Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Limits of Power

What are we to make of the difference in Theresa May's attitude towards public inquiries into the Hillsborough disaster and the Battle of Orgreave? In the case of the former, she was notably even-handed as Home Secretary and insistent on due process. In the case of the latter, she (and I'm pretty sure it is she, and not Amber Rudd), seems determined to resist a thorough investigation. The current Home Secretary's justifications - that there are few operational lessons to be learnt and that no one died or was wrongfully convicted - are specious. Without an inquiry it is impossible to know what lessons might be learnt, while the collapse of the trials of 95 miners for riot and violent disorder suggests that a miscarriage of justice was averted only through the incompetence of the police. As the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign has long pointed out, the evidence of collusion in police statements mirrors that at Hillsborough, suggesting an institutional problem rather than a few bad apples or an isolated incident. That surely is worthy of a public inquiry.

One explanation for the difference would be that while the blame for Hillsborough could be limited to the South Yorkshire Police, Orgreave was clearly the consequence of political direction. Though government rhetoric played a part in reinforcing general police contempt for football fans, there was no explicit instruction, even if we now know there was tacit government sympathy for the Hillsborough cover-up. In contrast, Orgreave was the execution of government policy, and while the campaign for justice has focused on the South Yorkshire Police's abuse of process, there is little doubt that a full inquiry would reveal the extent to which the violence was not merely anticipated but sought by a politicised force intent on confrontation. What links the two events is the suspicion that the force grew to believe it was untouchable in its dealings with ordinary people between 1984 and 1989. The common thread that links these two events with the Scarman and McPherson inquiries, into the Brixton riots and the murder of Stephen Lawrence respectively, is whether the police serve the public or vested political and institutional interests (some of which are corrupt).

If May's attitude to Hillsborough can be summarised as "none are above the law", her behaviour since entering Number 10 suggests that she is anything but a fan of hard and fast rules. The bespoke deal with Nissan is notable not as a return to "picking winners" in strategic industries but as an abandonment of the long-standing policy of providing "certainty" to business more generally. Much of this can be attributed to the chaos unleashed by Brexit and the pressure of events, and no doubt greater clarity will be forthcoming, but May's improvisation is not what most political observers would have anticipated after her long stint at the Home Office. The question this raises is what sort of conservatism can we expect from her over the next three and a half years? I've already stated my belief that the dominant motif of the May administration will be sovereignty, as much through circumstance as choice. Given the weakness of the UK's position in terms of external sovereignty, this probably means a lot of compensatory gestures in the area of internal sovereignty, plus a surfeit of gratuitous foreigner-bashing and mindless patriotism.

Despite the various claims that May wishes to return us to the pre-immigration 1950s, the state activism of the 1970s, or even the municipalism of Joseph Chamberlain's 1870s, these sovereigntist gestures are likely to reflect more recent political styles. The most obvious, and least significant, will be the saloon bar rants that Nigel Farage has normalised through helpful media coverage. Expect more fights to be picked with pantomime villains like FIFA and more resistance to "meddling courts" and civic busybodies (distaste at "the public inquiry industry" may well have influenced the Orgreave response). The beasting of Gary Lineker is very much of the moment. More significant will be the niggly interventions in social and economic life of the sort trailed at the recent Conservative Party conference. Much of this will die a death between podium and policy, so the neoliberal fear of extra burdens on business is probably unjustified, but what is likely to get through is anything that builds on the existing neoliberal regime of burdens on labour - i.e. the world of Daniel Blake.

The final dimension of this sovereigntist turn, and the most obviously authoritarian, will be the further centralisation of power by the executive. This is already visible not just in the friction with the Commons over Brexit negotiations, but in the reservation of decision-making to the PM's immediate circle. The sofas may have gone, but there has been no return to the cabinet government of old. However, it is important to recognise that just as the neoliberal ideology of CEO superstars and Davos man produced "sofa government", so the immediate consequence of the referendum vote in June has been to erode political constraints on the power of the UK executive, notwithstanding today's High Court judgement denying that Crown prerogative can be used to invoke Article 50. While secrecy and a reluctance to delegate might be Theresa May's natural instincts, these are being reinforced by structural developments. A further structural consideration is the unusual progression of a former Home Secretary to the top job (Jim Callaghan was the last to achieve this before May).

In a piece for the LRB, William Davies notes the Hobbesian flavour of this background and how it encourages a "protective state" that actively discriminates: "it sounds as if the May government is going to listen to the fears and demands of its particular people, rather than seek to map and meet the needs of people in general". He also makes the point that social conservatism and economic protectionism can produce a far more stable marriage than the combination of the former and free market ideology that was ushered in by Margaret Thatcher: "Prejudice in society carries far more potential when it is also pursued in the economy". Current polling suggests a large constituency for a dirigiste programme that spans both the social and economic spheres. This raises the possibility that neoliberalism can only work when instantiated through a local social conservatism (which would explain the unnecessarily authoritarian turn of New Labour) but that it remains a fragile construction whose inherent contradictions become critical under conditions of austerity.

One way of thinking about the general crisis of neoliberalism in Europe is as a shift towards greater state activism in the social sphere to compensate for stasis in the economic sphere. In other words, austerity doesn't just mechanically produce more intervention in society - through cuts in services and benefits and the rhetoric of scarce resources - it also encourages a focus on national and community progress (or resistance to decline) in order to occupy political energies while market reform and supranational institution-building are stalled. The Eurozone crisis can be seen as an attempt to accommodate this nationalist turn within a common framework. The adoption of conservative rhetoric ("black zero, "debts must be honoured") sought to satisfy domestic political pressure while maintaining cohesion within the union, even at the expense of bullying individual members like Greece. In the event, little has been achieved outside the mechanisms of limited banking union, leading many to believe the EU is now stuck, unable to go forward for fear of more desertions and unable to go backward for fear of a chaotic unravelling of the single currency.

The failure to successfully develop austerity as an EU-wide conservative programme, and thus a substitute for national conservative agitation, has led to all EU initiatives becoming vulnerable to local priorities, whether these are anti-neoliberal reactions from the left or socially conservative reactions from the right. The recent CETA saga was notable both for its localisation to Wallonia, a traditionally pro-EU region, and the resulting pessimism about the prospects of further trade deals in the future. The problem that arises from this nationalist turn is not just that it empowers social conservatives, but that it also allows the far-right to appropriate memories of a pre-EU activist state that was anything but congenial to their own aims. For example, the Front National in France has been able to capture votes by appealing to Gaullist nostalgia, while the AfD in Germany has shifted from an anti-euro but economically liberal party to a right-wing, anti-immigrant party for whom the Deutschmark is now a fetish.

One way of resolving this bind would be to pursue an active economic strategy at the EU level, but this is assumed to be impossible given the EU's DNA. As Davies puts it, "The reason German neoliberals (or ‘ordoliberals’) of the 1930s and 1940s were so hostile to cartels and monopolies wasn’t that they saw them as necessarily inefficient, but that non-market economies can be more easily requisitioned in the service of political goals: they were a vital precondition of the Nazi political economy. By contrast, competitive markets perform a liberal function, because they block the social and political ambitions of interventionist leaders". However, this accepts at face value the ordoliberal interpretation of the Nazi route to power: that a malign faction exploited both representative democracy and the popular appetite for an interventionist state in the Weimar years. In fact, the Nazis seizure of power was not facilitated by cartels and monopolies (though individual industrialists were helpful), but by the political support of newspapers and the misguided instrumentalism of conservative politicians.

Davies continues, "The European Union was founded partly on ordoliberal principles, which require the state to provide a rigid legal constitution in defence of open and competitive markets; hence the inclusion of anti-trust and anti-State Aid provisions in the Treaty of Rome. Member states are simply not allowed to ‘pick winners’ and defend ‘national champions’ or look after those who have greater claims to indigenous economic rights (though the application of these rules has been variable, and states have always wanted to do favours for their nation’s leading car manufacturers). This European post-nationalism is what Brexit was pitted against. [Theresa] May and [Nick] Timothy have far greater legal and political opportunity to pursue a protectionist agenda now that Britain is on its way out of that ordoliberal framework". The parenthetical caveat is important because it admits the reality of the EU was one in which member states continued to pick winners but did so increasingly in concert and away from the public gaze.

In other words, the practice of the interventionist state became supra-national by stealth, which gives the lie to the claim that a coordinated reflationary programme is made impossible by the EU's institutional design. For all the talk of free-market principles, the over-riding objective, from the earliest days of the European Coal and Steel Community, was coordination, not competition. In other words, the rational dividing-up of the continental cake (an example close to home was the willingness of other EU members to allow the City of London to become the de facto European "champion" in the field of wholesale financial services). The EU has always proceeded stealthily, both because public opinion has usually been behind the "progressive vanguard", and because of the gap between free-market rhetoric and neoliberal practice. What Brexit is doing is revealing the horse-trading that has always gone on. The belief of Tory ministers that they can cut deals before Article 50 is invoked may be over-optimistic, but it isn't as hopelessly na├»ve as remainers claim.

But just as the EU is less ordoliberal than it claims, so the latitude for the UK government to pursue a protectionist or highly interventionist economic policy is narrower than first appears. This is the consequence of two things. First, globalisation and financialisation have made it harder to isolate truly native businesses for special treatment. For example, the Nissan deal is less about protecting a UK firm than guaranteeing a level playing field relative to the EU for a Japanese multinational (i.e. we're going to compensate a foreign firm for tariffs imposed by a third party). Likewise, Citibank may employ more people in the UK than Nissan, but any aid to it would mainly benefit US shareholders, not domestic employees. Second, the last 30 years have seen the state's capacity for intervention in areas other than the training, disciplining and maintenance of labour (i.e. education, welfare and health) largely dismantled. The equivalent of Joe Chamberlain's "gas and water socialism" is simply not possible without a major expansion of state control and an increase in taxation - i.e. the socialism bit. This is not what Theresa May's "particular people" want.

In contrast, the erosion of non-state institutions and ethical constraints during the neoliberal era has left a normative vacuum in the social realm, leading Davies to suggest that "the state will start performing acts of conservative discrimination which historically have been performed by way of cultural capital and softer forms of power" (one qualification I'd make is that this vacuum is already being filled by social media and the tyranny of right behaviour, which extends to progressive discrimination as well - e.g. the hysteria over trolling). In this light, the refusal of a public inquiry into policing at Orgreave is both a decision to protect the interests of her immediate "family", in the words of Paul Goodman - i.e. a Conservative Party that fears the posthumous demonisation of Thatcher, and a performative expression of executive power at a time when government is domestically weak and isolated abroad.


  1. The annoying thing about the Orgreave decision is that the government have tried to suggest that it would never happen again under 'modern policing'.

    Hillsborough would be highly unlikely to recur because the police would not treat a group like football supporters so recklessly these days, and safety considerations would be prioritised over such a basic level of public order maintenance.

    While Hillsborough was a case of extreme negligence, Orgreave was, as you point out, a deliberately planned consequence of government strategy. Miners were a political enemy, and thus subject to all the machinations of state repression. If political groups these days were to pose such a public threat to the objectives of the government or the legitimacy of state power then we would undoubtedly see such a resort to force and the same kind of underhand methods used to discredit protestors. In regard to political demonstrations over the past thirty years, policing has become more coercive, with the development of kettling and the use of force even against groups like students who represented a rather tame threat to government power.

    As you suggest in your concluding paragraph, the whole continuation of the cover-up could well be a portent of future state repression as it lashes out on new 'enemies within'.

    1. The fact that the Special Demonstration Squad wasn't wound up until 2008 (and has no doubt been replaced by another function whose existence will eventually come to light), should be conclusive proof that we've had a politicised police force all along.

      In most other democracies the revelation of the SDS's practices would have been a major scandal that would have led to root and branch reform of the police and potentially the prosecution of politicians. In the UK, it led to a prurient interest in the sex lives of undercover officers.