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

Tony Blair - Hillary Clinton - centrism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My emphasis in bold.

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

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

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

This section is also instructive:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[..]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Is It Time For Conservatives To Get Over Thatcher?

Theresa May - Conservative Party Tories General Election 2017 Manifesto Launch - Halifax

Theresa May is proving to be more Ed Miliband than Margaret Thatcher

Conservative Home’s Paul Goodman thinks that we should all flop around on the ground and praise Theresa May for tearing up tried-and-tested small-government conservative ideology in favour of an interventionist, paternalistic, stubbornly large state. Apparently at this challenging point in our history, when decisive leadership and a clear direction of travel is needed more than ever, we should swallow our reservations and lustily cheer on a pragmatist, paternalistic prime minister who still has not even properly articulated her vision for Britain.

On the day of the Conservative Party’s 2017 general election manifesto launch, Paul Goodman tells us that it is time for us to “get over Thatcher” and “get on with May”, because apparently a New Labour government with a blueish tint is the best that conservatives can now hope for.

Softening the ground in advance of what will surely prove to be a frustratingly unambitious general election manifesto launch – particularly given the paucity of opposition faced by the Tories and the near certainty that they will be returned to government with an increased majority – Goodman simpers:

Theresa May does not support a big state: in her very first major policy speech outside her ministerial responsibilities, she said that it should be “small, strong [and] strategic”.

Oh, well that’s fine then. She said it, so it must be true.

Nor, for that matter, is her so-called Red Toryism as crimson as is sometimes claimed.  Many of the headlines generated during the last few weeks will look less alarming to liberals if they peer at the small print.  May wants more council houses, but it isn’t clear where the land to build them on will be found.  She supports more rights for workers, but it isn’t evident whether taking leave to care for a family member, for example, will be paid – and nor is she planning to scrap the employment tribunal fees that David Cameron introduced.  She has resuscitated a requirement to put employees on boards, but it looks as though companies will choose them.  The red spray is mixed with blue paint.

So now we are to celebrate that Theresa May apparently wants to build more council houses? What about houses for upwardly mobile young people to buy – people who now find it exponentially harder to get on the property ladder than Theresa May’s generation? Where does Theresa May think that the next generation of conservative voters will come from when it is so difficult for so many to take the stake in society that comes from property ownership? And are we to rejoice that an unfunded pledge to allow workers to take family care leave could hurt small businesses and make companies quicker to fire in a downturn and slower to hire in an economic recovery?

She doesn’t want to state to get bigger, but she does want it to intervene more.  The industrial strategy won’t seek to pick winning companies, but it will search for winning sectors.  There will be an energy price cap – not the relative one floated by John Penrose and others, but an absolute one.

I’m sorry, but what is the functional difference between a bigger state and one which simply “intervene[s] more”? Most people judge the size and bearing of the state on the number and nature of interactions they must have with it over the course of their daily lives – everything from speeding tickets to planning permission to small business red tape to the amount of tax taken from their pay cheque every week or month. Even if Theresa May was technically shrinking the percentage of Britain’s GDP accounted for by government spending – and there is no indication that this key indicator is even on her main dashboard of concerns – her record as Home Secretary and subsequently as prime minister suggests that her “intervening” state will only seek to take on an even larger role in our lives.

More:

But while we agitate about the detail, the Prime Minister sees the big picture – and has assimilated its scale and size more clearly than her Thatcherite critics.  The Conservative Party travels through the landscape of its times.  These are not the same as they were in the era of Thatcher’s first landslide, over a quarter of a century ago, any more than they were a quarter of a century or so before that, when Harold Macmillan won his own overwhelming victory in 1959.  The world has globalised.  Family structure has been transformed.  The western world has low birthrates and high immigration.   Britain is a multi-racial country.  The Soviet Union has collapsed and Islamist terror has risen.  The crash happened and recession followed.

Free market absolutists will claim that the former took place because there is too much crony capitalism, and too little of the real thing.  They have a good point.  But the argument only draws one deeper into probing whether the system works as well for the working man and woman as it did in Thatcher’s day.  There are three big reasons why it does not.  First, relations between capitalism and nationalism are strained now in a way that they weren’t then.  Many of those who do well out of it feel they have more in common with their counterparts abroad than their fellow citizens at home.  If you doubt it, ponder the politics of immigration – and look, to pluck just one example out of the air, at how George Osborne at the Evening Standard now beats a pro-migration drum.

Second, the changes in the way we live now have created winners and losers.  The latter are simply out-wrestled by Iain Duncan Smith’s five giants – failing schools, crime, sub-standard healthcare, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency.  For those who can’t read or are mired in debt or trapped in substance abuse, the traditional free market nostrums of lower taxes, a smaller state and less red tape are not so much wrong as irrelevant: if a man isn’t working because he can’t count, cutting taxes won’t help him.  Finally, capitalism in the western world is simply not creating well-paid white and blue collar jobs on the same scale as it was in the immediate post-war period.  Welcome to the gig economy.

Nobody seriously disputes any of this, but Theresa May’s prescriptions are all wrong. Globalisation does present real social challenges in terms of ensuring that people are no longer left behind as they have been by many callous elites who otherwise consider themselves enlightened and compassionate. And of course Britain’s industrial makeup and labour market are very different today than in the 1980s, but this doesn’t mean that a heavily interventionist state is the answer.

This blog has often noted that the challenge falls hardest upon conservatives to come up with answers to the problems of globalisation – to find ways to retool and retrain a population so that they can participate in the industries of tomorrow rather than clinging to the dying industries of the past. This was clearly one test that the Thatcher government failed, and the legacy of broken communities left behind as side effects of the Thatcherite medicine is why there are still many people who would shoot themselves before voting Tory, and why the Labour Party’s electoral floor remains so stubbornly high.

But the answer to this challenge is not to steal wholesale from the left-wing playbook and seek to make the government the energetic auxiliary parent to millions of grown adults, people who should be expected to find their own way in life. The answer is to find the least invasive way possible of incentivising people to retrain and gain skills that make them competitive in the labour market – perhaps the kind of vocational adult education common in America’s community colleges, but either tied to the welfare system (so benefits become contingent on learning), made tax-deductible or a requirement for larger companies seeking to make redundancies. As this blog has previously noted, Jeremy Corbyn’s vision for a National Education Service connecting adults with further education is not actually a bad one – it is just the left-wing execution (funnelling everybody off to university, free of charge) which is wrong.

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We will have seen more of the Conservative Manifesto by the end of the day.  But what we know already is that May, if she can win her own landslide, wants to correct the liberal excesses of the Thatcher era by making peace with the state – of seeing it, as this site puts it, not as Big Brother, but Little Brother.  This ground has the merit of being where most voters stand: very, very few speak the Westminster Village language of making it bigger or smaller.  And the Prime Minister seems set to use her mandate to do much of what this site has been pressing it to do – such as dropping the tax pledge and ending the pensions triple lock, thereby setting the scene for more flexibility in deficit reduction and more fairness between the generations.

It doesn’t matter whether people speak the Westminster Village language or not. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, most people had not read the “Stepping Stones” report – that influential document which diagnosed all of Britain’s economic and social ails, and prescribed a comprehensive cure. But the man in the street didn’t need to have read the report, or necessarily have a firm sense of the ideology behind it. What was important was the fact that Margaret Thatcher came to office with a pre-formed ideology already in her mind, while her government’s policies generally flowed from that same consistent approach.

Theresa May is the precise oppose of this – the anti-Thatcher, if you will. Theresa May ascended to 10 Downing Street as the ultimate pragmatist – somebody who kept her head firmly under the parapet while Home Secretary, almost never stirring the waters or causing controversy by ramming through serious reforms in her department and being notable only for her willingness to take advantage of terror attacks in Western countries to vest ever more powers in the security services and clamp down on civil liberties.

There is no Theresa May governing philosophy. While Margaret Thatcher somewhat vaguely quoted St Francis of Assisi as she entered 10 Downing Street for the first time as prime minister, Theresa May spoke quite specifically about helping the JAMs (people who are Just About Managing). But Thatcher’s vagueness concealed a deadly seriousness of intent, while May’s specificity seems only to hint that she will steal shamelessly from the Labour playbook in order to steal their voters.

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Thatcherism was right for its times, and has lessons for today.  But the world has moved on, and the Conservatives must move with it.  This is a Party, not a mausoleum.  None the less, the Prime Minister’s plan contains a stinging irony.  May, the former Remainer – as Thatcher also was – has not only embraced Brexit but grasped, perhaps more fully than any other British politician, what it means, what the British people wanted in backing it, and where it is leading.

It is Brexit that is empowering May within her own Party, because the free marketeers are so often Brexiteers too.  Since she has won their trust over the EU, they will forgive her views on the market – for the moment, anyway.

That’s not how it works! Even if one agreed with Theresa May’s ill-considered Brexit approach, merely agreeing to carry out Brexit in accordance with the referendum result does not and should not automatically build up reserves of goodwill ready for the moment that the prime minister chooses to chuck conservative economic policy overboard.

Brexit is incredibly important, but so is the day-to-day government of the country. And rejecting the lighter touch, non-interventionist policies which have benefited this country so much should not be done lightly, as Allister Heath warns in the Telegraph:

This jobs explosion [from 1975 onwards] is an extraordinary achievement, and one which, tragically, the Tories now take for granted. Their policies are no longer geared towards job creation – yesterday’s issue, they clearly think – but towards “improving” the labour market and making it “work” for more people.

[..] The answers from Mayonomics are much more simplistic. There is a demand for lower energy prices, so she will simply deliver them by fiat. The jobs market will be fine regardless of how much more red tape is thrown at it, the new doctrine asserts – after all, the minimum wage keeps going up and the roof hasn’t fallen in. The existence of invisible side-effects, or the fact that we may well be nearing a tipping point, doesn’t enter the calculation. Mayonomics advocates blaming business for “not doing enough for their workers”, but hitting them with yet more non-wage costs will merely put further downwards pressure on wages, in a dangerous vicious circle.

Heath concludes:

To make the most of Brexit, the UK needs to embrace free markets, not retreat to the quiet economic certainties of the Sixties. The Tories will eventually come to realise this, of course, but not before they squander an immense opportunity to retool this country into a 21st century trading superpower.

As I write, Theresa May is on her feet in Halifax, Yorkshire, launching the Conservative Party manifesto. People are standing and cheering. It is an election manifesto which will almost certainly receive the endorsement of the electorate on June 8. But contrary to the hysterical shrieks of the British Left, it will not be a Thatcherite manifesto. In some cases, it will barely be recognisable as a small-C conservative manifesto.

And small government conservatives should not take this lying down.

 

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Brexit Catastrophisation Watch, Part 11 – Neither Imperial Delusions Nor Fearful Retreat From The World

British Empire cartoon

Replacing one slanderous Brexit narrative with another

Janan Ganesh almost gets it right (for once) in his FT column, accurately warning people away from the myth – especially popular with many foreigners – that the vote for Brexit was some kind of reflexive grasp to regain a long-gone empire and adopt a more swashbuckling, colonial-style role in world affairs.

Ganesh writes:

There is a certain kind of Briton, often educated to the hilt, who believes that sick Americans are left to writhe around on hospital floors until they show the doctors a credit card. Even sophisticated people think in simple terms about foreign countries. They just need a plausible line-to-take that sees them through a dinner party as it turns to political chat.

Americans give as good as they get. To the extent that their smartest people talk about Britain, they focus on our imperial delusions: here is a country that never adjusted to its loss of empire and does odd things to compensate. In Europe and Asia, too, exit from the EU is read as a desperate lunge for a global role, an act nearer to therapy than to statecraft. Colonial nostalgia has become the one thing the world “knows” about modern Britain.

It just happens to lack the ring of truth if you live here. Vestiges of empire survive in public life and some Conservative ministers picture a new Commonwealth trade zone that diplomats call, in what must pass for office banter, Empire 2.0. But Britain is not Liam Fox. It voted to leave the EU for reasons that differ from those that animate the trade secretary.

Quite. In Britain, the only ones who really see Brexit as a ham-fisted attempt to reclaim the losses of decolonialisation are the pants-wetting, pseudo-liberal preeners at the Guardian and satirical news site the Daily Mash, who love to portray Brexiteers as angry, curtain-twitching retired colonels outraged by the sudden appearance of brown-skinned neighbours.

Talk to the average Brexiteer on the street, however, and this is not the justification that you will hear. Neither is the glib “hankering for empire” explanation borne out through the opinion polls, which – contrary to the race and immigration angle played up by the media – proved that freedom and national self-determination ranked most highly among the priorities of Brexit voters.

Unfortunately, in the course of refuting this particular misguided Brexit narrative, Ganesh goes off the rails and embraces a fatalistic “retreat from the world” narrative every bit as presumptuous and fatalistic as the original:

The regions that shaped and were shaped by empire voted to remain, including London, the old metropole; Scotland, the source of many settlers and administrators; Manchester, not just the empire’s industrial centre but its liberal intellectual heart; and the port cities of Liverpool and Bristol. Inland Birmingham voted to leave, as did the countryside and market towns of Deep England. What those communities seem to want is Nation 1.0 — the sovereign statehood that predated the globalised era —

So far, so good. Brexiteers do indeed want the United Kingdom to return to a norm which might be called Nation 1.0. In fact, this is not a dim and distant past but a present reality still enjoyed by every advanced country outside of Europe – enjoying the benefits of globalisation, but not plugged in to a supranational political entity with federalist ambitions to become the government of a united Europe.

Nobody ever argues that Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea need to be part of an homogeneous overarching political union with a shared parliament, judiciary and executive in order to thrive. Neither does anybody criticise these countries for “retreating from the world” or otherwise failing to play their full part in global commerce and cultural exchange. Only in Europe has the pernicious myth taken hold – helped along by media cheerleaders, both ignorant and cynically knowing – that to reject an explicitly political project is also to wish to sever all links with the modern world.

Sadly, this is the trap that Ganesh immediately falls into. To pick up the end of his previous sentence:

— when the population was more homogenous and the economy less exposed to foreign competition. Whatever these impulses are, they are not colonial.

[..] Since 1945, intelligent outsiders have overestimated Britain’s frustrated ambition and underrated its sense of resignation, its desire for a quiet life after a draining few centuries as a player. When the American diplomat Dean Acheson said the British had not yet found a role after empire, he rather assumed that we were looking for one. Insiders make the same mistake. The least effective argument for the EU in the referendum campaign centred on its usefulness as a power-multiplier for medium-sized nations. It is not that voters disbelieved this. They just did not care enough.

History keeps forcing countries into this choice between significance abroad and retrenchment at home. Imagine that it were possible to go back in time and make sure the empire had never happened, in return for much-reduced postwar immigration from the former colonies. I suspect that some of the voters now fingered as neo-imperialists would trade their nation’s record of world grandeur for what might delicately be called a more familiar population. A less extreme thought experiment is already in the news. If a UK-India trade deal were to hinge on freer migration between the two countries, would Mr Fox sign it? He must know his keenness would not be matched by his own voters.

[..] It is easy for foreigners to read imperial nostalgia into something much more parochial. The terminal point of empire is introspection, not a restless desire to do it all over again. Introspection is bad enough but the British cannot be guilty of that and the opposite at the same time. Outsiders are free to fault us, if they pick the right fault.

We now appear to be caught in an imperial / introspective false dichotomy where Brexit can be explained (especially to anxious faux-liberals like New York Times readers) only as a racist country’s dying grasp to regain imperial greatness or a shrunken, scared and insular country seeking to retreat from the dangers of the world.

(We’ll ignore the fact that it was America, not Britain, who just elected as president an authoritarian strongman who promised not to enhance citizens’ liberties but rather to keep them safe from any danger – particularly from China, Mexicans and Islamist terror – and free from all anxiety. But by all means, tell us again how Britain is supposedly the country in decline and fearful of the world).

In reality, neither of these two absurd characterisations get to the truth of Brexit. At its heart – and this is borne out by opinion polls which clearly showed “self determination” to be the key issue for Brexit voters – Brexit is about wanting to normalise Britain and cease participating in a federalist experiment which almost nobody wanted and for which even its loudest champions failed to properly advocate.

British voters simply did not understand – with good reason – why Britain’s participation in a modern economy and a globalised world requires us to dissolve our sovereignty into an explicitly political union, when other advanced countries around the world are not under any similar obligation. And the Remain campaign could give them no good answer, for they have none. The EU is a political project whose economic activities are but a means to the ultimate end. Knowledgeable Remainers could say nothing to the contrary without perjuring themselves.

But rather than admit the truth about the European Union, how much easier it is to sit at a keyboard and invent ever more daft reasons explaining away the vote for Brexit. How much easier for Remainers to use weak satire or hysterical doom-mongering to distract themselves from the vacuity of their own case and the failure of their campaign.

Janan Ganesh is right – Britain did not vote to secede from the European Union through some misguided attempt to timewarp back to the days of empire. But it is not good enough to refute this silly idea only to promulgate another equally lazy explanation, as Ganesh unfortunately also does.

Remainers have long tried to paint Brexit as some kind of aberration, an inexplicable and harmful departure from international norms. But in fact it is the European Union which is an aberration and which flies in the face of human instinct and history. It is the European Union which attempts to force on member states a model of supranational government for which no meaningful democratic consent was ever sought, which reliably becomes less popular the more it is understood and which no other countries or regions of the world have ever sought to emulate.

Brexit was a vote to return to Nation State 1.0, not because we never want to reach Nation State 2.0 but because the EU’s status quo (Nation State 1.5) is buggy, full of defects and leading us in the wrong direction. The European Union is the Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition of political governance systems, and deciding to uninstall it and wait for something better neither means that we are hankering for the past nor giving up as a country. It’s just the smart thing to do.

It may be difficult for self-regarding members of the political media establishment to accept,  but Brexiteers were right to vote as they did. Remainers were wrong. And columnists would do better to analyse the failings, inconsistencies and non sequiturs in the Remainer case – the timidity, the tedious declinism, the remarkable ability to ignore the example of any country in the world outside the European Union – than continue to invent imaginary flaws in the case for Brexit.

 

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Andrew Sullivan On The Importance Of Rediscovering Healthy Patriotism

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To move beyond Trumpism, Democrats (and forward-thinking conservatives) must look to embrace a healthy and inclusive patriotism, and end their love affair with a cold form of globalism which undermines nation states, communities and livelihoods

Andrew Sullivan remains my blogging hero and inspiration, but I must confess that until very recently I have not greatly enjoyed his recent return to semi-regular online writing for New York Magazine. The thinking and prose is generally as fine as ever, but Sullivan’s excessive hysteria (not to say that real concern is unwarranted) in the face of Donald Trump’s election victory and the start of his presidency has been offputting, as has his continued slow drift away from conservatism and overly-enthusiastic embrace of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election campaign.

That being said, last week’s Interesting Times column/diary is vintage Sullivan – beautifully poetic, well argued and undeniably valid.

Sullivan writes of globalisation and urbanisation’s losers, and in praise of patriotism:

I’ve always been unusually attached to places. It’s one reason I still call myself a conservative. Travel doesn’t attract me. I’ve now lived in the same loft in D.C. since I bought it, in 1991 (apart from an ill-fated year and a half in New York City); I’ve spent 20 consecutive summers in the same little town at the end of Cape Cod, and have no desire to go anyplace else. Even when I go home to England, I tend to spend around half my time near where I grew up.

I wouldn’t go so far as Malcolm Muggeridge, who famously said: “Travel, of course, narrows the mind.” (Don’t you love that “of course”?) But I would say that the reverse can also be true. Staying put allows you to really get to know a place deeply at different times and in different seasons, to capture, often serendipitously, a small detail you’d never seen before, or arrive at a street corner and suddenly remember that this was where you first met an old friend.

But staying home brings grief with it as well. Everything changes, and when your beloved tree at the end of the street is cut down, or a new Safeway replaces the corner baker, or, more fatally, the factory that used to be the linchpin of the place lies empty and crumbling, it stings and wounds and demoralizes. When I’ve visited my own hometown in England, so much is the same. And yet, on closer inspection, many of the once-vibrant shops are selling secondhand clothes, or given over to real estate offices. My old church has a broken window where the rain comes in. The services have dwindled to near nothing. Maybe it’s being away for so long, but it seems familiar and yet a little empty, as if something in it has somehow died, a continuity somehow lost.

And more and more, I suspect, the shifting winds of this merciless global economy and the impact of mass migration are bringing about similar changes all over the West. This beautiful but deeply sad story about how a provincial town in France has slowly died — as its young people flocked to cities, as its shops were supplanted by a supermarket, says a lot about the moment we are in: “Down another street is the last toy store, now closed, and around a corner is the last independent grocery store, also shuttered. Walk down the empty, narrow streets on some nights and the silence is so complete that you can hear your footsteps on the stones.” The town, Albi, is not alone.

In America, as Charles Murray has shown in his extraordinary book, Coming Apart, the young and the smart and the talented — the people who would once have formed the core of these small towns — have long since fled to distant colleges and cities. They don’t come back. They would once have been the police chief or the town librarian or the school principal. They once helped make the town a well-run place with a clear identity, where the same families and networks lived together, died together, belonged together. These connections have attenuated … as economics supplants culture, as efficiency erases the individuality of inefficient places, as Amazon rips the heart out of shopping districts, as the smartphone removes us from physical space, and as many more immigrants and their culture alter the feel of a place in ways that disorient those with memories and loyalties.

I don’t think we can understand the politics of this moment — Brexit, Trump, Le Pen — without noticing this abiding sense of loss. The middling city and small town are going the way of the middle class. Patterns of farming in rural America are being devastated. I loved this English farmer’s account of the changes he is seeing: “The future we have been sold doesn’t work. Applying the principles of the factory floor to the natural world just doesn’t work. Farming is more than a business. Food is more than a commodity. Land is more than a mineral resource.”

Jobs are vital not simply because of money — but because they give lives meaning, a meaning that now seems so remote people medicate themselves with opiates. People are grieving for a lost way of life. This is not racist or retrograde or even backward. It is, rather, deeply human. For it is in these places that a deeper identity forms, that Americanness, Britishness, la France profonde, endures. And what we’re seeing right now, across the developed world, is a bid to retain the meaning of a culture and a way of life in the headwinds of faceless, placeless economics.

And Sullivan’s conclusion:

Nationalism is one response. The answer to it is not globalism, which is as cold as it is remote, but patriotism, that love of country that does not require the loathing of other places or the scapegoating of minorities or a phobia of change, that confident identity that doesn’t seek to run away from the wider world but to engage it, while somehow staying recognizable across the generations. If the Democrats hope to come back, that patriotism is going to have to define them once again. But can they get past their racial and sexual and gender obsessions and reach for it?

This is the distilled question of our times.

The answer is not globalism – Sullivan is quite right. This does not mean a rejection of capitalism, globalisation and international free trade, on which our prosperity depends, but it does mean acknowledging that there are negative externalities to all of this aggregate economic progress. We accept that this is the case with the environment, and take measures to restrict environmental damage caused by economic activity, but until now governments have scarcely acknowledged the impact of globalisation on local communities, national identity and cohesiveness, let alone formulated meaningful ways to protect what we are unwilling to lose while still unleashing the best that globalisation has to offer.

This is a challenge – as I have repeatedly acknowledged on this blog – which falls hardest upon conservatives and small government advocates such as myself, who traditionally envisage a very limited role for the state in our lives. If corporations and cross-border economic activity create negative externalities as well as create wealth and material abundance, who if not the state will keep those externalities in check? Left-wing politicians can simply wave their hands and promise new economic programs to retrain workers or encourage labour mobility, inefficient or fruitless though they may ultimately prove to be. We on the Right have a more difficult job, relying as we prefer to do on individuals and the institutions of civil society.

And this is why Sullivan’s enthusiastic embrace of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign depressed me so. I also preferred Clinton to Trump because of the latter’s self-evident deficiencies in temperament, knowledge and ideological sincerity. But Sullivan was strongly for Clinton, and I found that fervour to be inexplicable. As Sullivan rightly notes in his latest column, the answer to nationalism is not more cold globalism. And yet that is precisely what Hillary Clinton and Democrats of her type offered. It is still all they offer – she who spoke openly of her desire for a borderless world where plane-hopping elites treated global megacities as their playground while the impoverished servant class were rooted to their dying towns.

Sullivan is quite right that patriotism – “that love of country that does not require the loathing of other places” – must be embraced again by all sides, not weaponised as a unique virtue by the Right or demonised as evidence of inherent racism by the Left. But right now we are moving away from that goal.

For as long as so many Republicans remain seemingly in lockstep with the Trump agenda, despite the president’s frequent deviations from conservative principle (let alone the normal standards of presidential decorum and basic decency), they effectively lend their tacit support to the administration’s more uncomfortably nationalist behaviour and rhetoric. And for so long as the Democrats and others on the Left choose to double down on their repellent formula of Maximal Globalism + Identity Politics, putting forward candidates like Hillary Clinton who are utterly incapable of speaking authentically to Middle America and the suffering working classes, their actions will continue to signal that they view rural and small town America as expendable so long as wealth and opportunity continue accruing to the urban, coastal elites.

For better or worse, the Republican Party seem to have made their choice. Though they may grumble about the ObamaCare repeal and replacement (or RyanCare, as some Trump loyalists insist on calling it) and some of the administration’s other ideas, it is hopeless to look to the GOP for an alternative to Trumpism so long as their man occupies the White House and they hold both houses of Congress.

That leaves it to the Democrats. The ideologically bankrupt, morally compromised Democrats, whose first response to a stunning repudiation by voters at the ballot box was to swiftly reconfirm all of the main architects of that defeat back into their gilded leadership positions, and who are too busy worshipping at the altar of identity politics to pay attention to the fears and aspirations of Trump’s America.

In short, embracing a healthy new sense of patriotism seems like a grand idea, and a necessary one – but Lord knows who in the American political and media class possesses the wisdom, foresight and bravery promote it.

 

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Quote For The Day

After the election, American conservatives cannot simply pretend that Donald Trump never happened. The Republican Party must fully reject Trumpism and then reach out to voters with a brighter, most optimistic conservative message

Jonah Goldberg, addressing an Ashbrook Center event in Cleveland, Ohio back in 2014, when Donald Trump was just a loudmouth birther and not, y’know, a major party presidential candidate:

I love first principles, I’m all about first principles, I think that’s great stuff. But people forget that politics has to be about persuasion, about bringing people to your side who don’t already agree with you. Otherwise it might as well be a Civil War re-enactment club or a Dungeons & Dragons society where we just play our little roles and then we go home.

And this is something that a lot of conservatives have lost. And one of the things we have lost is the ability to tell stories.

Goldberg goes on to criticise the excessive hagiography of Ronald Reagan, pointing out that Reagan’s recent reputation as an unbelievably principled conservative who never once sullied himself with compromise actually much more closely fits Barry Goldwater – who of course went down to glorious defeat.

The point, I suppose, is that Donald Trump fails both tests. He is not a conservative – or at least he has done absolutely nothing to prove that his Damascene conversion to traditional Republican values and talking points is remotely genuine, and not simply a convenient ploy to co-opt supporters.

Worse still, Trump is incapable of telling an authentically conservative story which might actually attract and persuade undecided voters, because every time he opens his mouth to tell a story a new victimhood-soaked conspiracy theory dribbles out instead.

I also post the quote as a reminder to myself. Lord knows that I have a lot of issues with the current British Conservative Party and the direction it has gone under Cameron and May (well, really since mid-Thatcher, when I was born). But when you rant on the internet every day it is easy to preach to the choir sometimes and forget that there are some good Conservative MPs of principle out there who do want to take the country in a different, more small-L liberal direction, and who have no truck with Labour’s vacuous centrists-in-exile or Theresa May’s flirtation with authoritarianism.

But more than anything, the Goldberg quote is a reminder of the huge rebuilding exercise the Republican Party will have to do after Donald Trump. Whatever story they previously used to connect with voters, however battered and dubious it may have been, has now been utterly obliterated. Some say that the GOP can (and will) simply forget that Trump ever happened, and move on serenely. I’m not sure that will be possible – not least because many Republican grassroots members may not let it happen. They may well find an heir to Trump, and throw their support behind Trump Mark II.

Besides, this crisis represents too great an opportunity for American conservatism to re-invent itself. This blog has been intermittently banging on about the need for small government conservatism to come to terms with our modern, globalised world – a world in which supply chains and labour markets are international, and the kind of mass, semi-skilled manufacturing work which once paid well enough to support a comfortable middle class life has either permanently disappeared, or else barely pays a subsistence wage.

This is a particular challenge for conservatives, who believe in empowering the individual and restricting the overbearing hand of government. Left-wingers can simply wave their arms and promise a new government programme to retrain vast swathes of the population, or buy their silence with benefits. Conservatives do not have this luxury.

But the eventual answer will, I am sure, have to come from conservatives. Cranking up the size of the state until it is all things to all people is unsustainable, squelching innovation at best and provoking economic crisis at worst, as proven every single time it has been attempted. Globalisation continues apace and the burning question continues to go unanswered.

Perhaps, once the Republicans are finished debasing themselves by their association with Donald Trump, they might care to have a crack at solving it.

 

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