Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘nationalism’

Hope I leave the EU before I get old

I’m certainly not the only one to remark on the generational war being waged by the cohort of postwar babies, who discovered the power of age-based politics in the 1960s, against their children and grandchildren. Those now entering retirement have locked in promises of high pensions to themselves that no one before or after them will be able to receive.

That’s where the Brexit referendum comes in. The Guardian reported that Britons under 35 are almost 2:1 in favour of remaining in the EU, while those over 60 are almost as heavily biased in favour. A new article in the NY Times gives some anecdotal evidence in the same direction. This is usually explained as a matter of generational experience, those who experienced the Second World War smelling plans of German domination. But these are some of the same people who voted overwhelmingly to enter the EEC 40 years ago.

I can’t help but wonder whether, on some level, the over-60s see the situation they’ve manoeuvred the younger generations into — crumbling infrastructure, insufficient and overpriced housing, excessive pensions that will come at the expense of social spending for decades, and the only solution they can see — since a pension isn’t worth much if there aren’t enough working people to actually provide the services you depend on — is to block off their children’s potential escape routes.

Maybe it’s not about keeping THEM out. It’s about keeping the younger generation IN.

Brussels on the Leith

It seems that the coming election is all about clawing back to Westminster those sovereign powers that have been allowed to slip away to unaccountable foreigners. In Brussels, and in Edinburgh. After fighting to convince the Scots that they really were, and by rights ought to remain, an integral part of the UK, the Conservatives have now made the danger of pernicious Scottish influence the centrepiece of their campaign. It’s no coincidence, really, since the informal alliance between Scotland and the EU was an important issue in the independence campaign, and will certainly revive calls for independence if the Conservatives are able to follow through on their threat to withdraw Britain from the EU.

As a non-native, I have no emotional attachment to the union or to the particular nationalisms, but I do wish they would make up their minds. “English votes for English laws” is the latest Tory slogan. That would be easily accomplished by creating a devolved parliament for England, which would turn the UK into a logically structured federal state. For whatever reason, that seems to be unthinkable, or at least unspeakable. Instead, they want to keep the Scottish MPs in a combined national and English parliament, but only allow them to vote on certain bills, creating a dangerous (but perhaps convenient for some) ambiguity about which MPs can form a majority, and hence a government.

I wonder if any of the people who helped defeat the referendum a few years back on a partial move toward proportional representation has any regrets now. It used to be that the first-past-the-post system was praised for providing clear parliamentary majorities and a stable balance of two major parties, as opposed to the silly continentals with their every-shifting coalitions of splinter parties. In fact, the system rewards, up to limits, geographic concentration of support. According to the most recent polls, Labour and Conservatives are each expected to get about 33% of the votes, and about 42% of the seats. So far so good for the “stable-large-party” doctrine. But the small parties receive very unequal treatment among themselves. The Liberal Democrats are projected to garner 8% of the votes and 4% of the seats. UKIP, a new party with broad but geographically diffuse support, is projected to snag 14% of the votes, but only 3 seats, or 0.5%. The SNP, with 4% of the votes, are expected to get 8% of the seats, essentially all of the MPs representing the 8% of the population who live in Scotland. The Greens, also with 4% of the votes, will be lucky to hold on to their single MP (out of 650 total).

So I wonder if, amid all this fragmentation, people are wondering if people are reconsidering the wisdom of Britain’s indirect approach to promoting large, broad-based parties, that is no longer really accomplishing its goal, but is unintentionally promoting regional-parties.

When to call it quits

Today is the day of the Scottish referendum. As I’ve commented before, I don’t really have a personal opinion about the question, though I think Scottish independence would probably make my life marginally worse. (To the extent that I have a coherent political view of the situation, it is mostly concurrent with that expressed with some eloquence by Charles Stross. I’d much prefer to see a federal UK. I guess that’s what happens when you let aliens with their strange ideas infiltrate the nation.)

The only sense in which I think I have relevant expertise is with regard to the way people are talking about risk. The whole thrust of the No campaign has been to conjure up dangers, known and unforeseeable, of Scottish independence. I think they’re probably right — in particular, I think the economists are right that Scots are being misled by those who claim that they can successfully keep the British pound as their currency. On the other hand, there are also risks of staying part of the UK. In particular, the risk of being taken out of the EU by an English public that is increasingly insular in its outlook (inlook?) Since everyone’s fond of divorce metaphors, we might see Scotland as a woman whose jealous husband is trying to force her to move with him away from her friends and family. There is a long tradition of Scotland using relations with the Continent as a balance against England. It’s not so much a question of whether Scotland wants to be part of a bigger nation or go it alone; it’s a question of whether Scotland wishes to confederate with England or with Europe. And despite a reasonably successful 307 year run with England the choice for the future is not so obvious.

And that raises what I think is the most irksome twist of the No campaign’s logic: The question of timing. If you protest early against a new arrangement, you can be told, “You haven’t given it enough of a chance”. But if you wait too long, you can be told it’s really been settled by custom and tradition. (To be fair, “you haven’t given it enough of a chance” wasn’t really the argument against the 18th century Scottish rebels, who tended to find English muskets doing the persuading.) Surely it’s reasonable to reconsider these sorts of arrangements after 300 years or so. England offered Scotland the opportunity to be a co-coloniser rather than a colony, and it accepted. Now that the imperial dream is not just dead but despised, isn’t it reasonable to ask a new generation whether the union is still meeting their needs?

Recruiting the dead

Former chief of the UK General Staff General Sir Richard Dannatt  has spoken up on the Scottish referendum, and what he has to say is deeply disgraceful:

Scottish soldiers have fought over several centuries and in so many campaigns to preserve the territorial integrity of their country from external threat, but in the Northern Ireland campaign more recently, they fought against internal threat, but what about today? Do the families of Scottish soldiers who lost their lives between 1969 and 2007 to preserve the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom now just say, “Well, it no longer matters”?

Now, interestingly, while he does go on to say “I cannot speak for them”, his essay includes not a single quote from a single one of these Scottish soldiers, living or dead. Putting aside the fact that some of them were probably just looking for steady pay or a certain kind of military camaraderie, I think it is extraordinarily condescending — and disrespectful — to enlist the dead to march in ones political campaign. And it is disgraceful to use the term “internal threat” to cover both the Northern Ireland campaign — where British soldiers battled against a terror campaign that sought to change the constitutional order by force — and the referendum campaign

There were many nationalists in Northern Ireland who themselves wished to dissolve the “territorial integrity” of the United Kingdom, but who also opposed the attempts to do so by force. The fact that General Dannatt cannot perceive a gap between seeking to accomplish political goals by referendum and seeking to accomplish it by force says all you need to know about the military mind at its most brutal.

In fact, as a matter of historical record, even their political masters at the time of the greatest turmoil in Northern Ireland, the government of Edward Heath, doesn’t seem to have been fighting to “preserve the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom”, so much as to prevent Northern Ireland from sinking into full-blown civil war. At least, the cabinet seems to have been willing to entertain the notion of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, but ruled it out when it seemed certain only to exacerbate the chaos and violence.

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