Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
As a columnist, giving out yards about the state of the country is pretty much bread and butter. But I’ve always tried, if not succeeded, to convey that my frustration with this country is not from anger with it, but the fact that it is so tantalisingly close to moving from being a great country to a world leader.
It’s from that perspective that I get irritated when I see, and it’s pretty common in Ireland, someone launch a tirade about what an awful place this country is. You’ve heard it yourself. They’ll start with homelessness, or health waiting lists, or mental health services, or any number of legitimate areas of dissatisfaction. But that will be a launch pad into how we have no health service, no welfare system, no housing, how the country is run by the banks and how austerity has left us in a third world country. How we have no democratic choices and how the Gardai are fascist boot-boys and how the media is run by Ireland’s version of C. Montgomery Burns.
Except they get to say all this freely. And secret police don’t kick in their doors, or shut down the Socialist Worker. And they do win seats in the national parliament and draw very nice salaries.
See, that’s the frustrating bit. This country has its flaws in its public services yet our health service provides cheap and efficient care for millions. The great majority of our people are housed pretty well. Hunger is less of a problem than obesity. Our old people get good pensions.
Say what you will about Enda and Micheal and the rest, because you can. Unlike in Turkey or Russia. In Russia journalists investigating crime and corruption get murdered. Know what happens when a crime journalist gets murdered here? As it happens, we do know. The state, our state, mobilised to defend freedom of speech and brought its boot down not on the free press but those who threatened violence against it. Give abuse to our politicians and they might abuse you back, but they won’t send thugs around, even the ones who used to justify murdering political opponents.
But if you really want to know what a great country this is, ask someone who lives and works here but isn’t an EU citizen. Ask them would they like an Irish passport, and they’ll tell you it is a treasured document.
This isn’t all an accident. We’ve made mistakes, and lacked ambition for ourselves, especially with our natural resources, but this has been, since the end of the civil war, one of the most free nations on Earth. As the Trumps and Wilders and Le Pens and Erdogans and Putins become the norm, our little island may well be one of the few tiny specks of light in the coming darkness.
There’s a potential for us, to be Singapore on the Atlantic, but with, you know, a proper democracy. A small well-run place where crazy people are kept away from power. Where Enda and the rest, for all they do that gets up our nose, aren’t Trumpolini. Ourselves, Canada and New Zealand have the chance to be a haven for Americans and others. For a fee, of course. We can’t let everybody in.
But we have a clean, stable, English speaking country with socialised medicine, strict gun control, no death penalty, same-sex marriage, public broadcasting standards, a restriction on paid political advertising on TV and fair elections. We’ve even got an American in the cabinet, and they’ll just love Michael D with the poetry and the Castro. Yeah, the abortion thing might annoy them but given what the Republicans are planning to do with abortion it’s not impossible we end up becoming a pro-choice country just as the US buys a second-hand 8th amendment.
As President Trump starts pulling back on foreign direct investment by US companies, we might find ourselves scrambling for some other strategy.
I think I might have it. You know that ad the National Lottery are currently running about the guy who wins the lottery and buys an island which he gives to Ireland? The first time I saw it, I thought it was just silly and not a little bit colonialist. But then it struck me. If Ireland remains one of the few countries in the world not run by a variation of either Nazis or good old fashioned eejits (I’m looking at you, Venezuela), we could be a refuge for moderate rich liberals who want either to ride out the storm o’crazy or even retire. But the weather isn’t great here, and it’s a serious problem for all those Californian liberals.
But what if the state did buy an island somewhere nice? Owned by the state, operated by the state, and served by Aer Lingus. We could extend our non-crazy jurisdiction to the island, and still tax those liberal refugees. We could stick a few guards and soldiers on it, use rotation to the island for six months as a sweetener in the public sector talks, and here’s the best bit.
It would become a holiday destination for the Irish. Good weather but also somewhere you could still see “Fair City”, get proper chips and Brennans sliced pan. We’d keep the holiday spending in the extended country’s economy.
Of course, we’d have to do something about the duty free and the price of a pint. As for who we’d appoint governor…
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition:
Every once in a while a myth emerges that Ireland could be the Saudi Arabia of either natural gas or fish if it hadn’t been for the dastardly EU or multinationals robbing our natural resources. It’s a very comfortable myth that fits meets with all the criteria of a good Irish tale of suffering and woe.
Firstly, it’s about the simple decent Irish being tricked out of something by more clever foreigners, once again left standing on the side of the market road with a bag of beans as some rapscallion legs it with our prize heifer. Secondly, the prize is always something magical that could have solved all our problems if only we had a chance to benefit from it. Thirdly, it fits in with our bizarre national pride in being the fabled Most Oppressed People Ever, a country with an almost masochistic pleasure in being done in once again. As if our national symbol shouldn’t be a harp but a “Pulp Fiction” style leather gimp mask.
It’s a load of nonsense. It’s true, we do let other countries take out vast amount of fish from our waters. But the question I always ask is what were we doing with those fish before we joined the EEC in 1973? Bear in mind the Norwegian people turned down EEC membership in the same year because they had exploited their resources and felt they didn’t need to join. Were we a fishing superpower, exploiting our natural resources before the evil continentals came and stole our golden goose?
No, we weren’t. In our 50 years of independence from 1922 until we joined the EEC in 1973 we did feck all with our much ballyhooed natural resources. We had no Brits to bully us, no European Commission to set down fishing quotas. We had just us and near total national sovereignty. We were masters of our own domain.
Did we build our own super trawlers and factory ships and conquer foreign markets with good Irish fish? Did we create hundreds of thousands of Irish jobs as a result, stemming the flow of emigration that blighted our land for a century and more?
No. We did little, but started complaining once someone else did something with them, even though we benefitted both directly and indirectly, as did they.
And, by the way: you know all that complaining we do about Spanish trawlers? We were in the EEC before Spain was. We were on the team negotiating with Spain on them joining, so we can hardly complain that Spain got too good a deal.
With Spain in 1985, as with us joining in 1972, we did a cost benefit analysis. What was in our overall interest? Would we lose fish to others? Yes. Would we gain in other areas by joining the EEC and not blocking Spain, as we could have? Yes. We took a conscious decision that hurting our fishermen, and we did hurt them, was in the long run of benefit to the common good for the majority, and we were right. This country, and the people in it, are far richer than in was in 1972 when we had complete control over our fisheries. We had far more farmers than fishermen and they benefitted from access to European markets, standards and the Common Agricultural Policy.
The fact that we chose not to share more of that new wealth with those fishing communities was not a decision made in Brussels, but in the Dail. National sovereignty in action.
In recent years, it’s becoming fashionable to talk once again about national sovereignty as if it is some newly discovered concept. As if suddenly just ignoring the EU or globalisation is some sort of Make Ireland Great Again switch that we could just press if the people we keep electing in free elections weren’t all traitors and sell-outs.
Yet national sovereignty itself is a compromise between symbolism and the power to shape a nation’s destiny. North Korea has much more national sovereignty than South Korea, for example. The south is tied into defence and trade alliances with the US and Japan, whereas North Korea barely listens to China, if anyone. Yet in the south they ponder buying the new Samsung or an iPhone, whereas in the north the big debate for many is whether there’s enough tree bark to go around for supper. Which people have more real sovereignty, that is, control over their actual lives?
The debate to be had isn’t about national sovereignty, but a dangerous growing tendency in electorates across the west to not liking choices. It’s hardly suprising: the post-1945 welfare state was fuelled by levels of growth and borrowing that made choices easy. But there are no easy choices left.
Look at the hand-wringing on-line over the horrific scenes coming out of Aleppo, and Europeans demanding their governments do something. In the same breath, many of the same people oppose Europe acquiring a serious military capability, or the consequences of taking in refugees, or creating some vast EU funded safe-zone somewhere.
But this is the challenge for the new generation of those seeking office. To confront the people who elected them and tell them that phrases like national sovereignty are meaningless. That modern life is about choices, often choosing the least worst of them.
The politician who figures out how to communicate that and still get elected will rule the world.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Last week I was discussing online Sinn Fein’s proposed constitutional amendment on neutrality. As it happens, as someone who is unashamedly pro-NATO, I actually have little problem with Sinn Fein’s desire to put a constitutional ban on us joining military alliance.
For one, it means that Sinn Fein accepts, despite protests to the contrary for years, that the EU is not a military alliance, and that therefore military cooperation within the EU would be compliant with the Irish constitution. Glad to hear it. I’m not sure that is Sinn Fein’s actual aim, but as the 8th amendment has proven, sticking this stuff in Bunreacht na hEireann can actually have the opposite effect to what was intended.
It would also mean we’d have to have a referendum to join NATO. Again, shock horror! Is there anyone who thought that we wouldn’t? Really? I can live quite comfortably with the idea of Ireland not being in NATO for the simple reason that NATO is very important to the defence of this continent, and I don’t really want some sub-par Irish minister interfering with its work. Better we remain outside and just adopt NATO standards after they have been agreed by serious people, as we do now.
But back to my online discussion. A person very sincere in their beliefs about Irish neutrality informed me that they were completely against Irish troops ever serving in a conflict.
The statement fascinated me, because it assumed, as many, perhaps most Irish people do, that conflict is a choice. That if a country chooses not to be involved in war, then it doesn’t have to be.
It’s the sort of utopian view of war that only two sorts of countries can indulge in: ones that are armed heavily enough to make an aggressor think twice, or one that is actually physically hiding behind well-armed and friendly nations. Guess which one we are.
The statement caught my eye because I’d been reading tweets from the various Baltic ambassadors to NATO. Well, someone has to. But all three are full of reports of their local forces, both full-time and reserve, engaged in exercises and training with NATO partners. All three, along with their partners, are genuinely concerned at the possibility of a Russian attack on one of those countries under the pretext of protecting the Russian minority living in them.
Ordinary Estonians are giving up their weekends to drill and train in guerrilla and interdiction tactics to delay invading Russian forces until their NATO partners can reach them. Indeed, each country has seen the number of external NATO forces increase within the country for both training assistance but also as a deterrent against the aggression of the Kremlin.
Imagine an Irishman telling those Estonian farmers, bus drivers and shopkeepers that if they don’t want a war, they should leave NATO and tell the Russians that they want peace. That you can avoid war by just not participating. That NATO are the baddies.
If there is a conflict in the Baltics or elsewhere, it’s possible that we may not be directly involved. The US may or may not need to use Shannon. That’s assuming the US helps: we can’t be certain with the new guy. He might want a deposit first.
But supposing the US requested the use of Shannon as an emergency landing facility, and it was followed up by a threat from the Russians that such use would make Shannon and its surrounds a military target. Would we tell the Russians to get stuffed? Or block the runway to stop damaged US planes from using it, possibly threatening the lives of US pilots, live on US television?
Either way, we’re suddenly involved.
Ireland doesn’t do war. That’s not to say the Irish don’t do war, as those thousands of Irish who fought in the allied forces can testify. Or those Irish who went during the Spanish civil war to fight against fascism (socialists, liberals and republicans) or to complain about the food (the blueshirts).
But as a country, war is something that happens to other people because they sort of like it or are a bit mad. If the Russians bombed us half the country would blame the Americans, waiting for the Russians to arrive so they can sue them for compensation.
Yet even in 1916, in the proclamation, we recognised the support of gallant allies. Would we have been outraged if tiny Estonia (which in fairness had its own problems in 1916) had sent troops to help fight during the Rising? Or would we fete them today as heroes and friends of Ireland? Yet if Estonia, a tiny free country dominated by a larger aggressive and imperialist neighbour asked for our help, our response would be “that’s not our problem”? Is it because we see ourselves not as a nation that shapes events but primarily as a victim nation that constantly needs help from others?
The truth is that if the Baltics asked for volunteers to help defend them, I suspect that there would not be a shortage of Irish volunteers willing to fight to defend other small free nations, even if collectively as a people we washed our hands of it.
After all, even in our own war of independence most people sat it out to see what side triumphed, then stormed in at the end claiming they were onside all along.
It’s an Irish tradition.
Posted by Jason O on Dec 19, 2016 in European Union
There are events that one wants to write about but finds that one has said what one wanted to say before. Because these things keep f**king happening.
We’re living in scary times, with what feels like almost daily attacks across Europe. Let’s just take a breath and consider a few things:
1. IS “claiming” ownership of attacks is like one of those countries (you know who I’m talking about) which claims a successful actor/athlete as one of theirs, and then when he/she flops suddenly disowns them. Most of these attacks are franchise attacks, often claimed after the attacker has been killed. Most are not part of a conspiracy.
2. Beware of politicians (I’m looking at you, Sarko) who are as much obsessed with being seeing to do something as actually doing something. If Sarko had to choose between putting troops on the streets, or spending those funds on a less public but more effective method of dealing with terrorism, I suspect he’d go with the former. It’s funny, by the way, how politicians who bang on about the niceties of human rights laws suddenly get very legalistic when being investigated themselves on corruption charges.
3. The public need to be wary of putting too much emphasis on visible forms of fighting terrorism. Consider this: if France wanted to put two armed soldiers within running distance of every 150 of its’ citizens, say on every village main street or every two urban streets, on a three shift basis, that’s 2.6m soldiers. That’s not including logistical support, extra guards for public places, synagogues, churches (and soon mosques, wait and see) or indeed the army actually defending France from external threats. Of course, France has large police forces too, but the figures and costs are huge and would means cuts in other public services. In short, you’re letting a few hundred nuts radically transform your society.
4. Terrorism comes in two forms, random and planned. Planned is defeated by intelligence, and random by quick response. We need small, fast and smart responses. Europe needs an MI5/GCHQ, a well-resourced clearing house and surveillance support to assist the smaller countries like Belgium.
5. Is mental illness playing as significant a role in some of these attacks as ideology? Either way, the public must be protected. But let’s not see a conspiracy where it isn’t.
6. Having said that, is it time for a defined set of European values, offending against which is a criminal offence in itself? It would be a big step against freedom of speech, although not that big on the continent where Holocaust denial is a criminal offence. People say there is no such thing as a European demos. I suspect these attacks are helping create one. When Paris or Brussels was attacked, most of us don’t see it as an attack on France or Belgium, as an attack on THEM. It’s an attack on us.
7. There is an issue about minority exclusion. Surely recruiting police and security agents from the suburbs of Paris makes more sense than randomly bombing things in Iraq/Syria?
8. Muslims have died both fighting these terrorists and being killed by them. This continent knows all about pointing at one faith and saying “get rid of them and our problems go away.” No. just, no.
9. If you were IS, turning the majority of Europeans against ordinary Muslims must be amongst your highest priorities. Ask the Catholics of the north of Ireland how internment helped recruit IRA sympathisers.
10. What the hell are we doing letting the Saudis fund mosques and schools in Europe for?
11. I remain convinced that Europe needs to create a safe off-shore buffer zone where refugees can be processed and where those refugees who show an unwillingness to conform to European values be prevented from reaching the EU itself. I’m not talking about an Australian style detention centre though: I’m talking about building a little piece of Europe away from Europe. Given the disastrous impact terrorism has had on tourism in North Africa, it might not be impossible for the EU to lease a chunk of land for such a purpose.
12. We need to keep an eye on the far-right too. Far-right terrorism will make an appearance soon, and is as much a threat to European values as religious extremism.
Posted by Jason O on Dec 3, 2016 in European Union
, Irish Politics
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
Elites. There’s the villain of the day, the word bandied about by both the hard right and the hard left to signify those from whom all woe emanates. It’s a nice handy shorthand, and works everywhere. In Trumpian America, Brexit Britain, Le Pen’s France, Paul Murphy’s Ireland. If we could only get rid of elites, sure, wouldn’t we be in clover?
Yeah. I’ve yet to find a definition of “elite” which has common agreement. Is it the mega-rich? Not if you look at who just got elected to the White House on a Down-With-The-Elites platform. Is there anyone who thinks Donald Trump and the Republican congress is going to dismantle capitalism? Even his supporters don’t expect that.
Surely, if it were a revolt by the poor against their economic betters then Jeremy Corbyn would be topping the poll? Or the alphabet left in Ireland would be at least bumping around the same 25% in the polls that the distinctly counter-revolutionary Fianna Fail and Fine Gael each command? Marine Le Pen is certainly more economically left wing but even that’s more to do with populism than a dismantling of capitalism. Nigel Farage is a former City of London trader. The same struggling white working class who elected Trump also elected a majority Republican congress, a party that has systematically and unashamedly tried to dismantle the modest US welfare system.
Sure, you can point at Davos and Martha’s Vineyard and Blair and Clinton types all meeting in pretty salubrious surrounds, and of course the sharing of wealth is an issue.
But the reality is that when many talk about the elites they are talking about a group, even a class, that they say is not just economically but culturally apart.
Look at the breakdown of who voted Trump. 53% of white women voted that he was closer to their values than an actual white woman. 29% of Latinos voted for him. They saw something in him that they couldn’t see in Hillary Clinton. Was it that she represented some sort of elite disconnected from their lives?
Let’s look at this elite. Who are they? They’re pro-immigration, more secular than not, internationalist, pro-free trade, socially liberal, economically centrist.
Against them, we’re told that the “ordinary people” are nervous if not openly hostile to immigration, traditionally religious, nationalist and suspicious about it, against free trade and economically in favour of both lower taxes and higher spending.
The problem with the disconnected elite argument is that when you trace it through history, the liberal elite are right more often than they are wrong. It was the unrepresentative elite who pushed for an end to slavery. Votes for women. Desegregation. Indeed, all three were condemned at the time as being lofty interference from on high by pointy-headed intellectuals in their ivory towers. Desegregation was forced on the southern states of the United States almost completely against the democratic wishes of the people of those states. The fancy-pants liberal elite literally sent soldiers into those states to enforce elitist liberal laws that black children could attend the same schools as white children.
Take our own country. A liberal elite here scrapped the marriage ban in the civil service in a time when Fianna Fail had a motion at its Ard Fheis suggesting that married women in work were unfairly depriving others of work. Homosexuality was decriminalised without much national debate, with no party of significance taking a stand against, despite the fact that there probably was a significant minority opposed.
Having said that, our own constitution has probably helped in this regard, in that many changes on everything from the special position of the Catholic Church to divorce to marriage equality to the death penalty all had to go before the people. But movement on all were started by a small liberal elite whose views eventually became a majority view.
Across the west, the liberal elite has been right more often than it was wrong. It championed international cooperation on security (NATO) and economic prosperity (the EU) and on trade (the WTO). It pushed for the sanctions that toppled apartheid.
But more than anything else, it did details. That’s what made it work, and now threatens it.
The liberal international elite was the force that patiently negotiated the compromises that let an Irishman work in Estonia, or a Japanese car be bought in Belmullet. They negotiated the agreements that lets planes cross from one jurisdiction to another, using the same air traffic control protocols. That lets a man in Dublin buy insurance in Tokyo to safeguard a container being shipped to Helsinki.
Rail all you want about the WTO and NATO and TTIP and faceless international bureaucrats, but there are mortgages in Cork getting paid because a product shipped from Cork can go on a shelf in Beijing or Boston. It’s the elite that put those deals together.
The alternative offered by almost every opponent of the elite is to regard a slogan as a policy. Scrap NAFTA. Take Back Control. Build the wall.
Last week, a movie, “Arrival”, came out. It’s about a group of elite scientists desperately trying to communicate with newly-arrived vast alien spacecraft whilst shock-jock DJs are whipping up mobs to attack the alien ships under the slogan “Save our species”.
It’s a curiously appropriate metaphor for where we in the west find ourselves today.
Posted by Jason O on Nov 30, 2016 in European Union
Say what you will about current French President Francois Hollande, but he is solid on two things. One is France’s role in NATO, and the defence of Europe, and the other is fighting Islamic extremists across the world and especially in Africa, where French troops have been deployed by him.
I bring this up because of the serious possibility that the second round of the French presidential election next year may offer the choice of two pro-Putin candidates. Two candidates who see the Kremlin not as a threatening meddler in the affairs of the US and Europe, both physically and through media manipulation, but as a wronged victim.
Two candidates with less than enthusiasm about NATO, which has provided this continent with security since 1949.
Two candidates who, if the phone call came from the President of Estonia begging for help from a Russian invasion, may refuse to answer the phone, or give mealy-mouthed support but not contribute France’s military might to the defence of its partners.
France is one of the great nations. It is also a nation whose very soil is soaked in the blood of foreigners who gave their lives both defending and liberating the country. If there is one nation whose honour is tied up in the defence of the weaker nations from external aggression, it is France.
Posted by Jason O on Nov 26, 2016 in European Union
On May 7th of next year, Europe’s golden age of peace and prosperity could come to an end, as France votes in the second round of the presidential election.
Now: let me be clear. This is not hyperbole. In both the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election the progressive side of the argument laid it on thick. A vote for Trump or Brexit meant catastrophe, disaster, chaos. The voters didn’t believe it and they were right. My side were so hysterical at times that even if every thing we said had a grain of truth, and most of it did, we were left looking ridiculous after the result.
I’ve no doubt Brexit will still hurt the UK more than help it, but the UK will get by somehow. Trump is a different beast altogether, in that nobody (including, I suspect, the president-elect himself) knows quite what to expect. But whatever happens, it isn’t our problem to solve. Only Americans can do that.
But that leaves Le Pen and France. Watching Andrew Marr question her about remarks her father made 30 years ago about the Holocaust makes me fear that once again the liberal media don’t get it. The public don’t give a shit about what her father said. They care about whether she is talking about things that worry them in a a language they understand, and the answer is yes. Call her all the names you want: a Nazi, a racist, a fascist…it doesn’t matter. As with calling Trump a pervert, a racist, a misogynist, those labels are only cared about by people who aren’t going to vote for her anyway. She’s got the racist vote locked up, and knows it, and is going now for people who would never vote for her father but might vote for the pro-Israel pro-gay rights pro-choice Le Pen. The Le Pen who seems to have an economic vision where the political establishment has no answers but paralysis.
It’s that vision that should worry us. It’s very simple. France first. In jobs, investment, trade, she wants to raise protection against competition from foreign products and labour. It’s a very clean, simple message to sell. If you’re a farmer, the idea that your products on the shelves will be made more competitive because everybody else will be heavily tariffed or even barred. That you won’t have some Pole or Spaniard competing against you for a job. That she will return a New Franc that will be competitively devalued, a currency and a national budget under the control of the French and not some bureaucrat in Brussels or Frankfurt.
And that’s even before she starts rounding up the dark faces on the streets that scare you when they have a rucksack.
Taken at face value, it’s a very attractive proposition for many.
But as with pretty much every proposition put forward by the populist left or right, it refuses to face up to the complexity and integration of modern life.
For a start, France leaving the euro, which she has proposed, will break up the EU as anything other than a nominal entity. A France that devalues sharply will force Spain and Italy to do the same, and with France, Spain and Italy out of the euro it is the Deutsche Mark in everything but name. A sharply appreciating euro will destroy Germany’s exports, and coupled with French tariffs will almost certainly trigger retaliation protectionist measures. With that the single market is dead.
From an Irish perspective, by the way, the question will be asked. If there is no European single market, why would major exporters want to be based on a small island in the Atlantic?
Yes, we have to rely on France’s mainstream politicians to put up the defence, but given how that fared in the UK and US it’s not hopeful.
Assuming Italy doesn’t disintegrate politically and vote to exit the euro before May, France is it.
The front line.
France is where a Europe of free movement and cooperation and prosperity unknown in this continent’s history could come to an end. The freedom of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania hinges on how the people of Brest and Toulouse vote. If they vote for a woman who thinks that Putin is the victim and NATO a plot by the Baltics to intimidate Russia, we may well see the flickering light of free nations extinguished once against on the south coast of the Baltic sea.
May will decide what you tell your grandchildren, of a Europe free for all from Tallinn to Galway, or a forgotten backwater of small nations squabbling in an economic quagmire, shivering behind choking protectionism and border controls. A quaint place that once mattered, but now with our children scrabbling on the streets of once great European cities for coins scattered by Chinese tourists.
At its heart is the belief that things are terrible and can’t get any worse. It’s a belief that should be moronic to anyone with any knowledge of European history. This continent wrote the textbook on things getting worse.
Step up onto the bridge overlooking Birkenau’s entrance and see where the trains were unloaded, and tell me it can’t get any worse than it is now.
It can’t happen here?
Funny, I remember when Brexit and Trump couldn’t happen either.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 18th July 2016.
Writing on social media last week about the Nice attack, the conservative commentator John McGuirk remarked that “at some point soon, people are going to say “you know, we tried the nice way. We tried tolerance. We tried being understanding. Maybe it’s time to give the crazy guy a shot at it.”
It’s hard to dispute the logic of his argument, given the rollercoaster of the last 12 months. From Trump to Brexit, we are witnessing what some are calling “post-truth” politics but what I prefer to term The Right To One’s Own Facts. The most disturbing aspect of the Brexit debate for me was the willingness of voters particularly but not exclusively on the leave side to casually dismiss facts which did not fit with their worldview.
But what should really alarm us is that there now seems to be substantial numbers of voters who choose to vote recklessly on the basis that “sure, it can’t get any worse, can it?” There are literally millions of people voting for Trumps, Farages and Erdogans. It can always get worse.
In 1979 the trades unions brought down Jim Callaghan’s Labour government because they thought he was too right-wing. Think they were still applauding themselves for that act after ten years of Mrs Thatcher? Reckless voters keep thinking that they can’t break the system, even when they pretend they want to.
But they do want to break it, some say. Why shouldn’t they? They’re disengaged. Except they’re not. They are completely engaged by other taxpayers through the state. It often provides their dole, their healthcare, their housing, their kids’ education, all funded by the taxes of voters whom they themselves seem to hold in contempt for being “an elite”.
The welfare state isn’t some form of natural fiscal phenomenon. It’s a decision by voters collectively to provide what is, in many instances, a form of nationalised charity. Sure, get insulted all you want at that definition, and talk about entitlements and rights, but bear in mind that whilst all of us, in every class, cannot avoid paying some tax, even if it is just VAT, some pay far more into the pot than they draw out, and others vice versa. You know where the poor are disengaged properly? Venezuela. When you can’t even find toilet paper on the supermarket shelves. Disengagement? That’s abandonment by the state, and it isn’t happening here.
The other awkward reality about reckless voters is their contribution to the rise of the hard anti-immigrant right in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. What do these countries all have in common? How about, in one study after another, they collectively have the highest standards of living as nations in the world, which actually means in human history. So what’s their gripe? How disengaged are they? Is their broadband speed letting them down? Not getting enough time to play Pokemon?
What unifies Trump voters, Brexit voters, far right and far left voters? For some it is simple racism. We seem to believe that racism is no longer possible, but is merely a symptom of some other underlying cause. But guess what? Some people just don’t like people who are a different colour or creed. It doesn’t matter why, we just have to ignore them because their opinions are irrational and listening to them about the direction of society is like listening to Jimmy Saville about child protection protocols.
But I would suggest that the racists are a minority, and the real motivating factor for many of these voters is the speed of change, and that’s a big problem. Yes, immigration transforms societies, but so does technology. The speed of transport has sped up immigration, but it has also sped up shipping times from the cheaper labour less employment rights factories of China and thus made off-shoring jobs much more viable. How do you stop that?
The Trumps and the Le Pens can stop immigration, and erect walls, both physically and tariff. But they can only alter the speed of change by actually withdrawing their respective countries from the globalized economy, which has all sorts of consequences from labour shortages to the price of food in the shops.
For me, the greatest reason why we should ignore reckless voters is their belief that complexity can be removed. That “take back control” or “just send them all home” is an actual solution. This is using a match to see if there is any petrol left in the drum stuff, and it must be opposed.
Of course, all that assumes that a majority of voters will vote in a non-reckless way, and that, in the age of Trump, is a hell of an assumption to make. Just look at the Erdogan of Turkey.
In 1932, in Germany, 52% of voters voted for either the Nazi party or the Communist party. Many of those same voters would have to wait for 17 years for another free election, and only after their country lay literally in ruins and under occupation.
It is very possible for voters in a democracy to vote to abolish themselves. Reckless voters have a right to be heard. But they don’t have a right to grab control of the wheel of the bus and take us all down with them. Nor are we obliged to let them.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 20, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
On my desk, as I’m writing this column, is a small EU flag on a stand. It’s typical of the overpriced tat on sale on and around the tourist devouring gravitational black hole that is the Grand Place in Brussels. No self-respecting EU official would waste their money on rubbish like this. And yet I spent mine, and it sits on my desk, meaning something to me, a symbol of an almost lifetime of belief in not just European integration but an actual United States of Europe. It’s that belief which is what makes this particular column so hard to write.
Last week there was a debate about the European Commission insisting that the Irish government had no choice as to whether to levy a water charge or not. That it was EU law, that our derogation was over, that was that. Now, as it happens, I believe in water charges. Clean, safe water is a precious commodity that costs money to deliver to our homes, and should be treated as such, and that means putting a value on it. People respect something far more when they have to pay for it.
But a question niggled in the back of my mind. Why is it Brussels’ concern whether we charge for water or not? We signed up for the water framework directive, but the bigger question is why does our system of water supply funding matter to Brussels at all?
Defenders of the directive will say, quite fairly, that if you sign up to something you should carry it out. They also raise the question of why we sign up to some of this stuff in the first place. These decisions are not forced on us by Brussels but by our own national ministers agreeing, and our national parliament not holding them to account before they do so, as say, the Danish parliament does. Indeed, Danish ministers often have to brief their parliament before they go to Brussels, and receive instructions.
It also raises the question, which seems to be regarded as heresy in Brussels, as to whether a member state can change its mind about a directive or regulation and go back to the council and say “you know what, this isn’t working. Let’s get rid of it.”
But the water directive is indicative of something much bigger, and much more troubling. The truth is, we now have a situation where Brussels has direct involvement in the finances of the member states, actually telling us what we can and can’t do with our own money.
Now let me be clear, less some eurosceptic reads this as a Damascene conversion to euroscepticism: I get why we do it. We do it because the euro, our common currency, can only work if its participant nations operate on the basis of sound finances. But that’s the problem: in order for that to happen, we have to go the full federal route, with an economic policy decided in Brussels. The problem is that there is no support for that in Europe, and so we end up, pardon the awful pun, stuck in the middle with EU.
I believe in the euro. I don’t buy the argument that the euro caused our property bubble. The fact that we complain now about the Central Bank restricting lending shows that we had the power to restrict the availability of cheap money during the Tiger years but chose not to use it.
I support a common currency because it makes a political union wealthier. Is there anyone who thinks the US would be the world’s preeminent power if it had 50 competing currencies?
But our problem is that we’re not willing to go the full route, to a central economic policy and a central treasury with Eurobonds. Without it, the euro becomes a convenient demon, for UKIP or AfD in Germany or the Five Star Movement in Italy to easily blame for problems and even failures of national policy. In short, it becomes a weapon to use against the EU itself.
The euro has made countries share power with each other, making German prosperity reliant on Greek finances, but has not given anyone enough power to actually complete the job. If a federal government in Brussels actually collected Greek taxes, and returned a block grant to the Greek government, we’d all probably be better off, including the Greeks. But that’s not on the table, and trying to put it, or something like it, on the table will almost certainly break up the EU.
The euro is becoming a scapegoat for nationalist populists to blame, either directly, as in Italy, or indirectly, as in Ireland with our fiscal treaty obligations to balance our books.
I voted for both the Maastricht criteria and the Fiscal Treaty because I wanted to restrict the ability of Irish politicians to recklessly abuse the national finances. But instead we have created an unforeseen consequence, where rather than forcing national politicians to be honest about tax and spending, we have given them a faceless stooge to blame.
Should we break up the euro? The consequences of such an act, and the devaluation wars it would set off, are horrific to contemplate. So I honestly say I don’t know.
But I’ll tell you one thing: if the belief that it is some unaccountable thing in Brussels which is making you pay for water or queue for hours in A&E is permitted to grow, it will eventually destroy not just the euro but the European Union itself.
Posted by Jason O on Oct 15, 2016 in European Union
, The Times Ireland Edition
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
If one wanted to begin the process of creating an Irish Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, one could start by adjusting a single newspaper headline.
Last week there was much on-air and online preening about how proud we were of the Irish Naval Service. The L.É. James Joyce had just returned from the Mediterranean where it had pulled nearly 2,500 people from the sea, and headlines announced the news with a hint of national self-applause.
But what if the headlines had continued to say something like “and ferried them onto Ireland to be housed.”
Imagine the popular response.
“Now, Joe, I’m not a racialist, but…our own people first, Joe…”
The naval service has a right to feel proud for doing a professional job. But let’s be clear: we as a country then hand the refugees over to the Italians and make it their problem, literally sailing off into the sunset feeling good about ourselves having done what is essentially the easy bit.
The standard alphabet left response is that we should take in every refugee who presents themselves. But even the alphabet left, far more committed to staying on the populist side of every argument than socialist principles of humanitarianism, don’t make a whole lot of noise about it. Some rending of garments, and then it’s back to the more comfortable territory of demanding free stuff paid by people with twirly moustaches and top hats.
Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, called last week for the creation of an EU city in North Africa to house refugees. Orban has taken, at times, a populist line against refugees, including moving a referendum on the EU’s refugee resettlement policies which he will almost certainly win.
I’m not a fan of Orban, but I’ll tell you two things about him. One, he’s not the most right wing leader in Hungary. That would be the third largest party, Jobbik, an outfit that likes uniformed marches and casually talks about drawing up lists of Jews. Secondly, despite the nasty yahoos to his right, he remains popular in the country, with his Fidesz party regularly polling in the mid-40s. There aren’t many sitting European leaders who can claim that.
That’s not to defend him. But it does raise the awkward fact across Europe that whilst we may want to help the refugees, and we do, large and growing numbers of Europeans don’t want the refugees in Europe, at least not in current numbers. Moreover, in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Hungary populist anti-immigrant parties are winning millions of voters.
Europe’s leaders are caught between a continent and a sea of human misery.
In that context, the Orban suggestion should be looked at. Not a Tony Abbott style offshore prison where people can be dumped and forgotten, but a far more ambitious project.
We should build a little piece of Europe in North Africa. Not a vast camp of tents, but a city where refugees can not only be safe but build a life. It’ll mean building schools and hospitals and roads and marketplaces, and deploying thousands of European soldiers and doctors and engineers and teachers. It won’t be cheap. It’ll probably need a bond for billions raised by the ECB, and be part of the customs union and the eurozone.
But picture the outcome. First, a place actually geared up to shelter the thousands fleeing. Secondly, a clear response from Europe: do not try to enter our continent illegally. You will be brought to the safe zone. You can leave anytime you want. But you can’t go to Europe without our consent.
Let me stress: this won’t end immigration, nor should it. Such a place would allow us to gradually process those who wish to live in Europe, but on our terms. The children there would be educated as European children, working towards becoming European citizens, learning European values, and studying in European universities. The eventual goal would be perhaps a new Beirut as it used to be, a bustling place of business and trade, a gateway between Europe and its neighbours, where businesspeople and students and even tourists legally travel to Europe and live in Europe but feel at ease going back and forth.
And those refugees who don’t want their children sitting with Christian or Muslim boys or girls? Or deny the Holocaust? Or insist on the burka? There’s the gate. Keep walking. You wouldn’t like Europe anyway. Sure it’s full of Jews and gays and strong women.
It’ll need to be run by someone with administrative experience, is pragmatic and middle of the road, a good European, and knows about divided communities. I can think of a chap who drinks in Fagans who might be up to the task. Or that posh English mate he used to knock around with.
A fantasy? Perhaps. But so was Brexit, ending apartheid, the Berlin wall falling, a black president in the White House, Trump. We live in times of breakneck change.
We keep demanding that “the EU” do something about refugees. There is no EU, only EU member states. Individually, EU states can’t solve the problem, and may destroy themselves politically trying, as Angela Merkel has discovered despite her enormous courage.
The Orban proposal is a European response to a European-wide problem. It deserves serious consideration.