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.

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“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!