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Friday, 14 September 2018

Exhausted Metaphors

Seeing Owen Patterson on the platform as the European Research Group launched its report on the Northern Ireland border recalled to mind one of the more striking metaphors of recent years. Asked in 2013 about a badger cull that he had been responsible for as Secretary of State for the Environment, he explained that the cull had failed to meet its targets because "the badgers have moved the goalposts". This was a metaphor both mad and strangely beautiful in its originality. Metaphors have been much in the news of late, with Chuka Umunna criticised for using "call off the dogs" in relation to Labour Party members seeking to hold MPs to account, and Boris Johnson criticised for referring to Muslim women as "letterboxes" and calling Theresa May's commitment to the Northern Ireland backstop a "suicide vest". Umunna's canine comparison probably wasn't as deliberately insulting as some imagine, but it also lacked any hint of irony or self-awareness given the hounding of Jeremy Corbyn. Reducing people to inanimate objects is literally dehumanising, but Johnson's crack about veiled women was at least an attempt at humour, however ill-judged, while he has a point about the potentially fatal nature of the backstop: it must compromise either Brexit or the constitutional integrity of the UK. My own view is that the latter is mostly myth anyway, but that is not a view shared by the DUP and they hold the key to the next act of the Brexit drama.


The optimum moment for the Brexit ultras to challenge Theresa May and force a no-deal "clean break" came and went in the first quarter of this year, once it was clear that she was edging towards maximum alignment as the only strategy that could satisfy the terms of the provisional agreement made with the EU last December. While the recent Chequers statement remains a dog's dinner that is unacceptable to the EU27 in its current form, it was a public statement that maximum alignment is now the only game in town. The resignations of David Davis, Steve Baker and Boris Johnson proved to be less the trigger for an insurgency and more the concession of temporary defeat. This doesn't mean that May is now secure as Prime Minister. There is a chance that she will be defeated in the Commons on the "meaningful vote" on the withdrawal terms, which could lead to a vote of no confidence and an early general election, and even if she survives that first vote there is a strong chance that the Conservative Party will push for a "true-beleaver" thereafter to manage the negotiation of the future trading relationship during the transition period. She remains terminally damaged by the 2017 general election and few expect her to lead the party into another.

That the ultras passed up the opportunity to challenge May earlier this year proved that they, like the Tory remainer "rebels", are all bark and no bite. This means that the fate of Brexit and the government will be decided by the coming Commons vote on the withdrawal terms, assuming May manages to steer the ship into port. The encouraging words from Michel Barnier suggest this is almost certain to happen, though what floats in on the tide may not look particularly seaworthy. Much of the "deal" will remain deliberately opaque, particularly with regard to the future trading relationship and the role of the ECJ, but the substantial issues will be clear enough, simply because the EU27 will insist on clarity around its red lines, notably Ireland. This will probably mean a de facto and indeterminate continuation of the customs union and some elements of the single market in order to avoid a hard border. It will be sold by May as "Canada plus" - the UK's position as a rule-taker and ancillary to the EU dressed up as a free trade agreement between equal powers - but it will be interpreted as Brexit in name only by many on both sides of the argument.

The ultras will probably split (they already appear to be at loggerheads over attempts to firm up their counter-proposals). The "pragmatists", probably led by Gove within the government, will insist that the deal is a glass-half-full and that the potential for future divergence has been secured. They will attract enough ultras to reduce a Tory rebellion to a hardcore, which may be as few as single figures if the threat of a general election defeat remains likely. The chance of remainers such as Soubry and Grieve finding reason to oppose the government is negligible. For all the talk of the epoch-defining nature of the vote, self-preservation will be uppermost in many minds. The DUP is the most volatile element in the government's Commons majority, and the one bloc of votes that could trigger a general election through a no confidence motion, but they will find it difficult to publicly oppose a deal that avoids a hard border. That said, they have a long tradition of finding obscure reasons to thwart Number 10 and their game-plan all along has been to encourage a breakdown in negotiations so that a hard border could be blamed on the EU. Their absence from this week's ERG press conference simply indicates that they are holding their cards close to their collective chest.


Labour will oppose the deal, both because it's likely to be a hot mess and in order to topple the government, but some on the right of the party may be unable to resist the temptation to put "country before party" and so support May, arguing that half a loaf (and the distant prospect of reaccession) is better than none. That Labour will probably be offering a larger portion of the same loaf will be dismissed by reference to the bird in the hand being worth two in the bush, and thus an implicit claim that Labour under Corbyn cannot win a general election. This will no doubt convince the centrist commentariat but will go down like a bucket of cold sick among the vast majority of Labour Party members, including those on the right. For this reason there will probably only be a handful of rebels, including those whose days in the party are already numbered, such as Umunna, and eccentrics like Kate Hoey (who will probably follow the DUP line) and Frank Field (who may have been formally expelled by then anyway). There isn't going to be a British En Marche but nor is there going to be a new National Labour.

It is impossible to predict the number of rebels, but my guess is that they will be small on either side. If Labour commits to a more formal relationship, such as membership of the customs union or the EEA, perhaps with the proviso of a second referendum to ratify a revised deal, then this could reduce the numbers even further. The prospect of a defeat for the government would then depend on whether any Tory remainers would vote against the whip. History suggests that only Ken Clarke would have the guts to do so, in which case the vote will largely follow party lines and, assuming she keeps the DUP onside, May will have achieved her immediate goal. However, this won't tighten her grip on the premiership. Instead she will be more vulnerable to a leadership challenge as the new priority for leavers will be to ensure there is one of their own in Number 10 ahead of the final negotiations on trade. Boris Johnson's rhetorical focus on trade deals has been transparent all along, though I think he has pissed-off too many Conservative MPs to be sure of making the final shortlist for a vote of the membership.

Assuming they don't bottle out, the handful of Labour "rebels" around Umunna will lose the whip. I doubt they'll join the Conservative Party, though there will be plenty of encouragement from media centrists talking up the need for a government of "national unity" (or even "all the talents", God help us) as we face the transition. More likely is that they will form a groupuscule in Parliament that will seek an electoral accommodation with the LibDems (the first time as tragedy etc). Hoey, like Field, would probably sit as an independent. None will survive the next general election. I also doubt there will be any Tory MPs defecting to UKIP, not just because of that party's move to the far-right under Gerald Batten, but because of their desire to stay within the Conservative fold and exert maximum pressure for divergence. Given the deal's ambiguity, there will be scope for a hardening of the terms between March 2019 and December 2020. With Johnson and Davis busted flushes, Michael Gove will seek to place himself at the head of the ultras, though there will be resistance to this given his track-record. There will also be friendly articles in The Times and Daily Mail suggesting that Gove's treachery towards Johnson in 2016 has proven to be justified by subsequent events.


The choice of metaphors tells us something about the speaker. Johnson's are colourful, excessive and casually brutal. The Northern Ireland backstop is less a suicide vest than an admission that the Good Friday Agreement moved the constitutional goalposts (something that the anti-agreement Gove has never been shy about admitting). The defence of Umunna by his supporters, that "call off the dogs" is a figure of speech devoid of any animus, is an inadvertent admission that he lacks imagination and originality. Of course, it would be the same even if he deliberately set out to insult ordinary party members. His recourse to shrill hyperbole - calling the Labour Party "institutionally racist", for example - suggests a man who is less than careful in his choice of language, though this won't stop the Orwell-botherers in the press rooting for him. One dimension of the gradual shift in public sentiment over the last couple of years has been the exasperation with tired and empty language, from "Brexit means Brexit" to "strong and stable". Though the public harbours doubts about both Corbyn and McDonnell, one thing they seem to like is their plain-speaking. After a quarter century of the messianism and PR-speak of Blair and Cameron, perhaps there is nostalgia for the "dull and uninspiring" rhetoric of the Major and Smith years.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Prosperity and Justice for All

The significance of the IPPR report, Prosperity and Justice: A Plan for the New Economy, is that it would not have been produced as recently as five year ago. Then, Ed Miliband was denounced as a Bolshevik for the modest proposal of a cap on energy prices. That the Conservative government has now implemented such a cap is merely routine opportunism. That a think-tank closely identified with New Labour has developed a plan for the economy that centres on social justice - i.e. equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity - suggests a more fundamental change in attitude. This is reflected in the language. For example, the word "worker" appears six times more frequently than "entrepreneur" in the report. However, "socialism" is nowhere to be found and "capitalism" only appears in the notes in reference to other publications. This remains at heart a centrist view of the world, but that in turn shows the extent to which the Overton Window has shifted in the realm of political economy. Some commentators have associated that shift with the impact of Brexit, or with Labour's strong showing in last year's general election, but a better analysis is that they were symptoms of a country becoming both more radical and more pro-social since 2010. In retrospect, Ed Miliband's failure in 2015 looks to have been the result of his timidity.

The positive response by John McDonnell, who compared it to the Beveridge Report, might suggest that the IPPR's thinking provides a strong indication of the contents of Labour's next manifesto, and that the latter will therefore be cautious but presented as radical and transformative. On the other hand, McDonnell may be reminding us (with no little irony) that the 1945 Labour government went much further than the Liberal Beveridge did in his proposals, particularly in its plans for the NHS. One piece of evidence to support the latter view is that McDonnell's first major policy statement since the report's publication has been to advocate "ownership funds" whereby a portion of a company's profits would be used to buy non-tradeable shares on behalf of the employees that would provide collective voting rights and potential dividends. This is significantly more radical than the IPPR's suggestion of tax incentives for employee ownership trusts (EOTs) and co-operatives. What McDonnell appears to be suggesting is closer to the Meidner Plan than John Lewis.

The immediate response of the right to the IPPR report focused on the proposals for the greater taxation of wealth (removing the lower rates for CGT and dividends, replacing inheritance tax with a lifetime gifts tax etc), rather than on the proposals for increased worker power or greater state intervention in industry. While wealth and its associated hierarchies have always been the right's priority, they have historically cloaked this in concerns over the competence of the state and the need to encourage private enterprise. Sociologically, this suggests that the right is now dominated more by rentier interests than the entrepreneurs of the Thatcherite imagination, which would certainly accord with the evidence that the Tory Party's electoral support is now even more dominated by the over-60s. The response of the left has been broadly positive, albeit with some caveats about excessive caution, however I can't help thinking that this is because the report is essentially comforting rather than challenging, and even a bit nostalgic. The importance accorded to exports and R&D is strongly reminiscent of David Edgerton's The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, while some of the suggestions in relation to state-led investment and technocratic support for improving productivity carry the flavour of the Wilson years.

The welfare system and education are both "out of scope", which seems odd in a report addressing social justice, but this means that the report can delicately avoid ideas that might challenge the fundamental tenets of social democracy, such as a universal basic income (UBI). Insofar as education does get a look in, there is still an emphasis on the panacea of "improved skills", despite the fact that the two decades since Labour won the 1997 general election on the mantra "education, education, education" have not produced a notable improvement in labour calibre as measured in GDP or productivity. While poor management is cited as a factor in the latter, the connection between the UK's management culture and private education does not come in for scrutiny. All that said, the report's recognition of the importance of power in the economic sphere is welcome, though its unashamedly industrial focus ("we need to shift from trade deficits to what we call 'new industrialisation' across the UK") means that it tends to ignore the importance of power in areas such as the professions and the self-employed.


In terms of those parts of society and the economy that are addressed, the report is still within the paradigm of New Labour. For example, its proposals around housing are still biased towards purchase rather than rent. Saying that "one-third of all new housing should be social housing for rent; one-third genuinely affordable (in perpetuity) for sale; and one-third for sale at market prices" seems radical in the current context, but this will not reverse the historic shift of rentals from the public to the private sector while it isn't explained how you make a third of new builds "genuinely affordable (in perpetuity)" in an open market. A radical policy would be an immediate moratorium on right-to-buy and for 90% of all new builds over the next five years to be council houses for rent. Together with controls on private rents, improved tenancy rights and punitive taxes on empty properties, this might stand a chance of making a small dent in the housing problem over the course of a parliament. In reality, a fix will take a generation, if only because of the headwinds of an ageing population and declining household density. The challenge is at least a big as that of post-war slum-clearance and needs to be addressed as systematically.

Poor productivity is correctly analysed as largely a problem of too many small businesses and too many poor managers, rather than a feckless or unskilled labour force, but the solution is essentially cosmetic in its focus on the coaching of firms. While poor productivity isn't a general problem (there are many high productivity firms in the UK), it is still structural. The key issue is that there are weak incentives for SMEs to consolidate and invest. Raising the minimum wage and empowering unions will both help, but a more radical approach would be to raise the cost of starting a business (or make it expensive to maintain a failing one) in order to dissuade poor performers. In other words, if you can't deliver an above-average rate of productivity from the off, you shouldn't be forming a new firm. That might seem "anti-entrepreneurial", but it should be clear by now that the UK's indulgence of the "entrepreneurial spirit" over the last thirty years has actually been counter-productive, leading to a low-productivity, low-wage economy. Instead of Schumpeter's brave entrepreneur and creative destruction we've had lazy lifestyle businesses and cannibalisation.

The concerns over monopoly are fashionably centred on technology platforms like Google and Amazon, but this tends to downplay that competition between large businesses has declined across many traditional sectors for reasons that have nothing to do with new technology. One reason has been financial engineering, leading to anti-competitive mergers and acquisitions. There is also the problem that natural monopolies that have been privatised, like rail and energy, simply don't produce real competition. Paradoxically, nationalisation would actually reduce the degree of monopoly in the private sector. The IPPR's solutions for restraining the tech giants range from a new quango, the Office for Digital Platforms (OfDigi, no less), to network neutrality and protecting open standards (another example of the essential nostalgia of this report, harking back as it does to the 1990s and an earlier conception of the "new economy"). One that caught my eye was "requiring companies and public institutions to keep audit logs of the data they feed into their algorithms and be prepared to explain their algorithms to the public on request". A statement on what the algorithm is meant to do will not expose unconscious bias or errors of omission in scope. A better proposal would be to require companies to provide a public interface for their algorithms that anyone could feed their own test data to.

Overall the IPPR report is a positive development, though less for the specific proposals than for the rehabilitation of the twin ideas that the state can both positively influence the economy and effect social justice. It is an argument for an activist government, but that in itself does not mean the IPPR is breaking with neoliberal orthodoxy so much as rejecting the extremes of post-Thatcherite laissez faire, which means an evolution from the thinking of the New Labour days rather than a revolution. I suspect the report's chief value for the contemporary Labour Party is in the normalisation of the idea that the state can intervene in the economy. The danger is that it encourages the strain of social democratic nostalgia that has been visible since 2008, leading to a policy framework centred on what David Edgerton characterised as "productionism". The positive sign is that John McDonnell in particular appears to be up for more radical ideas, notably in relation to ownership and social protection. I doubt the IPPR report will have as lasting an influence as Beveridge, but it is a sign of which way the political wind is now blowing.

Friday, 17 August 2018

The Future Nation State

This is a follow-up post to my earlier review of David Edgerton's The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History, looking at the contemporary political situation in light of the postwar "national economy".

Edgerton's focus on the social democratic era and the 1945 government's pivotal role in shifting towards a national economy will obviously be of interest to the modern Labour Party. If the current division between the left and right has meaning beyond factional antipathy, it is over the degree to which the party should become more national in its thinking on both the economy and welfare: a move towards more planning and more social investment and away from the free movement of capital and an austerity justified by the demands of the global bond market. That the right of the party have steered well clear of this topic, preferring to focus on the unifying emotionalism of their defiance of Jeremy Corbyn, suggests a desire to avoid addressing the fundamental differences that exist between the sovereigntist "old right" (Blue Labour, various Northern MPs) and the Blairite globalists. That defiance has now extended to the suggestion that Corbyn's internationalism is problematic for Labour, essentially because it distracts from the party's domestic programme.

This strikes me as wrong and ahistorical, being an example of the media's obsession with propriety and the political caste's assumption that foreign policy is of little interest to "civilian" voters. In fact, internationalism has always been a strong feature of the Labour Party, even during the height of the national economy years. For example, in 1960, Hugh Gaitskell, the then Labour Leader and very much on the right of the party ideologically, addressed the inaugural rally in Trafalgar Square of the South Africa Boycott Movement, which would shortly afterwards be renamed the Anti-Apartheid Movement. To put this in perspective, Corbyn is a patron and former chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign but has given only qualified backing to the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel that the PSC supports. Another example is the way that Harold Wilson - a man whose image as a national technocrat who preferred to holiday in the Scilly Isles suggested a pronounced insularity - was acutely sensitive (if not always sympathetic) to the party membership's internationalism in his handling of South Africa, Rhodesia and Vietnam.

The commitment to international solidarity began to decline during the 1970s as the British state turned away from the national economy towards greater integration in the global economy, leading it to adopt a more pragmatic (or unprincipled) attitude towards foreign relations. For example, though the wider labour movement was strongly supportive of the Chile Solidarity Campaign following the 1973 coup, the Labour government of 1974-79 was gesturally sympathetic but reluctant to impose sanctions for fear of damaging trade, and only withdrew the British ambassador after the torture of Dr Sheila Cassidy, a UK citizen, in 1976. This history is significant on two counts: first, as an example of the growing friction between the left and the right of the party that would reach a crescendo in the early-80s; and second, because it provided a precedent for Thatcher's foreign policy towards South Africa, notably her opposition to sanctions. That antagonism within Labour was not simply a left-right issue, though it aligned that way at the time, but a fundamental disagreement over sovereignty. The left saw sanctions as a tool of government policy, while the right (like the Conservatives) saw government interference in the operation of the market as illegitimate both at home and abroad. For the left, internationalism was the logical corollary of a national economy. For the right, internationalism was made redundant by globalisation.


Labour's internationalism bifurcated in the 1980s between traditional concerns over human rights and the UK state's complicity in their abuse and the new cosmopolitanism of the EU. The locus of the former shifted to the unions and local government (where it was held up by the Tories as evidence of "loony leftism"), while the latter became the focus for the PLP and the party apparatus, leading some to imagine that taking a holiday in Umbria was a form of solidarity. This highlights a key point that is ignored in current debates: that the internationalism of the Labour leadership tends to positively correlate with the strength of the "national economy". That Tony Blair's rejection of the party's concerns over Iraq came at the peak of neoliberalism is no more a coincidence than Gaitskell's support for the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Jeremy Corbyn's "obsessions" are both more reflective of the wider party membership and the broad labour movement than his critics allow, and there is nothing inherently antagonistic between them and domestic policy. In fact, there is an argument to be made that Labour will only feel comfortable pursuing a more nationalistic economic programme if it can integrate it into a more internationalist worldview, much as the civic nationalism of the likes of the SNP requires a strong rejection of xenophobia and an emphasis on sovereignty in terms of self-determination rather than exclusion.

While the stars appear to be aligning for Labour, imagining that it will form the next government is a lot easier than imagining a national economic programme on a par with the Attlee years or even the Wilson administration. Labour cannot go backwards, not least because the limit of its ambition, given the weight of legislation required to undo decades of neoliberalism, would be to wind the clock back to somewhere around the late-80s (which the media, with no trace of irony, would present as a return to the 70s). In reality, Labour must develop a new conception of the national economy that addresses contemporary concerns about wages and housing in a very different environment to that of the postwar era. For all the popular festishisation of manufacturing, productionism isn't going to make a come-back, so John McDonnell and his advisers need to come up with a strategy for the low-pay, insecure services sector that isn't a race to the bottom while promoting higher-value services in a globalised market. While housing supply is short of demand, price is a bigger problem than capacity and mass-housebuilding is a long-term strategy rather than a short-term fix. A Labour government would do better to focus on property taxes and rent controls as ways to free-up underutilised capacity and restrain housing cost inflation.

The problem for the Conservative Party is that while the delusion of a return to an Edwardian-style economy based on deferential trade networks is limited to the Brexit ultras, the bulk of its MPs would be reluctant to embrace economic nationalism beyond the purely cosmetic, hence the failure of George Osborne's "march of the makers" to turn up and the damp squib of Theresa May's industrial strategy. They are essentially free-trading liberals, albeit of a more pragmatic bent than the Britannia Unhinged crowd. However, many (and perhaps a majority) of its party members and voters would be happy to commit to an approach that was more nationalist and protectionist (in the sense of pro-social protection as much as pro-tariffs), but with top notes of xenophobia. Though this might suggest that there are voters that Labour could peel off, a more likely scenario is that the next Conservative Party leadership contest will feature a strong nationalist (and chauvinist) candidate. Boris Johnson burbling about burkas and channelling Churchill is still the likely choice of party members if he can make it to the final vote. The advantage of this for Labour is that it shifts political debate to favourable ground: how the state can be used to fashion the economy in the interests of the people.

A reprise of the national economy years isn't on the cards, but a shift back towards emblematic nationalisation is, for example in the case of the railways. However, the more significant impact of the past will be in the revival of the idea that a nationalised service should serve the nation as a whole, rather than just privileged groups like metropolitan commuters, so we can expect to see more interest in a cross-Pennine route than HS2 and more investment in areas like South Wales. A return to the public provision of buses, and the transfer of social care to an integrated NHS, is likely to transform the role and esteem of local government. Though Brexit might appear to open up the twin vistas of Singapore and Salazar, i.e. laissez-faire free-trade or an autarkic nationalism, the reality is likely to be more continuity than change, at least as far as the economy and daily life is concerned. The more fundamental shift will be in the reconceptualization of government as an actor within the economy, which arguably has been underway since 2008. In many ways, the defining feature of conventional politics is the refusal to acknowledge that the role of the state has changed.

The tragedy of Greece was not just about protecting French and German banks but refusing to accept that a nation state could exert any meaningful control over its own economy outside of restraining public expenditure. That centrists appear terrified of a Labour Party promoting mild social democracy is merely a continuation of this. Edgerton's books reminds us that not only is a different approach possible, but that it was one that was pursued by both the Labour and Conservative parties, albeit with substantive policy differences. It was also successful and popular, even beyond the point at which competitor economies such as Germany and Japan recovered and declinism infected the political imagination. Perhaps the biggest difference between the postwar years and the post-Brexit future will be the end of the warfare state, particularly if a Labour government has the courage to cancel the Trident programme and forswear any delusions of being a global player in areas such as the Middle East. A policy of economic nationalism articulated in traditional Labour Party terms - i.e. socially liberal and with a side-order of international solidarity - is likely to prove popular, not just on the grounds of nostalgia but as a rational response to Brexit. Ironically, this will also owe something to a common perception of reduced circumstances, showing that the myth of decline remains a powerful factor.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

State of the Nation

I saw Gregory's Girl at the weekend for the first time this century and was struck by a couple of elements that time has not been kind to. The first was the godawful jazz-funk soundtrack. Given that the film was released in 1981, Bill Forsyth missed a great opportunity to showcase the sound of young Scotland, to coin a phrase, and appears to have been unaware of Clare Grogan's moonlighting as a pop-singer. As a thirty-something at the time, Forsyth's musical tastes were presumably of an earlier vintage, which may explain why the posters in Gregory's bedroom are an improbable mixture of Rush (apparently a John Gordon Sinclair favourite) and The Specials. Though Grogan brings a post-punk style to the date scenes, the costumes are dominated by flares and V-necks, and a disco-era white jacket even appears as a plot device. In other words, this is very much a film of the mid-70s rather than the early 80s, though I reckon the levels of irony that make the film still worth watching (notably the inversions of gender and age) might have benefited from a soundtrack featuring the likes of Orange Juice and Josef K.

The second thing that caught my eye was the quality of the environment in what was then still a fairly new "new town". Shot in Cumbernauld, it exhibits many of the urban design features that would later become associated with new town blues, such as the soulless town centre and the best-avoided underpasses, but which at the time still retained some of their utopian promise. One harbinger of the future is a scene where Gregory takes a "desire line" and cuts across a highway, almost being knocked over by a learner-driver taking lessons from his father. What is striking now is not just the healthy kids playing in "streets" free of cars, or mothers hover-mowing their front lawns instead of scrubbing their front doorsteps, both images that recall an earlier cinema, but the evidence of significant investment in a social housing scheme built to improve the lives of working and lower-middle class families. But this investment wasn't just limited to homes. Equally visible is the money spent on the comprehensive school that provides the central location of the story, from the swish ovens of the home economics class to the all-weather football pitch.


While the music suggests that Forsyth's brief creative flowering was already coming to a close, the later success of Local Hero notwithstanding (a homage to Ealing comedies that featured an equally backward-looking soundtrack by Mark Knopfler), the sights of Cumbernauld tell a broader story whose roots go back to the Edwardian era and whose denouement would be the moral bankruptcy of New Labour. This is also the story of David Edgerton's new book, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History. Central to Edgerton's analysis are three themes that, while not novel individually, are shown to be intimately connected. The first is the idea that for most of the century Britain could be better described as a warfare state than a welfare state. This is self-evidently true for the years of the two world wars, but Edgerton shows that it was also true of the interwar years and remained true for most of the social democratic era too. Britain had long preferred to invest in expensive machines rather than men, from the Royal Navy's dreadnoughts through the Spitfire to the "British bomb", but that became a political rather than a strategic imperative from the late-50s. It is only since the 90s that we have started to cut our cloth to suit our needs, though this has been compromised by a defence policy that has deserted national defence for riding shotgun with the USA.

The second theme is the conscious creation of a British national identity during the Attlee years, an identity bound up with the concept of a developmental state and a focus on industrial production (ideas common in the historiography of other countries but unusual in treatments of the UK). Edgerton's key point is that the postwar Labour government invested far more money and political capital in trying to reorient the British economy towards exports (partly in order to pay back dollar debts arising from the war) than in developing the welfare state. For all the real gains of the NHS and other initiatives, postwar welfare was largely a reworking of prewar arrangements rather than a radical departure, and the real value of pensions and benefits would remain modest until the 1970s. In contrast, the commitment to "productionism" was front and centre, leading to the fetishisation of the balance of payments and in time providing a political open goal for the right as global changes in economic geography led to an inexorable shift in employment away from manufacturing to services, allowing state investment in industry to be dismissed as a failure and a new organising principle - personal "freedom" - to be advanced as a cure for all ills.


The third theme is how the trajectory of twentieth century British history - which moved from the internationalism and open borders of the Edwardian era via the protectionism of the 30s and the relative isolation of the 40s to the opening up of the economy to world trade and capital from the 70s onwards - was wrongly interpreted as a tale of decline. This "Declinism" was not simply a narrative advanced by a right that insisted on the debilitating effects of welfare dependence and cultural self-indulgence, but was also advanced by the left as a critique variously of the persistence of aristocratic habits in politics, of anti-science generalists dominating public administration and industry, and of British capitalism's disloyal preference for foreign over domestic investment. As Edgerton makes clear, the trajectory is actually one of revival and convergence rather than decline: of Britain simultaneously reverting to a free trade model while becoming more like its European neighbours (the central dynamic of the Thatcher and Major years), and of key economic sectors like manufacturing continuing to grow in absolute terms but at a slower rate relative to developing nations. In other words, maturity rather than senility.

The great value of Edgerton's synthesis is the fresh perspective it offers on key periods and pivotal events. For example, Lloyd George's "people's budget", lauded by liberals as the start of the welfare state, was as much about battleships as pensions. The Royal Docks closed not because of containerisation (which separately grew because of imported manufactures) but because Britain became largely self-sufficient in staples such as wheat and sugar. For much of the century Britain was a major energy exporter: in coal up to 1939 and in oil and gas from 1980 (the period in between was marked by heavy investment in both coal and nuclear in order to limit imports). One thing that comes across is how lucky Thatcher was, not just in the specifics of the Falklands War and the miners' strike, but because she reaped the benefits of a country becoming close to self-sufficient in both energy and food as a consequence of large-scale state investment over previous decades. In Edgerton's telling, New Labour was not merely a continuation of Conservative policy in all but name (the higher investment in health and education may have looked "un-Thatcherite", but it was consistent with earlier Tory administrations), but its technocracy looks shallow compared to earlier Labour governments while its gestures towards a national identity look even more craven and opportunistic in retrospect than they did at the time.


In truth, Edgerton is guilty of fighting battles that have been long since won - against the myth of Declinism, against the sentimentality of "the people's war", against CP Snow's "two cultures" - but his ability to knit these together and thereby show the inter-relationship of the actual history - the power of the developmental state, the Conservative commitment to technology, the centrality of scientists in public life - helps illuminate the material basis of Britain's twentieth century history. If I have a general criticism of the book it is literary. The publisher, Allen Lane, does not appear to have employed a sub-editor, to judge by the many typos, while Edgerton's often convoluted writing style (which I am currently satirising with, among other things, an excessive use of sub-clauses) often requires unpicking, suggesting than an actual editor may not have been involved in the production either (to be fair, the notes are extensive and the section on further reading is an exemplary essay on the historiography). Ironically, his words often flow most easily when his scorn is most apparent. These are the final few sentences, discussing the symbolism of Margaret Thatcher's funeral, which falls outside the period of the book but serves the purpose of linking the true consensus of "Blatcherism" back to the era of what Edgerton considers the faux-consensus of Butskellism:

There were no cranes left to be dipped in respect by dockers in the unprecedented honour the London proletariat gave Churchill in 1965. In the old and distressed pit villages of England, of Scotland and of Wales, forgotten former miners celebrated bitterly. Tony Blair, meanwhile, was making money working for some of the vilest torturers and dictators on earth. Only satirists, not historians, could do justice to this turn of events.

A critic seeing only this passage might suggest Edgerton had stepped over the line from history to satire (or "thrown in the towel" in despair), but after 519 pages of trenchant analysis built on a mass of detailed facts, I think he is entitled to let rip (David Goodhart predictably disagrees). That the first thoughts of so many people in 2013 turned to the coalfields of 1984, just as my thoughts on seeing Gregory's Girl turned to the new towns of the 70s, is not simply a reflection of age but a common tendency to think of the country's history in terms of a "national project" that was marked not by imperialism or chauvinism but by production and development. While much of this is now just memory, certain popular ideas that came to prominence in the late-40s and 50s live on in political discourse, such as the emblematic roles of manufacturing and infrastructure. I suspect the popular sensitivity to the state of the NHS and our tendency to treat it as an aged relative is a subconscious personification of this "British nation". You can even see the legacy in the "productionist" slant taken towards education over the last twenty five years, while Edgerton himself makes the point that governments have never managed to shed their rhetorical obsession with R&D, even if it is often merely a diversion from more substantive economic intervention.

This focus on material ideas, rather than intellectual fashions, seems bracing, however it leads Edgerton to marginalise Keynesianism, dismiss neoliberalism as a cliché and (more forgivably) cast a sceptical eye on Marxism Today's turn away from the CPGB's nationalist position towards the "New Times" of the 1980s. The whiff of British empiricism is never far away, suggesting this is not perhaps as iconoclastic a review of the century as perhaps Edgerton imagines. Indeed, the careful reader may spot a determination to ignore continental (though not American) influences in the cultural sphere. The commercial success of the popular music industry in the 60s and 70s is lauded but cinema is subject to its own declinist myth, from the peak of the 1940s via the Doctor and Carry On series of the 60s down to the "Hammer horror flicks and dismal TV knock-offs" of the 1970s. The seminal influence of German electronic music in the 70s and 80s is ignored along with the impact of the French New Wave on the likes of Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson. These aren't flaws in Edgerton's argument but evidence that synthetic histories invariably reveal authorial blindspots.


One of the more insightful reviewers of the book, David Kynaston, says "what he never quite confronts is whether modernity - an unblinking, unsentimental welcome for the new - ever really 'took' across British society as a whole". Leaving aside whether any society, ever, has embraced change in quite this wholehearted and uniform way, the context of the question is the absence of any reference to Brexit or even the 2008 financial crash. Did the turn to an "austerity" that ill-advisedly evoked the 1940s help produce the leave victory? I suspect Edgerton was wise to avoid the recent past (the book substantively ends with the Iraq War, which showed that "the British state machine had lost the capacity for rational and critical examination of policy"), essentially because it is too soon to make historical sense of what happened between 2008 and 2016, but I think Kynaston is right that this means insufficient attention is paid to cultural shifts. Where I disagree with him is in his own answer to the question: "My own work on the postwar period strongly suggests that it did not, perhaps above all in relation to the urban environment, and that the British temper remained in some obstinate, implacable way deeply resistant to change". Much of that obstinacy was a rational dislike of tower blocks built on the cheap and new towns abandoned to their own devices before completion, not a hankering after old slums.

I think the truth is more mixed: we mostly welcomed change, from pasta and Spanish holidays to foreign footballers, but we still wanted to preserve the idea of a British particularism over and above the merely chauvinistic. Central to this was a self-image of a tolerant and cooperative people, reluctant to take politics too seriously and with a pragmatic view of the state. A bit like Passport to Pimlico, in other words. It was a myth, but one that was necessary for the collective performance of the British nation that Edgerton's book celebrates. As the individualism of the 60s eroded the cooperative spirit, and as the multiple intersections of the 70s revealed the intolerance within society, the myth gradually lost its hold, encouraging not only Declinism but a more profound cultural pessimism that was only superficially arrested by the Falklands War. The myth lived on into the 80s, but only as nostalgia. The cosy world of Gregory's Girl, like the sentimentalisation of the Miners' Strike, was a lament for the loss of the British nation as much as a last hurrah for the developmental state of utopian new towns and comprehensive schools where boys baked cakes and girls played football.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

On Trump, Israel and Rhetoric

One thing that the recent spat between Donald Trump and the Iranian government made clear is that the US President's rhetorical style is closer to that of a Middle Eastern politician than one versed in American or European discourse. The hyperbole, the bombast, the self-congratulation and boasting are par for the course in a region that has not only produced dictators with a taste for the florid, like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, but democratic demagogues such as Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump's style is also closer to the international norm, at least outside the West, which perhaps helps explain his greater comfort in the company of Rodrigo Duterte and Kim Jong-un. It may also help explain his evident discomfort and uncertainty when dealing with Vladimir Putin, a politician who is all deal and no rhetorical art (Trump's schtick is not the deal but the blag). American critics who cite Trump's verbal brutality as evidence that the US polity is going to the dogs ignore that it's simply reverting to the global mean. Just as the McCarthy era was actually typical of American history, rather than an aberration, so Trump's rhetoric is as much a revival as a decline.

The charge of incivility against Trump, like the similar charge against the "dirtbag left" in the US and the "Corbynistas" in the UK, should remind us that verbal restraint is essentially an anglophone mode, albeit one that has heavily influenced continental European politics since the Second World War (De Gaulle was the conscious exception to this tendency and his legacy is visible in the verbal pretensions of Macron). The purpose is not merely to perform centrist decorum but more prosaically to provide a background contrast for the telling line or soundbite. This mode emerges with the popular press in the late nineteenth century and is then amplified by the arrival of radio in the early twentieth century. The need for compression in these media, at least in those countries where they were driven by commercial goals, meant that the monster speeches of the nineteenth century given by the likes of Lincoln and Gladstone gradually fell out of favour. While the old cadences lived on in the words of Roosevelt and Churchill, what mattered now was the memorable phrase or pithy witticism rather than a crescendo of moral outrage built up over hours.

Where the monster speech lived on was in dictatorships, often as a test of the loyalty of the immediate listeners as much as the stamina of the speaker. By the 1930s, this meant that civility was inversely-correlated with speech-length (it was wiped from collective memory by the "finest hour", which demanded short and punchy radio broadcasts, but Churchill was mistrusted in the pre-war years for his prolix style). By the 1950s, this economy reached its peak when a BBC interviewer asked Clement Attlee if he had anything else he wanted to tell the listeners, to which the Labour leader curtly replied "No". While anglophone politicians soon dropped this reticence under the impact that advertising and public relations were having on popular culture, they preserved the style of restraint, even when it produced the strangulated politesse of someone like Margaret Thatcher (or the mangled diction of Theresa May). Its finest practitioner may turn out to have been the urbane Barack Obama, who said little beyond the pious but at least kept it short. The key to understanding Trump's use of Twitter is that it allows him the luxury of uninterrupted speech in the manner of Fidel Castro. The soundbites (usually immediately forgettable) are incidental.


The parallel between Trump's rhetorical style and the norms of political discourse in the Middle East perhaps doesn't stick out as much as it should because those norms have been influencing American and European practice for some time, certainly from well before Trump appeared on the scene. The main source of that influence has been Israeli politics, specifically since the growth of the nationalist right in the 1980s and the left's abandonment of socialism for integration into the neoliberal order. Domestically, this saw an increase in viciousness and insult, in acrimonious division and bluster, but internationally it brought a more assertive and unapologetic style (Mark Regev, the current Israel ambassador to the UK is a notable example). Where arguments in support of Israel had previously centred on self-determination and democracy, principles that could obviously be applied to the Palestinian Arabs as well, they increasingly focused on the right of national defence and the civilisational benefits of free market capitalism, which enabled a broad consensus that was less vulnerable to criticism by the West. Central to this shift was nationalism. The dual claim made was that the Jewish people are a nation and Israel is their land, and that there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation and therefore no fixed land.

The word Zionism has changed its meaning over time. While it has always been a national project, its primary goal up until the 1940s was the establishment of a Jewish homeland, which meant that it was historically situated in the "national liberation" strand of nationalism and therefore viewed positively in leftist and liberal circles. Since 1948, and even more so after 1967, Zionism came to be associated with expansionary and exclusionary nationalism because of the occupation of the West Bank and the settler movement. Internationally, this has led to disillusion on the left and a positive embrace by the right. That the latter has become pro-Israel does not mean that its supporters are less antisemitic in their domestic context, merely that exclusionary nationalism contingently trumps Jew-hatred. For many on the nationalist right, Israel is admirable precisely because it has been aggressively nationalist for decades. The paradox is that though they conflate the two in their criticism of the left, the political right are perfectly capable of distinguishing between anti-Zionism and antisemitism because they have no problem being simultaneously Zionist (i.e. pro-Israel, as they define it) and antisemitic.

The problem for the left is that they have continued to use the word "Zionism", imagining that the world in general (and Jews in particular) will recognise that it has come to mean "bad" nationalism rather than self-determination. But as "bad" nationalism is "good" in the eyes of the right (including the Jewish right), this is a vain hope. The left would do better to simply retire the word and talk about Israeli policy within the framework of expansionary and exclusionary nationalism. The rhetorical parallel with Apartheid, particularly after the passing of the recent "national law" in the Knesset, is provocative but more pertinent than continuing to cite Theodor Herzl. While Israel hasn't passed any actively discriminatory laws yet, i.e. ones denying civil rights to groups based on ethnicity (as opposed to laws granting privileges to favoured groups such as ultra-Orthodox Jews), it has now established the principle of different treatment, something that has not been welcomed by the Jewish diaspora.

The Israeli government's encouragement of diaspora Jews to make Aliyah (to immigrate to Israel), notably the high-profile intervention of ministers after the Toulouse shooting in France in 2012 and the Porte de Vincennes shooting in the same country in 2015, has an obvious demographic motivation, but it also reinforces the idea that integration by Jews in countries other than Israel is impossible (the original ideological division between the Zionists and the Bundists before the Second World War), which in turn encourages the belief that a pluralist approach cannot work within Israel itself - i.e. the explicit belief that it can only be a Jewish state and the implicit belief that all non-Jews must therefore be considered second-class citizens. This is damaging enough within Israel, but it also makes diaspora Jews more vulnerable by suggesting that treating them as a distinct group in terms of rights is consistent with the general nationalist turn. A proposal in Austria to oblige Jews to register to buy kosher meat is not encouraging.


The tendency of the political right and centre to conflate criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism risks debasing the latter's meaning to the point that people shrug when the term is deployed against them. But this isn't because of the reaction of the left. While some on the left downplay bigotry in their ranks by focusing on the presumed motives of those making the false equivalence, they aren't obviously dismissing the reality of antisemitism or its illegitimacy, even if they quibble about its frequency. Most on the left recognise that there is both a problem that needs to be addressed and that it is being exploited for partisan ends, specifically within the Labour Party, but the latter doesn't obviate the former. The bigger issue is actually the reaction of the political right, which can now dismiss the charge of antisemitism by pointing to its support for Israeli nationalism. That Benjamin Netanyahu can find common ground with Viktor Orban, a politician who has employed antisemitic tropes in domestic politics, shows how Jewish nationalism has increasingly come to be at odds with the interests of the Jewish diaspora (it is worth noting that the majority of Jews, 55%, do not live in Israel).

Netanyahu's attempt in 2015 to pin the blame for the Nazi programme of extermination on the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was not just a trivialisation of the Holocaust. It was also part of the long-standing policy of framing the operation of contemporary Israeli nationalism in existential terms: if we don't pursue a national programme, we will be wiped from the face of the earth; the Nazis may be gone, but the threat remains from the Arabs and the Iranians. While this threat is not without foundation in rhetoric ("driven into the sea" etc), it remains hyperbole in practice. The state of Israel is no more likely to disappear than Switzerland is. The problem with this language is not its deployment in a Middle East where hyperbole is the norm, but its seeping into political discourse within the diaspora, such as the recent combined editorial by three leading Jewish newspapers in the UK accusing Jeremy Corbyn of personally presenting an "existential threat" to Jewish life. In reality, the greatest threat to the diaspora is a revival of exclusionary nationalism in countries like the UK, not the re-nationalisation of the railways. Jews who ostentatiously resign from Labour aren't boosting the electoral prospects of the LibDems or Greens but Tories prepared to countenance a no-deal Brexit that will stimulate xenophobic bigotry.

The debate (if it can be called that) over Labour's adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism has also seen the deployment of another rhetorical strategy honed in Israeli politics. Moving the goalposts - demanding further concessions or redefining the terms of an issue - has long been central to the Israeli state's dealings with the Palestinians. That a similar approach is now being adopted by the Labour right - e.g. MPs who previously supported the Home Affairs select committee's caveats over the IHRA definition now insisting that it be adopted unconditionally - is not the result of covert direction or conspiracy, but it has clearly been influenced by the rhetorical climate that has developed in Israel over the last 25 years and which has in turn affected the Jewish diaspora. What this means in Israel is that any further advance of the interests of the Palestinians is now unthinkable because it would be seen as a diminution of Israel as a national project: there is no space left for compromise. The idea that Israel's primary interest is peace died with Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. What this means abroad is that the diaspora cannot count on Israel to oppose the growth of a right-wing nationalism that it is itself a key exponent of. What it can count on is the denigration of the left as inherently antisemitic, which has the effect of alienating the natural supporters of the diaspora's rights.