(You can choose or or both)

Thursday, June 16, 2016


Désolé, un jour je ferai peut-être la version française!

(This is long, very long, much longer than I expected. Please make sure you're sitting comfortably!)

I'm not an expert on democracy. I mean, I don't get called up by the media to expound on the subject*. But I have thought about it quite a lot. And though this post is provoked by Brexit discussions, my thinking started way back, with the invasion/liberation of Iraq, and the 'Arab Spring'.

I haven't had time to form a coherent essay on the topic, so I'll just throw out some possibly interrelated musings. (Also, when reading, prefix everything here with 'I think, maybe'...)

-- Introductory aside --
One can base religions on how one thinks people should act. When discussing politics, it's better to start from how they do act. You might think it a good idea (I do) that people should have all things in common and freely share with their neighbours, both near and far. But if you're counting on them doing it voluntarily, you may have to wait a while. Also, people might say that they prefer buying British (or insert country of choice), but you may be disappointed to discover that, by and large, when given the choice, they'll buy cheapest (otherwise import tariffs would not be necessary...).

Democracy is a culture, not a system. Maybe 'western' intentions were misrepresented in 2003: but the idea that one could just turn up in a country like Iraq and 'switch on' democracy, as if it was just a question of handing out ballot boxes, seemed crazy to me even at the time. I think democracy is more like a flower, it needs time to grow. That is, society needs to 'grow into' a 'democratic mindset'.

Because, to me the aim of democracy is not primarily deciding how to run your country, it's avoiding civil war. In that sense, the answer is less important than the process. Everything hinges on how the 'minority' will react to defeat. They need to be 'good losers'!

Maybe not a coincidence that the UK is the oldest democracy? :)
And unsurprising that some Arab nations might not be 'ripe' for democracy just yet...

But democracy also depends on how the majority treat society's losers. Richer Londoners may (grudgingly) concede to effectively footing the bill for the unemployed 'up North'. I'm less certain that Germany's 'hard workers' are so keen on part of their retirement funds going towards bailing out Greek pensioners.

Ultimately, this boils down to there being some kind of shared 'us' which can survive election defeats, and which is strong enough to stop redistribution seeming unfair (even though it may still be unpleasant). Thinking about it, this notion of 'us' is probably the thing that makes democracy 'non-switchable'. You may say that people should feel a common bond with all humanity, but that takes us back to my introduction.

For better or for worse, the closest (or largest) thing we currently have which looks like an 'us' is the much-reviled 'nation-state'. You may deplore this, and in future maybe things will change, but I doubt that things will go well if you try to impose that change from above.

And this is why 'mass' immigration is a problem. People saying it's about racism are being disingenuous, or they are genuinely out of touch. In the UK, in any case**. Obviously, on the street the biggest gripe you will here is about 'foreigners taking our jobs': I'm not going to go there for several reasons***, (but I think this guy's (7m10s) take on the situation is hilarious).

So, in my vision, it's not about what colour the foreigners are, it's about how fast they're coming in, and how fast they're integrating (de-foreignating). And that's not racist, it's nationalist (or culturist, or societist, whatever). Sorry if you think that's a rude word. People have big arguments about 'multicultural' society. To me the only multicultural society that can work is the one where individual people have multiple cultures (Pakistani/English, Swiss/English, Welsh/British), not the one where you have multiple cultural groups who adamantly stick to their separate identities.

You can argue to the cows come home about what 'integration' actually means, but at the end of the day it comes back to this shared notion of 'us'. If you don't want to learn the lingo, I don't think you should be voting (and this isn't racist either: I don't have much truck with English people here in Swissland who can't be bothered to learn French, and instead just talk louder English).

One reads that the EU project was designed to prevent wars, and that it has succeeded. I'm not sure how you could go about proving that correlation is causation there, but I'm (obviously) sceptical of such bold claims****. Sometimes proponents of this theory will concede that there was the war in Yugoslavia, but that was in Europe, not in the EU. Personally, I wouldn't draw attention to Yugoslavia. It was a 'common market', with a 'single currency', and that didn't stop them killing each other! In my simplistic world-view, their 'us' died (if it was ever really there in the first place).

Same thing in former African colonies which were cobbled together with rulers and pencils, but no regard for ethnic affinities, and were thus hobbled for the future.

So the 'Us' is my first, long-winded point, I guess.

The second is 'democratic weight': how much politician is my vote worth? In this regard, I'm increasingly influenced by my experience here in Swissland. In my medium-sized town of 11'000 people, my vote is worth 11'000th of a politician (well, it's more complicated than that, I have several votes for several seats, but you get the gist). That's pretty good, I feel like my vote makes a difference. If I try and get a meeting with the mayor, there's a chance I'll get a hearing (yes, I've tried), and the politicians are close enough that the population has an eye on them and if there are any shenanigans, there's a chance of it coming out. (As the saying goes: keep your friends close, and your enemies closer!). The politicians are also less likely to want to sell their actual neighbours down the river.

There is a question of 'democratic distance' too: how close to the 'top' do my votes go? In Swissland, at the national level, your vote is once-removed from the top governing body (two if you count the president of the Federal Council, but that changes annually and is largely symbolic). In the UK it's a definite two (and doesn't count the House of Lords). For the EU, it's a clear three (if I've correctly understood!).

So yes, I'm a localist, I guess. Decentralisation all the way. What can be done and decided locally should be, and what needs to be done collectively should be decided collectively. That's why I'm against moves to combine towns into larger agglomerations here in Swissland: representativity (hmm, spell checker doesn't think that's a word) is more important than efficiency or rationalisation.

There is an undercurrent of deep cynicism and distrust in politics on both sides of the Brexit debate, and elsewhere across the world. Some of it is surely merited, but I would tend to be a bit less harsh. I think that most people genuinely get into politics because they want to make things better, but they end up having to project more confidence and competence than they actually have. This is another reason to be a localist: I'm sceptical that anyone really knows how to run a country (let alone a continent!)

Conversely, I find the distrust of 'the people' (and by extension, democracy) even more worrying. And it's clearly something that drives 'the people' crazy: suggesting that they will (or have) voted 'wrong'. I sometimes wonder what to think about a (hypothetical) politician who does what the people want as opposed to what he thinks is right: filthy populist, or ultimate democrat?

Does that mean that the people will always vote 'right'? Well, probably not, by my definition of right, but the majority will accept the result, because they voted for it, and if there is enough 'us' the minority will accept that, well... better luck next time.

Can the people be trusted? Again, Swissland influences me here: with more direct democracy than anywhere else, it is interesting to observe that people don't generally vote on the basis of immediate self-interest (I mean, they've voted against extra holidays, and just this month against a universal basic income). Of course places with less frequent votes are more exposed to the risk of protest votes: obviously to my mind that's not a symptom of too much democracy, but not enough!

Some of this is only tangentially related to the in/out remain/leave debate, but it was useful to me to try and get some of these things out of my head...

So what about Brexit? Based on the above, you can probably guess which way I am inclined, but you hopefully also understand why. But I'll throw in a few further thoughts:

- Some of the cases for remain seem to be inspired by a very anti-British, pessimistic, post-colonial-guilt complex: ironically, though leavers get accused of being 'Little-Englanders', it would seem that it is remainers who haven't actually travelled enough. Because most of the foreigners I've met genuinely admire the English (or British, they have trouble working out the difference, sorry). They can't get over the creativity, love the sense of humour (though they don't always get it), and are even a bit jealous sometimes. Yes, they belly-ache about us being different and difficult, and 'insular', but generally, they have a higher opinion of us than we do of ourselves.

- Look at what the EU is doing to Greece. You can moralise about them being a lazy bunch of wasters, but the Greek people are being sacrificed in order to 'save' the Euro. And the economic situation is blocked in a political stalemate where Greece can't possibly pay off their debts, but the rest of the Eurozone can't do the obvious thing and forgive the debts, because that would mean admitting to their populations that yeah, they splurged all their money, and it's never coming back.

- Since before the introduction of the Euro, I already had a rather sceptical, engineer's view of things. It seemed to me that having a single currency across disparate economies was a bit like welding the carriages of a train together. Wonderful until you get to the first bend! Right now the Eurozone is  also blocked in political stalemate: to make it 'work' would mean 'ever further integration' to harmonise their economies, but that would mean Germans continuing to bail out most of the South of Europe. T'ain't gonna happen. And the other way is backwards, and no EU-politician wants that to happen on their watch. The future is not looking good.

- I haven't seen any UK explanations of why people are queuing in Calais to get out of the EU. When I asked some French friends, they said it was obvious: no ID cards. In France, if you get stopped and can't show valid ID, you're in trouble. In the UK once you're in, you're in. That's not an argument against taking in refugees, but it's just to point out that the continental and UK 'systems' are very different. Which makes things like Schengen much more complicated. I've read stuff about differences with UK common law too, but know next to nothing about that, I'm afraid.
- Turkey. Sure, they're not even 'close' to getting in (according to pro-EU sources), but I honestly don't see why they're on the waiting list. That's stretching the 'us' a bit too far.

- I've read complaints that leavers, apart from leaving, don't have a coherent plan for 'what happens afterwards'. I think that's a valid concern, though I'd phrase it differently: I think they don't have a single plan, but I think there are probably several coherent ones. But the point is that we get to decide which one we want. (Referendum aside, the remainers don't have much in common either).

- Many of the remainer texts I've read seem to take a particularly dim view of our own politicians, while being prepared to suspend judgement about EU politicians (and bureaucrats). The 'lefty' types seem to count on the EU to protect us from own right wing government, or our own stupid plebs. This seems risky to me: if the likes of Orban, Le Pen, Wilders and AFD get in, will they suddenly start 'defending' us from a future Labour government? And as for 'stupid plebs': you already know what I think about that!

- On EU standards. This is an area to which I've had some 'professional exposure', and have had conversations with people who've been on standards committees, who were incredibly scathing about the process, the costs, and the underlying aim - which is much more about protecting the big European companies from smaller (or foreign - i.e. Chinese) competition - than it is about protecting consumer interests. And each country will happily stitch things up in their own favour.

Of course, if protectionism is your kind of thing, you might like that...

Having said all that (are you still there?)... remainers rejoice! I've been away too long to be allowed to vote. And honestly I think it's quite right that it's the people living in the country who should decide on their future.

That's democracy, after all :)

* Pretty close to a contemporary definition of expert, I think)
** OK, maybe it's me that's out of touch, but 30 years ago we had a 'n___r' (that term was already out-of-bounds) and several 'p_k_s' (wasn't yet out of bounds) in our class, and of course they got 'abuse' for being 'different', but it was the typical school fare which was equally meted out to all difference (gingers, swots, etc.). In fact I think that meant we were already coming out of the other side of racism - we'd gone past the phase of "don't touch them, it's racist". Thirty years ago.
*** Starting with the fact that I am a 'foreigner' taking "someone's job" :)
**** Actually, I think there's a pretty good case to be made for 'peace through prosperity', though whether the EU was the source of prosperity or just a beneficiary is a moot point...

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