Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Under Sirius

The dog days of summer have been marked by alternating optimism and pessimism, suggesting the imminent arrival of some political earthquake that will shake the rotten fruit of the current parliament from its tree. On the right, the Johnson administration's "can do, will do" spirit has led to the suspension of critical faculties by the press and encouraged the belief that a general election is imminent in which the Conservative Party's key message will be the defeat of the Commons. On the broad left - i.e. including media Corbynites as well as sceptics - there is a fear that the Labour Party's commitment to campaign for remain has come too late, that the reselection of MPs is an unwelcome distraction, and that the party leader's limitations spell electoral doom. But underneath this gush of table-chat I sense a deeper pessimism on the right that belies the dream of a bright blue morning and an optimism on the left that is poorly reflected by the querulous commentariat.

Boris Johnson's "boosterism" appeals to the core Tory and Brexit party constituency, but it also exists in tandem with a deep fear, not so much of the EU or multiculturalism, but of an assault on the privileges of capital that have been built by the political consensus of the last forty years. As William Davies puts it, the motive force behind Brexit is the rentier alliance that reconciles mortgage-free pensioners with hedge fund opportunists: "Jeremy Corbyn terrifies them even more than the prospect of Remain, as they believe he will tax capital, gifts and inheritance into oblivion (they are less concerned with income tax as they don’t pay it). Where productivity gains are no longer sought, the goal becomes defending private wealth and keeping it in the family. This is a logic that unites the international oligarch and the comfortable Telegraph-reading retiree in Hampshire. The mentality is one of pulling up the draw-bridge, and cashing in your chips."

As Davies notes elsewhere, this fear finds an outlet in a metaphysical faith: "What’s emerging, therefore, is a synthesis of nationalism (which has always been anchored in metaphors, stories and memories of war) and neoliberalism, that could also be harnessed for purposes of an election campaign, in which the distinction between the Conservative Party and ‘the nation’ will be weakened like never before. What nationalism and neoliberalism share is a suspicion of empirical evidence, and a quasi-mystical faith in metaphysical properties of some constantly evolving collective spirit, where the former finds this in a given people, and the latter in the price system. Together, this provides a fearsome set of resources to silence (or ‘cancel’) dissenting voices, that present hard facts of what is going on, and the challenges facing the country."

This Tory millenarianism is theoretically fearsome, but I suspect it will prove much more problematic in practice. Not only does it depend on an unstable voluntarism that risks electoral boom and bust, but there are major contradictions between nationalism and neoliberalism. The most obvious is the necessary compromises on sovereignty that birthed Euroscepticism, which are likely to be highlighted by the issue of the UK's future relationship with the US. This is not just about asymmetric trade deals, but the inevitable constraints on independent geopolitical action that will arise by going all-in with Washington. While many on the right dismiss scepticism about US intentions as an "anti-West agenda", this ignores the strength of popular anti-Americanism in Britain. Yes, we largely enjoy the cultural products of the States, but this doesn't mean we assume they have our best interests at heart, let alone that we should adopt a servile position.

In addition, the commitment to a national agenda has to go beyond a temporary financial boost for public services or a more authoritarian approach to education. Insofar as nationalism is a winning electoral strategy in the UK, it is in the context of the postwar tradition of industrial and social development outlined by David Edgerton, not just patriotism and pageantry, and the current Labour party has a more credible offer in that regard than the Conservatives. Of course, Labour will still be vulnerable to the charge that it is unreliable on national security and soft on terrorism, but it always suffers this penalty in comparison to the Tories (yes, even in the Blair years) and there is probably little to be gained electorally by fondling scale models of Trident. Its fundamental message is overdue reform of the economic and social dispensation inaugurated by Thatcher and the maintenance in international affairs of a close and cooperative relationship with the EU, even if we are no longer a member.

The pessimism of the left shouldn't distract from this winning strategy, and the tendency to allow more superficial issues or tactical nuance to weigh heavily in debate should be taken as an acid test of seriousness. Labour has now firmed-up the rational Brexit policy that was always on the cards, and one that looks like the only credible alternative to no-deal. Instead of welcoming this, both centrist and centre-left commentators are still trying to move the goalposts. The current debate over how to avoid no-deal at the end of October has been both ridiculous and a constitutional insult. The idea of a government of national unity - that would alienate half the country and be led by some centrist hack - was always implausible, while the blackballing of Corbyn as an interim Prime Minister shows that Brexit is well short of being the prime concern for many of the political class.

Similarly, the excuses given for avoiding the reselection of MPs - that Labout should be fighting the government and that an election is imminent - are specious, particularly when they emanate from self-regarding and entitled members who have long ignored their constituency parties. There are always Tories to fight and, despite the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, a general election is always on the horizon. The idea that a possible no-deal exit in October means that the advance of party democracy should be deferred stands in contrast to the belief of centrist MPs in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum, when politics was in ferment and David Cameron had just resigned, that that would be the optimum time to mount a leadership challenge against Jeremy Corbyn. They were not accused of "navel-gazing" but lauded for seeking to "save the party". Even more ridiculously, many of these same MPs proceeded to do their best to undermine their own party in the 2017 general election. As usual, the criticism of their self-indulgence by the media was muted.

We are now entering a period of crisis. Corbyn's decision yesterday to indulge the minor parties' plan to legislate another Article 50 extension now looks like a tactical masterstroke. With the not-entirely-unexpected news today that Johnson intends to prorogue Parliament to deny enough time for a bill, even Dominic Grieve is now saying that a vote of no confidence may be the only route ahead and that he would vote to bring the government down (the usual caveats apply). A vote of no confidence is now surely inevitable, even if there is as yet no agreement on who should head a subsequent caretaker administration, so the moment of truth has arrived for the minor parties, miscellaneous independents and the handful of Tory rebels. But will they seize the day? I suspect that some, for whom an election will mean the end of their political career and who have been garlanded by the media for their "principled stand" (against Corbyn as much as Brexit), will once again demur. In the words of the poet:
There will also, Fortunatus,
Be those who refused their chance,
Now pottering shades, querulous beside the salt-pits,
And mawkish in their wits,
To whom these dull dog-days
Between event seemed crowned with olive
And golden with self-praise.

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Turn to Stone

The legal commentator David Allen Green has suggested that statues should be erected outside the Palace of Westminster to honour Gina Miller, John Bercow, Dominic Grieve and Yvette Coper for their "genuine regard for parliamentary democracy in the face of aggressive, authoritarian populism". As he made this suggestion on Twitter, he isn't being entirely serious, however that hasn't stopped furious leavers taking the bait and performatively replying with aggressive, authoritarian populism. The serious point here is the clash between popular democracy and the parliamentary kind, and Allen Green can certainly be criticised for being dismissive of the former, but what he is really talking about is the more recondite struggle between Parliament and the executive. This, rather than the will of the people, has been the defining feature of Brexit since 2016. However, his belief that there is an equivalence between the four named individuals in this regard strikes me as questionable.

For all Grieve and Cooper's bill-amending efforts, which have been extensively covered by the media and repeatedly trailed as the silver bullet that will kill the Brexit beast, we are still in a situation where the executive can use the Commons order of business to ensure a no-deal outcome at the end of October simply by sitting on its hands. The government may even be able to employ the misbegotten Fixed Term Parliaments Act to achieve the same end in the event of a vote of no confidence, prompting much wringing of hands over the possibility that the Queen might have to intervene and sack Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. While Miller's & Bercow's interventions, the first to establish that Parliament had to vote to invoke Article 50 and the second to allow a vote on an amendment to a government business motion, have both reduced the executive's prerogative authority, this shift in power to Parliament has not been built upon.

Contrary to excitable claims, MPs have not "seized control" of the Brexit process. What MPs have done is repeatedly block the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement presented by Theresa May, however that achievement reflects the government's loss of its majority in 2017 rather than any constitutional power-shift. While the new Johnson administration is in no better a position as regards support in the Commons, it has the advantage that it is (at least publicly) happy to accept a no-deal outcome. The idea that no-deal can be blocked, as opposed to merely deplored, by an amendment moved by Grieve or Cooper looks increasingly fanciful. Not only does the government retain control of the order paper, but potential Tory rebels know that a general election is likely within the next six months and therefore their parliamentary careers are on the line. With no Commons majority for soft Brexit, revocation or a second referendum, the benefit of another amendment that merely prolongs the agony is unlikely to outweigh the personal cost.

Though MPs have voted narrowly against no-deal in the past, they haven't voted for any positive action that would oblige the government to extend the Article 50 notice period beyond October or submit to a second referendum. The only realistic hope of achieving either, and thereby stopping a no-deal crash-out in the Autumn, is a vote of no confidence in the government. The realisation of this has led to the marginalisation of the People's Vote campaign and the semi-retirement of Alastair Campbell, which is no bad thing, but it has also produced the ridiculous idea that such a vote could, indeed should, lead to the formation of a government of national unity led by a backbencher such as [drum roll ...] Yvette Cooper. That this is an attempt to blackball Jeremy Corbyn is clear enough, even before the usual suspects in the media start imagining a cabinet featuring the likes of Heidi Allen and Jess Phillips.

What the feverish media speculation has tended to ignore is that there will always be enough Labour MPs opposed to such an administration to prevent one being formed. This includes not only those who actively want to see Corbyn installed as Prime Minister, but many Corbyn-sceptic Labour MPs who understandably believe that any Labour government should be preferred (it's in their job description, after all), and that's before you consider the historic connotations of a "national government" in the minds of Labour party members, the contradiction of a "unity" government that alienates half the country, and the risk that such an elite coup would further undermine democracy. With the leadership opposed, the suggestion of a coalition is necessarily a proposal to dismantle the Labour party, so it isn't going to happen. By constitutional convention and the terms of the FTPA, the Queen would have to invite Corbyn, as leader of the opposition, to form a government if Johnson's administration loses a vote of no confidence and cannot win another within 14 days, though this might become irrelevant if Johnson then moves for a general election.

Corbyn's opponents will insist that he cannot command the confidence of the House, and that is undoubtedly true today. Even if every Labour MP obeys the whip, he will still have to rely on the support of the smaller parties and at least a handful of Conservative MPs to form an administration and progress any substantive business on Brexit. The Liberal Democrats have already indicated that they believe him to be beyond the political pale, much as the DUP have, though given that they are a deeply dishonest and self-interested lot, they could change their minds. The SNP have made their quid pro quo clear, and Labour look likely to agree to it. A minority Labour government could survive if it were to commit to promptly securing an Article 50 extension and a conclusive referendum. Whether there should be a further attempt at renegotiation with the EU27, or what the referendum options should be, would have to be debated.

Alternatively, a Labour administration might simply secure an extension and then move for a general election itself (it might be obliged to do this anyway if a Commons majority cannot be found for the renegotiation proposal). The Tories would probably be secretly pleased with this outcome, as it would allow them to shift the blame for Brexit not happening onto Labour. The choice in such an election would presumably be between an immediate no-deal (i.e. the Tories would have to commit to terminate the extension early or leave themselves vulnerable to being outflanked by the Brexit party) and a Labour proposal to renegotiate and submit to a second referendum on a deal versus remain basis (i.e. excluding a no-deal option). There would be an informal agreement for SNP support (they'd support a minority Labour government in return for another independence referendum), but there would be no kind of deal with the Liberal Democrats.

The problem for Jo Swinson and her merry band of pranksters is that the electorate is sophisticated enough to vote tactically. This will help the party in Tory-Lib Dem marginals, where they can expect to pick up Labour votes (as in Brecon and Radnorshire), but will count against them in Labour-Tory marginals. They may end up with more seats on a barely improved total vote, as they did in 2017 (the first past the post system does sometimes work in their favour), but they will be less likely to hold the balance of power than the SNP. That said, the one possibility is a coalition with the Conservatives. That might look wildly implausible given their stance on Brexit, but they could possibly forge a marriage of convenience on the basis of a second referendum that offered the binary choice of no-deal versus remain. Given their congeniality during the 2010-15 coalition, and bearing in mind the ideological congruence of the Orange Bookers and the Britannia Unchained crowd, both parties might be able to live with such a compromise.

What this speculation suggests is that MPs in favour of soft Brexit or no Brexit should vote against the Johnson government on a Labour confidence motion and then support a minority Labour administration. That's the only realistic route to a renegotiation with the EU27, and also the only route to a second referendum that doesn't offer the no-deal suicide pill. The Liberal Democrat strategy is high-risk and reckless. It could ensure no-deal either by delivering an electoral victory to the Tories or by forcing a polarised referendum that might play out as an echo of 2016, despite the very different leave prospectus. This might mean tolerating Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street for some months, but Labour wouldn't be in a position to move contentious (non-Brexit) legislation and once the terms of the second referendum were agreed, the government would probably move for a general election to be scheduled (possibly for the same day as the referendum). There's a way out of this madness, but it doesn't involve a government of national unity and it will absolutely require the marginalisation of the Liberal Democrats. I doubt there will be a statue erected to Corbyn at the end of it, however.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

From Gilles de Rais to Dolphin Square

One explanation for the criminal career of Carl Beech is that he was a convincing witness: a con man, in other words. But as any confidence trickster will tell you, they succeed through the gullibility of others. There has to be an appetite for belief that can be exploited. That there was a longstanding and murderous paedophile ring at the apex of British society was unlikely, even before the lack of corroborating evidence became too obvious to ignore, but what stands out about Operation Midland is the lack of scepticism among the police and many of the journalists drawn into the case. Elite conspiracies do occur, but they are usually about the pursuit and retention of political power and/or money. Criminal sex-rings are usually much more mundane affairs, as the various grooming and children's home scandals have revealed. Of course, this is not to say that figures in the public eye don't engage in criminal activity or sexual abuse; but organised conspiracies on such a scale, rather than the opportunistic leverage of fame and access practised by individuals like Jimmy Savile and Cyril Smith, are vanishingly rare.

The feature of Beech's stories that appears to have captured the imagination of the police, press and politicians like Tom Watson and Zac Goldsmith was precisely the combination of an elite conspiracy and sex crimes. Both are credible in isolation and supported by extensive precedent, but the combination itself was implausible. The suggestion that the post-Savile context excused the police's generosity in believing those who claimed to be survivors of abuse ignores that this willingness was not applied generally. The standards of objectivity were clearly relaxed far more once any sort of celebrity moved into focus, indicating the extent to which media expectations were at the back of the minds of many (we really should get round to Leveson 2). One reason why the police should have been sceptical about Beech's claims is precisely that rumours about the existence of a "murderous VIP sex-ring" centred on Dolphin Square (where the ley-lines of many conspiracy theories intersect) have circulated for decades without being substantiated, and much of the incidental detail he provided simply recycled those well-known rumours.

Along with other manifestations of occult crime, such as myths about snuff movies and satanic ritual abuse, the trope of the powerful defying both man and God's laws goes back centuries to historical figures such as Gilles de Rais and Elizabeth Bathory. Awful crimes may have been committed by both, but the political exaggeration of them at the time reflected Late Medieval societies in which the landed aristocracy was becoming increasingly subject to the state, with its laws and emergent public opinion. The key feature of these cases, like later fairy tales such as Bluebeard (partly inspired by de Rais), is the physical destruction of social inferiors who lack rights, particularly children and servants, or, in the case of Bluebeard, wives. These are crimes of quantity rather than quality in which conspicuous consumption is the raison d'etre for the nobility. This critique is a thread that runs through French philosophy and social theory, particularly in its engagement with sexuality, from the Marquis de Sade to Georges Bataille (who wrote a book on The Trial of Gilles de Rais).

During the Early Modern era, elite sexual conspiracy theories usually focused on royal favourites and "foreign" dynastic imports, such as the 1st Duke of Buckingham and Marie Antoinette, thereby dramatising the corruption of the absolutist state. The sexual dimension still reflected the idea of a predatory nobility with perverse appetites, though increasingly this was seen as a threat to developing bourgeois morality and the notion of political virtue rather than just the traditional threat of the "waste" of the common people. After the French Revolution and the dominance of political conspiracies in the reactionary imagination, notably those involving Freemasons and Jews, sex faded into the background as money increasingly came to the fore (a shift captured in the works of Balzac). During the nineteenth century, financial scandals became increasingly public through joint stock companies, banks and the growth of the state. At the same time, sexual "deviance" became much more of a private matter as the "hysterical" were increasingly isolated in asylums or shunted off to the colonies.

This reaches a morbid conclusion with the public eruption of the emblematic unknown sex-killer, Jack the Ripper. He provides not only a template for the modern psychopath - adrift in an amoral, industrial society - but also a blank canvas on to which popular prejudices can be projected, hence theories about his identity run the gamut from lowly immigrant to member of the royal family. As such he is both a harbinger of the future and an echo from the past, teetering on the lip of the modern era. That era would also see the re-emergence of the sexual conspiracy trope in the wake of fin de si├Ęcle anxieties over national vigour at the height of empire, hence the significance of homosexuality (the trial of Oscar Wilde etc) and miscegenation (the "white slave trade") in the lurid imaginary as the nineteenth century draws to a close. In these cases the tolerance of deviance by elites is the scandal. The long century of The News of the World was a tale of establishment weakness and sexual inconstancy, in which the latter was routinely inflated into constitutional crisis or a conspiracy against the state, from Edward VIII's abdication through the Profumo Affair.

This phase is coming to an end, partly because organised sexual abuse has proven to be a quotidian evil rather than the preserve of the rich and famous (and despite the inadvertent glamorisation of #metoo), and partly because post-2008 it is clear that political power and money is where the real action is at. In this context, Carl Beech's consciously antique claims should have rung alarms bells among the police because they so neatly conformed to two wider frames: one that imagines the 1970s as a dark time before the necessary "cleansing" of the 1980s, and another that believes contemporary anxieties can be alleviated through the archaeology of past crimes (the vogue for cold cases etc). The first is an attempt to expiate our guilt over the social destruction of the last forty years, which sits in uneasy tension with the sentimentalisation of the old (white) working class. The second seeks to assure us that the guilty will eventually be brought to book at a time when the architects of such crimes as Iraq and the financial crash remain unpunished and in many cases considerably richer and no less influential. Watson and Goldsmith's real shame lies elsewhere.