Tag Archives: Brexit

Extinction and Brexit: the Same Struggle

People ask why I campaign at the same time for the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and for the UK’s continued full membership of the EU. Some argue that Brexit is a trivial matter compared with climate chaos, ecological collapse and mass extinction, so why bother, why get distracted? I say the opposite: that the two issues are utterly one, that XR should be completely against Brexit, and that the anti-Brexit movement should be completely with XR. The two being separated is just what the poisonous elite who ruin the country want, the better to divide, delay, starve, and kill off the united opposition, and unity is what they truly fear.  So why do I think all this?

Before I answer, I want to acknowledge two things. First, the UK has in fact led the world in raising the alarm about climate change. I have documented in my books the impact on international aid priorities, for example, of HM Treasury’s 1997 Stern Report on the economic costs of climate change. The UK has also led the world in making legally-binding commitments to reduce GHG emissions. The EU’s relatively advanced position on climate change mitigation is largely a result of Britain’s lobbying and example in 1995-2015. The problem now, since 2016, is that the UK has fallen into the trap of Brexit, compromising its ability to lead on these subjects.

And second, I do acknowledge that the EU is in part a ‘liberal’ free-trade zone, dedicated to support capitalist enterprise and the ‘bourgeois’ middle-class lifestyle, with all that that implies for unsustainable and unequal levels and patterns of collective resource consumption and pollution, including the exploitation of the weak and the direct and indirect promotion of GHG emissions. However, the EU is also much more than that. It is a system of standard-setting, conflict-resolving, experimentalist governance that is capable of driving steady improvements in social and environmental well-being, and has in fact done so (with the Water Framework Directive being a potent example). Its underlying model, which allows for all its member states to solve common problems in their own ways with the intellectual, material and moral support of their neighbours, is equally applicable everywhere and is, I believe, the only viable model for a practicable global system that could ‘save the world’ and improve the human condition.

Any big diverse system is going to have more or less progressive parts, and the EU has plenty, but only an EU-type system is able to manage them all and help them all find their own paths to success in line with common standards. This is why the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was so good: it allowed everyone to agree on common standards, to compete and cooperate to build capacity to achieve them, and to tighten the standards and goals over time. It may be too slow for the climate campaigners, and it may be too slow for the biosphere, but top-down global planning and enforcement could not have worked without universal coercion, which was not and is not an option. This way, the EU way, we have a chance, especially with XR putting on pressure to demand tighter goals. As Greta Thunberg said: the EU must double its climate goals! And the EU could do that, and with EU leadership, so could the Paris Agreement signatories. Slowly, no doubt, but this is what global cooperation on solving a wicked problem actually looks like.

So, duly acknowledged. But where does it all leave XR and Brexit? My points are simple. First, the people of major parts of the EU are far more progressive on climate change than those of major parts of the UK. Because those parts of the EU also have proportional representation, their governments are much more responsive to public concerns than in the UK. Thus, we see the Nordic countries, the Low Countries, Germany, Portugal and increasingly France exerting themselves mightily on climate change, while England dreams of the past (specifically, and alarmingly, the 1930s). If a few hundred people turn out for climate strikes in the UK, tens of thousands do so in Belgium, etc. Thus, being part of a system influenced by mass support for climate action helps the UK make progress, even if it is now a follower rather than a leader.

Second, the EU has tough and progressive targets on climate action, and these are improvable through public demand. Moreover, the EU has potency at a global level which it can use, and is using, to protect and push its climate agenda forward, influencing trade, transport, aid and industrial standards worldwide, standing up to those countries that temporarily fall to bad leadership. This makes the EU almost the only entity that is remotely capable of promoting system change on the scale that the climate emergency demands. At least at a conventional level, negotiated, transparent and agreed. Obviously a universal Zeitgeist shift and the rise of a new globally-effective mass movement of militant ecologists might happen, or something else might happen, to change the whole situation. But while we hope and strive, there’s a lot to be said for working as best we can with what we have right now. And what we have right now is the EU.

Third, outside the EU there are few powers that have much interest in saving the biosphere. Whatever non-EU trade deals the isolated UK might negotiate will be with repressive regimes selling toxic and/or socially-suspect and/or environmentally-compromised products. An isolated UK will inevitably be forced to ‘dine with the devil’ or starve, and it will also have to be much more complicit than it would otherwise be in the destruction of the living world, while also having walked away from the only grouping that is determinedly willing and has the proven capacity to save nature, and us. And that’s why I carry on waving an EU and an XR flag, in solidarity with both, in the same struggle.

© Julian Caldecott


Leadership is the skill with which a group’s needs and desires are detected, shaped, and steered. This is worth thinking about, because we are surrounded and blathered at by people claiming to be ‘leaders’ – of political parties and countries especially – but few of them are any good at it. As a result, we are in a real pickle – doomed to being driven mad (e.g. by Brexit) and then extinct (e.g. by climate change). In short, we need good leadership, and urgently. But how to recognise it?

The idea of leadership. The  verb ‘to lead’ comes from the Old English lǣdan (‘lead’) and lād (‘journey’, ‘way’, ‘course’), and it’s linked to ‘load’ (things you carry on a journey) and ‘lode’ (as in lodestar and lodestone, things that guide you on a journey). People have been migrating for scores of millennia (from Africa to Australia and the Americas), and even settled peoples can never afford to forget how to do it as there is always the risk of drought, sea-level rise and invasion. So the idea of a person responsible for starting and steering a journey must be utterly primal. But a group must be ready to travel before a leader can shape a vague motivation to move into enthusiasm for a journey in a particular direction, with all its dangers and labours. And physical travel is only where the idea of leadership came from originally; it now covers other kinds of journey, ones that involve change and progress in relationships between people, and between people and their environments. All require similar skills in managing conflict by dispensing justice, managing relations with other groups, understanding and articulating the needs and desires of groups, and choosing directions and destinations. Leadership is the artistry in doing all these things – and ‘good leadership’ means doing them well.

Why is leadership so hard? Because it brings together every other mental capacity. It requires all signs in the environment to be seen and understood, including the moods of people, nature, and the spirit world, the behaviour of animals, the crying of babies, the texture of grass and soil, and the frequency, intensity and content of social disputes. Many of the clues are subtle – the bad temper of white-tipped reef sharks just before an earthquake, for example – while others (such as the dust of an approaching army) are anything but. In any case, there is a long list, from which particular indicators are chosen (as influenced by culture, itself shaped by experience in that particular environment), and their significance marshalled into a story that can help the group’s ideas and desires take form. These will have been influenced by the same signals that the leader has detected, but perhaps not organised so well or in the same way.

Why do leaders have to be brave? Many important environmental and social signals cannot be appreciated without knowledge and attention to detail, so they may only be recognised by a few people. This applies often in large, complex or fragmented societies in which there are many distractions, and especially involve environmental threats (such as slowly-deteriorating ecological conditions) and social threats (such as slowly-growing inequality, corruption, and political polarisation). Here, if the threats are severe and solutions are needed urgently, but there is little public appreciation of the need for action, an essential quality of leadership is a willingness to act decisively to safeguard the group but in advance of public opinion.

Leaders must make sense of complexity. Modern societies comprise millions of people in political systems and billions in economic ones, and have complex distributions of power among class, caste, gender, ethnic, ideological, and other groups. Distilling useful messages from so many people now requires very selective listening (to focal groups, poll samples, and factional leaders), and very crude messaging about the intentions of the leadership. One-size-fits all price signals, slogans and binary choices tend to replace the subtleties of social discourse, and minorities that cannot build alliances to form large voting blocks tend to be ignored. Only through universal, high-quality education can good minority ideas (such as equity and sustainability) spread widely, and only through local empowerment and decentralisation can accountable governance be maintained in ultra-large political systems. But both education and localism are needed, since otherwise leadership in large societies produces non-inclusive and polarised outcomes. And when these outcomes are challenged by dire events in the social sphere (e.g. through insurrection by the dispossessed), the economic sphere (e.g. through technological or market changes), or the environmental sphere (e.g. through the consequences of climate change), then polarised outcomes can quickly turn into despotic ones. Then we end up with warlords rather than good leaders running the world.

So what are we looking for? Good leadership must include the competence to identify key challenges, the attention given to diverse signals about them and how they are likely to affect the group, the intelligence needed to seek, discriminate and absorb sound advice about what to do about them, the articulacy to explain and build support for a collective course of action that will minimise harm and maximise benefit for most people in the long run, and the flexibility to maintain alliances while adapting to events. So a good leader must be competent, attentive, intelligent, articulate, and flexible, and in the modern world all this must be combined with a surety of touch in communicating with very diverse audiences. How many of those who claim to be leaders come close? Have a look at the UK parliament right now, and see what you think.

© Julian Caldecott

The Fairy-Dust Republic

Unconscious folk history influences cultural choices over centuries. Even after so long in the US, Hawaii’s left-democratic politics reflect the influence of ancient Polynesian values, while Iceland’s return after seven centuries of Christianity to its egalitarian and pagan roots shows how a people’s integrity of spirit can long survive underground. Similarly, and shedding light on the Brexit referendum in 2016, the governance history of Europe has two main traditions, one inherited from the Ancient Roman Empire (ARE) and the other from the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), with Britain buffeted by both.

The ARE was a mafia state that radiated the glamour of conquest, imperium, ownership, and law, and lasted so long that its subjects accepted remote, god-like rule as the natural order of things. This model was replicated in many successor states and institutions, including the Catholic Church and Russia. But outside Roman influence, the HRE developed in eastern parts of the Frankish empire founded by Charlemagne in 800 AD. It was invented by the German peoples, and was run as an area of trading standards and human rights protections under the supervision of an emperor elected by lords and bishops based in different cities. These ‘electors’ were local rulers, so the peoples of the eastern Frankish lands had a millennium of experience with standard-setting but locally-empowering governance that eventually gave rise to the Federal Republic of Germany, and then the EU.

The world wars shattered nationalist dreams and scattered a kind of ‘fairy dust’ to create an HRE-like system across most of Europe, but this settled only weakly on England and Russia. England held onto its 1688 constitution, a compromise that suspended a bloody 150-year struggle between the two heritages, until Brexit reignited it 330 years later. Brexit is the work of hard-right politicians, with shady domestic and foreign backers, who have engineered the breakdown of an obsolete constitution to create chaos. This is not the first time. As Eric Hobsbawm wrote of 1914 in The Age of Empire: “What made the British political situation dangerous on the eve of war was not the rebellion of the workers, but the division within the ranks of the rulers, a constitutional crisis …”, with Ireland having a key role as ever.

Part of the problem is misunderstanding of what the EU actually is. Thus, where Germans see the European Commission as an HRE-style emperor freely-chosen by ‘electors’ (i.e. member governments), many English people see the institution as a despotic ARE-style emperor and ‘freedom from Rome’ as an eternal national goal. The conspirators have thus been able to manufacture polarisation, and threaten with an angry mob those who oppose them. Their strategy is to paralyse and frighten, while normality is first eroded and then shattered by a hard Brexit, and forces favourable to the plotters are assembled.

This is Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine’ in action, haunting a country that is vulnerable because it never moved on from its class-based entitlement myths. ‘It can never happen in England’ people say, but they are wrong. It’s happening before our eyes, as Parliamentarians entrench themselves in positions that benefit no one but the conspirators. Our poor European allies, especially those like Germany that have learned from the past, must be watching in dismay, wondering what English fascism will look like, and how aggressive it will be. Russia, meanwhile, kept faith with its ARE heritage, making it plausible that its policy is to oppose vestiges of the HRE, including the EU. Since an HRE-like system is the only plausible way to organise a free and sustainable world, much is at stake in this struggle.

© Julian Caldecott

On ratifying Brexit (or not)

In my book Aid Performance and Climate Change (Routledge, 2017, p. 91) I wrote this on the pro-Brexit outcome of the June 2016 referendum: “This disruption of international cooperation when it is most needed against climate change is likely to be very harmful.”  And so it is proving.  For this and other reasons, there is now, in late 2018, strong public demand to subject the Brexit project to a new referendum by an electorate that is far better-informed than before, but the issue is clouded by calls for a referendum also on the terms of Brexit that are being negotiated with the EU.  To clarify (a) whether the UK should leave the EU at all, and (b) if so, the terms of its departure, I propose the following model for an urgent, two-part referendum.

Referendum on UK membership of, or terms of departure from, the EU
Part A: Membership of the EU

Question: Do you wish the United Kingdom to remain a member of the European Union?

Select only ONE option in Part A:


If you selected this option you have completed the referendum by expressing your wish for the UK to remain a member of the EU without any condition.


If you selected this option you should proceed to Part B.

Part B: Terms of departure from the EU

Complete Part B only if you have selected ‘NO’ in Part A.

Question: Do you support the UK Government’s agreement with the EU for the terms on which the UK will leave the EU?

Select only ONE option in Part B:


If you selected this option you have completed the referendum by expressing your wish for the UK to leave the EU on the terms agreed with the EU.


If you selected this option you have completed the referendum by expressing your wish for the UK to leave the EU without any condition.

© Julian Caldecott