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Conventional wisdom is no guide to the future in an age of turmoil and surprise

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, November 13th 2019

UK general elections are never about one single subject even when politicians try to define them as such. Ted Heath’s ‘Who governs Britain?’ election of February 1974 became about the state of the country, and Winston Churchill’s belief after the war in Europe ended in 1945 that he would be elected by a grateful electorate turned out to be illusive as voters instead looked to the future.

Similarly this election will not be about just one issue – Brexit. In Scotland there are three big competing issues; and of course much more besides. There is Brexit, who speaks for anti-Tory Scotland, and the independence question.

No one party speaks for majority Scotland across all three. The SNP are the leading party in the first two – positioning themselves as the biggest force in significant sized majorities. But they do not, as of yet, speak for a majority of Scotland on the third issue – independence – which matters most to them.

It is increasingly evident that the ghosts of past elections and limits of what passes for conventional wisdom run through how this election is seen. Thus, 2019 is continually interpreted through the experience of 2017 and the memory of the Corbyn surge – both by Labour Corbyn supporters and many media watchers. Read the rest of this entry »

Letter from America: Civil society matters more than who wins elections in the UK, US and elsewhere

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, November 6th 2019

Britain from afar looks very unhappy and divided. This much is obvious from the USA – not exactly a benign, peaceful, harmonious world itself. But in its media coverage, and the people I have spoken to in the past week, there is a universal understanding that things are not going well in the USA or the UK.

Everybody I have spoken to in America has heard of Brexit, knows that Boris Johnson is UK Prime Minister and that he wants to get the UK out of the EU as quickly as possible. Yet even more than that – amongst some of the detailed conversations I had some of which were in the most unlikely situations – with people in Boston, in wider Massachusetts and upstate New York, there was an impressive understanding of the bitter UK divisions on Brexit, and the faultlines and fissures pulling the country apart in myriad directions.

A young twenty-something barman, Peter, in Woodstock, MA, reflected on the democratic engagement of Scotland’s 2014 indyref, its high turnout, and recognised that it was still a live issue – ‘Are you going to have a second indyref?’ he asked. The conversation begun when I indicated I was from Scotland and he revealed that he planned to come to Edinburgh in 2020 to undertake a PhD on democracy in Tibet and Bhutan. He was of firm belief that the Scottish experience offered lessons for others, and had a global relevance. Read the rest of this entry »

Letter from America: Let’s Stop Looking to America for the Future

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, October 30th 2019

‘You don’t know how lucky you are. Never take your democracy for granted. You don’t realise what it’s worth until it’s too late.’

Mikola Statkevich, former Belarusian Presidential candidate, 2015

America likes to think of itself as the shining light on the hill, as the exemplar in the whole world of life, liberty and happiness. Yet the America of today is increasingly turning it back on such a version of itself.

This is a dysfunctional, divided, unhappy society, increasingly not at ease with itself, let alone the wider world. Whereas once America offered the vision of a society of upward prosperity, supposed classlessness and life chances, it now looks like a version of a future which no longer works for most. In this its fraught politics mirror a society and capitalism which only work for the elites.

On the surface American society, whether prosperous city centres, places of tech innovation and comfortable suburbs, still seems to work. This is after all still the richest country in the world in terms of GDP according to IMF figures for 2019. But in terms of GDP per capita it is seventh and slowly slipping – with Luxembourg in first place, followed by Norway, Switzerland and Ireland. Read the rest of this entry »

The Last UK General Election Ever? Or the Last Bar One?

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, October 27th 2019

Boris Johnson on Monday makes what is his third attempt to get the votes to call a UK general election – needing 434 votes to win a two-thirds majority under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

This piece was written before the moves by the Lib Dems and SNP to bring about an election on December 9th via a simple, single line bill. This may have more chance of succeeding later this week. But whether it does or does not it doesn’t invalidate the arguments below about an election in the last months of 2019 versus early 2020.

Today we are 1,222 days after the 2016 Brexit vote. It has been a long, gruesome ordeal – longer than the totemic, heroic and bloody 872 day siege of Leningrad. But unlike that moment in history there is no end in sight to Brexit any day soon. Even if the Boris Johnson Brexit Bill or another deal made it through the Commons there are years more of deliberations, possibly lasting over a decade, still to endure.

Boris Johnson governs, if that is the right word, without a parliamentary majority. But he created this situation – despite his many complaints about it. He started with a notional majority of three; it is now minus 45. He leads an administration which took away the whip from 21 Tory MPs. Despite this in the past week, his government saw its Brexit Bill get a second reading with a majority of 30 and its forgotten Queen’s Speech with a majority of 16. Read the rest of this entry »

Tony Blair and the Road from Baghdad to Boris Johnson’s Brexit

Gerry Hassan

Open Democracy, October 26th 2019

Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and others from the New Labour era have of late been on our airwaves talking endlessly of the evils of Brexit and the need for a second referendum on Europe. But seldom if ever do they publicly reflect on their own disastrous role in fanning the flames which led to the current Brexit debacle.

Blair and Campbell advocated and led the case for the Iraq war – an illegal war based on a campaign of disinformation, deceit and lies that distorted the processes of government decision-making. In so doing, apart from contributing to untold deaths and misery as well as Middle East instability, in the UK they fed the corrosion of public trust and standards in public life.

We now know that the Iraq conflict was an illegal war – based on the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith’s legal advice of March 7th 2003 which he reversed ten days later. Without the Iraq war, public cynicism and distrust would not have reached the incendiary levels it did. Iraq did systematic harm to the progressive case for government, and the case for social democratic, interventionist government with the intention of aiding the public good. Read the rest of this entry »

The People’s Flag and the Union Jack: An Alternative History of Britain and the Labour Party
Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and thinker about Scotland, the UK, politics and ideas. more >
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