Friday, 29 March 2019

Institutional Failure

Too much of the commentary on Brexit has been personalised, from the all-too-evident limitations of Theresa May to the idea that Jeremy Corbyn has a magic "Stop Brexit" button that he refuses to push. This has reached a new peak of absurdity with an article in the New Statesman by Anthony Seldon, entitled "J’Accuse! The guilty men and women of the Brexit debacle", in which he liberally spreads the blame across the political class before insisting that "Britain badly needs statesmen of deep humanity and imagination to steer us into the next phase of our history". This holding-out-for-a-hero isn't surprising from one of Tony Blair's political biographers, but it is no less na├»ve than the calls of the ultras who reckon we could achieve a clean and beneficial Brexit simply through force of will, or indeed those who imagine that in its hour of need the nation is simply waiting for someone with the balls to revoke Article 50 to step forward. As ever, a focus on personal culpability and the associated dream of a saviour serves to distract from a structural understanding of the problem.

Seldon makes gestures towards a more systemic analysis, but this doesn't amount to much beyond the progressive shibboleth that the institutions of the state are no longer fit for purpose. In his view, this necessitates a constitutional convention "to determine whether we should be a parliamentary or popular democracy", though he doesn't explain whether he sees this as a citizens' assembly or just another meeting of the great and good, either of which would beg the question. He also argues for a reconstitution of the civil service, though he doesn't explain why this is needed, and he also revives our old friend "root and branch reform" of Parliament, as if this were some novelty in our political history. He provides no analysis of institutional failure, covering this void with the hyperbole of "national humiliation", and you can safely bet that his idea of parliamentary reform (which he doesn't sketch out) would be both gradualist and elitist.

The point about Zola's original denunciation of the Dreyfus Affair, from which Seldon takes his title, wasn't that it arose from the evil machinations of individuals, but that it was a systemic response that revealed a corruption within the military and political institutions of France. A topical parallel would be the handling of the Yorkshire Ripper case, which was detailed in Liza Williams' three-part documentary on BBC4 this week. Institutional classism, misogyny and racism, compounded by an obsession with prostitution and a lack of "respectability", led to Peter Sutcliffe remaining at large for far longer than should have been the case. While the incompetence of the "top cops" was all too clear, this was primarily an institutional failure exhibited in groupthink, a deference to traditional "coppering", and a hermetic culture centred on contempt for disadvantaged sections of the community.

That the same features were to be found in many cases of inept policing and miscarriages of justice explains why the McPherson Inquiry into the murder of Steven Lawrence was able to make a charge of institutional racism stick. The police had never denied that racism was part of its "canteen culture", but they had denied that it was part of the institutional fabric, preferring to blame "rotten apples". What the various retrospective critiques of failures such as the Birmingham Six and Hillsborough showed is that the police were so institutionally biased as to be functionally ineffective in respect of their duties. They were, in simple terms, incompetent. What other scandals such as the policing of the Miners' Strike showed was that the police were politically compromised in the 1980s and had consequently lost the trust of much of the public. They were, in simple terms, partisan. These two aspects - competence and neutrality - are a useful way of thinking about institutional failure in a system based on public trust, as they often feed on each other (for example, the increasing partisanship of the BBC's political coverage is matched by its growing incompetence).

A better question to ask rather than "Who is to blame?" would be: is Brexit an institutional failure and/or an institutional crisis? In other words, was Brexit the result of a dysfunctional state and political system, or is it a black swan event that the institutions of the state have proven incapable of dealing with, or indeed both? To put it another way, is Brexit like the Dreyfus affair: a symptom of something rotten in the UK state and thus an inevitable development that couldn't be avoided, no matter how adroit our politicians? Or is it like the botched Yorkshire Ripper investigation: evidence that Parliament, government and Whitehall are constitutionally incapable of responding to a crisis brought about by an exceptional event, in this case an exercise in popular sovereignty that failed to align with the interests of the establishment?

The central focus of criticism over the execution of Brexit has been the twinned failures of Theresa May's administration to pass its Withdrawal bill (defeated for the third time today) and the failure of the House of Commons to agree an alternative (though it's possible that this might still happen next week). However, neither actually suggests an institutional failure, and you could argue both indicate institutional good health as the legislature furthers its centuries-old desire to constrain the executive and individual MPs insist on their independent consciences. Another government might well have made a better fist of the job, particularly if it had not been dependent on the DUP and could therefore have agreed an exceptional status for Northern Ireland, while a different composition in the Commons might have quickly produced a consensus on a customs union-based soft Brexit or perhaps EFTA membership. The current impasse is contingent, being largely the result of the 2017 general election. Theresa May has driven Brexit into the ditch, but that was not inevitable.

A more plausible argument is that Brexit was the result of tensions arising from a strategy of hybrid membership of the European project that in turn arose from lingering exceptionalism and a fetishised sovereignty in the post-war years. Had the UK state reformed itself in the 1960s - implementing devolution, replacing the unelected Lords and modernising the Civil Service - then it might have stood a better chance of integrating more seamlessly with the mainstream of European political development: a bourgeois democracy, a cautious federalism and a commitment to technocratic governance. In other words, Ted Heath was undone as much by the constitutional timidity of Labour during the 1964-70 administrations of Harold Wilson as he was by the National Union of Mineworkers in the early 70s. However, many of those reforms were eventually enacted by the UK state in the 1980s and 90s, but far from neutralising the issue of sovereignty they served to accentuate it, suggesting that the problem may lie elsewhere.

So perhaps Brexit was a black swan event: an exceptional moment that arose when a press-led obsession with EU "meddling" and immigration collided with the social despair of austerity, releasing the genie of popular sovereignty from the bottle of establishment politics. Perhaps the hollowing out of the civil service in the neoliberal era and the outsourcing of a raft of competencies to the EU has left the UK state incapable of responding to the challenge. Emblematic of this was the creation of the Department for Exiting the EU, a project-based approach for an undefined project that was eventually subsumed by Number 10. In fact, the marginalisation of DExEU could be read as a sign of the resilience of the civil service as individual government departments started to gear up for no-deal, while the repatriation of competencies is not likely to be that challenging, despite the early panic over trade negotiators (that not many trade deals have been agreed has less to do with capability than the unwillingness of other countries to conclude them before the UK's future relationship with the EU is clear).

My own interpretation is that while the British state is rickety in appearance and dysfunctional in key areas, these failings are often symptomatic of deliberate policies being successfully pursued, and not just long-term rot, notably the avoidance of democratic reform through archaic practice, the erosion of welfare and the commercialisation of public services. Brexit isn't a contradiction produced by the dysfunctional institutions of the state, and nor is the failure of the Article 50 process to date an inevitable outcome of the incompetence of the state's agencies. It arises rather from the institutional failure of the Conservative Party. Though Labour is often analysed in institutional terms, not least the conflict between the PLP and CLPs and the shifting balance of interests on the NEC, similar analyses of the Tories are much rarer (this is partly hegemonic - the Tories as a permanent fixture in the British political universe - and partly media bias - the idea that Labour is pathological). The result is that analysis of the institution is replaced by analysis of factions and personalities: the "Tory Civil War" and the jockeying for leadership.

The key institutional failing of the Conservative Party is its decline from the largest mass-membership party in the post-war years to an ageing and increasingly reactionary hardcore today. Theresa May is clearly no one's idea of a capable Prime Minister now, but history will probably see her as the last desperate attempt of the establishment to install a rational Tory leader before the party membership elected a Brexit ultra (whether an opportunist or a true-believer). A parallel development was the outsourcing of the party's policy development and electoral strategy to think-tanks and consultancies, something that was notably accelerated under Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph in the 70s. Though this has been a general trend across politics, parties of the left have tended to preserve a degree of autonomy due to their democratic structures. It has been more pronounced on the right and the British Conservative Party, together with the US Republicans, has been at the forefront of this development.

The consequence of these two trends is that policy has become more driven by the rich and niche capitalist interests (financial engineering, fracking etc), while mostly-retired party members, with limited current experience of business or social developments beyond their own milieu, have become more receptive to the sugar-rush of identity politics and the "culture wars". The British Conservative Party is increasingly clientelistic and populist, which means it is ironically converging with a style more familiar in continental polities. The tragedy from the perspective of Ted Heath's spinning corpse is that the trend is more towards Forza Italia than the CDU. Compounding this institutional dysfunction is the inability of the party to respond adequately to the challenge of Euroscepticism, an inability that has been evident since John Major's days and his frustration with the "bastards". This was not because those who would become known as leavers were strong within the party hierarchy, or had compelling arguments, but because the dominant remain faction was incapable of articulating a truly positive case for the EU in the face of a membership who were predominantly and increasingly Eurosceptic.

That Theresa May has steered government policy with the primary goal of maintaining Tory unity and ensuring the party would be on the right side of any Brexit-centred general election is generally acknowledged, though this hasn't stopped media commentators whining about politicians in general not putting nation before party, as if Labour rolling over would magically resolve the Conservatives' institutional problems. Brexit is not just a product of the Tory Party's internal ideological divisions, or the changing and fragmenting interests of UK capitalism, it is also the result of a party that has neglected its wider social base - in part because the conditions for a hegemonic conservatism no longer exist - and allowed its institutional structure to atrophy. If Labour has seen some nutters washed in on the tide of its rapid membership growth, the Tories have suffered as the tide has gone out to reveal too many nutters clinging limpet-like to the rocks.


  1. «The central focus of criticism over the execution of Brexit has been the twinned failures of Theresa May's administration to pass its Withdrawal bill (defeated for the third time today) and the failure of the House of Commons to agree an alternative (though it's possible that this might still happen next week).»

    But that's not quite right: the Commons cannot agree an alternative to the withdrawal agreement because there isn't one. What they are doing is negotiating with themselves the future trade agreement, not the withdrawal one. The Conservatives have negotiated it with themselves for the past 2 years, and now they have kindly allowed the rest of the Commons to join in. The way they put it is that they are negotiating an alternative to the political declaration with themselves, which is futile both because the political declaration encompasses pretty much every possible trade agreement, and it will take several years to negotiate one. That is simply escapism from the current and urgent business of the withdrawal agreement, in other words electioneering: the MPs seem to believe that the way to be electorally successful is to give the gullible simpletons of the electorate the feeling that England is still a Great Power, and the terms of the future trade agreement can be decided unilaterally by England.

    To support the above there was at the first vote of the withdrawal agreement plus political declaration a very good debate with the Attorney General, some quotes:

    Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
    The Attorney General’s use of the airlock analogy is very striking, but does he realise that the reason many of us will vote against the deal tonight is that on the other side of the second airlock is a complete vacuum about our future relationship with our biggest, nearest and most important trading partner?

    The Attorney General
    It was said last week by the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) that we should have negotiated a full customs union with a say within the political declaration and then there would have been no need for a backstop, because the agreement could then have been concluded within the transition period. However, he knows, and it is clear, that the European Union is unwilling to and regards itself as bound by its own law not to enter into detailed negotiations on the permanent relationship treaties. The EU was never going to do it, and its own negotiating guidelines said it would not, so there was always going to be this withdrawal agreement, a political declaration setting out a framework and months, if not years, thereafter of detailed negotiation on any final resting place that any political declaration might have.

    My conclusion is that therefore it is not so much a conflict between what the voters want and what the establishment wants, but between what can be delivered and what the voters have been promised, which is Great Power unilateralism.

    Because the Conservative party is split not because there is a split between their MPs and their voters, but because there is a split in the sponsors of the MPs: a majority of the property and business lobbies think they can adapt to some soft-exit, and a large minority that a hard-exit would create opportunities for them.

    1. The Norther Ireland "backstop" effectively trumps the Political Declaration as it would, if no other agreement is forthcoming, commit the UK to a future relationship that would either constrain its ability to negotiate trade deals with other countries or require regulatory divergence between NI and GB. The ERG objects to the former, the DUP to the latter.

      Labour's objection is that the WA isn't strong enough to prevent the future relationship being much looser (i.e. the sort of Canada model preferred by some of the ERG), and that relying on the DUP to provide a guarantee to the contrary would be too risky.

      Cox was being disingenuous. The EU27 have always insisted on a serial process - the withdrawal terms first, then the future relationship - but they didn't insist that only the WA could be agreed within the Article 50 timeframe. It was May who decided to use the March 2019 deadline as a divider.

      The government could have submitted a Withdrawal Bill that bound it both to accept the withdrawal terms AND commit to a customs union (or other specific arrangement) as the basis for the future relationship, and it could have secured heads of agreement to this from the EU before end of the A50 process.

      The problem is that this would have split the Tories in the Commons, been deeply unpopular with the party membership, and obliged her to rely on the support of the Labour leadership (which would also have discomfited the media, both leavers and remainers).

  2. «the result of a party that has neglected its wider social base - in part because the conditions for a hegemonic conservatism no longer exist - and allowed its institutional structure to atrophy.»

    I reject this conclusion, the argument that there has been an institutional failure of the Conservatives, mainly because of a rather unusual argument, even for a committed "Remainer" like me: that brexit is a sideshow, a not very important policy (at least short-medium term), even if it generates much drama and wildly excessive claims of catastrophe or benefits.

    The EU has a tiny budget and pretty small areas of competence and membership does not have that large an economic impact, for good or bad, at least for a mature economy like the UK one. Accordingly it has a small impact on elections in most member states: even in june 2017 in the UK voting was clearly on tribal and domestic policy lines.

    All the drama about exit is largely posturing, especially on the Conservative side. The Conservatives are the party of the interests of incumbents, and their main policies are higher inflation of property rents and asset prices, and lower wages and taxes, and on those they are not split, they are at one with their sponsors and voters, and they pursue policies to achieve them with brutal cunning. The Conservatives, or rather their sponsors, have realized a while ago that they don't need an active membership, because they can be just a marketing operation for the interests of incumbents, not a movement, but a club like the National Trust.

    1. I agree that Brexit it a sideshow, but the fact that it has come to dominate politics is a symptom of the increasing eccentricity of the Tory Party.

      To use your analogy, it's as if the National Trust membership insisted on de-registering as a charity because it imagined the Charity Commission was an anarchist plot.

  3. well the EU isn't a side show round here. FOM is giving us a massively increasing population, resulting in house building on a mammoth scale, permanent congestion on the roads, overstretching of public services, and what is isn't doing is giving my son's generation of recent graduates proper jobs in proper companies as firms either pursue a "diversity" policy of recruitment or stock up with skilled Eastern Europeans who work for low wages.

    1. Dipper read your comment then saw the date 1st April. Ho ho nice one.

      I'm off to finish pruning my spaghetti tree. Hoping to get good crop this year if there are no late frosts. You can't beat home grown spaghetti.

    2. I wish it was an April Fools joke and I could go back to being able to go about my business without spending hours in traffic queues because another housing estate is going up, or my sons friends, having got excellent degrees, could get proper jobs with proper companies, but with the UK establishment having simply handed power over to the EU to do as they wish, every day is April Fools day round here.

      you need to put nets over your spaghetti trees or the spaghetti monsters will take your entire crop. Don't say you weren't warned.

  4. Sadly, Brexit is not a side-show because people like Dipper have been led to believe that all their problems are due to the EU which has colonised the UK and imposed laws on the UK without accountability. Brexit may thus never end, whatever happens in the next few days and weeks.


    1. No. All the problems are here in the UK and attitudes of the establishment to the people of the UK. As Parliament is demonstrating. And yes, Brexit will never end because our relations with Europe are in need of constant maintenance.

      BTW that "imposed laws on the UK without accountability" was always a bit of a joke, until it turned out that actually it was true. Indeed, the TUC and various other "Hard Remainers" such as Sarah Woollaston are desperate for the UK to remain in the EU precisely because it imposes laws on the UK that they believe are superior to the ones the UK makes for itself.