Constitutional Crimes

When Boris Johnson, channelling Steve Bannon in Trump speechwriter mode, said that the Prime Minister had “strapped a suicide belt around the British Constitution and handed the detonator to Brussels,” he was echoing the American President in more ways than one.  When Trump lashes out at critics, he tends to accuse them of having his own worst attributes – “crooked” Hillary, “lying” media, “fake news”.  Likewise, the British blond occupant of some of the highest positions in the land accuses others of his own worst tendencies.

For It is Johnson who has led the campaign that has in reality detonated high explosives in the vicinity of the British Constitution.

What is The British Constitution?

It’s not a document, amendable only with difficulty, and with widespread assent across the branches of government.  Indeed, if it had been, it’s hard to see how the 2016 Referendum would ever have been permitted to happen, at least, on the terms upon which it was run.  The British Constitution is, and this is something its admirers have long revered, both a set of statutes, and a vague and amorphous ‘culture’ formed from custom and practice, which adapts almost seamlessly to changing times, thus maintaining an orderly polity, malleable, pragmatic, yet steadfast in the face of revolution.  Thus we are a democracy, with an hereditary Head of State, and an unelected second chamber; a secular and liberal country with a State religion; an extender of the franchise and the rights of citizens from above, rather than from below.  A nation safe for a rich man in his castle, and a poor man at his gate.  Very Tory.

Some of this still applies, of course.  The Houses of Parliament, a crumbling, rat-ridden place (that’s actual rodents, not a metaphor), is still there, surrounded by scaffolding and under dust sheets, it’s true, but recognisable.  The process of lawmaking has not changed. Elections are held according to rules which are overwhelmingly accepted, and to which almost everyone adheres. All is well.

Except it isn’t.

There’s is a good reason why the institutions of the British Constitution of old were pretty sniffy about plebiscites, until 1975.  Unlike the subtle, malleable, conveniently fudgeable old Constitution, referendums are binary, and absolute.  Some countries that make more use of such tools than Britain does traditionally, set high thresholds for change, in order to avoid any doubt about “the will of the people”, but even so, plebiscites are rightly viewed as a hazardous substance in the ecosystem of representative democracy.

The problem is, we’ve actually had a referendum.  The rules were sloppy, the careless promises of the then PM were a hostage to fortune, the Opposition was in the midst of a Leadership contest when the referendum bill went through Parliament, but bad laws get passed all the time.  Except that bad laws can be repealed.  A democratic vote cannot be annulled.

The 2016 referendum was the high explosive. The detonator was in many hands, from the pathetic nonentity  who murdered Jo Cox, to Nigel Farage, to Dominic Cummings, to Gisela Stuart, et al.   But the man who above all has his fingerprints all over the device, is Boris Johnson.

Posing as a man of the people, with a flair for both Latin, and the demotic, Johnson knew what he was doing, just as much as Arron Banks, or Vlad, Lord of the Bots. It scarcely matters whether Johnson’s ‘game plan’ was to play an exciting game, but ‘lose’, whilst usefully cementing his place in the hearts of the elderly and dwindling ranks of the Conservative Party; or whether he actually did want to ‘win’ the prize of Brexit, the thing that remains as unknowable as ever, even as we enter the final countdown to it becoming a reality.  Johnson can use words like ‘national sovereignty’ all he likes, but the fact is that he was prepared – and remains prepared – to blow up the constitution for perceived personal advantage.

By “blow up”, I mean this: people were offered a vote on something so legally complex, economically uncertain, and politically untested, that even its advocates in Parliament still can’t describe it, except in slogans. Honest people will accept that none of us really knew much about what the vote was about.  But the vote happened.

Now we are in a situation where nearly all options are bad.  To let Brexit happen, in some form or another, is a bad option.  Parliament ‘taking back control’, and pausing or halting Brexit in a variety of ways, with a variety of pretexts available is constitutionally possible, and yet one can’t see MPs, most of whom seem to be terrified of their own voters, having the guts to do that, and even if they did, it would not ‘feel’ legitimate, given the 2016 vote, and the narrow victory for Leave.  Then there is the People’s Vote option.  It is the least worst way to move forwards, by giving voters a further vote on the final deal – including the option of hitting the restart button.  But that we are here at all is a fatal fissure in the legitimacy of the political system.  Oh that poor constitution!  Can it survive this bloody mess?

Does it even deserve to survive?

A strong, stable political system with a clear basis in law would never have got to this point.  What Johnson and company blew up was an edifice even more unfit for purpose than the Palace of Westminster.

When Brexit is ‘resolved’ enough to think about other things, we need to have a movement to create a new constitution fit for a modern democracy.  One robust enough not to become a plaything for “loonies, fruitcakes, and closet racists”, as David Cameron, worst PM in history, once quipped.  A constitution in which there is a clearly understood, robust social contract between people and the politicians they elect.  One in which our rights and responsibilities as citizens and denizens are properly embedded and defended, with proper respect for minority rights. One which is constructed to recognise that the nation-state is a declining institution, and that regional and international cooperation has to be the norm to handle the problems of a world as networked and inter-connected as the one in which we now live.  Borders?  You can’t “take back control” of them. Borders are on the way out.

But above all, we have to start thinking, talking, and planning for these things with urgency.

Why?  Because Boris blew up the constitution.


Fighting Brexit With One Hand Tied Behind You

Last night’s meeting of the Another Europe Is Possible‘s tour to promote a left opposition to Brexit was a strange, melancholy affair.  One had a sense of people, honest, decent women and men of the left, who understood and despaired at the catastrophe that is Brexit, who could see how it is not one in a shopping list of ‘issues’, so much as an existential crisis which puts everything else, up to and including democracy itself, at risk, and yet somehow were holding back, fearful of the fight.  Why?

The first speaker, Ravi Subramaniam, West Midlands General Secretary of Unison, put it clearly. We were all, he said, “of the left”, the people in the hall, and those outside who voted to leave the EU, and on everything else could and would continue to work together, as on the picket line at at dispute of low paid care workers he’d recently come from.  And on one level, that is true. Yet the statement felt suffused with bathos.  This man from a union movement which mostly stayed neutral during the referendum campaign, despite TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady’s spirited performance in one of the televised debates, felt he had to hold back, even as he stood on a platform pledging support for a People’s Vote on the final ‘deal’. The tone was simply wrong, and it wasn’t his fault.

The two speakers from other EU countries, Dr Lorenza Antonucci, and Marina Prentoulis, were not constrained by this very English reticence. Antonucci made a point which perhaps resonates more in her native Italy, yet ought to ring alarm bells here, when she urged us to look to the detailed polling data, and to reject the narrative that Brexit had much to do with ‘the working class’. Brexit’s bedrock vote was the middling sort of people seething with resentment at others whom they presumed to be doing better than they were at ‘milking the system’ – in other works, the social group that historically has always anchored authoritarianism – and fascism.

The youngest speaker (who made that point herself), was Aimee Challenor, the Green Party’s Equalities spokesperson.  But she was speaking to an audience of the middle aged and the elderly.  Where were all the young people who have most to lose from Brexit?  The Labour Party’s hundreds of thousands of Remain-voting teens and twenty-somethings?

Labour wasn’t exactly the elephant in the room, because people were actually talking about it.  The ghost at the famine, perhaps?  A spectre haunting our Europe debate?

Zoe Williams tackled the subject head-on, and with some passion.  An active member of the Vauxhall CLP now locked in a battle with its disgrace of a ‘Labour’ MP, UKIP’s Kate Hoey, Williams must be in the thick of it on an almost constant basis.  It was Williams, in a reference to the previous evening’s meeting in Nottingham, who gave a glimpse into the problem.  There had been a stand-up argument with an angry Momentum activist, but one had the sense that many of the Another Europe Is Possible campaigners were in almost constant battle with people whom they exasperatingly thought ought to be on the same side.  Nor was there even any sense of why all these mostly Remain voting people thought the 2016 vote had acquired an almost sacred quality demanding the utmost respect.  Well, there was. It was all about “Jeremy”.

A women in the audience, Labour and Momentum member, who spoke later made it plain.  She was as desperately anxious to stop Brexit as anyone else there, but she was also in almost palpable distress at what this might mean for “Jeremy”.  How could they be so cruel as to push “Jeremy” to do a U-turn? Wouldn’t it make him look weak at a general election they just had to win?

Zoe Williams responded that all the evidence was that Tory/UKIP leavers voted on the basis that Brexit was the number one issue, subsuming all others, whereas for for Labour Leave voters, in any case a minority of Labour voters, Brexit was about fifth in their list of priorities.  Labour, Williams said, had more to lose by alienating Remainers.

Williams also made the point that time was short, little more than weeks, really, and that realistically only Labour,  through a change of heart, and of strategy, and increasingly of parliamentary tactics, could stop Brexit.  We had no other vehicle.  As she put it, “these are the institutions we have”.

What I’ve described is an angst-fest where sincere, mostly Labour lefties railed against their own side, who ought to have been packing the Town Hall to the rafters, and marching, scarlet banners aloft, on Downing Street, but who instead had chosen to expend their energies on backing slates for the NEC, or compositing motions on buses for conference.  There were a few lone cries from the audience for a campaign proper – for doing practical things.  One woman stressed the need for cross-party work, which everyone knows is true, but daren’t say it, because the “Jeremy” people think this a betrayal of the purity of the project.  John Bloomfield, the mildest of men, with a lifetime as an activist and writer of the left, heckled from the floor, and eventually spoke, to list the alliances we needed to make with every section of the economy and society if we were to build support of a new vote. But this wasn’t a place for that kind of practical argument.

Perhaps the best point was made by Marina Prentoulis, speaking of the 3 million EU citizens in the UK denied a vote in the 2016 referendum.  There is something deeply offensive to democracy, when the people most sharply affected by a vote are excluded from participation.  Add that to the lies, and now the fraud, and the covert meddling of foreign powers, and the sanctity of the referendum vote starts to look indefensible.

And so the meeting ended unsatisfactorily, neither a rousing call to arms, nor with a practical plan for what ought to be a busy summer.

On the bus going home afterwards I thought of Tim Shipman’s book, All Out War, on the Brexit campaign.  It is suggested there that David Cameron lost his referendum gamble because he prioritised the post-referendum unity of the Tory Party over the national interest.  Unlike his opponents (in his own party), be fought with one arm tied behind him.  Ironically, that’s where we are now, a left itching to fight, but gagged by its own side.

This crisis is too big for us to accept that.  Labour must be pushed, this conference season, into long overdue action to stop Brexit.  It is its historic duty.

Local Wealth Building: Constructive Resistance – Or More?

The Local Wealth Building Summit organised by CLES in association with other partners, including City-REDI at the Birmingham Business School, took place in the week of extraordinary events at home and abroad.  The UK Constitution looked to be rocking, its electoral laws too weak, Parliament gridlocked, the PM without authority, the major parties divided.  As for the once familiar ‘World Order’ – what World Order?  With such a backdrop, who wants to talk procurement, co-ops, local government?

It seems that many people do, and with good reason.  Mid-way through the afternoon session I Tweeted that no one had yet mentioned Brexit.  Over the last two years I’ve attended many meetings, conferences, seminars, even literary festivals, in which the B word was inescapable. Indeed, a decade into ‘austerity’, there were few mentions of central government, and that mainly confined to the dead hand of the Treasury upon local initiative.  This feels new, indicative of something qualitatively different in the practical politics of living in today’s Europe (and further afield).

The Centre for Local Economic Strategies is a ‘think tank’.  Most of my engagements with think tanks over the last few years has tended to be with those of the right, like Bright Blue, Localis, and others. (I even attended the triumphant launch of Britannia Unchained in 2012, the book that launched the careers of Dominic Raab, Liz Truss, and others on the young Tory right.)  It is instructive sometimes to look at these events not as being about different kinds of political approach to knotty policy issues, but through the eyes of an amateur social anthropologist.  The ‘right-oriented’ gatherings tended to be of policy wonks, SPADs, would-be MPs, lobbyists and journalists; a professional political caste operating, or hoping to, at the highest levels of government.

The Local Wealth Building Summit was not at all like that in feel.  One complaint from a delegate at the end was that he’d expected more of a practical exchange of ideas about how to do things on the ground at a local level.  It was a fair point, although I suspect that more than a few such exchanges happened over lunch, or coffee.  But there were other things going on that are, I suspect, even more important to our times.

CLES, and even more so, City-REDI, are not politically partisan outfits.  Both, particularly City-REDI, work pragmatically with all relevant actors and stakeholders on the basis of meticulous research to inform rational, evidence-based policy-making.  This is itself at odds with the tenor of our time, which makes them, whether they like it or not, representatives of something different from the world view that has dominated our political and economic thinking for more than a generation.

Explicitly a lot of the discussion was couched in terms which were profoundly critical of neoclassical economics.  Politically, too, there was little expectation placed on formal political institutions, except in the most pragmatic ways.  ‘These are the tools we have’, seemed to be the assumption.

Even more clear was the absence of the language and methods of lobbying.  It is as if, at least in the context of the Local Wealth Building community, methods which once dominated our political practice have been shrunk back to the second order tools they used to be.

In this context, the banishing of today’s political dramas from discussion felt significant, indicative of change.

Which is why I left the summit with more optimism than I have felt in a very long time.

I was left with the impression that, however difficult the situation individuals, organisations, and institutions find themselves in in the here and now, there is new thinking emerging, building upon practical approaches to change.  The ‘top down’ models were rejected as too slow, too sclerotic, too jealous of their power.  There was a recognition that small initiatives could be, as Neil McInroy put it, “stitched together”, “embroidered” into a whole, so that the sum became greater than its parts.

The day had started with Councillor John Cotton of Birmingham City Council talking about their programme of “Energy and Water Socialism”, which is talk to quicken the pulse of any true citizen of Birmingham, the home of “gas and water socialism”.  He made reference, too, to a local bank, bringing to mind the old Birmingham Municipal Bank, which had once powered local economic prosperity, and citizen’s financial security   (with its slogan ‘Thrift Radiates Happiness’).  But this was no rose-tinted nostalgia for the age of municipal pride, but rather new thinking about how to recalibrate ‘the economy’, and with it, political power, to ensure that wealth no longer flows out of most of the world, but irrigates the places where it is made.

In short, I felt as though I had been privileged to have witnessed a moment in which things were starting to change.  About time.

(Photograph: A stained glass window from the headquarters of the Birmingham Municipal Bank, featuring the City Crest, with its motto, ‘Forward’, and figures representing ‘Industry’, and ‘Progress’.)

The Meaning Of The March

Why drag yourself out of bed early on a Saturday morning and trudge into a steamy central London to march against a vote you lost two years before? Because democracy is a culture, and a continuous process, irreducible to a single, one-off vote. And because, more pointedly, Brexit is, as the banner politely put it, Bonkers.

There is no longer any point in making the argument against Brexit. Even its most ardent fans don’t bother to say how good it’s going to be. They are busy inventing their excuses, which mainly seem to consist of blaming the other side for their epic failure.  The march, ostensibly for a vote on the final ‘deal’ (a negotiated breaking of a set of treaties can hardly be called a deal), is more accurately described as a response to a political vacuum.

At least 100,000 people marched because it was all we could do.  We’ve emailed our MPs, and got insolent standard letters on House of Commons headed paper in reply.  We’ve Tweeted our MPs and been blocked.  Politicians take a lot of abuse on social media, I know that, but not from us. It wasn’t our side who assassinated an MP, and made death threats to others.  We marched as a cry of anguish, and as a demand for action.  And neither the government, nor the opposition, is listening.

It was right that people on the march came from all parties.  The reason why is clear from looking at this week’s Turkish elections.  When the culture of democracy is strained, even though its formal institutions remain, opponents of the government must work together on the things on which they agree.

This is not the same thing as diluting one’s own political beliefs, as Caroline Lucas made clear in a powerful speech in Parliament Square.  She spoke fully aware of her status as co-leader of a small party, and its only Parliamentarian; but she also spoke as a true Leader of the Opposition ought to have spoken at the rally.  She emphasised the need for an uncompromising radicalism, and projected a vision of something more than merely stopping the UK from going through with a pointless, divisive and damaging Brexit.  She spoke with honesty and friendship to the people who were not of her party or her political persuasion, whilst also holding true to her own egalitarian, feminist and internationalist beliefs.

‘Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?’ sang the crowd. His absence was bitterly resented by the many  Labour voters and party members in the streets on Saturday. The biggest march for jobs and social and workplace rights seen in the last more than 30 years, and no official Labour Party representatives or banners visible?  That is shameful.

Labour’s official absence was pitched on social media, by its cheerleaders, in sectarian terms.  ‘Socialists’, it was said, can’t be contaminated by contact with the likes of other Labour MPs and members, let alone other parties.  Don’t they understand that sects are little, inward-looking things, ever concerned for their own ideological purity, and doomed to irrelevance?  Confident, outward-facing socialism is unafraid, ever willing to take the argument to others.  The practical socialism of Labour at its best has always been a wider vision, taking good ideas from wherever they originated.  That’s what created the settlement of 1945.

Moreover, it’s not 1945!  The Five Giants then were Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness.  That was resonant language for the time, but today we need a new way of characterising what is wrong with our society and our world, and a new vision of what to do about it.

This is an Age of Insecurity. Insecure jobs, insecure housing tenure, uncertain access to health and social care, underfunded schools, private debt, and then the huge giants, which know no boundaries, looming ahead – like climate change, population movement, the end of the era of fossil fuels, and the automation of much work.

Insecurity is corrosive.  It makes us fearful and mean.  The Brexit against which we marched, the US President against whom we will next march, and much else in our politics which is ugly and amoral, even immoral, is fuelled by insecurity.

The march for a People’s Vote made a minimum demand for a constitutional concession, but for many of us, stopping Brexit is merely a way of removing a huge roadblock in the way of addressing the really big issues of unfairness and insecurity in the world.  Today’s problems, even the vast ones requiring international cooperation, are capable of resolution, if we choose to do things differently.

This is a rich and inventive planet.  We are clever people, and each of us in our own ways, through our own lived experience knows some of the things that would make our lives more secure, and fairer.  Politics, a true radical politics, is about turning all that into practical plans.

That is where Labour should be.  On the march, and looking way beyond it, brimming with ideas, communicating them with vigour and optimism, and running rings around a failed and exhausted government.

We’re waiting.  But we haven’t got much time, or patience left.

fuck off boris

Brex(it) In The City

A flippant headline, because this is a very far from lightweight subject. Sometimes being a conscientious citizen trying my best to understand the world feels like drowning. It certainly does where Brexit is concerned.

So last Friday I headed off to The Council House, as Birmingham’s grand palace of local government is quaintly called, for a workshop on Brexit organised by City-REDI at the Birmingham Business School. City-REDI is concerned with the study of city-regions around the world, with the task of developing a sound empirical understanding of the dynamics of regional economies, and associated political and structural questions.  These are my words, and I may have misrepresented their mission, so, also my words, they are clever people who know stuff. and they have been working on a project to study the economic impacts of Brexit on the UK, its regions, its cities, and its sectors.  Basically all the stuff David Davies said they’d done ages ago, then admitted that he was only kidding, and they’d done sweet FA.

And is it terrifying? You bet. But perhaps not in the terms I had expected.

Firstly, the shock of Brexit to the economy, already being felt, but not nearly as much as it will be once we leave the EU, is likely to be three or four times the impact of the financial crash of 2008.  There’s around £140 billion of UK economic activity each year directly at risk because of Brexit.  We know that the regions likely to be worst impacted will be the Leave voting areas, but I hadn’t also realised the extent to which the jobs at risk tend to be more productive than average, so Britain’s already serious productivity problems will be exacerbated by Brexit. Slide after slide was shown, and pretty much all of it looked bad. And remember, we voted to do this to ourselves.

But I’m not writing about this because I want to plagiarise other people’s numbers. I’m sure you can find lots of information on City-REDI’s website if you want to enjoy the jaw-dropping stats for yourself. What really hit me, right from the start, at this workshop was the absence of politics.

Not the careful non-partisanship of the key speakers; that much is to be expected from policy wonks and number crunchers. Brexit is a highly political project, yet the guiding hand of political leadership was seemingly absent without Leave. Ostensibly about manufacturing in the West Midlands city-region, it was two and a half hours in before anyone even mentioned the Mayor, and central government and Parliament more generally, was scarcely referenced.  Senior planners in the Core Cities and the LGA complain that, “Government won’t speak to us”.  And as for the academic experts, they seemed politely stunned by the low level of understanding of some of the biggest political names.  One economist described the ongoing parliamentary debate about Brexit and trade as a political narrative based on a “Corn Law level of understanding of trade” which is irrelevant to global value chains.  A 19th Century ding dong about 21st Century trading relationships? Hell and handcarts beckon.

So next time you hear all the slogans about “they do more trade with us than we do with them”, and big figures about imports and exports, remember this.  They’re talking in terms that made sense in a long gone world of Lancashire cotton, Welsh iron, and Kentish coal.  Surplus/deficit arguments are irrelevant. There are new phrases which some of us have started noticing, about ‘just in time supply chains’, and ‘global value chains’, and what matters in trading systems which operate in ways which are not regulated by national boundaries; indeed, national boundaries are a serious irritant (don’t mention Ireland).

The Concerned Citizens Club in the audience for this wholly informative, non-partisan event seemed to consist solely of anxious Remainers.  This did surprise me, anxious Remainer that I am.  Surely the Brexit supporters would be out in force to hear how their Grand Project was faring, and to offer their analyses and prescriptions?  Their absence was very telling.  Basically the only argument they seem to have left is “Will of the People”.  They won a vote. End of.  That really isn’t good enough, and you can sense they know it.

The only Brexit voice came from a speaker, Justin Benson of KPMG, who had voted Remain, but claimed cheerfully that he would now vote Leave, if another vote were to be held. His reasons seemed entirely pragmatic.  Like everyone else questioned, he shared the assumption that Brexit would happen. So for him, and for the businesses in the automotive sector on which he advised, it was a simply question of as much certainty as possible in the here and now.  Unfortunately, the way he illustrated this, entirely rationally, was by showing how decisions on new models, and where to build them, were made.  And they are made in Munich, or Tokyo, Seoul, or Mumbai.  If Brexit screws up JL-R Solihull, the vehicles will still get made.  Just not here.

But there is a much bigger political, constitutional question which Brexit has brought into focus.

Although no one said it in these words, there was a baseline assumption that central government, and the state itself, was largely irrelevant.  It had caused the circumstances, Brexit, but it was playing little in the way of an effective guiding role in how the country was responding to Brexit, and was doing even less in the way of detailed planning, including contingency planning for an event ostensibly less than a year away.  Local government was doing its best, but was too fragmented, and had too little power, particularly fiscal power.

So my key conclusions from the day were less about Brexit, than about our entire political culture.  The hollowing out of the state, the loss of capacity, the reliance on outsourcing, the replacement of parties which represented sectional interests with parties which game elections, the growth of a career political cadre, and the associated centralisation, and above all, the four decades long battering of local government, all have wreaked havoc on political legitimacy.  One phrase that came up several times through the day was ‘Devolution works’.  The regional authorities set up by Ted Heath in 1974, the Metropolitan Counties, are now being reinvented as Mayors with Combined Authorities, but they have less power than in Heath’s vision.  There’s an awfully long way to go.

We need root and branch constitutional reform, including electoral reform, regional devolution, a less centralised system overall, and a ban on referendums.

And that is just the start.  But first there’s a little matter of Brexit.

Rivers Of Bile

Today is the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, and it seems a fitting week in which to look back on the Tory politician’s triumphant achievement.  His “wide grinning piccaninnies” (a racist term recently also used by the Foreign Secretary) are now older people, blinking unexpectedly on our TV screens, or staring balefully from newspaper front pages, their long lives ripped asunder by policies inspired by Powell.

‘Rivers of Blood’ was a deeply political speech, in the very worst sense of ‘political’.  It was written, orchestrated, and performed for a very precise purpose – to advance the purposes and ego of the politician who gave it, and to discomfort his enemies.  (Remember that in politics, your enemies are in your own party; the other lot are just opponents.)  Powell had observed the effectiveness of racism and xenophobia in creating a populist tide which was difficult for political leaders to control.  His former near neighbour as a Conservative MP was Peter Griffiths, who defeated the Shadow Foreign Secretary in Smethwick in a notoriously racially offensive campaign in 1964.  Monday Club member, Harold Gurden, the racist Tory MP for Selly Oak, sat with Powell as a West Midlands MP at the time, and there were others, who walked the walk, and talked the talk well before Powell began to dabble in inflammatory rhetoric.

Powell, the vain dilettante with few real political achievements to his name, was resentful of Edward Heath’s leadership of the Tory Party. ‘Rivers of Blood’ was above all a bombshell aimed at Heath, a liberal, modernising, pro-European politician, who represented a world Powell pretended not to understand, and into which he did not comfortably fit.  Powell took advice from the media savvy, and ensured that he made his speech with an unusually large media presence, timed to make the evening news, and the Sunday papers.

The speech was a sensation, but, at the time, also a failure.  It didn’t rock Ted Heath’s leadership; indeed, it probably made him Prime Minister, when the Tories did unexpectedly well in the 1970 general election.  It didn’t prevent the 1968 Race Relations Act coming into effect.  It exiled Powell from the Front Bench, and eventually from the Tory Party altogether.  Powell ended his career as an Ulster Unionist and ardent Europhobe.

And yet, what a staggering success the speech turned out to be.

It proved that race hate is a potent political weapon for the right.  It reaches the parts of the electorate other policies and attitudes cannot reach.  It mobilises and radicalises people in ways the political Establishment cannot control.  It speaks to the romantic, mythic past of an England that never was.  It is authentically Conservative, because it is a brake upon the hated forces of modernity and change.

Powell’s legacy is Brexit, a victory bought by anti-immigrant mania.  Powell’s legacy is Theresa May, the scourge of the children Powell disparaged and abused in his various speeches on ‘race’.

And yet, might this be both the highest, and the lowest point for the Powellite toxin in the Tory bloodstream?

He could get away with his “piccanninnies” “with no word of English” (really?  From Jamaica?), because the newspaper editors, and the great and the good, knew little of the people from the New Commonwealth in their midst.  But now, in 2018?

The Windrush Generation are people we know, people we are.  The policy of a ‘hostile environment’ on immigration, the obsession with ‘getting numbers down to tens of thousands’, look like bureaucratic heartlessness teamed with political malice.

There is a lesson from 1968, and specifically from ‘Rivers of Blood’, that needs to be learned again.

Heath, the Party leader, and Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, faced Powell down.  The petitions and marches subsided.  The refugees from Kenya were admitted. The Race Relations Act was passed, and later made tougher, in 1976.  The mob was thrown no red meat. And there’s a phrase for that: political leadership.

Stop focus grouping everything, basing policies on polling, following the crowd in search of electorate advantage, and concentrate on principle, and evidence-based policy making.  Political leadership can lead us away from this 50 year dead-end of immigration mania.

So make it happen….

Radicalism Now!

It shouldn’t be necessary to have to say this, but I’ve got news for you! The Twentieth Century is over! The past is always with us, of course, framing our understanding of the world and its possibilities.  We have been made by the past, and can learn much by studying its successes and failures, but that was then, and this is now. Time to face the present – and the future.

The present is an age of crumbling borders. Geographical borders exist, but they do not enclose as once they did, punctured by trade and transport, still more so by new means of communication. Political borders – those lines on maps so at odds with human life as it is lived, but so beloved of 19th Century imperialists – are becoming a nuisance. The very notion of a ‘country’ as a discrete political and cultural entity is just one facet of identity, and one with decreasing legitimacy on a small and fragile planet.

So how do we do politics in these fluid times?  How do we anchor a polity? What is the state, and what are its limits? How do we make democracy nimble and resilient in anxious times? And what are the markers of philosophical difference that distinguish parties, or movements, or alliances, from one another?

There are many answers to these questions, and inevitably we will grasp at what we think might work, and then discard it along the way to remaking a politics that works.  Some of the issues we have to wrestle with are big and difficult, such as whether the global institutions set up to settle the problems of the mid-20th Century make any sense now, and if they don’t, how do we remake them without provoking the nastiest, least controllable kinds of power politics, even war?

But there are things we can do, as individuals, and as groups, to move beyond those things that worked in the past, and don’t – won’t – work now.

The first thing we must do is look unsentimentally, unflinchingly, at our world.

The two big questions, and they are linked, are the natural, and the economic.

The question of the natural world is essentially the question of what humans have done to our shared little planet, and what we can do to tend it more effectively, and equitably.  Climate change is a driver that doesn’t wait around for a change of regime in the White House or the Kremlin.  But there are other questions of natural resources, from water to rare minerals, from fossil fuels to renewables, which must be addressed with more haste and seriousness than we seem able to muster. Every citizen of the planet needs to become informed, expert, even, on these issues.  These are urgent questions to which “the market” is not a credible answer.

The economic question is equally difficult, because it is a matter of the imagination.

There is no ‘invisible hand’, ‘rational choice’, nor any other ‘laws’ which can be turned into models to guide us to prosperity and happiness.  That’s religion, not reason.  Money doesn’t exist, except as an idea, a powerful idea that has built civilisations, and created great institutions, it is true, but the same is true for any religion.  The European Enlightenment challenged unquestioning faith, but somehow we’ve forgotten to apply the same scepticism to the cult of economics.  What matters is the distribution of resources, to whom, for what purposes, and why?  Money, whether coins, or bits of data, is a pretty effective way of making an economy visible and functional for people, but it’s not a ‘natural’ thing like the weather. It’s cultural.  It is what we decide it is.  Time to decide to distribute things in better, fairer ways.

We start answering these big questions from where we are.  I am somewhere in the geographical centre of England, in a state that has a history so weird that the name of the country is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  We’ve managed to deal with some of the tensions arising from the need to transition from empire to fairly populous and moderately prosperous European country through a series of treaties of cooperation with some of our closest neighbours – or at least, we thought we had.  Brexit is the bullet in that essentially benign arrangement that was easing our way towards a new, essentially cooperative position in the world.

There is no upside to Brexit.  It offers no route to a peaceable and meaningful place in the 21st Century world.  The Brexit fanatics of the right are living in a fantasy world, with the exception of a handful of ideologically committed ‘disrupters’ who would upend the lives of millions just to turn a quick (and huge) profit, and that little band were not the drivers of the 17 million.

The Brexit fanatics of the left are even fewer in number. Any open debate involving the membership or the voters of the Labour Party would end quickly with a rejection of Brexit.  All the so-called ‘Lexit’ arguments are weak, and confuse language (‘markets’, ‘freedoms’) with substance. Labour’s programme is entirely deliverable within the EU, and is almost entirely undeliverable in a near future in which we are out of the EU.  An economic crisis dwarfing the 2008 banking crash is no basis upon which to build the New Jerusalem.

What a left radicalism ought to be doing now is sketching out a programme for remaking Britain in Europe from the ground up at home, and offering support and solidarity to our European neighbours in resisting the dangerous forces of right wing populism and authoritarianism currently threatening too many parts the continent.  Indeed, Brexit is our own manifestation of that ‘new fascism’, which is why any genuine person or party of the left would have no truck with leaving the EU at all.  There are some in Labour who smell a bit 1930s Moseleyite, with their talk of ‘bosses using cheap foreign labour to keep down wages’.  Remind them of Cable Street, my fellow radicals….

Brexit is a huge roadblock standing in the way of real and necessary political change.  Real radicals would set to work at once to dismantle it.

Then our real work can begin.

“Just get on with it….”

There are few things that command agreement across the main political parties these days, but there is one that does.  MPs claim that their constituents, whether they voted Remain or Leave in the EU referendum, are now telling them, in reference to Brexit, “Just get on with it!”

Let’s assume that they are telling the truth. It is plausible.  I’ve seen voters in vox pops telling reporters as much.  Opinion polls show some movement towards Remain, and the second referendum option, but the pace of movement is glacial, even as the staggering ineptitude of the Conservative government becomes ever harder to hide.  The voters really do want politicians to get on with it.

The only problem is, what do they mean?

To answer this, and many other questions, we need to do something that Remainers like me are very bad at doing – we have to remember back to before the referendum was called.

There was no popular clamour to leave the EU.  Fed on a diet of press fabrications (many apparently the result of one of the Foreign Secretary’s various incarnations as a breezy gentleman-amateur having a laugh, in this case as a journalist), the public may not have learned to love the EU, but most of us had no strong feelings about it either way. It just was, like the A38, or the Large Hadron Collider.

But the referendum campaign – at least, the Leave campaigns – seemed to ignite a spark of previously unseen anger and resentment, and to pour ever more fuel upon those fires.  There’s no need to revisit just how nasty it got, what damage it has done, and how much still remains to be healed.  That much is more than apparent.

But what is less remarked upon, buried under hyperbolic rhetoric about “the will of the people”, is how slim was the margin of the Leave victory, given the near civil war atmosphere provoked by the vote.  This is partly because we don’t look at it in context.

The road to the Leave victory started in 2014.  The Scottish Independence referendum was a peculiar thing outside Scotland, but on the rest of this island.  Its passion was often reported in incredulous terms to the rest of us. Before 2014, I suspect that most English and Welsh people had an essentially romantic attitude towards Scotland, sometimes affectionate, sometimes incredulous, as in why they seemed so over-invested in sporting victories over England.  But the media coverage of the referendum fed a sense among many, especially in some parts of England, that it was they, not the Scots, who were the oppressed, the culturally marginalised, the economically disadvantaged.  It released a latent sense of English grievance that expresses itself as nationalism.

The 2015 general election campaign weaponised these resentments.

All expectations were of another hung parliament, and another coalition of some sort.  But Cameron, Osborne, and Lynton Crosby made brilliantly effective use of English nationalism (and the SNP rode the wave of their own nationalism, depriving Labour, in particular, of seats, and inadvertently gifting Cameron his win).  It was, we were  told repeatedly by the Tory campaign, a case of keeping calm and carrying on, strong and stable, with Cameron – or a “Coalition of Chaos” with Ed Miliband and Alex Salmond.  It struck a chord with those areas of England and Wales, and those demographic groups,  which voted Leave a year later.

The slogans of the EU Leavers have now become a discourse we hear on phone-in shows.  The parroting of lines about ‘trade deals’, ‘WTO rules’, ‘customs union’, ‘single market’, a whole language freighted with meanings other than the literal ones, has become a sort of patois for English nationalists to signal their in-group membership.

And on the other side are still people like me; people who have also learned an awful lot about the EU we didn’t know before, simply because we feel we have to counter nonsense with facts and evidence. Which may be to misunderstand the problem, if not the necessary task.

Occupying the vast, majority terrain between those poles are people who still don’t know too much, and don’t care too much, because they have other, more immediate matters on their minds.  There’s no point telling them they should care, that their lives, their futures, will be affected.  They are hearing white noise from both sides, and they just want it to stop.

And that is what “just get on with it,” means.  Make it stop. Make it all go away.  Let’s just get back to normal.

But of course the only road to ‘normal’ is to stay in the EU.  Stay in the EU, and call the bluff of the rabble rousers. For behind them lurk the ‘disrupters’ beloved of the gamblers, speculators, and smash and grab merchants who bankrolled, and stand to benefit, from the impoverishment of our country. Brexit means normal will be gone for as far as we can see.

There wouldn’t be riots in the streets if Brexit was halted.  There’d be grumbling in Wetherspoons, followed by a game of darts and a curry.

And unlike actually going through with Brexit, which will prolong the whole nasty, dirty, Brexity business for years to come, rescinding Article 50 and resetting the clock will rapidly do what most voters want.

It will make things go back to normal.  So, just get on with it!

Jeremy Corbyn Is A Blairite

Successful political parties have to have a purpose, and a constituency whose interests they represent.  Having shedloads of money can help to keep awkward questions at bay, but not for ever. Democracy’s a bit of a bastard like that – you can’t fool all of the people, all of the time.

Which brings us to the unholy mess that is British politics as we near the end of 2017. Omnishambles doesn’t cover it.  Malcolm Tucker is a mild mannered sweetie, temperamentally unsuited to our demented times. Alastair Campbell has morphed into the voice of reason.  For these are the End Times.

The total shitstorm, tidal wave, asteroid hit, sink hole, forest fire, flood, drought and zombie apocalypse through which we are living was made by the Conservative and Unionist Party.  Our dire, and deteriorating, position as a nation has its roots in, and its shape defined, by the decisions taken by the Tories.  The party used to look like a winner, a ‘natural party of government’, a shrewd player of the national mood, able to adapt to all the twists and turns of history in order to survive.  A party of aristocrats, firmly opposed to democracy, it invented modern political campaigning and the mass membership party.  Opposed to votes for women, it gave us the first and second women Prime Ministers.  Condemning the socialisation of medicine that was the NHS was quickly followed by the embrace of that institution. It seemed like the party of brilliant reinvention, nimbly able to own the zeitgeist.

It doesn’t feel like that now.  John Smith, Labour’s lost PM, mocked John Major’s government as one in which everything went wrong, from villages slipping into the sea, to the Grand National descending into farce.  But Major won an election when he was expected to lose, and carried on for a full term with his dignity intact.  This is much, much worse, and its quite hard to see how they escape from the mess.

The Tories have a small, elderly membership who lack the capacity for activism.  Their voter base is dying. Their purpose – other than to dread and fear Corbyn’s Labour Party – is hard to ascertain.  It certainly isn’t their purpose to deliver Brexit, because they still don’t know what it is, nor how to get it.  They don’t represent industry, they don’t even represent banking, maybe they represent some hedge funds, but that’s hardly a message to woo the electorate.  They’re a busted flush, dying before our eyes, and doing their damnedest to take the rest of the country down with them, the frightened, idiotic cowards.

But Labour.  Surely they’re in a similar mess?  The narrative of their opponents is that the party is a party of Remain, led by Eurosceptics, with a voter base which is dying a different kind of death – as Northern Leave voters wedded to industries that have gone, or are on their way out.  Contradictions all round.

Except that its not rue.  I remember writing, in 1997, that Blair’s Labour campaigned in denial of its own supporters.  They seemed to hold the Northern industrial working class – the “white working class” as some Westminster-bubbleists put it – at arms length, unwilling to be too closely associated with them and their curious ways.  A no doubt apocryphal story was that Peter Mandelson, taken to a chippy in Hartlepool, mistook mushy peas for guacamole. The story stuck, because true or not, it encapsulated an attitude.

Blair’s party also used iron control to ensure that certain kinds of black, and, particularly, Asian PPCs were not selected, mainly because they were, and looked and sounded working class, or “too black”, or “too Asian”.  The nervous Blairites wanted a party that looked and sounded youngish, metropolitan, and breezily ‘classless’ in the manner of the upwardly mobile graduates in their advance guard.

It was a neat trick to pull off at the time – but it was a trick.  They got small town, socially conservative, working class people to vote for an urban, middle class party.

Twenty years on, and small town, declining, ageing, working class areas that used to be the Labour heartlands, are Brexity places, hostile to immigrants, and receptive to, if still suspicious of Theresa May’s tall tales of ‘caring’ for the ‘just about managing’, and the ‘left behinds’.  The 2017 election gave Labour too little to be complacent about in those areas, even where they remain in the nervous hands of Labour MPs.

But 2017 showed that Corbyn was making Labour the party Blair had always wanted it to be – young, urban, educated, socially liberal.  Labour piled up voters, and new members, in the growing cities.  Its constituency, and its activist base, lies in exactly the demographic which alone can make Britain a successful country in the years ahead.  It’s in these hands – the massed ranks of the city-dwelling, first-graduates-in-the-family, articulate precariat – that both the party and the country’s future lies.

The Tories have reason to fear that their condition is terminal.  Labour ought to be more confident.  And finding a way to remove the spectre of Brexit is the key to their historic mission.  To finish off the Tory Party which has brought this country to the edge of ruin.

The Mysterious Case of the City that Lost Its Voice

In another blog post, by Tom Forth  describing what he saw as the failure of Birmingham as a city, he had this to say:

If a group of lads “looks after you car” in Liverpool, they do it in the local accent. If a similar group in Manchester or Leeds are chatting while listening to happy hardcore on the back of the bus they do it in a suitably filthy Northern accent. One of the most jarring experiences for me in Birmingham is that the same genre of lads speak not like they’re fresh out of Peaky Blinders, but more like they want to be Dizzee Rascal.

And he’s right. Something strange has happened to a city of a million people.  Birmingham has lost its distinctive accent. In the space of, say, thirty years, the accent that once was the hallmark of the city, is now a minority attribute, largely confined to the city’s outer wards; the white edge lands, where the city bleeds into the Black Country, or Warwickshire, or Worcestershire.  Densely populated inner-urban Birmingham no longer says “Tarrah a bit”, “bab”, or “bostin”, whatever the fancy postcards sold in the city’s cultural venues say.  The accent of Jess Phillips resounds with many in her Yardley constituency, but it isn’t the voice of Small Heath, Ladywood, or Alum Rock. Why?

When I happen to be on a bus when the schools come out, which happens more often than I would like, the school kids, a multi-ethnic bunch heading back to the poorer wards in a poor city, have little trace of Jess Phillips in their tones. They sound, to my ears, blandly RP-ish, except when deliberately using Black English.  When I listen more carefully, the older Asians, many educated in the city, have a hint of Brummie in their speech rhythm, but younger Asians often don’t, either adopting the emergent British Asian working class accent, or, if middle class, speaking RP.

It wasn’t always like this.  I can still remember the middle class Birmingham accent. ‘Posh’, we thought it. There’s a hint of it in Enoch Powell, still more in the former Tory MP for Birmingham Northfield, Anthony Beaumont-Dark, a Birmingham stockbroker before he entered Parliament.  The former Liberal Democrat MP Lorely Burt was a rare recent speaker of posh Brummie, as is the one time Radio Four regular, David Stafford.  Frank Skinner’s West Brom accent is close enough, but these accents are now exotically rare.

The city is one of the youngest, most diverse cities in Europe. Herein lies the explanation, I think.  White flight emptied the inner-city of the old white Birmingham working class, depositing them in the housing estates on the city edges, or even moving them out to new towns, like Telford and Daventry.  The Birmingham-accented middle class of old belonged to an era of manufacturing industry, and the regional financial services that once supported them. They too have gone, literally having no business in the city any more.

The city’s new middle class is concentrated around the five universities, the many colleges, the large teaching hospitals, and the major cultural institutions.  They are Theresa May’s ‘citizens of nowhere’, more politely described as international, and career-builders in fields where you need to be geographically mobile.  They have accents of where they came from, but their children do not grow up with a local accent, because in the schools they attend, there isn’t one.

The new working class is also international. Diaspora communities of Francophone and Lusophone Africans are present in numbers in the city, with links across the EU, as well as Africa. There’s also a new EU white working class moving into the inner-city wards where once the Irish lived. The older New Commonwealth population from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean has seen class fragment their identities, with the upwardly mobile and economically successful moving into the Edgbaston mansions once occupied by the city grandees, the professional middle classes as accentless and mobile as their white peers, and the black and Asian working classes dividing into those fiercely protecting their identities (often through religious affiliations), and those who have melted into the white working class.  This is a very mixed-race city, and elderly couples in which one partner is white, the other black or Asian, is a fairly common sight.

To go through such an acute and numerically huge population churn in such a short space of time seems to have erased the Birmingham accent, driving it to the city limits, where it merges with the more enduring West Midlands accents of small towns in former industrial shires.

But a city that loses its accent must build its identity in new ways. And that’s another story.