Why Responsibility?

Responsibility seems at first to be an odd choice for a blog on philosophy and politics.  It’s regarded as a common sense phrase, something that almost needs no definition as we are all sure what it is or what it means.  But a closer look reveals a deep underlying philosophical disagreement about the nature of freedom.  Responsibility is philosophically considered to be entwined with free will.  It is argued that we can only hold people responsible for choices they freely made themselves.  We can’t, apparently, condemn people for what they did not choose.  Recent advances in neuroscience and psychology have then made free will seem an outmoded concept, given that so much of our everyday action can now be readily and easily identified as an unconscious process.  As a result it is becoming easier for people to suggest that you are not responsible for a growing portion of your actions.

I find this idea troubling, for three reasons.  First, it makes the same mistake with responsibility as was made with free will.  Arguably if free will was previously misunderstood because it was, in part, poorly defined, responsibility was even more poorly understood as it was placed logically downstream of our free will.  Better, clearer definitions of responsibility, I believe, would unhinge it from being shackled so simplistically to free will.  All sorts of issues that we face in life become our responsibility to manage without there being a free choice.  Disease strikes us down and demands our attention but who chooses cancer?  A judge cannot choose his cases but must judge them according to the rules and traditions of legal precedent nonetheless.  In both cases it might seem unfair to make people responsible in the sense of being obligated to act a certain way but who could reliably be cured of disease without holding a responsible attitude towards the problem?  Any doctor will tell you that once you are ill there are things you can do which aid or impede the process of becoming well and being responsible to discipline yourself to those actions is critical because the doctors and nurses can’t be there all the time to monitor your behaviour.  Responsibility is a moral driver, an obligation to act in a way that others deem appropriate to the context, not merely a by-product of the choices we individually make.

Secondly, there is an absence of responsibility in public life.  Politics, the media and business have all seemingly become corrupted by a contempt for the truth.  I don’t find claims that we now live in a post-truth society very convincing as the underlying trend for this concept seems an almost integral part of the process.  I doubt anyone can think of a time when politicians told the God’s honest truth or when the media was genuinely fair and balanced.  One knew, when buying a certain kind of newspaper, what to expect between the covers across a range of issues.  A genuine philosophical dedication to the truth was not usually amongst them.  If our time seems particularly condemned by the absence of truth I would argue that it is not that politicians have got worse but that the people have got better.  The great democratising fact of the internet is that there is nowhere for these liars to hide anymore or to practise their craft without scrutiny.  Search engines, whistle-blowers, blogging and social media have combined to grant us access to information that we could not have expected to see twenty or thirty years ago.  These new sources of information have laid bare the lies that most public bodies have been engaged in.  What is yet to emerge is any countering force to the cynicism this creates.  A healthy dose of responsibility in public life would start with ensuring that politicians, the media and business owed a genuine duty of care to the truth and not merely to covering their backsides.  Understanding responsibility, particularly in what it now demands of us, is therefore critical if we are to make progress with this issue of a post-truth society wedded to ‘alternative facts’.

Thirdly, where we have spent most of human history engaged in a battle against nature we are now moving into a battle against ourselves.  Even where we historically seemed to cause our own problems through war these were usually the result of famines from poor harvests or arguments over scarce resources which we were unable to manage with low levels of technology.  But we are at a crucial tipping point and the dangers of this shift are only just becoming apparent in the last two decades.  If one is asked what the future holds few will now claim that it is more of the same.  From climate change to robotics and genetics there are movements afoot which could radically alter our world and they are all man made.  We cannot blame nature for nuclear power or artificial intelligence and the real danger of these issues is that they are both solutions and problems at the same time.  One is often posed as a solution to the other and the feedback loops this creates in our viewpoints are difficult to unwind.

The issue is made more complex morally as these changes are often interpreted as a technological trend with technological solutions.  It is being adiaphorised, that is, according to Zygmunt Bauman, “when systems and processes become split off from any consideration of morality”.  We don’t need to change our society to sort out climate change we just need geo-engineering or solar power.  We don’t need a complete realignment of our understanding of ourselves to cope with artificial intelligence we just need people who input only ‘good’ code.  These simplifications, albeit understandable, try to place us at right angles to the problem, as if humanity is fine and it was climate change that was the problem, all by itself and not the human societies that create it on a daily basis.

We therefore need a new theory of responsibility, not just to assess how we are responsible or who is responsible but also to acknowledge that these new trends are moral changes first.  They alter the obligations we owe to each other, particularly in the remote sense of a social contract in which we owe duties to those we do not personally know.  Our definition of a functioning society will alter in the face of the changes that genetic alteration and cybernetics will bring.  It will be impossible to ignore or escape from so we need a theory of responsibility that explains and allocates our obligations to one another, not one that emerges from a shrunken concept of free will, which is itself suspected of not even being real.

Why I Write

I consider myself to be essentially unremarkable.  I’m much like you, a working stiff attempting to pay the bills, frustrated by the state of things that I see around me.  I used to protest a lot when I was younger but grew to realise, that to make real progress, we need to understand those who oppose us as neighbours in the social spaces we seek to claim.  Telling the rich they should pay more tax doesn’t necessarily raise tax revenue and telling the poor they are to blame for their own circumstance gives nothing to the sheer luck that made you rich.   The contingency of our own arguments is often left straddling a divide of responsibility.  We do know the drawbacks of our arguments but fail to admit how shaky our foundations really are.  In the worst case many are not even aware how poor their own arguments are.

I became particularly angry about the state of debate in modern politics and culture.  Truth is now a degraded concept, replaced by opinion, which anyone can issue.  Facts are therefore assumed to be weapons in this battle and it is only a matter of how many facts that one can deploy.  This elevates simple knowledge over the wisdom to use it and ignores the terrible implications of solely relying on facts to make decisions about issues of feeling or imagination.  There are no facts about our future that we can rely upon so to shape a better future we need a hopeful imagination.  I began this blog because I care deeply that we are moving towards a darker, harsher time in our history and that the problems this presents are of a fundamentally different type.  They ask a different attitude of us and this blog is an attempt, albeit an inadequate one, to try and wrestle with those ideas and issues.

Scientists have recently proclaimed that we are living in the Age of the Anthropocene, a geological age of man.  We have had such a profound impact on the planet that, even if we vanished tomorrow, the effects our being here will be felt for thousands of years.  Obvious examples of these man made effects in this Anthropocene era are nuclear power and climate change.  But what other challenges does this era present and how might we consider them morally?  Of particular concern is how we respond to these problems collectively and how we can individually interpret a collective sense of responsibility.

We should also recognise how these problems differ from what has come before.  Problems which are man-made and affect all of us, whether we are willingly involved or not, take on a different character and tone morally than problems arising in nature.  They ask a different responsibility of us and a different interpretation of ourselves.  Using this perspective, I have identified what I feel are six specific Anthropocene challenges:  Climate change, genetic alteration, population growth, robotic labour including cybernetics, artificial intelligence and nuclear power.  These have been nascent in our collective consciousness for some time but are now heading to climactic resolution.

As problems they need to be considered for their different effects and characters before we try to produce a moral response.  Otherwise we increase the danger of assuming we are capable and powerful and sensible enough to manage them properly without further consideration or debate.  We mistake feeding a cat for being the same thing as feeding a lion.  They are what Rittel and Webber referred to as wicked problems.  They yield no simple solution which works reliably, they interact in feedback loops with one problem being the solution for others, they are occurring simultaneously and all of these problems possess the power to irrevocably change our societies, even our very collective humanity.

My immediate concern was the response already being generated in politics and the media and amongst the companies developing the technologies and services.  Specifically that these problems are being adiaphorised; made into technical issues remote from a real, moral consideration.  Adiaphorisation, as a process, encourages us to believe that we don’t need to consider the moral impact of AI we just need to change the algorithm; we don’t need to worry about genetic alteration we just need new laws that will protect vulnerable people.  We don’t need to act or be different as people to solve climate change, we just need solar power and wind turbines.  In this adiaphorised slumber we have lost sight of how humanity can be more than the sum of its parts.  Changes of the radical kind may be necessary, even inevitable but they also make us all vulnerable and not in readily apparent ways.  It will not always be possible to see that the solutions offered will become problems themselves later on so we need to step outside of a moral guidance based purely on duty or consequence or utility.  We will need broader approaches that look to our values and virtues, to systems of thinking that give us a better appreciation of the pervasive uncertainty we are now moving towards.  We simply do not know, or at least, cannot reliably predict, how the introduction of these technologies will impact our world.  This is an uncertainty not just of the outcome but of the method and application of the technology.  It is also an uncertainty of our identity – we will no longer be able to easily define ourselves or define what it means to be human.  We will then find ourselves outside of principle or consequence alone as neither offers a convincing explanation of how to be moral when the results will impact not only ourselves, but our children and our descendants 10,000 years from now.

At the same time as these challenges emerge we have passed beyond human rights as a progressive political goal into human rights as an entitlement.  People feel able to claim extensive powers over social spaces, not because they have a plan designed to enhance society, but because we have decreed that they have rights not to suffer the pain they feel and we have then obligated society to give them a means to remedy it.  We have created the means for people to claim that any amount of suffering is unjust, no matter its cause or origin and the basis of the claim is an undeniable fact, their very humanity.  We then have limited power to mediate the claims as the fact of being human makes the claim a priori more powerful than any form of mediation.  Nor can any amount of co-operation or competition over the space resolve the dispute because each fresh interpretation yields more claims.  There is no overriding incentive to co-operate rather than compete in sharing these rights because all are equally entitled and the claims are indisputable purely from their declaration.

So the means for society to resolve these issues in a sustainable, moral and progressive way are limited.  New technologies promise to make the claims obsolete because we will be able to feed, clothe and house everyone cheaply.  But that simplistic, material ideal ignores the problem that each new technology creates:  more, new and different claims.  Even in the case that we can trust the new technology to resolve one type of claim what new measures must be taken, what new laws imposed on the rest of us that some small portion of us are alleviated of only one measure of their pain?  How is society to reconcile the competing claims?  How do we create a society capable of creating and maintaining the institutions, traditions and spaces that make these rights?  The available answers are often limited and based on maintaining a status quo that technology is busy undermining.  Meanwhile the desires multiply and their satisfaction becomes more important than any consideration of the society which must meet them.  We must not abandon the ideal of human rights, but we need to see these claims within the light of these Anthropocene problems outlined above.  As we become more than human and move into competition and co-dependency with artificial life what will these rights mean and how will we reproduce our societies through our children such that they too enjoy the fruits of our collective labours?

At the intersection of these historical changes this blog aims to present cognitive tools and ideas for moral comprehension, assessment and action.  Aimed at the general public and seeking an uncomfortable truth in preference to a noble lie, I seek to describe the dichotomy of rights and responsibility within a framework of moral responsibility.  We cannot have human rights without a responsible society capable of delivering them and it is our moral reactions, the ways we respond to problems, that demonstrates the candour of our responsibility.  But how can we be responsible individually for challenges of such magnitude as climate change or robotic labour when we can only solve them collectively?  How do we address and protect individual rights if collective solutions will fundamentally undermine those freedoms?

It is my contention that only responsibility in an atmosphere of doubt, acting without the surety of success, that will solve these problems without sacrificing our morals in the process.  We need to acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge and our power to fully grasp the implications of the actions we make.  Doubt keeps us honest, doubt keeps us awake and it will ensure that the boastful claims of technology are not allowed to override our ability to raise our children, build our homes and love each other for what we are and not what other people or technology would have us pretend to be.  A responsible society will take that job seriously.  But to meet this transition for a more responsible society we will also need hope.  A sense of transcendence liberating our weaker, material, individual selves for something greater.  It will need to be something we see in each other, something we see in society itself.  We need a new vision of ourselves:  not as a capricious, greedy race of monkeys seeking little more than carnal pleasures but one that elevates us to believe we can make progress again.  We need a politics that gives us a credible, balanced sense of hope.

Hope, of late, has been degraded to represent a consumable, increasingly recycled, narrative used by corporations and politicians to make the human race apologise for its existence and sweat in exchange for facile promises.  We don’t hope to create a better society, we just hope to keep our jobs.  We don’t hope for starvation to end worldwide we just hope if we stay on the treadmill long enough we’ll lose the last five pounds.  We engage in politics that mirror this by replaying the old battles of socialism versus the free market, hoping that this time we will finally reach Jerusalem with a belly full from the free lunch we just consumed.  The left claim it’s not our fault the banks collapsed it was the rich cheating on their taxes!  It’s not our fault that the climate is being destroyed, it’s those greedy oil companies.  The right then claim that it’s not our fault we are heavily indebted as a nation, it’s all those lazy people cheating on their benefits.  It’s not our fault that people can’t afford to buy a house, it’s their own profligate spending.  Both sides think it’s possible to solve these problems, not with hope and a humble acknowledgement of the problem but just by blaming the other guy.  The febrile passion of social media is only making this problem worse.  Rather than define the beauty of the world in hope and uncertainty we drag it towards an illusory certainty that we smother ourselves in with the childish pretence that if I can’t see you; you cannot see me.  Posting memes and furious group-think in closed echo chambers online is not public discourse, clickbait will not educate us and managerial politicians cannot satisfy the competitive nature of our rights based claims.  We gain no progress or certainty from cynically rejecting these things, we need to embrace the challenge of building something better and it will take hope to get us there.

To do this we can no longer retreat from politics in every area of public life.  We’ve stopped discussing politics and its challenges at work, with strangers, even with our friends, because we are afraid of offending others and being cast in negative ways.  Personal opinion is under assault from the notion that there are proven good and bad concepts and we are only entitled to endorse the good and we must condemn the bad.  We have found no way to discuss immigration without sounding racist, no way to discuss the depth of inequality without ascribing it simply to greed alone.  We cannot be free if we are chasing our tails, vainly struggling to assert our identities in a competitive atmosphere.  The weakness of this when it is coupled to entitlement rights & politics reduces us all to children and ignores the responsibility we have to assert those rights in creative moral actions and in mature considered thought.  But we can counter this desire to keep politics out by asserting the genuine work required to make our world free:  that the freedom to speak means I have the duty to listen.  It is our responsibility to each other that can provide the foundation for hope.  It is the co-operation and the compromise that liberates us because it frees us to see ourselves in each other honestly, as whole people and as people who are part of a larger whole.

I know words do hurt, or we wouldn’t worry about what our children say.  But I reject the idea that words can offend to the extent that bones become physically broken.  We do ourselves no favours stuffing the debates these problems need, with woollen thinking, just to dull the thud of landing on something hard.  Suffering is not just a problem to be solved.  It is an essential part of the human experience.  It is necessary for growth and our obsession with eradicating it only burdens others or creates new forms of relative pain.  The idolatry of victimhood, that those who suffer first suffer the most, strips us of the liberty to make mistakes and own the consequences of them.  I assert the right to hope, the power to be responsible for myself and my loved ones without the cloying intervention of an expert state exerting a pseudo-scientific moral judgement.  I desire progress for all human lives and expect that we can solve all of the Anthropocene challenges.  I urge you to join me in making yourself responsible for challenging the system we all live within and in asserting the right to be as human as the society you are willing to build.

Why I voted to leave the European Union

A short note on terminology: in line with the common understandings I will be using the designations of remain/leave to refer to the respective voting groups.  The overall process will be referred to as Brexit.

Theresa May has triggered Article 50 and in swift succession called a general election which for good or ill is broadly concerned with Brexit.  Before the consequences of this, for good or bad, become clear and people claim too much hindsight I want to be able to lay out my thinking for the choice I made and the responsibility I bear for it.

Those of us on the leave side who argued that we voted with our conscience have often been described as either being duped or deluded.  We either didn’t understand the complexity of the choice we made or we were ignorant of the obvious consequences.  Some of us, myself included, have been accused of a far worse intent, of wanting the country to fail for a variety of unsound motives.

In order to address these criticisms, I intend to show you the path I took in my thinking.  At the outset I want to admit, and I’d appreciate it if you’d do the same, that 99% of our thinking collectively, has been based on forecasts that no one could properly support or refute.  It is impossible, at this stage, before negotiations have really begun and before we’ve actually left to know what the true outcome will be.  There are many reasons for this: the complexity of leaving a political body that helps to shape a large proportion of our laws, the economic complexities, in the short term at least, of trying to ensure that our economy continues to function and the cultural impact of setting ourselves apart from nations we considered partners for over 40 years.

The path I took also looked at these predictions from the Remain side within the context of a critical eye to establish if their claims were robust.  I’ll happily admit that it was laughably easy to refute many of the claims that the Leave campaign made.  The dishonesty of the approach from Leave was quite shamefully obvious and vindicates the view that the Leave campaign displayed a contempt for the truthThe claim that we sent £350m a week to the EU was only true if one was willing to take a very liberal view of the accounting.  Any attempt at truthfulness would have placed the number much lower.  The irony is that even a fuller accounting would still have left us as a net contributor which is arguably a more important point of principle.  But the contemptuous ease with which one could dismiss the claims of the Leave campaign left Remain presuming their own claims were robust simply because they were not composed of the same nonsense on stilts.  I intend to show how poorly many of the Remain claims were formed and how on principle one could dismiss them and adopt a different approach.

Finally I would add that each of these highly complex issues is interwoven into the others, frames them and shapes perceptions.  Part of the struggle presented by such complex issues is that they have no start or end point either in time, physicality or ideology.  The problems are not limited to one country or region, they could go on for years and neither side has a workable set of solutions to counter these problems that they can enact without other, substantial, changes.  The outcomes for leaving or staying in each case could be good or bad, depending on your point of view.  This is an important point to acknowledge if one is to move beyond a simple grandstanding form of political discourse to something more meaningful.  We do ourselves no favours if we do not admit the weaknesses of our arguments or the contingency of our hopes and dreams.

The economy could go well as we free ourselves from extraneous bureaucracy and build strong trading relations with the rest of the world; the Italian banks (who look increasingly precarious in their capital structures) could fail and take Europe down with them or the EU may strengthen considerably and leave us behind as they form long term relationships we are outside of.  We would end up as a lonely island floating in the north Atlantic cut off from the prosperity being gained on the continent.  The chances of any of these being true or false, at this present moment is impossible to predict accurately.  Therefore debating the truth of those points is almost a self-defeating exercise.  Instead, I believe, we need to ask ourselves what kind of country we want to become and what kind of people we want to be.  We need a vision of our future and to ask ourselves honestly, to what extent the EU forms a part of that.  For better or worse I came to believe that the EU would be a hindrance to that effort.

Much of the skepticism in this kind of approach was put down as a simple disdain for experts.  I think it rather more likely that people have, in the wake of the financial crisis, come to realise that whilst there are still experts there are certain matters that even experts can have little expertise on.  The true limits of economists were exposed by the Queen questioning on the great recession as to why no one saw such an obvious calamity coming.  The only one who could ask the emperor if she had any clothes on was the emperor herself.

So if we cannot rely on forecasting economics or cultural impacts where can we go to bring about a clear understanding of the virtue of leaving or remaining?  The first point I’d raise is that just because you cannot forecast specific economic outcomes does not mean you can’t make any forecasts at all.  There are some very reasonable predictions one can make which can inform the decision.  Economics, in the modern sense portrayed in the media, relies on very complex interactions of variables which are not uniform in nature or operation and which move rapidly in feedback loops.  As such the predictions it makes are highly dependent on many other processes remaining in place and continuing their current trends.  Not all systems of economic forecasting are this dependent on highly variable inputs.  Many of the great works of economics abandoned maths almost entirely in favour of examining the social relationships that govern commerce.  It was forecasting what people felt most strongly about that gave economics its great insight, not the specificity of agricultural outputs or ratios of debt: GDP.

The second point is that if we can dismiss the claims of the Remain camp for their failings we can arguably build a case for Leave on the opposing principles.  Remain spent a good deal of energy attempting to smear Leavers with the accusation of racism and by contrast then claiming that Remain stood for human rights.  If it can be shown that the EU itself is racist and no defender of our rights then not only does the accusation against Leave lose some weight but we can arguably dismiss the Remain position for having little genuine substance.

Finally let us not forget the importance or historical nature of the debate.  In a time of declining political engagement and increasingly atomised lives, the referendum became a lightning rod for so many other issues, that the pure fact of in or out of the EU almost came second to the opportunity to become engaged in something genuinely politically meaningful.  It was one of the very few issues in my lifetime that got everyone talking about politics and the future of our country in a serious fashion.  My voting to leave was a surprise for alot of people I know as they consider me (as indeed I consider myself) to be a metropolitan liberal, not a rural conservative.  Metropolitan liberals voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU so my position was seen as not just contrarian but downright weird.

Since the referendum my feelings on the issue have strengthened rather than weakened.  The biggest single reason I voted out is that all the main arguments to remain were actually better expressed as arguments to leave, precisely because when examined the Remain positions lacked the substance they imagined they had.  In the immediate aftermath of the vote a number of my colleagues and friends who voted to remain expressed serious misunderstandings of the position that people like myself took.  These misunderstandings were not just minor disagreements but very large gaps in comprehension.  For some people the realisation that these gaps existed provoked a profound resentment towards the opposite side.  Many of us who voted leave were referred to as nothing more than ignorant racists.  We are even now often laughed at in polite circles for simply being too stupid to have understood the consequences of our action – hence the wide accusations of buyer’s remorse amongst leavers.  Addressing these criticisms is a central motivation for me writing this piece.

The problem of economics

It was not something Remain was keen to admit, as it showed the shallowness of their own approach, but immigration, whilst a stronger motivator for leave voters, was not being driven solely by a backward xenophobia.  Instead, I would argue that the factors driving that concern were largely economic.  Lack of affordable housing, impacts on low wage jobs and pressure on local resources & systems of welfare all loomed large in many people’s minds as reasons to oppose immigration.  The problem the referendum exposed was that at the heart of Leave was a long term inability to talk about mass migration in economic terms which had left people with a stunted political vocabulary.  Being constantly told you’re racist, without much explanation of the context left Leavers often with what they felt was only one political home – UKIP.

The remain position was broadly an argument in favour of the status quo.  The idea was that we have benefited from free trade with the European Union and would continue to do so.  Immigration was taken to be a natural part of that and, to be fair, for both sides it was a short leap from open doors to conspiracies of racism.  For Leavers there was more than a hint that Labour, in particular, had deliberately opened doors to dilute the native population and keep wages down.  Whilst for Remain anyone advocating anything less than a totally open door policy was merely a cheap racist and a UKIP supporter.

The Remain claim that if we stay in everything will be fine was broadly based on the idea that Europe as the world’s largest market was destined to remain strong and diversified enough to weather any issues that were foreseeable.  But this claim of the “world’s largest market” rested on only one reading of the EU’s economic position and grossly underplayed the variation within the EU.  One doesn’t need a degree in economics to recognise that the very high unemployment rates in Greece and Spain, Portugal or France are a social as well as an economic problem.  Nor does it take expert knowledge to recognise that these high rates have persisted for years now.  The world’s largest market does not appear to be aiding these people with employment opportunities or raising their incomes through welfare to such an extent that their poverty diminishes rather than increasing.  This is not to argue that we could do any better as individual nations but it does make clear that the EU is no guarantor of our economic future as it cannot guarantee its own present.

In our own individual case the incentives maybe more perverse.  To create the very particular type of free trade that characterises the EU we must ensure there are no barriers to entry for the mainly global companies that ride off these agreements.  We have become somewhat dependent on growth in London and a purely financial form of growth at that.  This is not necessarily in the best interests of the majority of the workforce or the small to medium size enterprises who employ the bulk of the population and pay a substantial portion of the tax revenues.  The banking laws or regulations they need, the government support they require, is not forthcoming under a system which sees greater benefit in single, large, projects which are usually only possible in partnership with multinational corporations.  A Remain strategy of status quo enhancement provides no long term solution of sustainable economic growth for much of the country.  As dangerous as leaving is for making the present arrangement unstable it is not clear what Remain intended to do about the half of the country that had been diminishing for over 40 years.  Membership of the EU was not arresting their economic decline to such a visible extent that it made those people afraid of leaving.

So entrenched has this lop sided structure become that one of the most publicised fears was that Brexit would force the biggest global firms to leave entirely and take their investment and tax revenues elsewhere and that alone would precipitate a collapse of our economy.  We apparently have so little indigenous industry of a sufficient size or competitiveness left that we cannot survive without the kindness of strangers and rather than being seen as a problem it’s taken by the Remain camp to be something that recommends the EU and therefore should not be upset.  The EU saw fit to do little more than us about the global banks whose trading strategies started the great recessionEuropean bankers received bonuses for failure that were just as grotesque as those in the City.  If we are to regulate these entities properly to ensure we don’t end up in the same position again it seems we will have to act on a democratic mandate to pressure our government to secure the types of controls most ordinary people find acceptable.  We would not be able to do that to the same extent if we are constrained by agreements that overrule our domestic law making.

That status quo position also grossly overstates the impact of these global firms intentions as even under the hardest Brexit many of them would still wish to sell their products in the UK and would require staff and offices here to service that market.  We should be aware of larger firms leaving but if this difference is so great as to precipitate our permanent economic decline we would do well to address that problem of a lack of domestic competitiveness rather than seek to placate those firms with even more public money.  Whilst there may be problems in the short term it would surely be in our interests to develop the capacity to grow our own economy even under circumstances of lower foreign investment.  For whatever risks arise, the Remain camp extolled the virtues of membership without explaining the problems of that or what incentives they saw to alter anything had we stayed.

The danger of leaving the “world’s largest market” therefore is a claim that we should examine by also remembering that we are one of the world’s largest economies and therefore form part of what makes that market large.  The danger is also presumed in the permanence of that status.  It takes no great grasp of history to realise that China is potentially returning to a position of pre-eminence it once held for centuries.  Together with India and Indonesia and Japan the sheer weight of demographics alone will drive the focus of most businesses eastwards.  There is nothing in the current plans of the EU to suggest that they can successfully counter the fact that 90% of the world lives somewhere else.  Nor does the suggestion of our clubbing together to protect our interests seem entirely wise.  We are unlikely to persuade others to trade with us if our own marketplace remains locked away from them and our relative bargaining power only persists for as long as have the historically unusual privilege of being richer than everyone else.  Once those factors begin to equal out there is no reason to think we in the UK (especially outside London) will get a better deal just by bundling our bargaining position together with the Germans and the French.  The assumption of being stronger together only works if you have shared interests and complementary bargaining positions.

One could argue that I’m doing precisely what I criticise others of: tea leaf forecasting.  I think the accusation is fair and I’d gladly admit that precisely none of what I just supposed could come to pass.  But demographic forecasts of population size are not economic forecasts of GDP.  We know that living standards are going up worldwide and people are living longer.  We know that, barring some kind of apocalyptic disaster, Asia will hold 75% of the world population.  Those people will be increasingly wealthy and independently so.  It is therefore not a prediction of the highly contingent sort, to say that we will need a response to trading with Asia which attracts Asians.  We will need to offer them goods and services they want and if banking is the only, major, part of the bargain the UK brings then it will only be London that benefits from that arrangement.  It is only my opinion but I think we can and should do better than that and a continued membership of the EU offers us little incentive to change and less room to decide what form that change should take.

The problem of control

One of the strongest challenges offered by Remain was the assertion that they stood on the side of a tolerant, multi-cultural approach which emphasised our collective human rights.  To vote leave was to endorse a John Bull version of Britain which would erase much of the progress seen since the 1950’s and return us to a much more authoritarian state.  It was less clear from the Remain camp what made them think that the EU hadn’t already facilitated that.  As a country we have long had more CCTV per person than any almost other state on earth including North Korea and the EU did almost nothing to prevent that occurring.  The steady erosion of liberties that began after 9/11 had accelerated either without their opposition, or without that opposition making much impact.

It was one of the confusions of the Remain position that because we retained some control we had control.  As I illustrated above they didn’t stop us creating the type of domestic surveillance Orwell warned us about.  But this is to confuse the outcome with the intent.  In most of the areas of defense the powers of the EU do not run as deep or as wide.  So they had little jurisdiction over these decisions.  That does not mean they do not want that power.  In the aftermath of the Brexit vote there was an immediate acknowledgement that with the difficult Brits out of the way they could now proceed towards forming an army.  Current efforts in that regard are not nearly as complete as Messrs Farage or Gove would have us believe but that doesn’t mean that an idea, currently in its infancy, was not their ultimate aim.  A vision of the EU being somehow reticent in law making ignores the amount and types of laws they have already created and over what areas.  Whilst it would be fair to acknowledge that a great deal of those laws are highly specific technical regulations, many of which had little impact here, it is that tendency to make very detailed specific laws which override any principle of self-organisation, that lead me to believe we should back out while we can.

It also loses sight of the ways in which the European Courts of Justice came to make law by docket rather than mandate.  John Hirst was for a time the most litigious man in Britain’s prison system.  He was originally imprisoned for bludgeoning his landlady to death.  In accordance with the Representation of the Peoples Act 1983 he was unable to vote.  At taxpayer’s expense he went all the way to the European courts of Justice to secure this.  The court sided with Mr Hirst but was defied by an overwhelming vote in the House of Commons.  Their reasoning was that the UK government had deprived him of his rights without a proper due process, namely if the franchise was to be removed then the government needed to show that measures taken were compatible with Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The focus of my ire here is not at the individual issue of prisoner’s rights but on the process followed and what it tells us about the EU.  The whole act took place as if it possessed no context.  It transpired Mr Hirst had Asperger’s Syndrome, which is no crime at all and which could arguably construct some sympathy for his position.  His disability would not exonerate him but it might make his crime more comprehensible.  But the European courts decided that Mr Hirst was entitled to vote not because he was a deserving person with a  defensible reason, which might be a judgement one could rationalise, but because the UK government had failed to follow an acceptable process.  We needed to show measures were taken in the appropriate manner.  As if the acts we had passed, that the government based its decisions on were not relevant!

The interpretation of human rights in this context was that the rights were granted in absentia of the means to earn them.  One simply needed to exist and the kind of person you were and the society it took to make those rights whole and workable was not a consideration they thought worth defending.  An more conspiratorial reading of the situation was that the court showed the EU’s true purpose.  That the way to create this society was not through a set of shared interests or compatible cultural norms and ideas but through the enforcement of a complex rule book.  A vast, winding bureaucracy would apparently guarantee our freedom.  As a conspiratorial notion it is quite compelling.  However stepping calmly back, I think the more intelligent reading of this is that the court simply felt it had a mandate to defend the original interpretation of the human rights acts.  Their concern was not towards the outcome of each case, which the UK government bore the responsibility for in interpreting the claims.  They simply needed to set the boundaries within a careful reading of the law.  This would be perhaps fairer to the court but it still leaves open the problem that by acting this way the court was not enforcing human rights towards a specific end – it was not saving the UK from committing a horrendous breach of human rights because the process already being followed was racist or an abhorrence.  It was rejecting our interpretation of the rules we had already committed ourselves to in good faith.  It was not a commitment to the spirit of the game but a disagreement over the decision of the referee.  A normal problem for sport but not a good way to govern nations.

The problem of migration

The jungle at Calais, a ramshackle collection of tents and makeshift buildings with poor sanitary facilities was a temporary home to thousands, of refugees seeking a life in Britain.  Many of them had arrived without passports or money to travel so were stuck attempting to enter the country illegally or by hitching rides, often without the consent of the drivers.  In the run up to the referendum the camp took on a more symbolic quality with a number of UK volunteers and charities seeking to show that we represented something more humane than the intolerance of UKIP.  What was less well discussed in the media was the fact that the camp had been there for more than 10 years.  What had the EU done over the course of that decade to address this problem of a collective trail of humanity crossing several national borders en route to a member whose duty to absorb these people was not made clear?  They had built only a limited amount of accommodation and the system for processing these people in a fair and dignified manner was buckling under the strain.  The real answer came in the aftermath of the vote to leave.  The French police bulldozed the camp and then sent the desperate people whose temporary homes they had now destroyed to face asylum claims or deportation.  I would accept that the French government did nothing our own government wouldn’t have considered.  I won’t deny the ugliness of what Leave suggested about the people coming here.  It just strikes me as ironic that a particularly violent and immediate form of racism that Remain said would be prevented by the EU then emerged on the other side of the channel.  It is somewhat galling to hear people declare my position racist because I consider it a duty to organise a proper response to those peoples applications rather than leaving them trailing across the continent in squalor.  If we are to take the Remain advice and reverse course it would seem a considerable problem that the EU’s stated commitments don’t appear to materialise in practice.

Hungary and its right wing government led by Viktor Orban provide further instruction on what the EU can or can’t seem able to do.  While Orban was pushing for a referendum on accepting further asylum seekers, Hungary’s border guards were accused of brutal violence whilst enforcing the building of a new border fence.  The EU was seemingly inept at preventing this from escalating and whilst a collective solution is always hard to produce we must face the fact that either the EU can do something competent about these wider problems, which arguably no one country can solve themselves or it admits its weakness in these areas and sits at the side lines.  It can’t preach both an interventionist approach – that we should take the numbers of refugees it decides upon and then sit back when a genuinely interventionist approach is required because one member state is engaged in actions none could reasonably support.  It is this inconsistency that led me to believe that even if I could ascribe some moral purpose to what the EU recommended it was often failing to make that occur in practice.  Either it appeared to be incompetent or complicit.  In the end the character of the EU was shamefully exposed by its payment of 3 billion Euros to Turkey, a state which is becoming increasingly autocratic and whose long war on the Kurdish people has produced no end of atrocities on both sides.  This payment was made with the explicit intention of keeping nearly a million Syrians in a hopeless state in refugee camps.  So the EU has failed to produce either a robust solution or a democratic compromise.  It cries racism at those of us who question the wisdom of open doors but fails to produce a workable solution to what is evidently a humanitarian problem of historic proportions.

It could be argued that these are selective readings rather than a pattern or a trend.  But think also on the status of Africa within the EU’s concept of free trade.  The primary way Africa could trade with Europe is through commodities, in particular agriculture.  The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy paid enormous volumes of subsidies, both in type and size, to a range of landowners, some of whom were not even growing anything.  They paid as much as £500 per head of cattle which is higher than the GDP per capita of much of Sub-Saharan Africa even today.  These values mean that most of these nations cannot compete with us on price, so the enormous competitive advantage they possess is rendered mute.  If we stripped these subsidies away it would be potentially very difficult for many of our farmers to continue making a living and we might see prices of certain basic food items rise substantially.  But we could also see clearly the benefit of importing goods from those poorer nations who’ve been locked out of our marketplace and providing them with a real, lasting, trading relationship would be a stronger sign of their equal status as human beings.  More so than proclamations from people who shout about human rights while locking some of the world’s poorest people out of the world’s largest market.

The problem of association

Many of us on the Leave side were lumped together in a seemingly homogeneous racist mass.  This was achieved principally by saying ‘look at your supporters & colleagues’.  The inference was clear.  A vote for Leave was a vote for Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, Jörg Haider and Marine Le Pen.  This unsubtle argument ignores two important counter arguments.  Firstly it assumes that by implication all Remain supporters were good examples of humanity.  Whilst this would be true of the greater part of the public in Remain camp we could be less circumspect about the morals and motives of some of the leading donors to the campaign – Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan.  Whatever their public protestations these two American banks have paid billions in fines for criminal actions in recent years and I very much doubt their donations to the campaign were motivated out of good feeling for the democratic will of the body politic.  The second important counter to the accusations of being in poor company was the actual composition of Leave.  The voters themselves came from across all classes, races, religions and regions of the country and prominent supporters included both Sir Digby Jones, Lord Mervyn King and senior trade unionists.  Anything that unites the former head of the CBI, former governor of the bank of the England and the most socialist wings of the Labour party deserves more consideration than “you’re all racists”.

The problem of responsibility

Prior to the referendum the idea of us leaving the European Union was preposterous.  It was an ingrained part of the political landscape and despite decades of tension the drive to leave was portrayed as being the ideology of nutcases.  Only a madman would want to leave the world’s biggest marketplace.  Even now in the aftermath of the vote there is a lingering sense of this madness, as if this was not supposed to happen and we are all living in a bad dream from which we will hopefully awake.

It seems an odd choice to me at least, because that version of ourselves is a chorus to the idea of fate.  That our future was already locked and we are merely passengers within it.  There was no other option, or rather any other option was a move backwards.  A retreat from progress and enlightenment towards some medieval conception of ourselves.  I think this vision of Leave is wrong for several reasons:

Firstly the future is not set and it is moving in wildly different directions than the past.  We cannot pretend that artificial intelligence or climate change are simple continuations of what went before.  They are problems of immense complexity, technically and more importantly, morally.  They strike to the heart of asking who we are as people and what we value.  I would not suggest that Leave have a ready answer to this, no-one does, rather what I would point to is that we need control to produce very unique and directed outcomes.  The answer to climate change will not be the same in Doncaster or Plymouth or Glasgow nevermind Lisbon or Warsaw or London.

If the EU is anything it is a single political organisation designed to produce a single political response.  The whole point of the thing is that we have so much in common with other European nations that it makes sense for us to produce one answer to those questions, even if it is only a partially complete answer that we refine locally.  What Remain has lost sight of is that even a partially complete answer that we refine is still an answer of tone, of character, of purpose and of moral direction that means we end up producing the same answer morally.  You can’t have very individualised moral responses in concert with 28 other nations and still retain the idea that made the EU a single political structure.  If it is to continue we should subsume ourselves within it and give up being a separate country or break away.

At this point in history this seems like an overreaction, potentially an oversimplification even.  But the one thing Remain never explained during the referendum and still doesn’t is where is the EU going?  This was not a vote purely between the status quo and John Bulls retreat to the cricket green.  This was a vote to leave the EU or go deeper in.  Imagine for a moment the aftermath of a vote to remain.  This would clearly have been seen by the elites of Europe as a ringing endorsement of their actions to date and their purpose to come.  The most recalcitrant large member would have democratically endorsed them – why not proceed to a grand federalism?  My implicit accusation is perhaps unfair but I do wonder what attention would then have been paid to the north of our country, to those outside of London’s prosperity had Remain won.  No convincing answer has yet been forthcoming and given what has now happened none ever will.

The accusation was also made that people are stupid and incapable of making these kinds of grand decisions, or at least it was so complex that it was beyond most of us to arrive at a reasoned conclusion.  If this is true then the very idea of democracy is a sham.  No one disputes the idea of general elections – which arguably deal with far more detailed and comprehensive arguments about our future than a single question of allegiance to one political structure.  No one idealises a return to monarchy just to overcome the electorate making difficult decisions, so why endorse an organisation that allies itself with big business and places its accountability at arm’s length from the people?

My grandfather’s generation are the last generation we speak of creating hope in that simplistic sense of winning the war & building the welfare state.  They did not belong to a foreign country or some ancient place of swords and dragons that we cannot return to.  They were also not simply led by one great man like so many sheep.  If we should learn anything from our idolisation of that period of our history it should be that even very ordinary men can do great things, decent moral things, when they put their minds to it.  But they must be committed to the cause and possessed of hope.

We are facing a time of profound challenges – climate change, robotic labour, artificial intelligence, genetic alteration.  These things are going to irrevocably change our society and we need the space to decide what to do about them in our own way.  Having a decision imposed on us for this will be politically disastrous because the people at large will feel no obligation to that purpose.  Whatever we decide as a society the consequences will be long term and an uneasy mix of guesswork and hard work.  We therefore need a means of making these decisions that encourages people to believe not only that they had a hand in making them but also that the politicians, so often evading their duty, will finally be held accountable in the present and future.  History will judge us all and it will not do so kindly.  There are reasons to hope in the midst of this transformation though.  People are already clamoring for some control over their own lives because the bureaucratic monsters that occupy our public spaces give us no means to deal with these challenges.

They may not always articulate it clearly but there is a sense for many people in which our public life and in particular our politicians have become corrupt and inept.  The polity have done nothing about the obscene levels of fraud and mismanagement in the last two decades and many are losing patience with the obsessive cry that doing anything different will “damage the economy”.  Especially when those argued to suffer from the damage form no significant part of that economy anyway and feel that they receive a very disproportionately small share of its rewards.  We may not know what options are best to explore but people are aware that we can’t develop new ways of thinking being locked in a box which says we are incapable of understanding or acting without instruction.

We cannot build hope in a society which demeans us or tells us the future is fixed.  We need the option to be different to build hope because at its root hope is about change.  Either a change for the better as the status quo is poor or a hope to maintain the status quo against the changes that seek to break it.  We can cast Brexit in both these lights but a maintenance of the status quo, in a vote for Remain, would place our faith and hope for the future in the hands of politicians we have less power over.  Remaining in the EU would have given us the option of a technocracy; a safe and arguably well run technocracy but not one that aligned itself with change in our country.  It would do what it thought was best, not what we might feel was needed.  It would ascribe to us our fate in relation to a collective future and would codify this idea before we would be given the opportunity to confront them with a different vision of ourselves.  Indeed the very idea of a different vision of ourselves would be irrelevant in that context because there would be only one self that they thought was relevant – the European.  This idea of fate kills democracy because it declares to any voter that their actions are pointless – it will happen regardless.  It may well be that genetic alteration or climate change happens regardless but we need to have a choice about how we respond to ensure that it is the one that inspires hope in ourselves.

One might wonder why I would choose to open a blog aimed at a progressive future by openly admitting a decision that many would claim is deeply unprogressive.  I do so because the reconstitution of the left, especially if it loses this election in a weeks time, will become dependent on its ability to not only admit its mistakes but to present a vision of hope.  That starts with a responsibility to view our future with all its encumbrances in place.  We need to be bound by a realism that seizes power for the right reasons and which is accountable to our fellow citizens for more than an expanded welfare state or tax the rich slogans.  We need a future determined not by a fate we don’t think we can change but by a hope that we are strong enough and smart enough to do better.

I’ve placed links in this post from a variety of sources to deliberately demonstrate that i’ve read more than the usual suspects in assembling this piece.  But for more general background reading see the links below: