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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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Submission, Part 4

In his FT column today, Janan Ganesh doffs his hat to reality:

Today, lots of people will end a romance, or stop fighting a terminal illness, or let an argumentative colleague have the last word, or fold a bad hand at the poker table. “Nobody likes a quitter” but prudent capitulation is a part of life. Junior doctors in England have saved their dignity and perhaps some lives by backing down from strike action. Would we rather they showed valour for its own sake?

Because our culture accords no honour to the act of giving up, the remaining moderates in Britain’s Labour party cannot be seen to entertain it. Jeremy Corbyn renewed his leadership over the weekend. The left is rampant. A reverse McCarthyism, with socialists doing the interrogation, is the daily lot of critical MPs. And still they will not resign the Labour whip to form a new party.

That is their decision. It is easy for commentators to will a formal breakaway that others would have to perform. But the least they could do is spare us another round of their fighting talk. They will “never surrender”, you see. The comeback “starts now”, apparently. The people who brought you Owen Smith, pallid flatterer of Mr Corbyn’s worldview and unwanted alternative to him, demand to be reckoned with.

Their plan, such as it exists, is to outnumber the left by recruiting hundreds of thousands of pragmatic voters to the party while refreshing themselves intellectually. The first of these projects seems fanciful, the second unnecessary.

The people they want tend not to join political parties. Their participation in real life gets in the way. An entirely fresh movement founded on the pro-European centre-left could, perhaps, attract those who feel dispossessed by Mr Corbyn and what is shaping up to be a hard exit from the EU. An invitation into an old, tainted party to fight ideologues who know the difference between Leninism and anarcho-syndicalism for mastery of things called the National Executive Committee is, for many people, a refusable offer.

If that is really their best idea – and Janan Ganesh is well connected, so he would know – then Labour’s centrist MPs deserve neither respect nor sympathy at this point. They already tried to pack the membership with an influx of moderates who would rise up against Jeremy Corbyn, and it didn’t work, Corbyn was re-elected by an even greater majority. And their new cunning plan is to try the same trick again?

Ganesh concludes:

If this reads like a counsel of despair, it should. There is a reasonable chance, and it becomes stronger by the day, that Gordon Brown will turn out to have been the last Labour prime minister. Even if the rebels dislodge Mr Corbyn and install one of their own, the public will remember their party as one that voted for the hard left twice in as many years. There are such things as lost causes. There is something to be said for giving up and starting again.

They will do no such thing, of course. They will insult our intelligence by talking up a mass harvest of new centrist members and fall back on the wheezing old line they always quote when their steadfastness is in doubt. In 1960, during another struggle with the left, Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader at the time, said he would “fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love”.

So much of Labour’s internal culture is contained in that magnificent and deranged line. In the normal world, you are not meant to love a political party. It is not your family. It is a machine with a function: in Labour’s case, the material improvement of working people’s lives through parliamentary means. If it is broken, fix it. If it cannot be fixed, build a new one.

Sentimentality made Labour moderates stick with leaders they should have culled. It made them open their party to the wider left. And it keeps them in a fight they cannot win.

Gradually they come to realise what this blog has been saying for months – that New Labour is irreversibly dead and buried, and that this is Jeremy Corbyn’s party now. The centrists are not merely taking a break – they have been turfed out, just as the old-school socialists were once marginalised and frozen out by Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair.

The options are to accept that it is Jeremy Corbyn’s turn for the next four years, or do the decent thing and split from the Labour Party to form their own new party of the centre-left (while watching nervously to see what percentage of the Labour grassroots membership follows them out the door in solidarity).

Honour can be found in either submission or divorce – but please, spare us from another year of overwrought, teenage drama and soap opera shenanigans.

 

UPDATE: Read Submission Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here.

 

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Janan Ganesh Is Wrong: Britain Can Still Make History – If We Leave The EU

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A careless turn of phrase reveals a poisonous, negative attitude towards Britain held by prominent Remainers and EU apologists

What do passionate British europhiles and EU defenders really think about their own country?

This question is an eternal puzzle to Brexiteers, who have watched Remainers from the prime minister on down eagerly seize on every statement or piece of “proof” that Britain is too small and feeble to flourish without dissolving ourselves into the EU’s embryonic common European state.

And now, finally, we have something of an answer. In his latest FT column bemoaning the intra-party warfare currently consuming the Conservative Party, George Osborne biographer Janan Ganesh has the following to say about the United Kingdom:

Britain is not where history happens any more but our two flirtations with secession — Scotland’s from the UK, the UK’s from the EU — pique the curiosity of outsiders. They must look at the intra-Tory venom and assume its seepage into wider society. If Scots were lastingly politicised, and riven, by their referendum, Britons as a whole might be too. The stakes are as large, the facts as contested, the principals on each side as seethingly at odds as they were in Scotland in 2014.

And still we demur. The notable feature of this referendum is its lack of notoriety. With three weeks to go, pubs are not blazing with anticipation or rancour. Friends and relatives are not falling out. Campaign events are unmarred by anything darker than cheeky heckles. On the morning of May 30, only one referendum-related story made the 10 most-read on the BBC news website, and that was trumped by a crocodile attack in Queensland, Australia.

And there it is. Doesn’t that perfectly sum up the tone which pervades nearly all of the Remain campaign’s messaging during the referendum – the idea of Britain as a has-been nation, a place which was once consequential but no longer a place “where history happens”?

And of course this is exactly what Janan Ganesh, his colleagues at the Financial Times and many others in the Remain camp actually do believe. They (wrongly) think that we are a small island not only in geographical terms but also in geopolitical terms. They think that we don’t matter any more, that we will never again shape the world because we are not powerful enough and because we are not exceptional enough to do so.

To the mind of a Remainer, it is utterly perplexing why anybody would want a country as weak, fragile and inconsequential as Britain to leave the safe harbour of the European Union and head out into the storm. Sure, they grudgingly acknowledge, we made our mark on history in the past – and at this point they will often pause to apologise profusely for that very history – but we should never expect to do so again.

The future, they insist, belongs to those shining civilisations such as China and Russia, apparently – despite the fact that Britain remains the fifth largest economy, (by some measures) the second military power, and is home to some of the best universities, companies, popular and high culture in the world. And Britain should be grateful for any scraps we are fortunate enough to steal from a “top table” dominated by other, better countries.

But if the world really is now such a scary place that the only recourse for “fading glory” Britain is to shelter inside a remorselessly tightening political union, how come other countries, many of them much smaller than us, are not also busy dissolving themselves into regional political blocs?

The threat of terrorism affects Australia too, as we saw with the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis. Australia would also be threatened by any global conflagration involving Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And Australia is just as vulnerable to a world economic downturn as Britain – if not more so, given her remote geographic location.

So why isn’t Australia hastening to form a political union with New Zealand and other APAC countries? Why is there no Pacific Union headquarters being constructed in Malaysia, or elections being held to elect MPPs to the new Pacific Parliament? Why is there no Pacific Court of Justice being set up to adjudicate and enforce adherence to region-wide regulations and human rights laws?

Why, for that matter, is Canada not racing to form a political Union with the United States and Mexico, following the EU’s lead and turning NAFTA from a free trade group into an explicitly political union?

The answer, of course, is that political union does nothing – nothing whatsoever – to meet or tackle the most serious challenges facing our world. Australia and New Zealand are perfectly capable of intergovernmental co-operation without the need to create a new and unaccountable supranational body sitting above them and assuming their sovereignty. Canada and the United States are not only able to trade freely with each other, they also co-operate closely on military and intelligence affairs – again, without a Parliament of the Americas to pass laws binding on their respective citizens.

So the question goes back to EU apologists and British pessimists like Janan Ganesh: exactly what is it about Britain which means that we cannot follow the example of Canada and the United States, Australia and New Zealand? What deficiency afflicts Britain which means that we cannot co-operate closely with European allies on important issues without also dissolving ourselves into a political union with them?

The EU apologists won’t tell you, because they can’t. Because there is simply no good reason why Britain could not maintain exceptionally close links with the countries of Europe – remaining in the European Economic Area, retaining free movement of people, working together on common security challenges and those areas where our foreign policy interests align – while being a sovereign, self-governing country outside the European Union.

And those who persist in saying otherwise are either fearful and ignorant themselves, or they are cynically lying to promote a supranational or federalist agenda which they cannot openly embrace in public.

Why should Britain no longer be a place where history continues to be made? Why can Britain not be the first country to realise that a century-old dream of European political union being brought about by a 1950s model of centralised, supranational governance is hopelessly ill suited to the Europe of 2016? Why should Britain not be the first country to grasp this reality and strike out away from euro-parochialism, charting a better path toward global engagement which other countries may then follow?

Why, in short, do those who insist that we must remain in the European Union have such desperately stunted vision and ambition for the global future which Britain could build?

 

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Is Widespread Voter Apathy Acceptable In a Country Like Britain?

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Britain’s relative peace and prosperity are no excuse for us to shirk our duty to be informed and engaged citizens

This blog has little time – and much contempt – for voter apathy and the politically disengaged.

Only last September, while the Labour leadership contest raged, I was complaining about low-information “swing voters”:

What if the fabled political centre doesn’t exist – or is only a small group casting a large shadow, while another unacknowledged mass of voters goes unnoticed and un-courted by the main political parties?

[..] What if rather than there being a rich goldmine of real centrist voters out there – people who pay close attention to politics and legitimately arrive at a position somewhere between Labour and the Tories – there is instead just a massive, congealed fatburg of low-information voters bobbing around, people who simply haven’t paid enough attention to come to an informed opinion about the great issues of the day?

By contrast, Janan Ganesh has an interesting and thoughtful piece in the Financial Times, basically defending non-voters and holding them up as an example of everything that is going right with our society:

All politicians understand Yes, No and Undecided. Only the winners understand Don’t Much Care. Mr Cameron communicates crisply because he knows most people only tune in for a few minutes a day. He does not lose himself in marginalia that no swing voter will ever notice. Rousing a nation through force of personality is something leaders do in films: the real art of politics is accepting apathy and bending it to your purposes.

[..] Apathy is a respectable disposition in a country where, for most people most of the time, life is tolerable-to-good. There are nations with much hotter politics, and they tend to send refugees to tedious old Britain.

This should be the most obvious thing in the world. You will have several friends who match this profile of contented languor. But among politicos, on the Labour side especially, it is a shock finding. They priggishly elide apathy with dysfunction: if voters do not care, something must be wrong with the body politic.

Ganesh concludes:

Apathetic Britons are not waiting to be redeemed. They just have lives to get on with. Not only are they apolitical; they rouse themselves to vote every five years precisely to stop hot heads and crusaders from running their country. They like Mr Cameron because he governs well enough to save them having to think about politics. He is prime minister because someone has to be.

I don’t necessarily disagree with Janan Ganesh’s view of the political landscape and voter apathy as it currently stands. But I do take strong exception to any suggestion that this is how things should be in an ideal Britain, or a prosperous Britain.

Do I have the right to expect and demand that everyone else share the same interests and obsessions as me, or that they campaign for them and partake of them as loudly and vociferously as I do? Clearly not. Everybody should be free to pursue their own happiness in any way that they like, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of anyone else.

But what happens when one bloc of people acting as a bovine herd of politically disinterested consumers allows the dominant political class to get away with just about any scheme, machination or conspiracy that they choose? Such people may have the right to stay glued to Britain’s Strictly Come Bake Off On Ice while our democracy erodes and collapses from within, but does their apathy and lack of interest not infringe on my right to live in a society where the government is properly held to account? I would argue that yes, it does.

Now, I can’t tie the politically disengaged to a chair, clamp their eyes open and force them to watch Today In Parliament on an endless loop. Nor should I be able to do so. Even if we could take the hugely illiberal step of forcing such people to pay attention to politics or even make voting mandatory, by their bovine nature many of them would make ill-informed, capricious or spiteful voting choices which would hardly enrich our democracy.

But if we can all accept that the right of the non-voters to sit on the couch and fester in their own KFC grease trumps my desire to make them sit up and pay attention to several highly pressing political questions which will have profound consequences for how Britain (and even humanity as a whole) is governed in future, can we at least stop putting these bovine people on a moral pedestal?

Where Janan Ganesh goes too far in his article is when he praises the politically disengaged as a symptom of a well functioning system where all of the major existential and ideological questions have been settled, leaving nothing to argue over besides pernickety points about the technocratic management of our public services.

For in truth, some of the biggest questions facing human civilisation have indeed not yet been settled. They have just been masked and papered over by an artificial political consensus among the major British political parties and the Westminster-dwelling establishment.

There is a political consensus that the NHS is a glorious institution, a bureaucratic idol to be worshipped and uncritically praised from dawn to dusk, as well as the best way of delivering universal healthcare to a large, developed country. But the NHS model does not exist in any other major modern democracy – there is, in reality, no intellectual consensus that it is the best solution. There is just a lazy ideological consensus of convenience among the political class, who prefer to pander for votes by singing hymns of praise to the NHS rather than talking critically about how to make British healthcare better.

There is a near-universal political consensus among the establishment that the European Union is a Good Thing. That this one particular very dated mid-century form of internationalism represents the future of European governance, and that the nation state is antiquated and passé. A vocal minority of British people begged to differ, and now – despite the kicking and screaming of the establishment – we are going to have a referendum to decide whether or not we want to remain part of the Brussels club. The Westminster elite always claimed that there was such a popular pro-EU consensus that a referendum was unnecessary, but clearly this was not so.

And so it goes, from issue to issue. What are in fact gross and damning failures of imagination or political courage from the main political parties are continually presented as some high-minded form of consensus that Britain has got all of the major questions figured out. But the rise of UKIP, the Green Party, the SNP and the coming EU referendum tell us that this is in fact not the case at all.

Therefore it is worth going back to Janan Ganesh’s assertion and asking which came first: the chicken or the egg? Are many voters really disengaged and apathetic because they are broadly satisfied with the status quo and an often-artificial consensus between the main political parties? Or is this dull, suffocating consensus actually the reason why so many people are politically disengaged in the first place?

Nothing in Ganesh’s article provides convincing proof that it is the former – that millions of people stay home on election day because they are broadly happy with the way things are. That’s not to say that such people do not make up an element – potentially a sizeable part – of disengaged voters. But even these voters are not excused.

Maybe these people really are content with the status quo and impatient to get on with their lives, more concerned with moving up the property ladder or buying the latest iDevice to show off to their friends than they are with tedious subjects like welfare reform or the EU referendum.

But such people should be criticised and urged to step up, not praised or held out as an proof that the system “works”. There is nothing noble about forgetting one’s duties as a citizen as soon as one reaches a position of economic comfort and security. Having 2.4 children, a house with a paid-off mortgage and some cash in the bank does not alleviate one’s responsibility to think about how best to secure prosperity, security and freedom for everyone else. And so long as the state has the power to regulate the things which we are allowed to drink, smoke, eat, read, hear, associate with or say, we are derelict in our duty as citizens if we blithely ignore what the government of the day is doing.

Janan Ganesh does an excellent job of summarising where we are, of describing what Britain is like at the moment. But where he and I part company is our differing view of whether the status quo is anything to be remotely pleased about.

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