Friday, 24 June 2016

A post-Brexit world

The vote by the British to leave the European Union was remarkable on many levels. It was unexpected in the sense that an overwhelming majority of financial experts believed Britain was better in the EU than outside it. The rejection of their opinion speaks volumes for the disenchantment of voters with economics. In many ways this is understandable because the majority of Britons have seen little improvement (and often a decline) in their economic circumstances for many years - and the feeling must be "stuff the experts".

I certainly have some sympathy with this reaction. For many years the rich have become richer while the incomes of working and middle class voters have at best stagnated. There is a perception (in my view justifiable) that this is the direct result of fiscal policies promoted by the Conservative government (and a very weak opposition during this time).

However when the quality of their lives deteriorates the people become vulnerable to pernicious manipulation and I have certainly no sympathy whatsoever with the way that the immigrant issue has been presented by the Brexit campaigners. A particularly egregious example was the UKIP poster of migrants crossing the Slovenia-Croatia border that was nakedly racist. The immigration issue became the emotive central issue of the referendum and I am very sad that many Britons were sucked in to believing that their troubles could be alleviated by putting up immigration barriers.

A second respect in which the referendum result was remarkable was the different ways in which the four countries of the UK voted. The majority of English and Welsh votes were cast for Brexit but in Scotland and Northern Ireland the picture was very different. In Scotland the vote was 62% against Brexit. This raises once again the prospect of Scotland's destiny being held hostage to the opinions of their English neighbour and I am certain that there will now be strong calls for another referendum on Scottish independence.

Yet another remarkable consequence of the vote was the sudden way in which David Cameron's premiership ended. After 6 confident years he was one of the longest serving Conservative leaders of recent times and now he has gone. Despite some calls to the contrary it was his only honourable course of action - and how unappealing would it be for him to spearhead the details of the British withdrawal?  The bookies are predicting that he will be succeeded by Boris Johnson, another Etonian, a man without any semblance of a moral compass (see this evisceration) and one of the leading campaigners of the Brexit movement.

All in all it is easy to conclude that there is disaster in all directions. But there may be light at the end of the tunnel. The UK certainly is in a poor place at present but it is at least crystal clear that the policies of the Tory government have utterly failed and, in the short to medium term, things will only get worse. So in time a new government will come to power possibly after a short period of Johnson at the helm. I think that Jeremy Corbyn will also not last very long - his heart is in the right place but he has completely failed to inspire his party or the country. The people have rejected the status quo and the policies of the establishment and I do not expect it to regain its grip on the political landscape. An inspirational leader will be able to work from a clean slate and possibly lead us to a fairer society.

I shall end with a question that is almost certainly to arise. The dire economic situation the UK will soon find itself in is going to make public opinion very volatile indeed. What is going to happen if, during the protracted process in leaving the EU, the pendulum of opinion swings back towards Europe? This seems a fairly likely scenario when it becomes clear that any trade agreement reached with the EU is necessarily going to be conditional on an agreement to have (like Norway) open borders. I think it is going to be hard to carry through to the end an exit from the EU if the UK people become more aware of what they will be losing. And, surely, before the door shuts it will be necessary to consult the people once again if they are happy with whatever trade agreements have been agreed to replace full EU membership.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Cultural influences

This post was prompted by the excellent BBC Drama "The Last Kingdom" which is a fictionalised account of the struggle between Alfred (The Great) and Danish invaders of England in the late 9th Century. The TV series is based on the books of Bernard Cornwell who, apart from many historical novels, has also written some non-fiction history books. So far as I can tell he makes a careful effort to portray the times he writes about -- in which case England in the late 800's AD was a violent age where life was cheap, the people used to brutality, and everyone lived in the hope of eternal life and the fear of damnation.

Of course some parts of the world could also be described in those terms but England and much of the Western World is a very different place. As someone who grew up in England I began to speculate how my life would be if I had instead lived there 1100 years earlier. In some ways I would not have been very different since human biology has hardly changed in that time span; so, presumably, my cognitive power would be much the same and my physical strength would have been about the same (until accident or disease brought me to an earlier end). But in almost every other way my life would have been completely different.

Now that may seem so obvious as to be hardly worth saying but I state it anyway because I think I am prone (and perhaps others too are prone) to an arrogance that needs to be reined in from time to time. In this arrogance I survey the world believing myself to be a thoughtful person, well read, capable of reaching conclusions stemming from an unbiased interpretation of what I assiduously try to find out about the world. I have opinions that I can defend and a naturalistic world-view which hangs together in a coherent framework. In other words, even though I am a card-carrying Skeptic, I believe that I have a good handle on what is real, what is important, and what can be dismissed as nonsense.  Most of all I think of this unified personal experience of the world as being of my own construction.

So, for example, I have a certain view about freedom of speech. I'm extremely liberal to the point that I would not ban anti-semitic opinions no matter how poisonous. And I hold these views because I have carefully considered as many implications of them as I can. To me they seem robust and defensible and they stem from some intrinsic part of me. My freedom of speech views are also coherent with many other views I hold - enlightened, informed and intelligent views.

But now comes the point. If I had been born, physically and mentally the same as I was born in 1946, but 1100 years previously I would certainly not  have grown up to be anything like the person I am today. Even if Dark Ages me had been educated as well as those times would allow, my intellect would more likely be engaged in the subtler aspects of Christian theology. I would accept without question that men should have greater societal privilege and power than women. If I ever thought about it all I would most likely share the then prevailing condemnatory views of homosexuals. And in many other ways I would have a totally different outlook on the world than 21st Century me. But one thing might not be different: I would still have an underlying certainty that my views were coherent, defensible and right.

I find this thought experiment somewhat alarming. It indicates that so many opinions that I thought were really my own are actually the product of the times and society in which I live. Should I conclude that these opinions are completely untrustworthy because, rather than having been reasoned through by me, they are as ephemeral as the current times and society?

Luckily I think that the answer to that pessimistic question is "No" (but I had better be much more humble about where my opinions come from). The first thing to say is that the times one lives in do not completely determine ones set of opinions; one only has to look around to see a great variety of different world views in the same society. Therefore if one has been careful and honest in working through all the facts available one may perhaps be in possession of a set of views that are pretty good compared to other world views around. Maybe that has happened in my case; I hope so but cannot be certain.

The second thing to say is that, despite many setbacks along the way, cultures do tend to evolve in the direction of most of the things I value: liberalism, secularism, skepticism, and scientific understandings. So even though there is no God to tell us that those values are absolute values, we might hope that humanity is selecting them in Darwinian fashion as conducive to the flourishing of our species.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Trump and the future

This is a prediction posting: what will happen to Donald Trump's bid for the American presidency? I'm doing it partly because it may provide some comfort if you've been entertaining alarmist scenarios but the major reason is to entertain myself -- I intend in about 9 months to do a follow-up post in which I discuss what I got right and what I got wrong.

As I write this, Trump appears to be on the crest of a wave. He is winning most of the Republican primaries, his rivals are dropping out of the race in droves, those that remain are divided, and the Republican establishment are panicking that there is nothing to do to stop him winning the GOP nomination in July. At the same time, if he does become the Republican candidate, he may not be a push-over opponent for Hillary Clinton if she is the democratic candidate. Clinton is very much an establishment candidate in a year when the electorate is very disillusioned with the candidate. In other words (say some) Trump may well become the next President of the United States.

I make two main predictions: Trump will be the Republican presidential candidate but he will easily be defeated in the general election.

Taking the first of these predictions: If Trump wins at least 1237 delegates before the convention then (normally) the nomination would not be contested. Pollsters are divided about whether he can achieve that. But if he wins fewer than 1237 delegates there will be ballots to choose the candidate. Nevertheless we will have a very large lead over his rivals (very likely a total more than the combined totals of his rivals). In that case we don't quite know how the bosses of the Republican party will play things but they would surely enrage the primary voters if they tried to set aside Trump in favour of another candidate (Cruz or Kasich or some Johnny-come-lately candidate). I think they would be more likely to bite the bullet and endorse Trump.

As for the general election: while it is true that Trump's campaign has had success until now - far beyond what pundits a few months ago were predicting - I think that the paucity of his policies, his outrageous lies, and the unsuitability of his temperament will tell very badly against him in the greater scrutiny that is bound to occur.

It is easy from over 10,000 miles away to think that the USA is populated by ignoramuses who have been swayed by Trump's rhetoric and that therefore a majority of the electorate will support him. But he has already seized the low-hanging electoral fruit - Republicans so disenchanted even with the wacky policies that their main stream often espouses. Less extreme Republicans and Democrats may not be so easy to beguile. Between now and November Trump's opponents are going to have so much ammunition that they will never run out of ways in which they can attack him. All that Clinton needs to do is make no major missteps and she will win by a landslide.

When, in 8 months time, I revisit my predictions the outcome could be rather boring if I was essentially right. Much more interesting would be any way in which I was wrong. More interesting because we could be living in a more dangerous world but (for me at least) it will give me something to think about: why was I so wrong in my current beliefs. That would be humbling and might help me to understand politics and my own biases better.