Clutching at straws

The election of Donald Trump is an unmitigated disaster and every part of me thinks it will  have far reaching and devastating consequences over a wide range of issues. Women’s rights, race relations, the middle east to name but a few and global warming to name the, potentially, most significant. However I am an eternal optimist and I have been trying to think of some positives. There are not many and I may well be clutching at straws however here goes.

First, the respect for the democratic process evidenced by Mrs Clinton and President Obama were exemplary. The call to concede the election, the plea to followers to get behind their new President Elect, and the commitment to do everything to ensure a smooth handover ware all examples of tremendous political discipline. I freely confess I would have struggled. Even Mr Trump responded to the power of the moment and talked with respect about Mrs Clinton, the President and about the process of hand over. All this demonstrates that the notion of democracy remains an element of social capital with significant power and force.

Second, whilst Mr Trump may have been a Republican in name only he clearly now has considerable support from that party which has control of Capitol Hill. It will be difficult to hide behind an argument that says I would have done it if “they”, The Senate and/or the House of Representatives had not stopped me. It also means, if there are Republican Senators who see the benefit of Obama Care but have previously adopted the rhetoric of repeal they are now going to get what they might not want.

Third, many have elected Mr Trump because they think government lacks the expertise of businessmen to run it and the economy. If Mr Trump does bring to bear his business prowess we may get an object lesson in the differences between running a business or household, and running a national economy. “Tightening belts” and “living within means” are great homely soundbites but have little relevance in a discussion about macro economics. (Paul Krugman has written convincingly about this although I accept the argument plays to my prejudice.) He may also find that there are things about political processes people complain about but would not like to lose. Everyone complains about bureaucracy but no one wants planning decisions to be made on the basis of payments, threats or whim. We can hope that his experience helps people see it is a category error to see government and business as in any way analogous.

Perhaps more significantly, Mr Trump has shattered the traditional terms of political debate. By this I do not refer to his propensity to lie or promote illiberal, regressive policies. His answers are not just offensive they are wrong. Its the questions his very election raises that are significant. He has exposed the anger of many ordinary citizens and raised issues of distributional justice which have been absent in any real sense from politics for many years.

He has challenged the left/right continuum. Both sides of this political coin have remained in a mode of political dispute that has become increasingly irrelevant over the past thirty years. He has rocked the complacency of the  major, traditional parties. Unfortunately they are struggling understand the new political agenda and are busy trying to squeeze the new politics into old bottles. It does not and will not fit.

Naomi Wolf on the Today programme this morning talked about the way Mr Trump had thrown into sharp relief the obsolescence of the left right categories. Unwittingly perhaps he has exposed the opposition between on the one hand trade and wealthy elites and on the other hand, the rest of the population.

It would be an incredible irony if Mr Trumps election did what the Democratic Party in the United States and the Labour Party in the United Kingdom failed to do, place the issue of inequality firmly front and centre of the politics of the 21st Century. I might be grasping at straws but one can hope.





“God Help America”

So now we know. Mr Trump is the new President of the United States. There will be many who think that America has taken leave of its senses. That it has committed an enormous act of folly, an act of unparalleled irrationality. In some ways this may be true. But even if this is the case there has been an enormous failure of the political establishment, a failure that is to some extent replicated around much of the West.

Isaiah Berlin distinguishes two types of thinkers. On the one hand is the Fox who knows lots of things, and on the other, the Hedgehog who knows one big, important thing.

Hilary Clinton is like the Fox, she knows a lot of things. Go to her web site and she has a policy on everything. The policies are about the traditional issues of a political campaign, about how to get the economy back on track, how to create jobs, how to improve health care provision and other social welfare elements of the modern state. It is the type of agenda that has dominated politics since World War Two. It is an agenda which at one time would have been familiar to both major parties and their divisions would have been on emphasis. It is about the efficient administration of the state.

To be fare there is some recognition of the anger that her fellow citizens feel about Wall Street; their declining living standards and corporate tax avoiders with promises to extend Dodd-Franks to the shadow banking sector and a crack down on tax inversions and other scams. However, it looked like politics as usual.

Mr Trump on the other hand is like the Hedgehog. His great strength is that he knows one very important thing. He knows that a large number of Americans are hurting, and hurting badly. His knowledge is not the product of careful research and rational analysis. Few people are going to accuse Mr Trump of that.

Mr Trump’s understanding is visceral, not intellectual. He has an instinctive feel for the symptoms of pain of many, many Americans. Pain that has been building for years, indeed decades, as globalisation and technological innovation has stripped the country of well paid middle class and blue collar jobs. Whilst, in parallel with this, wealth in the country has been trickling, and indeed, surging upwards so that an ever smaller group of Americans own an ever greater proportion of its wealth.

The political elite have defended this process on the basis that a rising economic tide lifts all boats. Whilst there may have been some truth in this through the late 1940’s to the mid 70’s when annual growth rates were around 3% and taxation and welfare expenditure grew in tandem, it has been less and less true over the past 30 years or so. The proportion of the national income going to wage earners has declined and, an increasing proportion of that smaller amount has been taken by an elite group of ultra high-income individuals.

The American public have increasingly perceived the political elite of donkeys and elephants as out of touch, defending a system that only seems to benefit the already rich. The credit crunch reinforced this view in spades when the political establishment rushed to the defence of Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. Those on multi-million dollar salaries, who had gambled with other peoples money, and lost, were bailed out by the tax payer and almost without a stumble returned to their high reward culture.

Worse, it looked as if that defence was grounded in self-interest. Millionaire politicians and senior officials who pass through a revolving door from high-ranking public office into well-paid, private board rooms, often of financial institutions, were rescuing the very institutions which they would later obtain spectacularly well paid jobs in. The vast sums of money needed to secure access to this club meant ordinary voters felt more and more that the only log cabin route to the White House was the Aspern ski lodge of the very rich and not for the likes of them.

Mr Trump now sits astride a Tiger. When his empathy for the symptoms is not translated into a cure of the problem, as it most assuredly will not, the question arises of how long he will be able to assuage the anger with what are almost certain to be increasingly irrational initiatives. Socially reactionary initiatives like the criminalisation of abortion and the legitimisation of racial discrimination, inquiries into the affairs of the Clintons, isolationism, increased spending on the military to defend fortress America.

If what America needs, as many think, is a rebalancing of market forces involving a significant shift in the balance of power from a super rich elite towards the majority of the population it is unlikely to come from President Trump. What he will therefore be forced to do is seek out scape-goats for the lack of substantive change, the liberal media, foreigners, neighbours (Mexico), the political establishment, the courts anybody who public anger can be directed at for undermining his project to make America great again.

But worse, when politicians run out of scape-goats at home there is one other way they often attempt to shore up their standing, a foreign adventure. President Trump’s isolationism may have global consequences for trade and growth but it might be infinitely preferable to his engagement outside of the United States.

When America sneezes the world catches a cold. America now has a viral infection which has existential implications for the rest of the world. It is difficult to be optimistic. Even as an atheist I pray God Help America.

Who are the “enemies of the people.”

When I was at university a book was published entitled “The Politics of the Judiciary” by JAG Griffith. It was immediately recognised as a classic work and indeed a new and revised 5th Edition was published in 2010. I though the book was brilliant because it played directly to my prejudices about the judiciary as being a part of the repressive apparatus of the state. Indeed the book does look at where the judiciary are drawn from and it is pretty clear they come from the upper echelons of the British class system.

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-13-51-42A more balanced reading however reveals a complex story about the relationship between the judiciary and politics and particularly between the judiciary and the government of the day. At times judges appear to have acted as tribunes of the people, defending the little man against the might of the state, and at others intent on implementing the repressive spirit of legislation rather than simply the literal meaning of its letter.

What Mr Griffith’s book does is describe in a measured and authoritative way how the law and politics collide. It is an excellent rebuttal of the notion that judges somehow live in Olympian detachment from the affairs of mankind and bring to their deliberations minds free from all prejudice. This is a good thing. Judges, like all members of society are fallible and have all manner of irrational assumptions about the way the world works just like everyone else.

Because of this there are many ways in which the judiciary could be reformed to ensure a wider range of backgrounds and experiences are represented in its ranks, so that the frameworks of reference through which the job of interpreting and developing the law is widened. There are many organisations working at this and some progress has been made. That progress is painfully slow, for example, here we are, well into the 21st Century, and out of 106 High Court Judges in England and Wales, 22 are women. Mind it wasn’t until 1919 that women were allowed to enter the legal profession at all!

All of this is by way of introduction to the main issue. I hope to have indicated that I have moved from a position of seeing judges as lackeys of the bourgeoise state to a slightly more balanced view. One which recognises the legal system is not perfect, however also recognises that society needs an authoritative way of arbitrating the meaning of laws. The English legal system is the way we have all implicitly agreed that should be done. We might not always like the outcome and we may work to overturn the outcome in various ways through the democratic process. However, it is the basis of the rule of law that the judges interpret what the law says.

The judges have not said that Brexit does not mean Brexit. They have simply said that a law which was created by parliament cannot be revoked by plebiscite. Mrs May may be hopping mad that the court has not simply told her whatnews-papers she wants to hear but as Prime Minister she should have led the political condemnation of the attacks on the judiciary by the press. The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, simply had her Department issue a statement which an A Level British Constitution student could have written. Of all people, serving politicians, should support the institutions of liberal democracy not collude in their undermining. And to be clear there is a huge difference between reforming and undermining.

In truth Mrs May should actually be thanking the judges for clarifying the issue now. We are already in one almighty mess created mainly by her party but what would it look like if Article 50 was exercised and then challenged in the courts? We are already destined to spend years trying to negotiate ourselves to a position which will probably be worse than we were in pre June. That aside, what would it be like, and what would it do to the credibility of our political system, if every step of the processes were bedevilled by questions of legality.

I am opposed to Brexit, indeed I hope we can still avoid exit from Europe. However, if the supreme court decides the court of appeal was wrong and Mrs May’s approach to the process is legal I will not be casting the judges as enemies of the people. Democracy is currently under threat, the rule of law is a key part of democracy. Those who suggest the judges are getting in the way of the people are undermining the rule of law. If they were to get their way the road is open the kind of demagoguery we are getting from the United States now with threats to use the legal system to put opponents in prison.

The legal system is imperfect, it does favour the status quo and it is implemented in the main by people from a very small part of society which enjoys many of the benefits of that status quo. But it is what we have at the moment to maintain the rule of law. We undermine its authority and legitimacy at our peril. It is those that collude in this which are the real enemies of the state.