Monday, June 25, 2018

Golden rules

I have three rules of politics that I have yet to see refuted.

The first has been reinforced recently with the superb dramatisation of the Thorpe affair, A Very British Scandal, and the ongoing research into the murky depths of the alt-right and the vote to leave the EU. This rule is that if a conspiracy is real, it is soon revealed through hard evidence and, particularly, by some of the participants becoming whistle-blowers. Where the base of a theory is only inference and misinterpretation, then no conspiracy is likely to exist. Obsessive conspiracy mongers, from the Kennedy assassination to 9/11 'truthers,' all fail to produce any hard evidence. Instead we have a steady stream of easily debunked supposition, while absolutely nobody from the ranks of the thousands of participants who would be necessary to plot something so insidious has ever broken ranks to reveal all. Conspiracy theorists take this to be evidence of a successful cover up. This is circular thinking. Instead it is evidence that the whole idea is bollocks.

The second rule is associated to this. In any conflict between fantasy and reality, reality always wins. The only question is when. For example, Brexit is fantasy politics and, as we reach a denouement, reality is biting back. Optimistic waffle, and dreams of doing impossible deals have to give way to the reality of what Brexit entails. And, as Chris Grey notes in this superb summary;
At the moment, all outcomes seem about as likely as each other, and none of them are good, they just come in varying shades of bad.
The final rule is related to the way that Brexit has been justified as being "the will of the people." I have always argued that the idea of a unified popular will is a fiction. However, people do have opinions, just as they also have interests. My third rule is that opinion and interest do not necessarily coincide.

This isn't to fall back on notions like false consciousness. People are very aware of where their interests lie. It is to recognise that sometimes people do not make connections between a policy and its potential outcomes. There are any number of reasons why. The most frequent is that we all make mistakes about the benefits. We think that something that sounds wonderful will actually be wonderful. I have wasted loads of money buying useless junk or something that I will never need because I liked the idea of it, only for it to sit gathering dust in the back of a cupboard somewhere. It's the same with opinions that are untested by reality. In the 1930s the desire to avoid war meant that appeasement was popular, but when it failed to deliver and was shown to be a dreadful mistake there was unity behind the war. Few then laid claim to appeasement's merits.

In most cases, interests are sectional and in conflict with each other, but there are times when we can have something that unites. The Second World War is an obvious example, but I think that we also face a united national interest in stopping Brexit, even if opinion is divided.

The various claims for Brexit won the support of the ideologically uncommitted for a number of reasons. Some were based on sovereignty, some on cultural and ethnic issues, but the most convincing was the idea that we would be materially better off if we left. The EU was portrayed as a cost rather than a benefit. It is already clear that this is not the case. Every possible scenario leaves us worse off. On top of which, Britain has lost influence, prestige, power, and become an international laughing stock as people look at this act of self-harm with incredulity. But let's be absolutely clear. The biggest losers will be the working class.

That makes the Labour leadership's position even more curious. They are lining up in support of the Tory right. They vary only by saying that the deal they get will be better. They are like Kerensky arguing that the Russian Revolution occurred because people wanted the war to be fought more effectively, rather than being ended. Labour's policies are also fantasies: a customs union where you can do your own trade deals (that isn't a customs union then), a better deal than the EEA (simply unavailable). They are positioning themselves in direct opposition to more than 80% of the party membership. In the referendum 70% of Labour voters supported remain. Labour is an overwhelmingly pro-EU party, and, as the reality of Brexit bites, is becoming more so. What is more, the evidence is overwhelming that working class interests in terms of prosperity, employment, and social protection are tied up with continuing membership of the EU. If Labour continues to facilitate Brexit, then it is making an historic error.

Brexit is a victory for the right, but it is coming apart at the seams. Reality means that even its most ardent advocates haven't got a clue how to implement it. Instead of dealing with this reality they offer us hopeful fictions. The latest is the idea of spending a Brexit dividend on the NHS, a claim repeated by the Labour leadership. This is, of course, a lie. There is no Brexit dividend. Multiple studies, including those of the government itself, show that Brexit will cost money, not save it. It is an expensive, damaging folly. The nationalist right is prepared to sacrifice working class prosperity and security in pursuit of their spurious dreams of sovereignty. Thatcherite ultras look at Brexit as a way of ending all social protection and dismantling public provision. All this is ideologically coherent, but what about Labour? What on earth is the leadership playing at? It is shaping to deliver the greatest betrayal of working class interests since Ramsay MacDonald. They could change, but time is running out. Once again, history will not view this debacle kindly.