A tale of two conferences and more, much more.

Divisions, deceit and betrayal, UK politics in action?

Forever divided? Forever divided?
It had to come, a push back against the bungling by the PM and her unelected advisors on how Brexit should be going. Also that this would happen right under the nose of the PM. While just weeks ago the official Conservative Party Conference was at the International Convention Centre, ICC, in Birmingham, the other conference, the alternative conference, was held a short walk away at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, BMI. The ICC has been used many times before by the Conservatives for their big bash. The BMI was chosen for similar reasons, one of the promoters of the alternative conference has been there before but not during the official conference week. But then push back is very much the game at the moment; you could say the 2016 Brexit referendum result was just that and brought the need not just for an alternative Conservative Party Conference but a new look at all of our UK political activities. Tradition has it that politics is based upon divisions but the Left and Right carve up is looking worn, not least because long ago the Labour party abandoned its roots to become a virtue signallers' club. On the way to this stance it also became, amongst other things, anti-Semitic and pro-Palestine and no doubt about it these two things are linked to the point where a balanced view on Middle East politics from this party is impossible, you have to be 'pro'. The Conservative party was, so said its critics, divided on the nature of the UK and EU relationship, while there is some truth in this so too was the Labour party divided and this became clear from the Brexit result and has been developing month by month. But time and tribalism moves on and we can now see a new division, one that pivots around 'populism' and 'nationalism'. In its own sweet way this is a blessing as it rids us of the old divisions and their baggage.

For example the Left and Right class-based division became dated when the working class faced unemployment first due to large scale closures of traditional industries and then large scale immigration and as the jobs went so did their power and influence on politics. Other divisions have their problems too, signing up to the anti-Semitic and pro-Palestine belief has you rubbing shoulders with some very unsavoury characters. But being against populism and nationalism, p&n, is an open ticket as it can be applied to all sorts of things. It also has a lofty air of superiority about it so is miles away from the risk of thuggery. In fact it could be applied with confidence to any debate as it inverts debate, if you find your self on the losing side of an argument just tell them they are deploying populism and your opponent will shrink away defeated! On the other hand finding yourself in debate about the future of the Middle East you will hear a two state solution is often proposed so it would seem creating a nation and nationalism is still hanging on in some quarters! This is clearly irrational but there you go, for now p&n is here let's deploy it?

This takes us back to the two conferences. Those seeking to debunk the alternative conference had little to work with for all political parties seek to be popular as democracy is nothing if not arithmetical. Also you would have thought that defending the nation would not seem such a bad thing to do. For certain some people attending the main conference thought so and came down the road to the alternative one too. They tended to be the grass-roots activists and knew of the many divisions in their party and that Brexit was simply the obvious one. At the alternative conference there was an explanation of how over time the party has eased itself away from the grass-roots and become a top-down organisation, perhaps a bit like the EU? This is really stupid as we have a 'them and us' division within the same party. So let us now look at a classic case of p&n deployment from Sir Ivan Rogers. But first some background information about the man. Sir Ivan Rogers was both a senior civil servant and a Remainer. However, these things do not always go together as we shall see later, Rogers left the civil service for the second time and we are told now works in banking. He has made several speeches like this one and they are all lengthy, a rather hard read. For his second leaving he posted his reasons on the internet and included the line urging those left behind to,

speak truth to power

So is this rather odd? Well yes it is. For he did not just leave, get up and go, he went with a bit of a flourish, or maybe a flounce. Some say he left before the whole house came crashing down, see here and we will look at that later. For it is, the truth to power bit, a ridiculously dramatic line to take, and a flawed argument. For nobody, not even a civil servant, can claim to know all of 'the truth' when it comes to the EU. As for the power side of things is this power with or without responsibility? For what we see here looks very like a classic case of kudos shared when things go well but 'not my fault' when things go badly. This is not unusual if some of 'the team' are uneasy about their position and to be blunt are jealous of others. In the well publicised resignation letter from Rogers we see -

Serious multilateral negotiating experience is in short supply in Whitehall, and that is not the case in the Commission

Rogers also says of the people he is leaving behind they have a -

unique combination of policy depth, expertise and coherence, message co-ordination and discipline, and the ability to negotiate with skill and determination

Now this is eerie, as it's another muddle based upon divisions along the lines of the truth and power remark. As we have said before politics is all about divisions but not like this as one statement seems to contradict the other!

For taking the second statement first, if the people Rogers left behind at Whitehall are a unique combination of all the things he lists then the first statement bemoaning the short supply of serious multilateral negotiating experience is superfluous. We cannot have it both ways, this is the problem. You would have thought that a man in his position, a diplomat, would have been more careful with his words.

Rogers worked for David Cameron and to this day appears to struggle to understand why the 'deal' Cameron brought back to the UK prior to the Brexit referendum was first so totally mocked then rejected by the voters. This is a serious point as Rogers played a part in framing this deal.

Also this period before the referendum is important and being revisited, it is now seen that Cameron made a huge mistake in his approach. For a long time Cameron had been painted as sort of Eurosceptic, it was if he went along with the idea of the EU and all it stood for but his heart was not in it. To be fair to Rogers he makes it clear that there is a lot wrong with the EU, however, he also makes clear that Cameron and other leading political figures from the UK failed to make the case for our continued membership. Well is that so? You could say the case for continued membership was impossible to be made by Cameron or any other political leader. Both main political parties have been 'split' on this issue in some way since UKIP got into its stride. The only regular champions of 'more EU' have been the LibDems and their demise is clear to see. Put simply if over forty years, our length of time in the various forms of this project, is not enough to make a case for staying in then just how strong a case is it?

Then to be fair to Cameron we must wonder what sort of 'advice' was he getting? Charles Moore writes fairly when he says -

I suppose I know several scores of existing and former civil servants and diplomats quite well, some very well. Among them, I have come across three or four who are pro-Brexit, quite a large minority whose views are genuinely unidentifiable, and dozens and dozens who are anti-Brexit, some passionately so. One told me, with burning anger and as if this were the knock-down argument, that if we Brexited, there would be fewer dinner invitations in Washington DC for British diplomats. Pro-EU views are natural among the senior official classes, because the EU form of government is bureaucratic rather than democratic, and therefore seems more rational to the official mind; but in such volume they undoubtedly add up to a bias.

And so the p&n, the populism and nationalism which is always referred to in a mix of scolding and scorn. Rogers writes -

the EU’s ancien regime, which faces now a real struggle to defend, develop and modernise the European project, in the face of populist and nationalist assaults which it had assumed were banished in the 20th century, but which have resurfaced with a vengeance, notably since the financial crisis, and the migration crisis Europe has faced

The first thing to note is the word, 'assaults', this is a strange choice. It implies an unprovoked and unwarranted action, can this really be claimed? It could be that nations and their populations are simply reacting to the overreach that even pro-EU people like Rogers are grudgingly forced to admit has happened. We also see, 'develop', is this the 'ever closer union' that has caused the trouble? Any political system that is rigid is bound to fail so it's foolish to pretend there can only be a tightening and not relaxing of policy. Rogers also goes on about the financial crisis and this may have been important to the retired middle managers with a modest property portfolio and other rather fragile investments plus an unwarranted sense of self importance. However, many people north of Watford who voted Leave would have been more concerned about other things so it's interesting who gets support and who is cast to the winds. Rogers also says -

some of the fundamental problems I think the European project currently faces in confronting a wave of populism and addressing the kinds of issues with which a supranational entity like the EU struggles, because they are not the kind of issues with which its institutions were designed to cope, or have the popular legitimacy with which to act on them. Central to this is the problem of technocratic overreach

So it's back to populism again! So how do you 'confront' populism short of restricting democracy? You would have thought any organisation that cannot 'cope' with the opinions of the public can never be legitimate, very much so if it goes in for the strong-arm stuff to hang on to its position. Many Remainers like to sneer at Leavers, 'they did not know what they were voting for', but oh yes they did and this statement is classic deflection. For it was the Remainers who did not know what the voters thought and were caught out by this and to this day reject the result of the referendum. One more comment from Rogers to look at,

Brexit revolutionaries simultaneously believed and still believe the EU is a behemoth with preposterous, undesirable and unrealisable, sometimes, maybe often, malign, superpower and statehood pretensions. And in most areas of hard power, the unrealisability at least is unarguable. The federal superstate of Brexiteers nightmares, after all, has neither army nor intelligence services, nor many of the non economic/regulatory capabilities which go with statehood. It isn’t about to acquire them, either. We shall see whether the EU gets much more serious about defence and internal security capabilities in the light of Brexit, of the Trump Administration’s views both of NATO and of the EU, which mark a sharp break from the views of all previous US Presidents of both colours on European integration, of a revanchist Russia, and of a deeply unstable border zone to East and South.

This speech by Rogers was given just weeks ago so the line that the EU 'isn’t about to acquire', an army has taken a knock as both Macron and Merkel have declared in favour of such a thing. So who can we trust? We have to wonder if all those years ago when Edward Heath was PM and trying to tell us that 'Europe', or the EEC as it was then known, was just a thing to do with trade the civil service of the day were onside with this ruse. Or did Heath do it all on his own?

Finally we note that while Rogers is, and rightly so, quick to criticise politicians who fail, the civil service is left alone. Yes it's true the PM has made herself responsible for their actions but what of these actions? One of the resignations, see here, of the last few days has been Suella Braverman MP she was a Brexit Minister and has written -

the failure of accountability to politicians was astonishing. Civil Servants would routinely return from Brussels with the fruits of their endeavours, often having strayed beyond Cabinet mandates or setting policy decisions in legally binding text before Ministers had even discussed them. I argued with officials about including a ‘conditionality clause’- which would make the payment of the £39bn contingent on a binding future trade agreement and which would give us some security in the event of a failure of talks in the future. But no insurance policy was forthcoming.The general approach always seemed to be: Don’t upset Brussels.

One of the points above made by Rogers was the,'Serious multilateral negotiating experience', of those he left behind in Whitehall. Now Braverman is a Barrister and says she is, 'used to the confrontational nature of negotiations, she writes -

As a former Barrister used to the confrontational nature of negotiations, that didn’t make sense. Acquiescence can’t possibly be the strategy? Surely it was for Ministers to make that decision? Surely it was for the elected representatives to call the shots? Another chilling example is Clause 132 which allows the implementation period to be extended. That was never agreed policy by Ministers or Cabinet, as far as I know. It never appeared in any draft Agreements that I saw. Civil Servants were never instructed to agree that, as far I’m concerned. Yet the final version of the Agreement clearly states the settled position between the EU and the UK to extend the transition period until an unknown date. No wonder this deal cannot command the support of the majority of politicians- remain, leave, left or right. It has been forged, not by those who have a political pulse, but by those who are risk-averse, pro-remain and do not want Brexit to happen.

Rogers makes this point about Brexit in his Cambridge speech -

this then, is a very British establishment sort of revolution. No plan and little planning, oodles of PPE tutorial level plausible bullshit, supreme self confidence that we understand others’ real interests better than they do, a complete inability to fathom the nature and incentives of the ancien regime.

But does the Civil Service understand the real interests of others? It's all well and good giving lectures about Brexit, the populism and nationalism behind it, in nice places like Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin and Glasgow. For these are the university cities that have invited Rogers to speak. We should also think of the less appealing places that voted strongly for Brexit, don't these places count too, perhaps because the 'elites' know or care little about them they can be both insulted and ignored?

Now along the way Rodgers takes a shot or two at Boris Johnson but the value of Boris bashing aside we should remember it was Cameron not Johnson who studied PPE and at Oxford, the same university the Rogers attended. We should also remember that it was civil servant Olly Robbins who attended Hertford College Oxford the very same College who invited Rogers to give a speech and Robbins studied PPE so who is the PPE bullshit remark aimed at? Ed Straw in an article, here, writes -

civil servants are an odd lot. They even have an eccentric way of speaking: understated, circumlocutory, a code to be deciphered, hints to be interpreted.

Also we must not forget the words of Tony Blair, another Oxford graduate, who wrote of Robbins,

I take my hat off to Olly Robbins, Olly is a very skilled guy, the elaborate camouflage of all the different points is a tribute to the skill of the British civil service, I say that sincerely.

Clearly Blair thinks that deception by the civil service, and others in power, is the right thing to do.

Now if there has been an attempt to deceive then of all the political divisions, Left Right, Leave Remain, the division between those who accept this and those who reject it will be the most toxic. It was over forty years wait for the 2016 referendum, it was in fact the second referendum. In the previous referendum the side pushing to join out-spent its rival by a ratio of 11:1, however, unlike the numbers on the famous red bus in the 2016 referendum this failed to make it onto the nation's radar. Have you ever heard any of those frightfully moral Remainers talk about it? So speaking truth to power, well it all depends upon who is speaking and who is listening? If it can be shown that those who voted in 2016 are being ignored then the power and value of our democracy has been damaged beyond repair, that's the truth. But we should have seen this coming. It's a bit like the life-long golfer being told to stop doing that and take up chess, they cannot and will not change. The power of their beloved EU dominates all they do. And they really think they 'do it' for us when all the world can see they do everything for themselves. What was needed was dedication to democracy and the referendum result. We waited over forty years for a second referndum and if there has been wrong doing by those we should be able to trust it will take that long again to put things right.