Sunday, 31 July 2016

Barry Lyndon: A Woman's Tale

The re-release of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, alongside Paul Greengrass's Jason Bourne, is a reminder of the long shadow cast by the politics of the 1970s on cinema. The Bourne series is typical of post-Watergate films in its disgust at the unconstitutional machinations and instrumentality of the state, but wholly contemporary in its paranoia over electronic surveillance and its ambivalent attitude towards hacking. Ultimately, Bourne's is a conservative view of the world in which personal violence preserves virtue and improvisational ingenuity defeats technocracy. What links the two films, otherwise distant in time and genre, is the trope of duelling, with Bourne frequently obliged to defeat goons using little more than a rolled-up magazine or a saucepan. In Barry Lyndon, the duels are scrupulously fair in terms of weapons, but sometimes rigged or subverted by a misplaced sense of honour.

The two protagonists are also engaged in the construction of an identity. The son of poor Irish gentry, Redmond Barry adopts a variety of pseudonyms on his adventures before marriage to the wealthy and newly-widowed Countess of Lyndon enables his reinvention as Barry Lyndon. Jason Bourne famously spends most of the series struggling to discover who he actually is, which in turn means discovering how he came to be and who betrayed him (heritage and treachery, as John Le Carré made clear, are two sides of the same coin). Like Lyndon, whose father dies in the prologue, Bourne struggles with the legacy of an absent father and seeks substitutes in authority. This is less banal Freudianism and more the continued representation of the American polity as an abused and betrayed child, a self-indulgent metaphor that has helped drive the gradual infantilisation of US politics these last 40 years, culminating in the temper tantrum made flesh that is Donald Trump.

The choice of Ryan O'Neal as the anti-hero of Kubrick's film confused many reviewers in 1975, not least because of his wholesome blandness and dodgy Irish accent, but it is now clear that he embodies the USA, a state that comes into existence during the character's lifetime. Redmond Barry is (literally) an innocent abroad who gradually learns the ways of the world, from deceit and theft to hypocrisy. He is corrupted, but he is a willing accomplice in the process. In Kubrick's hands, the hero's snobbish ambition is moderated by braggadocio and a delight in the con (The Sting came out in 1973). The original novel, by William Makepeace Thackeray, was consciously antique when published in 1844 (and typically condescending towards the Irish), aping the style of Smollett and Fielding, but resolutely Victorian in its moral lesson, with the profligate Lyndon dying in Fleet Prison (the debtor's gaol)  rather than finding conjugal happiness or spiritual salvation. In Kubrick's film, obscurity and death are his (and everyone else's) lot: a democratic touch.

Though highly-stylised, the film makes clear that status is always dependent on institutionalised violence, from the horrors of Prussian soldiers "running the gauntlet" (i.e. thrashed repeatedly with ramrods) to Barry's beating of his stepson for insolence (a charge the boy has ironically levelled at a man he considers his social inferior). The duels are merely a polite representation of the violence that runs through society. This is a motif that echoes through much of Kubrick's work, from The Killing via Paths of Glory to Full Metal Jacket. He was fascinated by the absurdity and ritual of violence, both in the systemic lunacy of the state, famously satirised in Dr Strangelove, and the pedantic ultra-violence of the gang, as in A Clockwork Orange. In contrast, the Bourne series insists that the violence of the state is covert, even as the hero leaves a trail of highly-visible wreckage across half the world (in fact, the series routinely flirts with media exposure, from The Guardian to Wikileaks, emphasising its debt to All The Presdient's Men).

Another theme that is prominent in Barry Lyndon is exile, which obviously owed something to Kubrick's own status as an American resident in the UK since 1961. This is reflected not just in Barry's personal estrangement from home, but in the emotional exile of Lady Lyndon, played with glacial poise by Marisa Berenson under a series of increasingly chaotic hairdos that reflect her mental decline. As with any story set in the long era between the end of the religious wars of the 17th century and the coming of democracy in the 20th, the central social motif is property, expressed concretely in beautiful country houses (and beautiful women) and abstractly in the trope of an annual income whose ultimate source is a mystery. The common people are stoic and uncomplaining (even sexually accommodating), while the bourgeoisie are largely absent, though the gaming tables and set-piece duels hint at an underlying economic tension.

The inconsistency in the acting style was one of the reasons why contemporary reviewers found the film disconcerting, though this is arguably a Kubrickian signature (see the emotional restraint of the actors in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which serves to emphasise the personality of HAL 2000). The innocent are affectless and artless, while the worldly and cynical furiously over-act. Leonard Rossiter's Captain Quin is a comic creation that owes much to his contemporary Rigsby in Rising Damp; Murray Melvin's Reverend Runt is a case-study in repressed emotion; Frank Middlemass's barking and choleric Sir Charles Lyndon would not be out of place in a pantomime (that's a compliment); while Steven Berkoff's Lord Ludd is a cameo raised to the level of an award-winning one-man show. Patrick Magee's Chevalier du Balibari (in Thackeray's novel he turns out to be Barry's long-lost uncle) exhibits both styles: the artifice of his makeup, which masks both his role as a spy and his sympathy for Barry, standing in contrast to his self-restraint and pre-poker poker-face (ironic in an actor known for his portrayal of madness and Beckettian angst).

Despite the lukewarm reception by critics, Barry Lyndon was hugely and immediately influential among film-makers, most notably Ridley Scott whose 1977 The Duellists was not only tonally and visually indebted to Kubrick's masterpiece but emblematically employed one of the same actors, Gay Hamilton. Less obviously, Leon Vitali's Lord Bullingdon looks like a partial inspiration for the character of Wolfie Mozart, played by Tom Hulce, in Milos Forman's Amadeus (based on Peter Shaffer's 1979 play). It is also hard to imagine films like Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) getting to the screen without the precedent of Kubrick's three-hour classic, while the views of English country houses set  to emotionally-charged classical music surely influenced Charles Sturridge's 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisted. Kubrick shouldn't be held responsible for the aristo-philia and fogey kitsch of the early 1980s, any more than the obsession with candlelight and pewter that would overtake Spitalfields, but he did anticipate the way that manners would overtake morality.

Many of the scenes were shot at the golden hour, that moment of clarity and stillness as the sun sets on a clear day. This is, of course, the bathe of nostalgia: the elegiac tone that conjures past glories and eases current regrets. In terms of its emotional register, the film repeatedly employs two major musical themes that slowly entwine around each other: Handel's stately sarabande, Suite No 4 in D Minor, and the Irish song, Women of Ireland, an 18th century poem by Peader O Doirnin (Mná na hÉireann) set to music by Sean O Riada in 1968 (the film uses the Chieftan's instrumental version). The former is insistent, dogmatic but ultimately anxious: a representation of a world heading inexorably towards the shock of 1789. The latter emphasises the real victims of Barry Lyndon's world: the women, reduced to chattels or schemers by property laws, whose best hope is to be promoted to a status object by some man.

Amidst the palatial grounds of his marital home, Barry's mother emphasises his vulnerability as the husband of a titled woman who himself lacks a title. If Lady Lyndon dies, he and his own son by her will be penniless, cast adrift (exiled once more) by his spiteful stepson who considers him a mountebank. This highlights Barry's essentially feminine role, the product of his attractiveness, which no doubt goes some way to explain the lack of sympathy many contemporary (male) critics displayed towards the character. The final irony, for a director pigeon-holed as "manly" and often accused of homoeroticising his subjects (e.g. Spartacus), is that Barry Lyndon is a surprisingly feminist film in which women are intelligent, ambitious and ultimately thwarted by thoughtless men. Compare and contrast the women in the Bourne series, who are only powerful as agents of the state. Bourne wants a daddy and the admiration of other men; Barry finally realises that he depends on women and that the respect of men is worthless.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

A Failure to Plan

Brexit proved that the UK doesn't do planning. A popular theory is that David Cameron believed he would not have to honour his EU referendum commitment to his own party after 2015, assuming that the widely-predicted hung parliament would allow him to sacrifice it in coalition negotiations, as he had done with inheritance tax reform in 2010. This suggests that the Tories didn't plan for all eventualities last year, despite the limited number of possible outcomes (win, lose, draw). Part of me is incredulous that any politician would be so careless, but there is ample evidence that the electoral throw of the dice is rarely accompanied by much cunning. For example, there are competing theories as to why Labour was unable to secure LibDem support for a coalition in 2010, but the claim by David Laws that they were "too disorganised or divided even to table clear positions" probably has some truth to it, even if arithmetic, personal distaste and intellectual exhaustion were ultimately more decisive. The last month suggests the PLP hasn't improved much since.

The judgement of the Chilcot Inquiry was that the Iraq war was a failure of planning from beginning to end. The US had a plan well in advance of the conflict, i.e. regime change, but the UK lacked similarly clear goals ("I will be with you, whatever") and never settled on a coherent plan for decision-making domestically. This lack of planning and the consequent reliance on Tony Blair's "belief" system allowed the UK to be manoeuvred into an open-ended commitment without adequate scrutiny of the objectives, the means or the risks. There was, catastrophically, a failure to plan for the aftermath of Saddam's downfall, while the operational planning of the occupying British troops in the south of the country has already become a textbook example of how not to do it. The parallel deployment in Afghanistan was little better, suggesting that trying to "punch above your weight" will usually lead to a bloodied nose at best and being pummelled senseless at worst.

Afghanistan and Iraq were not exceptions. The UK's current military preparedness suggests a persistent lack of adequate planning, from the macro-farce of aircraft carriers without aircraft to the micro-farce of the wrong sort of boots. To show that this isn't a recent development, we only have to recall that 2016 is the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and the culmination of the Dardanelles Campaign. The replacement of Trident is another example of poor planning, not so much in terms of the well-known limitations of a continuous at sea deterrent (CASD), that can only guarantee one boat in the water at any time, but in that we are wholly dependent on the willingness of the US to allow us to pay for and man a small part of their nuclear fleet. Britain's future "independent nuclear deterrent" is whatever the US government decides it is going to be, which means we have abdicated planning authority.

At this point it is worth noting that the particular aspects of planning I'm focusing on are plan design (working out the best course of action to achieve a goal) and adaptation (dealing with contingencies - i.e. "events, dear boy, events"). Planning is actually about how we handle uncertainty, hence the importance of deterministic and probabilistic analysis (what are the relationships, what are the odds). However, the modern understanding of planning is increasingly biased towards the concept of control, i.e. imposing certainty. The obvious example is the pre-2008 belief that risk in financial markets could be managed away, that the unknown (the "Black Swan event") did not need to be considered. At the level of the personal, planning has evolved from the pragmatic and contingent (shopping lists, booking a holiday) to the performative and permanent (wishlists, timelines, activity trackers). The aim is less to reduce uncertainty through foresight (what shall I buy, where shall we go?) than to reduce chance and loss (no surprises, never forget anything, full visibility). Against this, the lack of foresight and casual risk-taking of politicians is remarkable.

The great ideological battle of the twentieth century was between central planning (one big plan) and the use of the price mechanism to distribute planning (lots of plans of varying sizes). In this simplistic history, central planning peaked in the middle decades of the century before the sclerosis of the 70s led to the triumph of the market. In practice, central planning has never been in ruder health. The growth of multinational corporations, amplified by the winner-takes-all dynamics of the digital economy, has created large companies run on a command and control basis whose planning scope and expertise exceeds that of many countries. Stories of businesses that have grown "too big" (Sports Direct), or been ruined by inexpert managers (BHS), are usually evidence of exploitation, not the shortcomings of planning. While government is derided, and publicly-funded academic experts are denigrated, businesses that exhibit the secrecy and dictatorial certainty of the USSR under Stalin receive a market premium.

For all the talk of deregulation and the reality of privatisation, the scope of state planning has continued to expand in areas such as health, education, utilities and transport. This shouldn't come as a surprise. We live in a more interdependent world, which is the product of deliberate and growing specialisation by function as much as technological determinism or ecological consciousness. The state plays a central role in enabling that specialisation by creating markets through legislation, providing complex human resources and physical infrastructure, and coordinating finance capital through guarantees and underwriting. While this is not as overt or formalised as it was in the 1960s, and the suggestion that the state is directing the market remains anathema, the reality is central planning in all but name. As we have recently seen with the new government's embrace of the phrase "industrial strategy", even the language can be changed when circumstances demand.

The postwar era in the UK was marked by planning that was ambitious in scale but sometimes ill-thought out in detail (e.g. social housing), and grandiose projects that betrayed post-imperial over-reach (e.g. Blue Streak). The root problem wasn't a technical failing of planning so much as political delusion, a problem that has got progressively worse since the magical thinking of the 1980s. The two characteristics of a white elephant are uncertainty in the plan design (e.g. the London terminus of HS2) and a lack of contingency planning (e.g. if France pulls out of the Hinkley C project). The Northern Powerhouse is a postmodern example of this planning delusion in which the heroic predictions and sunny visualisations float freely above the tangible but modest reality of enterprise zones and local authority pump-priming. Politicians can associate themselves with the good bits - the vision thing and cutting ribbons - while blaming others for the failure to meet expectations. In such a dishonest environment, even George Osborne's serial failure to meet the targets of his own "long-term economic plan" couldn't prove fatal.

Perhaps the finest recent exponent of postmodern planning has been Boris Johnson, a man who as Mayor of London largely abdicated planning authority when it came to greenlighting office blocks and luxury flats, who claimed the credit for the schemes of others (bikes), and indulged poorly-designed projects solely for their PR value (pointless bridges, an estuarine airport, the rubbish Routemaster revival). The failure to properly plan his way to Number 10 was predictable. His elevation to Foreign Secretary is being treated as a rueful joke by most people, which means we are once more indulging the comic character rather than the really existing shit. Brexit has downgraded the relationship between the UK and the US (always instrumental rather than sentimental), and the corollary of that is a devaluation in the standing of the Foreign Office, which has become little more than a ceremonial adjunct to trade. Despite being a walking insult, Johnson is perhaps well-suited to the role.

Just as Iraq surely ended the UK's delusions of being a military "playa" on the world stage (and has probably set the clock ticking on our membership of the UN Security Council), so Brexit has recalibrated our diplomatic status to better match our future as a medium-sized nation without any major strategic significance (we're much less important to the US now than Japan). What stands out when we look back over the last 15 years, from Blair's zeal to Cameron's insouciance, is the dereliction of strategic planning in the political sphere at a time when tactical planning has been at a premium, from the daily grid of news management through multinational supply chains to the advance of globalisation by regulation and treaty. It's almost as if we've collectively decided to reward politicians who appear to be making it up as they go along because we value spontaneity. While a "man with a plan" can be dangerous, a failure to plan usually means failure.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Phone Home

An ICM poll for British Futures suggests that three-quarters of those who voted leave think that EU nationals already in the UK should be allowed to stay, with only 16% of the total population backing repatriation. While Theresa May has refused to give assurances on the status of EU nationals, her stance is clearly aimed at preserving bargaining chips rather than a determination to "send 'em back" (the infamous Home Office vans on her watch were little more than a PR stunt). That pretty much everyone else has insisted that EU nationals should be reassured (though David Davis has tempered this with talk of future curbs) suggests that politicians think that popular opinion is not as xenophobic as claimed by some shocked remainers, though this then leaves us struggling to explain why immigration was the decisive factor in the referendum.

The poll could be taken to suggest that it is the future expectation of immigration that drove the support for leave (hence the power of the Turkey "threat" and the "breaking point" poster), and is thus a matter of flow rather than stock. I'd personally take that with a pinch of salt, given popular ignorance of the ethnic and foreign-born share of the population. Clearly immigration is an immediate concern, not the calculation of a future discounted utility. We know that anti-immigrant sentiment is highest in areas with low immigration, which means that "pressure on public services" isn't a credible explanation, and we also know the issue is immigration across the board, not just the free movement of EU citizens. The suggestion during the campaign that fewer Polish plumbers would mean more Bangladeshi curry chefs was not what most leavers were hoping to hear.

It would be easy to assume that abstract xenophobia is the driver, or that immigration (like the EU) is a proxy for modernity more generally, standing in for developments as diverse as gay marriage and kale juice. There certainly seems to be evidence that reactionary views, rather than age or education, are the best indicator of whether someone voted leave. Some even espy a cultural divide: "liberal cosmopolitanism versus anti-liberal populism", or a cognitive division between "those who dislike difference – signifying a disordered identity and environment – and those who embrace it", but these look like magazine articles masquerading as academic studies. There are plenty of reactionaries in London and 38% of those who voted in Sunderland opted for remain (I doubt many of them would self-identify as liberal cosmopolitans). I'm going to suggest an alternative thesis: that the concern over immigration is driven in part by internal migration, as experienced by the "left behinds", and related to this, that the antipathy towards the EU incorporates a large dose of resentment towards London.

Much has been written about the impact of commonwealth immigration on old textile towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire during the 1960s and after, but less attention has been paid to the way that internal migration impacted on mono-cultural areas such as the North East and South Wales from the 1980s onwards. In Britain, there has historically been a fundamental difference between the larger industrial conurbations and both the smaller industrial towns (that specialised in sectors such as coal, shipbuilding and steel) and rural towns. The conurbations were populated in the 19th and 20th centuries by immigrants from both the surrounding countryside and further afield (e.g. Irish and Welsh factory-hands in Manchester), while the small towns were often relatively insular with only a small number of skilled immigrants (e.g. Scottish engineers) or itinerant workers who were not encouraged to stick around (e.g. seasonal Irish agricultural workers). What distinguished these in turn from small towns in other countries, like Ireland or Italy, was the absence of regular emigration in the twentieth century.

Though we think of the pivotal shift from manufacturing to services as occurring in the 1980s, it's worth remembering that the UK has been a predominantly service economy for the best part of a century. What changed in the 80s is that service jobs, as well as manufacturing jobs, were lost from small towns to cities as industries like financial services consolidated and as globalised business services expanded. This trend was exacerbated by the development of the digital economy in the 90s. Far from allowing people to work anywhere, the Internet made remote service delivery easier and thus amplified agglomeration in city-based "hubs". This process simultaneously transferred jobs to the larger service centres (i.e. provincial cities as well as London) and accentuated the differential in wages between the metropolis and small towns. To give an example, the Isle of Wight, which voted heavily leave, is poorly-served (many online retailers won't deliver there), wages are low, the economy is overly-dependent on pensioners and the state (prisons), and talented youth head to Southampton or London.

We're familiar with the fact that many old industrial towns in the North have lost both skilled jobs and many of their young, but the same outcome - a reliance on low-wage work and a growing proportion of the elderly - has affected small towns across the South and Midlands as well. Before the 1980s, the worry that the cities would lure away the small-town youth of Britain was largely limited to those families whose children benefited from the expansion of further education in the 1960s - i.e. classic "social mobility" that often entailed geographic mobility. Thatcherism extended this deracination to skilled workers ("get on your bike"), and not just in the North and Wales but across the rest of the UK too. This was then exacerbated by the further expansion of tertiary education in the 1990s, which funnelled teenagers who might otherwise have looked to apprenticeships with local employers into often-distant urban colleges as a stepping-stone to work in the service sector.

In other words, the sense of disturbance captured in the fear of immigration may be more to do with contemporary internal migration, and the negative impact this has on family ties, than the dismantling of industries a quarter of a century ago, let alone the loss of empire. The young quitting Sunderland for London, or York for Leeds, may actually be more significant than migration from Poland (blaming migrants for your town's decline is one way of dealing with guilt over "desertion" by your adult children). In these smaller cities and towns, the average age and the proportion of OAPs has gradually increased, not because retirees are moving in but because the young are moving out. This has led to suggestions that a policy of managed decline should be adopted for some areas, further encouraging the emigration of the young or skilled. This suggestion is typically directed at old industrial towns in the North, but the problem of poor wages and too many pensioners is just as relevant in the South outside London.

If this thesis is correct - that the concern over the arrival of EU nationals during the last decade is actually resentment over the departure of native youth that started in the 80s and accelerated in the 90s - it helps to explain why concern over immigration mounts in the late-90s, 5 years before the accession of East European states to the EU in 2004. The political focus on immigration and asylum that started in the mid-90s certainly validated these as "legitimate public concerns", but its hard to believe that their resulting salience in small towns with minimal exposure to actual immigrants (let alone asylum-seekers) can be fully explained by either the power of the press or an increase in racial prejudice. There appears to be something else at work, and something more tangible and immediate than a cultural divide. "We want our country back" may have been an anguished cry directed at children who rarely phone.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Talk to the People

After the initial outpouring of class contempt, ageism and metropolitan narcissism, political commentators have sobered up and now suggest that the EU referendum result was a response to decades of deindustrialisation and austerity; that "taking back control" means more than simple xenophobia; and that it is a protest against a remote and unsympathetic elite by the "left behind". Despite this, there appears to be little appetite to talk at length with the people who cast the votes, either to understand their motives or to clarify their expectations. The vox-pops have moved on from "Did you really mean it?" to "Are you disappointed with the ensuing political chaos". Similarly, when people are asked why they voted leave, the answer "immigration" is accepted without any further enquiry, as if no further explanation was needed, showing how the cant of "understanding people's concerns" has enshrined ignorance.

Many have noted the irony that the government might need to hire expert trade negotiators from abroad as a result of the demands of Brexit, but perhaps the interlocutors we have greater need of are ones that can respond to the referendum result by talking to the voters. As it happens, that is the job description of an MP, but the current self-absorption of the two main parties suggests that they are determined to reassert parliamentary sovereignty by performatively ignoring the demos in favour of more niche electorates. The Tories have managed to engineer a new leader, and thereby a new Prime Minister, without recourse to the opinion of party members let alone the wider electorate. Despite the appointment of David Davis as minister for Brexit, the elevation of Theresa May will look like an establishment stitch-up to many who voted leave. The appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary does not dilute the effect.

In contrast, the Labour Party has now determined that a challenge to the leadership must go to a ballot of members with the incumbent as a candidate by right, though with the proviso that the electorate be gerrymandered to try and conjure up an elusive anti-Corbyn majority. Given that one didn't exist last year, it is asking a lot to believe that the new £25 threshold for supporters is going to swing it. Corbyn may have lost the vote of some who elected him, but he may also have gained the votes of others disgusted by the manoeuvrings of the Blairites and their "centre-left" fellow-travellers. It beggars belief that the PLP seriously thought they could depose Corbyn by a procedural coup, though there has been no lack of evidence over the last year of their incompetence or capacity for self-delusion. Some are still talking about a split, which in practice means the PLP annulling the membership in their desire to preserve the purity of their idea of representative democracy.

A common response to the referendum has been to suggest that the people don't know what they want, both in the sense that we're almost evenly divided as a nation and more particularly that leavers want contradictory outcomes. That's patronising, but it is also an excuse to avoid engagement. An individual voter may be an idiot, but the collective electorate is not. Reflecting the will of the people through systems of representative government is difficult at the best of times, but trying to resolve a complex issue, even assuming it isn't misrepresented, is not best done through a binary referendum. Rather than regret Cameron's folly, that should encourage us to treat the result as the trigger for negotiation (a sort of internal Article 50), rather than the end of the process, not in the sense that we treat the referendum as "advisory", or that it be finessed to the point that the result is stood on its head, but that we should have a conversation to establish what a preferred outcome, consistent with the result, would look like.

I see little prospect of that happening. Theresa May and popular engagement do not sit easily together, and her track record at the Home Office suggests her curiosity is kept in check by her authoritarianism. Her sponsorship of the "snoopers' charter" displayed little interest in the technical or social realities of the Internet, while her attitude towards immigration has always been a depersonalised focus on process and quantification. She has vowed to be a "one nation" PM and fight for the many against the few, but then they all say that, don't they? Her government is likely to be more mercantilist and less socially liberal than Cameron's, reflecting her instincts as much as the opportunity of Brexit. Her promise on co-determination, like her promise to give "hard-working families" greater economic security, will be whittled away by that same mercantilist turn and pressure from the free-market right. This does not mean she is a committed deregulator but rather someone who sees regulation as the guarantor of markets. In other words, less neoliberal (Osborne) and more ordoliberal (Hammond).

There seems little prospect that the new government will spend much time asking people in Sunderland what they mean by "immigration" (given the paucity of immigrants in the area) or how they envisage Brexit working in practice. They certainly won't be inviting suggestions on the more fundamental issues that supposedly underlay the referendum vote, such as regional industrial policy or the desire for an English assembly outside London. No doubt opinion polls will be commissioned, but they are no less a "blunt instrument" than a referendum. As New Labour proved with its focus groups, structured questions serve to establish what people will tolerate, not what they aspire to. This incuriosity is hegemonic. The defeated candidates in last year's Labour leadership election do not appear to have spent much time talking to party members about why they voted for Jeremy Corbyn, while their discussions with the wider electorate haven't advanced beyond focus group banality: immigration is a concern; Corbyn is weird etc.

One lesson of Corbyn's success last year was that he valued engagement. His election meetings weren't packed out because he is a masterful talker or because his policy prescriptions were strikingly novel. He's a dull speaker (and thus suspected of honesty) and his platform is bog-standard social democracy with top-notes of internationalism. The attraction was that he was prepared to articulate values that appealed to members (e.g. "austerity isn't necessary") and showed respect for the members' own views. His was a victory of style as much as substance, which ironically means he was the most "Blair 97" of the candidates. Whether he can repeat the trick is moot, but there seems little reason to bet against it. Though he has received little credit from the PLP or media, his achievements over 9 months are of the sort that will appeal to party members, from forcing a reversal on welfare cuts to getting the Fire Brigades Union to affiliate.

Though some on the left harbour hopes for an extra-parliamentary movement, Corbyn is very much in the tradition of the parliamentary road to socialism in which popular engagement and public demonstration act as a buttress to support (and keep honest) the party in the legislature. This is why accountability is critical for his supporters, and why the PLP have made "bullying" the emblematic criticism of their opponents. One side sees the MP as a pure representative of party policy (and therefore the membership), the other as a mediator between the wider electorate and a cunning state. You can argue that party members are not representative of the electorate, but this is meaningless given that they self-select by party. What you can't argue is that MPs have a better understanding of the wider electorate when they spend so little time engaging with voters as political philosophers rather than as consumers of policy tat. The referendum starkly highlighted the UK's problem: too much Parliament, not enough democracy.

Thursday, 7 July 2016


The slang term "whatever", meaning "I don't care", is thought to originate in a minor 1965 US TV sitcom, My Mother the Car, though it carries an obvious echo of the song Que sera, sera, which was a hit for Doris Day in 1956. It achieved mass popularity (along with its "W" hand-gesture) in the 1995 film Clueless, which brings us neatly to Tony Blair. That's not an entirely cheap shot, for reasons that will become apparent. Clearly, il maestro did not use the word in this dismissive sense in his now notorious and abbreviated promise to George W Bush, but what then is implied by his statement, "I will be with you, whatever"? Did he mean whatever the views of others, whatever the consequences for Iraq, or whatever the personal cost to himself? All of these readings are possible considering the text of the memo, not to mention subsequent events.

It is also worth noting that at this time (July 2002, eight months before the invasion of Iraq) Blair appeared to believe that Saddam might have WMD, which reinforces the conclusion that while the British Prime Minister may have subsequently been economical with the truth, he started out credulous rather than cynical. He lied, but primarily to himself. In contrast, we know the neocons in the Bush Administration were looking towards regime change in Iraq before 9/11, considering it unfinished business from the first Iraq War. This takes me back to Clueless, not merely in the suggestion that Blair was played for a schmuck by the Americans, but in recognition that the film's plot was loosely based on Jane Austen's Emma, which as Wikipedia notes is a novel about "youthful hubris and the perils of misconstrued romance". It adds to the poignancy to learn that Austen's intent was to write a novel about "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like".

Blair has form with the easy employment of "whatever", though he usually manages to develop it into a subordinate clause. Celebrating third-way politics in 2014, he said: "In foreign policy, whatever you think of the controversies post-9/11 and particularly Iraq, we led in the world: strong alliances in Europe; closest ally of the USA; leaders in development with a tripled aid budget; and putting climate change at the top of the world’s agenda". Moments later he insisted that "Third way politics begins with an analysis of the world shaped by reality not ideology, not by delusionary thoughts based on how we want the world to be, but by hardheaded examination of the world as it actually is". Whenever anyone rejects ideology, they are usually in the grip of it. Chilcot shows that Blair was motivated by belief, not facts, but he also shows that this sprang from an eagerness to please the US rather than any specific conviction. In other words, Blair's ideology centred on national status. His reimagining of the UK as a "young country" was an attempt at restoration and thus part of the elite tradition that has long obsessed over "decline".

Though the initial reaction to the Chilcot Report has understandably focused on personal blame and institutional failure, the historical significance is what it tells us about the relationship of the UK and the US. Blair was hardly the first PM to harp on about the special relationship, and not even the first to sincerely believe in it (Margaret Thatcher was notoriously soft on this point as well, though she never underestimated US instrumentalism, as in Grenada), but his emotional investment, which predated al-Qaeda's attack on the World Trade Centre, was close to infatuation. For Blair, "punching above our weight" was synonymous with advancing US interests, which made him a more committed Atlanticist than even Thatcher. Indeed Blair appears to have been the more demanding partner over the intervention in Kosovo in 1999, when Bill Clinton was in the White House, and his unconcealed admiration for George W Bush clearly owed a lot to finding a kindred spirit.

The special relationship, by emphasising British delusions in respect of the "top table" and the power of personal charisma, has helped corrupt British governance ever since Suez. That earlier debacle was the moment when the UK was obliged to acknowledge its inferiority in the relationship and formally cede its historic role as the world's policeman to the US (a reality since 1941). Iraq has shown us to be incapable of even functioning as a "hobby bobby". The need to keep the US sweet has long been used in domestic politics to marginalise critics of UK policy, from trade to defence. This has reinforced the elite idea that there are strategic interests above democracy, which was further amplified by neoliberalism. Blair's "sofa government" was an extension to the cabinet of the instrumental attitude that the leadership took towards the party membership in the 1990s, excluding it from policy formation and insisting that it provide unqualified support.

The original expectation of the current government appears to have been that publication of the report at this time would exacerbate Labour's internal tensions and draw attention away from Tory squabbles following a narrow victory for remain in the EU referendum. In the event, Chilcot appears to have boosted respect for Corbyn (at least outside the PLP) and emphasised that his demand for a "new politics" can best be understood by what it stands against: Blairism. Iraq saw expertise abused and the idea of government probity undermined. A defence of one's actions based on the grounds of sincere "belief", which Tony Blair has once more made, looks less acceptable at a time when Leavers are bring criticised for having believed obvious lies. Saddam's WMD was no more credible than the £350 million claim, and there is a direct line from the "dodgy dossier" to "breaking point". If we are living in an era of "post-truth politics", that owes much to the Iraq War.

The ironic consequence of Brexit is that London's influence in Washington will decline. It was always more dependent on the indirect influence that the US could exert on the EU (and vice versa) than on any sentimental affection for Magna Carta or Scottish golf courses. The UK's influence on Commonwealth countries has long been a dead letter, and now its role as a bridge between the US and Europe will dwindle. This is the end of the special relationship. The warning by Obama that Britain would henceforth be "at the back of the queue" was not scaremongering. In Washington, the views of Berlin and New Delhi will now count for more than the views of London, and they will be sought directly. The historic irony is that the special relationship's greatest champion has, through his desire to cleave to the US and thus maintain the UK as a global "playa", helped undermine trust in government to such an extent that the people have voted to opt-out: "stop the world, I want to get off".

Some Brexiteers will still insist that the UK can play a leading role on the world's stage, but Blair and others in the establishment know that this was only possible if it remained within the political institutions of the EU and thus useful to the US as a sympathetic agent. Membership of NATO counts for little since that organisation's eastward expansion and the end of Britain's pre-eminent role as Airstrip One. With a limited military capability (all too obvious in Iraq), dwindling influence in Asia and Africa, and a semi-detached relationship with Europe, the UK will increasingly look like Canada with rockets. That's not a bad thing, particularly if we see sense and junk the rockets, but it does represent a fatal blow to the establishment's self-image. The judgement of history will not be written by the protesters who marched in 2003, let alone those who protested this week, but by that same political establishment. For them, Blair's legacy is increasingly looking like "Fool Britannia".

Sunday, 3 July 2016

This is Not a Popular Drama

Whether through half-remembered Shakespeare, or TV series such as House of Cards and Game of Thrones, the tendency to explain politics by dramatic analogy is both an admission of ignorance about people's true motivations and an unwillingness to address the social forces at work. A focus on the players, rather than the groundlings, is one way of reasserting Parliamentary sovereignty. Casting Boris Johnson as a clueless Caesar, the Goves as incompetent MacBeths, or Corbyn as a half-mad Lear exposed on Highbury Fields is wryly amusing, but it serves to diminish politics to the level of entertainment, which is what gave us the Johnson phenomenon in the first place. When politicians discuss themselves in analogous terms, such as Gove expressing sympathy for a clever but unloved dwarf or rooting for the Spartans at Thermopylae, you know that schoolboy fantasy has triumphed over schoolboy wit.

Crafting a life-story congenial to an intended audience is routine in the era of the personal brand, and this means delving into the dressing-up box of the collective mind. For example, Theresa May's pitch, that as the daughter of a vicar and the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant major she has public service written in her DNA, is clearly intended to reassure Conservative Party members that she is straight outta' Middle England, rather than the Old Etonian establishment or the too-clever-by-half metropolis, but it also serves to conjure an image not a million miles away from the exclusively white milieu of Midsomer Murders, which will placate those worried that there might be backsliding on the party's commitment to halting or even reversing immigration. This isn't just an appeal to Tories, but to Kippers as well.

The failure of Johnson and Gove might look like a defeat for newspapermen, but what it really reveals is that vain and inconsistent columnists are mere instruments for proprietors, which should hardly surprise us. Nothing has been more ridiculous than the claims that various Tory politicians (and spouses) have fallen out with each other recently, as if this were a high-toned soap opera in which everyone is shocked by enmity and personal betrayal despite it driving the plot week after week. These people are no more genuine "friends" than those who swap recommendations on LinkedIn. The relationships are cold-blooded and calculating. The claim that Michael Gove's political career is now toast because of his "back-stabbing" should be taken with a pinch of salt. This is the party of Macmillan and Heseltine, not to mention more recent wielders of the knife like Iain Duncan Smith.

Conservative politics is about the defence of status and Tories who claim to be radical reformists are usually desperate to acquire it. The "Maoist" Gove was neatly characterised by Ian Leslie last year: "The vividly drawn persona we are familiar with today emerged, fully formed, at school, in an act of audacious self-invention. The young Gove sought not merely to fit in with his socially superior peers, but to stand out from them. He rode an old-fashioned bicycle to school, wore suits, recited poetry and starred in debates ... Precocious children often grow into adults with something of the child about them, and there is something eternally schoolboyish about Gove. The reflected admiration of his parents, teachers and classmates still radiates from his smooth-cheeked face". Leslie also noted the pathological nature of Gove's alleged charm: "Politeness comes at a cost to authenticity: it is, by definition, a formal mode of expression, used to conceal what we really feel".

This lack of authenticity is not a problem for Gove or any other Tory. What matters is the tribute paid to status, even if it takes the ridiculous form of Fogeyish affectations. The reason he is unlikely to become party leader is not that he has proven duplicitous but that he has proven to be as cack-handed as Johnson in the execution of his schemes (his Queen leak may have pleased Murdoch but it upset Conservatives). For this same reason I was never convinced that the former Mayor of London was a shoo-in as Cameron's successor, even before the 23rd. His pitch to Tory MPs was that his media profile would secure enough votes to win general elections (and it may well have been material to the referendum result), but his executive incompetence (all too obvious in London where MPs spend the week) pointed to disarray in office. With the enormity of the Brexit task ahead of them, I suspect that many (and not just Gove) decided he was simply not up to the job. The ultimate betrayal here may be that City grandees dropped their erstwhile champion. Andrea Leadsom's sudden elevation is not because she was convincing in debates.

That same assessment of incompetence is at the heart of the PLP revolt against Jeremy Corbyn, but in contrast to the Tories, it is authenticity that has prevented the coup reaching a climax. With the exception perhaps of George Lansbury, Corbyn is unusual among Labour leaders in being a typical party member. He has the same concerns for fairness and justice, and the same instincts of activism and solidarity, that distinguish the footsoldiers of the CLPs, and it is these very qualities that make it unlikely he will resign. Party membership selects for people who disagree with the claim that resistance is useless. Paradoxically, that he is typical is held up as evidence of his naivety and unfitness for the job. This leads to a surreal situation in which he is charged with simultaneously having insufficient enthusiasm for Remain while being unable to connect with Northern and Midland voters who chose Leave.

Representative democracy assumes a tension between policy correctness and effectiveness, between the ideal and the electable, but this dichotomy is itself ideological, suggesting that there must always be a gap between what people want and what they can reasonably expect, and that this gap must be mediated by a political class. What the EU referendum has shown is that the people will chose the ideal, even if it is impractical or contradictory, because they value the opportunity of unmediated expression. They didn't reject expertise so much as articulate long-held prejudices developed in defensive reaction to social and economic change and fanned by unscrupulous newspapers. The idea that this could be turned round by a few facts and some stardust was foolish. Ironically, Leavers are now being berated for their credulity in believing the promises on NHS funding and immigration by the same people who have long mocked the left for its focus on false consciousness.

The "We are the 48%" demonstration yesterday was almost tailor-made to prompt sneers about self-regarding metroplitan liberals. Organising a march to Westminster was pointless in a week when the government had largely evaporated. They would have done better to march through the streets of Bexley or Stoke-on-Trent, though claiming "This is what democracy looks like" might have prompted a less than sympathetic response. The referendum result will not be reversed any time soon, if ever, and the idea that we can somehow finesse it into "staying put" with EU agreement and popular acquiescence is for the birds. The nation is divided and it will take decades to shift popular opinion far enough to guarantee re-accession, and that's assuming there is still a recognisable EU to join. Ironically, the best hope of British europhiles is that the common currency fails in the next few years, leading to a general reset that can be sold as congruent with UK preferences. Don't hold your breath.