Archives for category: politics

This election has been the most amazing one in my lifetime. From day one, the Trump campaign has been extraordinary, with regular candidates tossed aside like bowling pegs, one after the other. I do not yet know the outcome of today’s election, but I’m hoping fervently that Hillary makes it across the finish line today – finally stopping this runaway dumpster truck from seizing the highest office in America.

Normally, the dissection of a political battle involves picking through what the winning candidate did right and what the losing candidate did wrong. Should Clinton win, the story should be about how she fought an effective media battle, how she decisively won the debates, how she courted celebrities and rock stars, fought a well-financed ground war and made effective use of analytics. It should be about the long succession of Trump scandals, fiascos and unforced errors, from the Khans to Pussygate, to his atrocious debate performances; his alienation of Latinos, African Americans, women and Muslims; his unedifying spats with his fellow Republican politicians. In ordinary times, you could write a story of these last few months in terms of what was done right by Hillary and wrong by Trump. But these are not ordinary times. The real story of this campaign is how, despite all the errors and disasters, Trump remained in contention and how seemingly smaller setbacks and mistakes sent Clinton’s campaign into a nosedive. Trump survived a video laying his misogyny bare for all to see. He survived a leak which suggested that he paid no tax for decades.  He survived, despite being called out on lie, after lie, after lie. Any one of these should have been enough to put paid to his political aspirations. And yet, when Clinton suffered a bout of pneumonia, or called his supporters ‘deplorable’, or had the FBI resurrect the email investigation, she quickly found herself on the back foot, fighting a desperate battle to maintain her lead.

The story of this election was how, among a large number of supporters, Trump was treated like a demigod, while Clinton was treated with extreme scepticism, bordering on disgust. Trump effectively used hatred, anger and his charisma to marshall powerful forces in his favour, sending out a clear signal that America is extremely vulnerable to demagoguery. How the country recovers from this frightening state of affairs will be a whole other story.

Voters in most countries elect politicians to work in the national interest. This means taking strategic decisions that advance the cause of that country, whether that be economically, politically, culturally, scientifically, you name it. Politicians, and particularly senior politicians, are put there to make the right moves; not necessarily the popular ones.

And then we have Brexit. A constitutional referendum in July returned a wish by a majority of voters in England and Wales (but not in Scotland or Northern Ireland) for the entire UK (including Scotland and Northern Ireland) to leave the European Union. The Tory Party in the UK, currently in government, has promised to make good on this wish and is threatening to pull the rip cord in 2017.

I ask myself how any of the following predictions are really in the UK’s national interest:

  • Scotland’s departure from the UK. The Scottish National Party are the largest political party in Scotland. They have already tried once to break their links with the UK. Under Brexit they would almost definitely do it again. And they would almost definitely win this time.
  • UK banks fear that they may lose “passporting” or ability to trade freely with the EU.
  • The CBI in the UK are reporting a significant year on year drop in sales in September.
  • London may lose its top spot in banking to other cities, including Singapore, New York and Zurich.
  • A European army might come into existence following a UK exit from the EU, contrary to British wishes.
  • Dramatic fee increases are on the cards for British university students as research funding becomes uncertain.
  • A consensus is forming that a hard Brexit would knock off 9 billion pounds in value from investment banking and capital markets.
  • New border posts could be required in Ireland, threatening a hard won peace. 

These are just a smattering of headlines from the last few weeks.

Flight of capital, brain drains, breakup of the UK, decline of strategically important industries, trade tariffs reimposed, worsened security situation: that’s one hell of a price to pay for restricting the number of Polish and Romanian migrants to England and Wales and putting one over on Johnny Foreigner.

If this is working in the national strategic interests of the UK, then I’m a Dutchman.

Goede Nacht.

I’m not so worried about Donald Trump becoming the next president of the United States. 

Back in 2012, Barack Obama’s campaign was not in good shape. Obama had just presided over four of the toughest years in America since the Great Depression. Unemployment was high. Morale was low. Obama could not call on the magnificent rhetoric that brought him to victory in 2008. He had a record of tenure now, and the indications were not good.

The Republican Party, sensing blood, organised a well resourced campaign to throw him out of power. Their candidate, Mitt Romney, was a fair choice, as he had a better chance of appealing to swing state voters than anyone else on the ticket. The Republicans threw everything at Obama. They fueled their core voters. They tried every trick in the book to dissuade potential democrat voters from turning out. They sent millions on clever attack ads. It was a masterpiece of campaigning and it failed. Obama regained the presidency by a comfortable margin.

In the aftermath, it was clear what lost the Republicans the presidency: demographics. The Republican core vote, appealing to white, self-employed, evangelical, rural and libertarian voters, was no longer enough to win, compared to what was now a majority of minority groups. The Democrats, with their particular appeal to urban, multi-ethnic and well educated voters, had the numbers. Republican Party strategists sensed this. They talked about making their message more appealing to a wider cross section of American society. 

None of this happened. Instead, they got Trump.

Donald Trump is the most divisive candidate America has seen in the last 50 years. His only real achievement, since starting his campaign, has been to crystallize a large segment of the Republican base into a red-hot mother lode of fury. He has alienated, not just the target Democratic constituency, but many Republican and evangelical voters, to the point that many of them may well stay home on election day.

Meanwhile, the demographics continue their glacial shift away from the Republican worldview. Bad and all though the numbers were in 2012, it’s worse for them now. They have done nothing to reverse the decline, in fact the opposite is the case. Despite Hillary Clinton’s apparent weaknesses as the Democratic candidate, she has not alienated potential voters in quite the same way and she has given waverers little reason to vote Trump.

It’s hard to see it any other way: the Republican Party are going to lose on an epic scale this year. A Democratic House, Senate and Presidency? It’s on the cards.

Dear Britain,

Last week, you were asked the question if you wanted In or Out of the European Union. You voted Out.

Since then, the Pound has crashed, shares have plummeted, you lost your credit rating, Scotland has threatened independence, both major political parties are in turmoil, companies are threatening to pull out, other companies are putting investments on hold. A full blown recession is on its way.
European citizens have been threatened on the streets. Racists chant their slogans, write graffiti, leave notes and fly their flags. People are terrified.
A fragile peace in Ireland could fall apart. The UK – a Union more intermingled and intermeshed than anyone can possibly imagine, might fall apart. History has shown that such breakups are fraught with pain, injury and death.
The campaign leaders for Leave lied through their teeth. They promised none of this would happen. They were wrong. They laughed at those who urged caution. They were wrong. They admitted they had no plan beyond the referendum. This is incredible.
So here’s what you need to do. Ignore it. Drop it. Put it on ice. Kill it. Do not sign Article 50.
This was a non-binding referendum. Your people spoke, but the answer they gave threatened the very stability they wished for. In fact it did the exact opposite. It’s clear now, to anyone with half a brain, that an exit, without a properly worked out plan, would be suicide. You don’t need to go this way.
This will cause deep, deep upset, but it’s the right thing to do. Given what’s happened, I’ll bet more than a million people have since changed their mind, so a majority will breathe a huge sigh of relief if it were to happen (or not to happen, to be more precise).
Some voters may be driven to the extremes, to UKIP and the National Front; many politicians might soon lose their seats: but if there’s proper leadership and a proper explanation, this might be surmountable. Bring your best leaders to bear on this issue. Work to heal the wounds. Your politics will no doubt be colourful over the coming years, but it’s better the fights take place in parliament than on the dole queues or at the barricades.
Referendums may die as a useful political tool for a generation, but what of it? They often get side-tracked into peripheral issues anyway. Most ordinary people are not politicians: that’s why we have a parliament in the first place. Let them do the hard work of thinking and debating in the national interest. That’s what they’re paid to do.
You asked the question and you got an answer you didn’t want. In other words, you blew it. You demonstrated to the world that mistakes can happen at the highest levels, involving millions of people. So what? Eating humble pie, no matter how unpalatable, is far preferable than knowingly walking into disaster.

You might not want us, but lots of us want you. We need you. Come back from the brink. Please.

There’s been a lot of doom and gloom over Ireland’s fortunes in the event of Brexit, but I think we need to take a breath here.

Britain is not about to disappear into the Atlantic ocean. Nor is it at war with us. Nor is it about to become desperately poor and unable to trade with anyone. It will remain an actively trading nation on the edge of Europe, no further away from the continent than it was yesterday, or 200 years ago. Trade, commerce and business will continue to be important to it, as will good neighbourly relations with its major trading partners. It has no big empire to call on any more, so it will have no choice but to deal with the European countries surrounding it.

As one of Britain’s most strategically important neighbours, they will depend on Ireland and we will continue to depend on them, come what may. We have extremely strong historical, cultural and personal connections with each other. Extremely strong. These links are unlikely to diminish, not now, not ever. Frankly, we’ve been through much worse together and somehow muddled through. This talk about customs points and border checkpoints and needing a visa to travel to the UK is complete guff, because people on both sides won’t let it happen.

A few years ago, both countries achieved something magical: the ending of a nasty protracted conflict on this island that left over 3,000 people dead before their time. The agreements that brought this horror show to an end are unlikely to be tampered with, lest the tamperers want blood on their hands. Which brings up another point: we have ways to talk to the UK, whether the EU wants us to talk to them or not. We already have a special arrangement in force concerning the management of Northern Ireland. The status of Northern Ireland cannot be ignored in any discussions on Britain’s future, which gives us some breathing room when it comes to negotiations on our future relationship.

I do not think that an isolationist Britain will ever become a reality, because frankly, I don’t think its people will let it happen. 48% of its electorate are livid about yesterday’s decision and, for reasons outlined in my last post, they are unlikely to take the emergence of a “Little Britain” lying down. Though it looks somewhat unlikely right now, common sense is likely to win out. When the weight of economic reality dawns on the Brexiters, those much maligned experts will be welcomed back into the fold and given plenty of latitude in the future direction of the country. Jingoistic ultra-nationalism was never that much of an influence in much of British politics throughout the last century, so why should it some to the fore now?

Furthermore, bad and all as it might get for Britain, we’re unlikely to do so badly out of it. Ireland is something of a Singapore to Britain’s Malaysia – a business friendly island with good relations across the globe. We now become even more interesting to American and other foreign multinationals, if we are to become the largest English speaking country in the EU, with the added benefit of close connections to Britain itself. Britain may even see a greater need for us, with all our connections into Europe and around the world, helping to grease the wheels, as it were.

I’m not saying it’s going to be a walk in the park. There could be some real pain ahead, but we’re tied by a shared history. The links that join us won’t easily sunder. A clichéd Irish expression says it all: “lookit, we’ll sort something out”. We should have hope.

Yesterday, English nationalists won a victory in the UK. They voted to leave the EU, to kick the immigrants out of their country, to sacrifice UK cohesion, economic health and a hard won peace to achieve what they call “independence”. They voted to keep the pound and to burn up long-standing agreements with their neighbours. They voted to throw social protections into the bin, to smoke indoors and to revive steak-and-kidney pie as the national meal. If they want to call people of a different appearance by their traditional nicknames, they expect they’ll be able to do that too.

One of the major worries now is that other countries will take heart and follow suit. Nationalist movements in the Netherlands, Poland, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary and across Europe will be emboldened by this. The re-emergence of a fractured, hateful Europe raises its head, should politicians take their collective eyes off their ball.

People have asserted that this harks back to the 1930s and the rise of a new kind of fascism. But let’s pause. There is a big difference. The revolutionaries are not in the prime of their youth. It is a revolution of the elderly. A counter-revolution populated by people who are, themselves, on the way out. True, old people will be replaced by more old people, but the values sustaining them will not be as strongly felt as they are right now. To borrow a quote from Max Planck, societal change, as with science, advances one funeral at a time.

We see signs of this counter-revolution everywhere. Poland, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, the United States and now England, as elderly authoritarians attempt to roll back the clock against the steady march of liberal values. 

Equal rights, equal access and opportunities for women, LGBT people, brown people, black people, foreign people, Muslim people, non-believers, people with physical and mental issues, people with intellectual disabilities, children, traveling people, poor people, the marginalised. Food standards, health standards and living standards for all, not just the privileged few. It’s not just about people: clean water, waste reduction, carbon neutral living; sanctions against polluters and those who would be cruel to animals. This has caused great upset to some people. As change becomes becomes more evident, their annoyance only deepens.

So they fight back. They organise. They campaign. They vote. Donald Trump’s rise as a serious political force in the US is a sign of this. So too is Brexit.

But we also must remember that backlashes often create backlashes of their own; particularly if they are sudden and powerful, like what happened yesterday. With hard work from those of us who believe in progress, they will find implementing their wishes monstrously difficult. They will encounter problems and roadblocks at every opportunity. They will me made to look foolish, craven and incompetent at every turn. Theirs will be a record of failure, allowing people of goodwill a chance to make genuine change when their opportunity comes along. We might yet look back on these times and reflect, not on the breakers, but on the efforts of those who repaired what was broken.

Brexit is a setback. An enormous one. But let’s not forget that it’s happened because the march of progress has been overwhelmingly in the direction of liberal values. Those who oppose this are organised, but they are not, in the main, young. They may have their day in the sun, laughing at foreigners and trumpeting their national values, but the road is much longer than them. If we fight back, our values will win in the end. 

With the rise and rise of Donald Trump (and his pal Cruz) in some parts of the US, it seems that an amnesia has settled over conservative America about what conservatism means. 

Conservatives prefer the old order, the existing order of things. They want to conserve this, thus the meaning of the word. It implies that the current situation has value, whether that be law and order, economic order, education, healthcare, administration, whatever. Progressive moves to change these things are seen as dangerously experimental. This is not such a silly thing: look before you leap, etc. Boiled down, it’s an avoidance of unnecessary risk, lest it create more problems than it solves. I sometimes think that if the existing order were more secular, more tolerant of diversity and more evidence-based, I might tend towards conservatism myself.

Trump and Cruz, the darlings of the non-establishment right, are dangerously radical. They are not about maintaining an old order, unless that order is some sort of mythic 1950s amalgam that never existed. Trying to turn the clock back 60 years, in a networked age of global trade, greater equality, fluid labor and international competition, is not something you can just push back in a box. It is not conservatism. Bringing back white male dominance, fanning discord, creating barriers and fomenting war, is not conservatism. Setting aside the US Constitution, to do to their enemies what they badly want to do, is not conservatism. Pushing the poor to extremes is not conservatism, lest you wish to hark back to middle ages feudalism.

Meanwhile, the hated Democrats have stolen the middle ground. Obama, with his focus on improving the economy, better international cooperation and sensible changes to a broken healthcare system, made few great risks during his presidency. He was no radical progressive. History might see him as a conservative politician in the true sense of the word. I expect that Hillary Clinton might appeal to conservatives in much the same way. If you are risk averse and you have to select someone to lead your country into the next decade, who are you going to vote for? Donald Trump? Ted Cruz? Seriously?

A few days ago, during the General Election, I tweeted this:

It got a lot of retweets because the politicians I mentioned represent the extreme cases of those who are less interested in national politics than they are about pandering to the needs of their own local community. They are caricatures, easily lampooned and despised. To them, it’s all about Kerry and Tipperary, and the rest of the country can take a running jump.

But, honestly, I’m somewhat conflicted about all this. While I despise the gombeen image, I think the local nature of politics in this country serves us very well.

It’s important, I think, that we know the people we are voting for. If someone is effective on a local level, then we get to see through the slogans. We get an insight into the people themselves. We derive something about their character. The voting process can winnow the best of these from the less able. In the main, good people are sent to Leinster House.

Another thing to celebrate is that our political process is rooted in the life and history of our country.  We are never more than 10 feet away from a local politician here. This helps to mitigate the sense of disenfranchisement so keenly felt across the Western world. In Knocknaheeney, a deprived suburb of Cork I drive through almost every day, there was a palpable sense of energy in the run-up to the election. The next Dáil will contain many people who will represent the voices of the deprived, and this is a good thing.

The system can result in narrow-minded councillors topping the polls, but what’s amazing is that, more often than not, it delivers quite good people too. Michael Lowry, Mattie McGrath and the Healy-Raes represent the extreme of our local system, but that doesn’t mean that the system in general is dreadfully wrong. It might actually be the best thing to come from 1916 – something that makes us who we are: democrats by instinct and nature.

Even though the next government is still uncertain, I am quite optimistic about the outcome. Ireland is not built for grand overthrows but evolutionary change is quite possible. Our local system of politics, with its abundant compromises and contact with the struggles of real people, makes such change possible.

 

My last blog post brings me nicely to a recent debate on climate change on RTE Prime Time (an Irish current affairs programme).

On the panel were Kevin Humphreys (Junior Minister in the Dept of Social Protection), Ray Bates (Adjunct Professor at the Meteorology and Climate Centre in UCD), Oisin Coughlan (Friends of the Earth) and Eamon Ryan (Green Party).

While, I think, two of the panelists (Humphreys and Coughlan) did creditably well to represent their positions, the other two, Bates and Ryan, were awful, and for two different reasons.

Maybe I should get the worst of them out of the way first. Eamon Ryan came across as shrill, ill-tempered and preachy. He butted straight into other people’s talk time, listened to no-one, waved his hands and acted like a small boy in a sweetshop whose parents wouldn’t buy him a pack of bonbons. He might feel really, really, really strong about this issue (and I don’t blame him for that), but his style completely overruled content on the night. Humphreys only had to roll his eyes a few times, and Miriam O’Callaghan to politely reprimand him, for us all to realise that Ryan’s emotions had let him down badly. He should be long enough in this business by now to realise that dogmatism and rudeness does you no favours in a TV debate, nor does it help the credibility of your party.

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 1.30.53 a.m.

Eamon Ryan in full flight

On the opposite side, Ray Bates was a model of civility and patience. He was considered. He didn’t lose his temper. Which was unfortunate, because Ray Bates was, by far, the most problematic person on the panel.

Now, to be fair to Bates, he is not what I would call a First Degree Denier. He accepts anthropogenic climate change (ie. we’re responsible for it), but he disputes how bad it’s going to be and how long it will take.

Bates took pains to advertise his scientific credentials. Indeed, He mentioned them a few times. But what I heard was something slightly different than what I might expect most scientists to say. He spent his time picking some IPCC findings that suited his argument: that the margin of error was greater in 2013 than in 2007, or that 2015’s warming was less in the higher atmosphere than the lower atmosphere, or that climate models were out by a factor of 3. Pick, pick, pick. It’s like he was reading all the data, then looking for a small number of anomalies that he could use for the purposes of spreading uncertainty. That’s curious.

So here’s the thing. If you are fairly clueless on the details of global warming like most of us are, you would be left with the impression that all scientists have the same viewpoint as Ray: that they think it’s serious, but it’s not something to worry about too much. He was the only person on the panel with real scientific credentials – others were political and activism based – so that lent his view a certain amount of gravitas in the circumstances.

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 1.33.26 a.m.

Prof. Ray Bates – climate models are the best we have, but sure, we can pick and choose.

But the fact is that he is very much out of step with most of his peers around the world. It’s not because they are all have some chip on their shoulder, or he’s not invited to the right parties; it’s because they are reading the data differently to him. The issue really is more urgent than he is making it out to be. After reading John Gibbons’ article about him, I tend to concur with the view that he is somewhat more protective of the Irish agricultural position than a totally independent actor should really be. I think he has an ideological position in this matter – otherwise why such a pro-agri stance? Why use the airtime to water down the findings in favour of the status quo?

I’m unhappy that Bates was the only scientist that RTE could find on this subject, because he badly misrepresented the scientific position on this. RTE needs to start getting away from the climate denier spokespeople – who are always available to talk – and start hearing more from other scientists who can better speak to the likely downstream issues caused by a rapidly warming world.

 

I had a brief chat with my son this evening. He told me that there was some kind of initiative going on where kids were going to learn politics as part of their final year exams. At first I thought it was a dumb idea. Surely, kids could learn about that by picking up a newspaper or watching the news on TV?

But when I thought about it some more, I changed my mind. And it’s not just because of the obvious question: I mean, what kid reads newspapers or watches TV news these days?

Here’s the real problem: our generation and the generation before us have made a complete balls of looking after the world. We have all these really serious issues, like climate change, poverty, inequality, radicalisation, racism, sexism, terrorism, access to medicines and drinking water, overuse of antibiotics, biodiversity decline and ocean acidification, to name but a few. Huge problems. And who have we chosen to solve these problems for us? In the main, a bunch of space cadets.

Our generations, when given a chance, have blown it, choosing instead to elect populist dickheads again and again and again and yet again. Instead of electing someone who might know a thing or two about managing complex problems, we’ve gone repeatedly for the political equivalent of the drug pusher. Yeah man, Pop this Pill and All your Worries will be Gone. The Problem is Not You; It’s Them.

I despair for the future if our kids grow up with no interest in politics, because we’ve left their generation in the invidious position of having to clean up after us. They are the ones who’ll be left with no fish in the seas. They are the people who’ll need to deal with all the carbon dioxide in the air and the oceans. They are the ones who will need to tackle youth unemployment and unrest and desperate social inequality. And all because the incompetents we elected did precisely nothing about it when they had the chance to. In fact, they did worse than nothing: they made these bad situations even more abysmal than they were.

If the next generation grow up in our footsteps, apathetic about the world they live in, they won’t even have the language to tackle the problems we’ve left them with. Instead, if they vote at all, they’ll be left voting for blowhards in the footsteps of Berlusconi and Trump, only because nobody in their right minds would enter politics in a fit. Imagine this: George W Bush is now considered by many commentators to be a moderate. A moderate. My god.

I have one caveat about giving the next generation a sense of political awareness. If they ever realise what our lot did on our watch, they’ll immediately have us all locked up. But then again, it’s nothing more than we deserve.

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