How the minority think

Yesterday I attended a rather grand seminar in Oxford, to discuss the current state of world politics. It was a curious experience. Most people talked in soundbites from long gone spin doctors, or in media hype.

The first sessions concentrated on how Obama had made a difference. Instead of forensic academic analysis which I was expecting, most of the contributions told of Obama saving the world, saving the planet and creating permanent peace. There was no hint of criticism. Obama walks on water.

We were also treated to a view from Europe, which assumed that all in the UK and elsewhere in Europe were happy with a royal “we” as citizens of the European Union. The thesis was an amusing one. Under Bush, the EU apparently had been a force for consensus, peaceful and negotiated solutions worldwide and the exercise of soft power all wrapped up in smug moral superiority. The advent of Obama has apparently made this more difficult, presumably because he now does all of the above.

When I had a go, I felt like a fox in the duck coop, dealing with so many canards. The replies were predictable:

Obama – carrying on detention without trial at Guantanamo – “He wants to close it down but it is difficult”
Obama – creating new prisons in Afhghanistan to extend detention without trial – no answer
Obama – intensifying the war in Afghanistan, so US troops are still killing Arabs — “His speech showed he wishes to get on well with the Muslim world”
Obama – promised to save the motor industry – and the planet from climate change – is doing neither – answer “He is doing his best ”
EU – why do you think there is a demos, a people, where we can say “We”? – couldn’t concieve of such a question
EU – Why does the EU position on many world issues matter? – accepted that EU was not very serious about projecting power
EU – is a babble of voices and disjointed economies and nations – this led me into a volley of the predictable, tired and sad old soundbites — “Do you want the Uk to be isolated?” “Do you think the UK can go it alone?” “Do you know how much trade the UK has with the EU?” I was awaiting the usual 3 million jobs, but they did at least give that a miss.
I get fed up with constantly having to point out that international trade is now mainly regulated by GATT and global agreement, that Germany will want to sell her BMWs to the UK even if we do take a different line on EU government, and that the UK has had practically no influence for years in the EU, just going along with the prevailing bureaucratic and Franco-German consensus.

Surely by now we can have some proper analysis of the extent and reasons for Euroscepticism, the fact that trade is now dependent on global agreement on tariffs and terms, that you can work together with other nations through NATO, the UN and European institutions without having common government, and that the top down bureaucratic centralised model is out of date as well as irksome and adding to our economic woes?

There seemed little grasp of the mood of the British people, and no comment on the recent European elections, which showed enormous ennui, allied to strong Euroscepticism on the part of many of those bothering to vote.

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29 Comments

  1. Posted June 28, 2009 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    The main piece of euroscepticism for me is the non signing off the accounts for many years, you didn’t appear to mention that. We are probably paying for Berlusconi’s women, among other things.

  2. Posted June 28, 2009 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    When you mentioned Oxford, I assumed that your seminar was some sort of student Debating Society event. Then I re-read it and realised that there was no reference to students, or to the background of the group you were with.

    It wouldn’t be a big surprise that politically immature students might have such views – their life view of the world has only been from a protected perspective. Equally, on reflection, there are many older people with a similarly blinkered view of the world.

    So, how to engage people (student or otherwise) and encourage them to question the world around them? Such seminars must be a start, but the difficult part must be for people to discard their preconceptions and think for themselves.

  3. Posted June 28, 2009 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    My grandfather was a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge in 1939. He lived in Trumpington Street (what King’s Parade turns into) with my grandmother. During the First World War, he kept open house for families who wanted to come and talk about their dead sons. He was a good man and a fine doctor. My Grannie was his chauffeur!
    He knew very well what was going on in Cambridge.
    And, do you know what? Nearly everyone who visited his house in 1939 said (according to my late father) that Hitler was a splendid man and that he would win the war, allied to the mighty Russian Communists who represented the future of mankind.
    I say all this to show that Oxbridge is the very last place to go for sensible political and moral discussion. And it was always so, too!

  4. Posted June 28, 2009 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    John

    You sound about as frustrated as the rest of us with regard to the EU.

    Why is it that so few a number of people (who are Pro EU) can hold so many of us in contempt, because that is what it is.

    It is because they have worked there way into some position of influence within the EU which to me seems a closed shop to any other views, and are intent on keeping it that way.

    The rest of us are too busy trying to earn a living to have the time to infiltrate such a cartel.

    The only way is to leave, and take our money with us.

  5. Posted June 28, 2009 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    That debate would seem to be a microcosm of the EU whereby an elite make decisions that they think the electorate should be grateful for…but the electorate still vote the other way.

  6. Posted June 28, 2009 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    And they wonder why the blogosphere is so full of very angry people thinking about piano wire and lamp-posts.

    God save us from the itellectually autistic.

  7. Posted June 28, 2009 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    It wasn’t a golden age but I can remember the times when you could listen to academics, commentators and even politicians and hear clearly expressed articulation of world affairs. This was given in language easily understood and although there were serious disagreements they were the subject of constructive debate. Nowadays there seems to be little but meaningless sound bites and any opposition is not met with a reasoned argument but contemptuous dismissal.

  8. Posted June 28, 2009 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Corrected spelling version:

    And they wonder why the blogosphere is so full of very angry people thinking about piano wire and lamp-posts.

    God save us from the intellectually autistic.

  9. Posted June 28, 2009 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Who were they, students? From the elections I drew a growing scepticism of the EU which if correct is atleast some good news.

    That argument of 3 million jobs is so simple minded. They seem to believe that private manufacturers would cease to trade with non EU countries and willingly see their business fold as a result. Has it hurt Norways export figures? Should we stop trading with the US and China as they are non members of the EU. Was there no trade in Europe before the 1990s.

    We need alliances and agreements, not a non democratic socialist state which usually end up in bloodshed and economic ruin.

  10. Posted June 28, 2009 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    John

    Bravo for having the guts to confront the ivory tower academics and point out their fallacies.Keep on at it.

    You’re views resonate strongly with the British public and thats where the argument needs to be put.

    Personally I pay scant attention to the collective buffoonery of the academic class.

  11. Posted June 28, 2009 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    “Do you think the UK can go it alone?”

    If the EU made us, Yes. But we would rather not.

    “Do you know how much trade the UK has with the EU?”

    The UK doesn’t trade with the European Union. Nor does the EU trade with the British government.

    Individual companies and business men do though, they are motivated by profit not politically drawn demarcation lines.

    JR: ” that Germany will want to sell her BMWs to the UK even if we do take a different line on EU government,”

    Of course. It is people who buy a vehicle using any number of criteria; style, performance, price. I believe there is even a niche market for the Trabant.

    Individual business men and women wish their company to succeed, by and large they will reach out to every and any market it is profitable to sell to.

    It is politicians that build artificial demarcation lines that say “you should not trade with this group” or “you must trade with that group”.

    JR: “and that the UK has had practically no influence for years in the EU,”

    Because of the succession of Quisling ministers we have been cursed with. I would modify that statement and strike the word ‘practically’.

  12. Posted June 28, 2009 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    JR, if you ever visit my old District Council Ward, please don’t use words like “ennui”. There is possibly one street that would understand such vocabulary. Labour has done an excellent job of dumbing down our education system.

    Last year a taxi driver in Colorado USA, said to me; “… do you think America is going to elect a guy with Hussein as his middle name for Christ’s sake”. The US metropolitan elite took political correctness to heart. They had to support Obama or be branded white supremacists or racists. Snag was they didn’t actually expect him to get elected. There are now a lot of these people feeling like something has bitten them in the rectal area and they can’t be seen scratching their arses in public.

    Likewise, if you use the word Euro-scepticism on a doorstep, down here, you will be asked what that means. They will not know any MEPs unless they have seen them on television. They will not be able to name any political grouping in the EU Parliament. They will not have a clue what GATT is; what the WTO is; or, when the Doha round of GATT is likely to be concluded. Most of all, they won’t care.

    They may know that the EU has something to do with the EURO that some will need for their holidays in Spain. They will be annoyed that they can’t buy duty free fags in the airport anymore in the EU. They are likely to mention that the Eurovision Song Contest is fixed and the EU should ban that.

    Unless somebody gets the EU debate edited into a months worth of episodes of Eastenders; Coronation Street or perhaps Big Brother, they ain’t ever gonna know!

    Like it or not JR, when it comes to the EU, the majority of the voters below the median, will vote the way the media votes.

  13. Posted June 28, 2009 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    You see John, you ask questions that every person in the UK asks, and that as we know isn’t wanted by the “elite.”
    We are nothing but cattle to them, we labour so that they can push forward THEIR projects and live a life style that they think is fitting for them.

    Welcome to global feudalism, the barons have returned and with it they bring a new religion/tax and punish those whome do not bow to it.
    Extreme i know, but that’s basicly what they are doing even though they may mean well.

  14. Posted June 28, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Indeed.

    How is it we got here, where a current Labour parliament can effectively ignore the wishes of the people?

    Would another majority party parliament offer proper representation and legal protections.

  15. Posted June 28, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    John – as someone who works in a university – one of of our better ones – I have to confess that the study of large tracts of the social sciences has become so politicised that it’s hard to justify continued support from the taxpayer.

  16. Posted June 28, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I applaud your patience and tenacity and our behalf.

    Your report on the event led me to check the true definition of the word ‘seminar’ – ” …. a group of (usually) advanced students engaged in ‘original research’ …. exchange and discussion of views and findings”. Apparently not so in academically prestigeous Oxford !

    In reality, a very ‘grand’ farce.

  17. Posted June 28, 2009 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    A brave attempt, Mr Redwood, at countering the slab-like “consensus.”

    I blame the collapse of education for the seeming inability of most people even to grasp the salient arguments, let alone engage with them.

  18. Posted June 28, 2009 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    These people that you had such pleasure in meeting, no doubt, regard themselves as part of the so called political elite.
    They demonstrate the characteristic failing of the group, in that they lack any ability to carry out any analysis of their views.
    This has been a characteristic of much of politics for as long as I can remember.
    It seems to me that with a few notable excetions this characteristic is a requirement for progress to the highest office.
    No wonder the country is in such a mess.

  19. Posted June 28, 2009 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    Just a quick correction, Afghanis aren’t generally arabs although they are a recognised ethnic group. Also a typo in there prisons in Afhghanistan.

    I think you’re right to point out the War in Afghanistan is undermining Obama’s credibility. How he thinks he can a war there when the US couldn’t win one in Iraq is beyond me. The only policy that has a chance of improving things is to buy up the poppy crop at a generous price for Afghans but for some reason that hasn’t been done. In fact the Brits are still burning crops when the US is abandoning that policy because it’s ineffective. If you think how much money we spend on policing and treating heroin use in this country, the vast majority of which comes from the region, it seems that buying the stuff at source makes economic sense. Prices on the street will go up and we all know how effective higher prices have been on reducing alcohol use. Then there’s the fact we can actually use the stuff to make morphine.

    It’s easy to be too cynical about Obama though. The misplaced perception of him as a peacenik may actually be very useful in reducing tensions in the Middle East, given that Afghanistan is even somewhat remote to the people that live there. It’s a shame in a way that the Iran election wasn’t a year from now. In many ways Bush created Ahmadinejad and given a bit more time Obama might have allowed a more liberal consensus to grow to the point that it could have come to power virtually unopposed.

    I must admit I don’t understand what EU – why do you think there is a demos, a people, where we can say “We”? – couldn’t concieve of such a question means but I do get depressed when people start making the arguments you describe. It’s like arguing against the death penalty because a lethal injection causes pain or against a war of aggression because it might not work or be expensive. There’s a moral principle here. Once you start reducing it to these technicalities you’re losing your way a bit. We should want to be part of a grand European co-operation. It’s just trying to make sure we get rid of the democracy deficit, the waste and so on. Principles. We should negotiate rules that make life better across the region and legislate them. I like freedom of movement and open borders, I even like the idea of a single currency.

    I don’t like nationalism for nationalism’s sake. There are too many that seem to believe that there’s a national identity we can return to (or even create anew as Brown has tried). That ship has sailed. If it’s about principles, accountability, democracy and so on then that’s fine. But there should also be principles of co-operation, good neighbourliness and shared values and all the rest of the good stuff that the EU can bring. If it’s about distrust of foreigners, the rubbish that gets printed in the papers or a misplaced sense of national superiority then count me out. The EU can become a monster if we’re not careful. There’s a big difference between allowing national identities to blur and melt away and a centrally imposed homogeneity in the way of a communist state. If the conservatives are going to draw back from Europe because they can’t be bothered to do the hard work and the hard thinking to make it succeed (maybe because their time is taken up by consultancies for oil companies and investment banks) then that’s a pretty dishonourable position.

  20. Posted June 28, 2009 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    JR “Obama walks on water”

    One of the reasons Obama beat McCain to become President is
    because the media in the US largely supported him and it seems the honeymoon is not over yet. I read some American blogs and there has been criticism that some of the American media have abandoned the basic responsibilities of a free press and are acting as propagandists for the President. I think he is sincere but naïve when it comes to dealing with the leaders of Iran. Saying in his Cairo speech that it was okay with him for Iran to develop nuclear power was not a good move. Not only is this worrying for Israel, but also for the other more moderate Arab states such as Egypt and Jordon.

  21. Posted June 28, 2009 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    These people don’t do cold rational analysis. You have very ably shown that they don’t know anything

    I partly blame our education system, which leaves many utterly unable to deal with things like logic and critical thinking, leaving us helpless when trying to differentiate between good and bad in any product or situation.

    Functional ignoramuses and mindless buying machines that’s what we’ve become. The British need to switch to plain living and high thinking, for too long we’ve done the opposite.

  22. Posted June 28, 2009 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    It so exasperating to listen to the eu enthusiasts. Most of us who do not support the eu do not have an antipathy for Europe at all. I do business with Europe, I go there on holiday, I employ people from other European countries and I’ve dated a couple of German girls. I just don’t want our country run by a corrupt, undemocratic and expensive foreign bureaucracy.

  23. Posted June 28, 2009 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

    It was your remark about people talking in sound bites that caught my eye, JR. That noone has time to listen, construct an argument or deconstruct another annoys me too. Now, let me be boring for a mo…

  24. Posted June 29, 2009 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    When I went to University in the Sixties I was among the 3% of my age group who did. It is now closer to 50%, allowing for the expansion in places now called “universities”

    Unless they are all on IQ tablets, the population is not noticably smarter, just more second-rate minds have been given some knowledge, but do not have the ability to think.

    I guess that the expansion in second-rate students also applies to the expansion in second-rate teachers.

    Opinions should be the final output of considerable effort and study of facts and counterarguments. Now people aquire the opinion first, often directly from the media who “interpret and explain the news to you, instead of merely reporting it. Thats why many of us spend a lot of time each evening shouting back at the television. Especially the pernicious BBC.

    When you get back into power, as you will and must, there is a long march ahead…

  25. Posted June 29, 2009 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    The seminar attendees sound like “delusional nutters and fruitcakes”, but they made no assertions with which Dave Cameron would have disagreed, and this is what is profoundly disturbing.

  26. Posted June 30, 2009 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    Would it work for the UK to rejoin EFTA, and for EFTA to join NAFTA? A wise guy, like myself, might call it NAFTA with an umlaut (puckish humor is probably a hallmark of my Brooklyn upbringing).

  27. Posted June 30, 2009 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    Please keep the faith and challenge the assumptions of the political class on Europe and everything else. Too many MPs turn into ineffective and overpaid social workers.

  28. Posted June 30, 2009 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Reading the replies to this post suggests that most bloggers here share your frustration and impatience for change. If there is one common problem it surely is the stranglehold of vested interests that are actually very happy with the status quo. The factions in US politics that want to continue slaughtering arabs, who want to keep Guantanamo open, and who believe that a big state should nationalise the banks and the auto industry. In this country it’s a political elite that trades soundbites and pawns its principles in exchange for the levers of power, never intending to reduce the burden of the state on the citizen. In Europe, it’s a bureauctratic mafia interested in its own agenda of control. In each case the answer is the same: hand back power to the citizens through lower taxes, less legislation and less regulation.

  29. Posted June 30, 2009 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    This morning, Germany’s Federal Court held that the Lisbon Treaty is compatible with German Basic Law. Ireland seems likely to vote ‘Yes’ in the October referendum, having received assurances on their neutrality stance, tax polices and abortion laws. The Poles have agreed to follow the Irish decision. That just leaves Klaus, the Czech President. Bearing in mind both houses of the Czech Parliament have approved the treaty any further delay on his part might risk a constitutional crisis. In addition, a recent poll reports that he is trusted by only 55% of his countrymen. So it seems possible that the provisions of the treaty may take effect from 1 January 2010.

    Had a common EU foreign policy been in place prior to 2003 then perhaps the UK would never have taken part in the invasion of Iraq. In discussing how to cut back on public spending, please don’t forget the billions of pounds that we have been spent on Iraq – an overhead not incurred by France, Germany and other EU nations.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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