Category Archives: nations

Woke up sucking a lemon

Adapted from original material by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood

Adapted from original material by Thom Yorke and Stanley Donwood

I’ve now written four follow-up posts to this post on David Goodhart and Eric Kaufmann. I think by now I’ve said all I want to say on the subject. (I hope so, anyway – I’ve written 18,000 words already.) As a final postscript, these are some notes on reactions to the original post.

There was quite a lot of reaction to the post, and almost all positive; it was endorsed on Twitter by Frances Coppola, Declan Gaffney, Peter Jukes and Jonathan Portes, as well as being mentioned favourably on Stumbling and Mumbling and the Cedar Lounge. (Not a peep out of Wren-Lewis, though. Maybe another time.) I didn’t link to the column I was quoting, or name its author, the researcher he quotes or the latter’s institution (David Goodhart, Eric Kaufmann and Birkbeck respectively); I liked the idea of challenging (and hopefully demolishing) DG and EK’s arguments without actually giving them any publicity. Nevertheless, within 24 hours the post had come to both their attention, and I had my first critical readings – both from the authors and from their Twitter followers, although the latter didn’t say much about the post. (They were a charming bunch. One @-ed me in on a tweet telling DG I was a loon ranting into the void and advising him not to bother with me; he had an egg avatar and a timeline that seemed to consist mainly of insulting public figures and then complaining that they’d blocked him. I tweaked him a bit, asking who he was and how he was so sure I was a ranting loon. In reply he insulted me at some length, so I blocked him.)

The reactions from EK and DG were interesting. If you look at the original post you’ll see that I’ve retracted one point and expanded another quite substantially; each of these amendments was necessitated by a brief tweet from EK, and one which (in both cases) didn’t sink in until a couple of hours after I’d first read it. I still think his report’s dreadful, but on the detail level EK is clearly not someone to trifle with. DG’s response was interesting in a different way. When I accused EK of purveying unreliable stats, he reacted to the accusation by looking at my underlying argument, spotting the flaw in it and pointing it out to me; hence the retraction. When I accused DG of making a claim that’s straightforwardly false (In several UK cities, the white British are now a minority), he said nothing at all. He did respond to me, but not on that point, and not to very much effect. He challenged my point about the supposed rights of minorities, albeit rather feebly (as we saw earlier), but that was about it in terms of references to the post. Other than that, he accused me of facetiousness, pedantry and point-missing; he subtweeted me twice (that I know of), lamenting to his followers that he was having to argue with people who didn’t believe there was such a thing as ethnicity and/or believed that mentioning ethnicity was racist; and he repeatedly accused me of calling him a racist, and (for good measure) of calling “about 90% of Brits” racists. (This led to some short-form sermonising from one of DG’s followers about all these Lefties calling people racists all the time.) Needless to say, I hadn’t called anyone a racist. I tried to keep up the pressure – although most of the time it was more a matter of trying to keep him on topic – but it was a singularly unedifying series of exchanges. DG eventually cut it short, after replying to his egg-shaped follower and agreeing that I wasn’t worth bothering with.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning one other response – if it was a response; it may just be a curious coincidence. There’s a guy out there called Stuart Russell, who was formerly employed as press spokesman for the BNP; in that role, for reasons best known to himself, he went by the name of ‘Phil Edwards’. Russell seems to be rather proud of having a doctorate, as (unlike most PhDs I know) he uses his title routinely; his friends even seem to call him ‘the Doc’. I don’t know anything about this doctorate, and I’ve got no reason to believe it’s as fake as his pseudonym. I do know that if Russell was ever an academic it was a long time ago; company listings show him running a fireworks company in the early 90s, apparently alongside his father (search “Stuart Harling Russell” if you’re curious). Naturally the doctoral affectation carried over to his pseudonym, so Dr Stuart Russell became Dr Phil Edwards. Some years ago I tried to get the Guardian to refer to the man by his real name – instead of referring to him by my real name – but without much success. Anyway, Russell left his post (voluntarily or otherwise) when the BNP imploded in 2007 – and he was 64 then – so I hadn’t given him much thought for the last few years.

What should appear in my inbox, just as the DG/EK post was trending, but an email from “Dr Stuart Russell”, with some links to a purportedly libertarian site set up by Kevin Scott, formerly of the BNP (or “Kevin Scott BA Hons” as the site refers to him; they do like their credentialled intellectuals over there). A few hours later somebody else – a regular commenter on Chris Dillow and Simon Wren-Lewis’s blogs, whose name I’d last seen attached to a pro-DG comment on one of Chris’s posts – mailed me, claiming “Kev Scott asked me to send you the attached un-PC article in the Financial Times“. The attached article, of course, was the one by DG that started all of this. The question is whether my correspondent thought he was writing to Russell, a.k.a. ‘Phil Edwards’. (He clearly didn’t realise he was writing to me.) But if so, who did Russell think he was writing to? Has he retired and handed over to a new ‘Phil Edwards’, à la Dread Pirate Roberts? All very odd. What’s interesting, of course, that people in the ex-BNP area approve of DG’s column; if DG is sincere in wanting to hold the line against racism, it seems that racism is now so extreme that even fascists oppose it. Or rather, it seems that ‘racism’ defined as something distinct from ‘racial self-interest’ – which is the only form of racism that DG wants to oppose – is so extreme that even fascists are happy to oppose it.

In the mean time, someone identifying only as “Stu” (surely not?) has popped up in comments on the most recent post in the series, arguing strenuously and at some length against free movement in the name of workers’ rights. I may develop my own position on this one more fully another time; then again, I may not (there are other things to write about, after all). All I’ll say here is that one can champion the interests of the workers of one’s own country without being any more left-wing than Otto Strasser. When I see it asserted that “Socialism in a national framework is the only vehicle for positive progressive change“, I don’t think further debate is going to be particularly productive.

In another part of the nationalist field, Pat Kane put this interesting question to me:

As you’ll remember, my take on Harris’s calls for Labour to tell a “national story”, replacing nostalgic dreams of full employment with “ideas of nationhood and belonging”, wasn’t positive. In reply to Kane, I don’t see it as civic nationalism, because I don’t see that political forces in England are operating in a context where civic nationalism has any work to do. Civic nationalism, as distinct from ethnic ditto, comes into play when you’re building a new state and new institutions, and in that – necessarily short-lived – context it can be a powerful, transformative force. Once your state’s there, though – as the English state effectively already is – civic nationalism is a force for conservatism, for the preservation of the status quo. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily – it’s not a force for reaction, as ethnic nationalism so often is – but it’s not radical, progressive or creative. In fact, the danger with civic nationalism is that after a while it’s not anything, and its structures and tropes get taken over by the angrier and more energetic forces of ethnic nationalism (federal Yugoslavia and Serb nationalism, Britain and English nationalism). That’s not to say that ethnic nationalism is inherently a bad thing, either. It’s not a bad thing when it’s in the hands of powerless and/or minority groups, used to combat political exclusion and repression; as such it can be a force for justice, or at least for the disruption of injustice. But, by the same token, ethnic nationalism in the hands of the boss nationality is poison. Which is precisely why DG and EK’s legitimation of majority-group ethnic nationalism – White racism, in other words – is so dangerous.

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Standing in the shadows

More on Eric Kaufmann’s recent research into ‘racial self-interest’.

The concept of ‘racial self-interest’ runs through EK’s research report. In fact, it runs through the research like a barium meal: it goes in at one end and comes out unchanged at the other, after being visible all the way through. A few quotations to give you the idea:

Shadi Hamid … argues that it is important to distinguish racism and racial self-interest, and that Trump supporters, who voted in a racially self-interested way to limit immigration, should not be accused of racism. (Executive Summary)

is it the case that immigration skeptics are majority ethnic partisans who are acting in what Shadi Hamid terms their ‘racial self-interest’: seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of their group (Introduction)

Consider the question: ‘A white American who identifies with her group and its history supports a proposal to reduce immigration. Her motivation is to maintain her group’s share of America’s population. Is this person: 1) just acting in her racial self-interest, which is not racist; 2) being racist; 3) don’t know.’ … First, the words Asian, Black or Latino are swapped for White to see how responses change. Second, ‘decrease’ [sic] is changed to ‘increase’ immigration, and ‘maintain’ to ‘increase’ group share. Thus: ‘An Asian American who identifies with her group and its history supports a proposal to increase immigration from Asia. Her motivation is to increase her group’s share of America’s population.’  (Immigration and Racism: A Conjoint Analysis)

The questions were very explicit about specifying that the subject in each question wants particular policies in order to preserve or enhance her group’s demographic share. In this sense, the ‘correct’ answer is that people are ‘acting in their racial self-interest, which is not racist.’ It is possible – and consistent – for someone to consider all racially self-interested behaviour racist. But the variation in white liberal responses based on whether the question pertains to whites or minorities, belies this rational explanation.  (Immigration and Racism in Britain and America)

On the question of whether group-oriented immigration preferences are racist, white liberals are more biased than white conservatives … imputing white racist motivations to those trying to advance their racial self-interest. … it is important to draw a distinction between irrational racism and rational group self-interest. Wanting fewer people from other ethnic groups or higher numbers of co-ethnics to bolster one’s group share is not racist (Conclusion)

“Racial self-interest? How is that not racist by itself?” (Justify Your Answer: Examining qualitative evidence)

The last one is from a survey participant, not EK; I just thought we needed some fresh air.

The research starts from the assumption that ‘racial self-interest’ is distinct from racism, and that recognising this fact explains – and helps condone – some racially discriminatory behaviour. The survey then prompts participants with the information that ‘racial self-interest’ is in fact distinct from racism, and invites them to apply it to a hypothetical situation which is designed to exemplify racial self-interest. Finally, EK reads the data and concludes that ‘racial self-interest’ is distinct from racism, and that only irrational bias can account for left-wingers’ failure to acknowledge the fact.

This isn’t all that’s going on here, though. A clue is supplied by a passing reference to Kahneman and Thinking, fast and slow. The sucker-punch structure of EK’s question is very reminiscent of the question with which Tversky and Kahneman identified the ‘conjunction problem’:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a bank teller.

b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The great majority of people consistently get this wrong. The correct answer is – logically has to be – a); “A and also B” cannot be more probable than “A with or without B”, whatever A and B are. But we’re not hard-wired to be good at probability; we seem to read the question as an invitation to fill in the blank in the way that gives the most satisfying story, in this case option b). EK’s question is different, but it has a definite family resemblance; it’s as if we were asked

As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also joined the local Labour Party. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a Labour Party member, which is not the same as being a socialist.

b) Linda is a socialist.

In EK’s research, in other words, respondents were primed with the ‘right’ answer and duly repeated it back, in the same way that Tversky and Kahneman’s subjects were effectively primed with the ‘wrong’ answer. But this isn’t the point of the research; the point is that a minority of respondents gave the ‘wrong’ answer despite the priming – and it’s these subjects that EK is really interested in. His interest isn’t unmotivated – he clearly believes that the ‘racial self-interest’ model is in fact the right answer, as well as being the ‘right’ answer to the question as he formulated it. This, though, is something that the research as designed can’t confirm or deny; it’s assumed at the outset and assumed in the conclusion.

As, perhaps, it has to be: as the previous post demonstrate, it’s very difficult to separate ‘racial self-interest’ from racism other than by definitional fiat – and even that is liable to collapse if we look at ‘racial self-interest’ from the outside, in terms of its effects on those who are disadvantaged by it. (If I stop my daughter playing with your daughter because of the colour of your skin, do you think that (a) I’m motivated by racial hate; (b) my motives are unknowable and may be nothing more than racial self-interest, which would be perfectly fine; or (c) whatever my motives, my actions themselves are hateful?)

Nor is it clear what the advantage of adopting this concept would be, other than that some people with racist views would no longer be challenged on them. For EK, this in itself would be beneficial:

In one focus group run as part of my ESRC-Demos research, a lady complained of the Croydon (UK) tramlink that ‘I might have been the only English person on that tram… I didn’t like it… I could have been in a foreign country’ was challenged by another participant who asked, ‘Why should that affect you that there’s minorities on the [tram]?’ The woman swiftly changed her narrative to a more acceptable, economic, form of opposition to immigration: ‘It doesn’t affect me. It, um… I’ve got grandchildren and children… I don’t think things are going to get any better or easier for them, to get work.’ In other words, economic but not ethnocultural concerns about immigration are considered legitimate subjects for public debate. This produces dishonest debate rather than a frank and rational exchange between people of all backgrounds – realising they share similar ethnic motivations and must reach an accommodation that is fair to all.

But why would the detoxifying of ‘ethnocultural concerns’ be a good thing? How would the resulting ‘honest’, ‘frank and rational’ debate go?

– Why should that affect you that there’s minorities on the [tram]?
“Well, I’m White, aren’t I. Don’t like being outnumbered by foreigners – stands to reason. It’s against my racial self-interest.”
– Oh, racial self-interest, right. Don’t feel it so strongly myself, but if you do, well, fair enough.

There isn’t that much to debate, at the end of the day: a woman in Croydon didn’t like being – or feeling – outnumbered by foreign people on a tram, and that feeling is either (a) racist and therefore not legitimate or (b) not racist and therefore legitimate. It doesn’t matter how many people might frankly and honestly admit to racist sentiments, if encouraged to do so; if those sentiments are racist, they shouldn’t be publicly legitimated. Really, this is just “you can’t say that any more” in more sophisticated language.

The notion of racial self-interest also carries the unwelcome implication that there are such things as races which can have self-interest. EK has gestured towards the classic sociologist’s answer to this kind of question – that if people believe things are real and act accordingly, they are real in their consequences – but in this case it won’t really do. To believe in ethnic groups – even to believe in one’s own – is not necessarily to believe in ethnic group interests. If people believe that the Black British identity, the Muslim identity, the Welsh-speaking identity (etc) are real and act accordingly, no harm necessarily follows: everyone is free to maintain, develop and celebrate the identities which they feel to be theirs, and to seek out like-minded people to support them in doing so. No harm necessarily follows, up to the point where they start believing that identities like these have interests and are in competition. It’s this additional belief that leads people to act hatefully to people of the ‘wrong’ group, and it’s this belief that we generally call racism.

The one situation where ethnic group interests can become a reality, ironically, is when the ethnic group is under threat – which may be the end result of racism. Where a particular group is threatened with extinction, or its existence is denied, or its identity is treated with contempt, all members of that group have a genuine common interest in group preservation and self-assertion. But this interest is met by physical and cultural survival; there is no intrinsic interest in group expansion, except so far as necessary to assure bare survival. Moreover, the group interest is secondary; it is derivative of the fundamental individual rights which everyone has, to life and to self-actualization through culture. If those needs are met in ways that don’t perpetuate the group, the group has no independent interest in survival. There may be a thousand nominal Muggletonians in Britain, but if none of them feels that being a Muggletonian is an important part of their identity, the extinction of Muggletonianism is inevitable and is not to be regretted (except by historians).

The group extinction scenario clearly has no relevance to the position of Whites in Britain and the USA. EK invokes it nevertheless, noting that Zoroastrians frown on exogamy for just this reason. A similar logic presumably underlies an otherwise puzzling formulation, when EK argues that if someone objects to their child’s chosen partner on the grounds that the union would “defile their race’s purity”, this is racism, but that if the motive is “to preserve the vitality” of their ethnic group, this is “group-interested behaviour”. (Got that, everyone? Purity bad, vitality good.) EK seems to wish to help himself to the genuine issues faced by groups which are so small as to be in danger of extinction; he manages it by blurring the difference between genuinely preserving an ethnic group from extinction and preserving its “vitality”, or believing one is doing so. But the threat to the survival of Zoroastrianism is a reality, not merely something that becomes real by being acted on. If you act as if being English is ‘a thing’, you’re creating the social reality of being English. If you act as if the English are under threat of extinction, you’re creating social reality based on assumptions which you know to be false – in other words, you’re acting in bad faith.

At the end of the report we still have no clue as to why EK believes that ‘racial self-interest’ is a valid model, to the point that people who fail to believe in it can be labelled as biased and irrational. It’s clearly not because he believes that discrete human ‘races’ actually exist, in the sense that distinguishable noble gases or species of lizard exist. Certainly, many people believe in and identify with ethnic groups (defined in a variety of different ways). And certainly, a lot of people believe that ethnic groups have interests – at least, that their ethnic group does – and that the pursuit of these interests is entirely distinct from racism and should not be given such a pejorative label. But it’s not the role of the social scientist to give scientific credibility to widely-held errors – least of all errors as dangerous as this one is.

Next: but what about multiculturalism, eh?

TCM 2 – Here comes success

Before I get on to Scotland, here’s another way of looking at the figures in the last post.

Leader 1: +1,300,000, +670,000, -640,000
Leader 2: -1,090,000
Leader 3: -10,000 (W), +890,000 (W), -890,000, -560,000 (W), -190,000 (W)
Leader 4: +70,000
Leader 5: -3,070,000
Leader 6: +1,570,000, +1,530,000
Leader 7: n/a
Leader 8: +1,960,000 (W), -2,800,000 (W), -1,170,000 (W)
Leader 9: -940,000
Leader 10: +740,000

Or to look at it another way:

Leader 6: +3,100,000
Leader 10: +740,000
Leader 4: +70,000
Leader 1: -10,000
Leader 3: -760,000, 4 election wins
Leader 9: -940,000
Leader 2: -1,090,000
Leader 8: -2,010,000, 3 election wins
Leader 5: -3,070,000

Judged over their whole careers as leader, Labour’s three biggest vote-winners – in fact, their only vote-winners – are Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband and James Callaghan, in descending order; the three biggest vote-losers are Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Blair and Michael Foot, whose stewardship of the party saw it lose one, two and three million votes respectively. (Honourable mention to Gordon Brown, in a close fourth place with a net loss of over 900,000 votes.) Tony Blair, like Harold Wilson before him, drove the party’s vote up and then drove it right down again. Wilson became leader after a 12.2 million-vote defeat and resigned after winning an election with 11.5 million votes (a post-war low), paving the way for the defeat of 1979; Blair took over after an 11.6 million-vote defeat and resigned after winning an election with 9.6 million votes (from a substantially larger electorate), making the defeat of 2010 all but inevitable. A lot of recent commentary has bracketed Ed Miliband with Michael Foot, as left-wing leaders who presided over humiliating defeats (never mind the fact that Foot’s defeat was brought about by leading members of his own party). But the answer to the quiz question “which Labour leader had the second largest loss of votes?” isn’t Ed Miliband.

You could say that this is beside the point; what matters is to win elections, and on that metric Harold Wilson (say) beats Ed Miliband 4-0, despite having lost Labour more votes than Miliband gained. In other words, we should praise Wilson – and praise Blair – for finding tactics that won the party elections, even if they also drove supporters away. The problem with this argument is threefold. Firstly and most obviously, it lets New Labour (and any remaining Wilson apologists) have their cake and eat it: attracting 1.9 million new votes in 1997 shows how popular Blairism was, but driving them all away (and then some) four years later doesn’t matter, since after all the election was won anyway. We can’t really have it both ways: if New Labour was popular, the figures say that its popularity very rapidly ebbed away. Secondly, however effective New Labour’s laser-like targeting of swing voters may have been, any strategy that alienates that many of the party’s own voters is by definition of very limited use. If the election in which Ed Miliband’s leadership gained Labour 700,000 votes did more damage to the party’s standing than Blair’s massive losses in 2001 and 2005, it’s because Blair had the luxury of being able to lose all those votes. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, “do what wins elections (even if it loses votes)” isn’t a strategy that a party can actually use. As we saw in the last post, apart from increased votes, “what wins elections” is mostly outside the winning party’s control: Labour’s election victories were created, to a large extent, by the parties led by Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe and John Major. Of course, there are questions about making gains in the right places – better a narrow win over a Tory than a thumping majority in a safe seat. But, if we discount a pure swing-voter focus-group strategy – with its proven risk of alienating existing voters – what’s left is mostly technical questions of party organisation: any party, Left or Right, needs to target resources on winnable and vulnerable seats. (Of course, calling this a technical question isn’t to say that it’s insignificant. According to election post mortems several of the English seats Labour lost in 2015 could have been held with better organisation; if all seven had been held the Tories would have been three seats short of a majority. What might have been…)

Winning elections by hook or by crook is handy, but it makes more sense to judge success for a party – or party leader – in terms of numbers of votes; there are fewer factors involved, and a lot fewer factors outside the party’s control. And on that metric Ed Miliband really doesn’t look that bad – particularly if you bring Scotland in. Let’s suppose – as a lot of commentary does – that the SNP landslide was, in effect, just that: an unstoppable natural phenomenon, which couldn’t be predicted precisely but was bound to happen sooner or later. (I don’t think this is correct, but we’ll stick with it for the sake of argument.) Overall, the difference between Labour’s 2010 and 2015 performances (discounting by-elections) was a gain of 740,000 votes and a loss of 26 seats, but if we separate out the constituent nations of Great Britain the figures look a bit different.

Wales: +20,000 votes, 1 gain, 1 loss
Scotland: -330,000 votes, 40 losses
England: +1,050,000 votes, 21 gains, 7 losses

Labour put on over a million votes in England – in an election where the Green vote also increased by a million. (Some of the latter will have been former Lib Dems, but not all of them.) As you can see from the list above, this is a kind of increase in votes which Labour has only managed a handful of times since 1945 – once under Blair, once under Attlee and twice under Kinnock. Another interesting perspective shift is imagining what would have happened if somebody had kicked the crucial pebble ten years earlier, so that the landslide election was the one in 2005, not 2015. Take another 330,000 votes and 40 seats from Labour; suddenly Labour are nine seats short, and questions are being asked about Tony Blair’s ability to lose the party 1,500,000 votes, 87 seats and its majority.

That last part is a counter-factual – and, as it goes, I don’t think the SNP landslide was either inevitable or unpredictable, let alone that it could have happened as early as 2005. But the 2015 gain of a million votes in England is real. Doubtless much of this was a one-off gain from a minor-party squeeze – just as much of the vote loss in 1983 derived from a one-off minor-party surge – but the numbers do suggest that Ed Miliband’s leadership was doing something right, at least in England: something which should be built on rather than being repudiated. And there’s certainly nothing here to suggest that Blairism is a proven vote-winning strategy. If anything it’s a proven vote-losing strategy, which also wins elections – but only if the party’s support is already strong enough to absorb the loss of votes.

Next: the Scottish play (and surprise everyone).

Cap in hand (4)

Since about 1974, the two-party system established after 1945 has been gradually unravelling. (This means, of course, that the period of unchallenged two-party stasis is actually shorter than the period since it ended. Not only does nothing last forever in the British House of Commons, nothing (since Victoria) has lasted longer than about 40 years: first Whigs and Tories, then Liberals and Conservatives, then National Governments for most of the period from 1918 to 1945, then the Labour/Conservative duopoly, and then the unravelling begins.) For much of the period between 1945 and 1974 third-party representation was minimal: in the 1964 House of Commons there were nine third-party MPs in total, meaning that Labour had an overall majority despite having only thirteen more seats than the Conservatives. That hasn’t been the case for a long time; throughout the Thatcher and Blair years, despite the unchallenged dominance of their respective parties, the number of seats not available to the two main parties has steadily increased.

There look like being around 90 third-, fourth- and nth-party MPs in the next Parliament, meaning that the gap between the two main parties needs to be that much bigger for either to gain an overall majority. The number of seats the winning party would needs is still the same – formally, half the seats in the Commons plus one, or 326; the difference is that, to achieve an overall majority, the first party now needs a much larger lead over the second party, which must win no more than 234 seats. Instead of the two parties splitting the lion’s share of the seats 52%/48% (as happened in 1951), the split thus needs to be at least 58%/42% in favour of the largest party: any less and, as in 2010 (54%/46%), there is no overall majority. Prior to 2010, of course, this was not an issue. Curiously, in the same period that the minor-party bloc was growing, its effects were masked by a series of huge parliamentary majorities: the governing party never accounted for as many as 60% of the first two parties’ MPs from 1950 to 1979, but majorities on this scale were achieved in five of the next six elections, two under Thatcher and three under Blair. The scale of the split between the first two parties in 2010 – 306 to 258 – was more typical of election results in the 1950s and 1960s; something similar will almost certainly be seen this year.

This raises the issue of coalitions and alliances, deals and understandings. There are, of course, many ways to form a coalition and just as many ways to justify choices of coalition partner. Nick Clegg has declared that the Lib Dems would only work with the party given the biggest ‘mandate’ in the election – and that a government formed on any other basis would lack legitimacy and be unable to function. (He has subsequently retreated from the assertion about legitimacy.) This echoes a line being run by the right-wing press, to the effect that the party with the most seats will be the rightful winner of the election, whether or not another party can put together a more durable parliamentary majority. However, there is no constitutional justification for this argument, or for Clegg’s slightly more nuanced position. At this stage it’s unhelpful at best; at worst it’s pure mischief-making, driven by a determination to maintain the coalition with the Tories and keep the Lib Dems in government on that basis. Ironically, it also gives the Tories a strong incentive to attack the Lib Dems: every seat the Tories can take from them makes it more likely that the Tories will be the largest single party.

As well as fetishising the largest single party (evidently on the assumption that the Tories will be that party), the right-wing press has denounced the possibility of a coalition between Labour and the SNP, arguing that this would be undesirable, illegitimate and inherently unstable – although, given the arithmetic, a Tory-led coalition is likely to be considerably more unstable. A simple and straightforward answer to both these charges would be to say that governments are formed on the basis of a majority in the House of Commons; that there is no clause barring members of the SNP, or any other elected party, from forming part of that majority; that the solidity of the SNP vote, and the congruence of Labour and SNP policies, make a Labour/SNP majority a virtual certainty; and that this is a good thing, guaranteeing that the new government would be both representative and stable. However, Labour politicians from Miliband on down have refused to say anything like this, insisting that the party is fighting for an overall majority – something which, on the basis of the current numbers, is implausible for the Tories and downright unbelievable for Labour.

It’s Labour I want to concentrate on in this post. When it comes to allying with the SNP, Labour are in a difficult position. Given the distortions of the ‘first past the post’ system, support for the SNP has risen to the point that it effectively wipes out the other parties’ chances of electing any but a very few MPs in Scotland. A recent poll gave the Lib Dems 4% of support in Scotland, the Tories 15%, Labour 26% and the SNP 49%; on that basis (according to the UK Polling Report swingometer) the SNP would win 54 of the 59 Scottish seats (+48), Labour 4 (-37), the Lib Dems one (-10) and the Tories none (-1). Given that there were 40 Labour MPs in the outgoing House of Commons, this is an extraordinary turnaround – and one with serious implications for Labour’s position overall. Projections showing Labour taking 295 seats – a net gain of 39 from the current 256 – are actually showing a net gain of 76 English seats. It also helps explain a certain deafness on Labour’s part to friendly overtures from the SNP. Even if the two parties’ policy commitments were identical, for Labour to accept the SNP as a member of an anti-Tory alliance would be to abandon 36 MPs (the 37th was Eric Joyce).

A revival of Labour in Scotland – assuming for the moment that this is a possibility – could also have game-changing effects for the House of Commons as a whole. If Labour were to wave a wand and take 10% of Scottish support from the SNP – taking the two parties’ support in Scotland to 36% and 39% respectively – this would only correspond to a 1% rise in UK-wide support, but its effects would be enormous: the largest party in Scotland would be Labour with 31 seats, followed by the SNP (24) and the Lib Dems and Tories, both on two seats. If this corresponded to a UK-wide increase in support from 35% to 36%, it would take Labour from 295 to 322 seats; an effective majority together with Plaid Cymru, never mind the SNP. There’s also the intriguing suggestion that the level of ‘undecideds’ is substantially higher in Scotland than in the UK overall, running at anything up to 28%. A Labour campaign which could engage with undecided Scottish voters to the extent of bringing Labour 15% out of that 28% and the SNP 10% – instead of 7% and 14%, reflecting the breakdown of the ‘decided’ vote – would take the vote split from 49%/26% to 45%/33%, giving Labour 17 seats.

So, the best way for Scottish Labour to encourage its supporters to vote – and its activists to get the vote out – is to stick to the message that Labour cares about every seat in Scotland; it’s also an easy message to stick to, as it’s the truth. A post-election alliance with the SNP is feasible for Labour in a way that it isn’t for the Tories, and in the abstract this is a plus point for Labour; however, for as long as (Scottish) Labour is also the enemy the SNP has to defeat, (GB) Labour can’t make anything of it. To put it another way, it’s not surprising that Labour might have some difficulty welcoming SNP MPs into a broad progressive alliance, when we consider that two-thirds of those MPs will have been elected for the first time on May 7th, after defeating a sitting Labour MP.

The implications of this position are greater than they seem, though. Labour could rule out a deal with the SNP then come to power as the head of a post-election anti-Tory alliance, formal or informal. If this looked like being a likely result – or the only likely alternative to a Tory victory – then the situation for Scottish voters would be exactly the same as if Labour were promising to ally with the SNP: there would be no reason to vote SNP rather than Labour, and all those Labour seats would be just as much at risk as they ever were. To make the party’s position credible, Labour has to make the further commitment not to ally with the SNP, even at the cost of losing power.

This could be seen as a case of “costly signalling”: making commitment to a position credible by associating it with personal costs. The costs in this case are not entirely personal, though – in fact, if you’ll forgive me a quick diversion into populism, the costs aren’t personal: even if we have another five years of Tory rule, Ed Miliband will still be drawing an MP’s salary at the end of it. Given the stakes involved, Labour’s position is reminiscent of the debased variant of signalling theory practised by Richard Nixon, which he called “madman theory”; this involved making threats with consequences so dire that no sane actor would choose to incur them, while creating uncertainty as to whether he would carry them out anyway. This was certainly the reaction of Nicola Sturgeon:

“I heard Ed Miliband and he sounded awfully like he was saying – and I hope I’m wrong about this because I think people across Scotland and the rest of the UK would be appalled if I’m right – he sounded as if he was saying that he would rather see David Cameron and the Conservatives back in government than actually work with the SNP.

“Now, if he means that, then I don’t think people in Scotland will ever forgive Labour for allowing the Conservatives back into office. But if he is a minority government, then he will not be able to get policies through without winning support from other parties.”

‘Other parties’ here meaning, primarily, the SNP. But – to follow that train of thought through – if Labour can’t get policies through without winning support from the SNP, and if the SNP has a lot of the same policies as Labour anyway, then there’s no reason on earth to vote Labour rather than SNP in a Labour/SNP marginal. What looks like wild irresponsibility may actually be the logical consequence of a commitment to fight for Labour votes in Labour seats.

Labour’s apparent acquiescence in the other line being put forward by the Tories and their media allies – the idea that the largest single party has a right to rule – baffled me for a long time. Jim Murphy, leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has openly endorsed the ‘largest single party’ model, saying that a strong result for the SNP would directly benefit the Tories: “If this poll [giving the SNP all the seats in Scotland] is repeated on election day, David Cameron will be uncorking his champagne, because he might cling onto power; not because Scotland’s gone out and voted Tory, but because Scotland has voted against the Labour party and made sure David Cameron has the biggest party”. Perhaps the Scottish context is the key, and we’re still in the realm of costly signalling. If the next government could be formed by putting together an anti-Tory majority – as in fact it can, constitutionally speaking – then there would be no reason to try and save all those Labour seats, other than pure party loyalty. Therefore (for a politician in Murphy’s position) there must be some way in which losing Labour seats to the SNP would affect the outcome; the only significant difference the loss of those seats could make is that it might stop Labour being the largest single party; therefore, it must be the case that the largest single party wins. The cost is rather high – it involves not only lying about the British constitution but endorsing a lie put forward by David Cameron for his own ends – but the signal is sent loud and clear: vote Labour. Vote Labour or else. The problem is, of course, that the message sent to potential Labour voters in Scotland is entirely negative; it essentially says that the Scottish political battle (between two Left parties) has to be treated as if it were a battle between Left and Right, because the Labour leadership says so. We’re not in the world of “Tartan Tories” any more, but the effect is much the same.

Could it be different – could Labour fight for those Scottish seats (and those undecided Scottish votes) without threatening to bring the roof down on us all? Could the nationalist parties be treated as friendly rivals rather than mortal enemies – fight for every vote on May 7th, shake hands on May 8th? Can it still be like that? I wonder; I worry. At the moment – three days out – I think there are three main possibilities, which unfortunately get worse in ascending order of probability.

1. Perhaps we’re still waiting for the other shoe to drop – just as Labour announced they were going to “control immigration” and then revealed that this actually meant enforcing the minimum wage so as to stop gangmasters illegally undercutting British workers. Very clever. (Perhaps a bit too clever, but that’s by the way.) Perhaps on Wednesday morning Miliband will say something like,

“I said ‘No deals,’ and I meant it. But that’s not to say I’ll refuse support if it’s offered. We’ve got a plan, and we intend to stick to it; if other parties want to support that, great. I say to them, we’re not going to change our plan to suit you – we’re genuinely not interested in deals. But if you want to support Labour’s plan for the country, please do.”

I think that would shoot several foxes & almost certainly make Miliband PM. Unfortunately I can’t see him doing it. I hope I’m wrong, though.

2. The Labour leadership may be thinking in terms of keeping their heads down until Thursday, fighting hard (and sending out costly signals), and then forming a minority government. In this case – as Sturgeon says – ruling out a deal may not make much practical difference. In a minority government the parliamentary arithmetic would be exactly the same as in a coalition – the government’s majority would just be re-assembled every time, generally from the same parties as the time before. This would have the additional advantage of disrupting the Tory/LD bloc by encouraging individual MPs – or entire parties – to support Labour legislation. This would be a hegemonic strategy, in other words, from a position of apparent weakness. I think this would appeal to Miliband on several levels.

3. Sadly, the explanation for Labour’s current tactical choices may be simpler than either of these: it may be that they’ve bought the Tory line, illegitimacy of SNP involvement in government, largest-party-goes-first and all. Or at least that they’ve taken the decision to act as if they’d bought it, as they did in 2010 (disastrously) with the “Labour overspending caused the crash” story. (Miliband is challenging that now, but it’s a bit late.)  Debating with Nicola Sturgeon, Jim Murphy even said… well, this:

Murphy also indicated that Labour would resist pressure to vote down the Tories if David Cameron’s party became the largest in parliament. Murphy told Sturgeon the last time the losing party had formed a minority government was in 1924. “It was so long ago, there wasn’t a Queen’s speech. It was a king’s speech,” he said.

Sturgeon retorted that Gordon Brown had tried to broker a deal to continue as prime minister despite coming second behind the Tories in 2010 – disproving Murphy’s thesis. But the Scottish Labour leader implied that the former prime minister was wrong, saying there was “an unstoppable force” behind the Tories which made it clear they were correct to form the government.

Largest single party = “unstoppable force”? Labour would “resist pressure to vote down the Tories”? Either this is the madman theory in full effect, or Murphy actually believes it. I fear the latter possibility, and I fear that he’s not alone. I have a lot of trust in Ed Miliband’s judgment – he’s shown that he’s not someone to be underestimated – but we’re electing a party, not a president, and there are some Labour MPs I wouldn’t trust as far as I can throw them. I’m not giving names, both because it would be a distraction and, more importantly, because they don’t tend to use names – see for instance “some members of the shadow cabinet”, bravely disagreeing anonymously with their own party leader in the middle of an election campaign in today’s Murdoch Times (not that I’m cross about this or anything). If anyone in the Labour party is thinking along those lines – if anyone is thinking in terms of stepping graciously aside and giving the Tories another turn in government… well, there’s a quote for that.

Let’s not forget, the Tories only got into government in the first place by allying with a party which had previously opposed most of what they stood for – and whose support has dropped like a stone since they made that alliance. Essentially, the Tories are in power under false pretences; there’s an anti-Tory majority out there for the taking, a progressive, left-wing alliance there to be built. If Labour don’t take that chance, a lot of people will be asking what the party is good for. In the words of the song, I can’t understand why we’d let someone else rule our land…

Cap in hand (3)

The story so far: in the last three parliaments there were 80, 92 and 85 MPs who were neither Tory nor Labour; there looks like being a similar number in the next parliament, albeit differently constituted (more SNP, fewer Lib Dems). In the absence of a landslide somebody is going to have to ally with someone. Both the Tories and the Lib Dems are claiming that the party forming the next government should be the largest single party, and that doing otherwise would somehow lack stability or legitimacy. There is no historical or constitutional justification for this, and it looks as if they’re just saying it in the hope of giving the Coalition another five years, even if a Labour-led government could have a bigger majority and (consequently) be more stable.

That’s where we were up to last weekend. Then things got worse, with the outgoing Home Secretary’s extraordinary intervention in the Mail on Sunday. Now, the political stance of the Mail newspapers has never been what you could call impartial; ‘nuanced’ is another word that doesn’t spring to mind. But over the last couple of weeks they really have thrown caution to the winds; you could be forgiven for thinking they were being guest-edited by Chris Morris. ‘Red Ed’ is proposing “Stalinist” policies; a new hospital – in evil socialist Scotland – is “Nicola’s Death Star”. (To be fair, the ‘death star’ nickname is being used locally, on the basis that the building’s sort of star-shaped (it actually looks more like a Space Invader). But “new hospital: bad thing” genuinely is what the story is saying; ‘Fury-new-1bn-super-hospital-Glasgow‘ says the URL.) Perhaps most bizarrely of all, the Daily Mail has put its name to the statement that immigration is “being totally ignored by the main parties”: “the subject that dare not speak its name … has been all but air-brushed from the election”. To the extent that this leader column says anything at all, it seems to be complaining that nobody is actually campaigning on a platform of sending the buggers back; Labour’s promise to clamp down on the exploitation of cheap migrant labour is dismissed as a sop to the party’s “union paymasters”, a comment which is headbangingly stupid, scarily authoritarian or both (don’t come in here with your pinko commie supply and demand, we want men in uniforms and we want ’em now).

So you don’t go to the Mail newspapers for a cool draught of disinterested rationality – not at the best of times, and certainly not now. But even by those standards Theresa May’s statement last Sunday was something else.

Mrs May told The Mail on Sunday: ‘If we saw a Labour Government propped up by SNP it could be the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication. It would mean Scottish MPs who have no responsibility for issues like health, education and policing in their own constituencies [as they are devolved to the Scottish Parliament] making decisions on those issues for England and Wales. Rightly, people in England would say, “hang on a minute, why are Scottish Nationalist MPs allowed to do that?”‘

Two separate claims are being confused here. I’m not sure if May would want to stand by both of them, or even if she was aware that they were separate claims. (Since ‘catgate‘ my opinion of our former Home Secretary hasn’t been high.) I’ll disentangle them anyway. First, the devolution question. So Mary Smith, MP for Moray, Forth and Orkney votes in Parliament to cut the police budget and spend more money on primary healthcare – or vice versa – despite not having any responsibility for those issues in her own constituency. Does this matter, and if so why? There is a genuine and longstanding question – the ‘West Lothian’ question – about the capacity of Scottish (and Welsh) MPs to vote, after devolution, on matters solely or mainly affecting England, but opinions differ as to how serious it is; May’s apparent belief that it is very serious indeed is not widely shared. The SNP isn’t an abstentionist party, and May isn’t suggesting that Smith wouldn’t turn up – quite the reverse. It seems reasonable to assume that when the voters of M, F and O elected Smith to the UK Parliament, they were voting for an MP who would represent their views for the UK as a whole and take part in Parliamentary discussions about the governance of the UK – including the governance of England.

In any case, if Smith was democratically elected, and if the MSPs for Moray, Forth and Orkney are also democratically elected, it would all come out in the wash: the same voters would vote for parties putting forward the same policies, whether they got to implement those policies within the constituency or not. If anything, of course, the Scottish Parliament is more democratically representative, being elected under PR. (The three main UK parties are currently projected to get 5 Scottish seats between them (out of 59), on 45% of the vote. Seats the three parties currently hold at Holyrood: 58 out of 129, or 45%.) This doesn’t affect the main point: there is no reason to imagine that the voters of Moray, Forth and Orkney would vote for positive, responsible policy agenda A when electing Mr Brown, MSP for Moray, Ms Wilson (Forth) and Mr Robertson (Orkney), and then vote for bad, dangerous policy agenda B when electing their Westminster MP (Ms Smith).

The only way this could possibly work would be if Smith, Brown, Wilson and Robertson were actually all advancing the same agenda – one that’s positive for Scotland but bad and dangerous for the UK. And, it turns out, this is actually what May is suggesting. The West Lothian question is a red herring; as the last sentence quoted above suggests, it’s only a problem if Scottish Nationalist MPs are voting in Westminster on matters affecting the rest of the UK. By implication, it would still be a problem in the absence of devolution: if serious ‘West Lothian’ issues are being raised by the stance of a political party – rather than the vagaries of individual MPs’ voting behaviour – then that party’s position must be bad for England as well as being good for Scotland. And if that’s the case, they’re going to be a bad influence at Westminster whether Scotland has a devolved assembly or not.

There’s an obvious problem here: once you’ve set up an electoral system, you’ve got to accept the results it gives you. If it’s possible and legal for the SNP to stand candidates, then it has to be possible for SNP MPs to be elected; if the people of Moray, Forth and Orkney have elected an SNP MP, they’re going to be represented by someone who votes in accordance with SNP policy. And this is not a problem: it’s how the system works, just as it worked – exactly as it worked – when the people of Maidenhead voted to elect a Tory. May doesn’t seem to accept this.

‘Miliband would be in government on the coat-tails of Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. They would be calling the tune – people who don’t want the UK to exist and want to destroy our country. There would be a very real feeling was this was something people did not want to see, had not voted for and would find very difficult to accept. It would raise difficult questions about legitimacy. A lot of English people would question that.’

A Labour/SNP alliance would be “something people did not want to see [and] had not voted for”. That’s something you could say about a lot of post-election alliances; you could certainly say it about the 2010 alliance between the Conservatives and the party that won 23% of the vote opposing economic austerity and tuition fees. But this is much worse, because it’s the SNP: “people who don’t want the UK to exist “. “A lot of English people” would question a Labour/SNP alliance; it would “raise difficult questions about legitimacy”.

Again with the L-word! This talk of legitimacy is alarming: it suggests that we could run an election according to the rules, form a government according to the Cabinet Manual (pdf), and still end up with a government that wasn’t valid in some undefined way – or rather, with a powerful and vocal lobby denouncing the government as invalid. It’s astonishingly arrogant – who gave May, or Cameron, or Clegg the right to pronounce on whether an elected government should be allowed to exist? – and frankly dangerous: it’s the kind of thing that gets people talking seriously about coups.

It’s also, frankly, stupid. Let’s say we pass a ruling that a party demanding independence from the UK can’t be a vital part of a government of the UK – can’t supply the MPs necessary for a second party to get a majority (this seems to be what May wants, or at least the result she wants to bring about). Then what? What about three-  or four-party coalitions – should we debar the secessionists from those as well? Better had – otherwise one of the other parties might defect and leave them holding the balance of power after all. Similarly, of course, nationalists should be debarred from any kind of opposition alliance or understanding between parties – you never know when the wheel might turn and put the opposition in power, and we’d be back where we started. What about hung parliaments and votes of confidence – should we bar the nationalists from taking part? Otherwise their vote might be crucial to the survival of the government, which is just what we wanted to avoid. But then there are all the other votes which help a government survive, or undermine it if they are lost – can we afford to put the survival of the government’s prestige and reputation in the hands of the nationalists? And so on. The only way May’s logic will work is if we bar the nationalists from voting at all, or else from standing for Parliament in the first place – or if we excluded their nation from Parliament altogether. Perhaps the word isn’t ‘stupid’ after all; perhaps it’s just dangerous.

In part 4: what on earth are the Labour Party doing?

Cap in hand (1)

As the dullest and most weirdly static election campaign of my adult life drags to a… hold on, let’s check that. 1979 was a historic disaster; 1983 was all the fun of having our faces rubbed in it, with the added piquancy of some terribly nice middle-class people splitting the Left down the middle and doing Thatcher’s dirty work for her. 1987 wasn’t all that dramatic, Kinnock: The Movie apart – Labour did well, but it would have been surprising if they’d done well enough to win. It left the Tories with quite a small majority, though, and felt like a step in the right direction. 1992, on the other hand, was a crushing disappointment: lots of us thought that Labour could at least manage a hung parliament – which would lead to an alliance with the Lib Dems, which would necessarily (ha!) lead to PR, which would give the Left its own voice in Parliament and generally shake things up big time. 1997, well. In retrospect 1997 was a bit like the SDP coming back from the grave and actually achieving the kind of mould-breaking mind-wipe they threatened to bring off in 1982; if you weren’t swept along, it was quite strange. Dull it wasn’t, though. I don’t remember much about the 2001 election, but this may be because my father died a few weeks afterwards – to say nothing of what happened a couple of months after that. Then there was 2005 – the election of ‘Backing Blair’ and the mobilisation of the anti-Iraq vote – and 2010, which was anything but dull.

So yes, this is the dullest and most static, etc. And, perhaps, the oddest. The other thing that jumps out from that quick retrospective is that the two least interesting elections in the last 40 years – 1987 and 2001 – were the ones where there was least at stake (reasonably enough): nobody really expected Labour to win in 1987 or the Tories in 2001. On paper the situation we’re in now is more like what we faced eighteen years ago in 1997, or (oddly) eighteen years before that in 1979: an exhausted governing party with no new ideas, beset by internal rivalries and dependent on deals with minor parties to get legislation through, is faced by a united opposition party with an untried but confident leader. And yet voters don’t seem to be abandoning Cameron as their predecessors abandoned Callaghan and Major respectively, and there’s no sign of a Thatcher- or Blair-scale swing to Miliband. In fact, nothing seems to be happening at all. Well, perhaps not nothing; I’m as fond of psephological close-reading as the next geek, and it is the case that – although the last crop of polls wasn’t obviously favourable to Labour – every one of them represented either an increase in Labour preferences or a drop for the Tories relative to the previous poll from the same polling organisation. Zoom out a bit, though, and it’s hard to deny that very little has happened since January.

(Chart c/o UK Polling Report.) Feel the stasis! A few Kippers have drifted back to the Tories and a few Greens back to Labour and the Lib Dems, but otherwise we are still pretty much where we were.

Which is to say, we are still facing a post-election impasse that will make the arithmetic of 2010 look like child’s play. All the projections point to a hung parliament, and one that can’t be turned into a stable majority by simply putting two parties’ MPs together, as Cameron and Clegg did in 2010. What’s more, it looks as if these conditions are here to stay. Look at this chart:

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 18.08.57

(The last column is a projection, but everything up to there shows what actually happened.) Look, in particular, at what happened along the top of the chart in February 1974, 1983 and 1997. Although there were Ulster Unionists in each of the parliaments prior to 1974, it was only in February 1974 that they stopped automatically voting with the Tories; from that point on they could be filed under ‘Others’. The Liberals also got a boost that year – getting into double figures for the first time since 1950 – while the first SNP surge took them to 11 MPs in October 1974. In 1983, following the number the Gang of Four had done on the Labour party, the SDP/Liberal Alliance doubled the Liberals’ previous number of MPs – from 11 to 23. Then in 1997, with the collapse of the Tory vote, the Liberal Democrats had another leap forward, taking 46 seats; the same year, the SNP took 6 (having previously fallen back to 3).

What’s particularly striking is that, despite the ebbs and flows in particular parties’ representation (and the Lib Dems are headed for another ebb this year), the direction of travel is fairly constant: 1974, 1983 and 1997 weren’t turning points so much as inflection points in the gradual disintegration of a parliamentary duopoly. Plurality voting in single-member constituencies is notoriously slow to register shifts in public loyalties, but they get picked up eventually – and once they’ve been registered they aren’t entirely forgotten. People get out of the habit of voting either Labour or Tory – at different times and for different reasons, but once it’s happened it remains an available option. And once it’s happened on a larger scale, it remains an option available to a larger number of people. The process never seem to go into reverse for very long or by very much. The picture’s clearer in this simplified version:

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 18.10.23

The 1945 Parliament had an unusually high rate of representation of small parties, particularly on the Left – Independent Labour Party, Common Wealth, Communist. Even then, the combined parliamentary strength of the Labour and Tory parties amounted to over 96% of the House of Commons; between then and 1974 it only dropped below 98% once. (And no, I’m not excluding Northern Irish seats: there was little or no Nationalist representation in this period, and the Unionists took the Tory whip.) The Labour/Tory figure fell to below 95% in 1974 and continued to fall, dropping below 94% in 1983, below 90% in 1997 and falling to 85.8% in 2005. Unless something very unusual (relative to current poll data) happens on May 7th, the figure in the next Parliament will be similar – which is to say, Labour and the Tories between them will have around 560 MPs total, out of 650 (the 2005 figure was 554 out of 646).

What this means is that, over time, a ‘small party’ group of MPs has been developing, which can’t be ignored in the way that the six Liberals in the 1959 parliament could be. In 2015, for the third election running, that group looks like numbering 85-90. This in turn means that thinking about overall majorities has got a lot more difficult. In 1964 Labour took 51% of those seats that were either Labour or Tory and gained an overall majority, with 50.3% of all seats. In 2010 the Tories took 307 seats – 54.3% of the Labour/Tory bloc but only 47.2% of all seats. You can see how the two ratios – largest party / total and largest party / largest + runner-up – have diverged over the years here:

Screen shot 2015-04-26 at 20.23.09

The gap between the red and blue points in 2010 – the difference between an overall minority and a substantial majority of Labour/Tory seats – is the result of a ‘minor party’ bloc of 85 MPs. If we hold those 85 seats constant, the only way for the Tories to gain an absolute majority would have been to raise their share of the Labour/Tory bloc to 57.7% – and, while this kind of domination was achieved by Thatcher and Blair in their time, it was clearly beyond Cameron’s reach. The projection I’m using for 2015 has Labour as the largest single party, with 295 seats – 52.9% of Labour or Tory seats, but only 45.4% of the total; again, only a huge victory over the Tories would give an overall majority, and this doesn’t currently seem remotely likely. The same goes for the Tories, mutatis mutandis; while we don’t know which of the two will be the largest party on May 8th, by that same token we can be reasonably confident that there are no landslides in the offing.

This isn’t to say that major-party hegemony is a thing of the past – on the contrary, the hegemony of the major parties is alive and well. But these figures do suggest that the major parties’ duopoly is (a) gone and (b) not coming back: from here on in, nobody gets to form a government on their own. In that context, Labour has an enormous advantage over the Conservatives: from the radical leftists of the Green Party to the reactionaries of the DUP, everyone wants to work with them. The only party that has overtly expressed a preference for a Conservative-led government is UKIP, and that’s an endorsement which the Tories might prefer to be without. (To be fair, Nick Clegg on behalf of the Lib Dems has said something similar through the medium of nudges and winks – but he’s also said he rules out working with UKIP, which would make a blue/orange/purple rainbow alliance a bit problematic.)

The SNP in particular is going to be a major presence in Parliament after May 7th; they have made it quite plain that they’re ready and willing to work with Labour, and that they’ve got no interest in working with the Tories. It’s a major weakness for the Tories, and a major asset for Labour. So why are the Tories currently working so hard to advertise this weakness as if it was a strength – and denouncing Labour’s strength as if it was a weakness? And why on earth is Labour letting them?

(Some answers in part two.)

No top and no bottom

1. I agree with Vladimir Putin, up to a point

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.

It’s the way he tells ’em.

To be fair, Putin’s address to the American people did make some good points, in particular this one:

The United Nations’ founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America’s consent the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades.

No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.

I liked his conclusion, too:

I would rather disagree with a case [Obama] made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy.

In passing, I was amused to see that this last glimpse of the blindingly obvious had annoyed Thomas Friedman. Who does this so-called President Putin think he is, making out that America isn’t the greatest goddamn country on earth?

2. Inter arma enim silent leges, only not just yet

But is the man from the KGB really standing up for international law – and what does it actually say about Syria? This is a bit less of a live issue, thankfully, than it was before the rush to war was stopped in its tracks (well done that weakling!). The UK government’s case for intervention, set out by Attorney General Dominic Grieve, rested on the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”. The argument was that it would be permissible under international law for the UK (or, presumably, any other state) “to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime”. Such an intervention would be legal under three conditions:

That there is “convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief”; it is “objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved”; and the proposed use of force is “proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need”.

In response, Dapo Akande of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict pointed out that neither the second nor the third condition had been met. The third was particularly hard to get past:

“Even if there is a rule allowing intervention to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that rule would not simply permit action to deter and disrupt use of chemical weapons,” Akande said. “This standard is too lax. It would be a rule about preventing and about stopping. The UK is not proposing to take action which will actually prevent or stop further uses of chemical weapons.”

Unless, of course, what the UK government was planning was to carry on bombing until every last chemical weapon in Syria had been put beyond use; we’ll never know. It’s probably just as well.

Akande also made a broader point, which is that the idea of legality invoked by Grieve is rather a provisional thing. To the extent that it’s codified in any way, international law provides for military action in self-defence, in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution and, er, that’s it. What Grieve is referring to is the informal or ‘customary’ international law which is constituted from year to year by what states actually do.

when the attorney general’s advice says international law allows Britain to take measures to alleviate a humanitarian catastrophe without security council approval, this can only be in reference to customary international law which is based on the “views and practices of states”. [Akande] said there is “very little evidence of state support for this view. Indeed most states have explicitly rejected this view.”

3. Better not ask them to split the bill

The BBC canvassed opinions from Akande and four other lawyers (Geoffrey Robertson QC, Professor Sigrun Skogly, Professor Robert McCorquodale and Professor Dr Wolff Heintschel von Heinegg) as well as the political analysts Dmitry Babich and Sinan Ulgen. Their views stacked up as follows. There were five key issues: the role of the UN, including but not limited to the UN Security Council; the legality of “humanitarian” interventions; the legality of past interventions in Iraq and Kosovo; the “responsibility to protect” doctrine in the case of crimes against humanity; and the appropriate response to breaches of the ban on chemical weapons.

ROBERTSON: Intervention to prevent crimes against humanity – such as the use of banned chemical weapons – does not require UN Security Council approval; the legality of humanitarian intervention was established even before the UN was founded, in the context of actions against piracy and slavery. The intervention in Kosovo was not condemned by the UN Security Council, making it legitimate.

SKOGLY: Normally, any intervention needs to be approved by the UN Security Council. However, the legality of humanitarian intervention is a separate question. UN member states have a duty to promote human rights; consequently, if the regime has used chemical weapons, they have committed crimes against humanity. This means that UN member states are obliged to act on the basis of the responsibility to protect.

McCORQUODALE: Military action must be approved by the UN Security Council; failure to gain this approval means that the Iraq intervention is considered illegal. Intervention for humanitarian reasons, or on the basis of the responsibility to protect, is not lawful in terms of international law, although it may be in future.

AKANDE: The principle of responsibility to protect “does not create a legal right for intervention without Security Council approval”. The doctrine of humanitarian intervention rest on “a view of international law that has been rejected by most states”. (The humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, while not approved by the UN Security Council, was in pursuit of demands made by the UNSC.) A General Assembly resolution might be a possibility, but permanent members of the UNSC are unlikely to offer the GA that kind of authority.

HEINTSCHEL VON HEINEGG: In the absence of a UN Security Council resolution, intervention could only be justified on the basis of “customary international law”. The US and allies acted on this basis in their humanitarian intervention in Kosovo, although many states still regard this intervention as illegal. International treaties outlaw chemical weapons but do not provide for military intervention in response to their use. Some states currently turn a blind eye to limited action against chemical weapons, but this may change.

BABICH: Although the US might cite chemical weapons as a justification, UN Security Council approval is essential to make any intervention legal. Iraq and Kosovo didn’t have UN approval and were therefore illegal. And let’s not forget that they never found any chemical weapons in Iraq.

ULGEN: Only action approved by the UN Security Council would have “full legitimacy”. An alternative would be to try to get a resolution passed by the General Assembly. Other possibilities, outside the UN framework, include the responsibility to protect principle (invoked successfully in Kosovo) and international law banning chemical weapons, going back to the 1925 Geneva Convention.

4. At the shatterproof heart of the matter

So what does that lot add up to? For McCorquodale, Akande and Heintschel von Heinegg (three of the five lawyers), as well as Babich, the lack of UN approval makes intervention illegal. At the same time, all three lawyers acknowledge that international law changes over time and that customary international law may, arguably, give support to actions which are formally illegal. In this respect they contrast the Syrian situation unfavourably with Kosovo, although it’s a question of degree: none of them goes so far as to assert that the Kosovo intervention was legal. They also note, as does Babich, that customary international law is contested: one state’s customary international law may be another state’s illegal aggression.

Robertson dismisses the idea that UN approval is needed before military action can be taken. He argues that humanitarian intervention is legitimate, and that it’s legal under international law unless and until it’s ruled to have been illegal. Robertson’s invocation of piracy in this context is odd; action against piracy was justified historically on the basis that pirates were hostes humani generis, enemies of mankind and outside the protection of any nation. Robertson also refers to slavery, which seems more relevant: British actions in suppressing the slave trade – such as detaining slave ships and offering the slaves their freedom – could certainly be seen as outside the law, and did cause international incidents. However, these were at worst acts of unlawful expropriation, for which the slaveowners and their governments could (and did) ask for redress. Any parallel with the proposal to ‘free’ the people of Syria from the use of chemical weapons through outright acts of war is stretched in the extreme. Skogly and Ulgen both argue that the responsibility to protect could justify intervention, although Ulgen does acknowledge that this would be outside the UN framework. Skogly goes so far as to argue that “responsibility to protect” makes intervention obligatory, although she avoids stating outright that it would be legal.

Four of the experts refer to the “responsibility to protect” principle; only Akande notes, correctly, that it supplies a reason for intervention rather than a separate justification, and does not justify action by individual states outside the UN Security Council framework. (McCorquodale says that a state-level “responsibility to protect” would not make intervention lawful; Skogly and Ulgen both suggest that it would.) Another word worth watching is “legitimate”, a particularly slippery concept in this context (and only used by Robertson and Ulgen out of our experts). “Legitimate” doesn’t have a precise definition, but I’m taking it to mean “of uncertain legality, but unlikely to be challenged”. Of course, this is a fundamentally political judgment, as it depends on what you regard as a challenge: a nasty comment on Voice of Russia? a formal diplomatic rebuke? a referral to the International Court of Justice? (Or, if you’re a Republican President, none of the above?)

Having picked my way through all these different opinions, I think things ultimately are as simple as Babich makes them seem. The putative legal justification for an intervention has been variously rested on the 1925 Geneva Protocal banning chemical weapons (which doesn’t justify intervention), on the doctrine of preventing crimes against humanity (which is purely customary) or on the ‘responsibility to protect’ (which is codified, but doesn’t justify intervention outside the UN Security Council framework). In short, there’s nothing there, unless you define ‘international law’ as ‘what states do and then claim to be legal’ – and that’s not really satisfactory if the reason you’re invoking international law is to justify your state doing something and then claiming it to be legal. In this ‘customary’ perspective, international law (like reality) really is “what you can get away with“. This approach may work for a while if, like the USA, you’re one of those states that tends to get away with things (Britain historically isn’t, to its credit). But it’s not a principle that could ever coherently be generalised – which may be why, as Akande says, most states don’t want it to be. Remove this impossible option – of a kind of informal international legal order built on generalised lawlessness – and we’re left, as Putin effectively said, with a choice between international law and exceptionalism: either the law applies to everyone, or we maintain that it doesn’t apply to us because we say so.

This isn’t to say that there will never be an international mechanism for intervention in cases of humanitarian crisis, or that the ‘responsibility to protect’ will always be subject to agreement at the level of the UN Security Council. International law can and does change. But it hasn’t changed yet – not in the way that the interventionists would have liked.

5. Hark, now the drums they beat again

I think the failure (legal as well as political) of the arguments for intervention is significant – and very welcome, if that doesn’t go without saying. It should, hopefully, set an enduring precedent.

I have some sympathy for the people who say

it cannot be the case that [Security Council authorisation] is the only way to have a legal basis for action … We could have a situation where a country’s Government were literally annihilating half the people in that country, but because of one veto on the Security Council we would be hampered from taking any action. …That is why it is important that we have the doctrine of humanitarian intervention

or

a system of law that would countenance mass atrocity without any remedy simply because the interests of a veto-wielding power at the UN blocks remedial action is morally unacceptable, indeed intolerable; and so where the UN itself becomes delinquent by not upholding some of its own most fundamental principles, the UN not only may, it should, be defied by member states willing to give those principles more respect.

or, more succinctly,

Viewed from the angle of UN legality, military action against Assad cannot possibly be legal … If military action against Assad is morally justified then that must be the case regardless of whether or not it is ‘legal’.

(James Bloodworth, David Cameron, Norman Geras. Not necessarily in that order.)

I don’t agree with them, because I believe they’re missing two very important points. One is that legality – even the cobbled-together legality represented by international law – is a virtue in itself, and an extraordinarily important virtue. If the legal system of England and Wales governs 56 million individual actors, the international legal order governs 200 (give or take a few). If a handful out of 56 million actors defect from an agreement, they’re in trouble; if a handful out of 200 defect, the agreement is in trouble. An action in breach of international law isn’t simply an action with the quality of not being internationally legal  – it’s an action which breaches international law, leaves a (customary) breach in it. In other words, it’s an action which makes international law harder to invoke from then on, and harder to develop further. (Let’s say we hope to gain Russian and/or Chinese agreement to the principle of “responsibility to protect”. Would acting unilaterally now make gaining this agreement in future (a) easier or (b) harder?)

Pace James B, if military action against Assad (or anyone else) is illegal, that must be the case regardless of whether or not it’s morally justified – or, to put it another way, regardless of how much we may want it to be legal. And if you’re going to use your moral justification to knock a hole in the – already horribly imperfect – edifice of actually existing international law, it’s going to need to be a very good moral justification. Which brings me to the second point, touched on by Akande. Politically, the great merit of a rush to war is that it gets you into the war nice and quickly, without too much time to sit around debating the whys and wherefores. Conversely, one of the great merits of insisting on legality – at least, insisting on stopping for long enough to have the argument about legality – is that it creates a pause in the rush to war, in which there’s time to ask the awkward questions: in particular, what is the government trying to achieve, and has it chosen the best means to do it? Fortunately – and thanks to some excellent political footwork from Ed Miliband – there’s been a long enough pause for those questions to be asked; I think it’s fairly widely acknowledged now that the UK (and US) government’s goal was all too unclear, and the means chosen seemed likely to be horribly counter-productive. But it was a close thing.

Too often, when the drums start beating, the appropriateness of military force goes unquestioned, even by people who position themselves on the Left. But if all your solutions look like craters, I think you need to ask yourself why you believe that all your tools are missiles.

A gift from the Queen

Drink to the men who protect you and I!
Drink! Drink! Drain your glass! Raise your glass high!

I’ve lived through several Remembrance Days, you may not be surprised to learn, and for most of those I’ve refused to wear a poppy. (And it did feel – and continues to feel – like a refusal, not a free choice.) Initially this was because I felt I was being asked to endorse Britain’s role in the Falklands conflict and the Irish war: both the British Legion and the government seemed actively to encourage a blurring of the line between the dead in the World Wars and the very different Fallen of the 1980s, which I thought was pernicious. Still, for a few years in the relatively peaceful 1990s I did wear a poppy on November 11th, with the Second World War and more particularly the defeat of Fascism in mind. But for several years now we’ve been back in a period of imperialist war, and I prefer not to celebrate it. I do mourn the dead – including the British dead – but for me they’re dead in a cause that’s pointless at best, barbaric at worst; and you can’t get a poppy with “End this slaughter now” written around the outside.

On the topic of poppies and neutrality Owen is impressively logical:

The red poppy, as the white poppy-producing Peace Pledge Union points out, occupies something of a privileged position among emblems of charitable causes. If you’re a police officer or a TV presenter for the BBC, you’re not allowed to wear a wristband, coloured ribbon or any other kind of symbol that shows your support for a charitable or political cause, and especially not a white poppy, but red poppies, and red poppies alone, are fine.

There are two possible justifications for this that I can see: one is that the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal is neutral in a way that other charitable causes aren’t; the other is that the Poppy Appeal is, out of all the charitable causes in the world, a uniquely commendable cause.

Neutral?

all charities are legally required to be politically neutral, but if you can’t wear an AIDS ribbon or a Livestrong wristband on the BBC then clearly that kind of neutrality isn’t sufficient. But the Royal British Legion clearly doesn’t meet this requirement; the Poppy Appeal is manifestly not even politically neutral; every year the RBL creates ‘Fields of Remembrance’ which are intended as a “tribute to the memory of ex-Service men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect their country.” This year there will be one at Wootton Bassett, where the bodies of members of the armed forces killed in Afghanistan are brought. This implies that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security. Regardless of whether you believe this to be true or not, it’s quite clearly not a politically neutral position.

And as for whether the Poppy Appeal is uniquely worthy of our support – well, why would it be?

I’m sure the justification most people would give, if asked, would be something about the fact that servicemen and women put themselves in the line of fire to make the rest of us safer

– but this brings us straight back to the assumption about “all conflicts which the UK has been involved in being justifiable on national security grounds”, which is awfully hard to demonstrate with regard to (say) Suez, or the Malayan insurgency (Britain was agin it, in quite a real and tangible way).

The logic is impressive, but I think Owen misses a couple of obvious counter-arguments – one which I’ve already touched on, and one which Will sums up:

Wearing a poppy is quite a unique thing. There aren’t many ways that the British are able to symbolise a positive relationship to nation without descending to nationalism, to recognise the honour of the military without veering into militarism. It also has a beautiful ambiguity. It may represent something very patriotic and proud, or a form of pacifism. It needn’t mourn the dead of any particular war or even any particular nation. It may even represent mourning for the horrors of the twentieth century more generally. It’s not irrelevant that most of those who have died in war over the last 100 years did not go into the military as a career, but were dragged into hellish territorial disputes. Some people might feel particularly moved by those conscripts, others won’t. These various ambiguities allow people to congregate symbolically without being defined symbolically.

The poppy is about “a positive relationship to nation” and “the honour of the military”. It celebrates membership of a nation state with armed forces, with all the ambiguities and differences of emphasis which that allows: for different people, the same symbol can commemorate an imperialist adventure carried out by professional soldiers and a continent-wide war to defeat Fascism waged by a mass army of conscripts. But these different forms of commemoration remain within the framework of the nation-state: my 1990s anti-Fascist poppies were, precisely, celebrating the role of the British Army in licking Hitler.

This is why it’s beside the point to point out that very few people actually believe that every British serviceman or woman killed in the line of duty, in every conflict the UK has been involved in between WWI and the present day, was a necessary price to pay to safeguard our national security – and that anyone putting forward this hyper-militarised view of the world would scarcely qualify as “politically neutral”. The implicit argument here is not that the nation-state is neutral with regard to politics, but that it’s prior to politics: the British state, and the armed forces which underwrite its monopoly of legitimate force, are the precondition of any kind of politics in Britain – and of any kind of public sphere. We are not saluting those who died for no good reason in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Falls Road, but the men who protect you and I. (What we are certainly not doing – and here I entirely agree with Will – is saying that we think being injured is bad and being killed is even worse: an even more pre-political appeal, and one which evacuates the actual poppy ritual of what little politics it still gives houseroom to.)

And it’s because the poppy is a salute to the armed forces – our armed forces – that (coming to my second argument) neither wearing a poppy nor refusing to wear one is a free choice, in the sense that it’s a free choice to wear or not to wear a pink “breast cancer” ribbon or a Help For Heroes wristband. To say that the nation-state is prior to politics – to say that we enjoy British democracy and British liberties – is to say that we, as members of that nation-state, bear allegiance to the ultimate authorities of the state, and the armed forces which are both symbol and last-ditch embodiment of their power over us. (I lived in a Forces town as a child; if nothing else, it leaves you with an abiding respect for the armed forces’ ability to get the job done – whatever the job might be.) And if we bear allegiance, then, once in a while, respect should be paid. Declining to wear a poppy is opting out of allegiance to the state: it’s either an explicit protest or rather distastefully eccentric – after all, why wouldn’t you? (I see this in my children’s reaction to my failure to wear a poppy; I really should make my protest more explicit.) (I’ve never worn a white poppy, incidentally. The white poppy still has an air more of eccentricity about it than protest, perhaps because it says that the wearer wants to join in the ritual of commemoration and yet withdraw from it – like joining a march but insisting on making up your own slogans.)

The danger in all this is that sometimes the most useful thing we can do is not to pay respect to authority – and the time of war may be one of those times. In January this year I was in a pub when a loud and emotional argument broke out between a drunk and a squaddie who was about to ship back out to Afghanistan, where he’d recently seen his best friend killed. He was holding his drink quite well, but he was obviously quite well gone himself. The argument consisted mainly of the squaddie taking exception to everything the drunk said, and trying to shut him up by the drunk man’s usual method of talking over him, very calmly, very loudly and at great length; the drunk responded with the even drunker man’s tactic of carrying on regardless, in the blithe confidence that if he went on talking for long enough everyone in the world would agree with him. It was a fun evening. (I wouldn’t have minded so much, but we were trying to have a singaround at the time.) Anyway, nothing the drunk said upset or offended the squaddie so much as his profession of support and sympathy – “We’re all behind you, mate, we want to get you out of there and get you home safe and sound.” Big mistake. They had a job to do, we were told, and they were going to get it done. Anyone who said different just didn’t understand. There was a job to do, the army had been sent out there to do it and they were going to stay there till the job was done. They had a job on hand, the job was going to get done and they were going to make sure it got done.

From within the armed forces, of course, this is very much how you’d expect the world to look: they’re an instrument of the state and they’re there to get the job done, provided the job involves either weaponry or boots on the ground. The danger of paying respect to our state and our armed forces is that we as citizens buy into this heads-down goal-oriented mindset: theirs not to reason why (why Iraq? why Malaya? why Ireland?), and ours neither. Support the troops, we’re urged – and we’re asked to support them in just the same dogged, unconditional way that they’re told to do their job. But that way, our sympathy for the poor bloody infantry leads us to echo their unquestioning support for the goals they’re asked to achieve – and that’s precisely what we as civilians shouldn’t be doing. They don’t have the luxury of asking whether they should be going where they’re sent, but we do – and we owe it to ourselves to use it.

So: because I don’t think the British nation-state is prior to the politics that matter, in a way that my working-class ancestry decidedly is; and because, while I mourn the loss of life in Britain’s current imperialist adventures, I can’t endorse them; and, above all, because there is a war on, and I believe this is precisely the moment when spaces for debate and dissent most need to be opened up: for all these reasons, I’m not wearing a poppy.

Update A song for today.

Who owns what you do?

Here’s James Mensch, who’s a Canadian professor of Philosophy, writing at openDemocracy:

Those who fear solidarity’s exclusionary tendencies generally focus on the solidarities based on our past, that is, on our inherited situations of race, language, culture, and religion. Those who proclaim its benefits see solidarity in terms of our working with others to achieve common solutions to common problems such as global warming. Here the focus is on what we want to achieve politically, that is, on the future that we seek to collectively realise. Identity in this instance is not a matter of what the past gives us, but is rather provided by our working with others for a common goal. This identity is political rather than natural. … Being a member of a state with its universal rights and political obligations, that is, being a citizen as opposed to a member of a racial or linguistic group is sufficient for this type of identity.

No one, of course, lives completely in the past or the future. Thus, our identities (and corresponding senses of solidarity) are never so neatly defined. Our collective actions are informed by the past. Without it, we have no experiential or moral basis for acting. But they are also determined by the future, that is, by the goals that we want to achieve.

Only by being concrete can we be attentive to multiple solidarities we are actually engaged in. Our different situations of race, language, religion, and cultural preference involve us in differing networks of solidarity. These, unless artificially suppressed, provide a natural system of checks and balances within the solidarity that is based on the past

And here’s Rochenko responding to Mensch:

Once you have acknowledged particularity or diversity, and postulated that their forms provide the ‘checks and balances’ to the possibility of exclusionary violence rooted in past divisions, there is nowhere to go. Mainly because trying to go anywhere else would be too risky: reasoning about the general interest that unites all the particular interests risks doing violence to some of the particulars.

The problem is that refusing to go this extra step towards the idea of a general interest automatically does violence to the particulars: by freezing them as abstract particularities, it denies them a transformative future … Only by attempting to articulate what actually unites particular forms of identity in a political project can they have a future.

Nationalism, as a form of solidarity, is therefore not always regressive. Richard Phillips writes in this month’s issue of Planet magazine … that the resurgence of Scottish and Welsh nationalism can represent not the desire to tear loose from the UK a residuum of ethnic and lingustic identity, but a path towards a new internationalism. … Solidarity is once again an attempt to challenge the social totality, to build a genuinely international community, based on the unhealed divisions within the nation-state, based on the legacy of colonialism, based on the continued triumph of those who have always written history. In the form of the abstract particular (linguistic identity, the legalistic promotion of Welsh etc.), this new nationalism risks becoming another tool by which political elites retain their hold on power, and closing off the future. But national self-determination also generates a new enthusiasm for returning to the basic political question: how do we want to live?

I was pleased to see that last paragraph, as by the time I reached “automatically does violence to the particulars” I was flashing back to a book review I wrote a few years ago that, uncouthly, backed ethnic nationalism over civic ditto. (It was partly a Michael Ignatieff thing; if he’s for it I’m usually against.) And by the time I got to that last sentence I was already thinking, this is why I’m still interested in Welsh nationalism, and why Irish blogs like Splintered and Cedar Lounge seem so important – revolutionary socialism is always partly utopian, but when you’re trying to build a new nation you have to think about how people are actually going to live together. But I guess you’ll have to take my word for that part.

Great minds, anyway. And here’s that review, which appeared in the May 2000 issue of Red Pepper. I was quite surprised with how the argument turned out – not unpleasantly, though.

Edward Mortimer and Robert Fine (eds.), People, nation and state: the meaning of ethnicity and nationalism (I.B. Tauris, £12.95)

In this collection thirteen writers on nationalism, ranging from Michael Ignatieff to Danilo Türk, grapple with the resurgence of the ‘national question’. On the whole they like what they see. Neil MacCormick argues that “individuals may have as one among their most significant contexts some national identity”; therefore “the members of a nation are as such and in principle entitled to effective organs of political self-government.” Nationalism, however, takes symbolic and ‘ethnic’ as well as rational ‘civic’ forms; moreover, not every nationality can have its own state. Hence multiculturalism is a must: “the national identity of a community should be so defined that it includes all its citizens and makes it possible for them to identify with it”, writes Bhikhu Parekh. Civic nationalism stands above and validates the multiple ethnic nationalisms of its citizens. Ultimately this is an ethical programme: Robert Fine quotes Ignatieff envisaging the nation as “a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.”

This consensus hides an unresolved contradiction between ‘ethnic’ and ‘civic’ nationalism. Ignatieff endorses the desire of “the subjugated minority” for a nation state, only to argue that “civic contractualism is the only possible basis for … national solidarity and social cohesion”. Presumably once this is achieved minorities have no need for full-blown ethnic nationalism: if your nation’s governed by the right kind of state, the most you can aim for is civic-minded reformism and the celebration of cultural diversity. There is a whiff of the End of History about this.

Other contributors are more sceptical. Olivier Roy stresses the plural nature of ‘ethnic’ identity, which operates at national, sub-national and supra-national levels: the same person may identify as a French Algerian, a Kabyle, an Arab or a Muslim. Africanist Terence Ranger presents evidence suggesting that ‘ethnicity’ itself is a relatively recent invention. On the other side of the equation, Fine queries the merits of state nationalism: “Civic nationalism offers … an emotive source of political cohesion … But it also engenders faith in the state rather than critical reflection, and a sidelining of social questions”. This recalls MacCormick’s formulation, prompting the question of how national identity relates to such other “significant contexts” as gender, sexual orientation or (whisper it) class.

Notably, Fine is also the only contributor to ask what liberal nationalism has to offer “the homeless pariah who refuses, or is refused, participation in national communities”. Many of the arguments here seem tailored to the more clear-cut ‘national questions’ – Türk’s Slovenia, say, or MacCormick’s Scotland. Harder cases – Kosovar Albanians, the Romani minority of Kosova, Kosovar Romani asylum-seekers in Britain – would require a deeper analysis of culture, rights and power. This might start by treating ‘ethnic’ self-assertion as a positive value rather than a malign throwback, complementing it not with the liberal self-congratulation of ‘civic nationalism’ but with the fundamental humanist demands of democracy and social justice – demands which know no country and have no end.

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