The government, faced with the prospect of losing one or more ministers to the Tower of London* for holding Parliament in contempt over its initial refusal to publish the Attorney General’s legal advice on Brexit, cited the ‘long standing’ constitutional arrangement which holds that such advice is bound by the concept of lawyer/client confidentiality. Ministers on air and elsewhere were talking as if the parliamentary motion calling for publication was an effort to drain all our precious bodily fluids and hand them over to Vladimir Putin lock, stock and barrel. I know, there’s a slight exaggeration there. But it’s all bollocks. Legislation already exists which could force publication as the Daily Telegraph reported:
“The Foreign Secretary said that, in refusing to publish full details of its internal legal advice, the Government was following a long-standing Whitehall convention. But, under the Freedom of Information Act, the [information] commissioner can over-rule a decision to withhold the publication of legal advice if he decides the public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest in keeping it secret. Following the signing last month of a "memorandum of understanding" between his office and the Lord Chancellor's Department on the conduct of his investigations, [the information commissioner] will see all the papers relating to the issue. If he believes secret papers are being held back from him, the commissioner even has the power to issue his own search warrant to get access to what he wants.”
Well, well – no wonder Tony Blair in hindsight regretted the Freedom of Information Act. The above report dates back to 25th March 2005 and of course related to the then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith’s advice to ministers on the legality of the Iraq war. The Tories supported the war, so were probably not that fussed at the time to see the legal advice. At least there’s some consistency there.
*More like a bit of a spanking in the Carlton Club followed by a glass of port.
The death of George H. W. Bush, former president of the United States has led to an outpouring of largely indulgent tributes to a holder of that office which in the context of today’s incumbent seems almost understandable. Even the Guardian’s obituary was effusive in its praise of his international statesmanship, although it noted that Bush didn’t seem to thrive so wonderfully on domestic issues (why would he, given, e.g. the Willie Horton affair so far as racism goes, or his ‘read my lips no new taxes’ gaffe). Yes, compared to Trump George H. W. Bush was a giant of a politician, but by that standard you could say the same about the leader of North Yorkshire County Council.
What has not been given much attention to in this whirl of tear-stained memorials is the simple fact that Bush was born into and continued to breed a family of crony capitalists the like of which the post-world war era had never seen. This was a family that profited from arms sales in the First World War, went on to deal with the Nazis in the Second and then used its influence in or out of office to secure lucrative deals ever since – regardless of their ability to do anything useful. I’ve not heard the phrase ‘crony capitalism’ used for some time, and it hasn’t appeared in H.W’s wake. Perhaps the mainstream media would like us to believe that before Trump, holders of the office of U.S. president were keenly disinterested in their own, personal or family interests. We should be wary of being forgetful. In so many ways, Trump is not exceptional.
N.B. I wrote about the Bush family’s crony capitalism in Lobster 56, 2008. There is quite a literature on the subject.
Today I got a book with the title The Stupidity Paradox by two academics, Mats Alvesson and André Spicer which promises to be an unfortunately entertaining read. Glancing at the preface I read this: “By avoiding careful thinking, people are simply able to get on with their job. Asking too many questions is likely to upset others – and to distract yourself. Not thinking frees you up to fit in and get along. Sometimes it makes sense to be stupid. Perhaps we live in an age where a certain type of stupidity has triumphed.”
It’s a coincidence that this book should have arrived today, since Chris Grayling, our hapless Transport Minister was on the Today programme this morning, following a highly critical report from the Transport Select Committee about this year’s appalling chaos on the railways. It wasn’t shy of criticising the dunce who sits at the apex of responsibility. If I were offered a gift horse from Grayling I wouldn’t bother counting its teeth, I’d start with the legs. I imagine if any commuters listening to him this morning on their headphones heard his bumbling, insincere apologies they will have been tempted to pull the emergency cord – if their train was moving that is.
God knows how this man keeps his job. I can only surmise it is to help make the Prime Minister look good. But it is surely not just his own incompetence that has contributed to the mess. The huge cuts to the Transport Department’s day-to-day expenditure (in 2015 alone, Chancellor George Osborne announced cuts of 37%) must have taken a toll on its ability to function, even when – ironically – it was increasing capital expenditure (e.g. Crossrail, HS2). Whilst most discussion about austerity has reasonably focused on its damaging impact on the disadvantaged and public services, the impact of austerity on the ability of government to govern seems less appreciated.
No wonder Grayling is promoting driverless vehicles. His own department is driverless. For him, stupidity appears to make sense.
It seems there’s a bit of trouble brewing at the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), an organisation I’ve been a member of for over 40 years. The latest bother arises after an employee was dismissed and who is now claiming redress through an employment tribunal – arguing that he was discriminated against because he is a vegan. This in his view is equivalent to e.g. being dismissed on the grounds of religious belief. The League strongly refutes the entirety of his allegations, and cites several vegan employees who are happy working for LACS. This argy-bargy follows other recent personnel changes, including the resignation of board member Chris Williamson MP, so there may be a subtext here I’m not aware of.
The interesting question is whether veganism could be grounds for dismissal. Whether it was in this particular case true that the employee was unfairly sacked for this reason, which LACS denies, does not diminish an interesting question of principle – should veganism be recognised as akin to religion? Since more people are becoming vegans, and major food chains are catering for the rising demand for vegan food it was probably only a matter of time before a case of this sort arose, since the seriousness with which a form of belief is taken often, inevitably, hinges on whether it is seen as mainstream or fringe. As regards who now is considered vegan I have to wonder whether media pundits are fully aware that being vegan means giving up all animal sourced products of whatever kind, not just food. You have to go the whole hog, so to speak.
That being so, given the commitment it takes to be a vegan, and the implications for one’s lifestyle, I would say that veganism should be given the same due regard as religious belief when it comes to protection under the law. At least veganism is based on a straightforward ethical principle – that using another sentient being for one’s own purposes is wrong. This actually makes a lot more sense than choosing not to eat certain kinds of meat, or killing animals in a certain way, or sacrificing an animal instead of one’s own son merely to suck up to a deity.
I had a pleasant culture vacuuming trip to London this week which even the weather didn’t dampen, although Transpennine Express did their best, running one of my trains 45 minutes late. Reports on one or two of my art gallery visits will appear under ‘Perambulations’ in a day or two's time (Tate Britain, Hayward, ICA). As regards art gallery visits, I do hope that after the 29th March 2019 all foreigners will be banned from those UK galleries which are currently free to all-comers. Unless, that is, these happy tourists are made to pay the same exorbitant fees we have to pay to enter their temples of art. Alternatively, they could make their galleries free to all, as we do. My trampled sense of injustice on this issue is not alleviated by some warm sense of international solidarity – not when confronted by hordes of foreign freeloaders turning the National Gallery into the noisy mayhem of an international airport shopping mall. This gripe could be the only thing that could possibly make me support Brexit should we have a second vote on the wretched subject.
My mood was not lightened by reading an article in the Evening Standard headlined “MI6 architect reveals hidden technology to combat terrorists and moped riders.” This revealed that “X-ray cameras that can reveal hidden weapons under clothes . . . are among the next generation of ‘public realm’ defence gadgets on show in London today.” (28th November) A ‘Protecting Urban Spaces’ installation was it seems the ‘centrepiece’ of the International Security Expo held at Olympia. “One of the devices on show is the Argon weapon scanner, which resembles a large upturned oil drum. It fires electromagnetic waves at passers-by for operators to see on-screen if guns or knives are beneath their clothes.” This is not good news for anyone receiving a cutlery canteen as a wedding gift. That would probably land them with a life sentence on top of their wedding. The creators of the technological marvel say it is “able to detect metallic and non-metallic concealed contraband as small as a matchbox.” This will bring stop and search into the realm of mass surveillance which even (cliché spoiler) George Orwell never dreamed of. But what else can electromagnetic rays be used for? If ‘rays’ have any relationship to ‘pulses’ then we could have a ‘passive’ weapon which at sufficient strength could immobilise all electronic gadgets within its range. Yes, we could have mini-neutron bombs on every corner. Keep an eye out for upturned oil drums.
There was a bit of this sort of madness at work when I tried to visit the very small gallery in Canada House. Normally this room is bereft of visitors even though it faces the National Gallery. To get into this locked-off room (locked off from the rest of the building that is) one has to pass through a security check every bit as rigorous as at an airport. I thought I had gotten rid of every metal object on me but still the magic arch scanner beeped. Clearly with nothing better to do the attendant looked at my belt. But by this point I had had enough and decided to give up. The attendant reminded me this was a diplomatic building. That being so, perhaps they should abandon the one room so-called public gallery and in future ensure that Canadian art remains a secret, lest security guards imagine it will be blown to smithereens.
The big E.U. summit is over, and Mrs May next week will be able to resume her normal Sunday churchgoing routine. Over the next two weeks she will try to sell her Brexit deal to the public, hoping they will compel MPs to fall into line and stop ‘bickering’ as one rightwing newspaper put it (reflecting their respect for democratic debate). I wonder if this will be the fortnight when the yellow press goes into full-on ‘no deal’ mode. They can’t be happy with the bodge May has engineered in cahoots with those conniving foreigners. A deal so bad we’ll have to stump up £39 billion for it – I’d like to see a breakdown of how that money is to be spent.
I suppose the biggest impediment to a second referendum will be sheer Brexit fatigue. It’s hard to see how the position we now find ourselves in could be any more inconclusive. Any hopes it will be all over before Christmas are likely to be dashed. This looks like the 21st century equivalent of the First World War, with huge sacrifices made for little gain and no end in sight.
Of course I am biased, but Labour’s demand for a general election makes sense. If May can’t get her flagship deal through Parliament, then she doesn’t deserve to stay on as Prime Minister. This is too central to her authority. Most pro-Brexit Tories (and DUP ejits) however would vote to keep her on, fearful of precipitating their own demise. So she could limp on, and that would definitely result in no deal. The last thing on her mind is another general election. No deal would then be presented as a triumph, and she would commence rebuilding her authority at least with the Brexit supporting section of the public. She could be with us until 2022 and beyond. The Brexiteers only have to hope that the economy doesn’t collapse in the meantime.
P.S. It’s time for a vote of no confidence in BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg. Her utterly uninformative reporting yesterday from Brussels was excruciating. As if even a hermit didn’t know that yesterday’s summit was the culmination of two fraught years’ of negotiating, or that May now faces the biggest test of her political career. Her commentary is a combination of political cliché and yesterday’s weather forecast. Particularly embarrassing when compared to Europe correspondent Katya Adler, who at least seems to pass on information you haven’t heard before. Crap reporting surely adds to Brexit fatigue.
I have been aware of Steve Bannon’s presence as one might be aware of a thug: you have a wary eye open and keep a safe distance from the thing. Hence I watched his performance at the Oxford Union (on Youtube) anticipating nothing but disdain. The first thing to comment on was his appearance. He sauntered into the room with the persona of a raffish intellectual, and his scruffy demeanour is clearly part of his shtick – which is to say, he wants to be seen as an outsider, his appearance must conceal his true identity as a member of the elite. But he needs only to get a haircut, a shave and a white uniform with a sash and shiny buttons and he could be mistaken for Herman Goering. I won’t pursue that line of thought.
Much of his analysis of why our ‘great Judeo-Christian society’ is going to the dogs lays bare stuff that many if not most of us on the left could agree with. He has an attractive shorthand for the various components of the elite which has brought ordinary (i.e. white, but always sneak in a crafty mention of BAME types*) working folk to their knees – he calls it the Davos Party. The bankers, the privileged jet-set politicians, the globalists. But given that he himself used to work for Goldman Sachs (as did and so do many of Trump’s closest economic advisors) Bannon could easily pass himself off, like an ex-smoker as full of the evangelical zeal of the converted. But of course he is not converted at all. A poacher turned gamekeeper? Not a bit of it, for all his visceral critique of the Davos Party that got us into this mess his proposed remedies fall far short of the reforms required to fix capitalism’s fundamental problems. Resorting to purely nationalistic protectionism, a key Bannon theme, is not the answer. Such a model is no longer available – the interconnectivity of global markets has gone too far – not merely because of some neo-liberal attachment to theories of comparative advantage, but because of the technological revolution whose greatest progeny so far is the internet but which promises much more that will not stop at borders.
Bannon wants, in his words ‘the deconstruction of the administrative state’ at the same time as he wants a strong state. His utopia is made up of flourishing citizens unburdened by petty bureaucracy, or what in British terms Tories would characterise as the ‘nanny state,’ i.e. the kind of government which has a ‘cradle to grave’ approach to welfare. That’s a socialist idea – indeed, as Bannon made clear, that is a national socialist idea where even capitalism itself bends its knee to totalitarian corporatism, where everything revolves around the omnipotent state. What one wonders is the state’s place in Bannonworld? A strong military, naturally. Isolationism, of course – Bannon was explicit in his view that the U.S.A. has no ambitions for hegemony (ha!) and never had (but he’s heard of manifest destiny I assume) – he only needs to cite the failed examples of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to show that America has better things to do. War costs a lot of money. I think he said these last two cost $7 trillion. This presumably is money that would be better spent on military boondoggles to keep the Republicans in power. An Army Of The Wall springs to mind.
But still, he’s against American wars! Another blow to the lefties who used to occupy that space. One imagines with just a little tweak he could stand shoulder to shoulder with Bernie Sanders. He mentioned in passing that many of Bernie’s people had asked him if he might work with them, such is his popular appeal and understanding of blue collar America. But on the crunch questions, like the future of capitalism and the impact of climate change Bannon is a total dud and the polar opposite of Sanders. Perhaps, in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt who broke up Standard Oil, Bannon would break up the behemoths of Facebook, et al, but he only needs to read the history of the seven sisters (the big oil companies of the early twentieth century) to see that capitalist behaviour is very adaptable. As regards climate change, which is capitalism’s greatest and worst legacy, Bannon had nothing to say to his audience of millennials. He is credited with getting Trump to renege on the Paris climate change accords, and since the hoax of climate change bores the pants of people, who cares?
Having said all of which doesn’t diminish his obvious appeal. He expresses himself bluntly. We now know that ‘blue collar folk’ like plain speaking. Bannon’s message is simple: you’ve got one of your own in the White House. Trump may have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he’s different! And if anything goes wrong, it’s fake news – or more subtly, in Bannon’s oft used phrase to brush aside criticism, ‘it’s far from perfect.’ Well, whoever thought things would be? Bannon reminds me of Marlowe’s Mephistopheles, when asked by Faustus ‘Where is Hell?’ he answers ‘Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it.’
*Bannon thinks that BAME people will eventually flock to Trump. He cited as evidence 1.6 million African-American Obama voters not voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016, saying that they may be readied to support Trump in 2020. He didn’t say whether Republican voter suppression and gerrymandering had anything to do with the absent votes.
One thing that might stop the switch to more internet shopping is the threat of being bombarded with ‘review your purchase’ emails, often followed by reminders and a blizzard of inducements to shop again. At least one can generally get out of an actual shop without someone seeking to interrogate you. The fake reciprocity disease has now spread to the Guardian. Under the heading ‘Your opinion matters’ a survey has been emailed out to subscribers, initially with a non-working link, but a working version came today. I was looking forward to filling in the sections headed ‘What do you think of our coverage of alleged anti-Semitism in the Labour Party’ etc., or 'should Marina Hyde write in English?' - but sadly there were no such invitations. The survey was, of course merely market research, a bit like local political party leaflets which suggest that your thoughts on potholes would be welcome, but crucially always ask which party you might support. All this stuff is a bit analogue when your behaviour can be so closely monitored and predicted electronically. Anyway, I completed the survey. Spending £500 a year on a knowledge medium which came to maturity in the late 18th Century is surely a commendable commitment in this age of instant gratification? There is still something pleasurable about opening the paper in the morning, even if swearing ensues.
A curious co-incidence yesterday. Listening to Radio 3, I heard the composer Roxanna Panufnik talking about her synaesthesia – the condition which pairs one sensory perception with another, e.g. seeing different numbers in different colours, or associating sounds with colours. Then, I attended an artist’s talk (part of my fine art studies) and the artist in question, Rebecca Partridge revealed she was a synesthetic too. But perhaps this was not so much of a coincidence. The list of known or suspected synesthetics on Wikipedia, from Bernstein to Van Gogh, Sibelius to Nabokov, Duke Ellington to Marilyn Monroe - the roll-call of artists, musicians and other creative types is extensive. So I wonder how common synaesthesia actually is. As Rebecca Partridge said, she didn’t know her condition was ’special’ until quite late on. The mysteries of perception never cease to amaze me. I can (I imagine) see how this condition may assist the creative spirit, although if one’s medium is the written word, I guess it could be quite challenging.
Another term I learnt a bit more about yesterday was ‘metamodernism.’ I often wondered what was going to follow post-modernism. There’s an interesting examination of the ‘ten basic principles of metamodernism’ on the Huffington Post website, by Seth Abramson, an assistant professor at New Hampshire University.
One of these principles favours dialogue over dialectics:
Postmodernism favored “dialectics” over dialogue, whereas metamodernism explicitly advances the cause of dialogue. Where the “dialectical” thinking of the postmodernists assumed that every situation involves just two primary opposing forces — which do battle until one emerges victorious and the other is destroyed — dialogic thinking rejects the idea that there is no middle ground or means of negotiation between different positions. For instance, while neo-Marxism, an important postmodern worldview, presumes an eternal socioeconomic battle between the “bourgeoisie” and “proletariat” economic classes, at the end of which only one remains intact, metamodernism holds that dialectical struggles tend to destroy all parties that participate in them and enact no abiding change whatsoever. Metamodern dialogue does not pave over differences between parties and positions, it simply emphasizes areas of overlap between contesting opinions that could lead to effective collective action on a slate of issues.
One example of this would be a campus debate in which the frequency of a given problem is debated by opposing groups. In the postmodern worldview, one is either “for” solving a given problem or “against” it, so even a debate over the frequency with which a problem arises must be taken as a sign that anyone interested in that debate (that is, anyone interested in determining with specificity the frequency with which an issue arises) must actually oppose solving the problem at all. The metamodernist would support first collaboratively determining the frequency with which a given problem arises, and the nature of the problem in the first instance, and then forming a coalition of individuals who, having fully understood the scope of the problem, decide that they want to solve it — even if some of them still don’t see eye-to-eye on a host of other issues. The theory here is that, in a postmodern scenario, nothing ever gets solved because the contending forces angrily oppose and caricature one another until (in fact) both are degraded and destroyed in number and in spirit. Meanwhile, in a metamodern scenario, at least something gets achieved, even if it doesn’t resolve all disputes between the two groups or ensure that they’ll be able to work together on other issues. As to those other issues, other metamodern alliances (perhaps between very different groupings of parties) will be formed to address them.
Brexit in these terms is very much a postmodern scenario – what we need now are a few metamodernist thinkers to come along and solve the problem. But that’s not going to happen any time soon. I have to say I had never really considered the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg or Arlene Foster to be examples of postmodernism – more like premodern, or simply antediluvian – but I imagine there’s a strong strain of postmodernism in all of us. It’s the irrepressible desire to win.
Having mentioned an Ulster antediluvian, and after the DUP’s failure to support the budget last night, I do hope no more of the £1billion bribe paid to the DUP for their sleazy votes will be paid. With faces like slapped arses and brains to match, they need kicking out of any deal. Theresa May must have been mad to get into bed with them in the first place. The fact that she did says much about her lack of judgement.
As regards the future of metamodernism - at least in political terms - I wonder if it isn't already dead in the water - the current political climate suggests as much.
It looks like Israel is heading towards an earlier than expected general election, in which with any luck the detestable ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu will get the old heave-ho. But I won’t hold my breath. What is more predictable will be more attacks on Gaza, and indeed more attacks on pro-Palestinian politicians abroad in order to refresh the line that Israel can only stand against its enemies with Bibi in charge.
El Trumpo has just renewed a George H. W. Bush-era declaration of national emergency (because of the threat of WMD). A national emergency that’s lasted 28 years? They need to get a grip. With 600 dead or missing people in California’s wildfires, one wonders what Trumpo will do to tackle the clear and present danger of the new WMD – climate change? Apart from pouring more petrol on the fire, that is.
The newly renewed declaration of national emergency empowers the U.S. to control exports which may assist other countries acquiring WMD, and authorises sanctions where appropriate. Here’s a taste of it:
Sec. 3. Department of Commerce Controls.
(a) The Secretary of Commerce shall prohibit the export of any goods, technology, or services subject to the Secretary’s export jurisdiction that the Secretary of Commerce determines, in consultation with the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and other appropriate officials, would assist a foreign country in acquiring the capability to develop, produce, stockpile, deliver, or use weapons of mass destruction or their means of delivery. The Secretary of State shall pursue early negotiations with foreign governments to adopt effective measures comparable to those imposed under this section.
(b) Subsection (a) of this section will not apply to exports relating to a particular category of weapons of mass destruction (i.e., nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons) if their destination is a country with whose government the United States has entered into a bilateral or multilateral arrangement for the control of that category of weapons of mass destruction-related goods (including delivery systems) and technology, or maintains domestic export controls comparable to controls that are imposed by the United States with respect to that category of goods and technology, or that are otherwise deemed adequate by the Secretary of State.
What I’m wondering is whether the U.S. has ‘entered a bilateral arrangement’ with Israel to allow the transfer of technology that could support the development of Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile? Or are we to suppose that despite the U.S. currently contributing 20% of Israel’s defence budget, it has no knowledge of Israel’s nuclear arsenal and had no hand in its development? Does the U.S. have a secret deal to help Israel in this regard, despite Israel not signing up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? My naive questions I find are easily answered – the U.S. and Israel have had a semi-secret mutual understanding since the time of Nixon, the details of which are explored in an excellent article which appeared in The New Yorker last June “How Trump and Three Other U.S. Presidents Protected Israel’s Worst-Kept Secret: Its Nuclear Arsenal” (https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/how-trump-and-three-other-us-presidents-protected-israels-worst-kept-secret-its-nuclear-arsenal)
This mutual understanding has been underpinned by an exchange of letters (that is, not a formal bilateral agrrement), which Netanyahu has been keen for successive U.S. presidents to sign.
Following Obama’s election, Netanyahu was particularly worried: “Ahead of a nonproliferation conference in 2010, Netanyahu became concerned, once again, that Israel could come under international pressure to disarm. In response, Obama made a public statement that echoed the contents of the secret letters, without revealing their existence. “We discussed issues that arose out of the nuclear-nonproliferation conference,” Obama said, after meeting with Netanyahu on July 6, 2010. “And I reiterated to the Prime Minister that there is no change in U.S. policy when it comes to these issues. We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region that it’s in, and the threats that are levelled against . . . it, that Israel has unique security requirements. It’s got to be able to respond to threats or any combination of threats in the region. And that’s why we remain unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security. And the United States will never ask Israel to take any steps that would undermine their security interests.” (op cit)
El Trumpo has now signed the letters. “Like Obama’s advisers, Trump’s aides were baffled by the importance that Netanyahu placed on getting the letters signed so quickly. […]the issue is central for Netanyahu because the nuclear arsenal fuels his “sense of impunity, sense of Israel being so powerful, that it can dictate its own terms in the region and beyond.” (op cit)
One suspects that the U.S declaration of a national emergency will be renewed many more times yet. Perhaps this whole subject is something else the U.S. House of Representatives could get its teeth into.