February 4 2021: THE DISUNITED STATES OF AMERICA

I've refrained from writing about the American situation until I felt I could see where politics were going in that country that once seemed to offer so much hope to the cause of liberal democracy, even flawed as it always was. But now it's quite clear that former President Trump will be found Not Guilty in his second impeachment trial and we can also see the shape of the new Biden administration. So, time to express some of my current thoughts - and concerns.

What happened on January 6th was unprecedented in US history. All frenzied rhetoric aside it was an assault on the fundamental structure of a functioning democracy, an attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power. It was inspired, if not incited, by the current President, unable or unwilling to acknowledge his loss of the election. Of course it was never going to succeed; it wouldn't have succeeded even if some of the rumours concerning some extremist discussions of a martial law style coup turn out to be true as the years lay bare the real history. But it could well have launched the country on the road to another civil war, or toward the secession of some States.

It didn't and for that we can be thankful. But the lessons it should have taught politicians seem to be fading fast. The realisation that things had gone too far that was expressed by leaders like Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham after the invasion of the capitol has evaporated. McCarthy went down to Florida to reingratiate himself with Trump. Graham, who after the ‘riot’ said “Trump and I, we've had a hell of a journey. I hate it to end this way. Oh my God, I hate it. From my point of view he's been a consequential president. But today, first thing you'll see. All I can say, is count me out, enough is enough" one week later tweeted “President Trump’s statement tonight hit the mark. He rejected violence, unequivocally condemned those who defiled our Capitol, called for full accountability, and emphasized those who engage in violence tarnish the movement. His speech helps move the country move forward. It is now time for President-elect Biden to rise to the occasion and instruct his party to call off post-presidential impeachment proceedings”.

Senator McConnell has been more consistent, perhaps recognising more clearly that the Republican party stands at the proverbial crossroads. Will it remain the party of Trumpism or can it reform around the traditional conservative values represented by people like Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, and Liz Cheney? It managed to reject right wing extremism once before when it broke with the John Birch Society though people forget or do not know what a struggle it was, even with the support of the leadership, unlike today. As an aside, I thoroughly recommend this article in the Washington Post for those unfamiliar with the struggle against the Birchers: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/01/29/gop-john-birch-society-trump/?arc404=true

If the Republican centre does not reclaim its party then it will become ever more extreme, with people like Marjory Taylor Green moving from the lunatic fringes to leadership positions. If that happens, I don’t see how the Right will ever win a Presidential election again, IF…

Yes, there is always an “if”. In the case of the USA today, the big ‘if’ is whether President Biden can restrain the extreme wing of his own party, And that’s not a given by any means. The 70 million who voted for Trump are not all extremists by any means, they are conservatives, mostly rural, who feel abandoned and neglected by the urban political establishment. Social conservatives whose fear of attacks on their cultural values was a vein so easily and richly exploited by Trump. A cultural war by an increasingly ‘woke’ (gods how I hate that word) wing of the Democratic party will simply lead to ever greater division between the massive urban socially liberal States on both coasts and the traditional culturally conservative ‘flyover’ States of the interior of the country.

As a historian of the US, I am an optimist about America; it has survived political and cultural crises before, from McCarthyism to the divisions over Vietnam. It even survived the plague of slavery and the war it caused. Despite the still existing and inherent racism in so much of society, life for black Americans is much better than 70 years ago. My fear is that it now faces crises augmented and magnified by a technology of mass communications, something the framers of the Constitution never envisaged. If the leaders of the nation cannot work out how to use social media for the good of society then I truly do fear an increasingly Disunited States of America.

February 1 2021: WINTER'S HERE

In the winter of 2019/2020 I was really disappointed by how little snow we got. Instead from November to March we seemed to have an endless succession of grey damp days. Depressing when there is also little daylight during the darkest months of the year. I was reduced to moaning to anyone who would listen about how dull and depressing it was..."this is like a British winter; one of the things I love about living in Sweden is having four distinct seasons, what's happened to my winter?" Well not this year! OK we only had a smattering of snow on Christmas Day and then that went too and I was beginning to be grumpy again. But then in late January it snowed solidly for about 18 hours and we have had further falls for two days since then Now about 50 cms on the ground and -8 Celsius outside. Bright blue skies and a crispness to the air that I have missed so much. Three cheers for real seasons again.

January 2021: A NATION OR A COUNTRY?

I'm not going to get into the pros and cons of Scottish independence. Even though I was born in Edinburgh and have always supported Scotland in any sporting challenge, I will not have a vote if another referendum comes, nor do I understand the depths of the economic arguments for and against.

What does strike me however is the irony that the UK government that fought so hard for Brexit in the cause of 'sovereignty' rather than any economic argument should now be reliant on the economic argument for Scotland remaining in the Union, totally rejecting (or misunderstanding) the Scots' own desire for 'sovereignty'. A new campaign will be launched by Westminster to attempt to convince the Scots that without the Union, an independent Scotland will fail as a separate country.

The fact that many smaller nations are surviving fine in the EU is irrelevant to the Unionist narrative. A new Project Fear will be trumpeted - just as the Brexiteers claim it was in the EU referendum. In 2016 the economic arguments were disputed, ignored or just plain lied about in favour of an emotional argument for British exceptionalism and identity, in reality an argument for a British nation.

So it's deeply ironic that the Westminster establishment appear unable to comprehend that what is going on North of the Border is exactly the same. The desire for independence is about nationhood, a belief in the Scottish nation, much more than it is about economics. To be Scots is to feel part of a nation, not of a country - as any member of the Scottish diaspora will tell you.

December 31: FAREWELL TO THE WEIRDEST OF YEARS

Back in 1992 the Queen referred to her annus horribilis. This year we could all say the same. The pandemic has caused countless misery, changed our lives, and caused more divisions in society as illness and remedies became a tribal issue. Masks were politicised, lockdowns became an assault on personal liberty and debate on which country handled the crisis best became heated, a matter of populism and nationalism. I have a feeling that the long-term effect of Covid-19 on society will be more profound than we can yet foresee.

But as the year ends, there are surely green shoots of hope. Vaccines are becoming available, and the more extreme madnesses of anti-vaxxer propaganda appear to be losing some support. There will inevitably be enquiries into what went wrong and what went right. Hopefully, we will be left with more efficient health services, and better planning and preparation for future global pandemics or other crises. Perhaps most significantly of all, in countries where the elderly will become a higher and higher proportion of the population, our systems of care will be re-examined and improved.

Even in the political sphere, there is some reason to believe things will get better. Right wing nationalism and populism seems to be on the retreat, even in the US where we will soon have a new administration, regardless of the current President’s increasingly futile efforts to hold onto power. Brexit has happened – wrongly in my opinion, but at least the debate is over for now and perhaps the government will turn its attention to keeping some of the promises it made in the last election about levelling up and reducing inequality.

Of course my hopes may be dashed; populism may rise again, the USA may become the Disunited States of America, the United Kingdom may find the Union too strained to survive, tribal hatreds may prove too deep rooted for liberal democracy to survive. But on this last day of 2020 I choose to hope. In fact I hope for a boring year, in which we can all recover our equilibrium again.

My very best wishes for 2021 to all my readers. May we all live long and prosper.

December 30: A DANGEROUS EXCEPTIONALISM

The Brexit debate is finally over for me, until we actually start to see which predictions (if any) actually happen. But it has got me thinking about exceptionalism, so often expressed by Brexiteers in expressions like “now we will see the British lion roar again”.

I think many nations feel themselves to be exceptional in some way or other. The French belief in their superiority of cuisine comes to mind. In a totally different way New Zealand believed for many years that they were the world’s best rugby players by some sort of divine right. Slightly more tongue in cheek, I am not sure if the belief in my adopted home of Sweden that they have the best civil society in the world is a sense of exceptionalism or just a mild smugness. I am sure we can all think of other feelings of exceptionalism, but in nearly every case they are light-hearted or at worst mildly irritating.

What worries me is when a sense of exceptionalism has a profound effect on a society, especially when founded on a rose-tinted view of the past. And I fear that is the case with the UK today. There seems to me to be in many parts of British society a sense that Britannia still rules the waves, that if only other people would stop being difficult and just do what we say, or at least leave us alone we will triumph and take our rightful place at the top of the table again. So every new initiative will be ‘world beating’, Turing will be much better than Erasmus, two aircraft carriers will make the RN mighty again, and so on.

Sadly, this is not the case in my opinion. The UK is a medium sized power still recovering from the retreat from imperial glory. Still the world’s 5th or maybe 6th biggest economy, but a country that has allowed so many of its own scientific breakthroughs to be exploited by other nations. Still a nuclear power but at a cost that cripples conventional defence budgets. A nation that believes that football is somehow uniquely an English sport, so much so that we still glory in winning the World Cup once, 54 years ago! A nation that was once admired for its belief in the rule of law that is now prepared to break international law if it wants to, albeit in a “limited and specific way”. A major trading nation still but willing to retreat from its biggest market because we believe we can always do better on our own.

We seem to think that we won World War Two on our own, and that Dunkirk was a victory rather than an escape from disaster. I hear far too often people extolling the Dunkirk victory and the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ as reasons why Britain will triumph with its regained sovereignty. I hope they are right, but I fear they are not. The sense of exceptionalism is a myth, and I fear a dangerous one at that.

December 6: THE ABUSE OF POLITICS

I have a German/Swedish friend on Facebook, an inveterate poster, largely on politics and the law. He is an academic lawyer so it's very rare for me to comment on his legal postings. But on politics I do, since our views are fairly different. However our disagreements are always polite, ocaasionally even humorous. Lately however I have noticed that more and more posters on his wall are becoming less temperate in their language, frustrating and annoying him and most of his friends. 

This got me to thinking about language in politics. When I was younger political debate was just as intense as it is today, remembering issues such as Suez, Greenham Common, Vietnam, etc. etc. While language on the streets could get pretty nasty, debate in the media at least retained a modicum of courtesy and tolerance for contrary but sincerely held views.  How very sad to see the levels of personal abuse resorted to these days by so many, on both sides of any particular issue. 

This is common not just on Facebook and Twitter but also in comments sections in the online editions of national papers, where many posters should quite simply be ashamed of themselves; one reason no doubt why they use pseudonyms. It is not by chance that in most Western democracies you cannot use such abusive laguage in Parliament, so why use it in the media? Shouting abuse is never going to persuade.

 

December 6th: SOVEREIGNTY AND SNUS

One of the Brexit arguments that has always concerned me is about 'reclaiming our sovereignty'. Sovereignty is defined as "the full right and power of a governing body over itself, without any interference from outside sources or bodies. In political theory, sovereignty is a substantive term designating supreme legitimate authority over some polity". But every international agreement a nation signs up to involves some giving up of that 'supreme legitimate authority' and always has. To say that Brexit means reclaiming sovereignty implies that the UK did not have it anyway.

Yet the EU has never denied the sovereignty of member states: To quote the Jean Monnet Center for International and Regional Economic Law and Justice back in 2000 "The EU is based on co-operation among sovereign states. They are all members of the United Nations and they possess sole competence to shape the treaties that the EU is based on. Transferring competences to European level does not mean giving up the claim of the individual Member States to sovereignty, but the willingness to exercise sovereign rights in an associative system". 

Or in 2002 the Commission in a commentary on the CFP "the Member States must take the inspection and enforcement measures necessary to ensure compliance with the rules of the common fisheries policy on their territory or in the waters subject to their sovereignty or jurisdiction" (my emphasis)

But my most personal example of retaining national sovereignty relates to snus, a particularly Scandinavian form of oral tobacco, accounting for roughly half of tobacco consumption in Sweden. Regardless of the arguments as to whether snus is less dangerous than smoking tobacco or not, the fact remains that Sweden has exercised its sovereignty in continuing to allow the sale of snus in the country, despite an EU ban. Sweden's exemption came as a result of protracted and intense negotiation, implicit in which was the country's sovereign right to make its own law concerning tobacco consumption and indeed public health.

I draw two conclusions from this thinking. Firstly, a country can get its own way without leaving the EU if they negotiate properly. Second, that UK Brexiteers have used 'sovereignty' as a slogan, not based on any fact or history.

December 3 : 7,000 DEATHS AND RISING

By the end of this week 7,000 people will have died from or with Covid in Sweden. That is 65.3 fatalities per 100,000, compared with 87.4 in the UK and 95.2 in Spain, but only 19.5 in Germany and 14.3 in Denmark. In other words diffent countries are having different rates of success in containing this disease.

What makes it worth writing about for me is (a) that Sweden has taken a different approach to the health crisis to nearly every other European nation and (b) there are no signs yet that the rates of infection, hospitalisation and ultimately death are declining in Sweden.

I believe, and have said since the start of this pandemic, that it will be years (if ever) before we can accurately say which approach was right and which was wrong. It will take a long time before we can assess the final economic outcome, the mental health and resilience of the nation, and the levels of excess death. 

Up until late summer, I seemed to read or hear every day, critics in the UK condemning their own government's strategy of lockdowns as an infringement of their most fundamental human rights. Strange since I never really thought of being able to go to the pub whenever you wanted as a foundation stone of British liberties.

But each to their own; what got to me was their continuous references to the Swedish strategy as being one of liberty and non interference. For a start it showed a dreadful ignorance of Swedish demographics, comparing a nation of around 10 million with a population density of 25 P/sqkm to a nation of nearly 68 million and density of 281P/sqkm. More importantly, the critics seemed to think that Swedes were not resticted in any way, which was simply not true. From the beginning we had similar exhortations on social distancing, working from home, restricted numbers at social gatherings etc. The prime difference was not that the thoughts on containing the virus were different. The key difference was that the population was trusted to follow the recommendations without them having to be enforced. And for a time it worked.  

After the initial wave (and a similar scandal in care homes to the UK) cases dropped rapidly and thoughout the Spring and Summer they stayed low.  But in the autumn things changed, and cases are now rising rapidly as Winter begins to bite.

Personally I believe there are three reasons. The end of summer meant more indoor life, more testing revealed more cases than anticipated, and people got complacent. Now government has had to tighten up and even introduce some rules rather than recommendations. It's too early to say how successful the new strictures will be, but one thing has changed -  the UK libertarian critics (or Covidiots as I might descibe them in less polite language) seem to have stopped holding Sweden up as a shining example of doing things right. For that one change I am profoundly grateful.