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.


  1. "the motive force behind Brexit is the rentier alliance that reconciles mortgage-free pensioners with hedge fund opportunists:"

    Ok that explains 5% of the Brexit constituency, what about the rest?

    1. It's not an explanation of the entire 52% but of the smaller constituency that has provided the Praetorian guard for the Brexit campaign's leadership.