Review: The People vs Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so we find ourselves locked in a negative spiral:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Yascha Mounk - The People vs Democracy - book review

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The Story Of Hamilton Is Also The Story Of Brexit

Hamilton musical - London - Brexit

What do the latest imported smash hit musical from America and Britain’s historic vote for Brexit have in common? The answer, it turns out, is nearly everything.

It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force
—  Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton

Yesterday evening I succumbed to the hype and went to see the London production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton, newly opened at the Victoria Palace Theatre.

Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, American statesman and Founding Father, most famous for having been a delegate at the constitutional convention of 1786, writing many of the Federalist Papers, moulding the new country’s financial system as Treasury Secretary during George Washington’s presidency and having been killed in a dual by political rival Aaron Burr. Through his words and intellect, Hamilton made an enormous contribution to the birth of America, yet his untimely death robbed him of as prominent a place in history as his legacy deserved.

At first glance this might not seem the most promising material for a musical show, but theatre aficionados have been buzzing about Hamilton since it premiered in New York to rave reviews back in 2015. Such has been the show’s rapturous reception that it is fairly hard to find a negative review, let alone a ticket, especially in New York where tickets for the Broadway production have traded hands on the secondary market for insane sums of money.

Being something of a contrarian, I arrived at the theatre in sceptical mood, perhaps too eager to find fault with something that was being universally praised by everyone else. I was sceptical that the rap and hip-hop musical styles which predominate would be a good fit with the narrative material, and worried that the much-discussed “colour-conscious casting” might be little more than a convenient excuse to shoehorn an identity politics lecture into what should be an evening of entertainment.

As it turned out, my scepticism was blown away and any worries about ideological virtue signalling were (mostly) unfounded. Hamilton is an excellent show, the musical genres and clever allusions to other composers from Gilbert & Sullivan to The Notorious B.I.G. draw you in to the story rather than distracting from it, and the source material (Lin-Manuel Miranda based his show on the 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton written by Ron Chernow) is catnip for history and constitutional geeks like me.

But as I watched the first act build to a climax – after Alexander Hamilton has arrived in New York, become involved in the revolutionary movement, served as General George Washington’s aide-de-camp, fought at Yorktown, studied law in New York after independence was won and ultimately chosen to be that state’s junior delegate to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, which laid the foundations for the United States of America as we know it today – something else occurred to me.

It provoked groans and assorted expressions of incredulity from my wife and our friend when I confessed my epiphany during the interval, but as the show progressed I realised that the story of Hamilton – of people forging a new and uncertain path through a world in flux – is also the story of Brexit. Bear with me, and I shall explain why.

After they won the War of Independence, Americans didn’t know exactly what they were creating or the experiment they were embarking on. They knew that remote and authoritarian rule from an overseas power was intolerable and injurious to their right to freedom and self-determination, but having thrown off the shackles of monarchy there was no set template for them to follow, no clear-cut alternative to which they should naturally gravitate.

Much of the detail as to how freedom from empire would actually work in practice had to be hashed out in contentious discussions, first formalised in the 1777 Articles of Confederation between the thirteen original states and later in the 1787 Constitutional Convention. This was a time of uncertainty, but it was also an exciting time ripe with promise. Then, as now, there was a new world to build.

Today, we face similarly profound questions about how humanity should best govern itself in changing times, as the epoch of the nation state finds itself threatened and undermined by powerful forces such as globalisation, automation, mass migration and the need to balance smart regulation of international trade in all its technical complexity with the need to preserve democracy and the ability of ordinary people to defend their local priorities and concerns in the face of corporate technocracy.

The existing political order has never looked less equipped to deal with these challenges, or been so discredited and seemingly unequal to the serious task at hand. In Britain, the political class have forged ahead with a centrist, corporatist vision regardless of which political party was in power for the past three decades, an incredibly narrow Overton Window effectively shutting out a huge range of reasonable, non-extremist political ideas from the national political debate. And in the United States, politicians of both parties peddled the illusion that the post-war manufacturing economy could be resurrected together with the promise of a comfortable middle-class lifestyle sustained by semi-skilled manual labour requiring limited education.

In both cases the people themselves were partially to blame for falling for false promises and in some cases practically demanding to be lied to by pandering politicians, but regardless of ultimate fault it has increasingly dawned on people that national and international institutions as presently configured have not met the challenge of our times and can not keep pace with a world increasingly knitted together by technology.

The European Union, held up by its naive supporters as the unquestionably superior way for nations to peacefully cooperate (despite not being replicated on any other continent), has conspicuously failed to effectively tackle nearly all of the big challenges thrown its way, from the migration crisis to the pitfalls of monetary union to rampant corruption in some member states and growing authoritarianism in others. And through all this, despite Herculean efforts and vast sums of money spent with the aim of forging a cohesive European demos – a body of people who hold their European identity in equal or greater worth than their national identity – no such demos has formed.

The EU’s “if you build it, they will come” strategy, creating all of the institutions required for a supranational political state in the expectation that a demos would magically follow along to grant them legitimacy, has failed. Outside Britain, where misguided and low-information young idealists sing Kumbaya and paint the EU flag on their faces, euroscepticism among young people is increasing as more people recognise that the institutions of Brussels present a beguiling but erroneous vision of the future. To all these challenges and more the European Union has nothing to offer save more political integration for the sake of political integration. The EU has no answer, just as remote and exploitative monarchy failed to redress the legitimate grievances of the American colonists.

A recent article by Bradley Birzer in The American Conservative about the limited lifespan of any system or institution of government certainly applies to the European Union and other pillars of the post-war world order as much as it does to the nation state:

One must remember that no republicans believe their republic can last forever. A republic, by its very essence, must rely on its organic nature, a living thing that is born, flourishes, decays, and dies. It is, by nature, trapped in the cycles of life, bounded by the walls of time. While a cosmic republic might exist—as understood by Cicero’s “Cosmopolis” and Augustine’s “City of God”—it existed in eternity and, therefore, aloof of time.

For better or worse, the Roman Republic reflected not just nature, but the Edenic fall of nature as well. We can, the Roman republican Livy recorded, “trace the process of our moral decline, to watch, first, the sinking of the foundations of morality as the old teaching was allowed to lapse, then the rapidly increasing disintegration, then the final collapse of the whole edifice.” The virtues of the commonwealth—the duties of labor, fate, and piety—gave way to the avaricious desires for private wealth. When young, the Romans rejoiced in the little they had, knowing that their liberty from the Etruscans meant more than all the wealth of the material world. “Poverty, with us, went hand in hand with contentment.” As the republic evolved and wealth became the focus of the community, not sacrifice, so the soul decayed. “Of late years,” Livy continued, “wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death both individual and collective.”

Who can deny that some aspects of our present society – our materialism, individualism and instinctive fear of anything that might (no matter its virtue or long-term benefits) temporarily disrupt the steady accumulation of wealth, assets and positive experiences which we increasingly expect and demand – are worryingly reflected in Livy’s words?

To paraphrase Birzer, all things must come to an end. The Britain of today is not the Britain of thirty years ago, just as the dogmas of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” no longer automatically apply to the American present. We have witnessed tremendous progress in that time, but also political and social atrophy. We are not what we once were, and neither should we cling on in futility to what is past. Many Remainers, having fixed in their minds the false image of Brexiteers as Mafeking stereotypes – curmudgeonly old retired colonels pining for lost empire – fail to realise that through their devotion to the European Union it is they who yearn to preserve the past, slavishly devoted to an anachronistic mid-century blueprint for a new world order, one which came to partial fruition, peaked and then found itself wholly inadequate to the stormy present.

Brexit is not a magical elixir sufficient to address the stormy present or dissipate the challenges we face, but it is a necessary first step to confronting them, just as Alexander Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers could not fully contemplate and realise their revolutionary new system of government until they had first thrown off the shackles of monarchy. Looking at Brexit as a narrow and obstinate project to reclaim full sovereignty or purely as a technocratic matter of trade regulations is to miss the point – we are seeking not to go back but forward, and Brexit is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition to enable this progress.

It pains me to read much of the coverage and commentary around Brexit, which overwhelmingly ignores the big picture and the long term to obsess over speculative short term costs. It is vital to consider short-term costs and risks in any endeavour, but good policymaking is only possible when short-term considerations are balanced with a broader, longer-term perspective. Remainers often react with incredulity to the suggestion that anything might matter beyond next year’s GDP growth rate, but the American colonists of Hamilton’s day were every bit as concerned about their economic prosperity and security as their modern-day British counterparts; they just also realised that other issues were at stake, issues worth enduring the hardship and destruction of a revolutionary war to correct.

We in modern Britain are called to make no sacrifice remotely comparable to that of the inhabitants of the thirteen colonies as they struck out on their own to form a more perfect union. It would be laughable to compare even the worst of mismanaged Brexits to the price that Hamilton’s peers paid for their freedom and for the opportunity to advance the model of human governance. Yet so great is our present culture of consumerism and so diminished our sense of citizenship or civic duty that few of us are capable of thinking in terms greater than the pursuit of whatever might sate our present desire for comfort and stability. And even when this stability is under long-term threat, such is our fear of disruption that we would rather cling on to the slow, familiar degredation than take any risk by seeking to prevent it.

Today we have a tendency to think of ourselves as having transcended our past, that we inhabit what Francis Fukuyama called “The End of History”, a time when all major human challenges have been vanquished and we inhabit some kind of permanent, beneficent steady-state from which any departure would be an intolerable disruption. And from this perspective, Brexit does indeed appear to be a crazy, irrational endeavour, threatening to unleash a backslide into the fascism and totalitarianism with which we struggled in the twentieth century.

But of course we have not reached the end of history. We are continually presented with new challenges and opportunities, and try as we might to pretend that our existing institutions and policies need only tweaking or adjusting to meet them, recent events have proven this to be patently false. Not all Brexiteers may have voted to leave the European Union based on these high ideals but as Shakespeare wrote, “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

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

As I recently wrote:

It has been decades since Britain truly took the lead in influencing world affairs. But having voted for Brexit and thrown into the open many pressing debates which other countries remain desperate to defer or ignore, we can now be both a laboratory and a beacon for the world.

Rather than feeling rancour or relitigating the 2016 referendum result, we should feel the same sense of excitement and possibility that Alexander Hamilton and his co-revolutionaries felt as they debated among themselves how to keep the new republic that they had created. We must rediscover that spark within ourselves.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that a stirring tale about forging a new, more democratic future, a story kindled in America, is set to take Britain by storm as we negotiate our secession from the European Union and look questioningly but optimistically towards the future. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the spirit of Alexander Hamilton is flickering back to life on a London stage at this specific time and place.

Because when you strip away the political games and the media sideshow, the catastrophisation, recriminations, denunciations, speculations and bifurcations, the story of Hamilton may just also be the story of Brexit – if we have the courage and vision to make it so.

 

Hamilton tickets and information here.

 

Scene at the signing of the Constitution of the United States - Howard Chandler Christy - Hamilton musical - Brexit

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Recognising Failure In Brexit

Brexit - young professionals

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.

 

Remainer paints EU flag on her face - European Union - Brexit

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Discontinuity, Leadership And Britain’s Place In The World

Stepping Stones Report - Discontinuity and Leadership - Sam Hooper.jpg

We don’t face a Brexit crisis, a migration crisis, a housing crisis, an NHS crisis, a social care crisis, an energy crisis, a productivity crisis, a deficit crisis or an education crisis — there is one universal and interconnected crisis of British politics and government

Yesterday I attended an event held by the Centre for Policy Studies, to launch a new initiative for the renewal of British conservatism. The event promised to elevate the voices of the 2015 and 2017 intakes of Tory MPs and certain “other voices”, though it was never made clear who these other voices would be, and no mention of them was made during the event itself.

The CPS is known as Margaret Thatcher’s think tank – it was founded by Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph in 1977 to promote the cause of economic liberalism and a turn away from the statist post-war consensus. And so far as I could tell, its composition has not changed greatly in that times. Their hair may have greyed and receded, but as I waited for the event to start I saw many of the same figures standing around guzzling wine and congratulating themselves for the glories of decades past.

The event itself was both heartening and discouraging – heartening because many of the right words were said and sentiments expressed, discouraging because we have heard the same protestations that the Tories will open up their policymaking process on numerous other occasions in the past. The guest of honour that evening was Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who is hardly the fresh face of bold conservative renewal, and her speech was bland, utterly forgettable and targeted exclusively at the Tory MPs present rather than the wider conservative movement. Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee, spoke after Rudd, cementing this occasion as more of a Tory Party pilgrimage to Soho rather than an insurgent attempt to change the course of an ideologically lost political party.

It was sad to see that the Centre for Policy Studies has become in many ways part of the fossilised establishment which they did so much to uproot in the 1970s. When Maurice Saatchi opened proceedings by bragging that Henry Kissinger had given the initiative his personal seal of approval, I abandoned any hope of conservative revival even before the first speaker took the floor.

This is a great pity, because from the CPS came the influential and ultimately transformative Stepping Stones Report, an incredible document which summarised a body of work which sought to classify and diagnose all of Britain’s economic ailments of the 1970s and propose a comprehensive solution and communication strategy which Margaret Thatcher then effectively took with her into 10 Downing Street and started implementing in 1979.

I know I keep banging on about this report, but I can’t encourage people enough to go and read it – the thing is sixty short pages of condensed insight and wisdom. Britain in the 1970s was in a very perilous economic and social position, facing challenges which are entirely different to those we face today, but of similar pressing urgency. The central premise of Stepping Stones was that Britain could not be saved through haphazard and piecemeal efforts to tackle each various problem individually – rather, a coordinated approach would be required.

Back before Thatcher

Back in the 1970s, Britain suffered from a budget deficit problem (called the PSBR back then), high inflationary pressures, uncompetitive nationalised industries, bad management, appalling industrial relations and low productivity. In 2017, some of these problems have been quelled while others remain and have been augmented by the challenges of globalisation, automation, global migration, an acute housing crisis and a terminally broken healthcare model in the sanctified NHS.

Just as it was in the 1970s, the problems of the early 21st century can not be solved in isolation from one another or as a series of individual “damage control” measures by a worn-out and rudderless government desperate to stay in power but totally unsure what to do with it. Today in 2017, we need to bring to bear the same comprehensive (one might even say “intersectional”) style of analysis pioneered in the Stepping Stones Report to arrive at a new, mutually supporting suite of policies which are both politically feasible and equal to the task at hand.

As the preamble to the report plainly states:

We must know what a Tory government will have to achieve, before thinking about the way in which it must win office, because simply “winning a majority” on the wrong terms may not give it the authority it needs for success.

One of the key concepts discussed in the Stepping Stones Report is that of “discontinuity”, which is described thus:

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

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

Reading or watching the news today, one observes endless argument over what policies or decisions may be politically feasible (be it in British domestic politics or the EU secession negotiations with Brussels), but scant discussion as to whether those policies actually rise to the challenge of our times – whether they actually solve the very specific and intractable problems at hand. Both sides of the equation must be addressed if good policies and decisions are to be reached, but in nearly all cases our shrunken horizon considers only what is possible, not what is actually needed.

1977 all over again?

Who can argue that Britain in 2017 is not experiencing another such period of discontinuity? The symptoms are everywhere and have been visible for some time, notably in the defection of Tory MPs to UKIP in 2014, Jeremy Corbyn’s humbling of the Labour centrists in the 2015 leadership election (and again in 2016), and Britain’s seminal vote to leave the European Union.

The latter in particular was fuelled by public disgust with a political class who contented themselves to operate within the narrow tramlines of EU rules and social policy without any regard for those voters whose values and priorities fell outside the narrow Overton Window prescribed by Brussels.

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

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

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

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

And then, of course, there is our national religion, the National Health Service. As surgeons once operated under the dictum cor non tangeredon’t touch the heart – today’s politicians abide by the even stricter rule NHS non tangere, terrified to acknowledge that a nationalised, centralised health system built from the rubble of 1940s war might no longer be the optimal way to deliver healthcare to an advanced, ageing country of 65 million people. And so the fifth largest employer in the world (right behind McDonald’s) is not some world-beating British retail giant or consumer goods company, but a creaking nationalised bureaucracy in perpetual crisis.

A failed centrist consensus

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

An open migration policy may well be best in raw economic terms, but it should be for the British people to democratically decide whether they want to take the economic pain of slowing immigration, not for politicians who “know better” to overrule them.

Globalisation delivers tangible benefits to many of us and previously unimaginable opportunities to a smaller, highly educated elite, but those at the bottom are tired of being thrown into the furnace to keep the engine running for everyone else.

The NHS model has not been copied anywhere else in the world for a reason, and while it does urgent care fairly well, when overall medical outcomes (notably cancer survival rates) are increasingly falling behind other countries then it should not be off limits to ask whether a nationalised, centralised system is the best way to deliver routine or preventative care to the whole population.

In other words, this is a time of extreme discontinuity in British politics and society. But people do not necessarily recognise discontinuity when it happens, at least not all at the same time. The Stepping Stones Report notes in section 6.1 (addressing the situation in 1977):

Discontinuity may not yet have been recognised by the electorate. In fact, with skilful propaganda and suitably ‘pragmatic’ – not to be cynical – government policies, it need not be recognised until the exhaustion of North Sea oil, by which time our last chance will have gone. Once it is recognised, however, the electorate is unlikely to give a mandate to a political party which has not itself changed sufficiently to match the changed prospects. On the other hand, a party which changes itself, because it fully understands how the rules of the game are changing, is more likely to awaken an electorate to a belated recognition of discontinuity and thus win its confidence.

Here, the situation we face in modern Britain actually differs from that facing the authors of Stepping Stones, because the electorate is increasingly aware that we are in a period of discontinuity. Dissatisfaction with the state of modern Britain is quite widespread, and the people are crying out for change. Rather, today it is centrist politicians (and much of the media) who fail to recognise the discontinuity around them, and often openly yearn to cling on to the failing but familiar consensus.

Opportunity knocks – but it needs leadership

Yet Stepping Stones is clear about the need for political parties to acknowledge discontinuity and to realign their policies and messaging in response to it. As leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn has done this incredibly well. One may disagree vehemently with everything Corbyn stands for – this blog certainly does – but his election as leader and conduct since that time reflect a realisation among (at least parts of) the Labour Party that standing for the same old failing political consensus was not just wrong, but bad politics too.

No such reckoning has taken place within the Conservative Party, and despite the emergence of a few green shoots of recovery/new thinking, there are precious few grounds for hope that a sufficient reckoning is imminent. The Tories don’t even have a Jeremy Corbyn of their own. Amber Rudd being invited to speak as guest of honour at an event about conservative renewal is hard evidence that the sense of urgency and horizon of thinking is still not nearly equal to the task at hand.

This is why good, decisive leadership is so incredibly important at a time when Britain is not running in “steady state” but rather entering a period of sharp discontinuity. The report makes this crucial observation:

For at a time of discontinuity, leadership is at a premium. When the future is simply an extrapolation of the past, so that we are all tramping over familiar ground, the choice of someone to lead the procession may not be critical. But if we are setting out on unfamiliar terrain, we look for leaders who, at the very least, appear to have imagined what that terrain would be like in fact.

In discontinuity, conventional wisdom cannot get us out of the problems. Indeed, innovation is almost certainly the best way through discontinuity. Almost any vision, any programme, is better than confusion and uncertainty, for it can at least be modified in the light of experience, once it has broken the paralysing spell of past failure and present pessimism.

It scarcely needs to be said that the Conservative Party is not currently offering the country the kind of ambitious, proactive and visionary leadership which is required in this time of discontinuity. Theresa May was an awful choice for prime minister from Day One, seeing the future of conservatism as occupying traditional Labour territory on state intervention in the economy. Now, in addition to having all the wrong instincts, she is also a political lame duck, shorn of her intellectual brain trust (Nick Timothy) and waking up every day reacting to a new crisis rather than boldly setting the national agenda. Much of this is not her fault, yet it is undeniably true.

Pete North is one of few other thinkers and writers I know who regularly explores the systemic nature of Britain’s problems rather than churning out compartmentalised pieces about the housing crisis, the social care crisis, the obesity epidemic etc. And he is correct when he identifies Brexit as the catalyst which will force all of these other problems out into the open:

I take the view that nothing short of a radical shock to the system will drag our politicians out of their self-indulgent navel gazing. Even now as we coast toward a cliff edge Brexit they are still trapped in the pre-referendum paradigm unable to usefully influence the proceedings and easily distracted by trivia.

[..] In this, the Remainers can’t see the woods for the trees. They point to the dysfunction “unleashed” by Brexit as evidence that Brexit of itself is bad. But this is the dysfunction that has been festering for two decades under a well crafted and stage-managed veneer of competence.

If you are not familiar with Pete’s work then at first it can seem unduly alarmist and pessimistic, but Pete gets the systemic, interconnected nature of these issues and understands that Brexit and the political unpreparedness/incompetence it has exposed are just part of this general discontinuity, all of which must be addressed – including our politics, something the original Stepping Stones report did not have to deeply consider.

A new Stepping Stones Report for post-Brexit Britain

And this leads to my conclusion: we need a new Stepping Stones Report for our times. We need a comprehensive and dispassionate analysis of the problems we face as a country, and understand where and how they are linked together. Having diagnosed these problems (which in the case of many politicians many involve some painful introspection) we must decide where we want to go as a country – what we realistically want Brexit Britain to look like in 2020, 2025, 2030 and beyond – and then devise a programme of mutually supporting, politically feasible policies to get us there, and a way of framing and communicating this programme that can unite a sufficient amount of our fractured country to earn an electoral mandate.

It may be noted that many of the issues we face today – globalisation, automation, migration, terrorism – span national borders and can not be solved by any one country alone. This is not a concession to angry Remainers who naively view the European Union as the ultimate platform for all international cooperation, but it is a statement of fact. This means that for the first time in decades – since the Second World War, really – Britain must lift its eyes above our own domestic concerns and seek to use our position on the world stage to promote and coordinate the adoption of the new solutions we devise. Having voted for Brexit and upended our politics, embracing the discontinuity which most other countries still ignore, we are the canaries in the coal mine and other nations will look to us to see how they might navigate the same issues. For once, rather than lowering our national ambitions and ducking a challenge we must rise to the occasion.

This job is too big for any one person, any one group, and probably any one think tank or political party. It will require people on all sides to let go of long-held articles of political faith and ideological crutches. It will require discipline and commitment, but above all it will require strong leadership to get us there.

I don’t know how we go about doing this, whether it should be an open competition, a more academic exercise, a think tank project, a Parliamentary initiative or a citizen-led effort. But the work needs to be done, and soon, if Britain is to emerge from this period of uncertain discontinuity in an advantageous state.

Of course there is no convenient time for strategic thinking, especially when a party is in government and fending off daily crises. But realistically, if the Conservative Party does not do this then it will be left to Jeremy Corbyn to determine what kind of country emerges from the present discontinuity. Labour’s statist, socialist policies may then quickly become ossified as the new British political consensus, though the rest of the world certainly will not be following us if this transpires.

It has been decades since Britain truly took the lead in influencing world affairs. But having voted for Brexit and thrown into the open many pressing debates which other countries remain desperate to defer or ignore, we can now be both a laboratory and a beacon for the world.

And if we do so, whatever the outcome, when we are called to account for our life’s work at least we can say that we tried to accomplish something more significant, more impactful on the world, than hiring a few extra nurses for the NHS or making the trains run on time.

 

UPDATE – 16 November

It appears that people have been discussing my article and the concept of discontinuity in British politics over on another forum. One user made the comment:

That Hooper bloke makes a lot of sense, in my opinion. Where do I sign, to join his social movement? Oh, I’m instead encouraged to make a Comment or leave a Donation.

Well first of all, thank you for the compliment – nice to know that this Hooper bloke can occasionally still talk sense! And in fact I am actually trying to do something to turn this idea from more than a mere blog post to an actual project or initiative in the real world. We clearly can’t leave it to the usual inhabitants of Westminster to do this on their own – new ideas and fresh faces will be needed, just as they were in 1977.

If anybody else who reads this article feels called to action, please do get in touch with me, either using the “contact” menu link at the top of the page, or directly at semipartisansam@gmail.com

Thanks.

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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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