Brexit: The Flight 93 Secession

European union flag

Whether you believe that Brexit is a brave and noble endeavour or a rash, ignoble folly probably depends a lot on your perception of short and long-term risk

Imagine that in some surreal scenario you mysteriously found yourself on board a huge passenger aircraft flying a multi-stop, seemingly never-ending transoceanic journey to nowhere.

As the hours and days tick by onboard this strange vessel you begin to question where the plane is taking everybody, and who set the flight plan. There’s an old framed picture of the airline’s founder, Jean Monnet, hanging at the front of the plane above the sealed cockpit door, but the captain and the other passengers refuse to clearly state the destination themselves, even though they all seem very anxious to get there. Rather than being candid, they make only vague allusions to the potential destination and arrival time, and repeatedly emphasise the importance of travelling together in a big, stable aircraft to keep us safe from turbulence.

Then suppose that one day you question whether you want to be on this flight in the first place – your fellow passengers keep getting sick, the pilot stops randomly at tiny airfields in seedy-looking places to let a whole bunch of extra people climb aboard without even checking their boarding passes, and while every seat comes with its own plastic toy steering wheel giving the childish illusion of individual control, it is plainly apparent that the pilot is the sole person in charge.

You also have strong suspicions that a certain Lederhosen-wearing passenger sitting in First Class is the captain’s special favourite, and that this is why they get to control the cabin air conditioning, select the in-flight movie, dictate the meal choices for everyone sitting in Economy and sometimes even persuade the pilot to change speed and altitude. Back in 2015, a little scrawny passenger owed Lederhosen Guy some money and was being evasive about paying it back – now he rides in the unheated, unpressurised cargo hold.

So you finally speak up and ask why we are on this flight at all, this Airbus A380 on steroids, when out the window we can see other happy families zipping along in their Cessnas and small private jets, travelling together in a loose formation to reach their preferred destination but also preserving their individual ability to climb, descend, stop at an airfield for lunch or set a new destination altogether if they so choose.

And in response, some wiseguy across the aisle says that you have no right to complain because a mysterious benefactor bought your ticket armed with perfect information as to the plane’s ultimate destination. The travel agent certainly never lied to them, making the journey seem shorter and the destination more pleasant than the reality now unfolding – no, your benefactor apparently was apparently very firm in their desire for you to embark on this particular journey, and approved of every subsequent course change made by the captain, tacitly if not explicitly.

Many of the other passengers also take turns lecturing you that the era of private aviation is over, that only a fool would put his life in the hands of Westphalia Private Aviation Corp., that one family in one aircraft cannot possibly complete a safe and successful autonomous journey in this day and age, and that only by abandoning our trusty Learjet and boarding the enormous Airbus can we protect ourselves from dangerous pockets of clear air turbulence and other assorted perils of the sky. And if that means eating the same cheap airline food day after day, and giving the airline pilot total authority over us while in the air then so be it.

This is unacceptable, so you pluck up the courage and deliver an ultimatum: either the captain gives up his absolute powers and pays more attention to the demands of individual passengers – even if that means amending the route – or you will disembark, return to your own aircraft to fly on your own terms with your own companions in your own squadron, and with your own destination in mind. The captain laughs in your face. Lederhosen Guy stares at you with a kind of impassive curiosity, but says nothing. The aircraft continues humming along at cruising altitude.

What to do? You figure that storming the cockpit, relieving the captain of his duties and attempting to land the plane yourself is inherently risky, yet it seems preferable to reaching the plane’s ultimate destination and then realising that all of your worst fears and suspicions were correct – and that there is no return service.

If the aircraft will not change course and you are unwilling to accept the destination (or continued vagueness about the intended destination), then indeed storming the cockpit is the only option left. You don’t want to permanently hijack the plane and steer it exclusively according to your own preferences, nor do you want to thwart the captain and harm others by crashing the plane altogether. You just want to disembark peacefully.

Would it be nice if another Airbus A380 with a more amenable pilot was waiting at the next refuelling stop, ready for you and likeminded passengers to hop aboard and continue your journey in a more collegiate style, agreeing the destination and flight plan together rather than stubbornly navigating according to the old captain’s worn-out, anachronistic 1950s map? Yes, of course it would. But that’s not going to happen today. There is no alternative jet on the tarmac, and for all the money you have given the airline the small print on the back of your ticket is clearly marked “non-exchangeable and non-refundable”.

So you gather what support you can from among the other passengers, count to three, and charge the door.

At one point in 2016, some of the more extreme conservative political pundits in America began referring to the presidential campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the “Flight 93 election“, a reference to the United Airlines plane hijacked by terrorists on 9/11 and deliberately crashed into a Pennsylvania field after passengers learned of the attacks on the World Trade Center and mounted a fightback against the Islamist hijackers. This risible, overwrought argument posited that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be so damaging to the United States – effectively the equivalent of another 9/11 attack – that it was the duty of every true patriot to “storm the cockpit” of American government by electing Donald Trump president instead.

Britain’s 2016 EU referendum was not quite a “Flight 93 moment”, not only because unlike the 9/11 attackers, the EU’s motivations and trajectory (though severely misguided) are not deliberately malevolent, but also because the speed of European political integration is slow and incremental, not sudden and rapid. Unlike a hijacking situation, we therefore theoretically had time to think and form a more considered plan of escape. Unfortunately Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, the ringleaders who nominally led the storming of the cockpit, failed to come up with any kind of coherent plan for what to do when they got their hands on the controls. And now they have handed over command to Theresa May, who sits with white-knuckled grip on the yoke, trying and failing to reassure we the passengers over the intercom by repeating the same worn out banalities. Our position, post storming of the cockpit, is therefore significantly suboptimal.

But ultimately, if the captain will not desist from a reckless and undesirable course of action and an orderly disembarkation is impossible then one is left with little choice other than to forcibly set the plane down, blow the emergency exit, jump down the inflatable slide and walk back to the terminal in search of alternative transportation.

With Brexit, as with all flights, there is an outside chance that the new pilots will crash the plane, resulting in total hull loss and our fiery deaths. There is a slightly higher chance of experiencing a landing so rough that there are multiple injuries, the undercarriage fails and the plane requires lengthy and expensive repairs. Right now there are probably even odds that the landing will be sufficiently bumpy that those who do not have their seatbelts fastened securely will get thrown around the cabin a bit and generally have a bad time. But of course, the corollary to this is that remaining on the aircraft despite not knowing its destination and having no individual control over the plane carries a risk of its own. The next stop may be Warsaw or Bucharest, but eventually the plane might head for Pyongyang, carrying us along with it.

The difference between Remainers and Brexiteers is this: Remainers do not seem to much care where they end up (or at least seem willing to smile and suppress any gnawing doubts that they do have) so long as they can be seen to be travelling happily and in total harmony with all the other passengers on the plane. In support of their position, Remainers can point to all of the aircraft’s previous stopovers – many of which were vaguely pleasant or at least neutral – to suggest that we are participating in a wonderful global excursion and would be mad to spurn the promise of future tropical delights.

By contrast, Brexiteers care deeply about the end destination, strongly disagree with the current direction of travel and are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to alter it. Leave voters can bolster their argument by pointing out the unprecedented scope of control passengers have ceded to the captain over time, and noting that ours is the only part of the world where people seem to have lost faith in private aviation and insist on flying together in a single huge aircraft. If abandoning our autonomy and climbing aboard the Airbus is so great, they argue, why are people in Asia, Africa, North and South America not following Europe’s lead?

Neither viewpoint is inherently evil. Rather, each view is formed by a different perception of reality and a varying sensitivity to short and long-term risk.

Or perhaps all Remainers are just flag-hating, anti-patriotic, virtue-signalling traitors who think that supporting the EU is an easy way to check the “internationalist” box on their checklist of trendy-lefty political opinions, and/or every Brexiteer is a harrumphing, xenophobic retired colonel who fetishises the British Empire, hates foreigners and wants to re-impose the social values and norms of the 1950s.

It’s hard to say.

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No, You Do Not ‘Feel European’

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Sorry, but enjoying spaghetti and Belgian beer is not sufficient cultural commonality with Europe on which to build a deep political union

It has long been a conceit of EU apologists and arch-Remainers that political union with Europe makes sense because we have “so much in common” with Europe, more so than with other countries, including those of the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere.

This tedious and self-evidently false argument bubbles up with regularity, with the Evening Standard’s Richard Godwin making a particularly glib and superficial argument as the EU referendum battle raged:

I just feel European. I’m part of a generation that has had easy access to mainland Europe for both work and play.

I like Penélope Cruz and Daft Punk and tiki-taka and Ingmar Bergman and spaghetti and absinthe and saunas and affordable trains.

As sentimental as it sounds, Europe represents opportunity, cosmopolitanism, modernity, romance, enrichment, adventure to me.

Cutting all that off — even symbolically — would feel both spiteful and arbitrary.

The same argument is occasionally expressed with slightly more intellectual rigour, most recently by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, who wrote on the day of the Dutch elections:

It would be an irony more bitter than delicious, but could Brexit be having an unexpected effect on the people of Britain – turning us, finally, and despite everything, into good Europeans?

The question arises because of a curious shift underway since the referendum last June. For many years, the intellectual bedrock of the Eurosceptic case was that there was no such thing as a European demos, no European nation underpinning what Eurosceptics believed was an emerging European super-state. The notion of a United States of America made sense because Americans were a true people, sharing a language and sense of common destiny. But a United States of Europe was absurd because Europeans did not see themselves as bound together in the same way.

[..] But look what’s happened since 23 June 2016. Today, the Dutch go to the polls, an event that would previously have passed with not much more than a brief mention on the inside pages. This time, however, the same pundits and prognosticators who last year obsessed over Trump v Clinton have directed some of that same energy to the battle of Wilders v Rutte, trading polling data on social media and arguing about the meaning of the latest move by the rival candidates.

Never has the pro-EU establishment media’s bias been on more blatant display than in this piece of self-regarding bubble-ese by Freedland. British public interest in the Dutch, French and German elections, to the extent that it existed at all, was driven almost entirely by weepy Remainers who took a short break from quoting Yeats on their social media timelines (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”) to vest their hopes in would-be saviours like Mark Rutte and Emmanuel Macron.

If we can agree that the man on the street – the kind of normal person with a life, who doesn’t spend every waking moment obsessing about politics – probably does not think much at all about the politics of other countries, then we should also be able to agree that those who are even slightly politically aware are far more likely to know about American politics and current affairs than those of various European countries, large or small.

Doubt it? Then simply watch the television or print news coverage on any given day. Only this week, British television news bulletins have been dominated by the ongoing feud between Donald Trump and various players and executives of the National Football League who have taken to kneeling during the playing of the US national anthem as a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

This news story has received extensive coverage on the BBC, Sky News, ITV News, Channel 4 News, the Telegraph, the Times, the Guardian, the Independent and many smaller outlets:

As well as featuring prominently ahead of domestic news stories in British television news bulletins, this tiresome culture war episode also seems to be exercising the minds of British political pundits and armchair moralisers up and down the country:

What comparable domestic political spat or policy debate in a European country would receive comparable press coverage in Britain? The answer is obvious: none. There is no other country whose day-to-day politicking is obsessed over by the British media and known by the UK populace in more detail as the United States. This is not merely a function of us sharing a common language – do the self-proclaimed “Citizens of Europe” really believe that British people would be fascinated with German or Portuguese politics if only we were not cruelly divided by language?

Nor is this a natural function of America’s hegemonic power making their every decision impactful on Britain – indeed, the rituals of American football could not be of less importance to the United Kingdom, nor concerns about police shootings of civilians in a country where most of the police are unarmed. Our deep interest in American news is primarily cultural, not borne out of any informational necessity.

This is not an argument for Britain to become the fifty-first state of America rather than the twenty-eighth state of a United Europe; it is merely to point out that cultural affinity – which is arguably much stronger between Britain and the United States than Britain and Europe – does not automatically recommend (let alone necessitate) political union between countries, while enforced political union between diverse states does not necessarily ensure that a corresponding cultural merger will occur to form a coherent, cohesive demos.

And culture aside, economic interdependence likewise does not mandate political union, as the United States and Canada, the United States and Mexico, Australia and New Zealand as well as the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland can readily attest. Economic alignment and interdependence is a necessary condition for political union, but not nearly a sufficient one.

Indeed, the history books are littered with examples of such grand enterprises – using economic interdependence or geographic proximity as an excuse to force political union on an unwilling or ambivalent population – failing miserably. In recent history we need think only of the Soviet Union, which sought to achieve through terror and totalitarianism what the European Union today seeks to bring about with the aid of technocracy, managerialism and corporatism – using anything as an excuse for more political integration except a full-throated cry from European people to be part of ever-closer union.

It is this ever-closer union which we are seeking to leave, as evidenced by the Lord Ashcroft poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, showing that the primary motivation for the Leave vote was a desire to reclaim sovereignty and democratic accountability. It was the continual efforts of political elites in Britain and Europe to build a political union spanning dissimilar cultures, in direct contradiction of this desire and without specific democratic consent, which ultimately made Brexit inevitable.

The EU’s “if we build it, they will come” approach to legitimising itself – creating institutions and giving them vast powers at the expense of the nation state, all in the hope that a European demos will magically appear in a puff of smoke – is pure wishful thinking. And as EU and member state political elites insist on responding to growing public dissatisfaction by pledging “More Europe”, they will only create a bigger and more unsavoury backlash, yet they seem unable to envisage taking any other course of action.

None of this is to insist that Britain should continue in its current form for a thousand years, or that the nation state remain the basic building block of human civilisation in perpetuity. But in the age of universal suffrage there is no good reason why we should continue to blindly execute a dated, anachronistic 1950s blueprint to fulfil a century-old aspiration of European political union when we should instead be creating new systems of meaningful international cooperation which work with human nature rather than struggling obstinately against human nature. Institutions which enjoy sufficient public support that they can operate in the light rather than work in the shadows, relying on voter ignorance.

Democracy means more than the existence of universal suffrage, elected legislatures and executive offices. These things are a necessary condition, but they mean very little if the demos – the body of people whom the institutions purportedly serve – does not also see itself as a cohesive demos. If Britons were suddenly able to vote in Japanese elections, and share political institutions with Japan, a cohesive British/Japanese demos would not automatically pop into existence sharing a common culture, concerns and aspirations. The same goes for the attempt to create a European demos by imposing a parliament, flag and anthem.

This is why Remainer protestations that the EU is “no less democratic than Westminster” are ignorant at best, and deliberately misleading at worst. While some starry-eyed euro-federalists clearly do see themselves as European first and foremost, they are incredibly lacking in number, and certainly nowhere near a majority. And until this changes there can be no European demos of sufficient strength and depth to sustain the kind of powerful, permanent institutions mandated by the EU.

This is where we must at least partially defer to human nature in this regard, and that’s why it is ludicrous to maintain that a political union including Britain and Lithuania could long survive when none can exist between Britain and Australia or Britain and the United States.

And that is why one Guardian columnist’s love of Daft Punk and Penelope Cruz movies can never provide a strong enough foundation to hold aloft the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Court of Justice and all the vasty institutions of Brussels.

 

First published at LeaveHQ.

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Brexit Opposition And The Quiet Death Of Citizenship

It is difficult to have a serious conversation about citizenship in the Age of Brexit when so many people hold a such transactional, materialistic and reductionist definition of the concept as meaning little more than benefits received in exchange for taxes paid

One interesting and overlooked aspect of the Brexit debate is the extent to which the basic concept of citizenship has decayed and virtually evaporated from our public discourse, right under our noses, with barely any note of alarm being sounded in the process.

This decay reveals itself in manifold ways, from the furious pushback one inevitably receives when pointing out the obvious fact that citizens should (and do) have more rights than non-citizens to the outraged, moralising vitriol hurled at anybody who dares to suggest that illegal immigrants are technically lawbreakers and therefore maybe not universally worthy of respect, sympathy or amnesty.

These are now controversial positions to hold. To be steadfast in the belief that British citizenship confers more rights than those held by permanent residents or temporary visitors is to mark oneself out as something of an extremist, at least as far as the media and chattering classes are concerned. Yet many politicians in Britain and America who now wrap themselves in the mantle of conspicuous compassion for all illegal immigrants and effectively agitate for open borders could themselves not so long ago be found calling for tougher immigration enforcement.

This applies to the likes of Hillary Clinton in America, who once supported and voted for the same strengthening of the United States’ southern border which she now denounces as being tantamount to racism. Of course, Clinton has since positioned herself as a tireless champion of the “undocumented”, together with virtually all of the American Left. Similarly in Britain, many commentators who once dared to express reservations about uncontrolled immigration from within the EU have now taken up rhetorical arms against anybody who proposes a more rigorous immigration policy.

In both countries, but particularly in Britain, citizenship is increasingly regarded (to the extent that people think of it at all) as a transactional affair, services rendered for taxes paid – or even rendered with no reciprocity at all in the case of the modern welfare state. The argument goes that by the sole virtue of paying taxes or drawing benefits here one deserves a full voice in the country’s affairs, even if one is a non-citizen or is present in the country illegally.

This very transactional approach has frayed the contract or bond between citizen/resident and the state. Of course, people still expect the state to protect them from foreign foes, guard against domestic security threats, provide healthcare, offer a welfare safety net and distribute various domestic and EU services. But even as they make these demands they offer rapidly diminishing loyalty to the state in which they live. People are increasingly insatiable for the benefits while being less and less willing to accept the responsibility.

This responsibility goes much deeper than just paying one’s taxes. It means making a serious commitment to community and, ideally, the enthusiastic acceptance of and assimilation into one’s home (or adopted) culture. Traditionally, the sign that an immigrant was willing to accept these broader responsibilities was their decision to apply for naturalisation as a citizen. Historically, if an immigrant were to build a life in another country, working and raising a family there, they would ultimately become a citizen of that country in most cases.

But today, many people demand the perks without accepting the responsibilities – hence the outrage of and on behalf of EU citizens who have built permanent or semi-permanent lives here yet refuse to see why they should formalise that commitment through the naturalisation process (or at least the acquisition of permanent residency following Brexit). They forget that the European Union is an aberration, that nowhere else in the developed world would countries offer so much while asking for virtually nothing in return.

Yet to point this out is to invite accusations of callousness and amorality. Of course there are exceptional cases where joint citizenship cannot be taken or some other bureaucratic or financial obstacle stands in the way of an EU migrant formalising their commitment to the United Kingdom. Such cases should be treated generously, with the aim of reducing any uncertainty for the migrants involved.

But this blog has very little sympathy when people demand something for nothing. Freedom of movement and other EU benefits are political entitlements. They are not – repeat, NOT – fundamental, inalienable rights.

A fundamental right is intrinsic to one’s humanity, as applicable to somebody in China, Russia, North Korea or Venezuela as to someone living in Britain. These are best summed up in the US Declaration of Independence as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, though one can also drill down a level further and acknowledge the universal human right to property, due process under law and so on. Fundamental rights are inherent; political entitlements are nice-to-haves, often given (in the EU’s case) partly as a means of securing support for a dubious political project which would otherwise be utterly unloved.

Of course we should have a degree of natural sympathy for anybody at risk of losing their current political entitlement to live and work in the United Kingdom without going through the arduous and expensive process of applying for permanent residency or citizenship – though a deal between Britain and the EU to secure reciprocal ongoing rights for UK and EU citizens is all but inevitable. Personally, I would offer expedited indefinite leave to remain to all current EU migrants at a greatly reduced fee. But others’ rights as EU migrants do not trump the sacrosanct (though not quite exclusive) right of British citizens to participate in our democracy and determine the course of the country.

The decision of the British people to secede from the European Union can not and must not be vetoed by or on behalf of people who refuse to assume the responsibilities and privileges of full citizenship. That such an obvious statement now sounds harsh or controversial is itself an indicator of how deeply corroded and devalued the concept of citizenship has become in our society. Yet this would have been the mainstream view in Britain a decade or more ago, and still very much is the accepted wisdom nearly everywhere else in the world.

Many Brexiteers – myself among them – did not spend 2016 tirelessly campaigning for Brexit because they hate immigrants, want to kick out existing migrants or even significantly lower net migration. But neither will we allow the protestations of those who refuse to share the commitment and mutual connection of citizenship with us to overshadow or overrule our vote.

This is not extreme, nor is it unreasonable. It is merely the consequence of adhering to the same traditional definition of citizenship which allows us to flourish as a society precisely because we are all bound to one another by something deeper than momentary convenience.

It remains to be hoped that Brexit will spark a renewed discussion about citizenship and the proper relationship between citizen, resident and government – indeed there are some early encouraging signs that such conversations are starting to take place.

But the furious reaction of the establishment Left to political developments both in Britain and America suggests that defenders of the concept of citizenship will be starting at a considerable disadvantage.

 

A British citizenship certificate is seen in London

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The Left’s New Cunning Plan: Pretend To Support Brexit, Then Sabotage It Later

Brexit Saboteur - Remain - Establishment

Someone needs to tell the pro-EU centrist establishment that plotting an establishment usurpation of democracy in public isn’t the smartest strategy

You have to admire the chutzpah of the establishment centre-left right now. Last week they publicly advanced their super clever idea for Remainers to pretend to make peace with Brexit in order to regain credibility with the public (but only in order to sneakily backstab the whole enterprise a few years down the line).

No, seriously:

An increasing number of Remainers are attracted to an alternative strategy. After a lengthy transition, they argue, voters should be offered a choice between a new EU trade deal and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be a distant memory. The proviso, they add, is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms (rather than ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area).

Rather than publicly proposing this plan, MPs are wisely keeping their counsel. As they know, those who hope to overturn the Brexit result must first be seen to respect it.

Interesting. So let me get this straight:

Step 1: Pretend to accept the EU referendum result.

Step 2: Work furiously behind the scenes to overturn it in a few years’ time.

Step 3: Keep the whole dastardly plot a secret, so that nobody finds — oh, too late.

And today we see another confession from the Left, this time that they plan on pretending to be on board with the outdated and embarrassing ideas of patriotism and pride in Britain – because their stupid, backward working class base insist on clinging on to those foolish notions. Again, this was done in public.

Alessio Colonnelli over at LabourList begins by stating exactly what he thinks of the backward and dangerous concept of patriotism:

Brexit is a bout of extreme patriotism; an angry Pamplona bull you can’t really grab by the horns. You run away from it, then hide and watch it thunder past. Overwhelmed by it all, gasping for air, the only question left is: how to make the best out of this situation?

This is a promising start – not merely suggesting that the patriotism felt by a majority of Brits is irrational or a hankering for lost empire (the familiar trope from Remainers), but that it resembles an angry charging bull.

Colonnelli continues:

Having lost millions of voters in northern England, Wales and Scotland in between 2010 and 2016, the red party has started doing “patriotism” a bit more. It would be very worrying if it were not so. It’s a card one has to play, given the circumstances. Make no mistake: Machiavelli would pat you on the back for doing that. Whatever it takes, so his lesson goes. Besides, it’s not as if a dash of mild jingoism was ever alien to Labour throughout its history – Hugh Gaitskell was never enamoured with Europe either, after all.

The thing about Machiavelli, though, is that he didn’t advocate that politicians announce their dastardly plans in public before executing them, or make it painfully obvious that they are only pretending to get along with the target of their deception. He assumed that geopolitical actors would have a sufficient baseline of intelligence that pointing this out wasn’t necessary.

Not so for Alessio Colonnelli though, who tells us exactly what he thinks about patriotism, declares that he sees it as a form of “mild jingoism” in which the metro-left should nonetheless pretend to partake for the sole purpose of tricking Brexiteers, and then titters to himself that he is somehow pulling one over on those of us who campaigned and voted for Brexit on the grounds of democracy, sovereignty and patriotism.

He continues:

Occasionally, as we all know, the centre of politics shifts, and momentarily weaker outfits are forced to follow the changes – the zeitgeist. It happens everywhere. In Britain, the centre has moved towards the right over the past seven years (with Ukip’s crucial help), and you would expect social democratic organisations to do something to counter this while playing along to the new tune for a bit and sneakily carving out a new space.

How brave. How principled, to pretend to agree with a current political trend that you find objectionable rather than standing up to it with courage and conviction. First I am astonished that Colonnelli believes that the political centre of gravity has shifted to the right lately, given the fact that Theresa May completely blew the general election, Jeremy Corbyn surpassed expectations and the public seem to be signalling that they are getting tired of this whole austerity thing. But presumably he is talking exclusively about Brexit, which in his two-dimensional mind he sees as being a right-wing phenomenon rather than a democratic one.

In all seriousness, though, there is an interesting contrast between the way that the Left is responding to populist setbacks on either side of the Atlantic. In Britain, we do see the stirrings of this attempt to reach out to Brexiteers and others for whom patriotism is not an embarrassment (the Somewheres, to use David Goodhart’s terminology) – even if it is only a transparent ruse designed to trick them.

This almost certainly would not be the choice of most of the Parliamentary Labour Party, who hold Brexiteers in barely disguised contempt and who wear their fawning, unconditional love for the EU like a badge of honour. But Labour’s centrist MPs are constrained in what they can do because Jeremy Corbyn, their leader, is a eurosceptic at heart and set the tone in the 2017 manifesto that Labour would support Brexit.

In the United States, however, the Democratic Party – despite having thrown away the White House, a minority in Congress and severely weakened in state government – shows no signs of being ready for a rapprochement with the voters that their standard bearer Hillary Clinton once called “deplorable” and “irredeemable”. If anything, the American Left seems increasingly determined to publicly double down on the divisive identity politics messaging which alienates middle America and saw the Democrats lose the Rust Belt (with the exception of a few brave voices in the wilderness, like Mark Lilla).

Two different approaches – on one hand an attempt to understand voters and meet them where they are (even if only as part of an elaborate and cynical deception), and on the other hand a perplexing decision to furiously lash out at the electorate and double down on the same old failed identity politics strategy.

Neither populist insurgency is going tremendously well right now – in Britain, the Conservative government seems determined to enact the most ruinous and disorderly version of Brexit possible, while in America Donald Trump is simply being Donald Trump. This might represent fertile territory for a left-wing party which actually knew what it was doing, a movement which wasn’t consumed by blind fury at being ignored by the electorate and cast unexpectedly from power.

The question is, when will the Left cease their temper tantrum, grow up, regain their senses and try being effective opposition again? Because surely it will happen eventually, and that will be a bad day for the populists.

 

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Centrists Cling To Their Failed Dogma Even As It Tears Their Countries Apart

Tony Blair - Hillary Clinton - centrism

In a wide-ranging essay, Michael Lind argues that the elite managerial class have broken their compact with the working classes to the detriment of the country, thus explaining the populist backlashes witnessed in Britain and America

“The New Class War”, an essay in the American Affairs Journal by writer Michael Lind, perfectly captures the intersection between trade regulation, democracy and the interests of the managerial elites which is at the heart of the current debate over sovereignty – and which fuelled the Brexit vote in the UK and Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency in America.

It is necessary to quote at some length from the section entitled “The Politics of Global Arbitrage“, in which Lind discusses the ways in which corporate behaviour has influenced the contours of our democracy:

Even as they have exploited opportunities for international labor and tax-and-subsidy arbitrage, firms in the post–Cold War era of globalization have promoted selective harmonization of laws and rules, when it has been in their interest to do so. In the second half of the twentieth century, successive rounds of negotiation under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and, more recently, the World Trade Organization (WTO) effectively reduced most traditional tariff barriers. By 2016, when the WTO effectively terminated the failed Doha Development Round of global trade talks, the United States and other leading industrial nations had shifted the emphasis from removing barriers restricting the cross-border flow of goods to harmonizing laws and regulations through “multiregional trade pacts” like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), in the interests of transnational investors and corporations reliant on transnational supply chains.

The areas chosen for arbitrage and harmonization reflect the interests not of national working-class majorities but of the managerial elites that dominate western governments. Harmonizing labor standards or wages would undercut the labor arbitrage strategy, while transnational crackdowns on tax avoidance would thwart the strategy of tax arbitrage by transnational firms. Instead, the emphasis in harmonization policy has been on common industrial standards, the liberalization of financial systems, and intellectual property rights, including pharmaceutical patents. These kinds of harmonization benefit transnational firms, investors on Wall Street or in the City of London, and the holders of intellectual property rights in Silicon Valley and the pharmaceutical industry.

In many cases, this kind of regulatory harmonization makes sense—standardizing product safety measures, for example. But the new regulatory harmonization agreements produce a “democratic deficit” in two ways.

First, they remove whole areas of regulation from the realm of ordinary legislation, replacing it with “legislation by treaty.” Favorable laws and regulations that corporate lobbyists are unable to persuade national democratic legislatures to enact can be repackaged and hidden in harmonization agreements masked as “trade” treaties. These treaties, often thousands of pages long, tend to be drafted in secret by committees involving corporate lobbyists and may be ratified by legislatures without careful scrutiny.

Worse, most of these contemporary regulatory harmonization agreements include “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) provisions that allow individual corporations to sue national governments that change the rules in their countries after the passage of the treaty in private tribunals, dominated by corporate lawyers, with no appeal mechanism. If Congress enacts a statute that adversely affects the interests of Acme Inc., then Acme has few options, other than paying lobbyists and making campaign donations. But if Congress ratifies a treaty, and later changes a provision by passing a new law, Acme can sue the federal government for financial damages. The United States has yet to lose a case to ISDS, but other countries have, and some believe that the prospect of corporate lawsuits has a chilling effect on new laws and regulations of which particular corporations disapprove.

None of this is to imply that the transnational managers of the West and littoral East Asia who control the new global oligopolies are more selfish or less public-spirited than the managers of national corporations during the Second Industrial Era. On the contrary, in personal terms, today’s managerial elite is for the most part less bigoted and often quite philanthropic. The point is simply that the American, German, and Japanese corporations of half a century ago were constrained by kinds of Galbraithian countervailing power and Burnhamite/Moscian juridical defenses that have crumbled. Thanks to globalization, itself a voluntary policy choice enabled but not required by new technology, today’s transnational firms have much more bargaining power in their dealings with workers and democratic nation-states.

My emphasis in bold.

This perfectly sums up a core part of the democratic case for leaving the European Union as it relates to trade, and is very much in line with the analysis and arguments advanced by Dr. Richard North of eureferendum.com and Pete North.

Lind is quite correct to acknowledge that regulatory harmonisation can be an enormous force for good. In fact, the trouble only really comes about when there is no option for a democratic nation state to “opt out” of a certain regulatory change or edict when its imposition would harm the national interest in some way. Obviously there would be consequences for such an action, such as the non-recognition of standards relating to the product or industry in question. But the opt-out is a vital tool which nation states must possess in order to wield sensibly and with restraint on those occasions when the compromise hashed out by 27 EU member states is unacceptable to the sole outvoted dissenting country.

This is what we mean by the outsourcing of sovereignty. Remainers and assorted pro-EU apologists love to make the glib assertion that EU member states retain ultimate sovereignty at all times because they are technically free to leave the EU, but this is an asinine assertion. Sovereignty should not be a choice between having to go along with every diktat from Brussels or deploying the nuclear option and leaving the European Union. Indeed, how can you call it sovereignty when the choice is between accepting papercut after papercut (grave though the cumulative wound may be) or else enduring the disruption of severing ourselves from the union? This isn’t sovereignty, it is blackmail. Thank goodness that Britain finally called the EU’s bluff.

This section is also instructive:

To obtain social peace and mobilize national populations during World War II, the United States and its allies like Britain brokered business-labor pacts and promised welfare benefits to veterans. In the ensuing Cold War, every major industrial democracy devised some kind of “settlement” or compromise among business and labor interests within the nation.

The postwar settlements were a combination of employer-specific welfare capitalism and universal or means-tested, social-democratic welfare states. In West Germany, welfare capitalism took the form of “codetermination,” or union membership on corporate boards. Japan, following intense labor conflict after 1945, developed a system of corporate paternalism and lifetime employment for many workers. Organized labor was weak in the postwar United States, but the “Treaty of Detroit” negotiated among automobile companies and unions was a successful example of informal business-labor corporatism. Low levels of legal and illegal immigration, and social pressure on married mothers to exit the work force to become homemakers, strengthened the bargaining power of mostly male workers by creating tight labor markets.

These corporatist systems of welfare capitalism made the welfare states of the period from the 1940s to the 1970s much smaller than they would have been otherwise. Wage compression brought about by unions in the welfare-capitalist system made it easier for payroll taxes to fund entitlements like public pensions, which in turn were smaller than they might have been because of the widespread existence of private employer pensions.

The post-1945 settlements in the West and Japan demonstrate countervailing power and juridical defense in action. The result was the golden age of capitalism from the 1940s to the 1970s, combining high growth with a more equal distribution of its rewards than has ever existed before or since.

But Lind sees the end of the Cold War as a turning point when the post-war settlements established in the West and Japan began to be fatally undermined:

Following the Cold War, the global business revolution shattered these social compacts. Through the empowerment of multinational corporations and the creation of transnational supply chains, managerial elites disempowered national labor and national governments and transferred political power from national legislatures to executive agencies, transnational bureaucracies, and treaty organizations.

Freed from older constraints, the managerial minorities of Western nations have predictably run amok, using their near-monopoly of power and influence in all sectors—private, public, and nonprofit—to enact policies that advantage their members to the detriment of their fellow citizens. Derided and disempowered, large elements of the native working classes in Western democracies have turned to charismatic tribunes of anti-system populism in electoral rebellions against the selfishness and arrogance of managerial elites.

I have to say that Lind’s essay has given me pause for thought. This blog has consistently championed the Thatcherite revolution which took Britain from being the sick man of 1970s Europe, seemingly in terminal decline, to a revived and confident global power by the 1990s. I did so while acknowledging the various failures of the Thatcher government to ameliorate the decline of heavy industry outside of the wealthy Southeast and its cost in terms of suffering and wasted human potential, but I nonetheless saw (and continue to see) Thatcherism as a necessary if painful tonic for the economically sick Britain of the 1970s.

Lind, however, sees things differently. From Lind’s perspective, the post World War II settlements established between labour and the managerial classes in various Western countries were responsible for the great boost in productivity and living standards, not an anchor on these metrics (as I have always viewed the post-war settlement in Britain, partially deconstructed by Thatcher). To be fair, Lind pinpoints the start of the unravelling to the end of the Cold War when Thatcher’s premiership was nearing an end, but since many of the tenets of Thatcherism continued through the Major and Blair governments into the 21st century once can reasonably infer a criticism of Thatcher’s policies, which merely took a decade to come to full fruition.

This is food for thought for an unabashed Thatcherite like me, and I need to do more reading to decide how much of Lind’s narrative holds water. The narrative arc he constructs is persuasively argued and passes the “common sense” test, but to my mind Britain’s experience stands as an exception to Lind’s rule. In our case, the post-war settlement we constructed (based on the recommendations of the Beveridge Report) grievously held us back as a country. We did not benefit from enlightened German-style corporate governance or Japanese-style jobs for life in the post-war years, but rather sank into decades of adversarial conflict between unions and (largely state-owned) employers, with government policy repeatedly favouring the interests of the producer over those of the consumer.

Now, this could be because British government policy was particularly misguided and the British managerial class particularly useless (an argument I have some sympathy with), but it seems more likely to me that Lind’s blanket assertion that countries prosper most when there is a powerful countervailing force to push back against the elite managerial class is not always correct – or at least is only one of several other key factors determining economic growth and increases in standard of living. I would posit that Thatcher’s Methodist upbringing probably provided a great moral anchor that prevented excessive self-serving policymaking, while today’s decadent and avowedly secular elites are perhaps more prone to corruption and in greater need of the countervailing force that Lind describes (hence the populist backlashes we have witnessed).

Lind then goes on to discuss how labour arbitrage and tax & subsidy arbitrage in our more globalised world have worked to undermine the nation state and empower the corporation – a line of reasoning which would certainly be familiar to anyone on the Left.

He concludes by looking ahead to the likely geopolitical situation in the year 2050, and considers what will be the best strategy for the West to maintain power and influence:

Great-power competition, even in the form of limited cold wars, is likely to reward nations whose economic model is based on developing productive technology and raising the incomes of domestic worker-consumers, rather than engaging in labor and tax arbitrage, regulatory harmonization, and other schemes that boost profits without increasing productivity. In cold wars and trade wars, even if no blood is shed by the contenders, countries and blocs with empowered and patriotic workers are likely to do better than rival nations crippled by immiserated workforces and selfish, nepotistic, oligarchic elites.

[..]

Managerial elites are bound to dominate the economy and society of every modern nation. But if they are not checked, they will overreach and produce a populist backlash in proportion to their excess. By a misguided policy of suppressing wages and thus throttling mass consumption, unchecked managerial elites may inadvertently cripple the technology-driven productivity growth responsible for their rise and accidentally cause the replacement of managerial society itself by a kind of high-tech rentier feudalism.

Managerial society works best when there are not only concessions to national working-class economic interests—the bribes to the “losers” of neoliberalism—but also genuine economic bargaining power and political power wielded by the many. Far from undermining managerial regimes, Burnham’s “juridical check” and Galbraith’s “countervailing power” make them more legitimate and sustainable.

In other words, the policies favoured by the current dispossessed centrists in Britain and America are not as smart and self-evidently beneficial as their advocates love to claim. Status quo globalisation, which increasingly seeks to leverage labour arbitrage, tax arbitrage and selective regulatory harmonisation to benefit the managerial class while doing little to raise productivity (not to mention leaving millions of people in dead-end jobs or the unemployment scrapheap) is not only selfish on the part of the managerial class, it is also injurious to the future prosperity and security of the country.

In fact, according to Lind, it turns out that having a patriotic population and workers with a commitment to the country they live in, together with some degree of bargaining power (preferably due to their possessing valuable skills rather than the threat of withholding their labour, as deployed in the 1970s), is perhaps a net positive after all, particularly in the long term.

Again: I don’t buy everything in Michael Lind’s essay. But he spins a plausible narrative and argues his case well. And if Lind is correct, how regrettable is it, then, that the populist backlashes on both sides of the Atlantic have been held in check partly through their own incompetence (Donald Trump in America and the Tory hard Brexiteers in the UK) and partly by the fact that the resurgent centrists have effectively ground the respective movements to a halt?

Bear in mind, if and when the centrists retake power, they intend to revert to pure business as usual. They have learned nothing from the comprehensive rejection they received from voters only a short time ago, and think that the world can revert to its previous happy state where they got everything that they wanted while anyone who dissented could go jump off a bridge.

I have long contended that such an overturning of these populist movements by the elite would be poisonous, even fatal, to our democracy. But if Lind is correct, it could also be fatal to the future economic prosperity and national security of our countries.

 

Globalisation

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