The centre ground is collapsing

British politics is in deadlock, with two extremes increasingly dominant. These extremes are a militant, conservative nationalism and an increasingly aggressive assertion of liberal values. The main battleground is Brexit, but it is by no means the only one. The centre ground, which seeks a compromise that the country as a whole can live with is imploding.

Thus we have a paradox. Most MPs want Britain to implement the 2016 referendum result and take Britain out of the European Union. And yet they have been unable to do it, and the possibility that Britain will never leave is now growing. That is because the militant nationalists insist on a radical interpretation of Brexit, and are prepared to block compromise. This is having two effects. First it has deadlocked the House of Commons and prevented the government from passing an exit deal. The second is that it is provoking Remainers into increasing militancy themselves, since to them such a radical interpretation is a clear violation of the referendum result, which after all was a narrow one.

The leaderships of both main parties are holding crumbling middle ground, which seeks an orderly exit from the EU, and a reasonably smooth economic relationship with it, and, in particular, an open but functional land border between the EU and the UK in Ireland.

How did we get here? In June 2016 the referendum gave a narrow but clear majority for Britain to leave. About a third of the country were delighted, another third wished the result could somehow be made to go away, and the remaining third accepted that the country needed to leave, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The mandate to the government and parliament was clear. All but a handful of Conservative MPs accepted the referendum result, and most Labour ones did too. As Theresa May took over the helm as Prime Minister she interpreted this as proceeding with as close a relationship with the EU as practical subject to three red lines: control over migration, no financial contributions and no jurisdiction of the European Court. This was a pretty fair interpretation of the referendum result, where migration and the financial contributions were key issues, as was sovereignty. A fourth red line soon crept in however: no customs union with the EU. The mandate for this was not a clear one, but many Tories considered that the ability of the country to negotiate tariffs with other countries to be critical. That is where things started to go wrong.

But even with these clear red lines, it was apparent that any deal with the EU would be messy and involve compromise: Britain’s bargaining position was a weak one. Notwithstanding this Mrs May gave the EU the two year notice required under Article 50 of the EU constitution in March 2017. She has been much criticised for this, but it did make sense. A later date meant that we would have been tangled in elections to the European Parliament, and after that the handover to a new Commission. Then Mrs May had a brainwave. If she called a General Election, she could establish a clear majority in parliament and that would give her the leverage to push the whole messy business through. Again, this was not an error. She badly needed a big majority, and also to stamp her authority on the party. The polls were very favourable.

Then disaster struck. Instead of leaving nothing to chance in the election, in the way of Tony Blair, and focusing her pitch exactly on Brexit, she let her close adviser, Nick Timothy, put together a hubristic manifesto that pushed into all sorts of other areas, notably funding social care for the elderly. She also listened too closely to the advisers who told her to keep her distance from the debate, and especially not to allow herself be exposed to a televised leaders’ debate. This was an understandable mistake because her public performances were dire. But it reinforced public doubts about her. It all unravelled and she ended up in a minority depending on Ulster’s DUP. She should probably have bowed out then and there. But she carried tuck on doggedly, and her party let her.

The big problem turned out to be the intra-Irish border with Northern Ireland. The Irish government insisted that the border remain an open one: but that implied that Northern Ireland at least would be part of a customs union with the EU, if not the Single Market. Mrs May (and others in her government) underestimated this. She was desperate to close the Withdrawal Agreement quickly, and so she allowed wording in this that implied either the UK as a whole or Northern Ireland would stay tethered to the EU Single Market in some shape or form, until somehow some other arrangement could be made that kept the border open. And this would be baked into an international treaty that a future parliament would find it hard to get out of. This issue than split her own party and alienated the DUP. The other parties were not going to help her out. Meanwhile the Irish government has stuck to a very hard line, notwithstanding the risk of a no-deal.

And so the impasse. We are still in the EU long after the 29 March departure date, and facing those European Parliament elections. The best hope of exit is through a deal between the Conservative and Labour parties to agree on some form of compromise. Talks are under way, but both leaders are being urged to abandon them. This is partly because of entrenched views on Brexit, on the one side insisting that there can be no customs union, and on the other that there must be a further referendum. It is also because there is polarisation beyond Brexit along more traditional left and right lines. This is where both parties want to fight the next general election, and they are keen to paint the other side as muddled extremists.

With the main parties deadlocked, the initiative is moving elsewhere. Most spectacular is the new Brexit Party, led by former Ukip leader Nigel Farage. This is running to a highly nationalist script, stirring up anger over the alleged betrayal by the metropolitan elite. It is copying much of its playbook from Donald Trump. Mr Farage has a ready audience, and is playing to packed out and enthusiastic public meetings. This is a message of pure anger; there is no suggestion of any constructive path out of the mess the country finds itself in. But many formerly resigned and politically inactive people tasted political success in the referendum, and they are not ready to give it up. Probably as much as a quarter of the electorate are supporters, with many more willing to vote for it as a protest in European elections.

Other parties are becoming more militant too. Most successful of these is the Liberal Democrats. This party has often flirted with the centre ground, and often practices centrist government locally – but on the national stage they have become militant Remainers. The Greens too are doing well, combining their environmental militancy with a European one (not so long a go I remember them having a very large Eurosceptic faction – which shows how times are changing). Change UK, the new party made of defectors from both Labour and Conservative, is muddled about whether it is centrist or extremist, and is losing momentum as a result. In Scotland and Wales local nationalists are seizing the opportunity in their own particular way, with a combination of their own nationalism and Remainer militancy.

Meanwhile Conservatives and Labour are losing control. Both have succeeded through being coalitions of different interests, and so have had a natural tendency to be centrist – long seen as essential to winning power. But increasingly their activists are losing sight of that and wanting to join the polarising tide.

Where will this end? The two most likely outcomes are a no-deal Brexit (probably in October this year), or a further referendum which ends up stopping Brexit altogether. Each would be a victory for one of the extremes. Both would leave a legacy of bitterness that will take a generation or more to heal. Perhaps that is something our country has to go through before it reconciles itself to its new fate, whatever that is.

The two party system takes a blow – but what about a general election?

It is a good moment to be a Liberal Democrat, after the party’s strong showing in last week’s local elections. The party were unequivocal winners, while both the the big parties fell back. After years of being ignored and told that the party was broken forever, it is good to be back.

But it is better than that. What the results show is that the party is rebuilding its grassroots strength, and with it a base in local government. This has been the party’s secret weapon, little understood by the Westminster chatterers – local government was how the party built its strength in the 1990s, before it became a significant parliamentary force in 1997. This is the result of hard work by activists working at local level across the country. It wasn’t just the Lib Dems. What surprised the political commentators even more than the success of the Lib Dems, which was as the upper end of expectations, was the relative success of the Greens and local independents. This too required grassroots activism.

Meanwhile the Conservatives, who had the most to lose this time, did very badly, losing over 1,300 seats, at the top end of expectations. The seats were last fought on a relative high for the party in 2015, so some loss was expected. They did worst in areas with a high Remain vote in 2016. What really surprised commentators was how Labour failed to capitalise on this. The party gained seats in some places, but lost in others, with a small net loss of seats overall. Nobody was expecting a spectacular performance, but if the Tories were doing very badly, they were expected to pick up some of the pieces. Unlike the Conservatives, Labour fared worse in high Leave supporting areas.

The retreat of the main parties comes as a surprise to many politicos. Two party politics had been in decline for since the 1980s, with the rise of first the Lib Dems (and their predecessor parties) and then Ukip. But in the 2017 general election both the Lib Dems and Ukip were crushed. This was a huge relief to both Conservatives and Labour, and to many Westminster journalists too. Two party politics seemed to them the natural way of being, and allowed most politicians to focus on their internal party jockeying, rather than having to talk to voters much. Life became much simpler.

But that collective sigh of relief was a huge mistake, as both major parties turned inwards. The Conservatives tore themselves up over Brexit. To be sure this was an important issue, but they assumed that whenever they went to the country they could rally the voters around an anti-Labour message, and get away with it. First they managed to upset their supporters who voted Remain, only to disappoint the Leavers by failing to agree on how to implement Brexit on the target date of 29 March. The indecision is worse than choosing the wrong strategy: now Remainers who had been persuaded to buckle down in the name of democracy are starting to question that logic, as so many Brexiteers try to move the goalposts towards something much more extreme than they advocated in 2016.

Labour, meanwhile tore itself up over an internal power struggle, as the left saw its chance to take a radical left wing programme to the country by consolidating their power within the party. If the Tories cared too much about Brexit, Labour did not care enough. They assumed that the Tories would make such a mess that they would clean up at the next election. That left them with little to say on the big issue of the day. Labour Brexiteers are annoyed at the party’s role in delaying Brexit; meanwhile the party is unable to pick up disillusioned Remainers from the Conservatives.

That meant a poor performance at these English locals for both big parties, which each picked up a 28% vote share, the lowest combined total for many years. There is likely to be an even worse performance at the forthcoming elections for the European parliament, though they should be able to shrug these off, as they have in the past.

The key question is how much this matters at a general election. The electoral system makes it hard for smaller parties to break through. Both the big parties have some reason to hope that it will be business as usual. That would be complacent.

Firstly neither party looks well placed to roll back the threat from the SNP in Scotland, which will be critical to Labour’s chances in particular, but also important to the Tories. Up to 50 seats may be unavailable. The Lib Dems will doubtless hope that they can get a dozen or more additional seats, with the Conservatives looking the most vulnerable. The Greens look stronger than they were, but can only mount a challenge in a handful of seats.

But the big unknown is how well two brand new parties will perform. The most significant is Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. This has made an impressive start. It looks well organised and well funded. It is sure to do well at the European Parliament elections, which play to its strengths. It is mainly an air war election, and Mr Farage has no difficulty in getting the attention of mainstream media, much to the annoyance of other smaller parties, who are routinely ignored by the BBC among others. The party has also managed to distribute some centrally organised literature. It will doubtless try to make mischief on social media, a successful medium for populist parties not interested in proposing any constructive policy programme. But, though the party attracts interest and volunteers, it has no grassroots organisation. This is not one of Mr Farage’s strengths, and it is a vital ingredient to success at general elections. Mr Farage himself might be a successful spoiler candidate (he is rumoured to be mulling a challenge to Boris Johnson, widely thought to be the the most likely next Conservative leader), but the party may turn out to be no more than a nuisance.

The second new party is the former Independent Group, Change UK. This party appears weak organisationally, and it is unclear what it actually stands for. It is trying its hand at the Euro elections, but even if it does well there (which I am not expecting), it is hard to see where that will lead. Building a grassroots organisation is very hard work, and it is far from clear whether they are up for it. Cannibalising Lib Dem support, a strategy which many in the party clearly wanted to attempt, now looks a lot harder. There are plenty of places where the Lib Dems are weak, though. Will they try to do something there?

So things don’t look so bad for the big parties when it comes to parliamentary elections. But they do have a problem: Brexit. The country could continue to muddle on trying and failing to leave; it could leave with a deal, which will not be unlike the one the government has already negotiated; there could be a crash out with no deal; or there might be a further referendum which halts Brexit altogether, or else leads to exit with or without a deal. Each of these outcomes will cause major problems for both the Conservatives and Labour. Dramatic upsets can happen (for example the rise of the SNP in Scotland in 2015, or the election of Emmanuel Macron in France). It would be foolish to rule such an earthquake out.

What should the progressive smaller parties do? Some kind of an arrangement to stay out of each others’ way looks sensible for the Lib Dems, the Greens and Change UK, whether or not an electoral pact is feasible or desirable. Meanwhile, each of these three needs to think of ways that it can capture the imagination of a public that is fed up with politics as usual. If these parties could agree on a broad programme of political reform, radical action on the environment, and revitalising left-behind parts of the country, perhaps that would do the trick.

Jeremy Corbyn and Hobson’s Imperialism: why it scares me

The latest antisemitism row to engulf Labour concerns Jeremy Corbyn’s foreword to to a modern edition of the writer J A Hobson’s Imperialism: A Study, written in 1901. This is dividing Mr Corbyn’s critics and supporters in a familiar way. But its wider significance is what it reveals about the way Mr Corbyn, and many of his allies, view history and politics.

Before launching into this I need to clear the deck. First, this new edition was published in 2011, long before anybody, including himself, could have viewed Mr Corbyn as a potential Labour leader, whose words would be subject to widespread scrutiny. That makes it more revealing, but it doesn’t say how his understanding of antisemitism might have moved on since. Second: I have read neither Hobson’s book, nor Mr Corbyn’s foreword, which doesn’t seem to be available online (and I don’t have a Kindle). I am having to base my views on two sources: the original article from The Times‘s Daniel Finkelstein that kicked the current episode off. Second a short article by academic Mike Taylor on Hobson’s book in the Guardian, which doesn’t add anything to Mr Finkelstein’s article, but helps give me more assurance about its factual accuracy.

Hobson sought to show that 19th Century Imperialism was driven by financial interests, who succeeded in manipulating the politics of the time to support imperialist policies from which they made financial gain. He further went on to say, unusually for time, that imperialism was exploitative and did not represent an advance to human civilisation. The antisemitism arises because he thought that what I have termed “financial interests” was a predominantly Jewish elite with no fixed national reference point. He doesn’t quite say that it is the Jews in this book, but a couple of references, one to a “single and peculiar race” and another to the Rothschilds, are unmistakable, and other Hobson writings are explicit, not just about high-flying financiers, but also the Jewish working classes of London’s East End. This was a widespread view at the time.

It isn’t too hard to mount a defence of Mr Corbyn. It does appear that Hobson’s antisemitism is worn quite lightly in this particular work: the same two quotes are used again and again. The important bit is not this, but there were (and are) powerful commercial and financial interests controlled by international (and national) elites capable of influencing policy. They don’t have to be Jewish, and probably Mr Corbyn doesn’t think that aspect is very important. The rest of the analysis stands, and it is very striking. The interests of big business and finance was doubtless a factor in the development of imperialism, as they found home markets constricted and European or North American markets hostile to foreign competition. In those days big business was dominated by food, textiles, mining, steel, capital goods (ships and railways especially) and armaments. It is not hard to see how that could lead to imperialism. Furthermore Hobson was clearly ahead of his time in understanding just how destructive imperialism was.

So far, so good. But three criticisms are still valid, and show just how bad a choice Labour members made when selecting Mr Corbyn to be their leader. First is that antisemitism. It runs right through this work, and at the time it was written that would have been understood clearly. It is one aspect of left-wing antisemitism which went on to the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union and then throughout Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. Hobson’s work was known to be highly influential to Lenin and it formed part of the narrative that drove this particularly ugly side to the political left. It it clearly hasn’t disappeared; it is rampant and barely challenged outside the developed world, and clearly remains an issue in parts of the modern Labour Party. Mr Corbyn’s foreword to this book was an opportunity to say something about this but instead he said nothing. Through ignorance or bad judgement it clearly wasn’t important to him.

Second, for all its farsightedness, Hobson’s analysis is clearly deeply flawed. Imperialism suited many other people beyond big business leaders. Not least of these were the workers of the imperialist powers, for whom big business generated jobs and income. This was a time (i.e. especially after the 1850s) when living standards for workers advanced steadily and when what people would later call the social democratic consensus started to develop, notably through the work of German socialist politician Eduard Bernstein. This followed the insight that capitalists and workers had a common interest in the health of the industrial economy. How far can workers of the time be allowed to take responsibility for their own political decisions, (i.e. in this case backing imperialism), or are they always being manipulated? This is one of the great divides in the history of socialism, with Lenin and Hobson taking the latter view. If Mr Corbyn is in this camp, which I have suggested before, it means that his commitment to democracy only goes as far as it suits him.

As an aside I can’t help but repeat a couple of quotes from Hobson’s book:

Does anyone seriously suppose that a great war could be undertaken by any European state, or a great state loan subscribed, if the house of Rothschild and its connections set their face against it?

And in reference to great European finance houses:

There is not a war, a revolution, an anarchist assassination, or any other public shock, which is not gainful to these men; they are harpies who suck their gains from every new forced expenditure and every sudden disturbance of public credit

Anybody who knows anything of the detail of the causes of the Great War in 1914 will understand just how silly this is. The causes were complex, but the forces of international finance were not part of it: instead an overmighty military in the three great empires of Germany, Russia and Austria played a large role, without the restraint of strong political leadership. If anything the forces of finance were part of the cautious inertia of the establishment which came so close to preventing the war from occurring. With reason. The thirty years of destruction unleashed by that war destroyed most of the accumulated wealth in the developed world, along with many millions of lives. It wasn’t rootless internationalism that caused war, but an excess of its opposite.

The third criticism to make about Mr Corbyn’s foreword is what else he says, beyond praising its insight and prescience. According to Mr Finkelstein:

Since the Second World War, the Labour leader argues, “the big imperial force has been the United States on behalf of global capitalism and the biggest, mostly US-based corporations”. This has been supported by propaganda about “freedom”. This propaganda effort was designed to “accompany the military re-occupation [of Europe] under the guise of Nato. Thus the Cold War was followed by American media and cultural values, in an attempt to create an empire of the mind.”

He contrasts this attempt to subjugate people through the “malign influence of the CIA” and pliant governments with the influence of the Soviet Union. “The Soviet influence was always different and its allies often acted quite independently,” writes Mr Corbyn.

Daniel Finkelstein, 30 April 2019, The Times

This is exceptionally revealing. Of course the history of the Cold War is a lot murkier than the version our politicians fed us, and industrial interests played their role – though I would argue that these were at least as powerful and important in the Soviet bloc. But to argue that NATO amounts to a military occupation of Western Europe by US interests is plain silly. What popular uprisings did US-led fores put down? And how independent really were Soviet allies after their interventions in East Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia? And should we really see European people as helpless victims of the imposition of US culture, dictated by big US corporations (after their subjugation of their own people?). And did the Soviet authorities not try just as hard to manipulate people’s minds? Again we have the idea that ordinary people cannot be trusted because they are so easily manipulated by the rich.

It is no surprise that this leads to support for the Castro regime in Cuba and the Chavez/Maduro one in Venezuela. It is one thing to take a hard-headed view about the influence of US policy in the world, and to recognise its considerable dark side. It is another to indulge in fantasy. Socialists can be divided into roughly two sorts: the romantics who have faith in a bottom up movement of the masses (think Rosa Luxembourg) and the hard-headed sort who ruthlessly focus on control of power by a select elite (think Lenin or Xi Jinping). The former end up in failure, the latter in oppression. Mr Corbyn is trying to romanticise the ruthless strand of socialism, which is the worst of both worlds. It suggests that while he is not a ruthless operator himself, he is liable to be manipulated by those that are.

All of which leads to the question of what would happen if Jeremy Corbyn became British Prime Minister. It suggests that a government under his leadership would lack the competence to govern effectively, while turning on any British institutions when things go wrong. I think those British institutions are strong enough to survive, and that the Labour Party will eventually reject the hard-left narrative that Mr Corbyn represents. But what this country does not need after years of stasis arising from Brexit (whichever way it eventually goes), is another few years in a muddled and incompetent experiment with socialism.