The Big Brexit Guilt Trip By Ageing Political Grandees Will Not Work

John Gummer - Environment Secretary - Brexit - Live horse export - Remainer

Efforts by pro-EU political grandees to guilt the country into feeling bad about Brexit by elevating trivial British victories in ancient, minor trade disputes as proof of our great influence in Brussels only reveal the poverty of their ambition for Britain

Another day, another ageing political grandee is wheeled out to lecture us about how selfish and ungrateful we were to turn our backs on so benevolent and non-threatening an institution as their beloved European Union.

This time it is the turn of former Tory Environment Secretary John Gummer, who takes to the Guardian with a particularly tedious and deceitful lament that “we are unravelling the greatest peacetime project of our lives because Brexiteers insist we’ve lost control. But it’s simply not true”.

The premise of Gummer’s argument is that because he once had a good relationship with his environment and agriculture ministerial counterparts in Europe and ensured that Britain won key trade and regulatory battles when our national interest was at stake, this somehow proves that we had unparalleled and decisive influence in Brussels.

From the Guardian:

In fact, the UK has led Europe in a remarkable way, and has rarely failed to gain its major objectives. However the process is one of debate and argument, proof and counter-argument, rather than demanding that the rest of EU should immediately see the sense in our position and give way without question. It is this assumption of always being right that has bedevilled our relationships with our neighbours.

Immediately Gummer frames the question of whether Britain could influence the EU as one of whether we could win individual arguments within the EU institutions rather than whether we could meaningfully influence the course of the EU itself.

Gummer then presents the crown jewel of his argument:

One example suffices. In a single market, the UK’s refusal to allow the export of live horses for food was clearly illegal but politically essential. All the odds were stacked against us, Belgium was becoming increasingly insistent, and a vote was looming. We had one strong card: our relationships. We had helped others in parallel positions, helping to find ways for the EU to meet its common objectives while recognising national differences.

My very effective minister of state, David Curry, and I had formed friendships and we took trouble to maintain them. Many of our fellow ministers had come to Britain and stayed at our homes. Above all, we had never pretended. They all knew that if we said something was really important to the UK, we weren’t bluffing.

We were always communautaire – but in the national interest. When the relatively new French minister, a socialist, in a very restricted session, without his key advisers, had agreed to something that would have been very difficult for France, I slipped round the table and pointed the problem out. He was able to retrieve the situation, the council was saved interminable recriminations, and Britain had a firm friend. Working as a team, clearly putting our national interest first but ensuring we got the best out of the EU, meant that when it mattered we won. I don’t suggest that my counterparts ever really understood the peculiar British view that it’s all right to eat beef but not horse, but they accepted it was a political reality and knew the UK would help when they had to explain their own national singularities.

Oh gosh, this riveting act of high-stakes international diplomacy will be recorded in the history books for all time. Schoolchildren two hundred years hence will still be learning about how John Gummer heroically managed to stop the UK from having to export live horses for slaughter in continental Europe, all because he was best pals with the French undersecretary for agriculture. Consequential feats of statecraft like this put one in mind of Yalta.

In fact, it only shows the extreme paucity of Gummer’s thinking and the worldview he represents. These old grandees – and you can throw in the likes of Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke here, too – sincerely believe (or have somehow convinced themselves) that British disquiet with membership of the European Union was based on trivialities like how many battles we won over live horse exports. They think that if only they can provide enough examples of the UK having successfully defended the interests of Cheshire cheesemakers or Welsh textile makers then we will have an epiphany, see the error of our ways and beg to be allowed back into the club.

It simply does not occur to these EU-loving grandees that the British problem with the European Union might originate at a deeper level than who is seen to win a plurality of disputes over trade or regulation. Having marinated for so long within a political elite which accepted supranational government and the gradual deconstruction of the nation state as a self-evidently good thing, they are now shocked to discover that not everybody agrees with the basic premise on which their entire worldview rests.

The Lord Ashcroft poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum showed perfectly clearly the key drivers of the Leave vote, and the number one issue was sovereignty (decisions about the UK being taken in the UK, as per the specific poll question). The British people voted to extricate ourselves from the supranational government in Brussels and reclaim our right to make policy and law for ourselves without having to either haggle with 27 other member states or otherwise operate within the narrow tramlines set by a set of remote Brussels institutions towards which many of us feel no love or affinity.

Unfortunately, almost since the beginning of the referendum campaign, most prominent Remainers refused to deal with the big picture. Yes we got a lot of tired old soundbites about the importance of “friendship ‘n cooperation” or overwrought tales about how the EU alone had kept the post-war peace, but the official Remain campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe, desperately shied away from the big picture at every turn.

Why? Because the big picture has always been toxic or concerning to far more Britons than actually voted Leave in the referendum. Most people don’t want the supranational government and its ambition/necessity to transform into a federal Europe, and knowing this, the Remain campaign never dared to try persuading them otherwise. This left Britain Stronger in Europe (and most Remainers) with little option but to drag the fight to a lower level, where it became all about money, economic risk and the kind of low-level goodies that people like John Gummer think dictate our sentiments towards the EU.

Perhaps this is understandable. From Gummer’s very narrow perspective we probably did indeed “win” in Europe a lot. But Gummer is thinking about issues of farm animal exports and agricultural regulations, not matters of geopolitics or statecraft. And the truth is that Britain had almost zero influence on the ultimate direction of the European Union as a political entity. Yes, we could sometimes slow things down or carve out occasional opt-outs for ourselves (at a diplomatic cost). But Britain could never realistically propose that a large supranational government in Brussels with strong federalist ambitions transform itself into a looser federation of closely economically integrated nation states. That simply would never have happened, even if Britain played the long game and aggressively sought support from other countries.

If one was a passenger on a cruise ship it would be nice to be sufficiently influential to sometimes suggest menu ideas to the chef or offshore excursions to the cruise director and have those suggestions adopted. But even then, at no point could that passenger reasonably imagine himself an officer of the ship, let alone the captain. Winning battles within the framework created for us to argue is not the same as having meaningful influence over the design of the framework itself. So no, we did not “win” in Europe, because we could not persuade those on the bridge to set a course which we were willing to follow.

Once again, this debate has proven that the British people have always had a more expansive view of the EU question – and higher ambitions for our country – than the majority of our political class. Many Remainer grandees still see things in terms of petty fights won and lost in the Brussels crèche where they were allowed to play, and simply can’t understand that our problem was not that they failed to smack the other kids around to our satisfaction but rather that they were content to play the role of children in the first place.

By voting to leave the European Union, the British people are demanding that our politicians and leaders become adults again, not rambunctious toddlers and surly teens supervised by their parents in Brussels. We want government without training wheels again, even if this means that we wobble a bit or even fall and scrape our knees.

This was never about petty little trade disputes here and there. Brexit was far more fundamental than that, but even now many EU apologists fail to see it.

 

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

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Will Due Process Be The Final Casualty Of Westminster’s Sexgate?

Sir Michael Fallon - Secretary of Defence - resignation sexual harassment allegations

Facing up to historical injustice while protecting due process rights for today’s accused – the irreconcilable conflict at the heart of #BelieveTheVictim and Westminster’s escalating sexual harassment and assault scandal

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson was quite correct when she likened the torrent of sexual harassment and assault claim now roiling Westminster to a dam having suddenly burst. Just as the Harvey Weinstein scandal led to allegations against numerous other Hollywood A-listers and power players, so the cracks are now spreading across Westminster’s thin ice.

But unfortunately, the release of floodwaters caused by a burst dam has the power to sweep away everything in its path – both those shoddy buildings on weak foundations which deserved to be condemned, but also many structurally strong houses which were up to code, but which the tidal wave refused to spare.

The media (who really ought to be a bit more introspective about the tawdry behaviour and abuse within their own ranks, as is already being uncovered in America) love a simple narrative, and presently even the most serious allegations of rape and sexual abuse by prominent political officials are being reported in the same breath and often under the same headline as relatively minor infractions of the kind which astonishingly brought down former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, forcing his resignation yesterday.

Naturally, the social justice warriors of Westminster see mandatory re-education as the obvious solution, and now want elected MPs to go through the same condescending “consent workshops” that the NUS likes to inflict on freshmen students.

Charlotte England of Left Foot Forward writes:

Far from accusing all men of being rapists, consent training aims to clarify what consent means and tackle pervasive myths that contribute to rape culture, which is defined as an environment in which prevailing social attitudes normalise or trivialise sexual assault.

According to Green Party deputy leader Amelia Womack there is little understanding in Westminster of the power dynamics at play between male MPs, senior political party figures and other staff like assistants and researchers. Teaching men what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour is therefore imperative.

No, it is not imperative. At this point, even the most sociopathic MP understands the dangerous ambiguity around consent, for reasons of self-preservation if nothing else. Those politicians who continue to step over the line in 2017 do so deliberately, either because they don’t care or simply have no impulse control. And all the consent training in the world won’t fix that. Meanwhile, perfectly decent and law-abiding people will feel ever-more surveilled and curtailed in their behaviour while too many of the real guilty parties continue just as before.

But then this is always the effect of corrosive identity politics – serious social problems and even crimes are too often drowned out because of the disproportionate reaction to lesser behaviour which does not even fall on the same spectrum. If you go to Defcon 1 over some clumsy and ill-advised flirtation at a Westminster Christmas party then you have nowhere left to go when serious allegations involving rape or abuse of power come into play. Each incident becomes just another indistinguishable piece in the “rape culture” jigsaw puzzle and it becomes that much harder to focus on the real victims and perpetrators.

The difficulty with the more minor allegations which are now emerging in Westminster politics and elsewhere is that the outrage at (and de facto punishment of) the alleged offender (public shaming, terminating of careers, ending of livelihoods) is more a reaction to the general trend or cumulative scandal than the individual sin.

If a town finds itself in the grip of a serious crime wave then public anger and demands for something to be done are quite understandable, but is it right for the same ire and punishment to come raining down on the one-time teenage petty shoplifter as befits the man who makes a career of kicking down front doors and making off with the family jewels? Surely not. But our justified anger at decades of genuine sexual harassment and abuses of power is threatening to bleed over into other realms – types of behaviour which range from inappropriate to pitiable – which could have grave implications for how we live and work together (and even court one another) in future.

Grazing a colleague’s knee while making an ambiguous comment over dinner isn’t great (and in fact becomes absolutely wrong when a professional power imbalance exists), but the reason that such low-level behaviour can now prompt the resignation of people such as former Michael Fallon is because of a wider, understandable revulsion at far more serious offences such as those allegedly committed by Harvey Weinstein and other prominent people. The delusional middle-aged, middle-ranking male politico who wrongly mistakes the professional attention of a female journalist for a romantic interest is to be slapped down and probably also pitied, absolutely. But do we really need to turn every such incident into the Dreyfus affair in terms of notoriety?

The pendulum has swung from legitimately bad people getting away with patterns of tawdry behaviour and abuse of power for decades while their victims suffered grievous harm toward fundamentally decent people now being at risk of having their lives destroyed over ambiguous, misinterpreted behaviour or even unfounded malicious allegations. If there was a middle ground anywhere here, it has certainly been skipped over in our reaction to this post-Weinstein torrent of accusations.

While we are right to be disgusted at the world of overt sexism, sexual harassment and abuse which is slowly, painfully being consigned to history, we also have a duty to consider what kind of world we want to create in its place. If we truly want to go down a road where every alleged victim is believed and punishment meted out without due process or any threshold for evidence then we will midwife a brave new world where any public career and reputation can be ruined by a single malicious or disputed allegation. This may soon prompt concerned individuals to hedge against the risk of being brought down by false charges, meaning that every single personal interaction must be witnessed, every woman or vulnerable man permanently chaperoned and everybody permanently surveilled for their own safety, perhaps in the same manner that many American police forces are now outfitting their officers with body cameras.

But this immediately raises privacy concerns. People were sufficiently unhappy at the potential privacy issues presented by Google glasses that this promising prototype product had to be discontinued before making it to mass market. But the kind of constant surveillance required to provide sufficient personal insurance against a formalised “believe the accuser” culture – where the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” is abandoned – makes Google glasses seem tame by comparison.

If we are to avoid going down this extreme road then we at least need to set clearer rules about workplace interactions, so as to remove the ambiguities which lead to the “grey area” where many disputed events currently fall. We will need draconian rules prohibiting any romantic or sexual relations with coworkers that might seem more appropriate to the military than office-based professional work environments. There will need to be a blanket ban on any such relations, with the penalty for any transgression being instant termination regardless of whether or not the the encounter or relationship in question is consensual. Human Resources departments of firms large and small will need to staff up in order to carry out the inquisitorial new role assigned to them. If your parents met while working together, they must become the last generation which ever does so.

And if this seems excessive them we must step back from the brink and think again about whether casually discarding the time-honoured principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is a step that we are willing to take, particularly given the grave ramifications and precedent that doing so may set. Do these new rules apply only to accusations where there is a power imbalance (such as in the workplace) or will we apply them to purely social interactions between equals, too? How do we define “equals”? Will there be any statute of limitations on historic allegations? Will there be any evidentiary standard whatsoever? How will this new reality dovetail with existing laws governing libel and defamation, or to one’s ability to bring civil suit against an accuser for loss of future career earnings?

We must also ask ourselves how much collateral damage we are willing to accept in our effort to make right past wrongs. There are many valid and totally understandable reasons why a victim of abuse or harassment twenty years ago may have kept quiet to this day, but it is also plainly the case that any form of proof in terms of DNA, CCTV footage or retained correspondence is much less likely to exist, in which case it becomes one person’s word against another’s. We then have to decide to what extent we are willing to atone for historical societal sins by lowering the evidentiary standard and always believing the victim when every further move in that direction increases the likelihood of present-day injustices.

Do two wrongs make a right? Or is there a point where we will have to admit that justice for some historical alleged incidents will simply never be possible? We cannot escape this choice. We may wish that it did not exist, and we may pretend that some mythical alternative exists, a solution where proof for past allegations can always be found, victims always believed and offenders always correctly identified and punished. No such magic solution exists; it is a chimera.

At present we are in danger from swinging from one extreme to another, from victims being outrageously shamed and silenced to being unquestioningly believed without even cursory verification; from no consequences for serial perpetrators to draconian summary justice regardless of guilt. The danger is particularly acute as we suffer under a weak government with the weakest of leaders, a prime minister with non-existent decision-making abilities, who can’t afford any more missteps and is therefore prone to making up policy on the stop to appease whoever happens to be shouting the loudest.

#BelieveTheVictim? There is a valid debate to be had here, with serious arguments on both sides – the “always believe” side putting the emphasis on compensating for a history of past injustices and the “proof, please” side placing its emphasis on the importance of traditional due process. Ultimately, some kind of fudged compromise is all but guaranteed, pleasing nobody even as it acknowledges a messy reality.

Personally, while I lean more towards the “proof, please” side I acknowledge that simply telling accusers that nothing can be done to pursue their historic complaints without documentary evidence is often untenable, and that the rights and presumption of innocence which should always accompany a private citizen do not always fully carry over when the accused is in elected office or otherwise occupies a position of public trust.

But my goodness, we ought to stop and think a little more carefully before attempting a quick fix to a month’s worth of disturbing headlines by overturning centuries of precedent.

 

UPDATE – 3 November:

For what it’s worth, I think Ayesha Hazarika does a good job of explaining the kind of non-draconian, common sense solutions which we should be looking at here, for the Spectator:

But the silver bullet is behaviour. You can have all the Human Resources and complaints systems you like, but until MPs, and senior staffers, understand that their basic behaviour to junior women and men has got to change then I’m afraid the needle will not move. And it’s not actually that difficult. I would hope most people could work it out without the need for a cringey manual but here’s a few helpful tips. When you’re the boss, don’t fondle, grope, cup or lunge at anyone and as a general rule don’t harass people for sex via the oh so clever ruse of late night drinks to ‘help them with their career’. And give yourself a reality check: they’re not inviting it and they’re really not into you. At all. Especially if you’re a 58-year-old man who’s seen better days and they’re someone thirty years your junior who either works for you, needs a job or an interview. Ask yourself this critical question: are you abusing your position to get in someone’s pants? And if all that fails, ask yourself how you would feel if you get caught.

Politicians love lording it over the rest of society about how we behave and how we should conduct ourselves in the workplace. It’s time they cleaned up their act – and it’s really not that hard.

Absolutely. A cultural change which ends this “come out with me for late night drinks to discuss your career (wink, wink)” practice should be encouraged, because it is where professional power imbalances exist that the worst serial offenders always lurk.

 

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Harvey Weinstein Hypocrisy And The Westminster Cesspit

Westminster Big Ben Telephone Box

British journalists have reported and commented extensively on the Harvey Weinstein scandal, yet seem curiously unwilling to lift the lid on the seediness and sexual harassment which routinely takes place within their own industry

In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (were you as stunned as I was?!) we have seen a range of responses from genuinely shocking and awful first-hand accounts of serious harassment and abuse to the now-obligatory collective guilt lectures delivered condescendingly to All Men.

But I am particularly interested in the response of journalists and commentators in Britain who took the time to report on a sexual harassment scandal unfolding in Hollywood while remaining curiously silent about a similar culture at work in their own industry.

I make no pretence of being a Westminster insider, but in my life on the far, far outer periphery I have attended a number of political functions, meetings, party conferences, boozy book launches and parties where very high profile journalists and moderately high profile politicians were present, and I have seen behaviour with my own eyes which would shame some of those who lent their voices to the chorus of condemnation of Harvey Weinstein and other serial alleged harassers. I have also heard disturbing personal accounts of inappropriate and unwanted advances by married men in the media, though having been relayed to me in confidence, these are not my stories to tell.

The seediness of Westminster politics is reasonably well known, but while political journalists are generally now willing to report on politicians when they come a cropper, most are understandably much less eager to lift the lid on their own sub-clique. Yet ultimately, journalism is no different from many other professions where people work, travel, eat, rest and play with the same group of colleagues in a high-pressure environment. Throw in the fact that politics and political journalism falls squarely into the “showbusiness for ugly people” category and is dominated by big beasts who grew up in a very different Fleet Street era and young people desperate to get a break, and a pulsating atmosphere of illicit romances, scandals and unwanted advances is all but guaranteed.

I have been to events where wine-sodden journalists said eyebrow-raisingly inappropriate things which made others feel uncomfortable, or in some cases made fumbling physical advances which had to be repeatedly warded off by the unfortunate recipient. Most of these incidents amounted to little more than general slovenliness and lechery, the kind of thing which reflect badly on a person but should not necessarily end a career or put somebody in court. But other times the behaviour I witnessed and heard about fell distinctly into the dodgy end of the grey zone.

And yet so far the only people from the political media world to have faced any kind of scrutiny in Britain are the writers Rupert Myers and Sam Kriss – both of whose cases were summarily tried in the fiery crucible of the Twitter and Facebook Star Chamber with no due process. As happened for so long in Hollywood pre-Weinstein, a couple of relatively minor fish in British political journalism are being made scapegoats so that the Big Fish can swim on unsated, undaunted and unchecked.

Much is being written about the bravery (or lack thereof) exhibited by certain individuals in Hollywood in their dealings with Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men accused of sexual harassment. And many of us probably feel rightful admiration for the brave few who first came forward at considerable personal risk, and shake our heads at the powerful A-listers who didn’t once think to risk anything to warn or protect others.

But I am curious about the household name journalists who behave nearly as badly at SW1 events or party conference hotel ballrooms yet go unreported and unpunished year after year. And I am particularly interested in their media peers, who know exactly what is going on and whether or not it fits a pattern of behaviour, and find all the time in the world to excoriate Harvey Weinstein while saying nothing about the atrocious behaviour that occurs right under their noses.

Tom Bradby, former ITV News political editor and current anchor of News at Ten wrote quite a stirring call-to-arms about an unpleasant “lads culture” at his old rugby club and various stag parties he later attended. Yet after all his years at the top of British political journalism he couldn’t think of any relevant anecdotes about his own peers and colleagues of sufficient concern to make it into the article? Perhaps not; Bradby may very well have purposefully avoided many of the booze-fuelled, bacchanalian evening events which make up the Westminster social calendar, and saw nothing. But I suspect that many others of equal seniority and profile to Bradby know exactly what goes on but give their own industry a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

As anyone who works in politics and answers truthfully will attest, Westminster can be a very seedy place. I understand that the ascension of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 saw some dispossessed Labour centrists indulge in behaviour which would have been considered scandalous at King Belshazzar’s feast. It seems likely that Theresa May’s bungled campaign and the trauma of election night this summer saw some similar desperation-fuelled behavioural lapses on the Right.

The two mini scandals du jour – Labour’s Clive Lewis getting a bit verbally carried away at a Momentum event in Brighton or Jared O’Mara having posted unsavoury comments on the internet fifteen years ago as a young man  – barely scratch the surface of what goes on. Indeed, these cases are almost decoys, relatively minor transgressions being seized upon so that the accused can be made scapegoats for the graver sins of a much larger group. One almost wonders whether the enthusiasm with which the UK political blogosphere, print and television media picked up these stories was a way of over-compensating for the profound silence about what takes place within their own camp.

But this seediness and sexual harassment within British politics and journalism will not be eradicated by offering up some scrawny, barely-known writer from Vice or a slightly bigger deal from GQ Magazine as a sacrifice to the Twitter gods. It will take a big fish to land a big fish – a heavyweight figure from a major publication or broadcaster must put their credibility on the line. The world of politics and journalism, like Hollywood, is a very hard industry to crack and those struggling to gain admittance from the outside risk everything by speaking out, even as they are the ones predominantly being preyed upon by grotesque, self-satisfied insiders.

One day – perhaps quite soon, given the rapidity with which Harvey Weinstein fell from grace – one of the big beasts of UK political journalism will be revealed for what they are. Somebody who everybody in the Westminster political/media world has been paying obsequious homage to for years will receive first one allegation of improper conduct, then another, and then a steady drip-drip of accusations until the sudden resignation, admission of “errors of judgment” and flight to celebrity rehab inevitably follow.

And when that happens, we will all be sitting here wondering how it was that so many people whose sole job it is to unearth and report stories of public interest – so many respected, well remunerated household names – somehow neglected to mention what was going on in their own back yard.

And what little scrap of credibility the Westminster media retains will be gone for good.

 

Harvey Weinstein - Meryl Streep

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The Conservative Party Has Lost The Pulse Of The Nation

Laura Pidcock - Labour MP North West Durham - 2

Labour’s statist, redistributionist policies are as bad as ever, but unlike the Tories they increasingly have the pulse of the nation

Once again I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with a stridently left-wing MP in their criticism of this drifting Conservative government and the failing centrist consensus which it represents.

As Jon Trickett continues to curate LabourList for the week, North West Durham MP Laura Pidcock writes:

Those people who sit on the government benches, who speak very well and pronounce their excellence and their firm grasp of the system, probably do believe it was their hard work that got them there. I’m sure they believe that it was some unique brilliance that put them in a position of power, not their childhood classrooms with numbers in single figures; not their personal allowances whilst at university: not their ability to recover from failures, because of the large cushion they sit upon. Not everybody who is wealthy and privileged is like this, but it certainly – and evidently – it makes it harder for those that are to understand the reality of what is happening to ordinary people.

This is why you get a system like universal credit, like the bedroom tax, the rape clause, the sanction system, the work capability assessments and he hugely alienating disability benefits system. It is why there are fines and punishments associated with all aspect of working class life: parking, smoking, littering, debt payments, libraries, electricity meters. When I had a book that was overdue to return to the Commons Library, I did not receive a fine. Undoubtedly it was assumed that I was too busy, that I had better things to be doing. Do the same presumptions apply to 99 per cent of Britain? Of course, not. On the contrary, they seen are lazy, feckless and are perceived to be “cheating” the system for turning up minutes late to a benefits assessment. Then they are hit where they won’t recover: through their finances, and so the cycle continues.

Of course, Pidcock ultimately goes on to spoil it all with economically illiterate class envy and a programme based more on tearing down the privileged rather than giving greater opportunities to the underprivileged:

We must expose the absurdity of our current system, we should shine a light on the cosy, privileged networks which lock out our people, our communities and our class. We have to call out poverty pay for what it is: it is robbery from the real wealth creators.

This much at least is socialist piffle. Yes of course there are some exclusive, exclusionary networks that are unwelcoming to minorities and working class people, and this is reprehensible when it occurs. And yes, recruitment to the SpAdocracy and cadre of parliamentary researchers and advisers which acts as a recruitment pool of future MPs is often too narrowly targeted at people from the same homogeneous background. But as this blog discussed yesterday in the wake of the Oxford University diversity non-scandal, the real issue is a problem with the supply of qualified people from under-represented backgrounds, not a lack of demand for them.

Most institutions remotely connected with government are under huge pressure to improve their diversity ratios, and face constant political pressure and bad publicity when they fail to do so. The fact that insufficient progress has been made tells us that the pipeline of qualified (or interested) candidates remains restricted, not that willing and capable people are necessarily being turned away.

But strip away the leftist agenda and the rest of Pidcock’s criticism is spot-on. Of course there are honourable exceptions, but MPs sometimes manage to display a remarkable lack of empathy for the struggles of the squeezed middle. This manifests in a multitude of ways, and is by no means restricted to the Conservative Party.

The London-raised metro-left Labour MP parachuted into a safe Northern constituency but boasting a voting record more attuned to the priorities of Islington than Darlington is every bit as out of touch as the privately-educated Tory MP who cannot comprehend why a six-week gap between applying for Universal Credit and receiving a payment might be problematic. Or the Tory MP who is confused that a selfish housing policy which chronically restricts the supply of housing stock to benefit older homeowners simultaneously alienates younger voters. Or the rural Tory MP who devotes all their energy to supporting NIMBY causes and then wonders why each election leaves him with fewer and fewer colleagues from urban constituencies.

My concern is not that the Labour Party is suddenly coming up with compelling, inventive new solutions to the problems we face as a country. By and large, they are not. My concern is that Labour are at least correctly identifying some of those problems and speaking to them in a way which makes people think they care, while the Conservative Party steams on in the same dismal direction as before, bereft of vision or policy ideas and with an unfortunate tendency to loudly insist that everything is great when everybody can see otherwise.

My concern is that more than four months after a general election result which has seemingly prompted no change in strategy by Theresa May’s government, Labour MPs are starting to make more sense – and sound more like they live in the real world – than their Conservative counterparts.

And when that happens, it usually means that the out-of-touch party is heading for a spell on the Opposition benches.

 

Laura Pidcock - Speech

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The Centrist Persecution Complex

Tony Blair

Discredited centrists, locked out of power and influence for the first time in decades, mount a crisis PR campaign to salvage their reputation

It reached a peak immediately after the surprise victory for Team Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum, with weepy centrists tearfully quoting W. B. Yeats to each other (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world“) and huddling in fear of the oncoming fascist terror, as though Britain had been suddenly stripped of all decency and reason overnight.

But truthfully, the Lamentation of the Centrists began the moment that Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely bid for the Labour Party leadership started picking up steam in the summer of 2015. It began when a cohort of bland, unremarkable political nothings (to call them technocrats would bestow an undeserved suggestion of expertise and competence) suddenly realised that the comfortable, predictable career progression and access to power they took for granted was in jeopardy, and all because some obscure, dusty old backbencher with these strange things called “principles” and “political convictions” was generating widespread grassroots enthusiasm.

Since these events, any suggestion or development which threatens to marginally expand the narrow Overton Window of British politics has been greeted by the centrists of both parties as a disaster waiting to happen. Back when Ed Miliband proposed energy price to limit consumer utility bill increases, the Tories treated it like a 1970s-style demand for socialist renationalisation of industry, which was made all the more ironic since Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party then actually proposed the renationalisation of industry in their 2017 manifesto while Theresa May’s Tories now think that price controls are a wonderful idea.

The window of political possibilities has thus been expanding, but primarily in a leftward direction, since the present-day Conservative Party lacks anybody willing or able to make a robust, inspiring and unapologetic argument for right-wing policies. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has single-handedly proved to a sceptical political and media establishment that having a coherent political ideology and policies which naturally flow from it can still be attractive to voters, particularly when communicated clearly and unapologetically.

And this has the centrists scared. What once looked like a temporary, aberrant blip on the horizon and was later nervously dismissed as a brief interruption to their natural right to rule is now starting to look like a permanent, existential threat. And predictably enough, something of a desperate fightback is now underway.

Of course, being centrists, they cannot help but belittle and condescend to the millions of people who grew tired of their self-serving shtick and started looking elsewhere for political inspiration, even as they seek to win back their favour. Thus we are told over and over again that the centrists are the wise adults in the room, the mature grownups who see the world as it is rather than as they wish it were and choose their dismal policies accordingly, while we partisan hotheads on the left and right are being immature and unrealistic by daring to “dream of things that never were, and ask why not”.

The centrists sometimes go on to argue that theirs is also a coherent political ideology, and that their political “beliefs” should not be dismissed simply because they do not hew towards one extreme or another. This is most often brought up in response to my remarking that a leftist sees a river and demands that a bridge be built across it at any cost, the conservative sees the same river and says that a new bridge would be expensive and unnecessary, but a centrist compromises and builds half a bridge halfway across the river and congratulates himself on his pragmatism.

Their defence against this charge is false – true centrism is absolutely not an ideology or worldview of its own, since in a strict sense it merely defines the midpoint between two more polarised political worldviews. When one side manages to push the centre of political gravity left or right, the centre will move with it, maintaining an equidistant position. This is the definition of reactionary opportunism, not principle.

But in another sense, the whining “centrists” are absolutely right. They do indeed have a unique and defined worldview, it just happens to be more of an establishment worldview than a truly centrist one. For a long time, the two terms were interchangeable since Labour and the Conservatives had staked out very predictable and largely static positions since the dawn of the New Labour government. Today’s so-called “centrist” politicians therefore tend to be those people who personally benefit (and/or advocate for those who benefit) from the current status quo, the pathetic tug of war between a not-very-conservative Tory Party and what was until recently a Blairite “sons of Thatcher” Labour Party.

And nobody can say that the United Kingdom as a whole has not prospered, materially at least, under the aegis of the centrists, particularly to look at London or the regeneration of other major British cities. But at the same time, other places have been hollowed out. Regional cities, market towns and suburban commuterville have often become scruffy, more deprived and less pleasant, characterised by vacated high street shop units rather than vegan hipster taco bars.

My own hometown of Harlow, Essex has been very hard hit in recent years, with nearly all the large employers either moving out or significantly downscaling, and the opening of a new retail area only causing businesses to migrate from the other end of the town centre, leaving it a wasteland of charity shops, second hand stores and a few Eastern European mini-marts. Meanwhile, firms which once offered entry-level office work and the possibility of advancement have been replaced by vast distribution centres which offer minimum wage warehouse work and no career progression.

If the centrists even noticed the hollowing out of large parts of the country on their watch, they had over a decade to show that they cared by coming up with new policy prescriptions to make Britain better equipped to face the challenges of globalisation, automation, outsourcing and localised mass immigration. But no sympathy was forthcoming, let alone concrete solutions. And now, with Brexit and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, the establishment is being forced to pay in a lump for pretending to care about the entire country while looking out only for very specific segments of society.

Naturally, the centrists do not see it this way. In their alternative narrative, they are the victims. The likes of Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Sir Nicholas Soames and Anna Soubry probably imagine themselves as Cicero banished from Rome, stellar public servants unfairly cast from favour by an unreasonable mob whose passions will eventually cool and allow them to resume their rightful position in charge of the nation’s affairs.

A new piece by Helen Lewis in the New Statesman perfectly encapsulates this sense of self-entitled grievance, beginning with the headline “Are you now, or have you ever been, a centrist?”, actually likening their plight to the victims of the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s (modesty and a sense of perspective are not the centrist’s forte).

Lewis writes:

Yes, we’ve been here before. The word “neoliberal” migrated from describing a particular kind of political ideology to a catch-all for anything vaguely capitalist the speaker didn’t like.

[..] “Centrist” is now doing a similar job. In the way it is used by the Labour left, the world is divided into three categories: them, Actual Nazis, and everyone else, who is a centrist.

Boo hoo. How sad that the denizens of centristland, who for years maintained their vice-like grip on power by smearing everybody else as a dangerous extremist, now find themselves being criticised, sometimes unfairly. I can’t possibly imagine what that must feel like.

None of this is to say that there is not a time for more centrist, technocratic leadership. There undoubtedly is. When times are good, threats are few and both society and the economy are in a reasonably satisfactory steady-state then choosing politicians and leaders without much of an ideological compass but the pragmatic ability to get things done can be absolutely the right choice. The problem only comes when the centrists and technocrats outstay their welcome, lingering on with their cautious and unambitious  approach in the face of impending danger or disruption.

One could certainly argue that early New Labour acquitted this “steady state” management job fairly well, inheriting the Thatcher economic transformation and reaping its benefits through studious inaction rather than torpedoing Britain with an immediate return to 90 percent top tax rates. But it is also clear that Blairite and Brownite Labour then went wrong by maintaining their cautious, plodding approach in the face of globalisation, spiking immigration from the new accession EU countries and the 2008 crash and recession.

It should now be clear to all that this is no longer a time for centrist, technocratic leadership. The challenges we face on the domestic, foreign and national security fronts – reviving the economy and ensuring that more Brits are equipped to prosper in it, asserting British influence on the world stage and tackling the evil ideology of Islamist terror – will not be solved by tweaking the dials or turning the tiller half a degree in a particular direction. Far more radical and ambitious government is required to meet these challenges.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I do not have a ready-made answer for what this new governing agenda should be. Conservatives in particular have a real challenge to come up with a policy mix which does not simply ape Labour’s go-to solution of waving a magic wand and creating a new government programme to deal with every single social or economic ill. But just as the need for the Thatcher government’s monetarism and supply-side policies was realised by only a few people in the 1960s and 70s, so the answer to our present difficulties may presently be seen as equally marginal and controversial. As Lincoln once said, the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.

I am often gently mocked or criticised by friends and readers for being too negative about contemporary politicians, as though by objecting to the various shades of beige offered by Labour and the Conservatives I am somehow setting my standards unreasonably high. I strenuously disagree. Would somebody in the early 1970s have been unreasonable to be disillusioned with both Labour and the Conservatives? Hardly. The Heath, Wilson and Callaghan governments were all wedded to the same failing post-war consensus which was slowly dragging Britain toward terminal national decline. Rejecting the statist politics of the 1970s was absolutely the right thing to do – the dogmas of the immediate post-war years were inadequate to the stormy seventies. And so it is now, when the dogmas which served some people so well in the nineties and early 21st century are being rejected by a majority of the country.

And this is what the centrists just don’t get. They seem to think that everything was ticking along just fine until this awful populist revolution came and ruined their perfect existence. They hold this belief because from their perspective everything was fine – a continual upward trajectory in terms of wealth, living standards, career and leisure opportunities. Though they furiously deny the charge, many centrists possess the ability to simply forget about the parts of the country and all the people who have been hurting, stagnating and not seeing their concerns reflected in our electoral politics, and having thus exempted themselves from the need to show empathy they view both Corbynism and Brexit as movements based on pure irrationality.

One might have hoped that a brief period in the political wilderness – two years in the case of the Labour centrists and now just over one year in terms of the pro-EU establishment – might have taught the centrists some humility or instilled a modicum of respect for those people who are now finally beginning to make their voices heard. But of course we have seen the exact opposite – disbelief that these people dare to seek to influence the politics of their own country followed by a dismissal of their ideas and often a seething hatred of what they stand for. And still the centrists might have gotten away with this elitism, were it not for the fact that they are incapable of keeping their contempt for the people to themselves. On the contrary, they feel compelled to continually remind the rest of the country just how backward, stupid, communist, racist or evil they consider us to be.

The centrists may win some victories yet. The almighty mess being made of the Brexit negotiations by the UK government may, if things go badly, allow the centrists to prance around screeching “I told you so!” as though flawed execution and lack of planning somehow discredit Brexit as an idea. And Jeremy Corbyn may yet be turfed out of the Labour leadership if the centrists get their act together and rally around a single candidate, particularly if they can find a Emmanuel Macron-type character, an empty suit who can stalk around on stage roaring empty platitudes to get people fired up.

But the centrists have now been exposed. Rather than the wise, measured and pragmatic types who chart an intellectual course between two political extremes that they pretend to be, they have been revealed as unimaginative and thoroughly self-interested defenders of the status quo.

And all their overwrought and exaggerated complaints about evil populists, “things falling apart”, having their opportunity to “live, work and love in Europe” cruelly ripped away or being the supposed victims of a McCarthyite purge will not save them from the judgment of the people.

 

Tony Blair - Open Britain - centrism

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