Freedom and Social Democracy

A few months ago Chris Dillow, one of my favourite bloggers, wrote an interesting piece about the death of the idea of freedom on the right. This can be read here. The main points, are, I think, pretty good ones. Ending freedom of movement, the hostile environment for immigrants and regressive policies on criminal justice are all central projects of the British right, and all involve significant restrictions on individual freedom.  Anti-immigration policy is notable in particular, as its ostensive justifications (purported impacts on wages) tend to rely on the tacit assumption that labour markets don't function efficiently and immigrants simply impact the supply of labour, rather than create additional demand for it too (the lump of labour fallacy). Back in the 1980's, the dominant thinkers and politicians of the New Right used to think belief in freedom and belief in the power of the market went hand in had. Now, it seems, in large areas of social and economic policy the right believe in neither. Dillow suggests that the mantle of freedom might be taken up by the left, and concludes by arguing that this is well complimented by an understanding that unequal wealth and power can lead to forms of coercion. It was this understanding that was so central to the emancipatory themes of 19th century left wing thought.

I'd like to add a few thoughts as to why freedom might be an effective focal point for the left and centre left of British politics right now. The first point is it can be a good way of marrying the need to appeal to 'aspiration' with concern for social welfare. A functioning welfare state is not just about alleviating immediate poverty: by providing security and certainty people are more able to make choices about how they lead their lives. If, for example, you lose your job, meagre allowances and pressure from the DWP will likely force you to take the first thing on offer. You might well have better choices if a better level of support allows you to take the time to find something you are actually want to, or take the time to re-skill. The same is equally true for decent maternity and paternity allowances. A decent system of social support can, in a very real sense, be freedom enhancing, as can certain regulations aimed at providing greater job security. Free from insecurity, we can more confidently make better choices about our lives and have greater aspirations.

The second point here is that a focus on the value of the welfare state as freedom enhancing could help address one of the central problems Labour has had electorally under Corbyn. Many supporters of Corbyn have protested against what they see as the unfair depiction of their 2017 and 2019 manifestos as extreme. But this has not been helped by the fact that talking up the 'radicalism' of their platform has been a large part of the appeal of Corbyn amongst supporters. The rehabilitation of the word 'socialist' in particular as a self description is a notable part of this. The problem with the term as used today is for older generations it carries with it the baggage of the Cold War and a collectivist mindset, without even being a particularly useful description of a policy agenda (is anybody seriously advocating collective ownership of the means of production and distribution?) Moving away from this vocabulary and stressing social democratic policies as freedom enhancing might spare the left of these associations.

This focus finally offers a better opportunity for the kind of electoral alliance Labour, or any party of the centre left would need to win power. It could allow them to speak a language more recognisable to liberals, and have a common way of talking about the encroachments on traditional civil liberties and the erosion of constitutional norms resulting from Brexit and pushed by Johnson and the nativist right. It could, unlike Corbynism, effectively make this case, while simultaneously pushing the well evidenced proposition that more equal societies with greater levels of economic security are also freer and more politically stable ones, with a better functioning public sphere.

Abnormal Elections

The post mortem of the election results have, for the most part, focussed on different interpretations as to "why Labour lost", which tends to mean a list of things it did badly.  This is understandable, and not without merit. But there is another way of asking the same question, that while logically no different, tends to produce a different kind of answer. It is "why did Johnson win?". Or, more concretely, what aspects of his campaign may have contributed to his success? The answers to this, I think, are rather unedifying, but important if we value understanding our current predicament. 

The sad truth is that this is an election that shows that disinformation and strongman rhetoric work. Let's think back for the last few months. Johnson tried to temporarily shut down parliament to circumvent his lacking a parliamentary majority. His election campaign included ramping up anti-immigrant rhetoric and pitting people against the institutions of liberal democracy (the 'people' vs parliament). His campaign used crude disinformation techniques, from fake 'fact checking' services to dubious Facebook groups like "Parents' Choice" set up in October to churn out party propaganda. 
This is all, of course, little more than a rehashing of the successful efforts of Vote Leave, whose 'genius' was the trio of promising greater levels of public expenditure on the NHS, clever disinformation campaigns and whipping up anger against outsider groups and those who support them. 

The problem is, on one level, simple to diagnose if difficult to treat. Strongman politics can be popular. The appeal of a strong leader who promises to 'end debate' and overcome the laws and institutions which appear to frustrate 'common sense' is a recurring sickness of modern democracy. Looking beyond the UK, we see it in Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Poland and the USA. Whatever inherent appeal this kind of politics has, it certainly seems to be made worse by periods of economic malaise. Financial crises in particular lend towards a conspiratorial mindset that seems crucial to these movements. Tentative treatments, unfortunately, require being in government. The best remedy may well have been larger fiscal stimuli in the UK and the USA and a more relaxed attitude towards inflation from the ECB. Out of government the conditions of this virulent strain of authoritarian politics cannot be addressed, and once it achieves power it tends to make life for the opposition much more difficult. In the UK this will likely mean compulsory voter ID and greater levels of intimidation from the tabloid press. 

In the UK, there has been a particular reluctance to recognise this for what it is. This is often ascribed to a peculiarly British complacency due to the longevity of its political system and the fact that it did not experience fascism during the second world war or interwar period. But I think part of this is about politics too. Parts of the Labour left were a little too keen to normalise the 2016 referendum as a valid exercise in democracy. You can see why. In part it was a defence of the leadership's absence from the campaign (if you frame explanations of the result in terms of popular opinion, you can downplay the role of the leadership). Part of this is due to the ambivalence of some close to the leadership on the EU. And part of this is just party politics: many in Labour, rightly or wrongly decided that being seen not to 'respect' the referendum result was politically toxic. As a result, those who criticised the leave campaign's conduct, and saw this as crucial to an explanation of the result,  were often dismissed as delusional, self indulgent or downright conspiratorial. This is encapsulated neatly by Owen Jones' remark that in 2018 that "the Remain cause is sabotaged by a small, vocal arrogant clique who treat the referendum result as just mass stupidity and delusion, won through cheating, without understanding the anger that brought it about."

I fear that something similar is going on now from those opposed to Corbyn's leadership, amongst whom I would be included. To be clear, the leadership was not just foolish, but at times ghastly. Its blindness and tolerance for antisemitism was an encapsulation of a greater tendency towards conspiratorial thinking and reducing the world into simplistic, antagonistic relationships that do no justice to the left's rich intellectual tradition. But it would be a great mistake to let that excuse and normalise the outrageous practices of Johnson and the Conservative Party. The effectiveness of their transgressive strategies, or at least, the fact that they do not seem to come with a price, may be part of the explanation too.

Misappropriating Institutional Credibility

The Conservatives have come under fire in the last couple of days over their Twitter debacle. For those fortunate enough not to have followed the events, during the televised debate between Corbyn and Johnson on ITV, CCHQ altered their Twitter profile so as to appear as if they were an independent fact checking organisation, called FactcheckUK. The Twitter 'blue tick' gave the impression that this was a real organisation, verified by Twitter. True, tweets also displayed the CCHQ handle, but this is much less prominent, and many users would not even know who CCHQ are. In any case, it is very difficult to imagine a motive for this change other than to deceive. What's more worrying is this isn't a one off event. It's a pattern of behaviour we are seeing increasingly often, and unless I am mistaken, it is all coming from broadly the same group of people with the same campaign strategists. Conservatives are using either fake institutions or falsely appropriating the credibility of real ones in order to disguise party propaganda as trustworthy independent analysis.

The first examples of this were during the 2016 referendum campaign. Vote Leave, an organisation largely run by Conservative strategists, notably including Dominic Cummings, produced leaflets encouraging voters to support Brexit as a means of helping the NHS. They produced leaflets which used a (slightly changed) NHS logo, using a leaflet format  (font, colour scheme, layout etc) almost identical to those produced by the NHS. These appear to have been distributed in hospitals, with the words 'Help protect your local hospital' on the front. In doing so Vote Leave were misusing the institutional kudos of the NHS to add credibility their material. True, the leaflets also had the Vote Leave logo, and you might think that many people would realise what was going on. But some might not, which is why such deceptions can be effective. Indeed, Vote Leave were called out on this by the Treasury Select Committee during the campaign for this very reason, as can be viewed here:

Another, somewhat less egregious example of this behaviour during the campaign was this leaflet sent to households shown on the right here. The title page reads 'EU Referendum Facts', and the leaflet uses the independent sounding address, but the material was in fact produced by Vote Leave.

This strategy appears to have been repeated after the referendum, albeit with somewhat more organisational effort. In 2017, Conservative MEP and former Vote Leave committee member Daniel Hannan set up the pro-Brexit think tank IFT, whose launch event was attended by Boris Johnson. The organisation was initially called the Institute for Free Trade, but the organisation had to change its name. This is because the word 'Institute' is a protected title only given to reputable academic institutions publishing high quality research. The organisation managed to keep its acronym by changing their name to the Initiative for Free Trade. Once again, the effect of the exercise would have been to use misleading naming or presentation to pass of partisan material as that of a reputable, non partisan organisation.

There is a certain irony to all of this. Michael Gove famously said in 2016 that people had 'had enough of experts' from institutions 'with acronyms', and amongst many this remark has become symbolic of a particular style of politics. But in reality, those who practice that style seem to be fully aware of the power and kudos that can come with expert analysis backed up by trusted and respected institutions. This is why the strategy they seem to be pursuing is so dangerous.

Attitudes towards freedom of movement

A couple of days ago I spotted a rather surprising result on a YouGov poll: by an enormous margin, respondents said that they would like to maintain reciprocal rights of UK and EU citizens to live and work in each other's countries. Of those polled, 67% said such rights should be maintained, 15% said they shouldn't, and 19% said they did not know. In other words, what is generally believed to be the key motivation for Brexit, ending freedom of movement, is not wanted. These results got rather more attention on Twitter than I anticipated, and a number of people responded that they are merely a reflection of how the question is posed: if the question is framed in terms of 'control' of immigration, or simply in terms of support for "freedom of movement", the results would be quite different. I don't doubt that this is correct, but I wanted to briefly respond to this point, as I think it is an important one.

It is famously true that opinion polls can generate multiple answers to what is essentially the same question dependent on how it is framed. There are two possible responses to this. The first is simply to disregard the idea of popular opinion and see it purely as an ephemeral product of how questions are posed. Sometimes this may well be a reasonable assessment, and I think there is definitely such thing as a healthy skepticism around these issues.

But the second response is to say, OK, so what question is the most useful and informative? This of course depends a lot on what you are using the question for. If you are a political strategist, you might well find it very useful that questions which frame freedom of movement in terms of 'control' yield a negative reaction. But if you genuinely interested in trying to get an honest sense of public opinion as a means of guiding policy, the question has to be: "which way of describing freedom of movement is the most honest reflection of what the policy actually is?" No doubt this is itself contested, and there are occasions where the appropriate way of understanding a policy is genuinely a difficult question. But with freedom of movement, I don't see how framing the policy as a reciprocal right (the right for citizens to live and work in one another's countries) is not just the most simple, accurate, and thorough description. The alternatives either simply omit that reciprocity or present fictitious alternatives (one way rights for UK citizens, or systems of 'control' which imply much more effective and benevolent bureaucracies than actually ever exist).

For what it's worth, I don't think that public opinion on these questions should be the sole guide to policy. Stripping large numbers of people of acquired rights might well be wrong regardless of whether it is popular to do so. But it seems tragic for people to lose these rights on the basis of a popular support that does not even exist.

O Level and GCSE Maths Compared

When people of a certain age talk about GCSEs, the conversation may well quickly turn to the old ‘O Level’ qualification, and, more often than not, how much harder these were than anything 16 year olds are expected to do today. Part of the problem with these conversations is that few people are in a position to make a real comparison. Most people have only ever seen one type of exam, and if it is the O Levels, this was a long time ago. Perhaps for that reason, when I was a teenager (I was a weird teenager) the old exams had a certain mystique. As somebody who got a little too much of their sense of self through exam grades, I couldn’t help but wonder how I would have done at them.  While I’ll never know the answer to that question, thanks to the wonders of the internet, it’s certainly possible to compare the two exams, if you are geeky and obsessive enough to do so. What follows are the results of that endeavour with the old Maths O Level, and an attempt to answer that all important question: how much harder was it really?

The first thing to mention is that the O Levels (at least the exams from the ’50s and ‘60s) feel in many ways like very dated exams. They are densely printed, long, and in terms of structure feel a lot more like university exams. They have two sections, one of short questions and one of longer questions of which you choose a few (GCSE Maths papers don’t involve any choice).

Some of the material is very much from a time when people didn’t have calculators. There are lots of questions which are clearly testing your ability to use logarithmic and trigonometric tables and others which ask you to approximate π as 22/7 (at GCSE you’d either just put it in a calculator and round, or give your answer as a multiple of π, but it's still a nice approximation to use for rough calculations). There are then arithmetic problems which require some numerical manipulation to solve, often better thought of first as algebraic expressions to simplify, such as these ones here:

You can see why there would have been a greater focus on numerical skills before calculators, but I think it’s a bit of a shame this kind of numerical manipulation isn't taught as much anymore, as it can help children with algebra.  Part iii) of this question is also a reminder of another pesky feature of these exams: old, imperial units and pre-decimal currency (I couldn't answer part iii without looking up how many shillings there were in a pound!)  

That said, there is a lot about the exams that hasn’t changed at all. The algebra is pretty much the same, both in terms of content and level of difficulty (if we are comparing the O Level to the Higher Tier GCSE, after Gove’s reforms. The Foundation is dramatically less challenging, and prior to Gove’s reforms the GCSEs were considerably less difficult). This question, for example, taken from a 1962 O Level exam could have come straight out the GCSE were it not for the font: 

There are a few algebra questions in the O Levels which do seem a little more inventive in terms of what is asked. Question 4 (ii) below, for example, requires students not to solve for a single unknown but a quotient of two. That said, how difficult this kind of problem is very much depends on whether you have been taught to do it before or seen it for the first time, and I haven’t seen enough papers to know if this was a standard problem.

The section B algebra problems also seem to have required a little more in terms of initiative and personal input to solve. This one here, for example, I could only solve easily by introducing two unknowns of my own (I used n for the initial number of items sold and N for the total) which you could then get rid of by rearranging. 

The GCSE does require algebraic proof and introducing an unknown to solve numerical problems, but not introducing several unknowns to derive a purely algebraic expression which does not contain the variables you’ve introduced. An example of the type of problem tested at GCSE is here, which you solve by forming a quadratic (e.g by setting the number of green pens as x and blue as x+ 3). 

One way in which the O Level was definitely more challenging was the geometry. GCSE geometry questions tend to provide diagrams, the O Levels required you to figure out yourself what they would look like based only on worded descriptions. This question here, for example, could easily be a GCSE question, but there is no way they would ask you to do it without a diagram provided.

The proof questions were stylistically different, but don’t seem all that much more challenging. The main difference is volume: the O Level papers seem to have a lot of geometric proof involved, whereas on the GCSE there will only be a couple of questions. Below, for comparison, are two geometric proof questions, first a 1968 O Level and below that a 2017 GCSE question.

Content wise, the other main difference is that the O Level was in some ways a narrower exam. In the 1950’s and 60’s papers I didn’t find any statistics, data handling or probability questions, and very little on volumes, number properties, primes factor decomposition or surds. Algebra, geometry and doing long calculations with tables and slide rules seemed to be the greater focus. That said, the O Level did require knowing some basic calculus, and apart from the Edexcel IGCSE this isn’t taught until A Level (and even with the IGCSE there is no integration). And one exam I found from 1957 also had a rather charming third paper on the history of mathematics. I don’t know if this was a common part of the curriculum or not, but there is certainly something wonderfully quaint about it.

So, all in all, was the O Level Maths exam more difficult than the GCSE? Compared to the exams I sat, pre Michael Gove, I regret to say the answer is certainly yes. Compared to the exams students sit now, I’m less certain. There are certainly fewer gift questions (even the higher tier GCSE still has a some very easy questions at the start of the exam, the O Level seemed to have fewer, and they were less easy). On balance, I would still conclude that the O Levels were a little more challenging, if nothing else because they required more personal input and initiative to do start the questions (introducing your own variables, working out what a geometry problem looks like based on a description). But they aren’t a million miles away from one another.

Tactical Voting: Some Problems

There was a lot of anger yesterday about an online tactical voting tool launched by the pro-remain group Best for Britain. The tool appeared, judging by the results of the 2017 general election, to be suggesting Labour voters tactically vote Lib Dem in what were Labour/Conservative marginals. If the objective is to maximise seats held by parties in favour of a second referendum, this would obviously be an unfortunate recommendation.

The problem is, deciding how to vote tactically is a trickier business than it may seem at first sight. As Tony Yates shows here, tactical voting requires some sense of fixed, or only marginally changing background of other voters who are not voting tactically. The easiest way of attempting to do this is by looking at previous election general election results. But party allegiance at the moment is unusually fluid, and this is not the only data which could plausibly used to get a sense of how things look in particular constituencies. Best for Britain appeared to have based their calculations not just on the 2017 general election result, but more recent opinion polls and the European Election results.

How much weight to give these different types of data is a difficult question, but the answer may well not be zero. It is also not entirely clear who the tactical voters in these elections are. If, for the sake of illustration, it turned out that Lib Dem voters were much more willing to tactically vote Labour than vice versa, it is possible to imagine a situation in which the correct strategy for maximising remain seats were to recommend a Labour vote in a constituency, even if current predictions showed a greater Lib Dem likely vote share in that constituency than Labour without tactical voting. 

As Phil Syrpis points out, these problems may only really apply to a small number of marginal seats. But in the event of a close election, this could cause trouble. Moreover, disputes of this nature breed distrust between supporters of the various remain parties. This is a problem, as tactical voting is unlikely to work if there is too much hostility. People need to trust their second choice party at least somewhat, and are most likely to think of tactical voting as a useful strategy is they think of themselves as part of something bigger, where others might be returning the favour. 

Unfortunately, disputes over how to model the current state of the electorate are to be expected. This is partly, as may have happened with Best for Britain, due to differing opinions about methodology. But in other instances, these will also be mediated by partisan interests. Party campaigners are very likely to select prediction methodologies which show a more favourable picture for their party. This may be down to psychological biases, or just the role they fulfil as party campaigners. But either way, it is likely to cause problems down the line if and when candidates put out contradictory campaign material about the state of the race in their constituency. 

In a better world, perhaps the various remain parties might have circumvented these difficulties via an electoral pact. But not only there have always been near insurmountable political barriers to such an endeavour, that could also have caused a counter measure between the leave parties (though it may well still be the case that the latter happens). None of this is to suggest that voters should not attempt to vote tactically. We are where we are, and we have to make the best of this situation. But the difficulties may turn out greater than anticipated. 

Votes at 16? Some thoughts on a series of bad arguments.

There's a lot of discussion at the moment about whether the franchise should be extended to 16 year olds. I think that's a reasonable enough proposition. If the franchise is about giving fair representation to different interest groups capable of evaluating what those interests are, including 16 year olds doesn't seem like a bad idea (particularly if we are honest about the reality of how capable everyone else is of making sensible and reasonable decisions about their own interests). There's an element of value judgement here, for sure. But before we get into that, it's worth noting which arguments we should ignore, because this debate certainly seems to throw up a whole series of them.

The first kind is the 'slippery slope' argument: the argument that a policy in accordance with a particular principle can lead down the 'slippery slope' towards the most extreme interpretation of that principle. Think of people arguing that votes at 16 might lead to votes at 10. When I did debating at school, we were more or less taught never to use this argument. I think this is perhaps overdoing it a bit, but it does have a problem. The argument relies almost entirely on a metaphor to be convincing. Slope imagery aside, why should votes at 16 lead to votes at 10? There isn't any obvious reason why this would happen. Given that the rhetorical effect of the argument relies on the conclusion's obvious absurdity, it would seem reasonable to assume that one would in fact not lead to another. For slippery slope arguments to work there has to be some kind of actual mechanism for A leading to B, which unless you are talking about whether to go for a winter's hillside walk involves more than invoking a metaphor.

A variation of that argument is a kind of false reductio ad absurdum. "If you gave 16 year olds the vote, you might as well give it to 10 year olds!" Or, on the other side, "If voting is about political knowledge, which 16 year olds supposedly don't have, why not restrict it to those who can pass a politics quiz/in IQ test?" The answer to those both is twofold. Firstly, there might be other, completely different reasons not to (restricting the franchise based on tests would almost certainly harm the worst off, 10 year olds might be a whole lot less responsible than 16 year olds etc). The second problem is this argument overlooks that we may be talking about a continuous scale of trade offs, where a somewhat arbitrary decision has to be made. Having an opinion about where a line is drawn that is arbitrary at the margin (why, other than convenience, not one day after your 18th birthday?) does not imply that you can't usefully discuss substantial changes, or that doing so implies that you don't think there needs to be any lines in the sand at all. Think about setting the speed limit on a motorway. There are a series of trade offs to be made about fuel efficiency, traffic, safety, people getting to where they want on time etc. You have to set a limit somewhere. In the the UK this means 70 mph. The fact that it is precisely 70 mph is kind of arbitrary- it's a round number. But neither the arbitrariness of the precise number, nor the the fact that the question may involve value judgements, mean that you cannot construct meaningful arguments about a substantial change. There might be legitimate reasons to disagree about a 60 mph speed limit vs an 80 mph limit, with neither position implying an even lower or even higher one, and nobody would argue that either of these positions imply support for no speed limit, or no driving whatsoever.

The third kind of bad argument is the argument by analogy. "If people are responsible enough at 16 for that to be the age of consent, surely they are old enough to vote!” Or on the other side: "If people cannot marry without parental permission at 16, surely they should not be able to vote!” What's wrong with this kind of argument is that its persuasive force relies on the assumption that things are the way they are because there is some kind of decent rationale to them. That, as Hegel said, the actual is the rational. In reality these facts are historical baggage often as questionable as anything else. There is little reason to think they reveal some kind of profound truth as to how things should be, or, in the case that they are justified, that those justifications equally apply, or even that there is any great value in trying to force our attitudes to have some kind of overall coherence.

The final bad argument is that those advocating a particular position on votes at 16 have bad motives. "Labour only want 16 year olds to have the vote because they think that they will vote for them", or "Conservatives only want to deprive 16 year olds of the vote because they won't." Both are probably true, but equally irrelevant. There is no reason why a good policy can't come from bad motives. Indeed, historically the extension of the franchise is a great example of this: much of the parliamentary wrangling over women getting the vote pre-1914 were precisely about whether women would be more likely to vote Liberal or Conservative. The fact some Liberals were well disposed towards extending the franchise because they believed it would help them electorally did not make doing so a bad policy.

Once the bad arguments are left to one side, what we are left with is a more prosaic judgement. Are people old enough to make political judgements at 16? I think yes, based on admittedly limited experience (and frankly thought). Less so than people aged 30? Perhaps, but not so sufficiently so to disqualify them from the vote. Do they have legitimate interests, as stakeholders? Sure. In some ways less than people over the age of 18, but in others more. They certainly have unique interests that deserve representation (think education policy), and a direct, if not greater stake, in large national decisions like Brexit. Could somebody reasonably come to different conclusion? Sure. Contrary to popular debate, this isn't a grand question of principle. It's a value judgement about whether to shift a somewhat arbitrary line in the sand.

The Brexiteers Close Ranks

Something very strange has happened over the last 24 hours. The Brexiteers, both in Parliament and in the press, seem to be closing ranks behind Johnson's deal. Or at least they seem to be doing so within the Conservative Party. This is perplexing, as it seems to involve everything they said they hated about the Withdrawal Act, but now with a separate customs arrangement between the Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (the so called backstop) becoming the policy of first choice.

How could this happen? There are a number of possible explanations. One is fatigue. The issue has dragged on, and, so the (erroneous) thought goes, this will put an end to it. The second explanation is that the ERG are cutting their losses. Perhaps they realise that no deal isn't a viable policy after all, or isn't one that can be achieved within this Parliament, and this is the best (or to any sane observer, worst) they are going to get.

But perhaps something else is going on. As Chaminda Jayanetti wrote here, 'elite cues' have played an important role in determining which positions are seen as acceptable and which are not by leave and remain supporters. Bizarre obsessions with the WTO, outrage at regulatory alignment etc are conjured into reality by key figures in the debate who have mass public following. Some of these may represent genuine niche obsessions, others may well have been political posturing by the ERG to oust an outsider Prime Minister (May) in favour of one of their own (Johnson), perhaps believing that this in and of itself would lead to a better outcome.

There is a strong tribe mentality to all of this. It is as if the most important question is the one once posed by Thatcher: "is he one of us?". In the case of Johnson, leavers can certainly answer that question affirmatively. It is not just that he led Vote Leave, but that since taking office, he has done everything he can to signify his scorn for all the old enemies: remainers, the judiciary and parliamentary processes. At this point all the cues are there. The most emblematic figure of the leave campaign has declared a new triumph, as has Rees Mogg, the most emblematic of the ERG. There is sufficient ambiguity over the terms of the future relationship that people can still imagine themselves painting the canvass much as they'd like, so long as they don't think too hard about the implications of customs border in the Irish Sea. Perhaps, as some in the ERG seem to be thinking, this could still be a path to a no deal outcome if no agreement is ratified within the transition period. In any case,  they can rest assured that Johnson, someone who is most assuredly 'one of them', has their back. Scrutiny is, after all, not necessary between friends.

A Shared Exceptionalism

Two facts stand out as about contemporary electoral politics. The first is that almost nobody thinks they can be tricked or manipulated. The second is that almost everyone thinks lying politicians are manipulating the other side. These two facts ought to cause some pause for thought and introspection.

This is no more evident in British politics than in discussions of Brexit. It's a common (and I think correct) claim among remain supporters that the Leave campaign used dishonest, psychologically manipulative strategies to a kind of frenzied support for leave. Arguments of this sort are generally met with the response that this claim is patronising and insulting: it assumes people are gullible enough to be manipulated in this way. But at the same time, leave supporters are equally likely to claim that remain support is a driven by the after effects of 'project fear', the supposed attempt by the Remain campaign to scare the electorate into voting to remain in the EU. Let's forget for a moment what we think about the truth of these two claims. The point is that they both presuppose that people are capable of being psychologically manipulated and being drawn to bad arguments. Yet it is quite uncommon to think that this capability extends to our own side, let alone ourselves. This is our shared exceptionalism: the commonly held belief that everyone can be manipulated but ourselves.

One further absurdity of this is how poorly it sits with the rhetoric of democracy. This is as the belief that others are being manipulated by sinister forces breeds suspicion of democratic processes, at least when they give the other side a chance of winning. One conclusion that can be drawn from this is to stress the importance of trying to understand the reasoning and stated motives of those who differ politically on their own terms. There is no doubt some value to that conclusion. But I think another, more honest, and perhaps complimentary one would be to admit that we are all capable of holding false beliefs, giving credence to bad arguments and having motivations other we are aware of and tell ourselves we have.

Gaming out a Government of National Unity

As the October article 50 extension deadline approaches talks of a so called government of national unity (GONU) are making the rounds again. The parliamentary arithmetic makes this outcome unlikely, but if we entertain the possibility, one thing stands out as an oddity: the main players are, at least ostensibly, arguing about who would get the first go at pitching a new Prime Minister. The reason this is odd is because the players seem to have got the game backwards, wanting to have a go at replacing the current government first, when they should want to go last.

Why is this? Imagine, for a moment, that enough MPs are willing to support a GONU in the event that this was the only alternative to a no deal Brexit at the end of this month. This may well not be the case, but we have to assume it is for arguments about who goes first to be worthwhile (if not, there is no situation in which any GONU occurs). It is also true that no GONU has the backing of enough MPs as a first choice (in other words, any GONU would have to be supported by MPs who would rather support some other GONU if this were possible). The numbers are likely such that any grouping has an effective veto on a GONU if they want to use it. But this means having the first shot at forming a GONU is curse: provided you can be sure there will be a subsequent opportunity for another group of MPs to try and form a GONU, and provided in the last instance this will by default have the numbers to carry a confidence motion (because this is the only alternative to no deal), the ideal situation is to be the last group of MPs which can attempt to form a GONU.

Put more concretely, imagine the following scenario. There is a successful vote of no confidence in the government. The Labour leadership attempts to form a government, but is denied support by the Lib Dems and most of the former Tory rebels. The latter two cobble together some support for another a government led by Ken Clarke. It is likely this is the last opportunity to form a GONU before the 14 days of the fixed term parliament act expire. In that instance, the Labour leadership would face the choice of supporting the GONU, or denying this support, which would mean a no deal Brexit. What's more, given that attention and memory would likely focus on this last chance, were the Labour leadership to deny a GONU support, they would likely (reasonably or otherwise) get the lion's share of the blame for what happens next.

It is clear then, that if these assumptions are correct, having the first shot at forming a government of national unity is a poisoned chalice. This makes sense of the recent exchanges between the Labour and Lib Dem leadership. The Labour leadership insists that not only that they are given the first chance, but that support is given before a vote of no confidence for a Labour led GONU. Swinson's counter offer- give it a try, and if it fails, others can have a go, does not answer this problem for the Labour leadership, as it gives rise to precisely the situation outlined. Should any of this matter? Of course not. Who leads a short GONU with a limited mandate is of little importance, given the gravity of the situation at hand. Unfortunately, it might matter a great deal to the parties involved.

Overstating Incoherence

A frequent charge brought against right wing populist movements is that their arguments hypocritical to the point of absurdity. In the U.K, two such possible hypocrisies stand out. The first is the idea that these movements are anti-elite. Brexiteers rail against the 'elites' and the 'establishment', yet include cabinet ministers, Etonians and influential journalists, at times all embodied in the same person. The second concerns the rule of law and institutions. Conservatives talk a good game when it comes to tough application of the law and the supposed superiority of the British constitution, but seem to make an exception when this imposes constraints on their own power. As Nick Cohen put it, the Conservative party prides itself of being " “party of law and order”. It died invoking mob rule." Certainly there is some hypocrisy here. But I think rather less than we might imagine, if we understand the ideas on their own terms. And it is important to do so if we wish to formulate effective counters to them.

The right wing populist idea of the 'elite' might be strange and infuriating, but it is not random. It does not really refer to wealth or even political power per se, but social status and education. In short, it designates the well educated, liberal, urban professional class. The use of the term is of course tied up with flawed ideas of how power works in modern societies- it tends to presuppose a politically homogenous 'elite' that consists almost entirely of people in certain professions, with certain backgrounds, but the rules of reference aren't incompressible or contradictory in and of themselves. Individuals who inherit their wealth are in this sense not part of the 'elite' as they are not professionals. 

Take a look at who the leading figures in these movements are and how they behave. Many actively flaunt their wealth and privilege. Rees Mogg and Johnson play up their somewhat mythological aristocratic status, using obscure, archaic vocabulary and wearing dated clothes. Or take Iain Duncan Smith, someone born into modest circumstances, alternating between railing against the elites and posing with his classic car in front of his country estate. This is no accident: so long as they play the aristocrats, they are not part of the professional middle and upper middle class. 

Another iteration of this is that of the flamboyant tycoon. Trump is the most obvious contemporary example, but as is the original right wing populist of modern times, Silvio Berlusconi. They do not hide their wealth and power, they flaunt it every opportunity, whether it is Berlusconi's 'bunga bunga' parties or events at Mar-a-Lago. The U.K has its lesser figures of this sort, Tim Martin being an example. 

This idea of the elite is certainly tied up with flawed ideas of political power, but it is historically conditioned. It plays into long term resentments that flow from the shift towards a service economy which rewards education, particularly in law and economics. This development, and the concurrent, if only partially related trend towards greater social liberalism unsurprisingly generates backlash against this particular group. As Simon Wren Lewis argues, one of the key reasons for the success of Brexit was its ability to unite both those who had lost out socially and economically from this trend. This has likely been enhanced by the financial crisis of 2007/8, which contributed to suspicion of people working in the financial sector. Finally, this idea of the elite plays into long standing tensions and resentments of the modern world that arise from bureaucracy and managerialism, many of which are more immediately and frequently experienced at work and in  every day life than the injustice of the ultra wealthy. We need do no more than read a story by Franz Kafka to know these ideas are not new,  and a look at Soviet comedy suggests that these resentments may not be even unique to capitalism.  

The second hypocrisy, on law and the constitution, is more of a mixed bag. On the one hand there is surely some hypocrisy when it comes to direct discussion of things like Parliamentary sovereignty. But it is surely wrong to understand references to 'law and order', as is sometimes suggested, as implying checks and balances to state power. When political parties campaign on 'law and order', they are not campaigning on constitutionalism or the rule of law. If anything, they mean the opposite. They mean being tough on the 'bad guys', being willing to dish out long prison sentences or other brutal punishments, sometimes explicitly in contrast to due process (think about appeals to put the 'victim' above the 'criminal' as justifications for less concern about what happens in a trial, or attacks on 'soft' judges, sneaky barristers etc). In this sense what we see with Johnson's government is an extreme iteration with a familiar way of talking about the law and criminal justice, rather than a complete departure from an old tradition. 

Brexiteers have indeed talked at length about Parliamentary sovereignty and the superiority of the British constitution, but don't seem so interested in these ideas right now. Perhaps they could justify this current indifference as a necessary step towards an eventual goal ('a more sovereign Parliament, eventually'), but it is hard to distinguish this from not caring full stop. And certainly, both here and when talking about the 'elites', there are plenty of tensions, misrepresentations and falsehoods. But if we want to counter these ideas, we have to make a serious attempt to understand how they work and what makes them appealing. It is no good to simply point out that those who rail against the elites are themselves wealthy, or that those who talk about law and order don't want justice to apply to themselves. Nothing is revealed to supporters that is not already known. 

Are we Bayesian reasoners? Some thoughts.

Are humans Bayesian reasoners? Do they have a set of probabilistic beliefs about the world, or 'priors', which get updated by experience? To me this seems like an very strange and unlikely way of describing how people think most of the time, but a lot of very intelligent people seem to disagree, so the question seems worth taking seriously.

I still think the answer is no, but first I think it's worth discussing what I think people mean when they say people are Bayesian. I don't think they mean that this literally describes what people's conscious thought processes are like most of the time. That is just too obviously false. Even when it comes to every day events, like rain, or the train being late, most of the time people could only give a very vague idea of how likely they thought an event was. There are a huge number of things which matter a great deal to us that we would be even less able to meaningfully say anything about the probability of, let alone consciously 'update' these prior beliefs as new evidence comes to light. Consciously doing this in a systematical, mathematically valid fashion is a rarefied activity that requires specialist training and is only applied to limited circumstances (work in finance, weather modelling etc).

A more reasonable interpretation would be to say that the 'Bayesian reasoner' model of humans describes not conscious thought processes but behaviour, or perhaps some mixture of the two. Consciously or otherwise, our patterns of thought and behaviour respond to what we see and experience. Perhaps every so often we actually think 'I thought that was unlikely, but now I think that is more likely', but more often than that, we simply worry about something more, take a possibility more seriously etc. This interpretation could also allow for flaws in reasoning: perhaps people only roughly adapt their beliefs and behaviours in this way, perhaps there are certain systemic flaws in human psychology which lead them to sometimes over adjust or under adjust their beliefs (let's say for example we made allowances for exceptional events, like witnessing a plane crash, totally skewing how much we worried about plane crashes).

My problem with this behavioural description is that I don't think Bayesianism is really the right way of thinking about what is going on. This is because probability is on a continuous scale, but behaviour is discrete. What do I mean by this? There are an infinite number of probabilities I can assign to my train being late today (there are an infinite number of values between 0 and 1). In reality, my behaviour and thought processes only take certain discrete characters. Either I worry about my train being late or I don't. Perhaps I worry a little or a lot, but we can't meaningfully break this down much more than that. More importantly, my behaviour is extremely discrete. Perhaps I think of alternative routes in case my train is late, perhaps I don't bother. Most of life seems like this. Things we either worry about or don't, things we hope for or think are unrealistic, ideas which occur to us or do not, thoughts we think are worth entertaining or aren't, possibilities we factor in to our decisions or we do not. OK, there is a bit of space for something muddy in between all of these, but when it actually comes to trying to classify these in between states, there aren’t all that many. Take the way people talk about their own certainty about something- it’s almost always one of a few values if expressed numerically (‘50/50’, ‘80/20’ ‘I’m 99% sure’). And it’s true that continuous scales can be useful approximations of data which takes discrete values (a normal distribution curve could usefully approximate the probability of rolling a certain number of 6’s provided I rolled a sufficiently large number of times) but in this case, the discrete behaviours and beliefs seem too few for this to be the true.

And on that note- I've got a train to catch.

Accidental authoritarianism- some further notes and justifications

The other day I wrote a blog post arguing that the prevalence of authoritarian populist political tropes in the U.K are largely a response to the particular difficulties surrounding the 2016 referendum. I tried to sketch out a story of how I think this happened, focussing on both the referendum campaign and problems of implementing the result. What I realise I didn’t do is properly justify why I think that approach is likely to be correct, so this post is a kind of follow up explanation of that argument. As mentioned in the previous post, this kind of explanation can be contrasted with a second kind of explanation which stress the growth of these attitudes as a separate phenomenon, which may in turn be used to explain why Brexit has panned out the way it has. That kind of narrative might focus on longer term issues (deindustrialisation, low wage growth since the financial crisis etc) and comparisons with developments of seemingly similar movements internationally. The two aren’t completely incompatible. Perhaps the latter line of reasoning might some explanation as to why Leave won (though it’s quite possible Leave could have won in different circumstances), while the former developments subsequently, or perhaps they are both at work. But I think the distinction is under appreciated and it is worth setting out why the first kind of story might be a more useful explanation of what has happened in the UK post 2016. Finally I would like to contrast this first kind of explanation with one which one which sees Brexit as presenting a clash between representative and ‘direct’ democracy, which I think misreads what Leave supporters are really asking for. The reasons for this are as follows:

1.     While it is true that there is a strong correlation amongst voters between remain/leave support and authoritarian/liberal attitudes, there is little evidence to suggest that authoritarian attitudes have generally growing in popularity in the UK. The public is generally speaking more positive about immigration and less in favour of the death penalty now than it was a few decades ago, though there was a brief jump in saliency of immigration around the time of the referendum. What the referendum did was divide the population along these lines and give greater saliency to certain questions.

2.     Most people do not spend much time thinking about the theoretical justifications for democracy, why it is a good or bad thing, or what it is supposed to mean. The first idea most people have about democracy is that it is about putting things to a vote, in which the most popular option wins. That is what people have most immediate experience of, and also reflects the fact that ‘democracy’ is typically understood as something in contrast with a dictatorship, i.e where an unelected and small clique rule over a majority. The first point is particularly true of the U.K, with an electoral system that historically produces majority governments meaning that British democracy has a ‘winner takes all’ feel to it. It seems natural enough that many people should adopt a winner takes all approach to the referendum, and that majoritarian ideas like ‘the will of the people’ should be popular in contrast with appeals to compromise or parliamentary process.

3.     There are almost no calls for a move towards more direct democracy generally. If this was important over and above the specific question of Brexit, you would  expect people to be advocating more referendums about a greater number of issues, with at least some interest in how this could be made to work.

4.     Strongman politics, the idea of an individual implementing a popular will that is frustrated by corrupt or irrational institutions, always has its appeal, and you can see latent support for some of its surrounding ideas in any functioning liberal democracy. Just look at the popular trope that literal application of the law as argued by clever lawyers leads to criminals getting off the hook. It is not such a big move to progress from this to dismissing judges as politically motivated. Or look at the role anti-politics and suspicion of politics has played in ‘normal’ elections (how many successful opposition parties have claimed or heavily implied their opponents are corrupt?). Strongman politics of the kind Johnson is currently trying to capitalise on plays into deep rooted suspicions of institutions and politicians. The referendum result did not create these attitudes, but it gave them focus and saliency as they related to an immediate issue- whether Parliament could or would implement Brexit.