Friday 28 June 2024

We're still processing the Brexit rupture

I wrote in last week’s post about the sense of the post-Brexit period having beeen characterized by a new kind of political ‘game’. That is something which seems to have only just occurred to many political commentators judging by the way that Andrew Neil has belatedly worked out “how Brexit broke the Tory Party” and Tim Shipman of the Sunday Times has started puzzling over why our leaders don’t want to talk about Brexit (£). And these are supposedly two of the leading political journalists in the country, at the cutting-edge of political analysis.

My point isn’t meant to be the tedious, self-important moan that I’ve been saying these kinds of things for years, and anyway I’m certainly not the only person to have done so. Others include plenty of high-profile columnists in established media outlets, so my criticism also isn’t a moan about ‘the mainstream media’, which is considerably more variegated than that over-used and rather lazy term recognizes. Rather, it’s a criticism of the dominant approach to political reporting, exemplified by people like Neil and Shipman, or, say, BBC Political Editor Chris Mason, within, but not co-extensive with, the mainstream media.

It’s an approach which is so mired in the weeds of politics as a series of moves on the chess board that the bigger picture of the board, let alone the very rules of the game, are left relatively unexamined. That failure derives not so much from the commonly made charge that such an approach over-focuses on personalities, but from the way that it over-focuses on ‘events’ to the detriment of patterns, whilst assuming that the underlying verities of political life are unchanging, almost eternal. It ignores, or at least is slow to recognize, what Rafael Behr eloquently called “the roiling churn under a still crust” in his analysis of the election.

Perhaps that is inevitable in political reporting, per se, but it is inadequate in terms of political analysis, and would be with or without Brexit. However, Brexit has brought its inadequacy into particularly sharp relief.

How Brexit ruptured British politics

The careless injection of a mechanism of direct democracy, the referendum, into a system that was otherwise one of representative, parliamentary, democracy constituted a core rupture in modern British politics. That would probably not have been the case had ‘remain’ won, to the extent that remaining would have meant ‘no change’ – that is, it would not have had to have been ‘enacted’ – in exactly the same way as every previous UK-wide referendum. It became such a rupture because ‘leave’ won, especially as it did so by only a slender majority (and only in two of the UK’s constituent parts), against the official policy of the governing party and most of its (then) MPs; against the policy of all of the opposition parties in the House of Commons; and, hence, against the desire of the vast majority of all MPs at the time.

That in itself marked a break with ‘normal’ politics, but to it was added the fact that the particular time of the referendum, the particular issue it concerned, and the way that issue came to be the subject of a referendum, were all bound up with a contestation between ‘normal’ politics and a populist politics defined by a rejection of political norms. That the populist cause won such a referendum, the design of which flowed largely from Cameron’s desire to kill off the challenge of populists from outside the governing party, and to both placate and marginalize those within it, created a wholly new political world, even though all the old, familiar trappings and rituals of politics have persisted.

Yet, even now, the dominant approach to political reporting seems not to understand this change. Of course, other important things have happened since 2016, some of which, most obviously the pandemic, would have been challenging to political normality in themselves. And, of course, had the UK stayed in the EU there would have been all sorts of crises and changes. But it is the rupture of Brexit which underlies how politics since then has, in fact, developed. It’s in that sense that, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, we are in “the experimental laboratory of post-Brexit politics”.

The election: more than numbers

The current election is the latest expression of that (including the very fact of its near silence about Brexit). Post-referendum politics has seen unprecedented events, including the unlawful prorogation, as well as the extraordinary churn of Tory Prime Ministers. This election, too, looks set to deliver an extraordinary outcome. Even a narrow Labour victory would be remarkable, from its 2019 position, let alone the predicted landslide. Equally remarkable is the prospect of an historic fracturing of the coalition of Tory voters. But this rapid succession of unprecedented ‘events’ is not a coincidence. They form a pattern, and are explicable, albeit they were not necessarily predictable, in terms of the Brexit rupture, but puzzling to those who have not grasped it.

I can’t help thinking, though I suppose it might have happened anyway, that this is the reason for the apparently endless volume of polling, and the proliferation of ever more sophisticated methods of conducting polls, and of data visualization to report the results, which has characterized this election. I certainly don’t recall it featuring to such an extent at previous elections, even as recently as that of 2019. This has generated a whole sub-industry of comment about the polls, whether they can really be right, and what they mean if they are. It is as if there is an almost desperate attempt to ‘get a hold’ on what is happening, and that ‘the numbers’ will give the answer, to the point of overkill.

Even as a junkie for that kind of stuff, I now find myself skipping over yet another attempt to cut the data in some new and jazzy way. In any case, even without this explosion of polling data analysis, and without denying that some of it can be helpful to understanding politics, I don’t think that, in and of itself, it constitutes political analysis, especially analysis of the big picture shift which we’ve been living through. A couple of examples from this week illustrate this.

Analyzing the Tory collapse

One is an article in the Financial Times about how voters in prosperous parts of southern England who would previously have voted Tory are turning away from the party, including what might once have been called ‘the professional classes’, whether affluent or not. There’s nothing wrong with the article in itself. It makes plenty of excellent points. But whilst it and similar articles (such as Andrew Neil’s) are appearing now in response to election polling data about the demise of the Tories, the underlying issues they discuss have been evident since pretty much the day after the Brexit referendum, the eighth anniversary of which fell this week.

Most obvious was the way that so much of support for Brexit was bound up with a sneering disdain for, indeed, ‘the professional classes’ and, more generally, for all forms of expertise and education (except, ironically, when manifested in the cartoon-patrician Latinisms of Rees-Mogg and Johnson). That extended beyond the traditional Tory scorn for ‘politically correct’ academics and social workers to encompass lawyers, judges, civil servants, business people, and even, eventually, bond market traders. All were cast, first, as enemies of Brexit and, then, as exemplars of the woke elite, the more so if they lived in or near London. Unsurprisingly, if a political party keeps telling people that it loathes them, those people begin to become disinclined to vote for that party.

However, the peculiar political rupture of Brexit inflected this in a very particular way. Back in September 2017, I wrote about “a new Brexit political correctness” in which it had become virtually unsayable that those who most supported Brexit had no idea how to undertake it, and it fell mainly to those who had opposed it to deliver it. That is, the Brexiters were dependent upon the very people they despised as the educated, professional elite, and at the very moment they were most vociferously denouncing them as such, to deliver the thing they most wanted. That applied most obviously to civil servants, but it has also been the case for leaders and managers in business, as well as those in civil society, including universities. And perhaps no profession has been needed to enact Brexit as much as the legal profession.

So, in very broad terms, the Brexit Tories were saying to whole swathes of the middle-class, many of whom were amongst its habitual voters, not only that they were loathsome, and not only that they had to ‘suck up’ Brexit, but that they had to make it work. And then, on top of that, because so much of what the Brexiters had promised was undeliverable, and couldn’t be ‘made to work’, they were pilloried all over again for ‘sabotaging’ Brexit, if only through lack of ‘true belief’.

Along with that, whereas Tories had traditionally abjured what they called ‘the politics of envy’ they heavily invested in it when it came to Brexit. This was a slightly different, though sometimes overlapping, attack on the ‘remainer elite’ (which, of course, numbered half the country, and far more than half of its younger inhabitants) for being not just woke, liberal-minded, and unpatriotic but also for being economically privileged.

Thus remainers’ opposition to Brexit was often explained by their desire to be able to employ Bulgarian nannies, to have holiday homes in Europe, or even just for ease of travel when holidaying in Europe. In this, they took aim not just at middle-class professionals but also at the kind of ‘aspirational’ working class voters who had been an important part of the Tory voting coalition, especially under Thatcher, ignoring that child care, foreign travel, and even foreign holiday homes were not just the purview of a tiny metropolitan elite.

Such a politics might work for the purposes of mobilizing voters in the referendum, as the Vote Leave campaign showed. It might also work for mobilizing populist grievance against the government, as the UKIP vote had showed. But for a Conservative party to do so, and moreover to do so whilst in government, was always likely to end in disaster. The populist grievance would, in its nature, be disposed to turn on the governing party, all the more so in the context of its inevitable failure to deliver ‘true Brexit’, and all the more so again with so many Conservative MPs denouncing their party as ‘not really Conservative’. Meanwhile, those parts of what had once been the Tory voting base which had been so bitterly reviled by post-Brexit Conservative populism were likely to desert them.

The peculiar circumstances of 2019, including Farage’s decision not to oppose the Tories, and their voters’ fear of Corbynism, covered this over. But just because it didn’t show up in the electoral numbers, the underlying analysis of what Brexit had done to Tory politics still held good. That is now apparent in the polling numbers because the circumstances of 2019 have changed and, having failed to do the underlying analysis, political reporters are suddenly shocked by the pincer movement on the Tory vote.

Some of that would have happened anyway, with or without Brexit (for example because of demographic and educational trends). But the current prospect of meltdown, or even annihilation, for all that it may only be showing up in opinion polls now, grew organically from Brexit and, although never inevitable, was always probable. Hinc illae lacrimae, as Rees-Mogg might put it.

Analyzing Farage’s blunder

Quite how many and how salty Rees-Mogg’s tears will be remains to be seen, and will depend on factors including whether the Labour vote holds up, turnout, the extent of tactical voting, and may well be decisively affected by really quite small numbers of voters in quite a large number of seats. It also, of course, depends on how Farage and Reform fare.

The media focus on the re-emergence of Farage and the rise in support for his party, as if these were shock developments, adding piquancy to an otherwise predictable election, is another example of the over-focus on ‘events’ and of polling-driven reporting. Having failed to grasp the rupture of the referendum, the dominant media assumption was that Farage was an old story, and Reform a lingering irrelevance. In fact, they’ve been an ongoing thread in the pattern of post-Brexit politics.

There’s much that could be said about that, but here I will just focus on the second of this week’s stories I want to discuss in this post, the row provoked by his comments about Ukraine, Putin, the EU and NATO. It was unusual, because Farage doesn’t make many mis-steps, and this was a mis-step rather than yet another example of a populist politician deliberately generating outrage. It emboldened the Tories finally to criticize him, sometimes quite caustically, and it’s worth understanding why they felt able to do so. It wasn’t as if, as he himself reminded us, he hadn’t said similar things before, and this, again, is an example of how post-Brexit political reporting has not kept pace with the political landscape: Farage has been an open apologist for Putin for years, but that has been only sporadically noticed within the dominant approach to political reporting.  

I’ll come back to that, but as to why the Tories, including Boris Johnson, felt able to attack him, that is largely because of his criticism of NATO. Such criticism is very common within alt-right, populist circles in the US within which Farage moves, but it doesn’t play nearly so well in the UK, even amongst Reform voters and Brexiters. For many of them, NATO is bound up with their sense of patriotism, partly because it is seen as the lineal descendent of the Second World War alliance (that with Russia having largely been erased from memory by the Cold War), and especially of the D-Day landings (giving Farage’s blunder a resonance with Sunak’s own recent one). It was also very much central to the Brexiters’ case that the UK could safely leave the EU since its primary security alliance lay in NATO.

Had Farage criticized only the EU’s eastwards expansion for ‘provoking’ Putin to invade Ukraine, grotesque as that would have been, it perhaps wouldn’t have caused him quite so many problems. Apart from anything else, that is a view shared by many Brexiters and is what Johnson said at the time of the annexation of Crimea. In an angry reaction to Johnson’s criticism of his comments, Farage reminded his supporters of this. But that may have been a mis-step too, to the extent that some Reform voters are even more besotted with Johnson than they are with Farage. In any case, Johnson’s focus had been the EU, not NATO, and it was notable that, subsequent to his original comments, Farage, too, chose to focus on that aspect.

However, even that is much less safe ground than it was at the time of the annexation of Crimea. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, Ukraine and Zelensky enjoy a level of support in the UK, including on the populist right, which also makes the context different to the US. Headlines, such as the Mail’s “Zelensky: Farage is infected with the ‘virus of Putin’”, clearly rattled Farage. For once, he had misjudged his audience, even to the extent of earning a reprimand from the former head of the Army, Lord Dannatt, also published in the Mail, and criticism in the Spectator and the Telegraph.

That matters for a party which sets such store by its support for the armed forces, and is also unused to criticism from the pro-Brexit press. One reason that has happened is that the whole episode laid bare the peculiar consonance between the pro-Putin, anti-NATO stance of much of the populist right, internationally, and that of the Corbynite left, which the British populist right abjures (apart from those in that weird little political space where neo-communism, neo-fascism and libertarianism meet, exemplified by Spiked Online, which came out in defence of Farage this week).

Whether this will be reflected in falling support for Farage or Reform in the opinion polls, or next week’s election, is not clear (I doubt any effect will be easy to separate from general noise/ variance, or other factors such as the growing evidence of extensive racism within the party). But, in line with my point that political analysis should be driven by more than polling, or even election, data, I want to come back to why his well-worn views caused the stir they did, and why this is not just of passing significance.

The answer is that they arose in the context of Farage being interviewed as a party leader, and a candidate to be an MP, by the BBC’s Nick Robinson. That may be related to the polls, of course, but he led UKIP when they were high in the polls, too, and he has stood as an MP before. Now, though, he does so whilst making the demand to be treated as the leader of the opposition, a demand extending to wanting to appear alongside Sunak, Starmer, and Davey in a leaders’ debate. He also does so whilst threatening, perhaps not entirely vainly, to be in a position to effect a takeover of the Tory Party (£) after the election. The hubris that drives him to insist on his own importance brings with it the possibility of nemesis through the scrutiny of being treated as important.

All this may fizzle out, depending on the election result, including in Clacton, and the scale of support for Reform. In that sense, the numbers matter. But, whatever the numbers next week, the analysis of the basic dynamic of populism in post-Brexit politics will still exist. So Farage’s difficulties this week are a harbinger of the future. In a similar way to how the Tories found that governing from an insurrectionist posture isn’t viable, so will Farage find, if he becomes a player in post-election opposition politics, that this is very different to what he has faced before.

Crucially, though, all this holds true even if Farage disappears from the scene, for it will apply in one form or another to any populist leader or movement that may emerge from the expected electoral wreckage of the Tory Party. We even know when we’ll see the very first installment of that: Tuesday 9 July, when a ‘PopCon’ post-election event has already been scheduled. We don’t know who the participants will be, but we do know it will happen whoever they are.

The post-Brexit political process

It’s now well-understood that Brexit was a process, not an event. What is perhaps less well-understood is that the same is true of post-Brexit politics. I’ve described 2016 as a political rupture, but that does not mean it was a single moment. Rather, it was like an earthquake with multiple aftershocks, by no means all of them predictable, heralding an on-going process, but also entailing a long ‘processing’, which is still underway, of what happened. That has been missed in the dominant narrative of political reporting, which treats Brexit as ‘over’ and seems to regard ‘going on about it’ as slightly lacking in sophistication, if not downright obsessive.

By the time of next week’s post (which, for this reason, is likely to be later in the day than usual) we will know the election result. A Labour victory seems certain and, although the scale of that victory is still hard to predict, it is likely to be extensive enough that we will hear much of it being a huge political ‘event’. That may well be true in terms of ‘the numbers’, but it would be better understood as a particular, albeit important, moment within the unfolding of post-Brexit politics; rooted in the complex story of what has happened since 2016 and laying the ground for the continuation of that story.

It shouldn’t be assumed that this is the prelude to greater political stability. Nick Tyrone, in his latest Week in Brexitland substack, makes an interesting direct comparison between the 2016 referendum vote and this election, suggesting that both show an angry, almost nihilistic, desire to smash political norms. Matthew d’Ancona made a very similar point in this week’s New European, and it is compatible with Behr’s identification of the “roiling churn” beneath the surface of this election.

I’m sure there’s an element of truth in it, which prompts the important question of where that anger will be focused next. However, it’s surely equally true that this election shows the appeal, which Labour has tried to tap in to, of putting ‘an end to the chaos’. My point is that in both these respects, and others, the election is part of the ongoing aftershocks of the Brexit rupture. The lab is still open and the experiment is far from being over.


Friday 21 June 2024

Playing the new political game

The first cricket test match I ever attended was England versus West Indies at the Oval in the baking hot summer of 1976. It was the final test of a series in which a truly magnificent West Indies side crushed England, to an even greater extent than the 3-0 scoreline suggests. It was also politically significant in terms of British race relations, having begun with the infamous pledge by England’s South African-born captain, Tony Greig, that his side would make the West Indies “grovel”. At the same time, the West Indies had enthusiastic support from Britons of West Indian descent, perhaps especially at the Oval, bringing steel drums and trumpets, much to the dismay of some English traditionalists. The racial and post-colonial politics of the series have been extensively discussed and are well-captured in the 2010 film Fire in Babylon.

I’m not sure to what extent I was aware of any of that at the time – I was only 11 – but what was apparent throughout the series, simply from a cricketing point of view, was that it wasn’t just that the West Indies were playing much better than England, but that they were playing an almost different, more modern, and certainly more thrilling game. That was most graphically visible at the Old Trafford test, when veteran English batsman Brian Close, who was 45 and had not played test cricket for nine years before being recalled that summer, was almost literally pulverized by the sublime fast bowling of Michael Holding.

Just as some English traditionalists abhorred the exuberance of the West Indies’ supporters, so too did they complain that such aggressive fast bowling ‘just wasn’t cricket’. But they were wrong. It was what cricket was becoming*. Inescapably, those complaints had more than a tinge of post-colonial angst and of racist outrage. Cricket, invented in England and exported to the colonies, was no longer that of the Bufton-Tuftons of the MCC and Lord’s, or, for that matter, of the working-class league cricket of northern England, where players like Close had their roots. And descendants of those who had once been slaves were the architects as well as the masters of this new cricket. At that Oval test I attended, Greig acknowledged that by going on all fours and ‘grovelling’ to the crowd.

Reactionary resentment

Well, I’ve been told before that cricketing analogies don’t have any resonance for many readers of this blog, so I’ll get to the point. I was reminded of all this by the publication this week of the Reform UK manifesto. I’ve already reviewed the specifically Brexit-related elements of this in a separate post which covers all the party manifestos, but it has a more general significance.

Part of that significance relates directly to the laments of the cricket traditionalists of my childhood. There is a lineal connection between the kind of ‘I want my country back’ nostalgia of the Reform party and that sense of not just English cricket, but England itself was being supplanted. There’s also a discernible connection between the post-colonial complaints of those traditionalists and the manifesto’s policy proposal that that “any teaching about a period or example of British or European imperialism or slavery must be paired with the teaching of a non-European occurrence of the same to ensure balance”.

Long before anyone talked much, at least in relation to British politics, about populism, it was being incubated in a reactionary resentment, a kind of sullen victimhood. Even in those days, now fifty years ago, I heard that phrase, ‘it’s not my country any more’ and, which is perhaps less heard now, the half-baffled, half-aggrieved one that ‘we won the war but we lost the peace’. That strand of cultural politics never went away, but became subsumed within the coalition of voters and ideologies which Thatcherism assembled. It was a coalition which gradually unwound, and UKIP was one expression of that. But what we are now witnessing is the dramatic, and possibly permanent, fracturing of the traditionalist and populist right.

So there is a literal connection between my cricket story, as a vignette within this strand of politics, and this week’s Reform manifesto. But there is also a metaphorical one, which works in the opposite direction. The literal connection posits populist politics as linked to reactionary horror at the new cricket of the 1970s. But the metaphorical connection posits populism as a new kind of way of doing politics which is making established norms of political arguing and campaigning seem outmoded and redundant, just as the 1976 West Indies’ team made England’s cricketers seem obsolete, almost to the extent of playing a different game altogether.

The anti-politics of Brexitism

The Reform manifesto is a good example, starting with its insistence that it is not a manifesto but a ‘contract’ with voters. For that very insistence is nonsense in suggesting that it entails some sort of binding commitment, given that what it proposes is undeliverable. That this is so as regards its costings was quickly pointed out by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS), but it is equally true as regards many of its core pledges. For example, picking up migrants in the Channel and returning them to France is, in practical terms, impossible, as is the commitment to ending NHS waiting lists. It is certainly true of the core pledge to cut immigration to the bone. And the Brexit pledges, which I discussed separately, may not be literally impossible, but would come at an economic and political cost which is not mentioned, and no doubt would be denied. If this manifesto were put into practice, it would make the Truss regime look like a model of competence and stability.

However, crucially, and this is the sense in which the populists are playing a different game to ‘normal’ politics, simply demonstrating that the manifesto is nonsense, and the ‘contract’ is fraudulent, cuts little or no ice. For, as Farage’s response to being told just that shows, they themselves are happy to admit that it isn’t actually being put forward as a programme for government, as they have no expectation of winning the election.

So what is presented as a contract, because ‘manifestos’ are the supposedly discredited vehicle for politicians to make promises that they break when elected, consists of promises which are pre-broken by the anticipation of not being elected. This is politics as anti-politics. As for things like the IFS calculations, they can simply be dismissed as the usual Establishment nay-saying, from forecasters who ‘always get things wrong’. Yet even that is not the whole story, since the manifesto is shameless in referring to the FT, two former Governors of the Bank of England and, indeed, the IFS as having endorsed parts of its economic programme.

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it is a version of what happened with the referendum, where the Vote Leave campaigners made impossible, and often contradictory, pledges. They, too, rubbished experts who painstakingly explained the impossibilities and contradictions simply for being experts (whilst happily relying on the authority of those experts who supported them, many of whom are the same people who are behind the Reform manifesto). They, too, gained strength from their lies being debunked, since the very debunking helped the lies to circulate more widely (the £350 million a week for the NHS being the prime example). They, too, when asked to produce a workable plan for Brexit, insisted that they were not going to form a government, so it was not for them, as campaigners, to do so, and one reason they were able to get away with that was the expectation on both sides that they would not win anyway. In this sense, there’s a continuity between pro-Brexit populist politics and post-Brexit populist politics, making Brexitism a useful term to connect the two.

The last chance for Tory traditionalists?

Of course, it’s true that Reform is not going to win this election. So we might just say that none of this really matters. But it isn’t as straightforward as that. This is not Screaming Lord Sutch and the Monster Raving Loony Party, standing for laughs, even if its proposals might as well come from them. As with UKIP before, Farage and Reform are deadly serious and they now know, because of what happened with UKIP before, that it is perfectly possible to have a big political impact without winning much, if any, formal political power. This time Farage says, and there’s no reason to doubt him, that his aim is to take over the Tory Party and to become Prime Minister in 2029 (£).

In response, Rishi Sunak might be expected to counter-attack. At the moment, his only message to Reform voters is that they will be responsible for increasing the size of the expected Labour majority. He could, instead, denounce Reform’s policies as unworkable and damaging, just as he does other political opponents, especially Labour, if only on grounds of fiscal orthodoxy. That, after all, was his pitch when opposing Truss in the Tory leadership election, and when he took over from her having been proved right about the consequences of her policies. But he is unlikely to challenge Farage in that way and everyone knows why: many of his MPs and most of his party members are themselves broadly supportive of Reform’s agenda.

There was a very interesting interview this week on Nick Cohen’s The Lowdown podcast with the journalist Rafael Behr in which he makes the point, amongst many others, that Sunak almost inexplicably flunked standing up to the populists in his party after he had easily defeated their attempts to derail the Windsor Framework and defied their desire to scrap the entirety of Retained EU Law (both of which, by the way, are now Reform policies). I, myself, had speculated at the time of the Windsor Framework that it marked a new chapter.

In fact, Sunak proceeded to pander to the populists, especially with the Rwanda policy. Or, perhaps, he was not pandering to them so much as showing his own beliefs. Either way, he could not satisfy them, and, as has been the story under all the recent Tory leaders, they simply demanded more. Now, there is another moment, perhaps the very final one, for a Tory leader to challenge the populist right, if only as the last act of his political career, but he is unlikely to make use of it.

The responsibility of voters

In any case, it’s probably too late. The genie of anti-politics will not easily be re-bottled. It thrives on attention and rebuttal (making even this blog a very small part of the problem), yet it also thrives when ignored or left unchallenged. So, what to do? No one has a satisfactory answer to that, but it surely has to be based upon facing down, rather than pandering to, populists, if only because pandering to them is self-defeating. Theresa May’s main argument, in itself a principled one, for delivering Brexit was that, were it to be abandoned, voters’ faith in democracy would be damaged. Yet, as was always inevitable, delivering Brexit did not satisfy its supporters and that also damaged their faith in democracy. And so those voters are now, once again, being mobilized by Farage.

Politicians obviously have a particular role in challenging Farage but, at the same time, I think it is insufficiently said, perhaps because it has become almost taboo to mention, that these voters themselves must take ultimate responsibility. They believed the impossible promises made for Brexit and yet, finding those promises not to have been delivered, are willing to accept still more impossible promises from the same people who made the previous ones. They revel in their worldly ability to see through the charlatanism of politicians who are ‘all the same’ and ‘just in it for themselves’, yet are entirely gullible in accepting obvious charlatans like Farage and Johnson as being ‘different’ and ignoring their obvious self-interest.

The numbers of voters involved aren’t small. On the basis of the latest opinion polls, Reform have 16% support and the Conservatives have 21%. Supposing that only a third of those Conservative voters have effectively the same views as Reform voters (and I think it is probably higher), that suggests a bedrock support for Farageist populism of 23%, or almost a quarter of voters. They will all have received years of free education, a lifetime of free health care, have or expect to have livable pensions, and have lived their entire lives without war or mass unemployment.

They are, in short, the beneficiaries of the post-war social democratic settlement and what still endures of it. That’s not to deny they may have all sorts of hardships and legitimate grievances, but by global and historical standards these are not the downtrodden and oppressed of the earth. I simply don’t buy the idea that many, if any, of these voters are so downtrodden and desperate that they can’t be blamed for latching on to any glimmer of hope, and are simply exploited by unscrupulous populists like Farage. It's an idea which is really just a misguided attempt at liberal understanding, or perhaps an expression of liberal guilt, and it plays straight into the hands of populists.

For to the extent that there is a near-taboo on saying such things it is, actually, just one of the many duplicities of such populists, who seize on it as ‘sneering elitism’. In fact, what could be more patronizing than to deny that voters are responsible for their choices? It’s true that criticizing such voters will do nothing to change their minds, and even, to the extent they hear the criticisms, it will probably cement their opinions, but it is still worth saying. Anyway, it’s not as if not criticizing them will make a difference either. And what certainly won’t make a difference is offering them undeliverable policies on the basis that to do otherwise would be disrespectful of their desire for such policies. On the contrary, as Brexit has shown, that just sets up a new cycle of resentment.

The coming political battle

There is a temptation to think that with a probably large, and possibly huge, Labour majority in prospect, it will be years before Conservatives or Reform matter again. I think that it would be a serious mistake to yield to that temptation. For one thing, Labour’s ability to win has to some considerable extent been achieved by Starmer ceding ground, in both tone and substance, to the populists, just as New Labour only won by ceding so much ground to the neo-liberals.

There’s an element of necessity to that in electoral systems where you can only win from the centre, given that the location of the centre changes over time. In one sense of politics, the centre is a reality that must be accommodated, and catered for, especially at elections. Starmer understands this, and It was Corbyn’s inability to do so which doomed him to oblivion. In another sense, which Corbyn understood and Starmer seems not to, the location of the centre is always a matter of political contestation, and that contest is continuous and not the same as, although it intersects with, electoral politics.

In that second sense, the battle with populism, as regards both its policy prescriptions and its anti-politics mode of conduct, will continue after the election. In fact, it will become especially important then because when, as will almost inevitably happen, and probably quite quickly, disillusion with the new government sets in, that will be a new moment of opportunity for the populists to say that the ‘mainstream’ political parties are ‘all the same’ and none of them will ever succeed. As they do so, there’s every possibility that Starmer’s government will try, just as Tory centrists did before, to accommodate and appease them, again pandering to rather than challenging their demands and, again, finding them implacable.

So, at best, the election will be a moment to briefly pause and take some pleasure in the end of what have been some long and truly ghastly years for anyone who is both politically sentient and committed to honesty, rationality or even just basic competence in politics. But it will only be a pause. Brexit won’t have gone away, and nor will the politics that brought it. On the contrary, unless there is a highly unlikely fightback from its more traditionalist wing, there must be every chance that the Tory Party will fully embrace a Farageist National Conservatism, whether led by him or not. The Reform manifesto looks like, and is, a ridiculous joke but, as Farage gloated in the European Parliament after the referendum: “when I came here 17 years ago and said I wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain to leave the European Union, you all laughed at me. Well, you’re not laughing now”.

It’s true that winning an election on anything like such a manifesto will be difficult. If my back-of-the envelope calculation of there being perhaps 25% bedrock support for it is correct, that leaves a fair way to climb to form a government, even under first-past-the post. But a ‘NatCon’ party espousing something like that manifesto would have a lot of influential and rich backing and a lot of media support, and, as I observed last week, unless Labour prove to be really effective in government, its large majority could easily crumble in a low-turnout election in 2029. In any case, even without winning that election, if a party on such a manifesto came even within contention it would have at least one very important consequence: it would kill, stone-dead, any prospect of the re-joining the EU for years, if only because it would make it too risky for the EU to accept Britain as a member.

Metaphors to live by

In that post last week, I finished with the image of us all being lab rats within the post-Brexit laboratory of political science, but in some ways that is misleading. I was mainly thinking of the fact that only quite a small number of people will directly influence the internal politics of the Tory Party. But as a metaphor in a more general sense, it fails to recognize the agency which we all have, to at least some degree.

One of my favourite cartoons concerns the famous Pavlovian experiment in which, after repeatedly ringing a bell at the same time as feeding them meat, dogs were conditioned to salivate merely at the sound of a bell. That is to say, they had no agency and their behaviour was a conditioned reflex. In the cartoon, there are two dogs salivating and a scientist in a white coat holding a bell. One dog says to the other: have you noticed how every time we dribble, that guy Pavlov rings a bell? It’s a nice subversion of assumptions about where agency lies.

Or, to put it another way, going back to cricket. I’m not the avid follower of the game I was as a child and a young man, and in fact the last test match I went to was in 2000. It was the last day of what again was the last test of a series between England and the West Indies, again played at the Oval. Since 1976, much had changed in cricket, including the way that English cricket was organized and the England team played it. Much, too, had changed in society.

The 2000 match was watched by a packed, multi-racial, crowd, with both sides having enthusiastic support, and I don’t think there were any of the racist or colonialist undercurrents there had been in 1976. There was certainly nothing resembling the ‘grovel’ comment. England won that game, and narrowly won the series, but the teams were well-matched. More to the point, they were both playing recognizably the same game. Things change.

But there is no inevitability in how they change. That’s down to agency; to the decisions which, collectively, we make, not just at elections but every day.


*One might argue that it was not new anyway, and English complaints about the West Indies’ fast bowling were hypocritical. It was England, after all, who had deployed ‘Bodyline bowling’ in the 1930s. But I think a new cricket was emerging in the 1970s, part of which was to do with faster bowling becoming routine, hence it was shortly afterwards that helmets began to be worn and became the norm. And cricket was changing in other ways, too, away from the still rather amateurish ethos that had prevailed (e.g. as regards fitness or squad-building) as well as in its financial and commercial structure, and in game formats, playing styles etc.

Friday 14 June 2024

The experimental laboratory of post-Brexit politics

When the election campaign began, I remarked that it had the strange quality of feeling both long overdue and prematurely announced. Now, just three weeks in, it feels as if it has been interminable, and it is still only half way through. Those things are linked, because the reality is that politics had been in campaign mode for many months before the election.

Against that background, it’s hardly surprising that the media have piled attention on to Nigel Farage ever since his belated and self-important “emergency announcement” that he would stand in the election, and take over formal leadership of Reform UK. That’s not to imply that this should not have been treated as a significant development but even if it hadn’t been, and even if Farage wasn’t so adept at media manipulation, it’s hard to criticize reporters for latching on to it given that the campaign as a whole is really quite boring. The only other outlet for their skills is filing stories on Rishi Sunak’s increasingly egregious errors of judgement.

That gives them plenty of work but, other than that, the journalistic pickings are slim. Focus group-tested slogans are repetitiously ground out on the basis, apparently, that because voters tune in so briefly and infrequently, politicians must ensure that, at any given moment, they can be heard giving their key messages. Even Farage’s supposedly anti-Establishment shtick is wearisomely familiar. A career politician parachuted in to a place of which he knows little and cares less, his shop-soiled iconoclasm is as tired and grubby as his raincoat. As for his key message, there’s no danger of missing that. Once he told us that all he wanted was to leave the EU, and to have an ‘Aussie-style’ immigration system. Now he has that, but here he still is, still going on about immigration. But actually that’s not his key message. His key message is: look at me, making the Conservatives and ‘the Establishment’ panic.

That transparent neediness may be repellent, but is at least recognizably human – even if its ‘make Daddy suffer/ remember me’ roots present little psychological mystery - compared with Sunak’s robotic insistence that he “has a plan” for “bold action”, which makes even the poor old MayBot seem like a better candidate for the Turing Test. Meanwhile, the strained, wooden earnestness with which Keir Starmer promises that “change” is coming resembles nothing so much as a man in the ‘before’ image of a laxative advert. It's true that the other party leaders are a bit more dynamic, and Ed Davey, in particular, is hitting some authentic notes of seriousness along with appearing to genuinely enjoy some amusing stunts. In some ways it is easier for them as they get less exposure, so the repetitions are less obvious, and, in any case, they don’t face quite the same pressure to ‘look Prime Ministerial’.

Beneath the boredom

Beyond all this lies a deeper issue. If this campaign is boring, then it is because the main parties are determined to avoid discussing the really serious problems this country faces, and the unpalatable choices that it has to make. Their refusal to talk honestly about economic policy has been made quite forcibly by Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, although it’s worth recalling that he said the same during the 2017 and the 2019 elections. Perhaps it’s not entirely their fault. It’s not clear that the media, still less the general public, have much appetite for political honesty, for all that they bemoan politicians not providing it.

The same may be true of the related refusal to talk much about Brexit, which has also been widely remarked upon, and which I’ve discussed previously*. This was on display this week in the Tory manifesto, which followed very much the lines I anticipated in that post, but even more strikingly in Labour’s which said even less than I'd expected about the subject (N.B. I have written a separate page discussing in detail what each of the party manifestos says about Brexit). 

However, in one way, this is in itself an illustration of one of the biggest flaws in Brexit. For what it shows is that, across huge swathes of policy, and especially those policies that electors most care about, EU membership was largely irrelevant. The policy issues being discussed now are very much the same as they were before we left the EU or would have been had we stayed in. The idea that our national politics and sovereignty had somehow been made irrelevant by Brussels was always nonsense. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the taboo about discussing the new problems that Brexit has added to those familiar policy issues has added a new layer of dishonesty to political discourse.

The dishonesty of Nigel Farage

This dishonesty most certainly extends to Farage and his Reform Party. He simply disowns Brexit as having been betrayed by the Tories, as if it happened despite him, and could have been done in some better way by him. But this ignores the fact that at the last election he gave his support to the Withdrawal Agreement that Boris Johnson had negotiated, as well as voting for it, as a Brexit Party MEP, in the European Parliament. It ignores the fact that the subsequent ‘Canada-style’ trade agreement was the outcome he favoured and, as I mentioned earlier, it ignores the fact that immigration is now subject to an ‘Aussie-style points system’ which he used to say he supported. He is as responsible as anyone not just for Brexit, but for Brexit in the precise form it took.

Moreover, whilst he now wants to make this an ‘election about immigration’, his ‘net zero’ immigration policy is utterly dishonest in refusing to accept what its economic consequences would be. The reason why the Tories have never come anywhere near meeting what used to be their immigration caps, and recently oversaw such an increase in net migration, isn’t because they lacked hostility to immigration. Quite the contrary. It’s because, in government, they were forced to recognize that the consequences of significantly reducing it would be impossibly damaging. The stock anti-immigration argument that labour shortages can be met from domestic unemployment founders on the reality that there are simply not enough unemployed people to do so, and that, even with better training, there are not enough people with, or able to acquire, the right skills, and this is going to get worse as the population ages.

Similarly, the reason the Tories didn’t simply follow Reform’s policy of dumping the small boat arrivals ‘back in France’ wasn’t because of any lack of desire to do so but because, when they embarked on such a policy, they found that it simply isn’t possible. Yet it remains Reform’s policy, and their website even states that the UK is “legally allowed to do this under international treaties”, which is essentially untrue. It is a position that can only be advocated by those who do not have to take responsibility for practical delivery. In this, Farage and Reform are every bit as dishonest with the electorate as the ‘Establishment politicians’ they affect to despise.

Worse than that, over immigration in particular, the Tories and the various parties Farage has fronted over the years have co-conspired to stoke grievances. One of the most incisive Conservative commentators, John Oxley, recently wrote that “for twenty years or so the Tory Party has been trying and failing to find an answer to Farage”. That attempt has included repeatedly making undeliverable promises about immigration to head off the Farage challenge, with the invariable result of feeding that challenge when the promises are not kept. Brexit is the same story, writ large.

This is a large part of the reason for this week’s reports that public trust in government and politicians is at an all-time low, and whilst the Tory-Farage death dance is central to that, Labour can scarcely be exonerated. At least and since Gordon Brown’s ‘Mrs Duffy moment’ of 2010, which has haunted them ever since, they too have  basically accepted the analysis that immigration is at best a necessary evil to be avoided so far as possible by increasing the domestic labour supply. The potential difference, at this election, is that they at least seem to grasp that there is an alternative strategy, based on increasing investment and productivity, as Rachel Reeves’ recent Mais Lecture, amongst other things, makes clear.  Whether they can deliver this in government, especially given the growth constraints entailed by their Brexit policy, remains to be seen. The kinds of measures they envisage, such as planning reform and a very diluted form of Bidenomics, don’t look to me to have enough firepower, but they might get lucky if global factors fall in their favour.

At all events, what is crucial is that it will now be Labour which faces the realities being in government imposes. That won’t be the case for the Tories, who are set to enter the world of Brexitist fantasy.

The Conservative implosion

What is now emerging as the key sub-plot of this election – given that the broad overall outcome seems almost assured – is the battle for the post-election meaning of British conservatism. I anticipated, back in February 2023, that this would occur, assuming the Tory Party lost the election. What I hadn’t anticipated was the extent to which the party would so visibly fall apart prior to the election (this also means that whereas in my previous post I wrote about the election being “quietly” about Brexitism, it is now much more noisily so). As both a cause and a consequence, this has emboldened Farage to launch what he now admits is an attempt to take it over, with the first step being to ensure that an almost certain defeat becomes an electoral wipe-out.

Whether or not he, himself, becomes the leader of what emerges from the fall out, then it will be a Brexitist party. That is, in brief summary: it will have commitment to Brexit as its bedrock value; will espouse ‘Brexit 2.0’ policies, most notably ECHR derogation and of course anti-immigration and anti-refugee measures; will prize ‘true belief’ over evidence and rationality in policymaking; and will embrace the vicious nostalgia, which I’ve written about before, of a return to an imagined, sanitized past of social order and mono-culturalism, in which there is no climate crisis and no ‘wokery’.

It is important to understand that this means not just expunging the last remnants of ‘one nation’, ‘pragmatic’ or ‘liberal’ Toryism, but also a rejection of Sunak’s brand of pro-Brexit but fiscally orthodox and ‘globalist’ Conservatism. Notably, one of the few things the Tories have done since 2019 which Farage approved of was Truss’s ‘anti-Establishment’, ‘true Brexit’ mini-budget. The Brexitists want Sunak to lose, and to lose big.

Farage is able to be quite open about this, to the dismay of Tory Brexitists like Andrea Jenkyns, who has been squealing this week about the unfairness of Reform standing a candidate against ‘true Conservatives’ such as her, with the aim of ‘destroying the Conservative Party’. It seems to escape her that for years, and even in the actual statement she made, she and her fellow ‘true Conservatives’, in their various factions, have laid the ground for this with their endless denunciations of their own party. As the internet meme has it, she evidently didn’t expect the leopard to eat her face.

Meanwhile, other Brexitists think, to use a different ‘big cat’ analogy, that they can ride the tiger, with Jacob Rees-Mogg proposing (£), not for the first time, an electoral pact between the two parties. Suella Braverman has gone even further in calling for the Tories to “embrace Nigel Farage” to “unite the right”, to the extent of seemingly suggesting a formal merger. That’s unlikely to happen before the election, but it can’t be ruled out that Farage will do some kind of deal whereby Reform stands down its candidates in seats held by Tory Brexitists, with or without reciprocation, in the hope of then taking over a compliant party.

But there are other actors at work. Astonishingly, four Tory MPs, including Jenkyns, have accepted £5000 donations from the backer of Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party in exchange for signing up to its key pledges, including a commitment to leave the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). What is astonishing isn’t so much that they have done so in defiance of the Tory Party HQ. That is just a further sign of the collapse of the party, and it may be that other MPs will do the same thing. Rather, it is astonishing because Fox, of all people, is being spoken of by Jenkyns as taking “a grown-up approach” in contrast to Reform’s divisive ‘sabotage’. Equally bizarrely, at the same time Jenkyns is using images of her with Nigel Farage on her campaign literature, violating her own party’s code of conduct as well as aligning her with the party whose conduct she condemns. Her spokesperson sought to explain it by saying that “Andrea is above all, a patriot”, but more obvious nouns are all too readily available.

How much of this will burst into an even more open conflict before the election remains to be seen. The Conservative manifesto launch on Tuesday promised to lower immigration, and made very vague reference to the European Court of Human Rights (not even the Convention), implying any future judgments it makes in relation to the Rwanda policy might be ignored. But this just underscored the trap the party is in. Such positions alienate more liberal conservatives, putting the ‘Blue wall’ seats under greater threat to, especially, the LibDem challenge, whilst being nowhere near enough to satisfy Brexitists. Even before it was published, they were threatening to produce a ‘rebel manifesto’ if the official one doesn’t shift the opinion polls (which seems unlikely). Yet the fact is that, even if Sunak were to commit to ECHR derogation, the Brexitists’ hallmark policy, they wouldn’t be satisfied, and would demand something else. This is part of what makes it Brexitism – it is exactly the same pattern of behaviour the Brexit Ultras showed as regards Brexit itself.

The laboratory of post-Brexit politics

All of this is just a small taste of the maelstrom that is going to engulf the Tories assuming they lose the election. It won’t involve most of us, except as spectators, but voters in the current election can shape it. Firstly, the greater the scale of the Tory defeat the more intense will be the crisis of the party. In this sense, it will be important whether or not voters conclude that since a Labour victory seems guaranteed, they need not bother to vote or, alternatively, that they vote Tory so as to deny Labour a ‘blank cheque’ (a line the Tories are starting to push hard). Secondly, although it would not deny him any post-election role, if Farage loses in Clacton that would be an important symbolic failure, and would, in some hard to predict ways, shape what then happens to the Tories.

As for that, there’s every chance that what will emerge will be a party with an appeal so narrow as to be unelectable, but it can’t be assumed that this will be so. I don’t see Farage as very likely to lead it to success, whatever happens in Clacton, not least because he is now such a familiar face, and one about whom most people have now made up their minds. But a fresh, younger leader might capture the public imagination and, as the EU parliament elections have shown, it also can’t be assumed that right-wing populism only appeals to older voters. If, by 2029, a stodgy Labour government has failed to make any real dent in not just the economic malaise but the wider sense of national distress, a victory by such a party can’t be ruled out. What may well be a huge Labour majority now could easily dissolve with disaffected voters deserting in multiple directions, and a ‘National Conservative’ government emerging from the wreckage without needing a huge share of the national vote.

Admittedly, it is quite absurdly speculative to be talking about the 2029 election when the present one has not yet even been held. But I have a strong sense that even though this election campaign is quite boring, it is also an extremely significant moment in British politics. Or, rather, that its boringness arises from its significance. Before the campaign is over, we will have the eighth anniversary of the referendum, and we are still living through what it has unleashed. Part of that is actually a desire for politics to be more boring, and Starmer’s ‘end the chaos’ message speaks effectively to that. Part of it is a fear, born of the trauma of Brexit, of going anywhere near a big idea. The country pressed the reset button in 2016, and far from solving any problems it has added to them. Most people have little appetite for turning the machine on and off again now.

Yet for others the opposite is true. For some of them, and Farage is certainly one, 2016 was a moment of high excitement, which nothing before or since has given them. They would love to press the button again, and have the thrill again. For others, Brexit has proved a horrible disappointment, and its supposed betrayal one more grievance to add to their list, leaving them ready to angrily jab the button - again and again and again.

So, stale and uninspiring as it may be, underneath that, this election campaign is an expression of post-Brexit politics and is setting up the shape of its next phase. Its underlying drivers are by no means unique to the UK, as shown by the European Parliament elections and, especially, the fall-out from them in France, where there is set to be an open conflict between nationalist populism and liberal centrism. But the dynamics of the conflict are distinctive in the UK, precisely because of Brexit, which is also the reason why Brexitism is a distinctive version of populism. Here, the 2016 referendum already openly enacted that conflict and, narrowly but inescapably, the populists won.

When populists win, their policies can’t deliver what they claimed for them, and that is what happened with Brexit (to the extent that the latest figures show that just 15% of people, and only 31% of those who voted to leave, think that the benefits of it outweigh the negatives). But, in this case, the populists won not simply an election, with the result reversible at the next one. Their policy was not a time-limited domestic one, but an open-ended international re-alignment. What happens when such a policy fails is largely uncharted water, and with this election the UK is starting to map it out. That makes it interesting, at least as an experiment in the laboratory of political science, though disconcerting for those of us who are the lab rats.


*In another previous post, I mentioned in passing that Brexit would play a role in the campaign in Northern Ireland, especially for the unionist parties. It’s not a topic I feel qualified to discuss, but there is a very informative expert analysis by Professor Jon Tonge of Liverpool University on the Comment is Freed Substack.