Incassable

As I’ve noted previously, I’ve had some good times in Paris, so it was sad to watch fire ravage Notre Dame cathedral last night. Fortunately, the skill and courage of the Parisian sapeurs-pompiers ensured that the flames were extinguished before the whole structure collapsed, but it’s still going to take years, if not decades, to restore.

It’s tempting to see this event as some sort of metaphor for the fragility of seemingly eternal European institutions, but I suspect it may end up symbolising exactly the opposite; the ability of the EU to survive temporary conflagrations like Brexit. Whether the UK will be part of that future remains doubtful, though the chances of a remain outcome are certainly better than they were a few weeks ago, and seem likely to be further boosted by a good showing for pro-EU parties in the European elections next month.

As time passes, the fire at Notre Dame will become just a footnote in its centuries-long history; hopefully Brexit will fade into a similar obscurity.

Once more on Wikileaks

It’s nearly seven years since we last posted about Julian Assange and Wikileaks; our take at that time was that freedom of information was a good thing, but that promoting it didn’t give anyone a pass for sexual assault.

Now that Assange’s falling-out with the Ecuadorian government has brought the issue back into the news, should we reconsider our position? Since 2012 the waters have been significantly muddied by the role played by Wikileaks in the 2016 US election, but I see no reason to think differently; we would oppose his extradition to the US on hacking charges, but think he should answer the rape accusations in Sweden.

More broadly, I think the last decade has seen a change in the way that the ruling class tries to control information. Keeping secrets by throwing people like Assange (or Chelsea Manning, who is much more deserving of support) in jail seems old-fashioned; it’s more effective to undermine the whole concept of objective truth by flooding the internet with conspiracy theories, so that any real scandal that leaks out can be plausibly dismissed as fake news. Social media, which promised to democratise information flow, has instead concentrated control in the hand of a few secretive corporations, with links to government that we can only speculate about.

We’ve known since the days of Marx that workers’ control of the economic levers of society is a precondition for progressive change, but economics is not everything; Gramsci illuminated the importance of cultural hegemony in maintaining the dominance of capital. Today our culture is more than ever mediated through the control of information; transferring that control from the bourgeoisie to the masses is perhaps the most pressing task facing revolutionaries in this era. The lesson of the Wikileaks story is that such work is too important to be left to fallible individuals; it must be a collective, democratic enterprise.

Intergalactic perspective

I always feel that, in uncertain times like these, it’s helpful to step back and take a cosmic view, so I was interested to see the image from the Event Horizon telescope of the black hole at the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy, 55 million light years away. When one can actually see an object six billion times as massive as the sun, warping time and space with its unimaginable gravity, and spitting out particles heated to billions of degrees at nearly light speed, it’s hard to get too bothered about the petty squabbles of this insignificant planet.

Neighbourly intervention

Back home again, to the news that the EU 27, presumably motivated by a mixture of pity and self-interest, seem set to offer the UK an extension of article 50 until the end of the year, thus saving us from crashing out this Friday, on the condition that we use the time to get our collective shit together.

That is perhaps asking more of us than we can deliver; the immediate consequence of the delay will be to oblige the country to participate in the European elections, which seem likely to turn into a rerun by proxy of the 2016 referendum. I guess it’s possible that the nation will take the opportunity to engage in some serious reflection and respectful debate, before coming to a considered decision that everyone can live with, but, you know, probably not.

So it looks like, come December, if not before, our continental relatives will once again be asking themselves if this relationship is really worth putting any more work into, or whether they should let us get on with fucking ourselves up, and wait for us to crawl back in remorse at some point in the future.

Comforting distance

I’m posting this from a location deep in central Europe; I’d love to say that I’d moved here permanently, to escape the madness of political life in the UK, but, alas, I’m just here temporarily for a business trip.

I’ve been in transit for the last few days, only partially aware of the news from home, but I’ve caught up a bit more today. Theresa May seems to have switched back to conciliatory mode, offering to form a united front with Labour to find a way through the Brexit impasse, though the consensus among left-leaning commentators, with which I am inclined to concur, is that she is negotiating in bad faith, in the hope of frightening her own party into finally backing her deal. It appears doubtful that the ERG, having held out so far, will crack at the eleventh hour however, and in any case Labour, understandably wary of sharing any blame for the debacle, would most likely make any agreement conditional on confirmation by a popular vote, an outcome May has vowed to resist.

Meanwhile, in Brussels the EU, adamant that there will be no further short extension to article 50, are stepping up preparations for an unruly UK exit on April 12th, and in Westminster the desperate parliamentary manoeuvring which seeks to wrest control of the process away from the government looks doomed to failure. It’s very difficult to remain optimistic. Perhaps I should cash in my return ticket and apply for political asylum…

Uncoupled from reality

Tomorrow will see the latest in the ever-lengthening series of “decisive” parliamentary votes on Brexit. Having apparently given up all hope of winning a majority for her plan, Theresa May is now inviting MPs to simply approve withdrawal in principle, with the details of the final political settlement to be worked out at some unspecified time in the future.

May evidently hopes that, presented with a blank screen, people will project their own ideal outcome, in much the same way as they did in the original referendum. Perhaps unsurprisingly, exactly the opposite is happening, as leavers anticipate betrayal of their fantasy departure, while remainers fear the prospect of a deal negotiated by May’s successor as Tory leader, who will undoubtedly be a europhobic head-banger.

It all seems certain to be in vain though, since the DUP are not on board, the ERG are unconvinced, and there is no sign that Labour Party discipline is about to break down.

Predictions that the final act in this tragedy is at hand have been wrong before, but time is desperately short now, and May cannot continue to simultaneously threaten remainers with no-deal and leavers with no-exit; both groups have called her bluff and she will have to choose which trigger to pull.

She could request a long extension of article 50, and persuade the EU to grant it by promising a general election. That would mean agreeing to participate in the European elections too, but that bitter pill could be sweetened by holding both polls on the same day. Whatever government emerged from the process would have an unquestionable mandate to sort out the mess, and we could all move on.

That solution seems reasonable. Which is why it will probably never happen.

Tactical resignation

As the Commons debated several more or less fantastic solutions to the Brexit conundrum this evening, without coming to any conclusion, Theresa May decided on a last roll of the dice, and promised that she would vacate the office of Prime Minister if her party would only support her deal, at the third time of asking.

Will this gamble succeed? As I write, it is still unclear. Boris Johnson, never one to allow principle to stand in the way of his ambition, has declared he will now back May’s plan; Jacob Rees-Mogg and other relatively sensible members of the ERG are wavering; more fanatical leavers like Steve Baker are standing firm in their opposition. Crucially, the DUP seem unconvinced, so the numbers aren’t really adding up in May’s favour.

In any case it is not certain that the Speaker will allow another vote, though I guess that John Bercow might shy away from precipitating an even greater constitutional crisis if it looked like the deal had a chance of getting through.

So it appears that the nation’s agony will continue for another week at least. I still think we’re heading for a general election, but there will be plenty twists to come before then.

Indicative indecision

So, after much agitation, tomorrow will see the Commons finally arrive at the indicative vote stage, where, allegedly, our representatives will come up with a plan for Brexit that pleases everybody.

Or not; there are apparently going to be around sixteen schemes to choose from, on a spectrum between no-deal and no-exit, so it seems unlikely that any consensus will be reached. In any case, the government has made no commitment to accept the plan that emerges, which is actually understandable, since who knows what madness MPs will come up with, and the whole thing still has to be sold to the EU, who have repeatedly said that they are not interested in any more negotiations.

Theresa May did say today that she would choose a long article 50 extension over no-deal, though she has been changing her mind on this on a daily basis, so it’s difficult to take her seriously. There are some signs that sections of the ERG may cave in and finally back her deal out of fear that Brexit is slipping away, but the contingent determined to never surrender seems to be large enough to continue to frustrate any repeated vote.

There doesn’t look to be any way that the current parliament can agree on a route out of this mess; logically the solution would appear to be a general election, but logic left this process a long time ago. Even at this late stage it’s impossible to predict what is going to happen, but if I had to make a guess, I’d go for: continuing stalemate into next week; another failed attempt to get May’s deal through; the EU granting a longer delay to allow time for an election; Labour winning on a platform of soft Brexit subject to confirmation in a second referendum; the electorate deciding to stay in the EU after all; everyone wondering why we wasted years debating all this nonsense.

Teflon Trump

Political events on this side of the Atlantic have been consuming all my attention lately, so I missed the build-up to the big excitement in the US this weekend, the much-anticipated release of the Mueller report.

Alas, the Special Counsel’s dossier, or at least the brief summary of it released by the Attorney General, has turned out to be somewhat of an anticlimax. Despite the rather fevered expectations of his many critics, Donald Trump has emerged essentially spotless. Mueller found nothing to support the central charge of collusion with Russia, and declined to make a judgment on the question of obstruction of justice.

It’s difficult to see this as anything other than a victory for Trump, and it will certainly take the wind out of the sails of the Democrats, just as they were limbering up for the start of the presidential election campaign. More legal problems will undoubtedly arise for Trump before polling day, particularly around campaign finance issues, but the lack of dirt in the Mueller report provides enough support for Trump’s witch-hunt narrative to allow his supporters to convince themselves that any fresh accusations are fake news. His re-election prospects, which were probably always better than conventional wisdom decreed, are looking a good bit brighter.

Temporary reprieve

I may have been in my happy place yesterday, but it was back to horrific reality today. After a day of suspense in Brussels, the country is still teetering on the brink of disaster.

I guess that I shouldn’t be surprised by the Prime Minister acting in a way that completely contradicts what she said a week, or a day, or an hour previously, but it has been particularly difficult to follow her intentions since events in the commons last week. Having said that a vote ruling out no-deal would prompt her to request a long extension to Article 50, she proceeded to ask for a brief delay, until the end of June. The EU responded with a heavily conditional offer, putting the exit off until May 22nd, if a deal is agreed, or April 12th, if May’s plan is rejected by Parliament again. They did leave open the possibility of a longer pause, if the UK identifies a concrete plan to break the impasse, probably a general election.

Attention will now shift back to Westminster, where May seems determined to try to get her deal through at the third attempt, though such an outcome seems extremely unlikely. Again it’s hard to fathom her tactics; she seems to be threatening MPs with the spectre of no-deal, but the people she has to win over, the hard-core Tory Brexiteers, are in favour of crashing out, so she is just strengthening their resolve. Then she undermined her chances of bringing more moderate Tories, or wavering Labour MPs, on board by addressing the nation with a shamelessly populist broadcast blaming them for the whole mess, a message she’s been desperately trying to dial back today.

So we are no further forward, though at least the day of reckoning has been put off for a couple of weeks, and hope of a non-disastrous outcome hasn’t been entirely extinguished. We should be grateful for small mercies I guess.