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.

Temporary catharsis

In a welcome break from the dispiriting grind of domestic politics, we’ve got the chance to hit the streets tomorrow, to protest against the visit of the left’s favourite boogeyman, Donald Trump.

The US is currently our only serious rival for the title of “Most Dysfunctional Liberal Democracy”, so it’s fitting that we’re distracting ourselves by shouting at the President. It’s unlikely to cause him much discomfort, but it will make us feel a little better, while we’re waiting for the result of the Tory party leadership contest to plunge us back into despair.

A nation divided

So the results of the European elections are in, and they reveal that the population, or at least the 37% of it not too alienated to vote, is almost completely polarised on the Brexit question. This is not particularly surprising, given that politicians at Westminster have spent the last three years systematically trashing the whole concept of compromise, but it is still quite depressing.

What is clear is that the next Prime Minister, whoever he or she turns out to be, will have absolutely no democratic mandate to take the UK out of the EU, or indeed to stay in. In a rational world there would be a general election, but it seems unlikely that a new Conservative leader would care to take another chance with the electorate, so it’s just about possible to imagine that he or she might seek to circumvent a deadlocked parliament by going straight to the people with a second referendum. It is looking like Labour, which haemorrhaged votes to more openly pro-remain parties, is belatedly coming round to the idea that a new plebiscite is the way to break the impasse.

On the other hand, the Tories are almost certainly going to pick a hard-core leaver to succeed Theresa May, and there isn’t really much anyone could do to stop them leading the country over the cliff when the article 50 extension runs out in October. There is talk that more sensible members of the parliamentary party would support the opposition in a no-confidence vote in such circumstances, but that seems like a slender thread to hang the future of the nation on.

Either way the newly respectable far-right are going to be happy – if there is another referendum they will have a betrayal narrative to exploit (and they may even win again), and if there is a no-deal exit the resulting chaos will be a great opportunity for recruitment.

Can an unhappy outcome be averted? Perhaps, if the left seizes the opportunity to counter the tide of reaction by positively making the case for internationalism and tolerance, but it’s going to be a hard struggle.

 

There may be trouble ahead

So, after hanging on grimly to her premiership for what seems like forever, Theresa May has bid us a tearful adieu. The identity of our next Prime Minister, and with it the fate of the nation, and perhaps the continent, lies in the hands of around 300 Conservative MPs, who will choose two candidates to go forward to the final reckoning, at the end of which a victor will be anointed by the hundred thousand or so elderly oddballs who make up the Tory party membership. What could possibly go wrong?

Darkness before the dawn

On the eve of what promises to be another disastrous electoral experience for the Conservative party, what little authority Theresa May still has is rapidly draining away, as cabinet ministers openly question her judgment, and backbenchers bay for her immediate resignation.

This might be amusing, were it not for the fact that the main beneficiaries of the Tory meltdown look likely to be the extreme right, currently coalescing around the Brexit party. With the pro-Remain vote split, the resulting narrative seems set to be one of triumph for the forces of reaction.

I’m not too discouraged by this though. The immediate practical consequence will be that the next Conservative leader, most likely Boris Johnson, will feel obliged to pull the party even further rightward, which does not seem like a strategy for success in the general election which must surely happen sometime before October. Assuming that Labour move far enough towards promising a second referendum to capture most of the votes of the anti-Brexit constituency, we might well have a progressive government before the end of the year.

Local confusion

After a relative period of calm over the Easter holidays, politics has broken out again with a vengeance, as voters had their first chance to deliver a verdict on the Brexit debacle in the local elections.

But what was that verdict? Superficially it seems obvious; the populace is mightily pissed-off with the establishment parties. This mainly affected the Conservatives, who lost over 1300 seats, but also Labour, who failed to make any progress, despite the Tory meltdown; instead the beneficiaries were the Lib Dems and the Greens, plus a host of independent candidates.

The cause of this mass disaffection is less clear-cut though. Are people annoyed that Brexit hasn’t been delivered, or are they signalling that they want a second referendum? The gains posted by the Liberals and the Greens suggest that the latter is true, but the absence of an unambiguously pro-Brexit alternative to the Conservatives on most of the ballots may have limited the scale of the anti-EU protest. In any case the results are skewed by the fact that important remain heartlands like Scotland and London weren’t voting in this cycle.

Of course this uncertainty hasn’t stopped politicians from all parties declaring that this outcome unequivocally supports their position, whether that is Leave or Remain, and it seems unlikely that there will be any significant changes as a result of it. It does increase the pressure on Theresa May to somehow secure a deal in time to cancel the European parliament elections at the end of the month, since that poll is likely to be even more of a horror show for the Tories, but the Westminster numbers just don’t add up; the concessions that might get Labour on board – a customs union, perhaps a confirmatory vote – would alienate large swathes of her own party. Labour have little incentive to help her out; they may do badly in the Euro vote, but the Conservatives will undoubtedly do worse, and the fallout may precipitate the general election that Jeremy Corbyn has been aiming for all along.

So, we’re back on the Brexit rollercoaster; no doubt the political classes will be up to fever pitch by the time we vote on the 23rd. I’ll try to keep up the commentary, but it might all get too much…

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.