Thursday, 25 April 2019

Exemplary Leadership

The elections for the European Parliament have long attracted eccentrics and grandstanders, but this year's crop of candidates are particularly eye-catching in their delusions of significance. This is for two reasons. First, Brexit has turned these elections into a large-scale opinion poll in which the candidates' beliefs beyond the central issue are largely irrelevant. Ironically, Brexit means that the European elections have lost much of their political substance. Second, the launch of two new parties with hopes of winning seats, the Brexit Party and Change UK: The Independent Group, together with the reformation of UKIP, has led to the scraping of some pretty odd barrels. A feature of this candidate pool, beyond the usual over-representation of fatuous business types, is the assumption that media prominence (or notoriety) is helpful. Though neither Claire Fox nor Rachel Johnson would accept that they are the same as Count Dankula and Sargon of Akkad, their utility is all about followers and name-recognition.

This scramble for "personalities" might appear like another unfortunate by-product of Brexit, but it is part of a wider, long-term trend away from political substance towards style: from Tony Crosland to Jess Phillips. Though the political establishment has decried the "unicornism" of Brexit and the anti-intellectualism of Trump, that same establishment lauded first Justin Trudeau and then Emmanuel Macron for their "refreshing" style and their refusal to be tied down to boring old substance on issues such as favours for the rich. The roots of this clearly go way back, through Blair and Clinton to John F Kennedy at least, but there has been a noticeable inflation during the neoliberal era as government has ceded more and more of the substance of the electorate's lives to the authority of the market, and it is no coincidence that those politicians who argue for the state to take a more substantial role, such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, are routinely criticised for their lack of leadership style as much as their "dangerous ideas". Similarly, civic groups taking a lead - eXtinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg being recent examples - are decried as cultists or harangued for having the temerity to speak out of turn.

Exemplary leadership in the neoliberal era is often confused with appropriate form, in the sense of speaking the right words and making the right gestures in the face of contingent circumstance (consider Blair's supposed coaching of the Queen in 1997 after the death of the Princess of Wales). The praise for Jacinda Arden after the Christchurch mosque attack was a recent example of this, with her largely emblematic decision to tighten New Zealand's gun laws being a case of pushing at an open door rather than persuading the country to change course through compelling argument. When government has set out to persuade, it has often proved unequal to the task, either because it lacks real commitment (the tragedy of the Iraq War was that all bar a handful of zealots knew it was a mistake from the start) or is simply incompetent (the 2016 remain campaign springs to mind). What the media meant by Arden's "leadership" was her (no doubt sincere) empathy and representation of public sentiment. In contrast, Theresa May's awkwardness and lack of empathy isn't historically unusual (cf Ted Heath), but it looks more obviously deficient in a Prime Minister who lacks substantive authority.

Much of contemporary politics can be seen as a failure of leadership, but one that reflects a systemic contradiction rather than an unfortunate dearth of talent. Neoliberalism places the CEO on a pedestal but then insists both that politicians should be more CEO-like and that politics must cede to the market. The result is politicians who are business administrators with delusions of Napoleonic grandeur. May's particular failure reflects both the division of the country and the division of the Conservative Party. Her personal culpability lies in her belief that superficially uniting the latter was more important than bridging the divide in the former. Within Tory ranks, the remain/leave divide has morphed into a more fundamental liberal/conservative culture war. According to Nick Timothy, "With Brexit and immigration the defining issues at stake, the Tories have no future as a metro, liberal party. They have to become the champions of community and solidarity. In other words, the National Party". As with earlier varieties of "realignment", such as Blue Labour and Red Toryism, this trades in imagined communities but goes the whole hog to use the N-word, rather than just euphemisms like patriotism, and implicitly yokes the national interest to reduced immigration.

Talking of imagined communities, the poor calibre of The Independent Group of MPs at their launch, with unimpressive old hacks like Mike Gapes and Anne Coffey forced blinking into the limelight, was a sign that the embryonic party would struggle to make an impact once it lost its utility as a stick with which to beat Labour. While Tom Watson's decade-long image makeover hasn't erased the memory of his past sins as a Brownite enforcer, he has the obvious advantage over Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna of still being part of the "struggle for Labour's soul", while they are now appreciating the disadvantage of not being personally popular among the natural promoters of "sensible politics" in the media, despite their ideological congeniality. Since their departure from Labour, the core members of TIG have failed to expand beyond an agenda of resentment and entitlement, and even seem surprised that they are expected to do the hard graft required of a smaller party to secure media coverage. Banging on about Labour anti-Semitism already feels stale, not to mention hypocritical in view of the evidence of bigotry among its newly-announced candidates for the European Parliament elections.

The addition of three Tory MPs hasn't helped, both because the inevitable tonal shift to the right has made the group even more loath to be pinned down on social and economic policy (beyond the implicit "no change") and because those Tories, Anna Soubry in particular, have also been lacking in anything approaching a political vision beyond "remain". Their unwillingness to express regret for austerity or to countenance voting down the current government is not just a reflection of their true conservative beliefs, it is an object lesson in strategic folly, passing up the opportunity to create a distinctive policy position between the two main parties while throwing away their limited leverage. It's as if they simply weren't paying attention to the DUP over the last two years. That Heidi Allen has been made interim leader suggests that the new Change UK party will be characterised by an inability to articulate meaningful change, with the result that its leadership will be at best anodyne and at worst tediously bitter.

The contrast with Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party is stark. He may be a lazy chancer who flees from responsibility, but he understands what a campaigning party looks like and how to channel its energies and fortunes through a figurehead: the Farageprinzip, if you will (his decision to eschew a membership for subscribers is telling). That he is now emphasising both the "betrayal of democracy" and the need for more comprehensive change to the political system is astute as it offers a conservative radicalism that has potentially broad electoral appeal and also plays to the prejudices of many in the media (it is also amusing trolling of Change UK). Of course, this could never be translated into meaningful success in a Parliamentary election because any attempt to firm up its policy platform beyond Brexit and a nebulous critique of "the system" would result in the same tensions and embarrassments that dogged UKIP. Despite claims that it will finally unlock that elusive "Northern vote", the Brexit Party's role (beyond funding Farage's lifestyle) will be to act as a ginger group for the Conservatives.

As Nick Timothy's Telegraph article indicates, there is now an appetite within the Tory Party for a split. It is clear that around two-thirds of the membership would be happy with a "National Party" that featured not only Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg but Nigel Farage too. The parliamentary party is weighted more towards the liberal end of the spectrum, but many centrist MPs now know that preserving their political careers may require them to abandon the Conservatives and build a new support base in the form of a "metro, liberal party", in Nick Timothy's formulation. The obvious vehicle for this would be Change UK, which increasingly looks like a centre-right party and which would benefit from the focus that a full-throated commitment to liberal conservatism would bring (I suspect Leslie and Umunna could reconcile themselves to this). Were a major Conservative Party split to happen, it could potentially be terminal for the Liberal Democrats (that the collapse of both parties could be traced to the miscalculations of the coalition years would be some irony). The chief impediment to this scenario playing out is the lack of leadership, with both factions too riven by personal jealousies to easily separate and coalesce, but circumstances, most obviously a poor showing in the European Parliament elections, could force the issue.

The one party that currently appears to be in a healthy state in terms of its leadership is Labour, funnily enough. This isn't because Jeremy Corbyn is more cunning than he is given credit for, or simply because the party is on the right side of history, but because of its institutional preference for collegiate leadership. Viewed over its history, the "democratic centralisation" of the Blair years was the exception, not the rule. Corbyn has, perhaps more from habit than design, pursued an approach to leadership that is strong on genuine delegation, tolerant of disagreement and has little regard for stylistic affectation or the expectations of the media. This has been presented by both the wiseacres of the press and the Blairite rump of the PLP as weakness, division and a simple lack of suitability, which reflects both their overt hostility to Corbyn's politics and their ideological distaste for egalitarianism. The approach may well prove flawed in time, but over the last three and a half years it has been largely successful. David Cameron's "stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband" seems a long way away now.

Friday, 19 April 2019


The cramped room in which Julian Assange has lived at the Ecuadorian embassy in London these past seven years can credibly be considered a "site of memory", in Pierre Nora's famous phrase, even if its historical resonance and layers of accreted history (and shit, apparently) are no match for Notre Dame de Paris. The latter has been described without a hint of irony by various commentators, from the far right to the centre of the political spectrum, as a symbol of "Western Civilisation", as if that term was free of any negative historical connotations. Few of these enthusiasts have focused on the cathedral's emblematic role as a place of refuge, despite Victor Hugo's best efforts on that score, presumably because asylum remains a touchy subject, not least in view of the same commentators robust insistence that dragging the dishevelled Assange out of his bolt-hole was entirely right and proper. The substantive connection between these two lieux de mémoire is, of course, the concept of sanctuary.

Though it has come to mean a place of safety, often for endangered plants or animals (such as "a cracking owl sanctuary"), it was originally a privileged piece of land where secular law did not apply. This didn't mean it was anarchic, but that ecclesiastical law and traditions dating back to Roman practice took precedence. In other words, the concept of sanctuary was itself a site of contest between church and state and could be seen as emblematic of a wider struggle over the ownership and control of land (similarly, "liberties", in the sense of areas enjoying commercial or social privileges, marked the contest between crown and bourgeois). The topic of land ownership is once more in the news with a report that half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population. This sort of eye-catching statistic is a reliable news filler both because it functions as an emblem of inequality and because it rarely changes. We can safely rediscover it every decade. However, that immutability has little to do with the persistence of inequality and owes more to the nature of land as a store of wealth.

The high concentration of land ownership in the UK dates from late Tudor times. Though the dissolution of the monasteries initially broadened ownership in the form of the "landed gentry", the emergence of an agrarian capitalism committed to "improvement", which was memorably delineated in Ellen Meiksins Wood's The Origins of Capitalism, soon created a dynamic towards consolidation that would persist across centuries. Land was highly productive relative to other stores of wealth, it was increasingly tradable and rents were set by market forces rather than feudal convention. The agricultural revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain stimulated enclosure and the growth of larger farms, along with the dominance of tenancy over owner-occupation, but it also reduced the demand for agricultural labour, thereby helping to grow the larger towns that provided both a livelihood and a market for agricultural produce.

The industrial revolution amplified this process, both by reducing the proportion of the population directly dependent on the land, and thus having an interest in ownership, and by providing a safe store of wealth for the reinvestment of industrial profits that had the added bonus of providing social status through the "rinsing" effect of absorption into the gentry. Though this tendency would later be denigrated as a chief cause of 20th century decline - the bourgeoisie seeking to ape the aristocracy by buying country estates for the sake of prestige - it actually made perfect economic sense. While globalisation would lead to a domestic agricultural depression in the late 19th century, land remained valuable, not least because of the demand for new build homes and factories as suburban railways and arterial roads were built out beyond the still-expanding towns and cities. Though agricultural rents would remain depressed until the 1950s, land ownership remained central to wealth.

One significant change in the composition of ownership over recent decades has been the extent to which the public sector has given way as a significant landowner to corporations. This is not just because of privatisation (notably of utilities such as water and energy) and the relentless trimming of local government responsibilities and funding. It also reflects the recycling of redundant land following deindustrialisation (the London Docklands Development Corporation being a notable early example) and the tendency of corporations to buy land both as a safe asset and as a speculative investment in an era of high property prices, a development that has been fuelled in part by foreign wealth flowing into the UK (Russian oligarchs buying country estates etc). "Land hoarding" does happen, but it is often done by businesses with an eye to wider commercial opportunities rather than just builders looking to ration the supply of land suitable for housing.

The problem of land ownership is not its inequitable distribution across the population. Land reform, in the traditional sense of breaking up large estates and distributing freeholds to small farmers, hasn't been an appropriate solution for all bar the fringe of the UK since the seventeenth century. What reform has taken place saw land taken out of private hands for public benefit, whether in the form of nationalised coal mines, council playing fields or national parks (in 1979 the public sector owned 19% of the land - it now owns under 9%). The problem with the debate over land ownership is that it treats land as a fetish. Consider this from the Guardian report cited above: "The figures show that if the land were distributed evenly across England’s population, each person would have just over half an acre". We're clearly not going to revert to a society based on subsistence farming and recurrent famines, so this sort of statistic in irrelevant. The issue is clearly not the distribution of land itself. The problem of land is one of taxation.

Not only is land privileged through lower taxes on capital gains and dividends, and not only is it easy to avoid inheritance tax on large estates, but many landowners enjoy significant subsidies from the state. Land has become a sanctuary from taxation. While this might conjure up images of tweedy aristocrats posing in front of imposing country piles, it is worth emphasising that the overwhelming majority of the beneficiaries do not wear wellies or own a Labrador. They are more likely to be City bankers or large shareholders in agri-businesses. That homeowners only account for 5% of land ownership should remind us both that developed land is a small fraction of the total and that the vast majority of "property" has nothing to do with bricks and mortar. The solution to the "land problem" is not initiatives to encourage more diverse ownership, or even a reversal of public sector sales, but the introduction of a land value tax (LVT). Likewise, the way to fund the rebuilding of Notre Dame is not to rely on the faux-generosity of individual billionaires but to tax them as a class.

Monday, 8 April 2019

Brexit and the Constitution

It might appear that the current apocalyptic tone in British politics is a unique and contingent result of Brexit, but the claim that "politics is broken" has a long pedigree, while the twin suggestions that the institutions of the state are on the point of collapse and the established political parties are about to be swept away by the winds of change are as old as the institutions of the state and political parties. But just as none of this is really novel, so we shouldn't assume that there isn't change afoot. The archaism of Parliamentary procedure lends an absurd air to contemporary events, but it also obscures the extent to which the unwritten constitution is being dynamically rewritten before our eyes, most obviously in establishing the right of the Commons to seize control of the order of business in extraordinary circumstances. The Queen isn't about to prorogue Parliament, but the fact that this could be seriously suggested indicates the fluid nature of the times.

That the constitution requires continuous but careful reform is the central, motivating belief of British liberalism. Though it has never dominated the parliamentary agenda to the extent that social and economic reform has, it remains the ne plus ultra of liberal parliamentarianism. No liberal administration, from Gladstone to Blair, has been complete without an attempt to refine and improve the constitution in a "progressive" direction. That modern initiatives, such as electoral reform or changes to the composition of the Lords, have often been ridiculous in both conception and execution is irrelevant. They serve a catechistic purpose in reaffirming both the parliamentary road to liberalism and the supremacy of the executive as the engineer of the state. While many have claimed that gay marriage was the signature liberal achievement of the coalition years, the failed 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote was just as symbolic, and would now be held as the crowning achievement of the Liberal Democrats if it had been approved.

The reconfiguration of British politics, i.e. the emergence of a centre party that will marginalise both Labour and the Conservatives, is obviously a constant desire of a certain strand of media commentary, but it is no more likely today than it has ever been. Just as Renew failed to make an impression in the Newport West by-election, despite the Guardian's hopes and subsequent claims that the 2017 return of two-party politics is now over, we can be confident that Change UK will fail to trouble the scorers come the next general election and probably won't even make much of an impact should the European Parliament elections go ahead in May (not least because they will further split the irreconcilable remain vote with the Lib-Dems and Greens). The realisation that Chuka Umunna is never going to be a British Macron, along with the clear indication from Tom Watson that the Labour right isn't going to split, has helped shift liberal expectations away from an insurgent third party towards the emergence of a pro-EU centre-right grouping from the ruins of the Conservative Party. As this would literally be business-as-usual, it has to be seasoned with the spice of constitutional reform.

Tom Clark in Prospect catches the mood: "British liberals have long yearned to rationalise the far-flung pieces of parchment and vellum, as well as all the half-forgotten precedents on which our governance often rests. The Brexit crisis ought to be the moment that finally chivvies us into getting around to it". One thing this ignores is the extent to which liberals successfully altered the constitution in the years immediately prior to the 2016 referendum, most notably in the passage of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act in 2011. It can plausibly be argued that the current impasse is both the result of the FTPA - without which the government's repeated defeat on its Withdrawal Agreement would have been taken as a vote of no confidence, thus leading to a general election - and Theresa May's cynical attempt to circumvent the Act to her advantage in 2017 by calling a snap general election, which backfired and produced a hung parliament.

It is amusing to note the liberal reservations about the Act now that it is in practice, particularly the prospect that a vote of no confidence might produce a new administration. As Clark continues: "The assumption has been that the first chance would go to the leader of the opposition, but is that necessarily right? -Tradition has it that the monarch should send for whoever is best placed to command the confidence of the House—which probably isn’t Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Just three years ago, his own benches voted for him to quit, and many of them continue to mutter he isn’t fit for No 10; Tories who agree on nothing else can all agree on that. In theory at least, it seems more plausible that someone like an Amber Rudd figure on the Tory left or Yvette Cooper on Labour’s centre-right would stand a better chance of securing the cross-party acquiescence required to sustain an administration through the emergency. But who is to say whether they will get a go?"

What this points to is an element of continuity in liberal thought: that democratic legitimacy is of less constitutional significance that parliamentary consensus. This is not just an objection to a left-wing Labour leader, i.e. a belief that the judgement of the PLP must trump that of the party membership, but extends to the Conservative Party as well: "But it is on the government side where zealous party activists are—now that May has signalled she’ll go—set to pick a serving prime minister for the first time in history. If a Johnson or a Rees-Mogg emerges, as they very well could, moderate Tory MPs could refuse to recognise them, leaving a minority government to crumble away. Under Conservative rules, the parliamentary party could soon table a vote of no confidence in a leader foisted on it by the voluntary party." That "foisted" is the essence of liberal constitutional thought: whatever we do, we must preserve the political settlement from the danger of democracy.

We are clearly in a period of constitutional flux. An "advisory" referendum has been recast as "the will of people" and honouring it has been elevated to the supreme duty of the legislature. A government that lost a parliamentary majority and has been defeated three times on its primary legislation remains in office and could legitimately stay there till 2022. The leader of the opposition has been blackballed not only by the government (recent events notwithstanding) but by the overwhelming majority of the media, retired military figures and even a faction of his own party's MPs, leading to the serious possibility that a general election victory for Labour could result in a literal coup. While a liberal "state of exception" remains unlikely, the heightening of rhetoric - from the hyperbole of Russian meddling to the contempt directed at leave voters - suggests that the style of populist authoritarianism could just as easily be employed by a liberal "strongman".

The likelihood that the UK will see an acceleration of constitutional reform over the next decade has increased. Brexit will have serious ramifications for the authorities and competencies of devolved government, and has already called the value of the union into question. The Supreme Court has become a site of political contest, and one that can only become more fractious as it takes on more responsibility in future. The House of Lords has once again proven itself to be worthless, unless you imagine that giving a platform to the hysteria of Andrew Adonis has been helpful, while the role of the Commons Speaker has clearly been enhanced for reasons that have nothing to do with John Bercow's personal foibles. The legislature has continued its centuries long push to encroach on the rights of the executive and the collective discipline of cabinet (and shadow cabinet) has been further weakened.

The 2016 referendum - which was perfectly proportional and ensured everyone's vote had equal weight, making it superior on at least two counts to traditional constituency elections - has led to a liberal turning away from popular democracy, which is now increasingly characterised as crude and divisive because of its binary nature. Don't be surprised if future referendums are outlawed without the "checks and balances" of citizens' assemblies and the censorship of political advertising on social media (propaganda masquerading as comment in newspapers will, of course, remain untouched). In other words, the constitutional consequence of Brexit is likely to be a redoubled effort to impose a managed democracy, which is ironic as it was the tendency towards this in the decades on either side of the millennium that led to much of the frustration and anger that would eventually find an outlet in the 2016 vote.