The English Civil War

Brexit shimmers, or looms, depending on taste, either tantalisingly within grasp, or as an iceberg of stupidity towards which the British luxury liner, captained by a terrified and indecisive Theresa May, is heading at speed.  I tend to the latter view.  The band plays on, conducted by a ‘white face’ Cab Callaway, in the far less elegant form of the Foreign Secretary. Jumping Jive.

The question now is why?  Why are we still in the grip of the Brexit toxin?

The politicians all know it is a catastrophe.  The voters, most of whom didn’t give a toss about the EU either way before 2016, are confused, and, so the polls suggest, are gradually becoming more worried.  They don’t know what is happening, but have an uneasy sense that it is all going wrong.  Business is screaming, scrambling for bases in Frankfurt and Amsterdam, or sullenly hoarding the money the country needs them to invest, for fear that hard times – seriously bad, as Trump might say – are around the corner.  So why not ditch the whole thing?

I got a sense of the answer whilst watching the film, The Death of Stalin.  Like the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1953, our leaders wield their power with assertions of determination, and an inner dread.  They, too, cannot trust their colleagues – every alliance can turn on a sixpence from a strength into a death sentence.  Beyond the walls of the Kremlin were the people.  Some of those people, (shall we call them ‘experts’?) are doctors, intellectuals, artists, scientists.  These are people the politicians hold suspect.  It is imperative to threaten and crush them, to imprison, and exile them.  And then there is the mob, the people they sentimentalise in public, and sneer at in private.  They fear the people.

They fear the people here, and now.  For ‘the people have spoken’.  Brexit is ‘the will of the people’. I heard a Tory MP say, “I didn’t vote to Leave, but the people made a decision, and we must deliver what they voted for.”

There is no way to get around the fact that a vote was held in June 2016, and a simple majority of those voting, on a high turnout, voted for the proposition that Britain should leave the European Union.  Yes, it was stupid to call the referendum at all on such a complex issue, and yes, it was even more stupid not to impose some routine safeguards on a vote of such huge importance, such as thresholds for turnout, and for a 2/3 majority.  But David Cameron’s stupidity is now being compounded, because the Tory Party, and to some extent, the other parties in England, really do think that something called ‘the will of the people’ has been expressed – and it frightens them to the core.

The referendum campaign unleashed sentiments, licensed modes of expression, toxified politics to the point of murder.  Not hyperbole, but fact.  Brexit incited the assassination of one of their own.  Before the referendum I heard it said that politicians are frightened of the voters, and it struck me as true. After the referendum, those fearful ‘leaders’ think their fears were justified.

The Scots obviously don’t share that fear.  In the North of Ireland, different rules apply.  But it is instructive that the Welsh devolved government, despite the pro-Brexit vote in the Principality, also doesn’t fear riots in the streets of Merthyr if Brexit were to be stopped.  It’s a matter of integration, if I can borrow a phrase from the opponents of multiculturalism.  The politicians outside Westminster have integrated with their voters in a way that the priestly caste in London have not.  (This also explains the phenomenon of Corbyn.  Whatever else one might say about him, he doesn’t fear the voters.)

For the referendum in England ignited a kind of English civil war.  Not the one the Tories tried to exploit in the 2015 general election, an English nationalism defined against the Scots.  This is a true English civil war, a war of myriad grievances and many sides, and one over which Westminster has little control, and the London media has little comprehension.  It’s a war caused by political failure on a grand scale.

Most local government in England now has little power, and even less money.  Voters don’t completely understand this, and it suits Westminster to deflect the blame. This has all whittled away confidence and trust in politicians, as they seem (and often are) powerless.  Forces over which we have no control run our services.  Academy chains looting schoolchildren, energy companies raiding our bank accounts, social housing in the hands of businesses with an eye on the bottom line.  It has all weakened the implicit social contract.

Add to all that the generational inequalities now made stark, the specifics of regional deprivation after the deliberate deindustrialisation of swathes of the country, and the growing cultural gap between the city on the one hand, and smaller towns, and the shires, and the coastal belt, on the other, and we have the shape of this messy English civil war.

‘Delivering Brexit’ won’t fix any of that.  It’s already making it worse.

England had a civil war in the 17th Century, too.  The dominant narrative about that time is that there was an Interregnum under Cromwell, after which the natural order was restored along with the Monarchy.  The alternative view is that the English Civil War was a revolution, which led to a fundamental change in the state and its institutions, and in the relationship of the state to the people.

History doesn’t repeat itself.  Which is not to say there aren’t lessons.

Our politicians need to integrate with the people once more.  The state and its institutions must be reformed to be fit for the 21st Century. Power must be decentralised, and democratic accountability for services restored.

We must have fundamental change. And we mustn’t have Brexit.

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Theresa May – What’s She For?

Who didn’t feel a bat squeak of pity for Theresa May as her political life ran into the buffers on live TV?  But the instinctive human sympathy we may feel is of a generic, rather than a specific, kind.  For who thinks they ‘know’ Theresa May? The Maybot label stuck for a reason.

A long time ago, though still after she, and her party, had lost power, I had reason to think about Margaret Thatcher.  And I could not get my head around her at all.  Men from the more patrician wing of her party spoke of her as ‘lower middle class’, a shopkeeper’s daughter, a provincial grammar school girl. I’m some of those things, but they gave me no way in to Thatcher’s brain, her motivation, her stubbornness, and her astonishing resilience.  I couldn’t crack the enigma of Thatcher until I read something said by one of her near contemporaries and political opponents, Barbara Castle.

Castle’s diary entry on the day Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Tory Party has the then Labour Cabinet minister describing Thatcher standing before the flashlights of the press photographers, smiling.  “I know that look,” says Barbara Castle of Margaret Thatcher. “She is in love.  In love with power, and with herself.”

Did Theresa May ever look like a woman in love?  She was a bit of a looker at Oxford, if the photograph I’ve seen of her in sultry mood, her pre-Raphaelite locks cascading down her back, is anything to go by.  But politically, May has never seemed to embody that iron self-confidence.  Political love, like political hate, is a powerful, unsentimental thing.  It emanates from a clear sense of political purpose.

And here we have the problem with Theresa.  She doesn’t have any sense of political purpose.

From the time she was old enough to make sense of social conditions in the mill towns of Lancashire, Barbara Castle had burning political convictions, and one way or another, the architect of the Equal Pay Act strove to make them happen.  The young Margaret Roberts might have come of age in Attlee’s socialist paradise, but no mere social climber on the make, the second Mrs. Thatcher wanted to project her vision of individual responsibility and a small state onto the whole nation – and she did it.

Theresa May wanted to be Prime Minister from her teenage years, and was apparently a bit miffed that Thatcher denied her the opportunity to be the first woman in that role.  That much is in the public record.  What is harder to understand is why?  What did she enter politics to do?

May, is a cultural Tory, not an ideological one.  The traditional cultural Tory of her generation thought ideas a little suspect, ideologies rather vulgar, and valued hard work and obedience over natural brilliance and creativity.  May’s views on any issue seem to come from whichever trusted figure is speaking into her ear – Vicar father, teacher, political aide, whoever – rather than issuing from her own core beliefs.

This is evident in May’s ill-fated conference speech this week. She can steal a policy from Labour without the slightest sense of discomfort, because a policy is just a ‘thing’ – what matters is that it is implemented (or probably not) by a Tory like her.

It’s even more evident in her response to Brexit.  Many commentators have spoken of May in Machiavellian terms, backing Remain, but keeping below the radar, better to snatch the crown from Cameron if he lost the referendum vote.  I was prepared to buy that, too, until May showed that we were projecting too much cleverness and guile onto her.  May was able to embrace Brexit, because like anything else – energy prices, social housing, racial discrimination, student fees – Brexit is just a ‘thing’ which can be bodged together as some policy announcements and maybe a bit of legislation to the accompaniment of a cheerleading press.  Easy-peasy.

And so we reach this point. Because politics isn’t a game.  It is about having principles, a view of human nature and what is possible, a clear sighted sense of how we got to where we are, and how we might proceed to somewhere better.  From those things, and those things alone, come policy prescriptions.

May doesn’t seem to have any identifiable principles, she doesn’t have an analysis of the state we are in, and therefore she cannot put together a clear set of policies.  She is out of her depth.  And so is her whole party.

What We’ve Learned Since The Referendum – And What We Haven’t

A year ago an ecstatic Theresa May was queen of all she surveyed, an unassailable leader  confronted by an opposition of staggering weakness (and that was only the opposition within her own party).  Perhaps she might well have reflected, from her suite in the Birmingham Hyatt, that one year before that, David Cameron was looking out at the view from his hotel room, triumphant at being the first Tory leader in 23 years to deliver a parliamentary majority. Next year they’re back in Birmingham, and it’s quite likely that the next occupant of that suite will be a different person – and, quite possibly, not even PM?

So what changed in June 2016?  Everything, and nothing.

The Tories who gather in Manchester today are the same old same old they have been since John Major described his own Cabinet colleagues as “bastards”.  It ceased to be a conservative party under Margaret Thatcher, but somehow the membership didn’t notice.  They ‘conserve’ nothing, cherish no tradition but their own iron grip on the levers of power, and regard electoral politics as a cynical game.  That they lost office between 1997 and 2010 is unimportant – because the politics of that era was dominated, and constrained, by the small state, free market, globalist assumptions of the Tories.  Margaret Thatcher looked upon Tony Blair and said as much.

And yet the Tories are, as Norman Lamont once said of his colleagues, “In office, but not in power.”  Authority, confidence, certainty have drained from the Tory Party.  The election result in June isn’t what brought about their catastrophe, though.  It was the 2016 referendum.

Forget fevered speculation about the loutish and embarrassing Foreign Secretary and his ambitions, or the supposed plots of the desiccated calculating machine that is Philip Hammond.  The Adams Family retainers, IDS and Chris Grayling, may whine on, forever spouting their grubby Brexity fantasies.  None of that matters.  Brexit still only means Brexit.

For Brexit still has the same leaders.  BoJo the Clown.  Kermit Farage. The absurd Daniel Hannan.  The ageing groupies, Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart.  Think about it.

In the wake of a great victory, people leap upon the bandwagon.  They see the direction of travel, and, opportunists, or chancers, or dedicated followers of fashion, they want to be where its at.  And 2016 was a great victory for the Brexit leadership.  So why haven’t their ranks swelled?  Why aren’t seekers of power and influence after a piece of the action?  Why aren’t the politically ambitious young swamping social media with their witty Brexitry?

So ask the other relevant question.  Who now leads Remain?

Not David Cameron, that’s for sure.  Alan Johnson’s an author now.  Those who fronted the Remain campaign – and badly – have fled the scene of the accident.  But no matter, for Remain in the EU has new leaders now.  And just look at them!

The key (effective) leaders of Remain are largely extra-parliamentary, often youthful, highly expert, and inventive and committed.  They are grassroots activists, most effective when they are cross-party.  I know all this, because I watched it happen, from the first day after the referendum result.  Strangers discovering one another through social media, crowd-funding initiatives, like the EU flags at the BBC Proms, or disseminating one anothers’ memes.  Brainstorming ideas for novel protests, creating Twitterstorms, coalescing into local groups, and becoming a genuine insurgency.

This is the biggest problem for the Brexiter leadership, for the voters they mobilised in 2016 saw in the referendum whatever they wanted to see, rather than a single, concrete cause.  Moreover, those voters were older and less educated than their opponents.  For all the wild imaginings of those fantasists, Farage, and Arron Banks, there will be no ‘riots in the streets’ if Brexit (whatever that is) doesn’t happen.  However much the Brexit campaign may have fired up small movements of the far right, and radicalised lone extremists and political assassins, there is no Brexit ‘movement’.  From Liam Fox’s ludicrous vision of an Anglosphere, to Dan Hannan’s world fit for hedge funds, these are not visions that command any popular resonance – as the election result showed.

And yet the pantomime of Brexit talks continues, the hapless Michel Barnier locked up with the Brexit Bulldog and ‘master negotiator’, David Davis, talking over one another to no effective purpose.  Because my side is very good at exposing the absurdity of Brexit to the satisfaction of ourselves, but we are not good enough at playing the political game.

Today’s march in Manchester is a case in point.  The strategy so far has focused on legal challenges, technicalities, and pressure on political parties.  We did well to mobilise a sufficient degree of tactical voting (and young voter registration) to deprive May of a Brexit Mandate in June, but while that is necessary, it is not sufficient.

To stop Brexit, we need to change the polling numbers.  It’s the only thing to which politicians will respond. (Look at the Tory panic, throwing out previously unthinkable policy ideas, and seeking magic money trees, as they fear the iron logic of polls showing that younger voters find them toxic.)  But so far, the 48/52 polling numbers on Brexit seem largely stuck.  They may have reversed, but that’s not good enough.  Until we hit at least 60/40 in favour of Remain, the parliamentary political dynamic will not change.  Tory Remainers will cling to party loyalty, and Labour will strive to maintain its opacity and ambiguity.

So how do we change the poll numbers – and fast?

By first, understanding the Leave voters.  Those who persist in labelling them all ‘thick’, ‘stupid’, and ‘racist’ help to keep the polls static.  No one holds their hands up and says, “yes, I was a thick racist, but now you’ve pointed it out, I’ll change my mind.”  So an end to abuse in any serious debate (what the Daily Mash does is another matter).

The Leave vote is not monolithic.  Scottish fishermen voted Leave for different reasons from unemployed people in the South Wales valleys.  The comfortable, elderly middle class in the Tory shires had different motivations from angry WASPI women protesting against pension unfairness in the North East of England.  South Asians who were misled about Brexit making it easier for their families to get visas to attend family weddings are surely open to other arguments?  We need to map out where the Brexit vote is softest, and strategically target those groups with our honest, friendly, constructive messages.

That is what we haven’t done, because it is not a message we have yet learned.

The Remain campaign now needs to step up its popular appeal, and to speak honestly to people outside our circles.  We can do this.  And we must.