What’s really happening to American jobs?

It was the over-riding theme of Trump’s inauguration speech: foreigners, aided and abetted by politicians in Washington, stole our jobs. Now we want them back. ‘For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry,’ yammered the new President. ‘One by one, shutters have closed on our factories without even a thought about the millions and millions of those who have been left behind.’

It’s a simple story about a simple problem with a simple solution. ‘Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.’ Enhanced border controls, strict quotas for immigrants, protective tariffs on imports, an end to free trade, an instruction to American multinationals that they must unpick their global supply chains and repatriate those operations they’ve spent the last three decades outsourcing to other countries: these, plus a healthy splurge on domestic infrastructure, are Trump’s job creation policies.

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Would that it were so simple. The unfortunate reality is that globalisation and open borders are not the sole cause of the demise of the Good American Job. There are at least two other critical factors in play – neither of which got a mention in Trump’s inauguration speech.

The first is technology. At the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, observers have noted a rather anxious, downbeat mood amongst the great and the good of the tech community. Google’s party, normally one of the most high-profile events on the WEF agenda, was cancelled this year. Silicon Valley bigwigs like Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, flagged concerns that he and his ilk could become the new bankers: loathed for destroying ordinary people’s livelihoods and creating ever more inequality between the top 1% and everyone else.

There is a lively debate about whether technological advances will have an overall positive or negative impact on jobs. Martin Ford’s 2015 bestseller, The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment propelled the pessimistic case into the limelight. Ford cites research conducted by academics at Oxford’s Martin School that suggests that almost half of US jobs (47% to be precise) are at risk of automation within the next two decades. The numbers for many other countries are higher – and, with advances in fields such as Artificial Intelligence, it’s no longer just manual labour that is under threat: white collar workers, too, are increasingly being replaced by machines.

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An Economist special report on the world’s biggest companies, published last September, offered data that suggests this process is already well underway. At the end of 2006, there was just one tech firm – Microsoft – in the top 10 largest companies worldwide (by market capitalisation). A decade later, there are five: Apple, Alphabet, Amazon and Facebook have joined the list. What’s significant about this, from a jobs perspective, is that these companies have achieved enormous financial success with a fraction of the workforce of a previous generation of corporate giants.

The report goes on to make a rather telling comparison between America in the industrial age and America in the digital age:

‘In 1990 the top three carmakers in Detroit between them had nominal revenues of $250 billion, a market capitalisation of $36 billion and 1.2m employees. In 2014 the top three companies in Silicon Valley had revenues of $247 billion and a market capitalisation of over $1 trillion but just 137,000 employees.’

Looking at those figures, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that, in the digital age, the link between economic success and mass employment is broken. Today’s IT giants are generating equivalent revenues and a market capitalisation almost thirty times higher than the automotive giants of a quarter century ago with just a tenth of the workforce.

Others are more optimistic. For example, Andrew McAfee of MIT, co-author of The Second Machine Age, argues in this recent video that ‘technology and tech progress always create jobs and create opportunities and they always destroy old jobs and old opportunities… Overall, the creation outweighs the destruction.’

The problem though, as McAfee goes on to acknowledge, is that the creative destruction wrought by technological progress does not tend to lead to the replacement of like with like in the jobs market. Jobs destroyed in one location, requiring one skillset are often replaced by new jobs in a different location, requiring a different skillset. At Davos this week, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com – another tech industry leader who fears a societal backlash – coined a good term for the people whose lives are disrupted by this process: “digital refugees.”

Even if you think the prophecies about mass obsolescence of the human workforce are overblown, there’s no avoiding the fact that much of the dislocation and disruption people are already feeling in their working lives is a result of technological advances. And the pessimists and optimists all agree on one thing: you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The other factor that Trump ignored in his inaugural address is rent-seeking. Machines and foreigners have created pressure from below on American jobs: increasingly, they can do what someone in an office or factory in the Midwest might once have done both cheaper and better. But the disappearance of the once ubiquitous Good American Job – secure, well-paid, status-enhancing – is also threatened by pressure from above.

The last quarter century has seen the incomes of those at the very top go through the roof. The three highest paid CEOs in the US took home nearly $300 million between them last year. On this side of the Atlantic, the average pay of a FTSE 100 CEO has gone from 45 times the median pay of their staff twenty years ago to 130 times today. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

To get a sense of how unprecedented this is, it’s worth listening to a man who, in his own time, was the poster-boy for capitalist excess: the great Gilded Age US banker, JP Morgan. A little over a century ago, he let it be known that his bank would not invest in any company whose CEO was paid more than 20 times what the average worker in the firm got. Why? Because, he believed, a CEO who paid himself more than that was serving his own self-interest rather than the good of the company.

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Using that rule of thumb, Morgan would be hard-pressed to find a single worthy investee listed on any of the major stock exchanges today. And, at least in general terms, he was right. The link between CEO pay and company performance has been broken and those that suffer most are workers in the ‘squeezed middle’. Automation and globalisation have enabled corporate executives to radically reduce the cost of doing business, by laying off expensive developed world employees, but conveniently there’s one layer of the corporate structure that has been immune to these changes: the very top.

Donald Trump is right about one thing: the Good American Job has become an endangered species. But his myopic focus on just one of the three causes of this situation is dangerous and his resultant policy prescription likely to fail. Globalisation is not as irresistible a force of nature as its most ardent champions led us to believe and, yes, politicians should look to temper its worst excesses and mitigate its most damaging consequences on communities that have indeed been ‘left behind’.

But we cannot turn the clock back. Without also addressing the two linked challenges I’ve outlined – how to enable populations to adapt to technological progress, and how to counter the irresponsible rent-seeking of an overpaid corporate elite – any attempt to bring good jobs back to America will be akin to pissing into the wind. Perhaps, given his rumoured penchant for golden showers, that’s not such a bad thing in Donald Trump’s mind.

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The best 10 books I read last year

I know it’s a tad late in the season for gift ideas, but books are for life, not just for Christmas so what the hell. Here, in no particular order – well actually they’re in the order I read them in – are the ten best books I read in 2016. I recommend them all unhesitatingly.

It’s a slightly eclectic list: nine novels, ranging from satirical to dystopian, the oldest of which was published just over half a century ago, the most recent of which came out last year; and one lone work of non-fiction.

I will be getting a hard time from Katy because, once again, it’s a shamefully all-male list. I promise I do occasionally read books by women – it’s just that, to date, with the honourable exception of Zadie Smith, they mostly haven’t done it for me (and even Zadie’s gone a bit off the boil since her early brilliance, in my humble opinion). Katy did buy me A Very Short Introduction to Feminism for Christmas and I have novels by Margaret Atwood and Penelope Fitzgerald sitting in my to-read pile, so maybe, just maybe by this time next year, I’ll have mended my ways.

But anyway, here, without further ado, is my list:

  1. Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks (2015). Within the first few pages, I had that warm, comforting feeling you get when you know you’re in the hands of a master storyteller at the top of his game. The writing is exquisite and the book manages to be both intimate and expansive. It’s a moving personal story of love and loss – one of very few books that have genuinely made me cry – but also covers an extraordinary sweep of European twentieth-century history. All the while, Faulks interrogates the fallibility of memory and the identities we construct for ourselves out of a past that is mostly unknown and if not unknown then misremembered. There’s a certain amount of geeking out over psychology that will appeal to some readers more than others, but it’s entirely forgivable in the context of a story that has enough twists and emotional bite to keep you turning the pages at a frenetic pace.

 

  1. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (1996). Though it’s now twenty years old, Mistry’s masterpiece is still probably the best portrait of India out there. It’s a big (in every sense) social novel, covering the period from independence through the 1970s. It’s full of brutality. It begins with the brutality of the caste system, depicting a society in which people are routinely mutilated and murdered for not accepting their place in the hierarchy. Then it moves on to the brutality of poverty and the Indian government’s policy of ‘beautification’ – slums are cleared and the slum dwellers shipped off to forced labour camps. In the face of all this brutality, human life and happiness are portrayed as unbearably, tragically fragile. Mistry’s prose is almost Orwellian in its conciseness. The baldness of the writing only accentuates the pathos of the story.

 

  1. The Secret Pilgrim by John Le Carré (1991). The Cold War made Le Carré and this underrated novel is his almost nostalgic farewell to it. It’s his last George Smiley novel, dedicated to Alec Guinness, who famously played Smiley on screen in the BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s really a collection of short stories – old spies’ reminiscences about the good old days before the Wall came down. Threaded through them all is a disconcerting sense that the West’s hard-won victory over Communism was a hollow one. What, asks Le Carré, was it all for? In the age of Putin and Trump, you may well wonder.

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  1. A Small Town in Germany by John Le Carré (1968). Le Carré – as the man himself acknowledges in his 2016 memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel – was obsessed by Germany. He first visited as a teenager, just after the Second World War, experiencing first-hand the devastation and the horror wrought by twelve years of Nazi rule – from the rubble of its bombed-out cities to the horrifying stench of the concentration camps. Then he was posted to the British Embassy in Bonn in the 1960s, where he worked for British Intelligence. By 1968, he’d left the service to be a full-time writer, but his time in Bonn continued to inform his fiction, not least in this novel, which is set in his former workplace. Germany in the late 1960s was still struggling to come to terms with its Nazi past. A generation of German writers – led by the Nobel Prize-winning Günter Grass – railed against their fellow citizens’ forgetfulness about the past. The election of a former Nazi to the West German Chancellorship in 1966 elevated Grass et al’s moral outrage to a whole new level, but nobody captured the mood and moral frustration of Germany at that time better than Le Carré does in this novel. And what’s more, he manages to skewer the hypocrisy and incompetence of his former employers at the same time. Rather neatly, the overriding ambition of British foreign policy vis-à-vis Europe at that time was to get into the European Economic Community. How times change.

 

  1. An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (2013). Historical fiction doesn’t get any better than this – or at least that’s what I thought until I read number 7 on this list. Harris’ novel is a vivid re-telling of the real-life story of the Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus was an officer in the French Army. He also happened to be Jewish – at a time when anti-Semitism was rife in France. In 1894, he was (as it turned out, wrongly) found guilty of being a German spy and deported to Devil’s Island – a French prison colony in the South Atlantic. Harris’ version of the story is told from the perspective of Georges Picquart, a loyal army man, who took over French Army Intelligence a year after Dreyfus was convicted. As he goes back over the evidence, Picquart gradually discovers that the Army has got the wrong man but his superiors want to hear none of it. An Officer and a Spy is the story of his heroic, honourable struggle against a conspiracy of silence.

 

  1. The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013). Set in the near future, this dystopian novel about the totalitarian potential inherent in the way the internet has developed is a 1984 for our times. The likes of Google and Facebook today have access to way more personal information about way more people than the Stasi could ever have dreamt of. This book is a chilling, brilliant attempt to make us face up to the implications of that fact.

 

  1. The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (2016). This is another masterpiece of historical fiction. Entirely based on real events, it’s the story of composer Dmitri Schostakovich’s struggles with the Soviet State he unwillingly served. Barnes has imagined his way into Schostakovich’s life in an extraordinary way. The result is a novel that not only opens a window onto the composer’s inner world – imagined, yes, but well-researched and entirely plausible; it also offers a subtle analysis of the anatomy of power and the complex ways in which fallible, non-heroic, human beings interact with totalitarian authority.

 

  1. The Tin Men by Michael Frayn (1965). Concerns about robots stealing our jobs are very much de rigueur at the moment, but they’re nothing new. Michael Frayn’s debut novel – a satire set in an ‘automation research institute’, written when Harold “white heat of technology” Wilson was Prime Minister – is testament to that. The ‘institute’ includes departments working on the automation of headline writing, sport – ‘When takings at the gate have fallen low enough to cure any tendency to sentiment, people will notice that a computer is a far more suitable tool than a cricket team for producing a complex score sheet from the variables of ground moisture, light, surface wear on ball, fallibility of wicket-keeper, and so on’ – and even morality. The latter involves the development of machines that will spontaneously throw themselves off a sinking raft in order to save others. One of Frayn’s protagonists is a wannabe novelist, who starts by writing the blurb and the reviews for the inside cover, before preceding to chapter one. Another is a bluff ex-Army and public school type, who’s responsible for overseeing scientists whom he regards as an alien species – “I mean, people talk a lot of nonsense about scientists being difficult people to get through to. But I say, if a chap’s a decent chap, he’s a decent chap be he a scientist or a nigger minstrel.” There are flashes of comic brilliance but the humour isn’t quite sustained throughout. Nonetheless, much of the satire remains remarkably fresh and relevant half a century on.

 

  1. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015). The only thing that baffled me about the glowing reviews this Pulitzer Prize winner received is that so many of them described it as ‘very funny.’ It is not very funny. But it is very good. It tells the story of a Vietcong sleeper agent who’s attached to a General in South Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon, he follows his general to America, where he remains for years, all the while living a double life. Eventually, he returns to Vietnam as part of a doomed South Vietnamese mission to re-conquer the country and ends up imprisoned by the regime he’s spent his whole life loyally serving. They torture him for being ideologically contaminated. The book’s greatest strength of all is the wry narrative voice – the story is told from the sleeper agent’s perspective; we gradually discover that what we are reading is his ‘confession’ for the sin of being corrupted by America. It’s worthy of Le Carré.

 

  1. The Innovation Illusion by Fredrik Erixon and Björn Weigel (2016). The odd one out on my list, both in that it’s the only work of non-fiction to make my top ten and in that it’s the only one I’ve written about elsewhere. Erixon and Weigel argue, quite convincingly, that the conventional wisdom that says we’re on the brink of a golden age of innovation is based on a misunderstanding of the innovation process. Innovation is not the same as invention. It is, above all, an economic process. But capitalism is broken. It is stifling innovation by failing to create the right incentives for new products to be developed and brought to market at scale. The Innovation Illusion is a much-needed corrective to the increasingly mainstream view – often couched in ludicrously hyperbolic terms – that a tsunami of innovation is coming whether we like it or not.  Actually, Erixon and Weigel would like it to come – they think robots will, on balance, make our lives better and more prosperous – but they think that wave on the horizon is just a mirage.
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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.

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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.)

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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):

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And this one a couple of days before Thanksgiving:

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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.

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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.

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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.

jeremy-corbyn_0

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.

EU-flag

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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