Friday, 6 October 2017

Rentiers and Natives

Centre-right thinkers are becoming increasingly concerned by what they see as the intellectual barrenness of the Tories, however this assumes that the Conservative Party has only recently lost its way, with some attributing it to the cynicism of the Cameron/Osborne years and others to the derangement of Brexit. In fact, conservativism has been intellectually adrift since the 1950s and the Churchillian afterglow, with all subsequent attempts at policy modernisation - under Heath, Thatcher and Cameron - being inspired more by liberalism of one shade or another than philosophical conservativism (hence in part the relative fortunes of Oakeshott and Hayek). Indeed, a case can be made that beyond the programmatic paternalism developed as a response to democracy, the Tories have lacked a truly conservative temperament since they were converted to the cause of empire by Disraeli. Their subsequent electoral success owed much to their absorption of successive liberal factions, notably the Liberal Unionists who split over Home Rule in 1886 and the National Liberals of the 1930s. As the current deal with the DUP should remind us, the Conservative Party is fundamentally opportunistic. For this reason, I am less inclined to believe that their current dearth of ideas (or their indulgence of eccentrics like Jacob Rees-Mogg) signals a terminal crisis.

In his conference speech this week, Philip Hammond contrasted the Conservatives to Labour: "The Party that looks outward, while they are turned inward; The Party which embraces the future, while they yearn for the past; The Party which welcomes and manages change – while they want to resist it, and tax it, and fight it. The Party that makes a clear commitment to the next generation – that they be better off than us; and that their children will be better off again than them. That is the Conservative definition of progress". Beyond the rhetorical nod to Edmund Burke's intergenerational contract, this is a progressive vision more than a conservative one: our goal is to make the future better than the present rather than to ensure it will be no worse. Indeed, it looks like the Tories are not just adopting Ed Miliband's modest policy initiatives for "responsible capitalism" but the very concept of a "British Promise" (which also riffed on Burke). Hammond's problem is that the offer, that the next generation will be better off, is not one that he can plausibly make, not just because the young are obviously worse off after a decade of Tory rule but because the negative impacts of Brexit, which will disproportionately affect the young, can only be deferred (as he has personally sought through an extended transition period) not avoided.

One consequence of the current intellectual confusion in the Conservative Party is a tendency, as even some of their own supporters recognise, to "praise capitalism without even understanding it", leading to mixed messages about the efficacy of markets (such as energy and housing) and an emphasis on capitalism as simply the antithesis to the "Marxism" of the 1970s. This difficulty isn't just due to global economic stagnation, or even the uncertainty that Brexit has given rise to, it is the inevitable consequence of a near-40 year hegemony geared to advancing and protecting the interests of asset-holders. The Tories are now chained to the Thatcherite legacy, which is not the spirit of free enterprise but the preservation of accumulated wealth. Margaret Thatcher was able to successfully reconcile conservative instincts and liberal economics politically because her own prejudices made her oblivious to the contradictions of a programme that encompassed both social repression and personal liberty. In the event, the conservative half of that programme was a near-chaotic mixture of populism (crushing unions), luck (the Falklands War) and stupidity (the Poll Tax). The liberal half was more successful, notably in the emergence of New Labour to protect capital from electoral risk, but this simply accentuated the contradictions that would eventually lead both to politically toxic inequality and the emotional spasm of Brexit.

Central to these contradictions is the concept of sovereignty. The British Election Study produced a notable finding in its July 2017 report, What mattered most to you when deciding how to vote in the EU referendum?: "The clear picture we get from this analysis is that leavers are concerned primarily about sovereignty and immigration. In fact reading responses shows that many respondents mention both sovereignty and immigration together, showing that these two issues were closely linked in the minds of British voters". This suggests that sovereignty has come to be seen, at least by leavers, as a matter of social control, hence the apparent lack of concern over the remarkable erosion of parliamentary sovereignty that has occurred since the vote last year. The popular expectation for post-Brexit trade deals isn't as delusional as that of Tory ultras - most people seem to know we'll be worse off but hope the effect is marginal - but it is still pretty blithe, suggesting that trade isn't decisive in most people's calculations and remains a matter of symbolic power rather than a pressing material concern (hence a compromise on the customs union is more likely than one on the single market). In other words, sovereignty is less about democratic principle or the ability to independently negotiate and more about preserving a cultural ideal. This is not so much racist (though that's obviously a factor for some) as categorical: formalising the "otherness" of immigrants and thereby protecting the integrity of an assumed national community.

In contrast, the BES analysis of remainer concerns finds a different priority: "On the remain side, economic reasons are by far the largest single category, with other respondents split fairly evenly across other categories. These included people who felt European and didn’t want to be 'little Englanders' and people who worried that Britain's influence in the world would decline". This suggests that remainers see identity and national standing largely in terms of the esteem of relative economic performance and formal international cooperation (which is predominantly economic). While this suggests a relegation of the cultural chauvinism of classical liberalism, it is perhaps more accurate to see it in terms of the creation of the supranational liberal identity and global norms that have helped fuel the antagonisms encompassed by the phrase "culture wars". It also implies that adherence to the economic rules is ultimately more important than democracy (as the EU has long insisted in practice) and that international relations should still be subject to historic privilege and institutional influence (i.e. the patronising bullying known as "soft power"). Remainers are essentially Whigs, which goes a long way to explain the prominence of A C Grayling and his ilk.

The British political establishment assumed that the EU referendum would be decided on material interests, hence both "Project Fear" on the one side and outlandish claims about NHS funding and the potential of free trade agreements on the other. When it dawned on the political class that the result was more reflective of a cultural divide, this was quickly reduced to a concern with immigration, which allowed remainers to demonise the majority of voters as xenophobes or nostalgists while most leavers insisted that taking back control was all about border security and obscure product regulations rather than bank reform or capital mobility. The two sides have more in common than they are prepared to admit, not least because both Whigs and Tories treat immigration as a matter of national advantage. The liberal justification for immigration often employs the contemporary arguments made for the rehabilitation of colonialism. For example, we are told that while there may be negative effects for some low-skill workers the aggregate benefits for society are positive. Likewise, much emotional emphasis is placed on the incidental positives that arise from cultural exchange, from more varied cuisine to Mo Farah's gold medals. We even see arguments focused on the calibre of the national "stock", such as that the relative youth of immigrants can offset an ageing society, which would not have been out of place at a meeting of Edwardian eugenicists.

These tropes should remind us that the liberal defence of immigration is no less instrumental than the liberal defence of colonialism a century ago and its defence of anticommunism half a century ago. The US fucked up in Vietnam because a more intelligent policy from the late-1940s would have accelerated the domestic civil rights movement to the 1950s. In the event, the loss of blood and treasure, not to mention international goodwill, merely delayed domestic reform by a decade. Likewise, the UK political establishment's refusal to address the social and economic fallout of 2008, which was reflected in Ed Balls' deficit fetishism as much as the Tories' austerity, led not only to Brexit but may well lead to a Labour government committed to reversing many of the neoliberal institutional reforms of the last 35 years. That Labour is now challenging the imperatives of capital explains why the Tories are keen to defend them, but this requires that they fight a battle on ground that is not of their own choosing - i.e. in the shadow of the economy's poor delivery over recent years and with mounting evidence that for most Conservative Party members capitalism is a synonym for rentier interests and sovereignty a synonym for native privilege. The suspicion is that the electoral limits of the former will push them towards the latter by necessity, making the failure of the negotiations with the EU27 that much likelier.


  1. I think the last line is spot on, in terms of Conservative gut instinct. Play the nativist card to defend rentier interests. But as you hint, probably that ship will have sailed by 2020...

  2. My assumption currently is that a Lino option (Leave In Name Only aka Soft Brexit) is still the most likely outcome. Lino probably means the Tory Government must fall.

    The only option with a majority in the House of Commons is Lino.
    There is a majority in the U.K. electorate for Lino.
    Majority of UK big money interests want Lino.
    Organised labour TUC want Lino.
    UK PM agrees 2 year transition. Thats Lino till March 2021.
    EU27 can only offer Lino. To offer better than Lino to the UK means existential crisis for EU.

    Standing in the way of Lino
    Minority of Tory MPs
    Majority of Tory party members.
    A few big money interest.
    Rightwing press. Murdoch.

    In total there are well under 100 thousand individuals who are holding up the Lino rollout.