Friday 27 September 2019

My fears for the future

More than at any time since the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump three years ago, I fear for our future.

We are descending into a very dark place.

Where governments cast aside the rule of law as if it is no more than an irritating inconvenience.

Where political leaders stoke up hatred for short-term political gain.

Where lies have become common currency.

And where a former British Cabinet minister, John Whittingdale, can claim, in all seriousness, that ‘There is a judgement which is superior to that of any court … the judgement of the British people.’ In other words, who needs the rule of law when a lynch mob is on hand?

I am not alone in my fears: the front-page headline in today’s Times reads: ‘Deliver Brexit or face riots’, based on what an anonymous Cabinet minister is reported to have told Boris Johnson. And Gaby Hinsliff, in today’s Guardian, writes that Johnson ‘has brought this country to the point where an election is genuinely to be feared, no matter who wins, because of the violence that may follow.’

In Boris Johnson, we have a prime minister who knows no shame. A prime minister who has sold his soul to a reckless schemer, Dominic Cummings, who recognises no rules (he had already been found to be in contempt of parliament for refusing to appear before a select committee, which tells us all we need to know about how little importance Mr Johnson attaches to such matters) and who revels in sowing discord.

In Donald Trump, we have a US president who is so cavalier in his disregard for the law that when he asks a foreign leader, as a favour, to open a criminal investigation into his principal political adversary (Joe Biden, who served as US vice-president for eight years under Barack Obama), he so alarms a member of his own intelligence services that they invoke whistle-blower protection to report their suspicion that Trump is guilty of a criminal act and that the White House has tried to cover it up.

For a brief moment last Tuesday, I felt a flutter of optimism after the UK Supreme Court’s unanimous 11-0 ruling that Boris Johnson’s decision to seek a five-week prorogation of parliament was ‘unlawful, null and of no effect’. At last, I thought: an over-mighty executive brought to heel by a robust, independent judiciary. That’s how democracy is meant to work.

As the Financial Times said in a stonking editorial on Wednesday: ‘When strongman leaders, even in advanced democracies, are attempting to bypass legislatures or due process, the ruling sends a powerful message. In the age of fake news and alternative realities, it is refreshing that judges saw through Downing Street’s skulduggery.’

The president of the Supreme Court, the inspirational Baroness Hale, felt the need to remind Boris Johnson of something that no one, let alone a UK prime minister, should ever have needed to be reminded of: ‘We live in a representative democracy. The House of Commons exists because the people have elected its members. The government is not directly elected by the people … The government exists because it has the confidence of the House of Commons. It has no democratic legitimacy other than that.’ (My italics.)

Contrast that with the disgraceful suggestion from Johnson himself that parliament should ‘stand aside’ to allow the government to ‘get Brexit done’. Study those words carefully: parliament should stand aside. Not the opposition, not anti-Brexiteers, but parliament itself. They were the words of a playground bully: ‘Get out of my way or I’ll smash your face in.’

Rafael Behr in The Guardian also felt a need to teach the prime minister the basics of how representative democracy works: ‘Johnson holds his office by crown appointment on the basis that he governs with the consent of parliament, representing the people. There is no higher channel that somehow transmutes the popular will into the body of a supreme leader. That mystical power is claimed only by charlatans and autocrats.’

As we now know, Mr Johnson accepts none of that. He insists that, even though there is now a law on the statute book obliging him to seek an Article 50 extension before the end of October if he has not reached a withdrawal agreement with the EU, he has no intention of doing any such thing.

According to the former prime minister Sir John Major, he could be planning to bypass the law by passing a so-called Order of Council to suspend the Act – something he could do without involving either parliament or the Queen. ‘I should warn the prime minister,’ said Sir John, ‘that, if this route is taken, it will be in flagrant defiance of parliament and utterly disrespectful to the Supreme Court. It would be a piece of political chicanery that no one should ever forgive or forget.’

And all this while Mr Johnson recklessly ramps up the rhetoric, dismisses as ‘humbug’ the fears of MPs for their personal safety, and insists on using words like ‘surrender’ and ‘capitulation’, words which presumably he thinks make him sound like Winston Churchill in 1940, to paint his opponents as traitors. He brushes aside appeals from all sides to moderate his language, still refusing to accept that what might, just, have been acceptable from the newspaper columnist that he once was is wholly unacceptable – no, worse than that, is despicable – from a national leader.

(Incidentally, his insistence on referring to the ‘Surrender Act’ is based on a blatant lie, Trumpian in its brazenness. Here is the truth, if you’re interested. It might be worth passing on to anyone you hear using the ‘surrender’ phrase.)

So Boris Johnson stands revealed as an unprincipled, amoral, political chameleon, prepared to wrap himself in whatever tawdry covering is required to gain him the prizes he most covets: power and glory. As mayor of London, he pretended to be a social liberal, a man of the metropolis. Now he is a zealot, stirring up hatreds and using the incendiary language of violence.

Which brings us, alas, to the equally appalling vista on the other side of the Atlantic, where Donald Trump now faces formal impeachment proceedings. In response, as you’d expect, he’s gone off the rails again: he has demanded to know where the intelligence service whistle-blower got their information from (the full complaint is here, and it’s well worth reading), and suggested that whoever was responsible was ‘close to a spy – and you know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart?’ (Clue: spies used to be shot.)

I wish I could feel more positive about both the impending US impeachment proceedings and the UK Supreme Court ruling. Both suggest that robust democratic institutions can still function, even when autocrats and bullies seek to run roughshod over them. But what deeply concerns me is the readiness of both Trump and Johnson – and their acolytes – to coarsen political debate and disagreement to such a degree that it soon could spill over into more violence.

Let us not forget: the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in 2016; Heather Heyer was killed during a ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a year later. Both were the victims of extreme nationalists who took their cue directly from the sort of language now used routinely by leaders on both sides of the ocean. Twenty-two people died in El Paso, Texas, just last month, allegedly at the hands of a gunman who had earlier published online a manifesto redolent with white nationalist and anti-immigrant bigotry.

In the US, a presidential election is due next year. In the UK, an election could be upon us before the end of this year, and a second Brexit referendum could follow not long after that. With emotions running as high as they are, and with reckless political leaders in both countries prepared to say anything at all that they calculate will bring them political advantage, the risks of more violence have never been higher.

And the big question for progressives and liberals who, like me, fear for the future, is how best to confront the danger. So far, no one seems to have come up with a good answer.

Friday 20 September 2019

Hello? Is there anyone there?

I don’t know how I could possibly have missed it – after all, it’s not as if there’s anything else going on – but apparently the results of a global opinion poll were published a few days ago on whether we should respond to an approach, if and when it comes, from an alien civilisation.

In the UK, two-thirds of the men said Yes, but more than half of the women said No. Globally, the split was pretty much 50-50. Me? I’m with the fellas: if ET gets in touch, yes, definitely, let’s pick up the phone. And I know what my first words would be: ‘I think we could do with some help.’

So let’s think this through. Let’s suppose that one of the international consortia of space scientists – the NASA-backed SETI institute in California, for example (SETI = Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), or the $100 million Breakthrough Listen project – pick up signals that could only have come from some form of intelligent life far, far away. What’s more, by some miracle of computational gee-whizzery, they can decipher what the signals say.

‘Hello? Is there anyone out there?’ And guess what, although it’s not quite as easy as hitting the Reply button, the earthling scientists work out how to respond.

Why wouldn’t they? ‘Hello, we’re here. The little blue planet, third one out from the G2V star on the inner edge of the Orion arm of the Milky Way galaxy, about 26,500 light years from the Galactic Centre. If you can’t find us, presumably you have an equivalent of Google Maps.’

To me, it’s a no-brainer. But some scientists think we’d be crazy to tell anyone where we are. The science commentator Anjana Ahuja wrote in the Financial Times the other day that it would be ‘madness on a galactic scale’. ‘An alien lifeform extending the tentacle of friendship is likely to be reaching out from a position of technological, if not intellectual, superiority,’ she wrote. ‘The history of explorers pinpointing distant lands is one of plunder and conquest. Parading our presence could unleash interplanetary pandemonium.’

The astrophysicist Duncan Forgan is similarly fearful. ‘I don’t think it’s a good idea to speak to someone when you have no idea who they are. I’m not convinced we should be advertising the human race at this point in our existence.’

I understand their position. The way they see it, we earthling human life-forms are the galactic equivalent of First Nation Americans or the indigenous peoples of Australia when unfriendly foreign explorers landed on their shores. Shouldn’t we learn from their experience?

Having recently discovered that a planet called K2-18b orbiting in the ‘habitable zone’ of a distant star has evidence of the presence of water in its atmosphere – and therefore, in theory, might be capable of supporting life as we understand it – should we tread very carefully before making our existence known to whoever, or whatever, might be living there?

I am no scientist, but I think the sceptics are being too cautious. It’s not as if we are so confident of our long-term survival prospects that we might not benefit from a bit of help from our intellectual or technological superiors. And if they were to decide that we’re so useless at looking after ourselves and our planet that they’d be better off annihilating us and starting all over again, well, I’m not sure I’d blame them.

On the other hand, if they ask to be taken to our leader, I’d immediately put them in touch with David Attenborough – he has plenty of experience of dealing with non-human life forms, and he might even be able to persuade our alien visitors that we’re not as useless as we seem.

I know, I know. You’re wondering why I have chosen to write about extra-terrestrial intelligence this week of all weeks. I would have thought it was obvious. I’m desperately hoping that there’s someone – something – out there who can help us resolve … but no, I promised myself I wouldn’t even mention the B word this week. So you’ll have to work it out for yourself.

And, ET, if you’re reading this, you know where to find me.

Friday 13 September 2019

Heading towards a culture war

They both have ridiculous hairstyles, they are both inveterate liars, and they are both adept at riding populist waves. They also, to our immense misfortune, are both, for the time being, leaders of their countries.

Yes, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have much in common. So too do their supporters. After all, just look at the campaign slogans that won them high office: ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘Take Back Control.’ And focus on two words in particular: ‘again’ and ‘back’.

Both words encourage voters to hark back to a supposedly more glorious past. They are an appeal to nostalgia, to the days of voters’ youth when they were healthier and happier and the world, at least when viewed through their favourite rose-tinted glasses, was a much, much better place.

In America, it was a time before they lost the war in Vietnam, before President Richard Nixon had been forced to resign in disgrace, before millions of jobs in heavy industries were lost. In the UK, it was before we lost an empire, before the death of the coal, steel and ship-building industries, before immigrants with different coloured skins arrived on our shores.

And – of course – it was a time before we joined the Common Market, which then became the European Economic Community, and then became the European Union. Hence Brexit. Hence a political and constitutional crisis deeper than any since the fierce debates over Irish Home Rule more than a hundred years ago.

Brexit is about so much more than how we organise our international trading relationships. It is about how we think of ourselves, and how we think of our country. I have come to the view that the reason Remainers and Leavers can barely speak to each other any more is that they are talking about the wrong things.

I have been taking another look at the detailed research findings published by the pollster and Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft immediately after the Brexit referendum. He interviewed more than twelve thousand voters, far more than is usual in exercises of this kind, and his findings revealed a vast attitudinal gulf between the two sides of the Brexit divide.

For example: Leave voters were far more pessimistic about their children’s futures than Remainers. They were also far more likely to take the view that life in Britain today is worse than it was thirty years ago. The figures are startling: nearly three quarters of Remainers thought life was better than it used to be; more than half of the Leave voters thought it was worse. Substantial majorities of Leave voters also thought that multi-culturalism, social liberalism, feminism, the green movement, globalisation and immigration were all forces for ill. Remainers thought exactly the opposite.

I grew up in the 1960s. It was a time when abortion and male homosexuality were legalised, capital punishment was abolished, and the feminist movement took off. To some, it was the age of the ‘permissive society’, an age when the ‘old morality’ was replaced by what they called the ‘new immorality’. During my schooldays, there was a far-right movement, a precursor to the National Front, called the League of Empire Loyalists, rabidly anti-Semitic and anti-Communist, which campaigned forlornly for the preservation of the British empire. There is nothing new about nostalgia, even if, as the old joke has it, it’s nothing like it used to be.

I bring all this up now because I fear that in the cauldron of the current Brexit melt-down, we are in danger of ignoring the very real divisions in British society that go far beyond Brexit itself. As the political debate becomes increasingly polarised, with each side accusing the other of betrayal, treachery and worse, there is an increasing danger that we are moving ever closer to what in different circumstances would be called a culture war.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, however, I have discerned some tiny glimmers of hope over the past few days. Whereas fifteen months ago I was writing in fury about what I called the ‘shame of our cowardly MPs’, now I have come to admire at least those who have put conscience before party loyalty, even at the risk of their careers. I also admire our still independent judiciary – even as I watched in horror as the business minister Kwasi Kwarteng told Andrew Neil last Wednesday that although, of course, he himself believes that judges are impartial, ‘many people up and down the country are beginning to question their partiality.’

I have also been encouraged – oh, all right, just a little bit encouraged – by the conclusion of Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform and one of our most respected EU analysts, after two days of talks with EU, member state and UK officials, that a deal is ‘more likely than I had thought.’

For what it’s worth, I still believe Boris Johnson desperately wants a deal, even at the cost of being branded a traitor by the so-called Spartans of his own party. All he needs is a rabbit out of the hat at the EU Council meeting in mid-October, the support of a couple of dozen of pro-Brexit Labour MPs, and he’ll be basking in the glory of an adoring Conservative party.

Which, of course, is what he always wanted. He hates being hated – I have rarely seen him look as miserable as he has done recently – so I suspect he’ll soon be parting company with his sinister adviser, Dominic (Svengali) Cummings, who likes nothing better.

I don’t believe that he’ll break the law over seeking an Article 50 extension, but I do think he’ll resign as prime minister rather than go through with it if he hasn’t got a deal. So if you can’t bear the thought of any more high octane Westminster drama, I suggest you go somewhere far away between 19 and 31 October. My blogpost on 1 November will tell you whether it’s safe to come home.