Friday, 7 December 2018

A Charitable Interpretation

The Charity Commissioners recently instructed the Institute of Economic Affairs to take down a pro-Brexit report from its website that they judged "not sufficiently balanced and neutral as required of an educational charity under charity law". The watchdog said that the IEA had "overstepped the line of what is permissible charitable activity" and that it had "been undertaking political activity not in line with the charity's purposes". The Institute has responded robustly and some of its supporters have cited the political activities of Oxfam and Greenpeace in its defence. The law allows charities to engage in public lobbying for political or legal change so long as that change is within the scope of the charity's stated purpose and its approach is non-partisan. For example, Greenpeace can lobby against fracking on the grounds that this serves environmental protection (explicitly allowed by the 2006 Charities Act, which expanded the definition of charitable purpose) but it can't directly oppose the Conservative Party because of the latter's pro-fracking stance. As a charity ostensibly committed to public education and academic research within the field of economics, the IEA promoting a particular course for Brexit that happens to align with the Tory European Research Group is clearly not politically neutral in the current climate.

My own view is that there is no good reason why charities shouldn't be allowed to lobby politically and thus adopt partisan positions, though whether the IEA should be allowed charitable trust status is another matter. Politics is not a separate zone from society, so it makes no sense to claim that there are certain organisations or people who should avoid it as a matter of principle. Saying that charities should not "take sides" is like insisting that the monarchy must be "above politics" or that political matters shouldn't be "brought into" religion or sport. The ideological premise is that there are certain power relations that should not be subject to popular scrutiny, but it's also worth noting the implication that politics is somehow "soiling". This is a reactionary trope that is still common among political commentators, with their wry jokes about sausage-making and the greasy pole. It is a relic of the old aristocratic contempt for representative democracy. In contrast, businesses are not expected to be politically neutral and there are plenty of high-profile executives who are only too happy to offer their thoughts on politics in a partisan fashion.

In reality, most major charities consider it prudent to maintain political neutrality in order to avoid alienating large numbers of their donors, just as most businesses do so to avoid alienating chunks of their customer base, so removing the bar on political campaigning would probably only result in a marginal change. While this might lead to some charities becoming aligned with particular parties or tendencies, it would be naïve to imagine that this informal allegiance doesn't already exist. No one imagines the IEA is anything other than a front for free market interests with close connections to the Conservative Party. Discovering that the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England generally favoured the Tories, or Greenpeace the Greens, would be no more surprising than learning that trade unions favoured Labour. In practice, some charities would also consider it to be in their strategic interest to be politically neutral, even forgetful. For example, the Trussell Trust gladly provides photo-opportunities for MPs of every party, both those who voted for the benefit cuts and Universal Credit system that are causing an increase in the use of its foodbanks and those who opposed them.

Politically-engaged charities might help broaden policy discussion beyond the confines of the traditional parties and the hinterland of thinktanks that act as policy entrepreneurs. Encouraging heterodox political opinions through charitable status would actually be a good way of promoting pluralism, so you'd like to think that liberals at least would be in favour of it. Of course, the danger in making political lobbying tax-deductible is that thinktanks and other organisations that make no pretence of being engaged in education and research would apply for charitable status. Transactional lobbying, where particular interests pay for political access or representation, isn't illegitimate, but it is the business of registered lobbyists who can be assumed to be operating on a for-profit basis and thus should not be allowed charitable status. One way of ensuring that charities do not abuse their status is to insist that they publish in full the names and contributions (above the level of trivial cash collections) of all their donors, which would probably lead to the IEA for one ceasing to be a charity, given its well-known reluctance to reveal who funds it.

With the introduction of a public benefit test for the charitable status of educational institutions, the long-standing abuse in that sector - where fee-paying private schools enjoy tax-breaks - may be drawing to a close as many schools consider it to be more trouble than it's worth. If we follow the neoliberal logic that education is a personal investment in human capital, then there is no guaranteed public benefit, even allowing for positive externalities. The return-on-investment approach also broadens the definition of education, but at the expense of a loss of public credibility: traditionally, charity law has excluded schools for pickpockets and prostitutes, but there is no good reason to object to an educational charity for pole-dancers or estate agents. Organisations that only seek to educate the public on matters of policy do have a role to play in civil society, even if they are partisan or their views unpopular, but it does not follow that foisting your political views on the public is in itself a charitable act. There needs to be a much narrower definition of what an "educational public benefit" is. Teaching safe sex and needle use should qualify, but I'm not convinced that distributing free copies of the works of Friedrich Hayek should, any more than the works of L Ron Hubbard.

The marketisation of the welfare state and the commitment to austerity have increased the demands on charities, particularly those focused on poverty, health and education. Paradoxically, this might be a good moment to question whether charities in their current form can survive. I am not making the trite point that "we shouldn't need charities because the state should provide". No matter how well-funded the welfare state is, there will always be pockets of need that fall outside the scope of provision. Sometimes this is because the state is slow to acknowledge and provide for new needs, other times because social prejudice makes certain provision initially unpopular (cf. the early history of AIDS). But over recent decades we have increasingly seen auxiliary groups plugging gaps within the welfare state itself, from local volunteers in hospitals and libraries to large charities and non-profit social enterprises taking on contracts for outsourced service provision. This is not only blurring the lines between charities and social enterprises, but between the organs of the state and civil society.

What we are witnessing is not the "big society" in action that we were promised by David Cameron, but a return to the fragmented and piecemeal approach to welfare witnessed during the first half of the twentieth century. As such it is a retrograde step and one that risks re-establishing the interwar reputation of charities as condescending and punitive. This obviously isn't the intent of charity workers, but it is the inevitable consequence of being asked to man the frontline when the answer to need will often be "no" or "you don't deserve it". Where charities in the postwar years were expected to augment the welfare state, today they increasingly provide its foot-soldiers, the tax-breaks now simply a way of subsidising labour within the non-profit sector. To extend the military metaphor, if outsource businesses are mercenaries, charities increasingly act like militias. One reason for allowing charities to act politically, as businesses and other social enterprises in the same sectors can, is to retain at least some grit in their relationship with the state. The militia should not be mistaken for the palace guard.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Who Can You Trust?

William Davies recently sought to explain why we stopped trusting elites. My initial response was to wonder when we ever started trusting them, but I appreciate that I might be a member of a unrepresentative minority on that score. The article did feel suspiciously like it had been shoehorned into the Guardian's over-arching narrative on populism, though Will assured me via Twitter (the power of social media) that this was coincidence (trust but verify is my maxim). I haven't yet read his new book, Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World, from which the article's argument is apparently drawn, but I get the sense from reviews that it doesn't quite make the case that we are living in unparalleled times, and anyway I'm naturally sceptical of any work whose subtitle suggests that anything above the microbial has taken over the world. But these are just quibbles about presentation and the unhelpful framing that publishers often insist on. In his essay Davies makes a series of quite subtle points, though these are a little lost amidst the crowd-pleasing numbers about Trump as performative anti-truth and Brexit as the bastard child of the expenses scandal. There are three ideas worth noting.

First, that illiberal democracy is latent within liberal democracy: "Too often, the rise of insurgent political parties and demagogues is viewed as the source of liberalism's problems, rather than as a symptom". Second, that technology has not democratised the data of public affairs so much as displaced its traditional gatekeepers: "Journalists and whistleblowers were instrumental in removing the pressure valve, but from that point on, truth poured out unpredictably". And third, that what we are living through is a regime change: "But what is emerging now is what the social theorist Michel Foucault would have called a new 'regime of truth' – a different way of organising knowledge and trust in society. The advent of experts and government administrators in the 17th century created the platform for a distinctive liberal solution to this problem, which rested on the assumption that knowledge would reside in public records, newspapers, government files and journals. But once the integrity of these people and these instruments is cast into doubt, an opportunity arises for a new class of political figures and technologies to demand trust instead".

If you put all these together, the essential argument is that liberal democracy is reconfiguring itself in response to a combination of pressures - the negative consequences of neoliberalism, the institutional impacts of new technology, resource depletion and war leading to disruptive migration - and that this response includes testing authoritarian shortcuts like populism and limits on dissent as well as more traditional attempts to control the encroachments of the market and re-assert the utility of the state. The question is whether this amounts to a new "regime of truth", replacing an institutionalised paradigm of expertise and bureaucratic competence that dates from the aftermath of the English Civil War, or if it merely marks another reconfiguration of that paradigm and is thus more akin to the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the mid-19th century. While it would be fair to say that the jury is still out, I think there is enough evidence to suggest that the original paradigm is not about to be swept away.

Davies's titular subject is the loss of the public's trust in elites. His opening definition of trust is epistemological: the ability "to believe the same things about reality". I'm not sure that is helpful in this context, essentially because we don't really rely on elites for our fundamental beliefs (cue "Who ya gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes"), but I guess it sets up the citation of Foucault. The argument encompasses "public figures and professionals", but the central characters are politicians: "As the past decade has made clear, nothing turns voters against liberalism more rapidly than the appearance of corruption: the suspicion, valid or otherwise, that politicians are exploiting their power for their own private interest". Given Donald Trump's flagrant venality, I'm not convinced that voters necessarily turn against self-interest in the way that Davies suggests, and nor do I think Trump gets a free-pass because he presents as a "whistle-blower" on corrupt insiders. Corruption may be more damaging for liberal politicians because of the charge of hypocrisy, but it has never been a bar to either electoral success or trust. Indeed, clientelism assumes the two are complementary: you trust your man to advance your interests.

This highlights that there are two types of trust: the transactional (you get what you pay for) and the social (you expect others to act in the public interest). While Davies's argument focuses on the latter, many of the examples of a decline in trust actually relate to the former. The coming to prominence of phrases such as "the British promise" in political rhetoric should be a clue, not to mention the cynicism among the young about the returns on educational investment and the chances of buying property. The growing feeling is that the system is rigged rather than that everybody else is in it for themselves. As the market has advanced into more corners of our lives over the last 30 years it has replaced the social with the transactional. Public figures and institutions thought to embody the values of society, such as MPs, judges and the BBC, may be copping disproportionate blame in a growing climate of mistrust, the causes of which most people find difficult to pin down. Given that Davies has elsewhere described neoliberalism as "the disenchantment of politics by the market", the absence of that word from the article is noteworthy.

The assumed decline of social trust is perhaps a reflection of the decline of the welfare state and specifically the idea of a reciprocal contract. We trust doctors because we assume they have our best interests at heart, and we trust our fellow citizens not to abuse a system of collective insurance. The prominence of stories about hospital abuses and benefit cheats obviously serves an agenda committed to the replacement of welfare with commerce, but it also amplifies the claim that there has been a decline in social trust. As more of our dealings with the state become commercial, or mimic commercial transactions, trust as a presumption of good intentions and social responsibility will inevitably decline. But this reflects a deliberate narrowing of the field of trust between citizen and state rather than a unilateral withdrawal of trust by the former: we are given less opportunity to trust, regardless of our willingness to extend it. As ever, there is a tendency to blame the people for the consequences of a reconfiguration of the state orchestrated by vested interests.

Davies notes that populist practice blurs "the distinctions between different varieties of expertise and authority, with the implication that politicians, journalists, judges, regulators and officials are effectively all working together." There is obvious truth in this observation (the conspiracist charge that "they're all in it together" is almost routine), but I think it also obscures the degree to which the boundaries between different areas of expertise have been deliberately blurred since the 1970s by attacks on the "closed shops" of the professions. Not only has the social authority of these groups been challenged by deregulation but their claims to a local monopoly of expertise have been questioned. The rise of the often opaquely-funded "independent expert" and lobbying groups has been mirrored by a tendency among some professionals, most notably politicians and journalists, to insist that they possess sufficient expertise to encroach on other professions' turf. Michael Gove's famous "experts" quote is important here because the bit that few remember was a specific attack on others, not a blanket rejection of expertise: "I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong". In other words, "trust me".

A starring role in the decline of public trust in politicians is given in Davies' analysis to the 2009 expenses scandal, and a straight line is drawn from this to the 2016 EU referendum. The impression given is that disgust over MPs' snouts in the trough led to a backlash: "One of the decisive (and unexpected) factors in the referendum result was the number of voters who went to the polls for the first time, specifically to vote leave". The problem with this interpretation is that the increased turnout in 2016 was actually a return to turnout levels seen in general elections in the 1990s. In other words, the decisive leave votes were likely to have come from older people who fell out of the habit of voting, not from those who had never voted. 2016 was an anti-political vote, but one that reflected a growing disillusionment with the political establishment since the millennium. I suspect the expenses scandal simply confirmed an already low opinion of the political class. Its prominence in Davies' history owes much to the idea that it "set a template for a decade of elite scandals" based on the leaking of insider data. Key to this model is not just the appearance of a leaked archive but "one that, crucially, does not depend on trusting the secondhand report of a journalist or official".

The idea that the growth of data archives, easily leaked to the public domain and amplified by social media, has eroded public trust is questionable. The number of people with the interest, patience and technical capability to exploit modern digital archives is probably no greater today than it was 50 years ago when such archives were based on paper, magnetic tapes and microfiche. If there is a greater appetite for tales of wrongdoing, that is not the result of new technology. While there is a lot more data today, there does not appear to have been an increase in the shock-value of revelations. In other words, there has been a quantitative growth but not a qualitative one. The WikiLeaks "war logs" of 2010 were less consequential in terms of public opinion and official policy than the leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, while the recent Panama Papers revelations were a pale echo of the original Panama Affair of the 1890s. For the materialist case that digital technology has eroded trust across the board to be proven, you'd have to assume a counterfactual in which the non-appearance of this technology resulted in a static or even increasing level of public trust in the professions. It's surely more likely that trust would have declined anyway, and for reasons to do with broader social change.

One of the earliest examples of technological disruption was the phone-hacking scandal, a case of a rogue elite exploiting a new potential that opened up in the 90s, well before the emergence of WikiLeaks and social media. While mobile phones were accused of encouraging solipsism and anti-social behaviour from the mid-80s onwards, their role in the natural history of trust was limited to tales of call-logs revealing extramarital affairs. It was only with the emergence of the News International phone-hacking scandal in 2011 that trust came to the fore, though the discovery that the Dirty Digger's business was unethical and connived with criminals was hardly a surprise to anyone who had read Private Eye at any point since the 70s. The greater damage to public trust was probably the decision of the government to cancel the second part of the Leveson Inquiry, which was set to look at the relations of the press with politicians and the police. You couldn't have scripted a better denouement to reinforce the popular suspicion that "they're all in it together". In comparison, the revelation that MPs illegitimately claimed expenses for second homes, even when it ran into thousands of pounds, seems comically trivial.

Popular disdain for the cupidity and self-interest of our elected representatives is hardly new, and its encouragement as a positive and healthy sign within the polity is a recurrent feature of populism. But that same disdain is also cast in a negative light as part of the critique advanced by anti-democrats ever since the earliest moves to widen the franchise and representation: the mob lack the virtue necessary for public affairs. That prejudice lives on today in the liberal horror at the lack of decorum and respect exhibited by outsider critics of the establishment, and in the patronising contempt for the supposed gullibility of the masses and their insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories. As Davies freely notes, trust as measured in opinion polls has been in decline for decades. This is a long-term trend, not an inflexion point or sudden step-change that occurred in the last decade, and is likely to reflect a healthy decline in deference as much as an unhealthy decline in social trust. Caution should also be exercised in relying on polls (such as the Edelman Trust Barometer) organised by lobby groups or commercial firms promoting a view of civil society in which business is deemed as potentially more trustworthy than the state.

As regards trust in politicians in particular, the decline started in the UK at least as early as the Profumo affair, and faith in the wider establishment didn't survive the defection of Kim Philby. You could even argue that trust in the establishment has never really recovered from the First World War. It's also worth considering whether the relative fall in trust for a particular group reflects a change in its standing within the establishment, rather than a more general decline. In other words, less the result of an exogenous change in popular regard than an endogenous reconfiguration of power relations or a reflection of underlying material changes specific to a particular profession. For example, the standing of academics is being eroded by propaganda about close-mindedness and obscurantism as part of an ongoing campaign to commercialise the higher education sector, while print journalism is suffering as its commercial base is legitimately disrupted by new technology (the media inevitably projects its own declinist anxieties onto wider society).

I've been quite picky in my critique of Davies' article but I think it remains a solid argument if you sideline the hell-in-a-handcart litany of woes and ignore the anti-populist and anti-technology flourishes. Despite the photos of Farage, Trump and Murdoch (boo, hiss), the key image is Tony Blair and Bill Clinton clasping hands. This is fundamentally a criticism of liberalism's erosion of its own institutional base in pursuit of a market nirvana: "Unless liberal institutions and their defenders are willing to reckon with their own inability to sustain trust, the events of the past decade will remain opaque to them. And unless those institutions can rediscover aspects of the original liberal impulse – to keep different domains of power separate, and put the disinterested pursuit of knowledge before the pursuit of profit – then the present trends will only intensify, and no quantity of facts will be sufficient to resist". Amen to that.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Take Our Test

The Guardian's 'How populist are you?' online test has provided much fun, not least the revelation that respondents, and presumably the paper's readers in particular, are in aggregate closer in their thinking to Pablo Iglesias than Emmanuel Macron on a four-quadrant chart that maps left/right against populist/non-populist. However, I wouldn't place too much value on this because the questions are so transparently ideological that I suspect even Ed Miliband would find himself cast towards the left-populist corner. If you answered 'Strongly approve' to the free market and free trade questions, but 'Neither agree nor disagree' to all the rest, you end up slightly to the right of centre on the political axis and in the middle of the populist axis. You are apparently a centrist, even though you may be a free market fundamentalist. If you strongly agree that politicians need to listen to and engage with the public, but that government serves special interests, doesn't necessarily improve the lives of the people and keeps information from them, then you are most definitely a populist. Your views on conservatism versus socialism, plus emblematic issues such as renewable energy, church authority and gay marriage, will then determine whether you are of the populist left or populist right.

Stripping out the questions intended to place you on the traditional left-right spectrum, the definition of populism that emerges is one centred on a cynicism about representative government and a lack of respect for the political class. In other words, you have failed to adopt a realistic attitude about the practical limits of representative democracy. This indicates that the underlying paradigm is still essentially that of the neoliberal, scolding 1990s. In keeping with that quiztastic, self-actualising era, your reward for answering these questions is to be matched up with your "ideal" politician. Given that the positioning of these epitomes on a biaxial chart is based on the opinion of the quiz-setters (and their thinking isn't explained in sufficient detail to critique), this is no more reliable than being told that the pop star you most resemble is Taylor Swift because you think people should be paid a decent wage. Laughably, both Barack Obama and Emmanuel Macron are positioned slightly left-of-centre. The extremes are occupied by Bernie Sanders on the left, and Donald Trump and Matteo Salvini on the right (poor Luigi Di Maio still doesn't get a look in).

No attempt has been made to position current British politicians, though Nigel Farage is predictably included as a reference point because of the unwritten rule that says he must always be on the panel. A possible reason for this omission is that Jeremy Corbyn would have ended up in the sweet spot of the aggregate responses, much to the chagrin of the paper's editorial team. For a laugh, I answered the questions as I thought Tony Blair would and ended up next to Angela Merkel in the non-populist centre-right. Significantly, the aggregate response also clusters on the populist side of the dividing line, which suggests either that populism has reached pandemic proportions or the definition of the term is so generous as to be near-meaningless. I suspect it's the latter. Evidence in support of this came as the week progressed and the Guardian started to link populism to conspiracy theories. In among the routine madness of crowds, we find a mistrust of authority (including that of journalists) as an indicator of a conspiracist mindset. Predictably, social media is also put in the frame, despite being as effective in debunking conspiracy theories as promoting them. Presumably the aim is to suggest that non-centrist politics is founded on unreason, and that incidentally you should rely more on newspapers.

The problem with this approach (or at least the way it has been presented) is that it fails to provide a typology of conspiracism, in particular the distinction between malign paranoia, benign fantasy and healthy cynicism. For example, a belief that the government is secretly working to replace the native population with Muslim immigrants (le grand remplacement - a conspiracy theory with its roots in traditional French antisemitic fears of Jewish integration) is clearly malign. In contrast, a belief that extra-terrestrials have contacted Earth but the government has covered it up is benign, being essentially harmless, while habitually distrusting journalists is both rational and empirically justified. The result is that perfectly reasonable opinions are deemed illegitimate, thus: "The most widespread conspiracy belief in the UK, shared by 44% of people, was that 'even though we live in what’s called a democracy, a few people will always run things in this country anyway'”. Given the tenacity of the British establishment and the self-replicating nature of the politico-media class, such a view seems relatively uncontroversial.

There is an obvious irony in the Guardian's hyperbolic approach to populism, not least its belief that this is a hitherto hidden dimension that explains the reality of contemporary politics - a classic conspiracist trope. In suggesting that populism is a coherent political theory, rather than just an opportunistic affectation or a rhetorical manner, and in giving prominence to all those stories about Steve Bannon's coordination of the nationalist right, it seeks to construct a unified enemy where there is little more than hot-air and grift. The academic studies that the Guardian has relied on are not publicly available, as far as I can determine, though the limited explanations of their methodology suggest that they've treated populism in practice as a style of political rhetoric that is adopted by a broad and fluctuating set of parties, including those of the centre. Likewise, the research into a belief in conspiracy theories doesn't clearly support the strong linkage the newspaper makes with populism, despite its careful segmenting of the data between remainers and leavers in the UK and Trump and Clinton voters in the US. As with the various theories of Russian involvement in Brexit, there is a lot of fervid speculation that the data doesn't really justify.

The various commentary articles linked to the populism series play fast-and-loose with history and the particularities of national politics. For example, John Henley says of Austria, "the Freedom party, a far more straightforward far-right movement founded by a former Nazi in 1956, won more than 20% of the vote for the first time in 1994 and is now in government, as junior coalition partner, for the fourth time." This is the conventional thumbnail sketch of the FPO outside Austria, emphasising its Nazi roots and its current closeness to power, but it's one that eschews context. The FPO was not created ex nihilo but evolved out of the VdU (Federation of Independents), which was founded in 1949. Though it targeted former Nazi Party members (who had been barred from voting in the first postwar election in 1945), its ideological heritage was the National Liberal camp of Austrian politics, which was opposed to both clericalism and socialism (it was the "third way" of its day), a tradition that goes all the way back to 1848. The FPO first tasted power in coalition with the Social Democrats in 1983. In the late 80s it turned to the right under Jorg Haider, after which it typically entered coalition with the conservative OVP. It has danced around the centre.

Henley describes the membership of Syriza as "radical leftwing populists". This ignores that the party is (literally) the Coalition of the Radical Left, whose participants are a mix of socialist, Marxist, workerist and ecological groups. In other words, typical of both Greek and wider Southern European leftist traditions. While Syriza undoubtedly employed populist tactics in its critique of the Greek state and political establishment, these were in no sense novel either for the left particularly or for Greek politics generally. Indeed, as with the leftist Podemos in Spain and the essentially liberal M5S in Italy, Syriza's "populism" is little more than the embrace of social media and a vocal disrespect for the established parties of the centre. Talking of Italy, Henley's take on the country ignores the historic decline of the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communist Party after 1989, which was about changes in society more than just corruption or mismanagement, and fails to note that the reaction to the failures of Berlusconi's centre-right and the neoliberal centre-left, embodied in the "unlikely coalition" of M5S and La Lega, is in many ways a return to the traditions of Italian liberalism.

The degree to which the current populist moment is an expression of the frustrations of the political centre, rather than an uprising by the politically marginal, is one of the Guardian's blind-spots. Consider this: "Mainstream Nordic parties have long resisted forming coalition governments with rightwing populists, but have been forced to give ground in Norway, where the Progress party has been in government coalitions since 2013, and Finland, where the small Blue Reform party – an offshoot of the populist Finns – is also in coalition." Oddly, centrist parties in Northern Europe rarely feel "forced" to enter coalition with leftwing parties, even when the latter aren't populist. Matthijs Rooduijn, the political sociologist the Guardian has relied on for much of the comparative data, thinks the absence of leftwing populism in Northern Europe is "possibly because the generosity of the Nordic countries' welfare systems makes a radical leftwing message less relevant", while the strength of leftwing populism in Southern Europe reflects their weaker economies and the greater impact of the financial crisis.

This suggests that contemporary leftwing populism (if it can be said to exist) is essentially material, which makes it hard to see how it possesses sufficient common characteristics with rightwing populism to allow both to be analytically lumped together. A key point Rooduijn makes is that in Eastern Europe "populism generally did not bob up at the fringes of the political spectrum, but in the centre. Parties such as Fidesz in Hungary, and Law and Justice in Poland, started their political lives as mainstream parties". This isn't peculiar to Eastern Europe. Just as Berlusconi's populism was an attempt to modernise the mainstream Italian right in the neoliberal era, so UKIP under Farage sought to force change on a Conservative Party reluctant to acknowledge the widespread Euroscepticism of its membership (UKIP might be embracing the far-right now, but the majority of its support returned to the Tory fold after the EU referendum). Likewise, Emmanuel Macron secured the French Presidency through a classic populist campaign in which the failings of the establishment and an appeal to patriotic republicanism were front and centre.

The truth is that populism is both a flexible, perjorative term employed by liberals to defend the political establishment from "outsiders" and a style of rhetoric opportunistically embraced by those same liberals. That Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair and Matteo Renzi tell us that Europe needs to "curb immigration" in order to defeat the populists makes the second point. That the Guardian's series on populism appears to have been designed in part to try and rehabilitate these "centrist heavyweights" reinforces the first. There is no populist theory, in the sense of a coherent body of political thought, merely a populist practice: a series of rhetorical tropes that can be deployed as easily by governing parties as by those in opposition. The rise of populism since 2008 is less the eruption of a dormant tendency within the polity than a failure of the political centre to control popular anger by pointing it in time-honoured fashion at the poor and the marginal. Focusing on populism shows that centrists remain keen to avoid the left-right axis and material concerns. Focusing on immigration shows their determination to once more direct popular anger against the disadvantaged.

Tuesday, 20 November 2018

The Beginning of the Endgame

The failure of the Tory ultras to trigger a leadership challenge to Theresa May was all-too predictable. Their chance to move against her came and went in the first quarter of this year, between the initial Joint Report in December, which introduced the concept of the backstop, and the Prime Minister's letter to Donald Tusk in March, which reaffirmed it. The resignations of Davis, Baker and Johnson in July over the Chequers statement, which set the course for maximum alignment with the EU, showed the ultras to be a busted flush. Their earlier hesitation has proved costly because it has allowed the Prime Minister to yoke her own position to the passage of the Withdrawal bill. Tory MPs keen to avoid a no-deal outcome know that dethroning her would risk calamity, hence the ultras are struggling to get the 48 letters needed to trigger a leadership vote. With little chance of an ardent remainer committed to a referendum re-run or an ultra committed to no-deal entering Number 10, May is probably the only viable option for the majority of her party's MPs, so a leadership contest held now is likely to reinstate her. Had the ultras pushed harder ten months ago they would have had a better chance of convincing their colleagues that a change of course was feasible in the time remaining. You could never accuse May of being artful, but her dogged persistence has managed to shut down the alternatives.

If she is defeated in the Commons on the Withdrawal bill might May agree to a second referendum? I doubt it. Pragmatically, she knows that a second vote wouldn't secure either her government or her continued leadership of the Conservative Party. Psychologically, it would be an admission that she had failed to carry out the instruction of June 2016. What friendly voices refer to as May's "grit and determination" is the product of two factors: a lack of imagination (all too evident during the negotiations) and the narcissistic trap of a belief in her own ability to achieve set goals. To quote David Runciman citing Eric Pickles, "She takes a position and then she sticks to it, seeing it as a matter of principle that she delivers on what she has committed to." For example, her "hostile environment" policy is best understood not as innate xenophobia but as a logical if callous attempt to achieve the unreasonable 'tens of thousands' target for immigration committed to in the Tory manifesto. Given her emphasis this week on the ending of free movement as the signal achievement of her deal, not to mention her rehabilitation of Amber Rudd, it looks like she is still determined to hit that target. It is highly unlikely there will be a second referendum while she is Tory leader because that would require her to admit failure in her appointed task of delivering Brexit.

A referendum would need a change in Tory leader or a change in government, but even if one of those happened before March a second ballot doesn't necessarily follow. There is currently no Commons majority for a particular referendum choice. A "people's vote" that was seen as a re-run of 2016 would risk an abstention campaign by disgruntled leavers. Even if remain won with more than 17.4 million votes, the result would be declared illegitimate by many Brexiteers, particularly if turnout was down. This would be a genuine crisis of democracy. A ballot with three options, even if it allowed preference ranking, would not be seen as decisive by many. If a referendum does happen, it is more likely to be a straight binary choice, either between remain and a clearly-understood leave option, or between that leave option and no deal. The former wouldn't be acceptable to leavers if the option was May's deal, their argument being that this was a botched negotiation producing a Hobson's choice. The latter would be a logical progression from 2016 (we voted to leave, now let's vote on the manner of our leaving), and would satisfy the original demand for a popular vote on the terms of departure, but it would clearly not meet the objective of remainers who want to reverse the 2016 result. I don't see a second referendum coming about in the current parliament and I doubt any backbench attempt to add an amendment to that effect to the Withdrawal bill would succeed.

So what are the chances of a general election? Though the DUP might well oppose the government in an initial vote of confidence they might also abstain in the second vote required to trigger a general election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, thereby avoiding the risk of helping to propel a believer in a united Ireland to Number 10. As its stands, the most plausible route to an election is if May, having been obliged by the Commons defeat to return to the EU27 (she has a short window for this), tables a revised Withdrawal bill that is also defeated (this assumes the Labour right don't finally play their "country before party" card). Given that we would then be imminently facing the prospect of crashing out without a deal by default in March, she might decide to seek an extension of Article 50 to secure more time for negotiation. The EU27 would probably see this as pointless: they would struggle to cede more ground and suspect that no deal negotiated by May will pass in the Commons. The one circumstance under which I think they would agree an extension would be if May made the ultimate sacrifice and committed to a general election to break the domestic deadlock. That implies her admitting that she had failed - a big ask - but it has the virtue of allowing her to feel that she had done her constitutional duty.

Though there is little political affinity between the EU's mostly centre-right governments and Corbyn, they might calculate that a Labour administration could produce a deal. Various centrists have dismissed Labour's claim that a re-negotiation would be possible in the three months between a snap general election in December and the March deadline. Their reasoning is that there simply isn't enough time and that the EU27 have no reason to change their stance. This assumes that the last two years of dither and incompetence were a reflection of the complexity of the Withdrawal Agreement. In fact, the formal agreement is limited to only three substantive issues: money, citizens' rights and the Northern Ireland border. The first two were resolved months ago. The contortions the government has gone through to keep the DUP onside till the last possible moment have resulted in aspects of the future trading relationship being brought forward into the Withdrawal Agreement scope (specifically the political declaration addendum), most notably the idea of a UK-wide customs union with the EU. That was a significant concession by the EU27.

A new government (let's assume a Labour one) could reach a new agreement with the EU within a relatively short space of time by the simple expedient of agreeing to the EU's original terms: Northern Ireland to remain within the EU single market and customs union and the UK to commit to a future relationship based on the menu of established options outlined by Michel Barnier last December. While this would be presented by Brexiteers and unionists as abject surrender, it simply means acknowledging that Northern Ireland is a special case (which the UK conceded with the Good Friday Agreement) and that the future relationship between Great Britain and the EU would be consistent with precedent. This would also be more acceptable to the EU27 members, some of whom are already expressing reservations about the concessions made to the UK. Such an agreement would defer the haggling over the specifics of the future relationship (limits on state aid, freedom of movement, agriculture and fisheries, the status of Gibraltar etc) to the transition period, which the EU have already indicated they would extend. It's not without its flaws, but it's a credible stance.

How might a general election before March pan out? It seems unlikely that May would lead the Conservative Party into it, not just because her Brexit strategy would have failed but because of the traumatic experience of 2017. Though a party contest just before a popular vote would complicate matters, it is hard to imagine May successfully insisting that she stay on to provide "strong and stable" leadership. A Tory campaign led by a Brexit ultra and fought on no deal would almost certainly crash and burn, and I doubt Boris Johnson arguing for a vague "Canada super-plus" that would be tantamount to no deal would make much difference. A remainer standing on a platform similar to Labour's (i.e. de facto EEA membership and a customs union) would be an implicit admission that the last two years were wasted, not to mention an invitation to vote Labour for other reasons, such as ending austerity or abolishing tuition fees. Between those two options there would only be a rehash of May's rejected deal. Though pundits have long derided Labour's failure to open up a large lead in the polls, the movement in recent days suggests that Tory support has been buoyed by a determination to give May a chance to deliver an acceptable Brexit, but that the deal on offer doesn't look like one.

The increasing likelihood of a general election and a Labour government under Corbyn has triggered centrists. While the FBPE crowd has started to suggest that the chaos of a looming no deal will bounce the country into a people's vote, commentators like John Harris have started to accuse the Labour leadership of wishing for creative destruction: "While some of us have been spitting feathers about the deceptions perpetrated by rightwing leavers, Jeremy Corbyn has seemed barely interested. Is there some kind of awful equivalence between the rightwing Brexiteers, who see national crisis as the ideal seedbed for a free-market utopia, and leftwingers who think socialism is similarly best assisted by disaster?" Coming from someone who built a career indulging "legitimate concerns" the idea that he has been spitting feathers over leaver deceptions, most of which were either directly or indirectly linked to immigration, is a bit rich. To make matters worse, Harris reverts to patronising the British public for incorrectly diagnosing the country's problems and blaming the EU for the evils of Conservative rule: "In an awful instance of irony, the misery and resentment sown by the deindustrialisation the Tories accelerated in the 1980s and the austerity they pushed on the country 30 years later were big reasons why so many people decided to vote leave".

There is nothing ironic about this. Even pragmatic remain voters recognise that the EU is not a progressive project and that it's policies on the free movement of capital played a key role in the deindustrialisation that affected Western Europe in the 80s and Eastern Europe in the 90s. It surely hasn't escaped Harris's notice that the ECB has been pushing a policy of austerity throughout the Eurozone. His suggestion that left and right are united by some Horseshoe Theory of Chaos is sixth form stuff, but it allows him to avoid asking what Corbyn has been spending his time talking about since he became leader, which has often been austerity and under-investment. On Sunday on Sky News the Labour leader said: "I have discussed with Michel Barnier the communities that have seen no investment since the end of the miners strike - nothing from new infrastructure. Communities are likely to be against the institutions that have failed to deliver it for them". Instead of noting Corbyn's insight - that for many people the EU is more associated with Thatcherism than the Erasmus Programme - the sages of centrism promptly derided the Labour leader for failing to spot metal signs celebrating EU infrastructure funding dotted around the country.

A trope of recent commentary is that Britain is once more suffering because of  an intractable "Irish question". In reality, there hasn't been an Irish question in Britain since 1922, though there has certainly been a British question in Ireland. Like the vogueish "English question" that surfaced after the Scottish Independence referendum, this manoeuvre has historically been deployed to transfer responsibility for the failings of the UK state onto the people. John Harris's claim that the Northern working class were gulled by duplicitous rightwingers into rejecting the warm embrace of the EU is another variation on this, and a continuation of an intellectual heritage that goes all the way back to Plato's belief in the people's lack of judgement and vulnerability to demagogues. The brutal strategies of deindustrialisation and austerity were not the work of some marginal chancers but the ruling consensus of the politico-media class. I have no idea whether we'll get a snap general election or a second referendum, or whether Theresa May will be able to cobble together enough votes to get her deal through Parliament, but I sense we are approaching a wider endgame than just the withdrawal phase of Brexit.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

So Far So Good

The reports that leading European clubs are considering a breakaway league and that Richard Scudamore is to get a £5 million "farewell bonus" barely constitute news. The G14 group, or whatever they're called these days, has been mulling over the idea of a super league for almost as long as the snouts have been in the Premier League trough. That these stories have competed for airtime with Wayne Rooney's recall to the England team simply tells us that domestic club football is once again suspended for an international break, which means wall-to-wall tedium barely alleviated by the shake-out of the UEFA Nations League group stage. But that at least means it's a good time to review Arsenal's progress over the season to date. We're a third of the way through and it looks like it's shaping up to be a tight race. Manchester City and Liverpool look the most likely to be in at the death, though Chelsea have also been impressive, quickly adapting to Maurizio Sarri's somewhat un-Italian style. The top three are marked by compactness, an aggressive press and fast transitions. Tottenham are a little off the pace and have become increasingly reliant on a defensive style to eke out results. They're beginning to look more Argentinian.

Arsenal sit fifth with 24 points, 8 behind Manchester City at the top but only 3 shy of Tottenham in fourth. With games against sixth placed Bournemouth and Spurs to come next, we are in a healthy position but not one remarkably different to previous seasons, despite the overall positive vibe that Unai Emery has brought to the club. After early defeats to City and Chelsea, we put together a decent winning run. That has sputtered in the league recently with three draws, though the 1-1 against Liverpool at The Emirates Stadium was certainly encouraging. Being held by Crystal Palace through two penalty concessions was less pleasing, while we were lucky to get a point at home to an impressive Wolves team. Overall, most Arsenal fans are happy at what looks like gradual progress, albeit helped along with a few dollops of good fortune. We are nowhere near approaching Emery's finished article, but it is possible now to see the direction of travel. What was most impressive about the game against Liverpool was the positional and tactical intelligence on display. We went toe-to-toe and wouldn't have been flattered if we'd nicked the win.

24 points represents a slight improvement on last season's opening tally of 22 (which was followed by 20 and 21 across the other two thirds) but is two wins short of a title-challenging 30. That the top three are still unbeaten at this stage is good news for Arsenal as they have so far drawn most of their head-to-heads. This has kept them all within striking distance and will likely produce more tight encounters as the season progresses. Though City look the best of the bunch, I doubt they'll get near the 100 points they achieved last season. If 90 points is a more realistic target for the champions, then finishing close to 80 might be enough to get into the top four and Champions League qualification. That's Arsenal's realistic target during the transition between managerial regimes, and it will probably come down to the two matches against Spurs. The positive here is that they are struggling to score enough goals (20 to our 26) but are doing well because of a parsimonious defence (only 10 conceded in 12 games). The clever money will probably go for low scoring draws.

Our problem, as was the case last season, is that we are still conceding too many. 15 to date is decidedly mid-tabelish, though it actually represents a small improvement on last season when we conceded 16 in the first third and 51 in total (i.e. an average of 17 a third). At the other end of the field, 26 goals scored is better than Liverpool's 23 and only marginally worse than Chelsea's 27, though a long way short of City's 36. However, it's a real improvement on the opening phase of last season when we only scored 22. In the middle and final thirds we scored 24 and 28 respectively, the last lot boosted by the injection of Aubameyang's goals after January. While there remain questions about how best to accommodate both him and Lacazette in the same team, it is not unreasonable to hope that we can get over 80 goals by the end of the season for the first time since 2010. If so, our final position will depend on tightening up in defence over the remaining two-thirds, which is a combination of better players and better coordination.

Given the number of injuries we have sustained in that department, being harsh on the defence at this stage is perhaps unfair. Leno has proved more than capable of stepping up as the number 1 goalkeeper in Cech's absence. He has his own strengths and weaknesses - an excellent shot-stopper but not yet commanding on crosses - but his relative comfort with the ball at his feet clearly suits Emery's style and there has been no sign of a lack of confidence among the defenders in front of him, which hasn't always been the case with young Arsenal goalies. Bellerin and Holding are clearly improving under the Spaniard's tutelage and Sokratis has been unspectacularly solid. Mustafi is still prone to a rick, Lichtsteiner is clearly no more than a back-up (and amusingly appears to have inherited the angry-man-shouting-at-clouds role left vacant since Flamini's departure) while Kolasinac has gone backwards, though presumably due to injury rather than coaching. I'm hopeful that the return of Monreal and Koscielny will improve the defence further, though given their ages we probably still need to invest in a couple of younger defenders, possibly as early as January, unless Mavropanos (also currently injured) can progress quickly.

The midfield looks a lot better with the addition of Lucas Torreira who is not just a tenacious tackler with good positional sense but has shown his ability to play attacking balls into the final third of the pitch. Xhaka is still capable of a mistake, but it is noticeable that these are now mostly errors of judgement with the ball (which he sees a lot of) rather than daft tackles, which is surely as much down to Torreira's presence as Xhaka's own continuing development. That said, we are fouling more as a team this season, which I'd attribute to a more aggressive press rather than a conscious desire to play dirty (we've yet to get a red card, which is a positive). Matteo Guendouzi has been callow at times but hugely impressive overall. Ozil has been inconsistent - though the occasional highs justify the occasional lows, for my money - but I suspect this is as much about the whole team settling into Emery's new system as it is a reflection of the German's state of mind following his acrimonious retirement from international football. His wearing of the captain's armband recently suggests some renewed determination on his part.

Aaron Ramsay is clearly going to leave the club, possibly as early as January if a suitor wishes to beat the summer rush for his signature. I think this is a shame at a personal level - he has always been future club captain material - but probably makes sense footballistically, to use a Wengerism for old time's sake. Emery has decided to deploy the Welshman's gung-ho style as a way of changing the shape of the attack in the later stages of games, which suggests the manager isn't convinced Ramsay can prosper as a starter in a midfield based more on positional discipline and accurate, progressive passing. In this environment, Emery is surely right to invest in game time for younger players such as Guendouzi, Alex Iwobi and Emile Smith Rowe. Mkhitaryan has been as inconsistent as Ozil but he does bring intelligence to the pitch and he certainly hasn't done worse than Alexis Sanchez, so I still think we got the better of that particular deal. The problem is that he isn't as reliable a provider as the German and at 29 he isn't going to get any faster and start terrorising opposition full-backs.

Up front Lacazette has continued to impress (he's now had a recall to the French squad), while Aubameyang has continued to knock in the goals. Emery isn't likely to break with the current conventional wisdom on team shape and go with a traditional 4-4-2, so the Gabonese international is likely to have to continue with a wide berth. He has the pace to make that work, though against teams who sit deep it means his ability to turn a defender usually just presents him with another defender, which isn't necessarily the case in the centre where his quick feet and movement can open up a sight of goal. I like the combination of the two but I think Emery needs a batter balance across the forward line, which probably means finding a right-sided attacker faster than Mkhitaryan who can stretch the opposition defence and create more channels for Aubameyang and Lacazette. Danny Welbeck's unfortunate injury makes that more pressing. In conclusion, it's a work in progress and it would be foolish to make predictions for what will remain a transitional season, but I think Arsenal are pretty much where I thought they would be at this stage. As they are more likely to improve than get worse (fingers crossed), a top four finish is within our sights.