On Nemesis

On September 12th, 2015, Anna and I drove for lunch to the home of some good friends. The journey took about an hour, and on the way we tuned in the radio; the winner of that year’s Labour leadership election was about to be announced.

By the time we arrived at our destination, our friends were genuinely excited; during Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable campaign throughout that summer, they had attended one of his many rallies and been both surprised and inspired by the sense of energy and enthusiasm he had been evoking everywhere he spoke. More or less their first words to us as we crossed their threshold were, “Isn’t it great?!” I felt like a terrible Eeyore when I replied, in what I imagine to have been something of a whine, “Is it, though?”

Corbyn was re-elected leader in 2016, of course; in 2017, he led the party to a dead-heat with Theresa May’s Conservatives, in what was widely seen not just among the party faithful as something of a personal triumph. His defeat to Boris Johnson in the 2019 General Election, however, was perhaps not the moment of his ultimate humiliation; that came on the day before Halloween 2020, when he was suspended from the party he had just months before led for questioning the findings of the EHRC’s report into Labour anti-semitism during his tenure.

I have spent much of the last five years suspended in precisely the uncomfortable position in which I found myself on that day in September 2015: not wishing to pour cold water on the phenomenon of Corbyn’s revitalisation of the left, and yet entirely unconvinced that its – geddit? – centre could hold. I wrote a little about this right here back in 2016. But the truth is that I have also spent more of the last five years than I might have imagined during that drive through the Oxfordshire countryside on trying to persuade people that anti-semitism not only exists, but does so in plain sight – and often dwells deeply in their own thinking. I could in fact link now to multiply recursive Facebook threads; but I won’t. Thank me later.

In Julia Neuberger’s useful formulation, “What marks out antisemitism from other forms of racism … [is] that Jews are to blame for everything, and are simultaneously useless and too powerful” (Antisemitism, p. 27). I’ve seen this time and again during Corbyn’s tenure (and will no doubt continue to do so); anti-semitism is so difficult precisely because it is so supple, so internally inconsistent. Similarly, the manner in which it came to be the principle objection to his leadership among Corbynism’s enemies on Labour’s right simultaneously emphasised it as a racism so toxic that the left would aggressively denounce it – but also rendered it a totemic dispute on which his supporters could not allow themselves to act. That Corbyn himself adopted this position – unable to act on antisemitism because he saw accusations of it not as an attack on antisemites but upon himself – was one of the defining tragedies of his leadership. Corbyn was perhaps the least ready for leadership of all the Campaign Group MPs who might otherwise have stood in 2015, had they not already done so in prior contests. But it would still have been so easy for him to act against antisemitism; yet still he would not.

Corbyn’s leadership was in this sense a Greek Tragedy, undone by its own weaknesses, its own peculiar forms of arrogance. In the original Greek, the name of the goddess of retribution, Nemesis, translates as “to give what is due”. When the greek poet Mesomedes wrote – in a hymn to the goddess composed during the second century AD – that she was the “winged balancer of life, dark-faced goddess, daughter of Justice”, I think he hit upon the essential unfairness of many of her retributions: she is of Justice, but at one remove from her; she is dark-faced, not bathed in the calm light of blind equity. Corbyn’s fate – and that of Corbynism – isn’t necessarily a just dessert for his actions (or, more appropriately, his inaction) on antisemitism; but it was almost crushingly predictable in a way that Aesychlus would have surely recognised, and it seems odd to me that so few of his supporters seem to have seen it coming – much less prepared themselves for it.

The followers of Q, too, are currently dumbfounded by the fates. In the Daily Beast last week, we read that, “Aside from perhaps Donald Trump himself, no one is struggling more with the president’s re-election defeat than QAnon conspiracy theorists.” If Trump was the leader of a uniquely just quest to bring to justice baby-eating Democrats and the Satanic Deep State, if The Storm was inevitable and every step towards it safely in Trump’s quasi-Arthurian hands, then how to parse defeat? The likelihood, of course, is schism and fragmentation – even in the face of Trump’s continuing insistence on questioning the results of the election and pretending as if he is will still be the legitimate Commander-in-Chief after January 20th. But the faithful must each make their own way through the wreckage.

The nemesis of the QAnon faithful was – as for the Corbynistas – brute reality. Trump supporters of all stripes had convinced themselves that their man was headed for a landslide victory. This was always unlikely – as indeed was the converse, with Democrats hoping to turn Texas blue (though doing the same in Georgia also remained beyond the hopes of self-appointed realists and yet has come to pass). Trump’s downfall was not that he lost huge numbers of votes – in fact, he gained them. American politics is today a close-run thing, a matter of a few percentage points here and there. In this sense, and beyond any fundamental objection to his politics, Trump’s strategy was poorly considered. He bet the farm on anger in an election which ultimately seems to have hinged on safety. During a global pandemic, this might have seemed an obvious direction in which the wind might blow; but Trump still made the wrong call, and his presidency is now all over bar the crying.

The COVID-19 pandemic was a unique check on Trump’s capacity to shape the world of those whose votes he wished to win. A would-be strongman who has inhabited, almost instinctively, the Surkovian style could not possibly flood the zone with enough shit to distract from the impact of a novel pathogen to which no one in the world has immunity. My unpopular opinion about the US election is that coronavirus enhanced Trump’s performance rather than stymied it: despite his inability to control it, he nevertheless adopted it as a wedge issue with which he could energise and revitalise the cultural divisions on which his 2016 candidacy thrived. Without that clear cultural marker of the facemask, it isn’t clear to me what similarly evocative purchase Trump might have had on his tribe’s imagination. In the final analysis, however, the pull of calm in a period of such turmoil was always going to be an unequal but opposite reaction to any culture-war strategy, and so it has proven.

Perhaps Trump felt he had no choice in the face of a pandemic that moved faster than his capacity to shift and pervert the media narrative, the Overton window of not just US but global politics. He may have missed a trick: he could at least have tried to sitting behind a cheap desk in a rose garde, lying shamefacedly to all-comers about a trip he’d made to a resort town in County Durham. This was certainly the option taken by Dominic Cummings, the senior advisor to “Britain Trump” Boris Johnson, when in the summer it was found he had broken his own government’s lockdown rules: he was checking his eyesight, his children needed the toilet, he had a right to interpret the guidelines. In an approach that has defined his entire career, the story he created to reach the goal he had adopted simply did not stack up, but he stuck by it regardless – and a supine PM supported him, at significant cost both to his political capital and the public health of the whole country.

Cummings, too, however, has now left the stage – preceded by a cardboard box. He is perhaps more guilty even than Trump of the crime of hubris, that unforgivable infraction which classically must be punished by Nemesis. At least Trump won an election under his own name; Cummings has never had the boldness to do the same, and yet has acted since the Tory victory that saw Jeremy Corbyn finally ejected from the Labour hotseat as if he, in fact, was PM. I’ve written before about the darkness of Cummings’ wry arrogance – the manner in which his fundamentally flawed analysis of that which ails us leads inexorably to deeply troubling, if also superficially trolling, solutions. It does not take a genius, as Chaminda Jaynetti has just now been pointing out on Twitter, to create, play to and then profit from public misconceptions. More or less anyone can tell lies and then leverage their effects. Cummings’ reputation was built on his willingness to act unethically, and to do so with rare relish for combat. But this approach, like Corbyn and Trump’s strategies before it, has a shelf-life, cannot survive the rubber hitting the road. As the deadline for a Brexit deal approaches, Cummings’ formula seems – for now at least – to have reached its particular use-by date.

Where politics is left at the end of November – especially in the light of news about the apparent efficacy of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine that is more positive than many had allowed themselves to hope – could not have been imagined at the start of October. After a period in which the Western democracies felt first shocked, then stunned into stillness by first the march of national populism and then the onset of a once-in-a-generation crisis, what Mesomedes called “the frivolous insolences of mortals” seem at least briefly checked, as if a splash of cold water has been applied to the face of the body politic. The wheel turns, and Nemesis sharpens her sword.

“Der kleine Mann mit einem Weltbild”: Benjamin, Sabisky and Irony

Walter Benjamin, in Frédéric Pajak’s “Uncertain Manifesto”.

Last year, one of my uncles sent me a racist screed via a private Facebook message. The first draft of this post quoted it in full, but ultimately I can’t bring myself to reproduce it. It was long – 528 words – and included every racial slur you might imagine, bemoaning nevertheless that, “when we announce our white pride, you call us racists.” It closed with an exhortation: “It has been estimated that ONLY 5% of those reaching this point in this message will pass it on.” The implication was clear: be proud; share hate.

When I challenged him to post this publicly – and suggested he had sent it privately precisely because he knew that to do so would be to court censure – he said that it was all a wind-up, a joke: he’d known I’d find the message disgusting and had chosen to tweak my nose. Lighten up! After all, it’s only a laugh.

The occasions are rare on which it is a useful response to such intellectual cowardice to quote Walter Benjamin, but I’m not always an effective interlocutor. I reminded my uncle that Benjamin had told us long ago, in 1921, that “the cult of the joke … has become an essential constitutive element in fascist propaganda.” Benjamin was a Jew, born in Berlin in 1892, and knew all too well how these things work. He committed suicide on the French border with Spain in 1940, as the Wehrmacht overtook him and cut off all hope of escape.

“Get a life,” my uncle told me.

All this has been brought to mind again – since to be honest I haven’t thought much of it since – by this week’s wranglings in Westminster over the writings of Andrew Sabisky. That a man like Sabisky can be hired by Her Majesty’s Government in 2020 is sign enough that something in Britain’s political culture has become profoundly dislocated; but, beyond that, it’s perhaps worth wondering why the usually canny opportunists who have capitalised on that dislocation – Dominic Cummings, Matthew Elliott, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson – left their critical faculties at home when deciding which of the 35,000 weirdos that responded to Cummings’ call for misfits at Number 10 they should hire. Why didn’t any of them stop to think that a man with links to the Dark Enlightenment movement might not be a wise appointment?

I’d suggest that it’s because the radical right have become reliant on, and almost inured to, a certain mode of speech. It’s possible, of course, that Sabisky’s was a dead-cat appointment: a deliberately provocative move designed to agitate the commentariat and distract from another sleight of hand yet to be detected. But if that is so, the hire was itself a joke – a jibe, a poke, a wind-up. Either it was designed this way – in which case we have demonstrated as true Benjamin’s analysis that a certain stripe of cruel humour offers the most effective means of communicating otherwise unthinkable thought – or it was an oversight born of a complacency around this falsely ironic form of discourse – in which case, ditto.

In this week’s timely BBC documentary on Holocaust denial,  David Baddiel trawled through the leaked style guide of neo-nazi website The Daily Stormer. “Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, non-ironic hatred,” it informs its writers. “The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. […] This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas [Jews, original slur omitted].”  The alt-right has mastered this form of self-reflexive communication. From 4chan to Richard Spencer, modern fascists play a game with their audience that Benjamin would have recognised on several levels: not just because they use the joke as a means of transmission for serious ideas, but because their mix of high and low culture, sincerity and irony, signified and signifier is intensely, counter-intuitively, post-modern.

Here’s what Andrew Sabisky said about the compulsory drugging of schoolchildren:

From a societal perspective the benefits of giving everyone modafinil once a week are probably worth a dead kid once a year.

Here’s what he wrote about forced sterilisation of benefits claimants:

One way to get around the problems of unplanned pregnancies creating a permanent underclass would be to legally enforce universal uptake of long-term contraception at the onset of puberty.

And here’s what he had to say on marital sex:

It ought to be obvious that her wifely duty ought to consist not just of letting you masturbate into her vagina but actively playing her part in building a fantastic sex life with you.

Sabisky is not as sophisticated a communicator as many on the radical right – despite his clear self-regard he has not mastered the art of irony. But in all three of these instances there are the exaggerations, the sillinesses, the informalities that the alt-right habitually employ to insert distance between their words and their beliefs: Sabisky’s wilfully bathetic “dead kid” signals, he would argue, a flippant thought experiment; the gross-out idiocy of “masturbate into her vagina” signposts a rhetorical flourish. The middle of those quotations is the most sober in its expression, but its use of the future conditional – that “would be” is doing a lot of work – positions Sabisky as a philosopher, and possibly a satirical one in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal.

That these markers offer a weak defence is less important than the fact that they offer space in which the author can manoeuvre if necessary. There is a cowardice in expressing oneself like this; but there is also a ruthless efficiency. From Israel to Ireland to the UK, we are not short of warnings that beliefs previously held to be on the extreme right of politics are increasingly mainstream. That even an attempt could be made to appoint Sabisky to Number 10 is perhaps sign enough that these commentators are onto something. Certainly, the adoption by Donald Trump of trolling – of owning the libs – as the primary tenor of his administration underlines the manner in which the “cult of the joke” boasts a powerful magnetism, a schadenfreude built on simplism.

Not only in America has this curiously hollow sort of victory proven so attractive to certain tribes. In last night’s Channel 4 Labour leadership debate, a woman from a mining community in Cannock became tearful when she reflected that her father would have been horrified that she voted Conservative in last year’s General Election. It was, of course, Brexit that led her to abandon every other principle in pursuit not so much of a single – and vague – policy prescription as a “joke’s on you” catharsis: “you lost, get over it.” In Britain, the radical right have in this way offered the Conservative Party a means of building, after decades in the wilderness, a governing coalition: nativism appropriately expressed is sufficient to unglue a section of the English from their actual interests. (This is not to argue that those interests have recently been served by either party; merely to suggest that they will certainly not be served by the panacea now on offer.) One hopes that its current leadership, unlike David Cameron’s – which offered people an EU referendum without any sense of what that might unleash – can control the consequences.

The runes do not read well. Sabisky was hired because his fellow travellers in government have grown used to irony’s inoculation against the attacks of the mainstream culture they deride . This usually reliable defence is afforded by the “cult of the joke” – PJ Masks and all that – but things can become unbalanced rather quickly. The sudden storm over, and rapid resignation of, Sabisky may have demonstrated this to Cummings on perhaps too small a scale for it to register; but in this case, the joke wasn’t funny enough to drown out the boos. Sometimes, though, it avowedly is. Irony – especially in the face of the earnest avatars of liberalism – remains a powerful vector for shifting the Overton window, and Benjamin knew this to his cost. That is, things can become unbalanced in the other direction, too.

The late Clive James, in his essay on Benjamin in Cultural Amnesia, had rather less sympathy with the critic’s work (“voodoo is all it is”) than for the conditions of his life: “[His] Reality was anti-Semitism. […] The better they did in every field of the arts, science, the professions and commerce the more they [the Jews] were resented. The more they fitted in the more they stood out.” Once this process begins, whether it commences in sincerity or not, it is hard to cease its unspooling.

On Being Bothered

Be careful what you wish for. For more than two decades, British voters lamented the similarity they perceived between the two major parties that jockeyed for government positions within their First Past The Post electoral system. From the rise of Tony Blair in 1994 until the Brexit vote in 2016, the “neoliberal consensus” dictated and defined the terms of political debate; the choice between the two options felt sterile and marginal. Conservatives felt cheated, their leaders championing gay marriage or wearing baseball caps at theme parks; the Labour faithful bemoaned PFI and City-friendly deregulation. If only – if only! – they said, there was a choice to be made.

The choice for many is now, it would seem, far too stark for comfort.

The 2019 General Election campaign has been a contest between a right-wing, sotto voce  nativist Tory party and a socialist, redistributionist Labour Party; between on the one hand Jeremy Corbyn, a champion of the left for decades and an anti-imperialist peacenik, and on the other Boris Johnson, the true heir to Churchill in his bullish British chauvinism. Where Labour seeks to radically alter the capitalist model under which it perceives voters to toil arduously and to little benefit, the Tories seek Shanghai-on-Thames, a free-trading buccaneer nation of carefully stratified worker-citizens. The Conservative Party has reoriented as the party of a certain part of a rump-England, ruddy and anti-metropolitan; the Labour Party as a fierce opponent of privilege and inequality of all kinds.

Or at least this is the narrative, the dividing lines that appear to have been drawn over a country far more confused and conditional than any of this. One writes country where in truth one means a set of countries, a collection of nations that breaks down with far more granularity than merely “England-n-Scotland”. By this I mean not the non-existent geographical divides of Brexit (to leave behind a further false narrative of a north-south or even class-based oppositionality as regards the EU issue), but rather the competing interests of regions voting more separately and disparately than they have perhaps ever before: the north-east sticking with Labour, the north-west flirting with Brexit, the Midlands with Conservatism. The centre cannot hold – but not in the way you think.

We live at a time of crisis; I am convinced radical shifts are necessary. But Labour’s manifesto is no more or less Leninist than a standard Scandinavian settlement; and Norwegians or Swedes are rarely characterised as firebrands. Likewise, so insipid is the Conservative manifesto that is difficult to brand the party as particular pro-active, or even especially right-wing at all. On either side, each says the other is hiding their true intentions; this may be so, but Michael Heseltine depicted Tony Blair with demon eyes and now both flirt with the Liberal Democrats. Sometimes political parties simply believe what they say they do. Johnson’s Conservative party likely will be confused on a policy level – nativist in some areas, authoritarian in others, emollient elsewhere; Corbyn’s Labour may put up taxes a bit and return utilities to public ownership, but is not going to abolish the army or destroy capitalism. The extremes have not, in fact, yet been reached. Only the limits of the mainstream have been stretched; that this comes as such a shock is evidence more of the withering of the British political consciousness than it is of any especially radical moment.

Nevertheless, what is different about this campaign is its tenor, its tone. The Conservative party, a study has found, has lied in 88% of its online ads; Labour not at all. That the country seems to be considering rewarding this sort of approach to political discourse – of a piece with its figurehead’s approach to truth throughout his journalistic career, but unprecedentedly corrosive of public trust, and in an echo of the Surkovian approach perhaps designed to be just that – really is a bad sign for our politics. The decades of having no choice has appeared to cheapen the idea of having one at all; that everyone is “just the same” has offered carte blanche to voters who simply wish to vote for whomever makes them feel better, regardless of the context. Punch-drunk from degradation, we go giggling into the sea.

The principle objection to any anti-Johnsonian attack is Jeremy Corbyn: he is a threat to our national way of life, to our security; a terrorist sympathiser, an anti-semite. Many of these accusations have more to do with his difficulty in guiding the electorate closer to  his policy perspectives than anything inherently wrong with his actual positions; but the last of these accusations has exercised me a good deal during the campaign and before it. Is it to ignore racism and accusations of it to argue that Jeremy Corbyn might still be the nation’s only hope in the face of a Prime Minister who cares little for what he does with power as long as he has it? Johnson is a figure who will say or sanction anything – avoid all scrutiny or blanket the airwaves with untruths as proves profitable – in order to hold on to an office which, as his own manifesto suggests, he and his party have little idea how to utilise. In this context, is it reasonable to hand-wave accusations of anti-semitism, or to dismiss them, or to accept them but hold them in balance with other considerations? Are any of those approaches defensible? Which is worst?

No one’s ethical choices are pure in the midst of what has been a dismal campaign. Labour’s failure to handle anti-semitism is certainly a sign of institutional incompetence; it may also be a sinister expression of something rotten at its head or heart. That this question is still be resolved to the satisfaction of many in the Jewish community and beyond is a serious issue for Corbynism, which struggles – in the face of daily attacks – to accept any criticism. But voting for Boris Johnson seems to guarantee not the Brexit for which many of his supporters seem myopic in their enthusiasm – that moment of national coming-together – but the speeding-up of a cultural turn in the country which insists on uniformity, on vapid conformity to a set of fictions we all know are lies but which we parrot either because they suit us or because not to do so is to court opprobrium. Perhaps defending Corbyn on anti-semitism is part of this movement; but the level of scrutiny to which Labour has rightly been subjected on the issue stands in stark contrast to the lack of interrogation that is permitted by Johnson’s Conservatives.

Few could describe the current Labour approach to anything – much less the establishment of pogroms – as ruthlessly strategic, and in fact in many ways they emerge from this campaign as a band of dogged pragmatists, of make-do-and-menders. In her recent book on anti-semitism, even Julia Neuberger – not one to compromise with prejudice and an eloquent critic of Labour’s reaction to antisemitism in its ranks – wrote, “there is antisemitism, but it is not like the 1930s.” She exhorts”people who are not Jewish [to] call out … shadowy views”; I have tried to do this in daily life, and, while other anti-Tories won’t face what they might find to be a Hobson’s choice, yet will vote Labour tomorrow.

The compatibility of these positions may be in question; but Boris Johnson has consistently acted with much greater cynical dissonance, elevating hypocrisy to the level of philosophy. Corbyn may oversee a creaking system reluctant to admit fault; Johnson speaks of letter boxes and “piccaninnies,” of hook noses and shadowy conspirators. Here is a man who at one point makes the queasily eugenicist argument that IQ quotas somehow tell us something about who in our society deserves reward; and at another presents himself as the champion of the working class against the marauding foreigner. Here is a man who says there will be no barriers for Northern Ireland, all the while working on a new Sykes-Picot line that will divide Ulster from Great Britain more surely than any border poll.

This Janus-faced strategy contrasts with Corbyn’s attempt to hold together the fractured coalition of Remain and Leave which constitutes not just his party but our whole polity. To reward it is to endorse cynicism. It is to beg for it to continue, to express a preference for the erosion of any semblance of communal feeling or understanding in favour of ever more segmented divisions. Johnson cannot say different things to different audiences unless he splits them apart from one another. To vote for this fragmentation is to say that any effort to unite us is doomed to failure; better to accept our divisions and leverage them. Many of those who may vote Tory tomorrow are not Johnson partisans; they will be making a choice, though one informed more by exhaustion than enthusiasm. We are tired as a nation; to build something new feels like hard work. To play in the ruins at least offers a barren kind of lenience, granted for time served. “Get Brexit done” offers a holiday from politics.

The Conservative anti-political offer, then, is a complete package: knowing fictions, impotent despair of ambition, derogation of duties. Hand it all over to Johnson, let him deal with it while he tells us another joke. The campaign hasn’t so much replaced a lack of choice with a stark one; it has offered the opportunity not to choose, to accept the inevitable, give in – as we did not in 2017 – to the Tory right to rule. If the country makes that choice, it will have confirmed the neoliberal consensus as not so much challenged -either by populist nationalism or resurgent leftism – as in place. There will have been seen to be no alternative, even to lies.

Johnson’s increasingly haggard face looks at you, and asks: can you really be bothered anymore? Behind him, the deckchairs are arranged for you. The loudspeakers burble about another meaningless story, a fiction that will pass. The ship is slowly sinking. It’s been a long time like this. Can you really be bothered anymore?

Can you?

On The Prorogation of Parliament

He knew.

What is Brexit? It is, primarily, a blame game.

During the 2016 referendum campaign, those supporting Brexit laid the blame for an endless list of apparent humiliations squarely and often solely on the EU. The decline of industry in the UK, the neoliberal consensus, the left-wing hegemony, unacceptable levels of immigration, the changing shape of bananas, the relative poverty of fish stocks, the lack of funding for public services – no ill from any angle was not by someone at some time linked with our membership of the European Union.

Since then – since the morning after the referendum, when a pallid Boris Johnson attempted at a Vote Leave lectern desperately to hide his own terror at what he had wrought – the blame game has shifted: now, it is about why Brexit is or isn’t happening. For Remainers, Leavers lie; for Leavers, Remainers obstruct. Those who championed Brexit, like the current PM, cannot admit the challenges they now face in enacting it; those who opposed it cannot acknowledge the deep difficulties of obstructing it. This is why both sides are keen to place the blame for Brexit’s failure – for on its own terms it has already failed, having proven harder and trickier, and more damaging to British prestige abroad, than anyone save the most mocked Cassandras argued in 2016 – on the other. Too extreme, they shout at their opponents. Not I, they respond in unison. Deliberation is lost in the noise – more or less as the hard right’s most committed vandals might have hoped.

For what is politics? It is, ultimately, a conversation.

This dialogue is never-ending and irresolvable. Politics is not, fundamentally, about getting things done; it is about deciding on what to do (meanwhile, mere administration gets things done – until such time as politics changes its mind). Politics breaks down when talking turns to shouting. What Brexit has achieved is the rare – and dangerous – trick of crowding out all other topics of discussion, all other purposes of exchange, all pretence at courtesy. In part because the EU was made a lightning rod for every ill we face, Brexit has become the fierce focus of our political conversation, and in this way it has come to seem to many that it is the conversation that is the problem. Just get it done. Whatever “it” is, just do it.

Thus we arrive at today’s prorogation of Parliament, which achieves the cessation of troublesome chat. Oliver Cromwell’s pendulum-like reputation has swung again towards national hero: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you.” On dissolving the Rump Parliament, Cromwell ruled as a dictator until his death. The problem, of course, is that politics is by its nature procedural rather than instrumental; to do away with dialogue is to do away with politics – and replace it with fiat. This in turn stores up further tumult, as Cromwell’s predecessor in extra-parliamentary rule, Charles I, found to his cost.

Parliament isn’t the only place where British politics happens, of course; but it is, like it or not, where the conversation has teeth. Without the House of Commons, all the talk is mere ineffectual noise. The last week is evidence enough of why Johnson’s government has been tempted to prorogue: in the Commons, politics happens – and it has effects. In just a few days of sitting, Parliament has ensured that the government has the legal nightmare of the Benn Bill to deal with – itself an expression of the majority in the country who are against leaving the EU without a deal (a goal for which I’m not convinced Johnson – as distinct from Dominic Cumings – truly aims). Tonight’s extraordinary votes in the Commons – which seek to extract private correspondence from government employees and rather pyrrhically demand it adhere to the law – may in some ways be unwise; but they are responses in turn to an unwise stimulus. This sort of spiral is how states unravel.

The UK has no inalienable right to exist; Scotland comes closer to independence each day; there are riots in Glasgow in favour a unified Ireland. It is not hyperbole, then, to say that the country as it is currently constituted may indeed unravel. But the potential consequences of switching from deliberative to demotic governance are wider than these simple statements of current fact, and do indeed veer into the realms of what might a year ago have been panicked speculation. The electorate were told a decision was simple; it has proven far more difficult than that. The state now strains to contain the consequences.

What is, after all, a state? It is an imagined community.

That definition of Benedict Anderson’s rightly rests on human ingenuity. Countries, states, systems, conventions, rules, constitutions, policies and parliaments only exist because we agree to pretend they do. We agree to work together to ensure they exist. What, at this moment, do the inhabitants of this community imagine together? We hear much today about the will of the people, and of course the result of the referendum must be reckoned with. But the current blame game, the current silencing of the conversation around it, does not seek to reckon with anything – it seeks to gloss over the deep questions asked by Brexit and pretends to provide a simple answer. In one way or another, this will not hold.

In her Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, Isabel Hardman argues that MPs “want to be popular and on the pulse, but don’t want to do what their constituents have sent them to Westminster to do, which is to make difficult decisions.” This brings us back to the frustration of politics-as-conversation. The original sin of David Cameron’s Brexit referendum was that it attempted to make binary and straight-forward a difficult decision. It had long proven unpopular to argue thus, and so Cameron sought instead to court popularity through simplicity.

Simplism is, though, the natural tenor of demagoguery. Cameron has lived a charmed life, and approached questions of public policy with insouciance. The ferocity of the forces he would unleash were perhaps invisible to him. But this is no excuse. It is a commonplace that demagoguery finds in simplism a scapegoat – a succession of scapegoats – and purses each of them with uncontainable fury. Cameron’s government opened the space in which this vocabulary, and those who have chosen to deploy it, could not just take hold of our politics … but today, at least temporarily, silence it.

On The Triumph of Boris Johnson

In the November of 2007, I spent a few days in the Ladbroke Grove home of some friends. Both worked in the law. One had been state-educated, the other privately; both had been to university; each had just embarked on a career in one of the unimpeachable professions.

We were sitting in a pub of the sort that had just achieved modishness: sleek Victoriana, dark tones, smooth chalkboards displaying carefully printed copperplate specials. The conversation turned to the following year’s mayoral contest: Ken Livingstone was standing for re-election, and Boris Johnson had recently been named the Conservative Party’s candidate.

“I think we’ll vote Boris,” one said. “Yeah,” agreed the other.”He’s funny!”

I lost touch with this pair. But I wonder whether they’re laughing now.

*

In a New York Review of Books piece that has been getting a lot of traction on Twitter in the last few days, Fintan O’Toole pays serious attention to the role that humour has played in the rise of Boris Johnson: “his very weakness of character (the chaos, the fecklessness, the mendacity) provides for his admirers a patriotically heartening proof that the true English spirit has not yet been chewed up in the homogenizing maw of a humorless and excessively organized EU.” In other words, Boris was never “just” funny: the mood of his joking was pregnant with political purpose; he made people laugh because they recognised, in the contrast between his own studied carelessness and the sobriety of the established political codes against which he was even then ranged, a sort of authenticity.

The Johnsonian style is an end-of-the-pier patriotism, an ostentatiously ironic jingoism that appeals both to the sort of alt-right radicals who choose to see through the half-smiles … and the comfortable, middle-class professionals, often younger, who indulge in what the sociologists of contemporary class politics Annick Preur and Mike Savage have called “knowingness.” A facility with codes – he didn’t mean that, even though he said it – has been a breezy hallmark of sophistication for some time now. The joke is a means of distancing oneself from one’s message: if you only say something for a lark, nothing can stick. This is why Walter Benjamin wrote that “the cult de la blague … has become an essential constitutive element in fascist propaganda.” When is a joke not a joke? When it’s a strategy.

What, then, is the goal of the strategy? For Boris Johnson, it has always been power – to square the circle of appealing both to the Tory faithful and the Labour-leaning bourgeoisie, he adopted the role of joker-in-chief. Famously, he failed to win election to the presidency of the Oxford Union on his first attempt; for his second, successful, run, he hid his class privilege and fixed Toryism beneath a blanket of bonhomie. In 2016, this wilful irresponsibility inevitably fused with the similarly reckless cause of Brexit.

*

Fintan O’Toole has also written a book about Brexit. In Heroic Failure, he writes that, “Brexit is about many things, but one of them is the feeling that there is a much larger rot to stop, a natural order of things that is being eroded by feminism, multiculturalism, immigration, globalisation and Islam.” This instinctive sense of loss, this saudade, is not only a British phenomenon – it is, particularly in the developed world, an endemic meme. And in the last decade it has been harnessed, amplified and encouraged by innumerable actors.

That process of cultivation has been instrumental in, if not creating, then certainly codifying the so-called populism that currently moves through the liberal democracies. The important question about Brexit in particular, then, isn’t whether it can be done – it can, depending on your tolerance or enthusiasm for the consequences. It isn’t even if it’s a good idea – as a rule, the virtue of ideas in a democracy is less important than their capacity to corral together a majority. The important question is why. Only from there can we proceed productively.

In the summer of 2012, Anna and I attended a child’s birthday party. It was glorious weather, and we sat in a garden on plastic chairs, eating cake and watching a small person play with toys. His grandmother, whom I’d known since I was a child, was chatting to me about nothing: the weather, the roads, the television. Then she said something which struck me as merely wrong at first, but which later I realised was also significant. “I only watch Russia Today for news now,” she told me. “It’s the only place you can go to find out the truth.”

This was before even the channel’s transparent rebrand to the slightly-less-blatant RT. In 2012, here was a channel not so much partial as explicitly polemical. There was in those days no hiding the provenance of the information spat out by the presenters foolish or knavish enough to choose to work for Putin’s personal propagandists. My interlocutor was strongly Christian, but other than the fierceness of those beliefs she was the sort of woman you could meet any day on any street anywhere in Britain. What was it about these twenty-first-century Lord Haw-Haws that appealed to her?

Identity, of course. “A humiliated group seeking restitution of its dignity,” writes Francis Fukuyama in his recent book on this topic, “carries far more emotional weight than people pursuing their economic advantage.” One of the most astute observations made in the course of the 2016 referendum campaign which has – windingly, slowly – brought Boris Johnson to his lifetime goal of 10 Downing Street was, in fact, made by the man with whom Donald Trump hopes Johnson will soon work: Nigel Farage. When daily George Osborne filled the newspapers with the percentage impacts on GDP, on food prices, on inward investment of leaving the EU, Farage simply shrugged. Some things matter more to people, he said on national television. He meant their identity. It is easy to create a humiliated group if they feel their sense of self is in question.

“The idea that states are obsolete and should be superseded by international bodies is flawed,” Fukuyama – a man who in the 1990s believed we had reached a new consensus, a stable status quo – writes in Identity. The false move of the last half-century has been to invest the values of progress and justice exclusively in global institutions, without mirroring these clearly within national boundaries. In a recent Panorama presented by Nick Robinson, each of his interviews with EU officials – Michel Barnier, Martin Selmayr, Frans Timmermans – was decorated with the ephemera of banal nationalism, most notably a cushion with the EU flag on it. In the absence of an underlying enthusiasm for these reminders of European unity, however, EU pens and mugs are experienced by many as an imposition, as essentially alien – as an invasion, whatever the virtue of the message. To the mindset that is willing to believe in Russia Today more readily than they might the BBC, an EU cushion is not a token of trust.

The alternative has been provided. Since its rejection during the presidency of George W Bush, Putin’s Russia has recast itself as the champion of ‘conservative’ values: family, tradition, the nation state. The irony, of course, is that these values, in being held in opposition to the liberal democracies that unwisely refused Russia entry into the structures of global governance, have now been formulated in such a way as to undermine those self-same nation states. Nationalists garland Trumpism or Brexit even as these visions place untold stress on the structures of the states they purport to defend. Today, a certain stripe of conservative views themself as the true radical: I believe Russia Today, they might say, because I see through the lies of a calcified establishment – and I arm myself with the alternative knowledges I need to defeat it. This is the urge at the heart of Brexit. The architect of the Vote Leave victory, and Boris Johnson’s new senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, has quoted Bismarck:“If revolution there is to be, better to undertake it than undergo it.”

*

Around this time last year, I was a passenger in a septuagenarian’s car, driving home from a day-trip to Buxton. Two years earlier, they had assured me that their vote for Brexit had been unselfish: they had voted to leave the European Union because they thought it was not just best for the country … but for me and Anna. They believed that the UK would be more successful outside of the EU, and that this would benefit their younger compatriots directly.

Since that blissful dawn, of course, the Brexit negotiations had demonstrated the impossibility of delivering a seamless Brexit. Something would have to give, some compromise would need to be made. The compromise for our companions, it turns out, was us: there would, after all, be some suffering – perhaps years of it. But as long as we achieved something called national sovereignty, that’s what really mattered. Of course, they rejected Theresa May’s deal, at that point still known as “Chequers” – a sneering sobriquet redolent of a contempt for the privilege of the governing class.

Brexit is a consequence of this slow process, by which anti-politics has been expressed in increasingly obstreperous ways, first reform then leave then no-deal. Each successive iteration has for years been met by the supposedly detached ruling class with dialogue and co-option – Theresa May’s ‘Go Home’ trucks, Ed Miliband’s ‘Controls on Immigration’ mugs. Each demand, once met, has given way to a marginally more demanding, subtly more aggressive, form of the same complaint. When, in the noughties, the BBC took to inviting Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage onto programmes such as Question Time, it did so using the defence that to debate issues was to neutralise the most unpleasant. The best disinfectant, the argument went, was rhetorical sunlight. How has that gone?

In his The New Faces of Fascism, Enzo Traverso argues persuasively that “anti-politics is the result of the hollowing-out of politics.” That is, when the public sphere seems to significant numbers of those acting within it atrophied, they will adopt increasingly oppositional positions. It follows, then, that the solution is not to debate those positions, but to revivify the political culture whose withering has led to the proliferation of disaffection.

Influenced by the ructions of the ideological 1970s, the managerialism of the 1990s feared the sort of political culture it urgently needed to nurture. It preferred, in its place, a narrowed space that focused on “efficiency” and “delivery.” In the neoliberal form this new technocracy took following the 1980s, the goals that leaders such as Tony Blair set themselves resulted in the transfer of vast tranches of wealth to an increasingly tiny elite; the austerity of the Cameron years – itself a purely political response to the 2008 banking crisis, which had the sole aim of laying the blame for an international financial collapse on the British Labour Party – only exacerbated this shift. In the US, meanwhile, fewer than 400 families supplied almost half the money raised by presidential candidates up to 2015. This is the hollowing-out of politics in action. The result is a strain of anti-politics ripe for exploitation.

What the anti-political want to be true is that there is a way to – yes – take back control. In the absence of levels to pull or buttons to push, they merely grind away at their masters. Anything, including mere financial well-being, seems worth sacrificing in order to achieve their destruction. One means of asserting control, of course, is to shape reality. This includes identity and politics, both of which are to one extent or another about self-perception. If control is about imposing your understanding of the world upon it, however unwilling the world or ill-fitting your understanding might be, then he who asserts most loudly, most brazenly, will be rewarded – perhaps the more egregious and obvious his absurdity, the more control he is visibly trying to stamp upon the unyielding matter of a reality that has got so far away from us.

In this context, the conservative radicals are through Johnson now taking their turn at the wheel: Dominic Raab at the Foreign Office, Priti Patel as Home Secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg as Leader of the House of Commons. They will say they seek restitution of national sovereignty; their project, of course, is different – to end at last neoliberalism’s managerialist moment (which many of them believe to have been a sort of stealth leftism) … and re-embrace creative destruction. Their failure would open up another space for a different kind of political revivification – one in which we might actively create inclusive identities and sustainable societies that deliver not just efficiency but a new kind of shared pride, one we might take in mutual care. Either way, surely the old order – the political culture at which in the last decade we were encouraged first to laugh, then sneer, and finally lob dynamite – is gone.

And what of our new PM, the man who in a West London pub during the days before Northern Rock was such a figure of no-risk fun? “The British have long held a liking for rapscallions,” Tom Crewe wrote in the LRB back in June. “After all, there’s a sort of authority about a man who lies straight to your face.” Oh, Boris – he’s such a card, such a breath of fresh air. And yet a few months earlier, in April, Crewe’s colleague Jonathan Parry had suggested that, “politics is a matter of the patient and careful handling of awkward issues by means of continuous compromise.” Both of these things can be true at once, in the circumstances we have now reached, after a decade of crisis and mismanagement. But, like hypergolic compounds, they cannot co-exist for long. Boris Johnson isn’t funny; he has become Britain’s ragnarok personified. We’re all revolutionaries now.

On Political Obstinacy

Not gonna!

There’s an arresting moment in Bob Woodward’s book about the first few years of the Trump White House, Fear: Gary Cohn, the President’s Director of the National Economic Council, is briefing Trump about the shape of the American economy. Cohn and his fellow senior advisors have each found themselves spending a lot of their time with Trump on what they consider to be “the basics”. This time, Cohn is trying to explain the way in which the American economy is now heavily based on services:

“Who’s your one retailer in the Trump Tower?” [he asked.]

“Starbucks,” Trump replied. “And a restaurant in the basement. Oh, and two more restaurants in the basement.

“Exactly,” Cohn said. “So your retail space today is services.” [p. 136]

This appeal to Trump’s own personal and financial experience does not bear fruit: the President continues to insist that the people who voted for him in Ohio or Pennsylvania or West Virginia want their manufacturing jobs back, and that it would be a virtue of his administration were it to oblige. From Cohn’s perspective, this is madness: “there were towns 100 years ago that made horse carriages and buggy whips. […] They had to reinvent themselves,” he pleads [p. 137]. Still Trump will not budge. Cohn digs out data that demonstrates the majority of job leavers are found in the manufacturing sector – and that they want to move into services jobs which are perceived to be less arduous. Again, Trump restates his insistence on the need for mining and assembly lines, coal and cars. Cohn breaks:

“Why do you have these views?”

“I just do,” Trump replied. “I’ve had these views for thirty years.” [p. 138]

In this moment, it’s possibe to perceive the centrality in our contemporary politics of a sort of faith. Trump is speaking not just for himself but for many others when he simply shrugs that he has the opinions he has because he has them. The man who rails most vociferously against fake news is, perhaps without knowing, here diagnosing why it is so prevalent and potent: because people want to believe.

The breakdown of consensus is not unique to our era. The developed world’s agreed set of assumptions and rules last collapsed in the late 1970s, and, in the Anglo-American sphere at least, was reconstituted after a period of great conflict in the shape of Thatcher and Reagan’s neoliberal trickle-down economics. There is a reason that Thatcher thought her greatest legacy to be Tony Blair: he was evidence that she had created a new political faith through which, just as Eden’s Conservatives accepted the welfare state of the Attlee government, the Labour Party of the 1990s accepted the gospel according to Milton Friedman.

The problem with faith of any kind is that, held too blindly, it can lead to a sort of obstinacy. Faced with the 2008 banking crisis, George Osborne committed whole-scale to neoliberal austerity, in the teeth of ample evidence that such a policy prescription contributed to, rather than helped resolve, the sluggishness of post-crash economies. China chose a huge programme of state investment, and its economy continued to grow; but in Europe the most obvious object lesson in austerity’s self-defeating obstinacy was found in Greece, a country which underwent punitive reforms at the hands of the Troika. All that pain indeed had little effect: according to a recent report from the Centre of Economic Policy Research, “It is [still] hard to avoid the conclusion that any solution to the Greek debt crisis that does not fall on the shoulders of taxpayers several generations removed will require conditional face-value debt relief.”

Greece, of course, exhibited its own form of obstinacy, voting “Oxi”in 2015 to its creditors’ latest set of swingeing conditions. That the Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, ultimately ignored the result of the vote and accepted the Troika’s terms can be seen in at least two ways: as a pragmatic, even honourable, acceptance of a reality that would, if denied, have hurt his countrymen more even than it hurt his own political career; or as a craven capitulation to the anti-democratic cabal of the European Union, which Greece came so close to leaving.

The notion of Grexit, of course, birthed the reality of Brexit, amidst the maesltrom of which Theresa May is straining every sinew to avoid following Tsipras in her approach to plebiscites. In so doing, she can only state and restate, after every set-back and rebuff, her commitment to honouring the referendum, to ending free movement and to finding a deal. Events – such as suffering the worst government defeat ever recorded in the history of the mother of Parliaments – insist she give ground, but, as a matter of disposition more than calculation, she cannot. Most obviously, this cognitive dissonance can be observed in her offer, following her narrow victory in last week’s no confidence motion in the Commons, that she and her government would engage in dialogue with the leaders of the other political parties. Despite this apparently conciliatory form of words, she spent the next week pursuing the same strategy – tinkering with the so-called Irish backstop and winning the support of the European Research Group – that had led her to the point of losing the support of the Commons in the first place.

Jeremy Corbyn, too, demonstrated obstinacy in the same moment. Unlike the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, he refused to meet with the Prime Minister until such as time as she “took No Deal off the table”. He has, perhaps, been vindicated by events – there was no dialogue to be had with the PM, as even Corbyn’s foes within the Labour Party, such as Hilary Benn, now admit. Indeed, and as Nick Clegg will attest, a lack of obstinacy in politics – an over-readiness to engage with one’s political foes – is, however noble or apparently yearned for by the electorate, very far from a virtue. Corbyn owes his position at the apex of the Labour Party to an apparent authenticity borne of never having changed his mind about anything. (The unstoppable force of Brexit, of course, is forcing him to move more than he ever has – though he gives every inch grudgingly.) Stubbornness can be seen from some perspectives simply as consistency. If one believes in one’s principles, why would one compromise on them?

Run, Achilles, run!

That word again, belief. We have moved, in the collapse of the old consensus, from a period of anonymous technocracy to one of passionate intensity. The truth about Brexit, however, is that at some point its purity as a concept must collide with reality. Likewise, erstwhile Remainers – whether appealing for a “People’s Vote” or an extension of Article 50 – at times seem to be raging against the dying of the light. MPs like Caroline Flint, who campaigned with vigour for Remain but now push for a deal at any costs with equal energy, are making a virtue of their flexibility – and in terms of practical politics there is much to commend their position. Where, after all, will faith in our democracy be if Remainers, like Tsipras, get their way?

The problem with meeting your enemy halfway, however, is that they may not move at all … and the mid-point between you and them will consequently move closer and closer to their position. This is how the UK has found itself so close to No Deal: that strategy of May’s, to retain the unity of the world’s oldest political party by assuaging the ERG, works only if Jacob Rees-Mogg is willing also to concede ground. If he is not, then May becomes Achilles to Xeno’s turtle, endlessly seeking to overtake her quarry but only ever getting closer to their position.

In other words, Rees-Mogg’s obstinacy delivers him political dividends. Stubbornness is not without its benefits. There is, however, an absence in the gaps between the political poles at which May, Corbyn and Rees-Mogg sit: a communal space in which the common good is held and can be reached. Obstinacy insists on immovability, and on the mountain moving towards Mohammed. But this assumes politics to be a zero-sum game, in which the purpose is to achieve one’s own ends at any cost; obstinacy is certainly one means of achieving this total victory, but it is in so doing fundamentally selfish. In the defence of our current actors, the two-party system, in both the UK and the US, encourages this kind of exclusivity, and casts the pursuit of compromise as a grubby exercise. The electorate in both countries routinely bemoans the lack of bipartisan action amongst their politicians; but they have also traditionally and simultaneously complained that there is little difference between the two.

They do so less now than formerly, of course – because, on both sides of the Atlantic, parties of whatever stripe are defaulting to obstinacy in order to stay close to, or mask the truth or the weaknesses of, their convictions. This is digging trenches rather than building bridges … and the no man’s land between the two sides is being shelled for all to see.

On Political Impasse

“Friendship hath the skill and observation of the best physician, the diligence and vigilance of the best nurse, and the tenderness and patience of the best mother.” Edward Hyde, MP for Saltash in the Long Parliament (elected 1640).

Edward Hyde in 1626.

In the summer of 1640, no fewer than two Parliaments received their summons from the Crown. The first was dissolved after three weeks; the members of the second were only formally relieved of their duties twenty years later, on the eve of the Restoration. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the very different fates of these two parliaments proceeded from the same fundamental problem: across the preceding half-century new pressures had emerged within the polity that the existing constitutional settlement could not contain.

The UK’s current situation resembles nothing so much as the mid-seventeenth century. On today’s Politics Live, the excellent Peter Hennessey described the European issue as “particularly fissile” – because it refracts so variously through different people’s sense of patriotism. We are not good at understanding others’ definitions of the patriotic. This, too, was the issue in the 1640s: for Charles, patriotism was owed primarily to the Crown, as the unanswerably supreme source of power and authority in the kingdom; for Parliamentarians like John Pym, patriotism was linked indivisibly with defence of the ancient constitution and the rights of the Commons; for others, such as the MP for Saltash, Edward Hyde – who began as a critic of the King but later, at the Restoration, was appointed by the monarch Earl of Clarendon – patriotism was about achieving consensus and compromise, and therefore protecting the commonwealth from conflict. The tragedy of the time was that the latter was impossible.

Last night, the Prisons Minister, Rory Stewart, tweeted on the subject of the decision by Her Majesty’s Opposition to seek the government’s collapse: “A no confidence vote solves nothing – we need consensus not party politics.” The issue, of course, is that the current government has proven incapable of achieving that consensus – and the Conservative Party from which it is constituted refuses to take the drastic action necessary to rectify this situation, for fear of its own fate. Many Tories calculate, of course, that a Corbyn government would be a disaster for the country – and so they rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of. Most do so in pursuit of what they have assessed to be the interests of the polity – their opponents likewise. The problem with patriotism is that it is one of the few things more mutable than the British constitution itself – and that makes it a very poor yardstick by which to measure the wisdom of policy. The Edward Hydes of 2019, then, find themselves in similarly hopeless isolation.

The Long Parliament ultimately entered into war with the Crown. We are at this stage – surely – far from civil war. We are, however, deep into the kind of political chaos which the England of the 1640s would have recognised. Partisans of every stripe publish pamphlets and proclamations; groups split and splinter with alarming alacrity; both utopian and millenarian visions of potential futures proliferate daily in the cheap press. The great student of these factions, the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, argued that, in the brief period of political freedom inaugurated by the vacuum that had suddenly appeared at the heart of the constitution, “the lower orders could [now] collect together and discuss whatever they liked, with no control from above at all.”

In 2016, David Cameron explained in a speech to Chatham House, that he would hold a referendum on EU membership in which “it will be your decision whether we remain in the EU […] Nobody else’s. Not politicians’, not parliament’s, not lobby group’s, not mine.” In doing so, he made a mistake even Charles I, famously ill-suited to power, did not: under his stewardship, the British Isles fell into political chaos as a matter of design rather than accident.

Not Charles I.

Charles at least tried to force the constitutional settlement with which he was saddled to cohere; Cameron happily promised a type of referendum that actively ate away at his own. An In/Out referendum was always an absurdly stark choice, and the last two years have demonstrated just how foolish it was to commit simply to leaving the EU upon command. Given the complexities of the legal and political frameworks involved, “Leave” was always a contingent instruction, a direction but not a route. John Pym could not unravel royal prerogative without recourse to war; Theresa May has been unable to exit the EU without plunging the country she nominally seeks to emancipate into its deepest constitutional crisis in centuries.

There is, of course, a conspiracy theory: that our political class, like Charles’s ill-fated advisors, Strafford and Laud, wishes only to have its way – and will seek to ride roughshod over any who attempt to stymie its will. In this vision, the Government could leave the EU tomorrow if it wished, and the Commons should vote against its instincts in an effort to honour the result of Cameron’s half-baked referendum. This paranoia is nothing new, and represents the long-standing wedge between the governed and the governors which acts for us in a similar way to that in which the increasing insufficiency of Tudor methods of revenue generation to meet the demands of Stuart expenditure and statecraft acted for our early modern ancestors.

In her Why We Get The Wrong Politicians (2018), Isabel Hardman attempts to identify the ways in which we might heal “this endless hostility to MPs” (p. 171). Her prescription is based on the analysis that we don’t so much get the wrong politicians as we have inherited and maintained the wrong political culture: “far more insidious [than conspiracy] is the way [that even] politicians try to seem different to their colleagues by disparaging politics itself” (p. 211). The former soldier and backbench Tory MP Johnny Mercer is a good example of this breed, and they do not help. What, ultimately, is the solution to apparently insoluble questions? How do we as a nation change a general direction into a specific route? Politics. There is no other mechanism of conversing as a community.

“We are divided because we are stuck as much as we are stuck because we are divided,” writes David Runciman in the most recent issue of the London Review of Books. This gets pithily to the heart of things, and Runciman like Hardman sees political (note: not necessarily constitutional) reform as the only long-term means out of our current bind. There are currently no good outcomes open to us: a disorderly, or No Deal, Brexit would be disastrously chaotic; overturning the 2016 referendum and remaining in the EU seems, well, cavalier in its subordination of the popular will to Parliament; a second referendum would be improbably fractious; a general election would simply roll the dice on the current parliamentary maths, and if polls are anything to go by would deliver nothing like a commanding enough majority for any party to push through a deal with any more success than May’s minority government has enjoyed. We have reached this impasse for reasons much wider than Brexit – the inadequacy of our political parties as currently constituted, the weakness of our legislature in comparison to the executive, the absence of reliable and consistent subsidiarity. Brexit will solve none of them; it is merely their ultimate expression.

Reform, too, would have been the better route in 1640. It proved impossible to take. We must hope than in 2019 we are more successful in finding a way to become unstuck. That effort must start in Parliament, with honest leadership that lays out to both sides in the country the uncomfortable truths about our system, and about Brexit, that the last two years have cast into the highest possible relief. There is as yet little sign that we will get that – but good politics is ultimately the art of dialogue. Edward Hyde knew what happened when leaders ceased to speak.

On the Withdrawal from the European Union Bill Reaching Its Second Reading

wfteu

I’m putting this edited version of some of my remarks from Twitter tonight here. Because it’s my blog, and I’ll self-plagiarise if I want to.

It was remarkable to watch the Commons tonight: a huge majority believe Brexit will be a disaster, but a huge majority will vote for it. The talking point is that this is respect for democracy. It feels more like a mature democracy being hit with a blunt object.

I do have every sympathy, though, for MPs who hold that ignoring a plebiscite would be an equal or greater disaster than they fear Brexit will be.

Sometimes too much is made of “career” politics. But one of its very real consequences, perhaps, is a corrosion of representative democracy.

Sure, we have formed a political class that is distinct from other classes. But independently wealthy MPs are similar in this regard. When elecions are job interviews, though, we also erode the idea that politicians may disagree with their constituents in good faith.

I distrust referenda for this reason – they are wedges that place further distance between the two motors of a representative democracy – that is, the people and their representatives. (And I’m conscious, too, that the political culture I speak of may or may not be that of all those currently subject to it – Scots, for instance, or Londoners.)

Once held, referenda they must be understood and acted upon. But there is something unseemly about the current groupthink amongst reluctant MPs. And that groupthink does nothing to defend the already frayed bonds of our political culture. Leave or Remain, this should worry you.

Referenda don’t break political systems. They are symptoms of them. This is why I think it urgent that we reduce barriers to entry in our politics. If you are unrepresented, you should be able to do so yourself. What worries me is that, instead, voters in democracies are turning toward blunt instruments to effect change.

Quis Corbyniet Ipsos Corbynes?

corbynsmith

It has taken me months – more or less fully the close-to-a-year that he has been leader of the Labour Party – to find the courage to write about Jeremy Corbyn. Undoubtedly, courage is what is required – never in my lifetime has Labour politics in particular, but British politics in general, been so querulous and febrile. That our politics requires courage is not, I think, a bad thing – for decades it has been more often characterised if not by cowardice then a queasy caution. Even Thatcherism, lionised by some and despised by others for its hatchet-job temerity, strikes me as a form of capitulation – to American hegemony or global capital or simply compensatory managerialism. It is this technocratic approach which is most despised by those flocking to Corbyn’s banner. That it requires courage now to be political speaks of a moment in which we might actually be doing something.

But doing what? Part of the courage we now require is simply in predicting events – the kaleidoscope is over-shaken. What next depends, of course, upon whom you ask. For my part, I haven’t shifted on the subject of Corbyn from initial scepticism: for all the rapture which welcomed his original leadership campaign – the huge turn-outs, the excited spike in membership, the unassailable mandate – it never seemed to me that what Corbyn was saying was terribly interesting in anything other than its distinctiveness from the barren pronouncements of his opponents. “If the best the left can do is go back to the planned economy, we are screwed,” I texted a friend last July, who seemed surprised I wasn’t embracing Corbynism’s first flush with enthusiasm. Corbyn is a Bennite; for many this is his selling-point. For me it is the best expression there might be of the wider malaise of the left. Corbynism badly needs a Jeremy Corbyn figure to shake it up and put it on a righteous, radical path.

But Owen Smith has matched Corbyn policy-by-policy (except on keeping Trident and inviting ISIS to tea) – and why vote for an unimaginative retreat to a 1970s comfort blanket when you can vote for an unimaginative retreat to a 1970s comfort blanket that really means it? Where are the bright ideas from Corbyn’s leadership – even bright ideas, like those of Paul Mason, which seem doomed to remain in the middle chapters of lesser-read Charlie Stross novels? Why has he failed to do anything more with his ascent to the apex of his party than continue to advocate for his ascent to the apex of his party?

Because, Corbynistas will retort, he has been given no room to express an agenda, and no space to relax into the role. That is, the ‘Labour right’ has prevented anything but an immediate bunkerisation of the Corbyn project. I no longer know what is meant by the ‘Labour right’ – the old right of John Spellar or the “Blairism” of the King over the water, David Miliband? Or perhaps what was once the soft leftism of Angela Eagle, or the plain-speaking bullishness of Margaret Hodge. The ‘right’ has morphed into a bogeyman, a label with which to tar and defang Corbynism’s opponents. The breakdown of meaningful dialogue between heterodox political positions characterises our new hard-knock politics more than any other phenomenon: Brexiters and Remainers, one half seemingly hardly knowing a member of the other; Cameroons and Mayites, unable to serve in the same Cabinet even when the transition period between the two regimes is wafer thin; the one per cent and the ninety-nine; the Scots and the English.

But Corbyn’s heart is in the right place – Corbyn wants to stop all this. His is a kinder, gentler politics. He means well. With much of this it is hard to disagree, since his has been a career defined by stubborn advocacy for the under-dog; but my issue is that I have never been sufficiently tribal to believe that at least a fair number of Tories, too, also bleed if we prick them. What matters is not intention but plans of action; we all want that which we define as “best”. But what is that? And how will you achieve it? Robert Halfon wants to tackle poverty, just like Jeremy Corbyn. I know how he proposes to do so, and disagree; Jeremy shrouds his strategy in good intentions.

Perhaps all of this is due to the failure of communications ably identified by (for it is he) Owen Jones. But the dispassionate observer might instead conclude that the principal project of Corbynism is not to craft a platform for government but to build a means of achieving creative destruction within the Labour Party. From the forming of a social movement to the application of extra-parliamentary pressure on legislators, the Corbyn project is so inchoately anti-establishment that it can attract even anarchists like Alan Moore as fellow travellers. This is yet another sign of the abject collapse of the social democratic left. This moribundity can be observed across Europe and beyond; but its ubiquity offers no defence. The lack of a compelling narrative from Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper in 2015; the ham-fisted incompetence of the so-called coup against Corbyn; and Ed Balls’s abject appearances on Strictly Come fucking Dancing are all symptoms of this malaise. But no consequence of social democracy’s senescence is as eloquent as the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

Indeed, the malaise may well require the sort of revolution Corbynistas hanker for. If Owen Smith is the solution being sold, surely everyone must go to another store. The issue is, however, that the Corbynmania whipped up by the Socialist Campaign Group in order to win last year’s election serves to occlude any policy platform they might now wish to develop: in this excellent piece (the most balanced I have read), the LRB’s Tom Crewe writes that “the failure to separate Jeremy Corbyn from the project of a revived left … obscures (and by extension denies) the existence of legitimate concerns about his leadership.” That is, while you’re busy sharing all those stories from the Canary about how the attacks on Corbyn are all one big conspiracy, you are failing to take the log from your eye. Where are the propitious signs which do not rely on blind faith that Corbynism can, in Moore’s words, “struggle towards a future that we and all of the people who came before us could breathe in”?

I worry. How devastating that UKIP’s Douglas Carswell often seems to express the world-historical underpinnings of our particular moment better than John McDonnell. How fractured a left that cannot occupy or express any truly radical position until it has destroyed itself.

Owen Smith is not the answer to all this, of course. But is Corbyn-as-Moses any more a solution? Who could salvage from Corbynism’s under-whelming performance the trailblazing transformation that was promised? Might Jeremy lead his people to the promised land but never enter it, leaving the storming of the land of milk and honey to McDonnell or Clive Lewis? In the face of a possible early election, an uncooperative parliamentary party, an unprecedented period of constitutional flux and an at-best nascent movement outside Parliament, this seems a slim possibility. It might be made more likely by a war of slow attrition inside the Labour Party – the only body in Britain today, by the way, even faintly capable of mounting a proper opposition to Conservatism. Should Corbyn win on Wednesday, there is little doubt that his allies will recommence with renewed energy exactly that project. But while they are helping themselves, who is helping the people in whose name they are recreating their party? How many years will it take to reach the promised land, and how many of us will fall down during the long trudge through the desert?

The Labour party is Corbynism’s cocoon, and it is struggling to make its way out. What it will look like if it ever does manage to emerge is uncertain – as is why anyone, as a consequence, might feel at all qualified to vote in the party’s current leadership contest with anything but trepidation.

June 16th, 2016

I have for the last few days been ruminating on a blog post about the UK’s current referendum on EU membership, and the horrifyingly destructive standard of its associated debate; about our creaking political system and its readily apparent failure to create a sphere in which meaningful, representative and rational conversations can be had. And then a Member of Parliament was murdered in the street.

That this unspeakably shocking event somehow does not, however, come as a surprise is testament to the parlous state of our national public discourse – and rather overtakes, for now, any other concerns.

We have allowed venom and spite to infect and pervert the ways in which we speak to each other about ideas and people. This has been happening for some time, on both left and right, and it is born of frustration, fear and, in some cases, brute strategy. It is a pyrrhic and paranoid form of politics which necessarily leads to nullity.

The EU Referendum is not the cause of this situation; it has, though, become its clearest expression. Both sides – all sides – are guilty of pandering to the paucity of the age; both sides – all sides – must pull back and remember that, though we may disagree, we must not doubt the sincerity of the other’s convictions.

Nevertheless, convictions, like assassinations and like rhetoric, are political acts – and acts can be evil. It is the responsibility of each of us to fight not those with whom we disagree (that is what debate is for), but the sorts of political act which do damage to our shared polity, our increasingly fragile community.

Remain in the EU or leave it; adhere to Corbynism or to Cameroonery. Do whatever you must, but principles are only worth fighting for insofar as they contribute to a climate in which we as individuals might all live peaceably.

Let us all measure our aims and our methods by their capacity also to achieve these wider goals. Let’s aim for mutual respect, not endemic suspicion; for informed scepticism, not knee-jerk cynicism. Jo Cox’s husband has written a dignified, open-hearted statement in which he urges us all to “unite to fight against the hatred that killed her”. Which of us would object to that? So let’s begin.