Don’t Expect The Independent Group To Rescue Britain’s Broken Politics

Antichrist - end of the world

Chuka Umunna? Former choirboy, but most definitely not the Messiah…

In my limited spare time since commencing law school, I have been attending a wonderful Bible study group for graduate students, organized by the university’s Catholic Student Center. Having plodded our way methodically through the New Testament, last week we reached the Book of Revelation and alighted on the topic of the Antichrist – antichrists being false prophets preaching a deceptive gospel, and also a specific figure cloaked in seeming holiness and authority, whose arrival would presage the second coming of Christ.

In other, totally unrelated news, British politics seems to have been roiled in my absence by the defection of eight Labour and three Conservative MPs from their respective parties to form a flashy new association called The Independent Group. In selecting a spokesperson for their group, the breakaway MPs nominated Chuka Umunna, the ex-Labour politician best known for describing himself as Britain’s Barack Obama. As we shall see, this was a revealing choice – elevating a man who models himself on the US president who promised hope and change, delivered the former in spades back in 2008 but so little of the latter by 2016 that the people elected Donald Trump as his successor.

The cast list of TIGgers (yes, they actually call themselves that) on the ex-Labour side is a veritable who’s who of frustrated New Labourite centrists whose slick career ambitions have been put into stasis since Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party and wholesale rejection of the Blairite/Brownite technocratic tendency (though some credit must be given to MPs such as Luciana Berger, who also had cause to flee the appalling, metastasizing antisemitism within Corbyn’s hard left faction). On the ex-Tory side, we have the likes of Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry, politicians whom one would never have guessed to be conservative in the first place but for the fact that they campaigned wearing a blue rosette during general election season.

The TIGgers had a number of justifications for their decision to leave their former parties (though notably, none had the courage to call a by-election and allow their constituents to positively affirm their presence in Parliament under a new party affiliation). Those coming from the Labour Party repeatedly stressed the antisemitism continually exhibited by those close to Jeremy Corbyn and tolerated by the Labour leadership, though their claims that it was the deciding factor fail the credibility test since antisemitism on the hard left and ultra-progressive wings of the Labour Party is hardly a new and surprising issue. More telling is ex-Labour Mike Gapes’ bitter complaint that “the Labour leadership is complicit in facilitating Brexit” – the idea that the Labour Party might support a policy popular among the party’s traditional voter base being too much for him to comprehend. Meanwhile, ex-Tory MPs like Anna Soubry complained about prime minister Theresa May’s dogged approach to Brexit and what they called the party’s reliance on the Hard Brexit fundamentalist ERG group of MPs and a takeover of the party by “right-wing, hard line anti-EU” forces.

All of this was covered portentously and near-reverentially by a Westminster journalistic class who tend to jump at any opportunity to breathlessly report on personalities instead of policy (the details of Brexit still eluding many of them) and which is near-uniformly progressive in socio-economic ideology and stridently anti-Brexit in particular. Thus we were treated to gushing hot takes by the likes of ex-PM Tony Blair (“embrace the spirit of insurgency!“), a Guardian journalist overcome with admiration as these courageous rebels dined at Nando’s, The Scotsman (which swats away inconvenient observations such as the fact that “they have no vision, coherent policy platform or leader”) and readers of the hateful EU propaganda rag The New European, who are desperate for the TIGgers not to subject themselves to by-elections and the indignity of seeking democratic approval of their party betrayal.

Naturally, all of this praise has gone to the TIGgers’ heads, and what started as an act of pure political calculation has now become in their minds an almost heroic declaration of political independence and bold purpose. Hence self-aggrandizing pronouncements such as this:

Heidi Allen thinks that “the two big parties [are] demonstrating more and more every day that they are not up to the challenges facing our country”. This is the same Heidi Allen who campaigned under the Conservative Party banner without a whisper of complaint in 2015 and 2017, maneuvering hard to get that coveted initial constituency selection in the first place.

And here is The Independent Group’s London branch, acting as though it is an oasis of reason in a desert of conformist thinking:

You would think that a brand new political party – a group whose ranks are filled with MPs who had the supposed “courage” to quit their parties and risk the wrath of their constituents because of their overriding concern about the country’s direction – would be positively fizzing with alternative policy ideas and solutions to the national problems they quietly tracked for so long before making their big move. You would be wrong.

But that’s fine. Maybe TIG is understandably reticent to commit themselves by announcing headline policies at this early stage, while they are still trying to woo other potential defectors and grow in strength. We should, though, still be able to parse a sense of what this radical new party stands for by analyzing the famous speeches and policy initiatives of its star members, right? “Oh, Bob? He’s the one who wants to create a network of community colleges to retrain people whose old careers are under threat from globalization and automation.” “Rachel? Isn’t she the one who called for a national Apollo Program for education, criticizing Britain for shooting for the middle with education outcomes and exhorting us to catch up with world leaders like South Korea and Finland?” “Rupert has a great plan for constitutional reform to bring government closer to the people and make leaders more accountable”. “Ayesha actually had the courage to reject calls for her to post a public love-letter to the NHS on Valentine’s Day, saying that we need to stop deifying the healthcare service and look to other countries for examples of best practice”.

Again, tumbleweeds. The British political firmament as a whole is hardly blessed with a multitude of bold, original thinkers, and such figures certainly aren’t among the fabulous seven, the daring eleven or whatever number of forgettable non-entities currently comprise The Independent Group.

All of which is a great pity. As this blog has noted over and over and over and over and over and  over again, Britain has entered a period of political discontinuity – a time when the existing political settlement, with its narrow range of policy options, are no longer adequate to the challenges at hand. Such periods of discontinuity require politicians to think the previously unthinkable in terms of policy solutions, not to flee their former political parties in an outrage that people are actually starting to do so.

As described in the influential Stepping Stones report:

In normal times a majority is enough. The task of government is to steer a basically healthy socio-economic system past hazards which are primarily external, while ensuring that the system’s fabric is maintained and making improvements to it here and there.

But once the system itself starts to show signs of fatigue, instability, disintegration, then we start to talk of discontinuity. In discontinuity, solutions can only be found by breaking constraints which we had assumed were unbreakable. It is not enough to settle for policies which cannot save us, on the grounds that they are the only ones which are politically possible or administratively convenient.

So what is The Independent Group’s grand unified theory for fixing Britain? Besides thwarting Brexit, they don’t have one. But they did roll out their very first policy initiative with tremendous fanfare:

Today we launched a petition calling for an end to the Government’s four-year freeze on working age benefits. Ending the freeze on working age benefits would lift 200,000 people – who are working, but struggling to make ends meet – out of poverty.

We believe that all policy should be evidence-based, especially when that policy affects some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

There’s no reason to persist with the final year of the freeze, especially when the past three years significantly exceeded the savings originally envisaged.

Is this the best that the courageous breakaway radical thinkers of British politics can do -a feel-good policy about relaxing benefit freezes? As part of a broader overhaul of welfare policy, this may indeed be a valid and “evidence-based” approach. But The Independent Group have not conducted any such broader review of the welfare system; they simply cherry-picked the low-hanging policy fruit designed to appeal to middle income swing voters, without any consideration of the knock-on effects on public finances, incentives to work or anything else. There’s certainly no bold leadership here, no telling difficult truths to the public about necessary trade-offs in public spending.

Indeed, The Independent Group will not be able to formulate meaningful policy on any number of issues, welfare included, being comprised of defector MPs from opposite parties with different views on the subject. If the party is to survive for any length of time, it would have to strike a balance between the ex-Labour and ex-Tory factions, and would likely produce policies almost identical to any government or opposition which sought to woo the same swing voters by meeting them where they are (rather than doing the much harder – but necessary – job of convincing them that they, too, need to update their thinking about what is both desirable and politically feasible).

Contra Heidi Allen’s complaint that the two main parties are “not up to the challenges facing our country”, The Independent Group exists precisely because the two main parties were captured by forces which seek to overturn the “old established politics” – Labour by the Corbynites with their faith in 1970s-style, red-blooded socialism and the Tories by the ultra free trade zealots of the ERG (though on non-Brexit matters, the Tory Party remains as uninspiringly centrist and authoritarian as it ever was – a fact which Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston should have valued, given the fact that they emblemize that sentiment within the party). The two big parties may not yet be responding to this period of discontinuity the right way, but both are shifting their thinking. It is The Independent Group who seek to stand athwart history, yelling “stop!”.

These are not People of Action, bristling at the stultifying ideological confines of their former parties. Rather, they are Captains of Inaction, career machine politicians who thrived on the Old Politics – that comforting bygone era when New Labour would be nanny statist and indulge centre-left interventionist tendencies as the Tories accused them of socialism on steroids, while the Tories would be ever so slightly less nanny statist and interventionist as Labour screamed that they were a libertarian Ayn Rand dystopian outfit made flesh.

However much they may strut and preen, the TIGger MPs are not frustrated free thinkers yearning to push the boundaries of the Overton Window in British politics or advocate for daring new solutions to the problems we face in the early 21st century – they are establishment refugees seeking a lifeboat to take them back to the New Labour, centrist consensus of the 1990s and 2000s. The root of their discontent is not the fact that British politics has become stale and conformist – their anger stems from the fact that the two main political parties have reacted to voter dissatisfaction by moving in direction which reduces their own personal influence (and/or hopes of future high office).

Pete North, welcoming what he sees as the death of centrism, puts it better than me:

Progressivism (whatever that actually means) has become a byword for sanitised cellophane wrapped politics which produces the androgynous clones like Chuka Umunna designed for maximum media inoffensiveness. Like Ken dolls one wonders if these people even possess genitalia. The political version of morning TV magazine show presenters. And as repellent as they are, these people don’t actually know anything.

This much has been made abundantly clear during the course of Brexit. They have no idea why we voted to leave, and no idea how we got where we are, or indeed how to get ourselves out of it. Instead of seeking to understand what is upon us, they have invested all of their energies into sweeping Brexit under the carpet with a view to going back to their consequence free normality where they soak up media attention but take on none of the responsibilities and obligations.

It is telling that the new Independent Group have elected to promote themselves on a handful of recycled populist slogans. They speak of a “different way of doing things” under the “ChangePolitics” hashtag, with all the self-awareness of a diarrhetic hippo. Chris Leslie in all seriousness went on BBC Question Time to tell us “The big political parties want to keep everything as it is” when this bunch are the very essence of the establishment – the rotting corpse of centrism.

Frustration with Britain’s dysfunctional politics is quite understandable, and the growing realization that something has broken beyond repair is encouraging to witness. But to see in the cast of The Independent Group anything resembling salvation from our problems is to put one’s faith in a false prophet.

The politicians who made headlines by flouncing out of their respective political parties aren’t preaching a bold new gospel which the country can get behind. They aren’t currently preaching a message of any kind at all, beyond a furious opposition to Brexit and the inchoate yearning for a return to the time when uttering bland platitudes about Tory heartlessness or Labour profligacy was all it took to sustain one’s political career. If anything, these are avowedly Old Testament politicians, furious with incomprehension that their message no longer resonates in New Testament Britain.

As a general rule of life, it it looks too good to be true, it probably is. The Independent Group doesn’t even manage to look good on cursory examination, but even if one finds oneself falling for their polished Twitter hashtags about changing politics, the point remains that given the rather pitiful raw material at their disposal, The Independent Group’s promise of political renewal is indeed too good to be true – no matter how strongly one wishes that Chuka Umunna and his unlikely gang were the real deal.

 

Antichrist

The Independent Group

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

 

Advertisements

I’m Sorry, Is Brexit Boring You?

Screen Shot 2018-12-17 at 14.01.49

Laughing at Britain’s Brexit woes might be justified if other countries were successfully tackling the pre-eminent problem of the early 21st century — reconciling meaningful democracy and self-determination with the imperative for global regulation and governance. But since no-one else has bothered to pick up the torch of destiny, maybe it’s time to rethink the self-satisfied mockery.

Spare a thought for poor Ryan Heath of Politico EU. He simply finds Brexit – and specifically Britain’s ongoing debate about the nature and timing of our departure from the European Union – too boring to deal with anymore .

At this point a half-competent developer could probably build an algorithm to randomly generate these generic, establishment media anti-Brexit Op-Eds disguised as Serious Analysis. Simply change the order of the sentences and the particular focus (elderly racists, evil Russians, young people having their futures stolen, glorious isolation, the end of Our NHS), crank the handle and out will come another cookie-cutter article ready to publish.

For those journalists observing from across the sea, the generic takes tend to be even more uniformly simplistic – former colonial power having an identity crisis, mid-sized country trying and failing to punch above its weight, lots of schadenfreude about loss of empire, lots of gloating over the humiliation of a country ranked by the intelligentsia alongside only America and Israel as uniquely evil and benighted, polished off with a smarmy, waggish lecture about chickens coming home to roost.

Ryan Heath gives us an absolutely perfect encapsulation of such an article this week in Politico. Headlined “Brexit Britain: Small, Boring and Stupid” it indulges every tedious trope ever to have emerged from the Remainer hive mind.

A sample:

Brexit is the story of a proud former imperial power undergoing a mid-life crisis. The rest of the world is left listening to Britain’s therapy session as they drone on about their ex-spouse, the EU: When will they stop talking and just move on?

The promise of Brexit at the time it narrowly passed in a national referendum in June of 2016 was that it was a way for Britain to feel big again — no longer hectored by the EU bureaucracy in Brussels, no longer treated as just one of 28 members in an unwieldy confederacy.

“Britain is special,” the Brexiteers assured British voters, who cast their ballots accordingly.

The last two years have revealed something different: For the first time in modern history, Britain is small. Having sailed into the 20th century as an empire, the U.K. spent the second half of the century shedding nearly all of its colonies — and as a result much of its economic and military might.

For the first time in modern history, Britain is small? Isn’t that what they said after Victory in Europe, after Suez, during the Winter of Discontent and a hundred other, smaller national and geopolitical events? If Britain truly had shrunk in power and stature as much as has been claimed by the commentariat after each of these events, we would currently have the geopolitical heft of Burundi. Something doesn’t quite add up.

But it turns out that this was just the pleasant introduction, before Ryan Heath really dials up the condescension to 100:

While many Brits have strong emotions about the EU, they rarely have a strong understanding. I feel like a kindergarten teacher every time I speak on the issue.

It is fashionable to blame an irresponsible U.K. media (including the country’s most famous sometime-journalist, now leading Brexiteer MP Boris Johnson) for stoking misunderstanding about the EU for decades. Long before Macedonian troll factories and Russian bots there were the editors of the Sun tabloid newspaper.

But what about the millions of people who consumed those fibs and the spineless politicians who avoided the hassle of correcting them? We blame Greeks for blowing up their economy and hold accountable big-spending governments for saddling future generations with excessive debts. Britons don’t deserve a free pass: It’s time they reckoned with what they sowed through 45 years of shallow EU debate.

It is Britain’s unique ignorance that makes Britain so boring. Ignorant about its leverage and ignorant about the EU, the U.K. is coming across as clumsy and caddish.

On and on it goes – you get the idea.

Ryan Heath, you must understand, exists on a higher plane of consciousness than you and I. With his demigod-like, birds-eye view of geopolitics, instinctive grasp of democratic imperatives and subatomic knowledge of the technocracy underpinning global trade, Heath has conclusively determined that everything is great, there were no issues with the EU worth fussing over, and that Brexit was motivated by nothing more than a spasm of ignorance, racism and pining for lost empire.

But if anything is truly boring, it is not Brexit but rather this well-worn take on Brexit, echoed over and over again from the New York Times to the Atlantic to New York Magazine to Politico. Wherever self-described intellectuals of a center-left persuasion are gathered together, you can read exactly the same cookie-cutter take on Brexit, perfectly crafted to enable them to nod and stroke their beards while having all of their prejudices neatly confirmed.

It’s not new, and it’s not clever. Foreign journalists and media outlets have been repeating the same old tired “humiliation of a former colonial power” trope since the end of the Second World War. Often, these articles pointedly incorporate Dean Acheson’s famous quote about Britain having “lost an empire and not yet found a role”, presumably in an effort to add some gravitas and borrowed credibility. And now as 2018 draws to a close, Ryan Heath has the nerve to draw a salary in exchange for churning out the same tired observations made by half a century’s worth of diplomats and journalists.

Words cannot express how profoundly Brexit has caused me to lose faith in our political, intellectual and media class. At a time when the prestige media is increasingly busy beating its collective breast, playing the victim and positioning itself as the last great bulwark protecting Liberal Democracy from the (white working class) barbarian hordes, at best they seem to have become fundamentally uncurious about the single most important political debate and experiment in the world currently taking place in Britain, and at worst they openly cheerlead for the status quo.

If Ryan Heath spent less time airily declaring his boredom, he might dwell on the fact that Brexit – in all its halting, stop-start awkwardness – is the first significant attempt by any country to answer the question of how a modern nation state can reconcile the technocratic demands of global trade with the need to preserve meaningful democracy. On this key question, Britain is currently the laboratory of the world. No other first-tier country has dared to touch the subject with a ten-foot bargepole. At best, some of the more forward-thinking opinion journalists are belatedly ringing the alarm bells, but nowhere other than Britain have these concerns generated any kind of significant governmental response.

Sure, it doesn’t always sound like anything so noble is taking place, particularly when you hear one self-aggrandizing MP after another parade their ignorance on the television news, or when UKIP’s leader du jour stands up to grunt about Muslims and evil immigrants. But the job of good journalists working for a vigilant press is to look beyond the obvious, superficial headline at the deeper, underlying story. Just as no one expert in any particular field can plausibly claim to speak authoritatively on the merits and drawbacks of Brexit, no one journalist can make authoritative sweeping statements about Brexit from the sole perspective of their own cloistered social and professional circles.

At a time when the EU is signally failing millions of its citizens, when southern Europe’s economy remains sclerotic, youth unemployment endemic, populist parties and authoritarian leaders are gaining traction everywhere and civil order has been restored in Paris only thanks to EU-branded armored personnel carriers, some introspection as to the EU’s flaws and capacity to overcome those flaws might be in order. Some serious interrogation of the political leaders who delivered us to this baleful moment might justifiably be expected. But don’t look for such searching coverage in the prestige press, which would rather unquestioningly take the side of the people whose lack of foresight and political courage pushed the campaign for Brexit over the finish line.

In what passes for my feeble magnum opus of 2017, I laid out some of these challenges as they pertain to Britain:

Automation, outsourcing and globalisation have incrementally, relentlessly eaten away at the idea of a steady, 9-5 factory or retail job being sufficient to raise a family or buy a house. Millions of people who in decades past went through an education system which prepared them for little else now find themselves having to learn new computer or service-based skills from scratch, with almost no support or coordination from local or national government.

Even university graduates find that their degrees are of increasingly dubious value, and are obliged to virtually fight to the death for a coveted place on a corporate graduate scheme. The losers go back to live with their parents or work in minimum wage drudgery, wondering why their BA in critical gender theory hasn’t proven to be the passport to the slick professional city life they crave. Call centres and giant Amazon distribution centres have become the new dark satanic mills of modern Britain. Our present education policy should be focused entirely on this looming precipice, yet we distract ourselves by arguments over grammar schools or whether boys should be allowed to wear tiaras and tutus in class.

Meanwhile, there is a huge global human migration underway, prompted by the fact that countless millions more people are connected to the world through the internet and have the means to move from struggling countries to new lands of perceived opportunity – sometimes legally, usually illegally. Political leaders have openly or tacitly welcomed and even fuelled this flow, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the required housing, infrastructure and services do not smoothly and automatically increase in direct proportion to a rising population – and then dare to act startled and affronted when the resident population complains about the impact.

At the same time, elites have preached a gospel of absolute tolerance and multiculturalism while refusing to promote British or Western values, or encourage new immigrants to assimilate, and then cry “racism!” when inevitable tensions occur. They have created a country where some British-born people feel more affinity and allegiance to a barbaric Islamist death cult than the country which gave them life and liberty – and then prove it by stealing away to join ISIS or launching terror attacks which kill and maim their fellow citizens.

[..] Each one of these issues forms part of a crumbling edifice representing the failed, discredited and obsolete centrist political consensus. Tinkering with the EU – to the limited extent that Britain could ever effect meaningful directional change in Brussels – was never going to happen, despite the constant disgruntled, exculpatory outbursts from Remainers that “of COURSE the EU needs reform!”.

What do all of these issues have in common? They are things that the Ryan Heaths and other establishment journalists of this world spend their professional careers furiously refusing to acknowledge as a significant problem in the first place.

In fact, with very few honorable exceptions, one has to look to the neglected and under-appreciated political blogosphere for the kind of analysis that household-name journalists are apparently incapable of performing.

Here’s Pete North, on typically good form, doing Ryan Heath’s job for him:

They think Brexit only happened because of “austerity” – not because we are utterly sick of the lot of them. They think they can once again dip into our wallets to dish out electoral bribes and we’ll be ok with them pissing on our votes. They reckon we didn’t really mean to leave the EU – and that it’s just the underlying issues *they* need to fix. It doesn’t occur to them that the underlying issue is the fact that we hate them and their EU vanity project. It’s all just a management and PR problem to them.

They genuinely think we’re too bovine to care about things like self-determination,. democracy and accountability – and we’ll pack up and go away if there’s a top up of regional funding. We all know nothing would change if we trusted them. As much as anything, we voted to leave precisely because we have an establishment that will continually do as it pleases and ignore the rest of the country when we protest. Even now they don’t get it which is why they can so casually talk about overturning a vote.

They don’t recognise that Brits genuinely want regime change and a change to reshape Britain – and all they offer us is more of the same – more taxes, more authoritarianism and more paternalistic meddling while they heap on the insults. The fact that these well compensated individuals parade Blair, Major, Adonis and Campbell on our screens honestly thinking it will win people over tells you everything you need to know.

Ryan Heath thinks that Britain has made a fool of herself by taking the plunge and voting for Brexit in an attempt to address these looming challenges. That may be so. But what has any other country done to address the pressing challenge of adapting democracy to work in a globalized world? What has the United States done under Trump? Germany under “leader of the free world” Angela Merkel? Or France under the establishment’s beloved Emmanuel Macron?

It is easy to laugh and cast judgments at Brexit’s many pitfalls and the…significant intellectual and personality flaws of those who claim to be leading and speaking for it. But it is much less funny when one is forced to acknowledge that other countries still have their heads in the sand and are not even attempting to answer these increasingly existential questions, despite facing exactly the same democratic pressures and rifts as Britain.

When Donald Trump or his Democratic Party opposition come up with a coherent plan to address these interlinked challenges (rather than ranting about making America great again or bowing down even further to the cult of intersectional identity politics), Britain might look legitimately bad in comparison. When Emmanuel Macron emerges from his hiding place brandishing a plan for national renewal more sophisticated than simply hiking fuel taxes by 40% and screwing the rural poor, Britain might rightly feel a degree of shame. When the European Union takes these issues seriously and prioritizes the welfare of its citizens rather than the completion of the covert federal project, Britain might seem like the ignorant and churlish party by comparison. Needless to say, that day has not yet arrived.

In the European Union we have a supranational, continent-wide political union of distinct nation states, unloved by its nominal citizens, sorely lacking legitimacy, seethingly antagonistic to anything more than rote, symbolic democracy and displaying a marked unwillingness to listen to its people or change direction. Britain at least attempted to resolve this impasse by voting to leave that sclerotic organization, which is more than any other country has done, though the reasons for doing so and preferred modes of Brexit were many and varied. And so if you insist on laughing at Britain for taking this step, then you had darn well better have a bevy of superior, practical and politically feasible alternatives up your sleeve, ready to roll out.

But Ryan Heath has no superior answer to give. His preferred benchmark is the status quo. He clearly sees absolutely nothing wrong with the state of affairs which led to Brexit – the increasing political alienation and sense of powerlessness, a mode of governance which firehoses a stream of economic opportunity at the well-educated but rains financial and social desolation on everyone else, the rampant corruption of the European Union, the sinister drive to implement the project in defiance of any national referenda which stand in its way. All of which is unsurprising, since his professional history includes a stint working as spokesman for Jose Manuel Barroso at the European Commission. A more institutionally captured “objective” journalist does not exist on God’s green earth.

Brexit, in all its imperfections, is an historic opportunity, and one which deserves to be discussed as such at least some of the time by some of the prestige media – even if only as an opportunity missed – rather than the unmitigated, irrational, self-inflicted calamity that it is continually portrayed as by the likes of Heath. As I wrote when (not so implausibly) comparing the story of the hit musical Hamilton to Britain’s current predicament:

Through Brexit, history has gifted us the opportunity to imagine a new and improved form of government, one which strives to meet our future challenges rather than cower from them (all that EU membership offers, most telling in the rhetoric used by Remainers) or pretend that they do not exist (favoured by the more retrograde Brexiteers who envisage a simple rollback to the old nation state). We must seize this opportunity and be a beacon for other nations, all of which must ultimately grapple with the same issues though they may deny or postpone them for a time.

I’m very sorry that Ryan Heath finds Brexit so boring, and one country’s lonely attempt to address the preeminent challenge of the early 21st century a bothersome distraction from the true job of a Politico journalist – breathlessly reporting court gossip and revealing who was spotted dining with who at whichever Michelin-starred restaurant in Brussels or Strasbourg. Silly, selfish us for intruding too long on his consciousness with our concerns about representative democracy and self-determination.

Fortunately for Heath, it increasingly appears that he shall get his wish. The incompetence of Britain’s political class, the invidious dishonesty of the Tory extreme Brexiteers and the highly successful efforts by all corners of the establishment to obstruct and discredit Brexit has gradually increased the possibility that Britain never leaves the European Union at all – or that such a departure consists of nominally leaving the political union while remaining for all intents and purposes permanently bound to its key institutions.

And then of course, Brexit having been thwarted, all will be well with the world once again. Britain will reset to 1998 and a time when all of these pesky concerns about democratic deficits and a dehumanizing macroeconomic policy focus were a low-level hum rather than a piercing, inescapable alarm. People like me will know our place, and once again defer to people like Ryan Heath and the soulless technocracy he so faithfully serves.

Oh, wait.

Brexit - EU - European Union Flag - Missing Star - Britain - UK

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Review: The People vs Democracy

Yascha Mounk - The People vs Democracy - does liberal democracy have a future

“The People vs Democracy” goes further than many other books which claim to “explain” Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, showing that it takes both sides – outraged establishment centrists as well as populist insurgents – to successfully undermine liberal democracy. Political renewal depends on the former group finally accepting responsibility for some of the failings which brought us to this divisive moment

Introspection has been in short supply since the twin shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election victory. Both sides are at fault – supporters of Brexit and Trump, well used to being the insurgent political outsiders, have frequently struggled to adapt to the fact that they now set the agenda (at least in part) and share responsibility for tangible outcomes affecting everybody. Meanwhile, dispossessed leftists and centrists, largely content with the old status quo and fearful about the speed and extent to which their worldview was repudiated at the ballot box, are so enraged at developments that they refuse to even consider how their actions and errors led to the present situation.

A new book by Yascha Mounk’s, “The People vs Democracy”, attempts to shake both sides out of their complacency while warning that doubling down on current behaviours – with populists displaying impatient contempt for norms and institutions which stand in their way, and establishment centrists concluding that even more areas of policy need to be lifted out of the “risk” of democratic influence – risk fatally undermining liberal democracy, which turns out to be a far less stable and inevitable system of government than we have all tended to believe.

The book was apparently conceived before either Trump or Brexit, but inevitably it has been seized upon by a political and media class who are overwhelmingly sceptical of (and often hostile to) both developments as a kind of guide book for how to avoid ever again losing control of the political narrative. Unfortunately, these audiences seem far more interested in analysing and condemning the supposed pathologies of voters who support populist leaders and initiatives rather than looking honestly at their own manifold failings. In an otherwise excellent interview and Q&A with the American author and journalist EJ Dionne, establishment centrist failings are barely considered at all, and certainly do not receive top billing.

Media organisations with an agenda to push have consistently portrayed the book as an analysis of the means by which “populist uprisings could bring down liberal democracy”, but this is disingenuous. Such deceptive portrayals begin in media res, assuming that populist uprisings begin spontaneously and unpredictably like forest wildfires rather than as a direct result of the failures of the increasingly antidemocratic pseudo-liberalism they champion in the form of institutions like the European Union and continuity politicians such as Hillary Clinton.

In reality, any intellectually honest observer must now concede that populists do not spring spontaneously from the earth, and that the ground must be fertilised with the arrogance and failure of establishment politicians and institutions before populism can take root and pose any systemic danger to democracy. Mounk himself acknowledges as much in his book, which is refreshing, but the biases of his target audience mean that this side of the story is consistently downplayed, both in the book and in many reviews.

Yascha Mounk begins with an overview of the West’s current political landscape, looking at factors which are common between countries:

Then there are those short years in which everything changes all at once. Political newcomers storm the stage. Voters clamor for policies that were unthinkable until yesterday. Social tensions that had long simmered under the surface erupt into terrifying explosions. A system of government that had seemed immutable looks as though it might come apart.

This description of increased political division also describe periods of discontinuity and the difficult, contentious process of forming a new political consensus from the ashes of an older, failing one:

There are ordinary times, when political decisions influence the lives of millions of people in ways both big and small, but the basic features of a country’s collective life are not at stake. Despite deep disagreements, partisans on both sides of the political battle line endorse the rules of play. They agree to settle their differences on the basis of free and fair elections, are committed to the basic norms of the political system, and accept that a loss at the ballot box makes it legitimate for their political opponent to take a turn at running the country.

[..] Then there are extraordinary times, when the basic contours of politics and society are being renegotiated. In such times, the disagreements between partisans on both sides grow so deep and nasty that they no longer agree on the rules of the game.

[..] As a result, the denizens of extraordinary times start to regard the stakes of politics as existential. In a system whose rules are deeply contested, they have good reason to fear that a victory at the polls may turn out to be forever; that a loss in one political battle may rob them of the ability to wage the larger war; and that progress defeated today may turn out to set the country on a path toward perennial injustice.

This could very easily describe the post-war socialist consensus which prevailed almost uncontested in Britain from 1945 to 1979, or the subsequent supranational and technocratic (or “neoliberal”) consensus which followed. The difference this time is that it is not the coal miners or those whose lives were made more precarious by globalisation protesting and striking, but rather members of the political and economic elite raging that their judgment as to what is best of the country has been second-guessed by other, less educated or refined people.

While Mounk plants his flag quite clearly on the “liberal” side of the argument, he is refreshingly willing to examine the flaws and missteps of his own side as they increasingly work toward a future of rights without democracy:

The rise of illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, is but one side of politics in the first decades of the twenty-first century. For even as ordinary people have grown sceptical of liberal practices and institutions, political elites have tried to insulate themselves from their anger. The world is complicated, they insist – and they have worked hard to find the right answers. If the people should grow so restive as to ignore the sage advice proffered by elites, they need to be educated, ignored or bullied into submission.

Mounk uses the example of Greece and the Euro crisis as his example, but he could just as easily have taken any of the EU’s dealings with recalcitrant member states, or the economic and social consensus adopted in most Western countries.

And so we find ourselves locked in a negative spiral:

In democracies around the world, two seemingly distinct developments are playing out. On the one hand, the preferences of the people are increasingly illiberal: voters are growing impatient with independent institutions and less and less willing to tolerate the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. On the other hand, elites are taking hold of the political system and making it increasingly unresponsive: the powerful are less and less willing to cede to the views of the people. As a result, liberalism and democracy, the two core elements of our political system, are starting to come into conflict.

[..] Democracies can be illiberal. This is especially likely to happen in places where most people favour subordinating independent institutions to the whims of the executive or curtailing the rights of minorities they dislike. Conversely, liberal regimes can become undemocratic despite having regular, competitive elections. This is especially likely to happen where the political system is so skewed in favour of the elite that elections rarely serve to translate popular views into public policy.

This is absolutely correct but it is important to note that democracy has atrophied much faster and further than liberalism thus far in countries such as Britain and the United States. This may seem incorrect to bewildered centrists who tended to believe that everything was marvellous (or at least on a positive path toward progress) until Trump and Brexit appeared like bolts from the blue, but it is true nonetheless.

Much of the rising anti-liberalism has thus far been confined to rhetoric only, and has not yet rooted itself in public policy, while anti-democratic practices and the effective disenfranchisement of those who hold the “wrong” views have been flourishing for years and even decades. It is also the case that many policies now considered intolerably illiberal by many opinion setters (such as aggressive immigration enforcement under the Clinton or Obama administrations in America) were accepted or even positively encouraged by so-called liberals not long ago, raising the question to what extent the current fear of “illiberal” policymaking is primarily the result of goalpost-moving by those on the progressive left determined to find evil in present policy for cultural reasons and cynical political advantage-seeking. Yes, we must absolutely tackle both sides of the equation, but we can only do so when we recognise the extent of democratic corrosion compared to real-world illiberal infringements.

And of course this is a self-perpetuating cycle – more and more areas of policy being lifted free of responsive democratic control inevitably increases support for populists and assorted dissenters, which (from the perspective of elites) only validates their belief that the people are unqualified and untrustworthy of making key decisions for themselves.

Ultimately, Mounk correctly diagnoses the burning issue of the age:

Rights without democracy need not prove to be more stable [than democracy without rights]: once the political system turns into a playground for billionaires and technocrats, the temptation to exclude the people from more and more important decisions will keep on growing.

A large part of Mounk’s criticism of populist movements (and one of the main criticisms in general) is the idea that populist politicians offer glib and simple solutions to inherently complex problems, and in doing so perpetrate a fraud on the gullible people who vote for them. Citing Donald Trump and Nigel Farage as examples, Mounk writes that populists:

…all claim that the solutions to the most pressing problems of our time are much more straightforward than the political establishment would have us believe, and that the great mass of ordinary people instinctively knows what to do. At bottom, they see politics as a very simple matter.

Yes and no. It is certainly true that the complicated technology and regulation required to make the global economy hang together does necessitate a growing technocracy and makes politics far more complicated, but at times the populists are surely reacting with righteous and justified indignation to a bipartisan or consensus view to lift decisions out of democratic control. As Mounk later goes on to admit, there is no good reason why the citizens of a country should not be heard through the ballot box when it comes to immigration levels. The complex cost/benefit analysis of different types and scales of immigration may well be hugely complex, but the principle currently being violated in many Western countries is starkly clear, hence the stark (and supposedly simplistic) solution of returning some decision-making around immigration to the electorate.

Yet for most of the book, Mounk seems happy to dismiss this causal factor, rhetorically asking:

If the political problems of our time are so easy to fix, who do they persist?

Some of these problems are really entrenched and lack a simple solution, contrary to the populist claims. But at other times, the issue is simply that centrist consensus politics – or what those on the Left might denounce as peak neoliberalism – simply will not countenance the obvious and ready solutions.

Mounk rightly warns that the willingness of populist leaders to advocate the sidestepping or abolition of various institutional roadblocks – whether through earnest impatience or more malevolent intentions – is contrary to the spirit of liberal democracy. And indeed, in Britain we have seen this play out with attacks on the judiciary and now the House of Lords because of their interpretation of law or procedural foot-dragging. Mounk correctly expresses the ideal, and warns of the danger:

Liberal democracies are full of checks and balances that are meant to stop any one party from amassing too much power and to reconcile the interests of different groups. But in the imagination of the populists, the will of the people does not need to be mediated, and any compromise with minorities is a form of corruption.

Quite so. But we cannot level this criticism against populism unless we acknowledge that many of these cherished, long-standing institutions have thus far seemingly offered no defence against an effective cartel whereby both (or in some countries, all) the main political parties implement the same policies and pursue the same basic worldview without offering meaningful choice to the electorate. In such a case – as with EU membership and New Labour era mass immigration in Britain – it is not unreasonable to complain that the institutions or checks and balances currently in place are not fit for purpose, and require urgent reform at the very least.

Despite moments of real clarity, there are other occasions when for whole sections at a time, Mounk lapses into the kind of lazy, almost arrogant view of his political opponents which has for too long infected the media and mainstream opinion-setting public figures:

So much of the angry energy that fuelled [protests against Angela Merkel’s lax and permissive immigration policies  in Germany] had been on display in the streets of Dresden that I could not help interpreting the events of 2016 an 2017 in light of what I saw there: the hatred of immigrants and ethnic minorities; the mistrust of the press and the spread of fake news; the conviction that the silent majority had finally found its voice; and, perhaps more than anything else, the hankering for somebody who would speak in the name of the people.

Have journalists and academics really no alternative way to think about and describe opposition to mass migration than “hatred of immigrants and ethnic minorities”? This is half the problem – the determination of many opinion-setters to read the worst possible motives into popular protests, thus making it even harder for politicians to take those legitimate concerns seriously lest they be accused of “pandering”.

In fact, the best refutation to Mounk’s assertion is the story of the far right in Britain. While Mounk meticulously documents the rise of populist hard or far-right political parties in many European countries, he is conspicuously silent about the fate of the British National Party in the UK. Early on in the era of mass migration to Britain, in the early 2000s, the BNP secured a stunning series of victories in local and European elections, seeing their vote share climb and jostle for position with other more established and respectable smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats. The BNP prospered in a climate where none of the major political parties promised to seriously grapple with the issue of mass migration, and rising support for the BNP was taken and portrayed by the commentariat as rising support for the BNP’s worst and most racist tendencies. However, the rise of the UK Independence Party, a staunchly Eurosceptic party lacking the racist baggage of the far right, saw the BNP quickly fade back into obscurity. In subsequent elections, the BNP lost almost all of their local council seats and entered a period of organisational dysfunction from which it has not yet emerged.

This shows that when the subjects of race and immigration are separated (as they were when voters were offered a clear choice between the BNP and UKIP), voters are far less racist and prejudiced than many establishment commentators give them credit for. The triumph of UKIP over the BNP proved as definitively as possible that concerns about mass immigration implemented without democratic consent were not primarily ethnicity based – why else would voters eschew the party which was more willing to make race and ethnicity an issue? Yet political and media elites continually over-conflate the issues of immigration and race, partly because of a soft bias which leads them to instinctively favour higher immigration and look down on those who equivocate, but also, one suspects, because they know that accusations of racism are the best way to discredit an otherwise legitimate policy argument.

The lazy charge of racism is not the only instance where Mounk unfortunately lapses into comforting establishment dogma. In this paragraph he effectively ventriloquises the sense of entitlement felt by displaced establishment politicians throughout the West, from displayed centre leftists in denial about their newly diminished position in Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left Labour Party to identity politics-worshipping Democrats who now want to double down on the divisive rhetoric of racial or gender-based grievance:

Populist leaders’ willingness to offer solutions that are so simple they can never work is very dangerous. Once they are in power, their policies are likely to exacerbate the problems that drove public anger in the first place. It would be tempting to assume that voters, suitably chastened by the ensuing chaos, would then return their trust to establishment politician.

Tempting? Chastened? Yascha Mounk is clearly an intelligent and conscientious writer, but these words reveal the extent to which he and other opinion-setters marinade in a very ideologically and culturally homogenous environment. “Tempting” suggests that it would be good if voters returned power to the same unrepentant establishment politicians that Mounk has elsewhere conceded to have led us into our current difficulties, and “chastened” suggests an establishment view of the electorate as spoiled children to be either indulged or reprimanded at various times, but never given full agency over their own lives. Mounk may not have intended it to come across this way, but there are few other ways of reading this paragraph, which itself is very reflective of prevailing opinion within the political bubble.

Throughout the book, generally the most extreme degrees of anti-establishment or populist argument are analysed, with the more moderate positions whose continued stonewalling led to a populist revolt in the first place are frustratingly avoided. We see this again here:

The major political problems of the day, populists claim, can be easily solved. All it takes is common sense. If jobs are moving abroad, you have to ban other countries from selling their products. If immigrants are flooding the country, you have to build a wall. And if terrorists attack you in the name of Islam, you have to ban all the Muslims.

On one hand it is quite right and proper to note the glib simplicity and unpleasant tone of these policies, particularly since Donald Trump did come to office promising to implement them all in one form or another. But taking potshots at the obvious impracticality of Trump’s proposals is easy. What is much harder – and would have made the book even stronger – is a more consistent and rigorous introspection as to why the continued downplaying of these issues (job displacement due to globalization and poorly enforced immigration laws with tacit acceptance of illegal immigration) by previously ruling elites led to their downfall in the first place. An understanding that continually crying “racism!” in the face of sober minded and reasonable policy proposals ultimately led to the emergence of someone with far catchier but less workable policies – the kind of introspection shown in Mark Lilla’s book “The Once And Future Liberal” – would have rounded out “The People vs Democracy” and made it a less frustrating read for moderate conservatives who agree with Mounk’s diagnosis but marvel at his inability to keep a fixed gaze on the root cause.

Too often, Mounk gives a free pass to the media, whose manifold failings also contributed enormously to this populist moment:

Critical media outlets cover protests against the populist leader. They report on his government’s failings and give voice to his prominent critics. They tell sympathetic stories about his victims.

All well and good, exactly as it should be. But where was this brave and critical media during previous administrations? Where are the equivalent stories about the victims of policies pursued through the establishment consensus? Yes, many news outlets, dazed and confused after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, urgently dispatched reporters to far flung parts of their countries in a bid to speak with and understand the motivations of people who voted for populist options – and to be fair, there has been some good and incisive reporting as a result. But why were those journalists not always rooted in these communities, reporting sympathetically on the struggles taking place there? Why did so few media outlets or opinion-setters correctly predict the two most shocking electoral events of the century? The answer can only be that the media was and remains utterly unfit for purpose, thinking and reporting almost exclusively from one side of an emergent divide while having few authentic connections to – and zero credibility with – the other.

We should absolutely celebrate and defend a free press and reward good reporting and analysis wherever it is produced. But we delude ourselves if we hold up the existing media class as plucky heroes and defenders of democracy when their collective failure did as much as anything else to ensure that populist concerns were not fully heard until they exploded into the open with the election of Donald Trump.

Mounk is also sometimes too forgiving towards other institutions which have historically been part of the problem rather than the solution:

Attacks on the free press are but the first step. In the next step, the war on independent institutions frequently targets foundations, trade unions, think tanks, religious associations, and other nongovernmental organizations.

Populists realize how dangerous intermediary institutions with a real claim to representing the views and interests of large segments of society are to the fiction that they, and they alone, speak for the people. They therefore work hard to discredit such institutions as tools of old elites or outside interests.

Again, Mounk’s basic warning is a fair and important one. But focusing only on the attacks which these institutions are now attracting from populists and largely ignoring their significant failures makes it much harder to successfully argue for needed reform, or to reach a bipartisan compromise which might help rebuild trust in the various institutions while cleansing them of any existing bias or corruption. For example, many Brexiteers are wrong to propose the total abolition of the House of Lords due to the assembly’s scrutiny of the Brexit process and defeat of government motions, but those defending the institution are too willing to overlook the lopsided, unrepresentative and undemocratic nature of the Lords. And in America, defending the free press against the outrageous tweets and bluster emanating from Donald Trump’s White House risks overlooking the deep flaws and blind spots which run through many news organizations which consider themselves strictly objective and impartial.

Mounk also fails to consider other reasons why populist leaders may seek institutional or systemic change in addition to implementing their own policies, confidently asserting:

The reason why populists and political newcomers are so willing to challenge basic democratic norm is in part tactical: Whenever populists break such norms, they attract the univocal condemnation of the political establishment. And this of course proves that, as advertised, the populists really do represent a clean break from the status quo.

Fair enough, but one cannot offer this cynical explanation without offering the far more reasonable corollary – that if the existing political system and institutions had successfully kept his own worldview and preferred policies at the political margins despite significant public support, then he too might have just cause to believe that a deeper bias exists and that institutions really do need comprehensive reform or abolition.

“The People vs Democracy” is strong where it analyses the economic forces behind populism, going further than issuing the usual misleading banalities uneducated working class citizens voting against their own interests:

The most straightforward markers of economic well-being do not predict whether somebody voted for Trump or for Clinton. Whereas Americans who saw Trump favourably had a mean household income of nearly $82,000, for example, those who viewed him unfavourably had a household income of a little over $77,000. Similarly, Trump supporters are “less likely to be unemployed and less likely to be employed part-time” than other people in the sample. In short, the popular media narrative according to which Trump primarily appealed o the poor and the lowly just doesn’t hold up.

[..] But when we turn our attention from the attributes of particular voters to the places in which they live and the fates they likely face, it becomes clear that economic factors do mater. For one, voters who favour Trump are much less likely to hold a college degree or to have a professional job – which implies that they have a much better reason to fear that their economic fortunes might decline because of globalization and automation.

Mounk perceptively concludes that at present, countries like Britain and America are vulnerable to populism because they “can no longer offer their citizens a real sense of momentum.” This is prime Stepping Stones territory – only a comprehensive analysis of the challenges facing developed countries (and the complex linkages between them) can hope to restore the kind of positive national momentum which is needed to maintain widespread faith in liberal democracy. Piecemeal efforts to solve discrete issues (or, more realistically, to avoid bad headlines in the media) will always be insufficient. If one acknowledges that the global economy, financial and regulatory environment is so complex as to require a significant technocracy to aid good policymaking then it is ludicrous to believe that the democratic nation state can continue to prosper without any kind of forensically strategic analysis of a country’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Yet far too many governments – Britain’s being one of the most dismally prominent examples – are stuck in neutral, focused on irrelevancies or fighting for political survival rather than maintaining a strategic outlook. And so the key questions raised by Mounk continue to go unanswered:

What do liberal democracies need to do to extend their remarkable record of past stability? Is it enough for them to afford their citizens a decent life? Or do they need to be able to cash in on the old promise, implicitly issued in the long decades of rapidly growing plenty, that each generation will do much better than the one that came before?

How indeed. We will never find out unless our politicians and governments lift their gaze from their navels and initiate a conversation about these pressing questions and the policy solutions required to confront them.

Where Yascha Mounk does offer proposed solutions, they tend to be quite sensible (if sometimes overly hopeful). Much like Mark Lilla, Mounk writes very much from the perspective of a US “liberal” writing for the consumption of other liberals, but he does not spare criticism of his own side. Citing the example of Poland, Mounk warns that splits in the opposition to an authoritarian regime can be instrumental in helping it to cement long-term control, a lesson that many Democratic Party activists might want to consider heeding, given the endless identity politics purity wars roiling the party and pushing them ever further to the left. Mounk’s counsel for liberals to tone down the public mockery of those they disagree with is also sound advice, for nothing shuts down debate and eliminates the possibility of persuasion than a dose of finger-wagging mockery – and this is as true for pro-EU activists in Britain who love to scoff at “uneducated” Brexiteers and deploy their new, racially-tinged “gammon” insult as it is of American leftists who demonise average Trump supporters.

Mounk also writes about the importance of constructing a rival, positive narrative to compete against the populist vision, rather than simply protesting or mocking the populists. At present, far too many of those people connected with the #Resistance in America or the anti-Brexit #FBPE collective in Britain visibly project an image of simply wanting to roll the clock back to the moment before the 2016 presidential election or EU referendum. The ongoing prominence of Democratic Party grandees like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, and even the public utterances of Hillary Clinton herself, project an air of aggrieved entitlement rather than contrition or introspection for their role in bringing us to this point. New, fresh faces are needed, people with charisma, yes, but also the political vision and policy know-how to offer a viable, appealing alternative. As Mounk points out:

To rival the narrative according to which only they can fix the nation’s problems, defenders of liberal democracy have to put forward realistic promises of their own.

[..] the defenders of liberal democracy will not vanquish the populists as long as they seem wedded to the status quo.

[..] To avoid the mistake Clinton made in 2016, defenders of liberal democracy must demonstrate that they take the problems voters face seriously, and seek to effect real change. While they don’t need to emulate the simplistic solutions or pander to the worst values of the populists, they urgently need to develop a bold plan for a better future.

One of the most valuable contributions of “The People vs Democracy” to our discourse is its searching consideration of whether the growing identity politics movement and political activism within academia are truly helping the fight for equality or undermining the basic trust in the institutions of democracy which is necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic nation state.

The net effect of he deliberate failure to inculcate respect and reverence for democracy among young people (and to corrode whatever attachment to democracy does exist) is stark:

Millennials in countries like Great Britain or the United States [..] barely experienced the Cold War ad may not even know anybody who fought fascism. To them, the question of whether it is important to live in a democracy is far more abstract. Doesn’t this imply that, if they were actually faced with a threat to their system, they would be sure to rally to its defense?

I’m not so sure. The very fact that young people have so little idea of what it would mean to live in a system other than their own may make them willing to engage in political experimentation. Used to seeing and criticizing the (very real) injustices and hypocrisies of the system in which they grew up, many of them have mistakenly started to take its positive aspects for granted.

Mounk also inveighs against the current hysteria over “cultural appropriation”:

Far from celebrating the way in which different cultures can take inspiration from each other, the opponents of cultural appropriation implicitly assume that cultures are pure; that they are forever owned by particular groups; and that there should be strict limits on the degree to which they influence each other. In other words, they ultimately think of the culture of particular identity groups in much the same way as right-wing xenophobes who are continually on guard against foreign influences on their national cultures.

Mounk also possesses a more realistic take on nationalism and the nation state than is now common among academia and much of the elite, who tend to see patriotism as outdated and embarrassing at best, and inherently harmful at worst:

The energy on today’s left, by contrast, is increasingly directed toward a radical rejection of the nation and all its trappings: This is the left that delights in 4th of July op-eds entitled “The Making of a Non-patriot”. It is the left that chants “No Trump, No Wall, No USA at all!” And it is also the left that, not content with acknowledging the copious failings of the Founding Fathers, refuses to recognize that they might be defined by anything other than their moral faults.

Mounk, by contrast, favours “domesticating nationalism” and calls for both elites and the Left to embrace a more expansive form of patriotism instead of attacking and ridiculing the symbols and institutions which bind societies together. This sounds good in theory but is hard in practice, given the extreme to which the Democratic Party has moved in America and many activists have moved in Britain.

At its core, “The People v Democracy” identifies many of the same developments, trade-offs and challenges that several others have noted – solving international problems versus defending national sovereignty, the need for technocratic bodies vs the need for democratic input and accountability, for example. Many of these I have also laid out several times in my agitation for a new Stepping Stones Report – a document which, like the original 1977 report which Margaret Thatcher brought with her into 10 Downing Street and was used to help navigate the last great period of discontinuity in Britain – updated to identify and tackle the new challenges of the 21st century.

Yascha Mounk’s book is ultimately a call for people – particularly disaffected leftists and centrists – not to give up on all of the goodness inherent in the liberal democratic nation state just because some of the institutions of government have been temporarily captured by populists. Amy Chua made a similar point at the end of her excellent book “Political Tribes: Group Instinct And The Fate Of Nations”, quoting from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again”:

O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free….
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!

Mounk closes by referencing the end of the Roman Republic as a warning example, casting the populists of today as the heirs to Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus:

The brand of politics propagated by the Gracchi and perpetuated by their opponents shaped the Roman Republic long after they themselves had left the scene. Every dozen or so years, a new follower was able to capture power. Each time, the norms and rules of the Roman Republic were a little less capable of containing the assault.

There was no one breaking point, no clear moment at which contemporaries realized that their political institutions had become obsolete. And yet, over the course of a tumultuous century, the Roman Republic slowly withered. As the old norms of restraint crumbled, violence spiraled out of control. By the time ordinary Romans recognized that they had lost the freedom to rule themselves, the republic had long been lost.

A prescient warning indeed, particularly because it acknowledges that it often takes two sides to degrade institutions and norms of behaviour. After all, today’s establishment would be the Roman Senate and patricians in this analogy, groups which hardly covered themselves in glory during the period.

Much prevailing opinion still holds that the establishment holds a near-monopoly on wisdom and morality, and that the populist insurgencies we now witness are entirely the result of low-information, uncultured voters being preyed upon by opportunistic leaders with ulterior motives. There is a widespread, arrogant assumption that voter dissatisfaction is somehow displaced, that people do not understand the real causes of their own unhappiness and that elites should be allowed to continue governing as they see fit, explaining to the people why they are wrong rather than adapting to their will. Mounk’s book shows that establishment centrists are every bit as much to blame for our present crisis than the populists they fear.

The danger is that these establishment centrists, driven mad by their sudden fall from power and influence, react not by examining their own flaws and failings but rather by lashing out at their opponents and continuing the loss of faith in democracy whose consequences form the root of their present situation. There is such anger among elites – often (though not always) out of proportion to any so-called populist policy which has yet been proposed or enacted – that many establishment politician and activists will accept nothing less than total defeat of every populist initiative, regardless of merit, which then only confirms the populists’ suspicion of an open conspiracy against them.

Democracy without rights versus rights without democracy. The populists have been heavily scrutinised and fairly criticised for their sometimes cavalier attitude to rights, norms and institutions. When will establishment politicians be held to account for their cavalier attitude toward democracy?

 

Yascha Mounk - The People vs Democracy - book review

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

 

Matthew Parris, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown And Turbo-Charged Brexit Derangement Syndrome

Yasmin Alibhai Brown - Brexit - Mental Health - The edge of mental illness and madness

Warning of economic Armageddon didn’t work, and nor did peddling ludicrous conspiracy theories about government perfidy. So now, prominent Remainer opinion-setters are resorting to tear-stained pleas that Brexit is so personally stressful as to be injurious to their mental health

One of the more annoying aspects of modern political journalism is the way that those who cover events increasingly seek to insert themselves into the story, either by oversharing on social media, grandstanding during press conferences or writing tell-all books full of juicy campaign gossip which inadvertently reveals just how much the journalistic class traditionally suck up to those in power rather than holding them to account.

In Brexit Britain, however, this is being taken to a whole new level with newspaper columnists and TV talking heads – particularly those of a pro-establishment, pro-EU Remainer persuasion – taking a break from offering soundbites and analysis to let us all know just how traumatised and stressed Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union is making them feel.

First up this week was Matthew Parris, with a long stream-of-consciousness confessional in the Spectator:

My spirit is restless and I must confess. This Brexit thing is driving me slightly mad. And I do mean that clinically: not as a rhetorical flourish. My mental state, like that of so many I know on both sides of the Remain/Brexit divide, is capable of medical diagnosis. A shaft of insanity has pierced our interior lives. I really am becoming a Remainiac.

Is it not the first and clearest indication that the balance of one’s mind has been disturbed that, when having done all one reasonably can to achieve a result, one simply cannot let something go? What is the point of waking up at 3 a.m. and fretting sleepless until sunrise that we are leaving the European Union? What is the point of reading every one of the Times readers’ online posts beneath one’s column (they numbered more than a thousand last Saturday) and actually trying to answer scores of those many that are critical of one’s point of view? One knows perfectly well one will never change their minds, and they know perfectly well they will never change one’s own. So what are we doing staring at our stupid screens and taking verbal jabs at each other when outside the sun is shining?

[..] Well (you may say), isn’t that what fierce public debate on important questions of politics is all about? But no, not really. In my time I’ve taken sides with some passion on many great political questions, variously suffering reverses, chalking up victories or acknowledging myself impotent to influence the outcome — yet have always been able to sleep. But this ridiculous Brexit thing is spoiling my summer, spoiling my life; and I can see it’s doing the same for my adversaries on the Leave side too. I’m beginning to pine for a perhaps-imagined golden age when a Conservative-led coalition was in power and we didn’t all hate each other and the EU thing — whichever side you took — was just a minor irritation.

Of course, Britain’s EU membership and slow subsumption into antidemocratic continental political union was never just a “minor irritation” to those millions of British citizens who wholeheartedly objected to the project and would have loved to have made their feelings directly known at the ballot box much earlier, if only they had been given the opportunity. But then Matthew Parris displays that peculiar, almost robotic lack of empathy for people outside his own social caste common to many prominent Remainers, and so he could not have possibly known this.

But unlike many other prominent Remainers, at least Parris has the self-awareness to recognise that his behaviour may be counter-productive:

I mentioned the first indication of a disturbed mental balance: being unable to let something go. But I think there’s a second too, perhaps more worrying still. It’s when you self-diagnose and know this is the case, know you’re going crazy, know you’re self-harming, know that friends who tell you to leave Chazza alone because he isn’t worth it, are right — yet feel no inclination at all to mend your ways.

Like the paranoiac who is persuaded by the patient rationality of a kindly counsellor that ‘they’ are not all out to get him, but pursues his own mad train of reasoning undeterred by what he accepts to be wise advice, I rave on into the night.

I know it’s doing no good. I know I’m boring my readers; know there’s almost nothing left to be said; know that the voice in my head, my mother’s voice, telling me I just need a good night’s sleep, is right. But I’m not going to take a blind bit of notice of it. Having seen friends and colleagues drawn to their professional ruin by a fixation they cannot shake off, I resolve this summer to trudge forward, head down just like them, towards the wreck of whatever reputation I have left for dispassionate objectivity.

How bracingly, unexpectedly honest.

Not to be outdone by Parris, though, fervent EU hagiographer and Remainer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown then immediately took to the BBC Daily Politics studio to confess that Brexit has left her “feeling on the edge of madness and mental illness”:

I’m so glad that Matthew wrote this. I am behaving, feeling kind of on the edge of madness, of mental illness with this.

[..] I can’t go anywhere anymore, including with distant relatives, and not have a fight. I was at a wedding party last week, a wonderful wedding party – and it isn’t even left or right – and there were people from Momentum at this wedding party talking about why they were Brexiters, I had a big fight with them. And I had to go out and, like, cigarette smokers, get deep breaths, and I thought what are you doing, this is a wedding party.

[..] I can’t talk to relatives; I even had a fight with somebody on the bus, normal citizens talking about why they wanted out because they didn’t want foreigners here, I got up and had a fight. I think I’m there with Matthew.

But why is Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union so profoundly and earth-shatteringly disturbing to the likes of Matthew Parris and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown? Why is this event so much more weighty than any other political setback they may have endured in the past?

Part of the answer is that they are in fact not reacting just to Brexit, but to what they think that Brexit represents – Britain turning toward being a more introverted, hostile and unpleasant place – in a way that no other single political decision (such as a tax cut or education reform) alone can symbolise replicate. This much is evident from the Twitter timelines and public pronouncements of much of the #FBPE #WATON “Brexshit” crowd – not only do they (correctly) see Brexit as far harder to reverse than a normal political policy shift, they also fear a sea change in the character and fortunes of Britain.

But there is also something deeper and more obvious at work, driving this unprecedented hysteria from a group of commentators and public figures who generally love to portray themselves as calm, reasonable and pragmatic – the fact that the likes of Matthew Parris have never really known until now what a true political setback feels like. In recent decades (and in the case of younger pro-EU activists, their entire lives) many of the EU’s loudest cheerleaders have never known what it is for their political agenda to stall, their worldview to be repudiated or their preferred policies not to be enacted.*

For these opinion-setters and those they represent, general elections – supposedly the greatest regular opportunity for political change and democratic course correction in this country – have been largely meaningless, their outcome worth tussling over on a superficial level but never reaching the level where it might have grave or existential consequences for present trajectory of the country or for their own lives.

A decade after Tony Blair’s New Labour government took power, the top rate of income tax had not been raised from the level set by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988. Meanwhile, privatised industries had not been renationalised, nor was there any likelihood that they would be, to the chagrin of the Corbynite Left. And to the frustration of more conservative citizens, six years of Tory rule had seen no halt to the march of social progressivism or the persistence of a broken welfare and immigration system by the time of the EU referendum. It was not that there was no popular dissent against the effective bipartisan consensus on these issues, it was merely that in each case the political class had effectively decided to lift the “correct” course of action out of the bothersome influence of electoral politics.

Thus the Matthew Parrises of this world have long slept easy in their beds, knowing that Britain would be run as a technocratic social democracy with swathes of policy outsourced to the EU where the public could less easily interfere, and that broadly pro-business and pro-middle aged, middle class homeowner policies would prevail whoever sat in 10 Downing Street. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader gave an early wake-up call that not everybody was entirely happy that the country was effectively being run for the personal benefit of Matthew Parris and others like him, but even then it was airily assumed that Corbynism would flame out and that moderate establishment centrism would reassert its dominance within the Labour Party, restoring balance to the universe and predictability to their lives. A pleasant predictability utterly lacking in the far more precarious and uncertain lives of millions of fellow citizens whom Matthew Parris and his cohorts barely deigned to notice, but a pleasant predictability nonetheless.

This is why what we are now witnessing from many establishment commentators more closely resembles an hysterical toddler’s tantrum than reasoned analysis or advocacy. With Brexit, something very precious of theirs (to their mind, their natural right to see the arc of history bend favourably toward their wallets, careers, lifestyles and preferred holiday destinations) has been rudely stolen – and they are not going to take it lying down.

Unfortunately, this strangely unmoving bid for public sympathy will prove to be just another failed tactic to add to the gallery of missteps and forced errors of the Continuity Remain campaign. Insulting Leave voters and accusing them of xenophobia or racist tendencies didn’t work. Casting aspersions about the intelligence and education attainment of Brexit supporters (as though a degree in chemistry or gender studies imparts some special wisdom about the best forms of government to secure freedom and prosperity) likewise did not work. Resorting to unhinged conspiracy theories (such as in-house Remainer intellectual AC Grayling’s insistence that the UK government planned to provoke China into sinking a Royal Navy frigate in order to distract from difficulties in the Brexit negotiations) failed to generate anything other than derision and embarrassment.

And now this belated establishment bid for public sympathy will also fail; not only because it makes a mockery of real mental illness and those who face stresses and mental difficulties of an infinitely more severe nature with none of the financial and social cushions enjoyed by prominent media personalities, but because those people now seeking sympathy in their time of “trial” have tended to show an astonishing disregard – and sometimes outright contempt – for the worries and concerns of those they now paint as the enemy and pick fights with at wedding receptions.

The next time a famous and well-remunerated journalist or opinion-setter takes to the television studios to bemoan the harm that Brexit is apparently doing to their mental health, they should first perform this role-reversal thought experiment: imagine that rather than Brexit being the first time in their life that they didn’t get their way on a matter of deep and abiding personal importance, that it was the first time that they ever knew victory. What might that have felt like, to have been so disenfranchised and overlooked for so long?

Any pro-EU personality of honour and dignity might then pause before flaunting their mental trauma and parading their emotional scars before a nation with far more important things to worry about.

 

* This hysteria and sense of a coming apocalyptic event which must be prevented at all costs is also what allows politicians like Lord Andrew Adonis and activists like Gina Miller to pose as plucky underdogs and doughty defenders of democracy in their long guerrilla war to derail Brexit. Many of the arguments they make about the dangers of unchecked executive power and disparagement of the judiciary are entirely valid, in principle, yet these Crusaders for the Preservation of Democracy had absolutely nothing to say when the executive under David Cameron was making highly questionable actions to sway the EU referendum in favour of the Remain campaign (such as the £9m government propaganda leaflet or the violation of the spirit and possibly letter of purdah rules). Their commitment to constitutional observance and separation of powers extends only so far as these principles can be leveraged to their own advantage – they have no compunction violating these principles when doing so serves their own purposes.

 

Brexit - EU protesters - My life would suck without EU

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Unregulated, Unaccountable Corporate Megacharities Like Oxfam Are Not Fit For Purpose

BRITAIN-HAITI-CHARITY-PROSTITUTION

The Oxfam sex scandal is just more depressing proof that Britain’s giant, government-funded megacharities are almost completely unregulated and accountable only to trial by media

I have refrained thus far from writing about the Oxfam prostitution/rape scandal as the fallout metastasises throughout the charity sector, but I’m sure that regular readers can already guess exactly what I think about a largely government-funded pseudo-charity staffed by overpaid mediocrities who seem to think that their primary job consists of issuing prissy, sanctimonious reports attacking the one economic system which has lifted more people out of grinding, desperate poverty than all the charities of the world put together.

Much of the counterreaction on the Left has focused on the idea that conservatives want to cynically use this scandal as a reason to discredit and cut international aid – guilty as charged, in many cases. But there is also a creeping awareness on the Left that institutionalised compassion through government-funded charities is both inefficient and politically problematic.

As Ian Dunt wrote over on politics.co.uk today:

You could feel the story bursting at the seams of its Oxfam straightjacket and trying to become one which was sector-wide, a broader indictment of charities having generally lost their way. That’s partly because there is a small army of journalists out there intent on taking on the charity sector. The Express and Mail have been obsessed for years. But that does not make it a right-wing initiative alone. Many others on the progressive left are uncomfortable with the way the sector operates.

And there have been plenty of reasons to do so. Many charitable organisations, like Oxfam, grew so big they essentially became akin to corporate giants. They started obsessing over their reputation, which can be a prologue to hushing up that which might damage it. They began paying out eyebrow-raising sums for chief execs. Mostly they could justify these sums by stressing that they wanted the best people for important missions, but that would have made little sense to many of their donors, on low incomes, who had given some of their hard-earned income on a charitable instinct, only to find that the money was funding a salary they would never come close to achieving themselves.

The government guarantee of 0.7% of GDP on aid spending, which functions as a litmus test of the Conservatives’ moral responsibility in an age of austerity, also creates perverse incentives. It reverses the process by which a government department has to justify its spending on a project. The incentive now is to find things to spend the money on. Once that happens, it won’t be long before some dubious projects get funding.

Dunt goes on to warn that if this scandal is not rapidly contained, it could become the charity sector’s equivalent of the MP’s expenses scandal, where permanent and far-reaching reputational damage is done, leading the general public to forswear making charitable donations to international aid organisations.

Dunt’s concerns – including the perverse incentives created by the pig-headed, fixed 0.7% of GDP target for international aid – are absolutely valid, and his willingness to risk angering his own side by pointing out that megacharities like Oxfam often become extensions of the clubby, incestuous Westminster bubble from where they get their funding is commendable. In fact, one wonders how Dunt can be so perceptive and forthright on this issue while simultaneously being so hysterically blinkered on the subject of Brexit, but that’s another issue for another day.

What the Oxfam scandal and other instances of gross negligence in the charitable sector teach us is that however bad corporate governance may sometimes be in the for-profit sector, it is a strict and rigorous regime compared to the unregulated, unaccountable sphere in which the megacharities and NGOs operate.

When companies like BHS or Carillion go into administration, such is the public and political outrage that people associated with the stricken company are often hauled into court to be held accountable for their failings. But when similar outrages take place in the charity sector, the public outrage may be great but the consequences for those who oversee the failings are negligible. Why? Because they were trying to “do good”, and because they come from the same social bubble occupied by many politicians and members of the judiciary. The system protects its own.

One need only think of the fawning, uncritical praise heaped on celebrity charity CEO Camila Batmanghelidjh by politicians right up until the moment she ran her charity into the ground, leaving its service users high and dry, or by the way that she was allowed to melt back into anonymity rather than face any tangible consequences for her mismanagement.

As I wrote at the time of the collapse of Kids Company:

There is an aura around certain people – and around certain professions and political stances too, one might add – which makes close scrutiny and robust criticism almost impossible. And you can hardly do better escaping scrutiny than if you happen to work for one of those favoured organisations which enjoys the favour and blessing – and ministerial veto – of senior government officials, people who are guided by the opinion polls and an all-consuming obsession with how things look over how things really are – or could be.

But when is a charity not a charity?

Here’s a clue: If your organisation receives millions of pounds from the government, and if the state eclipses private and corporate philanthropy as the main benefactor and source of income, then it is not a charity. It is a QUANGO, a Public Service In All But Name, a de facto arm of the government. It comes with all the cons of financial burden on the taxpayer with none of the transparency or oversight that government spending at least pretends to ensure.

There are hundreds of Kids Companies operating up and down the country, charities in name but in reality monopoly providers of social care and other services under exclusive contract to local councils. This broken, unaccountable model should never have come to represent British philanthropy and charitable giving.

Unfortunately, we have a habit of seeing these scandals in isolation. We rightly get worked up about Kids Company, but then the news cycle moves on and the political class have little incentive to pursue people who so frequently come from the same backgrounds and occupy the same social circles. And bad or nonexistent charitable corporate governance is allowed to continue unchecked until the media discovers the next outrage.

Ian Dunt also makes this point:

The public anger towards the political class is not restricted to MPs. It encompasses a much larger, nebulous group, from think tanks, to journalists, to lobbyists, to bankers. Charities are increasingly seen as part of that, not least because they have often adopted many of the same techniques and mannerisms. They live in the same bubble and use the same language. If it isn’t this scandal that blows apart public trust in the sector, it’ll be the next one.

Yes. Britain’s megacharities are seen as part of that larger, nebulous group because they are very much a part of it. The vast over-reliance on state funding alone means that relationship are more opaque and questionable than should be the case, while the fact that such NGOs seem to recruit heavily from the same cultural pool which fills the ranks of politicians, journalists and think-tankers mean that the public naturally (and in this case correctly) jump to certain conclusions.

How much more generous might total British charitable donations be if they were encouraged through a tax-deduction scheme for taxpayers rather than being laundered through HM Revenue & Customs, adding to our total tax burden? And how much more efficient might out international aid efforts be if a large percentage of donations did not support support huge overheads and remuneration for senior staff?

Sadly, we are unlikely to find out. Unless we demand change or the Conservative Party finally decides to grow a backbone, Oxfam will make its insincere mea culpas, a few unfortunate scapegoats will be publicly shamed and stripped of their jobs, and the whole sleazy bandwagon will go rolling on.

 

Oxfam - love is safety badge

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.