Friday, 31 January 2020

On Paradoxes and Indecision

The irony of Brexit Day is that nothing significant will actually change at 11 o'clock tonight. The departure of MEPs from Strasbourg won't alter the complexion of the European Parliament, not least because there are plenty of others willing to inherit Farage & co's mantle as class clowns, while the lowering of the EU flag (or even its retention at Holyrood) isn't going to be noticeable in a country that never really got into the habit of raising it. The various plaques and signs dotting the regions to record the investment of EU structural funds will largely remain in place, if only because it would be too much trouble to remove them. This may prove to be symbolic of the damp squib nature of Brexit. I don't mean that the great adventure will fail miserably, but that a United Kingdom outside of the European Union will look and act pretty much like a continuing member. Of course, the end of the 12-month transition period may well bring more substantive changes, such as blue passports and eye-watering mobile roaming charges, but even then I suspect that the chief emotion will be along the lines of Peggy Lee's famous song, "Is That All There Is?" We live in paradoxical times.

It is a paradox that the decision to leave the complex EU will probably prove to be less significant than the decision to join the then limited Common Market in 1973. That marked a watershed in British history: the final turning away from empire, the commitment to Europe as our chief export market, and the first tentative steps towards deindustrialisation and a service economy. In reality, all three were well-established directions of travel. 1973 was simply the moment that the long-held preference of the British establishment became public policy. If it hadn't been for De Gaulle, it would have happened sooner. What the 1975 referendum indicated was not that the British public was convinced by the technocratic case for membership of the Common Market but that it recognised the futility of trying to hold on to the past. A similar clear-sightedness is lacking today. There is no coherent vision of the future, but I feel confident in predicting that we're not going to become Singapore-on-Thames or the 51st state. Our future will be much less remarkable and (ironic given that it's the consequence of a binary referendum) fundamentally indecisive.

That looming indecision can be seen in the consequences of last month's general election. A result of the Tory inroads into Labour's so-called "red wall" is that the Conservative party now has less of an interest in pushing forward with boundary changes and the associated reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Whereas post-industrial and semi-rural constituencies with ageing and declining populations tended to be disproportionately represented by Labour MPs, a larger number are now held by the Tories. As a cheap gesture towards the North and Midlands, preserving the "voice" of these areas will prove attractive, particularly as future boundary reviews are likely to increase the number of metropolitan seats, despite the Boundary Commission basing constituencies on registered electors rather than population (i.e. excluding the poor and domestic migrants), which would be to Labour's advantage. We won't see a return to "rotten boroughs", but the inequity in representation between the big cities and small towns is likely to become a counterpoint to the inequality in economic growth and infrastructure investment.

The Conservatives have tried over the last decade to informally rebrand themselves as "the workers' party". This was an attempt both to revive the popularity they enjoyed among aspirational blue collar workers in the Thatcher years and to emphasise their commitment to "alarm-clock Britain" in the era of austerity. Over the same period they have also done a volte-face on the minimum wage, responding both to the evidence that it does not inhibit growth and to the political opportunity of neutralising a Labour attack-line. However, this positioning has failed to take root because the Tory electorate has increasingly aged, leaving it the party of pensioners and older workers (as well as the well-off) more interested in defending their fragile gains than broadening opportunity. In contrast, the demographic shift of Labour's support away from declining small towns to the cities, which reflects the migration of younger workers, has made it the party of aspiration: to a decent home, higher wages and job security. This electoral sorting will increasingly drive policy. In the case of the Tories, it will lead them to question one of their shibboleths.

Stephen Bush asked recently, "Are we heading to a situation where Labour becomes the party for the majority of not just working class people but all people who are actively in work?" The significance of such a shift is that the Conservative commitment to lighten the tax burden on the working population is coming under strain. With little meat left on the bone of the welfare state after a decade of cuts, increased investment in the services and benefits that the old depend on, such as the NHS and the state pension, can only come from higher taxation. The Tories aren't going to reject their prime directive and start taxing capital income and wealth, and they will want to deliver eye-catching gains at the bottom of the wage scale in order to stymie Labour, so the burden of increased tax is likely to fall on middle-income earners. This won't come in the form of an increase in the base rate of income tax, as that would be electorally toxic, so we can expect the government to steal Labour's clothes on the taxation of higher earners and to also increase indirect taxes.

The indecision over HS2 and the third runway at Heathrow look like the continuing saga of the British state's fraught relationship with infrastructure, but we should remember that the postwar period was actually marked by confidence. The creation of new towns, the Beeching rationalisation of the railways and prioritising of motorways, the building of the M25 and the Channel Tunnel were all evidence of a willingness to think big, despite the various flaws and disappointments of each. What's different about a high-speed line from London to Birmingham and the expansion of Heathrow is that these relatively modest (if bizarrely expensive) decisions have become a test of political virility rather than strategic capability. The chief arguments in their favour are negatives: "What sort of nation would we be if we didn't proceed?" Those postwar achievements were decisions that were inevitable but had been delayed (the new towns and rail rationalisation should have started in the interwar years, the M25 in the 40s, the Chunnel in the 60s). Though we can't predict the future with accuracy, the current decisions look anything but inevitable. This is why indecision reigns.

It's early days, but my guess is that the Johnson government will go down in history not as the point of departure for a new direction in the country's history, let alone the start of a new golden age, but as a reversion to an older style of mismanagement familiar from the Macmillan years. This doesn't mean a rejection of Thatcherism and a return to "One Nation Toryism", outside of media-pleasing rhetoric, nor a revival of aristocratic restraint. The Thatcherite legacy is too deeply-embedded among MPs, party members and the Tories' electoral coalition for the one, while the media will not tolerate the other. Rather it means the return of dither and delay. Johnson's performance since becoming party leader and Prime Minister might suggest otherwise, particularly the cutting of the Gordian Knot of the Irish border and the determination to force a general election, but the consequence of the one has been a continuing refusal to admit the reality (Irish Sea border checks and a tipping of the scales against unionism) while the other was an inevitability given the impasse in Parliament (and delivered not by Johnson's persuasion but by Jo Swinson's opportunism).

As his time as London Mayor showed, Johnson isn't an effective manager and his desire to avoid conflict leads to his regular disappearance. While he will have plenty of photo-ops to fill his time, the suspicion is that most of his grands projets will, like the estuarine airport and the garden bridge, fail to leave the drawing board. The paradox of Brexit is summed up in that infamously mangled line from Lampedusa's The Leopard, that everything must change so that everything can stay the same. The 2016 referendum was a cry of rage and nostalgia from Northern and Midlands towns that had never recovered from the blows of the 1980s, but it was also a demand by comfortable Southern market towns and suburbs for the restoration of a settled order that connected the complacent 1950s and 60s of their childhood with the triumphalism of the 80s. The Tories cannot satisfy both constituencies, no matter how many culture wars they launch, but they also cannot risk alienating either of them. The result is likely to be indecision, dither and delay. The final irony is that Brexit may be the only thing that Boris Johnson manages to get done.


  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment1 February 2020 at 11:19

    Well if Brexit means little change then not only have some very vested interests spent a great deal of energy and resources on delivering it but the EU will be sending out the message that membership of the EU is no big deal! Not only will Briatin have no incentive ever to rejoin but the far right across Europe will hammer home the point that being part of the club brings no added benefits.

    The US flags were flying at the Brexit celebration precisely because the Brexiters want Britain to be the 51st state and accept red in tooth and claw US style capitalism. This is what the Brexiters have always been about.

    I expect Britain to become a pawn in the game between the US and the EU and expect we will notice more differences than simply new passports.

    As for the Tories and tax increases, you obviously have not being paying attention to the Council tax!

    1. Brexit doesn't change the economic geography. The UK will remain in the EU's orbit, which means that the govt will be under pressure to stay in sync. There will be high-profile divergences, maybe even at the behest of the US, but substantively British capital (& FDI) will push for close alignment with its nearest and largest market.

      This continuing alignment will be evidence of the power of the EU, not the irrelevance of membership. The argument for the UK to rejoin will, ironically, be "Take back control".

    2. Herbie Destroys the Environment2 February 2020 at 15:33

      Brexit may or may not change the economic geography, whatever that means, but the consequences of Brexit could or may not be more profound that you imagine. There is no doubt that the EU will not tolerate the UK undercutting its economy, so the likely thing is that not much will appear to change but the fact that the UK can survive perfectly well without the EU will not go unnoticed by the far right in Italy, France, Spain. But Brexit is merely the start of a new struggle between those who want to continue close alignment with the EU and the Brexiters who want the UK to be even more like US style capitalism. As Steve Bannon said, "The Brexit Turmoil is just beginning!"

      "This continuing alignment will be evidence of the power of the EU, not the irrelevance of membership."

      Not to the man on the street it won't.

      "The argument for the UK to rejoin will, ironically, be "Take back control"."

      No it won't. At best it will be we have made a terrible mistake can we humbly ask you let us back in!

  2. Are you yet another person who is unaware that Europe and the EU are not the same? Your quip about roaming charges might lead people to think that you don't have much of a clue what you are expatiating at length about