Friday, June 24, 2016

Another fine mess

It started hopefully with Farage conceding defeat, then the results began to come in and everything changed. I stayed awake most of the night, unbelieving. In the early hours I realised that, sitting in my Greek home, I was about to have my right to live here stripped away from me and that somehow this was to be described as 'taking Britain back'. I didn't see it as a liberation.

It's early days. We will have to wait and see what transpires. The pound is falling, markets are adjusting, but the economy may stabilise depending on the settlement. The constitutional crisis we are living through has only just begun. I think there are two things that we need get to grips with.

The first is that the result was close. 48.1% of the votes were for remain, far more than have been cast for any single winning party in most general elections since the 1950s. And if we look at the votes we can see a country sharply divided three ways.

The most obvious is by region. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted remain, England and Wales voted leave. This calls into question the integrity of the United Kingdom, with the impact on the questions of Scottish independence and the border between the north and south of Ireland. But there is another dimension, between large, diverse conurbations voting remain and smaller towns and cities voting leave. London is the big example.

The second is by class. 'Traditional' working class areas voted to leave, especially in the north. The question is looming as to whether Labour has lost the north in the same way as it has lost Scotland. This is being portrayed in the media as being about immigration. Certainly, this plays a part, but it isn't the whole story. These are people at the wrong end of a low paid, insecure, casualised model of capitalism, with all the resentments and food banks that brings. Labour began losing large numbers of votes amongst them shortly after 1997. They ignored it. This is the consequence.

Third is by age. This is the most egregious aspect of all. I am nearly 64. I remember joining the then EEC and voted in the first referendum in 1975. For young people this is prehistory. They have lived with the EU all their lives and don't see it as anything oppressive. They don't fret about 'rule by Brussels'. Instead they see the EU as opening up freedom and opportunity. They can live, study and work in 27 countries without any impediment. Or they could. Their world has been closed down, and not by their choosing. The figures doing the rounds at the moment are that 75% of the under 25s voted for remain as did 56% of the under 50s. Only the majority of people over 50 and over 64 voted leave. We will have to see how accurate they prove to be, but this is a curse visited on the young by the old. Don't ask young people about enhanced democracy.

But again, let's not fall into easy stereotypes. The big losers from economic change are older people. They have lost their secure skilled jobs, they don't have adequate pensions, they are working on checkouts and in menial jobs because they have to. When they look back and see a golden age they aren't being nostalgic. They do see one, because it was. They are significantly poorer and more discontented than before.

The result does not reflect any consensus, but the divisions of a society fractured by age, regionalism and class. Which brings me to the second feature of the result, political realignment.

A friend has been banging on about this for twenty years or so. At first I listened with scepticism, but now I think that he is broadly right. He feels that there is a polarisation between a new populism and a liberal pluralism.

Liberal pluralism is metropolitan, socially and economically liberal, and mainly youthful. In contrast, the new populism is socially conservative, nationalist, but more likely to favour state intervention. Both cross political divides and squeeze out a more liberal left.

There are people in the Labour leave campaign who see a potential triumph for the left in this result. They are left nationalists who fetishise the nation state as a bastion of unconstrained democracy and social justice. I don't see it that way. With a personal investment in life in the EU I wouldn't. I don't want to be stuck with British weather. The 2015 general election marked a turning point. Most elections since the war had produced a centre/left majority of the vote. It was only the electoral system that passed power to a single party, most usually the Conservative Party. In 2015, the majority voted for the right. The combined UKIP and Conservative vote was in the majority. I cannot see this referendum as anything but a narrow victory for the right.

This new populism shares all the common features of a populist movement. Firstly, it is nationalist. Secondly, it presents itself as the champion of the people against an unaccountable and remote elite. The fact that such a movement can be headed by the seriously moneyed doesn't seem to bother many people. Finally, it offers simple solutions to complex problems; restrict immigration, take our country back, etc. It's socially conservative, has a very clear concept of social justice that welfare has to be deserved, a restrictive view of citizenship, yet it also harbours some left assumptions about public ownership, services and the like. The leave movement was alway going on about funnelling more money to the NHS, a pledge that came undone on the first morning.

The Labour Party is torn. It has become a metropolitan liberal pluralist party when its natural supporters have embraced nationalism or populism. It has deep structural problems with its social base. It ran an inept campaign, with Corbyn displaying all his limitations, but its problems lie somewhere else.

I am not a nationalist. The history of political nationalism in Europe is a dangerous one. And it is on the rise again. The referendum result has been celebrated by Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders. These are not comfortable bedfellows. But every defeat offers opportunity. For some it will be building a strong independent nation state, but not for me. We are too constrained by globalisation and our own economic weaknesses. Instead, this may give a chance to shock the EU to address its own failings, particularly in political economy. And if it does, there is always that younger generation waiting to step in. Hurry up please.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Come back representation, all is forgiven

This referendum has been utterly misconceived. Some arguments have been passionate, and at times interesting, but that's been rare. Overall, they've been dismal and dispiriting. Amidst the welter of lies, abuse, hatred, atavistic stupidity, death threats, and a real, horrifying murder of one of the best, something else has emerged. A defence of representative democracy against plebiscitary populism is being heard.

The classic statement on representation is from Edmund Burke in his his Speech to the Electors of Bristol in November 1774.
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
A referendum does the opposite. It sacrifices informed judgement to the opinions of a majority who participate, regardless of how large the minority is or the numbers of non-voters. In a mass society, it surrenders Burke's idea of parliament as a "deliberative assembly" to dishonest demagoguery and a competition between snake oil salesmen.

There have been some good pieces written. The comedian David Mitchell wrote one back in May:
Calling this referendum is the worst thing Cameron has done to Britain. It’s such a hugely selfish and irresponsible act ... 
Cameron’s policy-avoidance policy was deftly done, mind you. It plays well, rhetorically – telling people they’ll get to decide, flattering the public’s estimation of its collective wisdom...
They won’t step up and lead. They won’t say they know. Expertise is dismissed as elitist. It’s worse to be “out of touch” with the price of milk than to misunderstand the consequences of Britain suddenly severing all its trade deals. They’re happy for that decision to be made by random vote after a frenzied few months of both sides trying to make the other seem the more apocalyptic or Hitlerian, everyone suddenly so certain in their hyperbole.
David Allen Green on his own blog and in a piece worked up from it for the Financial Times is scathing about the need for the referendum.
The referendum on Britain’s EU membership is unnecessary. There is no objective reason for it to take place: no new treaty or proposed treaty amendment. It is merely a vote on whether the U.K. continues to be part of an international organisation of which it has been a member for over forty years. There is no more reason to have a referendum on this issue in June 2016 than in June 2015 or June 2017.
The referendum is also not binding as a matter of law...
So what we have is an unnecessary referendum without any binding effect. In other words, it is an exercise in pointlessness. Nothing objective happened to cause the need for the referendum, and nothing objective has to happen because of it.
It happened, as we all know, because of a need for a party political fix. An easy triumph was supposed to marginalise the eurosceptic right of the Tory Party. It has failed, they are emboldened and the result is in the balance. The risks are enormous and the consequences, whatever the result, are unknowable. The pawns in this game are the lives and livelihoods that will be affected.

Let's hear now from a latter day Burke, Noel Gallagher (trigger warning - he supports Manchester City):
Do I think [Britain should leave the EU]? I don’t think we should be given a vote.
I see politicians on TV every night telling us that this is a fucking momentous decision that could fucking change Britain forever and blah, blah, blah. It’s like, OK, why don’t you fucking do what we pay you to do which is run the fucking country and make your fucking mind up. What are you asking the people for? 99 percent of the people are thick as pig shit.
I don't like his last sentence. People aren't thick, but they also aren't interested. They know little or nothing about it and it's something they haven't bothered to think about before. They have their own lives to lead. This is to their credit. Drinking with a European Union obsessive is not a pleasant experience. Yet he's right in one sense. This question will be decided by the inexpert.

This doesn't mean that representative democracy cannot be enhanced or that more participatory elements could be included, but, after this experience, no more referendums please. Or at least no more unless as David Allen Green says:
 (a) it is a fundamental constitutional issue and (b) there is an actual proposal for fundamental change for people to consider and to vote on.
This one has been an unpleasant mess.

Saturday, June 11, 2016


I shall be going to Greece in a few days, for a shorter stay than normal in the summer. Obviously, with a house in Greece, I have a vested interest in remaining in the EU. The collision of Brexit with Greek bureaucracy is a car crash I want no part of. My postal vote has been delivered. I have voted Remain. My motives are thoroughly privileged and middle class in origin.

But for those without my motives what a dismal campaign this has been; littered with half-truths, exaggerations and downright lies. A reckless referendum on a vital issue is not the best way of resolving a dispute within the Conservative Party. Actually, a referendum is a pretty crap way of resolving anything, as opposing bands of obsessive enthusiasts try and sell their line by any means possible. A referendum is usually the result of some burning point of principle or a moment of crisis. This one is odd though. There was no crisis in relations with the EU, nobody was particularly excited about it, and there was little demand for change. We are being dragged through this because of internal Tory party disputes, the same ones that wrecked the Major government.

That doesn't mean that there are no discontents, however. There is plenty of pain for people on the margins outside the pampered middle class - just read about the employment conditions at Sports Direct for example. There is alienation, insecurity, resentment and utter disillusion with politics. And this is the problem, certainly with this referendum, a vote to leave is a vote against the establishment. It is an expression of a multitude of discontents, none of which could be resolved solely by leaving the EU. Throw in the dismal Remain campaign, the lacklustre performance of the Labour Party, and the brazen populism of Leave and it isn't surprising to see the polls moving in favour of exit. Leave could well win. If they do, it will be because of the successive failures of British politics, not the European Union.

The decision will be taken when I am in Greece, a country in economic turmoil, in real conflict with the EU, and locked in the financial straitjacket of the Euro. The resulting austerity policies make ours look munificent. Yet the outcome is determination by the overwhelming majority of Greeks to stay both in Europe and European monetary union at all costs. They think we must be mad.

The debate has depressed me. There is little in the way of discussion of principles, little that is positive and no historical perspective. It is a contest based on competing fears. It's been horrible and done nothing for my referendum scepticism. So, let me wax all academic and point to some historical origins.

The idea of European Union is not new. There was even an attempt to promote one in 1930 with the Briand Plan. However, the principles on which the idea is based are much older. I would pick out four.

1. The idea of federation was a central part of a number of plans for a peaceful world order developed from the 17th and 18th centuries onwards. Immanuel Kant's essay, Perpetual Peace, is the best known. It was a central principle of Kant's design that the federation had to be between nation states that were "republics." That would translate in today's language as democratic. The EU is such a federation and for the wave of states emerging from dictatorships in the 1970s, and the post-Communist countries after 1989, the EU is seen as a guarantor of their new democracies.

2. A second mainstay of the 19th century peace movement was free trade. Trade was seen as a collaborative activity that bound peoples together in mutual self-interest. Above all, it was an activity that took place outside the state. It was the state that embodied militarism and war, and so it was the state whose powers had to be limited. Free trade was more than an economic concept, even though all we seem to debate today is the economic benefits or otherwise of the single market.

3. Moving from idealism into the world of realpolitik, the third principle is the balance of powers. Preventing the domination of Europe by a single power, and deterring the search for such dominance, was central to the construction of a peaceful continent. That balance was disturbed first by the French in the Napoleonic Wars and then by the consequences of the unification of Germany in 1871. Two world wars later, a union that would bind France and Germany together and restrain equally the power of each was seen to be the way to end the possibility of a European war for good.

3. Finally, we have to talk about the rise of technocracy. In Britain, "national efficiency" was part of the modernisation advocated by New Liberalism. The rational management of collective resources underpinned Fabian socialism. That specialisation and expertise is fundamental to running a modern state and economy is axiomatic, but there is a flaw in that it can lead to elite remoteness and overconfidence, a doctrine of managerialism leading to the centralising of power in a bureaucracy, and what is often called the "democratic deficit" of the EU. I see that as failure of responsibility, rather than of representation, but it is the source of the resentment of unelected officials in Brussels (even though our own civil service is not elected).

It is also a mistake to see technocracy as ideologically neutral. Of course it isn't. It governs by the precepts of the dominant ideology of its day. Today, it is 'neoliberalism' (a term that is rapidly losing its precise meaning to become a term of abuse) or economic orthodoxy. This ideology is shared by the British government too. Brexit would mean the same policies administered by different people, not a change in the underlying principles of political economy.

Two things emerge from these concepts. The first is that the EU is necessarily a device to constrain the freedom of action of a member state. This is because unrestrained states are capable of immense crimes against their own peoples as well as against other nations. Bound into a federal union, engaging in free trade within an agreed, common legal framework, with an international administration, and defined, legally enforced citizens' rights, states trade absolute sovereignty for democracy, security, and peace. The assumption is that this can only be secured permanently by limiting state power.

The second is that the assumptions underlying European Union are liberal. They are not socialist and they are anti-nationalist. This is why opposition to the EU is being led by nationalists and supported by some leftists as minor players.

Despite the rhetoric, Brexit is not a process of democratisation. It takes British democracy for granted and doesn't seek to broaden it. Nor does it offer a different political economy, something urgently needed and the main source of unease. Brexit is a nationalist project. But it's one that has the ability to gather in a whole range of legitimate discontents and offer leaving the EU as a simple solution. It isn't. At least it isn't as far as we know. Because the details of where we would be heading outside the EU are unknown and the options scarcely considered.

That's the problem with referendums. They give a binary choice, leave no scope for nuance, and are polarising. But at the very least, at a time of growing far-right populism and authoritarianism, we should consider the virtues of the restraint of the nation state rather than insist on 'running things ourselves,' without answering the questions who do you mean by 'ourselves' and in whose interest are things to be run?