Spectator 15 January 2017
The trouble with plebiscites is that they leave the plebs stranded. A complicated issue is reduced to one question: should we leave the EU, yes or no. Nowhere on the ballot does it ask whether we should leave the single market or currency union, crash into the WTO without trade agreements with the rest of the world, or tear up employment protections. There is just the deceptively simple question. It provides no guidance to which of the thousands of possible futures we could chose when it is answered.
The Spectator 3 January 2017
In the first days of January ‘17, the Arctic air frosted over London forcing even the most careless citizen of that metropolis to accept the mastery of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilisation. Holmes would not move from his fire, and was as moody as only he could be when he had no case to interest him.
‘Why,’ said I, glancing up at my companion, ‘that was surely the bell. Who could come tonight? Some friend of yours, perhaps?’
‘Except yourself I have none,’ he answered.
‘A client, then?’
‘If so, it is a serious case. Nothing less would bring a man out on such a day and at such an hour. But I take it that it is more likely to be some crony of the landlady’s.’
Sherlock Holmes was wrong in his conjecture, however, for there came a step in the passage and a tapping at the door. Continue reading
The Observer, 7 January 2016
Nationalism always breaks its promises because nationalists hate enemies in their countries more than they hate the enemies of their countries. Millions of American conservatives proved it when they voted for Donald Trump, even though he was an open admirer of a hostile foreign power.
Local hatreds, not national security, moved them. They hated Obama more than they feared Putin. They hated political correctness. They hated – not without reason – the attacks on freedom of speech. They hated rich liberals and defence lawyers. They hated Black Lives Matter and immigrants speaking Spanish in the shop queue. They hated the “experts” who told them that fossil fuel caused global warming and gun ownership caused crime. For all their patriotism, when it came to the crunch, they cared as little for national security as the “reds” their ancestors condemned in the 20th century.
The Observer, 18 December, 2016
The only thing worse than sore losers is sore winners. They have the victory, the field is theirs, but still they scream bitter abuse at the defeated.
The millions who know that Brexit will shrink their world have every right to be angry. The young who voted to remain because they wanted to learn, work and love where they choose, without facing restrictions on which university they could study at and which husband or wife they could bring home, have every right to be furious too. As for EU immigrants in Britain and British immigrants in the EU, it is fair to imagine them directing an emotion more intense than anger at the 17 million people who took the cold-blooded decision to risk their future happiness.
Yet, instead of seeing the losers’ anger, we are witnessing a novel and graceless phenomenon: victors’ rage. Continue reading
For the Observer’s 225th anniversary edition
In 1944, George Orwell looked back on his political commentary and sighed. “In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer.” If Orwell could think of himself as a mere pamphleteer, where does that leave everyone else who produces comment pieces?
Reading through national newspaper files offers few comforts. Indeed, nothing brings home the futility of political writing more starkly. It’s not just that virtually all of the writers and many of their targets are now forgotten. The arguments commentators make are generally as predictable as the speaking clock. Pick a newspaper of the left or right from the 20th century, or click on a left- or right-wing website today, and you can prophesy what a writer has to say before he or she has said it.
The Observer 3 December 2016
Anyone feeling morally superior to Americans should reflect on how Donald Trump feels about us. “In England, they have a system where you can actually sue if someone says something wrong,” he purred . “Our press is allowed to say whatever they want.”
You can understand his envy. Despite reform, an English publisher still has to prove his or her innocence. More enticingly for the rich, money tilts the scales of justice. Unless you have a straightforward case, few lawyers will offer a “no win, no fee” deal. A wealthy media organisation can threaten you with a costs bill of £1m or more if you lose. Equally, plutocrats can threaten increasingly impoverished newspapers with costs they cannot afford, if they don’t back down and back off either.
Businessmen make dangerous politicians because they spend their careers expecting deference on pain of dismissal. Most people would restrict the freedom of others to criticise them if they had the power, even if the criticism were true – especially if it were true, I should add. But while we must grow thick skins, the holders of corporate power can act with megalomaniacal petulance.