We are once again children of the nuclear age

In 1983, two years before I was born, Margaret Thatcher made the following comment in a Conservative Party election broadcast:

We are the parents and the children of the nuclear age. We may not welcome it, we may fear it, we may even be haunted by it, but pretending it doesn’t exist is not a solution.

For my parent’s generation, this statement would have been a commonsense statement of fact. To deny it would have seemed preposterous. And yet, for the generation I grew up in, fears of nuclear war seemed to have been left behind. It seemed like a relic from the Cold War. The world had moved on and the thought of nuclear armageddon no longer haunted us in quite the same way.

If we ever discussed nuclear weapons and the possibility of nuclear war it felt like an old debate that had already been resolved. Nuclear deterrence – the idea that the only purpose of nuclear weapons was to ensure that nobody would be mad enough to use them – had won the debate. We came very close to nuclear war on several occasions (more than I had realised, actually) but crisis was always averted by the fear that these weapons instill in us.

Some argue that the problem is one of political generations. For those growing up in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the horror of these weapons was very real and very evident, but, as Paul Mason argues in The Guardian today, this isn’t the case with the leaders of today’s world:

I don’t wish to alarm you, but right now the majority of the world’s nuclear warheads are in the hands of men for whom the idea of using them is becoming thinkable.

For Kim Jong-un, it’s thinkable; for Vladimir Putin, it’s so thinkable that every major Russian wargame ends with a “nuclear de-escalation” phase: that is, drop one and offer peace. On 22 December last year, Trump and Putin announced, almost simultaneously, that they were going to expand their nuclear arsenals and update the technology.

I remain convinced that no sane political leader would ever intentionally launch a nuclear weapon. and I’m also convinced that most wouldn’t retaliate to an attack, because they would realise – and so would their military advisers – that a nuclear confrontation between superpowers would spell the end of everything.

The real, and far more terrifying,  risk is that one of these weapons goes off accidentally; which – as I mention  above – has happened on far more occasions than I care to think about. To illustrate the point I will use just one example from October 5th 1960, where two atomic bombs were accidentally dropped from a plane after the bomber’s wing fell off. Whilst one fell safely to the ground, the other bomb almost detonated after 5 of 6 safety devices failed, prompting the then Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara to say:

By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.

We are once again children of the nuclear age.

Britain in 2020: A horror story.

By the end of the decade some of the most vulnerable groups in society will be up to £4,000 a year worse off, 200,000 more children will be in poverty, and inequality will have risen faster than at any point since the late 80s. After 10 years of Tory-led government real wages will still be below their level in 2007-8. Having gambled on an EU referendum to keep the Conservative Party together, Britain will most-likely have crashed out of the EU, resulting in trade barriers between the UK and a market that accounts  for 44% of all UK exports. The NHS will be in crisis after a decade of under-funding and class sizes in UK schools will have returned to levels not seen since the the 1990s.

With Labour still languishing under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, the Tories will have an easy election campaign, resulting in an increased majority. With the SNP still in power in Scotland, and with a renewed mandate north of the border, the calls for a fresh independence referendum will be deafening. Meanwhile, in the Labour Party, the in-fighting over what to do next will threaten to split the party in two, but the shock of the election defeat will force party members to ask some difficult questions about how to win power. Despite the parlous state of Britain, Labour will still have a mountain to climb, and the most likely scenario is another decade in the wilderness for Labour and a nightmare that doesn’t end until 2030.

Trump simply hasn’t a clue what he is doing.

With Trump’s ascent to power I felt that I had gone through all of the stages of grief. First came denial, where I confidently assured myself that his ascent to the nomination, and to the Presidency, was impossible. Then came anger, most of which was directed at those insular enough – and stupid enough – to have voted for him. Then came loss, despair, and depression at the outcome – and shock – which left me stunned for weeks and months afterwards.

The solace I found  came after a conversation with a colleague, who reminded me of the separation of powers that applies to all Presidents. This separation of powers forced Nixon out of office following Watergate, forced Roosevelt to threaten to pack the Supreme Court with supporters after they ruled against him on the New Deal, and suspended Trump’s travel ban days after it came into force.

But this solace assumed that Trump was a demagogue with a nefarious plan to overturn the liberal political order. A plan that could be resisted with concerted political action from those, like myself, who see him as a threat to everything we hold dear.

But this evening it struck me that it is just possible that Trump is far worse than I had suspected. Because, this evening, during a joint press conference with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump made it abundantly clear that he simply hasn’t got the slightest idea what he is doing.

In a statement to the press, in full view of the world’s media, he overturned centuries of American foreign policy, without the slightest understanding of what he was doing or saying, when he said this of the Middle East peace process:

I am looking at the two state, and one state, I like the one that both parties like. I can live with either one.

In this simple statement he made it abundantly clear that he has no idea what a credible deal to this intractable problem would look like, because no deal that could satisfy both sides would preclude the possibility of a two-state solution. A solution that was proposed by the United Nations as one of its first acts, and which has been the basis of negotiation ever since.

The other, perhaps more frightening possibility, is that he does understand what he is doing in siding with Israel, who may well now take the opportunity offered by Trump to impose a one-state solution on the Palestinians, assured that they won’t face opposition from the leader of the free world.

These are troubling times indeed.

The only way back to power for Labour is for them to challenge the populist narrative of the right.

In just over a week there will be a by-election in Stoke-on-Trent in a seat that has elected a Labour member of Parliament since it was created in 1950. At the last election, in this majority working class seat, UKIP surged to 22.7% of the vote, a swing of 9.4% from Labour to the UK Independence Party.

During normal times this by-election would  not even make the news, but 2016 was an extraordinary time in UK politics and there is a feeling that a shift is under way that could see Labour’s hold on seats like this challenged by parties offering a populist anti-immigrant narrative. Just this week, YouGov polling came out that suggests that the Labour Party are now the third choice party for working class voters, behind the Conservative Party and the UK Independence Party; an astonishing snapshot of sentiment that would totally reverse the position of Labour in its heartlands.

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It seems clear to me, and other moderates in the Labour Party, that is simply not possible for the Labour Party to appeal to Guardian-reading metropolitan liberals (such as myself) whilst also appealing to their core working-class vote. If they move to the right, and embrace a tougher stance on immigration, they will lose metropolitan liberals to the Liberal Democrats. If they remain on the left, they will see a gradual ebbing away of support from their core vote to UKIP and the Tories.

What is frustrating about the above is that the Labour Party should be making gains from the Conservative Party in by-elections like this, especially when the headlines are dominated by a funding crisis in the NHS and when the Best British Film BAFTA went to a film by Ken Loach that skewers the government for its heartless approach to disability living allowance and welfare recipients.

The road back to government for Labour is going to be a long one, especially given the fact that 2015 saw them lose 40 seats to the SNP in Scotland. But, it starts by facing a difficult dilemma over the future direction of the party. If the Labour Party is to stay true to itself it must tell a convincing narrative about the injustices faced by those at the bottom of society that places the blame where it belongs – with the government. The reason Ken Loach’s film has been so popular is that it tells a story that resonates with people, because they can relate to how difficult life is for all of us at the moment, but especially for those whose lives are affected by the arbitrary decisions made by an uncaring bureaucracy.

At a time when economists are expecting inflationary pressure to lower people’s standards of living, Labour needs to be there to challenge the populist narrative of the right. Immigration is not to blame for the difficulties people face in their lives, but when people are suffering it is understandable that they are willing to accept the easy answers offered by UKIP and the right-wing press. The only way forward is to keep challenging this narrative by focusing on the everyday suffering imposed on people by the choices made by this government.

Arendt, Schmitt, Trump – some muddled thoughts on our current historical moment.

In his first 100 days in office Franklin D. Roosevelt stabalised the banking system, took the United States out of the Gold Standard, repealed prohibition and set in train a public works programme that was to form the basis of the New Deal; a policy programme that would lift America out of the biggest depression it had ever experienced. Roosevelt’s success is perhaps why we pay so much attention to a President’s first 100 days in office. If successful, the first 100 days can define a President’s administration, setting the tone for the rest of their time in office; if they fail, it often does not auger well.

Donald Trump hasn’t been in power for 100 days, but his first 14 days in office have confirmed what many feared during one of the most unusual election campaigns in American history. Instead of recalling Congress (as Roosevelt did) to enact an unprecedented number of laws, Trump instead attempted to used Executive Orders to govern without consulting Congress. Although popular with the public, his most high profile order (immediately banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries) was an arbitrary act, which led, amongst other things, to the detention and handcuffing of a 5 year-old boy for several hours.

This attempt, to govern by fiat, was always going to be challenged by the courts, especially when the ban is so discriminatory and illiberal. Perhaps this is exactly what Trump wanted. After all, his supporters will almost certainly wail in appreciation as Trump continues to rail against the ‘establishment’ judges who have blocked this measure. Perhaps Trump saw the reaction of prominent British newspapers when the Supreme Court in the UK had the gall to challenge the Prime Minister, when she attempted to trigger Article 50 without consulting Parliament. In both cases, the reaction is a horrifying challenge to normal constitutional politics in a well-functioning democracy. In one case, Trump railed against the ‘so-called’ Judge who had the temerity to challenge him; in the other, the judges were described as ‘enemies of the people’ for daring to carry out their designated role in a free society.

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Two German political philosophers are instructive in trying to understand what is going on at the moment, not just in Trump’s America, but also (perhaps) in Brexit Britain.

Hannah Arendt is a German-Jewish political philosopher, who was forced to flee from Europe in 1941 as Jewish people started to be rounded up by the Nazis as part of the final solution. In her work, she argues that a certain sort of evil attaches to the thoughtlessness of Nazis like Adolf Eichmann, whose failure to to take moral responsibility for their actions is described by her as “the banality of evil”. In The Human Condition she argues that what is to blame for this thoughtlessness is a growing encroachment of economics into our lives, so that we cease to function as political animals, but exist instead as mere economic actors who see everything as a means to an end. She argues that this type of instrumental reasoning, and the erosion of public life that goes with it, eviscerates our capacity for action.

Carl Schmitt was a German Jurist and Political Theorist, who in his later years, became known as The Crown Jurist of the Third Reich. His major contribution to Political Philosophy came in his 1932 work The Concept of the Political, where Schmitt argues that the problem with liberalism is that it entails endless discussion and debate, which precludes decisive decisions. For him, this is the antithesis of politics, because politics, by its very nature, creates a division between friend and enemy. He argues that the role of a sovereign is to step in during periods of crisis to enact decisions using emergency powers.

These two political theorists were both thinking and writing at the same time, and their insights are telling. If Arendt were alive now, she might look at the election of Donald Trump and see it as a failure of people to take moral responsibility for their thoughts and deeds – a failure to properly take action in the world. Schmitt, by contrast, would see Trump’s recent executive actions as examples of the sovereign dealing with an emergency by making decisions that pit friends against enemies.

If there is any truth in the above then the current historical moment may be a very dangerous one, because whilst Trump behaves as a Schmittian sovereign, parts of American society seem to be characterised by the same thoughtlessness that Arendt saw in Eichmann and in many Germans who failed to take responsibility and political action when the Nazis took power.

The most important remedy to the current historical moment is for us to recognise in ourselves our own capacity to take action in the world. For Arendt, this involves thinking deeply about our moral responsibilities, discussing politics with others, and taking action in the world that we can justify to ourselves. This, I think, challenges all to snap out of the paralysis that the shock of someone like Trump can engenders in us, and take action. To do otherwise is to fail to meet the responsibility of the current moment – and the consequences of that can be very dire indeed.

An easy passage to victory for Hillary and a difficult one for Trump

I argued in a previous blog post that the election was as good as over because the path to victory for Trump made it extremely unlikely that he could win. Since then, the polls have narrowed, but the fundamental logic of what I argued hasn’t changed. In order to win, Hillary needs to win all of the states currently leaning towards the Democrats plus one swing state. She is currently clearly ahead in states that would give her 268 electoral votes, which is just two electoral votes short of victory.

For Trump, the path to victory is much more difficult, because he needs to hang on to all of the states leaning to the Republicans and he then needs to win in all of the states currently regarded as toss-ups. This would give him 272 electoral college votes, with a win in New Hampshire pushing him over the top.

According to Nate Silver, the reason for the high degree of uncertainty in his model is that 13% of the US electorate are currently undecided, compared to just 3% in 2012, which means that if these undecideds break unevenly for Trump he could still secure a narrow electoral college victory. There is also the possibility that something is systematically wrong in the polling, such as the existence of ‘shy Trump’ voters, who won’t admit to voting for Trump to pollsters, but will vote for him anyway on election day.

Some very good news for Clinton is that early voting data in Nevada shows her outperforming her polls, which means that we have solid evidence that Clinton is beating expectations in this key battle-ground state. If this state falls into the Clinton column, this would mean that Trump would have to win in one of Clinton’s ‘firewall’ states (e.g. Colorado, Pennsylvania) to secure an electoral college victory; a very difficult task! There is also some early polling data in from North Carolina, showing Clinton ahead in another ‘must win’ state for Trump, and early voting in Florida also shows Clinton ahead, but not by as much Obama was at this point in 2012.

If you are stopping up to watch the election in the UK and you are rooting for a Clinton victory the earliest indication will be in states like Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Ohio. If Trump loses any of these states his path to victory becomes much more difficult and you can probably head to bed. If he wins in all of these states it’s going to be a long night, because this election will then depend upon results that come in much later, with a victory for Clinton in Nevada becoming critical for her to hold on to a slim electoral college victory.

Early voting will also give a strong indication of whether we are heading for a major upset for Clinton. If Trump wins in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota or Michigan we will be heading towards the most unlikely election night in American history and it will be time to pour yourself a stiff drink. In this very unlikely scenario, something has gone badly wrong with the polling and Trump is heading for a convincing victory over Clinton.

As I said previously, whatever happens in this election, the fact that Trump can come this close to the presidency is a sad indictment of the polarisation of American politics. As indicated below, American politics is now increasingly divided between the right and left, with many people surrounding themselves in a social media ‘echo chamber’ where they never interact with those with the opposite view.

The task for Clinton, if and when she wins, will be to unite the nation around the centre ground of politics, healing the divisions thrown up by this bitterly divisive election. The sad fact is that, in the current political climate, this task may be next to impossible.