Judicial discomfort

On the face of it, today’s court ruling declaring that the government had acted unlawfully in suspending Parliament is a bit of a personal disaster for Boris Johnson, as it sees him labelled by senior judges as a liar who has misled no less a personage than the Queen herself.

While this is clearly embarrassing for a Conservative Prime Minister, Johnson may not be too dismayed. There is a good chance that the Supreme Court will overturn the ruling next week, freeing him from the obligation to submit to troublesome parliamentary scrutiny, and the whole thing plays into his preferred narrative, in which he is a champion of the People, standing up to out-of-touch elites.

More problematic may be the release of the government’s own forecast of the potential outcome of a no-deal scenario, which makes pretty grim reading.

The degree to which any of this will change sentiment in the country at large remains to be seen though. My suspicion is that it will only encourage people to either dig themselves further into their entrenched positions, or confirm them in their alienation. I guess we’ll find out when the general election eventually comes, assuming Johnson doesn’t just abolish democracy altogether in the meantime.

Endless woe

I’ve had my share of jobs that have gotten off to a pretty rocky start, so I’m tempted to feel a little sympathy for Boris Johnson, as he looks back on a week where he lost every important parliamentary vote, more than twenty of his MPs, and a few ministers, including his own brother.

I’ll resist that temptation though, since Johnson is clearly the author of his own misfortune, and the resulting tribulations are likely to afflict the whole nation. It’s sobering to take stock of how far the country’s standing has already fallen; we are in a situation where it is commonly accepted that the head of Her Majesty’s Government is a congenital liar who cannot be trusted to keep his word of honour, and, notwithstanding the assurances of the Lord Chancellor himself, there is serious doubt over his administration’s commitment to the rule of law.

It’s still just about unthinkable that a Conservative Prime Minister would flagrantly disrespect legal conventions, so, since the opposition have wisely refused to be drawn into a premature election, it looks like Johnson has painted himself into a corner with all his overblown rhetoric about the October 31st deadline for Brexit, and will have to choose between a humiliating climbdown, or resigning the office he so recently won.

I guess it is possible that this is all part of some master plan that will end with Johnson returning in triumph after winning a huge majority in the election that will have to come before the end of the year. The latest opinion polls do provide him some comfort, and it is far from unimaginable that a populist campaign might hold enough of the leave vote together to deliver victory. It doesn’t seem like a recipe for long-term stability though, especially once the post-Brexit financial crisis starts to kick in. Anyone hoping that this will all be over soon is going to badly disappointed.

Inauspicious debut

Not unexpectedly, Boris Johnson’s premiership has started with a defeat, as the Commons voted tonight to start the process of blocking a no-deal Brexit.

While losing the very first vote he faced in parliament is rather embarrassing, there is a strong suspicion that it is all part of Johnson’s plan to strengthen his grip on power, by luring the opposition into an election that he will attempt to frame as a struggle between his populist insurgency and entrenched elites, including those in his own party.

It’s likely there will be further drama this week, as the opposition attempt to curtail Johnson’s ability to choose an election date, but the odds are good that there will be a poll before the end of October. Then we’ll see whether his high-risk strategy pays off, or whether he becomes one of British history’s shortest footnotes.

Unenabled

If we’re going to keep our 1930s analogy going, I guess this week’s parliamentary manoeuvring will be the equivalent of the threats and cajoling that Hitler deployed to ensure the passage of the Enabling Act through the Reichstag in 1933. While the Nazis directed the worst of their violence towards their political enemies, Boris Johnson has turned his anger on his own party, warning potential rebels that they risk ending their careers if they support efforts to stall a no-deal exit.

Despite this it seems highly likely that MPs will vote tomorrow to compel Johnson to request a further extension, something he has vowed he will never do. Whether this will actually stop the country’s headlong drive towards the abyss is another question; the government has strongly hinted that it doesn’t necessarily feel obliged to follow the law. That may be a step too far for Johnson; this evening he seemed to be leaning towards attempting to win a mandate to leave in an October election.

That in turn will depend on Labour agreeing to an early poll, which is not a sure thing, since no one trusts Johnson not to renege on a promise of a pre-Brexit election date and delay voting until after we’ve crashed out.

It’s going to be an interesting week, though it’s deeply frustrating that the fate of the nation depends on a handful of Tory dissidents putting the public good before personal ambition. The sooner an election comes, and lets us all have our say, the better.

Eternal vigilance

Eighty years ago today German tanks rolled across the Polish border, starting a conflict that in the following six years would kill at least 70 million people, and touch nearly every corner of the globe. By 1939 it was clear that the rise of fascism had made war inevitable, but the decade leading up to then had presented numerous opportunities for the Nazis to be thwarted, and disaster avoided.

Looking back on the political turmoil of the 1930s from the perspective of our relatively peaceful times, it’s tempting to conclude that concerns about the behaviour of the current government are ridiculously overblown – Boris Johnson may be showing scant regard for constitutional convention, but actual political violence is rare, there is still a free press, and no one is getting sent to a concentration camp.

The Nazis didn’t come to power overnight though; the road to dictatorship involved a gradual chipping away of democratic rights. At every step contemporary observers convinced themselves that, once in government, Hitler would abandon his populist extremism and adopt a more moderate approach, or, failing that, that those around him would ensure he didn’t cause too much trouble. History tells us how well that worked out.

Admittedly the Weimar Republic was hardly a model of stability, and it’s not unreasonable to expect that British political institutions might prove to be a bit more resilient. Still, I’d rather not leave that to chance; that’s why I was out on the streets this weekend, and I’m guessing I’ll be on a few more demonstrations before this sorry business is over.

Shock of the coup

I’d been wondering what it would take to shake me out of my late-summer torpor and reignite my blogging impulse, and now I know; the country lurching towards dictatorship as Boris Johnson deals with democratic opposition by suspending parliament.

This seems like a high-risk strategy, since it will almost certainly unite his foes and precipitate an election. That may well be Johnson’s plan; he has probably calculated that his best shot at winning such a vote is to mobilise his base around a narrative of betrayal by metropolitan elites, and get the election over with before the scale of the Brexit disaster hits home.

He may have underestimated just how angry the population will get about his assault on democracy; I expect there will be some big demonstrations over the weekend. Or perhaps he has got it all worked out, and I’m overestimating how bothered people will be. I guess we’ll find out soon.

Out of the wild

Every summer for the past decade or so I’ve thought to myself that it would be good for my long-term sanity to get away from civilisation for a few weeks, and just mellow right back. Unfortunately I’ve always had too many pressing responsibilities to make this a reality; until this year, when, through a fortunate confluence of circumstances, I managed to drop out of society for the best part of two months.

I didn’t go to live in on old bus on the tundra, Christopher McCandless-style, but I did rent a fairly remote cabin, which, while not entirely off the grid, was isolated enough that I could go days without seeing another human. I couldn’t quite bring myself to completely ignore the news, but I did eschew the internet, instead perusing the newspaper once or twice a week when I ventured into the nearest village for supplies. I read a bit, listened to some music, took some long walks, and scribbled a few observations in a notebook, but most of my time was spent just sitting in the woods, tuned into nature and letting my thoughts wander. (There were some mind-altering substances involved, but not to the extent that one might expect).

So what did I learn during this sojourn in my head? That the world actually moves quite slowly, and I don’t need to update myself every five minutes. That I’m comfortable, perhaps a little too comfortable, with just myself for company. That I’ve reached a point in my life where I enjoy remembering the past more than planning the future. That I haven’t lost the ability to spend hours just watching clouds, and sunlight on grass, and leaves moving in the breeze, like I used to do when I was a kid.

I’m certainly tempted to make this a permanent arrangement. I could just about afford to, financially, and untangling my various relationships, while a little more tricky, wouldn’t be impossible. Just thinking about it makes it seem more attractive.

The current state of the world seems like another good reason to check out, but it’s also the thing that gives me pause. It’s clear that there are going to be some battles to be fought, and it would feel self-indulgent to absent myself from the field just when things are hotting up. Not that I think that any contribution that I might make will be decisive; more that, for my own self-respect, I need to be around to be counted.

So it looks like I’ll have to reluctantly re-engage with society. I’m going to give myself one more night before I face it though…

Reach for the stars

Regular readers will recall that we’ve posted on the topic of space travel several times in the past, marking, among other things, Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight into orbit, and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon.

The tone of our previous pieces has been mostly elegiac, noting with regret that the promise of manned cosmic exploration, which seemed just around the corner in my youth, had largely stalled in the years that followed. There have of course been great strides in robotic exploration, from Mars all the way out to Pluto, and ever more sophisticated telescopes have peered into the furthest depths of the Universe, but I still find it deeply disappointing that Moon bases and space tourism aren’t a thing in the 21st century.

It’s interesting then to see that the latest anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, which, 50 years ago today, put the Eagle lander on the lunar surface, has been greeted with quite a bit of enthusiasm. I haven’t heard anyone arguing that it wasn’t a good thing to do, and there seems to be a general feeling that it’s the kind of endeavour that humanity could do with undertaking again some time soon.

I’m sure that, at least in part, this wish to travel out into the final frontier is fuelled by a desire to forget about how dispiriting the immediate future is looking here on Earth, but, whatever the motivation, it’s good to see a resurgence of belief in the idea of progress. I may reluctantly admit that I’m probably too old now to make it to Mars in person, but I’m still hoping to see some other human get there before I die.

Boris in Brussels

There are still a couple of weeks to go before the final result of the Conservative party leadership contest is due, but Boris Johnson already seems assured of victory. (I was going to add a qualifying statement like “barring some unexpected development”, but actually I can’t even imagine a scandal of sufficient gravity to derail him now).

No one, not even the man himself, seems particularly enthused by this state of affairs; it is as if the country has just accepted this latest humiliation as another inevitable stage of our long national decline. For all the candidates’ talk of going back to Brussels to get a better Brexit deal, it’s inconceivable that any of them actually believe such an outcome is possible, which means that, once he is ensconced in Number 10, Johnson will immediately be faced with a tricky choice between presiding over a catastrophic no-deal exit, or explaining to the electorate that his tough talk was mere bluster, and that he will have to accept the deal on the table, Irish backstop and all.

The support that Johnson has gathered across the parliamentary party seems to indicate that more moderate Tory MPs are banking on him following the latter course of action, presumably calculating that, like Nixon in China, he has a high enough standing among the Brexit true believers to sell the necessary compromise. This is questionable, to say the least; the hard right is poised to denounce any hint of concession as a betrayal, severely limiting Johnson’s room for manoeuvre, and there is no sign that the EU27 are in the mood to offer even cosmetic changes to the deal to help him out.

The no-deal option is no more straightforward; there is still just about a majority in the Commons determined to block it, and the talk of dismissing parliament, aired by some on the wilder fringes of the debate, would surely be too dictatorial, even for Johnson. A general election would be politically suicidal, so logic points towards Johnson taking a populist gamble and trying to secure a mandate in a second referendum. Logic hasn’t exactly been an infallible guide to events in this saga so far though…

Battle for the past

Back in 2014 we wrote about the 70th anniversary of D-Day, noting that the event had started to take on the character of distant history, as it slipped beyond the reach of living memory. Five years on, the surviving veterans are fewer in number, and the connection between the reality of their experience and the role it plays in present-day political discourse has grown correspondingly tenuous. This is especially true in the UK, perhaps unsurprisingly; given the state into which the country has descended in the last three years, we can hardly be blamed for looking back fondly on a time when we could still claim to be a global power. This does require some re-writing of history; even the normally-reliable BBC has been attributing the defeat of the Nazis entirely to the battles on the Western Front, without even mentioning the significant contribution of the Soviet Union. (Recognising this does not lessen our respect for the bravery of the troops who stormed the beaches in 1944; the action in Normandy may not have been on the scale of Stalingrad or Kursk, but it still involved a ferocity that is almost unimaginable in our more peaceful times).

Politicians using history selectively to further an agenda is not a new development of course, but it is depressing to see the sacrifice of those who fell in the titanic struggle against fascism being exploited to advance the petty schemes of the modern-day right. It shows the importance of defending the internationalist spirit that should be the true legacy of that generation, and opposing those who would see Europe once again divided.