Saturday, June 27, 2020

Changing times

It's nearly a year since Johnson became Prime Minister. Amidst all the bluster, lies, scandals, and evasions, he has one solid achievement. Britain is no longer a member of the European Union. We are now a third country, even if the full consequences are yet to be felt. Remain is over. We can begin the long application process to rejoin, but we cannot remain. Johnson took us out.

The final terms are unknown and the haste with which Johnson wants us to leave the transition period is baffling. Even so, we know that the shape of Brexit will bear no relationship to the one that we were promised in the referendum campaign.

Johnson's achievement was facilitated by others, of course. Cameron's decision to hold an unnecessary referendum at the tail end of the Euro crisis, expecting remain to win handsomely, was a master class in bad timing. Corbyn's decision (with a bit of help from Swinson) to vote for an early election, again thinking he would win, was criminal stupidity. Johnson's landslide with 43% of the vote was a consequence of the perpetual failings of our electoral system. His gamble in purging the Conservative Party of real conservatives paid off.

This was the culmination of an era of political instability in the aftermath of the financial crisis and the desperately misjudged response of the coalition government, with its austerity and resultant grinding poverty. Even so, everything was politically normal until 2015. Cameron's majority, as a result of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, Miliband's weak leadership of Labour, and the bloody electoral system again, changed everything. Cameron initiated the chaos by holding the EU referendum, which smashed everything to pieces. Labour's folly was the collective act of suicide in choosing Corbyn as leader.

2015. Five short years ago. It seems a lifetime.

During that time we saw radicalisation accompanied by the processes of accommodation and excuse making that Anne Applebaum wrote about and that I referred to in my earlier post. First, Theresa May redefined the referendum result as mandating a hard Brexit, leaving the single market and customs union, in line with the demands of the right-wing ultras in her party. Then we saw her hard Brexit described as soft, as the Brexiters radicalised after the referendum. Hard Brexit became orthodox belief, even for people who campaigned for Remain. While Lexiters abandoned the language of social democracy in favour of vituperative hatred for the EU and all its works.

We saw the same accomodation on the left. People who had been critics of the politics that Corbyn had espoused, rallied round and found reasons to support someone who was clearly inadequate and personally unpopular. As Labour sank into a morass of antisemitism, they dug themselves in deeper. The left winning mattered more to them than the nature of the left that did win.

It's been changing for a while. Possibly, it's been accelerated by the government's inept handling of the pandemic, but it would have happened anyway due to the inherent contradictions of the politics of the era. Now, it's over. This week saw two things that clarified what's going on.

Rebecca Long-Bailey, the left's defeated candidate for Labour leader, tweeted her support for an interview with an actor. The interview contained an antisemitic conspiracy theory (as well as other criticisms of the party). I don't expect political acumen from a celebrity, but from a member of the shadow cabinet? It was not an act of intelligence. She was sacked. Rapidly, rightly, and decisively sacked. It marks the start of a serious change of political direction. The Corbynista left has become irrelevant.

As Labour detoxes, the Tories are finding that their one triumph is turning septic. The  European Social Survey was published this week, confirming previous trends and showing that support for the EU is growing across Europe. This report deals with its consequences for Brexit.
The survey, completed in 2019 and released this week, found that 57% of Brits would vote to be inside the EU, compared to 50% who said the same in the previous survey released in 2018.
By contrast, just 35% said they would vote to be outside the EU, compared with the 52% of people who voted to leave in 2016. Eight percent of Brits said they would not vote in such a referendum.
35%, that's all. Demographics and everyday experience will probably shrink that number further. The referendum took place at the only time Leave could win. Brexit has happened when the majority oppose it, in a form no one campaigned for. The form is one that few anticipated, and even fewer voted for.  It has happened solely because it was defined as 'the will of the people,' rather than a quirk of timing. It's shape is the result of treating the views of half the population as irrelevant. The insecurities of the Brexiters, with their accusations of betrayal, shows Brexit's fragile foundations.

Brexit is Johnson's nemesis. His only success is turning into a curse that will haunt him. His personal inadequacies are manifest. But worst of all, his legacy will be defined by a policy that will be despised. He has wrecked his party and his country with his one moment of triumph.  His premiership will be seen as a curse.

There is only one certainty about the next political era. It will be dominated by our relationship with Europe. Europe is, as it has been for centuries, vital to our security, economy, and, given our near fifty years of integration, our personal lives. The coming years will be spent dealing with the consequences of our folly. I'm sure that we will look back on our years of membership as "the land of lost content" as we begin to deal with the accursed legacy of Cameron, May, and Johnson.  

Chris Grey is right about the immediate tasks, and he views the prospect of rejoining as remote. I'm not so sure. Back in 2015, nobody could have foreseen where we are today. I suppose, much depends on the extent of the change that is coming. Reality points in one direction, as it has throughout. It's just that right-wing utopians chose to disregard it. 

The years 2015-2020  have been momentous. Though, how much better off we all would be if they had never happened.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The sun has set

Even by the standards of this dismal government, this week has been puzzling. The jingoistic 'Global Britain' flag has been waving without much sense of what 'Global Britain' actually means, other than an expensive makeover for a plane. All the while, the threat of a destructive no-deal exit from transition remains.

Then there was the embarrassing launch of negotiations for a trade deal with Australia and New Zealand, glossing over the fact that talks between the Australasian countries and the EU for a free trade agreement are advanced and that we would benefit from one far quicker if we were members of the EU. Australia has made it clear that we are not a priority and the deal with the EU takes precedence. Otto English is scathing. This mirrors the heralding of the opening of trade talks with Japan, without mentioning that this is to replace the trade deal we already have with them through the EU - a deal that we are abandoning by leaving the single market and customs union.

All this comes after Johnson's previous nod away from globalisation towards nationalist autarky and import substitution, together with the abolition of the Department for International Development. It convinces me that Chris Grey is right. There is no plan.
The Brexiters have no more idea in private than they do in public about what they are doing. Predictions based upon their concealed intent project on to them a competence they simply don’t possess.
Brexit as an ideology, as opposed to the type of reformist Euroscepticism that didn't question our membership, was only ever a vehicle for a vague, self-indulgent sense of grievance projected onto a fictitious, scapegoat EU. It never proposed a coherent model of political economy or of international relations. It had nothing to offer other than bluster. I'm not sure that its adherents either expected or wanted the opportunity to put their fantasy into practice. Perpetual complaint without responsibility is much easier

Those of us with long political memories, like mine stretching back to our entry into the EEC in 1973, will know that we are simply replicating the debates of the 60s and 70s. The options are the same as then. That's because the question is the same. Where does the future of a post-imperial Britain lie?

There is a lot of talk of the EU as a peace project, but there is less about its other role as a solution to the questions raised by decolonisation and the end of the European empires. Even though the long and bloody retreat was not complete, it was obvious that individual European nation states could not play a global role on their own. A regional collective of independent states had the economic power to enable them to be significant international actors and thereby enhance their own sovereignty. Isolated individual states would be ineffective by comparison.

The choice Britain faced was between European engagement - either through EFTA, which we helped found in 1960, or full membership of the EEC - or a global role - through the Commonwealth or, more improbably, a relationship with the USA. Guess what we are debating today?

The decision was obvious even then. Distance and history drew us to Europe. The other options were not viable and, on its own, Britain would have drifted into continuing decline and irrelevance. We left EFTA to join the EEC because of its limitations. Now we won't even try and rejoin EFTA and be part of the EEA.

After 47 years, Britain abandoned the solution only to rediscover the problem. Except that the alternative remedies are even more unpalatable today. The EU has enlarged, is an economic superpower, our economy is deeply integrated with the internal market, and we are not just close, but joined by a tunnel. We have given up a powerful position without any replacement.

All the other choices, barring the utopian fantasy of a world of unconstrained independent nation states, leave the UK as a weak supplicant in a world dominated by regional networks. We have lost sovereignty by trying to enhance it. Pretending that we can be part of a Pacific bloc is mad. The solution to our predicament is obvious and we have just rejected it.

And so we are stuck, pursuing a disastrous policy at ruinous cost. As for the government that has to handle this, Chris Grey gets it right again:
We’re not in sway to some set of manipulative geniuses pursuing a well-thought out, if malign, agenda, but the captives of a coterie of utterly deluded simpletons who have stumbled into power by a series of accidents. The plane hasn’t been hijacked by steely-eyed terrorists so much as it has fallen into the inadvertent hands of a group of smirking school bullies and debating society geeks, led by a priapic layabout and advised by those for whom the term Incel inadequates is not so much an insult as an unattainable aspiration. Thus as Rafael Behr writes, convincingly, “incompetence is a built-in feature, not a bug of Boris Johnson’s government”.
And that's where we are today. An awful government, pursuing a destructive policy, without a clue about what to do other than to posture and indulge in rhetorical hostility towards our closest allies on whom we depend. Their only tactic appears to be reckless brinkmanship at the behest of a deranged sect on the right of the Tory Party. And all for nothing. There is no good reason to continue with a policy that never made sense and is only the result of a political miscalculation. But instead, we have left the EU without no idea about what to do instead. I despair for our country.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

The lie of the land

This is a fine, long essay from Anne Applebaum. Its theme is the Republican Party's loyalty to Trump, even as he trashes their former beliefs. It explores the phenomenon of collaboration and resistance, drawing on Czesław Miłosz's classic book, The Captive Mind. But there is much more of general relevance in there.

It illuminated several of my pet obsessions. I may come back to some of those topics in a later post. This time, I want to use just one of its themes to show why the row over Dominic Cummings and his breach of lockdown is not trivial, as some try and make out. 

Cummings is a courtier. He's unelected. He has no power base other than patronage. He can be removed at a whim, but he wasn't. He was protected. Cummings was elevated to celebrity status by the scandal and allowed to give an unprecedented press conference in the Number Ten Rose Garden. His statement contained a claim so outrageous that it launched hundreds of mocking memes and a sell-out brand of craft beer. Dishonesty filled the air as he gave an account that was completely different to the one his wife had published only a few weeks before. He confirmed that he and his family had gone on a trip to Barnard Castle in breach of the lockdown, something that had been vehemently denied previously. Then came the big one, the utterly absurd reason he gave for his visit. He drove the sixty-mile round trip to test whether his eyesight was impaired. And as he left the garden after he made his statement, he smirked. He knew that he wouldn't be sacked. Any lie would make no difference. And Anne Appelbaum tells us why:
Sometimes the point isn’t to make people believe a lie—it’s to make people fear the liar.
Cummings is powerful and protected. His excuse showed just how powerful he is. It said to his enemies, 'I am dangerous.' He can say anything with impunity. He can be ridiculed, but that only increases his power. People, however much they loathe him, know that if he can get away with something so absurd, he can't be touched.

It's all part of a style. Never apologise, never resign, never bother about the truth. In a constitution based on convention rather than law, ignore restraints. If you get caught out, shrug your shoulders and carry on. Illegally proroguing Parliament was a resignation matter. Nobody resigned.

Cummings is not a pluralist, I doubt if he is even a democrat. He is an authoritarian devoted to the centralisation of power. His thinking is banal. He is no evil genius, just amoral. This is where the appeal lies. Appelbaum again:
This, of course, was the insight of the “alt-right,” which understood the dark allure of amorality, open racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny long before many others in the Republican Party. Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and literary critic, recognized the lure of the forbidden a century ago, writing about the deep appeal of the carnival, a space where everything banned is suddenly allowed, where eccentricity is permitted, where profanity defeats piety. The Trump administration is like that: Nothing means anything, rules don’t matter, and the president is the carnival king.
For Trump read Johnson. His whole career is based on 'telling it as it is,' a euphemism for transgressive deceit. He built his career on writing outrageous distortions about the European Union. He introduced racist and derogatory tropes into his journalism. All were delivered in the style of his unthreatening, comic, upper-class, faux persona. He was offensive with a smile. And that, for some people, is liberating. After all,
If there is no such thing as moral and immoral, then everyone is implicitly released from the need to obey any rules.
Johnson is not a serious politician. He is a bundle of needy entitlement combined with ambition without ability. Cummings is serious, with roots in the sewer of the alt-right. Mix the frivolity of transgression with the absence of any compulsion to tell the truth, and you end up with our own version of the Trump presidency. Smaller, more modest, not as overtly unpleasant, but, in its own way, just as indecent. This is where we are now. It disturbs me.