Sunday, 29 July 2018

On Trump, Israel and Rhetoric

One thing that the recent spat between Donald Trump and the Iranian government made clear is that the US President's rhetorical style is closer to that of a Middle Eastern politician than one versed in American or European discourse. The hyperbole, the bombast, the self-congratulation and boasting are par for the course in a region that has not only produced dictators with a taste for the florid, like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, but democratic demagogues such as Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump's style is also closer to the international norm, at least outside the West, which perhaps helps explain his greater comfort in the company of Rodrigo Duterte and Kim Jong-un. It may also help explain his evident discomfort and uncertainty when dealing with Vladimir Putin, a politician who is all deal and no rhetorical art (Trump's schtick is not the deal but the blag). American critics who cite Trump's verbal brutality as evidence that the US polity is going to the dogs ignore that it's simply reverting to the global mean. Just as the McCarthy era was actually typical of American history, rather than an aberration, so Trump's rhetoric is as much a revival as a decline.

The charge of incivility against Trump, like the similar charge against the "dirtbag left" in the US and the "Corbynistas" in the UK, should remind us that verbal restraint is essentially an anglophone mode, albeit one that has heavily influenced continental European politics since the Second World War (De Gaulle was the conscious exception to this tendency and his legacy is visible in the verbal pretensions of Macron). The purpose is not merely to perform centrist decorum but more prosaically to provide a background contrast for the telling line or soundbite. This mode emerges with the popular press in the late nineteenth century and is then amplified by the arrival of radio in the early twentieth century. The need for compression in these media, at least in those countries where they were driven by commercial goals, meant that the monster speeches of the nineteenth century given by the likes of Lincoln and Gladstone gradually fell out of favour. While the old cadences lived on in the words of Roosevelt and Churchill, what mattered now was the memorable phrase or pithy witticism rather than a crescendo of moral outrage built up over hours.

Where the monster speech lived on was in dictatorships, often as a test of the loyalty of the immediate listeners as much as the stamina of the speaker. By the 1930s, this meant that civility was inversely-correlated with speech-length (it was wiped from collective memory by the "finest hour", which demanded short and punchy radio broadcasts, but Churchill was mistrusted in the pre-war years for his prolix style). By the 1950s, this economy reached its peak when a BBC interviewer asked Clement Attlee if he had anything else he wanted to tell the listeners, to which the Labour leader curtly replied "No". While anglophone politicians soon dropped this reticence under the impact that advertising and public relations were having on popular culture, they preserved the style of restraint, even when it produced the strangulated politesse of someone like Margaret Thatcher (or the mangled diction of Theresa May). Its finest practitioner may turn out to have been the urbane Barack Obama, who said little beyond the pious but at least kept it short. The key to understanding Trump's use of Twitter is that it allows him the luxury of uninterrupted speech in the manner of Fidel Castro. The soundbites (usually immediately forgettable) are incidental.

The parallel between Trump's rhetorical style and the norms of political discourse in the Middle East perhaps doesn't stick out as much as it should because those norms have been influencing American and European practice for some time, certainly from well before Trump appeared on the scene. The main source of that influence has been Israeli politics, specifically since the growth of the nationalist right in the 1980s and the left's abandonment of socialism for integration into the neoliberal order. Domestically, this saw an increase in viciousness and insult, in acrimonious division and bluster, but internationally it brought a more assertive and unapologetic style (Mark Regev, the current Israel ambassador to the UK is a notable example). Where arguments in support of Israel had previously centred on self-determination and democracy, principles that could obviously be applied to the Palestinian Arabs as well, they increasingly focused on the right of national defence and the civilisational benefits of free market capitalism, which enabled a broad consensus that was less vulnerable to criticism by the West. Central to this shift was nationalism. The dual claim made was that the Jewish people are a nation and Israel is their land, and that there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation and therefore no fixed land.

The word Zionism has changed its meaning over time. While it has always been a national project, its primary goal up until the 1940s was the establishment of a Jewish homeland, which meant that it was historically situated in the "national liberation" strand of nationalism and therefore viewed positively in leftist and liberal circles. Since 1948, and even more so after 1967, Zionism came to be associated with expansionary and exclusionary nationalism because of the occupation of the West Bank and the settler movement. Internationally, this has led to disillusion on the left and a positive embrace by the right. That the latter has become pro-Israel does not mean that its supporters are less antisemitic in their domestic context, merely that exclusionary nationalism contingently trumps Jew-hatred. For many on the nationalist right, Israel is admirable precisely because it has been aggressively nationalist for decades. The paradox is that though they conflate the two in their criticism of the left, the political right are perfectly capable of distinguishing between anti-Zionism and antisemitism because they have no problem being simultaneously Zionist (i.e. pro-Israel, as they define it) and antisemitic.

The problem for the left is that they have continued to use the word "Zionism", imagining that the world in general (and Jews in particular) will recognise that it has come to mean "bad" nationalism rather than self-determination. But as "bad" nationalism is "good" in the eyes of the right (including the Jewish right), this is a vain hope. The left would do better to simply retire the word and talk about Israeli policy within the framework of expansionary and exclusionary nationalism. The rhetorical parallel with Apartheid, particularly after the passing of the recent "national law" in the Knesset, is provocative but more pertinent than continuing to cite Theodor Herzl. While Israel hasn't passed any actively discriminatory laws yet, i.e. ones denying civil rights to groups based on ethnicity (as opposed to laws granting privileges to favoured groups such as ultra-Orthodox Jews), it has now established the principle of different treatment, something that has not been welcomed by the Jewish diaspora.

The Israeli government's encouragement of diaspora Jews to make Aliyah (to immigrate to Israel), notably the high-profile intervention of ministers after the Toulouse shooting in France in 2012 and the Porte de Vincennes shooting in the same country in 2015, has an obvious demographic motivation, but it also reinforces the idea that integration by Jews in countries other than Israel is impossible (the original ideological division between the Zionists and the Bundists before the Second World War), which in turn encourages the belief that a pluralist approach cannot work within Israel itself - i.e. the explicit belief that it can only be a Jewish state and the implicit belief that all non-Jews must therefore be considered second-class citizens. This is damaging enough within Israel, but it also makes diaspora Jews more vulnerable by suggesting that treating them as a distinct group in terms of rights is consistent with the general nationalist turn. A proposal in Austria to oblige Jews to register to buy kosher meat is not encouraging.

The tendency of the political right and centre to conflate criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism risks debasing the latter's meaning to the point that people shrug when the term is deployed against them. But this isn't because of the reaction of the left. While some on the left downplay bigotry in their ranks by focusing on the presumed motives of those making the false equivalence, they aren't obviously dismissing the reality of antisemitism or its illegitimacy, even if they quibble about its frequency. Most on the left recognise that there is both a problem that needs to be addressed and that it is being exploited for partisan ends, specifically within the Labour Party, but the latter doesn't obviate the former. The bigger issue is actually the reaction of the political right, which can now dismiss the charge of antisemitism by pointing to its support for Israeli nationalism. That Benjamin Netanyahu can find common ground with Viktor Orban, a politician who has employed antisemitic tropes in domestic politics, shows how Jewish nationalism has increasingly come to be at odds with the interests of the Jewish diaspora (it is worth noting that the majority of Jews, 55%, do not live in Israel).

Netanyahu's attempt in 2015 to pin the blame for the Nazi programme of extermination on the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was not just a trivialisation of the Holocaust. It was also part of the long-standing policy of framing the operation of contemporary Israeli nationalism in existential terms: if we don't pursue a national programme, we will be wiped from the face of the earth; the Nazis may be gone, but the threat remains from the Arabs and the Iranians. While this threat is not without foundation in rhetoric ("driven into the sea" etc), it remains hyperbole in practice. The state of Israel is no more likely to disappear than Switzerland is. The problem with this language is not its deployment in a Middle East where hyperbole is the norm, but its seeping into political discourse within the diaspora, such as the recent combined editorial by three leading Jewish newspapers in the UK accusing Jeremy Corbyn of personally presenting an "existential threat" to Jewish life. In reality, the greatest threat to the diaspora is a revival of exclusionary nationalism in countries like the UK, not the re-nationalisation of the railways. Jews who ostentatiously resign from Labour aren't boosting the electoral prospects of the LibDems or Greens but Tories prepared to countenance a no-deal Brexit that will stimulate xenophobic bigotry.

The debate (if it can be called that) over Labour's adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism has also seen the deployment of another rhetorical strategy honed in Israeli politics. Moving the goalposts - demanding further concessions or redefining the terms of an issue - has long been central to the Israeli state's dealings with the Palestinians. That a similar approach is now being adopted by the Labour right - e.g. MPs who previously supported the Home Affairs select committee's caveats over the IHRA definition now insisting that it be adopted unconditionally - is not the result of covert direction or conspiracy, but it has clearly been influenced by the rhetorical climate that has developed in Israel over the last 25 years and which has in turn affected the Jewish diaspora. What this means in Israel is that any further advance of the interests of the Palestinians is now unthinkable because it would be seen as a diminution of Israel as a national project: there is no space left for compromise. The idea that Israel's primary interest is peace died with Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. What this means abroad is that the diaspora cannot count on Israel to oppose the growth of a right-wing nationalism that it is itself a key exponent of. What it can count on is the denigration of the left as inherently antisemitic, which has the effect of alienating the natural supporters of the diaspora's rights.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

The Fetish of Regulation

Since the right lost control of the Labour Party machine, they have turned to demanding independent adjudication of policies and behaviours. Two recent examples are the insistence that the IHRA definition of antisemitism be adopted unqualified, and the claim by John Woodcock and his supporters that the accusations of harassment made against him could only be fairly judged by an independent inquiry. Combining the two themes - policy and behaviour - we can expect the Labour right to insist that Margaret Hodge will be denied a fair hearing if she is disciplined for calling Jeremy Corbyn an "antisemitic racist", essentially because (in their view) the current party leadership is antisemitic, which thereby begs the question. The purpose of this is not just to delegitimise the left but to hobble the party. This realisation may be behind John McDonnell's suggestion that the charges against Hodge be dropped: not because she is in the right, but because it isn't worth making a martyr of her. Although this move within Labour has obviously been occasioned by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader (and more precisely his re-election, which closed off the right's route to power for the foreseeable future), it is notable as part of a wider trend towards independent regulation within politics.

This tendency is neoliberal. It might seem a stretch to compare the role of the Jewish Labour Movement and others in respect of the Labour Party to that of the IMF or the ECB in respect of nation states, but the shift from lobbying on the basis of expertise to regulation on the basis of authority is central to neoliberal practice. Some of the critics of the demand that the IHRA definition be adopted without caveats have questioned the right of its supporters to speak for all Jews, but this makes the mistake of assuming that we're still in the realm of expertise, where qualifications and motives can be questioned and where competing interpretations can be evaluated. In fact, what matters is authority, which is one reason why the sight of Conservative Party supporters like Jonathan Arkush and Stephen Pollard berating Labour prompts little scepticism from the media. Equally absurd is that Labour MPs who two years ago supported the Home Affairs select committee amendment of the IHRA (specifically to avoid criticism of the state of Israel being taken as prima facie evidence of antisemitism) are now appalled that Labour's NEC should propose a similar approach. The difference in the two cases is not the substance of the variations but the imputed authority of the body doing the varying.

There is a more general point here. The systemic failure of the media to question the credentials and bona fides of privileged interlocutors like the Tax Payers' Alliance, the IEA and various climate-change deniers indicates the extent to which the authoritarian turn in politics long predates the election of Donald Trump or the leave victory in the EU referendum. That the political establishment has always abused the powers of the state to undermine and marginalise those it deems "subversive" is hardly news, but the regime also required the recognition and promotion of permissible dissent to preserve the appearance of plurality. What neoliberal ideologues from the Mont Pelerin Society onwards realised was that this managed pluralism could enable a concerted campaign that was actually more subversive of the established order than any extra-parliamentary movement. The neoliberal think-tanks created as part of this soon moved from a claim of expertise validated by the social and economic developments of the 1970s to a claim of authority based on the premise of a socially natural and ethically neutral market. This manoeuvre has now been copied by the nationalist right, elevating a populist conception of "the people's will" to a similar supra-political position. Why does the BBC indulge right-wing chancers like Steve Bannon and Gerald Batten? Because over the years the media have constructed an imaginary populace, centred on an "authentic" electoral bloc that is biologically xenophobic and illiberal, just as they once constructed an imaginary market centred on personal freedom.

The idea of liberal pluralism has been hollowed-out by a combination of repression (the marginalisation of alternative sources of authority such as trade unions, academia and local government) and the domination of media bandwidth (opaquely-funded think-tanks, astro-turfing and the relaxation of the requirement for broadcast impartiality). But while this obviously benefits the political centre and right, the demand for greater independent regulation in politics isn't just targeted at the left. It's structural, so it's a general recourse even if it isn't applied equally. The same impetus lies behind the recent demand for an independent inquiry into Tory Islamophobia, the proposed beefing-up of both the Electoral Commission and Data Commissioner's powers of inquiry and sanction, and the proposal of a new code of behaviour for MPs to prevent bullying and harassment. In the UK, the creation of select committees after 1979 obviously gave momentum to this cultural shift, but equally important has been the increase in independent, judge-led inquiries into the workings of government, from Franks to Chilcott. Where politicians were once the traditional arbiters of the need for an inquiry, they have increasingly become the subject, though not without resistance (for example, the cancellation of Leveson part 2, which would have looked at the relationship of the press and politicians).

Indeed politicians have adopted a more regulatory mode themselves, in keeping with the times. The efforts of both hardcore leavers and remainers to constrain Theresa May's government over Brexit might appear like a continuation of the historic role of the Commons in holding the executive to account, but in fact it is an extension of the legislature's regulation of the executive and thus a shift in the focus of the relationship from the retrospective to the prospective. Between the 18th and 20th centuries, it was accepted that the government had the unilateral power to both initiate military action and negotiate treaties. The Commons would be informed and consulted, but there was no constitutional principle that its active permission ("a meaningful vote") had to be sought. That has gradually changed in this century as a consequence of both successive EU treaties (which angered the right) and the Iraq War (which angered the left). Where "holding to account" presumed that the executive would have the power to first make a mistake, the contemporary aim is to pre-empt errors. In business terms, the emphasis has moved from audit to qualified sign-off (the media focus on select committee confrontations with celebrity or reluctant witnesses is unrepresentative of their work).

Though the impulse to control the executive is sound, it has produced some ironies. The House of Lords has also taken on a greater role in invigilating and constraining the executive rather than just reviewing and amending legislation passed by the Commons; while the ceaseless negotiation in Parliament between backbenchers and the executive over the various Brexit bills has limited the time available for the negotiations with the EU. Another irony is that Brexit, which was long framed as an escape from the burdensome red-tape of Brussels, is going to produce a flowering of new domestic regulation, not so much in the area of commerce and trade, which will probably just replicate EU rules, but in a growth of state functions, quangos and parliamentary committees to take over the invigilation previously carried out by EU bodies. Some people imagine that this will be avoided because the Brexit ultras are committed deregulators, but this ignores two things: first, that the impetus for regulation typically comes from those who are regulated - it is business that lobbies for and designs business regulations; and second, we already know that many of the authorities to be repatriated from the EU will not be cascaded down to devolved assemblies or local government but will be reserved by Whitehall.

Perhaps the greatest irony of this regulatory turn in British politics is that the 2016 EU referendum, which has been widely characterised as the Tories foolishly "outsourcing" a problem of internal division, was actually a plea for independent regulation (by the ultimate authority of the people) in the face of a failure of political formations to align with the issue of EU membership. That so many remainers want another "people's vote" is not just a pragmatic belief that only a second referendum can undo the result of the first but also a vote of no-confidence in those political formations (the desire to make Labour explicitly anti-Brexit is obviously part of this). This shouldn't be taken as evidence that centrists have suddenly been converted to the virtues of participatory democracy. Their enthusiasm for Supreme Court judges indicates where they see authority ultimately residing: the Rechsstaat. Naturally, those Labour MPs who have loudly criticised David Cameron for promoting an issue of party management to a near-existential crisis for the nation see no parallel in their own desire to make Labour subservient to the opinions and rulings of others. This is not just the usual hypocrisy and opportunism of centrists, but evidence that the fetish of regulation remains hegemonic.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Brexit and British Pragmatism

The UK's relationship with the EEC and later the EU was unusual because "Europe" as an ideal never took on a positive national political role here, as it did in most other member states. The relationship remained almost exclusively transactional, hence the emphasis on "market access" and Thatcher's emblematic rebate. It was neither seen as constructive in terms of the polity (as a guarantor of democracy) nor as a component of national identity (membership of a "club" that implied a historical and cultural homogeneity). The result was a tendency to think of Europe as an optional extra, a plug-and-play extension to both the state and the economy that did not affect the underlying integrity of either. Just as leavers doubted the warnings of "project fear" over the potential damage to the economy that Brexit would entail, so many of them imagined that uncoupling would be straightforward and risk little disruption to the constitution of the UK. The failure to appreciate the impact in Ireland was not just a routine lack of interest in the "other island" but the result of a wilful blindness to the way that the EU had become intimately intertwined with the UK's governance beyond bendy bananas and meddling judges. It was like mistaking a major organ transplant for an over-tight suit.

To a large extent this misunderstanding arose because Europe had never been successfully grafted onto the national self-image, or at least not in England and Wales. Scotland went further in this regard, though that owed much to a popular history in which Europe was held up as the antithesis of England. In contrast, Europe as a civilisational ideal had played a part in the identity of continental states since the Enlightenment. For the original signatories of the Treaty of Rome, European integration carried greater expectations than the mere coordination of markets or even a contingent defence against the revival of fascism and the contemporary threat of Soviet communism. This aspirational dimension enjoyed broad (if sometimes shallow) support across mainstream parties and social classes. It wasn't just limited to the consumers of haute culture and it appealed to both conservatives and progressives. Even when the left opposed the EEC as a capitalists' club, there was a conscious effort to maintain a higher ideal of antifascist and pro-worker European solidarity: the phrase "another Europe" has a long lineage. For later member states, Europe variously offered an inoculation against military rule (Spain, Portugal and Greece), a road to technocratic modernity (Ireland and Denmark), and a means of securing national independence through a supra-national federation (Poland, the Baltic states etc). In all cases, this meant elevating the harmony of rules and cultural affinity above national will.

The UK wasn't unique in its transactional approach, but nowhere else was the EU presented as mutually-exclusive to national identity (unsurprisingly, this sense of identity among leavers has been reinforced by the referendum result, which goes a long way to explain the lack of buyer's remorse despite pessimism about the economic impact - see pgs 14-19 of the latest British Social Attitudes Survey). While there has been no shortage of continental populists blaming the EU for the "migrant crisis" or criticising its interference in domestic politics, what they aren't doing is rejecting Europe as an ideal but promoting national identity as another pole in political discourse (one example of this, and an obvious difference with the UK, is that migration and freedom of movement are seen as quite distinct). If anything, the nationalist right have become even more fervent in their "defence of Christian Europe" and their insistence that we face a continental-scale threat from Islam. But though there are echoes of the Fascist era, we are not seeing a resurgence of the exclusivist nationalism of the 1930s (outside the exceptional case of Ukraine), any more than we are seeing a revival of economic autarky in the current protectionist spasm. Though "Europe of the nations" may have displaced "Europe of the regions" in discourse, it remains an ideal of Europe nonetheless, albeit one with a not always respectable pedigree. Poland and Hungary are not about to quit the EU: their aim is to be treated as equals, not supplicants.

Where the UK was unique was in its retention of an image of itself as a global power with interests beyond Europe that would be threatened by greater integration. Though the delusions of empire quickly evaporated after 1956, the idea that the UK retained a global significance lived on in the "special relationship" with the US. That centrist politicians from the 1960s onward promoted both Europe and the special relationship was an example of tactical necessity trumping strategic coherence, but it was (and remains) no more incoherent than contemporary Tories who promote both the anglosphere and the Commonwealth. After the UK joined the EEC in 1973, the appeal of the special relationship as a compensatory fantasy grew (under Macmillan it had been little more than a rhetorical flourish to obscure the post-Suez asymmetry), which was ironic given that its actual importance was the political leverage it now afforded the US within European institutions. That comes to an end with Brexit, but that in turn means that Atlanticist politicians in Britain are ever more desperate to preserve the myth of mutual regard, hence the embarrassment of Donald Trump's recent visit. The importance now given to a potential UK-US trade deal, which would be trivial in its benefits and unpopular in its costs, is a continuation of this, showing how far we have moved from pragmatic self-interest.

While its most fervent British supporters tried to present Europe as an ideal of liberal internationalism and thus congruent with the UK's historic self-image, this was always in tension with the desire to use Europe within the context of domestic politics for partisan ends. Brexit happened because Europe remained a divisive issue within party politics, not because it remained a major public concern (the success of the press in promoting Euroscepticism depended on the issue's political salience, without which it would have looked as eccentric as an obsession with fluoridation). Paradoxically, this wasn't due to strongly-held beliefs among politicians. The constant true-believers were always a small minority, outweighed by those who used Europe as a metaphor for either progressive modernity or the overmighty state. This instrumentality has two causes. First, you have the periodic oscillation between isolationism and internationalism that has marked British politics (the inescapable tension of an island nation, which you can also see in the histories of Ireland and Japan). As a fundamental worldview, this cuts across parties organised on class lines so it tends to manifest as intra-party division and it also tends to change over time (consider the way the left and right in Labour have swapped positions since the 1950s).

The second factor is the antagonistic nature of a first-past-the-post electoral system. I don't mean to suggest by this that proportional representation would have made a difference to British attitudes, as the divisions on Europe were largely within parties rather than between them, but that governments indulged the topic to maintain party unity in the Commons. The 1975 and 2016 referendums were both called for this reason. As UKIP showed, there aren't enough voters who consider Europe to be the primary political issue to secure representation in Parliament, but there are enough to effect the outcome in seats for the two major parties. Calling a referendum makes it the primary issue, which risks producing a result that the legislature will struggle to process because it cuts across parties (as an aside, and contrary to the centrist media, Labour has been far more adroit in dealing with this than the Tories, and not just because it is in opposition). On the continent, Euroscepticism has either been channelled through minor parties that might conceivably hold the balance of power in a coalition or been opportunistically adopted by existing parties of the nationalist right. Though these might appear worrying developments, they suggest that the issue will be diluted through compromise or diverted into gestures. That the new Italian government has rowed back on quitting the euro and focused instead on a non-existent "migrant crisis" is indicative.

This dynamic of absorption and deflection might look unedifying from the outside, but it presents a lower political risk than a binary referendum whose mandate is open to interpretation. Though some Eurosceptic parties on the continent have talked of popular votes on the euro and EU membership, it is unlikely that these will come about. More likely is that the parties will continue to leverage Europe to build domestic support in national legislatures and the European Parliament. As UKIP found, a referendum can be a political death sentence (though equally, as the Tories are now discovering, the "betrayal" of a referendum can revive the corpse). Despite the claims of the right, the EU is not in conflict with nationalism, and has on occasion been happy to promote a liberal version of it, notably in the immediate aftermath of 1989. For all the promotion of a supra-national ideal of Europe, the reality of the EU is a project to reconcile capital's continental goals with national sensitivities. We are in a phase when national sovereignty is in the ascendant, but this is less about an existential threat to the EU than the advancement of particular factions of capital in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. A more assertive national identity is not incompatible with either greater EU institutional integration or neoliberal economic reform, as Macron is busy proving in France.

What has been remarkable about the Brexit process is the failure of the UK government to approach it in transactional terms, which can only be partly blamed on the way that it has been instrumentalised within parties for sectional interests. In a strange rejection of its historic practice and self-image, the UK has been more concerned with the ideal - sovereignty, the freedom of the high seas, constitutional integrity - than with the pragmatic, hence the profusion of cake and unicorns. In contrast, the EU has been predictable both in its insistence on its own ideals - notably the indivisibility of the four freedoms of the single market - and in its commitment to a rules-based process of negotiation. Criticising Boris Johnson for his incompetence or David Davis for his laziness is legitimate, but it takes the spotlight off the wider failure of the political class to articulate a coherent vision of the UK's future at a time when our relationship with the EU must inevitably weaken and when the "special relationship" with the US, which I'd argue was terminally damaged by the Iraq War, is unlikely to survive Brexit (Trump, as ever, has not signalled a shift in US policy, he has merely blurted out a truth that would otherwise be obscured by more diplomatic language).

That historic failure does not arise because our current political leaders are pygmies, but because the latest turn of the isolationist/internationalist gyre does not align with party formations, which constrains them from offering much beyond mitigation of the electorate's 2016 decision. That won't change. A pro-remain centrist party is not going to arise out of the ashes of Brexit because the chief concerns of the electorate beyond next March will be wages, housing and public services. The fundamental oscillation between closed and open is electorally decisive only when it aligns with material and thus party interest, as over the Corn Laws and Tariff Reform. The association of the EU with migration proved decisive in the 2016 referendum, but immigration itself has never turned an election. In the circumstances, the best any party can offer is an ameliorative programme that is honest about the UK's actual position in the world: a mid-sized power with the advantages of the English language and proximity to continental Europe, but with no delusions of global significance beyond that. We could do worse than study contemporary Japan, much as the Japanese pragmatically studied Britain during the Meiji Restoration.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Shit Hits Fan

Despite Boris Johnson's definition of it as a "turd", the Chequers' statement remains very much an example of "cake". Behind the verbiage, there is still a belief that the UK can be simultaneously in and out of EU. For example, there will be a "common rulebook" for goods and agri-food but Parliament will retain the right to diverge on those rules. That is either common in name only or sovereign in name only. As has been usual with Theresa May's initiatives as Prime Minister, the statement gives the impression of having no viable existence beyond its utterance (remember "the just about managing" and "strong and stable"?). The cynical view is that it is merely a holding operation until next week's white paper, which will in turn be a holding operation until the EU's rejection of it in the coming months. That cynicism extends to the assumption that the chief Brexiteer cabinet ministers, specifically Johnson and Gove, are treading water until the UK's formal departure in March next year, at which time a sovereign Parliament will be able to diverge from whatever hollow withdrawal agreement finally made it over the line towards the end of this year.

An even more cynical interpretation is that the Brexiteer ministers believe that a deal with the EU other than BINO - Brexit in name only - is unlikely, but that the softest of Brexits can't get over the line because it would be impossible to sell to leavers both among party members and voters. In this scenario, May would be obliged to try and make the most of no-deal, the ultra's preferred outcome, which would call her own position into question because, if it has done nothing else, the Chequers' statement has proven her to be an advocate of the softest possible Brexit: she has made her choice between Johnson and Hammond and sided with the latter. In other words, none of Davis, Johnson or Gove expect the statement to actually form the basis of the final outcome, so their current manoeuvrings should be seen in his light. Johnson is positioning himself as the prophet in the semi-wilderness (a la Churchill - again), Gove has made it clear that his eyes are on the prize of getting to next March in one piece (at which point the sharpened knife will presumably reappear), while the silence of Davis was a good sign that he was considering his position as the Chequers' statement confirmed the open secret that Number 10 is wholly in charge of Brexit policy, calling into question the purpose of DExEU as a distinct ministry. Davis's resignation in the last few hours has an inescapable logic.

Though Chequers has been widely interpreted as a commitment to a soft Brexit, it shouldn't be assumed that this makes it any more palatable to the EU27. While they now have something of substance to critique, or at least will have when the white paper is published on Thursday, the continuing constraint of the UK's red lines (out of the single market and customs union and no ECJ oversight or freedom of movement) means that the proposed relationship remains opaque at best and an affront to the institutional framework of the EU at worst. While domestic critics accuse the government of heading for BINO and thus "vassalage", it should be borne in mind that a deal based on alignment and reciprocity is also a challenge for the EU as it entails the UK gaining the maximum benefits with the minimum of obligations - our old friend, cherry-picking. The sticking point won't be the quid pro quo of financial contributions for benefits equivalent to continued membership, but the UK's insistence on its absolute right to unilaterally enact exemptions and opt-outs from the common rules. It wants to continue using the gym, and will pay a discounted fee for access, but it rejects the obligations of membership and intends to ignore the rules when it suits it.

The most startling part of the statement is perhaps the government's confidence that the backstop agreed in respect of Northern Ireland last December will be irrelevant by this October, envisaging a relationship which ensures "that the operational legal text the UK will nonetheless agree on the 'backstop' solution as part of the Withdrawal Agreement would not need to be brought into effect". This is not only a heroically optimistic interpretation of the "Facilitated Customs Arrangement" and the "common rulebook" as a solution, but a position that simply refuses to countenance the possibility of any pushback by the EU27. It is hard to see why they would commit to an alternative that would require trusting the UK's future intent (maintaining alignment) while ignoring the legal reality (the ability to diverge at will). The issue of the Irish border has led many remainers to imagine that BINO is inevitable. Here is Simon Wren-Lewis: "The need to avoid a hard border in Ireland, now accepted by the UK government, dictates that we stay in the Customs Union (CU) and at least part of the Single Market (SM). That is what the UK government signed up to in December, without apparently realising what it had done. The only alternative, which is to take the deal offered by the EU for Northern Ireland and have a border in the Irish Sea, is not politically acceptable to the Prime Minister and many in parliament."

This interpretation assumes that an Irish Sea border is a non-starter, but is that necessarily so? While alienating the DUP would obviously spell the end for May's current administration, unionism is no longer an article of faith for her party. The Conservatives stopped being explicitly unionist under John Major when the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 stated that the British government had no "selfish strategic or economic" interest in Northern Ireland. The die-in-a-ditch unionists on the Tory benches are few in number and largely overlap with the Brexit ultras who must necessarily be defeated if any form of soft Brexit is to succeed. With the exception of a handful of eccentrics like Kate Hoey, I suspect Labour would have few qualms about accepting a separate deal for Northern Ireland based on the Customs Union and the Single Market for goods, as proposed by the EU27. Its concerns over EU constraints on nationalisation and investment are minimal outside the Single Market for services, and they would have less salience in a region where much of the infrastructure (e.g. gas, electricity, transport) is already integrated on an island-wide basis for simple reasons of geography.

Wren-Lewis argues that the EU27 might be persuaded to allow the entirety of the UK to remain within the Customs Union and a limited Single Market (without Freedom of Movement), but his case heavily depends on two assumptions: that the EU27 could be persuaded to agree to an arrangement that many of its members would consider to be preferential treatment for a non-member, and that the UK government could not accept special treatment for Northern Ireland alone. To this end he is as guilty of cakeism as anyone else: "[Theresa May] needs to impress on the EU, face to face, that a border in the Irish Sea is not possible, and that therefore the UK is also special in that particular sense". A border in the Irish Sea is possible, and arguably desirable given that in a post-Brexit world a new customs regime will have to be implemented anyway. A regime based on port access to Great Britain will be a lot easier to implement and manage than one with the cumbersome addition of a land border on the island of Ireland. One issue among many that the Chequers' statement avoids mentioning is that of smuggling. Given that the Facilitated Customs Arrangement assumes differential tariffs, the scope for illegal arbitrage will be huge, not just in Northern Ireland but across the UK as a whole.

The EU27 aren't going to jeopardise the integrity of the Single Market, and nor is there any reason to believe that they will be attracted to "creating at enormous expense, in unknown timescales and with unknown efficacy a customs system to replicate something that already exists and works". They will make an exception for the special circumstances of the region of Northern Ireland, and they will fudge agreements with countries whose ultimate trajectory is assumed to be greater integration, such as Ukraine, or those who have been held up on the road, such as Switzerland, but they won't set a country-level precedent for a state whose trajectory is beyond the exit. To do so would change the EU's dynamic from one of ever closer union to one of ever greater diversification, and that simply isn't going to happen. Special treatment for problematic regions is part of the grammar of the EU, and member states can exercise opt-outs in many areas, but compromising the Single Market calls the existence of the EU into question. While some Brexiteers might insincerely pine for the simplicity of the EEC, the EU27 have no wish to turn the clock back a quarter of a century and call time on the Maastricht project.

As has been clear for almost a year, Northern Ireland is the sticking point: "unless the UK government can get the backstop through Westminster, the UK will go over the cliff edge in March next year". I believe the DUP's opposition to a hard border is insincere and that they would be happy with a hard Brexit that would help undermine the Good Friday Agreement. This would be deeply unpopular in Northern Ireland, so the DUP are obliged to mask their real intent. Brexit in name only would give them the justification to bring the government down, but they would never do anything to facilitate a Corbyn administration, so their pressure is more likely to be indirect - i.e. encouraging a Tory coup once May is perceived to have compromised on her already soft position under pressure from the EU to implement the backstop in full or even to commit to staying in the Customs Union for the UK as a whole (as Tony Connelly puts it, May is "tortuously, yet deliberately, inching her government along the spectrum, away from Canada and towards Norway"). Their reaction in the next few days will arguably be more crucial to May's ability to go on than any number of coded speeches and uncoded briefings by Boris Johnson, though I suspect they may keep their powder dry for a while yet.

The Brexit ultras have frequently given the impression that they are unwilling to strike - to stick the knife in - but I don't think, contrary to many centrist commentators crowing over the Chequers' drama, that this is because they lack an alternative plan. They have a plan: to exit the EU without a deal and then let market forces dictate future trade agreements. The problem is that this is simply too terrifying for most of the Tory party in the Commons to accept. The ultras appear to have come round to a position in which they have invested their hope in the intransigence of the EU27: anticipating either that May will be forced to accept BINO, which will prompt a popular backlash, or that she will be so frustrated by the other side that she will talk herself into a no-deal outcome. The resignation of Davis and the junior minister Steve Baker is probably not the harbinger of a coup but a message to May that she has gone too far already in trying to meet the EU27 halfway. Johnson and Gove will probably stay on board but with the understanding that further compromise is unacceptable. The current position will be further watered-down and the possibility of an agreement with the EU will recede. Meanwhile, the DUP will smirk.

Update at 18:50 on Monday, the 9th: Johnson resigned as Foreign Secretary this afternoon, but I don't get the sense that a leadership challenge is imminent, though that could well change over the course of the week. Even if there are further ministerial resignations, the aim is more likely to be to constrain Theresa May rather than unseat her, thereby ensuring that a deal with the EU27 becomes all but impossible. I think she'll only face a challenge if she further compromises and we end up with BINO, but her strategy appears to be to delay and obscure this inevitability till the last possible moment.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

A Striking Problem

That the World Cup in Russia has turned out to be so entertaining is largely down to the poor quality of strikers. That might appear a dubious as much as a paradoxical claim when the goals that Edinson Cavani scored against Portugal and Kylian Mbappé's performance against Argentina are still fresh in the memory, but it is worth remembering that neither are conventional penalty area predators. Cavani's first involved an interchange with Suarez that saw the ball move laterally almost the width of the pitch before a late run into the box, while the second was a shot from the corner of the area of the sort you might expect from a winger cutting in. The penalty that Mbappé won (converted by Antoine Griezmann) and his second goal against Argentina were likewise about the power of his running from deep in his own half, though his first goal was a good example of sharpness in the area (he also got a tap-in against Peru). This style of play isn't a new development, essentially being a continuation of the wide striker model interpreted variously by Davor Suker, Thierry Henry and Cristiano Ronaldo down the years, and whose roots go back to Johann Cruyff. What is novel is the eclipse of the more traditional strikers who aim to receive the ball in the penalty area. And I don't just mean the long-extinct fox-in-the-box poacher, but also the more mobile support strikers who have dominated for the last two decades.

This accounts for the early departure of big names such as Germany, Spain and Argentina. Though criticism of Germany has focused on tales of division within the camp between older and younger players, their problem was simply a poor and unimaginative attack against teams that sat deep. Timo Werner looked out of his depth, Marco Reus flattered to deceive and Thomas Muller was a pale figure of the man who won the Golden Boot in 2010. Spain hogged the ball but were unable to create angles to goal for their now slightly less nippy midfield while their strikers looked increasingly out of sorts as the tournament progressed (Diego Costa) or simply not good enough at this level (Iago Aspas). For Argentina, Lionel Messi was fitfully brilliant but played too deep while Sergio Aguero's prowess is clearly on the wane. The 3-3 draw between Spain and Portugal was the highlight of the first round of matches, but it was also a game that highlighted this transition. Though Ronaldo's hat-trick caught the eye, what was more significant was that Costa's old-fashioned brace, muscling defenders to create space for a shot and then a tap-in from a downward header, was followed by the full-back Nacho's strike from the edge of the area.

As Pavard's similar goal for France against Argentina suggests, success in this tournament may come down to a combination of goal-scoring defenders and fast breaks out of defence (consider the similarity between France's fourth goal and Belgium's winner against Japan), which means more spectacular goals. In this context, Mbappé might be a better bet than Harry Kane for the Golden Boot. The latter is unlikely to get many more penalties against better defences, and while he is capable of scoring from the edge of the area, he doesn't have the pace for a breakaway from the half-way line where he increasingly drops to in order to find the ball. The France-Uruguay quarter-final looks too close to call. France have the better midfield and more variety up front, but Uruguay boast a great defence and while at 31 both Suarez and Cavani are probably past their best, they have enough ring-craft to go all the way in this tournament. Croatia should be too good for Russia, unless it goes to penalties, while Brazil versus Belgium looks like another match that could go either way and will probably be decided by an error. Perhaps Neymar will pirouette spectacularly to the floor on the halfway line, allowing Hazard to pick up the loose ball and run on to score.

Colombia are on a par with England in terms of FIFA ranking, but they didn't looked particularly convincing during the tournament and are clearly not as good as the 2014 vintage that lost narrowly to Brazil in the quarter-finals. That England only just managed to edge them out last night suggests that Southgate's squad may have reached its limit, though they have a great chance to progress further against an ordinary Swedish team. While Kane got his customary goal from a penalty conceded for wrestling, he wasn't otherwise much of a threat, but the real disappointment for England was the poor decision-making and passing by Sterling, Lingard and Dele around the opposition area. With Young and Trippier struggling to get decent crosses in, England looked pretty toothless, managing only two shots on target over two hours of play. They defended well, particularly Maguire, but they also look like a team capable of at least one unforced error per game. They struggled against an ordinary Tunisia, and Kane will surely be surprised to find himself afforded as much space in the box again, while the steamrollering of Panama, a side currently ranked 55th in the world, was hardly a new dawn. That England lost to Belgium in the group's dead rubber simply told us that the latter have a marginally better bench, a fact proven in their last-16 tie with Japan when Fellaini and Chadli came on to score.

Sweden's defeat of Switzerland in yesterday's other game was a dour affair, marked by ineffectual centre forwards (Berg and Dzemaili were very poor) and a lack of real danger from the flanks. Xherdan Shaqiri produced a cameo familiar to Stoke City fans, all muscular running into blind alleys and wicked crosses not aimed at anyone in particular, while Granit Xhaka was unable to do much against a defence that sat deep, confident in its ability to defend high balls. The surprise for Arsenal fans was not his long-range strike against Serbia during the group stage, something he is capable of but doesn't do enough, but that it took four games for him to pick up a yellow card. Hopefully next season he can rely on someone else, possibly Uruguay's Lucas Torreira, to shoulder the burden of chopping down fleet-footed players breaking from midfield. With Xhaka and Ospina out, the Gooner interest is reduced to Danny Welbeck, who could well prove a useful impact substitute because of his strong running though he is clearly behind Jamie Vardy in Southgate's estimation. His best bet of a further appearance is probably an injury to Kane.

As the World Cup heads towards its conclusion and the summer transfers start to dribble in, it is worth casting half an eye towards the new regime at the Emirates Stadium. It is difficult to draw too many conclusions about the likely formation and style of play that Unai Emery is planning, not least because the transfers to date were presumably planned by Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi before Arsene Wenger's departure. The addition of Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan to the attack in January, which we must consider the first fruits of the new regime, did not promptly turn around Arsenal's fortunes last season, though it did make a difference. Broken into thirds, we secured 22, 20 and 21 points. Given that 30 points a third is the target for a title challenge, the problem was that we lost 3 games too many in each third, mostly away from home. This wasn't down to poor chance conversion. At 74 goals scored, including a highly creditable 28 in the final third of the season, we achieved the joint third highest in the league and better than second placed Manchester United. The problem was poor defending. We conceded 51 goals overall, which was only marginally better than teams like Crystal Palace and Brighton & Hove Albion, and was actually worse than Newcastle United.

Over the last 3 season, our goals for and against figures have been: 65-36, 77-44 and 74-51, suggesting a steady decline at the back, not all of which can be put down to Cech's increasing tendency to make mistakes. To win the title, you need to score around 90 and concede around 30. Tightening up is clearly the priority and the incoming transfers confirmed to date, notably the experienced defenders Stephan Lichtsteiner and Sokratis Papastathopoulos, look like they're intended to do that. They're not long-term solutions but are presumably intended to provide a breathing-space for Emery to coach the younger players, such as Bellerin, Holding, Chambers and Mavropanos, into a more effective unit. There is obviously an implied criticism of Arsene Wenger, who famously first inherited the best defence in the league and then gradually replenished it by buying in proven talent that required minimal coaching, like Campbell and Lauren. His real interest was always in the attacking side of the game, despite having been a defender himself, while Emery's record suggests a more balanced approach built on a strong defence and fast transitions, which looks more in keeping with the current vogue for technical assurance at the back and flexibility further forward. "One-nil to the Arsenal" may prove a popular chant once again.

Further back, the acquisition of the 26 year-old German goal-keeper Bernd Leno suggests that Cech will now see out his contract to 2019, and may even be eyeing a one or two-year extension with a transition to a coaching role thereafter. David Ospina looks like he might finally depart for Turkey after the World Cup, which could open the door to another purchase between the sticks if neither Matt Macey nor Emi Martinez are deemed ready for regular bench-warming. At the other end of the pitch, there is a question about whether Emery can accommodate both Aubameyang and Lacazette if a defensive midfielder like Torreira is added to the mix. If he wants to field both Mkhitaryan and Ozil as well as Ramsay (assuming he stays) in a 4-2-3-1, then the two out-and-out strikers may find themselves competing for a single berth with plan B (chasing the game) being a 4-1-3-2. As the World Cup in Russia is proving, not only is the fox-in-the-box extinct, but even the specialist support strikers like Antoine Griezmann and Gabriel Jesus are struggling to get chances in an era of well-drilled defences, often using their movement as a decoy for attacking midfielders. The French decision not to take Lacazette to Russia may prove prophetic for Arsenal.