Thursday, 3 October 2019

The collapse of British politics

Every now and then it's worth doing a recap of why we are where we are. So much gets lost in the noise when every wrong turn is a consequence of the last. Here I remind myself that the current dysfunction is everything to do with the self-destruction of our politics rather than the Article 50 process. This is where we have to put the parties under the microscope to see what makes them tick.

The Lib Dems are the easiest to understand. They have only one mission - to stay relevant. They know they will never get into power but like to think of themselves as a protest party for people who don't want to vote for a single issue party on the fringes. The weakness of Labour and the strength of remain feeling has given them an opportunity that has staved off their extinction so they are fully wedded to the idea of thwarting Brexit. It's not an ideological kinship with the EU, rather they see the EU as an embodiment of liberal internationalism and it suits their narcissism to be in favour of it.

As far as Brexit goes, the remain position does not require any serious thinking or engagement in the issues. They don't need to come up with any solutions or try to square the circle. They have their easy answer and they're sticking with it.

Labour is a little more complex. Labour's pro-EU stance has historically been a political instrument to show they are not divided like the Tories. The EU has been a long running sore for the Tories so Labour just took up the proximate position to attack them. Labour, though, has an old school euroscepticism based on a patriotic socialism that still resonates in working class communities. It is barely represented in the Commons but Corbyn knows he can't afford to turn his back on it. It is only reluctantly that he has edged closer toward the remain position by way of internal pressure from its London constituency - metropolitan progressive paternalists.

This is where the Brexit Party hopes to capitalise on Labour's schizophrenia in that they can seemingly reach those traditional Labour voters who would never in a billion years vote for a Tory no matter how awful the Labour party gets.

Labour's incoherence, though, is fundamentally an indifference to Brexit. It's out of their remit. Brexit speaks to a high politics over and above the everyday administration of a welfare state. They just want Brexit to go away so they can resume the dismal redistributive managerialism they are used to. Instead of steering Brexit they simply hope to survive it so they can capitalise on the mess that follows.

As to the Tories, the Tories have always notionally eurosceptic except, of course, when they are in power - when they are usually full on europhile. The obsessive rump, though, has never gone away, much though Cameron did everything in his power to kill it off. He drove out the hard right and into the arms of Ukip which later backfired on him, forcing him into a coalition with the Lib Dems.

Over the last two decades especially, the main parties have sought to bury the EU issue refusing even to debate it. that proved easy for Labour in that it has always been a matter of little interest to them. The EU has served them well by way of handling the detailed business of statecraft so they can concentrate their attention on health and welfare. Statecraft and external affairs is a bit too grown up for them.

It was hoped that if the issue could be stifled for long enough then the eurosceptics would gradual die off, utilising a younger vote that has never known anything but EU subordination. On a long enough timeline it might have worked but there is too much wrong with the status quo to kill it off entirely. Certainly the mass influx of immigration became problematic for "the establishment". If anything has kept the eurosceptic cause alive it is the establishment europhile consensus which sought not only to take us deeper into the project but also to prevent the issue from being debated and to deny the public anything like a meaningful say. The eurosceptic voice was loud but barely represented in parliament.

This actually speaks to a more fundamental dysfunction in our own democracy which is amplified especially in the age of Brexit where we see a weakened establishment closing ranks to overturn the vote. They take the view that enough time has passed since 2016 for a million or so leave voters to have died off and if they can leverage another referendum they can bury the issue for good.

Depending on which polls you read that strategy stands a chance of working. The mistake, however, is the belief that thwarting Brexit puts the issue back into deep stasis. The shenanigans since the referendum and with the referendum itself bringing the issue to the fore, the Eurosceptic movement is bigger and stronger than it has ever been - and though they could be defeated this time around, they are sufficiently powerful to ensure the Tories remain in opposition unless Brexit is a central manifesto commitment.

This is where the remainers have, in my view, overplayed their hand. This has now become less to do with EU membership and is now part of an ongoing culture war that exposes the gulf between the public (especially in the regions) and parliament. It's now a values thing. Rather than a democracy we appear to have an electorally mandated feudalism and a ruling class that ultimately conspires against the voting public with the broad support of the judiciary.

Because of that, Brexit has become a political civil war with the remote potential to become an actual civil war. Remainers and cautious leavers can scream from the rooftops about how bad a no deal Brexit would be, but at this point the economic issues are a matter of secondary concern. Thanks to the duplicity of parliament coupled with the intransigence of the hardcore Brexit radicals, a managed departure no longer seems possible. Both extremes are playing double or quits and there is no low they won't sink to.

Part of the reason we are now in a state of total dysfunction, though, is the weakness of the parties themselves. With society now having evolved beyond traditional tribal models associated with heavy industry the parties are increasingly empty brand names without a wide membership base, easily captured by the radical fringes.

This is where the schizophrenia comes from. The parliamentary parties very much represent the old guard from the Blair-Cameron era while the membership have very different ideas. For the first time since Mrs Thatcher there is a clear ideological divide between the parties so we are now back to red versus blue politics. For the Tories, Brexit is a no brainer, but Labour has a major identity crisis and is falling to pieces as it tries to ride two horses, attempting to appease irreconcilable factions.

What we see now, therefore, is not a dispute over the direction of Brexit. Rather it is a tribal realignment. Virtually nobody in mainstream politics is thinking about a viable definition for Brexit and is only thinking as far as the next imminent general election. The EU and Brexit is only a proxy issue that decides which side of the culture wars you're on.

It is interesting that the Tory party seems to be falling into line over Johnson's latest Brexit proposal even though on balance it's even more of a dog's dinner than May's withdrawal agreement. One suspects the issue is less to do with the actual content of the deal as the fact it was negotiated by Theresa May who is widely regarded as a closet remainer and part of the establishment old guard. Had Johnson won the leadership the first time around and produced the same deal (give or take) as May then it's probably we would already have left the EU.

But of course the deal would have been different under those circumstances in that there would never have been the need to appease the DUP thanks to a borked election. So much of Brexit is decided not on the balance of argument but on the basis of tribal assumptions in their electoral triangulation. Anyone who's examined the issues in any seriousness has concluded that the EEA Efta option is the most pragmatic and least risky option but Labour is too afraid to confront the freedom of movement issue (even though there are workarounds) while the Tories have to pander to their ideological base who buy into the obsolete deregulation narrative.

With our politics in a state of flux and with a seemingly unbridgeable divide between county and conurb, and with no clear mandate for any particular course of action - and with parliament having fought itself to a standstill, it would seem like no deal, the default option, is inevitable. We lack the coherence and clarity to do anything else. It seems to be dawning on MPs that they do need to ratify a withdrawal agreement but they've likely squandered their last opportunity. No deal is odds on.

Though this enthuses leavers, remainers rightly point out that no deal falls short of the slogan "Get Brexit done". Contrary to the widely held belief in the Tory party, crashing out is far from the end of the matter and we won't be moving on to other things. But it now seems that we need to complete the political realignment process even if that means leaving without a deal. The central dispute won't be put to bed until we get a definitive answer on who's right. Brexiters will have to see the worst consequences of no deal before they'll believe it. Only then are we likely to see a consensus on a way forward. Sadly though, by then, our options will be few.

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