Tuesday, October 03, 2017

In praise of pragmatism

I have just passed my 65th birthday. I'm officially an old age pensioner. This isn't a bad time to reflect on the most important division in modern British politics. Sure we are split by class, region, and by big geographical differences. But there is one thing that cuts through it all, something that is consistent within all classes, groups, and areas - it's age. Unlike people of my generation, the majority of young people are overwhelmingly in favour of being a member of the European Union and much more likely to vote Labour.

That would be cause for optimism from my point of view if it weren't for the fact that we have a Conservative government hell bent on leaving the EU. They have their dream too. It's of an independent, ethnically homogenous Britain, one in true Trumpian rhetoric that has been restored to greatness. The young look at this and don't see utopia; they see a prison. Nostalgic Britain is somewhere to escape from. Europe offers liberation. Unconcerned by immigration, freedom of movement promises them a continent of opportunity that Brexit removes.

The irony is that 2016 is probably one of the last years where it would be possible for leave to win a referendum, and then only narrowly. The demographics are overwhelmingly against the possibility of Brexit in the future. Yet the future is to be bound in perpetuity by the present.

Both generations are dreamers. But the blissful vision of one generation is the nightmare of the other.

Dream is the right term too. I saw recently one of those little articles that provide a condensed version of an idea for easy digestion. This one contrasted the difference between opinion and evidence. You could just as easily substitute the terms the ideal and the material, fiction and reality, belief and truth, abstract and concrete. The problem is that opinion can be held contrary to evidence and be bloody difficult to shift. Brexit is an example.

Brexit is a fantasy divorced from reality. Eurosceptics spent forty odd years arguing that we should leave the European Union. They never bothered to ask the question about how it could be done, or research the real consequences. No details, just wishful thinking and empty rhetoric, bolstered by a few comforting myths. The result is that they haven't a clue. In deciding to interpret a narrow majority as the "will of the people," and, by implication, to see the other half of the population as "enemies of the people," they now have to manage reality. And they can't. It's too difficult.

Now turn to the Labour Party. I should be feeling optimistic. But though the future looks assured, there is another problem. Youthful enthusiasm is directed towards another dream. They are lionising a rather mangy old lion. They are wrapped up in adoration of an elderly backbencher of minimal achievement and limited ability. He is adored as a symbol, not as reality. Like Brexit, Corbyn has become whatever his adherents wants him to be. This is also divorced from reality.

The biggest contradiction for the enthusiastic pro-EU Corbynista is that he is an old Bennite Euroscpetic. He has always been opposed to membership of the EU. And despite a carefully calculated ambiguity, the leadership is adamant that Britain is going to leave the European Union. What's more, he keeps repeating things about the single market that are simply untrue. Yet Labour hoovered up the votes of remainers. Image and reality are completely at odds with each other.

Let's get material. It's time to drag out that old, semi-forgotten word, pragmatism. It's been discarded because it became a euphemism for acceptance or inaction. In my book it means dealing with reality. And radical pragmatism was defined beautifully by Patrick Geddes: "the realizable best that can be made of the here and now, if we invoke and use all the resources available, physical, mental and moral."

A radically pragmatic approach to Brexit would be to abandon it. There are no material benefits. It would make us poorer and diminish our role in the world. Membership of the EU on the really advantageous terms we already have is the best option available. The political consequences of remaining and the loss of face it would entail are as nothing to the damage of leaving.

And beyond that, the realities that are eroding the Tory party and animating the young are the problems that face people in their everyday lives – housing, poverty (both in and out of work), low pay, rotten employment, insecurity, debt, and many others. How are we to deal with them? Not by creating some imaginary future, how are we to do it now, as quickly as possible, for everyone today? That's what would drive a radical pragmatic politics.

Because I am old, I remember earlier times. In 1978 the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm published an essay, The Forward March of Labour Halted? It was reissued in extended book form in 1981 after Margaret Thatcher's election victory. It has dated, but its significance was that it argued that British society had changed, the working class had fragmented, and Labour needed to respond to a different world. Its conclusion was that Labour needed to "formulate not only what we would want to do, but what can be done." Indeed. It's time to wake from the reverie and deal with complex reality, to value the contribution of experts, and to elevate practical knowledge over vague illusions. It won't be easy. It never is.


lostmysocks said...

Great to see you back, always a pleasure to read your thoughts.

The Plump said...

Thank you. And I hope you find those elusive socks one day.