28 June 2016

Four Points on the Brexit Compass

I found I had to write a very different post to the one I expected to write. While I dashed off a few paragraphs almost straightaway, I have also had to revise this post on an almost daily basis. 28 June was the first time in five mornings that there was not some kind of new fact to take into account when I looked at some of the British news web-sites. As the day wore on, however, some of what I had intended to say was overtaken by events, and I have tried to write around this still developing historic happening. I offer five points to help interpret, in an historical context, what is going on in the United Kingdom.

The first point is that the political map of England has ventured on new historical territory. Traditionally, London and the Southeast offer a solid bedrock of support for a ‘Court’ party, rooted in Westminster, to which supporters in other parts of England then attach themselves. By contrast, look for a map of the votes from 23 June, and you will see that London and its educational and ideological colonies in Oxford and Cambridge -- the ‘Court’ party -- stand out quite dramatically from the rest of England. The ‘Country’ party -- in the past the King’s party in the Civil War, the Tories in the Glorious Revolution and its aftermath, the Labour party from 1918 -- has won what is possibly its first lasting victory in English history.

The second, and crucial, point is that the United Kingdom's political class has blundered on a massive scale, calling into question the legitimacy of their right to rule. The whole process was structured in such a way as to make the transition to the consequences of a Leave victory as awkward as possible. This was not a general election, in which an alternative government stands ready. Thus, complaints by people that ‘there is no plan’ are somewhat unwarranted. Blame the people responsible for the way the referendum was posed, not the winners. One could single out David Cameron, but that would be unfair. The referendum was held under a parliamentary act that MPs debated and could have amended. As a consequence of that it is going to take several years for the new dispensation to emerge from the grind of daily politics, foreign and domestic. Leave’s victory constitutes a revolutionary moment. Both the French and Russian revolutions demonstrate that this opens up several possibly pathways for the UK state, and no-one knows with any certainty where they will lead. What is being fought over now is control of the opening gambit in this process. There is no guarantee that by the time the process ends, the same people will be in charge.

The third point is that Europe is a fault-line that has run through both Britain’s major parties since the 1960s. Labour suffered the most from it at first, leading to the split that created the Social Democratic Party. The Conservative split may have cost them a majority in February 1974, but they closed ranks and it was not until the Maastricht treaty in 1992 that they split again. Meanwhile, Labour retreated from its anti-EU position very rapidly, and gradually the anti-EU wing was reduced to a tiny group in the parliamentary party, assisted by a somewhat larger one outside. But now the original split is appearing again. The problem for the UK is that the organisational structures underpinning its political system largely try very hard to avoid accommodating this divide. This is the fundamental cause of the current instability in both political parties, and result in the abdication of the political elite from government.

The fourth point is that what we see on display in the result of the referendum is the fundamental trend governing world politics today -- the emergence of the city-state network. Certain cities have reached a stage where they can transcend national borders and exist as part of a network of communities that is almost, but not quite, self-sufficient. Imagine a global polity that consisted of London, New York, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Hong Kong and other places. Might these cities have more in common with each other in the pursuit of economic and social policies than with their hinterland? I suspect so. That leaves Boston in Lincolnshire, Sunderland and other similar places in the awkward position of being ruled by this polity but having no effective political representation within it.

The life of the late Jo Cox is itself worth of a Greek tragedy on the theme of what is happening. She grew up in a community that has converted its old textile mills into shopping complexes. She educated herself, being the first in her family to go to university, and left to find more opportunities in London. There she did good work on behalf of an international charity. There, her connections to the Westminster ‘bubble’ enabled her to return home and win selection as a Labour candidate and, in due course, election as a member of parliament. Her assassination by a neo-Nazi who was left behind by the Global Polity illustrated how their share community experience a very real problem. The Global Polity draws away many of the best and brightest from places that desperately need leadership and investment to find some sort of peaceful accommodation with the future. If this is not done, the United Kingdom -- and the world -- may get a lot messier than they are today.

22 June 2016

Why I Am for #Brexit

Tomorrow will see the British people being given the same chance as they had in 1975 to vote on membership of the European project that began life as an attempt to co-ordinate economies in order to reduce the risk of yet another European-wide war and has been transformed over two-and-a-half generations into a superstate. The thing that they voted for in 1975 has changed dramatically over the subsequent forty years. It is a very different decision.

The campaign, on both sides, has been a disgusting display of fear-mongering and prejudice, punctuated by the assassination of a member of parliament by a neo-Nazi. We are all the poorer for what has happened.

The choice is whether the people of the UK want to be part of the EU under the terms negotiated by David Cameron, or whether to leave the EU altogether. Do not pretend that these new terms put the UK at the heart of Europe. Cameron has negotiated away much of the ability of the UK to influence the future direction of the European Union. There is no chance that this will change for the foreseeable future unless you believe that the Conservative Party will lose its majority in the next election, and a pro-European alternative emerge.

It gives me no pleasure to say that in my opinion the best choice for future generations of Britons is to vote for #Brexit. I am forced to associate with people whom I frequently regard as wrong. But in this case, whatever their reasons for agreeing with me in this binary choice, theirs is the correct position when the matter is viewed as a whole. I will briefly explain why.

The campaign to vote Leave has been a fearsome display of 'othering' that conceals the fact that the United Kingdom needs immigration. But the reality is that the UK can control that immigration more easily if it does not contend with the free movement of people throughout Europe. Having left, the UK will be in a position to improve access for people from Commonwealth countries.

Let us be realistic -- the people of the UK will tolerate a number of immigrants. But this number is an absolute one. If you want a whiter, more culturally Western population, vote for Remain. A victory for Leave will mean UK immigration will be browner and more likely to include those of non-Christian faiths. But in this the UK will look more like its kin in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

As a part of Europe, the UK government has allowed those connections to diminish, although the people of the UK have done a better job of keeping them going. This is exactly the point that was made at the beginning of the UK's long debate over the EU in the time of Harold Macmillan's government (1957-63). The postman arriving at the homes of Britons brought letters from family in those former settler colonies on a frequent basis, while the emerging economies of newly independent countries in Africa and Asia would suffer from joining a Common Market that would place tarrifs on their agricultural goods. We cannot exactly go back to those days, but these links are not extinct, merely atrophied because of the UK's membership of the EU.They can be reactivated, but it will take time. They will not replace the EU. It is a politico-cultural community, not an economic one.

Meanwhile, the campaign for Remain has created a horror story about the economic future for a UK outside the EU. Much of this is grossly exaggerated, and neglects the fact that the UK, by not being part of the single currency, is already not at the centre of European economic decision-making. Because the UK remains part of the World Trade Organisation, and because the UK is an important market for the EU, trade with the EU will continue under no worse trading conditions that the UK has with any other country that is part of the WTO, but not part of the EU.

The EU will do all in its power to make the UK suffer the worst possible terms of trade, because it is the EU that is afraid of its future should the UK leave. If the UK makes a successful transitions within the WTO but without the EU, then other countries will certainly follow. We only need to look at poor Greece, whose citizens attempted to defy the EU within the single currency, to see how frightened the EU leadership is of members trying to adjust the terms of their relationship with this ugly economic monolith.

We also hear about how workers will lose all their rights, and how the NHS will go unfunded. Well, these are political decisions, and asking a foreign authority to guarantee your rights or the funding of your health service seems to indicate that you don't deserve them. These are things I am in favour of -- the rights of workers to minimums standards and a well-funded national health service free at the point of access -- and I am willing to take the risk that the British people can be convinced these are valuable things in and of themselves, and not just because of a treaty with foreign powers. And, let's not forget, what the EU gives to workers in the social chapter, it can also take away when it adopts measures to protect the interests of big business.

The rest of the Remain argument can be boiled down to 'the EU is not that bad, really, in terms of democracy'. Oh, but it is. The one time the EU project was derailed was when the French and the Dutch voted against the proposed European Constitution in 2005. And all the EU leaders did was to negotiate a treaty at Lisbon to impose much of the constitutional arrangements anyway. The EU is not democratic in any meaningful way, but a conspiracy against the ordinary people of Europe by their own governments in order to facilitate a continental economic policy because it suits big business.

Let us not fool ourselves. There are people working to reform this appalling entity, but there is no mass movement to do so, and there hasn't been since the 'democratic deficit' became an issue a generation ago. Anyone who thinks the EU can be meaningfully reformed from within is ignoring the dynamic of history.

The one strong argument deployed by Remain is the constitutional one. There is a grave risk that a vote for Leave will cause Scotland to go its own way, in the hope of staying part of the European project, and a lesser one that Northern Ireland might follow suit. But the Union is already in doubt, and there is no guarantee that Scotland would vote to continue the Union in five or ten years. I will say this: if a vote for Remain would guarantee the Union would continue for another ten generations, then I would set aside all my doubts and vote Remain. I do not believe this is so.

The world is a very different place than it was in the 1950s, when the Soviet Union and the United States threatened to turn Europe into an atomic battlefield. The EU is having far more trouble with coping with this change than the UK could acting alone.

Voting Leave is to take a tremendous risk. But voting to Remain is to lock the UK away in a cage that will see it continue to lose touch with its historical relations, to risk seeing the economy trapped in the disaster that is the single currency's austerity regime, and to distort the relationship between UK Labour and UK Capital by placing a higher referee over them that is not subject to direct democratic accountability by the people of the UK. This is probably the last chance the UK will have to withdraw in my lifetime. I hope it takes it.