Sunday, February 14, 2021

Did Mitch McConnell do the right thing?

As I was impressed with Mitch McConnell's apparent position in the days leading up to Donald Trump's Senate trial,* am I surprised, disappointed, devastated, at his decision yesterday to acquit? 

Millions will be, and not just US Democrats. Ardent Trump supporters will be infuriated by McConnell's outright condemnation of the former president, at his damning words at the end of the trial that there was no doubt Trump was guilty as charged, a betrayal of their champion. McConnell showed he is one of the 'weak' Congressional members Trump had warned them about and mustered his cavalry against on January 6, a RINO, a traitor who will certainly not save himself by his hypocritical vote. 

But there is more to consider here than the passion on both sides to fault Mr McConnell. Trump's trial can be looked at as a legal, moral, constitutional or political case. On the moral case, McConnell was unequivocal: Trump is a disgrace. On the legal case, he was clear Trump was still open to prosecution under the law, notwithstanding his acquittal by the Senate. Indeed, his final remarks seemed to be advocating that as the proper way to go.

McConnell then took the view that for the Senate, and each US Senator, impeachment demands the strictest constitutional duty. All were agreed to follow and safeguard the Constitution and, under the Constitution, impeachment is a political not legal process. No penalty, no punishment follows a verdict of guilty in the Senate. The House prosecution team had themselves pointed that out.

Still less, McConnell argued, is the Senate appointed moral guardian of 'the president, vice president and all civil officers of the United States' who alone may be impeached for 'Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors'. The Constitution provides for those impeached to be removed from office and 'disqualified to hold and enjoy any Office of honor under the United States', but not in any other way judged. Donald Trump was already out of office, immune as a private citizen.

It seems a harsh limitation in face of the justifiable outrage at a democratic president's shocking conduct and the horrors of January 6 at the US Capitol. McConnell admitted it made it a very 'close' decision - his word - relying on a narrow interpretation of impeachment under the US Constitution. But how can it be inadmissible or 'wrong' as a Constitutional reading, or as an explanation for Mr McConnell's otherwise inexplicable vote?

Except that a nagging question remains, undoubtedly forever now. Was it an unalloyed decision, absolutely inescapable from the Constitution's written words? Or did the political case, the Republican case, in the end decide the matter?

*Mitch McConnell's Moment, January 13 2021

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Will the US Senate vote to convict Trump?


Mitch McConnell’s speech in Congress this week was the finest a Republican could make, suspending fears that individual conscience and honour are unable to work under liberal democracy's party system that mainly turns representatives into servants.

Calmly and decently, without grandiloquence or political carping, he showed, with examples, that Democrats have no moral superiority, no right whatever to sermonize, but only that democracy cannot side with Donald Trump. If principle is involved here at all, that is the principle.

A day or so later, the news was Mitch McConnell has thought further; he feels Republicans should 'purge' the party of this president and his legacy. 

All of a sudden, the solution seemed obvious, a clear and undeniable duty: House Republicans must vote to impeach their rogue president. It was not an argument, not even difficult anymore. It is democracy to do so. And so they decided.

But a week is a long time in politics.

Now there are at least three objections and serious concerns on both sides: conviction will exacerbate not heal divisions in the US; a vindictive reaction is inherently undesirable and itself undemocratic; and if the Senate fails to convict, Trump will be vindicated and his supporters and cause encouraged, the worst possible outcome.

President-elect Biden and Mitch McConnell are said to have a sound working relationship. The best solution now could well be a political deal that saves the Republican Party's face and allows the new administration to get on with its monumental task of building America back from Covid and a threatening period of civil unrest.

No doubt talks are going on through multiple channels. The wise will wait and see. 




Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Mitch McConnell's Moment

Having addressed readers on Trump more than once over his four degrading years, I write at this eleventh hour about Mitch McConnell, so that you - and I - have a record of my thoughts before he proves me right or wrong. If right, I will not be content after this moment in history with knowing that I was and didn't mention it.

I thought his speech in Congress this week was the finest a Republican could make, suspending my fear that individual conscience and honour are unable to work under liberal democracy's party system that mainly turns representatives into servants. Calmly and decently, without grandiloquence or political carping, he showed, quoting examples from his thirty six years' experience of it all, that Democrats have no moral superiority, no right whatever to sermonize, but only that democracy cannot side with Donald Trump. If principle is involved here at all, that is the principle.

Last night, as we watched, the news was Mitch McConnell has thought further; he feels Republicans should 'purge' the party of this president and his legacy. 

All of a sudden, the solution is obvious, a clear and undeniable duty: House Republicans must vote today to impeach their rogue president. It is not an argument, not even difficult anymore. It is democracy to do so.

If Mitch McConnell is reported accurately and gives the lead when the Senate votes, he is not a traitor as many will assuredly claim. Donald Trump will lose his power and future chance of it from the right decision made for the best of reasons: that what he stands for never was democracy and democracy gives everyone the means to defeat it.

We will see if that is dreaming.

Two days later

Though a week is well known to be a long time time in politics, I have not already changed my mind by Friday. I believe Trump should be found guilty by the Senate and face appropriate penalties. I hope sufficient Republican Senators will vote accordingly.

At the same time I understand the objections we hear from both sides and share the serious concerns. There are at least three: conviction will exacerbate not heal divisions; a vindictive reaction is inherently undesirable and itself undemocratic; if the Senate fails to convict, Trump will be vindicated and his supporters and cause encouraged, the worst possible outcome.

President-elect Biden and Mitch McConnell are said to have a sound working relationship. The best solution now could well be a political deal that saves the Republican Party's face and allows the new administration to get on with its monumental task of building America back from Covid and a threatening period of civil unrest.

No doubt talks are going on through multiple channels. The wise will wait and see. 

Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Unsettled Settlement: the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement

As I began with a short piece just two days* after David Cameron's calamitously misjudged Brexit referendum of June 23 2016, it seems fitting to glance now at the proclaimed end of the crisis: the passing into law four and a half rancorous years later of the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement. 

First, Boris Johnson has done what he said he'd do, at least as far as he and his supporters are concerned, which is what counts: he can forever boast he took the UK out of the EU; second, he and the EU managed to avoid No Deal. That comes as a relief, though as Michael Heseltine has remarked, the kind of relief with which a condemned man hears his execution has been commuted to life.

For even for the layman, without studying the small print, it is hard to see this moment as the end of the issues or Britain's woes. Apart from obvious gaps - no finality on the status of Britain's services industry or the arbitration mechanism for disputes; disappointment for the fishermen on both sides; a return to red tape and border checks, disingenuously passed over by the Tory government as 'bumps in the road' - it is plain the strained, last minute accord is neither breach nor settlement. It envisages fresh negotiations if either party diverges from its terms, a procedure likely to become permanent, similar to Switzerland's ad hoc arrangements with the EU.

Will these negotiations be an easy and cheap exercise between friends, or a fraught and costly contest of rivals, a slow poison to Britain's international relations and domestic politics as Labour leader Keir Starmer moves on from his tactical approval of the deal this week? Or will the outcome be a series of treaty revisions that restores in all but name the status quo ante Brexit?

Four and a half years ago I wrote that 'Britain is in Europe whether it likes it or not; it's called History and Geography. There is no way out of either of them.'

Who is sure this morning anything has changed?

*June 25 2016: BREXIT: WHERE TO NOW? 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Christmas Greetings, 2020

It seems wholly inadequate to wish the usual 'Merry Christmas' after this awful year for everyone, so here are my authentic thoughts and wishes for what is going to be the historic Christmas, 2020. Better luck next year and in the years to come.

The Christmas Present To End All Christmas Presents, then, will be a Brexit deal it was always easy to say was certain to happen while being unable to say how. Boris Johnson's troubles, and I would hope and pray political demise, will start now. 

The remaining question with Trump is whether he is actually unhinged or just building his fascist legend of no-surrender - or, what some believe, collecting the dollars he's going to need for a remaining lifetime of litigation. Anyway he will go down in history in infamy as, we must hope, will the wing of the GOP that is supporting him to the end. Similar hopes too for the Tory cabal that misled our quaint country, too easily deceived, too insular to adapt to change, into the backward step of Brexit.

So, you see, I am both downcast and hopeful at the same time now. It is sad to live in these times after a lifetime of better ones, the Cold War notwithstanding, yet more depressing to see no end to Covid. 

I hope you and yours are all safe and well and wish you the best for this holiday season that, they say, is like no other holiday season. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Donald Trump: is it as bad as it seems?

Is Donald Trump a fascist, plotting in his White House bunker? 

Disconcertingly, the answer to the question rests with us. Fascism lies on the right of the political spectrum, though precisely where right differs from centre right and right right becomes far right is for many to say and no one to tell. 

Scanning a person's attitudes and beliefs goes so far, but sentiments and issues always overlap, boundaries blur and collide with one another, until we are at some wild outer extreme where there are no limits. Plainly President Trump is not there.*

Ask instead, then, whether Donald Trump is a democrat (the lower case 'd' in this context taken as read). Now our answer depends on what we understand by democracy. A typical dictionary definition reads: 'Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives'. 

But this falls a long way short. It omits any reference to typical democratic institutions, bicameral parliaments and the separation of the powers; to the customary coupling of the terms democracy and liberal in 'liberal democracy'; to the working of these and other norms and practices to enable peaceful change; to the foundations of such democracy in individualism, pluralism and human rights; to the character of a leader and leadership.

How far has Donald Trump met these values, worked to bolster them, stayed not just within the letter of the law and the US Constitution, but honoured their spirit? Though he is not a Democrat and entitled not to be, is he a democrat?

Donald Trump challenges us personally on this: he has seventy million voters behind him saying that he is and he won.

But he too is challenged. It is not only the vote count that makes millions more know Donald Trump lost and democracy has won.

*Note of January 8 2021: I considered ending this sentence with 'yet' and finally decided against it as Donald Trump was not out of hand at the time of writing.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

What is true in this post-truth age?

Can you believe a word of it?

All those questions that occupied us before Covid-19 arrived to scoop the lot - the ones that were not a matter of life and death: remember them?
Is Donald Trump making America Great Again? Will the British be better off for Brexit? Was colonialism all bad? Is government by the ANC any better? Was apartheid a crime against humanity? Oscar Pistorius - guilty or innocent?

Did Americans really land on the moon? Does homeopathy work? Is butter good for you? What exactly do you mean by 'good'?

In an already crowded and noisy world, the internet has finally done for answers. Today there is no opinion, no belief, intuition, revelation, faith, concept, hypothesis, theory, statistic, authority, logic, reasoning - no right, wrong, common sense or well known fact that someone somewhere cannot declare is not true. To Flat Earthers, the world is not round. To an economist, Covid-19 is not a simple matter of life and death.
Yet how does that make sense? If what we hear is false, something else must be true or how do we tell the difference? What is this something called the truth? Who has it and speaks for it? To convince everyone, it must be more than a contrary or contrasting opinion. Is the truth available in every case, can it settle all arguments?

Religion makes its claim here and insists the source is God. But while that is true for the faithful, the problem has always been too many have insufficient faith, or the wrong faith, or no faith. That religion holds the truth is probably the oldest and most disputed truth of all.

Science is more circumspect. Science speaks of what it reveals or establishes as 'regularities' rather than truth. A scientific theory - not, note, a scientific hypothesis - is the surest form of knowledge homo sapiens has because it is tested and observed, observed and tested, to a point where the outcome is predictable. But the word is predictable rather than certain. Scientists see their theories, however tried and trusted, as provisional, not as a metaphor for another world altogether. That remains the inference of non-scientists.
How then to proceed in what is acknowledged as our post-truth, counter-factual age with its debilitating arguments and potential for violence?
One view is to accept that logical argument or facts cannot make us agree with people we disagree with. Disagreements stem from a cognitive or cultural bias, or both. We disagree not because the 'facts' are in dispute or missing, least of all because one or other side is right and wrong, but because we think differently as people.
This is persuasive. We are often told nowadays the difference between left and right has disappeared. But differences are as marked as ever whether people are polled on traditional issues like capital punishment and rape, or on pressing contemporary issues, domestic violence, global warming, same-sex marriage.

When social conservatives disparagingly call liberals 'libtards' and liberals return the compliment by labelling social conservatives 'far  right', the difference appears to be fundamental: not one between people, but in people. If that is so, is the difference nature or nurture - in today's parlance, hard-wired or learned? Does that explain why so many insist multiculturalism does not and cannot work while millions of others pin their hopes on it?

We seem trapped in an ever-revolving door with these questions. Yet there is a way out, so wide open it is considered absurd, if not profane, to point it out: there is no such thing as the truth - that is merely the way we use words. If you stop speaking of the truth and claiming you possess it, the problems disappear.

After thousands of years of knowing otherwise, people find this idea preposterous. How could anyone do that? How would we know right from wrong, good from bad, sense from nonsense? If there's no truth, what would replace it?

Oddly enough, you have just said it: knowing would replace it. Knowledge is the word we should use, not truth. Try it ...

Some readers know President Trump is the greatest US President ever; some know he is the worst. They both know it for sure, but neither is true ...

Helen Zille definitely knows colonialism wasn't all bad, but a million EFF supporters in South Africa know it was. Insiders know the US moon landing was faked, except those who know for a fact Apollo 11 landed on the moon ...

And so on. You see, we know what we know and it works perfectly for everyone; no more arguments, no more fights.

"Nah! None of this BS's true."

Monday, December 30, 2019

Brexit: the end of the beginning

Brexit has not been 'done': anyone who has followed the plot at all will know January 31 2020 is only the date when negotiations between the UK and the EU start at last. But at least the date marks a new situation, the release Britain's democracy reportedly longed for, so let us pause and look at events so far.
In the end it was as simple as Boris Johnson has always striven to make it appear. What was necessary was a hand-picked cabinet of right wingers, Mr Dominic Cummings' hard-faced control and power to dismiss or ruin anyone who did not stay on message, and Mr Johnson's ability to reduce any serious matter to a laugh.
His 'oven-ready' deal ('Gas Mark Four in the Microwave' was Mr Johnson's populist pleasantry on the campaign trail to hide a somewhat worse deal than the one he had earlier voted against and smoothly replace the original failed recipe of having your cake and eat it - but what is one more empty trope among so many on Brexit?) was then duly swallowed in the general election.
There is no arguing with an election; that is liberal democracy even if a dated, simple-majority, advisory referendum presented as an instruction is arguably not. So what went wrong, if indeed anything went wrong? Again, it is simpler than both sides will now make out.
The record does not show Jeremy Corbyn supporting Europe; socialism in one country perhaps better describes his position. But whatever his personal views or those of the wing of the Labour Party that supports him, Mr Corbyn could not declare for Remain or Leave. His party, mirroring Labour voters throughout the country, was divided top to bottom on it.

The Tories, in government under a new leader following Theresa May's resignation, finally had to decide and they had decided on Mr Johnson. When he said Leave was do or die, he was for once serious: that is exactly what it was for them all politically. Mr Corbyn in Opposition, lacking the conviction and leadership qualities to make a bold stand, sat on the fence to the end.
And a bitter end it is. Mr Corbyn is being blamed for something any political analyst could have told him: that 'the workers' can vote Labour all their lives but still be social conservatives (note the small 'c'). When to get Brexit done they were even ready to join the Conservatives with a capital 'C', how could a radical programme of tax and spend, earnest pledges to accommodate the many in a new, kinder world, win the day?

Yet no form of Brexit can make those questions disappear; for now that must be Labour's consolation. Democracy is the best form of government, not a guarantee of the best outcome. 

Friday, December 13, 2019

The British General Election: The Money Is Mine

One-Nation Conservatism under the Boris Johnson government?

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Can the liberal vision of one world ever work?

One of the most elusive and disputed mysteries of life, if not the fundamental mystery, is how homo sapiens has a sense of identity and what its nature is.

We understand that a medieval European peasant - or nobleman - did not think as the new middle and mercantile classes began to think in the 17th and 18th Centuries and that none of them could have seen things as we 'moderns' see things today.

But the explanation for such differences is open to any interest and agenda. It is Religion; no, it is Science. It is Capitalism at work; no, Marxism. It is Society, Culture, IQ, Race. It is Progress. No, it is not.

Or could it simply be we live as and with different types of people?

The conservative view today that technocratic governance is stifling individual freedom, and the claim that a common humanity is the fabrication of a left wing elite for its own purposes, need  to  be interrogated, not taken for granted. As should the nationalist idea that a man or woman cannot be German or Afrikaans and also feel Austrian and South African, wider still European and African, and beyond that, a member of the human race.

People have more identities, more ideas of themselves on offer now, than the medieval peasant or educated nobleman could ever dream of. Is it possible, in the way of things, some have moved further than others since the 12th, 18th or 20th Century and haven't stopped yet?

Monday, August 26, 2019

Why do South Africans go on voting for the African National Congress?

Why would anyone vote ANC, given the party's record of corruption followed now, under President Cyril Ramaphosa, by division, bitter in-fighting and deadlock? It is more a mystery than a question, considering the negative coverage the ANC gets in the media.

Most regular journalists seem to avoid exploring it. They may feel it somehow undemocratic, even running a risk, to argue there is no real option. Or they know perhaps they can rely on the social media these days to come up with an answer.

On Twitter and in the comment columns of news and political websites, explanations are never lacking: people who vote ANC either have their noses in the trough or are looking to have their noses in the trough. Alternatively, they have been bought or are unintelligent. There are many learned exchanges on the proof furnished by IQ tests.

There’s no doubt some truth in it all, as in politics everywhere. But like all generalities, it also makes one wonder. Is there really no hope, not an honest ANC man or woman anywhere? Not in the Revenue, for instance? Not speaking out at the Zondo Commission? And can’t the people - the voters - vote ANC simply because they want to or choose to? Is that really the same as being stupid?

Another popular explanation is people vote ANC because of identity politics, sometimes termed identitarian politics to make the matter weigh more significantly. Liberals tend to bridle at this, seeing it as a threat if not racist, and they may have a point. All politics is identity politics because there has to be a sense of mutual identity to identify with anything. There is the consideration too, since the population of SA is 80% black, that the majority can hardly avoid colouring the party they vote for.  

That leaves the President Cyril Ramaphosa factor, the New Dawn that he promised South Africans, but which, the ubiquitous doomsayers insist, is a False Dawn.

This piece, however, is not to get into that debate yet again, to claim that Mr Ramaphosa may or may not be trusted, or that he is weak and not moving fast enough. It is to put another view entirely.

There appear to be three reasons people vote - or don’t vote - as they do: habit, loyalty and reason.

Habit, a very powerful human instinct/motivator, is clearly at work in people who vote for the same party all their lives - because their parents did, or the local community does, or because they just can't ever be bothered.  These include those who 'don't trust politicians' and it also explains those who don't vote at all, and why they often are the ones that grumble most at the terrible state of affairs.

It's like putting the cap back on the toothpaste: you either do or you don't.

Loyalty is hard to tell apart from habit and no doubt often overlaps with it, but it may be a more elevated form of behaviour, or more stupid, depending, ironically, on your loyalties.

Loyalty seems straightforward enough: we naturally take sides and, having taken them, we stick with them come what may; it may be related to not wanting to be proved wrong. It generally has little to do with logic and nothing whatever to do with right and wrong and it is therefore puzzling why people sneer at others who stick with a particular political party or politician, when they themselves never desert their favourite soccer or rugby team however often it disappoints.

Then there's reason. Now that's the hard one. We all have Reason; that stands to reason. We think that anyone capable of reason would never vote ANC. In the same way, we reason no one would ever vote DA and anyone who votes for Donald Trump has taken leave of their senses. Yet there are people who do it, who would vote Hitler or Stalin still, or Barak Obama, or Emmanuel Macron and give you reasons for it. After all, people even vote for Nigel Farage.

Reason, the organising principle of democracy, is as deceptive a guide as any other. It does not lead us all to do the right thing or the best thing. And it definitely doesn't make us all do the same thing.


Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Yellowhammer - the British Government's Brexit assessment, not the bird

The leaked Tory government report Yellowhammer, setting out the risks of fuel, food and medicine shortages following Britain leaving the EU without a deal on October 31, is causing yet more outrage and denial in a gravely divided country. However, it is conclusive on at least four issues:
It shows Brexit is little or nothing to do with 'trade', but is ideological. No rational government aware of these risks would otherwise persist in running them.
It shows talk of fulfilling 'the will of the people' is a sham. A government that respected 'the people' would give the people a chance to review the situation in the light of Yellowhammer, its own and latest assessment. That would mean, at the very least, holding another referendum on Brexit.
It shows the claim voters would lose faith in democracy if cheated of Brexit by politicians is also a sham. If the people are 'not stupid', as politicians always like to say, the people will be intelligent enough to understand the need for them to re-consider and reaffirm their earlier opinion of June 23 2016. Indeed an intelligent 'people' would now insist on the opportunity to do so.
It proves Brexit is and always has been about the Tory government and party's interest, not the national interest. The fact that Labour and other opposition MPs and voters support Brexit does not alter this. It shows that opposing the Conservatives does not necessarily rule out being politically and socially conservative.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The answer to global warming

Every scientific theory attracts debate and dissent and people often think that is 'proof' the theory is 'wrong', or even some kind of conspiracy or swindle.
That is a misunderstanding of science, which is not in the business of 'proving' or 'disproving' things, but rather of pointing to tendencies and causalities that may be taken to exist until they are shown by further testing and evidence not to exist.
In other words, all scientific knowledge is provisional and the opposite of dogma and belief.
People who do not believe in global warming often cannot see that to anyone thinking scientifically, the dissenting view may also turn out to be wrong. There is no way round the argument and disagreements that follow because they result from a difference in how people think.

So what is the answer then? How do you know which side is right?

Outcomes in a scientific debate rest strictly on testing and evaluation that may take many years and, in the case of global warming, may never be complete.

But on many subjects we have no alternative but to apply to people who specialise in them. The scientific question to ask scientists is: What is the weight of scientific opinion on this, not Who is right or wrong. There will always be dissidents.


Monday, July 29, 2019

Will Brexit be the end of liberal democracy?

Someone asked me in the Comment section of a political website, What is liberal and democratic about this type of politics?
He was referring to the poisonous stalemate, the 'circus' as some are calling it, of the Brexit crisis in Great Britain. I replied:
I think the answer to your question is that what you see happening, with all its twists and turns, backstabbing, backsliding and blatant hypocrisies, is liberal democracy. This is how it works, this is it in action. What you see is what you get. But you have to cast off illusions and wishful thinking and look straight at realities.
Someone else asks in a comment addressed to me, What was the purpose of the referendum? To me, it was quite clearly to solve the Tory party's internal and electoral problems: its intractable Euro-sceptic wing that existed before Britain even joined the Common Market, coupled with the alarming rise for the Tory party of the far right UKIP.
Everyone can argue about the meaning of 'right' and 'left' and other issues as long as they like, but if there's any such thing as the truth, that is the truth. The referendum was called to solve the Tory party's problems as the leadership of that party saw them in governing under the British party system.
The ramifications of that decision are proving enormous, splitting the parties and country and threatening the traditional workings of the constitution, one of the oldest representative democracies.
That is liberal democracy, or at least liberal democracy going through one of its crises. It isn't the first and won't be the last.
Those who don't like it need to consider the alternatives.

So if Boris Johnson takes the UK out of the EU on 31 October 2019, you will endorse the decision as liberal and democratic?

If Mr Johnson manages to take the UK out, I will never endorse that decision, but I do not think we should overthrow the system or start a war. And because there are millions like me, the argument will continue.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

First Love

Dear Elizabeth

Please read this with all your care.

There's nothing unpleasant in it; only two questions at the end only you in all the world can answer. They come from a time when your life had not really begun. Or mine.
I took you to the opera at Sadler's Wells. Carmen.
It was in 19--, in February, I'm sure it was.
I remember scattered fragments from the evening, five or six moments like old black and white photographs kept in a drawer over a lifetime.
Can you remember? Do you remember me, Paul Whelan? If you do, you must remember we never met or ever talked again.
I've always wondered. Was I of any interest to you at all? And if I wasn't then, could you perhaps have become interested if I'd tried?
Forever those questions. Please don't think you have to be polite or tactful. Take your time.
If you are able to say and don't mind my asking, please tell me now.
Best wishes.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Brexit: after parliament says No to everything

As Britain displays every symptom of an advanced stage of madness, the key symptom being political paralysis, can anything be done?
Assuming Theresa May’s deal does not pass in the next week, Brexit should be extended sine die, a diplomatic ‘revocation’ of Article 50 that all sides except the diehard right might find acceptable now if only to gain a breather.
This should go hand in hand with a General Election. Only a new government and parliament have a chance of renegotiating with the EU. The task is somehow to start again. It sounds awful, but what option is there?
A general election throws all the cards up in the air, which is what is needed. May would go, Corbyn might well go. Maybe Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees-Mogg would go. Who can tell? If MPs of all parties and especially the government are terrified of a GE, you can be sure that’s what the country needs. Democracy must be allowed to work.
On no account should there be another referendum, a People’s Vote, or any plebiscite called by any other name you care to call it. Have done with referendums forever from here on, until and unless their use is carefully prescribed in carefully considered law. They are nothing to do with the British way of government.
It is not that it is hard to discover the ‘will of the people’: there is no such thing as ‘the will of the people’. And even if there were, 'the people' do not pass laws or run a country. If we have not learned that at least, everything has indeed been in vain.
Meanwhile we seem to be looking at a fair chunk of the rest of our lives. A sort of Twenty First Century Thirty Years War.
We live and learn or are nothing.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Is a referendum 'real' democracy, like people say?

No government, it may confidently be said, would hold a referendum it expected to lose.

And, of course, that is how referendums have been used historically and up to the present: as instruments of the executive. Napoleon III of France - sometimes seen as the originator of this style of 'democracy'  - used them to get his way, Mussolini and Hitler to get theirs.

So the first point to grasp about the Brexit referendum is that British prime minister David Cameron lost it. It happens sometimes. It happened, for instance, in February 2000 when Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's referendum produced a No for his new constitution. The people's decision did not suit the autocratic President Mugabe, who ignored it and seized the farms anyway.

However, Cameron's failure and the ensuing calamity is of a different kind altogether, as not only democratic Britain but Europe and the wider world now bear witness. Why has it gone so wrong? Referendums are democracy in action, the people getting the chance to express their will directly - 'direct democracy'. Aren't they?

In fact, democracy in practice means representative democracy, not direct democracy, a popular term for a form that does not exist and is never defined or critically examined beyond claims for it being 'real' or 'true' democracy. Like they had in Ancient Greece.

But what are the institutions direct democracy can draw on today? Referendums on everything? If not, who would select what they are held on?

Workers councils or soviets? Petitions, demonstrations, street marches?

These are democratic already and in any event must still be organised by some leader, party or committee acting as executive on behalf of others. The issue of unequal power is not removed.

Above all perhaps, 'the will of the people', on which the idea of direct democracy rests, is deceitful. It is a metaphysical concept that cannot be proved or disproved and open to co-option by any interest rich enough to push a facile message across broadcast, press and social media. Social media have not only liberated people and opinion. They have recruited them more effectively than ever.

What we are really talking about when we speak of the will of the people is the current majority for or against something. And we forget majorities change over time. There was a time when the majority was against votes for women. Before that, it was for votes for propertied men. There was a time the majority favoured laws criminalising gays. We are living through that changing right now.

The populists' reply to these objections is essentially rhetorical: an entrenched elite are accused of elitism, of pursuing their agenda and power through institutions that are 'broken' and media that have been bought; the elite treat ordinary people as stupid.

It is a familiar escape, skipping the question of how direct democracy would or could work institutionally to improve on representative democracy. It is the standby of the left and right in suggesting there is an easy solution to everything, without ever defining it.

Today we seem content to leave it there, not to address the obvious objection that if the present 'elite' were replaced it could only be by another one - not to question what that new elite represents and whether its values are democratic at all.

Such contradictions reflect the political divisions of our time rather than contribute to an understanding of how human government does or could work for a better future for all.




Sunday, September 23, 2018

Brexit: the best way out for Britain now

The received wisdom at present is that a Brexit ‘deal’ will be scrambled together between Britain and the EU at the last moment because that is how it has always worked in the past.

I still believe that myself - just - on the basis that such a ‘deal’, in reality another face-saving fudge, can be carried over into the transition period to buy time for the desperately placed British prime minister following the rejection of her Chequers plan in Salzburg.

But, after Salzburg, there is an alternative. 
If Theresa May goes now or soon, and if Jeremy Corbyn narrowly won an ensuing election, a radical left Labour programme mistrusted by many voters would struggle to remain the priority. The new government would be as bogged down in Brexit as the hopelessly divided Tories. More likely worse.

However, Brexit on the failed Tory lines, and on any of the currently disputed options, would be buried or wide open to review. The new Labour government or, failing that, an ad hoc coalition of some kind, would have to go back to the drawing board.

A fresh start. Not another futile referendum, but a new realism, with 'the will of the people', the mantra that sanctified the 2016 referendum despite its obvious shortcomings, silenced as past its time and unrealisable.

Is it a possibility? Is the leadership there for it?

Back to time-honoured representative government, the bubble of populism popped?

Thursday, August 9, 2018


Perhaps it is superfluous to point this out, but all the articles, commentaries and issues they raise to so much heat are part of the 'national debate' that was long promised about 'land' in South Africa. How far this national debate is proving useful rather than divisive is itself debatable, but the fact is a crucial debate is now on.
So far several things should at least be clearer if not completely clear:
1] Mr Cyril Ramaphosa spoke on tv on July 31 as president of the African National Congress, not state president, hence the ANC flags behind him; 2] a number of statements have come from the ANC as a party, not formally from parliament or the SA government;
3] these various statements and resolutions are different, even contradictory, reflecting serious differences of approach in the governing party and efforts to accommodate them; 4] more broadly across political parties and society, there is general agreement that Expropriation Without Compensation - the shorthand for the current debate - would be disastrous for SA's economy;

5] the Economic Freedom Fighters have a 'policy' to nationalise all land and the ANC do not; 6] no land is presently being expropriated, excepting illegal occupations that may be politically organised;

7] any final legislation on EWC faces very complex and on-going constitutional and legislative obstacles.
It is reasonable to argue that the way the land question is finally settled will also settle the kind of dispensation the Republic of South Africa is: a democracy or something else. But what is happening so far is what happens in a democracy, not in an authoritarian state.






Thursday, June 14, 2018

A beautiful evening at Macbeth?

You cannot describe an evening at Macbeth as entertaining, as lovely; rather I must say I have never found the play so absorbing an evening as at the National Theatre last night, with Rory Kinnear in the nightmarish title role.
In this world of unrelieved horror, what can be the appeal? We know it is about vaulting ambition, Macbeth's and his wife's, about the destruction it wreaks, the cruelty and murder it can drive human beings to, the dire consequences of underestimating our imagination and conscience. Why sit through that darkness when you could simply stay away?
It is because the dark too, I decided as I listened, takes on an incandescent beauty: not some sick beauty of horror and death: not, for once, because of Shakespeare's profound insights into character and motivation: but from the matchless use of words, the sublime language that elevates and absolves all action.

Whether for Oberon scheming about a bank where the wild thyme blows, for the exiled Duke serenely accepting the uses of adversity in As You Like It, for the monstrous Macbeth shrieking at his terrors, Shakespeare makes empyrean music.

He gives the lie to the tale told signifying nothing, heard even in Hell the harmony of the spheres.


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

"It is raining, but I don't believe it"

Moore's Paradox, in the headline, is an effort to remind us how 'the truth' is not simple.
Pontius Pilate long ago asked What is truth? and washed his hands of the whole thing. Professor G E Moore, early last century, proposed his Paradox to get people thinking.
First, the Paradox shows there are facts [It is raining ..] and there are opinions [but I don't believe it ..].
It shows that facts and opinions exist together. And, crucially, that they can contradict each other. A very important reminder for us, considering how often we find them doing so these days.
But it gets more complicated. The sentence, 'It is raining, but I don't believe it' is not nonsense or madness. Not like saying, 'It is raining, but I don't believe it because there is no big tap in the sky.' That would just be silly or insane.
It is not illogical either. It is possible to hold an opinion that does not agree with the facts. The Flat Earth Society still has members, I understand.
Because the sentence is not illogical you cannot defeat it with our normal logic. That is an even more important discovery. There is a contradiction in the sentence, but it is not nonsense nor illogical. How to explain that?
We can point out the person would know it is raining because s/he would sense it: see it, hear it or get wet. But the question then is, are our senses the only way we know things?
What if the person learned it was raining by report? If s/he was told it is raining and said s/he did not believe it, does that alter everything?
Also, if s/he was told it was raining yesterday, but did not believe it, is that a different case again? A bit like History: 'There was a Second World War, but I don't believe it.'
Look at all these problems with the truth. And a professional philosopher would tell me I have hardly started on the subject.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Why on earth should we teach History?

Except for asking how wide the universe is and what we are doing here, there is no more difficult question than why and how to teach History. Presumably there is a purpose to it. What could that be? You can see why you teach language, or adding up, or geography. But why History?
Well, first 1] to educate the individual, just like any other subject, which may be seen as an end in itself; but 2] also to build a sense of citizenship?
2] is the hard part because it affects what you do whether you decide the purpose is to build citizens or definitely not to build citizens - citizens being people who will collectively accept the status quo: that the way things are done is 'right'.
Inevitably a politician will see 2] as essential, if not the priority. It is the nature of the job. Isn't the idea of a Minister of Education itself suspect? Won't the Minister just have History taught the way s/he sees the world and wants it to be seen? But then you can't teach revolution either. That's indoctrination too. Not to say unwise.
A good way round the question is to consult Historians, ask them why they write History. The explanation I tend to prefer is the one that simply says it is to understand why people did what they did in the past. But can you keep it even that honest without bias seeping in? Was King Shaka or Henry VIII or Herod the Great not so much great as a bit of a rotter actually?
Problems, problems. It's make your mind up time again, I'm afraid.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018


Consciousness is itself explaining itself.
There is no answer.
It is the piece of string asking how long it is, our questioning what came before the Big Bang.
The dog chasing its own tail.

Addition, November 25 2020: "The discovery of the self can never be complete, because the 'I' who asks 'Who am I?' is both the seeker and the sought. The only way this .. can be managed is by the hermeneutical approach [which] makes us see that as embodied beings whose selfhood cannot be grasped by a Cartesian act of introspection, we have to recognize ourselves as linguistic, social and bodily unities." - The History of Philosophy, A.C. Grayling 

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Explaining my approach to politics to a critic

You and I agree that race is a divisive issue in South Africa; I assume you would agree that is not surprising in view of the country's history. I also assume we would agree that some, maybe most, of the 'racial conflict' today is false, to be laid at the door of politicians who stir it up for their own purposes.
I would never join a political party of any colour; I am not able to believe the things politicians say or their promises to carry out certain policies and I could not conform to party discipline and whips.
That does not make me 'objective'; no one is objective. But it enables me to look at, say, President Zuma, or Cyril Ramaphosa, or Helen Zille, unburdened by loyalties. As you and I have discussed before, I believe Jacob Zuma was an appalling president; I believe Cyril Ramaphosa is saying - and doing - good things, but has a long way to go to prove himself; I believe that Helen Zille, a highly professional politician, who has fought the good fight for liberal values and her party, is now past her sell-by date.
I am neither pleased nor saddened by that. Politicians have a privileged life while on stage and make their own choices in public.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Thoughts on a lifetime of opera

21 March 2018 at 12:20:30 AM
Life is full of surprises and I have just had such a lovely one seeing L'elisir d'amore for the first time in my life from The Met with Pretty Yende, South Africa's own.
It is such a happy, funny story, an absolute delight, and I enjoyed myself so much at an opera I would never have thought of going to see, but for this chance, in two or three lifetimes. It is because of Una Furtiva Lagrima, one of two arias I cannot stand, the other being E Lucevan Le Stelle. A purely personal thing - or two things, I suppose, strictly speaking.
The Met Live in HD is on again and it is La Boheme on Saturday; I saw Tosca a week or so back with Sonya Yoncheva and she is singing Mimi. It seems to me that Act I of Tosca is Puccini composing at his peak, with Act III being really seriously deficient - out of inspiration. Boheme, though, is such a perfect masterpiece from start to finish, flawless. I can't wait to see it again.

Silly now how in our teens we would argue these things. One group of my friends were terrible Germanics - Bach, Beethoven and Brahms were the Gods and silly old Puccini was not worthy of discussion. I had to sit there sometimes quiet, feeling totally wrong-footed, if not just wrong, because I loved Tosca and Boheme and Butterfly. Now I see it was rather their loss in youth.

Yet I find it harder than ever to keep control of myself in these operas nowadays. They are so saturated in memories of times and friends and places and joy. The wonderful gift Puccini has for melody, one after another pouring effortlessly out of him, lays hold of me and wrings my eyes and heart.


Sunday, December 24, 2017

South Africa's African National Congress resolves to expropriate land without compensation

With politicians you have to distinguish between what they say and what they mean and between what they promise and what they do.

It is rash to assume that because the ANC conference this week passed a resolution about expropriating land without compensation, the politicians are now going to do it - even though Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, the new ANC president elected at the conference, appeared to endorse it in his speech.
A general policy of this kind, as Mr Ramaphosa will know, would ruin South Africa as it did neighbouring Zimbabwe. Why say it then?

We are dealing with politicians. If it all sounds contrary, look at it contrariwise.

In this case, you may be led to believe the ANC are going to do something bad that they 'promised'. But think of the times they did not do something good that they promised. Over the years they never did stop corruption and Jacob Zuma never did have his day in court.

It is a mistake to believe what politicians say. But that applies to everything they say.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017


My farewell to school at 18 before going on to university
text of the original on 'A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Dreamer'

It had been a long, hard climb but he was nearly at the top. Now, as he sat resting on the ledge with his companions, he could see more clearly than before - than ever before, perhaps.
The worst of the climb was over. That last difficulty which had seemed so insurmountable as he approached had been safely negotiated and not only he, but all his party had come through safely. After that final exertion he had earned these few moments' respite. The wild exhilaration and triumph which comes in the moment of achievement had passed and he sat calmly contemplating the climb he had made.
How many eager young people had set out at the start and rushed on blindly with the rest, very few - if any - knowing where or why they were going! The climb had been so easy at first that no one had bothered very much - indeed it was not necessary - but later it became more difficult and many had given up. He realised, looking round him, that not one of his original party was still with him. His four present companions he had met on the way, one of them not so long ago even now. He also realised that many of those original starters should never have attempted the climb in the first place.
The great difficulty his own party had so lately overcome had proved too much for them at their first attempt and only one out of their six had been successful. Now, it seemed, they were all to be successful in the end, although he, at least, had often despaired.
So many had started that long climb - so many had shared the early fun and reckless irresponsibility - but not so many had shared the later pleasure and pain, and very few had shared the final dangers and triumphs. Too many of his good friends were gone now and even some of the guides had dropped out. There had been one or two fatal accidents.
But he had almost reached the top; he and his four friends together. Had it been worth it, or had all that time and energy been wasted? No! - it had not been wasted - every second had been worth it! Here, almost at the top, he felt that his way was clear at last. The murky past with its hidden dangers and doubts was gone and the future lay before him. The final ascent to the very pinnacle was still beset with dangers, but now, at least, he could see the pinnacle and the dangers which lay between. He was relieved and contented at last. But it was not a smug contentment and he burned for the knowledge of what was really at the top and he meant to reach it.
He felt much older than when he had first begun the climb; it had seemed to take a life-time. The earlier part of the climb had been undertaken in the timelessness of youth, but of late he had suddenly grown up.
"There's plenty of everything in Life except Time," he thought.
"Coming on?" said one of his companions. "We've got to reach the top before nightfall. There's no going back now and there's not much time left."
"No, there never is," he said, half to himself and half aloud, as he got to his feet.
                                                                     P. W. WHELAN, 6A Arts

A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Dreamer

My farewell to school at 18 before going on to university
(tap and enlarge to read or see a legible text published as 'Chant du Cygne')

Monday, September 4, 2017

If democracy is doomed, where are we headed?

The world appears to be in more than its usual disorder. Religion is dividing societies and nations and, where religion is not doing it, poverty and inequality are. Ask Isis and M. Thomas Piketty.

Homeless millions are migrating. The globe is over-populated as well as overheated. Plastic is choking our oceans, antibiotics hardly work anymore and robotics are about to steal everybody’s jobs.

With Donald Trump elected as President for the next four years, the United States of America is thought by liberals to be doomed.

With Brexit scheduled for March 2019, Great Britain is thought by liberals to be doomed. The European Union is thought to be doomed by conservatives.

With North Korea's Kim Jong-un defiantly building his nuclear arsenal, people fear the world is doomed.

And here in South Africa, with President Zuma's African National Congress promising to rule till Jesus comes, the opposition are satisfied the country is doomed already. Everyone always said it would be once Nelson Mandela went.

The menace behind all these events is that something fundamental is doomed, not just the politicians and governments of the day. Democracy was supposed to take over and get things right when the USSR collapsed and that has not happened. The word nowadays is democracy has failed. The people are up in arms. Democracy itself is doomed.

If only by way of relief, we should ask ourselves if that is true.  If it is true, where is South Africa - where are all of us - in all of this?  What are the alternatives? Where are we heading?

At the end of the 1980s, as the Soviet empire dissolved in a matter of months before the world's astonished eyes, Francis Fukuyama published The End of History.

Briefly, the thesis of this much misrepresented book is that if there is such a thing as progress, society must be progressing somewhere, to a final stage of political and economic organisation. Following the thinking of the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel, Fukuyama argued persuasively that the final stage is liberal democracy.

Let us deal with the obvious objection straightaway. The book is not just another instance of Eurocentrism, although that charge has inevitably been brought against it. The larger questions of whether there is a direction in History and where that might be leading are there whether you consider the future of Asia, Africa or Europe, especially in a world where ideas cross frontiers as fast as thought.

All the alternatives to liberal democracy are on offer throughout the world today: monarchy, autocracy, theocracy, imperialism. To the communist, the end is still the proletarian paradise; to the fascist, world dominion. If liberal democracy is not the predetermined end of History, which of these is? And if none is, where does that leave us?

China, India, maybe Brazil, are seen as the coming powers of the twenty first century. Assuming India is, as generally billed, the world’s biggest democracy, is the option the Chinese model? What is that model anyway? Soviet Russia, its originator, is no more, and post-communist Russia is looking more and more a second class power. However painfully and cautiously it may have moved, the vast country of China is slowly but surely leaving behind the original dream of its founders.

These questions are insistent because South Africa cannot avoid them in our globalised world. Apartheid South Africa tried to cut itself off and eventually failed because of the sheer impossibility of isolation. On a much smaller scale and more grotesquely, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe attempted the same thing and has gone the same way. You cannot get off the modern world.

Perhaps it is not History but our thinking that has temporarily come to an end. Even if in this century or the next, or the one after that, democracy should turn out to be the final organisation of the world’s affairs, it will not make a perfect world.

Democracy is not a destination in that sense, nor a panacea. It must be seen as a culture, a permanent work-in-progress whose values and institutions can only be appreciated when set against other forms and philosophies of government. You only see its worth by comparison.

If South Africa’s democracy falls far short at the moment, there is only one solution. “The cure for the evils of democracy,” wrote the American journalist and scholar H L Mencken, “is more democracy.”

Is that right? And will it be proved right again?
This article first appeared in Business Day, September 4 2017




Monday, June 5, 2017

Helen Zille, Mmusi Maimane and the DA: a matter of judgment

Politics is about power, about the pursuit of power, the contest for power, about maintaining and losing power. That does not mean ethics plays no role and principle is always ignored.
But how and when they are ignored or followed is, inescapably, a matter of judgment for politicians, not one of obligation. Judgment of the situation is the essence of the politician's job; the successful politician is the one who gets it right more often than wrong.
The same might be said about business. Business is by no means a smash-and-grab affair, a game for 'a pack of crooks'. But neither is it a game for the na├»ve or the saintly. To succeed, you have to know the 'rules' - or the lack of them. That is why successful business people are said to have a natural 'instinct' for business while others simply cannot get it right. Judgment, not ethics, not intelligence, nor even diligence, rules.

In the present case, Ms Zille, widely seen as a highly professional and principled politician, committed an error of judgment with her initial tweet. There was nothing extraordinary about that; we all make mistakes and very many of them are made in a careless moment on the internet.
But in her response she has probably made it a terminal mistake. She has set herself against the party she has played a leading role in building, which is to say she has divided it, and plunged its black leader into a terrible dilemma that was none of his making but which he must now address because it is his job.
As the bitter reaction of many Democratic Alliance members and supporters shows, Mmusi Maimane cannot win: he must disappoint or outrage some as he gives others the satisfaction of saying he has done the right thing. Motives are suspect and challenged, loyalties on raw display.
These arguments will continue, of course, and so they should. I am interested above all in how politics shapes things, not in declaring who is in the right. All of us will see in time the one if not the other.