Friday, 22 February 2019

A Declaration of Independence

I'm not convinced that the "Independent Group" will form a fully-fledged political party. As the name suggests, this is a opportunistic creation that bears an unflattering resemblance to the kind of volatile, minor formations you see in legislatures based on proportional representation. Their insistence on "policies that are evidence-based, not led by ideology, taking a long-term perspective to the challenges of the 21st century in the national interest, rather than locked in the old politics of the 20th century in the party’s interests" is Blairite boilerplate at its worst, suggesting that the original seven who quit the Labour whip on Monday have invested little time in developing a policy platform beyond the usual shibboleths around national security, business-friendliness and individual responsibility, despite their departure being long in the making. They are obviously centrist and establishment-minded, but nostalgia for the coalition years isn't a growth market. Attempts to fill in the gaps by their media chums have led either to ridiculous claims that the two main parties are intellectual voids or to the revival of ideas that have proved unpopular and tin-eared in the past, such as identity cards and conditional benefits.

One feature that is evident in their thinking is that an active party membership, beyond the contribution of canvassing and funding, would not be welcome. Chris Leslie, who for want of an alternative must be considered the new group's chief ideologue, has rejected Corbyn's legitimacy as Labour leader by dismissing party members: "Everybody has genuflected to membership, but that membership is a tiny fraction of the public at large… MPs have to, by the nature of our constitution, have confidence in their leader." This, together with the hoary references by their media supporters to Burke's independently-minded representative, suggests a reluctance to constitute a formal party in the modern British tradition, with a preference for a looser social association (i.e. focused on fund-raising in the American manner) and an appeal directly to the electorate via press and TV. That might work in a presidential system, as it did for Emmanuel Macron in France, but it stands no chance in the UK's system of first-past-the-post constituencies and an executive formed by the legislature. More generally, it is hard to see the "business-firm party model" thriving in a political culture that still values tribalism and mass-membership despite the scolding of centrist commentators.

The parallels with Macron and En Marche are misleading but still instructive. While he promised social liberalism and pain-free economic modernisation on the campaign trail, in office he has exhibited a haughty authoritarianism and pursued a stale neoliberalism that has borne down on the working class while privileging the rich. His unpopularity is hardly surprising. His success was entirely due to the existence of a presidential system and a relatively even distribution of first-round support among the four leading candidates that allowed him to qualify for the run-off with only 24%, and additionally gave him an "anyone but" opponent in Marine Le Pen. Apart from these structural advantages, the most obvious difference between the UK and France is that the new group does not have a charismatic individual to coalesce around, and the early indications are that there is no consensus among its members as to who might act as leader. The idea that David Miliband might return in glory strikes me as implausible, because he is no more charismatic or intellectually coherent than Anna Soubry, while the notion of a "clean skin" in the manner of Macron seems too alien for Britain's political culture to easily absorb. That bookies are offering 5/2 on Tony Blair becoming leader isn't a good sign.

In theory, the group could be market-testing under a placeholder name with a view to forming a party later this year, but that seems unnecessary. There has been no lack of polling and focus-grouping by rich donors keen to create a centrist party over the last three years, and no lack of media commentators running up dummy manifestos. But all the evidence of that polling suggests that the centre of the political spectrum may not be as heavily-populated as is usually assumed. While it is true that both Labour and the Conservatives have shifted left and right respectively in terms of their programmes, this appears to reflect the long-standing views of the population rather than a sudden shift engineered by "entryists". Cameron's modernisation project failed to take either party members or electors with it, hence the long-running sore over Europe and the difficulty in securing a majority, while Labour's membership and electoral support has always been more to the left than the PLP. Both Cameron and Blair were supported under sufferance by many, hence the steady decline in turnout since 1997. The true centrist bloc of voters is little bigger than the Liberal Democrats' core support, and they obviously won't welcome the competition unless there is an electoral pact in the mode of the 1980s Liberal-SDP Alliance.

It is not at all clear why the original seven decided that mid-February was the optimum time to launch, though the growing hostility of their constituency parties might be a factor. Even the decision of the three Tories and two other Labour MPs to join forces (very loosely in the case of Ian Austin), which was obviously triggered by Monday's announcement, seems oddly-timed. They are not going to stop Brexit and, however slow and halting, Labour has begun to take action against anti-Semitism in its ranks. Of course, nothing that the current Labour leadership might do in regard to either issue will ever satisfy its critics, and the formation of this group means that there will now be an irreconcilable and noisy anti-Corbyn claque for the duration of the Parliament, but that paradoxically is bad news for its ostensible causes. Achieving a Commons majority to either prevent no-deal or secure a second referendum has now got marginally harder, while the charges of anti-Semitism against Labour will increasingly look politically-motivated, particularly if the same energy isn't devoted to calling our the various "tinges" of racism within the Conservative Party.

For the nine Labour defectors, their fundamental motivation is presumably to act as a goad and spoiler for their former colleagues. This was made plain by the decision of the Labour Friends of Israel group to keep Joan Ryan as its Parliamentary chair, a move that defies logic unless you see the Independent Group as the Labour Party in exile. Indeed, the addition of ex-Tories to their ranks is probably unhelpful insofar as it disrupts their media strategy by diverting attention away from Labour and Corbyn. For this reason, it strikes me as more likely that the group will remain a loose association rather than constitute a formal party and thus be faced with the challenge of developing a shared platform. While it isn't difficult to find common ground between Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry on most topics, their joint position would be hard to distinguish from the Conservatives in areas such as the economy and social policy. As these are the areas that ultimately determine elections, rather than essentially supra-party issues like Brexit and racism, it is likely that a new centre party would come to be seen as just another expression of conservative establishment politics, as happened to the LibDems in the coalition years. The early comments of the group have done little to dispel this belief.

One thing that is already clear is that the three ex-Tories have no intention of voting against the government on a confidence motion, and I suspect the ex-Labour MPs would probably abstain on the grounds that they wouldn't do anything to advance the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn entering Number 10. There is even the suggestion that they would prop up May's administration if she promised a second referendum, which in turn suggests they might settle for a more modest quid pro quo post-Brexit and compete for business with the DUP. Though I wondered initially if the original seven moved this week because they thought a snap general election was imminent, and calculated that this would be the best way of damaging Labour's chances and so forcing Corbyn out as leader in the aftermath of a clear Conservative victory, I now think they intend to hang on grimly until 2022, sniping from the sidelines and cluttering up TV studios. They remain unreconciled to the leftward shift of Labour, but dismissing party democracy (and refusing to submit to by-elections) isn't going to garner widespread support so they are obliged to claim victimhood. The problem is that the aggrieved divorcee look quickly palls in the eyes of the electorate, if not commissioning editors.

Brexit may well be a done deal in six weeks time, and while re-accession to the EU could be a viable basis for a new party in the medium-term (though I imagine the Liberal Democrats will seek to monopolise that cause), it is not going to provide an agenda in the short-term if the Article 50 process completes. A policy of close integration with the EU post-Brexit would be indistinguishable from Labour's current position and probably that of the Lib Dems after March as well. Anti-antisemitism isn't a viable basis for a mass party, or for any hope of significant electoral success, not least because in those constituencies with a significant Jewish population the Tories will not welcome a split in the anti-Labour vote (the exception that proves the rule being Enfield, where Joan Ryan is the incumbent). That said, it would be amusing to see how the likes of Stephen Pollard might react should Luciana Berger decide to stand in Barnet. Ignoring Brexit and antisemitism, is there a viable space in British politics for a new centrist party? There has been plenty of talk about a realignment along a values dimension of "open" versus "closed" mindsets, but a more careful consideration of the evidence suggests that the untapped potential of the electorate is still largely to the left of the centre imagined by the Independent Group.

There is no evidence that the new group are particularly socially liberal, and some to the contrary when you consider their voting records and public statements. On economic matters they are clearly right-of-centre, which puts them at odds with public opinion. Praising austerity, as both Anna Soubry and Chris Leslie have done, is a bad look at the best of times, while Angela Smith's cheerleading for water privatisation isn't popular anywhere outside of the City of London. Viewed through the perspective of class interests, the Independent Group is not only a regressive attempt to return to the "happy days" of the late-90s, but a defence of the privileges of a professional and managerial elite that has lost the grudging public tolerance it enjoyed before 2008. Ironically, the interests of the wider managerial and professional class that the group ultimately represents are more likely to be served after Brexit by a Labour victory that leads to a revival in the public sector, investment in domestic industry and substantive action over housing and inequality. The paradox of this declaration of independence is that it shows an inability to break free from the grip of the past.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

The Expectations Gap

Last month, the CEO of Grant Thornton, the auditors of Patisserie Valerie, told MPs on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee that "We're not looking for fraud", a comment that was taken to be representative of auditors in general. With high-profile failures such as the cake chain and Carillion dominating the media in recent years, this comment sparked some incredulity, thereby highlighting what has come to be referred to as the "expectations gap" in the public understanding of the role of auditors. The purpose of an audit is to independently verify that a company's accounts give a true and accurate picture of its trading status and financial viability, essentially to assure shareholders and debtors (e.g. banks providing financing) that they can rely upon the statutory accounts to accurately gauge risk. This does not extend to assessing the quality of its business - so a firm that is a going concern could still go bankrupt if legitimately anticipated revenue failed to turn up - nor does it include an opinion on a firm's ethical behaviour beyond the conventions of accounting.

The concerns over the audit industry that have emerged since the Enron scandal in 2001 revolve around risk rather than ethics, reflecting a fear among large investors and financial institutions that they are being increasingly exposed by the limitations of the traditional audit. The focus is on firms of the scale of Carillion, not small-fry like Patisserie Valerie, and in particular on businesses with complex intercompany structures that span both the private and public sectors, raising the linked issues of implicit state guarantees and regulatory arbitrage. The expectations gap between what the public expects auditors to be responsible for and what they actually do is not a reflection of popular ignorance but a demand for a more socially-focused role. Though auditors are just business service providers, they are perceived by the public as carrying out a quasi-state function: ensuring that firms are not merely legally-observant in their accounting practices but they are not conducting their business in a manner that might prove damaging to society in the various forms of customers, suppliers and employees.

These two tendencies - the increasing complexity of modern capitalism and the demands for social responsibility - are at root driven by the same trend: the increasing socialisation of capital in the form of firms dependent on institutional shareholdings. The demand for higher ethical standards has long been addressed, if inadequately, by the pabulum of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The demand for greater managerial oversight by institutional investors has been met by legislation on corporate governance, and it is within the latter's ambit that the issue of audit is now being addressed. This means that one problem of the current audit regime, the role of non-executive directors (NEDs) in leading audit committees, is unlikely to be resolved. NEDs have to be clubbable and not ruffle feathers if they are to acquire multiple directorships, with the result that there is little incentive to be hard on either the business or its auditors. Nationalising audit, or at least putting it under the direct control of a state regulator, runs into the problem that it would reduce the power of NEDs and thus call into question the corporate governance regime.

Over and above this there are the traditional objections that a national audit service would represent an excessive incursion by the state into the private sphere, and that the application of a common ethical framework would constrain innovation and enterprise (CSR is optional, after all). More modest calls (e.g. by Labour) for the breakup of the "big four" and the insistence that audit firms should be specialists, rather than loss-leaders used as a platform for upselling, stand a better chance of success, but only if the focus remains on risk management and if state oversight is little more than another "watchdog". What will not be conceded short of nationalisation, and perhaps not even then, is the idea that auditors should assess a firm's social responsibilities. That business should be subject to ethical scrutiny has always been, and remains, anathema. This doesn't mean that ethics will be ignored, but that it will be diverted into the spectacle of personal behaviour, such as "fit and proper persons" tests and disgust at CEO incivility. The Philip Greens and Michael O'Learys of this world will continue to strut the stage, distracting from the theatre itself.

This might all seem a bit dry, but the question of the purpose and organisation of company audits is relevant to the emerging debate over the future management of artificial intelligence, which is nothing is not sexy, at least in its media coverage. This is because both employ the rhetoric of social responsibility but do so in order to preserve established interests. In today's Observer, Will Hutton, who knows a fair bit about capitalist practice but not much about technology, argues for a "smart response" to guard against the sinister abuse of AI. He has a list of measures: "Three seem crucial: maximal transparency and accountability embodied in regulatory oversight and a new Companies Act; methods and digital processes to ensure you own your data and its use; and fast and effective regulation of content. Put another way, we need every organisation deploying digital data to be open and accountable; we need new public interest digital platforms where we can hold our data based on the presumption we own it; and we need another Leveson – a fast and effective mechanism to ensure digital information is not misinformation". This is the classic liberal trifecta: transparency among an elite, secure ownership and civilised censorship.

What is missing in Hutton's analysis is any real understanding of the social context of the technology (this has been a longstanding blind-spot in his oeuvre). For example, he claims that "AI allows the individualisation of your drug treatment and fast and cheap diagnoses of whatever illness you are suffering, along with likely cures". This is nonsense, not least because it is genetic sequencing that might allow such individualisation, not AI, but the wider error here is to fail to see the social reality. Medical research is skewed to the interests of the rich because they have the money to pay for expensive screening and treatments. The idea that AI will produce cheap diagnoses and cures, thereby disrupting a pharmaceuticals industry based on fat profit margins, is na├»ve. After a gratuitous insult aimed at the Labour Party, which now seems to be obligatory in all Observer comment pieces, Hutton ends with a call to arms that perfectly echoes the fears of an earlier generation of liberals faced with the prospect of universal suffrage: "The task is not to throw up our hands warning that the machines are coming – it is to design a world in which we are their master, not their servant".

The liberal demand that AI be regulated and managed is not motivated primarily by a desire to defend society from its disruptive and destabilising potential, no matter how many times its advocates cite Karl Polanyi, but from the self-interest of existing business sectors. In quoting Shoshana Zuboff's concept of "surveillance capitalism" (a term that is rightly being criticised for having little to do with capitalism), Hutton conflates two completely unrelated technologies. Trawling your Facebook posts to determine what adverts to present you with is not AI, but it is a technique of data personalisation that is eating the lunch of newspapers dependent on advertising. Likewise, claiming that social media is destroying the fabric of civilised life and undermining our politics only makes sense if you cannot imagine either civilisation or politics beyond the frame of elite convention. Both the optimism and pessimism associated with AI reflect expectations of profit more than social benefit. Similarly, the debate over the future of audit is not about preventing fraud or social damage, but mitigating risks to capital.

Friday, 8 February 2019

The Bitter Harvest of Centrism

Since the eighteenth century, both progressive and reactionary thinkers have imagined that history proceeds through epochal change. Periodisation clearly pre-dates the Enlightenment - consider the "ages" of Hesiod - but the antique view tended to imagine a limited series of eras culminating in a stable present with no expectation for future development. Up until 1789, revolution meant restoration. After the fall of the Bastille, revolution came to mean "A new age of …", providing a formulation that could be applied to social and technological change as much as political. As the dynamism of industrial modernity increasingly impinged on social life, it became routine for politics to be discussed in terms of epochal predictions - the coming age of something or other - but this was a form adopted as eagerly by reactionaries as progressives. Indeed, stylistically they often borrowed each others' clothes. Just as progressives could articulate their expectations in the language of romantic nostalgia, such as William Morris's News From Nowhere, so reactionaries could base their predictions on the rigour of empiricism, from the "Malthusian trap" to Victorian "race science".

In contemporary politics, demography has come to occupy a central role in the production of predictions. Some of this is non-controversial extrapolation of evident trends, such as changes in household composition or home-ownership, and much of it serves a progressive (if shrill neoliberal) purpose, such as the "things can only get better" riffs of Steven Pinker, but demography has also become the favoured tool of reactionaries for whom the changing makeup of society is essentially pathological, whether in the form of le grand remplacement or the persistence of an incorrigible underclass. It is in this context that we should view the recent vogue for linking demography with political party formation, from Ford and Goodwin onwards. For example, the political scientist Jonathan Wheatley suggests "that the economic conflict between capital and labour that defined political competition in the 20th century is giving way to a new sort of conflict based on culture and identity". This isn't a particularly novel claim: you can find variations on it from Anthony Crosland in the 1960s to Eric Hobsbawm in the 1980s. What has changed in recent years is the extent to which demographic analysis has been used to bolster theory.

That analysis has tended to focus on the working class, and in particular the "white" or "native" working class in Western countries. Though culture and identity are central to middle class aspiration and performance, the demography of comfortable suburbanites and metropolitan professionals has received much less attention. This is partly a hegemonic assumption that the middle class is the natural core of society, but it also reflects (unintentionally) the Marxist idea that the working class is the agent of history and its chief struggle is to achieve consciousness of itself as a class. That so much recent demographic analysis of the working class has emphasised values over material interests is no accident. Not only does it allow the economic dimension to be downplayed, tropes such as "the culture war" allow the very concept of class to be marginalised in favour of ideological frames such as open vs closed. We're now at the point where this supposedly empirical base is being used to predict a new political epoch. As Wheatley puts it, "There is therefore a very real possibility that the shift from left-right politics to open-closed politics may lead to a complete restructuring of the party system and the end of traditional party allegiances. The political map of 2020 may look very different from that of 1970" (I wonder if he's put any money on that).

The bi-axial model of politics (economics vs values, or left-right vs authoritarian-libertarian) has enjoyed a particular salience in recent years because of the assumption that an economic reaction to globalisation has amplified a cultural expression of populist nativism (the resentful "left behind" thesis). In some quarters the analysis has been reduced further to a belief that political initiatives like Brexit are primarily driven by objectionable cultural attitudes and cannot be excused on the grounds of economic distress or political disempowerment: "It is not that Leave voters feel less disenfranchised in a generic sense from political processes now the result has been achieved, it is that they feel more empowered to hold and vocalize what were previously unacceptable views on specific areas by a result which appeared to legitimate and embolden those who held them in doing so. ... To the extent it is about anger at existing political norms, it is precisely because these are insufficiently authoritarian and excessively socially liberal."

The result is that the traditional call for a centrist political formation in the UK is now presented less as a middle way between the free market and the state, a proposition whose credibility was undermined by 2008 and the subsequent enabling of austerity, and more as a partisan commitment to an "open" politics in response to the twin commitments of left and right to a "closed" worldview. Though this sounds like the dichotomy of cosmopolitanism and parochialism, in which both poles reflect lived experience, it is presented in terms of a superficial reaction to liberal shibboleths, with the "closed" worldview being entirely negative. As Philip Collins puts it, "Party affiliation now matters less than cultural outlook and a better way to understand politics is to ask a person’s view on multiculturalism, immigration, globalisation, feminism and gay marriage. The split occurs between those who welcome change and those who are suspicious of it. … The birth of the Labour Party was a response to a change in the composition of the electorate. We do not have that now but we do have a change in the nature of the electorate and this might allow Labour to split."

Those last two sentences are telling. We have reached a stage where objective change in the composition of the electorate is unnecessary to explain epochal shifts; an apparent subjective change in its "nature" is now sufficient. This metaphysics is built on two dubious premises: that parties have become divorced from cultures (in the sense of sets of values) and that cultures are consistent (if you're in favour of gay marriage, you must be in favour of multiculturalism etc). No evidence is provided for either, and it's easy to find evidence against. Parties have always reflected a broad range of values, precisely because their glue was a common material interest. Ideology might predispose you towards certain values, but it wasn't a given. That's why some rich people have always been happy to vote Labour and why some gays were prepared to vote Conservative in the 80s (the tax-cuts more than offset Section 28). Similarly, Collins's choice of examples is designed to avoid any jarring notes, such as the uneasy relationship of transgender rights and feminism, and kept at a sufficiently coarse level to avoid nuance (few people are either wholly for or wholly against immigration or globalisation).

Paradoxically, the idea that politics is undergoing a major realignment that will cause the established parties to be rent asunder coexists with the belief that those parties are actively realigning towards the new social reality. The Tories are held to have thrown in their lot with the anti-immigrant right while the current Labour Party leadership is increasingly cast as isolationist and indulgent of nativism (among its more trenchant critics, it is characterised as authoritarian, racist and antisemitic, suggesting that it's really going for broke on the values dimension). Any sign of pragmatism, such as the long-time eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn voting remain in 2016 and urging a Brexit in name only thereafter, is taken as evidence of hypocrisy. That both parties have been accused of moving towards the "closed" pole, despite their profound differences on the economic axis, is obviously intended to create a welcoming space close to the "open" pole for a new centrist formation (that centrists, particularly in the Labour Party, spent much of the period between 2000 and 2015 flirting with "closed values" has been quickly forgotten).

In order to present the centre as the champion of social liberalism and "openness", it must deny any similar affinity between the left (its chief opponent) and progressive values, hence the return of cold war rhetoric. In this context, the true value of Venezuela for centrists is not merely the hoary old idea that socialism inevitably leads to mismanagement and economic ruin, but that the isolationism that proceeds from a "closed" mentality does the same. That the country has been actively isolated by others is occluded in media reports of the regime's "defiance" and paranoia, tropes that have long been deployed in respect of North Korea, Iran and others. Where neoliberalism once advocated the "opening up" of countries to enable modern development and rising living standards for the poor, i.e. as a means to an end, it now promotes a cultural case in which "openness" is an end in itself and a social good of greater value than economic justice.

The danger is that centrist ambition, which is ultimately still about reconciling the free market and the state, is actually amplifying nativism and reactionary cultural attitudes because it cannot revive the pre-2008 arguments in favour of neoliberalism. In place of the rationalism of the 90s, centrists are promoting faith. In place of evidence-based policy-making, they advocate a catechism of bien pensant values. Iraq obviously destroyed those earlier pretensions, and 2008 gave the lie to the claim that technocracy delivered stability. Now, centrism is driven to an almost hysterical insistence on its virtue because it lacks an empirical case for its proposed social and economic dispensation. Neoliberalism has boosted inequality, fractured communities, and accelerated the despoliation of the planet. The result is that centrists are all too easily attracted to pushing the idea that half the country is made up of vicious, small-minded fools, even if the precise composition of that half seems to be constantly changing. The "closed" mindset is not some deep-seated prejudice that will determine the political landscape for decades. It is simply the projection of centrist guilt.

Friday, 1 February 2019

Europe's Bourgeois Democracy

The American academic Alex Gourevitch has come in for some justified criticism on this side of the pond for penning a "Lexit" analysis of the current political gridlock in the UK entitled "Leave the EU Already". Apart from the annoying tone, his article is shallow in its understanding of both the EU and British politics. It presents Brexit as a matter of popular sovereignty and the cack-handed process overseen by the Conservative government as a strategy of elite delay pending a reversal of the referendum decision. This is doubly wrong. The UK does not recognise popular sovereignty, even if it does accept the obligation to honour the 2016 referendum result, and the legislature is actually united on the need to leave the EU, hence the vote to trigger Article 50 in 2017, it just cannot agree on the terms of doing so or the basis of the future relationship. However, I'm less interested in Gourevitch's misunderstanding of British politics than his insistence that "The European Union is one of the chief enemies of democratic politics", which is a claim regularly made by British Lexiteers as well.

The EU isn't an enemy of democracy, but it does believe in a limited and managed form of it in which certain interests are dominant. Of course, all democracies are managed, so this isn't really saying much. The fundamental question is, which interests are dominant? In the managed democracy of Russia, for example, the interests of the state elite are paramount. This reflects the way that the old nomenklatura gave way to the new oligarchs and class-based politics was stillborn in the 90s. As Russia's experience indicates, the variation in democratic practice - i.e. the way in which politics is conducted rather than its institutional form - cannot be understood outside the context of a country's history. To take another example, the current crisis in Venezuela is part of a wider, long-running South American debate over whether democracy should serve the middle class or the working class exclusively, which has given rise to the trope of pink and populist "tides" and the notion of winner-takes-all regime change.

The EU is a bourgeois democracy. I use that adjective not only to emphasise its continuity with political forms that developed in the nineteenth century, but to note that its practice is as much about tone and behaviour as material interest. But that practice can mislead critics into imagining that the EU is contemptuous of the electorate. Gourevitch says "National politicians created the EU institutions in a bid to avoid the rough-and-tumble of democratic representation, turning Europe’s nation-states into member-states". In fact, the EU as a project is an attempt to construct a pan-European middle-class demos committed to sound money and private property. It is an example of democratic construction, albeit a highly qualified one, rather than an attempt to avoid democracy. As such, it is the ironic inheritor of nineteenth century nation-building. Rather than being contemptuous of the people en masse, the EU is discriminatory on the basis of class. A little noted effect of the EU's hegemony has been the way that this discriminatory attitude (which, let us not forget, was pioneered in Europe by Margaret Thatcher) has fed back into domestic politics, notably in the all-too-evident class contempt of Emmanuel Macron.

The rise of populist and illiberal conservative parties within the EU is often framed in terms of Euroscepticism or a reaction to globalisation, but in practice there is little enthusiasm on the political right for quitting the EU, no matter how much they may use it as a scapegoat. The reason for this is that Europe's middle classes appreciate the EU. This can be valorised as "a quest for the quiet life", but what it actually boils down to is simple material interest. The EU preserves post-war middle-class social and economic gains and protects countries that would be individually weaker against the buffeting of global finance. You can launch a right-wing party on the back of Euroscepticism, but to win power you need to guarantee the value of middle class wealth, which means staying in the EU and (for the core) the eurozone. Viktor Orban may rail against George Soros, but he welcomes foreign capital into Hungary. Greece may have voted "No" to the bailout in 2015, but it folded as soon as the threat of expulsion from the eurozone was raised. It would be wrong to assume that the rise of nationalism necessarily weakens the EU. In practice, it does more to inhibit the development of pan-European working class solidarity, thereby preserving the middle-class demos.

So why is the UK different, or at least sufficiently different to vote leave in 2016 and appear sanguine at the prospect of a chaotic no-deal outcome in March? Given that the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 was swung by middle-class voters frightened at the loss of sterling, perhaps it would be more accurate to ask what is so different about the middle classes of England and Wales (though middle-class Scots who voted for the union and Brexit, first accepting and then rejecting "project fear", would be an interesting case study). Do enough of them imagine that there will be no pain, or are they simply calculating that it will, as in the 1980s, disproportionately hit Mansfield and Tredegar rather than Solihull and Orpington? We should ask them, but the media seem more interested in talking to working class codgers who think that rationing would be good for the nation's moral fibre (at a time of inadequate pay packets and proliferating food-banks, the idea that this is representative of working class opinion is dubious, to say the least).

The focus on working-class reactionaries distracts attention from the comfortable, Tory-voting middle-classes that actually delivered victory for leave. When Labour MPs like John Mann talk about reflecting the views of their constituents, the media interpret this to mean Brexit-supporting Labour voters. In 2017, 43% of the Bassetlaw electorate voted Tory. That's where the bulk of Brexit support is to be found in Mann's constituency. The tensions that gave rise to Brexit were middle-class. On the one hand you had the common desire for a bourgeois Europe as a bulwark against radical socialism (this was an important factor in the British establishment's overwhelming support for the EEC in the 1970s), while on the other you had the lingering belief that the UK remained a global power with an independent destiny. It may be that the receding threat of socialism from the mid-80s caused the latter to become more dominant. Perhaps if Jeremy Corbyn had been elected Labour leader five years earlier, and scored as well in 2015 as he did in 2017, the referendum might have been narrowly won by remain.