Year Zero



We should not just be concerned about the destruction of ancient sites in Syria (both the country and the historic region) because of the loss of cultural heritage and the archaeological record (although these are bloody good reasons in their own right) but because such cultural vandalism* is a clear and terrifying signal of intent. This is because the desire to utterly eliminate the past is always and inevitably linked to the desire to utterly eliminate all those who do not fit in with the new order. We have seen this before, most frequently due to the actions of Asian Communists, and so we know exactly what to expect: no wonder people flee in their hundreds of thousands.

This is a disturbing subject and I’ve thought about it a lot recently (a matter on which I suspect I am not exactly alone). Where does this impulse – the desire for Year Zero – come from? Why was it so frequently associated with Asian Communism and why has it more recently been associated with some of the more extreme versions of Islamism? It is not enough to suggest that it is an inevitable by-product of Utopianism-via-violence: the Soviet Union committed many and terrible acts of cultural vandalism and political murder in the name of Utopia, but never attempted to eliminate all traces of the past. It is not enough to point to mere iconoclasticism (in fact doing so often reeks of desperation) either. There have to be answers to this, but for now I’m drawing as much of a blank (hah) as everyone else.

*Although the use of this term to describe current events is more than a little unkind on the Vandals…

Why anyone suggesting a possible Grand Coalition in the UK needs their head examined

There has been a lot of very silly speculation in the media and across the internet about possible post-election political wrangling in the UK, much of it predicated on the assumption that as no party can possibly win a majority, another coalition will have to be formed. This assumption is dubious* but my focus is elsewhere. Because an especially silly suggestion has been floating around, and it is one that needs to be shown as the absurdity that it actually is. That suggestion is that Labour and the Tories may decide, in the interests of stability and preserving the Union, to form a coalition. Unless World War Three breaks out between now and May, this idea is complete trash for the following reasons:

1. Both parties loathe and detest each other. Loathe and detest. Maybe not at an individual level, you understand (although even then…), but collectively. As organisations. As institutions. As subcultures. Deep down the Tories believe that Labour are a disgusting rabble of unpatrotic state worshipers, while deep down Labour know that the Tories are the objective class enemy. Labour’s rank and file in particular would regard a grand coalition as nothing other than treason; any Labour leader foolish enough to propose such an arrangement would be immediately castigated as the second coming of Ramsay MacDonald and would likely suffer the political equivalent of a public stoning.

2. And with all of this in mind, note that the Labour Party is nothing if not bureaucratic. It was founded by Trade Unions and operates accordingly. The Rules matter. And on this matter, The Rules are not silent. I will not bore you with the details, other than to suggest that the words ‘Special Conference’ are not unimportant and that Labour’s ordinary members, the backbench of the PLP and also its affiliated Unions would not be irrelevant to proceedings.

3. It must also be noted that even were all of the above not the case, that a grand coalition would not be in the electoral  best interest of either party. Why present to the SNP, UKIP, the Greens, Plaid, and Lord knows who else such a yawningly open goal? Why allow the LibDems such a felicitous opportunity to recover?

4. It would be a bugger to run anyway. Given that Labour and the Tories represent such fundamentally different interest groups, matters would quickly turn into the stuff of nightmares. Even setting a budget would be difficult. There would also be an epidemic of splinter groups and defections. The monstrously high government majority (we would likely be dealing with a government with around 80% of seats in the House of Commons) would be a positive invitation for rebellion, and it is likely that party discipline would crumble within a few years.

5. Finally, it is hard not to notice that much of the justification for this absurd suggestion is based on pointing abroad (particularly to Germany) and observing that grand coalitions seem to work out alright there,** thus surely they would in Britain. Given that different countries have different political cultures this ‘justification’ is entirely ridiculous. As a general rule, grand coalitions are only seen in political cultures with a marked bias towards consensus (this is why they are the norm in Austria and not uncommon in Germany), or in political cultures that are notably fractured (and this is why they are quite common in Israel and the Netherlands). As you might expect given the first observation, they are essentially non-existent wherever the Westminster system has been adopted. Note, for instance, that between the 1996 and 2014 elections India had a long series of extremely fragmented parliaments, yet a coalition between the BJP and Congress was never seriously entertained. It may also be useful to observe that the idea of a grand coalition tends (I must stress that word) to be less toxic when questions of class are not absolutely paramount to political competition between the two parties in question.

*Not only because minority governments not exactly uncommon in British political history (some have even managed to be comparatively functional), but also as there is no reason to assume that the Commons will not have a single party majority after the election. People forget, for instance, that in England alone Labour won a majority of seats in 2005 despite polling fewer votes than the Conservatives. There is also the cautionary tale of the last General Election in India to consider: no party had won a majority of seats in the Lok Sabha for thirty years, and so it was widely (and quite understandably) assumed that the fragmentation of Indian political life since then made a single party majority impossible. Things did not work out that way.

**There are Germans who would disagree with this, but I digress.

Face to Face

John Freeman, who died yesterday at the ripe old age of ninety nine, was a compellingly strange man – multiple accounts testify to a certain remarkable opacity about him; he was not a man to reveal his true self (whatever that was) even to close colleagues, let alone random strangers. Reading some recollections it is hard not to think of matryoshka dolls – with a career so diverse and so varied as to be actively bizarre. He was sucessively a Labour MP (1945-55 for Watford; he ended up as the last survivor of the 1945 Parliament) and a junior minister in the Attlee government (he resigned along with Bevan and Wilson over the introduction of prescription charges), a television journalist notable above all for his interviews, the editor of The New Statesman, a senior diplomat (first as British High Commissioner in India, then as the British Ambassador in the United States), and then as a television executive at LWT in the 1970s and 1980s. The idealistic Socialist who resigned from the most left-wing government in British history because it was not left-wing enough ended his career as an advocate of free markets and corporate managerialism. There may well be a decent film script to be made from that.

I would argue (and this is hardly a controversial opinion) that his primary legacy (so much else was but a reflection – in a well polished surface it shold be acknowledged- of whatever else was going on at the time) are the interviews that he conducted for the BBC programme Face to Face in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Many of them are on YouTube and all are worth watching, even if they do not always make for easy viewing. For while Freeman was himself as opaque and impenetrable as obsidian, he had a knack of getting into the heads of others. The results could sometimes be disturbing to witness; most famously in the case of his interview with Tony Hancock:

Infinitely less disturbing is his interview with Carl Jung, which is a thing of surreal and beguiling charm and thus a good note on which to conclude:

À partir d’aujourd’hui, demain nous appartient

“À partir d’aujourd’hui, demain nous appartient”

A somewhat malicious translation of this most famous of Quebec nationalist songs would be ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’. This rather unfortunate title reflects the youth of the movement for an independent Quebec in its early years and the belief that each new generation would be more inclined to support independence than the last. Moreover, these new generations of nationalists would be replacing elderly voters largely hostile to Souverainism. Nearly four decades (and two referendums) later, this optimistic (complacent?) title looks ironic. Quebec’s younger voters – who grew up and came to maturity in the era of the Neverendum – are notably unenthusiastic about separatism, and in recent years the nationalist movement has suffered a series of humiliating defeats in both federal and provincial elections. Generational and cohort politics are more complex – and far less predictable – than is sometimes appreciated. The lazy belief of the Quebec nationalists that all they had to do was wait until all the old people were dead and ultimate victory would be theirs is responsible to a considerable extent for the bedraggled state of the movement today.

Obvious observation

Time is a strange thing sometimes. To those of us south of the Tweed the Scottish referendum already feels curiously distant; no longer a thing of the now, but a part of the recent past. Presumably this would not have been the case had the result gone the other way. Further reflection is likely, but for now I will just make an extremely obvious point (though, like most obvious points, it has not really been picked up on much in the media).

Below, I have listed the ‘No’ percentage for all Scottish local authorities in descending order and have bolded those that deviated from the overall result by more than 10pts (in either direction)…

Orkney – 67.2
Scottish Borders – 66.6
Dumfries & Galloway – 65.7
Shetland – 63.7
East Renfrewshire – 63.2
East Lothian – 61.7
East Dunbartonshire – 61.2
Edinburgh – 61.1
Aberdeenshire – 60.4
Perth & Kinross – 60.2
Stirling – 59.8
Aberdeen – 58.6
Argyll & Bute – 58.5
South Ayrshire – 57.9
Moray – 57.6
Angus – 56.3
Midlothian – 56.3
Fife – 55.1
South Lanarkshire – 54.7
Clackmannanshire – 53.8
Falkirk – 53.5
Na h-Eileanan Siar – 53.4
Highlands – 52.9
Renfrewshire – 52.8
East Ayrshire – 52.8
North Ayrshire – 51.0
Inverclyde – 50.1
North Lanarkshire – 48.9
Glasgow – 46.5
West Dunbartonshire – 46.0
Dundee – 42.7

Just four local authorities in bold then; Dundee for Yes (a city with a consistently strong SNP presence since the 1970s and with a vanishingly small Conservative vote), and for No; the two Border authorities (somewhat self-explanatory) and Orkney (also no shock; Orcadian suspicion of even devolution is a long established phenomenon). Comparisons with Quebec were made throughout the campaign, but the levels of geographical (and social) polarisation seen in the two (actually Quebec had two, but let’s ignore that) referendums could not be more different.