The Spectator 15 February 2017
Modern British history is largely a history of Tory rule and misrule. The Tories governed Britain from 1886 until 1905 with only the Gladstone/Rosebery minority administration of 1892 to 1895 breaking their dominance. They were in power every year from 1916 until 1945, either on their own or in coalition, except for 11 months in 1924 and from 1929 to 1931, when minority Labour governments clung to office. The Tories governed on their own from 1951 to 1964, and from 1979 to 1997. They governed first in coalition and then on their own from 2010 until…
Well, think of a number then double it. Continue reading
The Observer 22 January, 2017
Hard questions for democracies have piled up with a speed we have yet to take in. After the cold war, westerners asked how to stand up to autocrats. Should we intervene to stop genocide in Bosnia? Or demand sanctions and boycotts to protect the rights of Tibetans? The rise of communist China, Putin’s Russia and Erdoğan’s Turkey changed the terms of debate. The question was no longer should we intervene, but could we intervene against powers more than able to resist pressure?
Now that the Trump administration has slouched towards Washington to be born and strongmen have muscled their way into the chancelleries of eastern Europe, the question is more basic: how are supposed democracies different from actual dictatorships? Continue reading
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.
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.
The Observer, 19 November 2016
Boris Johnson is many things: a narcissist, a liar , a thug and an impostor. But he isn’t a fool. When he said last week it was “bollocks” to think freedom of movement was one of the European Union’s fundamental principles (and how refreshing it is to have a foreign secretary with a classical education), serious people made the mistake of not taking the new right seriously. What a joke our foreign secretary is, they snorted. The over-promoted clown does not know the EU enshrined freedom of movement in the Treaty of Rome of 1957. He’s either an embarrassment or light entertainment, but he’s clearly too stupid to matter.
Writing before Donald Trump’s victory, the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen warned that too many liberals lacked imagination. They could not imagine that Trump would win and threaten American democracy’s safeguards, even though authoritarian nationalists were winning across the world. The British elite could not imagine Brexit and only a handful of academics and journalists imagined Vladimir Putin would move to control Russia’s media, suppress opposition and invade his neighbours. Stuck in a familiar past, they do not believe change for the worse can happen, even when it is happening in front of them.
Our current imaginative failure lies in our inability to understand the secret fears and bottomless opportunism of our new masters. Continue reading
The Observer 27 November 2016
Conservatives once boasted that they were the grown-ups, even if they did say so themselves. They conserved the best of the past and believed in the sensible management of the world as it is, rather than in dangerous fantasies about the world as it might be. Hold out as their opponents might, eventually they would understand that conservatism was just common sense.
Carry on reading