Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Lessons Learned

The shallow and opportunistic reading of foreign politics by the British media has been particularly obvious this week in the reaction to Ireland's repeal of the 8th amendment to the constitution on the one hand, and to the Italian President's rejection of the M5S/La Lega nominee for the role of Finance Minister on the other. The introduction of legal abortion in Ireland will have no bearing on Brexit, but this hasn't stopped remainers celebrating the vote as proof that referendums can deliver the "right" outcome, while leavers have muttered about "plots" against Northern Ireland. Much has been made by liberals of the calibre of institutional deliberation, the willingness of voters to trust the judgement of those most affected, and the more balanced coverage of the media. All of these played a part, but the projection of Brexit-induced anger over a badly-designed vote, the old ignoring the interests of the young, and a toxic and partisan press means that the underlying dynamic has tended to be obscured - namely that the 8th amendment, which was only passed in 1983, was the last gasp of a political clericalism that was already in decline long before the scandals of the 1990s curtailed the Catholic Church's moral authority.

While the Irish referendum had the advantage of the Citizens' Assembly and detailed legislative drafting ahead of the vote, so expertise had a better hearing and the practical implications were clearer, this has limited applicability for Brexit where no amount of official enquiries could have overturned decades of Eurosceptic media coverage and where the consequences of a multi-dimensional decoupling could not be so easily determined. In legislative terms, abortion is a simple matter. Brexit, on the other hand, is likely to take a decade to fully enact and the social and economic ramifications won't be fully appreciated for much longer. A better lesson is that our current confusion and uncertainty in the UK arises from an unwillingness on the part of politicians to engage with voters in the aftermath of the 2016 vote to determine what sort of Brexit would be acceptable within foreseeable constraints, or at least to determine the true range and balance of opinion in order to understand popular tolerance for the compromises and trade-offs that the negotiations would make inevitable. That this wasn't done, and that a blank-cheque was refused in 2017, means that a no-deal outcome remains possible, essentially as the consequence of ignorance and fear.

In the case of Italy, President Mattarella's rejection of Paolo Savona as Finance Minister is variously interpreted as a necessary black-ball for a dangerous Eurosceptic or a repeat of the Greek tragedy in which the will of the people is countermanded by a callous EU. In fact, Savona is an establishment technocratic whose scepticism about the euro is little different to that of Gordon Brown. His real sin is his prior claim that an exit from the eurozone would have to prepared covertly for technical reasons. As he is so firmly associated with this idea, appointing him would be interpreted as a case of showing your hand, which is why Mattarella cited the likelihood of a destabilising run on Italian bonds were the appointment to go through. The President's view seems to be that as neither M5S nor La Lega included an exit from the euro in their manifestos, there is no mandate to pursue a change that he claimed would have constitutional ramifications in respect of the state's obligation to "protect" citizens' savings (a bit of a stretch), and that for the sake of market stability the coalition's Finance Minister must therefore be at least neutral on the subject. Mattarella is intimating that M5S and La Lega haven't been straight with the electorate, reviving the old tradition of Trasformismo. Ironically, Savona is being black-balled because of his apparent sincerity.

The unwillingness of Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini to compromise on Savona's appointment lends credence to the suggestion that neither really believed the proposed coalition was viable and both are jockeying for position ahead of another general election in early autumn, though it's Salvini who appears to be making most of the running and potentially has the most to gain. The thinking is that La Lega will hoover up votes on the right, from Forza Italia and the Fascist-lineage Fratelli d'Italia (I doubt the bizarre rehabilitation of Silvio Berlusconi as a moderate elder statesman will limit this, but you never know). However, despite its new focus on "national" topics such as migration and the euro, there is little evidence that La Lega can overcome the legacy of its historic antipathy towards the South of Italy, which is where it would have to succeed in order to secure a plurality of the electorate. The party's Euroscepticism is culturally an extension of its opposition to Rome and thus the distaste of the richer North towards a central state that has long subsidised the poorer South. It is hard to see La Lega getting beyond 30% of the vote, and equally hard to imagine Berlusconi sticking with a joint electoral bloc if the Forza Italia vote continues to drift to La Lega.

M5S have once again proved that they are not a party of power but a coalition of often contradictory anti-establishment and technocratic impulses. While many foreign observers imagine that they are on the political left, they have picked up support from the conservative right and from the liberal centre as well, suggesting that their vote, while large in contemporary Italian standards at 33% in the recent general election, might be the most vulnerable to fragmentation. The party with the potential for the biggest surge over the next few months is the Partido Democratico, but that assumes a conscious move towards the left and a manifesto centred on social protection, so outflanking M5S, which is likely to be resisted by the neoliberal cadres even if Matteo Renzi finally departs as party leader. Another problem for the PD is that Mattarella's decision this week means that the coming election may be fought explicitly on the euro. While there doesn't appear to be a popular majority to quit the Eurozone, let alone the EU, Salvini may decide to go for broke with an anti-euro platform simply to maximise his vote on the right. If he does so, M5S might be able to monopolise the "pro-euro but pro-reform" vote, in the manner of Syriza in Greece, which could then send the PD the way of PASOK.

There aren't many valid parallels to draw between either the Irish or Italian political scenes and the UK, though if the next Italian general election looks like it might become a de facto referendum on Europe, you can expect the #FBPE crowd to even more loudly demand that Labour "gets off the fence", despite the unlikelihood of a general election being called here in time to stop Brexit. Some may suggest that the lesson to be taken from Italy is that fundamental and complex decisions should be taken openly by politicians, even at the cost of splitting parties, and not pursued covertly or thrown out to a popular vote simply in order to preserve party unity, but this would be naive both in ignoring the uncertainty inherent to politics (constructive ambiguity is structural) and in imagining that the impeccable process of the Irish referendum was anything other than the usual fudge. The deliberative democracy of the Citizens' Assembly may have contributed to a better discourse, but it was also a way of outsourcing responsibility until such time as the politicians felt sufficiently emboldened to make a commitment to legislation.

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