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The Brexit Cult

Oscar Wilde described fox-hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” Brexit may be similarly defined as the unhinged in pursuit of the infeasible.

Unhinged how? The last two men standing in the contest to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, are Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt. Both of them have now promised to take the UK out of the European Union without an exit deal on October 31 unless the EU bows to their demands.

A ‘no-deal’ exit would be an economic catastrophe, for the UK’s foreign trade is currently conducted in accord with the myriad trade deals that the EU has negotiated over the decades on behalf of its members. Crash out and Britain would have NO trade deals in place, even with Europe.

Both contenders know that there would be huge economic pain, and still they press on. On Sunday Jeremy Hunt said he would willingly tell people whose companies went broke after a no-deal Brexit that their sacrifice had been necessary, although he would do so “with a heavy heart.” Boris Johnson simply says “F**k business.” (I am not making this up.)

Yet these two men belong to the Conservative Party, for almost two centuries ‘the party of business’. Unfortunately, that ship sailed some time ago. The party first became a vehicle for rabid English nationalism, and has now morphed into a secular cult that treats Brexit as the Holy Grail.

Conventional calculations of national interest no longer count. A recent YouGov poll found that 63% of Conservative Party members would be willing to see Scotland leave the Union in order to achieve Brexit. 59% were prepared to see Northern Ireland go too, and more than 60% were willing to accept ‘significant damage to the UK economy’. And it has to be the hardest, most damaging Brexit imaginable.

So yes, the Conservative Party has become unhinged – even though a perfectly sensible exit deal from the EU already exists. Theresa May signed it last November.

It’s not a great deal – you don’t have much negotiating leverage when you are walking out of a club with 27 other members – but it would preserve Britain’s ability to go on trading at advantageous terms with the rest of the world. However, May could not get her deal through because she has only a tiny majority in parliament, and the extreme Brexit wing of her own party would not vote for it.

Johnson and Hunt both vow to junk May’s deal and ‘renegotiate’ a better one, but that truly is infeasible. The EU has said plainly that May’s deal cannot be ‘renegotiated’, and repeats it almost weekly. Neither Johnson nor Hunt can make all 27 EU countries change their position by sheer force of personality.

They must know this, but they must pretend otherwise because the 160,000 members of the Conservative party who will decide between them – an overwhelmingly white, male and very prosperous group, average age 57 – believe with an almost religious faith that Johnny Foreigner will always crumble if you shout loudly at him in English.

It is the purest fantasy, and only a madman would want the job that Johnson and Hunt are vying for. As the fantasy collides with reality round about October, all things will become possible: a no-deal Brexit, the collapse of the government, the disintegration of the Conservative Party, a new election, or even a second referendum that sweeps all the nonsense of the past three years away. (56% of British voters say they would now vote ‘Remain’.)

Whatever the outcome, this is a delusional and destructive way of doing business. The latest round of gurgling insanity in Britain was brought about by the collapse of the Conservative vote in the otherwise unimportant elections for the European parliament in May: they came fifth.

The Conservatives panicked, rightly concluding that they will be toast in the next UK election if they don’t ‘deliver’ Brexit to their voters beforehand. Hence the defenestration of May and the search for a new leader who can somehow make the delivery before the party has to face the voters again.

Brexit now means a no-deal Brexit, since the EU is not going to abandon the existing deal. But the arithmetic in parliament has not changed either, and parliament has repeatedly rejected a no-deal exit. Johnson and Hunt have therefore both said that they would shut parliament down temporarily, if necessary, to get no-deal through. So much for democracy.

You can see how the British got into this mess in terms of cause and effect, but the sheer ignorance, incompetence and cowardice of the political class, and especially of the Conservative Party, is still stunning. It makes Donald Trump’s White House look well run.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Whatever…again”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

European Elections 2019

The best way of describing what just happened in the European Union elections is to say that the choices are getting clearer – and a lot of people are realising which side they are on.

The elections to the EU Parliament held last week in 28 European countries – including the United Kingdom, since three years after the Brexit referendum it still hasn’t managed to leave– was the second-biggest democratic exercise in the world. Only India’s elections are bigger. 400 million Europeans were eligible to vote, and half of them actually did.

The choice before them, in most member countries, was ‘less EU’ or ‘more EU’. Should the European Union become the semi-detached ‘Europe of the Fatherlands’ that the nationalists and the populists demand, or continue to work on creating joint institutions (like the euro common currency) that bring the members closer together?

There will never be a single answer to that question, but the two sides are sorting themselves out and you can now get a feel for the way things are going.

The hard-line nationalists took 30% of the vote in Italy (the Lega), 32% in the UK (the Brexit Party), 45% in Poland (the Law and Justice Party), and 52% of the votes in Viktor Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy’ in Hungary. Yet, apart from the Brexit Party, they are no longer trying to leave the EU.

Populist demagogues in other EU countries – who five years ago were advocating a ‘Frexit’ in France, a ‘Nexit’ in the Netherlands, and so on – have watched the tragicomic mega-shambles of Britain’s attempted Brexit and decided that the wiser course is to stay in the EU and try to dominate it from within.

They made some headway in this election, but they still control only 112 of the European Parliament’s 750 seats. It’s not even certain that they can all come together as a single bloc: France’s National Rally, for example, is seen by some other far-right parties in the EU as too pro-Russian and encumbered by a history of anti-Semitism. If this is a tidal wave, it’s a fairly small one.

There was another, slightly bigger tsunami on the ‘more EU’ side of the argument, mainly because the Greens did so well, coming second in Germany and third in France. Strongly pro-EU liberal parties did well too – notably the Liberal Democrats in the UK, who came second there – and together they have added more seats on that side of the argument than the nationalists did on the other extreme.

The real value of this election is that it offers a reality check on the burning question of the day: is Trumpism really going to sweep Europe like it swept America? The answer is no – or at least, not so much.
Nationalist parties that strike authoritarian postures and flirt with racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes did well in some eastern European countries (although they have few immigrants and almost no Muslims). But in western Europe only one populist party, Italy’s Lega, improved on its last showing.

In France the National Rally got only 24% of the vote, whereas its predecessor, the National Front, won 34 % in the 2017 presidential election.

The Brexit Party in the United Kingdom got 32% of the vote, which sounds impressive, since its predecessor, the United Kingdom Independence Party, got only 26 % in the last EU election in 2014. But if you add the Conservative vote (which is mostly pro-Brexit) to the Brexit Party vote in this election and compare it with the UKIP+Conservative votes last time, the pro-Brexit share of the vote is down from 49% in 2014 to 41% now.

This suggests that the Trump virus is less virulent in Europe, and raises the further question: will the UK really crash out of the EU by October 31 (the current deadline), or will there be a second referendum that calls off the whole quixotic enterprise? It’s starting to feel like Brexit never happening is around a 50-50 proposition.

One symptom of the fear the Brexiters now feel is their increasingly shrill insistence that there must be no new referendum. Never mind that Nigel Farage, founder of both UKIP and the Brexit Party, talked about a second referendum when it looked like ‘Remain’ was going to score a narrow win early on the evening of the first referendum in 2016. (It ended up 52% Leave, 48% Remain.)

Never mind, either, that the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has just announced that she will publish draft legislation on a second referendum on Scottish independence from the UK later this week. (The first one, in 2014, rejected independence by 55%-45%.) Nobody complained about that.

The Brexit referendum is sacred, Brexiters say, and nobody is allowed to change their mind about it. However, the EU election was treated by almost all British voters as an informal referendum on Brexit, and it’s now pretty clear what would happen in a real one. It’s going to be a very hectic five months in British politics.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“One…that”)

World Election Week

They don’t hold world elections, but this is the week when around a third of the planet’s voters get the election results for their country or region. In no case are the results a cause for jubilation.

The headline vote, of course, has to be India’s election, a six-week process in which the country’s 900 million voters went to the polls one region at a time, but all the results were held back until this Thursday. The outcome was a landslide win and a second five-year term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s ‘Trump before Trump’.

India is a far more complicated country than the United States: 22 official languages, more than 2,000 ethnic groups, myriad divisions of caste and religion. But Modi powers through all that with a simple nationalist message, delivered mainly in the single most widely spoken language, Hindi, and focused on the promotion of the majority religion, Hinduism.

Like Trump, he is vociferously anti-Muslim. (200 million Indian citizens are Muslims.) Like Trump, he governs an ostensibly secular republic on which he is trying to impose a specific religious identity (although unlike Trump, his religiosity is genuine). Like Trump, he talks up foreign wars and threats all the time, although so far he has managed to evade a major war.

In other words, he is the very model of a modern populist, and the model works. It worked in the Philippines, too, where mid-term election results, declared this week, gave President Rodrigo Duterte an absolute majority in Congress and the ability to change the constitution at will.

Duterte’s first constitutional change will be to bring back the death penalty, but his death squads are already inflicting unofficial death penalties on hundreds of alleged drug-users each month. Then he will abolish term limits, so that he can stay in power indefinitely, and lower the age of criminal responsibility to 12. All of this is making him wildly popular with Filipino voters.

The news is rather better in Indonesia, where election results announced on Tuesday gave incumbent President Joko Widodo 55% of the vote and a second term in office. But while he has been an honest and effective leader, there is a darker side to the story.

Growing Islamist extremism forced ‘Jokowi’ to prove his religious credentials by choosing an elderly Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his vice-presidential running mate this time. And when Widodo’s election victory was announced his main opponent, former general Prabowo Subianto, claimed that he had cheated, denounced the result, and unleashed protesters in the streets of Jakarta. Six died in the first day.

And how about the Europeans? 400 million citizens of the European Union are eligible to vote between Thursday and Sunday in elections to the European Parliament, and it looks like ultra-nationalist populist parties will win the most votes in three out of the four biggest EU countries: the Lega in Italy, the National Rally (formerly National Front) in France, and the Brexit Party in the United Kingdom.

Other racist, anti-immigrant nationalist parties will also do well, including Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland, Fidesz and Jobbik in Hungary, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, VOX in Spain, Golden Dawn in Greece, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Alternative for Germany (AfD). If this is what democracy gets you, are you sure it’s a good idea?

Yes, it is. Democracy is not a tool for delivering good political decisions. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Living in a democracy doesn’t automatically free people from all the old divisions of ethnicity and religion and class and caste. It sometimes mutes those conflicts, but it’s not a magic cure. Democracy is about equal rights, and that’s all.

Democracy has spread all around the world in the past two centuries because it acknowledges and embodies the basic human value of equality. All human beings lived in tiny hunter-gatherer societies that were obsessively egalitarian for several hundred thousand years before the rise of civilisation, and that is who we still really are.

Equality disappeared with mass civilisation, because we couldn’t crack the problem of large numbers. Some self-nominated god-king or emperor had to make the decisions for a million people, because there was no way they could get together and do it for themselves in the old way.

But then, a couple of hundred years ago, we got technologies that enabled the millions to re-connect: printing and mass literacy. As soon as we got that, the demand for equality re-emerged, and it proved irresistible. You just had to invent some system for measuring the opinions of those millions (let’s call it elections), and lo! You have a democracy.

You don’t have paradise. Human beings are still made of the same old crooked timber, and their collective decisions can be ignorant and sometimes calamitous. Equal rights do not equate to universal love and brotherhood, but democracy does restore our ancient heritage of equality, and that does imply mutual tolerance.

The process of civilising ‘civilisation’ will not be completed in this century, but we have come a long way already.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 6. (“India…Hinduism”; and “In other…voters”)

European Union: No Populist Breakthrough?

For the second time in a month, a member country of the European Union has NOT voted a populist into power. Could it be that the populist wave has broken?

It would be a good time for that to happen, because elections to the EU’s parliament are next month. The hard-right populist parties that have already proliferated in the 28 member countries were hoping to sweep into a dominant position in the EU parliament as well next month, but maybe the story will be more nuanced.

The Spanish election on Sunday saw the traditional socialist party (PSOE) increase its vote by a quarter under the leadership of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. “The future has won and the past has lost,” said Sánchez, who has raised the minimum wage, appointed a female-dominated cabinet and promised to bring in laws defining rape as sex without clear consent during his brief time in power.

That wasn’t the headline on Monday morning, of course. Good news is no news, so the media played up the fact that a particularly nasty party of right-wing populists called Vox has made it into the Spanish parliament for the first time.

Vox is anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and promises to “make Spain great again.” It wants to repeal laws against gender violence, and opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. But it actually only got 10 percent of the votes, and most of those it stole from the Popular Party, the traditional home for nationalist and ultra conservative voters.

Sánchez will still have a hard time putting a coalition government together – he’s probably going to have to make some deal with the Catalan separatists, which will alienate many other Spaniards – but this is not exactly populism triumphant.

It wasn’t a populist triumph in Slovakia last month either. The neo-fascist candidate, Marian Kotleba, didn’t even make it into the run-off presidential vote. In the second round Zuzana Caputova, a neophyte in politics, beat the candidate of Robert Fico’s ruling Smer-SD Party, which plays by right-wing populist rules and has close links with Viktor Orban’s elective dictatorship in Hungary.

The presidency is a largely ceremonial office in Slovakia, so Fico is still really running the government (although he had to step down as prime minister last year after an investigative journalist looking into links between Slovak politicians and organised crime was shot dead by hired killers). It’s not all roses yet in Slovakia, but spring is in the air.

So what does this tell us about the populist wave in Europe in general, and about the EU parliamentary elections next month in particular? Not as much as you’d like, because ‘Europe’ is a very complicated place.

What we can say is that there is a general rise in nationalism, from Brexit-supporting Britain to a huge surge of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant feeling in Eastern European countries
(which have almost no Muslims, or indeed immigrants of any sort). We can also say although most people won’t admit it) that nationalism on this scale does pose a real threat to the future of the European Union.

The European Union was the great political success story of the latter half of the 20th century. What was once the most war-torn part of the globe, the source of both the world wars, has become the most peaceful, cooperative and democratic region on the planet. It also looks after its citizens, on average, better than almost anywhere else.

Why would they (or at least a lot of them) now be in rebellion against all that? Economic growth has been slower in the past few decades, but they are not poor. The gap between the rich and the rest has been widening, but not nearly as much as it has in the United States or China or Russia. Why risk throwing it all away?

The EU has lost its unifying external threat. It was the menace of an allegedly expansionist Soviet Union that drove the Western European founders of EU to bury all their old quarrels and come together, but the Soviet Union is long gone and Putin’s Russia is not really a plausible replacement.

Another irritant is the growing pressure of immigration: refugees from wars in the Middle East and from both tyranny and climate change in Africa. The ‘threat’ that immigration poses is greatly exaggerated, but the 28 different governments of the EU have not come up with a coherent and effective policy to deal with it while the populists exploit it with great success.

The right-wing populist group of parties in the European Parliament currently holds 37 seats in the 751-member parliament but the latest opinion polls predict that it will rise to 61 seats in next month’s election. If the United Kingdom is still in the EU at that time, which seems likely, the total could rise to a hundred, but that’s still hardly a landslide.

The concern is not for the immediate future, but for the trend line. The populists have been gaining strength for two decades now, and if that goes on for another five years the EU could just vanish, the way the old Soviet Union did in 1991. So from that point of view, at least, the news from Spain and Slovakia is good news.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6, 11 and 12. (“Sánchez…triumphant”; and “The European…away”)