24 June 2016

After Brexit, what now for the North?

I was troubled last night to read people expressing delight at the huge queues at polling booths across the UK. Such a massive turnout, seemingly, was a triumph for democracy. I wasn't so sure. There's far more to democracy than just casting votes, and those who act as though democracy is something that happens but on rare occasions and purely in the privacy of the polling booth do a disservice to democracy. 

If democracy is to mean anything -- if our votes are to mean anything -- we have to participate in an informed way. I was pretty sure that wasn't happening: how valuable are votes cast on the basis of a mythical £350m a week, or to ward off Turkish accession, or in the belief that EU laws are made by unelected bureaucrats, or that there's no way to remove the European Commission from office, or because of the belief that British fishing collapsed when it joined the EEC, or any of a host of other lies? 

The 'Leave' campaigners lied and lied egregiously throughout the Brexit referendum campaign, and did so tapping into decades of popular poison from the British press, and if lots of people who've long felt disenfranchised and ignored should have been willing to go along with this kind of stuff, well, maybe that should have been expected.

I've less sympathy for others, for those who take the pains to be informed of things they care about, but who on other issues prefer instead to listen simply to those whose political views conveniently tally with their own judgments and to shout down calls for them to inform themselves as mere elitism.

So for those who make much of their pro-life credentials, and who dismissed my concerns and those of others about the lives and livelihoods of those in Northern Ireland being actively endangered by a vote to quit the EU, here are just a handful of things they might look before they next put themselves forward to speak as Catholics or pro-lifers, or even just look in the mirror.

Not for nothing has The Irish Times said, "Of all the things that could happen to an Irish government short of the outbreak of war, this is pretty much up there with the worst of them."

Then there was The Guardian a couple of days back, observing that, "Great Britain may be able to weather a Brexit, but Northern Ireland simply cannot."

Lucinda Creighton may not be everyone's cup of tea, but she had a point when she said the other day that, "Brexit poses the greatest threat to the Northern Irish Peace Process since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998."  

For a more cautious take, unsurprisingly from a pro-Brexit paper, The Telegraph warned, "The scenario of the UK leaving the European Union, when a majority of the population of Northern Ireland have opted to remain (and especially if there has been a decisive vote in favour among the nationalist community), may exacerbate tensions, fuel demands for a border poll on Irish unification and challenge the durability of the peace process."  

Then we have from the Centre on Constitutional Change the observation that "a British exit from the EU risks undermining the very self-determination and national sovereignty that its adherents believe it will bring about", continuing, "This is because it risks shattering the fragile balance and stability of the UK by threatening the peace settlement in Northern Ireland ".  

Onetime MEP Brendan Donnelly wrote from the London School of Economics, meanwhile, that "it is clear that much potential exists for the destabilisation of Northern Ireland through a vote to leave the EU on 23 June", continuing, "The Good Friday agreement is under more strain from a currently low level of sectarian violence than is sometimes appreciated".  

At the Euractiv site, Paul Brannan hammers this home when he says, "with politics in Northern Ireland already on the brink of breakdown and the Good Friday Agreement in jeopardy, a UK EU exit threatens a total collapse of the peace process".

And for those who think Britain can keep the show on the road, as though it's taken seriously as an honest broker and was never known as 'perfidious Albion', The New Statesman points out: "Funnily enough, the same people who don't trust Britain to administer the peace process would also be unhappy with the EU leaving that process."


I could say more, but that'll do for now. Words seem unlikely to do any good now the die is cast.

20 June 2016

Final Week Brexit Thoughts II - The Threat to Northern Ireland

About a week or so back Catholic Voices hosted a debate in London in which two speakers gave impressive speeches on why the UK should remain in the European Union and two argued in similarly impressive fashion to the effect that the UK should leave the Union. 

Better-humoured, more honest, more thoughtful and broader-minded than almost all engagements I've read or witnessed on the topic, the debate on the motion "This house believes that Catholic values are best served by remaining in the European Union" was nonetheless striking for a complete absence of references to the single most Catholic part of the UK, that being Northern Ireland.

According to 2011 figures, 40.8% of the Northern Irish population is Catholic. This stands in stark contrast to England and Wales, for instance, where, if Steven Bullivant is right, just 13.7% of the population say they were raised Catholic, with a mere 8.3% of the population holding to the Faith now.

I appreciate the Brexit debate is really an 'Exit' debate in that the discussion is primarily driven by English concerns and will be decided by English votes, with the lesser partners in the UK at best hoping to tip the scales if an English vote is finely balanced, but I think that English voters should at least give some thought to how their votes are likely to affect things beyond England.

Northern Ireland's bishops have, of course, warned of the dangers of a Brexit to the North, and their concerns seem shared by Northern Ireland's Catholics. A Millward Brown poll in early June found that 70% of Northern Catholics were in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, with a mere 12% advocating that the UK quit the Union. A more recent Ipsos Mori poll has shown just 56% of Catholics in favour of remaining in the Union, though again a mere 12% seem to back a Brexit


Dividing countries the hard way
Such low support for withdrawal from the Union is understandable in a region where the UK's only land border is to be found, and where there has never really been a traditional border: for centuries, after all, Ireland was united under one form or other of British rule, and even after the Irish War of Independence it was possible for people to cross back and forth without a passport. Under the UK's 1949 Ireland Act Irish people are not considered aliens in British law, and the soft and porous nature of the border has been vital for the North's economy. It's not really surprising that people in the border counties especially might not be looking forward to this ending.

Of course, it's far from obvious that a hard border will be imposed between Ireland and the UK within the island of Ireland. Given the realities of Irish roads, about 200 of which cross the border, and how farms and fields straddle the boundary, it's hard to see how any border within Ireland, even one policed by border guards and soldiers, could bar from the UK anyone really intent on crossing over. And given that immigration fears are utterly central to Britain's EU debate, this is a question that needs pondering.

Cameron engaged with this in the Commons last week, when he answered a question from the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell by saying that following Brexit there would have to be a hard border. "Therefore," he said, "you can only have new border controls between the Republic and Northern Ireland or, which I would regret hugely, you would have to have some sort of checks on people as they left Belfast or other parts of Northern Ireland to come to the rest of the United Kingdom."

I suspect that in practical terms a functional EU/non-EU border would have to be not in Ireland but between Britain and Northern Ireland, thus splitting the UK and making the Northern Irish second-class citizens, as the alternative would be bringing in checkpoints on dozens of Irish roads with soldiers patrolling the lands and minor roads between them, all of which would be likely to require the kind of security apparatus likely to fire up the republicans again, inviting a return to the kind of protracted low-intensity civil war that previous blighted the North.


Impoverishing the Six Counties
Even aside from the technical issue of the border, there's a high chance that a Brexit vote would impoverish Northern Ireland. Farm subsidies are regional expenditures, and it's striking that Northern Ireland's farmers receive four times the amount of EU subsidies than do England's ones. 80% of Northern dairy produce is exported, and when pondering this people need to remember that no part of the UK exports a higher proportion of its exports to other parts of the EU than does Northern Ireland. Any kind of border would hurt that, as would any imposition of tariffs and any hindering of the currently free trading arrangements. Tariffs on dairy imports to the EU, it's worth pointing out, average 36%.

The EU has played an absolutely crucial role in the Northern Irish peace process, of course, with John Hume detailing in his 1998 Nobel Prize acceptance speech how he had been hugely inspired in his work for peace by his European experience.
"I always tell this story," he said, "and I do so because it is so simple yet so profound and so applicable to conflict resolution anywhere in the world. On my first visit to Strasbourg in 1979 as a member of the European Parliament. I went for a walk across the bridge from Strasbourg to Kehl. Strasbourg is in France. Kehl is in Germany. They are very close. I stopped in the middle of the bridge and I meditated. There is Germany. There is France. If I had stood on this bridge 30 years ago after the end of the Second World War when 25 million people lay dead across our continent for the second time in this century and if I had said: 'Don't worry. In 30 years' time we will all be together in a new Europe, our conflicts and wars will be ended and we will be working together in our common interests', I would have been sent to a psychiatrist."  
"But it has happened," he continued, "and it is now clear that European Union is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution and it is the duty of everyone, particularly those who live in areas of conflict to study how it was done and to apply its principles to their own conflict resolution." 
"All conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion or nationality," he said, continuing, "The European visionaries decided that difference is not a threat, difference is natural. Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace - respect for diversity."
"The peoples of Europe then created institutions which respected their diversity - a Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the European Parliament - but allowed them to work together in their common and substantial economic interest. They spilt their sweat and not their blood and by doing so broke down the barriers of distrust of centuries and the new Europe has evolved and is still evolving, based on agreement and respect for difference," he said, before declaring, "That is precisely what we are now committed to doing in Northern Ireland."
Fine words? Sure, but accurate ones too, and not merely has the European project, with its dedication through most of its history to peace-building through calling people of different communities to work together, inspired peace in the North, but it has underpinned it too. 

As the Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson wrote the other day, "I will always remember when, in October 1994, just as the loyalist ceasefire was announced, Ian Paisley, John Hume and I met with then European Commission president Jacques Delors. He shared our optimism that Northern Ireland would move to a new beginning away from violence and pledged EU financial support. And he was true to his word -- weeks later, £240m of European funding for peace-building in Northern Ireland was approved. By 2020, Northern Ireland and the border region of the Republic will have received more than €2bn in PEACE funding alone.

PEACE funding only makes up one part of the money the North draws down from Europe, Nicholson continued, and the truth is that the EU has largely rebuilt Northern Ireland since the ceasefires began. Northern Irish prosperity, and Northern Irish peace, in no small part depend on the EU.

(Of course, the EU has done a huge amount in general to support those parts of the UK furthest from London; whether London lets them languish and runs the UK for the benefit of the English South-east you can mull over for yourselves.)


Explicitly undermining the Good Friday Agreement
Those who might doubt that a vote for Brexit is a vote to destabilise Northern Ireland should look too at the Good Friday Agreement, which explicitly rests on the fact of the UK and Ireland being "partners in the European Union".

The North-South Ministerial Council envisages the Northern and Republican governments working together -- at a local level, for those who doubt that subsidiarity matters to the modern EU -- on a range of such necessarily EU-related matters as agriculture, the environment, tourism, transport, and the management and oversight of EU programmes through Ireland's National Development Plan and Northern Ireland's Structural Funds Plan.

It's hard to see how this strand of the agreement can work if Northern Ireland is no longer in the EU, and since the Northern Assembly is explicitly described in the agreement as "mutually interdependent" with the Council, it looks as though withdrawal from the EU could endanger the entire Northern settlement.

And that's not even getting into how under the agreement everyone in Northern Ireland is entitled simultaneously to be citizens of the UK and Ireland, such that following a Brexit they could -- on the face of it -- both be citizens of the EU and non-citizens of the EU. I'm not sure how how much thought's been given in the Brexit camp to Schroedinger's Ulstermen.

Overall, a Brexit vote is a vote to risk instability, poverty, and civil war in Northern Ireland. It's not really surprising that the Northern bishops and the vast majority of Northern Catholics are opposed to it. It baffles me how many in England seem not to care in the least about this. 

19 June 2016

Final Week Brexit Thoughts 1 - Brexit: The Movie

Imagine if, during the Scottish independence referendum, a few nationalists with a bit of cash had got together to make a ‘Scexit Movie’.

“We the people,” a gravelly burr would portentously intone, “are being cajoled, frightened, and bullied into surrendering our democracy and freedom. This film is a rallying cry. We must fight for ourselves for the right to determine the freedom to shape our own freedom.”

Imagine, then, a succession of talking heads babbling about how England having 85% of the UK population means the Scots can only influence the direction of the UK when the English are split down the middle, about how the UK voting system means that two out of five English votes can be enough to control the whole UK, and how a free and independent Scotland would be wealthier than anyone could imagine.

And then, having pondered that, imagine a thoughtful-looking Scot on the train from Edinburgh to London, saying he’s on his way to London to find out what the UK is all about, and in London hopping into a black cab at Trafalgar Square, addressing a baffled cabbie with “The UK, please”.
That’s pretty much how last month’s Brexit: The Movie starts, and looking at it again now after a few weeks’ recovery since my last viewing, it’s not matured with time.

Time and again in recent weeks, friends and nodding acquaintances have been flagging video after video online, calling on people unsure of their referendum voting intentions to watch them as though they’re slamdunk arguments for the UK quitting the EU. I’ve looked at a few and found them unpersuasive, typically loaded with fictions, half-truths and contradictions, dependent on dubious presumptions, and assiduously devoid of inconvenient truths.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I’ve been impressed by the louder voices calling for the UK to stay in the Union; while prominent Brexiteers have traded in outright falsehoods about the past and present, prominent Bremainers have with depressing frequency tended towards apocalyptic predictions based on worst-case exaggerations, their cases not being helped by – all too often – their own back catalogues of anti-European opportunism.

Sure, I think reckless prophecies are better than blatant and demonstrable lies, but I think we can all agree that neither's especially good.

Given this is my fourth attempt in the last fortnight at trying something on Brexit: The Movie, as life keeps getting in the way, I’ll not be tackling any other high-profile interventions in a head-to-head way this side of the referendum. Instead, if I can, I’ll try to do two or three posts this week on why I think the EU is a good – if imperfect – thing, and why I think leaving it would be an irresponsible thing to do.


First Impressions
When I first watched the film I scrawled 18 pages of notes detailing obvious problems in it, and though I’ll not get through them all now, I think it’s worth starting by pointing out how problematic and telling the map that first appears a little over a minute into the film is.



See the obvious problem? Yep, there’s the EU carefully marked in blue, and there, floating off its coast in ‘rest of the world’ beige, are Britain and Ireland. It’s almost as though the people who’ve made this film don’t realise that most of Ireland is part of the EU and indeed has been independent of the UK for almost a century. 

In truth, it’s almost as if the people responsible for this film haven’t a very good grasp of history at all: they seem to have but the most cartoonishly propagandist understanding of British history up to, oh, 1913 or so, and depend utterly on pub rantings for their knowledge of what’s happened since.
But on that, more later.

As suggested above, the whole “take me to the EU” thing is, of course, as absurd as hopping into a taxi in London and saying “take me to the UK”, partly because you can’t be taken to the EU when you’re already in the EU, and partly because just as there no single building that houses the UK’s governing institutions there’s of course no single building in which the EU’s institutions are found –that's the nature of complex institutions intended to tackle complex things like, well, reality.

For Brexit: The Movie, this is a bad thing: the narrator describes this as where “the EU slips its first cog” since “for a democracy to function there needs to be transparency”. Of course, while the EU has democratic elements, it isn’t a democracy, and I don’t know many British people who would want it to be one, given how this would mean abandoning all British vetoes and any decision-making mechanism beyond the parliament in which they’d never be likely to make up more than 12% or so of the vote.

No, the EU’s structure is basically that of a mixed constitution, a bit like the UK and a bit like the US and a bit like Germany, but overall is something entirely new. Its institutional structure is actually pretty simple in its essence with laws being made more or less as follows:
The European heads of government collectively set the EU’s direction through the European Council;
The Commission then drafts legislation in line with that direction;
These drafts are then sent to national parliaments for feedback;
The directly-elected European Parliament approves, proposes amendments to, or rejects the draft legislation;
Providing the Parliament hasn’t rejected the proposed law, the European governments then through the Council of the European Union actually make the law based on parliamentary feedback;
And the Commission is tasked with implementing it. 
There’s more to it than this, of course, not least as there are different types of laws, but this is the guts of it.

The key thing to note is that it is the elected national governments that collectively set the course of the EU, and that make the laws in combination with – in most cases – the elected MEPs of the European Parliament. These are not “faceless bureaucrats” or anything of the sort. They are elected representatives whose own people can remove from office.

The Commission, despite constant claims to the contrary, do not make the laws. They may draft things, but unless the European governments decide to turn those things into laws, they’re just bits of paper. It is a blatant untruth that “the real power in the EU, including the power to legislate, lies not with the parliament, but with EU officials”: EU officials do not make laws.

If the various talking heads in this polemic don't understand how the EU works, well, maybe this says something about the extent to which they’re qualified to criticise the EU. At this point I'm starting to wonder if it'd be worthwhile paraphrasing Fulton Sheen to the effect that there are not one hundred people in the United Kingdom who hate the European Union, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly believe the European Union to be.

“Would it help if you knew who they were” wails one of the film’s talking heads, continuing, “because you don’t have any power over them, so what’s the point?”


An extensively lobbied and utterly irrelevant parliament?
Cue a section dismissing the Parliament, beginning with Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas rhetorically asking, “Have you ever known anybody know who their MEP is? No, because nobody does.”

Leaving aside how mine, fwiw, are Brian Hayes of Fine Gael, Sinn Féin’s Lynn Boylan, and the independent Nessa Childers, I think the question doesn’t really work in the UK, or at least in England. English people are used to having “their MP”, such that it’s not always easy to get the hang of having, say, eight MEPs, as people in North West England do. Would Claire Fox require people in that constituency to know the names of all eight of their MEPs, or just one?

Nigel Farage pops up next, claiming that the European Parliament is the world’s only parliament where elected representatives cannot initiate legislation. The fact that the Parliament can ask the Commission to draft legislation – with these requests increasingly being acceded to, reflecting an informal but real growth in parliamentary influence – doesn’t get a look in. 

Next up there are more heads claiming that the MEPs are utterly powerless, and that voting for them is pointless, all of which is rather undermined by a sequence later in the film about how large corporations spend a fortune trying to influence them. Would large corporations really try so hard to woo MEPs if they didn’t matter?

In truth, MEPs have a wide range of powers, can block most Commission proposals from becoming law, and have the power to censure the Commission, forcing its resignation. Yes, democratically-elected MEPs have the power to depose the Commission. None of this, of course, is mentioned in Brexit: The Movie, which instead concentrates on painting a risibly false picture of the British as subjects of unelected bureaucrats who impose laws in which the British have no say.

All of which makes it all the stranger then to see, after a section about how MEPs are given startlingly large amounts of money, MEPs Nigel Farage and Daniel Hannan banging on about how the only reason why local authorities, academics, and people in the arts like the EU is because their support is bought with EU money. 

Yep, people who get money from the EU can't be trusted to tell the truth about the EU, say two people who are very well paid by the EU. I’ll just let that sink in for a bit.


Teach a man nonsense about fish...
Predictably enough there’s a section on fisheries, which talks of huge declines in the numbers of fish being processed in Newcastle while skipping how fish processing often happens at sea nowadays or how more than a third of the British catch is landed abroad, before declaring, “When Britain joined the Common Market it lost control of its fishing grounds. When quotas were imposed, several other European countries lobbied the EU for Britain’s fishing rights to be divided up between them. The British government was powerless to stop this.”

An elderly fisherman then says, “The EU has just obliterated the English fishing industry altogether. The quota system they’ve got now is just mad.” He then gestures beyond a nearby pier to say how a huge Dutch trawler had been there, three or four miles off the coast, entitled to “25% of the whole quota of all of England”. There is still a prospering North Atlantic fishing industry, the film continues, “but only in countries that have retained their independence”.

Now, there's no denying that fishing in Britain is not what it was, but what tends to be glossed over is that the main decline in the industry happened before Britain joined the EEC. The numbers employed in fishing dropped by 55% - 26,000 people – between 1948 and 1970, before basically stabilising and staying more or less the same until 1994, when numbers again began to drop after quotas had to be imposed in order to prevent fish stocks from being wiped out.

The overall decline since 1994 has been less than half that than the years leading up to the UK joining the Common Market.

What's more, it's simply nonsense to talk of how Britain lost control of its fishing grounds when it joined the Common Market; at the time Britain joined the EEC, Britain’s territorial waters extended twelve miles beyond the coast, and this twelve-mile zone is still exclusively British now. If a large Dutch trawler was indeed genuinely operating in this zone, as claimed in Brexit: The Movie, it was breaking the law, and the issue then is one of simple lawbreaking and perhaps an English inability or unwillingness to enforce the law as it stands.

Britain’s territorial waters have since the mid-1970s extended 200 miles from the coast, but this extension into waters where the Dutch,  Scandinavians and others had long fished happened while Britain was already an EEC country. Far from being powerless to prevent others from being allowed to fish in these waters, the UK agreed to this in negotiations.

According to recent statistics, the UK has the second-largest fishing fleet in the EU, and with 30% of the overall fish quota, lands the second-largest catch in the Union.


An invisible empire
A core part of the video is a “historical” section, purporting to explain how “the British” are different from “the Europeans”. Yes, the inverted commas are deliberate.

“The British,” it begins, “freed themselves from suffocating feudal regulations centuries before the Europeans.” Leaving aside how this ludicrously presents feudal class structures as though they were akin to government regulations, the point of this line is to lay down the central thesis of the film: regulation is bad and the absence of regulation is good. 

“While serfdom still existed in large parts of Europe,” it continues, “the free British were carrying out the great commercial and industrial revolutions that gave birth to the modern world. In the 19th Century, unregulated Britain was the pioneer of global free trade, the workshop of the world, dominating the world economy like a leviathan.”

There’s not a word about how the costs of unregulated industry were born by the urban poor, of how diseases, malnutrition, child labour and infant mortality were rife in 19th-century Britain, and there’s certainly not a word about how a lack of regulation and a fetishisation of free market economics contributed to the Irish famine that killed more than a million UK citizens and forced at least as many again to leave their homeland.

Yep, the single biggest disaster in terms of lives lost the UK ever experienced was in no small part caused by a lack of regulation. Good times.

Neither is there even the slightest mention of how all this was utterly dependent on the exploitation of people all over the world, with vast numbers dying in the colonies through famine and massacre. Orwell nailed this reality in 1937’s The Road to Wigan Pier when he observed that “apart from any other consideration, the high standard of life we enjoy in England depends upon our keeping a tight hold on the Empire, particularly the tropical portions of it such as India and Africa”.

He continued: “Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation — an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream. The alternative is to throw the Empire overboard and reduce England to a cold and unimportant little island where we should all have to work very hard and live mainly on herrings and potatoes.”

With nary a mention of how Britain needed that Empire to maintain what comfort the middle classes and those above them had, the film ignorantly or duplicitously goes on to talk about how things were great till the First World War, when regulations started to creep in, being ramped up in the Second World War, and going out of control after that, strangling British ingenuity.

The 1950s and 1960s, then, are painted as an over-regulated hell, with no mention of how Britain was struggling with the massive costs of the Second World War and was in the business of losing the Empire. Most of Ireland had broken away from the UK itself after the First World War, massively reducing the national territory, and India broke away within three years of the Second World War ending; colony after colony would follow. 

The single most important factor in Britain’s mid-century decline goes unmentioned in Brexit: The Movie, which is determined to hold up regulation as its culprit so it can present deregulation as the saviour of an independent Britain/


Heroic deregulation strikes again
Meanwhile, the film claims, West Germany was blossoming through deregulation, which I think a somewhat simplistic take on the Economic Miracle. Along came the Common Market then, holding up a wonderful tariff-free future. Daniel Hannan leaps in to claim that in the 1970s Britain had loads of problems but looked across the channel and thought “these chaps are doing something right”, almost as though the UK hadn’t been desperate to join from 1960 on.

“But the architect of the EEC wasn’t German – he was French,” the film continues, presenting Jean Monnet as an obsessive planner, partly responsible for having crippled the post-war British economy, and all set to shackle the EEC. Schuman and the other fathers of the European project don't get a mention in this shamefully selective narrative, of course, but maybe that's the nature of polemics: this isn't about truth, this is about winning.

“It soon became clear that the Common Market was so much more than a trade deal,” observes the film, as though this hadn’t been obvious since Robert Schuman’s 1950 Europe speech, explicitly stated in the first sentence of the Treaty of Rome, and praised by a young Margaret Thatcher in the 1960s.

“Its membership kept going up, as the EU assumed greater powers,” it goes on, as though increased membership wasn’t a British objective, before returning to the eternal villain that is regulation. Rather than arguing that perhaps some regulations shouldn’t have to be applied to companies that trade only on a local basis, but the creation of a genuine common market requires common standards for companies, products, and services being traded across that market, the film simply goes for the line that regulation is bad.

EU regulation pushes up the price of everything, we learn, forcing up the cost of living and making Europeans poorer. Now, I think we all know that since the crash of 2007 things haven’t been as they were, but still, if you look at the overall figures I don’t think there are many economists who’d say the figures show that Europeans have gotten poorer since joining the EEC or EU. Certainly Britain hasn't.

The Common Agricultural Policy is another predictable baddie in this screed, but while the policy is by no means unflawed and in some ways has been immoral, there’s no hint in the film of how it exists to ensure that Europe keeps people on the land and can always feed itself if it has to.  It’s worth bearing in mind how much food – not far off half its total consumption – Britain has to import, remembering that food security was one of the reasons why Thatcher said on 8 April 1975 that Britain shouldn’t leave the Common Market.

Still, if regulation is a villain in this film, it’s nice to see the World Trade Organisation appearing as a hero, even if its first head, Peter Sutherland, was previously an EU commissioner and someone who consistently warns against what he sees as the absurdity and destructiveness of British withdrawal from the EU, noting that the current incumbent of his old WTO seat holds the same views.

The WTO is opening up the markets, deregulating and driving down tariffs, the film assures us, claiming that the EU is a thing of the past, a declining trade block, and a macroeconomic corpse. None of these claims about the EU are true, and insofar as the EU has a smaller proportion of global trade than it once did, this mainly reflects how such huge countries as China and India have been playing catch-up, and expanding rapidly in the way that low-cost economies can.

Switzerland is held up as a model of what a Britain outside the EU might be like, with ludicrous lines about how despite not being in the EU, Swiss exports per head are five times higher than Britain’s. Predictably, the film doesn’t discuss how Switzerland avoided such major 20th-century body blows as the two world wars and the loss of an empire, and how this might have benefitted the country. One Ruth Lea rightly says comparisons with Switzerland are “totally bizarre”, but the film storms on to show just how wonderful things can be outside the EU.

Indeed, the film maintains, Switzerland’s secret lies in its radically democratic nature, with its politicians and bureaucrats being kept on a tight rein with – you guessed it – one of the least regulated economies in the world. “Do it like the Swiss,” another talking head says, “have some arrangements with Europe but be independent and look to the world.”

There are others, of course, who would point out that Switzerland offers a genuinely useful case study in why it's not a good idea to thumb one's nose at the rest of Europe. Given how the EU countries responded to Switzerland trying to curtail immigration a couple of years back, is it ever really likely to be the case that the EU will give competitive advantages to a country that turns its back on the whole project?


And finally, the trading fantasy
Nigel Lawson shows up thwarting a straw man when he says “the idea that you have to be in the European Union to trade with the European Union is a total absurdity” – so it is, Nigel, which is why nobody’s saying it.

Onward then, with the claim that “the EU is desperate to keep its goods flowing into the UK”, with German cars as ever highlighted as the key product; the “Germans’ biggest industry needs us to the tune of 16 billion plus every year,” declares David Davis. Perhaps so, but with Germany’s automobile sector having a turnover of €351 billion in 2011, and a foreign generated revenue of €194 billion, I’m not sure how “desperate” Germany might really be.

Besides, we’re told, there’s a big world out there. Anglo-Chinese trade over the last ten years has been growing several times faster than Anglo-EU trade. The fact that less than 3% of the UK’s trade is with China, as distinct from about 45% with the rest of the EU, is conveniently omitted. “They need us more than we need them” declares Ruth Lea, which is a baffling statement given how the proportion of UK exports that go to the rest of the EU is far larger than the proportion of exports from the rest of the EU that go to the UK.

“It’s true that British companies wanting to export to the EU will have to comply with EU regulations,” the film wryly observes, triumphantly continuing, “but it’s also true that EU companies wanting to export to Britain will have to comply with ours.”

Ours? What regulations are these? The fact that the whole film has been holding up the dream of an unregulated Britain seems to have been forgotten. 

I'd hope that most people who've watched the film would realise that that line made no sense whatsoever. Just like the economic models underpinning the films grand aspirations.

More again.

23 March 2016

Why quibble about 'Europe' while cherishing 'Britain'?

I know, I've been quiet lately, but Brexit debates and other matters are causing me to rethink my unremunerated silence.

Just after work, and before I pedal home, I want to write something about this annoying Spiked article in which Brendan O'Neill wheels out the Brexiteer whinge that it's oh-so-unfair that the BBC often refers to the EU as 'Europe'.

I think the BBC is right to refuse, but before considering why, I think it's worth noting that Brendan plays some tricky language games in this piece. When he bangs on about "the conflation of the Brussels-based oligarchy with the continent of Europe", he conflates the European Union with the European Commission, the latter simply being the Brussels-based civil service that proposes possible actions that only become laws if the national governments (or most of them, at any rate) vote for them.

I don't think there are that many people out there who would think it okay to say, as a matter of course, "the UK" or indeed "Britain" when what they really mean is "the Civil Service".

If there's dodgy conflation going on here, it's mainly on Brendan's part. I mean, really, what's he on about with lines like "the way Brussels can impose its writ on nation states"?

Does he mean "the way the European civil service, staffed by people from all over Europe and headed by people answerable to the European Parliament* and appointed by every single member state's government, can draft possible laws either when asked to do so by the governments or the European Parliament or do so off their own bat, send them to the national parliaments for feedback, and then submit them to the Parliament and the Council where the governments will scrutinise the proposals, haggle over them, and then vote so they become binding decisions which the national parliaments will then vote on so they can harmonise with their own national law codes"?

I think the process is a lot more representative and a lot less dictatorial than Brendan suggests.

In any case, like I said, I think the BBC is right, for at least three main reasons.

First,"Europe" has long been a colloquial term for the European project, whether speaking of the EEC, the EC, or the EU, such that it seems like a deliberate attempt to rig the game further by trying to change this now. There are no shortage of Brexiteers who've opposed the project since before the establishment of the EU, after all, whether at the time the UK signed up to the Treaty of Rome on the basis that the UK, with other countries and among other things, was "determined to establish the foundations of an ever closer union among the European peoples" and had "decided to ensure the economic and social progress of their countries by common action in eliminating the barriers which divide Europe", during the 1970s referendum of withdrawal from the Treaty of Rome, or at the time of the Single European Act in 1980s.

Second, proponents of UK withdrawal from the Union typically don't just want to withdraw from the EU. The European Court of Human Rights is constantly invoked as a shackle on British sovereignty, with the conflation of the Court with the EU being rationalised by the claim that you can't be in the EU without being subject to the court as a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights. Quite so, but neither can you be in the 47-country Council of Europe -- the flag of which the Union shares -- without accepting the Convention and the authority of the Court.

Third, it's a bit rich that people who insist that 'Europe' should never be used as a synonym for "European Union" are all too often quite comfortable saying "Britain" as though it's somehow synonymous with 'United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland', not least when they say "Brexit" when they mean "Ukexit". I'm not saying this is brazenly hypocritical, well, not necessarily, just that it seems at best indicative of muddy thinking, unless it's a recognition that Brexit might well precipitate the disintegration of the UK, as William Hague, the Scots nationalists, most Northern Irish parties, and others have all acknowledged.

It's probably worth adding that the oft-repeated line about how "Britain isn’t leaving the continent of Europe" is historically dodgy, leaving aside the Britain/UK issue. Europe is a cultural continent rather than a physical one, after all; really just Asia's western peninsula, its borders are a matter of changing convention rather than anything else. Norman Davies talks in Europe: A History of Europe being a tidal continent, such that it's eminently possible to imagine Britain leaving it. Certainly, I know people who would insist that Britain is not and never has been part of Europe, and while I think they're wrong, they testify to a possible reality.

As an example of this sort of thing, it's worth noting how Cambridge's David Abulafia, one of the 'Historians for Britain' crowd, talks of "a historical perspective on Britain’s relationship with Europe" and "a long history of British engagement with Europe" -- noting that Europe is a place with which Britain can have links, rather than a place where Britain is to be found.He talks of Britain "becoming European", which seems a claim that Britain has not been European in the past, perhaps because, he says, "the United Kingdom has always been a partner of Europe without being a full participant in it".

Granted, you might think that someone who says of national boundaries that "even Britain has contracted, with the departure of most of Ireland" hasn't really got a handle on what or where exactly Britain is, and might be better off not talking about this issue at all, but that's a debate for another day.


_________________________________________________________________________
* Yes, it is called that. The European Parliament. Not the EU Parliament. Do the Brexiteers think the BBC should start calling the European Parliament by a name they've made up? Presumably they likewise think the European Commission should be renamed the EU Commission, and the European Court of Justice be called the EU Court of Justice. And then, maybe, they'll suggest the BBC become the UKBC.

10 January 2015

Charlie: It's Not All About Us

It's been very strange watching some Irish responses online to the week's horrific events in Paris.
 
Following the murders at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and subsequent hostage-taking and killings elsewhere, far too many people have seen this as a suitable time to demand that Ireland's 'blasphemy laws' should be repealed, and to scorn as hypocritical the Irish Times' criticism of the murderers' attempts to silence debate, given how our self-proclaimed 'paper of reference' once removed a cartoon from its archives.
 
Now, you might just think this kind of behaviour is just cynical opportunism, or is typical of that clueless parochial narcissism that so often blights our national discourse, and you might well be right, but it's worth looking at both issues separately for a moment.
 
 
Comparing Like with Loike, Totally
Just to take one example, Ed Moloney, one of the finest analysts of the Northern Irish Troubles and Peace Process, for instance, tweeted last night, 'When Will The Irish Times Remember The Cartoon It Censored At The Behest Of Religious Fanatics?'
 
Writing about this on his blog, where after some reflection he changed his headline from one identical to the tweet to one saying, 'Irish Times Leads Nation’s Protest Over "Charlie" But Forgets About Cartoon It Censored At Behest Of The Bishops,' he quotes the Irish Times's comment that 'The right to offend must be defended with courage and vigour', before saying that it would have been more 'uplifting' if the Irish Times editorial had expressed regret for how it had removed from its archives a Martin Turner cartoon because, he said, it had offended senior members of the Irish Catholic hierarchy.
 
'It seems,' he concludes, 'that sauce for the Catholic goose is not sauce for the Islamic gander.'
 
Now. Moloney's a smart man, and on the face of it you might think he's making a fair point. It's worth taking a look at the cartoon, though, which we can easily do because, well, it's not 1904, and things tend to end up online about two minutes after newspapers remove them. 
 
(For instance, do you remember in October 2004 when the Guardian removed from its archives a Charlie Brooker 'Screen Burn' column that ended by lamenting the probability of George W. Bush being reelected president, and said 'John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald,  John Hinckley Jr -- where are you now that we need you?' No?
 
Well, perhaps you remember how in August 2013, the Irish Times ran a front page piece about a twin pregnancy being terminated at the National Maternity Hospital as the first termination conducted under the terms of the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act? Remember? You should: it was such an impressively detailed report that Peter Boylan, who was reportedly involved in the termination, spluttered about how the patient's confidentiality had been breached, and yet it was utterly revoked and wiped from the paper's archives a week later, with a small and inappropriately discreet page seven apology pointing out that the law was not yet in force, and claiming that 'The hospital has pointed out that the case described in the article did not happen.'
 
If you don't remember either of these peculiar episodes, well, don't worry, because this is 2015, and so I've kindly given you links to the missing stories. And then, if you really have an issue with censorship, go and write to the said papers to complain about their willingness to bow to, I dunno, angry politicians and embarrassing obstetricians. Or something.)
 
So, anyway, here's the Turner cartoon, the removal of which so irks Mr Moloney, because, of course, an Irish publication freely deciding to withdraw a cartoon while retaining the services of its cartoonist is comparable to a load of cartoonists and other magazine staff being butchered.


It is, we should start by conceding, not a very good cartoon. It's a leaden thing, where three priests, all rather surprisingly wearing what I presume are meant to be cassocks*, and one stepping out of a confessional box rather perplexingly wearing an alb as well as his stole, sing 'I would do anything for children (but I won't do that)'.
 
Presumably this is to the tune of Meatloaf's seminal return hit, 'I would do anything for love (but I won't do that)'**, though if you can get the priests' line to scan to the original tune you're a better man than I am.
 
In case you're too thick to realise that this was intended as a comment on Catholic opposition to one element in the child protection laws being introduced at the time, one of the priests -- presumably singing with his mouth closed -- is scowling down at a newspaper running the headline 'Children First Bill: Mandatory Reporting'. As an English friend pointed out the other day in a more general context, if you feel the need to include newspaper headlines to spell out what your cartoon is about, you've probably not done a very good cartoon.

And, of course, if you don't see the significance of Catholics taking issue with a particular proposal that might limit freedom of religion in return for nothing that would actually protect children, and if you're not willing to concede that the Church in Ireland has -- so, so, belatedly -- been pretty much the leader in Irish child protection over the last decade or so, and if you don't have a problem with government ministers crowing about this proposal while actual experts in child protection point out that the planned legislation wouldn't help anyone and was being conducted in tandem with policies that would endanger children, well, then you're probably not very bright, not very well informed, or just not really interested in protecting children at all.
 
The day after the cartoon appeared, there were two letters in the paper, both from priests, one describing the cartoon as 'bigoted, nasty and downright disgraceful', pointing out that given the Church has more stringent child protection guidelines than any other body in Ireland, it was a cheap shot and a betrayal of anti-Catholic bigotry to 'use the sins of the past as a stick to continue to beat the church of the present', while the other describe it as 'offensive in the extreme to every priest in the country', and required an editorial apology unless the paper was of the view that it was 'open season on priests'.

The following day there were four letters about the cartoon, one of which said the cartoon was below the belt, but that as a satirical cartoonist it was Turner's job to be offensive. The other three were less understanding. One described the cartoon as 'a new low in Irish journalism', reminiscent of the sectarian cartoons of the nineteenth-century American Thomas Nast. Another, from a long-time fan of Turner, said the cartoon was 'bigoted', 'nasty', and 'spectacularly unfunny', revealing a potent double standard where the paper's general 'zeal for anti-religious comment' was not being 'applied to critical analysis of current government scandals'. A third, from a reader of the 55 years, described the cartoon's publication as 'an error of judgement' that warranted an apology to Ireland's priests and the paper's readers.
 
That same day, speaking in Dublin's pro-Cathedral, Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, said 'I am a strong believer in freedom of speech and of the vital role of satire in social criticism, but I object to anything that would unjustly tarnish all good priests with the unpardonable actions of some.'
 
What was the problem? Well, if you look down in the cartoon's bottom corner, in very small writing, you'll see an authorial aside saying, 'But there is little else you can do for them... except stay away from them, of course.'
 
Bear that in mind, when you read the Irish Times editorial that made clear why the cartoon was removed. The editorial states that the paper is bound by the Irish Times Trust's principles which require that the paper is meant to ensure that comment and opinion should be 'informed and responsible', with 'special consideration ... given to the reasonable representation of minority interests and divergent views, and that and it should uphold  'the promotion of peace and tolerance and opposition to all forms of violence and hatred, so that each man may live in harmony with his neighbour, considerate for his cultural, material and spiritual needs.'
 
No, really. No laughing at the back there.
 
'That means, however, that there is no carte blanche,' the editorial explained, 'and that there are ground rules which we try to adhere to, mostly with no argument from those contributors. Civilised debate, we accept, requires the eschewing of ad hominem argument, playing the ball, not the man, and avoiding crude stereotyping.'

Turner's cartoon was described as having flown under the editorial radar, the editorial explained, picking up on the authorial aside about how priests should keep away from children. 'In making a legitimate argument about the debate over priestly responsibility for reporting child abuse and the concerns for the seal of the confessional, Turner also took an unfortunate and unjustified sideswipe at all priests, suggesting that none of them can be trusted with children. This has, unsurprisingly, caused considerable offence and we regret and apologise for the hurt caused by the cartoon whose use in that form, we acknowledge, reflected a regrettable editorial lapse.'
 
The Turner thing was very simple. The Irish Times has its own guidelines, Turner breached them by irresponsibly and ignorantly casting all priests as dangers to children -- and if you think this is a fair comment on the phenomenon of abuse in Ireland, you really should read more --  and so the paper pulled it. To make out that this has broader implications would be as outrageous as me saying that because my school magazine was once pulled from distribution because of a story I had done in it, so nobody at that school should ever be allowed to take issue with cartoonists being murdered.
 
It really is that simple.



Blas for me! Blas for you! Blas for everybody in the room!
Then there's the blasphemy law thing. It's probably worth starting with the fact that I don't much care either way about the blasphemy law, such as it is: it doesn't bother me, and it wouldn't bother me if it were removed. I don't know any Catholics who are fans of it, to be honest. Some are opposed to it, and many wouldn't even bother shrugging if it were removed.

Now, the standard line about the blasphemy law over the last few years that it should be removed because it encourages Muslim countries to introduce similar blasphemy laws has been tweaked in the last week to the effect that 'Because of Ireland's blasphemy law, Charlie Hebdo wouldn't even be allowed in Ireland!' As such, so fools argue, we should remove the blasphemy law as a mark of respect and as a way of championing real free speech.

It's worth bearing in mind where the blasphemy law came from. A constitutional quirk basically requires the state to have some kind of blasphemy law, but Ireland's politicians sat on this legal oddity for ages, without people jumping up and down and claiming that they had to give legislative force to a constitutional imperative. Eventually, though, when tidying up issues of libel and slander and such in 2009's Defamation Act, the issue of other limitations on speech came up. The result was the so-called 'blasphemy law', better known to those who read as section 36 of the Defamation Act.

Section 36 says that those who publish or utter blasphemous matter can be subject to a fine of up to €25,000. Matter should be deemed blasphemous, if says, if a) it is "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion" AND b) if the causing of such outrage is intended.

That bit about intent is crucial, and not just because it is half the definition of blasphemy, such that in Irish law you cannot blaspheme unless you have deliberately caused large-scale outrage. The law goes on to say that it is a defence to allegations of blasphemy for a reasonable person to find 'genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates'.

In other words, the law has a three-part test: has the matter under investigation caused outrage among a significant number of people of a particular religious line, was it intended to cause such outrage, and is it bereft of literary, artistic, scientific, academic, or political merit?

To all intents and purposes it's a deliberately toothless law, designed to tidy up a constitutional glitch in such a way that nobody is ever troubled by it, and surely pretty much unnecessary given how the actual crime here seems to be substantively covered by 1989's Incitement to Hatred law.  You might take issue with its symbolism, or feel it's anachronistic, but one thing you can't really do is say that it does any actual harm. Our laws are often merely aspirational; this isn't even that.

Michael Nugent and his friends in Atheist Ireland disagree, of course, and regard it as a great betrayal that the government doesn't see its removal from the statute books asap as a massive priority. But then, of course, Atheist Ireland has never really understood the law. When the law was first instituted, they ran a list of 25 supposedly blasphemous quotations, daring the State to prosecute them. Of course, leaving aside now many of the quotations could be said to have had literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value, and that their publication in 2009 did not provoke large-scale outrage -- nobody cared -- the simple fact of the list having been published to make a political point about free speech meant it was clearly safe from prosecution.

Could Charlie be published in Ireland? Well, put it this way: was it intended to provoke anger among Muslims or Catholics or whoever or was it intended to make people think? To take a non-religious example***, is the accompanying cartoon a homophobic or racist piece designed to anger gay people or black people, or is its aim to get people to think about the socio-economic realities surrogacy can entail, with poor women, often from developing countries, being paid to serve as vessels for others' children?

'Surrogacy is two parents... and one slave.'
No, I think, Charlie certainly could be published in Ireland. Whether shops would want to stock it, or people would want to buy it... that's a different matter.
 
There's no getting away from the fact that the intentional provocation of large scale outrage is a central element in Ireland's blasphemy law; it's a law less about offending God, as in other blasphemy laws, as about deliberately angering people. This matters if we want to think about the trope that Muslim countries, especially Pakistan, like using Ireland's blasphemy law to justify their own similar laws.

Do they really do this?
 
Now, I might be wrong, I've only ever really heard of one instance of this happening, and even then it's a pretty dubious instance. At an October 2009 meeting of the UN's Human Rights Council, discussing discrimination, Pakistan entered a six-part proposal to oppose discrimination based on religion and belief. The first of these six propositions was clearly modelled on part of the Irish definition of legal blasphemy: 'State parties shall prohibit by law the uttering of matters that are grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents to that religion.'

So, yes, clearly based in part on the Irish one. And yet also spectacularly different from the toothless Irish law, because it utterly omits the role of intent in Ireland's law, that crucial point which means that you cannot blaspheme accidentally or inadvertently, that blasphemy must not merely be offensive, but must deliberately cause large-scale outrage, and that even should large-scale outrage deliberately be caused, there are a range of legitimate defences, including 'I intended to provoke large-scale outrage, but I was engaged in scholarly research and was telling the truth', and 'I intended to provoke large-scale outrage, but I did so in an aesthetically pleasing way', and 'I intended to provoke large-scale outrage, but I was making a point about free speech'.

The Pakistani proposal entailed using a truncated version of the Irish definition, and tried to promote that. It did not explicitly acknowledge the Irish law, and its proposal was crucially different from the Irish reality, except as misrepresented by, for instance, Atheist Ireland, which falsely states on its Blasphemy.ie website that 'The law defines blasphemy as publishing or saying something "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matter held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion."'

No it doesn't, you buffoons. Please learn to read.
It is disappointing that oafs and otherwise smart people like Ed Moloney have tried to draw links between a responsible editorial decision and brutal acts of murder, just as it is disappointing that others claim Pakistan uses Ireland's blasphemy law to push for blasphemy laws elsewhere and present part of Ireland's legal definition of blasphemy as though it's the whole definition.
 
But that's the thing about free speech: it allows people to say stupid things.
 
Now if you'll excuse me, I have some work to do.
 
 
 
* It looks rather as though they're wearing mysterious black night-shirts over lighter-coloured shirts with clerical collars. It's almost as though Turner has never seen a cassock and doesn't actually know what one looks like. Whether such basic ignorance might somehow undermine his point I leave to you to decide.
** Yeah, I know that's not the actual video. Watch it anyway, though. It may prove an education.
*** Because I don't see much virtue in republishing things I know many people would be upset by for the sake of making a broader, if somewhat self-aggrandising, point about the importance of free speech. That strikes me as doing something bad in the hope of achieving something good, and, well, there are forbidden weapons.

15 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of How Many Armies?

I went to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies yesterday, thereby wrapping up a cinematic adventure that began for me back in December 2001. The film, I think, is definitely a mixture of good and bad drawn from Peter Jackson’s urns of blessings and ills, but my main thought coming from it, as since I saw Return of the King back in 2003, is that Jackson doesn’t really understand Tolkien.

I have friends who get furious about this, and rant about all manner of little changes the films make from the books, but I see those kind of changes as – in the main – simply the price of adaptation. Books aren’t films. When we change media, we change stuff. That’s what happens. Characters change and get compressed, dialogue gets trimmed, episodes are cut or even invented, depending on what the story needs. Bill Goldman's very good on this, in both Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? What shouldn’t change, though, is the theme and tone. If you’re going to change those, why are you bothering at all?

As I said nearly eleven years ago, Jackson eviscerates the story by leaving out the Scouring of the Shire, that conclusion to the Lord of the Rings which sees the hobbits returning home and having to clean up their homeland, where petty greed and viciousness and power hunger have taken over, as hobbits willingly serve Saruman’s new dictatorship and rejoice in holding forth over their weaker neighbours. There’s a sense in which the episode is an anti-climax, and it’s probably for that reason that Jackson omits it from the films, but given he has about seventeen other endings to The Return of the King, I think he could have ran with it.

The omission of the episode shows up a profound difference between Tolkien and Jackson. Tolkien, it has to be remembered, was an articulate, informed, and orthodox Catholic, something that runs right through his books, such that you tend to miss half of what’s going on, not least the point of Tolkien's stories, if you can’t see with his eyes. Tolkien, indeed, called The Lord of the Rings "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision," explaining that what he called "the religious element" in his writing was not on the surface, but was "absorbed into the story and the symbolism."

Catholic that he was, Tolkien believed very strongly in Original Sin, in the notion that there’s a darkness in the heart of man, and that cracks run right through all of us; for Tolkien the Ring is something that deepens our darkness, that widens our cracks into chasms, that magnifies the faults that are already within us, and that amplifies our tendency towards sin. Crucially, though, while the Ring is a corrupting force, it is not an originating one: it doesn’t make people evil, rather it fosters and worsens the evil already within. As such, even when the Ring is destroyed, evil remains in the world. It’s a petty, cheap, brutish thing, and it doesn’t go away. The Hobbits save the world, and still have to save their homes.

Not so for Jackson. For Jackson, evil is an external phenomenon. The Ring is, of course, an externalisation of Sauron’s power, but that’s not to say that Tolkien thinks evil is external. On the contrary, he sees it as within, with the eternal frontline in the war between good and evil being in the depths of the human heart.  But for Jackson, once the Ring is destroyed, the shadow falls and evil is banished from Middle Earth. Prices still have to be paid – Frodo will carry his wounds as long as he remains in the world – but there is no wickedness in the world after the Ring is destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom.

Jackson sees evil as something outside us, and something that’s embodied in a Ring or “other people,” especially ugly monstrous ones – orcs, goblins, trolls, dragons, giant spiders – or swarthy foreigners from the east and the south.  Yes, Tolkien makes these identifications first, but he does so in a context where we all have the capacity for evil. Not so for Jackson, as is shown by his removal of the “Scouring” without a substitionary episode or speech to make the same thematic point: no, get rid of the Ring, his story says, and everyone will live happily ever after.

And so to The Hobbit.

Leaving aside his failure to understand Tolkien, I think Jackson had two main problems with the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey. One was that Tolkien could distinguish between his dwarves by just giving them different names, whereas Jackson had to make them all into recognisable individuals with distinct appearances, voices, mannerism, and personalities, all of which added time to the film, making it far longer than the tale it was telling merited. The more serious problem, though, is that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings sprang from The Hobbit, and grew far beyond it in a deeper, darker, richer way. Jackson can't do that: his Hobbit has to function as a prequel to his Lord Of The Rings, and has to maintain the already established tone and look of the original trilogy.

He's done impressive work on that front. The opening shots of Erebor as a Dwarf metropolis to surpass the Elvish magnificence of Rivendell set up the world of The Hobbit as a real part of the Middle Earth he’d already envisaged.  In some ways it shows what Balin must have dreamt of in the darkness of Moria. His dwarves became a race of armoured Gimlis in leather and mail, almost wholly supplanting the books’ jolly chaps with colourful hoods – Dwalin in dark green, Balin in red, Fili and Kili both in blue, and others in purple, grey, brown, white, yellow, pale green, and in Thorin’s case sky blue with a silver tassle. The significance of the story had to be brought out: this is not just the story of Bilbo’s adventure, but is rather the story of the return of Sauron, of how new relations were seeded between Elves, Dwarves, and Men, of how one of Sauron's greatest potential allies was preemptively taken off the board before the War of the Ring, and above all how the Ring was restored to the world, and Hobbits entered into the world.
 
When you get down to it, Jackson's telling a huge six-part story of how the most insignificant and unlikely of people find the greatest weapon in the world and then destroy it and he manages to do it in a way that makes sense and looks consistent. Credit, so, where it's due.

For all the glory of Erebor, the first Hobbit film annoyed me. It retained enough of the chirpiness of the book to be childish without retaining enough to be childlike. My Maths teacher used to say “between two stools you fall to the ground,” and, well, I think that's what happened. There was far too much dwarf humour, a failing in Jackson’s original trilogy but one taken to excess here. How much falling over did there have to be? And did the whole Goblin chase sequence need to go on for quite so long?

The Gollum scene, though, was good, and I'm left wondering if Jackson will follow George Lucas’s precedent by tweaking The Fellowship of the Ring to show Martin Freeman, rather than an artificially young Ian Holm, as Bilbo finding the ring. I was okay with the Azog stuff too, to be honest. Sure, he’s not in the book, but he is referred to in the book as having killed Thorin’s father. I think giving a bit of individuality to the orcs wasn’t a bad thing. He also looks straight out of Guillermo del Toro’s sketchbook, which isn’t a bad thing.

The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, I found vastly better, though I wonder how much of this was due to me not watching it in 3D-HFR. The images were ones into which I could get absorbed, rather than ones that distracted me. I thought the sequence where they're all floating downriver and Tauriel's doing her arrow stuff absurd and straight out of a game, but, er, I'm not going to criticise Tauriel too much, for predictable reasons. I also liked the Smaug sequences, and the spiders, and quite liked Jackson’s casting of Steven Fry as the smug, self-important, oleaginous Master of Laketown.  Beorn was largely wasted, I felt, though I consoled myself with the thought that that otherwise irrelevant section might bear fruit in the third film, as indeed it does in the book, when Beorn shows up at the battle, retrieves Thorin’s mortally wounded body, and kills the Goblin leader Bolg, son of Azog. I thought too that the dialogue between Tauriel and Kili really could have been better, but overall I found it a smoother and much less laboured film than the first one, and came out of it thinking that while it was further away from Tolkien than ever, perhaps this was necessary to set up Jackson's – not Tolkien's – Lord of the Rings.

Bilbo’s discovery of the Arkenstone in the second film just hammers home, of course, how he clearly has the cheat codes for The Hobbit game, finding plot coupons everywhere he goes: elvish blades, the Ring, the Arkenstone. And game is right: if the Moria scene in The Fellowship of the Ring had felt like a game, the Hobbit sequence feels like a game time and time and time again.

And so to the third Hobbit film, The Battle of the Five Armies, whatever the five armies are meant to be: in the book it's clearly goblins, wargs, elves, dwarves, and men, but here it's definitely Azog's orc army, Thranduil's elves, Dain's dwarves, and Bard's men... but who else? Bolg's second orc army? Thorin's band of dwarves? The eagles?
 
Unfortunately, I watched it in 3D-HFR, having forgotten how much I’d disliked it in the first film, with everything seeming overlit, and the general feeling being as though we’re on set with people traipsing about in silly costumes and make up and fake ears. It couldn’t help but distances me from the action, as through it all I thought it all looked dreadfully fake, as did the longer shots of the CGI armies which looked like trailers for a game.

There is good stuff in the film, it has to be said. Thorin's madness is very well handled, echoing Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. While this seems yet another instance of someone being corrupted by an external force, in this case the treasure burnished for decades by Smaug’s greed, it nonetheless feels more normal, somehow, than the corrupting effect of the Ring, especially in combination with Steven Fry's common or garden greediness, and that of his henchman. The film, then, at least recognises that it doesn’t take a monstrous evil to turn people into monsters, but that most of the time evil is a petty, small thing, people bearing cracks of original sin that such as the Ring can turn into chasms. This goes some small way to remedying the deepest problem with the original films. Martin Freeman is great as Bilbo, and Bard is very well done. So yes, the film really does have good points.

Unfortunately, it’s not just got good points.

The appearance of Dain is written in a way to suit the actor far more than the character, I'm afraid. It is immensely enjoyable, but still, it's jarring, and shatters any sense of immersion you might have been lucky enough to get even with the blasted 3D-HFR. You’re not watching Dain Ironfoot, the eventual King Under The Mountain who will fall with Bard’s grandson decades later at the Battle of Dale while hundreds of miles to the southwest Aragorn and Legolas and the lads – and Eomer – are doing their thing at the Pelennor Films. You're watching Billy Connolly being, well, Billy Connolly.

The armies look dreadfully false in the battle scenes, row upon row of faceless automatons in identical armour moving as one as though telepathically commanded. If you know anything about ancient or medieval warfare this simply doesn’t hold up: warriors tended to own and supply their own equipment, and would have had distinct shields and helmets and variations in their armour. Having them all look uniform just feels dreadfully wrong.

The fighting too owes more to 300, or the games that inspired that, than to reality: elves and dwarves don’t get on, we’re told, and bear old grudges, and yet when the moment comes, with no planning – let alone training – they all know exactly what to do. The dwarves form an impressive shieldwall, with hints of the Roman testudo, and look set to withstand the orcish attack, establishing an unpassable barrier behind which the elves could use their long bows and winnow the orc forces. Instead, though, the elves cast aside their massive tactical superiority in terms of their lengthy killing zone, and vault over the dwarf wall, rendering it pointless, and start swirling among the orc forces, laying into them to cinematically impressive and militarily ludicrous effect.

This is a thing. Too many people rave about the battle scenes in Jackson’s films, oblivious or indifferent to just how ludicrous they are. The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen.  If you want to see plausible cinematic renditions of pre-modern battles, you can’t do much better than The Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, and Ran. More recently, the one at the start of Gladiator is okay too, and obviously people love the ones in Spartacus and Braveheart, but really, it’s the Kurosawa ones that bear most rewatching.

There’s an astounding lack of tactical sense in the Battle of the Five Armies, with nobody attempting to take out the Orc signalling system until Thorin shows up and decides to target Azog who is directing commands from the signal tower.  Not that sense is really part of the sequence: if I’d thought the bit in The Two Towers when the horses run down a cliff one of the most absurd things I’d ever seen, it’s solidly trumped by Legolas leaping from falling block to falling block in a manner reminiscent of Mario, somehow resisting the urge to headbutt gold coins out of the air.

Beorn does appear in the battle, but rather than mysteriously appearing and saving the day, as in the book, he instead joins battle as an airborne bear, flown from the far side of Mirkwood, presumably, by the Eagles ex Machina, and isn’t shown doing anything especially impressive other than running into the fray. He doesn’t kill Azog’s son and lieutenant Bolg, that honour being left to the wonderful Tauriel, or any other prominent orcs, and the overall effect is to leave me wondering what the point of Beorn being in the story was. We don’t see him accompanying Bilbo home either. It’s all very odd.

“Farewell, good thief,” the dying Thorin says to Bilbo in the book, continuing, “I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed.” It’s an impressive line, pointing to the importance of an afterlife to the dwarves, but the line doesn’t make it to the film; indeed, to see Thranduil’s sorrow at elvish blood being shed, you’d never imagine that fallen elves have their souls cleansed and their bodies reborn in their own land, never to return to Middle Earth. For a film that’s about battle from beginning to end, it has precious little to say about death – and never touches on how Tolkien saw death in the context of Middle Earth. In these films, when you're dead, you're dead. That's it. Maybe modern audiences prefer things that way, but it's not how Tolkien thought, and it's not how things are meant to be on Middle Earth.

There seems something pointless about showing indistinguishable CGI automata trading blows for as film does without showing us what death really involves. All else aside, I’d like to have seen Thorin’s funeral. That would have been a suitable ending, or part of it,
“They buried Thorin deep beneath the Mountain, and Bard laid the Arkenstone upon his breast.
‘There let it lie till the Mountain falls!’ he said. ‘May it bring good fortune to all his folk that dwell here after.’
Upon his tomb the Elvenking then laid Orcrist, the elvish sword that had been taken from Thorin in captivity. It is said in songs that it gleamed ever in the dark if foes approached, and the fortress of the dwarves could not be taken by surprise. There now Dain son of Nain took up his abode, and he became King under the Mountain, and in time many other dwarves gathered to his throne in the ancient halls.”
The Iliad ended with the funeral of Hector, tamer of horses. It’d not have been a bad example for Jackson to have followed.