Wednesday, November 15, 2017

1997 and all that

For people interested in recent British political history, Andrew Adonis' talk on Tony Blair was revealing in ways that perhaps he didn't intend. Adonis was a New Labour insider, but was rarely one that I sympathised with. In this talk he looks at the mistakes that Blair made that could have led, indirectly, to Brexit.

He has three main points:

1. Referendums.

The Blair government established the customary use of referendums in British politics. Adonis thinks that was a mistake, and I agree. Referendums are instruments that bypass, rather than enhance, functioning democracies. However, the main sin to my mind was not just their use but the lack of thought that went into their design and their constitutional role. This article on the extensive use of referendums in Switzerland shows just why it is important. Successful referendums ask highly specific questions and, on the one occasion when the question was too broad, Parliament reserved the right to reject an unworkable result, even though the referendum was binding. In the same way, the referendums held in New Zealand on electoral reform asked about preferred systems as well as the initial question on whether to change from first-past-the-post or not.

Now, let's look at the Euro referendum. There were, and are, four options facing Britain: remain, join EFTA, become a third country with a free trade agreement, become a third country under WTO rules. The consequences of each, and the processes required, are radically different. Yet we were only offered remain or leave. Remain was straightforward, leave consisted of one of three options. The choice between those options is still unknown. What was remarkable is that this mistake has been compounded by Parliament voting for article 50, without any idea of what the government's intention was. This week, to their horror, MPs have discovered that by doing so they have locked themselves into a legal process where they have thrown away any power they may have had. We still haven't got a clue what we want and the EU look at us in bewilderment at our indecision.

Before we leave the topic of referendums, let's just throw in the one that was promised but never happened. The 1997 manifesto pledged Labour to hold a referendum on electoral reform. They didn't. Fat chance of that happening. Labour had won a historic landslide with 42.3% of the vote. Just to put that into perspective, Theresa May is being hammered for the disaster of losing her majority in 2017 when the Conservatives won 42.4% of the vote. I will let that sink in. May did better than Blair in 1997. This is one reason why we shouldn't make assumptions about next election. The distribution of seats depends on the strength of the other parties, rather than the popularity of the winning one. In 1997 Labour won enough seats to virtually guarantee victory in the next two general elections. This had another consequence. It masked the dramatic loss of Labour votes in the elections of 2001 and 2005. New Labour's electoral triumphs were nothing like as clear-cut as latter-day Blairites claim.

2. European social democracy.

This jumped out at me, though Adonis really only mentions it as an aside to illustrate a general point. He mainly focused on Iraq as being the moment when Blair favoured Atlanticism over the EU, but then threw in something else that was revealing.
Tony never developed a successful political project with fellow European social democrats. I say “fellow European social democrats,” but privately Tony didn’t think he had much in common with most of them, particularly Jospin and Schroeder who happened to be the two most significant of the decade. The “third way” was a political project mounted with Bill Clinton, not with the Europe’s left. It didn’t help that the European left insisted on calling itself “socialist.” Tony didn’t think they ‘got it’ on the need to move beyond old style welfare socialism towards the “third way” of triangulating with the Right and modernising public services ... 
He is disarmingly frank about this in his memoirs: “The truth is—and I fear this was becoming increasingly the case in my relations with the European centre right—we had more in common with [Merkel] than with the German SDP… Their view of the European social model was very traditional. Angela would see the need for change. I liked her as a person also." 
Unfortunately, a significant number of voters thought that they had voted for a social democratic party, while most members thought they had joined a European social democratic party. If jibes about 'Tory Blair' were over the top, 'Christian Democrat Blair' would have been spot on. The doors were opened to the disillusioned piling in behind Corbyn.

What this points to was that the split between Brown and Blair actually had more substance than personal rivalry and neuroses. If Brown and his supporters wanted Labour to be a modernised European social democratic party, the differences were real. This was certainly true of Adonis' next point.

3. The Euro

Adonis makes it clear. Blair wanted to join the Euro, but Brown didn't and was prepared to stop it happening. Adonis sees this as something to regret. If we had been part of the Eurozone, leaving the EU would have been even more difficult. True, but he's missed something out - the Euro crisis. What if Brown was right? A currency union imposed on a sub-optimal currency area was always going to run into trouble without a mechanism for fiscal transfers between deficit and surplus countries. It did. How would that have played with Eurosceptics?


Historians like to study long-term and proximate causes. Though Blair may have contributed to the long-term reasons for Brexit, his government was only of tangental significance. This national disaster was made on the right. Frank Field and Denis Skinner may be in a peculiar alliance as Labour leavers, but they weren't significant. Brexit has only happened for two reasons.

The first is decades of deranged, ideological agitation by a group of unrepresentative and argumentative right-wingers in the Conservative Party. Their trouble-making meant that Cameron made the terrible mistake of calling a poorly constructed referendum, narrowly lost it, and ducked out of dealing with the consequences.

Secondly, George Osborne's economic policies made most people worse off. Demagogues on the right found their scapegoat to harness discontent to their cause. Rather than finger the government and policies they supported, they blamed the one institution that was trying to mitigate the damage. And if that wasn't enough, there was always the race card. They played it. It worked.

Adonis' speech left me with one overriding impression. Blair was broad-brush in his policies and opinions. He wasn't into detail. Whether it was the structure and constitutional significance of referendums, the design of the Euro, post-war planning in Iraq, etc., the complexities were missing from sight. I get the same impression about Cameron. Brexiters are also in complete denial about the difficulties and consequences of exit, which is why they respond to problems with wishful thinking, rhetoric, and abuse. Making policy that actually works is only possible if the details are understood, faced honestly, and dealt with. We need experts and expertise. Dismiss them with a sneer and a disdainful shrug, and failure beckons. This applies especially to those who think that they are un-ideological pragmatists, because they deceive themselves most. They are as dreamily impractical as any utopian.

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