Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Uppers and Downers

John Naughton thinks that "The people who want Brexit are passionate in their hatred of the EU. But those who think ... that leaving would be a mistake don’t seem to be able to muster anything like the same passion for their belief. And therein lies the danger: for ... the combination of anger, hatred, xenophobia and illogicality combine to product a powerful narcotic". This is a revealing misuse of the word "narcotic", which is a drug that induces sleep - a downer, in other words. The outers give the impression that they have popped a handful of uppers (perhaps more in Boris Johnson's case), while the inners appear to be on a Mandrax drip-feed, even when they crank up project fear. George Osborne's attempt to make our blood run cold with his prediction of a £4,300 loss per household was naffly reminiscent of Doctor Evil's "One million dollars", while David Miliband's claim that Brexit would be "unilateral political disarmament" was the metaphor of a man pining for the past.

The remainers have a strategic problem with the referendum campaign. Their best argument is essentially conservatism - don't change anything because change is risky - but this may induce apathy among the voters, and so suppress turnout, which would disproportionately favour the more committed leavers. The consequence is a campaign that tries to combine flattery and fear, but with the exception of Barack Obama's intervention (this year's David Bowie moment), the result is often dissonant. It's an approach that worked for the Scottish independence referendum, but that had the advantage of the threat to shrivel pensions and savings overnight by confiscating the currency. The problem for the remain campaign is that many people suspect it may not matter how we vote because the threats relate to issues that are indeterminate, such as future trade terms, or don't connect at a personal level (the official case in noticeably light on workers' right).

This points to a significant change over time. The great nineteenth century debate on protection versus free trade centred on the price of food, notably the ability of ordinary folk to avoid malnutrition by buying cheaper imported grain. This evolved by the end of the century into the campaign for imperial preference, in which UK manufactures would be exchanged for dominion foodstuffs to mutual advantage. While "Buy Empire" gradually give way to "I'm Backing Britain" over the course of the twentieth century, the price of food remained a prominent issue in the 1975 referendum campaign, not least because of fears that the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) might prove to be the Corn Laws writ large - i.e. a return to higher profits for landowners at the cost of more expensive shopping baskets for working people.

The last 40 years have seen a fall in the cost of food as a percentage of income (steadily down in the first 30 years, then slightly up over the last decade), which is largely attributable to globalisation and increased productivity, much of which has been coordinated at the EU-level both through trade deals and regulation (standardisation tends to increase productivity). The CAP has lost its resonance for most people while supermarket monopsony in the UK (e.g. driving down the price of milk to the disadvantage of smaller dairy farmers) is now more likely to evoke popular anger than subsidies to agribusiness. This is one reason why newspaper tropes have shifted from the price support and waste of butter mountains to the bureaucratic myths of straight bananas. The government case for remain does note the risk of higher food prices outside the EU but associates this with a falling pound, rather than tariffs, which would be beneficial in other respects.

It is remarkable that the out campaign, despite a quarter of a century of thinking time (the Bruges Group was founded in 1989, UKIP in 1993), has presented an economic case for Brexit that is incoherent and arguments on sovereignty that are delusional. There is no clarity on what an optimum post-EU industrial policy would be and even less clarity on the future status of the UK's devolved governments, particularly in the event of a different vote result between England and Scotland. Some critics see this as evidence of the impossibility of the leave case, but that only shows the limit of their imagination, while others are perhaps closer to the mark in seeing it as evidence of the opportunism of leading Brexiteers. Personally, I think it is because the arguments for leaving have predominantly been developed by newspapers, for whom consistency and empirical foundations are not priorities.

There are two reasons for this. First, the EU has provided a means by which the papers have sought to discipline the Tory party since the 1980s (it's worth remembering that the press was overwhelmingly pro-EU in 1975), filling an instrumental gap left by the government's retreat from direct control of financial markets (particularly after 1992). A well-known paradox of right-wing newspapers is that they demand the retreat of the state at the same time that they demand a strong and decisive state. As neoliberal governments have ceded more to the market, areas that the state cannot easily divest, such as security and foreign affairs, have become more significant to the assessment of their performance and led to more demands for "action". The second factor is framing politics in the idiom of "national interest", which means a teen-like tendency to divide the world into friends and enemies, an obsession with international league tables, and a periodic rediscovery of strategic interests (e.g. steel).

This is a structural bias that arises from the nature of newspapers as much as from the dynamics of politics. Since the 19th century, the national project has been pursued through the standardisation of language in parallel with the building of a political consensus, hence articles on grammar remain as popular with the press as articles about social etiquette or property prices. In addition, nationalism creates a common market for the press, so there is a strong commercial imperative to align ideologically with the imagined nation, and thus be coterminus with the market, hence the easy recourse to xenophobia and the celebration of national tradition, no matter how spurious. But this also leads to a positive desire for integration by immigrants into the market, hence the emphasis on their need to learn English. Newspapers, as a language product, are structurally nationalist but not necessarily racist.

Newspapers that promote internationalism, like The Guardian, are consciously identifying themselves as a progressive fraction within society, but they don't fundamentally challenge national or class boundaries. Their cause is free trade and globalisation rather than social reform, which depends on the institutional protection provided by the nation state. They identify with the supranationalism of capital and the language of international business, so their grammar articles tend towards pragmatism rather than prescription and they have an appetite for American loan-words (e.g. "movie" versus "film"). They approach domestic nationalism through cultural goods, particularly those with international appeal, such as Shakespeare, and by evoking imagined national characteristics such as "tolerance" that emphasise accommodation and interchange.

It is no coincidence that the leading lights of the leave campaign have been newspapermen, that is politicians whose thinking has been formed by working for newspapers and whose political careers (and bank balances) are heavily dependent on favourable coverage and access to the opinion pages, such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan. Their prominence is not merely a reflection of the poor intellectual quality of other Brexiteers, such as Chris Grayling or Nigel Farage, but a sign that the Brexit discourse has more to do with a particular form of rhetoric than political or economic calculation. Its incoherence owes much to the leavers being the spiritual descendants of the Tariff Reform League but employing the language of free trade.

The limitations of this rhetoric can be seen in the way that the leavers have passed up opportunities to turn the remainers' threats to their advantage. For example, a fall in inward foreign direct investment, as a result of foreign businesses relocating to elsewhere in the EU, might increase unemployment in the short term but it would help our balance of payments in the longer term (monetary flows are increasingly more significant than trade to this balance). Similarly, the absence of trade deals is an irrelevance for those increasingly dominant parts of the export sector that deliver goods and services within the UK (e.g. concierge services in London) or online. These aren't killer arguments, but they aren't irrelevant either. The reason they don't feature is that they don't fit the newspaper narrative of an industrious "UK Plc" or the image of heavily-laden cargo ships.

The referendum contest is a classic non-meeting of minds in which one side presents feelings and the other side presents facts. One is not superior to the other, though over a long campaign the slow accretion of facts (no matter how individually dubious) tends to leave the latter side looking more substantial if not conclusive. In this it is simply an acute form of the perennial debate over immigration. It is interesting to note the contrast with the 1975 contest, when there was a mix of rhetoric and calculation on both sides. Roy Jenkins was just as high as Peter Shore, largely because both sides felt they could offer a vision of a better future. Today's Brexiteers may look like they're about to trip over into frothing psychosis, but that reflects their dependence on newspapers and their addiction to the synthetic drug of nationalism.


  1. I think the sheer reluctance of politicians to support the principle of the EU in anyway but the most instrumental has contributed a lot to the weakness of the remain campaign, allied to the fact that it is politically much more divided at base (a reversal of 1975).

    Thus rather than treat the EU as a space and a set of institutions in which to 'play politics', it is regarded as a kind of closed body which gives and/or takes from the UK. This has strengthened the hand of the leave campaign, which plays on the wholly unsophisticated idea that the EU is an organised conspiracy and something akin to the mythical 'Protocol of the Elders of Zion'. As such, it is an instrument of 'foreign domination' that has frustrated the 'national will'.

    The idea that national identity and political sovereignty need not be synonymous seems even further off, despite the problems and concerns that bother all the peoples of Europe.

    1. Sovereignty is probably the most misunderstood (because misused) concept in politics. It means unilateralism and a lack of obligations (and thus restraint). The most sovereign nation on Earth is North Korea. It's not a good look.

    2. Sovereignty, as conceived by politicians, is also narcissistic. They are not interested in giving power to the UK populace, but power to UK politicians. All power is contingent. Will it actually make any difference to most people if they are governed from Westminster or Europe?

      It's what frustrates me about some leftist outers. They seem to believe that restoring "sovereignty" to the UK will automatically lead to some radical nirvana.

    3. True. I'm still baffled by the unthinking assumption of many that national sovereignty is a great thing rather than a concept that, taken to its logical conclusion, would warrant a 'volksgemeinschaft' and the enforcement of a compulsory national identity.

  2. @gastro george

    As a leftist outer I don't believe that restoring 'sovereignty' will automatically lead to some radical nirvana. However, I do believe that restoring some kind of democratic accountability to our ruling class is a fundamentally necessary first step in establishing a better society. I also find the idea that the EU is responsible for protecting workers' rights in the UK particularly risible. We need to stand up for ourselves, not hope that an unelected class of foregn technocrats will lay a restraining hand on our rulers.

    Witchsmeller P.

    1. To put a mirror to my first comment, there was also a strand of leftist inners that sought refuge in the Social Chapter of the EU as an antidote to Thatcherism - which is part of what you're complaining about presumably.

      So I absolutely agree about the need to stand up for ourselves, and not rely on the notion of "sovereignty" nor unelected technocrats. But that is what makes the referendum such a complex issue.

      Principle versus tactics ... in this case I'm more inclined to fear the bonfire of rights and the resurgence of the nationalist right that an out vote would lead to.

    2. @WP, you equate sovereignty with "restoring some kind of democratic accountability to our ruling class", but this a non sequitor. An increase in sovereignty can be democratic, but it can just as easily be anti-democratic.

      The leave campaign has offered no promise to reduce the power of the ruling class, and plenty of evidence that its instinct is to reinforce it. "A sovereign parliament" is not a synonym for "power to the people".

    3. Many of our civil rights have already been eroded; and the demise of union power and the rise of things like ZHC means workers already have precious little employment protection. And if you think the nationalist right will be resurgent after an Out vote, how do you think they're going to be after an In vote that guarantees net immigration remains at over 300,000 per year for the foreseeable future?

      And although Corbyn is doing a pretty good job of holding the Labour vote steady, if he's replaced by another establishment placeman proclaiming the virtues of uncontrolled immigration, I fear that Labour might face decimation up here in the North.

      Witchsmeller P.

    4. @ Witchsmeller P

      'We need to stand up for ourselves'

      Who is the 'we' and who is the 'ourselves'? If it is defined as the interest of the common people against their rulers, why does it not include the common people of the UK, Germany, Italy, Poland, etc against their rulers across the EU?

      History demonstrates that nationalism is not an antidote to capitalism.

    5. @ Igor

      Unfortunately the common peoples of the EU states have found themselves locked into a political system which does not allow them to vote out their rulers. I agree that nationalism is not an antidote to capitalism, however I also think it's quite dangerous to simply abandon the notions of democracy and accountability. Do we trust where the EU is heading? (By this I mean under whose mandate was the Greek government brought down, for example). If we don't like this direction, what can we do about it from the inside? Not a lot I would venture.


    6. @WP

      "... found themselves locked into a political system which does not allow them to vote out their rulers."

      Unfortunately, you could say the same for Westminster. It will be interesting to see how far Corbyn gets ...

    7. @ george

      At least with Westminster, it's theoretically possible. Might not be likely, but we can at least hope for democratic change. With the EU, the best we can expect is benevolent dictatorship.


    8. 'Voting out our rulers' if we left the EU would be only be the case if it was solely a few politicians that ran the whole socio-economic and cultural life of the country. You'd have to be exceptionally naive to think that was the case.

  3. @ David

    The Leave campaign has offered no promise to reduce the power of the ruling class, because the best known proponents for Lexit (Benn, Crow) are now sadly dead. I understand that we would also need to take Parliament after throwing off the EU yoke, and that that proposition might seem unlikely, but hey, I'm an Old Utopian.


  4. Mr Timoney. Thank you for another great post. Watching the shire and the city wings of the Conservative party talk past each other is fun, but it maybe an idea to ignore them when choosing what to do. There is a live constitutional issue at stake. If you were given the chance to vote on the Lisbon treaty with the option of the EEC, which would you choose?

    1. Mr Evans,

      I don't understand what you mean by "the Lisbon treaty with the option of the EEC". Do you mean status quo ante Lisbon versus status quo ante Maastricht, or something else?

      The choice we are presented with is whether to remain in the EU or quit. This is not clear-cut because on the one hand no one knows if the terms renegotiated by Cameron make any material difference (I suspect not), and on the other hand we know Brexit is "six degrees of separation" but have no idea where on the continuum we'd end up.

      In the circumstances I'll probably vote to stay in, simply because sitting tight entails the most predictable outcome. I suspect many other people feel the same way, but might equally choose to abstain.

    2. Mr Timoney

      I apologise for being vague, but you put your finger on the matter. How would a meaningful choice have to be framed? I was trying to ask if there was a degree of separation, that had arguably pertained at some past point which we could select as our choice, and if so which one? It may be true to argue that none of them are strictly relevant as things have moved on, but unless the left can specify an arrangement that fits with a vision of social democracy then we are forced to be passive observers, like children waiting on a custody hearing.

  5. Herbie Destroys the Environment27 April 2016 at 17:20

    “George Osborne's attempt to make our blood run cold with his prediction of a £4,300 loss per household was naffly reminiscent of Doctor Evil's "One million dollars"”


    “The last 40 years have seen a fall in the cost of food as a percentage of income (steadily down in the first 30 years, then slightly up over the last decade), which is largely attributable to globalisation and increased productivity,”

    That should have started, In the West the last 40 years...and ended with; this is largely attributable to imperialist theft.

    See this article for context:

    Witchsmeller P said

    “I do believe that restoring some kind of democratic accountability to our ruling class is a fundamentally necessary first step in establishing a better society”

    I don’t see how accountability is the problem, under capitalism many economic factors are outside the control of any individual and the ones we lose to the EU are a good thing. For example a retreat back to nation states is a race to the bottom whether you like it or not. Having a large block with consistent labour laws protects against this race to the bottom, though it still exists. Also a bigger economic block can throw more muscle when it comes to things like procurement deals.

    The first step to establishing a better society is for the internationally united masses to take up direct opposition to the ruling classes, rather than lining up with one section or another.

    “I also find the idea that the EU is responsible for protecting workers' rights in the UK particularly risible. We need to stand up for ourselves, not hope that an unelected class of foreign technocrats will lay a restraining hand on our rulers.”

    This comment is based on the misunderstanding that it is faceless technocrats that are protecting the rights and not economic laws. The issue of workers rights in this context is less political and more economically deterministic. As I have said, having one large economic block with consistent labour laws means you do not get into a race to the bottom. It isn’t the technocrats that protect rights but the very existence of the large economic block, thus changing the dynamics of capitalist competition.

  6. Is there a possible football angle to the Brexit debate?

    Although the international football organisations are not part of the EU, could foreign countries seek revenge on the UK after Brexit by expelling English clubs from the champions league for example. Project Fear need only hint at a very faint possibility of this outcome to bring many football people to the Remain side.

    Normally I bin the polling cards as I am not in a marginal and don't care who is sorting out the bin collections. If there was a pro Arsenal way to vote however I would of course dust off the card and head for the polling booth in June.

    1. There's definitely a football angle because the vote will take place on the 23rd of June, which happens to be smack bang in the middle of the Euros, between the last of the group phase matches and the round of 16 knock-out.

      I doubt the progress of Wales or Northern Ireland will make much difference, but if England screw up against Slovakia on the 20th and go out, a particularly negative reaction could well boost the leave cause. Our future could rest in the hands of Harry Kane and Joe Hart.