Brexit may never happen

A week ago today I posted on Facebook my ‘considered’ response to the EU referendum result: ‘Britain is fucked’ it read, capturing my end-of-the-world feeling. A week on—and certainly the most turbulent and dramatic week in British politics in my lifetime—and about the only thing that is clear is that nobody really knows what is going to happen. At best we can make only educated but partially informed guesses. (Partially informed because most information either about the referendum itself—for example, who voted and why—or about the immediate course of events—for example, who will win the Conservative party leadership contest, or how EU politicians are going to act—is unavailable). Like any guess, mine could well turn out to be wrong. History, after all, tells us that little is ever fully predictable, and that any number of factors can rapidly transform a situation. But for what it’s worth my guess is that Brexit will not happen.

This may simply be wishful thinking. I voted Remain and am strongly anti-Brexit for various reasons (which I have written about elsewhere). I do not intend to rehearse here why I think it is legitimate to oppose Brexit and work towards preventing it, except to make two general points. First, we live in a democracy and an open society (yes, I know both labels can be qualified but let’s not get too picky here), in which the right to express one’s views is valued and protected. Brexiteers may disagree with and oppose my position and arguments, but they are not entitled to shut down debate nor to stop campaigners from actively working for what they believe. Simply telling people to ‘accept the result’ will not do when nothing has actually been decided yet. Secondly, for a number of reasons I am not persuaded that the referendum is an example of ‘good’ democracy. This is undoubtedly a difficult argument, but I have written elsewhere (as have many others) about the legal, constitutional and democratic problems with the referendum. These problems deserve, at the very least, serious consideration as part of the ongoing debate.

There is a path to stopping Brexit. It is certainly not an easy one (but no path right now is), and it will depend on all sorts of factors aligning, but it is plausible—and we have already taken the first steps down it.

The first step, somewhat paradoxically, involved doing nothing. One of the few simplicities of the situation is this: in order for Brexit to happen, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has to be invoked, thereby formally triggering a departure from the EU; until it is, there is no Brexit. Throughout the referendum campaign David Cameron insisted that, in the event of a Leave victory, he would within hours invoke Article 50. Not only did he not do this, but he also said that he would not do it, instead choosing to resign and toss this particular grenade to his successor.

This was a smart move (Cameron—a disastrous Prime Minister to be sure—has always been at his limited best when doing nothing). It buys time, a precious commodity when the stakes are so high. Leaving the EU would be a momentous decision affecting many millions both now and for generations to come, and whether one wants to remain or leave there is little sense in rushing the decision or allowing hotheads like Nigel Farage to dictate the agenda. By announcing he would be doing nothing, Cameron, perhaps finally realizing the gross folly of his referendum, was opening up the possibility that a way might be found to prevent the impending disaster he had done so much to create.

The response to Cameron’s move (or, more accurately, non-move) further suggests that minds are turning to how Brexit may be avoided. Although, in the aftermath of the vote, a few EU voices called for Britain to clarify its position quickly, these have now died down; instead, calmer heads are recognizing that the best course right now is patience. It is anyway clear that nothing can happen before September at the earliest, when a new Prime Minister will be in place.

The most likely successor to Cameron is Theresa May, an instinctively Eurosceptic Tory but one who nominally campaigned on the Remain side during the referendum. She is a sensible, pragmatic and highly competent politician; indeed, her low profile during the referendum is evidence of her smartness as a politician, since she steered clear of the Tory civil war, bolstering her credentials as a future unifier of the party. May has said that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, a statement which, if scrutinized for a few seconds, is actually fairly meaningless, but one which she has to make: in order to win the Tory leadership she needs to reassure the Eurosceptic-inclined grassroots of the party. But she has also indicated that, should she be the next Prime Minister, any negotiations to leave the EU would not begin at least until the end of the year. She, too, is finding ways to buy time.

So it is unlikely that anything will happen in relation to Article 50—and, therefore, that Brexit will even begin moving towards reality—before 2017. Taking time over this is good in itself: the situation is unprecedented, and it is apparent (and also somewhat incredible) that no-one, least of all those on the Leave side, had any coherent plan about what to do in the event of a vote for Leave. What it means is that the debate stays open, rendering the referendum as simply one event (possibly crucial, possibly not) within a longer discussion and political process over the question of Europe. Both sides have, therefore, the opportunity to mobilize and continue the campaign.

For the anti-Brexit side that will involve making a strong case against leaving the EU—and a stronger and more persuasive case than was made by Remain during the referendum campaign—and putting pressure on parliament. Britain is, after all, a parliamentary democracy, and ultimately it is parliament, not the Prime Minister nor a simple majority of the people, who determines if and when Article 50 is invoked.

The parliamentary numbers are on the side of anti-Brexit: in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords there is a clear majority for Remain. Of course, neither MPs nor Lords are in an enviable position. Whether they choose to adhere to their conscience, to their sense of the national interest, to the apparent will of the majority, to their party, to their constituents, or to their personal political ambitions will doubtless involve tortuous individual decision-making. But one can be sure of one thing: parliament will not act as a simple rubber stamp. Nor should it: the question of EU membership is the most important in recent British political history, and the referendum result, while delivering a small majority to leave the EU, seems some way off providing a clear and definitive answer.

More time also allows the EU to formulate its own strategy to encourage Britain to remain. The EU cannot, of course, force Britain to remain, but it can help give Remainers room to manoeuvre. Publicly the EU has categorically stated that there will be no informal negotiations with Britain, a sensible position which ensures that Britain is seen to have full responsibility for its decision. But one can be confident that privately there will be discussions, as well as energetic activity, that explore all the options. There are already signs of the EU sending out low-key messages that give hope to the anti-Brexit position: Helmut Kohl’s call for Europe not to act in haste over Brexit; and the careful support from Slovakia, which holds the current EU presidency, for any moves towards reversing Brexit, as well as Nicolas Sarkozy’s suggestion that Europe as a whole should have a referendum on border controls and freedom of movement, key grievances for Brexiteers that may help turn the heads among some of their number.

There is much, therefore, still to play for, and various possible outcomes. One path to Remain may be this: the next Prime Minister, aware of the constitutional and political difficulties of invoking Article 50, decides that the only reasonable way ahead will be through a general election during which the electorate can be presented with various worked-out courses of action. There is a good democratic argument to be made for insisting that the country must go to the polls before any Prime Minister (least of all one who is being elected by that small subset of the population, members of the Conservative party) invokes Article 50 and sets about negotiating an exit. After all, the referendum only posed the superficially simple question of whether to leave the EU; it did not ask what should be done in the event of leaving. But this is clearly an important question that should be voted on; for example, the public has not been consulted on whether Britain should remain a member of the single market, and it quickly became apparent during the campaign that nobody knew whether a vote to leave meant a vote to leave the single market.

This highlights one of the fundamental flaws of the referendum: a vote for Leave can mean so many things—the Norway option, the Norway-plus option, the Swiss option, the Canada/Australia option, or something else all together—none of which have been presented to the electorate in any manifesto. Given this, the result practically demands a further vote, possibly in a second referendum over the British negotiating position and what exactly is Britain deciding to leave, but preferably in a general election. Concerted pressure should be put on parliament and the government to recognize this: Article 50 should not be invoked without a democratic mandate and parliamentary approval for where any negotiations may lead.

I would contend that this is both a reasonable and plausible way ahead. It does not guarantee that Brexit will not happen. It might, but at the very least there should be public consultation over what Brexit means and entails. But further public consultation allows the Remain side to regroup and campaign against Brexit, with the realistic possibility that Brexit itself will be reconsidered. And to reiterate what I wrote above: in a free and democratic society, it is entirely appropriate for people to continue campaigning for what they believe in—Brexiteers cannot claim that the referendum result somehow gives them a monopoly of the debate or the politics.

Of course, there are so many variables that any number of outcomes are still possible. The past week would seem to illustrate Lenin’s comment that ‘there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’. And we’ve got several months ahead of us in which countless things may happen. Whether Gove or May (or, more improbably, one of the other three) wins the Tory leadership contest; the voices coming from Europe; the financial markets and economic forecasts; whether Donald Trump wins the US presidential election; whether Labour can form a coherent opposition—all of these are examples of factors that could affect the course of events. And there is always a high chance of completely unpredictable events that are impossible to factor in but which could transform the situation.

Finally, it is worth noting that a large part, but by no means all, of the Establishment oppose Brexit—and the Establishment traditionally finds a way of securing its ends. I do not make that point approvingly; I merely note it as a further reason for doubting whether Brexit will ever happen. Still, one ought to be honest. As an opponent of Brexit myself, I am not dismayed that on this issue the Establishment share my views. Brexit creates some fascinatingly odd alignments: many millions of voters who identify as anti-Establishment found themselves lined up on the same side as Cameron, the banks, the City, and so on. That in no way dilutes their anti-Establishment position; EU membership was never the right issue to do battle with the Establishment. (The real question for the anti-Establishment is this: are you a nationalist or an internationalist? If the latter, then you should campaign to stay in the EU and fight the battle more widely across Europe, by, for example, working towards reform of the EU itself.)

If my assessment of the situation is correct (and it may well not be), then there is a reasonable chance that Brexit will not happen. There are good arguments for why it should not happen; there are moves, whether intentional or not, to buy time that increases the chances of it not happening; there are perfectly democratic and constitutional ways for preventing it from happening; and there is a potentially powerful combination of Establishment and anti-Establishment voices who can stop it from happening. For now, at least, nothing has been decided. If this was a football match, Brexit would be leading 1-0—with the second half about to start.

A reckless and cavalier abuse of democracy: The democratic failings of the EU referendum

The EU referendum has inflicted potentially huge damage on democracy. Superficially it has the appearance of a great democratic event. In reality it risks bringing democracy into disrepute. In the wake of the vote for Brexit, Kenneth Rogoff, a professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University, has written an excellent, thoughtful article on this: ‘Britain’s Democratic Failure’. What follows is largely my own reiteration and comment on his argument.

At the outset it is important to be clear about two things. The first is that I unequivocally believe in democracy. The quotation attributed to Winston Churchill that ‘democracy is the worst form of government apart from all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’ expresses a view that I share. In relation to the referendum the question is not about democracy versus anti-democracy, but about whether the referendum was the best democratic way of deciding the issue of Britain’s EU membership. As I suggest below (and as Rogoff argues) it was actually a fairly terrible way of going about the decision.

Secondly, it needs to be emphasized that the question posed by the referendum was not a typical political issue. The gravity, importance and implications of the result were repeatedly discussed during the campaign—although little of this resonated with the wider public. The overwhelming majority of legal, constitutional, economic and financial experts warned of the dangers of Brexit, both in the short and long term; at the very least, this was an indication that the issue needed to be treated with great care and thoughtful consideration.

It is right that in a democracy questions of such fundamental importance as EU membership are decided democratically. But was a referendum the best way of doing so? And if referenda are in general a good way of making (some) political decisions, was the specific vote over EU membership a good example of a referendum? There are persuasive grounds to answer ‘no’ to both of these questions, and in particular the second of them.

To answer the first question it is important to distinguish between two forms of democracy: direct and representative. Direct democracy involves the people (or, more typically, those people who qualify as citizens) as a whole deciding on policy. There are few examples of direct democracy: the most famous is ancient Athens in which adult male citizens (constituting about 10% of the overall population of the polis) voted individually and directly on all legislative and executive matters. Some modern democracies—notably Switzerland and some constituent states of the USA—resort to direct democracy (through referenda) on various issues, but no modern democratic system can be described as a direct democracy.

The British political system is an example of a representative democracy: citizens do not vote directly on legislative and executive matters, but rather elect representatives to decide these matters. There are very good reasons why representative democracy is vastly preferable to direct democracy. Unlike ancient Athens, modern democracies are not small city-states in which the labour of women, slaves and foreigners enables the small number of citizens to participate in politics; they are large, highly complex societies and economies in which universal participation in politics would be impossibly unwieldy, beyond the capacity of most individuals to make informed decisions, and fraught with political risk. Representative democracy, by entrusting decision-making to elected officials dedicated to the sophisticated and difficult task of politics, is a rational and sensible arrangement for modern society and one that minimizes the risks of direct democracy.

The EU referendum illustrates some of the risks of direct democracy. On an issue of long-term and national importance, a fraction over half the voters (and little more than a third of the electorate) has overruled the wishes of a fraction under half the voters (and nearly two thirds of the electorate). It invited members of the public to decide on an issue likely to lead to national and international instability, with unpredictable risks and dangers both to Britain and the wider world. Many British citizens are educated and well informed, and are capable of weighing up the issues in a balanced, intelligent, critical and careful way. But many more are not. It is clear that many voters had little real idea of the issues; many voters engage rarely, if at all, in political debate, and, in so far as they do, rely on tabloid newspapers for their political information. Furthermore, there is the possibility that extraneous and irrelevant factors—the weather on polling day, the national mood in relation to Euro 2016, prejudice against immigrants that had nothing to do with the EU debate, a vote against Cameron or a vote for Boris (rather than a vote on EU membership), a vote based on no more than instinct or emotion—played a part. Any national vote is liable to be affected by contingency; the national mood now is not the same as the national mood a few months ago or the national mood as it will be in a few months’ time.

The referendum delivered, therefore, a snapshot of a deeply divided public mood on a particular day, and a result that statistically involved only a tiny margin between those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain. And yet the result is likely to affect many millions both in Britain and abroad who did not vote, as well as generations of people to come.

Rogoff comments that ‘the real lunacy of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union… was the absurdly low bar for exit’. In other words, the problem was not so much that a referendum was held in the first place, but rather that the specific EU referendum was fundamentally flawed in its design and conception. Above all, a ‘decision of enormous consequence… has been made without any appropriate checks and balances’. In Rogoff’s words: ‘This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics.’

This is surely right. In a robust democracy, even comparatively minor issues go through rigorous and careful procedures. Checks and balances are built into the process. Legislation is debated and voted on several times; it has to pass through committees and both houses of parliament; and bad legislation can be amended or repealed. Select committees scrutinize the work of the executive; parliament holds the government to account. In other words, for all its problems, idiosyncrasies and weaknesses, parliament works according to procedures designed to ensure political decisions come under thoughtful consideration and are not rushed. Even for minor laws, parliamentary procedure is robust and rigorous, embodying important checks and balances.

The debate over EU membership is far from a minor issue; on the contrary it is the most important in recent British politics. Yet it is hard to claim that the referendum was designed with the robustness and rigour normally found in British political decision-making. To allow a decision of this magnitude to be reached by a simple majority of the public on a single day after a campaign of a few weeks (and of extremely poor quality) would seem laughable if it were not so tragic. The absurdity of this was compounded by the fact that the electorate were offered the option to leave the EU but without any proper debate or information about what would happen if that option was (as it turned out to be) successful. In effect the referendum was offering two paths, but one of which was blind, difficult and lacking in any map or guide.

For all this the Prime Minister bears a heavy responsibility. For it was Cameron who pledged a referendum—not for democratic reasons but in the expectation that by doing so he would end divisions within his own party and see off the threat of UKIP (instead, in a grim irony, he exacerbated divisions and handed victory to UKIP). Worse than his high stakes gamble—he bet the nation, and possibly Europe, in order to win a narrow tactical victory—was the reckless and ill-considered design of the referendum itself. There were various ways in which he could have built checks and balances into the process: he might have demanded a demonstrably clear majority (e.g. 60-40) of the voters, or a majority of the electorate as a whole; he might have insisted that the outcome of a Leave vote in the referendum would simply trigger a second referendum at a defined point in the future, allowing for further consideration and debate as well as a much clearer understanding of exactly what Brexit would entail; he might have required that an outcome of Brexit was only valid if all four constituent countries of the United Kingdom had voted in favour of it; he might have indicated a clearer role for parliament in the decision; or he might have implemented two or more of these checks and balances. But he did none of these things, doubtless fearful of antagonizing UKIP and the right-wing of his own party. The referendum was a hubristic abuse of democracy on the part of Cameron that threatens to bring democracy itself into disrepute.

However, an important note needs to be added to the above. In a campaign of extensive mendacity, the Leave campaign did not have a monopoly on lies: the Remain camp told a few too. Cameron claimed that the day after a Leave vote he would invoke Article 50, thereby irreversibly beginning Britain’s exit from the EU. Not only did this not happen—it was never likely to, and was presumably a dishonest but unsuccessful campaigning scare tactic—but the claim was fundamentally dishonest in the first place. Neither constitutionally nor legally is it in the power of the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50; rather it is parliament’s decision whether and when the process of Brexit begins. We may be grateful that, despite Cameron’s cavalier and reckless abuse of democracy, British constitutional law has within it a potentially vital parliamentary check on the ill-conceived referendum and its disastrous outcome.

Tory neoliberalism

There is a very good chance that by the time the Tories are eventually voted out of office (2020 at the earliest, but more likely 2025 or even later) most existing public institutions will have been largely or fully dismantled, either through cuts or through privatization. The welfare state is rapidly being eroded; privatization of the NHS is likely to be extended; education policy will, by design, result in more schools taken out of local authority control and into the hands of private companies; central funding of higher education and the arts, already decimated by cuts, will almost certainly have been slashed further; the BBC is facing a relentless attack on its role as a publicly funded broadcaster; despite denials from the government, plans have been drawn up to privatize Channel 4. Apart from parliament itself, the royal family and the armed services, we may find that within a decade almost nothing will be left of publicly funded institutions.

The budget deficit is the government’s convenient but dishonest rationale behind this programme. The reality, of course, is that the cuts are driven by an ideological commitment to neoliberal economic principles. It is interesting to consider why the government will not admit this, instead choosing to depict itself as having to make unfortunate but necessary decisions to (as the myth goes) clean up the mess created by the previous Labour government. There are understandable presentational reasons for this: in general, most people are suspicious of ideology but fond of practicality (which helps explain why the Chancellor of the Exchequer preferred to be seen wearing a hard hat rather than reading economic theory for his election campaign photo opportunities); and it is a lot easier to communicate via social media and tabloid newspapers an idea as simple as ‘sorting out a mess’ than complex economic theories.

But perhaps the primary reason for playing down the ideological nature of the policies is that the government knows full well that at best the policies are highly risky, and at worst they simply do not work (or at least do not work in the way many of their most enthusiastic proponents would hope). It is worth acknowledging, even for those of us on the Left who oppose the government’s policies, that neoliberalism makes a serious claim to be the best and most rationale way of organizing society. There is no lack of weight or sophistication to neoliberalism as a set of ideas, and to reduce it simply to an ideology of greed or hatred of the poor is an intellectual dead end. Certainly neoliberals maintain that profit, self-interest, competition and, if you like, greed are key motivating factors behind human action, and they positively encourage inequality not only as the most effective way to ensure that merit is justly rewarded but also as a dynamic that stimulates productivity and economic growth. Whatever one thinks of the neoliberal analysis, there is no doubt that it presents a body of psychological, philosophical, political, social and economic theory that demands serious engagement.

Like many ideologies, however, neoliberalism works better in theory than in practice. At the heart of neoliberal thought is a belief in laissez-faire capitalism, free markets, deregulation and the excision of the “dead hand” of the state. It is supposed that markets, unlike governments or the state, know best; therefore, markets that are fully free (i.e. that are subject to no government intervention through red tape, regulation, or state ownership) will, it is argued, work efficiently and in the interests of everyone. The economic laws of supply and demand, so long as they are left to operate freely, will benefit society as a whole.

As a theory neoliberalism is seductively persuasive—as long as one accepts that there are economic laws as true as scientific laws. But there is little hard evidence that neoliberalism works well in practice. As its name indicates, neoliberalism is a modern reworking of classical economic liberalism. Associated particularly with the politics and ideas of the nineteenth century, above all in Britain, classical liberalism has impressive intellectual credentials stemming from the thought of, among others, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. The history of nineteenth-century Britain is instructive for some of the strengths and weaknesses of economic liberalism. On the one hand, liberal policies (e.g. lack of regulation) helped the phenomenal economic growth set off by industrialization; on the other hand, they also generated some truly dreadful social conditions. In theory, by maximizing profit and increasing wealth, everyone will benefit (or, rather, all those who deserve to—the lazy and the workshy, for example, will deservedly not benefit); but this is not how it turned out in practice. For example, although profits are increased from, for example, the employment of cheap child labour, what resulted was not only suffering children but also depressed adult wages and increased adult unemployment. Such was the moral outrage at the social effects of economic liberalism, that the only remedy was for the state increasingly to intervene in the social and economic sphere, by regulating working conditions and alleviating poverty and its results.

The neoliberal Tory vision of society has clear echoes of liberal nineteenth-century society. David Cameron’s idea of the ‘Big Society’ (which still occasionally sees the light of day in his pronouncements) is in essence a modern take on the nineteenth century: promote laissez-faire capitalism, rein in government and state intervention in social and economic regulation, and encourage philanthropy, charity and human kindness to fill in the gaps. It’s an optimistic vision, but one for which the evidence is hardly encouraging. There were certainly philanthropists in the nineteenth century, but philanthropy and charity on their own had a minimal impact on the alleviation of social problems. In the US, the most neoliberal of all western countries, there is a long tradition of philanthropy, but American society is nevertheless beset by levels of poverty and inequality—and increasing ones at that—that dwarf those of western Europe. When, during the election campaign, the Tories unveiled a policy that would, through statutory paid leave, compel employers to enable workers to undertake voluntary and charitable work, it was perhaps an unspoken acknowledgement that neoliberalism may not work.

Austerity and the ‘shock doctrine’ so beloved of the IMF (and US) have similarly provided little real evidence that they work. As has been well documented (by, for example, Joseph Stiglitz and Naomi Klein), despite repeatedly failing to achieve the desired results, the IMF has for decades nevertheless relentlessly pushed on with its blinkered neoliberal policies, convinced that the rarefied theories of the Chicago School economists trumps the actual evidence before its eyes. In so far as problems were acknowledged, these were usually attributed to the failure of countries to move to a fully free market quickly enough, or to the continuing intervention of governments in economic policy. Even in cases where the IMF policies had some success, it was only a small part of society who benefited—not a surprise to critics of the IMF and neoliberalism, but not the anticipated outcome expected by the IMF and neoliberals themselves.

Neoliberal ideologists (among whom much of the current government can be included) tend to be dogmatic in their approach. And there is nothing wrong with that, provided the evidence supports the dogma. But the evidence invariably points the other way. In a recent essay discussing the life and work of the social scientist Richard Titmuss (a strong believer in the importance of public institutions), Stefan Collini discusses Titmuss’s final book, The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy (1970), in which Titmuss considered the provision of human blood to meet medical and scientific needs.* In the US, a neoliberal approach was adopted as the best response: market principles should apply, according to which the demand for blood will be met by supply, and a price mechanism will develop which will satisfy all concerned. In short, leave it to the market. Consequently a commercial trading system developed: for donors there were financial incentives to give blood, and there were profit incentives to encourage companies to trade in and supply blood. In the UK, however, the publicly-funded National Blood Service (part of the NHS) was established, which relied on voluntary donations of blood. A neoliberal would assert that the US model should prove to be the most effective. But as Collini describes, Titmuss’s work demonstrated ‘the greater efficiency of the [UK system] as measured by all the relevant criteria: purity of blood, availability and reliability of supply, cost and administration.’ (As further subsequent confirmation of this, one may note that it was blood sourced largely from the US and infected with Hepatitis C and HIV that was at the centre of the ‘Tainted blood scandal’.)

It is not simply its invariable failure to work in practice and its often calamitous social effects that makes neoliberalism such a disastrous ideology. Just as corrosive is its moral bankruptcy. One of the more interesting moments of the election campaign was when Cameron was confronted by an audience member on Question Time about the fact that he spends all his time talking about the economy but never about morality. The Prime Minister gave a good answer in the context of the debate: he argued that getting people into work and improving their economic security and prospects were above all moral issues, since it was only by doing this that poverty could be reduced. Indeed, his answer probably sums up neoliberal moral theory: assuming laissez-faire capitalism works, then the society that emerges will be morally good. But, as I’ve suggested, laissez-faire capitalism does not work. The dogmatism of neoliberals makes them blind to the bankruptcy of their morality.

The effects of this dogmatism and moral bankruptcy are hugely damaging, for they result in an impoverished moral culture. Even if we accept that public institutions such as the NHS, or the welfare state, or the BBC, could be run more efficiently according to market principles (and according to narrow economic criteria they almost certainly could), this would nevertheless miss an important point about their existence. Throughout Titmuss’s work there was, as Collini explains, ‘a governing preoccupation…: the need for societies to give effective institutional expression to non-economic values in the face of the tiresomely corrosive power of the profit motive.’ It is this ‘institutional expression to non-economic values’ that matters so much—and it is this which will be lost as the Tories dismantle the welfare state and drastically cut back on public funding. The NHS may well be a bloated, inefficient organization, but its importance lies not only in the healthcare it provides but also in the values it represents: the belief that society should look after all its members, the idea that we are collectively responsible for looking after one another, the valuing of care over profit. When a museum or gallery allows free access, this is an important statement about the value of making heritage, art and education available to all. Even if charges did not lead to declining museum attendance (as the evidence indicates they do), by implementing those entrance charges we would nevertheless be replacing a non-economic value with an economic value. Profit and efficiency may be increased by such charging, but at the cost of abandoning the shared moral value that education and heritage should be universally accessible.

When the Tories talk about values, usually specifically ‘British’ values, conspicuously absent are such things as compassion, caring, and sharing. This is hardly surprising: neoliberals tend to be sceptical about these types of virtue, not because they don’t admire them but because they do not fit well with their narrow economic theories. For neoliberals, first and foremost should be a focus on free market principles; in so far as compassion, caring and sharing have a role, these will emerge naturally from the wonderful society that laissez-faire capitalism will create. But it may well be wondered what happens when a government consistently emphasizes economic virtues over moral virtues. If, for example, the message is consistently sent out that economic inefficiency is a more pressing concern than the damage caused by poverty, then society is likely to internalize this message—to value wealth and profit, and to devalue welfare and caring. A cynic might of course argue that such internalization of the profit motive at the expense of welfare is precisely the intention of the Tory neoliberals.

London Review of Books, vol. 37, no. 19, 8 October 2015, pp. 29-33.

Tory Totalitarian Daydreams

David Cameron’s response to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader was to tweet that ‘The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security.’ Other Tories have been filling the airwaves and the newspapers with similar dire warnings of just how much danger has suddenly descended upon Britain. I haven’t left my flat today to check, but I imagine that up and down the country supermarkets are scenes of mayhem as terrified people fight to load up on provisions in order to bunker down and survive this threat. On the other hand, my own economic security (and that of my family and most other people I know) has got so much worse since 2010 that there really isn’t much left to be destroyed.

The Russian Embassy tweeted a reply to Cameron: ‘Just imagine UK media headlines if Russian President called a leading opposition party threat to national security?’ Indeed. There would be lots of discussion about Putin’s totalitarian tendencies, about how such language is the first step to banning opposition. This is how totalitarian regimes, dictatorships and military juntas start out: opposition parties are labelled as threats to security, justifying their suppression.

I do not think that the Tories have a Macchiavellian plan to outlaw the Labour party, but it is interesting how ready they are to adopt the language of totalitarian aspiration. I suspect that Cameron and his party are genuinely appalled by the idea of one-party states and dictatorships (even if not by living examples of such states, with whom they are more than happy to do business); but I also suspect that they have such a deep sense of entitlement to power that the language of dictators comes to them naturally and without thinking. For how else does one explain a tweet as ridiculous as that of Cameron—and a tweet that in many other countries would be rightly regarded as sinister?

My guess is that, while Tories would not want to suppress Labour, they do like to daydream about hobbling the opposition in such a way that Britain does become in effect a one-party state. (And we’re all allowed our utopian fantasies, even if we wouldn’t base our tweets or media interviews on them.) Thus, some Tories have been talking gleefully about how the election of Corbyn presents the opportunity to destroy the Labour party, and the Left more generally, for good. One might have thought that politicians committed to the idea of democracy would welcome the spectrum of debate provided by a diverse opposition rather than attempt to shut down debate by raising absurd spectres of threatened security and openly hoping to wipe out an opposition party. But the Tories are not the most convincing democrats: yes, they fight elections, but they do so in ways that avoid any genuine democratic debate. In truth, the same thing could be said about all the main political parties, but the Tories, with their deeply rooted Establishment interests, have always believed themselves to be the natural party of power and hence the least sympathetic to a truly vigorous democracy.

So it has started: the Tories, and the Tory-dominated media, have begun their crude attack campaign on Corbyn. It will maximize hyperbolic rhetoric, it will play on fear, it will be unashamedly demagogic, and it will be tinged with nationalism. Labour will be portrayed at every opportunity as anti-British, anti-family, anti-work. There will be little attempt at any real debate and little that resembles a vibrant democracy in which ideas and policies are freely and openly exchanged and discussed. And, without any hint of irony, we’ll be reminded by the Tories and their media friends how fortunate we are to be living in the great ‘cradle of democracy’ that is Britain.

Thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn’s Leadership Victory

The future Prime Minister…

On General Election night earlier this year, as the political disaster was gradually unfolding, I had the bleak thought that Labour was finished as a party of the left. This year was the first time I had voted Labour since 1997. The party’s direction under Ed Miliband’s leadership hardly pointed to a leftist’s dreamland, but it did seem to signal a slight veering away from the rightward drift of the Blair and Brown years—enough, at least, to win my vote. But back in May I was convinced that the scale of the electoral defeat would prompt a more thoroughgoing lurch to the right than anything in previous Labour party history. The lesson I guessed that many in the Labour movement would take from the defeat was the need shamelessly to steal as many Tory clothes as possible. Initially, nothing about the subsequent leadership contest altered my prediction. Jeremy Corbyn got onto the ballot paper at the last minute, with minimal support and with the almost open acknowledgement that his participation was simply to ensure that an alternative voice was heard. I expected him to come a very distant last; Corbyn and his supporters probably expected the same. But then politics got as surprising and exciting as I’ve known it in my lifetime: Corbyn won by a huge margin, and the Left suddenly seems alive again as a mass movement with electoral possibilities.

Of course many will say (and are already saying) that Corbyn’s victory really will finish off the Left. His leadership, it is suggested, will turn out to be a disaster as the Labour party descends into internecine war and electoral oblivion. And that may indeed happen. Although Corbyn’s democratic mandate is comprehensive, and there can be no question about his legitimacy and popularity as leader, I imagine the internal party plotting against him has already begun—and there will be many who are resigned to biding their time and waiting for what they believe to be the inevitable implosion. And right now it is genuinely hard to see how a Corbyn-led Labour party can make any electoral inroads. His numbers in winning the Labour leadership are impressive, but those numbers are a fraction of the overall electorate. If the fairly tepid leftist manifesto of Miliband was rejected, often comprehensively, in seats that Labour should be winning, then the prospect of a more resoundingly left-wing programme gaining traction with voters seems remote.

But in fact I think there are grounds for optimism about Corbyn’s leadership—even about the possibility of Prime Minister Corbyn. This despite the gloomy predictions of politicians and commentators, even as early as the morning after Labour’s defeat in May, that Labour were finished as an electoral force until at least 2025. For many, even in the Labour movement itself, this is still the default view. Yet predictions in the immediate aftermath of what was without doubt an impressive Tory success and a traumatic Labour failure are hardly to be given much weight. The current government has been up and running for only four months and the road to the next election is a long one. Right now the Tories would win again, and easily, but I would hesitate to suggest the same might be said in four years’ time.

Consider how unimpressive the Tories are as a government, and how potentially disastrous are their policies. Their commitment to austerity is not only based on some highly dubious economic ideas, but even if successful in its own limited terms will almost certainly increase poverty and inequality (already among the highest levels in Europe). Inequality extends to many areas: protection for employers is being extended at the expense of employees; cuts to legal aid mean that equality before the law is gradually becoming a thing of the past; access to education, health and welfare will become increasingly hard for a growing proportion of the population. A programme with those outcomes is a risky venture; the Tory rationale of divide-and-rule can backfire if the divisions do not work out as they plan. The neo-liberal ideological commitment of the current government carries plenty of electoral risk. Tuition fees and student debt, already the highest in Europe, are likely to increase over the next four years; insecure housing and homelessness will rise; dependence on food banks and charity are likely to become an engrained feature of British society. The Tories seem set on dismantling the BBC; they may well dismantle the Union; they are likely to damage Britain’s relationship with the EU; and they seem enthusiastic for secret trials, overseas assassinations and backdoor routes into military conflict. None of this commands obvious popularity.

About the only satisfying aspect of this grim litany of the likely impact of the Tories on Britain is the realization that it could all go disastrously wrong for the Tories themselves. Just because the electorate narrowly voted for all this a few months ago (and with little enthusiasm one suspects—the Tory election campaign was the most resoundingly negative campaign I can ever remember, entirely based on attacks on Labour and fear-mongering about the SNP) does not mean that the electorate will accept the even more stark results of austerity that are likely to be apparent in four years’ time. A lot can happen in four years, and it might not take a great deal for the inequality, injustice and poverty that were just about acceptable to the third of the electorate who voted Conservative earlier this year to become increasingly unpalatable to the same voters in 2020. And that’s not even to factor in the possibility of crises such as Black Wednesday, the Credit Crunch, high political scandal, Middle Eastern wars or refugee crises that have the potential to derail any government.

Things could of course go badly wrong for Labour too, above all if the party looks inwards rather than outwards. There are interesting things going on in politics all over Europe that suggest some tectonic political shifts are happening: the emergence of Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain and the remarkable success of the SNP in Scotland point to a growing disenchantment with traditional politics. (Nor is this exclusive to the left: the Front National in France, the Danish People’s Party, Jobbik in Hungary, even the modest success of UKIP in Britain, Vlaams Belang in Belgium and Golden Dawn in Greece, indicate that disenchantment is having transformative effects on the Right too.) Corbyn’s campaign, which rapidly evolved into a movement, should be seen in this wider political context. The trick for Corbyn (and Labour), of course, will be to sustain the movement’s momentum and ultimately to broaden it further.

There is much talk about how Corbyn, for all his qualities, is simply not cut out to be a party leader, let alone a Prime Minister. Corbyn entered parliament in 1983, at around the same time that I became really interested in politics, and until this year I cannot recall anything in his career to suggest that he would want to be, or was suited to be, anything other than an often impressive, maverick, independent-minded backbencher and campaigner. I always had a lot of time for his politics and approach (and that is not me jumping on a bandwagon—I remember, for example, being impressed by his views on Northern Ireland back in the 1980s, or his consistent opposition to nuclear weapons, or his prominent role in the Stop the War coalition). But if anyone had suggested he would make a good party leader I would have thought that person mad. Yet now may actually be the ideal time for a leader such as Corbyn—in other words, a leader who embodies none of the traditional leadership traits. Corbyn lacks the PR polish of a Blair or a Cameron, but that may well be a surprising strength rather than a presumed weakness. His down-to-earth style based on principles and passion and his unconventional emergence from a career on the backbenches may contrast rather well with the schmoozing, back-scratching and back-stabbing, deal-making, spin- and style-obsessed path of political ambition that has traditionally forged Prime Ministers. As political movements reject traditional politics, so they are likely to reject traditional political leaders. Corbyn may well look rather good next to Cameron—and for all the Tory jubilation at Corbyn’s victory, there is a real possibility that the Conservatives will unwisely and complacently dismiss him as an opponent. Cameron and the Tory government may experience discomfort in the emergence of a type and style of politics with which they are unfamiliar.

Above all, Corbyn’s chances of success will depend on his policies. His greatest challenge will be taking the parliamentary Labour party with him—that is evidently the main danger to his leadership, and no doubt there will have to be considerable finesse in the way he combines his policy programme with his leadership of the opposition. That could well end up a mess. But if Corbyn can avoid trouble there, what I hope is that Labour sets out a clear, consistent and radical left-wing agenda from the outset. It is inevitable that Corbyn and his policies are going to take some huge hits from the Tories and the media—it will be brutal and fierce. But he’s got four years to make his arguments and win over the sceptics, and there is more chance of being successful in the long run if the message and arguments are consistent from the start. So, for example, it looks likely that the Tories will immediately begin hammering away at Corbyn’s views on nuclear weapons; much as they used the supposed threat from the SNP as an unsubtle bludgeon during the election campaign, so they will use the argument that Corbyn is ‘a danger to national security’ as a crude and sustained attack on Labour. This will probably resonate with the public in the short term. But if Corbyn, and more particularly the Labour party, remain firm in their position in the face of this, consistently and clearly pointing out the contradictions and fallacies of the Tory idea of ‘security’ and the strengths of their own position, then I see no reason why the argument cannot be won. It won’t be won quickly, and it won’t be won at all if Labour become flaky about their own position. And that applies to everything, from opposition to austerity, to policies promoting equality and social justice, to reducing tuition fees, to supporting the welfare state: there is a great opportunity to make a coherent, clear and persuasive argument for all these, but one that would be squandered if Labour become jittery in the face of the relentless Tory and media attacks.

How confident am I that Corbyn will become next Prime Minister? In all honesty, not very. Over the years I have seen how formidable the Tories—and their corporate and media allies—are at attaining electoral success. But for now I am delighted that British politics will have a clear party of the left—I think our politics and political culture will benefit from that, far more than it would from two main parties following broadly similar centre-right austerity programmes. And, as I’ve suggested, I do not think it impossible that over the next four years the political landscape will alter in ways that make a Corbyn victory at the 2020 general election a realistic possibility. At any rate, Labour will likely, and rather surprisingly, get one vote in 2020 that, without Corbyn, would otherwise have gone elsewhere. My election night assumption that Labour would lurch to the right was accompanied by the thought that it would become a party that I could never vote for again. Yet quite unexpectedly I may not only find myself voting Labour again but also, and for the first time since 1992, doing so with some enthusiasm.

On Swarms

220px-The_SwarmDavid Cameron recently described migrants as ‘a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean’. The context was events in Calais, otherwise known as the ‘Calais migrant crisis’, a ‘crisis’ that owes much to an inventive construction by media and politicians: the attempts by a few hundred desperate individuals to enter Britain has been turned into apocalyptic warnings of a ‘flood’, ‘migrant madness’ and an ‘invasion’. The Prime Minister’s own linguistic contribution to the issue has been condemned by the Refugee Council and others as ‘awful [and] dehumanising’.

The best defence of Cameron’s phrase is that it was an uncharacteristic ‘slip’. But there was no subsequent apology from the Prime Minister or his office, no acknowledgement that this was careless language he would now like to retract. It is more likely that his choice of words was deliberate. Cameron’s tendency to cloak himself in a few garments of the far right has developed into a habit. In particular, over Scotland, immigration and the EU he has not been shy to sprinkle among his more apparently rational pronouncements the scaremongering, divisive and xenophobic language and ideas normally associated only with extremists. It is, one can only assume, a deliberate but risky strategy to encroach on the ground of the far right as a matter of political and electoral calculation: an occasional raid on the far right may keep the extremists in his own party in check as well as adding a few more Tory voters to the cause. A strategy as fast and loose as this is bound to have unpredictable consequences. But feeding a few more hostilities between England and Scotland and between England and Europe, and prompting an increase in racist abuse and attacks, are probably deemed an acceptable price to pay for the wider political gains Cameron hopes to make.

deadly-swarmAnother defence of Cameron’s reference to ‘swarms’ is the attempt to suggest that criticism of the Prime Minister is simply contrived fuss over language that is innocently appropriate. This tactic is generally adopted not by professional commentators but by the anonymous keyboard warriors writing below the line on media articles; it’s the defence of the ‘I’m not racist but…’ brigade. Surely, they argue, ‘swarm’ is simply an objectively accurate description of the behaviour of these migrants. Swarming is an observable characteristic throughout the natural world: it is exhibited by numerous species of insect, bird, bat and fish, and applies merely to any dense, mass, aggregate behaviour. Set aside the fact that the primary dictionary definition of the noun ‘swarm’ refers explicitly to insects, and that the word is used only transfiguratively of any other type of multitude, then it might be supposed that to liken migrants to a swarm is to use language entirely neutrally. Are such commentators right? Or do they have an extremely dull and simple-minded conception of language? Or is this the disingenuous argument of the subtle racist?swarmed

In the early seventeenth century the migrant issue of the day was the prospect, upon the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England, of Scots seeking their fortune south of the border. The Scots were likened to a swarm—and the comparison was hardly a detached, neutral, objective observation. Mark Kishlansky relates how the ‘English élites feared “swarms of tawny Scots” who, locust-like, would devour office and wealth’ (Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603-1714 (London: Penguin, 1996), p. 78); the brilliant puritan author Lucy Hutchinson, wife of one of the regicides of Charles I, numbered among the ills that arrived in England with the accession of James I ‘the swarms of needy Scots the King had brought in to devour like locusts the plenty of this land’ (Hutchinson, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson (London: Everyman, 1995), p. 64). Indeed, the word ‘swarm’, whether applied of insects or humans is invariably used in a hostile, fearful, disparaging and negative way. In the Book of Exodus in the King James Bible God, through Moses, threatens Pharaoh with ‘swarms of flies’ (Exodus 8.21), and the Bible is replete with nightmarish visions of divine retribution taking the form of ‘swarms of locusts’. A ‘swarm of flies’ which descended upon London in 1675 was not met with equanimity but ‘wonder’—in the sense of something so removed from human experience that it elicits incomprehension—and ‘consternation’ (Relation of the most miraculous swarm of flies, 1675). A seventeenth-century mayor of London alarmingly described the prisons as full of ‘swarms of loose and idle vagrants’. In Macbeth, the treacherous rebellion of Macdonwald which begins the play grows from the way ‘The multiplying villainies of nature / Do swarm upon him’ (Macbeth, I.2).

black-swarmThe fear of swarms has provided an interesting sub-genre of horror movie that plays on the terror of killer bees, wasps, ants and other insects. Several films have ‘swarm’ in their title; not one of these films portrays the swarm in question as something to be embraced with stoic calm or affectionate interest. Irwin Allen’s 1978 killer-bee film The Swarm, starring Michael Caine and described by the Sunday Times as ‘simply the worst film ever made’, has a typical template: the swarm has to be stopped, the bees exterminated, since it’s kill or be killed. Deadly Swarm (2003), Swarmed (2005) and Black Swarm (2007) explore the same sophisticated ideas. In reality there have been occasional human deaths from killer bee attacks, although they are extremely rare. The bee colloquially termed as ‘killer’ resulted from American cross-breeding of European and African honey bees; interestingly the subspecies has been given the name ‘Africanized honey bee’ (not, of course, that we should imagine scientific nomenclature ever contributes to racially pejorative thinking and language…).

shark-swarm-posterThe right-wing media and politicians are not slow to point out the African origin of the Calais migrants (even if they have yet to describe them as ‘Africanized migrants’). That the Prime Minister should describe these migrants as a ‘swarm’ fits neatly with the broader agenda of de-individualization and dehumanization. When Katie Hopkins likened migrants to ‘cockroaches’, the similarity with the language of genocide-justification was obvious. (Hopkins has subsequently, and laughably, implied that her use of the term was a compliment—another example of the disingenuous faux-naiveté of the extreme right.) Cameron’s use of the term ‘swarm’ amounts to the same adoption of pro-genocide language. He may not want genocide, but he’s happy to stoke up a little genocidal emotion for his own political ends. Either that or he is a clumsy, thick-headed user of language. Historically and culturally swarming is distinctly non-human, alien behaviour; a swarm has almost always been something to be feared for its propensity to kill and devour; a swarm is something to be exterminated and can be done so with a clean conscience, since the constituents of a swarm are not individuals in any human sense. But my guess is that Cameron’s Eton and Oxford education has equipped him to understand the historical and cultural resonances of such language.

The ending of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), the apocalyptic nightmare evoked by all talk of ‘swarms’

‘Fear travels in packs’ states the poster for the 2008 film Shark Swarm. It is this natural fear of the swarm, which goes back to the locusts and flies of the Old Testament and which has become a cultural topos, that Cameron and the media want to play on. The nightmarish image they want to conjure up—however deliberately fanciful and without any grounding in reality it is—is not far removed from the conclusion of the greatest of all ‘swarm’ films, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Melanie Daniels and the Brenners, having barely survived the final attack by the swarm of birds, abandon their once-idyllic community which has now been completely taken over by the swarm. It is surely no coincidence that alongside their coverage of the events in Calais, and their eager description of it as a ‘migrant crisis’ demanding tough measures such as the use of the army, the media have also been devoting much space and comment to ‘killer gulls’ blighting Britain’s coastal towns and the need for a cull. The language of ‘swarms’, invasions and culls is attempting to prepare the ground for even nastier rhetoric, and its consequences, ahead. Cameron knows that and, even if he does not genuinely want it, he is cynically prepared to play with the nastiness.