Friday, December 17, 2021
He's known round here, and one local in Greece described Boris Johnson to me as behaving like a gangster. It made me laugh but I don't think that he's a master criminal. He's not competent enough. His actions are predictable; bravado and bullying quickly followed by cowardice excused by lies.
But it's not enough to talk about personalities. Johnson is there because he saw an ideological movement as being useful for his ambition. And we need to talk about that ideology and the strategy that flows from it. On the right, this amounts to a rejection of the post-war social democratic settlement. It comes from two sources.
The first is the libertarian strand's hostility to collectivism. The second is authoritarian and populist nationalism. The first sees institutions as obstacles to the operation of free markets, the second as barriers to the exercise of power. Their targets are the same, but they have a dissimilar rationale and want very different ends.
It isn't new. Thatcher began the process, undermining the autonomy of local government and privatising nationalised industries. But she had limits. Notably, in her selectively quoted Bruges speech:
Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.
Thatcher was one of the architects of the European single market. It's an extraordinary story as to how her particular view of the future of the EU morphed into a nationalist rejection of British membership in the hands of those who proclaim themselves to be her followers. Euroscepticism was replaced by Europhobia on the Tory right, though, arguably, it was a step on the same path. Brexit removed an important institutional restraint, freeing them to attack other targets, like the BBC and the NHS. Latterly, the targets have become wider still – the judiciary, human rights, and even elements of representative democracy. After all, leaving could only have been achieved at all through bypassing parliamentary democracy with a referendum.
We mustn't forget that there were also fellow travellers on the left. Corbyn always voted with the far right of the Tory party on EU matters, just as he and members of the Campaign group voted with Conservative rebels against some Covid restrictions. The far left's narrative was that liberal democracy was a sham, the EU a capitalist club, and individual rights a way of securing bourgeois power. Social democracy was a sell-out and a bulwark against socialism.
The problem for the radicals of both right and left is that the demolition of social democratic institutions would not lead to either socialism or a free market utopia. The beneficiaries would be authoritarians, populists, and demagogues. Freed from the constraints of democratic polities, nationalism and authoritarianism only gives us rent-seeking and kleptocracy.
The biggest obstacle the radicals faced is that these institutions work. The post-war settlement has given us sustained prosperity, greater individual liberty and growing equality. That's why the Brexiters had to rely on fabrications, misrepresentation, and outright lying. Given this assault, the defence of these gains is the primary purpose of democratic politics.
This all sounds rather conservative, an almost Burkeian defence of the status quo. And in one sense it is, and certainly it was the heart of post-war mainstream conservatism until the radicals created a dysfunctional Conservative Party in their own image. But the difference for the left, my left, is that liberal democratic institutions are not obstacles to progress, nor are they an end in themselves, but the foundations on which a better society can be built. To abandon them is to risk descending into the authoritarian abyss.
Tuesday, October 05, 2021
It’s easy to comfort yourself that your opponents are bad people. But I don’t think Boris Johnson is a bad man. I think he is a trivial man
What a masterly put down from Keir Starmer's conference speech. Nothing could be more wounding to a narcissist than being called trivial. It's dismissive and contemptuous. Starmer was also nodding towards Angela Rayner – 'that's how to do it.' The only problem is that it's wrong. Johnson is a bad man. He's bad enough to be dangerous.
We've lived through an era of triviality in serious times. Populism has saturated politics after the financial crisis. When we needed complex interventions, we were offered simple solutions. No serious politician would have even risked leaving the EU. The costs and consequences were clear to anyone who was not blinded by ideology. With a disruptive and organised minority of extremists pushing for idiocy, any capable party leader would have crushed them. They should have been marginalised not indulged. Cameron's stupidity has now meant that the extremists have taken over the party. Conservatism has been replaced by nationalism.
Even allowing for the referendum result, nobody with any sense would have delivered Brexit, certainly not in this way. It wouldn't have been unprecedented to dodge a bullet in the national interest. After the bizarre 2011 referendum in Greece, Tsipras looked at the consequences of expulsion from the Euro, forgot the result, and did a deal on worse terms than the ones that had been rejected. Varoufakis was ditched to spend more time making a lot of money out of the credulous. Instead of choosing sanity, Britain ploughed ahead with self-harm. But then we were in the land of the inadequate, with Etonian overconfidence facing post-Leninist self-righteousness. While May, more serious but not more capable, allowed her obsession with immigration to trump the national interest.
Johnson appears to be the most trivial of all. But Max Hastings got him right early.
Most politicians are ambitious and ruthless, but Boris is a gold medal egomaniac. I would not trust him with my wife nor – from painful experience – my wallet. It is unnecessary to take any moral view about his almost crazed infidelities, but it is hard to believe that any man so conspicuously incapable of controlling his own libido is fit to be trusted with controlling the country.
His chaotic public persona is not an act – he is, indeed, manically disorganised about everything except his own image management. He is also a far more ruthless, and frankly nastier, figure than the public appreciates.
And here, after his ascent to power was guaranteed:
… he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.
Sonia Purnell said the same in her devastating biography of Johnson. And even in our small corner of Greece, where the Johnson family have a holiday home, he is disliked by people who have had dealings with him. As Hastings puts it, "Almost the only people who think Johnson a nice guy are those who do not know him."
Johnson tells lies with easy confidence. About everything. If stuck for a reply, he makes it up. But something more important is going on. Pressure on the courts, threatening the BBC, voter suppression through photo ID, restricting the independence of the Electoral Commission, etc. etc. These steps are all drawn from the alt-right playbook. While being excused over Covid for his libertarian instincts, his authoritarian actions are there to see and point to a different person.
Journalists are fond of naive pieces saying that Johnson is to be ousted, that he will step down, that his time is up. Forget it. This is the one thing he cares about, and all his ruthlessness and cunning will be used to keep him in power. He doesn't want to use it for any serious purpose, he wants it for himself.
There was one chance to get rid of him early after his prorogation of Parliament was found to be unlawful. There was a majority of MPs who would have voted for a motion of no confidence and installed a temporary government. Corbyn's ego prevented that as he insisted that he had to lead it, rather than a senior figure with no personal ambitions who was acceptable to all. However, Johnson was still stuck until the opposition parties astonishingly gave him the early general election he craved. Bad people have to be lucky in their enemies if they are to persist. And the opposition will miss opportunities if they don't take their opponent seriously and forget that the chances won't come round again for a long time. No, Johnson is not trivial, and though it's a beautifully cruel jibe, thinking he is will lead to a fatal underestimation of such a flawed, and destructive man.
Tuesday, September 28, 2021
Labour shadow cabinet ministers have been talking to the media, all pushing the same message that Labour in power will never reintroduce freedom of movement - in the middle of a crisis partially caused by the ending of freedom of movement - when polling shows popular support for freedom of movement running at over 60% - when immigration has never been a less salient issue - and without mentioning that it's a reciprocal right that benefits us as much as others. It's gesture politics, another version of Ed Miliband's anti-immigration mug. That was a huge success, wasn't it? My tip is that if Labour wants to be populist, it should choose something popular, not something that will dismay most of its voters to appease a fictional notion of an atavistic working class.
In doing so, it has solemnly pledged:
1. That Labour will never again be a member of the single market, let alone join EFTA or rejoin the EU, whatever the economic advantages in doing so.
2. That Labour will maintain barriers to trade and hard borders with our largest and nearest trading partner and supplier of food, regardless of any damage to the country.
3. It will ensure that any closer relationship with the EU will be limited and that we will negotiate with them from a weak position. It rules out a future relationship like Switzerland's.
4. It promises not to restore the rights that British citizens had removed from them by Brexit.
As a result, Labour stands with the old against the young, and for nostalgic nationalism against progressive internationalism. To do that, it will sacrifice future prosperity. It is standing for hard Brexit. This is a curious position for a party with an overwhelmingly pro-European membership, when a huge majority of young voters loathe Brexit, and when polls consistently find that a majority think that Brexit was a mistake - despite the lack of political leadership on the issue.
Do they understand the full implications of what they are saying? I don't know. They have backed Blue Labour over New Labour, and are ignoring a whole range of alternative traditions that should be part of social democratic renewal. It's an unimaginative dead end.
Brexit was a mad idea that threw down a challenge to the political class. They have failed it, totally. And even the current mess is not forcing a rethink. As for me, I have my permanent Greek residency. I am the last generation to salvage something out of the wreckage. For every one else, some freedom of movement will still exist, but only for the rich.
Tuesday, September 07, 2021
From the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan. Women demonstrating in Kabul against the Taliban.
The demonstrations were dispersed, but this was one response to the call for a 'national uprising' by the resistance.
I was broken when I first heard the Taliban took over but I told myself I shouldn’t give up my fight for my rights. I decided to take to the streets with about 40 or 50 other women & publicly challenge the Taliban. No fear, now we are united.
This is the reason why history does not repeat itself. For all the imperfections of its democracy, twenty years of building a civil society brought hope, experience, and activity. Nothing can be turned back to how it was. The Taliban have seized a changed country that doesn't want it. Most people will seek to survive, a few will collaborate, but some will resist. The future is unpredictable, but I am in awe of the bravery of these Afghans in the face of brutality after being betrayed by allies.
Liberty and equality in modern liberal societies is worth defending or winning - in Afghanistan as in Belarus and elsewhere. When rights are taken away, people will struggle to regain them, even at appalling personal cost.
Tuesday, August 17, 2021
“You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.”
There are no historical analogies, nor does history repeat itself. There are precedents, however, and the precedent of delivering an ally as a gift to your enemy is not a promising one.
And when that enemy is, in this case, an anti-democratic, totalitarian, ideologically committed misogyny with a history of ultra violence and the persecution of minorities, it is likely to be a catastrophe for the people who have been abandoned.
The trickiest question in history is to ask how wars end, rather than how they begin. And twenty years is not as long as people may think to achieve a settlement. If patience is a virtue, impatience is a weakness that feeds into a nirvana fallacy.
I don't know enough to be able to say anything more, other than express my moral disgust and sense of unease. I don't think that this will turn out well.
Sunday, August 08, 2021
I like this piece, 20 reasons why there is shortage of drivers in the UK. In the media the shortage is being presented as either down to the 'pingdemic' or Brexit, depending on your ideological position. It's a bit more complicated than that though.
Of the twenty reasons Oryński gives, only one is COVID and half a dozen are Brexit related. The others are long-standing issues about working conditions and employer relations. If they had been addressed earlier, the system might have been more resilient to the temporary shock of COVID but probably nothing could have stemmed the damage of the permanent impact of Brexit. Especially when it was imposed without proper preparation and against all expert advice. It's not just the new trade barriers that are a shock, it's the interaction with structural weaknesses that were already present. And just as the shock was radical, so is the response.
And here lies the problem. COVID will end, but the social and economic impact of Brexit is long lasting. Once people and businesses have left, once the investment has flowed out to the EU to stay in the single market, they won't ever come back. We could rejoin tomorrow, but they have gone forever. The UK's reputation is ruined. Why return? Especially for people who have experienced this:
Brexit had opened a black hole into the deepest layers of British society that we haven’t seen before. The level of harassment and hate crime has risen to unprecedented levels. If you were European, would you really want to come to the country where at every little step – from dealing with Home Office and Border Forces to the trip to your local pub – you can be reminded in a very clear manner, that you’re not welcome here?
The result is that we get caught up in a vortex of utter bollocks, convenient ignorance expressed with all the confidence that privileged inexpertise brings with it. And we all have to live with the consequences of their attempt to impose their fantasy worlds on people living in the real one.
Monday, June 28, 2021
The loyalty of the working-class to Labour is the fundamental reason that our country did not go fascist.
Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking, all the time...The gap instinct makes us imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement.
Just how a man like this managed to eke out a narrow victory in 2016 has been a source of torment for his critics. It is easy to understand if you begin with the fact that most Americans — and especially the most persuadable Americans — spend little or no time following political news. Many of them have stressful lives that do not leave much room for it. Deciding which candidate to cast their vote for is like trying to follow the plot of a television series they have never seen and have only heard discussed in snippets over the water cooler.
America, by and large, never wanted Trump to be president.
Instead of running scared of the right’s culture warriors, Labour should acknowledge that the public is largely on their side. That doesn’t mean being needlessly provocative or indulging in every spat. But progressive parties have the opportunity to build a popular counter-narrative about an out-of-touch, anti-science and intolerant right. Backing away from the fight is a terrible strategy; especially when you’re winning the war.
Sunday, June 06, 2021
There's a fabulous little 1976 essay by Carlo M Cipolla, The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. It's been reissued recently and explains much of the mess the UK is in.
It's a transactional analysis. He divides people into four basic categories: the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit and the stupid. The helpless lose while the other party gains at their expense, in an exchange between intelligent people both parties gain, the bandit is someone who profits from another's losses, but then there is the most numerous category, the stupid.
This definition is from his third (and golden) basic law:
A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
It's a pretty good working definition of stupidity, much more precise than than the word's customary use as a vague insult. Though I would want to de-personalise it. Intelligent people can promote stupid ideas, but as a description of stupid policy, it's pretty good.
And it defines Brexit. There are no gains, everyone has lost something – the EU, the UK, individual citizens, business, services, Northern Ireland, the arts; everyone. There have not even been any savings, it's cost far more than it has saved in EU contributions. However devoted Brexiters are, it doesn't stop it being stupid.*
Now it has happened, it has to be dealt with. That's not easy.
Cipolla points out that the other categories of people can't understand the stupid. They think that people are behaving according to rational self-interest. Some talk about Brexiters' dark motives, claiming that they are out to make money, that they are disaster capitalists and tax avoiders, that there is some EU regulation that they want to avoid, or that there is a mysterious profit that they will make, rather than them simply being people attached to a stupid idea. Stupidity is baffling to those who are not stupid. Cipolla writes:
Our daily life is mostly, made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm. Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does. In fact there is no explanation - or better there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.
Yep, Brexit is stupid – end of.
The damage has been done, most of it is permanent. The businesses that have left will not be coming back, neither will many of the people. As for the UK's reputation, it's ruined. So, what do we do? More importantly, what does the opposition do? They face a problem. They have to win back the support of the people who voted for Brexit and, for the time being, remain attached to it. They also need the support of the more numerous of their supporters who voted against it. The solution they've chosen is to pretend either that it doesn't exist or, if it does, that there's nothing they can do, or even that we must even "embrace" it as if it wasn't stupid. They have chosen helplessness, or, at best, saying that they could do the stupid thing a little less stupidly. And that brings me to Cipolla's fourth basic law:
Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake...
Through centuries and millennia, in public as in private life, countless individuals have failed to take account of the Fourth Basic Law and the failure has caused mankind incalculable losses.
Labour's strategy, driven by a contestable analysis of strategically important voters, is to accept Brexit as immutable, just as the tide of opinion is flowing in the opposite direction. What's more stupid – a stupid policy or treating a stupid policy as if it was not stupid?
Of course it will fail. It works on the assumption that the stupid are rational. Cipolla again:
A stupid creature will harass you for no reason, for no advantage, without any plan or scheme and at the most improbable times and places. You have no rational way of telling if and when and how and why the stupid creature attacks. When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at his mercy. Because the stupid person’s actions do not conform to the rules of rationality, it follows that:
a) one is generally caught by surprise by the attack;
b) even when one becomes aware of the attack, one cannot organize a rational defense, because the attack itself lacks any rational structure.
The fact that the activity and movements of a stupid creature are absolutely erratic and irrational not only makes defense problematic but it also makes any counter-attack extremely difficult - like trying to shoot at an object which is capable of the most improbable and unimaginable movements. This is what both Dickens and Schiller had in mind when the former stated that "with stupidity and sound digestion man may front much" and the latter wrote that "against stupidity the very Gods fight in vain."
And this is what's happening now. As we reap the reward of their stupidity, the government attacks the deal that they negotiated, on terms they asked for, whose MPs voted for, which they lauded during the election campaign and then blame the EU for its failings. How do you fight that?
It's also explains why the current regime of the stupid is wedded to lying. If their actions have no rational structure, they aren't tied to truth. And if truth is inconvenient, why bother with it?
Mendacity and stupidity walk together. The only way to oppose a politics of falsehood is by the radical act of telling the truth. Opposition doesn't come from obfuscation. To say that a stupid policy is, indeed, stupid, isn't comfortable, it opens up some tough battles. But to appease stupidity is to allow it to reign in perpetuity. This is the challenge the opposition faces. And they're ducking it. This is how the intelligent fail. The nation needs them to win.
*There have been collateral benefits for some. Brexit was a rebellion by the stupid part of the elite against the intelligent. It was driven by resentment at their exclusion because of their stupidity. They won but haven't a clue what to do with their victory because they are stupid. This is how Johnson became PM, a position he craved despite being manifestly unsuited to the job. Other European nations have also gained much of the business we have lost, but then they recognise that their gains came their way because of our stupidity.
Friday, May 21, 2021
I can't stand the sneering. Criticism is fine, but the left using Starmer's title as a put-down and calling him "Sir Keith" is not just unintelligent, it's part of a contradictory war on the leadership in the name of unity. It's weirder still for middle-class activists to aim their inverted snobbery at the first leader Labour has had from a working-class background for yonks. But that's not all. Up until just over a year ago, this faction formed the party leadership and they failed. They failed utterly.
Corbyn's leadership was the catastrophe it always promised to be. His legacy is a party that is distrusted by sections of the electorate in strategically important constituencies in a disproportionate electoral system. It gifted Johnson his election, ran an incompetent campaign, and put forward a manifesto that claimed to be 'radical' though was anything but, all under a leader whose polling figures were unprecedentedly awful.
There isn't a sign that they have grasped the extent of the catastrophe that they visited on the party and the country. Instead, they have slipped back into their comfort zone, attacking the party leadership and demanding the same things that produced a crushing defeat.
If you don't understand why you lost, you can't win. Which brings me to cowardice. Starmer's leadership is petrified of upsetting a minority of Brexiter and 'social conservative' voters – often mis-characterised as the white working class, possessors of an authenticity that is morally superior to the views of the dilettante liberal elite. The result is that Starmer's policy on Brexit is, "Don't mention the war." He's a convinced European who's too afraid of the consequences of his convictions.
Brexit is unfolding as a cumulative mess. One area after another meets the reality of damage and disruption. British citizens have had rights and liberties removed and their status permanently downgraded. It's crumbling before our eyes. And still, Labour is silent.
There is unease in the party but even then, the caution is overwhelming. Take this dismal offering:
Labour should stop being scared of Leave voters in the red wall and be “braver” about criticising the government over Brexit failures, an aide to Keir Starmer has said.
Sharon Hodgson told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast the party should “stop being scared of poking the tiger” and alienating Brexit supporters.
Then she shows herself to be terrified. She tiptoes around, talking of "teething problems," "short-term pain," "not getting the best Brexit we could have got," "we’re not trying to unpick the whole thing by saying actually this could be improved." You can smell the fear. It's no good talking of the Irish border without acknowledging that if there isn't one in the Irish Sea, there must be one on the mainland, smashing the Good Friday Agreement. Starmer's circle talk about making Brexit work, but don't define how they would or even what they mean by 'work.'
It's a nonsense. If you can't say that placing barriers to trade between yourself and your largest and nearest market is going to do permanent, long-term damage, what is the point? If you don't say that ending free movement reduces UK citizens' rights permanently and will damage the economy, then you are being dishonest. If you aren't prepared to say that the permanent and sustainable solution to the Northern Ireland border issue is to re-join the single market and customs union, you are dodging your responsibilities.
Just who are they speaking for? Not for the majority, yes majority, who oppose Brexit and think it's a mistake. Not for the plurality who would vote to re-join. Not for the Labour voters and members who are overwhelmingly pro-EU. Not for the young who are appalled by this blight on their future. Not for small businesses. Not for Scotland. Not for one of Labour's greatest achievements, peace in Northern Ireland. No, the national interest must be abandoned in favour of a small group of ex-Labour voters in the 'Red Wall' seats. And even then, the analysis is questionable as the decline in the Labour vote has more to do with demographic change, housing, and the obvious fact that Labour has not lost the support of working age people, but the retired, than it had to do with Brexit. While the red wall voters don't appear to fit the Blue Labour stereotype at all. People are much nicer than they are portrayed.
I don't want to be complacent, but obfuscation on something as important as Brexit makes a politician look shifty and untrustworthy, especially when we know that it is only tactical. Starmer is not a great communicator at the best of times, he won't get away with it.
Peter Kellner gets this right
Britain’s more recent political history has dealt Keir Starmer a weak hand. He won’t escape the pincer by triangulating the rival identities that comprise Britain’s new electorate. He might just do by developing a brave and credible programme for the country’s future. Like a successful entrepreneur, he should start by getting the product right. When he’s done that, he can worry about how to sell it to his different target voters.
So, how did we get here? It seems that Corbynism has been usurped by Blue Labour in the centre of power. The best starting point for understanding why is Matt Bolton's and Harry Pitts' superb study, Corbynism: A Critical Approach.
The book comes from the left – using a critical Marxist perspective associated with people like Postone – rather than being a centrist rant. It has excellent chapters on political economy, antisemitism, and why an absurd personality cult grew up around such a mediocrity. It reinforced my view of the group around Corbyn that they weren't even left wing. Their radicalism was performative rather than substantive.
But it also has other targets – the Lexiters and Blue Labour. Bolton and Pitts see them as the reverse side of the same coin as Corbynism. Together, they make up the left and right wings of a nationalist populism that wants to destabilise liberalism, rather than defend its gains against the attacks of reactionaries and use them for the basis of a new socialism and internationalism; one that avoids authoritarianism.
Labour is caught between its electoral failure and a national crisis. Brexit is an historic mistake, the result of a rebellion by one right-wing elite faction against another. It was won on an appeal to the past. Labour only wins when it has a vision of the future – 'Let us Face the Future,' 'the white heat of the technological revolution,' 'New Labour, New Britain.' The far left traded in nostalgia for a 1945 that never existed. Brexit was sold on an illusionary past of British exceptionalism. Being European is not refighting old battles. Britain may have left the EU, but Brexit is not over, it's a never-ending process of trying to work out a relationship with Europe. Once Theresa May decided on a hard Brexit, leaving the single market and customs union, she ensured that the war would continue. The vision of Britain as a progressive European nation can be the basis for a renewed economic and social policy - a hope for the future, not a lament for a lost past. It would be part of a revival of other left traditions – distinct from third way modernisation and fringe post-Leninist factionalism.
Instead, Labour's current policy is like a little boy who ran away from home to join the circus. Now, lonely and unhappy, he presses his nose to the window and looks at the warmth and comfort inside. He's too scared to ring the doorbell. Instead, he swallows hard and looks towards a harsh, uncertain future instead of a prosperous one built on secure foundations. It's a tragedy in search of a happy ending.
I haven't blogged for a long time. There are many reasons why. One is that I've been busy with taking decisions and sorting out my Greek life given the devastating consequences of Brexit. In a bitter/sweet moment I've now secured my future and have permanent residence status in Greece. It's sweet, because I'm secure; the bitterness comes from the loss of all the rights I held previously. Residence is a shadow of EU citizenship, but not as bad as the second-class status in Europe of most UK passport holders. Brexit is the biggest loss of freedom in my lifetime.
Then, in the middle of a pandemic, I've got to take decisions on my house and life in Manchester, while being locked down in Greece. With the second dose of vaccine due in a couple of weeks, I should be OK to travel back to the UK. In the meantime, I'm grateful to my neighbours who have looked after the house.
These practicalities have been compounded by despair at British politics overwhelming my irritation. Despair is as depressing to read as it is to write. You've had a narrow escape.
But I suppose the most important thing of all, is that I have been writing another book and moving in a different direction. It's speculative and may never see the light of day, but I've been short of time and thinking about different things. The first draft is done, so I reckon it's time to take up the cudgels again as catharsis and light relief. If anyone is still reading, thanks for sticking around.
Saturday, January 16, 2021
Brexit died a long time before it was implemented as a little-loved zombie by the Johnson government. Any hope of forming some sort of national agreement was wrecked by Theresa May declaring that Brexit meant hard Brexit, leaving the single market and customs union – something that much of the Leave campaign said wouldn't happen. But it was the opposition that she stirred that killed it off. The largest pro-European movement in Europe took to the streets, the majority turned against Brexit in the polls, and all hope of a consensual politics, without which such a radical and complex change is impossible, was gone. Instead, Brexit became a theatre for right-wing Tory zealots, cosplaying nationalists, and a handful of deluded Lexiters. The opposition hasn't gone away.
And now Brexit is here. Two weeks into it, rather than sunlit uplands, we are looking at a rain-sodden valley. It's hard to know where to start, but we should remember that what will get to most people is not the big national issues but the small personal costs and inconveniences. They are already accumulating. According to polls, the majority think Brexit was a mistake, the number who still support it is shrinking to no more than a third of the electorate. And it is at this moment that the leader of the opposition has decided that it's inviolate. His positioning is strategic, but I have to wonder about the strategy, especially in Scotland.
Starmer's caution and reticence has meant it has taken Tony Blair to give a clear indication of where this thinking is coming from. I was never a Blairite, though after the Cameron/May/Johnson horror story I began to think more kindly of him. Now, I can remember why I had my reservations. He's a convincing political storyteller, but it's the story that's a problem. His narrative is an amalgam of generalities and conventional wisdom, a sort of lyrical management textbook. It's vacuous. In his Chatham house speech he returned to a familiar rhetorical formula:
... we should make a virtue of necessity and see in Brexit’s consequences, an opportunity and an obligation to renew our country and its place in the world
It is no longer: ‘Leave or Remain’ but ‘Change or Decline’.
[Brexit is] a catalyst for change which is necessary even without Brexit and could have been done without doing Brexit, but which, by the challenge it poses, Brexit somehow enables.
He starts by saying that Brexit is a mistake, but then produces a rehashed 'Global Britain' Brexiter argument, reconciling himself to it.
And this is his aim:
... if a return to Europe is ever to be undertaken by a new generation, Britain should do it as a successful nation Europe is anxious to embrace, not as supplicant with no other options.This is like an unfaithful husband; dump the wife, be a bloody nuisance settling the divorce, go away, get a better job, and then return saying, ' OK, I've come back to you, aren't you the lucky one.' I think I know what the answer might be.
He's wallowing in the Brexiter nostalgia that Robert Saunders describes
... a story that reduces empire to an expression of British power, rather than its source. The myth it fuels is not that empire can return, but that it hardly mattered in the first place: that Britain can flex its muscles on the world stage without the sinews of imperial power.
This dream is a chimera. However successful Britain is in the international arena, Europe will be what it has always been, our main trading partner and where our most important strategic interests lie. It's inescapable. This isn't new. EU membership resolved difficult structural problems. We have now reimposed them and compounded them by adding extensive barriers to trade, which we had spent the last forty years removing. We have chosen to disadvantage ourselves against every other European nation.
Structural problems cannot be overcome by vapid calls for "unifying values, clarity of thinking, competence and delivery." Opposing the rancid politics of Brexit is not "outdated ideology." We cannot escape geography, history and economics. Reality always wins and is not going away. The Labour Party standing for doing something stupid more competently than the Tories, even as it becomes more and more unpopular, is not wise.
The relationship with Europe is the single most important issue facing the country today. It isn't going to disappear. Our economies are interdependent. Close ties are integral to European security. Both the EU and the UK have lost. Brexit is as damaging as it is pointless. We are now locked into a process of continual negotiation and renegotiation to manage these mutual interests. Brexit has scarcely begun. Now is not the time to pretend that it's over.
No, when Britain returns, as self-interest insists it will, it will be as the penitent, not the supplicant. Brexit was a hostile act - intentionally. It has hurt other countries, it has particularly damaged Ireland and put the peace process at risk. Any hope of return means rejecting convincingly the radical right-wing populism that produced it. It seems that the majority of the people have. It's about time the opposition followed and spoke for the national interest.