Sunday, 27 January 2013

Cameron calls for Europe to leave Europe.

Commentators have had a great chance this week to scan the great skies of Western Europe, as they ponder their own opinion of David Cameron's speech. Or to be precise, the first draft of David Cameron's election manifesto, a document that would not normally merit much debate.

Yet everyone has managed to manufacture a view. The New York Times thought it not a good speech, Der Spiegel and Bild thought it stupid ("Crazy...Brits put Europe into a frenzy"). Andrew Rawnsley thought it appealed to the people that didn't matter, Nigel Farage thought it appealed to the people that did matter, though he pretended they didn't. Douglas Alexander thought it left a gap between what it set out to achieve and what the wrong people needed it to achieve in order to win their support.  Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP, made an unexpected statement to the effect of 'Yes! We should, like, totally have a referendum'. The Economist had a Eurocentric take, saying that Cameron didn't buy into the vision of Europe shared by France and Germany, as if that wasn't obvious, and that it might pose problems for UK business and its finance sector in particular.

The FT and Telegraph were embedded with the Eurosceptics, so they carried Cameron's view that a new settlement would work not just for Britain but for all EU countries, in effect saying that the whole continent should follow Britain into the waiting room of Europe. "Cameron calls on Europe to leave Europe," would be an eloquent expression of this position.

Meanwhile, on the far right, frothing Europhobics cheered the Cameron speech not from a vision of an independent Britain made powerful through its exploitation of its own workforce and evisceration of public services, but through a peculiar assumption that Europe, the world's richest trading bloc, will simply and inexplicably go belly up. The headline, 'Europe just totally stops!' doesn't seem very likely, but hey, stranger things haven't happened ever. 

There are thousands of other articles and blogs, from  'You tell 'em, Dave' to 'He's pandering to his chums'.  All carry gems of valid observation, but the phenomenon reminds you how useless we all are, and Economists are in particular at predicting even straightforward consequences of a news event. In physical and social science there are many forms of experimental bias which skew results in predictable ways, but this pseudo-scientific analysis of events is desperately prone to that most pernicious bullshit engine, 'confirmation bias'.  In other words, the assumptions and worldview that each blogger or commentator starts from skews the prediction into uselessness.

But even if they start from a neutral place, as maybe Caroline Lucas or The Economist might like to claim, predictions are unlikely to be of any value, adding only to the uncertainty that we're supposed to be worried about.

Hang a Louis, driver, this is the Palace.  No wait...
Not only that, but European history has always moved like waves in a contained pool, rather than ripples into an open sea. Anyone who has ever been a school boy or girl in Western Europe will probably remember the moment in a history lesson when they were introduced to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He was spotted in 1914 reversing back up a street in Sarajevo that his driver had turned into by mistake. The spotter, a 19-year-old member of Young Bosnia, recognised the plumed hat and the Archduke paid the ultimate price. As children we are startled by the fact that such a footling, opportunistic event could have caused such generation-ending bloodshed, slaying Australians, Canadians, Indians, Japanese, Newfoundlanders, Rhodesians and South Africans as well as the millions of working age men from most of the European countries surrounding the badly signposted street in question.

The relevance of the event is both linear and illustrative. Firstly, there is an unbroken string of events from the World War that the Archduke's assassination triggered to David Cameron's speech on Europe. Secondly, the unauthored logic of that string of events shows up how inadequate the opinions, the leader columns, the  thinks-pieces by economists, journalists and political editors truly are. What a journalist or newspaper proprietor thinks of David Cameron has no bearing on what his speech might or might not mean, just as an opinion of Archduke Ferdinand's skiing posture had no affect at all on the likelihood of a second front opening up to the East once the war had started.  That's not how things work. Not in Europe, anyhow. The wrong people say and do the the wrong things for the wrong reasons and the outcomes are governed by forces outside of the immediate triggers.

Every day, delegations of inner city school children arrive at Portcullis House in Westminster to lobby MPs. Alongside them are representations from Somalia, Canadian War Veterans, Disabled people, Animal Rights protestors, British Clay workers, Basketball Associations and so on, unaware of the solipsism with which they will be received. The scrabble in the the MP's office before meeting one of these groups, whose life's work is on the line, is not fevered briefings about the visitors' plight, but the digging out of a camera for the obligatory shot for the MP's newsletter. A politician is by definition someone who is mindful at all times and exclusively of his own position. If there was any other motivation to David Cameron's big speech it remains unfathomed. Vision is what the school children have, and the Animal Right protestors, not the person paid to make speeches on their behalf.

Gavrilo Princip's motivation to gun down the Archduke may have been to enable South Slav states to break from Austria-Hungary, or it may have been to get laid. It doesn't matter.   Similarly, Cameron's motivation is not relevant.  It may or may not be to appease the Private Health Companies that paid for his candidates to reach office and want to work their doctors harder. But it too doesn't much matter.  In both cases a small event gives an unseen and unknowable sequence of other events a push.  The referendum may happen, Health companies may break away from the European Working Hours directive.  But that's not the whole picture. There are other visions, elsewhere, that may be more powerful.  Making ripples into this pond may just set in train a variety of regional visions, economic plans, alliances and causes that will look obvious only once they have happened. A German-British Axis running a Northern European dominated EU could be the unexpected consequence down the line, or a President Blair, or a Europe siding with Japan against China in WW3.  No one knows.  The consequence of  claiming that a speech will be a major event has already been proven: you create an event even though the content turns out to be vacuous. Given the attitude of the US, if the speech hadn't been signposted it probably would have been cancelled without consequence.  

But then if that street in Sarajevo had been better signposted, maybe none of this would have happened and right now I'd be a Regional Head of the Imperial Indian railway.