Conversations (6)

Enjoy Mexico, Prof – hope the conference is engaging and stimulating, and look forward to continuing our discussions in person after you return home.
I definitely think the Tories can make deals with homophobes and misogynists. There’s no serious majority, nor even appetite, to re-open those types of issues at Westminster, and the sheer idea of re-winding the clock on them, as if the government doesn’t have enough on its plate right now, is borderline comical. By contrast, the idea that the Tories can bring in the DUP without jeopardising the peace in Northern Ireland is self-deluded even by the Tories’ recently unprecedented standards.

Off to Mexico now, and wondering the country will even be here when I return!

Many thanks Caroline --

One point of at least partial agreement.  You write that,  "before the vote, very few people kicked up a fuss about having it. Cameron, Corbyn, and Sturgeon presumably thought the British people would vote to remain, so they allowed it to go ahead."

Of course, many people did kick up a fuss.  Many pro-Remain politicians and experts signaled loudly and clearly the dangers of populist adventurism at the polling stations, given the incalculable consequences of Brexit.  You're right of course that party leaders ignored those warnings, though certainly not motivated by the country's best interests.  Cameron wanted to unify the Tory Party and Sturgeon was only ever eying independence.  As for Corbyn, would he even know how to manage the budget of your local Frisbee team? 

Also -- only partial agreement on your view about a second referendum.  First, from a legal standpoint, let's be clear.  There is absolutely no way any government can foreclose future legislation simply by tossing around brochures with the inscription "This is your last chance, folks!".   Indeed what is even meant by "generation"?  Does the present "generation" end, say, at 4:36 am on Christmas 2028?  Or 5:28 pm on St George's Day 2043?  Only in British politics could so many people take such a gesture to be anything more than empty rhetoric.  If final and definitive law could be made simply by the government in power passing around leaflets -- phrased in such open-ended terms -- Her Majesty's Stationery Office would be busy indeed.  There is no such thing as irreversible legislation, except maybe in North Korea. 

However, if your real point is about PR, namely, that the public would simply resent it -- "Keep voting until you deliver the result we want" -- then, yes, that's a plausible and a weighty objection.  I'm tempted to propose a Referendum About Having Another Referendum, simply to punish everyone for their stupidity.  

You and I do probably agree, then, on the most important point.  Ultimately, this all remains in Parliament's hands, including what I believe could be a wholly compelling and wholly dignified withdrawal of the Article 50 declaration.  That's why I continue to insist on the democratic illegitimacy of the referendum.  That point needs to be repeated as often as necessary, so that if Parliament does face an overriding case against exiting, then perhaps it can change course with greater confidence of the electorate.

Yours with trust eternal in the forces of boringly sober moderation,

Hi Eric,

A second referendum is absolutely not an option, ever since both Cameron and the opposition supported the government's leaflets to every household in Britain that stated the "The EU referendum is a once in a generation decision". It was clear that Cameron would enforce the decision and put an end to the debate. It just so happened that the decision didn't go his way. The Tories and Labour were happy to insist that this was our only chance to get out of the EU, and for democracy to say "Ok, now the deliberation stops!" if it had been a win for remain.

There must come a point when politicians make decisions on our behalf. A referendum was not necessarily the best option; as we all know, referendum reduce complex and intricate decisions down to the tick of a box. But before the vote, very few people kicked up a fuss about having it. Cameron, Corbyn, and Sturgeon presumably thought the British people would vote to remain, so they allowed it to go ahead.

Cameron's arrogance meant that he thought he could send a few propaganda leaflets out and that everyone would believe him and vote to remain. They saw through it, and voted with their heads and their hearts, not through fear of the great unknown. Yes, no one knew what would happen if we voted leave, but similarly, no one knew what would happen if we voted to stay. Merkel would have had our heads on the block before Cameron could even utter his victory speech. If the referendum was indeed a "once in a generation decision" that the EU knew we wouldn't have again, they would take us for every penny we are worth. Deep down, many leave voters knew that not only did they not like the ties to Brussels as it stood, but not one remain campaigner could say what kind of deal we would get had we stayed, and that's what sent them to the polling booths ticking leave.

The bottom line of a referendum is, there are no simple or clear solutions to a simplistic question. What May has done, is what she feels is best for her country. And if that's to call a snap election, to make the best success of Brexit that she can, then that's the best thing for the country at the moment. Of course, she is also strengthening her party in the process; taking advantage of the opposition's disorganisation and lack of unity. But Brexit is not only affected by what goes on in Brussels, but also by what goes on in the UK. The Times recently claimed that more Britons trust May to sort out the NHS than Corbyn. She is also a firm believer in bringing back Grammar Schools. This election is not only about the legal ties to the EU, but it is about taking Britain back to where the electorate wants it to be. Free education for bright yet poor pupils, a better health service that is for the working people of Britain, and freedom from the shackles of Brussels.

If that means democracy, then I'm all for it.

Ah, but Prof, the nature of our relationship always has been me asking you for predictions because you do know the right answers. I would call you Mystic Egg, if I was not so scared of your scoldy reaction!

So much of the Brexit debate across the media has been distilled into (a) economics and (b) nationalism. Do you think there are any other key factors in play? (My vote had little to do with either of those factors, but then again I do tend to march to the beat of my own drum too frequently.) 

I agree that Brexit offers no solutions. But what does 'remain' offer? In universities, it is clear that we will be poorer (not just financially) if Article 50 is triggered. But who else will suffer other than the intelligensia and the financial services industry? Have we yet made the case -- culturally, politically, and in other ways -- for remaining in the European Union? We are struggling to do so, as are the Germans, the French, and the Italians, let alone the newer members in Eastern Europe. The economy and/or the threat of another Cold War are not sufficient to convince many people that it is worth their while to remain part of the EU. So, Oracle, what can we do?

Yours, as ever


Eric, one of the great joys of engaging with you is that your interest in and understanding of the world, language skills, and intellectual abilities combine to provide holistic insights that are sorely lacking elsewhere. (No, I am not about to ask you for a favour -- for once I am being complimentary simply because it is the truth.)

There are many points that I want to pick up on, and perhaps we will return to some of them later, but I shall start with your last paragraph...

Many people in the UK voted to leave (only a few more than voted to remain, but still a large number nonetheless). Since that vote the lack of transparency has infuriated the Brexiteers as much as the rest of us. If we do not end up leaving, whether because the whole thing fizzles out or because a few minor changes are made to our current relationship with the EU, what will happen to those voices? Do we push them further into Marine LePen-style nationalism? We should remember that there are people from every walk of life who voted to leave. 

The House of Lords committee point is also interesting. Of course, the referendum was not legally binding, but does that mean it can be ignored altogether? If so, why didn't we just ignore it from the moment that (call-me-Dave) Cameron fell on his sword? Or why did we even bother in the first place? 

It is a glorious morning here, and I am tempted to go out for a walk while the sun is shining. Looking forward to reading your response when I return.



The Proud Dad will surely have one or other things on his mind (and plate) today, but let's see if we can't squeeze another round or two out of you.

Some might well wonder about the "Our Yesterday is their Today" narrative.  The more we contemplate those likenesses between Russia-Ukraine today and Britain-Ireland a century ago, the more some striking differences emerge.  The British parliament by that time had long echoed with mighty voices condemning British policy.  William Gladstone was already loudly and passionately endorsing Irish Home rule in the 19th century, because he lived in a state with law and civic institutions that allowed him to do so.  Who is Russia's Gladstone today?   Elisabeth Bennett and Jane Eyre set the tone for an emerging if hard-fought future.  The progressive or reformist visions of Nikolai Rostov or Pierre Bezukhov, by contrast, are very deliberately presented as at best futile and at worst fatuous.  Two centuries later has that changed?

Or take your more contemporary comparisons to the Middle East.  Speaking of proud dads, you and I certainly agree that nothing will be resolved by marching Dad's Army to the Kremlin doors.  The involvements in Iraq and Libya (although I'd certainly not put them in the same box, as many do, in terms of the policies or planning behind them) have certainly led to grievous numbers of innocent civilian deaths. 


And yet, since you invoke that region (in which the Russian role has been heinous), ever more anomalies arise.  They lead us to examine more closely this apparent "law of the excluded middle", namely, that we either (a) declare all-out law or (b) lend some moral support to a few isolated dissidents and otherwise sit back and lament British history, because after all it's "just as bad".  Yet no one better than professors in our respective institutions would know that there are certainly options between those two extremes.  Observers from Mars might well wonder why they such options scarcely discussed, at least if they claimed for themselves the same political values which you claim in your approach to Russia and Ukraine.

So back to your Middle East comparison.  In the past century the Jews have faced one of the most systematically planned and executed genocides in history, on the heels of a millennium of antisemitism.  Yet, as we are sternly and tirelessly admonished, that is "no excuse" for the way a rather small landmass became the Israeli state.  When it comes to perceived Jewish "imperialists", countless university campuses in Britain and elsewhere, in a curiously mellifluous harmony with several dozen states that have loads of time on their hands to shuttle through UN resolutions (most of them far worse human rights abusers with few if any resolutions against them at all).  None of those forces seem to be at a loss about concrete actions to be taken about a state they deem to be criminal. Suddenly they snap into the most vibrantly concerted action.  Suddenly no one seems stumped about what to do or about how to move beyond sheer words and gestures. Suddenly no one is at a loss to scream the rawest and most incensed invective and to shout down anyone who ventures disagreement.


During that same century, indeed on the heels of previous centuries, Russian governments have orchestrated genocide (notably the Holodomor), they have committed murders of millions of other innocents, they have impoverished countless populations stretching over colossal landmasses from Central and Eastern Europe clear into Asia, not to mention their own role in grossly aggravating the Middle East tensions through the pernicious distribution of antisemitic tracts and support for brutal dictators (claiming yet further innocent victims--indeed along altogether racist lines), and Russia still counts among the most abusive nations despite being under declared war or informal attacks from absolutely no one, and indeed aggressively initiating such attacks itself in each of the regions you yourself enumerated above.  And yet now, just as suddenly, it seems the best approach is to tip-toe gingerly, to prudently weigh and balance all factors with Ciceronian sobriety, to feel deeply "sensitive" to all sides, to "understand" Russia's "legitimate" concerns, to assess the situation all with all the probity supplied by historical context, and to draw comparisons with Western nationalisms and with the evils of the British empire: and therefore to actually do nothing more in practical terms (if I'm understanding correctly) than set up a few Goethe Institutes.  When did you last see an anti-Russia boycott campaign at Birkbeck?  Where was that "die-in"?  Where is that blood-in-the-face outrage?  I understand one of your colleagues is institutionally barred from research in Israel.  Has that same institution kept you away from Russia?  

With no slight chill in my spine, I suspect no one there could even easily think of any particular reason for such action against Russia.  I suspect (though I'm happy to do the experiment with you--just say when) that if we were to stand outside the Student Union polling for attitudes about Russia and Israel, very different "policies" would indeed emerge, explaining indeed why we view and treat the two so differently, and why we manage to look at Russia and see nothing worse than a morality tale about how the British have mistreated the Irish.  So it seems there are all sorts of things that could done.  The barriers arise not from pragmatics, but from sheer will -- and from core values. 

(I guess the standard line would be: “Yes, but the US helps Israel”.  Except that the US has shed exponentially more innocent blood at home and abroad than Israel has ever done, while none of the BDS-crowd, not even the American ones, ever call for an anti-US boycott.  In fact the BDS-ers I know seem to be flying to the US every five minutes—only for "constructive engagement" of course, and never to lie on a beach in Honolulu or Miami or to dine in fancy NY restaurants.)


So it seems we can rehearse all the history and draw all the analogies we like. Yet far from consulting facts in order to choose policy accordingly, we merely end up with already pre-fabricated policy, for which facts are then selected altogether post hoc in order to support that policy. 

And perhaps that was never a surprise.

I only ask again - what is "the West"? 

My line has always been that relations between Russia and Ukraine mirror those between England and Ireland... the same jokes at the expense of the "little brother" - and the same history of conquest and hard-won independence. Though Irish independence cost far more blood from 1916 onwards (and several uprisings before then) than did the relatively peaceful disengagement of Ukraine from the USSR - up until 1914.

Moreover, English constitutional law was shaped by A V Dicey, who was a die-hard opponent of Irish Home Rule - and of trade unions and local government. The internal armed conflict from 1969 to 1997 in the UK can be compared with the Chechen insurgency in Russia. And the McKerr (shoot to kill), Finucane (murder of a solicitor) and other Northern Irish cases against the UK at Strasbourg have not been resolved to this day - refusal by the UK to conclude an effective investigation. 

So, while trying to avoid the pitfalls of moral relativism, I would be very cautious about seeking to intervene in any way. The English must resolve their own problems, probably without Scotland and maybe without Wales and Northern Ireland; and the same goes for the Ukrainians and the Russians.

I do hope, Eric, that - unlike Owen Smith, who seems to favour armed intervention - your absolutely justified moral outrage and concern does not justify a repeat of the disasters of Iraq and Libya.... , 

I'm now on the ferry to the Netherlands - my daughter's wedding on Saturday! England was a staunch supporter of the 80 years war of the Dutch for liberation from Spain, for example Philip Sydney at Zutphen. The Dutch burned the English fleet in the Medway in 1667, but we are friends again...


Thank you for your good wishes, Prof. I am looking out of my window across a beautiful, leafy campus, and feel very excited about the new job.

I agree that for some a ban does not help, as it forces those women who choose to wear the banned item either to remain hidden at home or to break the law when leaving their homes. But that is true of all bans -- people have to make choices when something is banned. Governments bring bans into effect to protect society or individuals from potential harms (from speed limits to banned substances and beyond), and while those bans may cause some controversy we largely accept that some level of regulation is required in order not to return to Hobbes' state of nature. (Incidentally, it was you who taught me about Hobbes and Mill many years ago...)

The question is whether the burkini or full veils or other religious attire causes harm, to society or to individuals. There is a part of me -- the feminist, perhaps -- that does see how banning certain practices can effect change in the way that men 'more-or-less coercively dictate[d] their wives', daughters', sisters' or mothers' apparel in countless cultural contexts'. Banning Female Genital Mutilation, or child marriage, or removal of children from schools under a certain age, have all played a significant part in that process.

Hi Rosa -- On these points I'd recommend a well-mellowed Shiraz or Chardonnay.  Nothing too acidic.

Indeed I'm taking a 'purely' secular point of view.  It's the only one a secular democracy under the rule of law can coherently take, whatever its traditions or majority culture may be. 

Many democracies have well-established rules of "reasonable accommodation" that are perfectly plausible.  An employer will certainly have no grounds for going out of its way to frustrate religious practices beyond what is required for the job.  Ultimately, however, the qualifier 'reasonable' gives the game away -- that infinitely malleable standard will inevitably depend on particular contexts and circumstances.  To stray any further is to subvert democratic foundations: Do we count all 'religions'?  Or only religions that are sufficiently established (but then what does that mean?) or with enough adherents -- but then how many?  What counts as a religion?  Who decides what a religion requires?  A democratic state has no competence, and ought neither to seek nor to claim any competence in deciding those matters.  What it therefore maintains is a power to determine reasonable accommodation, even if it means that some must indeed choose between their faith and their preferred employment.

Again, on France, I agree that regulations outside spaces of state administration claim no obvious justification and the norm of laïcité ends up invoked with great rhetorical flourish but little substantive force. 

I know many will resent the analogy, but a choice in favour of the burka is like a choice in favour of sexual slavery or sexual masochism.  Yet people do make such choices.  As long as all parties concerned exercise free, informed, adult discretion and inflict no harm on a non-consenting party, a secular state can have no plausible grounds for impeding the choice.   Assuming no family or community coercion, a woman donning a burka is certainly exercising an individual choice, but the sheer fact that a woman exercises an individual choice in no way means she is eo ipso exercising a feminist choice -- no more than everything gays choose are gay choices, no more than everything Christians choose are Christian choices, no more than everything Marxists choose are Marxist choices; no more than everything ethical philosophers choose are ethical choices, and so forth.