Friday, 8 February 2019

The Bitter Harvest of Centrism

Since the eighteenth century, both progressive and reactionary thinkers have imagined that history proceeds through epochal change. Periodisation clearly pre-dates the Enlightenment - consider the "ages" of Hesiod - but the antique view tended to imagine a limited series of eras culminating in a stable present with no expectation for future development. Up until 1789, revolution meant restoration. After the fall of the Bastille, revolution came to mean "A new age of …", providing a formulation that could be applied to social and technological change as much as political. As the dynamism of industrial modernity increasingly impinged on social life, it became routine for politics to be discussed in terms of epochal predictions - the coming age of something or other - but this was a form adopted as eagerly by reactionaries as progressives. Indeed, stylistically they often borrowed each others' clothes. Just as progressives could articulate their expectations in the language of romantic nostalgia, such as William Morris's News From Nowhere, so reactionaries could base their predictions on the rigour of empiricism, from the "Malthusian trap" to Victorian "race science".

In contemporary politics, demography has come to occupy a central role in the production of predictions. Some of this is non-controversial extrapolation of evident trends, such as changes in household composition or home-ownership, and much of it serves a progressive (if shrill neoliberal) purpose, such as the "things can only get better" riffs of Steven Pinker, but demography has also become the favoured tool of reactionaries for whom the changing makeup of society is essentially pathological, whether in the form of le grand remplacement or the persistence of an incorrigible underclass. It is in this context that we should view the recent vogue for linking demography with political party formation, from Ford and Goodwin onwards. For example, the political scientist Jonathan Wheatley suggests "that the economic conflict between capital and labour that defined political competition in the 20th century is giving way to a new sort of conflict based on culture and identity". This isn't a particularly novel claim: you can find variations on it from Anthony Crosland in the 1960s to Eric Hobsbawm in the 1980s. What has changed in recent years is the extent to which demographic analysis has been used to bolster theory.

That analysis has tended to focus on the working class, and in particular the "white" or "native" working class in Western countries. Though culture and identity are central to middle class aspiration and performance, the demography of comfortable suburbanites and metropolitan professionals has received much less attention. This is partly a hegemonic assumption that the middle class is the natural core of society, but it also reflects (unintentionally) the Marxist idea that the working class is the agent of history and its chief struggle is to achieve consciousness of itself as a class. That so much recent demographic analysis of the working class has emphasised values over material interests is no accident. Not only does it allow the economic dimension to be downplayed, tropes such as "the culture war" allow the very concept of class to be marginalised in favour of ideological frames such as open vs closed. We're now at the point where this supposedly empirical base is being used to predict a new political epoch. As Wheatley puts it, "There is therefore a very real possibility that the shift from left-right politics to open-closed politics may lead to a complete restructuring of the party system and the end of traditional party allegiances. The political map of 2020 may look very different from that of 1970" (I wonder if he's put any money on that).

The bi-axial model of politics (economics vs values, or left-right vs authoritarian-libertarian) has enjoyed a particular salience in recent years because of the assumption that an economic reaction to globalisation has amplified a cultural expression of populist nativism (the resentful "left behind" thesis). In some quarters the analysis has been reduced further to a belief that political initiatives like Brexit are primarily driven by objectionable cultural attitudes and cannot be excused on the grounds of economic distress or political disempowerment: "It is not that Leave voters feel less disenfranchised in a generic sense from political processes now the result has been achieved, it is that they feel more empowered to hold and vocalize what were previously unacceptable views on specific areas by a result which appeared to legitimate and embolden those who held them in doing so. ... To the extent it is about anger at existing political norms, it is precisely because these are insufficiently authoritarian and excessively socially liberal."

The result is that the traditional call for a centrist political formation in the UK is now presented less as a middle way between the free market and the state, a proposition whose credibility was undermined by 2008 and the subsequent enabling of austerity, and more as a partisan commitment to an "open" politics in response to the twin commitments of left and right to a "closed" worldview. Though this sounds like the dichotomy of cosmopolitanism and parochialism, in which both poles reflect lived experience, it is presented in terms of a superficial reaction to liberal shibboleths, with the "closed" worldview being entirely negative. As Philip Collins puts it, "Party affiliation now matters less than cultural outlook and a better way to understand politics is to ask a person’s view on multiculturalism, immigration, globalisation, feminism and gay marriage. The split occurs between those who welcome change and those who are suspicious of it. … The birth of the Labour Party was a response to a change in the composition of the electorate. We do not have that now but we do have a change in the nature of the electorate and this might allow Labour to split."

Those last two sentences are telling. We have reached a stage where objective change in the composition of the electorate is unnecessary to explain epochal shifts; an apparent subjective change in its "nature" is now sufficient. This metaphysics is built on two dubious premises: that parties have become divorced from cultures (in the sense of sets of values) and that cultures are consistent (if you're in favour of gay marriage, you must be in favour of multiculturalism etc). No evidence is provided for either, and it's easy to find evidence against. Parties have always reflected a broad range of values, precisely because their glue was a common material interest. Ideology might predispose you towards certain values, but it wasn't a given. That's why some rich people have always been happy to vote Labour and why some gays were prepared to vote Conservative in the 80s (the tax-cuts more than offset Section 28). Similarly, Collins's choice of examples is designed to avoid any jarring notes, such as the uneasy relationship of transgender rights and feminism, and kept at a sufficiently coarse level to avoid nuance (few people are either wholly for or wholly against immigration or globalisation).

Paradoxically, the idea that politics is undergoing a major realignment that will cause the established parties to be rent asunder coexists with the belief that those parties are actively realigning towards the new social reality. The Tories are held to have thrown in their lot with the anti-immigrant right while the current Labour Party leadership is increasingly cast as isolationist and indulgent of nativism (among its more trenchant critics, it is characterised as authoritarian, racist and antisemitic, suggesting that it's really going for broke on the values dimension). Any sign of pragmatism, such as the long-time eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn voting remain in 2016 and urging a Brexit in name only thereafter, is taken as evidence of hypocrisy. That both parties have been accused of moving towards the "closed" pole, despite their profound differences on the economic axis, is obviously intended to create a welcoming space close to the "open" pole for a new centrist formation (that centrists, particularly in the Labour Party, spent much of the period between 2000 and 2015 flirting with "closed values" has been quickly forgotten).

In order to present the centre as the champion of social liberalism and "openness", it must deny any similar affinity between the left (its chief opponent) and progressive values, hence the return of cold war rhetoric. In this context, the true value of Venezuela for centrists is not merely the hoary old idea that socialism inevitably leads to mismanagement and economic ruin, but that the isolationism that proceeds from a "closed" mentality does the same. That the country has been actively isolated by others is occluded in media reports of the regime's "defiance" and paranoia, tropes that have long been deployed in respect of North Korea, Iran and others. Where neoliberalism once advocated the "opening up" of countries to enable modern development and rising living standards for the poor, i.e. as a means to an end, it now promotes a cultural case in which "openness" is an end in itself and a social good of greater value than economic justice.

The danger is that centrist ambition, which is ultimately still about reconciling the free market and the state, is actually amplifying nativism and reactionary cultural attitudes because it cannot revive the pre-2008 arguments in favour of neoliberalism. In place of the rationalism of the 90s, centrists are promoting faith. In place of evidence-based policy-making, they advocate a catechism of bien pensant values. Iraq obviously destroyed those earlier pretensions, and 2008 gave the lie to the claim that technocracy delivered stability. Now, centrism is driven to an almost hysterical insistence on its virtue because it lacks an empirical case for its proposed social and economic dispensation. Neoliberalism has boosted inequality, fractured communities, and accelerated the despoliation of the planet. The result is that centrists are all too easily attracted to pushing the idea that half the country is made up of vicious, small-minded fools, even if the precise composition of that half seems to be constantly changing. The "closed" mindset is not some deep-seated prejudice that will determine the political landscape for decades. It is simply the projection of centrist guilt.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Europe's Bourgeois Democracy

The American academic Alex Gourevitch has come in for some justified criticism on this side of the pond for penning a "Lexit" analysis of the current political gridlock in the UK entitled "Leave the EU Already". Apart from the annoying tone, his article is shallow in its understanding of both the EU and British politics. It presents Brexit as a matter of popular sovereignty and the cack-handed process overseen by the Conservative government as a strategy of elite delay pending a reversal of the referendum decision. This is doubly wrong. The UK does not recognise popular sovereignty, even if it does accept the obligation to honour the 2016 referendum result, and the legislature is actually united on the need to leave the EU, hence the vote to trigger Article 50 in 2017, it just cannot agree on the terms of doing so or the basis of the future relationship. However, I'm less interested in Gourevitch's misunderstanding of British politics than his insistence that "The European Union is one of the chief enemies of democratic politics", which is a claim regularly made by British Lexiteers as well.

The EU isn't an enemy of democracy, but it does believe in a limited and managed form of it in which certain interests are dominant. Of course, all democracies are managed, so this isn't really saying much. The fundamental question is, which interests are dominant? In the managed democracy of Russia, for example, the interests of the state elite are paramount. This reflects the way that the old nomenklatura gave way to the new oligarchs and class-based politics was stillborn in the 90s. As Russia's experience indicates, the variation in democratic practice - i.e. the way in which politics is conducted rather than its institutional form - cannot be understood outside the context of a country's history. To take another example, the current crisis in Venezuela is part of a wider, long-running South American debate over whether democracy should serve the middle class or the working class exclusively, which has given rise to the trope of pink and populist "tides" and the notion of winner-takes-all regime change.

The EU is a bourgeois democracy. I use that adjective not only to emphasise its continuity with political forms that developed in the nineteenth century, but to note that its practice is as much about tone and behaviour as material interest. But that practice can mislead critics into imagining that the EU is contemptuous of the electorate. Gourevitch says "National politicians created the EU institutions in a bid to avoid the rough-and-tumble of democratic representation, turning Europe’s nation-states into member-states". In fact, the EU as a project is an attempt to construct a pan-European middle-class demos committed to sound money and private property. It is an example of democratic construction, albeit a highly qualified one, rather than an attempt to avoid democracy. As such, it is the ironic inheritor of nineteenth century nation-building. Rather than being contemptuous of the people en masse, the EU is discriminatory on the basis of class. A little noted effect of the EU's hegemony has been the way that this discriminatory attitude (which, let us not forget, was pioneered in Europe by Margaret Thatcher) has fed back into domestic politics, notably in the all-too-evident class contempt of Emmanuel Macron.

The rise of populist and illiberal conservative parties within the EU is often framed in terms of Euroscepticism or a reaction to globalisation, but in practice there is little enthusiasm on the political right for quitting the EU, no matter how much they may use it as a scapegoat. The reason for this is that Europe's middle classes appreciate the EU. This can be valorised as "a quest for the quiet life", but what it actually boils down to is simple material interest. The EU preserves post-war middle-class social and economic gains and protects countries that would be individually weaker against the buffeting of global finance. You can launch a right-wing party on the back of Euroscepticism, but to win power you need to guarantee the value of middle class wealth, which means staying in the EU and (for the core) the eurozone. Viktor Orban may rail against George Soros, but he welcomes foreign capital into Hungary. Greece may have voted "No" to the bailout in 2015, but it folded as soon as the threat of expulsion from the eurozone was raised. It would be wrong to assume that the rise of nationalism necessarily weakens the EU. In practice, it does more to inhibit the development of pan-European working class solidarity, thereby preserving the middle-class demos.

So why is the UK different, or at least sufficiently different to vote leave in 2016 and appear sanguine at the prospect of a chaotic no-deal outcome in March? Given that the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 was swung by middle-class voters frightened at the loss of sterling, perhaps it would be more accurate to ask what is so different about the middle classes of England and Wales (though middle-class Scots who voted for the union and Brexit, first accepting and then rejecting "project fear", would be an interesting case study). Do enough of them imagine that there will be no pain, or are they simply calculating that it will, as in the 1980s, disproportionately hit Mansfield and Tredegar rather than Solihull and Orpington? We should ask them, but the media seem more interested in talking to working class codgers who think that rationing would be good for the nation's moral fibre (at a time of inadequate pay packets and proliferating food-banks, the idea that this is representative of working class opinion is dubious, to say the least).

The focus on working-class reactionaries distracts attention from the comfortable, Tory-voting middle-classes that actually delivered victory for leave. When Labour MPs like John Mann talk about reflecting the views of their constituents, the media interpret this to mean Brexit-supporting Labour voters. In 2017, 43% of the Bassetlaw electorate voted Tory. That's where the bulk of Brexit support is to be found in Mann's constituency. The tensions that gave rise to Brexit were middle-class. On the one hand you had the common desire for a bourgeois Europe as a bulwark against radical socialism (this was an important factor in the British establishment's overwhelming support for the EEC in the 1970s), while on the other you had the lingering belief that the UK remained a global power with an independent destiny. It may be that the receding threat of socialism from the mid-80s caused the latter to become more dominant. Perhaps if Jeremy Corbyn had been elected Labour leader five years earlier, and scored as well in 2015 as he did in 2017, the referendum might have been narrowly won by remain.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Identity is the Crisis, Can't You See

One of the less successful (though no less entertaining) chapters of Fintan O'Toole's Heroic Failure sees him attempt to connect Jacob Rees-Mogg's use of the word "vassalage", via the aristocratic self-indulgence of the Hundred Years War, to the MP's father, William Rees-Mogg, and the latter's book, The Sovereign Individual. Though he is right to point out that "for them the exit from the EU is really a prelude to the exit from the nation state into a world where the rich are truly free because they are truly stateless", and he is also correct that the ties that bind the rich to each other trump national loyalty, he is wrong to dismiss this as hypocritical self-interest masked by an antiquarian conceit. Imagining them imagining themselves as the modern equivalent of the Knights Templar or the Order of Malta unnecessarily diverts attention from obvious class interest to the trope of elite conspiracy. Similarly, I think that those who this week charged James Dyson with hypocrisy for both supporting Brexit and moving his company headquarters to Singapore are mistaken.

Central to capitalist ideology is the separation of the public sphere of politics from the private sphere of business. Just as charity is ostentatiously performed as an annex to business but has little apparent influence on its ethics, so politics can be treated as a private matter of conscience that has no bearing on commercial decisions (and vice versa, hence Boris Johnson's "fuck business"). Liberal outrage when partisan politics is all too obvious in the boardroom, such as JCB handsomely rewarding David Davis, merely reinforces this idea of separate realms. But that ideology in turn means you cannot be a hypocrite if you sacrifice your political beliefs to commercial logic, as Dyson is accused of doing. In reality, James Dyson and Jacob Rees-Mogg see no conflict between "global Britain" (in practice the free movement of capital) and national chauvinism, not because they rigorously separate their political and economic selves, but because they identify the nation's interests with their own. This stance conflicts with the worldview of many leavers, particularly those who hope for a more protectionist national economy, but there has been no attempt by the Brexit elite to hide this difference of opinion (that the media have been rubbish at interrogating it is another matter).

What their insouciance points to is the dominance of an identity that has been a long time in the making. Fundamentally, the Tory-Whig division of the 18th and 19th centuries was between the relative priorities of domestic and foreign wealth in the management of the state: between land and trade. This was decisively settled in favour of the latter in 1846 with the repeal of the Corn Laws. The cause of empire allowed the two to be temporarily reconciled, essentially by projecting the idea of the homeland and its associated virtue of loyalty to the colonies. With the coming of universal suffrage in the 20th century and the shift of the cause of the national economy from the political right to the left, empire as a field of elite action also became an escape from democracy and its attendant obligations, most obviously the funding of a welfare state through taxation. With the end of empire, that field of action moved to international finance capital, with the result that Tory reactionaries like the Rees-Moggs happily adopted libertarian theory. It is no coincidence that so many contemporary Tories admire Singapore, despite it being an unattractive model from the perspective of working-class leavers.

I raise this to point out that the contemporary identities of "leaver" and "remainer" are not homogeneous. Just as leavers are divided over capital mobility and communal obligation, so remainers are divided over the direction of EU reform (more social democratic versus more neoliberal). That might seem obvious, but there is a growing belief that Brexit is forcing a fundamental realignment of political loyalties (that this belief co-exists with an insistence that Tory Party members are overwhelmingly in favour of no-deal and Labour members in favour of remain doesn't seem to trouble those advancing the idea). The latest example of this comes from The UK in a Changing Europe, an avowedly "non-partisan and impartial reference point" funded by the ESRC and based at King's College London: "The UK is increasingly polarized by Brexit identities and they seem to have become stronger than party identities, a new academic report finds. Only one in 16 people did not have a Brexit identity, while more than one in five said they had no party identity."

I would interpret the latter as a sign of sophistication on the part of those polled. We have long been exposed to the idea of the floating voter, and it is inevitable that parties in a first-past-the-post electoral system are coalitions of shifting interests whose complexion changes from election to election. In the circumstances, I'd be surprised if more than 80% said they had a fixed party identity (I'm actually surprised it's that high). In contrast, if you put people on the spot over a binary issue then you'd expect them to come down on one side or the other, even if they have only a weak preference. This in itself doesn't constitute an identity, any more than an opinion on Marmite does. The insistence that Brexit is dividing the country into two camps serves an obvious centrist interest, but it also allows the fragile coalitions formed around the referendum to avoid self-interrogation. The People's Vote campaign in particular has been a classic exercise in displacement. Instead of building a case for the EU beyond the negatives of departure, there has been a focus on process and legitimacy.

As I noted in the previous post, Fintan O'Toole believes that punk is central to understanding the character of Brexit: "If you are English and in your fifties or early sixties, two things are likely to be true of you. One is that in 2016 you voted to leave the European Union: 60 per cent of both men and women in the UK aged between fifty and sixty-four did so. The other is that you were, in the immediate period after the UK joined the Common Market, a punk. Or if not an actual punk, then a vicarious one, living off the thrills of this most powerful and original English cultural movement of modern times. These two truths are closely related. At the level of high politics, Brexit may be defined by upper-class twittery. It seems more P.G. Wodehouse that Johnny Rotten. But at the level of popular culture, it is pure punk". While he accepts the difference between "high" and "low" Brexiteers - his book's premise is essentially deluded lions led by venal donkeys - he reduces each to a stereotype: Bertie Wooster and Johnny Rotten.

The central flaw in O'Toole's argument is not his bonkers claim that punk turned the English character towards masochism, but his dodgy sociology and even dodgier maths. Punk was just as popular in remain-supporting Scotland and Northern Ireland as it was in England and Wales, but it is also true to say that it was a minority interest everywhere, and not just in 1976. Not only were teenagers in the late-70s more likely to be into disco or heavy metal, but a strong identification with any musical sub-culture was atypical. Most people simply weren't that bothered. Despite the iconic status of Never Mind the Bollocks: Here's the Sex Pistols, the biggest-selling LP of 1977 was Abba's Arrival, while the albums released that year that would go on to rack up the most sales over time were Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and Fleetwod Mac's Rumours. I'm all for blaming Brexit on the lasting damage done by Barry Gibb and Stevie Nicks, but I'm not sure I could really justify it.

If you can't find a convincing explanation for an identity, then maybe the identity doesn't really exist. Maybe it is just an ideological frame, or a psychological projection, like marketing "tribes" or the belief that supporters of your football team's main rivals are all arseholes. There is also the danger of political scientists conjuring up a field of work: "The Brexit juncture comes in a new era of UK politics. It marks the first real crisis of politics in the post-devolution era in which the UK has become formed as a multi-national state, not just in terms of its governance, but in its identity too. Formal decisions concerning Brexit reside with the Westminster Parliament, but the consequences ripple across the UK’s nations and their assemblies, parliaments and civil societies. The European question has layered another deep cleavage onto the already fractious territorial politics of the union." Brexit is certainly an emotive issue, but I wonder if the assumption that it will be a disruptive part of our politics for years to come will prove true. The real lesson of punk was that it only lasted a few years.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Heroic Failure

According to Sellars and Yeatman, the English Civil War was the Central Period of English History. While some academic historians might demur, the 111 years between the deaths of Queen Elizabeth I of England and Queen Anne of Great Britain were certainly pivotal in the formation of the modern state and can still justifiably be called The Century of Revolution. Its current topicality owes less to the corporeal drama of monarchy in the films Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite, and more to the struggle of Crown (i.e. the executive) and Parliament over Brexit. An irony is that the modern parallels drawn with the Civil War reflect a view of history that is as antique as 1066 And All That: anglocentric, focused on high politics and prone to dividing the population into irreconcilable camps. The historiography of the 17th century has evolved since that comic classic of the 1930s, first through a focus on class and culture, notably the emergence of the bourgeoisie, and then through a shift in perspective from the geographical core to the periphery, notably to Ireland and Scotland. The 17th century is now defined as a more complex but integrated story of "the wars of the three kingdoms" or the British Civil Wars (plural).

The lesson I'd draw from this is that the future histories of Brexit will be quite different to the contemporary narrative. One element of this that we can predict with some certainty will be the realisation that the population at large was motivated by a host of different, often contradictory motives and that the degree of engagement was generally quite shallow outside of a small minority of the politically-engaged. Far from being divided into culturally coherent tribes with views as unyielding as a Scottish Covenanter, most people struggle to identify strongly with either "side". In this regard, polemical cod-sociology of the "somewheres and anywheres" type is no more accurate or meaningful than the idea that Cavaliers were "wrong but wromantic" and Roundheads were "right but repulsive". Similarly, the simplification of "take back control" may have been great marketing, but it isn't an adequate explanation of why 52% of the voters in 2016 opted for leave. From the perspective of an 80 year-old working class woman in Burnley, the last 100 years of politics has largely been a struggle to gain control.

Contemporary interpretations for the leave vote often focus on immigration or the impact of deindustrialisation, but the anxieties of the "left behind" over the damage done to community, and their associated contempt for politicians, clearly pre-date the Empire Windrush, let alone the accession of Poland to the EU. There is a line that can be traced back from 2016 via the Jarrow March of 1936 all the way to Peterloo in 1819. This is not to suggest that we should see this history exclusively through the prism of material concerns (though that has been underplayed), or "culture" (which has been overplayed), but that it fits into a much longer story of disadvantaged classes and territories in which the demand is for voice. What links these three dates is the belief of ordinary people that they weren't being listened to generally, not just ignored on a particular topic. Brexit can't be reduced to a single issue, such as immigration or sovereignty, no matter how convenient or congenial it is for the media to do so. In thinking about the contemporary narrative we should therefore keep the treatment of voice front and centre.

For example, a feature of the TV drama Brexit: The Uncivil War was that while it recognised the struggle of ordinary people to articulate their feelings in the face of disinterest and dismissal, it accorded this strand only a tiny fraction of the time devoted to elite backbiting and conspiracy. Likewise, the call for a citizens' assembly currently being pushed by the Guardian is not just motivated by the expectation that such a mechanism would favour remain, because that is the rational position that any fact-based discussion would surely lead to, but also by the belief that the voice of others must be managed by the articulate to be effective. This is the essence of representative democracy, but it is here being promoted as a solution to the apparent failings of representative democracy. The difference is that we can dispense with the need for political parties, with their unhelpful focus on class interests, and instead rely on conventional expertise and a curated people. Fundamentally, there is no difference between a citizens' assembly and the BBC's Question Time.

Another notable aspect of the narrative, at least the version consumed by the liberal middle-class, is the idea that Brexit is a pathology of the country's confused personality and dysfunctional state. One of the leading proponents of this framing is Fintan O'Toole, whose new book, Heroic Failure: The Delusions of Brexit, has more than a whiff of Sellars and Yeatman about it. O'Toole made his name with Ship of Fools, a forensic analysis of the political corruption of the Celtic Tiger years in Ireland. But that was an inside job (as a columnist for the Irish Times he is very much part of the Dublin elite), whereas his new book is of the outsider-looking-in genre. Its central premise is that Brexit is "Britain's reckoning with itself", which strikes me as nothing if not optimistic. According to O'Toole, summarising his case in the Guardian (naturally), "Brexit plays out a conflict between Them and Us, but it is surely obvious after this week that the problem is not with Them on the continent. It’s with the British Us, the unravelling of an imagined community. The visible collapse of the Westminster polity this week may be a result of Brexit, but Brexit itself is the result of the invisible subsidence of the political order over recent decades."

From the opening reference to Lewis Carroll to the in-jokes about the tabloid press ("Drop the dead dodo") this synopsis is a distorting mirror that produces a caricature rather than a sharp image, but a caricature is what the audience wants. O'Toole's popularity owes much to the belief that he is telling home truths not about "Us", the British as a whole, but about the "clownish ruling class" and the intellectually-stunted working class. Very much "Them". He stands in a long tradition, going back to Jonathan Swift and Edmund Burke, of privileged Irishmen servicing the needs of British navel-gazing: close enough to understand the peculiarities and distant enough to appraise them clearly. While this tradition has been politically broad, including both Tories like Swift and Burke and soi-disant socialists like Wilde and Shaw, its common features have been a tendency to personalise Britain (or more precisely England) and an appreciation of absurdity. The result is that modern exponents like O'Toole still place great emphasis on understanding the peculiarities of the "national character".

An example of this is his emphasis on the hackneyed trope of heroic failure (the Charge of the Light Brigade, Scott of the Antarctic, Dunkirk etc). O'Toole is intelligent enough to develop this cliché in interesting directions, pointing up both the irony of "the fever-dream of an English Resistance" (fictionalised in Len Deighton's SS-GB), with the EU substituted for the Nazis, and the bad faith of the trope of the UK as a colonial subject, which serves to occlude its actual history as the colonial oppressor. He also acknowledges that "the lure of self-pity" (a nod to Anthony Barnett's The Lure of Greatness) is largely an English failing. For O'Toole (like Barnett), "Brexit is essentially an English phenomenon". But this allows him to all too easily ignore the majority vote for leave in Wales and the complexity of the vote in Scotland where Brexit and Scottish independence are not mutually exclusive. The commercial reality is that the audience for this type of work is predominantly English, indeed metropolitan, so why would you bother with the periphery of Britain when discussing the thing called Brexit?

No analysis of the English character would be complete without a reference to le vice Anglais. Indeed, O'Toole's central claim is that Brexit is a psychosexual act of self-flagellation. Bizarrely he attributes this to punk rather than public schools, largely to provide a wider social setting: "For it is in punk that we find not just the nihilistic energy that helped to drive the Brexit impulse but, more to the point, the popularisation of masochism. What heroic failure and fantasies of Nazi invasion did for the middle and upper classes, punk did for the young and the working class." This is both demographic balls (punks were a small minority: most kids in the late-70s were into heavy metal or disco) and a misreading of the semiotics. O'Toole may be familiar with bondage trousers but it doesn't sound like he ever heard X-Ray Spex's Oh Bondage, Up Yours, a song that employs masochism as a metaphor for consumerism. He also casts punk as an organic and native production, forgetting the international influences, from the New York scene to the Situationists, along with the continuities with the counterculture of the 60s and 70s and the intersections with black British culture (dub, the later ska revival). To serve his idea of punk as a reactionary howl he ignores the DIY ethos and foregrounds the gobbing, much as the tabloids did in 1976.

Key to O'Toole's reading of punk is the vulnerability of the working class to "sadopopulism", though the word itself, coined by Timothy Snyder in his critique of the global growth of illiberalism, suggests a tendency that is isn't specifically English. Insofar as O'Toole ventures a class analysis of Brexit, it doesn't proceed beyond the linked ideas of a mendacious, camp upper class, typified by Boris Johnson, and a self-harming working class: "You can hurt yourself for someone or something. 'So,' sings the great balladeer of English self-pity Morrissey, 'scratch my name on your arm with a fountain pen. This means you really love me.' For some, marking Leave on the ballot paper in June 2016 was a way of scratching the name of England on their arms to prove their love." The overheated imagery here (not to mention Morrissey's own political baggage) evokes tattoos and the Cross of St George, and so the vexed issue of English nationalism. In a review of Kevin O'Rourke's A Short History of Brexit, O'Toole flips the author's idea that the EU was a conscious attempt to preserve the European nation state: "if the EU was about rescuing the nation state, might the great structural problem of Britain’s attitudes to it be precisely that the UK is not a nation state?"

This gets to the heart of the matter for O'Toole, which is not about the pathologies of the English working class or the legacy of punk but the viability of the United Kingdom: "An archaic political system had carried on even while its foundations in a collective sense of belonging were crumbling. Brexit in one way alone has done a real service: it has forced the old system to play out its death throes in public. The spectacle is ugly, but at least it shows that a fissiparous four-nation state cannot be governed without radical social and constitutional change." In fact, the Scottish independence referendum result was the opposite of fissiparous - a decision to stick together - and there remains no majority for unification in Ireland, North or South, despite growing dismay at the behaviour of the DUP. That the UK's political system is archaic is obvious, but it is still capable of evolving, as the recent fuss over the Speaker's willingness to update process has shown, so announcing its imminent death is likely to be fake news.

Though this kind of hyperbole plays well with a liberal audience, you know that "radical social and constitutional change" is likely to be no more than stale Blairism and proportional representation. Compare and contrast with Pankaj Mishra. In a New York Times essay entitled The Malign Incompetence of the British Ruling Class, he foresees a violent break-up of Britain, essentially as payback for the suffering of India's rushed independence: "As partition comes home, threatening bloodshed in Ireland and secession in Scotland, and an unimaginable chaos of no-deal Brexit looms, ordinary British people stand to suffer from the untreatable exit wounds once inflicted by Britain’s bumbling chumocrats on millions of Asians and Africans. More ugly historical ironies may yet waylay Britain on its treacherous road to Brexit. But it is safe to say that a long-cossetted British ruling class has finally come to the end of itself as it was." Though more blood-curdling than O'Toole, Mishra's analysis is just as shallow and just as likely to be wrong. The upper-class fools who infest British politics and the media aren't about to disappear at the stroke of midnight on the 29th of March.

The problem with O'Toole is that he does not seek to understand the variety of Britain or to accord the neglected a voice, any more than Burke sought to understand the weavers of Manchester. It says something when an establishment figure like Philip Collins in the Times can see the shortcoming of a narrative that makes too few demands on its audience: "The strongest reservation about Heroic Failure is that it is a comforting and luxurious read for people who already agree. O’Toole tells you what you think already better than you could say it yourself. Unless, of course, you don’t think it already, in which case he is unlikely to persuade you." If O'Toole serves a useful purpose in the context of Brexit, it is in skilfully highlighting the delusion of the language deployed by the leave campaign and in particular the advocates of no-deal. But that still means a focus on the language of the social elite, albeit a different segment to the audience that will buy his book, and thus a failure to give voice to the bulk of those who voted leave, voted remain or simply didn't vote. Just as few critics thought fit to comment on the anti-democratic origins of the central trope of Ship of Fools, so I doubt many will note the irony of his new title.

Saturday, 12 January 2019


In politics, as in so much else, timing is everything. It is a self-evident, even banal point, but one that is routinely ignored in favour of the idea of agency: that politicians are able to decide and act as and when they wish, independent of other factors. David Cameron's decision to call a referendum on EU membership after 6 years of austerity was an example of bad timing, if we assume that material conditions had some bearing on the outcome, as much as it was evidence of thoughtless agency. Theresa May's elevation to the leadership of the Conservative Party owed a lot to fortunate timing: being the last woman standing after the other candidates withdrew, so avoiding the need to win the vote of a membership that hadn't entirely forgiven her for her "nasty party" crack and that fundamentally disagreed with her on the merits of the EU. The pressure currently being exerted on Jeremy Corbyn to back a second referendum is likewise an example of the over-estimation of agency - the trope of the "magic grandad" who can mandate a people's vote - as well as poor timing. There is no Commons majority for another referendum largely because there is no credible choice available, and that won't change until May's deal is decisively rejected, and probably not even then.

Labour's strategy is neither as incoherent nor opaque as right-wing and centrist commentators have claimed. The key to it isn't a desperate triangulation to keep both remainers and leavers happy but a simple calculation on the optimum timing of a popular vote. A second referendum (or third, if you include 1975) has always been likely as a formal confirmation (or considered rejection) of Brexit. The 2016 vote wasn't clear enough to provide a mandate for either the withdrawal terms or the likely compromises entailed by the future relationship, and Parliament is accurately reflecting sentiment in the country by failing to agree a definite preference. Given that Theresa May is unlikely to call a popular vote, the best route to one would be through a Labour government. Though they might stand on a manifesto of negotiating a better deal, they are also likely to commit to a further referendum, both because this would be the only way of putting Brexit conclusively to bed, either by opting for a specific future relationship or remaining in the EU, and because it incentivises remainers to vote Labour. The recent claims that Labour would rule out a second referendum and so ensure electoral disaster ignore not only the party's agreed policy but its self-interest.

Danny Finkelstein is alert to the possibility: "By the way, the Labour Party is now toying with fighting an election proposing a renegotiation with Brussels which would be followed by a public vote. In this vote, would they back leaving the EU? Or are they seriously suggesting they renegotiate a deal which they then urge voters to reject by recommending we stay in the EU after all? Brussels would certainly want that. So you’d have two sides negotiating a withdrawal agreement that both hope would fail. I think we can safely scrub that one off the list of sensible ideas." I think we can safely say the Tories are worried at the prospect. Labour's approach would honour the 2016 result, it would satisfy both Labour leavers and cross-party remainers, and it would explicitly remove the risk of no-deal. Of course, getting to that point requires both an extension to the A50 notice period and a general election win, and is complicated by the impending European Parliament elections in May, but it remains both within the bounds of the possible and the best strategy for Labour in the circumstances.

Though the commentariat has generally assumed that May is deliberately running down the clock in the belief that MPs will eventually get behind her deal as the only way of preventing a no-deal outcome, it is also true that circumstances are narrowing her options. Her track record, both as a remainer and someone who dissembles, means that many MPs think she is bluffing and would not allow no-deal if push came to shove. The delay of the meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, the likelihood that the government will be defeated next week, and the Grieve amendment requiring May to present a plan B within 3 days collectively point to an imminent crisis. She will probably survive a vote of no confidence moved by Labour, even if Corbyn formally commits to renegotiation plus a final referendum, because Tory remainers are still Tories (Soubry will no doubt accuse the Labour frontbench of "playing politics"). A plan B is unlikely to alter the Commons arithmetic unless May proposes a substantive change such as a permanent customs union, effectively stealing Labour's clothes. The approaches made to some trade union leaders in recent days may suggest a testing of the water.

I suspect that a permanent customs union would be a step too far for her. Though there are rumours that it is under consideration, it would still allow Labour to say "not good enough", even with the addition of various promises on workers' rights and environmental protections. The optics would be terrible - the government in a subservient position to Corbyn - and it would alienate those Tories for whom the prospect of independent trade deals and reduced regulation are among the chief attractions of Brexit (surely Liam Fox would finally have to resign). May's deal is a mess, but it is also the best she can do in the circumstances created by her red lines. A move towards either a harder or softer Brexit would lose as many votes as it gained. Though there is a large bloc of Labour MPs in leave-voting constituencies who would be happy if the government adopted something closer to their party's approach, few of them would be willing to defy the whip and vote for it, while the Blairite remainers on the backbenches, who might defy the whip, seem to have concluded in recent months that putting country before party would be self-defeating, as it would cede the moral high ground to Corbyn in the struggle for the hearts and minds of party members.

If we assume the Withdrawal Agreement is decisively rejected next week, then May will have painted herself into a corner. She might decide to request an extension to the Article 50 notice period, but that would only be agreeable to the EU27 if she justified it by plans for either a general election or a second referendum. As the latter cannot at present command a majority in the Commons, it would have to be the former, but that would prompt informal but probably irresistible pressure for her to step down as party leader once the extension was agreed, despite being safe from a formal internal challenge for the next 11 months. In the circumstances, calling a snap election, so there wouldn't be time for a leadership contest, would be her best bet, her poor track record in this area notwithstanding. 2017 was an error of timing. She failed to see that the narrative of austerity had shifted since 2015 from blame Labour to blame the Tories, and she underestimated how damaging to her chances a lengthy campaign would be. Her circumstances now are that she has run out of time and may have no option but to roll the dice once more.