Some thoughts on the failure of the Sinn Féin-DUP deal

Here are some brief thoughts on the failure of the Sìnn Fein-DUP deal yesterday. At every stage of this process Sinn Féin have driven the agenda. At every stage the DUP have played into their hands. Sìnn Fein collapsed the Assembly and have set terms for agreement that Unionists would find it very difficult to agree.

1. It is partly a function of the limited devolution allowed in the nations of the UK. The job of any NI Executive would have been the administration of London-imposed austerity. It’s easy to understand why Sinn Féin were unenthusiastic about this.

Theresa May’s call for a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ compounded Sìnn Fein’s antipathy to her government. Brexit looks very much like an attempt to reinvigorate exactly the British Imperial sentiments that repel Irish republicans.

2. Brexit brings the prospect of a united Ireland back onto the table in a serious way. There are only 3 solutions to the Irish border problem. Ireland leaving the EU and joining the UK – which (despite the DUP’s fantasies) can’t and won’t happen. Brexit failing – which might happen. And Irish reunification.

With Sinn Féin sensing the possibilities for a united Ireland they hold the whip hand in any negotiation.

This is why they’ve played so hard on marriage equality and the Irish language. The worst they could hope for was a humiliation of the DUP.

3. The imposition of direct rule from Westminster on the north of Ireland will trigger a great deal of pressure on the Irish government to defend minority interests in the north. With a veto over any deal for the UK over Brexit this is a perilous position for unionists.

It seems likely the Irish government will ask for joint authority. With the UK government’s capacity to actually govern deeply impaired by Brexit this may mean a gradual absorption of the north into an Irish political system and demos. This is the republican strategy and gets to a united Ireland without the need for a border poll.

4. This is an almost inevitable outcome of the Northern Irish electorate’s decision to polarise politics. Both unionists and nationalists gambled that they would win the peace – having concluded that they couldn’t win the war.

The era that started with the Civil Rights movement and ended with the power-sharing agreement had no clear winner. Both sides felt they had lost. This meant the political centre was ripped apart. The more moderate Ulster Unionist party and SDLP lost out to the DUP and Sinn Féin. That was a gamble for each side.

It looks like a gamble the unionists have lost.


How hard Brexit will play out

Today’s announcement that the UK will leave the EU Customs Union begins to crystallise the reality that will face us after Brexit.

Of course, there’s a real possibility that the contradictions with the agreement reached over the Irish border and the chaotic approach to Brexit will mean the UK doesn’t leave.

The aim of the right-wing Brexiters has always been to use Brexit to force a total renegotiation of the role of the state. That renegotiation will mean the removal of almost all protections for workers, for the environment and from corporate tyranny. Our society will become one run by a wealthy elite for their own enrichment.

There are other possible Brexit scenarios, but while the Tories remain in power, this will be the reality. Once we move from the ‘Goldilocks period’ of customs union access and an export-competitive currency onto WTO terms to trade with the rest of the world, there will be an immediate crash in our economy. Tariffs on exports will mean UK goods and services are undesirable, the tax receipts from manufacturing the City of London will collapse and there will be a crisis.

It is telling that at a time when UK goods are cheaper than in decades, and with single market access, there has been little rise in manufacturing exports to the rest of the EU.

Because trade deals can’t be negotiated quickly, the period between leaving the single market and having any trade deals in place will be used to asset strip the UK, and put the country in a position where it is desperate for access to other markets. This will mean any trade deal comes with the requirement to meet the lowest possible standards for workers, consumers and the environment.

The response could be a reorientation of the UK economy to meet domestic needs, while trade deals are negotiated. But it is more likely that the response will be the abolition of all working-age benefits, curtailment of pensioner benefits and a fire-sale of the remaining public assets. The NHS will be privatised, and become a fee-charging service. Schools will become a paid-for service, and charging will be introduced for all previously public services.

In order to rebuild the economy, all consumer protections will be removed, Trade Unions will be banned, and all workers rights repealed. The only way the UK will be able to compete internationally will be to remove all vestiges of a civilised society and effectively enslave the population. This is what the right Brexiters have always wanted.

Everyone with access to citizenship of other countries will leave the country.

It’s a nightmare scenario – but a Tory government that has always wanted to immiserate the population, and a scenario that makes this the easiest path, it seems inevitable that this is how Brexit will materialise.

Zimbabwe: the securocrat, not the kleptocrat

Over the past 3 months, the power struggle within Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party has come to a head. On one hand. there was long-time lieutenant of Robert Mugabe, Emerson Mnangagwa, who has been vice-president since late 2014. On the other was Robert Mugabe’s second wife, and the mother of his living children, Grace Mugabe.

With Robert Mugabe approaching his 94th birthday and needing to go regularly to Singapore for medical treatment it was clear that this struggle couldn’t run for much longer. Since the poisoning of Mnangagwa at a ZANU-PF youth rally in August, it’s been clear that the end was near. On the 6th November Mugabe fired Mnangagwa. who fled the country. It looked like Grace had won.

On Monday the 13th November the head of the military Constantine Chiwenga (thought to be a long-term Mnangagwa ally) gave a press conference against Mugabe’s orders. He said that the military would act to stop a purge of veterans of the liberation struggle from the government. Last night the military put Mugabe under house arrest, while claiming that it wasn’t a coup. Mnangagwa re-entered the country.

It now seems that the succession in Zimbabwe will have Emmerson Mnangagwa become the next President, possibly initially as a de facto leader, but after next years election, almost certainly as President. I am assuming that ZANU=PF, the party from which Mnangagwa was recently expelled

This is a bad thing. From the massacre in Matabeleland in the 1980s (the Gukurahundi) to the economic collapse of the late 2000s, Mnangagwa has been at the heart of everything that has gone wrong with post-liberation Zimbabwe.
It is, though, a relief that this situation appears to have come to a head. The uncertainty has been catastrophic, and that damage multiplies the longer the uncertainty continues.

From the suspicious death of Josiah Tongogara in 1979 to the equally suspicious death of Solomon Mujuru in 2011 challengers to both Robert Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa have often ended up dead. It’s not clear whether their deaths were murder, and if they were if it was Mugabe or Mnangagwa that ordered them.

But there was a thing that would have been worse than a Mnangagwa ascendency and that would have been the only realistic alternative: Grace Mugabe.

Where Mnangagwa is a securocrat, Grace Mugabe is a kleptocrat. It was clear that the state would move, under Grace, into a phase of unprecedented looting.
The military, the South Africans and the Chinese obviously decided that they couldn’t countenance a Grace presidency.

What we can hope is that Mnangagwa’s experience gives him an appreciation of the need for a focus on development and a consensus about the importance of investment in basic human services in Zimbabwe. We must hope that Mnangagwa’s experiences of the end of Mugabe’s time open him to such an approach.

I’m apprehensive about the future, but that apprehension is tinged with relief that it seems Grace Mugabe won’t become President. I hope the next chapter can be a better one for Zimbabwe.

The end of a long-running succession battle within ZANU-PF should resolve the uncertainty that has haunted Zimbabwe since the early 2000s. The question is what comes next?

#IndyRef 3 years on: another world is possible

Three years on from the independence referendum, politics is moving ever faster. In looking back we must look forward.

“In some decades nothing happens, in some weeks decades happen.”

It feels like we’re living in a decade of weeks in which decades happen. Political change keeps accelerating – from the student protests in 2010 to the ongoing mess the UK government is making of Brexit. 

There’s much to regret in this. It’s been a decade of right-wing rule in the UK, people’s lives have been very badly damaged by austerity, the NHS in England is close to collapse, and the ongoing attack on immigrants is a political stain.

But the 2014 Scottish independence referendum stands apart from this. It was here that the left began to learn how to win. The issue of independence isn’t one that is necessarily of the left. For much of the campaign opponents of independence tried to characterise it as a right-wing cause. That characterisation didn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and the reason behind that is what was so invigorating about the campaign. We believed that another Scotland was possible.

For the first time in my political lifetime ideas had the space to breathe on the left. We weren’t campaigning to have ‘our people’ cut taxes, remove regulations and privatise things, rather than letting ‘their people’ do it. We moved from opposing austerity to building support for alternatives.

Ideas that had been fringe and underappreciated gained new currency. We talked about the opportunities for a Citizen’s Basic Income, for a Land Value Tax, for a profoundly different type of government. People became engaged in a popular debate about the benefits of a Scottish currency.

Through 2 years of public meetings we moved from a triangulated set of proposals to tweak the post-Thatcherite consensus of British politics to a lively carnival of ideas. This was the first time I’d seen movement politics truly manifested. The old, neoliberal politics was knocked sideways. There were repeated calls to stop such debate, because it was distasteful.

And that way of doing politics hasn’t died. The ideas popularised through the referendum have worked their way into the latest Scottish Government “Programme for Government.” The Women for Independence campaign against a new national women’s prison quickly secured victory. The work of organisations like Common Weal has put a National Investment Bank on the agenda. But most of all, it created a new way of doing politics: exciting, progressive, idea-rich and transformative for society.

Armed with more access to information than ever before, with a combination of online and offline meetings, and faced with a ruling hegemony deep in crisis this way of doing politics may change the 21st century as the pamphleteers changed the 17th century, or trade unions changed the 20th century.

Of course many people found this difficult. The neoliberal consensus came with a comforting disdain for debate, disagreement and discussion. Learning to do politics again can mean people take their passions too far. The answer was not to exclude debate, it was to find ways to channel those passions constructively. During the campaign that was, I think, a success.

It’s hard not to see echoes of this movement-politics in the campaign to elect Bernie Sanders and in the Corbyn movement. It is far from perfect, but if we are to create a better world democratically we need to learn from this unforgettable political moment. With more access to communication tools at lower cost than ever before, the weeks in which decades happen will come more and more frequently. Popular movements can help harness those decisive moments for progressive change. It’s not just another Scotland that is possible. Another world is possible.

Neoliberalism began on the 11th of September. Now it’s time to end it.

People love stories that have a beginning, a middle and an ending. On this day, the 11th of September, in 1973 the CIA backed a coup that overthrew the democratically elected Popular Unity government of Chile.
It wasn’t new for the US to overthrow governments in what it saw as its ‘sphere of influence’ – in which it wished to prevent the election of leftist governments. Chile had one such government. It had a manifesto to tackle inequality through agrarian reform and by nationalising industries.
This was intolerable to the US government who backed a coup. The coup was bloody and brought a military dictator, Augusto Pinochet to power. His notoriously murderous regime governed well into the 1980s.
But the story that begins here isn’t that of US imperialism. It’s the story of neoliberalism. For the first time, the US government provided Chicago University trained economic advisors to a country who pursued a policy programme of privatising state monopolies, introducing the market into previously social relationships, removing protections from workers, driving down wages, reducing social security and allowing vast accumulation of riches by the wealthy.
For all that the state was a dictatorship, the neoliberal ideologues claimed it was a democracy because the market determined more and more of how society worked.
This way of working came to dominate Chile, and after the fall of the Soviet Union, it came to dominate the world. For a decade neoliberalism came to be the way the world worked. Progress meant privatisation, removal of social and environmental protections and the introduction of the market to places where it doesn’t belong: health, education and social protection.
And the more the wealthy accumulated money, the more they sought new places to make money. They captured governments. The market extended its tentacles ever further. Innovation became harnessed by big finance. Politics became a choice between different approaches to managing the exhaust fumes of the free market, in which new ideas all too often suffocated.
The middle of this story also starts on the 11th of September. In 2001 the well-documented attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. This attack was carried out by a terror group based in Afghanistan. The US again toppled a regime. But with a President backed heavily by the interests of the oil industry, Afghanistan was only a prelude.
In 2003 the US, backed by the UK, invaded Iraq. And the invasion of Iraq marked the peak of neoliberal power. It was an utter failure, bought at the expense of authority and trust in government. When, in 2008, the financialised world economy suffered a shuddering credit crunch, neoliberalism’s decline began.
Everything that has happened since then has been a symptom of neoliberalism’s crisis. The old certainties have melted into air. Establishment politicians have been beaten by insurgents in election-after-election. Space has opened for new ideas and new politics.
The end of this story is yet to come. But it will surely come soon. As Salvador Allende, the Chilean President killed by the CIA, famously said: “history is ours and history is made by the people.” Neoliberalism will be finally overthrown, and we will overthrow it.

History is back

In the last week Scottish politics has had a shock and a surprise. Kezia Dugdale’s resignation came as a shock to most. In the timing at least. And the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government is a (pleasant) surprise.

Both are results of the June General Election.

Both have one thing in common – they mark the end of centrism and triangulation in Scottish politics. At least for the present. A centrist leader of the Scottish Labour Party simply saw her party leave her. Far from her prediction that a move to the left would leave the party ‘carping from the sidelines’, the June election showed that a radical programme could profoundly change the debate.

The shock created by Labour’s success was all the greater because that success was based on a very political, ideological manifesto. That Labour was able to overcome an almost unprecedented set of barriers made the shock even more significant. The Labour Party wasn’t just profoundly split. It faced an almost entirely hostile media, a leader who started the election period with terrible ratings, a muddled position on Brexit and a poor recent track-record in elections.

The decisive moment in transforming this situation came with the launch of the Labour manifesto. The initial media reception was one of (metaphorical) eye-rolling. But it was popular with the public.

It allowed Labour to deny the Conservatives a majority. Even against the background of Brexit and despite the Conservative move into Labour territory on issues like worker involvement and a play to economic nationalism, they only gained 2 Labour seats in England.

In 1989 Francis Fukuyama wrote a widely cited essay called “The End of History.” His contention was that with the collapse of the USSR only liberal democracy and capitalist economies remained. The right had won the ideological contest of the modern era, and with it, history had ended. This informed a political strategy of appealing to the ‘centre-ground’ – the only place where an election could be won from.

The parties that had behaved according to the rules of the 1990s political universe, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP woefully underperformed expectations. Both thought that having captured the ‘centre ground’ they would reap hundreds of thousands of Labour votes. They didn’t. In Scotland Labour gained because of the manifesto. They did that despite the centrist leanings of their leader.

The iron rule that elections were won from the centre was shown to be wrong. The fundamental claim of centrists was always that their approach gave the best chance of electoral success. This was exposed by the June General Election not just to be wrong, but to be profoundly wrong.

With no prospect of the Labour party moving back to the right and with the removal of the  ideological cudgel that dictated centrism was the only road to electoral success Kezia Dugdale saw the writing on the wall and resigned.

Which brings us to the SNP. With the evidence that the centrist approach didn’t work, outflanked by Corbyn in the UK and the Greens in Scotland, they are trying a new approach.

The programme for government is bold (at least in the range of consultations). It contains policies considered too radical even for Green manifestos in the past. It marks an end to the Scottish Government’s safety first centrism.

History is no longer at an end. Ideology is back. And politics will be much the better for it.

It is time for Civil Society to seize the opportunities technology offers to transform society

I wrote this for the Independent Inquiry into Civil Society Futures, and it first appeared on their blog here

In the late 19th century, as the industrial revolution came to maturity, an extraordinary system emerged to address the health needs of industrial workers. In Tredegar, south Wales, a hospital sick pay and insurance system was so effective that Nye Bevan took it as the model for the NHS.

Scotland became the first society in the world to have mass literacy as a result of the Church of Scotland’s universal parish school system, created by order of the Privy Council in 1616. The Carnegie Fund for the Universities of Scotland meant that this extended to higher education in the early 20th century. The slightly hyperbolic claim that Scots invented the modern world has its basis in a string of inventions, from the pneumatic tyre to television, that emerged organically from a society that was better educated than any other.

Just as the Tredegar medical model was the prototype for the NHS at its creation in the 1940s, the Scottish Parish schools were signed over wholesale to the state in the 1870s, forming the basis of the Scottish education system.

Civil society, the voluntary sector, and public institutions outside government have created the conditions within which we are born, educated and die. As the world changed, so government took on many of these functions. But it was not government that pioneered social change during the industrial revolution and the 20th century.

And on the cusp of a new industrial revolution, it is disappointing that it’s difficult to point to similar innovation from civil society. As we reach a digital frontier there are few examples of institutional civil society using the new tools to transform the world in the way universal education or free health did in previous eras. There are some examples, and Nesta has been bringing together some of the best through itsDigital Social Innovation programme. Possibly most notable is Cancer Research UK’s crowdsourcing of cancer data analysis through its Citizen Science programme.

This matters because the ideological underpinning of much of digital innovation is totally at odds with the values of civil society. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have usefully characterised this as the Californian Ideology – a mix of individualism, techno-utopianism, libertarianism and neoliberalism. In his film “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”, Adam Curtis points to the links between Silicon Valley capitalism and Ayn Rand’s ultra-libertarianism. So far, so far away from the communitarian and liberal aims of most civil society organisations. And that is reflected in the ‘real world’ manifestations of digital society – companies like Airbnb and Uber, who have business models that are a long way from those of civil society organisations and their attempts to build a fairer world.

There are a few examples of older not-for-profit organisations really reinventing how they do things in the context of modern tech: if we count Universities as Civil Society, then we we could look to how Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may be the foundation of tertiary education in future. The Guardian, which is run by a not-for-profit trust, has also been at the forefront of digital development. The BBC iPlayer is also a leading innovation in the digital space.

And there are some significant not-for-profit digital organisations. Wikipedia has perhaps been the most successful, almost totally dominating the encyclopaedia business, and displacing a range of traditional, for-profit, organisations. Mozilla, which produces the Firefox web browser, is another digital leader. It is important to acknowledge that the open source software community operates very much within a civil society model, but while this is both important and has made huge impact, it is the creation of a new community. But these examples all stand out as exceptions. And what is most concerning is the gap created by civil society organisations not grasping the opportunities of the sharing economy.

But it is very difficult to identify any of the civil society actors that have historically used digital innovation, mobile apps and other opportunities to change the way we live our lives. Uber has changed how people travel, Airbnb how they holiday, and Facebook has profoundly reconstituted our social relationships. I would challenge readers to name a single civil society organisation which has made that sort of difference using technology.

This is important because technology offers massive opportunities that align perfectly with the values of civil society. Social networks used to be mediated through civil society. Now they are mediated by Silicon Valley corporations with a somewhat shaky understanding of privacy.

The core values of the internet are very close to the core values of civil society. Universal, free and open access to information, and the ability to connect to people around the world on the basis of shared values and interests are at the heart of the world civil society has always sought to bring into being.

To take a specific example, the voluntary sector came up with the idea for community transport. Using shared non-commercial buses, or private cars to help people get to the shops, hospital appointments or other services is a core activity for many voluntary organisations. It is a life-saver for many older people. But all too often it remains a person sitting at a phone coordinating lifts. Why wasn’t it a community transport provider that prototyped mobile-led lift sharing – rather than leaving it to Uber? Why didn’t the cooperative movement support taxi drivers to create their own app-led service, as the New Economic Foundation and Nesta are now doing in Bradford and Leeds?

I do not have the answers. But I do know that we need to start thinking about this – I suspect that digital ideas are all-too-often dismissed by civil society leaders as being peripheral to core business activities. There are access issues – not everyone has a smartphone – but these issues are receding rapidly as smart technology becomes cheaper. It needs to stop being a barrier to digital service delivery.

It’s interesting that those civil society institutions that have produced digital innovations are those that have financial security. The BBC has the license fee, paid by most viewers, which allowed time and resource to develop iPlayer. Universities have substantial reserves, and the capacity to produce MOOCs on their existing resources. The Guardian invested substantial amounts of its reserves in becoming a leader in online journalism. Voluntary organisations subsisting on donations and year-to-year grant funding from government will find it very much more difficult to be strategic.

If you wanted to organise a meeting about an issue in the past, you would have gone to a civil society organisation. These days, you use social networks. Many of the activities that campaign organisations used to coordinate have been disintermediated by Facebook and other social networks. There are opportunities here. The ease with which millennials used to join Facebook groups has transferred into a new enthusiasm for joining political parties – transforming the outcome of the UK’s 2017 general election on the way.

Leaders in civil society need to be more open to digital ideas. There needs to be investment available for those ideas – investing in the technology to make sure your organisation delivers on its objectives should be a priority. Most importantly, civil society has a vital role to play in shaping the values of a tech-rich society.

Civil society has the creativity, connections, and trust to transform our world. But we need to use the tools that can best achieve that task. And that will require really serious changes – not just in how we approach, appropriate and develop digital technologies, but in how civil society sees its role in the world. Imagine if the world’s dominant social network was committed to civil society values. Imagine if the deployment of civilian drones was to create social value, by transporting organs or blood rather than delivering books and CDs. Just think of the difference a genuine lift-sharing service could make to congestion and air pollution. It is time for the organisations with the position and resources to make these things happen to act.