Friday, 17 August 2018

The Future Nation State

This is a follow-up post to my earlier review of David Edgerton's The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History, looking at the contemporary political situation in light of the postwar "national economy".

Edgerton's focus on the social democratic era and the 1945 government's pivotal role in shifting towards a national economy will obviously be of interest to the modern Labour Party. If the current division between the left and right has meaning beyond factional antipathy, it is over the degree to which the party should become more national in its thinking on both the economy and welfare: a move towards more planning and more social investment and away from the free movement of capital and an austerity justified by the demands of the global bond market. That the right of the party have steered well clear of this topic, preferring to focus on the unifying emotionalism of their defiance of Jeremy Corbyn, suggests a desire to avoid addressing the fundamental differences that exist between the sovereigntist "old right" (Blue Labour, various Northern MPs) and the Blairite globalists. That defiance has now extended to the suggestion that Corbyn's internationalism is problematic for Labour, essentially because it distracts from the party's domestic programme.

This strikes me as wrong and ahistorical, being an example of the media's obsession with propriety and the political caste's assumption that foreign policy is of little interest to "civilian" voters. In fact, internationalism has always been a strong feature of the Labour Party, even during the height of the national economy years. For example, in 1960, Hugh Gaitskell, the then Labour Leader and very much on the right of the party ideologically, addressed the inaugural rally in Trafalgar Square of the South Africa Boycott Movement, which would shortly afterwards be renamed the Anti-Apartheid Movement. To put this in perspective, Corbyn is a patron and former chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign but has given only qualified backing to the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel that the PSC supports. Another example is the way that Harold Wilson - a man whose image as a national technocrat who preferred to holiday in the Scilly Isles suggested a pronounced insularity - was acutely sensitive (if not always sympathetic) to the party membership's internationalism in his handling of South Africa, Rhodesia and Vietnam.

The commitment to international solidarity began to decline during the 1970s as the British state turned away from the national economy towards greater integration in the global economy, leading it to adopt a more pragmatic (or unprincipled) attitude towards foreign relations. For example, though the wider labour movement was strongly supportive of the Chile Solidarity Campaign following the 1973 coup, the Labour government of 1974-79 was gesturally sympathetic but reluctant to impose sanctions for fear of damaging trade, and only withdrew the British ambassador after the torture of Dr Sheila Cassidy, a UK citizen, in 1976. This history is significant on two counts: first, as an example of the growing friction between the left and the right of the party that would reach a crescendo in the early-80s; and second, because it provided a precedent for Thatcher's foreign policy towards South Africa, notably her opposition to sanctions. That antagonism within Labour was not simply a left-right issue, though it aligned that way at the time, but a fundamental disagreement over sovereignty. The left saw sanctions as a tool of government policy, while the right (like the Conservatives) saw government interference in the operation of the market as illegitimate both at home and abroad. For the left, internationalism was the logical corollary of a national economy. For the right, internationalism was made redundant by globalisation.

Labour's internationalism bifurcated in the 1980s between traditional concerns over human rights and the UK state's complicity in their abuse and the new cosmopolitanism of the EU. The locus of the former shifted to the unions and local government (where it was held up by the Tories as evidence of "loony leftism"), while the latter became the focus for the PLP and the party apparatus, leading some to imagine that taking a holiday in Umbria was a form of solidarity. This highlights a key point that is ignored in current debates: that the internationalism of the Labour leadership tends to positively correlate with the strength of the "national economy". That Tony Blair's rejection of the party's concerns over Iraq came at the peak of neoliberalism is no more a coincidence that Gaitskell's support for the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Jeremy Corbyn's "obsessions" are both more reflective of the wider party membership and the broad labour movement than his critics allow, and there is nothing inherently antagonistic between them and domestic policy. In fact, there is an argument to be made that Labour will only feel comfortable pursuing a more nationalistic economic programme if it can integrate it into a more internationalist worldview, much as the civic nationalism of the likes of the SNP requires a strong rejection of xenophobia and an emphasis on sovereignty in terms of self-determination rather than exclusion.

While the stars appear to be aligning for Labour, imagining that it will form the next government is a lot easier than imagining a national economic programme on a par with the Attlee years or even the Wilson administration. Labour cannot go backwards, not least because the limit of its ambition, given the weight of legislation required to undo decades of neoliberalism, would be to wind the clock back to somewhere around the late-80s (which the media, with no trace of irony, will present as a return to the 70s). In reality, Labour must develop a new conception of the national economy that addresses contemporary concerns about wages and housing in a very different environment to that of the postwar era. For all the popular festishisation of manufacturing, productionism isn't going to make a come-back, so John McDonnell and his advisers need to come up with a strategy for the low-pay, insecure services sector that isn't a race to the bottom while promoting higher-value services in a globalised market. While housing supply is short of demand, price is a bigger problem than capacity and mass-housebuilding is a long-term strategy rather than a short-term fix. A Labour government would do better to focus on property taxes and rent controls as ways to free-up underutilised capacity and restrain housing cost inflation.

The problem for the Conservative Party is that while the delusion of a return to an Edwardian-style economy based on deferential trade networks is limited to the Brexit ultras, the bulk of its MPs would be reluctant to embrace economic nationalism beyond the purely cosmetic, hence the failure of George Osborne's "march of the makers" to turn up and the damp squib of Theresa May's industrial strategy. They are essentially free-trading liberals, albeit of a more pragmatic bent than the Britannia Unhinged crowd. However, many (and perhaps a majority) of its party members and voters would be happy to commit to an approach that was more nationalist and protectionist (in the sense of pro-social protection as much as pro-tariffs), but with top notes of xenophobia. Though this might suggest that there are voters that Labour could peel off, a more likely scenario is that the next Conservative Party leadership contest will feature a strong nationalist (and chauvinist) candidate. Boris Johnson burbling about burkas and channelling Churchill is still the likely choice of party members if he can make it to the final vote. The advantage of this for Labour is that it shifts political debate to favourable ground: how the state can be used to fashion the economy in the interests of the people.

A reprise of the national economy years isn't on the cards, but a shift back towards emblematic nationalisation is, for example in the case of the railways. However, the more significant impact of the past will be in the revival of the idea that a nationalised service should serve the nation as a whole, rather than just privileged groups like metropolitan commuters, so we can expect to see more interest in a cross-Pennine route than HS2 and more investment in areas like South Wales. A return to the public provision of buses, and the transfer of social care to an integrated NHS, is likely to transform the role and esteem of local government. Though Brexit might appear to open up the twin vistas of Singapore and Salazar, i.e. laissez-faire free-trade or an autarkic nationalism, the reality is likely to be more continuity than change, at least as far as the economy and daily life is concerned. The more fundamental shift will be in the reconceptualization of government as an actor within the economy, which arguably has been underway since 2008. In many ways, the defining feature of conventional politics is the refusal to acknowledge that the role of the state has changed.

The tragedy of Greece was not just about protecting French and German banks but refusing to accept that a nation state could exert any meaningful control over its own economy outside of restraining public expenditure. That centrists appear terrified of a Labour Party promoting mild social democracy is merely a continuation of this. Edgerton's books reminds us that not only is a different approach possible, but that it was one that was pursued by both the Labour and Conservative parties, albeit with substantive policy differences. It was also successful and popular, even beyond the point at which competitor economies such as Germany and Japan recovered and declinism infected the political imagination. Perhaps the biggest difference between the postwar years and the post-Brexit future will be the end of the warfare state, particularly if a Labour government has the courage to cancel the Trident programme and forswear any delusions of being a global player in areas such as the Middle East. A policy of economic nationalism articulated in traditional Labour Party terms - i.e. socially liberal and with a side-order of international solidarity - is likely to prove popular, not just on the grounds of nostalgia but as a rational response to Brexit. Ironically, this will also owe something to a common perception of reduced circumstances, showing that the myth of decline remains a powerful factor.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

State of the Nation

I saw Gregory's Girl at the weekend for the first time this century and was struck by a couple of elements that time has not been kind to. The first was the godawful jazz-funk soundtrack. Given that the film was released in 1981, Bill Forsyth missed a great opportunity to showcase the sound of young Scotland, to coin a phrase, and appears to have been unaware of Clare Grogan's moonlighting as a pop-singer. As a thirty-something at the time, Forsyth's musical tastes were presumably of an earlier vintage, which may explain why the posters in Gregory's bedroom are an improbable mixture of Rush (apparently a John Gordon Sinclair favourite) and The Specials. Though Grogan brings a post-punk style to the date scenes, the costumes are dominated by flares and V-necks, and a disco-era white jacket even appears as a plot device. In other words, this is very much a film of the mid-70s rather than the early 80s, though I reckon the levels of irony that make the film still worth watching (notably the inversions of gender and age) might have benefited from a soundtrack featuring the likes of Orange Juice and Josef K.

The second thing that caught my eye was the quality of the environment in what was then still a fairly new "new town". Shot in Cumbernauld, it exhibits many of the urban design features that would later become associated with new town blues, such as the soulless town centre and the best-avoided underpasses, but which at the time still retained some of their utopian promise. One harbinger of the future is a scene where Gregory takes a "desire line" and cuts across a highway, almost being knocked over by a learner-driver taking lessons from his father. What is striking now is not just the healthy kids playing in "streets" free of cars, or mothers hover-mowing their front lawns instead of scrubbing their front doorsteps, both images that recall an earlier cinema, but the evidence of significant investment in a social housing scheme built to improve the lives of working and lower-middle class families. But this investment wasn't just limited to homes. Equally visible is the money spent on the comprehensive school that provides the central location of the story, from the swish ovens of the home economics class to the all-weather football pitch.

While the music suggests that Forsyth's brief creative flowering was already coming to a close, the later success of Local Hero notwithstanding (a homage to Ealing comedies that featured an equally backward-looking soundtrack by Mark Knopfler), the sights of Cumbernauld tell a broader story whose roots go back to the Edwardian era and whose denouement would be the moral bankruptcy of New Labour. This is also the story of David Edgerton's new book, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History. Central to Edgerton's analysis are three themes that, while not novel individually, are shown to be intimately connected. The first is the idea that for most of the century Britain could be better described as a warfare state than a welfare state. This is self-evidently true for the years of the two world wars, but Edgerton shows that it was also true of the interwar years and remained true for most of the social democratic era too. Britain had long preferred to invest in expensive machines rather than men, from the Royal Navy's dreadnoughts through the Spitfire to the "British bomb", but that became a political rather than a strategic imperative from the late-50s. It is only since the 90s that we have started to cut our cloth to suit our needs, though this has been compromised by a defence policy that has deserted national defence for riding shotgun with the USA.

The second theme is the conscious creation of a British national identity during the Attlee years, an identity bound up with the concept of a developmental state and a focus on industrial production (ideas common in the historiography of other countries but unusual in treatments of the UK). Edgerton's key point is that the postwar Labour government invested far more money and political capital in trying to reorient the British economy towards exports (partly in order to pay back dollar debts arising from the war) than in developing the welfare state. For all the real gains of the NHS and other initiatives, postwar welfare was largely a reworking of prewar arrangements rather than a radical departure, and the real value of pensions and benefits would remain modest until the 1970s. In contrast, the commitment to "productionism" was front and centre, leading to the fetishisation of the balance of payments and in time providing a political open goal for the right as global changes in economic geography led to an inexorable shift in employment away from manufacturing to services, allowing state investment in industry to be dismissed as a failure and a new organising principle - personal "freedom" - to be advanced as a cure for all ills.

The third theme is how the trajectory of twentieth century British history - which moved from the internationalism and open borders of the Edwardian era via the protectionism of the 30s and the relative isolation of the 40s to the opening up of the economy to world trade and capital from the 70s onwards - was wrongly interpreted as a tale of decline. This "Declinism" was not simply a narrative advanced by a right that insisted on the debilitating effects of welfare dependence and cultural self-indulgence, but was also advanced by the left as a critique variously of the persistence of aristocratic habits in politics, of anti-science generalists dominating public administration and industry, and of British capitalism's disloyal preference for foreign over domestic investment. As Edgerton makes clear, the trajectory is actually one of revival and convergence rather than decline: of Britain simultaneously reverting to a free trade model while becoming more like its European neighbours (the central dynamic of the Thatcher and Major years), and of key economic sectors like manufacturing continuing to grow in absolute terms but at a slower rate relative to developing nations. In other words, maturity rather than senility.

The great value of Edgerton's synthesis is the fresh perspective it offers on key periods and pivotal events. For example, Lloyd George's "people's budget", lauded by liberals as the start of the welfare state, was as much about battleships as pensions. The Royal Docks closed not because of containerisation (which separately grew because of imported manufactures) but because Britain became largely self-sufficient in staples such as wheat and sugar. For much of the century Britain was a major energy exporter: in coal up to 1939 and in oil and gas from 1980 (the period in between was marked by heavy investment in both coal and nuclear in order to limit imports). One thing that comes across is how lucky Thatcher was, not just in the specifics of the Falklands War and the miners' strike, but because she reaped the benefits of a country becoming close to self-sufficient in both energy and food as a consequence of large-scale state investment over previous decades. In Edgerton's telling, New Labour was not merely a continuation of Conservative policy in all but name (the higher investment in health and education may have looked "un-Thatcherite", but it was consistent with earlier Tory administrations), but its technocracy looks shallow compared to earlier Labour governments while its gestures towards a national identity look even more craven and opportunistic in retrospect than they did at the time.

In truth, Edgerton is guilty of fighting battles that have been long since won - against the myth of Declinism, against the sentimentality of "the people's war", against CP Snow's "two cultures" - but his ability to knit these together and thereby show the inter-relationship of the actual history - the power of the developmental state, the Conservative commitment to technology, the centrality of scientists in public life - helps illuminate the material basis of Britain's twentieth century history. If I have a general criticism of the book it is literary. The publisher, Allen Lane, does not appear to have employed a sub-editor, to judge by the many typos, while Edgerton's often convoluted writing style (which I am currently satirising with, among other things, an excessive use of sub-clauses) often requires unpicking, suggesting than an actual editor may not have been involved in the production either (to be fair, the notes are extensive and the section on further reading is an exemplary essay on the historiography). Ironically, his words often flow most easily when his scorn is most apparent. These are the final few sentences, discussing the symbolism of Margaret Thatcher's funeral, which falls outside the period of the book but serves the purpose of linking the true consensus of "Blatcherism" back to the era of what Edgerton considers the faux-consensus of Butskellism:

There were no cranes left to be dipped in respect by dockers in the unprecedented honour the London proletariat gave Churchill in 1965. In the old and distressed pit villages of England, of Scotland and of Wales, forgotten former miners celebrated bitterly. Tony Blair, meanwhile, was making money working for some of the vilest torturers and dictators on earth. Only satirists, not historians, could do justice to this turn of events.

A critic seeing only this passage might suggest Edgerton had stepped over the line from history to satire (or "thrown in the towel" in despair), but after 519 pages of trenchant analysis built on a mass of detailed facts, I think he is entitled to let rip (David Goodhart predictably disagrees). That the first thoughts of so many people in 2013 turned to the coalfields of 1984, just as my thoughts on seeing Gregory's Girl turned to the new towns of the 70s, is not simply a reflection of age but a common tendency to think of the country's history in terms of a "national project" that was marked not by imperialism or chauvinism but by production and development. While much of this is now just memory, certain popular ideas that came to prominence in the late-40s and 50s live on in political discourse, such as the emblematic roles of manufacturing and infrastructure. I suspect the popular sensitivity to the state of the NHS and our tendency to treat it as an aged relative is a subconscious personification of this "British nation". You can even see the legacy in the "productionist" slant taken towards education over the last twenty five years, while Edgerton himself makes the point that governments have never managed to shed their rhetorical obsession with R&D, even if it is often merely a diversion from more substantive economic intervention.

This focus on material ideas, rather than intellectual fashions, seems bracing, however it leads Edgerton to marginalise Keynesianism, dismiss neoliberalism as a cliché and (more forgivably) cast a sceptical eye on Marxism Today's turn away from the CPGB's nationalist position towards the "New Times" of the 1980s. The whiff of British empiricism is never far away, suggesting this is not perhaps as iconoclastic a review of the century as perhaps Edgerton imagines. Indeed, the careful reader may spot a determination to ignore continental (though not American) influences in the cultural sphere. The commercial success of the popular music industry in the 60s and 70s is lauded but cinema is subject to its own declinist myth, from the peak of the 1940s via the Doctor and Carry On series of the 60s down to the "Hammer horror flicks and dismal TV knock-offs" of the 1970s. The seminal influence of German electronic music in the 70s and 80s is ignored along with the impact of the French New Wave on the likes of Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson. These aren't flaws in Edgerton's argument but evidence that synthetic histories invariably reveal authorial blindspots.

One of the more insightful reviewers of the book, David Kynaston, says "what he never quite confronts is whether modernity - an unblinking, unsentimental welcome for the new - ever really 'took' across British society as a whole". Leaving aside whether any society, ever, has embraced change in quite this wholehearted and uniform way, the context of the question is the absence of any reference to Brexit or even the 2008 financial crash. Did the turn to an "austerity" that ill-advisedly evoked the 1940s help produce the leave victory? I suspect Edgerton was wise to avoid the recent past (the book substantively ends with the Iraq War, which showed that "the British state machine had lost the capacity for rational and critical examination of policy"), essentially because it is too soon to make historical sense of what happened between 2008 and 2016, but I think Kynaston is right that this means insufficient attention is paid to cultural shifts. Where I disagree with him is in his own answer to the question: "My own work on the postwar period strongly suggests that it did not, perhaps above all in relation to the urban environment, and that the British temper remained in some obstinate, implacable way deeply resistant to change". Much of that obstinacy was a rational dislike of tower blocks built on the cheap and new towns abandoned to their own devices before completion, not a hankering after old slums.

I think the truth is more mixed: we mostly welcomed change, from pasta and Spanish holidays to foreign footballers, but we still wanted to preserve the idea of a British particularism over and above the merely chauvinistic. Central to this was a self-image of a tolerant and cooperative people, reluctant to take politics too seriously and with a pragmatic view of the state. A bit like Passport to Pimlico, in other words. It was a myth, but one that was necessary for the collective performance of the British nation that Edgerton's book celebrates. As the individualism of the 60s eroded the cooperative spirit, and as the multiple intersections of the 70s revealed the intolerance within society, the myth gradually lost its hold, encouraging not only Declinism but a more profound cultural pessimism that was only superficially arrested by the Falklands War. The myth lived on into the 80s, but only as nostalgia. The cosy world of Gregory's Girl, like the sentimentalisation of the Miners' Strike, was a lament for the loss of the British nation as much as a last hurrah for the developmental state of utopian new towns and comprehensive schools where boys baked cakes and girls played football.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

On Trump, Israel and Rhetoric

One thing that the recent spat between Donald Trump and the Iranian government made clear is that the US President's rhetorical style is closer to that of a Middle Eastern politician than one versed in American or European discourse. The hyperbole, the bombast, the self-congratulation and boasting are par for the course in a region that has not only produced dictators with a taste for the florid, like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, but democratic demagogues such as Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump's style is also closer to the international norm, at least outside the West, which perhaps helps explain his greater comfort in the company of Rodrigo Duterte and Kim Jong-un. It may also help explain his evident discomfort and uncertainty when dealing with Vladimir Putin, a politician who is all deal and no rhetorical art (Trump's schtick is not the deal but the blag). American critics who cite Trump's verbal brutality as evidence that the US polity is going to the dogs ignore that it's simply reverting to the global mean. Just as the McCarthy era was actually typical of American history, rather than an aberration, so Trump's rhetoric is as much a revival as a decline.

The charge of incivility against Trump, like the similar charge against the "dirtbag left" in the US and the "Corbynistas" in the UK, should remind us that verbal restraint is essentially an anglophone mode, albeit one that has heavily influenced continental European politics since the Second World War (De Gaulle was the conscious exception to this tendency and his legacy is visible in the verbal pretensions of Macron). The purpose is not merely to perform centrist decorum but more prosaically to provide a background contrast for the telling line or soundbite. This mode emerges with the popular press in the late nineteenth century and is then amplified by the arrival of radio in the early twentieth century. The need for compression in these media, at least in those countries where they were driven by commercial goals, meant that the monster speeches of the nineteenth century given by the likes of Lincoln and Gladstone gradually fell out of favour. While the old cadences lived on in the words of Roosevelt and Churchill, what mattered now was the memorable phrase or pithy witticism rather than a crescendo of moral outrage built up over hours.

Where the monster speech lived on was in dictatorships, often as a test of the loyalty of the immediate listeners as much as the stamina of the speaker. By the 1930s, this meant that civility was inversely-correlated with speech-length (it was wiped from collective memory by the "finest hour", which demanded short and punchy radio broadcasts, but Churchill was mistrusted in the pre-war years for his prolix style). By the 1950s, this economy reached its peak when a BBC interviewer asked Clement Attlee if he had anything else he wanted to tell the listeners, to which the Labour leader curtly replied "No". While anglophone politicians soon dropped this reticence under the impact that advertising and public relations were having on popular culture, they preserved the style of restraint, even when it produced the strangulated politesse of someone like Margaret Thatcher (or the mangled diction of Theresa May). Its finest practitioner may turn out to have been the urbane Barack Obama, who said little beyond the pious but at least kept it short. The key to understanding Trump's use of Twitter is that it allows him the luxury of uninterrupted speech in the manner of Fidel Castro. The soundbites (usually immediately forgettable) are incidental.

The parallel between Trump's rhetorical style and the norms of political discourse in the Middle East perhaps doesn't stick out as much as it should because those norms have been influencing American and European practice for some time, certainly from well before Trump appeared on the scene. The main source of that influence has been Israeli politics, specifically since the growth of the nationalist right in the 1980s and the left's abandonment of socialism for integration into the neoliberal order. Domestically, this saw an increase in viciousness and insult, in acrimonious division and bluster, but internationally it brought a more assertive and unapologetic style (Mark Regev, the current Israel ambassador to the UK is a notable example). Where arguments in support of Israel had previously centred on self-determination and democracy, principles that could obviously be applied to the Palestinian Arabs as well, they increasingly focused on the right of national defence and the civilisational benefits of free market capitalism, which enabled a broad consensus that was less vulnerable to criticism by the West. Central to this shift was nationalism. The dual claim made was that the Jewish people are a nation and Israel is their land, and that there is no such thing as a Palestinian nation and therefore no fixed land.

The word Zionism has changed its meaning over time. While it has always been a national project, its primary goal up until the 1940s was the establishment of a Jewish homeland, which meant that it was historically situated in the "national liberation" strand of nationalism and therefore viewed positively in leftist and liberal circles. Since 1948, and even more so after 1967, Zionism came to be associated with expansionary and exclusionary nationalism because of the occupation of the West Bank and the settler movement. Internationally, this has led to disillusion on the left and a positive embrace by the right. That the latter has become pro-Israel does not mean that its supporters are less antisemitic in their domestic context, merely that exclusionary nationalism contingently trumps Jew-hatred. For many on the nationalist right, Israel is admirable precisely because it has been aggressively nationalist for decades. The paradox is that though they conflate the two in their criticism of the left, the political right are perfectly capable of distinguishing between anti-Zionism and antisemitism because they have no problem being simultaneously Zionist (i.e. pro-Israel, as they define it) and antisemitic.

The problem for the left is that they have continued to use the word "Zionism", imagining that the world in general (and Jews in particular) will recognise that it has come to mean "bad" nationalism rather than self-determination. But as "bad" nationalism is "good" in the eyes of the right (including the Jewish right), this is a vain hope. The left would do better to simply retire the word and talk about Israeli policy within the framework of expansionary and exclusionary nationalism. The rhetorical parallel with Apartheid, particularly after the passing of the recent "national law" in the Knesset, is provocative but more pertinent than continuing to cite Theodor Herzl. While Israel hasn't passed any actively discriminatory laws yet, i.e. ones denying civil rights to groups based on ethnicity (as opposed to laws granting privileges to favoured groups such as ultra-Orthodox Jews), it has now established the principle of different treatment, something that has not been welcomed by the Jewish diaspora.

The Israeli government's encouragement of diaspora Jews to make Aliyah (to immigrate to Israel), notably the high-profile intervention of ministers after the Toulouse shooting in France in 2012 and the Porte de Vincennes shooting in the same country in 2015, has an obvious demographic motivation, but it also reinforces the idea that integration by Jews in countries other than Israel is impossible (the original ideological division between the Zionists and the Bundists before the Second World War), which in turn encourages the belief that a pluralist approach cannot work within Israel itself - i.e. the explicit belief that it can only be a Jewish state and the implicit belief that all non-Jews must therefore be considered second-class citizens. This is damaging enough within Israel, but it also makes diaspora Jews more vulnerable by suggesting that treating them as a distinct group in terms of rights is consistent with the general nationalist turn. A proposal in Austria to oblige Jews to register to buy kosher meat is not encouraging.

The tendency of the political right and centre to conflate criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism risks debasing the latter's meaning to the point that people shrug when the term is deployed against them. But this isn't because of the reaction of the left. While some on the left downplay bigotry in their ranks by focusing on the presumed motives of those making the false equivalence, they aren't obviously dismissing the reality of antisemitism or its illegitimacy, even if they quibble about its frequency. Most on the left recognise that there is both a problem that needs to be addressed and that it is being exploited for partisan ends, specifically within the Labour Party, but the latter doesn't obviate the former. The bigger issue is actually the reaction of the political right, which can now dismiss the charge of antisemitism by pointing to its support for Israeli nationalism. That Benjamin Netanyahu can find common ground with Viktor Orban, a politician who has employed antisemitic tropes in domestic politics, shows how Jewish nationalism has increasingly come to be at odds with the interests of the Jewish diaspora (it is worth noting that the majority of Jews, 55%, do not live in Israel).

Netanyahu's attempt in 2015 to pin the blame for the Nazi programme of extermination on the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was not just a trivialisation of the Holocaust. It was also part of the long-standing policy of framing the operation of contemporary Israeli nationalism in existential terms: if we don't pursue a national programme, we will be wiped from the face of the earth; the Nazis may be gone, but the threat remains from the Arabs and the Iranians. While this threat is not without foundation in rhetoric ("driven into the sea" etc), it remains hyperbole in practice. The state of Israel is no more likely to disappear than Switzerland is. The problem with this language is not its deployment in a Middle East where hyperbole is the norm, but its seeping into political discourse within the diaspora, such as the recent combined editorial by three leading Jewish newspapers in the UK accusing Jeremy Corbyn of personally presenting an "existential threat" to Jewish life. In reality, the greatest threat to the diaspora is a revival of exclusionary nationalism in countries like the UK, not the re-nationalisation of the railways. Jews who ostentatiously resign from Labour aren't boosting the electoral prospects of the LibDems or Greens but Tories prepared to countenance a no-deal Brexit that will stimulate xenophobic bigotry.

The debate (if it can be called that) over Labour's adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism has also seen the deployment of another rhetorical strategy honed in Israeli politics. Moving the goalposts - demanding further concessions or redefining the terms of an issue - has long been central to the Israeli state's dealings with the Palestinians. That a similar approach is now being adopted by the Labour right - e.g. MPs who previously supported the Home Affairs select committee's caveats over the IHRA definition now insisting that it be adopted unconditionally - is not the result of covert direction or conspiracy, but it has clearly been influenced by the rhetorical climate that has developed in Israel over the last 25 years and which has in turn affected the Jewish diaspora. What this means in Israel is that any further advance of the interests of the Palestinians is now unthinkable because it would be seen as a diminution of Israel as a national project: there is no space left for compromise. The idea that Israel's primary interest is peace died with Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. What this means abroad is that the diaspora cannot count on Israel to oppose the growth of a right-wing nationalism that it is itself a key exponent of. What it can count on is the denigration of the left as inherently antisemitic, which has the effect of alienating the natural supporters of the diaspora's rights.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

The Fetish of Regulation

Since the right lost control of the Labour Party machine, they have turned to demanding independent adjudication of policies and behaviours. Two recent examples are the insistence that the IHRA definition of antisemitism be adopted unqualified, and the claim by John Woodcock and his supporters that the accusations of harassment made against him could only be fairly judged by an independent inquiry. Combining the two themes - policy and behaviour - we can expect the Labour right to insist that Margaret Hodge will be denied a fair hearing if she is disciplined for calling Jeremy Corbyn an "antisemitic racist", essentially because (in their view) the current party leadership is antisemitic, which thereby begs the question. The purpose of this is not just to delegitimise the left but to hobble the party. This realisation may be behind John McDonnell's suggestion that the charges against Hodge be dropped: not because she is in the right, but because it isn't worth making a martyr of her. Although this move within Labour has obviously been occasioned by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader (and more precisely his re-election, which closed off the right's route to power for the foreseeable future), it is notable as part of a wider trend towards independent regulation within politics.

This tendency is neoliberal. It might seem a stretch to compare the role of the Jewish Labour Movement and others in respect of the Labour Party to that of the IMF or the ECB in respect of nation states, but the shift from lobbying on the basis of expertise to regulation on the basis of authority is central to neoliberal practice. Some of the critics of the demand that the IHRA definition be adopted without caveats have questioned the right of its supporters to speak for all Jews, but this makes the mistake of assuming that we're still in the realm of expertise, where qualifications and motives can be questioned and where competing interpretations can be evaluated. In fact, what matters is authority, which is one reason why the sight of Conservative Party supporters like Jonathan Arkush and Stephen Pollard berating Labour prompts little scepticism from the media. Equally absurd is that Labour MPs who two years ago supported the Home Affairs select committee amendment of the IHRA (specifically to avoid criticism of the state of Israel being taken as prima facie evidence of antisemitism) are now appalled that Labour's NEC should propose a similar approach. The difference in the two cases is not the substance of the variations but the imputed authority of the body doing the varying.

There is a more general point here. The systemic failure of the media to question the credentials and bona fides of privileged interlocutors like the Tax Payers' Alliance, the IEA and various climate-change deniers indicates the extent to which the authoritarian turn in politics long predates the election of Donald Trump or the leave victory in the EU referendum. That the political establishment has always abused the powers of the state to undermine and marginalise those it deems "subversive" is hardly news, but the regime also required the recognition and promotion of permissible dissent to preserve the appearance of plurality. What neoliberal ideologues from the Mont Pelerin Society onwards realised was that this managed pluralism could enable a concerted campaign that was actually more subversive of the established order than any extra-parliamentary movement. The neoliberal think-tanks created as part of this soon moved from a claim of expertise validated by the social and economic developments of the 1970s to a claim of authority based on the premise of a socially natural and ethically neutral market. This manoeuvre has now been copied by the nationalist right, elevating a populist conception of "the people's will" to a similar supra-political position. Why does the BBC indulge right-wing chancers like Steve Bannon and Gerald Batten? Because over the years the media have constructed an imaginary populace, centred on an "authentic" electoral bloc that is biologically xenophobic and illiberal, just as they once constructed an imaginary market centred on personal freedom.

The idea of liberal pluralism has been hollowed-out by a combination of repression (the marginalisation of alternative sources of authority such as trade unions, academia and local government) and the domination of media bandwidth (opaquely-funded think-tanks, astro-turfing and the relaxation of the requirement for broadcast impartiality). But while this obviously benefits the political centre and right, the demand for greater independent regulation in politics isn't just targeted at the left. It's structural, so it's a general recourse even if it isn't applied equally. The same impetus lies behind the recent demand for an independent inquiry into Tory Islamophobia, the proposed beefing-up of both the Electoral Commission and Data Commissioner's powers of inquiry and sanction, and the proposal of a new code of behaviour for MPs to prevent bullying and harassment. In the UK, the creation of select committees after 1979 obviously gave momentum to this cultural shift, but equally important has been the increase in independent, judge-led inquiries into the workings of government, from Franks to Chilcott. Where politicians were once the traditional arbiters of the need for an inquiry, they have increasingly become the subject, though not without resistance (for example, the cancellation of Leveson part 2, which would have looked at the relationship of the press and politicians).

Indeed politicians have adopted a more regulatory mode themselves, in keeping with the times. The efforts of both hardcore leavers and remainers to constrain Theresa May's government over Brexit might appear like a continuation of the historic role of the Commons in holding the executive to account, but in fact it is an extension of the legislature's regulation of the executive and thus a shift in the focus of the relationship from the retrospective to the prospective. Between the 18th and 20th centuries, it was accepted that the government had the unilateral power to both initiate military action and negotiate treaties. The Commons would be informed and consulted, but there was no constitutional principle that its active permission ("a meaningful vote") had to be sought. That has gradually changed in this century as a consequence of both successive EU treaties (which angered the right) and the Iraq War (which angered the left). Where "holding to account" presumed that the executive would have the power to first make a mistake, the contemporary aim is to pre-empt errors. In business terms, the emphasis has moved from audit to qualified sign-off (the media focus on select committee confrontations with celebrity or reluctant witnesses is unrepresentative of their work).

Though the impulse to control the executive is sound, it has produced some ironies. The House of Lords has also taken on a greater role in invigilating and constraining the executive rather than just reviewing and amending legislation passed by the Commons; while the ceaseless negotiation in Parliament between backbenchers and the executive over the various Brexit bills has limited the time available for the negotiations with the EU. Another irony is that Brexit, which was long framed as an escape from the burdensome red-tape of Brussels, is going to produce a flowering of new domestic regulation, not so much in the area of commerce and trade, which will probably just replicate EU rules, but in a growth of state functions, quangos and parliamentary committees to take over the invigilation previously carried out by EU bodies. Some people imagine that this will be avoided because the Brexit ultras are committed deregulators, but this ignores two things: first, that the impetus for regulation typically comes from those who are regulated - it is business that lobbies for and designs business regulations; and second, we already know that many of the authorities to be repatriated from the EU will not be cascaded down to devolved assemblies or local government but will be reserved by Whitehall.

Perhaps the greatest irony of this regulatory turn in British politics is that the 2016 EU referendum, which has been widely characterised as the Tories foolishly "outsourcing" a problem of internal division, was actually a plea for independent regulation (by the ultimate authority of the people) in the face of a failure of political formations to align with the issue of EU membership. That so many remainers want another "people's vote" is not just a pragmatic belief that only a second referendum can undo the result of the first but also a vote of no-confidence in those political formations (the desire to make Labour explicitly anti-Brexit is obviously part of this). This shouldn't be taken as evidence that centrists have suddenly been converted to the virtues of participatory democracy. Their enthusiasm for Supreme Court judges indicates where they see authority ultimately residing: the Rechsstaat. Naturally, those Labour MPs who have loudly criticised David Cameron for promoting an issue of party management to a near-existential crisis for the nation see no parallel in their own desire to make Labour subservient to the opinions and rulings of others. This is not just the usual hypocrisy and opportunism of centrists, but evidence that the fetish of regulation remains hegemonic.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Brexit and British Pragmatism

The UK's relationship with the EEC and later the EU was unusual because "Europe" as an ideal never took on a positive national political role here, as it did in most other member states. The relationship remained almost exclusively transactional, hence the emphasis on "market access" and Thatcher's emblematic rebate. It was neither seen as constructive in terms of the polity (as a guarantor of democracy) nor as a component of national identity (membership of a "club" that implied a historical and cultural homogeneity). The result was a tendency to think of Europe as an optional extra, a plug-and-play extension to both the state and the economy that did not affect the underlying integrity of either. Just as leavers doubted the warnings of "project fear" over the potential damage to the economy that Brexit would entail, so many of them imagined that uncoupling would be straightforward and risk little disruption to the constitution of the UK. The failure to appreciate the impact in Ireland was not just a routine lack of interest in the "other island" but the result of a wilful blindness to the way that the EU had become intimately intertwined with the UK's governance beyond bendy bananas and meddling judges. It was like mistaking a major organ transplant for a over-tight suit.

To a large extent this misunderstanding arose because Europe had never been successfully grafted onto the national self-image, or at least not in England and Wales. Scotland went further in this regard, though that owed much to a popular history in which Europe was held up as the antithesis of England. In contrast, Europe as a civilisational ideal had played a part in the identity of continental states since the Enlightenment. For the original signatories of the Treaty of Rome, European integration carried greater expectations than the mere coordination of markets or even a contingent defence against the revival of fascism and the contemporary threat of Soviet communism. This aspirational dimension enjoyed broad (if sometimes shallow) support across mainstream parties and social classes. It wasn't just limited to the consumers of haute culture and it appealed to both conservatives and progressives. Even when the left opposed the EEC as a capitalists' club, there was a conscious effort to maintain a higher ideal of antifascist and pro-worker European solidarity: the phrase "another Europe" has a long lineage. For later member states, Europe variously offered an inoculation against military rule (Spain, Portugal and Greece), a road to technocratic modernity (Ireland and Denmark), and a means of securing national independence through a supra-national federation (Poland, the Baltic states etc). In all cases, this meant elevating the harmony of rules and cultural affinity above national will.

The UK wasn't unique in its transactional approach, but nowhere else was the EU presented as mutually-exclusive to national identity (unsurprisingly, this sense of identity among leavers has been reinforced by the referendum result, which goes a long way to explain the lack of buyer's remorse despite pessimism about the economic impact - see pgs 14-19 of the latest British Social Attitudes Survey). While there has been no shortage of continental populists blaming the EU for the "migrant crisis" or criticising its interference in domestic politics, what they aren't doing is rejecting Europe as an ideal but promoting national identity as another pole in political discourse (one example of this, and an obvious difference with the UK, is that migration and freedom of movement are seen as quite distinct). If anything, the nationalist right have become even more fervent in their "defence of Christian Europe" and their insistence that we face a continental threat from Islam. But though there are echoes of the Fascist era, we are not seeing a resurgence of the exclusivist nationalism of the 1930s (outside the exceptional case of Ukraine), any more than we are seeing a revival of economic autarky in the current protectionist spasm. Though "Europe of the nations" may have displaced "Europe of the regions" in discourse, it remains an ideal of Europe nonetheless, albeit one with a not always respectable pedigree. Poland and Hungary are not about to quit the EU: their aim is to be treated as equals, not supplicants.

Where the UK was unique was in its retention of an image of itself as a global power with interests beyond Europe that would be threatened by greater integration. Though the delusions of empire quickly evaporated after 1956, the idea that the UK retained a global significance lived on in the "special relationship" with the US. That centrist politicians from the 1960s onward promoted both Europe and the special relationship was an example of tactical necessity trumping strategic coherence, but it was (and remains) no more incoherent than contemporary Tories who promote both the anglosphere and the Commonwealth. After the UK joined the EEC in 1973, the appeal of the special relationship as a compensatory fantasy grew (under Macmillan it had been little more than a rhetorical flourish to obscure the post-Suez asymmetry), which was ironic given that its actual importance was the political leverage it now afforded the US within European institutions. That comes to an end with Brexit, but that in turn means that Atlanticist politicians in Britain are ever more desperate to preserve the myth of mutual regard, hence the embarrassment of Donald Trump's recent visit. The importance now given to a potential UK-US trade deal, which would be trivial in its benefits and unpopular in its costs, is a continuation of this, showing how far we have moved from pragmatic self-interest.

While its most fervent British supporters tried to present Europe as an ideal of liberal internationalism and thus congruent with the UK's historic self-image, this was always in tension with the desire to use Europe within the context of domestic politics for partisan ends. Brexit happened because Europe remained a divisive issue within party politics, not because it remained a major public concern (the success of the press in promoting Euroscepticism depended on the issue's political salience, without which it would have looked as eccentric as an obsession with fluoridation). Paradoxically, this wasn't due to strongly-held beliefs among politicians. The constant true-believers were always a small minority, outweighed by those who used Europe as a metaphor for either progressive modernity or the overmighty state. This instrumentality has two causes. First, you have the periodic oscillation between isolationism and internationalism that has marked British politics (the inescapable tension of an island nation, which you can also see in the histories of Ireland and Japan). As a fundamental worldview, this cuts across parties organised on class lines so it tends to manifest as intra-party division and it also tends to change over time (consider the way the left and right in Labour have swapped positions since the 1950s).

The second factor is the antagonistic nature of a first-past-the-post electoral system. I don't mean to suggest by this that proportional representation would have made a difference to British attitudes, as the divisions on Europe were largely within parties rather than between them, but that governments indulged the topic to maintain party unity in the Commons. The 1975 and 2016 referendums were both called for this reason. As UKIP showed, there aren't enough voters who consider Europe to be the primary political issue to secure representation in Parliament, but there are enough to effect the outcome in seats for the two major parties. Calling a referendum makes it the primary issue, which risks producing a result that the legislature will struggle to process because it cuts across parties (as an aside, and contrary to the centrist media, Labour has been far more adroit in dealing with this than the Tories, and not just because it is in opposition). On the continent, Euroscepticism has either been channelled through minor parties that might conceivably hold the balance of power in a coalition or been opportunistically adopted by existing parties of the nationalist right. Though these might appear worrying developments, they suggest that the issue will be diluted through compromise or diverted into gestures. That the new Italian government has rowed back on quitting the euro and focused instead on a non-existent "migrant crisis" is indicative.

This dynamic of absorption and deflection might look unedifying from the outside, but it presents a lower political risk than a binary referendum whose mandate is open to interpretation. Though some Eurosceptic parties on the continent have talked of popular votes on the euro and EU membership, it is unlikely that these will come about. More likely is that the parties will continue to leverage Europe to build domestic support in national legislatures and the European Parliament. As UKIP found, a referendum can be a political death sentence (though equally, as the Tories are now discovering, the "betrayal" of a referendum can revive the corpse). Despite the claims of the right, the EU is not in conflict with nationalism, and has on occasion been happy to promote a liberal version of it, notably in the immediate aftermath of 1989. For all the promotion of a supra-national ideal of Europe, the reality of the EU is a project to reconcile capital's continental goals with national sensitivities. We are in a phase when national sovereignty is in the ascendant, but this is less about an existential threat to the EU than the advancement of particular factions of capital in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. A more assertive national identity is not incompatible with either greater EU institutional integration or neoliberal economic reform, as Macron is busy proving in France.

What has been remarkable about the Brexit process is the failure of the UK government to approach it in transactional terms, which can only be partly blamed on the way that it has been instrumentalised within parties for sectional interests. In a strange rejection of its historic practice and self-image, the UK has been more concerned with the ideal - sovereignty, the freedom of the high seas, constitutional integrity - than with the pragmatic, hence the profusion of cake and unicorns. In contrast, the EU has been predictable both in its insistence on its own ideals - notably the indivisibility of the four freedoms of the single market - and in its commitment to a rules-based process of negotiation. Criticising Boris Johnson for his incompetence or David Davis for his laziness is legitimate, but it takes the spotlight off the wider failure of the political class to articulate a coherent vision of the UK's future at a time when our relationship with the EU must inevitably weaken and when the "special relationship" with the US, which I'd argue was terminally damaged by the Iraq War, is unlikely to survive Brexit (Trump, as ever, has not signalled a shift in US policy, he has merely blurted out a truth that would otherwise be obscured by more diplomatic language).

That historic failure does not arise because our current political leaders are pygmies, but because the latest turn of the isolationist/internationalist gyre does not align with party formations, which constrains them from offering much beyond mitigation of the electorate's 2016 decision. That won't change. A pro-remain centrist party is not going to arise out of the ashes of Brexit because the chief concerns of the electorate beyond next March will be wages, housing and public services. The fundamental oscillation between closed and open is electorally decisive only when it aligns with material and thus party interest, as over the Corn Laws and Tariff Reform. The association of the EU with migration proved decisive in the 2016 referendum, but immigration itself has never turned an election. In the circumstances, the best any party can offer is an ameliorative programme that is honest about the UK's actual position in the world: a mid-sized power with the advantages of the English language and proximity to continental Europe, but with no delusions of global significance beyond that. We could do worse than study contemporary Japan, much as the Japanese pragmatically studied Britain during the Meiji Restoration.