anyone who did an essay-based arts subject at university: he challenges the premise of the question. ‘When the Conservative Party is out of power,’ he writes, ‘nobody talks about a crisis of the political right… It is a sign of the British left’s lack of confidence that, by thinking too much, it is able to redefine its defeats as crises.’ Labour’s current predicament, he continues, ‘is better described by the demotic term “mess” than the marxisant grandiosity of “crisis”.’

On the basis of this refusal to accept the “crisis” narrative, Collins gets my vote for most interesting contribution. But interesting and right don’t necessarily go together. Does the evidence back up his assertion that the doom-mongers are laying it on too thick? The essence of the distinction he makes between a mess and a crisis is about agency. Did Labour get itself into this mess as a result of its own ineptitude or is the rug being pulled out from under it by deeper structural shifts in the electorate?

Curiously, given that this special edition was timed to coincide with Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader, the contributors mostly write him off as an irrelevance. He’s more symptom than cause of the malaise on the left they say. Same with Brexit. The true cause of Labour’s crisis, which Brexit has merely dragged from under the carpet and shoved into the spotlight, is the now irreconcilable gap between the social values of the party’s traditional white working-class base in Wales and the North, and its other base among middle-class metropolitan liberals in London. Corbyn may be particularly ill-suited to the task of bridging this divide: he lacks appeal in the working-class North because he’s a “champagne socialist” from Islington, while, at the same time, many liberal Londoners (myself included) feel his failure to sound remotely convincing as a Europhile means he isn’t really one of us either. But it’s hard to imagine another candidate emerging who could win over both sides of what used to be the Labour electorate. A Tristram or a second Miliband might appeal to me, but I’m not sure either of them would go down well in disaffected, Leave-voting Sunderland.

Pan out from our little archipelago and the picture gets yet more discouraging. According to last week’s Economist, ‘since the late 1990s support for social-democratic parties has fallen by about half in Germany, two-thirds in the Netherlands and over three-quarters in Poland.’ They borrow George Dangerfield’s memorable line about the end of the Liberal Party, suggesting that, perhaps, the “strange death of Labour Britain” has arrived. But maybe even that is an under-statement. What if we’re actually living through the strange death of European social democracy?

Across the Atlantic, the picture is more mixed. If Clinton wins in November, then a North America led by her and Justin Trudeau could become a beacon of hope for the centre left elsewhere. If, god forbid, Trump wins… I can’t even bring myself to finish the thought.

Back to Collins, then, and the argument that Labour’s in a mess not a crisis. Is he right? Despite the fact that Labour’s slide can be seen as part of a much bigger trend afflicting European social democracy, I’m inclined to say he is. The reason is that the comparison with the Tories is apt. As John Lanchester pointed out in The London Review of Books in July, the Brexit vote showed up a split within both parties. ‘The Tories,’ he wrote, ‘are a coalition of nationalists, who voted out, and business interests, who voted in; Labour is a coalition of urban liberals, who voted in, and the working class, who voted out.’ Why, then, is it only Labour that seems troubled by internal divisions? There are personality clashes at the top of the Conservative Party too, but these are seen for what they are: the petty wranglings of individuals with outsized egos; not as symptoms of some deep-seated ideological rift.


So where do we go from here? Is it time to fall in line behind Comrade Jez? Not quite. I think the New Statesman gang is broadly right to treat him as an irrelevance. The centre left needs to renew itself – first and foremost, intellectually. It needs to grapple with the issues of the 2020s and 2030s – the potential mass obsolescence of the human workforce in the face of ever-more-sophisticated machines, the fate-of-our-species-defining struggle to transition to a zero carbon economy (to name but two) – rather than re-running the arguments of the 1980s. This intellectual renewal requires institutional support, but not necessarily from Labour.

Collins concludes his essay as follows: ‘Britain needs a centre-left party to be a viable not-Conservative government. It may not need the Labour Party.’ I think this is right. On the basis of this week’s evidence, I’d say the survival of The New Statesman is now of greater importance to the progressive cause in Britain than the survival of the Labour Party. Let’s hope, therefore, that NS editor Jason Cowley’s choice of title for this week’s special issue – ‘The New Times’, a reference to a seminal edition of Marxism Today published in 1988, three years before that magazine ceased to exist – is not an omen.

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If we’re going to build a new politics, we have to move beyond left and right

When I saw a headline on the New Statesman website last week about “a budding progressive alliance”, my first reaction was excitement. I’ve been boring friends for at least a year now about the need for a realignment of British politics with a new progressive centre party coming to the fore. (I even wrote a rather fanciful blog last September predicting the emergence of such a force by 2020). I never thought the country would actually vote to leave the EU, but it was clear from the moment Cameron promised a referendum that, far from healing the split in his party, it would make it much worse.

But as I read the first few paragraphs of the NS piece, my excitement drained away. Rather than something new, what I was reading about is a manifestation of something very old. It’s the same idea of a “progressive alliance” that has been on the table since Labour emerged on the scene more than a century ago, splitting the progressive vote and in time displacing the liberals as the main party of the Left in Britain. Here we had a Labour shadow minister sharing a platform with prominent Lib Dems, Greens and SNP politicians (maybe there was someone from Plaid there too: it hardly matters).

The fifth paragraph confirmed beyond all doubt that this is the same old politics. Caroline Lucas is quoted as saying: “the Tories are readying themselves now for another round of disaster capitalism using the post-Brexit turmoil to further shape the economy in their interests.”

tory scum

I wanted to scream in exasperation. I really do believe that if there is any silver lining to the Brexit vote, it is the opportunity it affords for a serious political realignment and a radical change in the way politics is done. But if there is to be a new politics and a revival of the liberal, pro-European centre, we have to move beyond the facile rhetoric of left versus right.

We are shooting our own foot off if we can’t get past the notion that everyone in Britain who votes Conservative is part of an undifferentiated bloc of evil. There is a yearning amongst a significant proportion of the electorate right now for politicians who will tell us hard truths rather than lies, who will offer nuance and fair-mindedness instead of simple prejudice. Well perhaps one of the first hard truths progressives need to come to terms with – one of the first prejudices we need to shed – is that not all Tories are scum.

To continue using rhetoric that suggests otherwise is wrongheaded on two levels. At a moral level, it’s frankly just as reprehensible as those Brexiteers who cheerfully engage in anti-immigrant dog whistling. Immigrants aren’t to blame for all our problems; nor are Tories. At a tactical level, every time the Tories are attacked simply for being Tories, it reminds them of their instinct for unity – at a time when we should be doing our best to accentuate just how divided they are.

Yes, it’s true that a majority of Tory activists support Brexit. And yes it’s true that Johnson, Gove, Hannan et al did something reprehensible in harnessing their campaign to the basest instincts of the British people and cheerfully deriding facts, experts and rationality. But they are not representative of all Conservatives.

There are millions of Conservatives in Britain who fit the following description:

  • Pro-EU.
  • Socially liberal, ie they believe not only that being gay isn’t something that can be “cured” (ahem Stephen Crabb) but the thought wouldn’t even cross their mind that being gay is something that ought to be cured.
  • Believe passionately in equality of opportunity and social justice.
  • If they were to list the things that, as Conservatives, they wish to conserve, the NHS, the BBC and the environment would all be near the top of the list.

Sure, these same people may also champion private enterprise, prefer lower levels of taxation and favour academies over comprehensives, but then I’m not so sure they’re wrong to do so.

Now is the time for progressives to open their arms to people of all parties who fit this description and say “welcome, you are one of us.”

That there are many Brits who, since the 24th of June, have been feeling, often for the first time, ashamed of their country, is a sadness. That there are many Conservatives who are feeling, often for the first time, ashamed of their party, is an opportunity. We need to seize it before Theresa May succeeds in putting the genie back in the bottle.

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Before you vote to leave, please read this

At the start of this referendum campaign, I wasn’t really sure what I thought about the EU. Like a lot of people, I think, I found the topic interminably dull: too complicated to lend itself neatly to the kind of black and white, left versus right clashes that make politics entertaining; only interesting to a slightly deranged, swivel-eyed fringe of the Conservative Party who like to rant and rave about sovereignty and Magna Carta.

I suppose I was instinctively pro-European in a sort of vague cultural way, but well aware that the EU as a political project had (and has) lots of faults: the wasteful bureaucracy, a single currency that looks increasingly like a calamitous error, the fact that it pays Nigel Farage a salary. In contrast to the 9-member trading bloc that the British people overwhelmingly voted to stay part of in 1975, today’s 28-member Union does indeed seem to have over-reached itself – absorbing new members, tackling new policy areas – with the result that it is cumbersome and ineffectual.

And yet. As Referendum Day has got closer, my early lukewarmness has given way to an increasingly urgent sense that it is vitally important we stay in the EU. On the off-chance that anyone out there is still sitting on the fence or wavering a bit, let me explain why I’ve come to this conclusion.


First, there’s the reality of the world we live in. A world in which money, ideas and people move across national borders with an ease totally unprecedented in human history. Brexit will change none of this. It’s like trying to stem the tide of a mighty river with a single log. You may not like modernity, globalisation and their consequences: job losses (due to outsourcing more than immigration, though yes, also due to the latter in some cases), cultural fragmentation, growing inequality within rich countries, the ability of Islamist madmen in the Middle East to indoctrinate disaffected British teenagers via the internet. Indeed, judging by the surprise popularity of Brexit and the even more surprising popularity of Donald Trump’s bigoted, head-in-sand, anti-globalisation ravings across the pond, lots of you really truly don’t like globalisation. But opting out of these things isn’t what’s on the table on Thursday. The notion that we can “take back control” by cutting ourselves off from the EU is an illusion. We will continue to be beset by transnational issues – migration, terrorism, climate change, our economic interdependence upon other countries, including, of course, the 27 remaining EU member states – but we will no longer be part of what, for all its faults, is one of the most important institutions for coordinating transnational policy. Europe’s problems will still be our problems; we’ll just be powerless to do anything about them.

In this context, the Brexiteers’ sovereignty argument strikes me as being of limited relevance. Compared to the way, for example, some multinational businesses ride roughshod over British democratic “sovereignty” – avoiding taxes, refusing to cooperate with security services, making economic decisions that are disastrous in terms of their social consequences for people in Britain (but of course we live in an age of global free markets so why should Tata give a toss about job losses in the British steel industry?) – the threat posed by Brussels is piddling. Apple refuses to unlock a terrorist’s iPhone for the FBI; Twitter and Facebook resist cooperating with governments to track down people using their platforms for nefarious purposes; Tata ignores government pleas to show mercy towards the British steel industry; HSBC holds Westminster to ransom by threatening to relocate its headquarters; the future of the British nuclear industry remains precarious because EDF has Downing Street by the short and curlies… If you’re genuinely interested in power and where it resides, this is the show you should be watching, not the pathetic sideshow that is Westminster versus Brussel.

Indeed, were it not for Brussels, British workers would be considerably worse off. Westminster is (and would be even more so post-Brexit) less willing to impose costs on multinationals, by making them offer reasonable benefits and security to employees. This is partly due to ideological predilection, partly the fear that companies will up sticks and move elsewhere. One can reasonably assume that without the carrot of being part of a market of 500 million people, post-Brexit Britain would need to resort to reducing labour costs (by cutting compulsory holiday allowances, pension contributions, sick leave etc) in order to maintain its “competitiveness” and attract global businesses.

Then there’s the immigrants. I appreciate that too much immigration too fast can have negative consequences for communities and for low-paid workers who experience a downward pressure on wages. I really do. But I also think the debate over immigration is very distorted in a way that reflects badly on us as a country. Let me offer a statistic (and, a rarity in this debate, I believe it’s a reliable one) about the overall economic contribution of EU immigrants: a study quoted in The Economist in 2014 shows that, between 1995 and 2011 European migrants to Britain made a net positive contribution of more than £4 billion to the exchequer. Over the same period, native Britons made a negative contribution of £591 billion. When looked at from the standpoint of the British economy, the problem isn’t the burden caused by those evil hordes of immigrants: it’s the feckless, sponging natives! Indeed, lots of economists argue that without significantly higher levels of immigration, Britain will be bankrupt within a few decades – unable to go on paying the pensions of its ageing population. I know that this is of limited consolation to anyone who’s lost their job to an immigrant or missed out on a council house while some immigrant family got theirs, but again, the notion that leaving the EU will simply make these problems disappear is absurd.

Another argument employed by the Brexit brigade is about cost. £50 million a day, they tell us, is the amount that Britain contributes to the EU (I have no idea if this is accurate, but whatever the actual number, I’m sure it’s a significant amount of money). But is it worth it? There have been lots of rival projections about the economic impact of Brexit and I’m rather inclined to agree with those who say that there are too many uncertainties involved for any of them to be particularly reliable. Probably Brexit would be bad for the British economy but not as disastrous as the Project Fear lot are predicting. Nonetheless, on the question of our contribution to the EU budget, it strikes me as odd that, if we are being so egregiously ripped off, nobody in Westminster or Whitehall has made much of an issue of it for the last 30 years. Are they all meant to have succumbed to ideological capture by Brussels? If so, I’m dubious about handing more power back to such a bunch of dupes. Surely, if we genuinely feel we’re being over-charged for membership of the club, the appropriate way to deal with that is, as Thatcher did in the 1980s, to negotiate.

Inevitably, personalities have featured heavily in the campaign. I can sympathise with those who are annoyed by the patronising way some Remainers reel off names of dignitaries who support staying – Obama, Mark Carney, Stephen Hawking – as a substitute for proper argument. (Though I have to admit that I was definitely given a boost by the news that John Le Carré is in favour of staying in.) You’re right, you shouldn’t vote to stay in just because lots of famous people said you should. However, I do think it’s worth taking a look at the personalities in the Brexit camp and asking yourself: do we really want to be ruled by this lot? “If executed with skill”, Brexit may be good for Britain in the long term, says Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph. Let’s just remind ourselves who we’ll be relying on for skilful leadership post-Brexit: first, there’s duplicitous, would-sell-his-own-mother-in-order-to-become-PM Bo Jo. Then there’s Gove, who only escapes winning the prize for most hated government minister of the last six years because he’s lucky enough to have Jeremy Hunt for a colleague. Then IDS, who I think the late historian Tony Judt had about right a decade ago, when he wrote him off as ‘terminally inept’. And of course there’s bigoted, pint-swilling Nige, who’s spent more than fifteen years riding the Brussels gravy train, all the while pissing in the caviar and all over the carpets. He may not quite warrant a position in government following a vote for Brexit, but he will certainly be a much less marginal figure in British politics and that in itself should be enough to make you think twice about voting to leave.

And then there’s the impact Brexit would have beyond our shores. I freely admit that the claim that the whole future of Western civilisation is at stake is a little overblown. But not by much. Brexit will hurt us more than it will hurt the rest of “the West” – it’s a bit like cutting your nose off to spite your face, except that we’re the nose. But it will hurt others too, and that’s not good for Britain.

Consider for a moment certain facts about the current world order. To our East, Putin’s Russia continues to behave like an unpredictable belligerent drunk, invading European countries one day, fighting proxy wars in the Middle East the next, just like the Cold War never ended. The Middle East itself is as screwed up as ever with no end in sight. Who can blame ordinary men and women who look up from their reality of bloodthirsty terrorists and dictators and see in Europe the possibility of a better life? A life so much better it’s worth risking death to get there. In the first five months of 2016, 2510 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean to start a new life in Europe. Just think, how desperate would you need to be to risk those kinds of odds?

And then perhaps our gaze turns West, to America, the land that has long been held up by British Conservatives of a certain ilk as our alternative to “Europe”. But what’s this? America has gone mad. Lots of people there would like to make Donald Trump President. Not just a few nut-jobs, but genuinely millions of “ordinary” people. Whether or not he prevails in November, do you really want to align yourself more closely with the US right now?

And of course there are threats within Europe as well. Hitler has been invoked far too much in this referendum campaign but I’m going to use his shadow one more time anyway. Surely, if the history of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century teaches us one thing, it is that we cannot stand idly by while a radical right re-emerges in Germany of all places, hoping beyond hope that it won’t affect us. Alternative für Deutschland is not the reincarnation of the Nazi Party, but it taps into enough of the same hate-filled sentiments and petty interests that all Europeans should be concerned. Likewise about Marine Le Pen in France and other political movements across the continent that channel xenophobia and resentment. To defeat these types, it is imperative that those of us who believe in an open, welcoming, liberal society stand united in fighting for those values.

Arguably the backlash Angela Merkel is facing with her own electorate is a result of our failure to pull together as Europeans during the migrant crisis. Whatever one or two loathsome columnists (ahem, Rod Liddle) may have written at the time, the refugees didn’t come because Merkel invited them, nor should we have let more of them drown in the Mediterranean in order to dissuade the next wave from embarking on the perilous journey. (I really shouldn’t have to make that point when addressing a 21st century British audience, but sadly I do). European leaders failed to stand together and share the burden fairly between them, meaning those who did the right thing are now being punished at home for doing so.

All this happened on the EU’s watch you may well say, and true enough. All I can say is that Brexit will make it even less likely that we do the right thing the next time a similar crisis comes. And don’t kid yourself about what’s on offer in Thursday’s referendum: it’s not possible to choose Brexit without also endorsing the Little England, I’m-all-right-Jack-and-bugger-the-rest-of-them priorities of Farage et al.

So pretty evidently I’m not lukewarm about Europe and this EU referendum any more. Partly what’s changed my attitude is engagement with the arguments being made on both sides. Perhaps my initial sub-conscious biases have been revealed. Certainly I’ve read more of the thoughtful pro-EU commentary in the press than anti, but that’s partly because there’s more of it. (Note, I said “thoughtful commentary”, which, apart from one or two notable exceptions in The Telegraph and The Spectator, rules out the rest of the bilge produced by the Eurosceptic propaganda machine.)

Most importantly though, I have watched almost the entire referendum campaign unfold from the other side of the English Channel. Since 11 April I’ve been on the continent and, with the exception of 5 days in Switzerland (which was very nice: I highly recommend it to anyone who really can’t stand living under EU rule), entirely in other EU countries. Of course there are huge differences in lifestyle, culture and economy between Granada, where I started, and Berlin, where I am now, but there is also a recognisably European way of life that pervades across the continent and it’s a wonderful thing. Selfishly, I feel less sanguine than I did 3 months ago about the possibility of restrictions being placed on my free movement around the EU, because I’d like to be able to live and work in some of these places as almost 1.2 million Britons already do.

Although most of us know some of those 1.2 million people, we tend to have a condescending view of their motives as a cohort. Perhaps they weren’t good enough to make it in the UK or they’re the kind of uncultured people who retire to the Costa del Sol to drink cheap wine and turn brown and leathery. The Little England mindset fails to acknowledge that, for many, Europe is a land of opportunity.

Take, as one small example, opera singers (a group that’s close to my heart: my Dad is one, my girlfriend is training to be one, lots of my friends are in the industry). According to figures on the Operabase website, almost a third of all professional opera performances each year take place in Germany. In 2014/15, Germany’s 83 publicly-funded opera companies put on a total of 7,386 performances. Number two in the rankings is the US with 1,724 performances, or less than a quarter the number in Germany, despite having a population almost four times the size. Britain comes in (a respectable?) seventh, after three other EU countries: Italy, Austria and France (bear in mind, Austria has a population of just over 8 million people and still manages to put on more performances than Britain or France, both of which have a population almost eight times larger). So it’s no surprise that lots of young British singers go to the continent to make their career. Brexit won’t fundamentally change this, but in an industry where you need every lucky break you can get, who’s to say that British singers won’t lose out more often because, when weighing up two contenders for a particular job, some continental opera houses will opt for the ease of hiring someone from within the EU.

A final thought: in Barcelona at the end of April, we stayed with a wonderful Serbo-Croat family. Danijela, who fled her native Croatia in the 1990s and came to London, looked after me and my younger brothers when we were children. Her husband Boban is a Serb, who also fled the horrific violence that engulfed the Balkans in the 1990s. At the end of a long evening, we got onto the topic of politics: Brexit, Scotland and the rise of Catalan nationalism. Our hosts said unequivocally: “believe me, if you’d seen what we’ve seen, you’d know that all nationalism is evil.” At the time, I smiled politely and thought to myself yes, but Britain is different. Now an MP is dead – a 41-year-old mother of two – murdered in cold blood by a madman shouting nationalist slogans, and I’m not so sure any more.

So, please, let wisdom be your counsel as you enter the polling booth on Thursday. If you are genuinely unmoved by these arguments, then fine, vote for Brexit. But please don’t put a cross next to leave just because you want to poke Brussels in the eye, legitimate as that desire may be. Too much is at stake.

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Will migrants make or break Europe?

This piece was written a couple of months ago as a submission for a Fellowship with The Economist (which I didn’t get, hence I’m now publishing it here instead).

Europe as a political construct was born in the midst of a movement of peoples that makes the numbers involved in the current crisis look paltry. Between 1945 and 1950, more than 11 million Germans were expelled from or left Eastern Europe. At the peak of this period, 14,400 Germans were crossing the border from Czechoslovakia every day.

In the almost sixty years since the Treaty of Rome, Europe has absorbed many waves of migrants. In the first two decades of “Europe”, France accepted hundreds of thousands of Algerians and Vietnamese boat people; Austria took in Hungarians and Czechs fleeing Soviet oppression; Britain received Ugandan Asians fleeing the despotism of Idi Amin; and West Germany opened its doors to Turkish “guest workers”. The collapse of Communism and the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s brought a further wave of immigrants.

So the current crisis isn’t exactly without precedent. And yet, European unity does look more precarious today than in any previous crisis. One reason for this is that the European ideal has lost much of its intellectual clarity and moral force. The European machine is driven on more by inertia than a sense of purpose. Across the continent, pro-Europeans struggle to match the passion of anti-Europeans.

In the beginning, Europe’s raison d’être was clear: to stop France and Germany ever going to war again. Then it became part of the architecture of the Cold War: a bulwark against the spread of Communism. This Cold War spirit spilled over into the 1990s as Europe welcomed former Soviet states into the fold. But since the turn of the millennium, the high priests of the European faith have struggled to articulate a vision that inspires (monetary union is an even more complete failure in this regard than it is in economic terms).

It’s because of this lack of a compelling common purpose and the poor economic performance of the Eurozone that the migrant crisis truly could be make or break. Which way it goes depends on how Europe’s leaders respond. Both politically and economically, the current situation has considerable potential upside as well as downside.

Take the economic case. On one hand, the long-term benefits of accepting immigrants are pretty clear. Europe has an ageing population: an influx of mostly youthful immigrants could help stave off fiscal disaster as economies collapse under the weight of an unbearable pensions burden. Even in the short term, studies show that immigrants are generally net contributors to the countries that host them. This is no less true of refugees than it is of economic migrants. The simple truth is that people who are willing to risk life and limb to get here rarely conform to the “scroungers” stereotype.

And yet, in a Europe where the continent-wide unemployment rate is more than 10% – sometimes twice that in the south – a backlash is inevitable. Immigrants may bring prosperity in the long run. But when jobs are as scarce as they are in Europe today, the perception that their arrival makes life even harder for unemployed natives is bound to cause problems.

migrants and merkel

This is where the response of Europe’s political leaders matters most. On one hand, they could see this crisis as an historic opportunity to re-invigorate Europe’s sense of purpose – a chance to turn their gaze outwards rather than focusing on intra-EU squabbles. The problems on Europe’s borders aren’t going away. Whatever policymakers say, the migrants from war-torn Middle Eastern and North African countries will continue to come. Arguably, this makes a stable, cohesive Europe more important than ever. If the burden of dealing with refugees continues to fall almost exclusively on just a handful of countries, the resultant instability will be bad for everyone (just look at the resurgence of Germany’s far right). Only by acting together can Europe tackle this crisis.

But for now, most national leaders seem beholden to the xenophobic NIMBYism of a minority (albeit a loud one) of their populations. Meanwhile, officials in Brussels are unwilling to countenance the possibility that saving the EU might require them to slay some sacred cows. The Schengen Area makes it very difficult to implement any policy aimed at getting countries to accept their “fair share” of refugees, because there’s no way of stopping people moving between countries once they’re in a Schengen country. And the Euro looks increasingly like a millstone around the neck of southern Europe’s struggling economies, which need to enter a new age of growth if they are to absorb newcomers. Both Schengen and the Euro may need to be sacrificed in order to secure the future of Europe.

The moment of greatest opportunity may already have passed. If any of Europe’s leaders had been willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with Angela Merkel on the refugee issue, and if officials in Brussels had been willing to grasp the nettle and push a radical EU reform agenda, then 2015 could have been the start of a new chapter. As it is, NIMBYism and inertia appear to have won the day. The safe money is now on break.

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From generation to generation

This is the text of a “Thought for the Day” I gave at the St Endellion Easter Festival last week.

Me in the pulpit at St Endellion.

Me in the pulpit at St Endellion.

I want to talk this morning about generations. There are three reasons for my choice of topic.

Firstly, one of my favourite things about this festival is its multi-generational character. In a world where the norm is for us to segregate ourselves by age, Endellion is a breath of fresh air: a place where cross-generational friendships can flourish.

My second reason for choosing generations as my theme is that I’m rather conscious of my age. You don’t normally get invited to give a thought for the day until you’ve had a few more years to accumulate some wisdom than I’ve had. So I feel a kind of duty to speak as a member of the so-called millennial generation –those of us born between 1980 and the mid-1990s.

We’ve been in the news rather a lot recently, us millennials. Journalists love writing about generations, because a generation is such a huge and diverse cohort of people you can write pretty much whatever you like. In this country alone there are almost 14 million millennials. Globally, we number about 1.8 billion.

Time Magazine famously called us “Generation Me, Me, Me”. The New Yorker says we’re “the most indulged young people in the history of the world.” The Guardian, summing up the critical press we get, recently wrote that:

“Millennials are accused of being lazy, self-involved, cosseted, politically apathetic narcissists, who aren’t able to function without a smartphone and who live in a state of perpetual adolescence, incapable of commitment.”

The underlying message of the critical press millennials get is that we just need to grow up and start behaving like responsible adults. The Financial Times scolded us recently for spending our money on holidays rather than saving towards a pension. I have to admit I’m guilty as charged on that one, given that at the age of almost 27 I’ve never paid into a pension plan but I have just quit my job to go travelling around Europe for 4 months.

But can you really blame us? Many of us graduated into a recession and, even if we’ve been lucky enough to get a foothold in the working world, we’re faced with the prospect of everything we know being turned on its head at any moment. The World Bank estimates that, over the next decade, more than a billion young people will enter the global labour market, but only 40% of them will work in jobs that currently exist. Who’s to say whether pensions will even exist as a concept by the time we reach our 70s.

So there is ample justification for the feelings of instability and uncertainty that underpin many of the choices millennials make. We are indeed stuck in a state of arrested development. Commentators sympathetic to the plight of “generation rent”, as we’re often called, argue that the reason for this is financial. It’s not that we’ve been molly-coddled and over-indulged; it’s simply that we can’t afford to hit the basic stages of adulthood – like buying a house, getting married or having children – all things my grandparents had done by the time they were my age.

The home my paternal grandparents bought in their mid-20s. They lived in it for the rest of their lives.

The home my paternal grandparents bought in their mid-20s. They lived in it for the rest of their lives.

But then, the world today looks very different to the one my grandparents came of age in 60 or 70 years ago. When my grandparents were born, there were approximately 2 billion people on the planet. By the time I reach 65, there may well be 10 billion. Providing that many people with all the things we think of as basic rights – food, shelter, education, healthcare – will be an almighty task.

And then there’s the impact that 10 billion people will have on the earth itself. Many scientists claim we’ve already entered what they call the Anthropocene Era – a new epoch in which we, humans, are the dominant force shaping the earth’s ecosystems and geology.

Up until the late 80s, the word millennial was used primarily in the context of millennialism – the belief that Christ’s second coming will be followed by a thousand year golden age in which he’ll reign on earth. I sometimes wonder if this explains the high expectations some people have of us. The FT worries that we’re frittering away our cash rather than saving for old age; saving the planet is the rather more profoundly daunting cross we have to bear.

Climate change is the challenge for my generation and, if we don’t get it right, the appropriation of a label associated with the apocalypse may turn out to be very apt.

I recently read a piece by the environmental journalist Andrew Revkin in which he recalls a line he heard at a meeting in the Vatican in 2014. One of Pope Francis’s top advisers, a cardinal from Honduras whose name I won’t attempt, said this: “Nowadays, man finds himself to be a technical giant and an ethical child.”

There’s that idea of arrested development again.

I’ve heard a similar refrain from others. The lady who’s been my boss for the last 4 years talks about the gap between cleverness and wisdom. We – and I’m talking about humanity as a whole now, not just millennials – are certainly very clever. (This may be especially true of millennials: we’re the most educated generation in history – note I didn’t say best educated. 41% of 25-34 year olds in rich countries today have been through tertiary education, up from 26% in 2000.)

Our knowledge builds cumulatively from generation to generation. Sometimes a genius, like Newton or Einstein, comes along and runs ahead for a bit. But eventually the field catches up and overtakes them.

Wisdom doesn’t work like that. We don’t seem to be able to pass it on and keep building cumulatively in the same way. We’re always back at square one; ethical children.

You could say that wisdom is timeless, whereas cleverness is time-bound. You wouldn’t get very far today armed with Charles Babbage’s insights on computing or Leonardo Da Vinci’s on aerodynamics.

But if it’s an ethical rather than a technical education you’re looking for, the past remains a goldmine. The teaching of wise leaders – from Jesus to Nelson Mandela, Confucius to Gandhi – doesn’t lose its relevance over time. That’s why we still come to church.

Often there’s wisdom to be found closer to home too – in the role models we look up to, the parents or grandparents we admire.

Which brings me, at last, to my third reason for choosing generations as my theme this morning.

Since last Easter, the two remaining grandparents I had at that time have both died. I was lucky to have a good relationship with them both – indeed with all four of my grandparents – and to spend time with them right up to their final weeks.

Since their deaths, I’ve reflected quite a bit on my relationship with my grandparents and what I learned from them. In a funny way, I think I’m only beginning to truly appreciate the wisdom inherent in the way they lived their lives now – now that they’re no longer here saying stupid things, or watching TV with the volume on full, or winding the rest of us up.

At my grandfather’s memorial service, his daughter/my aunt recounted something he’d said shortly before he died that’s really stuck with me: “as I totter towards my 90th birthday,” he said, “I look back on a life that’s been frequently happy, always interesting and occasionally important.”

The more I’ve turned them over in my head, the more I think those words contain quite a bit of wisdom about how to live life well. It’s the balance of the three elements that I most admire.

My grandfather, Philip Goodhart, and me, circa 1990.

My grandfather, Philip Goodhart, and me, circa 1990.

Take happiness first. Of course, as Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, we should be free to pursue it. But the belief that happiness is attainable at all times does more harm than good. Happiness is a by-product of other things in life, not a destination we can plot a course directly towards. So frequently happy is pretty good going.

Interesting is a different matter. There’s no excuse for being bored by life. Of course, it helped that my grandfather really had lived an interesting life. As a journalist and politician he witnessed up close events that now fill the pages of history books. He was in the British Army in Palestine when Israel was created in 1948. In 1956, by now a war reporter for The Sunday Times, he hooked up with his old regiment to witness first-hand the British invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis. He was a Tory MP for 35 years, had a brief ministerial career and relished having a ringside seat for the key political events of his time – from the last Referendum on Europe to the fall of Margaret Thatcher. He once shared an office with James Bond author Ian Fleming, had dinner with the Queen, socialised with cabinet ministers and newspaper editors. Throughout his life he travelled extensively in Africa, Asia, Europe and the US – just months before he died at the age of 89 he took a trip to Sri Lanka.

But the specifics of his life are beside the point. At a more fundamental level, I learned from him that we live in a world too full of wonder, excitement and new possibilities for there to be any justification for boredom. So we should strive always to be interested.

And finally important. “Occasionally important” was how he summed up his life. Going through his papers, I’ve discovered a man of greater convictions than the one I knew.

In his old age, my grandfather cultivated a deliberate eccentricity. In reflecting on his political career he always chose to highlight, almost self-mockingly, trivial accomplishments as his proudest achievements.

He would wax lyrical about how he introduced red routes and removed the cap on footballers’ wages. He never mentioned how he’d campaigned on behalf of the Vietnamese boatpeople. Nor did he talk about his work as a junior minister for Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles.

Reading his papers, I discovered for the first time a man who’d been distraught when he lost his ministerial post in a cabinet reshuffle in 1981 – not because he liked power for power’s sake but because he genuinely thought he was doing important work.

So he had convictions but wore them lightly. He preferred flippancy to worthiness. He achieved occasional importance but was never self-important.

Did he live a good life? That’s debatable. He did good and bad. But he certainly lived life well.

And perhaps that’s what we millennials should aim for too. To chart a course between worthiness and cynicism in the face of all that’s wrong in the world. To find a middle way between profligacy and prudence in the face of an uncertain future.

So my thought for the day is this: if we millennials are to find the wisdom to rise to the existential challenges we face then we must have the humility to look to the example of previous generations for guidance. As ethical toddlers we can at least learn from those older children who’ve taken a few more steps than us.

My grandparents may have been eccentric towards the end and, certainly, they made mistakes, but there is precious wisdom in their experience and approach to life. Wisdom that I will cherish for a long time to come.

So make sure you talk to someone of a different generation at coffee this morning. You never know what wisdom you might uncover.

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