Tuesday, 24 March 2020

The five stages of [insert apocalypse here]

The first stage was denial: it's not really happening, it will go away, it won't affect us.

The second stage was scientific rescue fantasies: brilliant research is being done on the problem, the solutions are just over the horizon, we'll be fine.

The third stage was cheerful inevitablism: there's nothing we can do about it and we'll just let it happen, the costs of trying to stop it are unacceptably high and they won't work anyway, let's just carry on and get through it.

But then it became clear that even the damage that was already being done was pretty intolerable and that it was only going to get worse; and that action that could stop it was possible - difficult, but possible.

So we entered stage four, voluntarism. We were urged to take action. Lots of individuals, organisations, local governments and so forth did. Our lives changed a lot. But not enough. Large parts of society and the economy carried on more or less as before, unwilling or unable to make the changes they needed to.

Hence stage five: where government imposes actions on everyone, and - therefore - also takes on itself the costs of those actions. Of course, still in the hope and expectation that the scientists who we last heard from in stage two will come up with solutions which will ease the problem in due course. But we can't afford to do nothing while we wait.

I'm talking, of course, about the global climate crisis.

I don't mean to be flippant. The analogy between climate and COVID-19 isn't a perfect one. The timescales are very different: climate change is too slow for our political cycles, and the novel coronavirus is if anything too fast. But I think the parallels are instructive. We try to avoid action until it becomes clear that we really can't.

Specifically: in the climate emergency, we are now at stage four. Lots of people, institutions and countries are doing lots of things; lots are not; and it is not yet nearly enough. It can feel as if we are stuck here and are fiddling with LED light bulbs while the planet burns.

So here's my word of encouragement based on the COVID-19 experience so far: stage four is vital. Only when there is a large enough critical mass of people and institutions acting on their own initiative does it become politically possible to move on to stage five. Each individual initiative doesn't just save those few grammes of carbon, it also nudges the political needle another fraction of a degree, turning what was once normal behaviour into something that's first old-fashioned, then deserving of disapproval, then shameful, then outrageous. And that's when things change.

And as with COVID-19: we will in due course find out whether they've changed fast enough, and how many people have died unnecessarily along the way.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Reasons to be a little bit cheerful

After the UK's 2019 election, I am having to dig deep for these, but I do have a few. Here goes.

1. It turns out I live in a country where antisemitism is really, truly politically toxic. That makes me happy.

2. The Tories are once again (after a definite wobble during the last decade or so) fulfilling their great historic purpose: exterminating the far right. Even the Brexit Party, a pretty milk-and-water apology for a far-right party, almost disappeared. As to UKIP, the BNP, the English Democrats, and all the rest: nowhere to be seen. George Galloway got less than 500 votes. For all the nationalist spasms we've been through over the past few years, the UK remains one of the only countries in Europe without a serious far-right presence in its politics. That also makes me happy. (Some readers will say that the Tories are a far-right party, and it's true there have been real flashes of ugliness and certainly a resurgent populism, but they are still centre-right not far-right. Grieving left-leaning voters may not be inclined to recognise that difference right now, but it really matters.)

3. This has been the sort of election where one looks at the two prime-ministerial candidates and says, it's a shame they can't both lose. As a glass half-full person, I want to say: well, look, one of them did! The defeat is bad enough that Labour surely must do some proper soul-searching and decide that homespun incompetence is not a good look. A less bad defeat might have left some delusions in place (as well as left the ERG with some power).

4. How often can you say this? The results from Northern Ireland are positively cheering! An Alliance MP again; and two, count them! for the SDLP, a resurgence of constructive moderation for a party that more or less laid down its life for the peace process. Nice that nationalists will have (some) representatives who can actually represent them. Nor, from a UK political point of view, will I mourn the shrinking of the DUP contingent.

... OK, that's it. If you think that's not enough, well, how many did you manage? I'm trying here.

Monday, 11 November 2019

Undying in Leicester

With apologies, faithful readers, for the long absence: but a visit to Leicester Cathedral last week included a sight that couldn't be missed, kindly pointed out by Liz Tingle.

In case the image isn't entirely clear, this is what the tomb says (spelling modernised):

'Here lieth the body of John Heyricke of this parish, who departed this life the 2 of April 1589, being about the age of 76. He did marry Marie, the daughter of John Bond of Wardend in the county of Warwick esquire, who lived with the said Marie in one house full 52 years and in all that time never buried man woman nor child though they were sometimes 20 in household. He had issue by the said Marie 5 sons and 7 daughters, viz. Robert, Nicholas, Thomas, John and William, and daughters Ursula, Agnes, Marie, Elizabeth, Ellin, Christian & Alice. The said John was mayor of thos town in Anno. 1559 and again in anno. 1572. The said Marie departed this life the 8 of December 1611 being of the age of 97 years. She did see before her departure of her children & children's children and their children to the number of 142.'

Somebody had some tough genes. The entire chapel is full of Heyrick tombs, but are you surprised? Something like half the planet must be descended from these people. Here's to you, presumed great-great-great-great-great grandma!

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

The Hague doomsday machine

So, I have a new theory as to who is ultimately to blame for the UK's current nervous breakdown. And he wears a baseball cap. (Well, he did once. Poor bloke, this is unfair.)

Here's the rationale. What makes the current moment so intractable is that we've bolted bits of direct democracy onto a representative system, with no clear rules for how the two work together. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the prime minister responsible for managing this cyborg is so often described as robotic. The referendum is the most obvious problem: a narrow but decisive vote for an extremely unclear outcome, which in law was merely 'advisory' but as a political fact has become a kind of constitutional law, impossible to overturn except, maybe, by the same means. In the meantime, Parliament has the tricky task of discerning its meaning without actually challenging it, like the priests at Delphi. We've been using referenda with increasing frequency over the past few decades, without ever really thinking about how they work, so it was probably inevitable that one would turn around and bite us sooner or later. I suspect we'll be more careful in future.

But the referendum is only one part of the problem. Another part of the constitutional doomsday machine we've built for ourselves is that both of the main political parties (plus the little ones too, like my own Lib Dems, but who cares) now have leaders chosen by the mass membership of the parties, not by the MPs. Like a referendum, this sounds obviously 'democratic', though party membership is a pretty odd demos. But in a parliamentary system the consequences are bizarre. Parliament is supposed to be sovereign: and yet MPs can have a leader whom most of them see as unfit imposed on them by their parties. Labour - which has long had an element of mass-membership choice in leadership elections, but which has now moved to do so exclusively - finds itself completely unable to resolve this clash.

The Tories' situation isn't much better. Their MPs can at least defenestrate a leader, but they currently don't dare do so for fear of the candidate the membership might impose on them. Since Hague introduced the current system in 1997, having been embarrassed be being elected by MPs alone, the Tories have had four new leaders: twice the MPs have in effect conspired to deny the members a choice by leaving only one candidate standing, and on one of the other two occasions the membership's choice was disastrous. I humbly suggest that this system does not work very well.

The natural next step in this de-parliamentarisation of our political parties is for some of them (the Lib Dems might do it) to consider having a leader who isn't an MP at all. That takes us into the territory of Poland's Law and Justice, where parliamentarians are in effect dictated to by an outside figure who never has to face a mass electorate. That would be bad.

So, if only William Hague had stood firm and defended his fellow MPs' rights in 1997, everything would now be all right ...

The best argument ever made for Brexit was parliamentary sovereignty (yes, yes, irony, I know). If MPs can be trusted to make laws, they ought to be trusted to choose their own leaders. By all means give party memberships a more active role in selecting or deselecting individual MPs. But once they're there, they have to be able to organise themselves as they see fit, or we will wind up with our cyborg constitution being managed by zombie parties.

Oh, whoops, too late!

Thursday, 7 March 2019

More historical Brexits

On wise and foolish ways to win wars: two further cases from British history which seem to me analogous to our Brexit woes.

First: the English Civil War. In which the insurgents, who had been sniping from the sidelines but thoroughly excluded from power for a generation or more, suddenly found themselves leading an attempted revolution, forced on them by the rash behaviour of the posh bloke heading the government, whose previous experience of handling a crisis in Scotland mistakenly led him to think he knew how to handle things. They stumbled into the battle without much of a clear plan, and were badly divided amongst themselves over strategy and tactics. Arguably, that is why they won: their cause could be all things to all people, who could at least agree that they were rejecting the previous regime in the name of restoring some distant golden age. But this division is why they then go on to lose the peace. The new establishment wants a sensible compromise, a readjustment of the political structure which will be recognisably a variant on what’s gone before. But the war was actually won by the hardliners and the wild men, and they will not now accept half measures. In the short term, their ability to hold the new government to ransom means they win. For eleven years, they succeed in leading the country into their new utopia. But the Restorers never go away. In the end, the Scots march south and the country is won back surprisingly suddenly and peacefully. And the experiment remains a political fable for centuries. A rump of irreconcilables lament its passing, but it is never tried again.

A Remainer fantasy? Maybe. But it is worth remembering that the eleven-year timescale is probably wrong. Things move faster nowadays.

Secondly: the Second World War. Long before the outcome of the conflict is known – even when it still looks very likely that the enemy will win – the British establishment begins to think about more than just victory and defeat. Yes, it wants to crush toxic nationalism and to restore the old international order, but it also properly confronts the fact that a return to the status quo ante is not enough. It begins the job of seriously considering what British society might look like if and when, one day, the battle is won. Reimagining health care, the economy, education, welfare and all that may seem like a distraction, or an act of presumption. Surely all our efforts should be on the present conflict, not on dreams of what we might to do one day if we win? But this is wrong, for two reasons. First, if victory does come, and it might come suddenly, it is important to know what to do with it if we ever intend to entrench it. Second, what better way to spur the population on to that victory than by making it clear ‘victory’ will not mean a return to the 1930s?

I am warier of that one, since it implicitly casts Leavers as Nazis, and I really, really don’t mean that. But those of us on the Remain side have been too focused on the day-to-day fight. There is still a distinct possibility that we will win: either that a new referendum will reverse Brexit, or that a Returner government of some shade will take us back in before too many years have passed. Creative planning for how our second era of membership of the EU will be different from the first wouldn’t just be responsible contingency preparation. It would help to bring that second era to pass.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

A long view of May's long game

So, an English government falls unexpectedly as its plans for reconciliation with Europe collapse. Power passes by default to the last woman standing, who finds herself leading an uneasy regime in which her supposed allies – the radicals who are most firmly committed to a clean break with the Continent – don’t fully trust that she is on their side. It soon becomes clear that she has a very distinctive political style: to delay; to postpone difficult decisions for as long as possible; to suppress any discussion of the topics which she does personally not wish to address. For a great many of her subjects, especially for those who are instinctively her allies, this is first frustrating, then infuriating, then intolerable. The country is facing potential catastrophes, as it seems to them, and she will not acknowledge the fact or face up to the scale of the emergency. Does she not know that events are sliding towards catastrophe while she does nothing? Or does she not care? Some of those allies lose their cool, speak their minds, and are frozen out of power as a result. Others keep their heads down and keep quietly plugging away. Slowly, slowly, over time, as the evidence of real and potentially mortal danger becomes unmistakable, they manage to drag slivers of concession out of her one by one. At last, a crisis comes along that she is unable to dodge, she is forced to make a choice, and in the end she does what all the sensible people around her have been urging her to do for as long as anyone can remember. Her reward for this is permanently to be cast as a villain in the romantic narratives which lament the impossible, lost dream she killed.

Yes, I admit it is a tasteless comparison. Elizabeth I was being pressed to cut off her cousin’s head; Theresa May is merely being pressed to rule out a no-deal Brexit. But the sense of existential crisis is not entirely different.

I am no fan of Mrs May’s style of government, nor, it should be said, of Elizabeth’s. But especially since Mrs May has made the comparison herself, I wonder if it might be instructive, even as some of her party have become increasingly apocalyptic about what they see as the vacuum of her leadership. Delay, postponement and inaction are intensely annoying as political techniques, but they can work, and not just because occasionally, if you wait long enough, something turns up. Importantly, a delayer  is risk-averse - sometimes pathologically so, it is true - and this makes her susceptible to pressure. She will be much more likely in the end to take the less dramatic option in order to keep the boat afloat than to go down valiantly with her ship.

And if in retrospect everything works out more or less all right – if the worst disasters are avoided, albeit the glorious hopes remain unfulfilled too – then she may win some grudging respect and even some nostalgic affection. Especially if, as seems entirely likely, she has a successor who infuriates us all so much that we decide we want to blow up Parliament entirely.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Seven shades of Gray

Sorry about the title. Couldn’t resist it.
Actually the shades in John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism are pretty dark. He will upset quite a few people, and is not very sorry about it. The reader might be forgiven for imagining that this is an anti-religious polemic, but far from it. Gray is certainly an atheist – so much so that he does not regard religious positions as particularly intellectually serious or worth engaging with. His brief, by-numbers section debunking Christianity is one of the few disappointing bits of the book: I have a hunch his publishers might have told him he’d better put it in. He means it – for sure! – but it's not what's stoking his fires. His real targets are inadequate or flawed atheisms, and he has plenty to choose from.
The result is an engagingly malicious travelling circus of atheism which puts a plague on every house it visits. Virtually no-one escapes. He has a handful of admirable figures, most of whom surface in the final two chapters. ‘There is something refreshing in Schopenhauer’s nastiness’ (for Gray, that counts as a compliment). Spinoza comes out of this pretty well too, along with Santayana and Joseph Conrad.
The real enemy here is not religion, but ‘contemporary atheism’, which he sees in its various forms as ‘a continuation of monotheism by other means’. ‘Secular thought,’ he insists – with ample evidence – ‘is mostly composed of repressed religion.’ Above all, atheism has repeatedly claimed to transcend Christianity’s ethical framework before proceeding to ‘simply regurgitate some secular version of Christian morality’. Even those who have tried hardest to break out of that framework have failed. Nietzsche gets an hon mensh for efforts in this regard, but Gray sees him in the end as ‘an incurably Christian thinker’.
Gray’s own preference is for the kind of Epicurean withdrawal he finds in Lucretius:
Watching calmly as others drowned in misery, the Epicureans were content in the tranquil retreat of their secluded gardens. “Humanity” could do what it pleased. It was no concern of theirs.
Now Gray is a philosopher and that’s the sort of thing philosophers do, so, fine. But from a historian’s or a social-scientist’s point of view, this is not a view which is going anywhere. Withdrawing to the margins is, by definition, a marginal position. We can all enjoy watching Gray taking an intellectual scythe to contemporary fallacies, but that neither explains them nor uproots them.
If contemporary atheism’s greatest failure is its failure to transcend theistic morality, surely that tells us something: namely, that contemporary atheism is largely a moral critique of theism mounted in theism’s own terms. (As Dominic Erdozain has argued.) Of course it can’t transcend theistic morals: those morals are its whole basis. It is in the end an ethical revolt, which is with immense moral seriousness sawing off the branch it sits on. It is telling that one of the handful of modern thinkers to emerge from this book virtually unscathed is C. S. Lewis – not for his fiction or his apologetics, but for his ‘prescient’ exposé of transhumanism’s self-cannibalism in The Abolition of Man.
Gray leaves you with two options. He recommends his own brutally honest, Lucretian withdrawal, which abandons morality as we conventionally understand it, along with any notion of ‘humanity’ (a particular bugbear of his). Alternatively, ‘anyone who wants their morality secured by something beyond the fickle human world had better join an old-fashioned religion’. Well, if you insist.