The Battle For British Conservatism: Should The Tories Be Ideological?

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Some say that it is not the job of conservatives to think big or be ideological – but in a period of discontinuity such as this, being ideological and ambitious is exactly what conservatives must do

My interest was piqued recently by a Philip Collins column in the Times, in which Collins argues for pragmatic conservatism over idealistic conservatism, and chastises Brexit-supporting conservatives in particular for supposedly putting adventurism and ideology over the cautious stability which ought to flow from the conservative worldview.

Collins makes some interesting points, beginning with his conception of the differing roles of Britain’s two main political parties:

The electorate selects a Labour government to push the nation down the road of progress. That effort inevitably leads to an excess of public spending and too great a faith in the capacity of the state to improve the lot of the people. Much good gets done along the way but the temperature gauge of the British people is so attuned that, once spending starts to spiral, they call on the Conservative Party to tidy up. The whole point of the Conservatives, the absolute raison d’être of Tory government, is to provide sound money and solid competence, unburdened by too much radical belief.

I don’t necessarily disagree with this. Over the course of both short and medium-term timeframes one can witness this phenomenon in action, from the pivot away from New Labour in 2010 as a short-term correction by an electorate in search of economic competence, and on a longer-term macro level the big swings from pre-war government to Attlee’s post-war socialism followed by a Thatcherite rollback of the post-war consensus.

(Of course, one can also argue the opposite – that the 1979 and 1983 Conservative governments were a deeply ideological monetarist reaction against the managed decline wrought by Keynesian economics and the socialist mixed economy. But while I fully agree that these were very ideological movements on the inside, I must also concede that they came to power not because the British people suddenly bought into a particularly individualistic mindset but rather because the people knew that the Tories were delivering strong, necessary dose of needed medicine).

But it is when Collins applies this same thinking to the European Union and the question of Brexit, though, where I really take issue with his argument:

But the issue of Europe, alas, pricks Conservatives into believing things. Suddenly, all the errors of the left, which the right exists to correct, are being committed by the Conservative Party. The usual conservative view is risk-averse and frightened of grands projets by their sheer complexity and by the low capacity of the state to administer them. The true conservative, who is not a reactionary in thrall to the past, is also not a radical excited by a better tomorrow. He or she instead makes a fetish of the present. Better not to risk change for fear it will be worse than what we have. The caution and the complacency can be infuriating but it is a fool who sees no wisdom in the position.

Where are these conservatives today? Can you name a single one? Who is the person who holds the quintessentially conservative view, which is that the EU is a bit of a mess for which no affection can really be mustered but who thinks that leaving is really not worth the candle? The process of leaving, thinks the historical conservative, is just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother. To attempt the most complex administrative task that the British state has undertaken since the conduct of the Second World War is just a profoundly unconservative thing to do.

This, to me, seems a rather glib analysis. The United Kingdom has been a member of the European Union for slightly more than four decades. This is but a blip in the very long history of our country, and certainly an aberration in comparison to the independent course we charted before joining the EEC in 1973. To say that remaining in the European Union is the conservative option is to apply an exceedingly narrow temporal window in determining whether the “natural” state of being to which conservatives should naturally gravitate should be the status quo, or what existed for centuries up until forty years ago.

Collins would be aided in his argument that the EU represents the “new normal” if there were any other examples elsewhere in the world of nations voluntarily creating supranational governments to sit above their own courts and legislatures, cheered on at every stage by their citizens. But of course there are no such examples. The people of Canada, Mexico and the United States do not clamour to form an ever-closer union of their own, let alone one which includes central America (the equivalent of the European Union’s continual eastward expansion). Nor would the citizens of, say, Canada, tolerate the idea of a supranational court and legislature in Mexico City setting an ever-wider range of social, trade and foreign policy.

In other words, it seems clear that the European Union is the historical aberration, not Brexit. The EU is an anachronistic relic borne of a time when the world was divided into a few major international blocs. It is a solution to a problem which no longer exists, and while international cooperation is more important than ever, EU-based cooperation has conspicuously failed to live up to the challenges of our time, from the self-inflicted euro crisis to the great migration crisis. And given that EU membership represents such a narrow slice of our history, it seems clear to me that the conservative position is one which advocates a calm, orderly and pragmatic Brexit (probably of the kind which I and other members of the Leave Alliance campaigned, namely a phased exit from the EU via EFTA/EEA in order to avoid undue disruption to trade and economic links).

Also concerning is Collins’ assertion that Brexit is “just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother”. He seems to wilfully ignore the fact that the Conservatives are also traditionally the party of patriotism and the robust, self-confident defence of national integrity (the clue is in the name Conservative and Unionist Party). While conservatism may often mean cautious pragmatism in terms of domestic policy (which admittedly has sometimes needed to be disrupted by Labour’s progressivism to advance the social good) it has never meant timidity or a lack of faith in Britain’s ability to act and defend our interests on the world stage. Collins seems to equate natural conservative caution with a necessary lack of ambition, but I do not consider these one and the same thing at all.

And then Collins really loses me with this:

Britain feels very different from the glorious summer of 2012 when Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony to the Olympics was a paean to British culture that had spanned the world and to British institutions that had stood the toughest test of all, the test of time. In the distant past five years ago, it was an easy nation to be proud of. Boyle’s was a conservative vision of Britain, which the Tory party has thrown by the wayside.

I’m sorry, but this is balderdash. Prior to his career in journalism Philip Collins was speechwriter to Tony Blair, so his proclivities are very much of the centre-left. And while parts of Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the London Olympics might be said to be rooted loosely in conservatism, the part which most people remember is the bizarre open-air Mass in praise of the NHS and socialised healthcare.

(It is telling, too, how many of those on the left and centre-left almost seemed to discover patriotism for the first time back in 2012 while watching hundreds of actors in nurse costumes prance around a huge stadium pushing hospital beds and wheelchairs).

An all-singing, all-dancing Rite of Spring in worship of the National Health Service is not conservative in nature. In fact, its emphasis on uniformity, collective endeavour, equality of outcome and dependency on government is about the most un-conservative spectacle one can think of. The fact that it took a rather gaudy homage to that most socialist of socialist institutions to evoke feelings of patriotism in some on the Left shows that this was very much a leftist moment, not a conservative one – and in my opinion also shows that the same argument that EU membership is too new to fall under the protective umbrella of conservatism also applies to the NHS.

So should conservatives believe in anything, or should they be the timid, pragmatic and unambitious party of technocrats and fixers who are called in once in awhile to clear up the mess caused by an over-zealous Labour Party? I think this is where we need to be very clear about our meanings. It may absolutely be the case that most of the British public never see the conservative worldview and resulting policies in terms of an inspiring, coherent story. We may always be seen as the fixers. But that does not mean that we can get away without having a story to motivate and guide us, even if this remains largely internal.

Remember: British politics has now entered a period of discontinuity (as evidenced by the Brexit vote and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn) in which people have increasingly become dissatisfied with the previous Cameron-Blairite centrist, pro-EU political settlement and are demanding something new, something which addresses the unique challenges we face as a nation in 2017. This cannot be done without first diagnosing these challenges, understanding where they are interlinked, and then devising a set of mutually-reinforcing policies to tackle them.

We saw the same thing in 1977, when the influential Stepping Stones report (no, I’m not going to stop talking about it anytime soon) provided a blueprint which Margaret Thatcher then took to Downing Street and started implementing in 1979. The Thatcher government did not save Britain from inexorable national decline by conceding that reversing years of state ownership of industry and tackling the over-powerful trades union was “just too difficult, too far beyond the capacity of the civil service to deliver, just far too much bother”. On the contrary, the Conservative Party of 1979 was forced to accept that discontinuity had to be met by new and previously unthinkable policies, just as the idea of leaving the EU remains unthinkable to so many within the political class today.

Believing in nothing and playing the role of the calm technocrat is all very well when times are good, when society and the economy are in steady-state and there are no urgent or existential challenges to be addressed. In such times, the Conservative Party is very welcome to play the tedious but necessary role of fixer. Unfortunately, we live in rather more interesting times which require inspired and often disruptively innovative policymaking rather than the usual government painting by numbers.

I can understand why this scares people like Philip Collins. The last time it was incumbent upon the Tories to be truly ideological, in 1979, they ended up remaking the country (and together with America, the world) and stamped a new political settlement on Britain which even now has not been fully rolled back. It is therefore natural, if a little cynical, that he now counsels the Tories to think small, to “keep their senses” and throw their arms around the status quo. The alternative must be terrifying to contemplate.

The last thing that the guardians of the current, fraying political consensus want is for conservatives to come up with an ambitious, ideologically coherent new internal narrative and then remake the country anew all over again.

And that is precisely why we must do it.

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Recognising Failure In Brexit

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One of the greatest failings of Brexiteers since the referendum has been our inability to convince more wealthy, urban, Remain-voting younger professionals that the old pro-EU political consensus is broken, or that they benefit in any way from nation state democracy

I spend a lot of time on this blog telling various people and groups – the establishment, Remainers, Labour centrists, Tory wets – to engage in a bit of introspection and consider where their own actions and behaviours may have helped feed the very circumstances or phenomena which now upset them.

It is only fair that I go through the same process myself, as a way to maintain intellectual integrity. And there is one failure in particular that I keep coming back to – never finding a way to bridge the gulf of understanding between the two worlds that I myself straddle, Brexitland (where I was born) and the urban bastion of EU support (where I now live).

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum result, even before we knew the demographic breakdown of the vote, I wrote:

I extend to you the magnanimity and friendship that (I hope) you would be extending to me right now had the result gone the way we all expected. It is incumbent on all of us now to work together to achieve the best possible form of Brexit.

I think it is fair to say that I have not always lived up to that aspiration, though most of my lapses have only taken place in the context of extreme provocation in terms of the rhetoric or tactics adopted by what quickly became an extraordinarily energetic (and often venomous) continuity Remain campaign.

I have at least never knowingly initiated a hostile encounter with an EU supporter, online or in real life, because I still believe that whatever convulsions or purges our political class may need to go through as Brexit unfolds, the rest of us will need to knit back together as one country. As I have written only recently, we have many other pressing issues besides Brexit facing us as a country, none of which can be tackled successfully so long as we have our hands round one another’s throats.

It was therefore been incumbent on Brexiteers like myself – in addition to safeguarding the referendum verdict and working to achieve a better form of Brexit than the present government is on course to deliver – to attempt to persuade at least some Remain voters (particularly those who are not hardcore eurofederalists) that Brexit has the potential to be a good thing and a catalyst for further change if we demand it through our active participation.

This has not been a roaring success. I live in northwest London, in an overwhelmingly Remain-voting constituency (Hampstead & Kilburn) where EU flags flutter from the windows, I work in a professional job and have a social circle largely consisting of people like me, some of whom read this blog and all but one of whom voted Remain. Not only was I unable to sway any of the young professional people who know me during the referendum or in the aftermath (though I did have more success with other demographics), my efforts on social media were even more disastrous.

To understand the scale of the problem, one needs to understand just how hard this particular demographic took the Leave vote. When my wife went to work (at an American-owned international public relations company) the day after the referendum, her company’s German office had already sent the following email to their London colleagues:

Dear Friends,

On this truly disturbing day, we want to send you our greatest empathy and heartfelt solidarity to London and the whole UK [company] Team. Although troubling times maybe ahead of all of us here in Europe, the whole team of [company] Germany keeps on believing in the European idea and the future of peaceful and prosperous unity for Europe with the United Kingdom and all the wonderful people living there.

So for us this is not the end of the road. Our friendship with you will be stronger than ever and we will get through this together.

Big Hugs from Germany

Please share with the whole office

This text was followed by a picture of the entire German team making heart shapes with their hands as they hold aloft the German, EU and UK flags.

This is what we have to contend with as we try to navigate Brexit – whole offices full of undeniably smart people who legitimately view the events of the past seventeen months as a nearly unspeakable calamity with no possible redeeming features.

The author of this email (and the senior person who authorised it) clearly had absolutely no doubt that their sentiments would be shared by every single one of their colleagues in London. There was simply no recognition that smart, professional people might come down on different sides of the Brexit debate, only the arrogant but genuine assumption that everybody working for the company (both in Germany and the UK) shared the pro-EU worldview.

Imagine working at such a place: certainly no Brexit-supporting employee would dare to openly admit their own political views in such a one-sided, hostile climate. If senior management think your political views are “truly disturbing” one is not likely to torpedo one’s own career by dissenting from the email. We saw the same intolerance of ideological dissent at Google earlier this year, when engineer James Damore was fired for what was portrayed by the media as an “anti-diversity screed” but which in reality was a thoughtful (if partially flawed) memo on Google’s specific diversity policies.

I was stunned when my wife showed me the anti-Brexit email circulated within her firm. But what struck me most was the way that the author described Brexit – the prospect of Britain regaining the kind of democratic control over its own affairs enjoyed by every other developed country in the world outside Europe – as “truly disturbing”. It simply should not be the case that the entire staff of any organisation (save perhaps the EU itself) view Brexit as an unmitigated calamity. That such uniformity of opinion still exists is a failure on the part of Brexiteers – despite the unwavering effort of many of us to present the progressive, internationalist case for leaving the EU.

We currently live in a country where many people are consumers first and conscientious citizens a distant second; where the elimination of the smallest short-term risk is seen as more important than safeguarding the long term democratic health of Britain. But it is not enough to rail at pro-EU professionals for voting for their own short-term economic self interest, just as it is not enough for disappointed Remainers to berate Brexiteers for supposedly voting against their own. Just as the rise of identity politics has stoked bitter divisions in society on both sides of the Atlantic, so in addressing Brexit here we must somehow find a new common language which unites all of us (or enough of us to establish a workable new consensus).

As of yet, I don’t have an answer to any of this. I just know that what I and other Brexiteers tried during the EU referendum and in the months following the Leave vote has not worked, and that something new must be attempted. The danger is that unless this key demographic of young urban professionals can be made to see Brexit in less catastrophic terms, they will reject any new conservative ideas out of hand and effectively hand the country to Jeremy Corbyn.

We have entered a new period of discontinuity in British politics, where the old consensus has broken down and new policies are required to solve new problems. Without a radically new approach we will be doomed to more of the same – weak, short-term governments reacting to events in isolation rather than proactively addressing them according to any kind of master plan.

It is impossible to build anything likely to stand the test of time – such as a new model for an independent, open country which is adaptive rather than defensive to globalisation, automation, migration and other issues – without the enthusiastic backing of enough people to elect a strong government with a clear mandate to deliver.

And it will be impossible for any Conservative government, at least, to secure such a mandate without better outreach to this truculent demographic of young urban professionals who currently believe that the Big Bad Brexiteers have stolen their future.

 

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

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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.

 

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The Two Brexits

Cultural Brexit - Culture Wars - Establishment

Not everything of value can be measured or counted, and Remainers opposing Brexit purely on economic or materialistic terms are doomed to forever misunderstand half the country when they refuse to view Brexit through any other prism

If we are to have any hope of knitting Britain back together after Brexit, Remainers must first acknowledge and seek to understand an entire aspect to Brexit which until now they have tended to ignore or crudely dismiss as xenophobia or nostalgia for Empire.

Brexit is two separate phenomena in one. First there is Economic Brexit, the world of quantifiable (if still largely speculative) prognostications and arguments over just how impoverished Britain will be after Hard Brexit versus the untold riches which will be ours once we have concluded that mega trade deal with New Zealand.

But there is another Brexit, too. I struggle to define it – some days I feel like it is “Constitutional Brexit”, the Brexit which concerns itself with high-minded questions of governance, statecraft and geopolitics. But on other days it feels more visceral, more inchoate, though no less important for that. This is “Cultural Brexit” – sneered at by the Economist but best understood as secession from the EU partly as a reaction against supranational European government, yes, but also an enormous cultural backlash against years of self-serving, centrist, technocratic government within the narrow boundaries of an incredibly restrictive Overton Window.

While many smug or outraged Remainers try to hang Vote Leave’s idiotic “£350 million for the NHS” bus slogan around my neck, I never believed any of that nonsense and did my best to dispel it while other Brexiteers who should have known better were still propagating the idiocy and sowing the seeds for our current impasse. Personally, I always pursued “Constitutional Brexit”. What mattered to me was not immigration numbers or trade deals per se, it was the fact that decisions like these – crucial to the development, prosperity and nature of any nation state – should be made at that national level, not set as an unsatisfactory 28-way supranational compromise in Brussels (at least until a tipping point is reached where majority of us feel more strongly European than British).

But the more I observe the furious establishment backlash against Brexit (and last year’s opportunistic centrist coup against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party) the more I find that Cultural Brexit also resonates quite strongly within me. Ultimately, I cannot separate the constitutional issues from the fact that for too long Britain has been run by cautious, unambitious identikit drones who nominally belong to Team Red or Team Blue but ultimately hold the same basic worldview and seek to inch us incrementally toward their shared vision of the future, without even thinking to meaningfully consult with the people or explain their actions.

Are the numbers important? Absolutely. To the extent that we can actually make meaningful forecasts (and note: nearly every self-professed or well-credentialed economic expert has been wide of the mark, from when they told us that staying outside of the euro would be economic suicide right up to the OECD’s continually shifting forecasts of Brexit doom) of course numbers and the impact of Brexit on the economy matters. An economically weakened Britain is a diminished Britain, even if only in the short term, and we cannot forget that government policy and spending decisions can be measured by their impact on real human lives.

But simultaneously, numbers are often very good at capturing nearly everything besides that which actually makes life worth living. That’s why I never warmed to the Tony Blair / Gordon Brown / Ed Miliband / Jeremy Corbyn view of the world. They all had their own emphases, but to listen to these leaders speak was to imagine a clinical and soulless Britain, impeccably multicultural, endlessly tolerant even as Western values were eroded, with punctual trains, benefits for everyone, a gleaming new NHS hospital on every other street corner filled with identically-uniformed staff – but very little else.

Public Services (and the taxpayer money which needed to be extorted to pay for them) are everything to this type of leftist. Civil society and the idea of individuals coming together to do anything besides consume public services or petition the government for More Stuff barely registers in their mind, because their conception of a Utopian society has little room for anything outside the public sector. Schools, hospitals and trains – absolutely. Churches, the Women’s Institute, innovative start-ups, world-beating corporations, the ambition to strive for anything besides total equality of outcome – not so much. There is (or at least there should be) more to our shared national life than the public services which we consume together.

People of this mindset simply cannot fathom why we might want to leave the European Union, because it represents risk, and to them risk doesn’t mean possibility or potential. It means the fear of less money for public services and a potential reduction in the kind of perks which middle class people like myself are supposed to be beguiled by – free movement, low roaming charges, the European Union Youth Orchestra. The idea of risking material comfort or stability for mere democracy or the chance of further constitutional change seems absurd to them – if it can’t be counted on an Excel spreadsheet and slapped onto a smug infographic to be shared on Twitter, it can’t possibly count as a valid argument about Brexit, goes their thinking.

Such people can only think in terms of Economic Brexit, and will not debate with you in good faith on any other topic – many refuse to even acknowledge the existence of constitutional or cultural concerns other than dismissing them as “xenophobia”, or angrily saying “of COURSE the EU needs further reform!” without ever specifying what this reform should look like. There is, in other words, a huge empathy gap between the two Britains, and since Remainers are often not shy in declaring themselves “better” than us unwashed Brexiteers I would submit that the duty is primarily theirs to close it.

Pete North has for a long time done a great job of dissecting both aspects of Brexit – the Economic Brexit with its need to get to grips with the minutiae of trade agreements and regulatory systems, and also the Constitutional/Cultural Brexit which gets too little attention from most commentators. But he really knocks it out of the park in his latest piece, writing:

I am often told that we Brexiters are pining for long lost glory – fighting for a better yesterday. But what if we are and what if we are not wrong? What if the relentless march of “prosperity” is eradicating the best part of us? No misty-eyed tales will be told of sitting in a Frankie and Benny’s while tapping one’s foot to the generic tones of Shania Twain.

[..] One thing one notes about modern British cultural history is that every recession is marked by a musical revolution. We had 70’s punk, 80’s metal, 90’s rave and ever since, especially since the smoking ban, culture has gone into hibernation. The place you would have booked for your face melting techno all nighter is now a Debenhams complex. If there is one defining quality of modern progressive Britain then it is the relentless commercialised tedium of it.

As we have gradually sanitised our living spaces we have also sanitised our culture and one cannot help thinking we are now sanitising thought. This is clear from the onslaught of safe space culture so that our delicate metrosexual hipster children are protected from ideas that that may lead them to stray from the path of bovine leftist conformity.

I can’t really speak to rave culture, so I’ll have to take Pete’s word for that. But there is much truth in what he says. Nobody can deny that we live in an age of technological miracles. People of my age, who experienced the early internet in our teenage years and just about remember a life before it, have to concede that much. And as a country – as the West – we are undoubtedly more prosperous. I am continually astonished walking through London, thinking back to how much scruffier and run down everything looked in the 1990s when I came on daytrips from Harlow as a boy, how dramatically the skyline has changed, how few restaurants there were compared to now, how much less variety and choice there was in all things only a decade ago.

By nearly every measurable metric we are better off and our prospects are brighter, and yet something intangible has been lost. The economic heart has been ripped out of my hometown of Harlow, Essex, with many of the prestigious large employers now gone and replaced with vast distribution centres offering only minimum wage work. The town centre is decayed and scruffy; a town of nearly 100,000 people that can no longer sustain a Marks & Spencer’s department store; charity shops and temporary seasonal stores occupying the places where more permanent, upmarket businesses once were.

Meanwhile, when my wife and I go shopping at the upmarket Westfield mall in White City everything is polished and perfect, but you could be anywhere – Houston, Paris, Dubai, Melbourne, Hong Kong. Globalisation and economic growth have brought gleaming homogeneity to the places frequented by globe-hoppers like me, but slow decay to towns like the one where I was raised.

By no means can all of this be laid at the foot of the European Union. But stories like these need to be repeated over and over again because there are still many people who fail to understand that the months and years prior to the EU referendum were in fact not Golden Years for many people.

And “Golden Years” brings me on to David Bowie, and back to the point Pete North was making. When Bowie died early in 2016, writer Neil Davenport lamented that our current youth culture could never create anything like him again:

It’s worth remembering that Bowie slogged on the margins for ages, in two-bit bands, recording very minor songs, before finally finding his voice. Back then, British society created a kind of free space in which young people who were willing to take the unpredictable route of cultural experimentation could do so.

This, too has been lost, which I think is what Pete means when he says that our culture has “gone into hibernation”. As I remarked at the time:

Who would have thought that calls to outlaw clapping and booing, tearful temper tantrums about dress codes, stifling ideas by labelling them ‘problematic’, the insistence on safe spaces and mandatory sexual consent workshops for students would have such a repressive, suffocating effect on our society?

That’s not to say that there is no great new talent emerging seven decades after the birth of David Bowie – clearly there is. But time and again, we see the biggest acts and pop stars of today are more eager to ostentatiously embrace prevailing social values as an act of public virtue-signalling rather than court controversy by cutting across today’s strictly policed social norms.

Lady Gaga took no risk when she sang “I’m on the right track baby, I was born this way” – indeed it opened the door to stadiums full of even more lucrative fans. That’s not to say that she was wrong to do so; but how often do you see an emerging pop star court real controversy or confound society’s expectations these days? You can blame some of this on commercialisation, sure, but not all of it. Something deeper is at work.

When emerging artists see ordinary people shamed and ostracised for saying the “wrong” thing or even just adopting the wrong tone on social media, how many will have the courage to incorporate anything truly daring or potentially “offensive” in their acts, or create spontaneously from the heart without first processing everything through the paranoid filter of societal acceptability?

The societal changes we have undergone in the last three decades are not insignificant, and they have not been to the benefit of all people. I think I feel this keenly and am able to empathise with Cultural Brexiteers because I have a foot in both worlds.

I have a pretty nice middle class life in North London surrounded by fellow “citizens of the world”, but I was born and raised in a Brexit town. To me, the inhabitants of Brexitland are not abstracts or nasty composite caricatures painted by the Guardian – they are fundamentally decent human beings, real people of flesh and blood who want the best for their families and children. They are friends and former work colleagues for whom voting Tory or Labour made very little difference over the past twenty years because both main parties represented the same basic consensus (of which support for the EU was emblematic).

Pete concludes with what passes for a message of hope:

In effect I see the natural consequence of Brexit being what Cameron imagined as the Big Society, where ideas like free schools and “CareBnB” can take root. In the absence of state provision people can and do fill the void. All these ideas have been tested but not allowed to take root because they are a threat to various blobs who are well served by ossified state structures.

I hope so. Aside from Brexit, David Cameron’s aborted Big Society was the last thing which passed for a significant political idea in this country, and it had merit.

The revitalisation of our civil society has a value, as does the revivification of our democracy (if only we can build on Brexit and demand that powers reclaimed from Brussels filter down further than Westminster). It may not be possible to count them up in a spreadsheet but their value is real, as is the positive impact of living in communities which are more than homogenised temporary landing pads for globe-hopping citizens of the world or run-down ghettos to house the people who serve them.

This is cultural Brexit. It’s not that the European Union is the source of every last one of these woes. It’s that many people who defend the EU and supported Remain are as deaf to the concerns of Constitutional Brexiteers as people who think globalisation is all benefit and no downside are deaf to the criticisms of those who oppose the centrist consensus. The deafness to both concerns is the same, because in both cases they are overwhelmingly the same people.

It is this failure of empathy and imagination which first gave the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, and then gave us Brexit. The anti-establishment backlash which powered Donald Trump to the White House was also similar, though Brexit is much more coherent than Trump’s grievance-fuelled manifesto.

Remainers can keep shouting about Brexiteers being wrong, stupid or evil. They can delude themselves that we were all hoodwinked by a red campaign bus or Russian propaganda. But if they want to tackle that pervasive feeling of divorce and estrangement from their own country which many of them painfully feel, they will simply have to consider that theirs is not the only valid or reason-based prism through which to view Brexit.

Remainers must be bold and confront rather than dismiss Cultural Brexit. And they must dare to imagine that regardless of how this government’s rather ham-fisted attempt at Brexit plays out, those who voted for Britain to leave the European Union may just be on the right side of history after all.

David Bowie - Beckenham Free Festival

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Catalonia Independence And Brexit – Not The Same Thing

Catalan Catalunya president Carles Puigdemont speech - declaration of independence

The Catalan declaration of independence does not prove your point, whether you are for or against Brexit

There has been an inevitable tendency among many people to co-opt the events surrounding the recent Catalan independence referendum and resulting declaration of independence from Spain for their own distinct purposes. This is unhelpful. Recent events in Spain illuminate Brexit little more than the election of Donald Trump explains Brexit – in other words, a few headline similarities obscure a wealth of differences.

First, we can all acknowledge that Spain hugely mishandled the entire affair. Whether this is partly due to weaker institutions and the less embedded traditions of democracy in Spain or just sheer incompetence on the part of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government is not fully clear to me, but the actions of the Spanish government clearly fuelled rather than defused the situation.

Rajoy should have learned from the UK’s experience with the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. Faced with Scottish separatists with similar delusions of statehood, David Cameron called the bluff of the Scottish National Party. The referendum was held on fair terms and the nationalists lost – despite an awfully dreary and uninspiring “No” campaign which pushed an entirely negative message and had little positive to say about the value of the United Kingdom. And though this led to the rise of Nicola Sturgeon and the arrival of the Tartan Tea Party of SNP MPs in Westminster after the 2015 general election, the nationalist tide has since receded.

Madrid took a different approach, opposing the referendum at every turn. I can’t speak to the legality of the constitutional court’s decision to ban the referendum, but the violent way in which it was put down by the police and Guardia Civil handed the separatists a huge and unnecessary propaganda victory. I can fully believe that the Catalan regional government has behaved reprehensibly and childishly throughout, but a mature national government in Madrid would have handled this in a way which took the sting out of the Catalan independence movement, putting it to bed for a generation. Mariano Rajoy achieved the exact opposite.

The decision of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to proceed with a declaration of independence, as ratified by the Catalan parliament, was opportunistic, antidemocratic and immature. Yes, the referendum was violently put down by the Spanish authorities. But the referendum was also deemed illegal  in the first place by the proper Spanish courts, and many of those who would have voted against independence did not go to the polls. To take this botched referendum as a mandate for independence is a huge overstepping of Puigdemont’s authority, and is fundamentally antidemocratic.

Simultaneously, Spain has been far too laid back in dealing with this threat. It was shocking enough that it took until the days before the Scottish independence referendum for anti-independence campaigners to hold a mass rally in London in support of the United Kingdom – but at least it happened. Spain waited until days after the unilateral declaration of Catalonian independence to hold a similar rally in Barcelona. Where was this public outrage and shows of loyalty to Madrid when Carles Puigdemont was prancing around acting like the living embodiment of all Catalan public opinion? It is hard to attribute this to anything but laziness on the part of the citizenry. As he left the US constitutional convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin told an enquirer that he had bequeathed the American people “a Republic, if you can keep it“. At times, the Spanish seemed too lazy to make much of an effort to keep theirs.

How does all of this tangentially relate to Brexit? In one sense, Brexiteers can draw some basic parallels to Catalan independence. Both are primarily cultural movements consisting of people who do not accept the legitimacy of the larger political entity which they seek to leave. But the British EU referendum was conducted under the rule of law and its outcome was legitimate. One can raise valid points about the precise mode of Brexit being unstated and the lack of a plan on the part of the official Leave campaign – all true. But the instruction from voters to the UK government to commence secession from the political entity known as European Union was clear. In the case of Catalonian independence, not so. In many cases, the Catalan government behaved provocatively and with great immaturity. These are not smart, measured people whom anybody should seek to drape their arms around.

But there is also a contradiction at the heart of the Catalonian separatist movement. Both in Catalonia and Scotland, advocates for independence seek to leave the political purview of Madrid and Westminster respectively, but remain very much part of the European Union. In doing so they engage in a feat of denial and political fancy which exceeds that of the most ignorant of Hard Brexiteers. Leaving Spain means Catalonia leaving the EU, just as leaving the United Kingdom inevitably meant Scotland leaving the EU when Scotland voted back in 2014. In both cases, separatists sought to downplay or even deny this truth. Carles Puigdemont and his followers need to accept this difficult fact if they are to be remotely taken seriously. But they do not accept reality, just as the SNP refused to accept reality.

It is also curious that the separatists are so desperate to escape the clutches of Madrid (one protester today said that Catalonians were currently “oppressed” by Spain) but are entirely comfortably – even eager – to remain under the authority of Brussels, and inevitably as a much smaller and less influential member state were they to be readmitted. I would very much like to read an argument explaining how modern Spain suppresses Catalonian culture and freedom in a way that the EU would not. As an independent country and small EU member state, Catalonia would be much less able to influence EU policymaking than Spain is currently able to do. They would be in an infinitely weaker position to defend and advance Catalonian national interest.

And yet if this is still the choice of the Catalonian people they should be free to make it – through a lawful, democratic and legitimate referendum. If they do so, it will be a clearly cultural and constitutional decision, just as Brexit was. This doesn’t automatically mean that it is the “wrong” decision – it would simply mean that as with Brexit, some things matter more than short term political and economic stability. This is an argument which I have strongly made about Brexit, and which could hold true for Catalonian independence too. If the people of Catalonia genuinely feel that Madrid is hostile to their own interests then they should have the right to secede from Spain and take the consequences and potential benefits upon themselves. I supported Brexit because I do not feel that our cultural affinity to Europe – our sense of ourselves as part of a cohesive European demos – warrants as powerful and extensive a government as we currently have in Brussels. If Catalonians feel the same about Spain then so be it.

But if nothing else good comes from this turmoil in Spain, hopefully it will disabuse separatists throughout Europe of the childlike, naive notion that Brussels is their friend, and that the European Union in any way cares about their freedom or right to self-determination. It most assuredly does not. The European Union has its own journey – toward greater political integration and centralisation – to pursue. Brexit is enough of a bump in the road for EU leaders; they have no desire to see Europe fragmenting further at a time when they are trying to busily absorb everyone into the grand project, even as their undermining of established member states fuels these separatist movements.

Besides that, this is an internal matter for Spain to deal with. One might plausibly consider taking sides from a personal perspective had the referendum been conducted legally under terms agreed by both sides, or if the Catalan government could make an irrefutable case that no further dialogue with Spain was possible for the redress of their grievances. But in the absence of these mitigating factors we ought to refrain from jumping into a foreign debate purely to score cheap political points about matters in our own country.

The Catalan independence movement is not like Brexit, as anybody who supported the continuation of the United Kingdom in 2014 and Brexit in 2017 should have the humility to accept. No matter how low your opinion of Nigel Farage, Aaron Banks and Dominic Cummings may be, they did not press ahead with an unlawful referendum and claim (quite) such an implausible mandate from it. And whatever constitutional vandalism the UK government is currently engaged in as it seeks to implement Brexit is nothing to the constitutional vandalism currently being perpetrated in Spain.

At its core, Brexit is about securing the continued relevance and autonomy of the nation state (at least until such time as public opinion shifts more definitively in favour of the kind of supranational government offered by the European Union). And that means keeping our personal opinions about Catalan opinions quite distinct from any other political agenda.

 

Catalonia is not Spain - declaration of independence flag

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