Thursday, 27 November 2014

"Kick the buggers out" - or not

Almost on cue from my article imploring UKIP not to screw it up out came the headline that Mark Reckless had done his level best to do just that. If the headlines were to believe he had got up on the hustings and promised to kick out all the foreigners. Words like "deportation" and "repatriation" were used to describe what Reckless had suggested. Our attention was drawn to some poor hypothetical Polish plumber, settled in Rochester for years with his hypothetical kids in the local school, and the suggestion was that under UKIP rule this poor fellow would be rounded up and shoved on a boat home the day after we announced our departure from the EU.

To put this in context, hundreds of millions of people currently have the right to work in the UK through the EU freedom of movement regime, and many are currently in the UK. If we withdraw from the EU and opt to control immigration from the remaining EU countries this will beg the question of what we do about EU nationals already living and working here, some for many years. They range from my friend's French-Algerian grandmother who married an English soldier in 1946 and has lived in the UK ever since with French nationality, to the Romanian pimp serving time for armed robbery. There isn't any catch all answer. There is no obvious and clear point between those two extremes where one will be granted permission to stay and another will be refused.

The only sensible answer that can possibly be given is that the situation will be reviewed in more depth, a policy will be set and a legal framework will be designed to examine each of these complex cases on it's own merits.

Of course this would be a lousy quote for a headline hungry editor so you have to make the news, so it needs a bit of spin, and spun it was. Let's have a look at the actual exchange:

Q: ‘What would happen Mark Reckless if we left the European Union. What would happen for instance to the Polish plumber who lives in Rochester. Would he be able to stay, would he have to go back?’

Reckless: ‘Well, I think in the near term we’d have to have a transitional period, and I think we should probably allow people who are currently here to have a work permit at least for a fixed period.’

Q: ‘Forgive me, if there’s a Polish plumber who for instance has got a house, got a family, got kids at a local school, are you going to deport him and his family?’

Reckless: ‘I think people who have been here a long time and integrated in that way I think we’d want to look sympathetically at. But what we’d want to do is new people coming in [interrupted by laughs from the crowd]…what we’d want to do is to look at new people coming in and apply a consistent, Australian-style point system and the same to people coming from Europe as we do to those coming from say the Commonwealth, from Australia, Africa, India, the Caribbean. We shouldn’t have a discriminatory system which favours Europeans against people from the outside.’

Is that really the shocking quote a frothing at the mouth racist ready to tear families and communities apart out of pure prejudice?

To my mind it's an honest if ill defined answer to a very complex question which doesn't have a 10 second soundbite answer.

The only rational answer is that we will set a policy and assess each case against it, with citizenship, indefinite leave to remain or work or residence visas granted as appropriate, and denied where not appropriate. Can he explain every nuance of that policy at the hustings? No. Can he decide the outcome of this hypothetical future visa application with no more information than some hypothetical Polish plumber with kids at a local school? Of course he can't.

Mark Reckless gave an honest, rational and necessarily incomplete answer to a ludicrously vague question and a certain section of the media tried to make a story out of it by presenting certain facts in a certain way, the day before a by election. Fortunately in this instance they were unable to do so, but the crude simplicity of the attempt makes it a good case study of how the media do this. Often they are more successful.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Our Country is not a Gift

'If you believe that the world is bigger than Europe, if you believe in an independent Britain, then come with us and we will give you back your country.'

The words of Mark Reckless in his acceptance speech after his decisive victory in the Rochester & Strood by election.

Can't argue with the first part, but the last sentence sort of made me want to put my head in my hands.

No Mark, our country is not something you will gift us because it is not yours to give. It is, as you say, our country and we are taking it back.

It isn't just semantics. It's really quite a fundamental point. If UKIP stands for anything it is surely a more humble form of politics, where politicians are truly our representatives, and the authority they have is drawn from a true popular mandate. It's this, as opposed to the decades of back and forth between the two main parties that is attractive about UKIP and they forget it at their peril.

It was gone 4am when Reckless uttered these words and it was the end of a long and sometimes unpleasant election campaign so they can be forgiven. Forgiven, but not forgotten. UKIP are now in the spot light like never before and now it won't be just snide mentions in the mainstream media. Now their actions and words will be scrutinised and judged on their own merits, and if they end up following the other parties into the wilful obscurity of a political bubble who see the country as some sort of bargaining chip then they will be equally deaerving of our contempt.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Vote UKIP Get Labour? Fine...

The idea has always been stupid, and is nearly dead anyway but that's no reason not to give it another kick.

The cry is that if we vote UKIP we will get a Labour government which is more pro EU and thus somehow worse than the Tories.

It's quite possibly true in certain seats that UKIP will split "the right" and allow in a Labour or Lib Dem candidate who is wrong about even more things than the Tory candidate who might have otherwise got in, but it's hardly the point.

There isn't some spectrum of Europhilia with UKIP at one end and the Liberal Democrats at the other. It's a simple binary choice whether we are in or out of the European Union.

You see the Tories, perhaps more than any other party have misrepresented the EU from the very beginning. This is a 6 decade old project to create a country called Europe through political and economic union. This isn't really a secret as such. It's set out in the 1957 Treaty of Rome which Edward Heath signed in the early 1970s. But to hear the howls from Tory "sceptics" you would think it had never been mentioned before.

Their position is more like Republicans in the US opposing federal government programmes. Well they might, but that doesn't make them anti United States. Only actually being espousing secession would make that so.

The idea that the Tories are "more Eurosceptic" than Labour is nonsense. They may be less in favour of centralised European government (although they may not be too when it suits them) but that doesn't make them opposed to the UK being a member any more than the South Carolina legislature opposing Obamacare amounts to that state seceding from the USA.

For those of us who think the UK should not be part of the European project at all the exact break down of powers beneath the European government (which is exactly what it is, by any measure) is immaterial, making the choice between pro EU parties irrelevant, and the "vote UKIP get Labour" cry with it.

The simple choice for secessionists is vote UKIP and either get UKIP or not. If not, then through ignorance or will the public have chosen to be part of this project.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

British Jidhadis

David Cameron is off in Australia, surfing with the dudes first then addressing the G20 and outlining another crackpot idea which, like his EU reform plans, might sound good on the face of it, but is ill conceived and impractical on closer examination.

His big idea is to exclude British citizens who have been involved in the Syrian civil war from returning to the UK for a period of 2 years. It ticks all the Cameronian boxes of sounding dynamic, radical and sensible, while being unachievable and ill thought out.

Citizenship is something you own, and British citizenship gives you the right to be in the UK which should also ensure the right to a fair trial before appropriate legal punishment. It's not something that can or should just be suspended on the whim of the government of the day.  If it can be suspended for taking a side in this horrible and far from clear cut civil war, then why not for people who campaign for Tibet? Or Burmese dissenters in a couple of years time when it too is a peaceful democracy? Or any other regime that the government of the day feels it expedient to cosy up to?

Of course like most attacks on civil liberties in recent years it’s being pushed as anti-terrorist, but it’s not too much of a leap to see it being used a lot more widely to exclude anyone the government deems it convenient to have out of the way for a while.

Secondly if the government decides to take a stand now, on this, and essentially deprive British citizens of their citizenship then they are by extension condoning the actions of other British citizens engaged in some political activity abroad, leaving the door wide open for foreign governments to make the accusation that we are complicit in supporting certain causes. What pressure might future British governments come under from Peking, or indeed Washington, not to extend the rights of citizenship to anyone taking an unfashionable view.

Thirdly, this ridiculous idea is a prime example of kicking the can down the road. What does Cameron suppose these Islamic fundamentalists will do for two years in the midst of the Syrian civil war? And what will happen after the two years is up? David Cameron probably doesn’t care. He’s a shrewd enough politician to either blame it on whoever his unlucky coalition partner is at that point or make it a problem for a beleaguered Miliband government. We should care though.

It’s as simple as this: If it can be shown in a British criminal court to the required standards of proof that someone has committed treason or some other significant act that is contrary to British interests then try them for it in court and give them an appropriate punishment. The appropriate punishment for treason was death until relatively recently, which is in a very real sense a revocation of citizenship. Life meaning life in prison would be almost as good.

This won’t happen because it would involve facing up to the problems that the British government has itself created over decades of handing out citizenship freely and “tolerating” the behaviour of people who enriched us with ideas like radical Islam, and brought their “culture” of ignorance and violence with them. Not only are these people British citizens in the legal sense, many of them were made British citizens under the prevailing orthodoxy pedaled by Cameron just as enthusiastically as it was pedaled by Blair before him. They are proto-citizens of modern Britain, not the messy old kind. What is more, all of them were radicalized and inspired to go and fight on behalf of an Islamic caliphate right here in the United Kingdom. These aren’t some alien invaders who happen to have British passports by a bureaucratic slip up, and they’re not a handful of lunatics on the extreme fringe. This is hundreds if not thousands of British citizens who have decided to take up arms. It’s a demographic.

This is just one result of that stupid orthodoxy, and it won’t be fixed by some half cocked temporary plan to grab headlines and act tough.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

UKIP – Don’t Screw It Up

It’s a rare thing to have a proper headshot at the establishment, but after 20 years, various splits and schisms within the party, slurs of racism from the main parties, and a mainstream media that went from ignoring them completely to often open hostility, UKIP are finally in a position to not only threaten the main parties at Westminster but to play a decisive role in the next general election, and perhaps even in forming the next government.

Having come first in the Euro elections in the summer, and recently won one by election in Clacton, Nigel Farage’s party are now clear favourites for a second win in Rochester & Strood next week. Meanwhile arguably a bigger coup still was the Heywood by election where just over 600 votes kept UKIP from winning a Labour safe seat.  Farage has managed the seemingly impossible and made a libertarian-conservative party appealing to disaffected voters from all the main parties and strong enough in certain areas to actually win seats under the first past the post system. 

As a supporter of UKIP and a believer in most of what they stand for this is great news, but not a time to get complacent. There are still plenty of pitfalls which the media and political establishment would love to see UKIP fall into.

There are broadly three main ways they can screw it up at this stage and they are going native, attracting the wrong people, and selling out badly.

Firstly going native - enjoying the perks of elected office and losing sight of their objectives. UKIP's MEPs seem to have a reputation for the former if not the latter. Speaking as someone who is out and out opposed to the existence of the European Union as an entity as well as Britain’s membership of it, I don’t really care a jot about UKIP MEPs enjoying their expenses or not bothering to vote very often.

The danger is that they come to enjoy this too much, and start to see their own careers as best served by being in the European Union . Look out for talk of renegotiating our relationship, reforming the EU’s institutions, or some sort of confederate model that lets bureaucrats, politicians and UKIP MEPs keep their highly paid jobs while not answering the fundamental problems with the European Community. No renegotiation with the European Union is possible or desirable, as 40 years of the main parties apparently attempting this has shown. We need to get out in order to make Britain a functioning democracy.

Attracting the wrong people - their fast growth means they are bound to have attracted some loons alogn the way, and we've already seen some of their candidates having colourful backgrounds at least, and others coming out with things that won’t win them elections. If this shakes itself out after a few months then fine but if it goes too far it will be damaging.

But the “wrong” people here aren’t just racist nut cases who will repel ordinary voters. UKIP has recently done a lot to chase Labour voters, especially in “safe” seats in the north. While this definitely makes sense from an electoral point of view, some of these people are outright unreformed Stalinists, still smarting over pit closures. UKIP cannot pander to this group either without fundamentally changing the small government, individualist message that makes UKIP make sense in the first place.

UKIP must be more than just an escape valve for the anger of this demographic – they have to actually make the case for small government and keep these votes when left wing parties come along offering freebies at the expense of ‘the rich.” Possible, but not easy.

Last, but definitely not least, is the temptation to sell in the out wrong way. Short of actually winning a general election UKIP will have to do a deal at some point, and most likely with the Conservative party. If they do this too cheaply they will burn out, as we are now witnessing the Lib Dems doing now. If they refuse to do it at all then they will never move beyond a protest party.

With a new Tory leader, a sniff of power to reward Farage’s twenty years’ of hard work, the temptation to sell out too cheaply is all too obvious. A coalition with the Tories in exchange for the promised referendum represents the biggest present danger to UKIP. We have seen the modus operandi in Scotland and any such EU referendum would be heavily rigged in favour of the UK staying in, with juicy sounding but hollow concessions set against an ill formed “Out” alternative. The SNP can survive this sort of defeat with their strong local powerbase north of the border. UKIP cannot. Losing a fudged referendum would lose their raison d’ĂȘtre for a generation and without a firm and established base in Westminster the party would be cast into the wilderness and the hopes of a democratic UK would go with it.

Conversely staying out of government forever will not serve any useful purpose. After 2015 we will have a wealth of information on where UKIP’s support lies and how to win it and their enviable resonance with the voting public will be lost. In a best case scenario this will lead the Tories, realising they have lost a general election because of UKIP, to offering a proper alternative outside of the European Union, but history and logic suggest a rigged referendum is more likely. Again this will take away UKIP’s reason for being without them ever achieving the goal of taking the country out of the European Union.  

Only time will tell how this pays out, but anyone thinking the hard work is done is setting themself up for a massive disappointment, and anyone thinking the battle is already won is gravely mistaken. UKIP have now got enough rope to hang someone and it could yet be themselves. However they now have the momentum, they can’t be ignored or tarnished as fringe group racists anymore, and it’s entirely up to them to make their voices heard, and to make sure their voice is saying something coherent and compelling.  

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Message of the Medium

Why the left loves Twitter

Canadian intellectual Marshall McLuhan in 1964 coined the brilliant phrase “the medium is the message” in his most widely known work “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.” He proposed that the medium itself, rather than the content it carried often had the greatest impact on society. He described the content as a juicy piece of meat carried by a burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. In keeping with the times he focused on movies and television but the concept remains as relevant today as it was in 1964.

Perhaps the biggest development in mass communications in recent years has been Twitter, allowing users to fire short messages of up to 140 characters to anyone who will listen. “Hashtag” has entered the language as a way of addressing a certain subject, and @ has become a form of address in written media. And if you’re unlucky enough to be watching the BBC or reading the Guardian you would think that the internet existed for no other reason.

It’s a striking difference from blogs, which enjoyed a similar cult status for a brief time in the liberal media but were gradually abandoned as the “blogosphere” became increasingly dominated by conservative bloggers. Twitter however has suffered no such fate, and since launching in 2006 has rapidly become the go to source of many mainstream journalists in need of a “voice of the internet.”

The problem with this is that Twitter gives a very skewed view of what “the internet” is saying, and it’s usually skewed to the left. And it’s not just me saying this, people as diverse as Suzanne Moore and the excellent Peter Hitchens have noted the left wing bias on Twitter, while in 2012 Dr Rachel Gibson of Manchester University proclaimed it was because Twitter users were “early adopters who have higher levels of education than the rest of the population, so tend to be more progressive and open.”

If this last explanation stood up then surely by now Twitter would be veering to the right as happened with the blogging community? Yet this doesn’t seem to be the case and Twitter remains stubbornly the domain of the left.

It is not the sequence of adoption, or as Gibson suggests the intellect of the users but rather the nature of the medium that makes Twitter so beloved of the left. You see to write a political blog post you generally have to take an idea and develop it in some detail. It wouldn’t be enough to simply report the news with your spin on it, as this is well covered by the traditional media organizations. And because these blogs are usually open to comments from readers you tend to find that huge leaps or flawed logic are challenged. Although high profile commentators have blogs, most bloggers tend to be hobbyists writing about what interests them.

Then along comes Twitter –a running commentary on events as they happen, in 140 characters of fewer. Not enough of course to actually develop a point or idea, and because it’s fast moving little room to challenge fallacious ideas.

You can tweet that it’s all Thatcher’s fault that you didn’t get a pay rise, and never have to explain how. You can tweet that Esso kills penguins without ever having to show any evidence of it. You can Tweet that Nigel Farage is Adolf Hitler, that Cameron’s modest public spending cuts are causing a famine in Britain, and any other ridiculous assertion you like without ever having to explain or defend it. And this makes it a happy hunting ground for the left.

It’s happy hunting ground because left wing ideas tend to collapse under scrutiny, yet be appealing in slogan form. “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” is a classic example. A “Tweet” from Louis Blanc in 1851, retweeted by Karl Marx and liked by many since, right up to the present day.

It has an initial appeal to our innate sense of human decency. Those with great ability should help those with great need. In most families those with the ability to do so will help those in need, and in any functioning medieval village surely those who enjoyed a bumper harvest would help those whose crops were blighted, out of both basic humanity and the expectation that the favour will be reciprocated if fortunes are reversed. So why not apply this decent principle to the large, complex industrialized societies we now live in?

Well because it inevitably means that it falls to a state employed bureaucrat to determine the relative abilities and needs of various people in society, on a group level, with very limited information and virtually unlimited, mostly negative consequences.  A point that would be made within the first 3 posts on any blog or message board, and a fatal flaw that is as true now as it was when it was written in 1851.

By contrast free market ideas tend to be initially unattractive, yet start to make sense on further reflection. “Stop helping the poor” won’t get you many retweets or likes, but well reasoned arguments against welfare and the dependency culture it creates are hard to dispute on logical grounds, and borne out by reality.

On Twitter, ideas succeed not on their merit but on their instant appeal. The meat that distracts the watchdogs of the mind in political discourse on Twitter consists of short, pithy messages often posted under the name of some bien pensant celebrity, but the message of this banal medium is “Don’t think, we’ve done that for you. Don’t analyse as that’s all been done. Like. Retweet. And show the world that you’re trendy and with it.” A message made by and for the left.