Friday, March 03, 2017

Devilish details

I was never a Blairite. It wasn't just his political economy, I also disliked what I saw as the vacuity of much of his discourse, the strange, verbless syntax, the corny soundbites, and his peculiar halting delivery. Then he gave his speech on the EU. It used the same formulas, but it was startling because it was excellent. It made me think how much our political discourse has deteriorated since his heyday. Instead of the dry platitudes of May, the false bluster of Johnson, and the delusional rambling of Trump, Blair did something unusual in a political speech. It may have been partisan, but it presented clear facts and asked questions that needed answering.

The response was predictable. Rather than deal with the issues of substance, his speech was deluged in ad hominems. The left went on about Iraq. The right sneered. The worst was Boris Johnson who dealt with the arguments by telling people not to listen to them. But what about the questions Blair raised? Did anyone try and answer them? If they did, I didn't see any replies. This is the problem. The trouble with Brexit is that it's scary. Look at the data and it is clear, Brexit will be expensive to implement and the gains are hard to see. So let's avoid all that unpleasantness and castigate the "remoaners" for their negativity.

This reluctance to look at the facts is on all sides. Take this from here. It's from an article by a natural Blairite and a remain voter. He quotes a bizarre statement from Wes Streeting that voting not to trigger article 50 would have led to riots in the street, and then he throws in this:
Here’s a rallying cry from Jonathan Rutherford that I want to share;"Instead of hedging its bets, lamenting Brexit, and echoing each dire forecast of impending disaster Labour must stand foursquare for the labour interest in the restoration of a self-governing, trading nation."
 There are obvious objections. I thought we already were a "self-governing, trading nation." And what if the dire forecasts are right? Standing foursquare behind a mistake isn't a very good idea. But mainly, the quote is meaningless. Again look at the data. Blair did.
We will withdraw from the Single Market which is around half of our trade in goods and services. We will also leave the Customs Union, covering trade with countries like Turkey. Then we need to replace over 50 Preferential Trade Agreements we have via our membership of the EU; for instance with Switzerland. So, EU-related trade is actually two thirds of the UK total. This impacts everything from airline travel, to financial services to manufacturing industry, sector by sector.
So, how do we deal with this problem, who do we trade with? How do we overcome the loss of our membership of our main market? How do we do it with a productivity gap and trade deficit? And how can it serve the labour interest? These are real problems. Surely they should be discussed before leaping into the dark? There's nothing about any of this in the "rallying cry."

Ah, but then there's the 'will of the people.' That always gets pulled out. It's OK, don't worry about the details, because 'the people have decided.' 'They have spoken.' 'Their verdict is in.' Never mind a discussion of the quality of that decision or how well informed it was, let's look at the figures. 17 million voted out, 16 million voted remain, 13 million didn't vote at all, and millions more were not on the register. This wasn't even a majority. It was the largest minority. Now it is often sensible, customary, and democratic to vest power in the largest minority (though there are exceptions - Germany in 1933 springs to mind), but to describe this as somehow being the immutable will of the British people as a whole is absurd. I could accept the result as the starting point of a long deliberative and consultative process, but not as a blank cheque to the government to do whatever it likes. What politicians are really doing is hiding behind the vote to avoid talking about the substance.

Then there's the Labour Party's dilemma.They nominally supported remain, yet two thirds of their constituencies voted leave. What do they do? Their instinct is to protect what they hold. They must fall in line with their voters. All very commendable - except, as the vastly experienced psephologist, John Curtice pointed out, around two thirds of Labour voters voted remain, even in those constituencies that voted out. The referendum result was carried mainly by voters of other parties. It was based on the support of affluent, middle class areas. This gives Labour a profound problem, but not the one they think they have

In one sense Labour's timid position, to abandon policy and principle, and whip its representatives into line to support a hard Brexit, is thoroughly Blairite. Accommodate to a Conservative settlement and privilege one section of your support over another on the grounds that they 'have nowhere else to go,' is exactly what New Labour did. The weakness is that in order to win now Labour needs both. This points to a different strategy. I fear that if Brexit goes badly, the party has put itself in a position where it will have no credibility to criticise and propose an alternative direction. If it goes well, something I find unlikely, Labour will get no credit. Safety may well prove to be a lose/lose strategy.

When will we realise? This is a victory for the right. A big victory. Look at the voting figures. The last general election was one of the few times in post-war history when the parties of the right gained more than 50% of the vote. Brexit was predominantly the cause of right-wing obsessives and the Conservative press. This is our reactionary moment. But look again. It's a rebellion of the old. The young don't share it. It will pass.

So where should Labour stand? Should they embrace the present or gamble on the future? Who then should Labour stand with? The future or the soon to be past? That's their dilemma.

What all this shows is that if we rely only on slogans, conventional wisdom, clever journalistic phrases, or ideological biases, we can get things badly wrong. They make complexity seem simple, and the difficult easy. We have to look at the data. This is the hard, material reality that will decide what will actually happen. At the moment there is little comfort to be had from it for either side, which is presumably why all are lapsing into public expressions of wishful thinking.

5 comments:

Allan Ronald said...

Astute and measured and realistic. Thank you for your continued posts. I introduced my son to them and he is now an admirer of your work.

Roger McCarthy said...

I know writing a long and well thought out blog post can seem thankless and pointless - which is why I never stuck with it myself - but I've been following you pretty much from the start and always look forward to your missives.

This one is again utterly spot on.

As a Labour activist the antics of both Labour's right and left now remind me of nothing so much as Macaulay's magisterial dismissal of eighteenth century Whigs and Tories which i can't stop myself from quoting at length:

'The Whig conceived that he could not better serve the cause
of civil and religious freedom than by strenuously supporting
the Protestant dynasty. The Tory conceived that he could
not better prove his hatred of revolutions than by attacking a
government to which a revolution had given birth. Both
came by degrees to attach more importance to the means
than to the end. Both were thrown into unnatural situations;
and both, like animals transported to an uncongenial
climate, languished and degenerated. The Tory, removed
from the sunshine of the court, was as a camel in the snows
of Lapland. The Whig, basking in the rays of royal favour,
was as a reindeer in the sands of Arabia.

Dante tells us that he saw, in Malebolge, a strange encounter
between a human form and a serpent. The enemies,
after cruel wounds inflicted, stood for a time glaring on each
other. A great cloud surrounded them, and then a wonderful
metamorphosis began. Each creature was transfigured
into the likeness of its antagonist. The serpent's tail divided
itself into two legs ; the man's legs intertwined themselves
into a tail. The body of the serpent put forth arms; the arms
of the man shrank into his body. At length the serpent stood
up a man, and spake; the man sank down a serpent, and glided
hissing away. Something like this was the transformation which,
during the reign of George the First, befell the two English parties.
Each gradually took the shape and colour of its foe, till
at length the Tory rose up erect the zealot of freedom,
and the Whig crawled and licked the dust at the feet of power.

It is true that, when these degenerate politicians discussed
questions merely speculative, and, above all, when they
discussed questions relating to the conduct of their own
grandfathers, they still seemed to differ as their grandfathers
had differed. The Whig, who, during three Parliaments,
had never given one vote against the court, and who was
ready to sell his soul for the Comptroller's staff or
for the Great Wardrobe, still professed to draw his political
doctrines from Locke and Milton, still worshipped the memory
of Pym and Hampden, and would still, on the thirtieth of January,
take his glass, first to the man in the mask, and then to the
man who would do it without a mask. The Tory, on the other hand,
while he reviled the mild and temperate Walpole, as a deadly enemy
of liberty, could see nothing to reprobate in the iron tyranny of
Strafford and Laud. But, whatever judgment the Whig or
the Tory of that age might pronounce on transactions long past,
there can be no doubt that, as respected the practical questions
then pending, the Tory was a reformer, and indeed an intemperate
and indiscreet reformer, while the Whig was conservative even to bigotry...

Thus the successors of the old Cavaliers had turned demagogues;
the successors of the old Roundheads had turned courtiers. Yet was
it long before their mutual animosity began to abate; for it is the
nature of parties to retain their original enmities far more firmly
than their original principles. During many years, a generation of Whigs,
whom Sidney would have spurned as slaves, continued to wage deadly
war with a generation of Tories whom Jeffreys would have hanged for
republicans.'

Metatone said...

Great post.

Obviously, I am going to say it is simple, because I looked at the data and it's been clear to me from the start that Brexit is going to hurt the economy significantly and along the way hurt a lot of people that Labour exists to look after.

That said, it does seem stunningly simple to me: Labour needs to side with the young, Labour needs to side with those who don't have a lot of money in the bank and can't easily weather a prolonged period of turbulence, Labour needs to side with those who see co-operation with other nations as a step towards a more peaceful and stable world.

Places like Sunderland pushed Leave over the mark, but Brexit was built on a solid core of older, affluent, Tory voters. What is to be gained with standing with them? The final irony for me is that Labour is getting attacked by Mail, Sun & Express on Brexit issues anyway...

Roger McCarthy said...

Accepting as we have to that we have zero chance of winning the next election under any leader it indeed becomes an issue of which side of history do we want to be on.

Max Planck is supposed to have observed that civilisation advances one funeral at a time.

The old and not so old boomers like myself will die - and probably a lot sooner with NHS destroyed and the other formal and informal support structures that will keep us alive and healthy due to suffer a Greek-level austerity holocaust when the economy collapses.

So yes we might as well lose some of those northern seats and throw ourselves into the battle to reverse this catastrophe - not because it can be won but because in 2025 there just might be a great wave mass revulsion against what has been done by the Tories and the imbeciles who voted for them and for Brexit - and that is now the only hope we can have.

Problem is some of us won't live to see that restoration of sanity and I am not sure I want to be one of those who has to impotently watch everything that made this country if not great at least tolerable destroyed so that the next generation has to rebuild it all from the ruins up again.

The Plump said...

Thank you one and all. And a wonderful quote Roger.