Bye bye Boris?

If one reads the liberal press, as of course I do, one could be forgiven for believing that the departure of Boris Johnson from the office of Prime Minister is both inevitable and imminent. He has, the argument goes, so flagrantly disregarded parliamentary conventions that he is honour bound to resign, and if for some reason he fails to see this, then his party will surely move against him, to maintain the integrity of our political system.

Perhaps that is what will happen, but I can’t help thinking that this position rests on the belief that Johnson, and the Conservative Party that put him into power, are still playing the game by the old rules, an assumption that is not entirely backed up by recent experience. As we have seen over the last four years in the US, where liberal expectations that the Republicans world eventually recoil from the excesses of Trumpism have been repeatedly disappointed, in today’s world the right is much more interested in hanging on to power than in observing the niceties of bourgeois democracy.

So I think Boris might yet brazen it out, in the short term at least, and if his MPs do topple him in the coming days it may have more to do with cold political calculation than any sense of decency. It seems unlikely that any moves will be made before the Gray report is published later this week, so we look set for a few more days of uncertainty before the situation even starts to move towards resolution.

Then perhaps we can start worrying about the really important things

Party on Boris

Just when one thinks British politics can become no more ridiculous, our current government manages to plumb new depths of farce. The best spin that can be put on Boris Johnson’s transparently mendacious explanation for his attendance at a lockdown-busting party in his own garden is that it is an ambitious attempt to gaslight the entire nation; inviting us to accept that he thought the crowd of people standing around drinking was just a normal work day at Number 10 is such an obvious lie that no rational person could possibly expect it to be believed, therefore we must conclude he is actually telling the truth.

If Johnson was hoping that this daring manoeuvre would disorientate the opposition then he has been woefully disappointed, as critics from every point of the political spectrum have lined up to solemnly contrast his callous frivolity with the noble sacrifices made by the population during the pandemic. Seldom can an easier target have been presented, and, most worryingly for Johnson, the condemnation is resonating far beyond Westminster, shaking the confidence of many Tory MPs, and fuelling talk of a leadership challenge.

So, slightly unexpectedly, we are presented with our first opportunity of the year to make a political prediction; will Boris still be Prime Minister at the end of this month?

I’m going to say yes, since serious candidates to replace him, like Rishi Sunak, are likely to be reluctant to take over at the top just when the country is facing a particularly rough patch, as the pandemic, Brexit, and spiralling energy prices combine to produce a cost of living crisis. Better to let Johnson take the flak for a bit longer, then make a move when the worst has passed. If Boris makes it to the end of the week then I think he’ll last until the summer at least, but he may not get the chance to host any more Christmas parties in Downing Street.

2021: The year in review – Part 2: Blogging

After a relatively productive 2020 our posting rate fell off a bit this year, but we did manage to at least touch upon a few of the main political and cultural developments of the last twelve months.

Foremost among these was the continuing dislocation of the seemingly-endless covid-19 pandemic. Any optimism generated by the production of a vaccine has started to ebb away, as viral mutation has brought us to the brink of another dispiriting winter lockdown, sorely testing the population’s willingness to endure further restrictions. The government’s typically confused response has done little to inspire confidence that the situation will be under control any time soon. I guess at some point in the future we’re all going to be either immune or dead; perhaps we’ll get back to normality then.

For a while at the start of the year it looked like US politics might get quite interesting, but, once the smoke had cleared after the Capitol riot, things settled into a familiar routine; the competent but dull centerism of Joe Biden being frustrated by the characteristic obstructionism of an ever rightward-shifting GOP. Meanwhile the momentum for progressive change that had built up under the Trump administration has all but disappeared, as the left shifts its attention to looming defensive struggles around voting rights and reproductive autonomy.

Here in the UK, the last couple of months have seen problems mounting for Boris Johnson, as various scandals and electoral setbacks have given the lie to the notion that he was able to defy the normal rules of politics with his trademark bluster and charm. Bourgeois liberals, who had been in a state of demoralisation since the Brexit catastrophe, have greeted this development with joy, declaring confidently that it signifies a return to sensible moderation, and discouraging any talk of left alternatives, lest the electorate is frightened back into the arms of the Tories. I think this is exactly the wrong lesson to learn from the recent history of British politics; the reason Johnson has been able to make inroads into traditionally Labour-supporting areas is because the left has been too tentative in promoting a progressive vision, rather than over-confident. Pursuing a supposed centre ground just allows the right to set the agenda, dragging the country further into reaction. There are some signs of a left revival, especially in the devolved nations, but hope is still a scarce commodity.

Anyway, here are our top ten posts of 2021, by traffic:

  1. Red star shines on
  2. World Cup predictions revisited
  3. The Linden Principle
  4. Euro predictions
  5. Euro 2016 forecast
  6. Premature relaxation
  7. Fly me to the moon
  8. L’Italia è vittoriosa
  9. 02022020
  10. There is no land beyond the Volga

I’ve given up trying to analyse why some old posts suddenly become popular again, and I’m a bit disappointed that only one from this year made the cut, but at least a few of the vintage pieces are good ones.

Here are my favourite posts of the year:

Our global reach shrank a little this year, but we still managed to attract visitors from 40 countries; here are the top ten:

  1. United Kingdom
  2. United States
  3. China
  4. Japan
  5. Canada
  6. India
  7. Malaysia
  8. New Zealand
  9. Vietnam
  10. Germany

After a year when it sometimes seemed we were stuck in some sort of temporal loop, I have a feeling that 2022 might deliver some significant change, so there should be plenty of topics to comment upon; we’ll see if I manage to be a bit more productive. Whatever happens, I hope all our readers have a happy, safe, and prosperous New Year.

Viral déjà vu revisited

I may find the unchanging nature of Second Life strangely comforting, but the fact that events in the real world seem to be stuck on infinite repeat is rather more unsettling. Almost exactly a year ago we were dealing with the disappointment of Christmas being cancelled due to the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus, and, well, here we are again.

Of course the outlook is not quite as gloomy as it was last December; the reasonably high rate of vaccination in the UK population does give some cause for optimism. Set against that however is the ever more obvious incompetence of the government, presided over by the increasingly ridiculous figure of Boris Johnson, lurching from scandal to scandal, his authority so diminished that he struggles to win the support of his own party for the measures necessary to head off the resurgent pandemic. In another echo of the recent past, a hazardous by-election this week, in what should be a safe Tory seat, seems likely to precipitate a fresh crisis for Johnson, potentially rendering him powerless at just the time the country needs decisive leadership.

It could be worse I guess; Brexit might be going badly

Wild west

It’s been far too long since I was last in the US; my last trip was all the way back in the 20th century. I had made a vague arrangement to visit a couple of old friends in California in the summer of 2020, but events obviously overtook those plans, so we tentatively rescheduled for next year.

I’ve had all my vaccinations, so I should be clear to travel, but I have to say I’m having some second thoughts, now that it seems to be legal for for heavily-armed white supremacists to roam the country, shooting leftists at will.

Of course any of my non-white comrades reading this will be rolling their eyes at the thought of an old, white, middle-class male like me being concerned about falling victim to the sort of state-sponsored violence that is just everyday reality for oppressed communities in the US, so I guess I will get over myself and brave the journey to the Pacific coast. I mean, what else would I have to be worried about?

An unfair COP

I didn’t exactly have high expectations of the COP26 summit, which wound up this weekend, but I did think that it might produce an outcome a little more upbeat than the two main themes that emerged; namely that the climate situation is even worse than we thought, and no one is going to do anything about it.

Well perhaps some things are going to be done, and I suppose we should be thankful that full-blown climate change denialism seems to have gone out of fashion, but still, it’s difficult to be optimistic when one considers the scale of the political and economic transformation that would be required merely to limit the damage to near-apocalyptic levels. Just providing developing nations with the means to secure their populations against the disasters that are already unfolding would involve a transfer of wealth of almost unimaginable magnitude, and there is no sign that the developed world is ready to pay up, even though it would just be restitution for the resources looted since the dawn of the colonial era.

Instead of facing reality, we are invited to believe that capitalism, which got us into this mess, will get us out of it, by pivoting to a profit-driven green revolution, allowing we in the west to continue enjoying our high-consumption lifestyles, just as long as the world’s poor masses don’t mess it up by demanding to join us.

Unsurprisingly, countries like India and China are not on board with this, and even within the richer nations the increased inequality in wealth evident over the last 20 years means many citizens will be wondering why they are being asked to compromise already precarious livelihoods for benefits they are unlikely to enjoy.

The fundamental problem is the lack of democratic legitimacy of the institutions that have the power to influence the kind of global adjustments required to bring climate change under some sort of control. As long as people, and nations, see organisations like the IMF making decisions that clearly favour certain countries, and a certain class within those countries, then they will be reluctant to believe that the sacrifices they are being asked to make will really benefit some collective good.

So is there any solution? A world government, with a true mandate from the people, might have the authority to turn things around, but that’s obviously not something that’s going to materialise in the near future, so I guess we’ll just have to keep organising locally, make the changes in our own lives that we can, and hope that the common humanity of the masses will help us to unite to overcome this challenge.

Autumnal musings

In our last post I identified my earliest political memory as being of Margaret Thatcher’s first election victory in 1979, but that isn’t entirely accurate, since I also have a somewhat hazy recollection of the months leading up to the poll, subsequently known as the Winter of Discontent.

It’s a period mythologised by the Tories as a dark age of socialism from which the blessed Maggie delivered us, so it’s difficult to know which of my memories relate to actual experience, and which are just apocryphal tales that I’ve absorbed from the media; I would swear that during that freezing winter I played with my friends on streets cast into darkness by city-wide power cuts, but I can’t find any documentary evidence to back that up. Economic uncertainty and labour unrest were certainly at levels rarely seen since though, and, however Prime Minister Jim Callaghan may have been misquoted, it all added up to a crisis. As is often true of times of political realignment, the exact details are perhaps less important than the sense throughout society that the present arrangements are unsustainable, and that something has to change.

Anyway, I’m thinking about all this because there seems to be a general feeling around at the moment that the winter ahead is going to be a difficult one, what with the economy still hobbled by the twin shocks of Brexit and the pandemic, the health service in no shape to cope with any new wave of coronavirus, and surging food and fuel prices threatening a return to 70s-style inflation. On top of that we also have to worry about climate change, with no sign that the COP26 talks starting this week will produce any sort of plan to mitigate the looming environmental apocalypse.

Back in 1978 there was at least a powerful labour movement to give some protection to workers, and the political class of that time, though unequal to the challenge they faced, were far more serious and competent than the current administration. A decade of austerity has left millions balanced precariously on the edge of poverty, and the latest developments could push them over, with unpredictable consequences for the social fabric of the nation; “discontent” may turn out to be somewhat of an understatement.

History, man

I’ve been around long enough to have lived through a good number of events that seem likely to be viewed by posterity as historically significant. The earliest of these that I was really conscious of was Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the UK General Election of 1979; I remember hearing the results coming in and, even with a child’s limited experience, feeling that a lot of what I understood about how the world worked was about to change. So it proved; Thatcher, along with Ronald Reagan in the US, and ideological allies elsewhere, went on to unravel the Keynesian settlement of the post-war years, and usher in the neoliberal decades that were to follow.

All this coincided with my early adult life, during which I received my formative political education, so it’s not surprising that I tend to think of the 1980s, bookended by the Thatcher/Reagan revolution and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as the key period in recent history, but of course to anyone under about the age of 40 subsequent developments probably loom larger.

Foremost among these might be the events of September 11th 2001, which are once again prominent in the public consciousness, due to the 20th anniversary, but also because of the recent ignominious conclusion of the western imperial adventure in Afghanistan.

Joe Biden has come under intense criticism for his handling of the US departure, mainly from those, like Tony Blair, who were responsible for expanding the “War on Terror” from a defensive strike against the likes of Al-Qaeda into a mission to forcibly reshape the world into the image of bourgeois liberal democracy, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond, but his decision to honour the withdrawal agreement negotiated by his predecessor was a pragmatic recognition that the task was impossible.

So once again it feels like the tectonic plates of global politics are moving into a new orientation, and we are left to try to make sense of what is happening, and anticipate what may develop. When I was taking my first political steps back in the days of Thatcher, I was taught to take a long view, and look for the antecedents that could explain the trajectory of events. I think this is the right approach, though my experience on the left over the years has been that we tend to use our analytical tools less to fashion victories, and more to understand defeats. I worry sometimes that the current generation of activists lacks this historical perspective; we seem to live in an era where the only thing that can capture people’s attention is what is happening directly to them, right now. But that’s probably just the old man in me grousing that the youngsters don’t pay us veterans enough respect, and envying their opportunity to succeed where we failed. I’ll be history myself soon enough, and while I may be a little irked that I’m unlikely to see the promised land, I’m sure we’ll get there before too long.

L’Italia è vittoriosa

So, I finally got a sporting prediction correct, though it was a close-run thing. Most neutral observers agreed the Italians were worth their victory over the piece, but England did well to take it to penalties, and with a little more luck could have won.

What’s perhaps more interesting than the on-field action are the competing narratives around the effect that England’s good run has had on the national psyche. The optimistic liberal version – that the success of the racially and socially diverse squad has fostered an atmosphere of tolerance – is rather undercut by the racist abuse directed towards black members of the team from a section of their own fan base. The government’s clumsy attempts to appropriate the feel-good factor surrounding the tournament to bolster its fading domestic popularity look similarly out of place amongst ministers’ unsubtle dog-whistles to that same white-nationalist constituency.

The country may move on from this particular disappointment fairly quickly, as our attention shifts to getting through what promises to be some bumpy months ahead, but resolving these opposing conceptions of identity and belonging will take much longer, and require rather more in the way of political leadership than our current government seems able to provide.

Viral déjà vu

I guess that one of the advantages of an infrequent posting schedule is that it gives one the opportunity to consider events a little more carefully before venturing an opinion, reducing the risk of later looking back on a hot take that proved laughably inaccurate. The downside is that one is always tempted to wait for the conclusive data point that will confirm or refute an analysis, until one finds that the moment has passed, and no one is interested anymore. The challenge is to find the sweet spot between being an activist, engaged in events as they develop, and a historian, drawing lessons from matters that are settled.

Back in May, in the wake of the local elections, I was thinking that Boris Johnson might have hit upon just the right blend of social conservatism and and economic liberalism to convince a large enough section of the electorate to overlook the venality and incompetence of his administration to keep him in power. Of course this arrangement would be inherently unstable; a Conservative administration would be unable and/or unwilling to deliver the material benefits promised to working-class voters in the north, necessitating ever more reactionary rhetoric aimed at foreigners, immigrants, and whoever else Johnson chose to blame for his government’s failures. Still, I thought he might be able to keep the show on the road for a year or two at least, given Labour’s inability to provide any coherent opposition.

However recent by-election results suggest that Johnson’s scheme may be unraveling at a slightly faster rate. The supposedly safe seat of Chesham was lost to the Liberals, as affluent Tory voters balked at the prospect of subsiding spending in poorer constituencies, while Labour were able to hang on to Batley, amid signs that the electorate was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Johnson administration’s relentless grifting.

That said, Johnson is still in a strong position, though these events seem to have shaken him, and prompted a characteristically populist response; his determination to go ahead with the relaxation of practically all pandemic-related restrictions, despite warnings that, as was the case last year, this is somewhat premature.

So perhaps it’s not necessary to wait to see how history plays out in the fullness of time; rather, one can confidently predict that what unfolds will be a depressingly familiar rehash of old mistakes.

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