Doesn’t it feel fantastic to live in historic times, not least when (apart from a Labour MP’s) no blood has been shed? Here we are in a confounding, bruising battle which largely flows back and forth through trenches of verbiage and where the only mud is of the slinging variety? And tonight the lobbies of the Commons will be thronged by excited MPs casting their vote – perhaps for the first time in a long time hoping that they are truly in the cockpit of the nation. Such a sensation rarely intrudes on the fodder like instincts of our legislators.
But as the nation waits with bated breath for the result later this evening – I can see now whole families huddled around their wirelesses – I have to say many of the vox pop snapshots of public opinion reveal a very depressing trend. This is the weariness trend, often expressed in such phrases as ‘why can’t they just get on with it’ or ‘why don’t they stop squabbling?’ One version of this which I heard expressed on the BBC Ten O’clock News last night was ‘If they were directors of a company they would have been sacked by now.’ As if the whole country had been privatised. This is the most depressing line of thought for anyone who thinks democracy means anything more than just occasionally having a binary vote. It seems, from what the media has portrayed of public opinion that this exasperation has grown – and why of course wouldn’t it when the subject is getting wall to wall saturation coverage? People might be forgiven for getting bored with it. Don’t we just want the problem to go away, so, as one vox pop respondent said, they can just get on with their life?
If that is indeed the mood of the country then a second referendum result will dash the hopes of remainers. I hope MPs tonight remember that public opinion can be delusional – and contradictory. At the start of the First World War, going to war was overwhelmingly popular. It wasn’t four years later. Maybe that explains why appeasement was overwhelmingly popular in the late 1930s – but we know what happened there. These two examples demonstrate to me why MPs should exercise their consciences and not merely reference ‘the people’s decision’ and behave like dogs on a lead. They are representatives, not delegates. That may mean that some, perhaps many could be looking for a new job come the next general election. That’s the nature of the game. One just needs to remember that about one third of the public voted to leave, around one third voted to remain and about one third couldn’t be arsed. MPs have a duty to be fully engaged in their job – the public has no such obligation.
That the now infamous activities of the so-called Integrity Initiative have been revealed is a good thing, although nobody should be surprised that the British state has spent millions on what is effectively a mercenary disinformation and smear machine created to whittle away the reputations of our supposed political adversaries, at home and abroad. Such activities, I was reminded whilst reading 1941 Fighting the Shadow War: How Britain and America Came Together for Victory by Marc Wortman (Atlantic Books, 2017) have never ceased. He briefly relates the story of the ‘British Security Coordination’ (BSC) organisation in the U.S. in 1940 which was charged by Churchill to influence American opinion which was then overwhelmingly isolationist. It used all sorts of methods to do so, and it had to perform its mission in the utmost secrecy, since it was illegal under the U.S. Foreign Espionage Act. One thing it sought to do was influence the outcome of the 1940 presidential election. Plus ca change. Fake news? The novelist William Boyd wrote about it in the Guardian in 2006 (19th Aug.):
BSC's media reach was extensive: it included such eminent American columnists as Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, and influenced coverage in newspapers such as the Herald Tribune, the New York Post and the Baltimore Sun. BSC effectively ran its own radio station, WRUL, and a press agency, the Overseas News Agency (ONA), feeding stories to the media as they required from foreign datelines to disguise their provenance. WRUL would broadcast a story from ONA and it thus became a US "source" suitable for further dissemination, even though it had arrived there via BSC agents. It would then be legitimately picked up by other radio stations and newspapers, and relayed to listeners and readers as fact. The story would spread exponentially and nobody suspected this was all emanating from three floors of the Rockefeller Centre. BSC took enormous pains to ensure its propaganda was circulated and consumed as bona fide news reporting. To this degree its operations were 100% successful: they were never rumbled.
Fascinating stuff. It’s worth reading the full Boyd article and the Wikipedia entry for the BSC. Quite how many other similar outfits we don’t yet know about would be an interesting research topic. I suspect there’s plenty of them. And if we're so worried about El Trumpo's isolationism . . .
I heard that Owen Jones, the left-wing Guardian columnist had a run-in with the odious Andrew Neil on the latter’s BBC This Week programme, so watched a bit of it on the i-player. Neil was clearly nonplussed that a young upstart like Jones might question whether the Spectator, whose board Neil chairs might promote racism, despite what in normal circumstances would be classed as racist commentary appearing in its rankling pages. Perhaps it shouldn’t be considered racist because it’s clever racism, or ironic racism, or something else that wouldn’t cause an upset in the Carlton Club. So well done Jones for rattling Neil’s cage. But what really annoyed me was Michael Portillo taking the opportunity in the piece to say – unchallenged (least of all by leading light Liz Kendall sat next to him on the sofa) – that anti-semitism is endemic in the Labour Party. As ever in these cases, no evidence whatsoever is brought forth to substantiate the charge, which as any objective observer would soon discover is absolute bollocks. Portillo may claim, as he did on the programme that he is no longer a member of the Tory Party, but beware – behind that soft-focus, urbane continental railway loving exterior there still lurks someone who adequately defines a member of the ‘nasty party.’ Thankfully, This Week is normally broadcast well after my bedtime so I never watch it.
Until today I hadn’t realised that Ken Livingstone was a big fan of space exploration, but an article on the RT website has corrected that misperception. Ken writes enthusiastically about China’s dark side of the Moon landing and posits that “The threat to human life on our planet from climate change and the super volcanoes means that the only way humanity can survive is by spreading out to other worlds.” I don’t know where he gets his super volcanoes stuff from, but it is highly unlikely volcanic eruptions will threaten human life on a global scale. We will see natural occurrences such as volcanoes and earthquakes making significant impacts as time goes by, but they will be localised. Indeed, where there are global impacts they could be benign in the context of climate change, as some of the volcanic gases released into the atmosphere can have a cooling effect. But I’m prepared to accept e.g. that if the Cumbre Vieja volcano in the Canary Islands suffered a ‘theoretically possible’ massive collapse it could send a tsunami racing towards New York. Wall Street wouldn’t like that so naturally, neither would we.
As regards climate change, if the only hope for humanity is for us to spread to other worlds, then this is madness indeed. If we had such technology on any scale we would almost certainly have the technology to address climate change, i.e. the ‘geo-engineering’ option. But neither exist at the moment and we’re already learning how to live with climate change. I suspect that even if global temperatures rose in the next century by five degrees Earth would still have an atmosphere more conducive to human existence then that of Mars. Which is not to say that such a temperature rise here might not obliterate billions of human lives, but with existing technologies adaptation for some would be achievable for far less effort and cost than hopping on board a Virgin Galactic rocket to some unsustainable colony on a very hostile planet. What on earth is Ken thinking?
Should we exist for that long, then in about four billion years’ time it will be absolutely correct to look elsewhere for a new home, as the Sun begins its final trajectory to becoming a Red Dwarf or whatever, which will start with its massive expansion. I imagine by then humans will have been transmuted into strange artificial intelligence beings, possibly not even organic, and able to survive without oxygen. I don’t think we’ll recognise ourselves in a million years’ time, never mind four billion. Homo sapiens from just 250,000 years ago would have some difficulty identifying with us. Which has nothing to do with Brexit. We were connected to the European continental land mass in those days. Just thought I’d mention it.
I’ve spoken with a number of people on the left of politics who are becoming a little frustrated with Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on Brexit – by which they mean supposed non-stance – detecting an absence of leadership. I wonder if that is justified. He made a speech in Wakefield a couple of days ago – I know that because the Guardian had a big picture of him at the venue, albeit without any substantial report of the speech – and it seems he is sticking to his line that what we need is a general election. It is curious how in the eye of the media the idea of a general election seems secondary to another referendum on Brexit. Why we need a general election is daily made clear by the fact that we have a dysfunctional government – look at Universal Credit, the shambolic collapse of decent railway services, the housing crisis (here in Scarborough shop doorways all have their sleeping bag occupants), the ongoing collapse of our military (not I realise an issue that grips the left), the growing challenge of data abuse – we have a so-called government which has the decisiveness of a rabbit with myximatosis caught in the headlights. May has lost control and what’s worse within her own ranks there is no credible replacement. But as I have said before, the Tories (and DUP) consider a Corbyn government worse than no deal, so the actual likelihood of a general election still seems slight.
In these circumstances Corbyn is right to keep on banging on about a general election. A new government would have a mandate to do quite a lot about Brexit – not least to park it for a while and remove the sting. We’re still in a post-referendum period of confusion. Don’t we all know by now that the referendum was only called to try to resolve a Tory infighting problem? Isn’t that obvious by the way they are now behaving? Wouldn’t it better to have a new government unshackled of all that baggage? I think Corbyn is taking the right track – he doesn’t want to be defined by Brexit, but would rather be defined by the culmination of his lifelong political aspirations. That may eventually lead to Brexit of course, but not in a way forced along by the likes of your Rees Moggs. Interesting that Labour doesn’t have any equivalents to him or for that matter the wretched Boris. Corbyn increasingly looks like the adult in the room, but he will sadly get no credit for it.
It was good to see so many Tory MPs getting their knickers in a twist over Speaker Bercow’s decision to allow a vote on an amendment forcing the government to come back with Plan B within three days if May’s Brexit deal falls next week. I certainly don’t recall them making the same racket when May pulled the vote on her deal which was due on the 11th December, and delayed it for five weeks. Bercow is right to challenge the government’s disdain for parliament. It’s not as if time is running out, is it? Bercow may look and sound like a bit of a prick, but he is doing his job.
I’ve finished reading Yanis Varoufakis’s book Adults in the Room, in which he clinically dissects the stupidity and intransigence of those great financial wizards who ensured that Greece remains impoverished for ever and a day. The question that arises is – are there lessons here in the context of Brexit? It’s not as if we are part of the single currency and have to abide by the dictats of the German Finance Minister, but many of the players are the same.
I think many of the lessons from Varoufakis's book have to be learnt in the whole E.U., not just the Eurozone. On the latter, its members may want to consider whether it’s a good idea to continue with a single currency, but that’s up to them. For the wider E.U. there is a clear need to take stock of where the E.U. now finds itself in an open and rational atmosphere of honest discourse. I don’t detect any sign of that, even after one of the E.U.’s largest members has chosen to leave. Perhaps there is a pervasive sense of sticking together, and self-satisfaction. Sticking together because, as in the case of Greece’s potential departure from the Eurozone, there is a fear that others might follow leading to the collapse of the project. So some are arguing for the continuation of an ever closer union, rather than thinking a reflective pause might be a good idea. Maybe they think such a pause signals weakness. But something that is flexible is more likely to last than something that is brittle, and I detect a lot of brittleness, with defensiveness at the core of it. And self-satisfaction because they think they’ve just done such a wonderful job and can’t really understand why anyone would want to leave. They believe their own propaganda.
Some of my thoughts on E.U. reform echo those of DiEM25 in which Varoufakis plays a key role. But I could add one or two extra bits, seeking to enhance E.U. democracy. Judging by the way Greece was kicked about it is clear that lines of accountability are blurred – to put a gloss on it. There needs to be a reform of the structures – I note for example that the European Parliament was not mentioned once (in a relevant sense) in Adults in the Room. There is no direct accountability to this elected body for much of what goes on. That needs addressing. I would also get rid of the multiplicity of ‘presidents’ in the E.U. – most people couldn’t tell their Juncker from their Tusk. Perhaps one directly elected president for the lot would do – with very strict rules on her accountability requirements. Yes, that would mean a mammoth election, across Europe, but it would be an election that forced voters to think outside of their parochial box for once. Then there’s the issue of financial accountability – countries like Hungary, whose president believes that E.U. grants are there to swell his personal patronage fund need to be reined in much faster. The miss-spending of E.U. funds I think is a big issue in people’s minds.
As for a second U.K. referendum, (moving on a bit) some intelligence has to be applied to its design – something that was missing last time. There has to be at least a threshold set on what constitutes a majority. This is necessary to ensure that the result can be lived with by both sides. I would say a minimum majority of 60/40 for whatever outcome, although it may also be a good idea to insist on a sufficient turnout as part of the equation. I’m afraid 52/48 on a two thirds turnout doesn’t settle anything. Should the required bar not be reached, then as we all might say, it’s status quo ante and that should be it for another ten/twenty years. By which, I hasten to add, that means no Brexit.
I enjoyed watching Brexit: The Uncivil War on Channel 4 last night. I thought it worked as a drama, and had some comic touches which leavened the unwholesome nature of some of the characters. Lucy Mangan, reviewing it in the Guardian this morning obviously mistook it for a documentary and gave it only two stars. One of her criticisms was that it portrayed Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks as buffoons. Perhaps it was a documentary then. I suppose many of the words spoken by the Cummings character were extrapolated from interviews the playwright James Graham had with him and others. But in one of the final scenes, I assume the words that issued from Cummings’ mouth in a select committee hearing were taken from a verbatim transcript of those proceedings. If so then they neatly summed up the whole sorry affair – a burst of anguished incoherence aimed at the establishment’s inability to take Britain forward (into what?). From the man who worked with scions of the establishment that got us to where we are now.*
One irritating little irony watching this was the continual interruption, every 15 minutes in fact of adverts. It was one reason I avoid commercial TV – it’s just too bloody irritating. The irony is in the fact that with the advent, made clear in Brexit of targeted individual advertising and messaging facilitated through the likes of Cambridge Analytica, this blanket approach must be a waste of money. Why do they still do it?
Co-incidentally, I’m about half way through Yanis Varoufakis’s excellent book Adults in the Room: My Battle With Europe’s Deep Establishment, first published in 2017. So I’ve come to it a bit late, but given that the government he served in is shortly to hit the buffers, not that late. Syriza is going to be trashed if the polls are correct about this year’s Greek parliamentary elections. The Greek conservative party, the New Democrats seem to be the favourites to win. Such a result has an inevitability about it, representing the likelihood that the electorate feel very badly betrayed by Alexis Tsipris and the false hopes he raised. Swing one way and then the other, what else does the electorate do? What else can it do? I do hope Corbyn understands the lesson. I do hope that Adults in the Room is compulsory reading for all Labour’s shadow ministers.
I’ve just got to the point where Varoufakis has made it to being Greek Finance Minister and is embarking on his first great tour of European capitals to drum up support for the restructuring of Greek debt. His arguments are unimpeachable in my view, and what is interesting is that many of the finance supremos he meets agree with him. In private. But in public they toe the line, which is to say that social democrats (for it is they) are fearful of upsetting the conservative apple cart which I paraphrase as the ideology of ‘sound money.’ Varoufakis tells of one conversation after another in which common sense proposals for progress on the Greek economy were simply sidestepped in order to maintain a pretence of order in the financial system. He is confounded by people like Sigmar Gabriel, then Germany’s SPD leader and vice chancellor in the then Merkel coalition government agreeing with his analysis but then immediately on a public platform rebuking that analysis. That of course is because his position wasn’t dependent on agreeing with Varoufakis. His position was within the Merkel coalition – Varoufakis mistook social democratic politicians for their potential for solidarity. However, in his meetings with the Eurozone’s all-powerful and hawkish Eurogroup of finance ministers and Eurocrats, Varoufakis is cheered by messages he receives from France’s finance minister – one Emmanuel Macron. I wonder if they’re still in touch.
So I’m looking forward to the final half of Varoufakis’s book. It’s like one of those murder mysteries where the murderer(s) are introduced at the very beginning. And yet there’s still a mystery to be solved. Why? In this case the mystery is still being played out, at least for the Greeks. What a shame that with Brexit we’ve all lost interest in this Greek tragedy and the lessons it has for us. Which are? I’ll have to have a think about it.
* I've now learnt that this part was fictitious - Cummings has never appeared before a select committee. I'm still prepared to believe his contribution to history stemmed from incoherence.
I have two departure points for this new year’s ramble in the bleak mid-winter. The first is the big feature of the time of year itself, when traditionally millions of people - if you believe the media hype - will be making resolutions. The common feature of these resolutions will be that in some way the resolvers will be indulging the idea that they are going to make their lives better in some way (or even of those around them).
The second departure point is a recent article by George Monbiot in the Guardian in which he reflected with due horror on the not-so-new story that people in the advertising industry (with assistance from their servants in academia) are trying to manipulate us with ever more sophisticated techniques.
First off then. New Year’s resolutions. These could be very basic expressions of existentialism in my simplistic definition of the term, which is to say that we should try to define ourselves and not assume our destiny has to be defined by others (frequently represented in the form of institutions it has to be said). A common feature of these new year resolutions will be the result of at least some self-reflection, and self-reflection is essential for anyone who wants to take control of their own life. I know in many cases the ‘big’ resolution will follow a pattern (stop drinking, lose weight, earn more, quit smoking, etc.) which fits snugly into society’s perceived expectations, but any self-reflection is better than none, even if it only lasts for a couple days. And who knows, perhaps the mindfulness trend may follow in these tentative brief moments of self-reflection and generate longer periods of self-awareness?
So far, so painless. These days, what is mindfulness but a bit of day dreaming wrapped around a nugget of hygge? (I am pleased to see that spell checker hasn’t caught up with that one yet.) But as Frankie Howerd might say, ‘twitter (sic) ye not!’ After all it was only last week when to be vegan was to be as mad as an early Christian and look where they are now! So I can detect serious if as yet still marginalised signs that consciousness raising with a bit of effort could be a growth industry.
This is where our companion with his anti-shepherd’s mitre, George Monbiot joins us, with his latest discovery of a new breed of mind manipulators who are shamefully and shamelessly ensconced in the redoubt of The Enlightenment – our universities! We should be taking a lead from academia and NOT being led by them in the way Monbiot rightly decries – working as they are for corporate mind-benders (Monbiot, by the way is our latter day Dante, guiding us gently by the hand around the rings of Hell). Beholden to corporate interests, many academics are seeking to destroy all possibility of self-reflection and individual autonomy. Self-awareness will be subjugated to algorithms which ivory tower laboratories of learning create. Talk about false consciousness? In this new age, the possibilities are endless! (Digression: Is this shift in our seats of learning a result of the commodification of higher education? Silly me.) False consciousness, aka cognitive dissonance, is essential to economic growth – how else might we overcome the limits of our environment? False consciousness is now being developed as never before. In Marx’s day it was a kind of accidental happenstance. Now it’s an industry in itself, part of the twenty first century’s silent industrial revolution.
Our path shows signs of wear. It is being worn down by the competing boots of the seekers of truth and the makers of truth. The latter camp wear the path down faster (I’ve noticed this on my walks) because they drive literally and metaphorically four wheel drives and quad bikes over everything worth preserving and generally couldn’t give a fuck about silly people like me clutching our hiking sticks, we who follow old paths which are often too narrow and ill-defined for them to get their fucking machines down (I have a gripe you may have noticed – it’s the sound of carbon in the countryside). But having aired my rambler’s discontent, I know that an accommodation has to be struck between us and them, because this is their land and they cannot be dispossessed with a mere flick of the switch. If we tried that we’d be put down (defenceless veggie ramblers I mean).
But a digression. Rambles are good opportunities for ranting. Back in the 1990s I once or twice organised (with the assistance of the Ford Maguire Society) rambles in the footsteps of the Luddites in West Yorkshire – how those paths resonated. Marvellous! (And who knows, in the not too distant future the route of the A2 into Dover may resonate with the memory of smashed looms – sorry lorries – from the great Brexit struggle.) In terms of longevity, most of our history is marked by the still extant, ancient thin slivers of paths and packhorse trails that criss-cross our moors and plains. Between the Romans’ departure and the first toll roads of the 1700s, roads were little more than glorified paths. Thinking about it, many Roman roads probably outlived the empire by a thousand years. But I’ve drifted off down a sheep track. That’s one of the joys of rambling, always provided you can rediscover the correct route marked on your OS map, hopefully without the cloud closing in.
Where was I? Something to do with competing definitions of truth, the great dialectic of our day. What I’m coming to is the nature of existential truth, which in philosophical terms led to a whole post-modernist misunderstanding of what is to be understood as reality, and led into an age when relativism suggested we could all possess our own truth. The philosophy of Existentialism is partly to blame for this, but then so is science per se – the Uncertainty Principle, the counter-intuitive non-determinism of evolution, the continuing realisation of our diminishing significance in the universe. Ironically in these circumstances our leading post-Truther Trump needs neither God nor science to proclaim that the Sun rotates around his Imperial Arse. He is an arch existentialist, and brings out the nihilism which gets existentialism a bad name.
So. I think I’m coming to the end, with a bit of a sweat on, and despite the vicissitudes of a lack of beer ‘on the tops’ I’m in good cheer and ready for the next little ascent and all importantly the last descent of this meander. Then to the pub (which always follows a descent). What I’m looking for is a true path – a true existential path – and I’m thinking this is not about some profound theory of Being and Nothingness (I’ve got the book but never read it. Sartre’s novels were a better intro) but it’s about the quality of actuality, the quality of Being. Being which could be represented by self-resolution - or destroyed by Monbiot's devils.
I remember I had another introduction to this sense of beingness – perhaps a sideways introduction to this concept – doing an Open University course in the late 1970s (Art and the Environment, known to supplicants with the revered code TAD 292) Our tutor at our summer school held at Sussex University in 1977 was none other than Captain Reality, who has left no trace on Google (how real is that?). We studied the concept of reality by turning ordinary situations into uber-real situations. Our then unprecedented living sculptures and frozen tableaux actually made some passers-by nervous, even paranoid. An exposure to over-real reality can be unnerving, especially when there’s no explanation, when there’s no question and no answer. This can lead to aggression. Better then to give ‘em tuppence and a lick of ice cream to assuage their fears. Which of course is today’s prescription – climate change? What? When you’ve still got ice cream for gawdsakes! (And will need more of it.)
I know that in the later stages of a good ramble it’s possible that one can be imbued with a feeling of satisfaction and with it that enervated yet energised sense of harmony which encourages one to say anything generally optimistic as soon as the pub veers into sight. The best rambles and rants always end with a pint, a pleasant substitution for anything conclusive. As long as the beer's on form of course.
I’ve been watching a video discussion about the so-called ‘Integrity Initiative’ (a semi-private UK black propaganda outfit) which was linked in a post by Jewish Voice for Labour. The ‘initiative’ as we now know has received millions of taxpayers’ money and has beavered away seeking to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. In this discussion there was a mention of the British Army’s 77th Brigade, which deals with ‘Influence and Outreach.’ Talk about euphemisms. This is not what we might normally associate with social work and community development. The 77th Brigade’s website says:
SOME OF THE WAYS WE HELP
Conducting timely and appropriate audience, actor and adversary analysis.
Planning and integrating information activity and outreach (IA&O).
Supporting and delivering IA&O within pre-designated boundaries.
Supporting counter-adversarial information activity.
Support to partners across Government upstream and post-conflict institutional development/reform.
Collecting, creating and disseminating digital and wider media content in support of designated tasks.
Monitoring and evaluating the information environment within boundaries or operational area.
The second to last sentence deserves more scrutiny so far as the media is concerned. When did you last see an attribution to the 77th Brigade in the news? I wonder how many (e.g. Guardian) stories are sourced from the 77th Brigade? How many journalists have been cultivated by the 77th Brigade? The problem with establishment journalists’ unattributable intelligence briefings is that one never knows to what extent the source has been interrogated or at least tested. How can their info even be verified? How far would a journalist risk losing their precious (pay cheque giving) source? Now we must rely on a second tier of ‘interrogation’ (such as the video referred to above) which of course is considered less reliable – which is to say it doesn’t appear in the mainstream media. We are now in a position where every story touching on this sort of stuff has to be cross referenced on the internet in order to gain a more rounded view, or even just to be able to ask the questions we know need to be answered.
I know the 77th Brigade’s type of activity has always gone on but now it is being legitimised like never before. Not that long ago the very existence of such activities would have been a state secret. The existence of our intelligence and security services was never officially acknowledged. The internet has cemented a new faux openness, but I’m not sure it’s changed anything of substance even if MI5 runs Christmas quizzes (I’m sure I read that somewhere). What we’re getting is more state chaff as we revert to a Cold War mentality which prohibits efforts to develop trust as the basis for building sensible engagement with our ‘adversaries.’ Who cares if a mission statement or two is published for public consumption, written in ever-so-clever goobledespook?
The objective seems to be to rule out trust as any kind of possibility. Perhaps in the case of Russia this is a reaction not just to the perception of Putin as the all-seeing, all-knowing adversary, but the Western elite’s disappointment at its failure to capture Russia after the fall of Gorbachev. Russia’s development didn’t proceed according to plan! Let’s revive the Great Game! Crimea! Half a league forward, all in the valley of Death!