Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Brexit and British Pragmatism

The UK's relationship with the EEC and later the EU was unusual because "Europe" as an ideal never took on a positive national political role here, as it did in most other member states. The relationship remained almost exclusively transactional, hence the emphasis on "market access" and Thatcher's emblematic rebate. It was neither seen as constructive in terms of the polity (as a guarantor of democracy) nor as a component of national identity (membership of a "club" that implied a historical and cultural homogeneity). The result was a tendency to think of Europe as an optional extra, a plug-and-play extension to both the state and the economy that did not affect the underlying integrity of either. Just as leavers doubted the warnings of "project fear" over the potential damage to the economy that Brexit would entail, so many of them imagined that uncoupling would be straightforward and risk little disruption to the constitution of the UK. The failure to appreciate the impact in Ireland was not just a routine lack of interest in the "other island" but the result of a wilful blindness to the way that the EU had become intimately intertwined with the UK's governance beyond bendy bananas and meddling judges. It was like mistaking a major organ transplant for a over-tight suit.

To a large extent this misunderstanding arose because Europe had never been successfully grafted onto the national self-image, or at least not in England and Wales. Scotland went further in this regard, though that owed much to a popular history in which Europe was held up as the antithesis of England. In contrast, Europe as a civilisational ideal had played a part in the identity of continental states since the Enlightenment. For the original signatories of the Treaty of Rome, European integration carried greater expectations than the mere coordination of markets or even a contingent defence against the revival of fascism and the contemporary threat of Soviet communism. This aspirational dimension enjoyed broad (if sometimes shallow) support across mainstream parties and social classes. It wasn't just limited to the consumers of haute culture and it appealed to both conservatives and progressives. Even when the left opposed the EEC as a capitalists' club, there was a conscious effort to maintain a higher ideal of antifascist and pro-worker European solidarity: the phrase "another Europe" has a long lineage. For later member states, Europe variously offered an inoculation against military rule (Spain, Portugal and Greece), a road to technocratic modernity (Ireland and Denmark), and a means of securing national independence through a supra-national federation (Poland, the Baltic states etc). In all cases, this meant elevating the harmony of rules and cultural affinity above national will.

The UK wasn't unique in its transactional approach, but nowhere else was the EU presented as mutually-exclusive to national identity (unsurprisingly, this sense of identity among leavers has been reinforced by the referendum result, which goes a long way to explain the lack of buyer's remorse despite pessimism about the economic impact - see pgs 14-19 of the latest British Social Attitudes Survey). While there has been no shortage of continental populists blaming the EU for the "migrant crisis" or criticising its interference in domestic politics, what they aren't doing is rejecting Europe as an ideal but promoting national identity as another pole in political discourse (one example of this, and an obvious difference with the UK, is that migration and freedom of movement are seen as quite distinct). If anything, the nationalist right have become even more fervent in their "defence of Christian Europe" and their insistence that we face a continental threat from Islam. But though there are echoes of the Fascist era, we are not seeing a resurgence of the exclusivist nationalism of the 1930s (outside the exceptional case of Ukraine), any more than we are seeing a revival of economic autarky in the current protectionist spasm. Though "Europe of the nations" may have displaced "Europe of the regions" in discourse, it remains an ideal of Europe nonetheless, albeit one with a not always respectable pedigree. Poland and Hungary are not about to quit the EU: their aim is to be treated as equals, not supplicants.

Where the UK was unique was in its retention of an image of itself as a global power with interests beyond Europe that would be threatened by greater integration. Though the delusions of empire quickly evaporated after 1956, the idea that the UK retained a global significance lived on in the "special relationship" with the US. That centrist politicians from the 1960s onward promoted both Europe and the special relationship was an example of tactical necessity trumping strategic coherence, but it was (and remains) no more incoherent than contemporary Tories who promote both the anglosphere and the Commonwealth. After the UK joined the EEC in 1973, the appeal of the special relationship as a compensatory fantasy grew (under Macmillan it had been little more than a rhetorical flourish to obscure the post-Suez asymmetry), which was ironic given that its actual importance was the political leverage it now afforded the US within European institutions. That comes to an end with Brexit, but that in turn means that Atlanticist politicians in Britain are ever more desperate to preserve the myth of mutual regard, hence the embarrassment of Donald Trump's recent visit. The importance now given to a potential UK-US trade deal, which would be trivial in its benefits and unpopular in its costs, is a continuation of this, showing how far we have moved from pragmatic self-interest.

While its most fervent British supporters tried to present Europe as an ideal of liberal internationalism and thus congruent with the UK's historic self-image, this was always in tension with the desire to use Europe within the context of domestic politics for partisan ends. Brexit happened because Europe remained a divisive issue within party politics, not because it remained a major public concern (the success of the press in promoting Euroscepticism depended on the issue's political salience, without which it would have looked as eccentric as an obsession with fluoridation). Paradoxically, this wasn't due to strongly-held beliefs among politicians. The constant true-believers were always a small minority, outweighed by those who used Europe as a metaphor for either progressive modernity or the overmighty state. This instrumentality has two causes. First, you have the periodic oscillation between isolationism and internationalism that has marked British politics (the inescapable tension of an island nation, which you can also see in the histories of Ireland and Japan). As a fundamental worldview, this cuts across parties organised on class lines so it tends to manifest as intra-party division and it also tends to change over time (consider the way the left and right in Labour have swapped positions since the 1950s).

The second factor is the antagonistic nature of a first-past-the-post electoral system. I don't mean to suggest by this that proportional representation would have made a difference to British attitudes, as the divisions on Europe were largely within parties rather than between them, but that governments indulged the topic to maintain party unity in the Commons. The 1975 and 2016 referendums were both called for this reason. As UKIP showed, there aren't enough voters who consider Europe to be the primary political issue to secure representation in Parliament, but there are enough to effect the outcome in seats for the two major parties. Calling a referendum makes it the primary issue, which risks producing a result that the legislature will struggle to process because it cuts across parties (as an aside, and contrary to the centrist media, Labour has been far more adroit in dealing with this than the Tories, and not just because it is in opposition). On the continent, Euroscepticism has either been channelled through minor parties that might conceivably hold the balance of power in a coalition or been opportunistically adopted by existing parties of the nationalist right. Though these might appear worrying developments, they suggest that the issue will be diluted through compromise or diverted into gestures. That the new Italian government has rowed back on quitting the euro and focused instead on a non-existent "migrant crisis" is indicative.

This dynamic of absorption and deflection might look unedifying from the outside, but it presents a lower political risk than a binary referendum whose mandate is open to interpretation. Though some Eurosceptic parties on the continent have talked of popular votes on the euro and EU membership, it is unlikely that these will come about. More likely is that the parties will continue to leverage Europe to build domestic support in national legislatures and the European Parliament. As UKIP found, a referendum can be a political death sentence (though equally, as the Tories are now discovering, the "betrayal" of a referendum can revive the corpse). Despite the claims of the right, the EU is not in conflict with nationalism, and has on occasion been happy to promote a liberal version of it, notably in the immediate aftermath of 1989. For all the promotion of a supra-national ideal of Europe, the reality of the EU is a project to reconcile capital's continental goals with national sensitivities. We are in a phase when national sovereignty is in the ascendant, but this is less about an existential threat to the EU than the advancement of particular factions of capital in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. A more assertive national identity is not incompatible with either greater EU institutional integration or neoliberal economic reform, as Macron is busy proving in France.

What has been remarkable about the Brexit process is the failure of the UK government to approach it in transactional terms, which can only be partly blamed on the way that it has been instrumentalised within parties for sectional interests. In a strange rejection of its historic practice and self-image, the UK has been more concerned with the ideal - sovereignty, the freedom of the high seas, constitutional integrity - than with the pragmatic, hence the profusion of cake and unicorns. In contrast, the EU has been predictable both in its insistence on its own ideals - notably the indivisibility of the four freedoms of the single market - and in its commitment to a rules-based process of negotiation. Criticising Boris Johnson for his incompetence or David Davis for his laziness is legitimate, but it takes the spotlight off the wider failure of the political class to articulate a coherent vision of the UK's future at a time when our relationship with the EU must inevitably weaken and when the "special relationship" with the US, which I'd argue was terminally damaged by the Iraq War, is unlikely to survive Brexit (Trump, as ever, has not signalled a shift in US policy, he has merely blurted out a truth that would otherwise be obscured by more diplomatic language).

That historic failure does not arise because our current political leaders are pygmies, but because the latest turn of the isolationist/internationalist gyre does not align with party formations, which constrains them from offering much beyond mitigation of the electorate's 2016 decision. That won't change. A pro-remain centrist party is not going to arise out of the ashes of Brexit because the chief concerns of the electorate beyond next March will be wages, housing and public services. The fundamental oscillation between closed and open is electorally decisive only when it aligns with material and thus party interest, as over the Corn Laws and Tariff Reform. The association of the EU with migration proved decisive in the 2016 referendum, but immigration itself has never turned an election. In the circumstances, the best any party can offer is an ameliorative programme that is honest about the UK's actual position in the world: a mid-sized power with the advantages of the English language and proximity to continental Europe, but with no delusions of global significance beyond that. We could do worse than study contemporary Japan, much as the Japanese pragmatically studied Britain during the Meiji Restoration.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Shit Hits Fan

Despite Boris Johnson's definition of it as a "turd", the Chequers' statement remains very much an example of "cake". Behind the verbiage, there is still a belief that the UK can be simultaneously in and out of EU. For example, there will be a "common rulebook" for goods and agri-food but Parliament will retain the right to diverge on those rules. That is either common in name only or sovereign in name only. As has been usual with Theresa May's initiatives as Prime Minister, the statement gives the impression of having no viable existence beyond its utterance (remember "the just about managing" and "strong and stable"?). The cynical view is that it is merely a holding operation until next week's white paper, which will in turn be a holding operation until the EU's rejection of it in the coming months. That cynicism extends to the assumption that the chief Brexiteer cabinet ministers, specifically Johnson and Gove, are treading water until the UK's formal departure in March next year, at which time a sovereign Parliament will be able to diverge from whatever hollow withdrawal agreement finally made it over the line towards the end of this year.

An even more cynical interpretation is that the Brexiteer ministers believe that a deal with the EU other than BINO - Brexit in name only - is unlikely, but that the softest of Brexits can't get over the line because it would be impossible to sell to leavers both among party members and voters. In this scenario, May would be obliged to try and make the most of no-deal, the ultra's preferred outcome, which would call her own position into question because, if it has done nothing else, the Chequers' statement has proven her to be an advocate of the softest possible Brexit: she has made her choice between Johnson and Hammond and sided with the latter. In other words, none of Davis, Johnson or Gove expect the statement to actually form the basis of the final outcome, so their current manoeuvrings should be seen in his light. Johnson is positioning himself as the prophet in the semi-wilderness (a la Churchill - again), Gove has made it clear that his eyes are on the prize of getting to next March in one piece (at which point the sharpened knife will presumably reappear), while the silence of Davis was a good sign that he was considering his position as the Chequers' statement confirmed the open secret that Number 10 is wholly in charge of Brexit policy, calling into question the purpose of DExEU as a distinct ministry. Davis's resignation in the last few hours has an inescapable logic.

Though Chequers has been widely interpreted as a commitment to a soft Brexit, it shouldn't be assumed that this makes it any more palatable to the EU27. While they now have something of substance to critique, or at least will have when the white paper is published on Thursday, the continuing constraint of the UK's red lines (out of the single market and customs union and no ECJ oversight or freedom of movement) means that the proposed relationship remains opaque at best and an affront to the institutional framework of the EU at worst. While domestic critics accuse the government of heading for BINO and thus "vassalage", it should be borne in mind that a deal based on alignment and reciprocity is also a challenge for the EU as it entails the UK gaining the maximum benefits with the minimum of obligations - our old friend, cherry-picking. The sticking point won't be the quid pro quo of financial contributions for benefits equivalent to continued membership, but the UK's insistence on its absolute right to unilaterally enact exemptions and opt-outs from the common rules. It wants to continue using the gym, and will pay a discounted fee for access, but it rejects the obligations of membership and intends to ignore the rules when it suits it.

The most startling part of the statement is perhaps the government's confidence that the backstop agreed in respect of Northern Ireland last December will be irrelevant by this October, envisaging a relationship which ensures "that the operational legal text the UK will nonetheless agree on the 'backstop' solution as part of the Withdrawal Agreement would not need to be brought into effect". This is not only a heroically optimistic interpretation of the "Facilitated Customs Arrangement" and the "common rulebook" as a solution, but a position that simply refuses to countenance the possibility of any pushback by the EU27. It is hard to see why they would commit to an alternative that would require trusting the UK's future intent (maintaining alignment) while ignoring the legal reality (the ability to diverge at will). The issue of the Irish border has led many remainers to imagine that BINO is inevitable. Here is Simon Wren-Lewis: "The need to avoid a hard border in Ireland, now accepted by the UK government, dictates that we stay in the Customs Union (CU) and at least part of the Single Market (SM). That is what the UK government signed up to in December, without apparently realising what it had done. The only alternative, which is to take the deal offered by the EU for Northern Ireland and have a border in the Irish Sea, is not politically acceptable to the Prime Minister and many in parliament."

This interpretation assumes that an Irish Sea border is a non-starter, but is that necessarily so? While alienating the DUP would obviously spell the end for May's current administration, unionism is no longer an article of faith for her party. The Conservatives stopped being explicitly unionist under John Major when the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 stated that the British government had no "selfish strategic or economic" interest in Northern Ireland. The die-in-a-ditch unionists on the Tory benches are few in number and largely overlap with the Brexit ultras who must necessarily be defeated if any form of soft Brexit is to succeed. With the exception of a handful of eccentrics like Kate Hoey, I suspect Labour would have few qualms about accepting a separate deal for Northern Ireland based on the Customs Union and the Single Market for goods, as proposed by the EU27. Its concerns over EU constraints on nationalisation and investment are minimal outside the Single Market for services, and they they would have less salience in a region where much of the infrastructure (e.g. gas, electricity, transport) is already integrated on an island-wide basis for simple reasons of geography.

Wren-Lewis argues that the EU27 might be persuaded to allow the entirety of the UK to remain within the Customs Union and a limited Single Market (without Freedom of Movement), but his case heavily depends on two assumptions: that the EU27 could be persuaded to agree to an arrangement that many of its members would consider to be preferential treatment for a non-member, and that the UK government could not accept special treatment for Northern Ireland alone. To this end he is as guilty of cakeism as anyone else: "[Theresa May] needs to impress on the EU, face to face, that a border in the Irish Sea is not possible, and that therefore the UK is also special in that particular sense". A border in the Irish Sea is possible, and arguably desirable given that in a post-Brexit world a new customs regime will have to be implemented anyway. A regime based on port access to Great Britain will be a lot easier to implement and manage than one with the cumbersome addition of a land border on the island of Ireland. One issue among many that the Chequers' statement avoids mentioning is that of smuggling. Given that the Facilitated Customs Arrangement assumes differential tariffs, the scope for illegal arbitrage will be huge, not just in Northern Ireland but across the UK as a whole.

The EU27 aren't going to jeopardise the integrity of the Single Market, and nor is there any reason to believe that they will be attracted to "creating at enormous expense, in unknown timescales and with unknown efficacy a customs system to replicate something that already exists and works". They will make an exception for the special circumstances of the region of Northern Ireland, and they will fudge agreements with countries whose ultimate trajectory is assumed to be greater integration, such as Ukraine, or those who have been held up on the road, such as Switzerland, but they won't set a country-level precedent for a state whose trajectory is beyond the exit. To do so would change the EU's dynamic from one of ever closer union to one of ever greater diversification, and that simply isn't going to happen. Special treatment for problematic regions is part of the grammar of the EU, and member states can exercise opt-outs in many areas, but compromising the Single Market calls the existence of the EU into question. While some Brexiteers might insincerely pine for the simplicity of the EEC, the EU27 have no wish to turn the clock back a quarter of a century and call time on the Maastricht project.

As has been clear for almost a year, Northern Ireland is the sticking point: "unless the UK government can get the backstop through Westminster, the UK will go over the cliff edge in March next year". I believe the DUP's opposition to a hard border is insincere and that they would be happy with a hard Brexit that would help undermine the Good Friday Agreement. This would be deeply unpopular in Northern Ireland, so the DUP are obliged to mask their real intent. Brexit in name only would give them the justification to bring the government down, but they would never do anything to facilitate a Corbyn administration, so their pressure is more likely to be indirect - i.e. encouraging a Tory coup once May is perceived to have compromised on her already soft position under pressure from the EU to implement the backstop in full or even to commit to staying in the Customs Union for the UK as a whole (as Tony Connelly puts it, May is "tortuously, yet deliberately, inching her government along the spectrum, away from Canada and towards Norway"). Their reaction in the next few days will arguably be more crucial to May's ability to go on than any number of coded speeches and uncoded briefings by Boris Johnson, though I suspect they may keep their powder dry for a while yet.

The Brexit ultras have frequently given the impression that they are unwilling to strike - to stick the knife in - but I don't think, contrary to many centrist commentators crowing over the Chequers' drama, that this is because they lack an alternative plan. They have a plan: to exit the EU without a deal and then let market forces dictate future trade agreements. The problem is that this is simply too terrifying for most of the Tory party in the Commons to accept. The ultras appear to have come round to a position in which they have invested their hope in the intransigence of the EU27: anticipating either than May will be forced to accept BINO, which will prompt a popular backlash, or that she will be so frustrated by the other side that she will talk herself into a no-deal outcome. The resignation of Davis and the junior minister Steve Baker is probably not the harbinger of a coup but a message to May that she has gone too far already in trying to meet the EU27 halfway. Johnson and Gove will probably stay on board but with the understanding that further compromise is unacceptable. The current position will be further watered-down and the possibility of an agreement with the EU will recede. Meanwhile, the DUP will smirk.

Update at 18:50 on Monday, the 9th: Johnson resigned as Foreign Secretary this afternoon, but I don't get the sense that a leadership challenge is imminent, though that could well change over the course of the week. Even if there are further ministerial resignations, the aim is more likely to be to constrain Theresa May rather than unseat her, thereby ensuring that a deal with the EU27 becomes all but impossible. I think she'll only face a challenge if she further compromises and we end up with BINO, but her strategy appears to be to delay and obscure this inevitability till the last possible moment.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

A Striking Problem

That the World Cup in Russia has turned out to be so entertaining is largely down to the poor quality of strikers. That might appear a dubious as much as a paradoxical claim when the goals that Edinson Cavani scored against Portugal and Kylian Mbappé's performance against Argentina are still fresh in the memory, but it is worth remembering that neither are conventional penalty area predators. Cavani's first involved an interchange with Suarez that saw the ball move laterally almost the width of the pitch before a late run into the box, while the second was a shot from the corner of the area of the sort you might expect from a winger cutting in. The penalty that Mbappé won (converted by Antoine Griezmann) and his second goal against Argentina were likewise about the power of his running from deep in his own half, though his first goal was a good example of sharpness in the area (he also got a tap-in against Peru). This style of play isn't a new development, essentially being a continuation of the wide striker model interpreted variously by Davor Suker, Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo down the years, and whose roots go back to Johann Cruyff. What is novel is the eclipse of the more traditional strikers who aim to receive the ball in the penalty area. And I don't just mean the long-extinct fox-in-the-box poacher, but also the more mobile support strikers who have dominated for the last two decades.

This accounts for the early departure of big names such as Germany, Spain and Argentina. Though criticism of Germany has focused on tales of division within the camp between older and younger players, their problem was simply a poor and unimaginative attack against teams that sat deep. Timo Werner looked out of his depth, Marco Reus flattered to deceive and Thomas Muller was a pale figure of the man who won the Golden Boot in 2010. Spain hogged the ball but were unable to create angles to goal for their now slightly less nippy midfield while their strikers looked increasingly out of sorts as the tournament progressed (Diego Costa) or simply not good enough at this level (Iago Aspas). For Argentina, Lionel Messi was fitfully brilliant but played too deep while Sergio Aguero's prowess is clearly on the wane. The 3-3 draw between Spain and Portugal was the highlight of the first round of matches, but it was also a game that highlighted this transition. Though Ronaldo's hat-trick caught the eye, what was more significant was that Costa's old-fashioned brace, muscling defenders to create space for a shot and then a tap-in from a downward header, was followed by the full-back Nacho's strike from the edge of the area.

As Pavard's similar goal for France against Argentina suggests, success in this tournament may come down to a combination of goal-scoring defenders and fast breaks out of defence (consider the similarity between France's fourth goal and Belgium's winner against Japan), which means more spectacular goals. In this context, Mbappé might be a better bet than Harry Kane for the Golden Boot. The latter is unlikely to get many more penalties against better defences, and while he is capable of scoring from the edge of the area, he doesn't have the pace for a breakaway from the half-way line where he increasingly drops to in order to find the ball. The France-Uruguay quarter-final looks too close to call. France have the better midfield and more variety up front, but Uruguay boast a great defence and while at 31 both Suarez and Cavani are probably past their best, they have enough ring-craft to go all the way in this tournament. Croatia should be too good for Russia, unless it goes to penalties, while Brazil versus Belgium looks like another match that could go either way and will probably be decided by an error. Perhaps Neymar will pirouette spectacularly to the floor on the halfway line, allowing Hazard to pick up the loose ball and run on to score.

Colombia are on a par with England in terms of FIFA ranking, but they didn't looked particularly convincing during the tournament and are clearly not as good as the 2014 vintage that lost narrowly to Brazil in the quarter-finals. That England only just managed to edge them out last night suggests that Southgate's squad may have reached its limit, though they have a great chance to progress further against an ordinary Swedish team. While Kane got his customary goal from a penalty conceded for wrestling, he wasn't otherwise much of a threat, but the real disappointment for England was the poor decision-making and passing by Sterling, Lingard and Dele around the opposition area. With Young and Trippier struggling to get decent crosses in, England looked pretty toothless, managing only two shots on target over two hours of play. They defended well, particularly Maguire, but they also look like a team capable of at least one unforced error per game. They struggled against an ordinary Tunisia, and Kane will surely be surprised to find himself afforded as much space in the box again, while the steamrollering of Panama, a side currently ranked 55th in the world, was hardly a new dawn. That England lost to Belgium in the group's dead rubber simply told us that the latter have a marginally better bench, a fact proven in their last-16 tie with Japan when Fellaini and Chadli came on to score.

Sweden's defeat of Switzerland in yesterday's other game was a dour affair, marked by ineffectual centre forwards (Berg and Dzemaili were very poor) and a lack of real danger from the flanks. Xherdan Shaqiri produced a cameo familiar to Stoke City fans, all muscular running into blind alleys and wicked crosses not aimed at anyone in particular, while Granit Xhaka was unable to do much against a defence that sat deep, confident in its ability to defend high balls. The surprise for Arsenal fans was not his long-range strike against Serbia during the group stage, something he is capable of but doesn't do enough, but that it took four games for him to pick up a yellow card. Hopefully next season he can rely on someone else, possibly Uruguay's Lucas Torreira, to shoulder the burden of chopping down fleet-footed players breaking from midfield. With Xhaka and Ospina out, the Gooner interest is reduced to Danny Welbeck, who could well prove a useful impact substitute because of his strong running though he is clearly behind Jamie Vardy in Southgate's estimation. His best bet of a further appearance if probably an injury to Kane.

As the World Cup heads towards its conclusion and the summer transfers start to dribble in, it is worth casting half an eye towards the new regime at the Emirates Stadium. It is difficult to draw too many conclusions about the likely formation and style of play that Unai Emery is planning, not least because the transfers to date were presumably planned by Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi before Arsene Wenger's departure. The addition of Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan to the attack in January, which we must consider the first fruits of the new regime, did not promptly turn around Arsenal's fortunes last season, though it did make a difference. Broken into thirds, we secured 22, 20 and 21 points. Given that 30 points a third is the target for a title challenge, the problem was that we lost 3 games too many in each third, mostly away from home. This wasn't down to poor chance conversion. At 74 goals scored, including a highly creditable 28 in the final third of the season, we achieved the joint third highest in the league and better than second placed Manchester United. The problem was poor defending. We conceded 51 goals overall, which was only marginally better than teams like Crystal Palace and Brighton & Hove Albion, and was actually worse than Newcastle United.

Over the last 3 season, our goals for and against figures have been: 65-36, 77-44 and 74-51, suggesting a steady decline at the back, not all of which can be put down to Cech's increasing tendency to make mistakes. To win the title, you need to score around 90 and concede around 30. Tightening up is clearly the priority and the incoming transfers confirmed to date, notably the experienced defenders Stephan Lichtsteiner and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, look like they're intended to do that. They're not long-term solutions but are presumably intended to provide a breathing-space for Emery to coach the younger players, such as Bellerin, Holding, Chambers and Mavropanos, into a more effective unit. There is obviously an implied criticism of Arsene Wenger, who famously first inherited the best defence in the league and then gradually replenished it by buying in proven talent that required minimal coaching, like Campbell and Lauren. His real interest was always in the attacking side of the game, despite having been a defender himself, while Emery's record suggests a more balanced approach built on a strong defence and fast transitions, which looks more in keeping with the current vogue for technical assurance at the back and flexibility further forward. "One-nil to the Arsenal" may prove a popular chant once again.

Further back, the acquisition of the 26 year-old German goal-keeper Bernd Leno suggests that Cech will now see out his contract to 2019, and may even be eyeing a one or two-year extension with a transition to a coaching role thereafter. David Ospina looks like he might finally depart for Turkey after the World Cup, which could open the door to another purchase between the sticks if neither Matt Macey nor Emi Martinez are deemed ready for regular bench-warming. At the other end of the pitch, there is a question about whether Emery can accommodate both Aubameyang and Lacazette if a defensive midfielder like Torreira is added to the mix. If he wants to field both Mkhitaryan and Ozil as well as Ramsay (assuming he stays) in a 4-2-3-1, then the two out-and-out strikers may find themselves competing for a single berth with plan B (chasing the game) being a 4-1-3-2. As the World Cup in Russia is proving, not only is the fox-in-the-box extinct, but even the specialist support strikers like Antoine Griezmann and Gabriel Jesus are struggling to get chances in an era of well-drilled defences, often using their movement as a decoy for attacking midfielders. The French decision not to take Lacazette to Russia may prove prophetic for Arsenal.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Hysterical Reasonableness

That the pro-EU Tory "rebels" have neither rebelled nor secured any meaningful concessions from the government should not come as a surprise. It has long been clear that they have neither the numbers nor the determination to substantially influence the negotiating strategy of Theresa May, but despite this they remain the darlings of the centrist commentariat. Some of this is just the habitual indulgence of "sensibles" such as Ken Clarke, a man whose decidedly mixed record as a minister under Thatcher and Major has always been occluded by his TV-friendly geniality, and some is the media's structural appetite for division and plots as the narrative frame of political reporting. What is more of the moment is the determination to avoid admitting that the only effective route to mitigating the impact of Brexit (or preparing the ground for reaccession) will be through a Labour government, which until further notice means investing hope in Jeremy Corbyn. Far from acknowledging this political reality, the various forces of "Continuity Remain" seem determined to pin the blame for Brexit on the Labour leader, hence the recent protests at the Labour Live event and yesterday's "Where's Jeremy Corbyn" chant at the People's Vote protest march.

The six Tories who did vote against the government last Wednesday on the "meaningful vote" amendment did so in the certain expectation that the government would prevail. The effective winning line in the Commons is 320 (there are 650 seats, but 3 are held by the Speaker and his two deputies and 7 by Sinn Fein, so there are only 640 votes in practice). The government won by 319 to 303. It would have needed 9 more Tories to rebel or 17 to abstain. This was never going to happen, yet the media coverage was breathless in anticipation during the early part of the week. With 317 Conservative and 10 DUP MPs, the government could be defeated on Brexit if 8 Tories rebelled, but when you add the 4 hardcore Labour leavers (Kate Hoey, Frank Field, John Mann and Graham Stringer) to the balance, then it would need 12, and that's assuming no abstentions. The ease with which Dominic Grieve was bought off, and the alacrity with which the Brexit ultras crowed that a "no deal" outcome remained in play, should make clear that these "moderates" would prefer the worst kind of Tory administration over any flavour of Labour government. Were we to end up facing a no-deal exit next year, I'm not convinced that enough Tories would rebel to bring down May even then.

The implicit suggestion of some of the anti-Brexit activist groups that have come to prominence, such as For Our Future's Sake and Our Future Our Choice, is that Labour cannot effectively oppose Brexit while Corbyn remains as leader, but replacing him wouldn't change the numbers in the House of Commons. You'd still have a hard core of Labour leavers and enough other MPs wanting to respect the referendum result to prevent cancellation of Article 50 (and that's assuming such a manoeuvre would be both legal and acceptable to the EU27). Were Keir Starmer to be promoted to the leadership there is no reason to believe that he would pursue a different strategy to the one he has crafted to date because it reflects political reality rather than the leader's personal preference. An unrepentant Blairite in the job, however improbable that might currently appear, would end up adopting the same policy as Corbyn. The limit of their ambition would be to reserve the power of the Commons to pass judgement on the negotiated deal, which is precisely what Labour was trying to achieve last week. Pushing now for another referendum, before the terms of the final deal are clear, is poor politics if the aim is to persuade Labour. Realistically, Corbyn and Starmer can only oppose Brexit and insist on a second vote if we end up in no-deal territory.

The ulterior objective of the mostly centrist groups now dominating the pro-EU cause is presumably to associate Corbyn with Brexit in the hope that chaos arising in 2019 and after will either justify a leadership challenge before the next scheduled general election in 2022 or boost the electoral fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. This is naïve. Not only is it likely that the damage of Brexit will be slow rather than sudden, but the all-too-obvious aim of the government's handling of the transition period and "backstop" is to maximise the Conservative Party's chances in four years time. The best hope of the anti-Corbyn forces within Labour is that he leads the party to defeat in 2022 and that a more "moderate" candidate can win the inevitable leadership contest thereafter. As the left will be able to justifiably point to the relentless undermining of Corbyn since 2015, both within and without the party, the chances of the membership falling for a Blair Mk II are slight. If they had any sense, centrists would back off Corbyn now to avoid the charge of disloyalty, but just as Tory centrists would never facilitate a right-wing Labour government, so Labour centrists will never tolerate a left-wing leadership.

The antipathy of these pro-EU groups towards Corbyn is not simply centrist opportunism, and nor should we imagine that fear of the Labour left is now a key driver behind remain - it isn't. What's going on is primarily an act of displacement. The most notable feature of the remain campaign over the past two years has been the failure to develop a better case for continued membership of the European Union beyond "I told you so" as another multinational business threatens withdrawal. This void has been filled with irrationalism and conspiracy. Many remainers have been adamant that voters were lied to or not in full possession of the facts in 2016. This is true, but it is neither a novelty nor a reason to declare the vote illegitimate. A re-run now would probably produce a similarly close result precisely because a more persuasive argument for remain has not been forthcoming since the referendum. While few people reckon the government is doing a good job of handling the Brexit process, the general sense seems to be that judgement should be reserved until the outcome is clear, which won't be any earlier than October this year and might be considerably later depending on the terms of the transition. It is at that point that popular opinion on the need for another referendum might change, though that in turn presumes a clear choice. Given that the negotiations to date have been characterised by fudge and ambivalence on the UK's part, that isn't a given.

The rhetorical emphasis of the pro-EU groups on "our future" is not just an attempt to mobilise the young. It points to a reluctance to discuss the past and in particular the failure of the EU to become truly hegemonic in British society. Blaming the media for this isn't an explanation, not least because the same media were overwhelmingly pro-Europe in 1975. Clearly something changed during the Thatcher years to encourage a Euroscepticism that we might otherwise have expected to wither away, and given the actual demographics of the leave vote, rather than the media interpretation, I suspect this change is predominantly located among the comfortable classes of the South East and the Midlands, not the "left behind" working class of the North. The psychic damage of the Maastricht Treaty, coming only a decade after the supposed arrest of British decline in the Falklands War, seems to have been more significant than the material damage of deindustrialisation. Despite its own hegemony, built on the back of victory in the South Atlantic, Thatcherism was clearly an unstable project because of the tension between its small capital values and the material interests of big capital. Europe was always going to be the fault-line, with its intersection of market liberalism and pooled sovereignty.

Remainers who question the legitimacy of the 2016 vote, and whether it may have been unduly influenced by dodgy money or Facebook propaganda, are crying over spilt milk. Short of evidence of industrial-scale ballot-stuffing or massive voter suppression, the result will stand. Pointing the finger at Russian interference is not merely irrelevant (there was probably meddling, but it was almost certainly inconsequential), it is patronising towards those leave voters who need to be won over (or at least convinced to abstain were another referendum to be held) and it encourages remain voters to continue to vilify the opposition rather than seek to convert them. Muttering about xenophobia is also unhelpful as it addresses the symptom rather than the cause. The pro-EU voices that dominate centrist discourse too often exhibit a contempt for ordinary voters, hence their blithe rejection of a democratic decision in the name of some form of superior democracy (what was the 2016 referendum if not a "people's vote"?). It often seems that they consider "democracy without a demos" to be an ideal rather a deficiency.

That public opinion on the wisdom of Brexit has remained fairly consistent over the two years since the referendum suggests a lack of engagement between the two sides and an entrenchment of views. My anecdotal evidence is that while leavers are still obdurate, they are increasingly pessimistic about the outcome, while remainers are increasingly prone to hyperbole and a belief in dark forces, despite their claims to be rational and committed to evidence. In continuing with a strategy of confrontation and deprecation, they seem to be ignoring that leavers are increasingly primed for persuasion. You'd think after two years that they would not only have come up with a better case for the EU but that they would have cut out the patronising contempt, but Guardian commentators are still insisting that remainers "are so endlessly reasonable, [but are] up against people who are beyond reasoning with". Just as the remainers failure to develop a more persuasive vision has weirdly echoed the drift and incompetence of the government's negotiations with the EU27, so their demonisation of Corbyn as an objective Brexiteer has been strangely reminiscent of Stalinist jibes that Trotsky was an objective Fascist. Hysterical reasonableness is no less silly than rebels who never rebel.

Monday, 11 June 2018

A Very English Conundrum

Apart from nostalgia for a time when the Liberal Party was relevant, which is probably a hankering for the blissful dawn of 2010 rather than 1974, A Very English Scandal, the dramatisation of the downfall of Jeremy Thorpe, has prompted little in the way of political reflection. As a story of tragi-comic entitlement (Norman Scott's lament over his National Insurance card was as emblematic as Thorpe's expectation of the connivance of others), the politics of the era was always going to be marginalised, and that's before you take into account a rich cast of characters that included an inept assassin, a biased judge and a dissolute barrister. With a routinely thuggish police officer and a bustling lady publican called Edna Friendship thrown into the mix, this felt like a Joe Orton farce. As a dramatic form, farce deals with universal moral failings in ridiculous settings, rather than historical specifics, which is why good farces don't lose their relevance. Accidental Death of an Anarchist isn't about Milan in 1969 but a tale of police corruption, which is timeless. Likewise, A Very English Scandal dealt with establishment immorality and complacency, which is for the ages. However, there is some value in thinking about the political context of the Thorpe affair, both to understand the role it played in the lead-up to the pivotal election of 1979 and to assess the current state of the "centre ground" in British politics.

Though he became a Liberal, Jeremy Thorpe was of Tory stock and is best thought of as a maverick who was sincerely postcolonial at a time when the Conservative Party wasn't. He was also heavily influenced by Lloyd George - a family friend - in his political opportunism and reliance on rhetoric. Any similarities in terms of sexual promiscuity are presumably coincidental. In modern terms, Thorpe was a Notting Hill Tory avant la lettre. This highlights one important dynamic: that despite its distinct history and persistent nonconformist culture, the postwar Liberal Party has often featured socially liberal, patrician Tories as leaders, from Jo Grimond to Nick Clegg. I don't apply that term mockingly: rather I note that the Liberals lost their social role with the growth of the Labour Party but were still able to operate as a ginger group that took issue with Conservative Party orthodoxy while agreeing on the fundamentals of property and capitalism. Thus Jo Grimond was able to advocate Scottish independence and nuclear disarmament in the 1950s and 60s without being branded a traitor, while the role of the Orange Book in preparing the coalition of 2010-15 was to encourage the Tories to be even more market-friendly.

Jeremy Thorpe was cautious in his social liberalism. As A Very English Scandal makes clear, he was not interested in advocating the decriminalisation of homosexuality, though I think this reflected a political calculation rather than fear of personal exposure. Being against the death penalty, as he was, wasn't necessarily popular, but it was seen as principled: it didn't alienate those that it didn't attract, which wasn't the case with gay rights in the 60s. His strong suit was his internationalism, notably his stands against Rhodesian UDI and South African apartheid, but this masked a lack of interest in economic policy beyond a distaste for socialism typical of his class and background, which meant an antipathy towards trade unions and an ambivalence towards the welfare state. His opposition to the activism of the Young Liberals in the late-60s was driven more by their demands for a policy of industrial democracy than their disruption of rugby matches involving the Springboks. Ironically, their diversion of this democratic activism into the community politics of the early-70s did much to secure the by-election victories that would propel Thorpe to the peak of political influence in 1974.

While the Liberals were always going to be identified with the political centre by default, Thorpe pursued a strategy of accentuating the party's centrist positioning in order to maximise the votes of disillusioned Labour and Conservative supporters. Rather than a distinct Liberal identity, such as that advocated by the Young Liberals or, in a different register, by the Orange Bookers of the early-00s, the party made "none of the above" the centrepiece of its platform, which meant that it wasn't always clear what it really stood for. Even in the arena of foreign policy, which was inconsequential for the vast majority of voters, Thorpe's leadership was marked by radical rhetoric and cautious policy (for example, while he excoriated British colonialism, he stymied the Young Liberals' opposition to NATO and support for Palestine). His chief legislative contribution was his support in the Commons for Ted Heath in the passage of the European Communities Act in 1972, though it's worth remembering that this was overwhelmingly backed by the establishment (and most of the media at the time) and the inexorable logic of what would become "ever closer union" was understood by relatively few. He wasn't taking a great political risk.

Thorpe's strategy highlights another important dynamic: that centrism is fundamentally opportunistic rather than principled. Again, this is not a slur but an observation of political practice. Centrism needs two clearly defined poles of opposition in order to define itself as a viable alternative. Historically, the electoral success of the Liberal Party under Thorpe (at least in votes if not in seats) owed everything to the secular economic crises of the early and mid-1970s and their political ramifications, in particular the shift of Labour towards greater industrial intervention and the shift of the Conservatives to a more liberal economic policy. Both of these tendencies were partial and multivalent. Labour was divided between traditional advocates of state control and bureaucracy on the one hand and post-68 advocates of workers' control and direct democracy on the other. The Tories were increasingly divided between statist modernisers who placed their faith in Europe and economic liberals who in turn made common cause with small capital reactionaries in their suspicion of the state. The drift of each away from a pragmatic approach towards a more ideological position opened up a space for the Liberal Party, however this depended on the electorate remaining ambivalent about both the main parties, which in turn depended on those parties remaining in flux.

The problem for the Liberals was that this space largely depended on the "don't knows" and in particular Tory voters suspicious of emergent neoliberalism. In other words, this was an electoral bloc that was essentially conservative, rather than socially liberal, and one that found Thorpe's patrician manner and policy caution reassuring. As the political climate became more partisan, and as these conservative voters became more antipathetic towards Labour after the IMF "crisis" and the "winter of discontent", the Liberal Party was increasingly occluded by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party as it exited the state of flux quicker than Labour. While A Very English Scandal suggests that the party's decline in the latter part of the decade, culminating in Thorpe's loss of his seat in 1979, was partly due to the fallout of his acquittal, it was in fact due to a decisive shift in the electorate's attitude towards economic management. Labour actually won slightly more votes in 1979 than it did in October 1974, but the Tories romped to victory by adding 3 million at the ballot box: roughly 1 million from the Liberals and 2 million from increased turnout. While some of that Liberal-to-Tory swing might have been influenced by the Thorpe affair, it is hard to believe that previous non-voters, whether abstainers or the young, were that bothered by it.

This highlights a third dynamic: when the electorate switches in large net numbers between the big two, centrist parties (or regional parties, for that matter) tend to suffer, as would be seen again in 1997. They can also suffer if the centre ground itself becomes contested. Though the Liberal Democrats lost two-thirds of their vote in 2015, after their uninspiring period in coalition, this wasn't because of a major shift between the two main parties but because they lost their pre-eminent role as the "none of the above" vote repository to UKIP. Thinking of UKIP as a centrist party might seem perverse, but that is essentially how many ex-Labour voters who switched to the Kippers rationalised their decision. Even ex-Tory voters who gravitated to UKIP saw themselves as essentially centrist (which for them is synonymous with conservative) in contrast to the socially liberal bloc represented by David Cameron and George Osborne. It's an unpalatable thought for centrists, but the political legatee of Jeremy Thorpe, with his trilby, covert coat and generally raffish air, is (or was) Nigel Farage. But the wipe-out of UKIP in 2017 did not herald a revival in Lib Dem fortunes as the home of the protest vote. Instead we saw a reversion to an electoral duopoly.

Considering the three dynamics outlined above - the tendency of the centre to attract progressive Tory politicians, its tactical opportunism, and the need for a balance of power between the two main parties - the times might appear to be auspicious for a centrist revival. The likes of Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve attract more media coverage than Vince Cable, Brexit provides the mother of all opportunities for a distinctive position, and the 2017 result and subsequent opinion polls suggests that neither Labour nor the Conservatives are about to secure a decisive majority of the electorate. But, there is a big problem here, and we can see it if we remember that the Liberals' fortunes steadily declined after their electoral highpoint in February 1974 as the effects of the mid-70s recession bit. A centrist party that seeks to supplant one of the big two can do reasonably well in terms of votes, certainly sufficient to effect the outcome of a general election, as was the case in 1983 when the Tories lost vote share but increased their seats due to the impact of the SDP-Liberal Alliance on the Labour vote, but a party that seeks to come through the middle and take votes equally from both Labour and the Conservatives requires a relatively benign economic environment and for political debate to accommodate matters aspirational or international.

You might then wonder how the Liberal Democrats managed to do so well in 2010, when they captured 23% of the vote in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. The answer is that their success owed much to the Brown administration's stabilisation of the economy in 2009, which led many voters to think that the impact on their personal circumstances might be slight, and their commitment to aspirational policies such as tax cuts, green jobs and (ironically) educational investment, which contrasted well with the Tories' prioritisation of austerity. There was also the banked goodwill arising from their opposition to the Iraq War, which was still a live issue with the setting-up of the Chilcot Inquiry in 2009. If austerity did for the Lib Dems in both 2015 and 2017, it is likely that the weak state of the economy will do likewise come the next general election. Were there to be an earlier election, the most likely trigger would be the government's defeat over its Brexit policy, however the election itself is unlikely to be fought on that topic and is far more likely to centre on economic and social policy, specifically on Labour's plans for investment and repair. In that scenario, a clear difference between Labour and the Conservatives is likely to empty the centre, just as it did in 2017.