Thursday, 30 June 2016

Seek first to understand...

A week before the EU referendum, I wrote on here why I was voting Leave. A week after the referendum, I'm going to reflect on the result, why I think it happened, and what happens next.

I'm not normally a fan of American-written management textbooks, but one in which I have found quite a lot to admire over the years has been Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People". (NB - definitely not claiming I'm 'highly effective' here; would be happy with 'moderately useful' frankly). His Habit Five is "seek first to understand, then to be understood". The gist of this 'habit' is pretty clear from its name, and the theory underlying it focuses on what it calls empathic listening - listening not just to the words people use, but their underlying messages. I have to say that among all the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth I've seen from Remainers in the last week, there hasn't been much empathic listening, just explanations of why they're so right. Why is this important? Because if they - and more importantly those that aspire to lead us in future - were to do this, they'd get a much clearer idea of why the vote went the way it did last week, and the objectives they need to pursue now.

So let's clear one thing up first. I don't regret the way I voted last week, far from it in fact, despite the fact that I, in common with many of the 50+ age group who voted Leave, find myself nominally worse off financially as a result in the decline of some asset values.  I still believe that the EU is fundamentally not just undemocratic, but anti-democratic, and unless it changes radically (which last week's vote may just encourage it to do, in which case the UK will have helped rescue Europe from a big mess for the third time in a century), it will fall apart in a very bad way indeed - just like most other autocratic empires - making the events in the job and financial markets of the last week look like tea at the Ritz in comparison - and we'll have had chance to position ourselves outside that mess comfortably in advance.

Concern for democracy is the most popular reason it appears from post-referendum surveys for people voting Leave. Good, that's right. Does it mean that I and others don't think the EU has done some good things over the years, that it's staffed by bright and well-meaning people, that in its original form it does much to stabilise post-WW2 Europe, and that choosing to leave isn't going to be difficult process with some upheaval? No, it doesn't. But does it mean that I, and seventeen million, others, are terminally-stupid, culturally-closed, foreigner-hating fools who want to turn the clock back? An even more emphatic No. I can't believe I'm even having to write these words, but such is the level of vituperation of the last week directed by the minority towards the majority, it feels necessary.

So what happened last week? Were all of the seventeen million of us who voted Leave seized by high-minded ideals of democracy and representation, choosing principles over pragmatism? Probably not. But one thing united us - we chose not to take the advice of the government of the day, the official Opposition, the parties of devolved government in Wales and Scotland, most big businesses, the Bank of England, and the actors, journalists and activists who between them seem to propagate the morally acceptable opinions of the day (and by implication, create the morally unacceptable positions of those who disagree). Mixing my eras and media, the Leavers were a mix that included Sir Bufton-Tuftons, Vicky Pollards, Hyacinth Bouquets and Andy Capps. In other words, Left and Right, old and young, thick and intelligent. Probably not unlike Remainers.

But they all rejected something. Why? There'll be different reasons and combinations of reasons for everybody of course, but let's take Hyacinth as an example, as I think I know a few Hyacinths. She has never voted Labour, apart from 1997 when she nearly voted for that nice Mr Blair, and probably never will, certainly while that funny man who looks like a geography teacher is in charge. Her life in retirement is pretty comfortable, though she's a bit irritated by how low interest rates are on her modest savings. But a couple of things really get her goat. First, she doesn't go to the doctor often, but when she needs an appointment, it seems to be so much harder than 20 years ago, and the queues when she gets there! Second, while she quite likes it that her house is worth so much, she just doesn't see how her grandchildren are ever going to be able to afford to get on the housing ladder. She just thinks that if there were fewer immigrants here, these things would be much easier.

Hyacinth isn't racist; in fact she really like the Singhs who live next door but one. But she's profoundly mistaken in her analysis of why she can't get a doctor's appointment, and why her grandkids can't buy a house. In the case of the former, it's a complex web of reasons that include the various NHS re-organisations over the years, the continuing imbalance of producer interest versus patient outcome, and the misguided withdrawal of other support services in recent years. In the case of the latter, it's patently the result of an artificially-constrained supply side. In both cases, the level of immigration has got virtually nothing to do with it, and in fact with the NHS, the situation would probably be worse without immigration.

But Hyacinth doesn't see that - she reaches for the answer that appears obvious in front of her eyes; immigration. She may be wrong, but her view is that the 'deal' she thought she had with successive governments is broken - word hard, pay your 'stamp', get access to state-provided health and education, be able to buy a house; all that just doesn't seem to apply any more, and hasn't for some time. She'd never vote Labour (or Lib Dem, or Green,or anything else) to protest, so last week was her big chance.....and she took it. As did Andy Capp, who's seen his income as a manual worker decline in real terms over the last 25 years (despite that being as much to do with the general effects of globalisation as immigration, and despite him helping elect three successive Labour governments that should have been "for him"), as did Bufton Tufton, who "didn't serve in the Army in the '50s to see Britain's laws handed over to Brussels". These people didn't vote for the outcome recommended to them by their natural political party, because their view is that their party has let them down in recent times, and last week was a good chance to protest about that.

So the politicians that are truly worth their salt should see this. They'll understand that many, if not most people, haven't got a problem with immigration or immigrants per se, it's their perceived effects; that being able to travel and work freely in the EU isn't worth a candle to them if they haven't got a job or their family can't afford a house; and that the stock market going down a bit just isn't on their radar. Those politicians will then understand what deal needs to be put in place with the EU, but more importantly, much more importantly, what also needs to be done in policy terms for those people to be prepared to listen to the political classes again.

But those politicians, whatever the colour of their rosettes, will need to do some empathic listening first, not just mouth platitudes about 'listening to the voters'. They've been saying those things for years, but the sentiments haven't been supported by action, and look where it got them - ignored. They'll need to seek first to understand, before they can then be understood.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

I voted Leave. Here's why.

We're a week away from the EU referendum. Having a postal vote, I've already voted, and as the title of this suggests, I voted Leave. Let me explain why.

First, let's go through the reasons that didn't influence me. They include the economic arguments. Economists, frankly, are pretty bad at forecasting anything even in clear circumstances with a limited time horizon, so the idea that any of them can be clear what might happen under either outcome of the referendum, and certainly ten years from now, is laughable. That said, I have found the Remain side's suggestions as to where the economy might go to be the more ludicrous.

Next, it's not because I'm a 'Little Englander', or "a little bit racist", or any of the other more insulting accusations from the Remain side (I choose to live abroad for some of the time for goodness sake; I also choose to work in a job that necessitates spending time in possibly the most multi-cultural city on the world). Let's lump immigration into this as well. I have no problem with immigration, it's part-and-parcel of our history. I do have a bit of a problem with the selective immigration that the EU entails, and the fact that there's a total disconnect between immigration policy and public sector planning systems, particularly for health and education, but that's as maybe - one of the Leave side's arguments that I find most spurious is the one that net immigration can be reduced significantly simply as a result of leaving the EU; it probably could be, but not without a) accepting that we wouldn't have unfettered access to the Single Market, and b) radically reforming our social security policies.

I also didn't vote Leave because I'm overly concerned about the sovereignty of the British parliament. It seems to me that on the things that really matter (how we tax and spend, whether we go to war, etc.), we have plenty of autonomy - even if the EU does create an unnecessary bureaucratic burden for small businesses, which is what the anecdotal evidence does suggest. So nope, that's not it either.

There are two related reasons why I voted Leave: democracy and history. Let's take democracy - despite the fact we have MEPs and a European Parliament, I believe the EU is anything but democratic. There are several examples of this, ranging from how it creates law, to how it's managed the problems of the euro. On the former, unlike regular parliamentary democracies, where parties are elected on a manifesto of proposed policies and laws, all our representatives in Brussels and Strasbourg can do is review, amend and block proposed legislation that is created by the Commission - it cannot create its own. The constitutional position is not exactly the same as the House of Parliament/House of Lords in the UK, but it's not a million miles apart either.

But there's more to it than just the EU's structures and law-making process - it's the approach and attitude of the people that run it too. Jean-Claude Juncker said in 2015 "there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties", and that, for me, says everything; no choice about the continuation of the euro currency, no matter what hardships that creates, no choice about ever-closer integration, despite the clear will against that even in traditionally strongly pro-EU countries, like France, where I write this, and no choice about...well, who knows what else, which is part of the problem.

It's all very well taking a noble view of whether the system is democratic or not, but it would be quite reasonable to question whether that's really more important than the long term prosperity of the UK, and everywhere else for that matter. It is - and history tells us why. And it is that among countries who have a reasonably well-established history of democracy and the rule of law - and you can count most of the longer-serving EU members in that category, to a greater or lesser extent - powerful governmental institutions that aren't rooted in democratic principles, and especially ones with an expansionist agenda, will eventually fall, or be overthrown, or be fatally ignored. And when they do, they leave a heck of a mess behind them. I don't quite know what that mess will look like, though at its best it'll be severe economic trauma, of the kind we've already seen in Greece, and at its worst, well, perhaps best not to think about that... I believe that will happen to the EU sooner or later, and when it does, the UK will be far, far better placed if it's had some time on its own in the world, creating its own new set of alliances, treaties and agreements.

The argument that I found most persuasive in favour of Remain was put forward by the owner of the consulting firm I work with. He, a 50-something, generally right-wing, small business owner, said that while his head told him to leave, he feared that doing so would bring about the demise of the EU, and he didn't want that on his conscience, so he'd be voting Remain. I see his point, but I think the UK's exit will merely accelerate, rather than cause, the EU's disintegration, for all the above reasons.

So there we are. I don't think leaving will mean the UK is 'turning its back on the world'; I want it to do precisely the opposite. I want it to forge a new identity and a new way of being that still includes lots of people coming to our shores from abroad, in a way that makes it the best place in the world to live, work, be ill, be healthy, be creative, and do business. We have got it in us.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

A leap into the dark...

No, not a blog about the EU referendum (though that might follow tomorrow), but one about the potential perils of press-ganging a spouse into doing something that's not her usual tasse de thé.

Yes, this week me and the long-suffering missus spent four days riding our bicycles round the borders of Normandy and Brittany in France. We were racking our brains to try to think of the longest ride she'd ever done before. 16 miles up and down a pan-flat canal towpath was our best recollection, though her more regular trips are the 2.5 miles into town and the same returning. So to plan to do 130 miles in 3.5 days over - at least initially - undulating terrain was quite ambitious. How would the sit bones cope? Would cramp ensue? With panniers on the back would we end up walking up every incline? And then there was her to consider...

Well, the fact I'm sitting here writing this means she didn't kill me. There have been a couple of kilometre-long hills when murderous thoughts could have been occurring to her, but she kept schtum, popped it in a low gear (taking my "spin, don't grind" advice fully on board), and emerged triumphant at the top. Day 1 turned out to be 40 miles, 2200 feet of climbing in temperatures of 22c plus, with reasonably full panniers - a sterling effort for a first 'proper' day in the saddle. Especially when added to a morning bee sting on, erm, her front panniers shall we say.

It helped, however, that we were, as usual, in some gorgeous French countryside. Very quickly, Day 1 was Combourg to Ducey, a lovely small town just to the south-east of Avranches; Day 2 was Ducey to Dol-de-Bretagne via the coast road round the Bay of Mont St. Michel, and included a trip onto the Mont itself, braving the tourist hordes to do so; Day 3 was Dol to Saint Suliac via lunch at the lovely fishing (and gastronomic heaven) port of Cancale, and Day 4 was Saint Suliac back to Combourg. I'm not going to tell you anything about Saint Suliac or else you might want to go to one of the officially Plus Beaux Villages de France, and that would never do. It must stay a hidden gem, just for locals...

There were no days as hilly as the first, though 44 miles, no lunch, and higher temperatures on Day 2 meant the only unplanned "Right! We're stopping here!" moment. The weather was good throughout, apart from 30 minutes light rain on the final morning, we stayed in some nice places (both places and lodgings themselves), and we ate well, and lunch on Day 2 aside, often. We had no punctures, mechanicals, or offs. And we had, of course, French lanes on routes that I'd planned quite carefully, with all their sights, smells and characters. Cycling on French back roads remains my favourite thing in the world to do, ever.

So, a really good week. Will we do it again? Too early to say I guess. At least next time it won't be a leap into the dark.

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