Polygonic

That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Let’s dream a bigger dream, Yes People

I like the Yes People. Who wouldn’t? They’ve got a fantastically daring vision, and they’re unafraid to upset the status quo in favour of creating a society that’s more just. They seem like builders. With all their zeal to engage the world as a blank slate rather than an inherited order, I think I’d like most Yes People quite a lot.

It’s just too bad the size of their dream is so small.

Building a new, independent state is no small feat, but it is a small, unradical and unprogressive dream. The Westphalian nation-state – really? An old-fogey fetish that fortifies and glorifies an ancient concept of ethnicity, defining itself against others, dividing itself from common cause across many nations? Why are Yes People, from Scotland to Quebec to Catalonia, so obsessed with gifting the world another thing as horrible as this?

It seems funny. Yes People express a fantastic, radical positivity about what politics ought to be, but the anachronistic solution of nationalism is just so poor. Recognising that the old order is corrupt and elitist and impossibly out of touch is one thing – the prospect of carving out a unique island of self-reliant justice, though, smells like something else.

Nationalism, but the good kind

The coincidence of nationalism and social democratic optimism has always seemed uncomfortable to me. Because to choose the former as a means of achieving the latter does suggest something contradictory, and a bit awful – that one people are actually inherently more just than another. That the borders once drawn up by monarchs, generals and ancient elites continue to be valid boundaries for whole ways of thinking and looking at the world. While Yes People are relentlessly progressive in some senses, they’re also basing the separatist project on the implicit assumption that those across the border aren’t capable partners in making a fairer world. We, the exclusive we, are fairer by design.

If that itself sounds unfair, I’d welcome the counterargument. To me, the big positive dream has to be bigger than drawing new lines between ourselves in the naive hope that our most familiar neighbours are fairer than the rest – the big positive dream is to say that borders themselves represent the worst of the old world, and that something more interdependent, and more social, and more purely civic can be built on top of the kingdoms of centuries gone by. Let’s get a dream going that we can all rally round, regardless of race, language or geography.

Dreaming bigger dreams

What are some examples? The big one that Yes People recognise is that Westminster itself is deeply, deeply flawed. I mean deeply. It’s upper house is a gaggle of unelected partisan hacks and millionaire donors. It seems to govern for the whole country on odd days and for London and the South East on even days. And, when political crises hit (like, the very Scottish referendum itself), it suddenly lurches planlessly into ad hoc distributions of powers, spraying them against the squeaky wheel in a mad, oily, last-minute panic. Let’s be honest – the Mother of All Parliaments is a letch and a dunce and it needs a good kick up the backside.

So a fairer, federal, devolved, de-Westminsterised country is in order. Let’s do it! We can federalise the country into English regions, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each with regional authorities commanding meaty constitutional powers. We can decimate the Lords (not literally – we’re not monsters, after all) by cutting the upper house to a tenth of its size and ensuring all future members are elected by region – mixed-member constituencies, shall we? We can cut the Commons by half, too, since half their work will be run by the regions, and we could field out half the civil service to the regions as well. Bring authority as close to people as you can, draw it up in a written constitution, and proceed as a country that works as a proper, future-orientated democratic concert of powers – not as a chew-toy for the Bullingdon Club.

That kind of reform sounds like a big, mad,impossible dream. But a dream, I think, that’s suitably big for the energies of the Yes People.

Some think that the UK is just an irredeemable thing, and that carving ourselves into ethno-bits is the best approach for everyone. George Monbiot, in classic contrarian form, is one English advocate of Yes, though he too is dreaming the smaller dream. In wondering how a modern, independent Scotland might vote in a hypothetical referendum to join the UK, he says that no nation in any healthy condition would ever volunteer to cede power to a larger polity. I’m a social democratic pro-European, so I obviously think he’s missed a pretty big point. Just as I want the UK to stay together, I do want the UK to then also plunge more deeply into the European system – not because we’re a desperate country, and not because I like the EPP politics of Barroso and Juncker, but because Europe needs more social democrats. We’re obliged not to simply fold our arms, slink off and leave Brussels to it – and so I’d say the same to the Yes People. Get in. Muck about. Change things for the better, not the smaller.

If only CEOs were on the ballot…

My biggest fear about the big dreams of the Yes People is that the thrill of nationhood is the real driver, and that disenchantment with how the UK functions is just the cloth within which to couch a more basic, brute form of face-painted nationalism. Admittedly, there’s something a bit underwhelming about committing to long-haul constitutional reform of the UK, and indeed the whole of Europe, as compared with the sheer excitement of celebrating an Independence Day for its own sake.

But in a world where Toyota has more economic clout than the Czech Republic, Independence Days are increasingly expensive vanities. However unaccountable Westminster looks from here, transnational corporations are most certainly worse. Better off for people to pool our powers within a big, muscular, interdependent, multinational democracy than to cut ourselves into little bits – or it won’t just be the annoyances of a too-distant capital that will nudge at our local sensibilities, but the companies without capitals, able to bully and coerce the small states at will. United, as they say, we stand.

Going Real Proper-like Big

So, Yes People, let’s go bigger than Scotland. Let’s work to change the UK and the whole of the EU, as an active, confident member of each. Driving reform, forcing fairness, equality and investment in people, and pushing for a system that people are actually happy to vote for. Anyone who thinks it can’t be done, I hate to say, isn’t really a proper Yes Person at all.

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Filed under: Politics, UK, , , , , ,

“I didn’t know!” – the death throes of a desperate squirmer

The Conservatives are losing their favourite, time-tested tactic to reset public opinion: just say the word “sponsorship.”

For seven long years, anytime they could be criticised for ethical lapses, for cronyism and corruption, for pork and for secrecy (in a word, umm, always), they could simply refer back to “sponsorship” and be assured that the public would growl at horrific memories of Liberal sleaze, and we’d remind ourselves how grateful we should be that things are, at the very least, not that bad.

Except that they are. And you know that they are when a Prime Minister not only refutes something, not only ignores something, but says he “didn’t know about it.”

Paul Martin “didn’t know” about sponsorship. Jean Chrétien “didn’t know” either. The entire scandal was supposed to come down to the over-zealous shenanigans of backroom functionaries, whose fealty to their Party blinded them to fair play – and, in their fealty, they also knew better than to even tell their Party leaders anything about it. To protect them.

People see this as squirmery. For a leader to say he “didn’t know” about something, anything, absolutely reeks of it. Any politician volunteering that he is both ignorant and a poor manager will damage him, but he does it to protect him from the greater damage that the truth would inflict. And that missing truth is all that people see. 

No one believed that Chrétien “didn’t know,” or that Martin “didn’t know” about the actions of their own office. The Reformer/Conservatives didn’t believe it! For them, though, it’s now become nigh on impossible to trade on their old 2004 outrage, having themselves now sunk to having today’s Prime Minister, in all his micromanaging obsession, through his hawk-eyed economist’s lens, have to come out and say that he just “didn’t know.”

Outrage for sponsorship is no longer a tradeable commodity, desperate though Harper is to revert to familiar tactics. His TV address was effectively the very same speech he liked to give when he was Leader of the Opposition, eight, nine, even ten years ago: he’d like the Senate to be reformed, and believes Ottawa needs to be more transparent. 

After seven years in power, the Senate is worse, and transparency is markedly, shamefully poorer. And so, Stephen Harper’s ethical conundrum: the more he repeats his old adage about” demanding better,” the more Canadians actually will.

Filed under: Politics, , , , , , , , , , ,

How’s your democracy?

Apologies for an absence from the blog – euphoria at the NDP surge, and of course the impending Royal Wedding, has left me somewhat dumbfounded (as if I needed to find any new dumbness).

It’s ironic to have been kept from writing here during a federal election campaign – now, more than ever, the bumps and twists of political life are more than simple Sunday afternoon amusements. As three out of four federal parties assert, nothing less than the viability of Canadian democracy itself is at stake here!

What hyperbole, right? The health of our democracy is not exactly under threat just because we have a government that bends some of the more obscure rules of parliamentary procedure. Just because they’ve fudged a number or two. Just because they might favour some of their friends with budget goodies. Nothing new with any of that, is there?

Such tepid shruggery at Conservative abuses is itself the clearest signal that Canada’s democracy is not healthy. It isn’t just the abuses, the cronyism, the criminality, and the corruption at the level of government – it’s the public apathy that, in too great a measure, forgives it. Too easily, we’ve been sucked into the pageant politics of our telegenic neighbours to the south. Harper might have his faults, but Ignatieff’s smile is just too weird – it’s a logic that flows from a collective political mind that’s easily twisted in the dark mechanics of spin and populism, and twisted away from healthy debates about fact and vision.

I compare Canada to the UK, and I see more reasons to feel all woe-be-gone. In Britain, there is absolutely no way that a character like Stephen Harper, or his manner of politics, would survive a single Westminster afternoon. Politics in Britain is obviously just as brutal a game as it is in Canada, but its players do not tolerate bullshit. The press are told they must sit 40 feet away from the PM, and can ask a maximum of five questions? The UK press would eat him alive. Deficit has spiralled into historic proportions while the details of actual expenditures are treated as state secrets? Watchdogs would bark throughout the night, and the taxpaying public would absolutely roar against such patronising diffidence. Conservative candidates don’t show up for constituency debates? A national outrage. Parliament is told that the Opposition isn’t just an Opposition, but it is actually a functioning socialist/separatist coalition? Please! British opposition parties would have dealt such an incisive retaliatory hammerblow, Harper would be left eating his words through a straw.

But all is not lost in dear old Canadia. The thriving heartbeat of our democracy can be heard, if nowhere else, than in the surging fortunes of the NDP. True! What else explains their newfound competitiveness, but the fact that Canadians do retain their critical faculties?

Anti-incumbency is a healthy thing. People sometimes point out that Rob Ford’s success in T.O. indicates Canada’s growing conservatism, while omitting the fact that Naheed Nenshi won the mayor’s seat in Calgary at the same time. Neither of these electoral results owe very much to the appeal of straightforward left or right wing dogmas. They were about voters dealing black eyes to the status quo. A “turf ’em out” disenchantment with established systems. An active, engaged mass protest against being taken for granted.

The counterargument is that, well, if Canada was in such anti-incumbency mood, then Harper would be in serious trouble. I’ve hoped the same, as have most of us. The problem lies in the fact that the Liberals don’t appear to have renewed themselves enough to benefit from anti-incumbency. They still smell, to a lot of people, like a kind of silent incumbent. Out of power they may be, but too recently, and they are nevertheless an establishment. This perceived lack of good, new options has turned people off, but it hasn’t made them care less, nor has it made them more conservative.

Ignatieff, in Chretien’s words, has done “not bad” in the past few weeks – especially in the campaign’s early days. But the LPC don’t seem to be the bright sparks Canadians are looking for right now, not yet. And what Canada wants is something new they can have confidence in.

I feel for the Liberals. They’ve run about as good a campaign as they can, while Harper’s run one of his worst. But the NDP numbers suggest that it will be they who capture the vote of the disenchanted.

I wouldn’t predict that NDP fortunes will necessarily hold. Even if they do, they always suffer terribly from an electoral system that punishes parties with broad-based support: their popular support will certainly outstrip the seats they can capture.

All the same, to see Canadians warming to the hitherto “alternative” option shows they aren’t just swallowing conventional wisdom in the way a truly apathetic body politic would. There’s a restlessness which is, in and of itself, a good sign.

Filed under: Politics, , , ,

Some of my best friends are bloggers

Late as always, I’ve decided in the middle of the year 2010 to set up, and hopefully keep up, a weblog for the very first time. Having so far successfully stayed out of the twittosphere, I just could not resist the magnetic pull of this other sphere – the blogosphere – any longer.

Why?

I don’t know.

But here’s a little about what this blog thingy is for – for the most part, I envisage this as being like an all-healing oasis in a desert of broken glass. A whirlpool of glorious light, warm on the skin, spiraling ever-closer from the depths of a once-dark sky.

Either that, or it is a political blog.

I’m a Canadian in the UK with a huge appetite for Canadian and British political to-ings and fro-ings, with a special interest in issues of foreign policy, electoral and constitutional reform, political communication – I’m also quite into international affairs, especially within the Asia-Pacific, Central Asia, and the EU.

I’m not really a one-eyed partisan or a fierce patriot (I’ve got nothing against face-paint during the World Cup though). I prefer the global to the nationalistic, and as for where I sit on the political spectrum, it’s somewhere beneath the right part of the left wing. I call it “the armpit.”

My life isn’t totally focused around this armchair-politico malarkey – there are dinners to cook, music to play, and stories to write! But while I have outlets for those other things, my only outlet for political musings has been on the Globe and Mail comment boards where I go by the name PolyGon. I enjoy the discussions and the occasional sparring match on there, and while running the risk of sounding immodest, I think I’m approximately 100% right 100% of the time.

So here’s the new permanent home of PolyGon, and if it ever feels relevant, I may repost Globe comments here to save me doing a lot of retyping – but fear not if you are already bored to tears by the thought of reading this thing – to spice up this blogging life, I’ll post random bits and bobs of interest, and I do promise to once in a while do something crazy, i.e. post a photo of my dinner, if I think it looks tasty.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, UK, ,

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