Eheu fugaces

Here is a (very) loose, free translation of one of my favourite poems, Ode 2.14 by Horace. The original Latin follows, beneath the translation. Horace is poking fun at his friend Postumus for his religious devotion and materialist tendencies. I like it because it reminds us of our transience, and that we should enjoy life, not allow ourselves to be scared into seclusion.

 

Alas, Postumus, the fleeing years slip away;
Going to church won’t stave off
Wrinkles, looming senility, inevitable death,

However many offerings you make, my friend,
To pitiless Hades, whose dark sea
Hems in even superhuman monsters,

The sea we all must sail one day,
All of us who enjoy Earth’s gifts,
Be we bankers or beggars.

In vain we avoid terrorist hotspots,
In vain we refuse helicopter travel,
In vain we wear jumpers in autumn.

Visit the sluggish River Styx we must,
Underworld celebrity spotting,
Watching their eternal damnation.

You’ll have to leave your house, your charming spouse,
And you won’t take that garden with you,
Except those awful flowers they’ll put on your grave.

Your heir, so much worthier than you,
Will binge on that claret collection you’ve kept under lock and key,
Spilling it on your carpet; much more fun than communion wine.

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume,
labuntur anni, nec pietas moram
rugis et instanti senectae
adferet indomitaeque morti;

non, si trecenis, quotquot eunt dies,
amice, places illacrimabilem
Plutona tauris, qui ter amplum
Geryonen Tityonque tristi

compescit unda – scilicet omnibus,
quicumque terrae munere vescimur,
enaviganda, sive reges
sive inopes erimus coloni.

Frustra cruento Marte carebimus
fractisque rauci fluctibus Hadriae,
frustra per autumnos nocentem
corporibus metuemus Austrum.

Visendus ater flumine languido
Cocytos errans et Danai genus
infame damnatusque longi
Sisyphus Aeolides laboris.

LInquenda tellus et domus et placens
uxor, neque harum quas colis arborum
te praeter invisas cupressos
ulla brevem dominum sequetur.

Absumet heres Caecuba dignior
servata centum clavibus et mero
tinguet pavimentum superbo
pontificum potiore cenis.

Two Breakups and a Funeral

In the last year I have gone through two traumatic breakups and a painful bereavement.

Earlier this year, my partner of three years ended our relationship. I fell into a (thankfully short-lived) depression. I felt for a while as if my world had disintegrated, I felt rudderless. But on some level I knew that it had been necessary, that better times were ahead, that my ex had been brave to act, and that she was hurting too.

A year ago my father died. The loss of a parent is devastating and life-changing. But he had lived a full and long life, he was suffering, and so was my family. We all have to go one day. My dad’s day had come. My grief was laced with relief and acceptance.

Last week the UK chose to leave the European Union. This doesn’t feel the same. I don’t love the EU like I loved my father and my partner. But I do love it, and this is personal. I believe in the EU. I work as an EU public servant because of that belief – it is, to use an unfashionable word, my vocation. For at least thirty years it has been the leitmotiv to my life. And now my homeland has rejected it, possibly fatally wounding it. I am beside myself with anger and grief. This isn’t the euthanising of a loving but flawed relationship, nor the end to a loved one’s terminal suffering. This is a cold-hearted killing. The trigger was pulled by people who had no real understanding of what they were doing, and the gun was being pointed by cynical, manipulative narcissists and psychopaths. Around me I see shocked people in denial, anger, grief. I don’t know if I will ever progress to acceptance.

[Guest Post] Late Republican Rome and the UK today: a few thoughts

A bit of a departure for this blog – and a very exciting one – here is a guest post by my friend and fellow former classicist, Katie Low, on parallels between modern British and ancient late republican Roman politics.

As a British citizen living in Brussels, I have observed the events in the UK of the past week with dismay and, from Thursday afternoon onwards, utter horror. Some very striking historical parallels have been drawn: most notably, many people have compared the ‘Breaking Point’ poster unveiled by UKIP on Wednesday with images from a Nazi propaganda film. A consciousness of the past is only one of the many things that will, I hope, prevent what happened in the 1930s being played out again today: the apparent simplicity of such parallelisms is both helpful and unhelpful. History leaves us with as many questions as answers.

Being a western European born in the mid-1980s, however, with all the privilege that implies, I am struggling to find a frame of reference for what is happening. In no context have I ever witnessed the febrile atmosphere, the stunts that go beyond parody, the  hateful rhetoric expressed both in formal contexts and in a thousand different variations in the streets and online – and what now looks like the willingness to kill for (abhorrent) ideological reasons – that have gripped the UK. In my previous career I studied Roman history and historiography, and it is in the ancient past that I am trying to make sense of all this.

As I read about the past week’s events and the opinions they have generated I keep thinking of one particular period: the late Roman Republic, roughly the years between the defeat of Rome’s main rival Carthage in 146 BC and the civil wars ultimately won at the battle of Actium in 33 by the man who became the first emperor. Of course, as with the 1930s, ancient Rome cannot be easily mapped onto the present, and it is highly unlikely that the UK will end up with an Augustus of its own. But there are many individual points of comparison.

Several ancient historians supposed that the defeat of Carthage meant Romans could no longer focus on an external enemy and thus fell to fighting each other: in the UK, while polarised politics are of course nothing new, the ‘reliability’ of the Cold War has been replaced by perceived and real threats from many different sources. Then, as the first century BC drew on, powerful leaders such as Pompey, Crassus and Julius Caesar outgrew the confines of the hierarchical political system that the republic had maintained for centuries and began to establish their own popular power bases. Finally, while making a glib link between the unutterably tragic death of Jo Cox and the assassination of Caesar in 44 would be entirely wrong, I would stress that the latter event foreshadowed subsequent  political murders of emperors that achieved no systemic change and were generally carried out for less than noble motives.

It was another assassination, however, that the terrible thing that happened on Thursday first brought to mind. In 91 BC, another Roman politician was murdered, the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus (once again, I am not drawing  a detailed parallel with recent events: the specific cases are far more different than similar, but the broader similarities are what interest me). At this point, Rome was a troubled place. After the attempts of the 130s and 120s by the reforming tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus to ease inequality in Roman society had ended in civil unrest and their violent deaths, tension had continued to build, and additional strife was brewing amongst the city-states on the Italian peninsula who were allied to Rome but did not enjoy the privileges of citizenship.

Drusus, who as tribune represented the common people but, like virtually all magistrates, came from the upper classes, seems to have pursued a mixed programme. He proposed measures to reinforce the authority of the senate, but also a law that would have provided land for the impoverished working classes, and he also intended to grant citizenship to Rome’s Italian allies. The sources for this period are not comprehensive and his motives not entirely clear (he was not a straightforward popular champion), but his assassination by an unknown assailant unleashed armed revolt by the allied cities who saw no other way of gaining full recognition from Rome. The subsequent Social War (socius is Latin for ‘ally’) lasted three years and was destructive and bloody. Historians have disagreed over whether the independent confederation established by the allies was their ultimate aim or simply a base from which to fight for citizenship, but although it was eventually granted to them, the conflict segued into a full-blown Roman civil war, a precursor to the ones that ended the republic itself.

Once again, I do not believe this will happen in the UK: 91 BC and AD 2016 are very far apart in all kinds of ways. But I can’t help thinking they have elements in common. Inequality and disenfranchisement, mass and elite alienation, identity politics – indeed, the dichotomy between the Italian allies wanting to join Rome but on their preferred terms, and seeking to ‘go it alone’ as an independent nation, looks oddly familiar amid the current debate over British membership of the EU. As I said, history tends to provide more questions than answers. It suggests, though, that once conventional political stops offering solutions, things may never be the same again.

The Age of Unlightenment

This was the advice from my friend Mary this morning:unlightenmentA snapshot of where we are on the morning of 14 June 2016: a disturbed man apparently driven to self-hate murders fifty people in a club; populist politicians clamber over the corpses to score points; religious fundamentalists claim the atrocity for their own. A law firm boasts of its victory over families trying to secure a future for their children who have already been dealt a shit hand by life. And my country seems intent upon an unimaginably stupid act of self-harm, egged on by charlatans, liars, demagogues, and self-serving narcissists.

I feel as if I’m watching our civilisation’s lights dim. The Age of Unlightenment.

Twenty-two three

22 March is my sister’s birthday. Now, it’s something else too.

I was still getting ready to leave for work this morning when the news came in first about the bombs at Brussels airport – where I’d been at 11pm the previous night – and then at Maelbeek metro station, just a short distance from my flat. Jo begged me to stay at home, and that’s probably what I should have done, but I didn’t. I walked in to work along eerily normal streets where the people I see every day looked like they always look, or perhaps just a little bemused and quiet. Police cars with men wearing balaclavas tear past, sirens wailing. But that’s another thing we see fairly often in my part of town, given the regular Summits. I get to the office and once I’m at my desk it feels fairly normal. I check Twitter and Facebook. Friends all over the world are messaging me to ask if I’m OK. I feel like a fraud. I’m in the middle of this thing but basically I’m just fine, unaffected. And then I start to cry. I can’t explain it. Fifteen people are dead at the metro station I can see out of my window. People are dead at the airport I flew into yesterday night. It could so very, very easily have been me. But it wasn’t. I feel guilt. I feel disconnection. I feel very strange. I dread finding out who has in fact been killed, and injured. This is a small town, this will touch us all.

Nearly fifteen years ago, days after 9/11, I was in a large crowd gathered on rue de la Loi outside the Berlaymont and the Justus Lipsius to show solidarity and sympathy with America. Fifteen years later, I look out of my window at the same view. There are barricades, I count at least a dozen armed police, and I can see four soldiers in full body armour carrying assault rifles. If Osama Bin Laden could see this he would say to himself “mission accomplished”.

demos

That “demos” thing

Sooner or later, every Brexit debate hits the “demos” wall. The following conversation is a classic example:

 

Its critics will say that the European Union is not democratic, and therefore lacks legitimacy. Its defenders will contest this, as I did in this post. We claim that, actually, it has all the characteristics of a healthy democracy, and arguably then some (compared to certain EU Member States). No no, its critics argue, none of these characteristics count because they are meaningless without a “demos”. The EU, they say, doesn’t have a demos; and so it can’t be a democracy.

This is a tautology and a circular argument. They criticise us for not being democratic while in the same breath arguing that we cannot be democratic by definition, and that we should therefore not even try. The very fact that we try seems to be what infuriates them. The more the EU attempts to advance its democratic credentials, the more state-like it seems, the more we anger those who insist that sovereignty and statehood must be limited to existing nation states. Why? we ask. BECAUSE DEMOS, they yell, as if this is self-evident (which to them apparently it is).

For a long time now I have wanted to tackle this argument, but I have never found the right way to come at it. I think it’s because we are simply talking past each other, in different languages. Theirs is the emotional language of nationalism, I think, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. What defines a “demos”? The Oxford English Dictionary definition says that a demos is “the populace as a political unit, especially in a democracy”, which hardly helps – what defines a “political unit”? If the EU has all the trappings of a political unit, then isn’t it one? By specifically excluding the UK from the quest for “ever closer political union”, has David Cameron effectively excluded the UK from an EU demos and thereby validated the “out” camp’s argument in a bizarre form of Pyrrhic victory?

We need to dig deeper. What makes people feel that they belong to a political unit? Is it language? Several EU Member States have more than one official language and all certainly have citizens whose first language is not the majority language – are those citizens excluded from the national “demos”? Is it a shared history? Clearly not, I won’t even bother dismantling that argument but will simply point to Norman Davies’ excellent book Vanished Kingdoms. Perhaps it’s shared culture? That’s also hard to argue in our multicultural and yet monocultural modern world. I’ve come to the conclusion that a demos is self-defining and therefore largely meaningless unless you are already part of that self-selected demos. Playing the “demos” card is like playing the joker, it only works if everyone playing the game has agreed a common set of rules.

I could end this post here. But that would be a touch too dismissive. Clearly, this does mean something to lots of people, and I have to try to understand. Many people feel disconnected from the European tier of government and have no sense that they belong to a continental “demos” or political community. Evidence for this is the poor turnout at European elections, with many of those who do vote tending to do so on national issues. Clearly, many of us in Brussels feel defensive about this and so we invest a lot of effort in creating democratic institutions and attempting to communicate more effectively with citizens. (On this subject, see Jon Worth’s article on the EU’s efforts at comms.)

Not having a magic solution to offer, let me instead offer these thoughts, in no particular order:

  • The harder we try to legitimise EU government by giving it the trappings of democracy, the less people seem to like it. So why do we bother?
  • Are we not falling into the populist trap of fetishising democracy? (By which I mean misrepresenting our representative democracy as a direct one, and glorifying the people’s actually rather limited though important safeguarding role in the complex process of modern government – which I talk about here.)
  • In a functional, modern state there are multiple tiers of government which each have legitimacy with a given ‘political unit’ (or demos), and we are all as citizens members of more than one demos. The trouble with the people who claim that the EU has no demos is that they actively choose to exclude themselves from that demos; and I think that these are generally the same people who dismiss the other tiers of government too. These are the Westminster exceptionalists who get in a tizzy over the West Lothian Question. They cannot see the wood for the trees. I can’t lose any sleep over their inability to see the bigger picture, and it would be a crying shame if they took the UK out of the EU because of their tunnel vision.
populism_-cover(1)

The referendum’s silver lining

Still early days, but so far I’m finding this referendum campaign less of an ordeal than I expected.

This morning, a friend said to me “this whole farce must be very frustrating for you.” But it isn’t. Negativity, misinformation, and ignorance has long been the norm when it comes to the UK’s public debate about the EU, and I am used to it. Refreshingly, we are now also hearing the other side.

I blame the media far more than I blame politicians for the years of toxic negativity. There are many principled British politicians who make the case for the EU but who have not been heard because the media does not give them a platform. There are principled politicians on the ‘out’ side too, who truly believe that the UK would be better off outside the EU (I am quite sure they are wrong, but I respect their opinions and am happy to debate them). But these are not the politicians to whom the media gives a platform, either.

Seen from an outsider’s perspective, the UK’s mass media seems to have lost touch with the principles of sound journalism, confusing business imperatives with journalistic imperatives. What matter are circulation figures, viewer figures, listener numbers, page hits. EU-bashing sells papers, therefore it must be right. We are reaching the logical conclusion of our fetishisation of democracy, interpreted in a literal and simplistic fashion. People power is what counts. Have your say! Vote in our online poll! The results of which become the news.

Chris Morris beautifully skewered the vox pop as a news tool in The Day Today, but twenty years later it has become a core ingredient of modern ‘journalism’. In a world where focus groups and call-in shows set the political agenda, it’s small wonder that we now refer complex and weighty policy decisions on the future of our country to a referendum.

murdoch

This is the world of the Daily Mail and UKIP; this is why Nigel Farage appears on Question Time more often than, say, Catherine Bearder, or Douglas Carswell for that matter. Euromyths sell newspapers; fearmongering generates page hits. Demonising the EU makes business sense for the red tops (and some of the broadsheets), and in our confrontational, bipolar, first-past-the-post beauty contest of a democracy, the market leader is also the opinion leader. There may well be more sinister reasons for press barons to denigrate the EU, but regardless of this, our system is skewed towards populism. This is why we are having a reckless and risky referendum on the UK’s future; and incidentally it’s why our cousins across the pond are now presented with the real risk of a populist President.

trump

Donald Trump – popular

My critics will tell me that I am guilty of paternalism and elitism. This is a lazy defence of populism. We live in a representative democracy, not an Athenian-style direct democracy (thank God). General elections are there as a safety valve, so that the people can remove an executive which seriously underperforms. But we appoint an executive to govern on our behalf – we do not govern directly, because as ineffective as that was in an ancient agrarian society it would be simply ridiculous in a complex modern society.

So where is the silver lining? Here it comes: this referendum has finally given a platform to the moderates. The media’s obsession with ‘balance’ can be infuriating when we see a swivel-eyed climate sceptic given airtime alongside scientists; but in this referendum campaign we are finally hearing from the ‘pro’ side of the argument. After literally decades of overwhelming negativity, the UK media is at long last also giving coverage to the people who are making the case for the EU. Personally, I am finding it wonderfully refreshing.

There is another upside to what I guess we should call the popularisation of the news: the rise of social media. As our society has careered from one extreme (elitism) to the other (populism), the undue weight given to poorly-informed popular opinion is balanced to a degree by the decline in relevance of the mainstream media. The Daily Mail might sell the most papers, Question Time might have Nigel Farage on again, but we are using Twitter and Facebook and we see that we are not the only ones who have a problem with what we are hearing on the television and radio and reading in the press.

Boris “Outs” himself as a fan of electoral reform – or is he just a massive hypocrite?

So it seems that Boris will be the figurehead of the Out campaign. Today he writes in the Telegraph that:

That is what we mean by loss of sovereignty – the inability of people to kick out, at elections, the men and women who control their lives. We are seeing an alienation of the people from the power they should hold, and I am sure this is contributing to the sense of disengagement, the apathy, the view that politicians are “all the same” and can change nothing, and to the rise of extremist parties.

Boris

I love this new Boris with his passionate concern for citizens, his belief in democracy, his frustration on our behalf at our inability to kick out our rulers. I have every confidence in him that he will carry on from here to crusade for electoral reform and rid us of the wicked First Past The Post system which disenfranchises the vast majority of British voters. Good for you Boris!

 

btl

 

I mean, he must mean FPTP, right? He surely can’t mean the EU…

 

Banning town-hall boycotts: a pillow to the face of UK local democracy

The UK government is planning to make it illegal for any organisation that receives public funds to boycott goods from a given company or country. So it would be against the law for, say, a university student union to boycott products from an illegal Israeli settlement, or for a local authority to blacklist a company that exports products which could be used in torture.

The government argues that these so-called “town hall boycotts” amount to “local foreign policies” which are “undermining our national security”. (Presumably the London Borough of Havering’s “local foreign policy” presents no such threat to national security). There will be “severe penalties” for any organisation or institution which breaks the new law.

There is a rich tradition in the UK of local activism targeting bad guys by hitting them in their pockets. Some would say that the grassroots boycott of South African products contributed to the end of apartheid. Certainly, voting with your wallet can be a way to feel that you are actively helping a cause.

Of course, the new rules would not stop an individual from maintaining his or her personal boycott – they would not take away your right to choose, even if the money in your pocket found its way there via the public purse (say as benefits, or a public sector salary). I, civil servant though I am, will not court arrest by ruling out Hewlett Packard next time I’m in the market for a new printer. Nor will organisations be banned from mounting their own boycotts as long as those organisations are not publicly funded. In fact, rules for public institutions already exist. Under international and EU public procurement rules, it is illegal to discriminate against countries which qualify for equal treatment, as long as the public contract being offered is worth over a certain ‘threshold’ value. Leicester City Council can’t exclude Israeli bidders from service/goods contracts worth more than around €175,000, for example. But what the government is proposing here seems to go well beyond existing public procurement rules. I don’t think this stems from a wish to promote free trade. I think it’s about forcing local government to bow to the wishes of central government. It’s another illustration of a general problem in British public life: a sense of entitlement and exceptionalism on the part of Westminster and Whitehall, our national tier of government.

Let me expand on this point. In 2014 I wrote about the West Lothian Question and why it shouldn’t even arise in a properly functioning federal state. This policy announcement is another symptom of Westminster’s refusal to cede democratic ground to other actors. The government will presumably argue that it has every right to say how public money should be spent as it draws its legitimacy from its victory in the general election. But Leicester City Council was also elected. And the NUS leadership is elected. Their policies reflect the will of the people who voted for them, and are as legitimate, democratically, as anything cooked up by Tory SpAds. The fact that central government controls the purse strings does not give it greater legitimacy, it simply gives it greater power.

The UK’s central government advocates localism and devolution, but without the meaningful empowerment of local government by devolving budgetary powers that advocacy is specious. Until it has the power to raise taxes and then spend those taxes as it sees fit, local government remains effectively an executive branch of central government. In a federal country like Canada, the national (‘federal’) and local (‘provincial’) tiers of government share the tax you pay. About a third of your income tax goes directly to the province where you live; and most of the sales tax you pay also goes to the province. Canada’s constitution defines what the federal government can spend money on, and what the provincial government can spend money on. The federal government cannot tell the provincial government what to do with its money. And, unlike devolved UK local authorities, Canadian provinces can borrow money and run a deficit.

In the UK, only a much smaller proportion of your tax bill is paid directly to local government (in the form of the far more regressive Council Tax, which is in any case capped by central government). Local authorities still get most of their money in the form of grants from central government. Devolution is happening, but in a piecemeal way, region by region, without an over-arching constitutional framework to enshrine local government’s budgetary powers. The next few years will see drastic cuts in central government funding to local government, with local authorities unable to borrow and having only limited revenue-raising powers to make up the shortfall: central government will continue to call the shots on how local councils can set business rates, for example, and increases to Council Tax are capped at 2% (councils need to hold and then win a referendum to exceed this cap). And, regardless of where the money comes from, most local government spending is statutory, leaving little scope for discretionary expenditure. So when you vote in a local election in the UK, what exactly is it that you’re voting for?

Jeremy Corbyn has called the proposed ban on town-hall boycotts “an attack on local democracy”. Yes, it is, but then what kind of local democracy do we have in the UK anyway? With only limited competence to raise and then spend money, one of the few ways in which the UK’s elected local politicians can execute meaningful policies is by determining how a local authority’s budget is spent within the narrow space still permitted by our controlling central government. By threatening “severe penalties” for local politicians who take such initiatives, central government wants to shut down that space too.

The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016 promises great things, but it’s hard to trust central government to give real power to local politicians. We saw in the 1980s how Westminster will go to great lengths to muffle its democratically elected enemies in local government, and this move to ban town-hall boycotts has a whiff of déjà-vu about it. Can we expect a majority Conservative government to stand back when devolved local government takes action against austerity?