The woes of democracy

One idea from Toby Buckle’s most recent Political Philosophy podcast resonated with me in particular (it wasn’t the main thrust of the podcast, which was, as usual, excellent) . It was this: a functioning Democracy relies on the side which has not won a vote accepting that, and moving on.

I was immediately reminded of the fact that almost immediately after the Brexit referendum result, Brexiteers were calling on Remainers to come together with them and deliver Brexit (without having the slightest idea how Brexit could be delivered or what the consequences were), and have ever since then been criticising Remainers and accusing them of not being in agreement with the result of this popular vote. I was also reminded of the fact that the narrative behind Boris Johnson calling for another election is, in essence, that Parliament has frustrated Brexit and is no longer fit for purpose.

Now, bearing in mind that even on the evening of the referendum, the arch-Brexiteer, Nigel Farage, was expecting to lose, and pledging to carry on fighting for Brexit despite the expected “Remain” vote, I thought the immediate criticisms of those of us who voted “Remain” were unreasonable. In effect, his position was that “his side” would never accept a “Remain” vote and would carry on trying to reverse it – and his position as an MEP (and that of the other members of what was then the UKIP party) was to disrupt the European parliament as much as they could, which signals exactly the same refusal to accept a democratic result. I will note here that the position of the “European Research Group” of Conservative MPs who were ardently in favour of leaving the EU was fairly similar, if not quite identical. It wasn’t, however, quite the refusal to accept a democratic result which the podcast refers to, as the commitment was to further democratic action at that point.

At that point, my position, and that of a large number of other “Remain” voters was that yes, we had lost, and we therefore needed to campaign for the least damaging Brexit which could be obtained – and this was also the position of a majority of MPs – perhaps not a majority of Conservative MPs, but almost certainly a sizeable majority of Labour MPs; both parties campaigned in the 2017 election on the basis of putting Brexit into effect. Remainers, in other words, were being accused (in advance) of doing what Brexiteers had already been doing or would do themselves.

From the point of view of consensus the trouble is that at that point the narrative shifted. In the referendum campaign, much was made of the fact that we could leave the EU and still have a very favourable trade deal, perhaps still being in the Customs Union and having zero tariffs (which is essentially the deal which Norway has), and I’m sure that influenced a significant proportion of those who voted “Leave” and of the Labour MPs and at least a significant number of the Conservatives elected in 2017. However, it then became a refusal to accept “the will of the people” if someone wanted anything other than the very hardest Brexit, a “no deal” Brexit which would leave us with customs barriers and tariffs between us and our largest trading partner, or at the very least to guarantee that we wouldn’t end up in a “no deal” situation.

This was apparent when Mrs. May negotiated a deal with the EU which, at the time, I was unhappy with, but said was the best which could be expected, indeed, better than I had expected, given the negotiating positions of the two sides. There were three attempts to get Parliament to accept that deal; Labour were against it as it didn’t give an assurance of a future close trading relationship with the EU, but the thing which actually prevented that being accepted by parliament was NOT the votes of those who might have preferred to Remain to start with (and were probably more convinced of the good sense of the Remain view by this time), it was members of the Conservative ERG, the “hard Brexiteers” who voted against it and stopped it being adopted. Remember; only a “no deal” Brexit or something close to that is acceptable to them (and, I remind the reader, the referendum was not a vote for “no deal”, it was a vote for some form of withdrawing from the EU, and that included a range of much closer relationships than “no deal”).

I have, of course, written about this slide towards “no deal” previously.

Now, given that there were a diversity of opinions about what kind of Brexit was desirable in Parliament (just as there was in the country in general and the “Leave” voters in particular), one would have thought that a consensus could have been reached for a Brexit which was considerably less damaging than “no deal” – perhaps “Norway”, perhaps something a little less cosy (people talked of “Canada ++” or “Switzerland”), but definitely something well short of demolishing most of our foreign trade for the foreseeable future (about half our trade is with the EU, but in addition all our other trading relationships are under the EU’s trading agreements, and those would be lost too, at least for the time being). Yes, the ERG would have voted against this (and shouted loudly about a betrayal of democracy, which it obviously wasn’t), but there were probably a majority of Conservative and Labour MPs who could have lived with that. The trouble is, Mrs. May was too scared of her own party to propose anything closer to the EU than the deal she secured, so she didn’t negotiate one nor did she put one to parliament.

The Johnson narrative on this was that parliament had been deliberately frustrating the “will of the people” in the referendum, and needed to be replaced. Again, we see the Brexit side accusing Remainers of exactly what the Brexiteers were doing themselves…

Johnson, on the other hand, is in the pocket of the hard Brexit people. His “deal” is massively closer to “no deal” than Mrs. May’s (and could still end up there), and he backed up getting there by sacking Tory MPs from the party, among other tactics. (Maybe Mrs. May could have done the same with the ERG to good effect?). He is clearly now hoping that an election (which we don’t need, rather than a new referendum which we do) will get him a majority of either ardent Brexiteers or others who are too scared of expulsion from the party to argue with him, trading off a popularity in the polls which I find difficult to understand and the corresponding unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn, following a campaign of vilification of him in the press since the say he was elected.

Now, I have encountered this trait of accusing your opponents of what you are doing yourself before they have done anything remotely like that themselves. It is, I suppose, understandable that someone might expect their opposition to use the tactics they are using (or intend to use) themselves, particularly if they have sociopathic tendencies, but accusing them of doing it before there is any evidence they actually are is symptomatic of one type of personality, the malignant narcissist.

I’ll mention here in passing a really bizarre allegation I’ve seen in comments (more than once) in response to the Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge to cancel Article 50 without a second referendum that this is “anti-democratic”. What part of standing for election with this as your declared policy and asking voters to vote for it could possibly be “anti-democratic”?

At this point, I need to pick up the point I started with. Brexiteers have been saying for quite some time now that if we were to cancel Article 50 and stay in the EU, it would potentially lead to violence; I have read today comments in three different threads from people suggesting this. This is strongly arguing that democracy has broken down in exactly the way Toby’s podcast alluded to. On the Remain side, I can’t see any corresponding claims that violence would attend us actually leaving (though many of us have committed to campaigning to re-join if that occurs) – but I have grave misgivings that, in the case of a no-deal hard Brexit, there would be so much misery caused, including possible food shortages and a substantial rise in prices of many things – plus the fact that as GDP would drop by 10-25%, so would tax revenues, which would make the spending promises of either Conservative or Labour laughable – that we would see violence.

And, in that event, democracy would have suffered a huge blow, from which it might not recover.

Musings of a nobody

A recent Evonomics post (worth a read generally) contains one statement which pulled me up short. It was this:-

” What sucker wants to earn $10 million/year at a 52.5% tax rate when you can get away with hundreds of millions in one take at just 15%? Nobody, that’s who. “

Well, that puts me in the category of “nobody” as well as that of “sucker”! For a start, I don’t like the concept of getting “money for nothing” (though at one point in my life “the chicks for free” might have been attractive…) I like to think that I’ve done something useful or created something useful or beautiful, and am getting paid a sensible amount for that. Anything over and above that would make me feel somewhat dishonest.

Add to that the fact that, in the premise that I could work a year at something and get 47.5 million dollars for it, I might be tempted, though I’d probably only bother to work at it for a month or two (netting, perhaps, around $4 million per month), because I really don’t need that much money, and for me, need and want are pretty close to being the same thing. I only say “tempted”, because although a month or two at those rates would increase my available capital by a phenomenal percentage, I actually don’t NEED any more than I already have. Would a few millions be nice? Yes, I suppose so – but I’d give most of it away. If it most definitely fulfilled my criteria of doing something useful or making something beautiful, I’d be more likely to do it in the first place and to stick with it longer.

But, you might say, what about the amount of good you could do with hundreds of millions? Well, that is a consideration. If I had, say, four million, I’d maybe hang on to a million against a rainy day, ensure that my children were financially solid (but not absolutely rolling in it – see later), that a few impoverished friends were also financially solid. OK, I might need to do another month to make sure that was the case, as it would definitely involve paying off the student loans of all my friends’ children. Student loans are a blot on our society – having young people start life with major debt is condemning them to a period of effective debt-peonage.

Then? Buy a load of houses locally and give them to a local housing charity which at the moment houses only the elderly poor, but could readily deal with the younger poor. I might consider allowing the local council (who are the housing authority) to manage them instead, but they have huge financial pressures on them and the temptation to reallocate the funds would be extreme. Homelessness is equally a blot on our society.

Fund our local food bank with sufficient to keep them catering for all local candidates rather than having to triage. No-one should be having to beg at food banks in order to survive in a society I want to live in.

Beyond that, I’ll be stretching. Yes, there are a load of issues which deserve funding which they haven’t got at the moment (including all of student debt, homelessness and hunger more generally than just in my town), but I am almost certainly not the person who should, unaided, be deciding where the money goes. If I had the hundreds of millions, for instance, I’d want to put a lot of it into research to combat climate change – renewable energy, carbon-fixing, better batteries. But I don’t have the detailled knowledge of the science to determine exactly where it should go.

The thing is, I also don’t want to be the person who decides where the money goes for entirely personal reasons. I have noticed that having oodles of cash tends to go with people being complete a***holes; there are very very few really rich people I have known who were not at least somewhat tainted by this. I have also noticed that when I have had ample finances, I have tended to be less responsive to the needs of those who need help and started being concerned with keeping what I have (and increasing it) more than is remotely healthy for me.

Wealth is, after all, power – and it is power even if you don’t spend it. Consider the shopping scenes from the film “Pretty Woman”. Just the knowledge that Julia Roberts’ character can spend an obscene amount of money is sufficient to have all the shop assistants bowing and scraping, before any money has actually been spent. In our current climate in the West, it is by and large the only kind of power which matters…

I also have some experience of having perceived power in that for a year I was mayor of my town. Now, in the UK system, outside some large cities who have mayors who have actual power (such as the mayor of London), a mayor is just the chairman of the council. I was mayor in a council in which I was actually the only member of my political party. The thing was, I was perceived to have far more power than the ability to control the way a meeting proceeded and to exercise the occasional casting vote would justify – and I found that very limited power somewhat intoxicating, sufficiently so that I actually contemplated an offer by one of the other political parties to make me mayor again, destroying the convention which had put me there in the first place (that you got to be mayor in rotation based solely on length of service) when the next person in rotation was arguably unfit to hold the position…

Power, it has been said, corrupts. I am quite confident that that is correct, having felt the corruptive lure. I don’t want the kind of power which having oodles of money would produce, because I don’t want to be corrupted.

We can’t have another vote, so we have to have another vote…

We are gearing up for another general election. Is it just me, or is the idea that we should have ANOTHER general election (making two in all) in order to try to pack the House of Commons so the government can force through a bad Brexit because “the people have spoken” and we therefore can’t possibly have a vote on the deal which is on the table somewhere between ironic and insane?

Let me spell it out. We decided to leave the EU in the referendum, and thus “have to obey the will of the people”, so we can’t have another vote now we know a lot more about how the process would work and how we will be affected. But despite the Fixed Term Parliaments Act stipulating that the next election should have been in 2020, we had an election in 2017 and are now having another in 2019, and the only real issue at either of those is Brexit – certainly, this year’s election will be the Brexit election.

We can’t have another vote, so we have to have another vote.

Let’s face it, if the government had agreed to put to whole thing to a second referendum having got as far as the May deal, they would have got that past parliament back in the spring, and we could have had our second referendum in good order and then gone ahead or not on the basis of that vote.

There is, of course, only one possible answer – the hard line Brexiteers think that if a second referendum was held, the country would decide overwhelmingly not to leave. So much for Brexit being “the will of the people”. Far better, they think, to force us to a vote where other issues muddy the waters, such as the abysmal poll ratings of Jeremy Corbyn (which I put down largely to a campaign of vitriol launched by the Tories and by the vast majority of the media starting the day after he was elected) and the fact that in a Westminster election, the Liberal Democrats have never managed to get into triple figures of MPs (and more usually have been down in the teens and twenties).

Of course, in the European Elections the Liberal Democrats polled more than Labour and more than twice as many votes as the Conservatives – but that was an election which was far more clearly about Brexit. OK, it must be admitted that the Brexit party got nearly as many votes as Labour and LibDem put together, but totting up their votes and those of the Conservatives, the other parties, who were at the least in favour of a second referendum, polled significantly more….

The trouble is, it isn’t going to be clear to a lot of people that Brexit really is the only issue on the table. It certainly isn’t about whether Jeremy Corbyn would be a good leader – there is no chance that he could come out of this with an overall majority, given that Scotland will vote overwhelmingly SNP and Wales will probably knock off a few Labour seats in favour of Plaid Cymru, and that previously safe Labour seats in the north may even elect Brexit party MPs… For those scared of him, the worst that might be seen is that Labour would be the largest party, but be forming a minority government and seeking SNP and LibDem votes on specific issues. We won’t be seeing the socialist republic of Britain on the back of this election.

It isn’t going to be about the wonderful spending promises of either the Labour or the Conservative parties either. If we do actually exit the EU, neither of them will have the money to follow up on those, due to the expected reduction in GDP (which funds taxes, and so the government) of around 10-20% – though Labour might actually try to, given the cheapness of international borrowing at the moment. We’d pretty soon be seeing “we can’t afford to do these things” and a new period of austerity which might even eclipse that of the Cameron government.

No, our slogan for this election should be “Let’s get Brexit done with” – let’s elect ABC candidates (anything but conservative), have a new referendum and yes, OK, if we still vote to leave, we can do that; I’d support putting extra options on any new referendum such as “Norway deal” to clarify further what the people actually DO want, but I’m pretty confident that the “will of the people” is to stop this madness.

And we should remember that this is not about “the will of the people -v- parliament”. Parliament has wonderfully represented the lack of any single will of the people; it’s represented the hardline “get out at all costs” merchants, the “let’s try to keep decent trading arrangements but nothing else” viewpoint, the “let’s have a Norway style deal and get out of the political side but keep all the other advantages” body of opinion and the “Brexit is a stupid idea” camp. The thing is, none of those have had an absolute majority, so there has been deadlock while May and then Johnson try to finagle us into “get out at all costs” – and parliament has said “no” to that.

Is there a gnostic in the house?

I was struck by a recent article from Kimberley Stover on Patheos, written as a heartfelt letter to God – or at least, the concept of God with which she had grown up. I have huge sympathy with her feelings, and like her reject completely that concept.

This reminded me forcibly of the Gnostic attitude to God, and particularly the God depicted in much (but not by any means all) of the Hebrew Scriptures. In what may possibly be the standard Gnostic approach to scripture, the figure generally considered to be God is actually the Demiurge, a lesser emanation of God (but possibly the principal medium through which creation occurs) who, fuelled by delusions of grandeur, sets himself up as being God; the true God is above and beyond the Demiurge, and the Demiurge, while not actually a Satanic figure, takes on some characteristics of the orthodox Satan. Indeed, some gnostic tendencies have led, ultimately, to some forms of modern Satanism; while true gnostics argue for worshipping only the true god behind and above the Demiurge, Satanists argue for worshipping the cosmic figure which actually wields the power.

Gnosticism is a label which has been spread around far too liberally by champions of orthodoxy over the years, notably by such early Church Fathers as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, and is therefore a very amorphous accusation; properly speaking, “gnostic” refers to there being a truth beyond that on the surface of scripture, and (for instance) Paul’s reference in 1 Cor. 2:7 “But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God…” could very reasonably be regarded as gnostic in that sense, as could his reference in 1 Cor. 3:1-3 “But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it; and even now you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh”.

So could the much repeated injunction in Mark to his disciples not to talk about Jesus. So, very notably, could Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of the parable of the Prodigal Son: I quote from an article in Think Theology

“Here is a list of Augustine’s allegorizations taken from Robert H. Stein’s The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings (p. 46):

The man going down to Jericho =Adam
Jerusalem, from which he was going =City of Heavenly Peace
Jericho =The moon which signifies our mortality (this is a play on the Hebrew terms for Jericho and moon which both look and sound alike)
Robbers =Devil and his angels
Stripping him =Taking away his immortality
Beating him =Persuading him to sin
Leaving him half dead =Because of sin, he was dead spiritually, but half alive, because of the knowledge of God
Priest =Priesthood of the Old Testament (Law)
Levite =Ministry of the Old Testament (Prophets)
Good Samaritan =Christ
Binding of wounds =Restraint of sin
Oil =Comfort of good hope
Wine =Exhortation to spirited work
Animal =Body of Christ
Inn =Church
Two denarii =Two commandments to love
Innkeeper =Apostle Paul
Return of the Good Samaritan =Resurrection of Christ”

OK, I know of no modern interpreters who would be likely to put forward an interpretation like Augustine’s. It is absolutely not apparent on the face of the story in Luke’s gospel. I certainly wouldn’t attempt anything similar myself, preferring to stick as closely as I can to what I think the Biblical authors were intending (and flagging any excursions I might make from that principle). However, as the article indicates, it was for most of the early history of Christianity a very common way of interpreting scripture. This was not a new phenomenon, either; Jewish interpretation has four categories, of which such allegorisation is merely the second (Remez), there is also Sod, which is an even deeper esoteric or mystical reading…

[In fact, the emanationist view of creation which forms the basis of the Gnostic’s concept of the Demiurge is one which is central to a lot of Jewish mystical writing, particularly Kabbalah. It seems possible that, in trying to eliminate “Gnostics”, the early church fathers also turned their backs on a huge part of the Jewish mystical tradition (which, I’d argue, makes much of the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Scriptures unintelligible or at least impoverished as well…)]

I also know of no modern interpreters who do not bring something more to their interpretations of scripture – indeed, the very act of interpreting scripture argues that the meaning is NOT transparent on the face of the words as they appear on the page. Every theologian is, in this sense, a kind of gnostic… and, indeed, almost all of us interpret the Prodigal at least somewhat allegorically – we see the father in the story as being God, for instance.

So, I wonder, should I be suggesting that Stover is a Gnostic? Well, I suppose yes, in that very general sense of seeing something more behind the words. Yes, in the sense that she is treating the fundamentalist God-concept which she criticises as being a real supernatural entity, a false claimant to the title “God”. The thing is, despite the way she words the piece, I don’t for a moment think that she believes that God-concept to be a real entity, or that it is an emanation from the True God, a kind of intermediary claiming to be its source. I’m confident she attacks it as an inadequate interpretation of scripture – and that might be considered an anti-gnostic tendency.

However, I am not blind to the fact that I am now reinterpreting what she actually wrote – and that might itself be regarded as gnostic. Nor am I unaware that an interpretation might be regarded as an emanation from an original text – and that is gnostic again…