Last Sunday, thousands marched through London in support of freedom of speech. You wouldn’t know it to look at most national papers. The rally featured a range of speakers including libertarian-left Scot ‘Count Dankula’ (best known for being convicted and fined for teaching his girlfriend’s pug to perform a Nazi salute on video) along with alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and former EDL leader, Tommy Robinson.
Not a nice bunch, for the most part, if you’re of a generally leftish persuasion. Fine. But here’s why gender critical feminists should stand with Tommy Robinson, who has been permanently banned from Twitter for posting material critical of Islam. Because when it comes to defending free speech – even for abhorrent views – provided that speech stops short of inciting violence, he’s right.
The mealy-mouthed phrase ‘Oh of course I believe in freedom of speech, but…’ is heard ever more often among those who wish to be seen as nice, progressive, normal and appropriately leftish. And as it creeps further into normal language, it is increasingly not just those on the fringes of the Overton window who fall victim to the ever narrower definition of what is and is not acceptable speech to make freely.
Having mobilised free speech arguments to challenge the status quo from the 1960s onwards, the New Left has by now (for all that it lost the economic one) comprehensively won the culture war. But, having won, the New Left has gone on to develop an ideological immune system to consolidate that victory, and to prevent any insurgent ideas from threatening its hegemony.
One might characterise this immune system as a determined collective capacity to ignore, mock, smear, misrepresent, delegitimise and where necessary deploy more forceful methods of silencing any voice on the fringes of public discourse that challenges its orthodoxies. Adherence to these orthodoxies is enforced – on pain of expulsion from ‘polite society’ – every bit as pervasively as was regular churchgoing once upon a time. Nowhere is this more clear than in the trans juggernaut.
Not content with its admirable achievements in promoting equal treatment for all humans regardless of race, sex or faith, the New Left continues on a relentless pursuit of personal ‘liberation’ for each individual from all restraints of social convention, faith or even pragmatic common sense. Lately, it transpires, we must all go even further, and be liberated even from settled biological fact: men can be female, and women male; all humans must be freed to transcend their own embodied state, to be whatever they feel they are. To gainsay any individual’s personal identity is, now, to commit an act of intensely personal and cruel violence against an individual’s very sense of self and freedom.
The majority of the left sees this straightforwardly in terms of the next civil rights struggle, now that the one for lesbian and gay equality has been won. It is not enough that we have the Gender Recognition Act, which attempts to balance the right to gender self-expression against the rights of women and children to single-sex spaces. Rather trans activism seeks to force into accepted orthodoxy the notion that biological sex is meaningless, and instead all individuals have a ‘gender identity’, which can be changed in law by a simple administrative procedure (I’ve written about this here).
Women who dare ask questions about how this will impact sex discrimination regulations, gendered violence data gathering, pay gap data gathering, women’s shelters, prisons or changing rooms must be treated as though this new shibboleth is already orthodoxy: they must be silenced, utterly. Doxxing, threats of violence, physical assaults, lobbying Parliament to have the phrase ‘trans-identified male’ reclassified as hate crime are some of the tactics in common use. Mumsnet – one of the few online spaces where critical discussion around transgender activism is not heavily moderated – has seen its advertisers targeted by trans activism keen to pressure Mumsnet into implementing a more forceful moderation policy.
Within the more mainstream politics, a 19-year-old intact male who identifies as a woman was elected as a women’s officer; at least one Labour member objecting to this have been expelled from the Labour Party following a frankly disturbing Orwellian interview; hundreds of women have resigned in protest and the general response of the left appears to be ‘ok fine, good riddance, bye’.
Women are being silenced. Left-wing women. Nowhere is this more painfully clear than in the push to deplatform Linda Bellos, a veteran lesbian feminist and founder of Black History Month. The mechanisms employed are the same ones as are used to silence other wicked, excluded voices: smears, harassment, and – wherever possible – the levers of law, power, government. And, because the left long since abandoned its previous spirited defence of free speech in favour of protecting its cultural victories via a policy of selected censorship (‘curated speech’ instead of free speech) left-wing women now have no defence against these parasites hollowing out liberation politics for their own purposes. Those feminists protesting at the female-bodied collateral damage that is starting to pile up up in the cause of freeing men to ‘be women’ are instead facing, at the hands of their former comrades on the left, the same tactics that the left has long since used to consolidate its cultural hegemony.
I shan’t quote anyone directly, but I see the hurt, frustration and rage boiling up. ‘What the fuck do you mean, we’re on the wrong side of history???’. How fucking dare you other, marginalise, smear, delegitimise us, who have so long been dutiful soldiers in the noble cause?
And yet, there it is: without the free speech argument, this will continue. It will get worse. The purges will continue within the left. Maybe we’ll see new orthodoxies starting to creep in that don’t even sound very left-wing at all, but can be justified with reference to liberation, equality, discrimination.
I decided to take this out of my replies to some tweets and do a thread because this ‘Paedophile Manifesto’ is so chilling it needs its own analysis and exposure. I’m only half way through as it is just making me so angry.
— Dr EM (@PankhurstEM) May 1, 2018
I was passed a ‘Paedophile Manifesto’ entitled ‘The handbook’ published 2015 on https://t.co/dIh6IunAPd to have a look at. It spends pages and pages talking about how to normalise what they refer to as ‘Adult-Child Sexual Relationships’. pic.twitter.com/o4RwegIksc
— Dr EM (@PankhurstEM) May 1, 2018
Look, I get it. If you’re a gender-critical feminist, you’re possibly a radical feminist. You’re 99.9999999% likely to be pretty left-wing. The cultural revolution is your baby. But babies grow up, and without checks and balances this one’s growing up mean.
The no-platforming, harassment, mockery, ostracism starts out being just for people you don’t like, and don’t agree with. So you don’t speak up. Then they’re gunning for people you thought were basically okay, but maybe you were wrong and anyway you’re afraid to speak out in case you get blowback. Then, suddenly, they’re coming for people a whole lot like you, to stifle an issue you actually really care about.
This isn’t just about saving women from a misogynistic campaign to abolish legal recognition of sex differences in the name of a spurious freedom to ape the behavioural stereotypes imposed on the opposite sex. It’s about retaining, for the left, the ability to save the left from itself – an ability that looks worryingly to be already hanging by a thread. Gender critical feminists are the canaries in the left-wing coalmine. Without a spirited defence of free speech – yes, even for Tommy Robinson – the left will incrementally be taken over by and for interests a long way from the oppressed, the powerless, the voiceless whom the left claim to wish to represent, lift up and defend. Misogynists; paedophiles; those who seek to reintroduce blasphemy laws. It’s all coming.
Gender critical feminists: this is bigger even than a battle to keep the rights women have won. It’s a fight for the soul of liberation politics. Without a spirited left-wing defence of free speech – and let’s face it, this is a pretty radical suggestion nowadays – the left is a sitting duck. For while its immune system is effective at purging antagonists, it is defenceless against parasites. Transgenderism is just the first of many ideological parasites: it has already colonised most mainstream LGB lobby groups. More will follow, each dripping with the magic aura of liberation, open-mindedness, toleration, equality, justice, inclusion and an end to discrimination. Opposing these parasites will mean falling foul of the prohibition on any thought, speech or action that can be painted as discriminatory, intolerant, exclusionary or bigoted.
The only such defence that stands the test of time is the free speech defence, and that means defending it even for those whose views we dislike. It’s time to hold your noses and stand with Tommy Robinson.
In a Quillette article about universal basic income and the risk of tyranny, Shai Shapira makes a highly plausible case that political participation develops in direct proportion to the need a state has for its citizens:
We don’t have to go back to ancient history to see this trend – these days we have many countries in the world whose incomes are based on extracting resources from the ground, requiring little to no participation from the common people. Which countries are functioning democracies, and which are autocracies? The World Bank gives us a list of countries ordered by what percentage of their merchandise exports comes from fuels. At 50% or more we find, in this order: Iraq, Angola, Algeria, Brunei, Kuwait, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Oman, Norway, Colombia, Bolivia and Bahrain. Can we notice a trend? How many of these countries provide a good set of political rights for their citizens?
This should not be surprising. This pattern is not often discussed, as it conflicts the image we like to have of political rights as being the result of enlightenment and struggle, of the heroes of our past who overthrew despotic regimes and created a better world for everyone. But reality, unfortunately, seems more cynical than that. We do not get our rights because we deserve them, or even because we fight for them – we get our rights because the government needs us. It is a common hope that countries that escape poverty will move on to adopt democracy, and this indeed happened in some notable cases, like South Korea or Taiwan. But South Korea and Taiwan became rich from industry, which means their wealth came from the work of their citizens; meanwhile, Qatar or Angola became rich from natural resources, and their political situation became no better. A country that generates its wealth from its citizens has no choice but to keep those citizens happy, at least to some degree; a country that generates its wealth from oil wells, only needs to keep a handful of mercenaries happy as they guard the access to those wells.
The article is well worth a read. But for me it sparked off a connection with the strange phenomenon we live with nowadays, that of a Labour Party that gives voice to pretty much anyone except the labouring classes. Put simply, the working classes no longer have a major party giving them political representation because the state no longer needs them, and arguably has been working for some decades to ensure that continues to be the case.
Applying Shapira’s insights to the development of mass political participation in the UK, the hypothesis remains plausible. Despite some decades of suffragette agitation, it was not until 1918, when women began to be needed as participants in civic life to replace the men being shipped off to die en masse in the trenches of Europe, that the first women were enfranchised. What is less often remembered is that the same Act also enfranchised some 5 million non-property-owning men. The state needed these men and women – hey presto, improved political participation was the sweetener demanded by the masses in exchange.
Throughout the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries, the United Kingdom derived much of its wealth from manufacturing; the workers who staffed the factories were needed. The same period traces a trajectory of ever-growing mass political participation, and is often narrated as a moral development, a steady march towards enlightenment in the form of the universal franchise. But was it as much about the need to acknowledge reciprocity between the working masses and the political class? The extent to which workers were increasingly able to use the leverage their labour in industry collectively gave them, to demand political concessions from a previously patrician governing class, forms the history of the trade union movement and, from 1900 onwards, the Labour Party.
What followed from the end of World War II until the Winter of Discontent and subsequent election of Margaret Thatcher is, arguably, a tale of this leverage developing first into its strength, then beyond strength to complacency, hubris and stagnation. We all know the denouement, as rolling blackouts left swathes of the country reading by candlelight, rubbish lay uncollected in the streets and the Iron Lady declared ‘There is no alternative’ and deployed all the resources at her disposal to smash the unions. In her grim determination to rein in the unfettered power of trade unionism to bring the country to a standstill, she shuttered entire industries and impoverished vast swathes of the United Kingdom, changes still palpable (and, in parts of the country, unforgiven) today.
Thatcher moved deliberately to tilt the UK’s economy away from manufacturing and towards knowledge and services – notably financial services, the behemoth that now sits astride London, sucking in all cultural capital from the surrounding 300 miles as well as much of the world. That is, she restructured the entire British economy so that the state no longer needed the working classes as it had in the 19th and 20th centuries. Who knows whether she did this intentionally to reduce the workers’ leverage over the state, but that was the effect of the changes she wrought.
The consequence, nearly 40 years on from her first election victory, is that as the political classes’ dependence on a mass industrial workforce has waned, political parties on both left and right are increasingly indifferent to their needs.
Indeed, Tony Blair’s decision in 2004 to open the UK borders to Eastern European EU accession countries meant that the working classes were needed even less than before. Where, a century previously, the supply of labour was relatively static and if the state wanted to ask something significant of the working masses then political sweeteners were needed in exchange, now in the days of free movement it didn’t even matter if the indigenous working classes withheld their labour, as employers would just import replacements from the EU!
Thus was the bond of reciprocity broken between the state and the working classes. Commentators on both right and left now agree – as do the statistics and Labour’s own data – that Labour is now firmly a party of the middle class. Indeed, there is a distinct whiff around much of the left these days of disgust at the working class, as Brendan O’Neill never tires of pointing out.
It is no wonder that Labour ceased to see its role as representing the interests of those workers: they had nowhere else to go and would probably continue to vote Labour, so could be taken for granted. The result has been a hollowed-out Labour Party, reduced from a grand coalition of middle-class socialists and working-class firebrands to a kind of well-off clerisy, shy of talking about class but ever so keen to tell you what to think. Ultimately, it has led us to Jeremy Corbyn, a man who speaks entirely to and for the middle classes (free university tuition fees is the sort of outrageous middle-class bung that the Tories would be pilloried for) but does so in a strange, stylised parody of the 1970s, the last days of the trade union Raj.
The only difference between left and right on this front, today, is the consensus on how large the welfare-state bung should be to buy off now politically-irrelevant class. Stereotypically, the Conservatives believe the working masses should be handed free money, buck up, get jobs, pay taxes and become needed by the state so they can participate politically; this view is indifferent to any barriers to doing so. In contrast, Labour believes this class should be treated with patrician generosity, and handed as much free money as necessary to keep them quiescent. In practice, both sides operate the same welfare system, with minor tweaks at the edges blown up by the Westminster bubble into giant ideological differences.
So what is to become of the working masses now? What chance of reclaiming representation? Movements come and go that seek to represent working-class interests: Britain First, the EDL, the Football Lads’ Alliance. Such movements are generally demonised as ‘far-right’ by the chattering classes; and (with the exception of the mass working-class vote to leave the European Union) these movements are largely cultural rather than political, pushing back less against contemporary politics than incursions by foreigners, or political correctness, or other manifestations of the elite’s vision of the good life. If Shapira’s formulation holds good, the masses will have little success in reclaiming political representation until they are actually needed again by the state that governs them. And in a world of increasing robotisation which, instead, proposes to make an ever-greater proportion of the population unnecessary to a state’s prosperity, that seems a prospect both distant and, in its profound implications for the health of our democracy, deeply worrying.
Theresa May’s big conference announcement for the day was…wait for it…extra dosh for Help to Buy.
Great. Fantastic. Muted applause.
The announcement disappoints, on so many levels.
Level one: it’s a stupid policy that will make the situation it proposes to ameliorate worse. Why is there a crisis in the first place? Housing prices are too high. What happens when you increase demand (give more young people the means to buy) without increasing supply accordingly? Prices go up. It’s barely even a sticking plaster on an endemic problem that will take a degree of political boldness undetectable in this government.
Level two: it’s weak and calculating, and trying not to look that way. The Tories are in a bind, because no-one young votes Tory. To entice more young voters their way, they need to do something to help more young people become the property-owning middle classes that traditionally vote Tory. That means building enough houses to keep prices stable or encourage them to fall. But on the other hand, housebuilding on that scale will annoy the older people who like the countryside as it is, and who see the rising value of their home as a nest egg. These are people who already reliably vote Tory. So, May must choose whether to protect the interests of the Tories’ core vote or risk alienating this core vote in order to appeal to another demographic that may or may not be swayed by her efforts. She has tried to square this circle, with a policy that will enable more young people to get a toe on the housing ladder, while ignoring the need to increase supply; her policy will thus avoid too much desecration of the sacred Green Belt and continue to drive up house prices, hopefully keeping the core Tory vote on board. Everyone wins, right? Except it’s a stupid policy that just defers the fundamental problem, which is either too few houses or too many people. She must know well that this is the case but lacks the clout, the boldness or perhaps the vision to do more than paper over the cracks and try to keep these competing interests onside.
Level three, and fundamentally, this policy disappoints because it’s such a sad capitulation to the bland, vision-less, tinkering-with-the-dials modern politics of ‘me, me, me’. What will the government do for me? What about my interests? Sod the country, I’m voting for whoever has the best deal for me. Forget having a vision and trying to govern in the national interest. Forget trying to carry the people with you when you do so. Ignore the big questions, fiddle with this tax or that incentive, try and triangulate for as many selfish subsets of the demos as you can isolate.
Whatever what your views on Brexit, it is clear that many people voted Leave knowing full well it was likely to result in an economically bumpy ride but believing that leaving was in the national interest regardless. By and large it was a vote that rejected the selfish nest-feathering insularity of retail politics in favour of a bigger vision. In uncertain times, faced with many competing narratives to explain ever more unpredictable outcomes, the Brexit vote spoke of a people – 52% of them, anyway – looking for a politics that is more about vision than retail offers. Arguably the popularity of Corbyn’s unaffordable promises speaks to the same impulse. But has May sensed the national hunger for vision and boldness in politics? Has she fuck. After her disastrous attempt at grasping nettles in the national interest – the so-called ‘dementia tax’, a genuinely bold and progressive effort to stop kicking the pretty troubling can of elderly care down the road – she has retreated from the big picture into the horse-trading politics of buying off this or that demographic.
What the Conservatives need is a leader with the courage and vision to make a clear case for tackling the country’s vested interests and getting the political consent for this by inspiring political solidarity. In the case of housing that means getting the NIMBYs to accept that they have to choose between keeping their pretty view at the expense of a thriving community, or letting development happen so their children can afford to buy in the area. We need someone who can speak to the whole country and draw out a sense of solidarity, of being willing to compromise so that the country overall can thrive.
The Conservatives were once able to find the kind of language to capture that kind of purpose and collective endeavour. Sadly, though, Mrs May has shrunk from the task in hand and I don’t see any likely successor who strike me as more plausible. So instead we get a shit policy that aims to buy off one group while keeping another pacified. A policy, and a party, that utterly fails to meet the mood of the times but instead harks back to the selfish, narcissistic politics of the ‘End of History’ post-Cold War era. A policy and party that resolutely refuses to acknowledge the fact that history has come roaring back, and that our current elected representatives are painfully, woefully not up to the job of dealing with it.
What are British values
Freedom, tolerance, gender equality?
Compared to the power of a theocratic Game of Thrones drama, it’s laughably weak
But the Euro elites’ response to each Islamist atrocity is the same – no passion or pride for country because that’s just what the enemy wants.
Obsessive clinging to a bloodless ideal of what Europe is, underpinned by a generalised fear of nationalism and pervasive guilt about our past deeds and present wealth; everyone wants to come here, but we ourselves are forbidden to be proud of it.
Americans recite the oath of allegiance, salute the flag, hang flags everywhere. In Britain the same level of patriotism would be seen as incitement to racism, a foible of the working classes to be tolerated with a shudder.
No wonder radicalism is able to flourish here: the intelligentsia of the country of Shakespeare, Austen and Wordsworth, Watson and Crick, Darwin, Sir Christopher Wren and indeed Sir Norman Foster is ashamed of its past and culture.
Anyone wrestling with how to reinvigorate the Labour Party should try this simple thought experiment: Imagine the Labour Party were started today, by chavs, for chavs. What policies would it have? How would these policies be funded? And – importantly – how much would it care about the issues currently tearing the Labour Party apart?
In his book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class Owen Jones, the baby-faced darling of the modern left, argues forcefully that by mocking, sneering at or dismissing ‘chavs’ we are contributing to a modern form of class snobbery that effectively blames the working class – or what the working class has now become, in the post-industrial era – for what has politically been done to it via de-industrialisation and Thatcherism.
In this he does at least draw the obvious conclusion, namely that chav is another way of saying ‘working class’. But the book’s argument misses some other important points, perhaps because they hit rather closer to home.
In particular: if chavs are what we now call the working class, why is the Labour Party not stuffed with chavs? Why are chavs not setting the cultural, ideological and political priorities of the Labour Party? Why, instead, does its membership tilt overwhelmingly towards the metropolitan, the graduate, the clean eaters, the politically correct – in a word, the bien-pensant middle classes?
Indeed, if I were to picture what the Labour Party might look like if it were founded and staffed by chavs with a chav political agenda, it would look less like the contemporary Labour Party than the Red Northern end of UKIP, as voiced by Paul Nuttall. An articulate, no-nonsense scouser, Nuttall writes a column in the Daily Star (that most chav of newspapers) covering themes variously patriotic, hostile to political correctness and ranged against Islam, the EU and other chav bugbears. Bugbears which, paradoxically, are central to the nexus of progressive-left values articulated by The Guardian, frequently by the very same Owen Jones whose book enjoins us not to demonise chavs.
What is going on here? On the one hand, we must not demonise chavs, nor sneer at their culture or behaviours, for they are the working class and to be left-wing is to be for the working class, right? But on the other hand, we like the EU, we think diversity and multiculturalism are good things, we are embarrassed about the British Empire and uncomfortable with the notion of cultural Englishness. In liking these things, we do rather look down on people who are uncomfortable about cultural diversity, voted to leave the EU and hang flags on their houses when the football is on.
This circle is squared variously by ignoring it, or else by earnest efforts to ‘educate’ the backward proles into seeing the world otherwise than the way they see it. Little or no attempt is made to consider the viewpoints themselves on their merits, to explore where they come from or – heaven forbid – to voice them.
In this, the current leadership struggles within the Labour Party are revealed for the sterile death-throes they are. One side is attempting to speak for the working class by advocating Thatcherism-lite with a side order of Europhilia, paternalistic redistribution and a hefty spoonful of cultural Marxism; the other proposes to represent the working class by arguing about the legitimacy of the Israeli state, turning a blind eye to Islamism and blaming everything either on a media conspiracy or else on Tory austerity. I would bet confidently that the vast majority of the working class – the chavs – who are purportedly being represented here give precisely zero fucks about either of these packages.
Now and again someone in Labour makes a limp attempt to speak to the chavs. But no-one in Labour speaks from chavland, for the chavs. Out of a cultural squeamishness (dare we call it class snobbery?) within modern Labour the best that can be managed on this front is the occasional dog-whistle. And unless this changes, unless the party finds a way to recruit more chavs into public-facing positions(and why would I join Labour, if I were a chav? I would not expect to be welcome there) it is doomed as a party.
What, then, if the chavs reclaimed the word chav and started a Chav Party? What would a chav manifesto look like? Would it really be as racist as the Guardian fears? I suspect not: the working classes are more ethnically mixed than any other group in this country and fundamentally pragmatic on the whole. Immigration concerns throughout the referendum debate have overwhelmingly been about numbers, not xenophobia. But I would guess that a chav political manifesto would be more patriotic than the Labour Party, more redistributive than the Conservatives and almost certainly more protectionist economically and wary of unfettered globalisation than either. Whatever you might think of its value as a set of policies, this is a mix we do not currently have in the country. I do not expect to see it within Labour any time soon.
The Guardian has an interesting piece on the how the Stronger In campaign saw the referendum. Along with the campaign’s evident, amazingly hubristic assumption that the result was a done deal, there are a couple of bits that I think deserve more comment than they get in the article:
“The starting premise of the remain campaign was that elections in Britain are settled in a centre-ground defined by aversion to economic risk and swung by a core of liberal middle-class voters who are allergic to radical lurches towards political uncertainty. They could be identified, profiled and targeted by the technical wizardry of professional pollsters. Their anxieties, hopes and priorities could be plotted on charts that would then be translated into simple messages. EU membership might thus be established in the minds of this audience as a proxy for security and continuity – the natural preference of the sensible majority, as reinforced by every institution that carried cultural authority; the experts would be heeded. […] No one on the remain side fully anticipated an emotional groundswell of contempt for the very idea of political authority as dispensed from a liberal citadel in Westminster. The remain politicians found themselves besieged by an angry insurrection, channelling grievances that were well known. They stood for a cause that became emblematic of a system that was alien, arrogant and remote – and they had no answer.
Stronger In became the holding company for a liberal centrist political concept that had been transmitted in varying forms through the rise of New Labour and the ascent of Cameron. This had been the bastion of political orthodoxy for a generation, but its foundations had been corroded. […] The unique opportunity of a referendum was to give voters the option of punishing a generation of politics, regardless of party allegiance.
What jumps out at me is the way no-one really seems yet to be questioning the moral bankruptcy of this entire worldview. How did we end up in a situation where it was considered absolutely okay to run election campaigns calibrated purely towards tiny groups of centrist voters? Not only that, but to invoke a complicit media establishment to paint any views that diverge (right, left or elsewhere) from that consensus as mad, swivel-eyed and dangerous? Did no-one ever stop to wonder what the people who were excluded from the focus groups and policy calibration might think of it all?”
The whole schtick of the Westminster discussion has for years been ‘Oh we need to get more ordinary people involved in politics’, while busily disregarding the interests and political priorities of vast swathes of ordinary people. Then they made a mistake of offering two choices with distinctly different outcomes, with the result that ordinary people just got involved in politics. And the aftermath was a lot of centrists screaming ‘WHO THE FUCK ARE THESE NASTY IGNORANT VENGEFUL RACIST THICKOS????!!!!!1111’.
Much is being made among the bien-pensant of how simply ghastly Leave voters are. But I really, honestly think not nearly enough is being made of how simply ghastly the worldview is that has depicted more than half the country as at best electorally irrelevant, and at worst something ideologically to be kettled, neutralised or (ideally) eradicated.
It’s a major bugbear of mine that a lot gets said about diversity in gender, race etc but no-one has much to say about political/viewpoint diversity. This is an issue that Jonathan Haidt tackles in academia, but which is percolating relentlessly into many other arenas. In my view the referendum result was a fightback for political diversity, and it is a fight that is well overdue.
For ultimately, what kind of democracy can we have if the window of acceptable debate is policed? And it has been, for as long as I have been eligible to vote: not with batons or threat of imprisonment, but with social pressure, Facebook shaming, awkward silences if a view is expressed that diverges from the small, pale palette of acceptable ones. This silence has helped to reinforce the cultural divide that our liberal press has suddenly, belatedly woken up to: that between the ‘speak as I find’ culture of the backward, ignorant provinces and the carefully tone-policed one of the metropolis.
And this cultural divide, in turn, has helped to conceal a more serious economic one, indeed even to justify it, somewhat after the fashion of British colonialists using the backwardness of the tribes they conquered as justification for their exploitation and abuse. After all, how could it be the fault of we enlightened ones if the proles are too ignorant, malignant and morally retrograde to take advantage of our brave new world? Surely it must be our job to bring them into the light and, if they cannot be thus educated, to ensure they are placated with handouts and kept well away from the levers of power.
Dear friends and associates across the pond.
I’ve noticed a great interest in Brexit among you in recent days. It’s a momentous event, so of course people who take an interest in current affairs should be interested. But it’s becoming evident to me from the tone of discussion, as well as in the articles that I see repeatedly shared as explanations of what is going on, that the subtext for at least some of your discussion is an attempt to read the tea leaves for your own presidential race, in particular where it concerns Trumpism.
I would like to suggest that Brexit is less useful as an analogy in this respect than might seem superficially the case. There are some commonalities, which I will discuss later, but at the risk of repaying your assumptions with some of my own about an American political context I am less than well-versed in I would like to suggest some of the ways in which the campaign for Britain to leave the EU emerges from and reflects a very different cultural and political context.
It is popular among the commentariat to characterise the vote for Brexit as an incoherent, logic-free howl of protest by ‘the left-behind’ against the elite. It is simply assumed that the EU is by definition a good thing, and that objections to it must therefore represent a nihilistic, under-educated anti-politics stance oriented more towards backlash than positive political change. It is hence less popular, at least among that substantial section of the media that is in favour of the EU, to explore the possibility that many of those objecting to the EU might actually have a case – let alone to explore what that case actually is.
The campaign for Britain to keep its distance from the European Union is as old as the European Union itself. Though it has often been painted as such by the prevailing consensus, it is not merely a hobby-horse for ideologues and eccentrics but (admittedly along with a share of eccentrics) a serious campaign with coherent arguments and a lengthy, thoughtful tradition, covering economic, cultural and constitutional issues. I will not attempt to sum these arguments up here, except to provide some links to places where the case is stated better than I could myself.
Brexit: The Movie is a 90-minute documentary created to put the case for leaving during the referendum campaign. It was crowdfunded and created outwith the official Vote Leave campaign by a coalition of long-term Brexit campaigners, and documents some of these well-established arguments for leaving the European Union. It makes the case for an open, globally-oriented free-market Britain trading not with the EU’s protectionist customs union but with the world as a whole.
Lexit: The Movie was less well-publicised, because created and released later in the campaign, but does a similar job reviewing and putting forward the left-wing case for leaving the European Union.
Elsewhere, this extended essay from the civil society think tank Civitas does a good job of setting out the history and development of the UK constitution, and the extent to which this settlement has been eroded by the radically different assumptions and priorities of the EU mode of government.
Finally, this campaign is not without proposals for the future. The long-running Brexit campaign has a well-developed proposal for a phased withdrawal from the institutions and acquis of the European Union – with the slightly ungainly name Flexcit – that sets out a pragmatic, de-risked and market-oriented process that, far from being a grand rupture, would see a staged separation between the UK and the European Union that optimised stability and positive relations on all sides.
While I am here at risk of myself projecting my own assumptions onto a political context with which I am not deeply familiar, it is not my impression that Trumpism has any equivalent long-term campaigning history, core arguments, political objectives or worked strategy for getting there. If I am wrong I would be grateful to learn more from you all about how and in what ways.
It scarcely bears repeating, but the islands that make up the British Isles have an ambivalent history with the European continent that stretches back some 2,000 years. From the Roman conquest of England to the Anglo-Saxon invasions that drove the Celts into the hills of Wales and Scotland, to the Anglo-Saxon fight under Alfred against the counter-invasion from Scandinavia, to the Norman conquest that added a Scandinavian/French aristocratic superstructure to a Saxon peasantry. The incursions of the English Crown into France in the Middle Ages, the combative race against other European nations to colonise the world through the early modern period, and the eventual English defeat of Napoleon’s attempt at a unified Europe. And of course the role played by Britain in ending another attempt to create a unified Europe, a century later, in the carnage of World War II – a continent-wide catastrophe that itself forms the backdrop for the creation of the European Union.
This essay is not interested in passing moral judgement on the events and interactions that form this narrative. But it is clear that the history of British relations with the countries of Europe is a complex, sometimes explosive blend of cultural interchange, invasion and counter-invasion, intermarriage, interaction, intervention and immigration. The guilt-ridden post-colonial narrative of this being ‘a mongrel island’ comprising influences from all these pasts chooses to highlight the cultural interchanges that have shaped the British Isles but tends to omit the conflicts that annealed that shape. It is at best perversely ahistorical, if not downright irresponsible, to attempt to understand the British cultural reaction to the steady encroachment of European Union governance onto these islands without reference to this deep history of interchange and ambivalence.
(It should be emphasised of course that the UK is not unique in this deep history, though our position as both culturally interwoven with but geographically distinct from Europe does give our perspective a particular tilt. But the presence of equally complex stories in nations across the continent helps to account both for the elite enthusiasm for the European project, and also the ambivalence of many ordinary Europeans to the same project.)
Returning to our theme of parallels (or their lack) between Trumpism and the Brexit movement, I struggle to see how equivalent issues of deep history and cultural memory might inform Trumpism, though again I would be grateful to be corrected on this front.
What the EU actually is, does, and aims to achieve. (The democratic case.)
It is far from clear to me what impression Americans in general have of the European Union. Indeed it is far from clear to me that many in the United Kingdom have more than the most superficial understanding of its operations, ambitions or relation to individual member states. The popular perception among many who support it seems to me to be of a sort of benign superstructure that guarantees certain rights, in some indefinable way makes foreign holidays cheaper and which generally encourages everyone to travel and be nice to one another. The slightly more detailed view perceives it as a trading bloc, permitting tariff-free commerce and harmonising regulations across a continent in order to ensure prosperity and mutual benefit all round.
But one need only read the European treaties to realise that the EU is none of these things – or at least to describe the EU as any of those things is a little like holding an elephant by the tail and describing it as being somewhat like a pencil. As trenchantly set out by Ben Kelly, the EU is not just a trading bloc and was never intended to be a democracy. Its ambition is to become a single federal state, and the slow accretion of treaties pushes each time inexorably in this direction: extending beyond trade into justice, foreign policy, law enforcement and immigration with the Maastricht Treaty, expanding to new territories with the Treaty of Amsterdam, further geographical expansion with the Treaty of Nice and effectively introducing a state constitution by the back door with the Treaty of Lisbon. The Five Presidents’ Report, the 2015 white paper that sets out the broad objectives for the next EU treaty, proposes in the interests of saving the eurozone from further crises to introduce further integration in areas as diverse as banking, tax, social security, company law and property rights, and replacing individual nations’ representation in key international bodies with a single EU representative.
Each of these changes requires what is described in the EU as ‘pooling sovereignty’. This euphemism in fact means the surrender of key national competencies to the supranational jurisdiction of the EU Institutions.
By analogy, the formation of the European Union is equivalent to inviting the United States to support the creation of a Pan-American Union, with a parliament situated – say – in Mexico City, and a stated ambition of creating a federal Americas bringing together the entire continent. This political construct could then grant freedom of movement for all the peoples from Canada through the United States to the nations of South America, to live and work wherever they liked in the Americas. These nations could then begin the process of harmonising tax, labour, property, social security and criminal justice practices under a single system, and like the other member states the USA would be required to give up the supremacy of its Supreme Court for a Pan-American Court whose job would be to enforce the terms of the Pan-American Treaties and any laws or directives emanating from the government in Mexico City.
Should someone suggest such a project, it is likely that objections would be widespread in the USA. It is also unlikely that those doing the objecting would be solely dispossessed blue-collar Americans. Indeed, should an observer from another continent seek to present the project as wholly benign, and those objecting as the illiberal, under-educated, backward-looking losers of globalisation’s great leap forward, it is likely that the mildest possible response to this interpretation would be that it might be worth considering the situation from a few different perspectives before drawing this conclusion.
Having said all of this, it cannot be denied that there is common ground between some aspects of the EU referendum moment and the rise of Trumpism. While the issues I have outlined briefly above represent a political and cultural context with (to my eye at least) no clear parallels across the Atlantic, it is also true that the long-running campaign to detach the UK from the European Union has been amplified by a growing gulf between the political elites that continue to drive European integration, and the populations of the countries they seek to integrate.
This has found its clearest outlet in protests against European freedom of movement, which for a minority has fanned the flames of xenophobia but which for many more represents a proxy issue for the loss of democratic control implied by ‘pooling sovereignty’, as well as impacting materially on the earning capacity of those at the unskilled end of the labour market. Additionally it has raised questions of identity, belonging and cultural cohesion that the elites who benefit most from freedom of movement, wedded as they are to a decontextualised New Left model of identity, are simply without the conceptual framework to address. In this highly contested field of globalisation, international trade, migration, community and identity there may well be some parallels between the angry proletariat that has mobilised for Brexit, and the angry American proletariat mobilising for Trump.
In summary, then: the case for Brexit is complex, well-established and coherent and – whatever you think of its merits – should not be mistaken for Anglo-Trumpism. However this is not to say that the British Isles is not also experiencing a revolt similar to the one that has propelled Trump so far into the presidential race. That said, I would be cautious about extrapolating this common ground too far, beyond saying that globalisation is (to be trite) a global phenomenon and it is probable that the proletarian pushback against its downsides has only just begun. It is my view that the European Union is one of many ways in which the global political order has been steadily adjusted over the last five decades or so, in the interests of an elite that benefits hugely from globalisation while externalising its many downsides, and that this adjustment has occurred in many ways at the expense of popular sovereignty. Those in countries with a tradition of democracy, but without any recourse to the corridors of power other than their vote, are rapidly waking up to the attenuation of that vote and are beginning to clamour for their franchise back. This is likely to lead to further upsets over the coming years.
Rafael Behr writes in today’s Guardian that right-wing ‘populism’ is threatening the ‘liberal dream’ of the EU.
Behr’s article is striking in the accuracy of his observations and misguidedness of the conclusions he draws from those observations. One paragraph in particular stood out:
The case for keeping Britain in Europe has always been hampered by its reliance on abstract liberalism and historical romanticism: extolling openness and continental engagement as emblems of a modern, self-confident nation; recalling the founding purpose of the EU as the elimination of nationalism by blurring borders; rejecting Euroscepticism as a form of reactionary cultural protectionism, coloured at the fringes by outright xenophobia. Those were never easy arguments to configure as campaign themes with mass appeal. But what pro-Europeans now confront is something altogether more challenging, not just to the practical pursuit of their cause but to its very premise. There is still a liberal case for integration with the rest of Europe, but it gets progressively harder to make when so many countries in the rest of Europe seem to be turning their backs on liberalism.
So, then, there is nothing wrong with the idea of ‘blurring borders’ in the interests of ‘eliminating nationalism’ – even though he concedes that the average thicko is unlikely to be enthused by the prospect. The only problem, he concludes, is that blurring borders has become rather less appealing now that it means trying to integrate with all those nasty racists – sorry, nationalists – running rampant throughout the EU.
Indeed the entire article radiates the fundamental assumption that nationalism is, ipso facto, a Bad Thing. But this assumption, rooted in Europe’s decades-long post-WWII trauma fugue, has gone unchallenged for too long. Certainly history shows us nationalism can have some ugly consequences; but in large part the revived enthusiasm of Europe’s’little people’ for nationalism is not driven by a desire to find scapegoats, justify pogroms or generally hate on ‘bloody foreigners’. Rather, it is fuelled at base by the instinctive realisation that without some form of nationalism, there can be no nation-state; without the nation-state there can be no democracy; and without democracy, the little people get shafted, again and again.
The liberal dream of destroying nationalism has, in effect, worked to undermine the main bulwark ordinary people have had against the relentless march of globalisation: the sense that, by joining their voices as ‘The People’ to whom a government is accountable, they could ensure their interests remained in consideration. But one of the most significant trends of the twentieth century has seen national sovereignty inexorably nibbled away, whether by international regulatory bodies, trade agreements or the move towards EU federalisation. And with each reduction in the power and manoeuvrability of sovereign democratic states, the people to whom those states are accountable have lost power in turn. And as the power of electorates has ebbed away, so too has the power of each sovereign state to protect its ‘little people’ against the more predatory edges of globalisation.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the disjunction between the views of working-class people to the prospect of mass immigration, and the attitude of the middle and upper classes to the same phenomenon. The former group sees wages stagnate and living standards slump as competition for low-skilled jobs gets hotter and hotter. The latter, meanwhile, enjoys the benefits of price competition in the market for nannies and plumbers, not to mention the pleasant effect of housing scarcity on the value of their homes, all set off by a pleasant frisson of righteousness as they condemn the narrow-mindedness of the lumpenproletariat.
This class division is borne out by the data: a report published today by europhile think-tank Chatham House shows that lower socioeconomic class and education is a strong predictor of euroscepticism. Now, you could read that as a contemptuous write-off of Brexiteers as ageing, ignorant thickos; or you could begin to ask yourself why the poorer, older and less educated don’t feel the ‘liberal dream’ of EU federalism is working in their interests. Could it be less because they are old, thick or poor and more because of an instinctive recognition that the aims of the EU are against the interests of the working-class populations of nations across the EU?
Rafael Behr may sign wistfully at the high-flown ‘liberal’ ideals that inspired the European project, and look askance at the under-educated, vulgar little xenophobes that challenge its legitimacy and belief system. He may grumble about the waning attractiveness of a federal EU clearly inhabited by groups of proles all of whom are every bit as resistant to mass immigration and the end of nation states as those awful Sun readers in the UK. But in lamenting the return of nationalism he has missed the inextricable connections between patriotism, belonging, democracy and a working class that wields some measure of power in the direction of politics.
The dying of the nation state throws the working class to the wolves of globalisation. Resisting this is not xenophobic, but thanks to the blindness of bien-pensants like Behr it has been left to the xenophobes for too long.
So Marine le Pen’s Front National has won one in three regional elections in the first round. This reflects a trend across Europe. Populist parties on both the right and the left are on the rise and have been for some time. There are a number of contributing factors, but the main impetus is a sort of inarticulate protest by people who feel ‘left behind’ by globalisation, at the ways in which globalisation is negatively impacting their lives. Things like mass migration, outsourcing of blue-collar jobs, weakening of nation states in favour of regulation at the global level, the widening gap between rich and poor in many countries, the tottering state of social democracy as the welfare state Ponzi scheme starts to come unstuck.
For most people, the willingness to see globalised consumer capitalism as a Ponzi scheme is inversely proportional to how much you expect to gain from the system. That is to say, the more you are likely to get out of how things are, the less likely you are to see anything wrong with it. That’s just human nature. The elites trying to merge the EU as a superstate have everything to gain from continuing as they are; the 50% of Spanish youth consigned to long-term joblessness may take a different view.
There’s also a conflict between the elite view of communities, which sees them as random groupings of people within a specific geography, and that of most ordinary people who experience a nation or their own community as bound by ties of culture, tradition, interpersonal relations and shared practices. That leads to a situation where those in power think nothing of importing a million people from elsewhere – because we’re short of workers and the birth rate is low, so why not? – and those on the ground who feel anxious and threatened by the sudden arrival of large numbers of people with whom they have no shared bonds of family relation, cultural practice or often even language. Then the latter view is demonised, again by the elites, as uneducated, ignorant, bigoted, racist when in fact it’s quite rational on its own terms.
The reaction of many is to look nostalgically backwards to a time when everything was peachy (Even if that time never actually existed) and then to try and reverse-engineer the imagined conditions of that time. This doesn’t work: conservatism after the fact is always doomed. But there’s a real problem brewing in the failure of the elites driving (and benefiting from) globalisation to hear the objections coming from the masses. Ultimately refusal by the ruling class to accommodate the concerns of the people results in civil unrest and even revolution. We’re not quite there yet but the widespread nature of public unhappiness with the direction of travel is very worrying.
Globalisation is happening, whether we like it or not. But what we need is an open discussion about the best forms of social organisation to handle that, and to ensure the interests of ordinary people are taken into account given the huge impersonal forces of global change we face today. The elite viewpoint is that nation states are an obstacle to ‘development’, focusing as they do on the interests of a geography rather than transnational changes or agreements. This underlies the current trend toward neutering and even trying to dismantle nation states; popular resistance to it is demonised as ‘populism’ or ‘racism’, a narrow-minded, uneducated fixation on one nation as opposed to global concerns. But to me, from the point of view of the little guy, dismantling nation states is a major problem. Nation states define a community of interest based in a particular geography; without that definition, how can we have a meaningful electorate, voting for any but the vaguest policies? And without an electorate or proper policies, how can we have any kind of meaningful democracy? The utopian vision of world government looks downright creepy and totalitarian to me, and I’d prefer to keep things a bit messier and small-scale.
I will be very surprised if Le Pen gets anywhere near actual government, at least this time round. But the anti-politics, anti-globalisation, populist trend is there across Europe. Pankaj Mishra argues, in a related theme, that the rise of ISIS is part of the same trend. Though I have concerns about the way these issues get dumbed down into ‘bloody foreigners’ or ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ I think they have a voice that needs to be heard, as they point to a debate that is not being had and whose suppression will result in far worse unrest than we’ve seen yet.