The Beginning of History

We all are currently in the middle of key historical events that will be analysed for generations to come. It is unlikely that this analysis will accurately reflect our experience of these events.

At times of key importance, I often find that the world can take the form of literature. Should someone (famous or otherwise) die, my mind highlights all the conversations I have had about that person recently, and find that these all alluded heavily to that persons passing. Perhaps I had taken an interest in a new hobby, and this hobby again would almost certainly be a metaphor for death. If I were reading a summary of these events, without any knowledge of what was to come, it would be obvious to me that this person was not long for this world. The author had signposted it without any subtlety whatsoever.

On the night of 23 June 2016, I went to bed, and just before I had drifted off to deep sleep, I was awoken suddenly by the crash of thunder. What followed was the most violent thunderstorm I have ever experienced. The rain and wind raged against my windows like it was the end of days. The boom of thunder sent vibrations right through to the objects on my shelves. The lightening lit up my apartment like it was the middle of a summer’s day. After a while, I got used to it, and finally did drift off to sleep. When I woke up, the world had changed completely.

On Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th of November 2016, temperatures here in Hamburg had plummeted to unseasonably cold levels, and on both of these days the city was covered in a layer of snow that would be more suitable in late January. Winter came early, just as autumn had gained momentum. During this time of the early winter, events unfolded that have stunned the world into a collective depression that has not been seen in my lifetime.

If I was making a movie, or writing a book, about what I was doing during the time of the Brexit decision and the US election, I probably wouldn’t include those weather elements in there, as they are quite heavy-handed. They are a bit obvious, and their lack of subtlety does not respect the audience enough to make up their own minds about what they should be feeling about the unfolding of these events. The fact remains however, that of these two world-changing events that we have all experienced this year, both of them were foreshadowed (in really amateurish fashion) to me through the metaphor of extreme weather.

history

Constructing A Narrative

I am the very definition of the elitist, ivory tower-dwelling, liberal idealist that was completely taken by surprise by both the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and the electing of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America. I understood the issues at hand, and I respected that there were legitimate concerns by the supporters of these two decisions that drove them to desperate measures, but my highly condescending and elitist view was that the angry, poor masses would come to their senses, see that they had given us a big fright, and finally do the right thing and listen to us smart, educated people on election day.

I went to bed on June 23rd and November 8th fully in the belief that my worldview would be upheld. It wasn’t, and I was stunned into disbelief when I awoke from both of these smug, elitist sleeps. Everyone was stunned, and immediately began searching for explanations. From my experience on the days of June 24th and November 9th 2016, I saw that what was unbelievable in the morning, can become obvious by the afternoon. Brexit and UKIP had empowered the forgotten parts of the UK outside London (and Scotland and Northern Ireland), while Donald Trump had (in association with Wikileaks) led a grassroots movement to end the capture of US democracy by the Clinton and Bush dynasties. The world was shocked by the Brexit result, but almost six months later we now see it as an inevitable conclusion to years and years of the British government neglecting their working class. We are still normalising ourselves to the idea of President Trump, but it will not be long until we see it absolutely ludicrous to think that Hillary could have beaten him in the election.

Except, when I went to bed on the nights that the votes in both of those polls were being counted, no one thought it was obvious at all. On June 23rd, I actually went to bed after Nigel Farage had conceded defeat in the referendum. I went to bed after seeing the most vocal Brexiteer admit that they had lost. The next time I saw him, he was smiling like the Chesire Cat and proclaiming that he always knew that Brexit would succeed. Over in the US, Donald Trump in the weeks (and hours) before the election was seen to have a 20% chance of winning. His campaign rhetoric had switched to issuing pre-emptive excuses for his defeat: conspiracies, lying women, voter fraud. It is widely known in US media that he planned to devote his time to his new TV network after the election. Even when he took to the stage on the morning of November 9th to deliver the body blow of news that he had officially won the US presidency, his victory speech was followed by the immediate musical cue of You Can’t Always Get What You Want, by the Rolling Stones. This is not a victory song, by any event of the imagination, and felt very out of place given the circumstances. I truly believe that this song was cued by the organisers of this election night party to follow his concession speech to his supporters. They were so shocked by the result that they forgot to change the playlist.

Making History

Hindsight is a marvelous thing. While the world is a dynamic, constantly changing flow of information, major events act as a pause button and allow the static, isolated analysis of a single event in time, concentrating solely on the event and what went before. That not even the central figures in both of these historical events we experienced this year had any idea until very late in the ballot counting process that they would spark major world events must surely make us ask questions about how history is constructed. Your children and grandchildren will read about both of these events, and will be able to explain to you in one sentence what the whole contemporary world did not realise until the event had already happened. They will tell you about the inevitable backlash of downtrodden working class Americans raging against globalisation. You will have forgotten by then that Donald Trump didn’t even believe that until he won Florida.

The thing about history is that it must be a narrative. It must be a linear story of how we got from Situation A to Situation B. You are living through a major period in history right now, and do you really think that it is a simple, linear story? Studying history in high school (I don’t call it high school, but I have a lot of foreign readers, so let it go, Irish people!), what intrigued me most was how underplayed the First World War was, compared to the Second. I am well aware of the reason for this, as the answer to what caused the First World War is a ten page essay, while the causes of the Second can be described in one surname. The origins of the First World War are complex, while its sequel was about good versus evil.

Future generations will have to study a chapter of a history book that gets from the end of the Cold War (also an absolute shock to everyone in 1989, but obvious to us now), through the War on Terror, via the Financial Crisis and make it all lead up to a swing to the political right in the world’s richest countries. It will take up maybe five pages of a history book, and it will make sense. It will make as much sense to them as Germany’s mistreatment at the Treaty of Versailles and subsequent currency inflation during the Great Depression leading to the Third Reich completely explained the rise of Nazism to us history students over the years. I doubt those people in 1930’s Germany saw it that way, but it is too late now, and their story has been explained.

In the modern world, history isn’t written by the winners, it’s written by those who can explain complex and unpredictable events in a simple way. A story has to be created to explain how and why something happened. There are no surprises when reading a history book, there are no twists. Everything is foreshadowed, and the conclusion is obvious, pages before the major events. Everything is connected, and leading inevitably to its conclusion. In doing this, a lot of information has to be jettisoned, and the information that is used to explain major events must be carefully selected. Analysis through hindsight clears away everything that does not directly rationalise an event, and leaves you with a clear, straight path from “Yes We Can!” to “Make America Great Again!”

In this way, the construction of history is not unlike the construction of a conspiracy theory. Both are vastly subjective and oversimplified explanations of complex forces, and both use extreme prejudice in selecting only evidence that support its claim. The writing of history is in itself an art form, making sense from isolated key events and attempting to explain them as if the world was just one big linear narrative. In the decades to come that I will be talking about these events in 2016, I will try to remember how shocked I was, how shocked everyone was, when they occured. I will also include the hackneyed scene-setting device of the thunder and snow. It just makes for a better story.

 

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Brexit Stage Left: A Tale of Unrequited Eurovision Love

Eurovision voting data could hold the key to unlocking the roots of the United Kingdom’s suicidal notions of exiting the European Union.

Introduction

A topic that has been consistently in the headlines in Europe over the past few months has been the UK’s imminent referendum on whether or not to abandon the European project that has dominated the politics of this continent for the past seven decades. On June 23, citizens of the UK will vote in a referendum on the topic, and the result of this referendum could have a major impact on both the UK and Europe for decades to come. While a vote to remain inside the European Union is expected, the polls show that the result could go either way. This is despite the fact that evidence exists that a “Brexit” from the EU could have serious adverse consequences for the general UK population. Indeed, the OECD estimate that Brexit would equate to a loss of one month’s income for the average UK citizen by the end of the decade. The UK Treasury’s estimate is even worse, equating Brexit as a tax of two month’s income for every inhabitant of the country. US President Barack Obama said in plain terms that a Brexited UK’s bargaining position with regards to major trade deals would be put back by a decade. David Cameron has intimated that Brexit would invariably lead to war and genocide on the continent, while scientific researchers have protested that leaving the EU would inhibit their efforts to stop cancer spreading throughout the United Kingdom. Brexit won’t cause cancer, but it certainly won’t help either.

Despite this, the threat of taxation, war, genocide and cancer does not seem to bother the significant number of UK voters who intend to vote ‘leave’ in the upcoming referendum. The sheer audacity of such reckless abandonment of personal and global safety begs the question of what exactly the European Union did to the UK to hurt it so much to make it feel this way. The standard explanation of UK/British exceptionalism within the EU is that Britain still thinks of itself as an empire, and that this idea can never be resolved within a power sharing multinational bloc such as the European Union. While this narrative does explain the arrogance, it doesn’t explain the hurt. It doesn’t explain the deep wounds that Europe inflicted on the UK to push it to the point where it was willing to risk world peace, and an end to cancer, just to break away.

A main facet of economic theory is that in order to reach as valid a conclusion as possible, we must search for revealed preferences, rather than stated preferences. What this means is that we do not ask people what they think (stated preferences), but we search for things that might show what they think (revealed preferences), or possibly how they feel. Asking a UK citizen why they are voting yes/no in the upcoming referendum might provide insight into the issue, but it doesn’t reveal what we want to show: the hurt.

The best resource to show UK attitudes to Europe, and vice versa, is probably the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC, or more commonly ‘the Eurovision). Every year the UK provides an entrant to the competition, and other European countries award points based on quality and other factors (such as borders). In turn, the UK gets to award points for it’s favourite songs from other European countries. While throughout most of its existence the Eurovision’s voting procedure involved a professional jury dictating the merits of each song and awarding points where warranted, a significant change occurred at the turn of the century as televoting has been introduced, and democracy with it. By law the Eurovision must release all its voting data to the public, and therefore a rich dataset exists that perhaps can give us some insight into the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe, and perhaps some revealed preferences.

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The UK & The Eurovision

In the time period 2000-2015, 48 countries have participated in the ESC. Most of them are European, while also countries such as the Caucasus nations (Georgia, Armenia & Azerbaijan) and Israel have been granted access, as well as Australia in 2015. This means that the populations of 47 nations (the UK cannot vote for itself) have had the opportunity to award points to the United Kingdom over the past 16 Eurovision Song Contests. Over this period, the UK received 635 points from these nations, out of a possible total of 4224 (Caveat: I didn’t feel like calculating this, but the formula would be something like {16*(12*(nt-1))}, where nt is the number of participating countries in the Eurovision that year. The minimum number in the data set is 23, so I am using that minimum.). The percentage share of each participating country in this total of 635 points is detailed in the table below.

table

If you weren’t bothered reading all that, then the graph below should do the trick.

bar received

Ireland and Malta obviously stand out. These are two very small countries, yet combined they are responsible for almost 25% of the UK’s total points in this time period. To put this in starker terms, the below graph shows the average points each country awarded the UK between 2000 and 2015. The maximum number of points awardable is 12.

awarded uk bar

Ireland will give an average of 5.5 points to the UK in each Eurovision, while Malta will give 4.3 points. Then there is a sizable drop in the level, and the average of most countries points awarded to the UK is too small to appear on the graph.

Malta and Ireland are obviously different than the rest of Europe, and that difference is not that they are both islands, but that they are very recent colonies of the United Kingdom. There is an obvious cultural heritage in these countries that the rest of Europe does not share, as well as the presence of a multitude of UK expatriates who can contribute to the televoting figures from these countries. An argument may be that Ireland and Malta are the only two other English speaking countries in the Eurovision Song Contest, however anyone who has seen the Contest knows that most songs are in English these days anyway.

How does Europe react to Britain if we exclude Ireland and Malta? The chart below separates these two countries from the pack, and groups the remaining countries into EU and non-EU designation. EU expansions in 2004, 2007 and 2014 have all been accounted for.

AWARDED TOTAL PI

The UK this century has received an equal share of points from the EU (excluding Ireland and Malta) and Non-EU countries. 38% of its points have come from European Union member states that were not formerly under the rule of the British Empire.

While Europe (both EU and non-EU) have a balanced opinion of the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest, with each contributing 38% of its total points haul, it is worth looking at things from the the other side: how has the UK voted in this period? Cutting right to the chase, and using the same methodology as before (grouping EU, non-EU and Ireland/Malta as three distinct categories), the results are in the pie chart below.

awarded total piiiiiii

Things are different here. Ireland and Malta receive just 14% of the UK vote, while the EU is substantially preferred, beating non-EU countries by twenty percentage points. At this point, it must be said that not every country can be awarded points in a Eurovision final, but merely those countries that proceed to the main competition. On several occasions in the time period, Ireland, Malta or both were absent and therefore ineligible for points from the UK. The chart below accounts for this, using only data for when both countries were present.

votes awarded irma

This does little to account for the discrepancy between EU points awarded to the UK, and UK points awarded to fellow EU nations.

Conclusion

The analysis of Eurovision televoting data showed that if we exclude the former British colonies of Ireland and Malta, EU nations have contributed 38% of the United Kingdom’s points total. In contrast, the UK itself shows a marked preference for the European Union, with 53% of its points going to the bloc, again excluding Ireland and Malta. What this suggests is that there is something going on underneath the surface of the relationship between the EU and the UK, and it is something that only can be seen in this data.

Britain/The Uk/Whatever is a small country in the world. It was big and popular once, but now is quite unsure of itself. It acts like it has confidence, and can succeed independently, but is really quite dependent on its smaller friends to provide an ego boost. The UK has sent gushing approval to the EU and Brussels over the past 16 years, and it has not received the same signals back. The UK clearly favours the EU, as is apparent from its voting patterns in the Eurovision data, yet the EU’s acceptance of the UK is far less clear. Perhaps Brexit is not about fantasies of lost empire at all. Perhaps it is but a tale of unrequited love, a call for attention from a secret admirer who only wants some tender loving care, but is far too proud to show it. Brexit is the political manifestation of a population that is accustomed to listening to Adele albums on repeat: they are ready to risk genocide, war and cancer just to seem relevant and loved. Maybe in this year’s Eurovision, we should requite some love: vote for the UK on Saturday. Before they set fire to the rain.

The Great Disconnect

I once watched a documentary about Julio Cu Camara, a Mexico City civil servant who is tasked with a daily dive into the open sewers of the overcrowd metropolis in order to remove whatever debris is clogging up the system and thus preventing the free flow of excrement and waste through its natural course. While Camara was preparing to submerge, the documentary makers joked that a tradition should exist whereby once a year, the mayor of the City should be required to perform this task of swimming through the citys waste, lending a degree of enforced humility and groundedness to the entrenched political elite. In truth, this idea is a pretty decent metaphor for the peak of an election cycle, where politicians, particularly in parliamentary democracies, are forced to jump through any and every hoop that voters and media alike may cast in front of them in a bid to earn a job for the next pre-determined number of years. Election campaigns in European-style parliamentary democracies are far from the self-aggrandising egomania of a US presidential election where two candidates strut around from place to place, entering like a rock star to adoring fans in tightly scheduled rallies. No, in parliamentary democracies, everyone in parliament loses their seat at the same time, so everyone must go back to where they came from, and account for what he/she hasn’t done since he/she won the last election.

This is the average voters time to shine, as politicians who are blamed for all our problems are paraded out in the open, seemingly begging to have mud thrown at them, clean up, and then beg for more. We drag them through the mud, we blame them for everything, we call them every name we can think of, and they take it all, because in the end, they know that most people will vote. Yes we complain, we drag them through the mud, but in the end, we still give them exactly what they want, because voting is all they want us to do, and we do it because freely electing leaders is a privilege that relatively few people in history have ever had. There is good reason to be depressed about this vicious cycle, yet in truth, we are really just getting the leaders we deserve. This is because, largely as a result of our own doing, there is a fundamental disconnect between what we expect from a modern politician and the actual job of adequately running a country.

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A politicians primary goal is to preserve their position for as long as possible, and if possible, in the meantime, to perhaps achieve some progress for their constituents in the process. This is all most people do in their jobs, so we can’t really judge anyone else for this mindset. However, think about how a politician goes about keeping their position, and compare it to other occupations. For most of us, simply performing our tasks to expectations is enough to get a contract renewed. Yet for politicians, performing adequately is not enough, as they are plucked away from their posts which deal with policy and negotiations, and are required to go kiss babies and have their photo taken with members of every religion and race in order to reinforce how good an official they have been, or are going to be. An election decides who makes the decisions that run a country, and election results are based often on the success of election campaigns, and there is absolutely no relationship whatsoever between the ability to campaign well and being a competent leader.

Thus we have a disconnect in skillsets between what would make a good leader, and the type of person who could actually gain a position of leadership in this system. A good, dependable leader is informed, open, intelligent, honest and good at making decisions. An electable leader has to be somewhat likeable, has to pretend to know absolutely everything, and be able to absorb as much shit thrown at them as possible through an exhausting election campaign. The skillsets of these two types of leader do not overlap much, and therefore we primarily get leaders from the latter category, and often without ticking all the boxes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the UK, where David Cameron and Ed Miliband embody the perfect examples of the modern, drearily electable, surprisingly passable leadership candidates. The UK is an interesting example to use, as it has used my earlier declaration that politicians primarily exist to win elections as dogma ever since the first New Labour term back in 1997. Tony Blair was big into data analysis, and had teams of pollsters conduct never-ending surveys on what people liked and didn’t like, about absolutely everything in modern life. They would then use this data to construct sound bites for the next election campaign, thus giving the people what they wanted, and giving the impression he was reading people’s minds, doing a good job, and in-tune with the mindset of his people. It worked in multiple, successive elections.

Fast-forward almost two decades later, we have Cameron and Miliband, who are nothing more than empty vessels filled with survey data from their research teams, pumped full of policy ideas that tear acutely at extensively focus group-tested split hairs of the middle ground of the political spectrum, and whose every gesture at televised debates appear directed by a PR guru, just as an actor is instructed by an overly-obsessive theatre director giving instructions from backstage. These aren’t politicians, they are regurgitators of the median opinion of whatever sample group their research team analysed, desperately hoping the average British person exists out their somewhere, and not only in their data results. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode “The Waldo Moment” captured this perfectly, as it showed a cartoon character running for election, voiced backstage by a team of analysts. The only difference between that piece of fiction and the election this year is that Waldo was actually charismatic.

While the use of data in political analysis is necessary given that political parties need to know what their voters require from the state, its overuse in places like the UK are dangerous, as it creates a system of purely reactive politics, with politicians like Miliband and Cameron merely clinging to whatever they are advised their constituents desire. There are no political stances, there are no ideologies, there aren’t even plans, just merely datapoints instructing careful positioning for the next election. Politicians change based on what they think you want, gleaned from opinions of people who they think are like you, which wins them an election, and once you learn to hate them, they have realised from a focus group how to appear likeable again, just in time for the next election. It’s foolish to expect change in any modern election, because you, your expectations, and the average opinion of people deemed to be just like you are part of the problem, feeding into an iterative circle of perpetual dissatisfaction. But you can’t really blame anyone for this, as it is everyones fault, for we get the leaders we want, the ones we can drag through the mud, the ones willing to dive down deep into the electorates excrement in order to cling onto power for just one more term. Thus these are the leaders we deserve, the ones who would say anything, and consequently absolutely nothing, in order to rule ineffectively, treading water until the next election comes around. There is of course a need to hold politicians accountable for their actions and to expect them to adequately communicate their ideas to us on a regular basis, however this must not be at the expense of effective leadership or even having ideas about how the country should be run, rather than just spewing out how their analysts think we think it should be.

To The Ladykillers

Probably the most contradictory thing that you can see on TV is a citizen of a democratic country complaining that they are living in a fascist dictatorship. If that citizen were living in a fascist dictatorship, he or she probably would not be able to complain about the government in a TV broadcast, as it would be edited out of the final show, or if it was said live, he or she would probably be subject to some kind of recrimination after the event. Fascism is a political ideology that sees the state as one body moving in unison towards one goal: dissent has to be removed as diseased cells are removed from the body by white blood cells, which in this analogy would be the police. The declaration is therefore nonsense, and has a similar feel to the internet rule of Godwins Law; the first person to compare their opponent to Hitler or the Nazis automatically loses the argument. Yet we see this being repeated whenever a group of people are annoyed with their government, with the accusation of fascism being a favourite of the anti-Iraq war movement a decade ago.  I was reminded of this contradiction this week in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s death, as footage from the 1980’s was rolled out of out-of-work miners from the North of England labelling Maggie as just that, a fascist dictator. Well, she wasn’t. Continue reading