Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 29 November 2016

A little English coup

In August 1991, hardline elements in the army and KGB staged a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, shortly after Gorbachev had agreed to reorganise the USSR as a new confederation. To many this seemed like an end to the reforms that Gorbachev had brought, as the coup leaders appeared to have the support of the whole military. Yeltsin was defiant in Moscow, but those who remembered the Prague Spring probably thought the tanks would win out. Then the coup’s nominal leader, Gennady Yanayev, gave a press conference in which he looked nervous with his hands shaking, and it became clear that the coup leaders were meeting serious resistance. It collapsed shortly afterward.

I remembered this when watching the proponents of hard Brexit shout down any concern about what the government might agree following the EU referendum, and attack anyone who pointed out the difficulties that leaving the single market might bring. They too have carried out a sort of coup against parliamentary democracy, and maybe declaring judges enemies of the people is the equivalent of Yanayev’s shaking hand. They cannot quite believe what they have done, and fear it may all collapse when people realise what is going on. Our Prime Minister has had to draw on her faith in God to enable her to continue leading this coup.

If you think coup is too strong a word, think about what has happened. An advisory referendum decided by a very narrow majority to leave the EU. That is all this slim majority of the electorate decided. They did not vote to leave the single market (SM), partly because most leaders of the Leave campaign told us (correctly) that leaving the EU was quite compatible with staying in the SM. They did not vote to end freedom of movement. Leaving the EU is not one policy, but a whole range of possible policies with quite different effects, and the electorate have said nothing about their preferences among these possibilities. In short, the referendum was about the EU and not the SM, and whatever they say now we know that you can be in the SM without being part of the EU.

Yet a new government, with no mandate from the voters, has decided that only it should be allowed to interpret what leaving the EU should amount to, and the electorate through their representatives in parliament should have no say in the matter. The people, having indicated a change in direction, are to be allowed no say whatsoever in where exactly they are to be led. The differences between these alternative paths out of the EU are immense, and this choice on how exactly to leave the EU will have a huge impact on every citizen. Yet the people and their representatives are not even to be allowed to know what options the government are aiming for. (The OBR was even denied knowledge of how the government intending fulfilling its guarantees to Nissan.) The pretext for this coup, involving keeping their negotiating hand secret, is as thin as the Soviet coup’s claims that Gorbachev was unwell.

Any attempt at parliamentary control over what might happen is described as trying to stop Brexit. Why not seek to stay in the SM? Just asking that question means to the coup leaders that you are trying to stop Brexit (of course it does not). Why not see what might be on offer before starting the clock on being thrown out with nothing? That is just a delaying tactic, they say. Why not have a second referendum on the final deal? Finding out what the electorate thinks once that the exit deal is clear would be against the will of the people, they chime without irony. When you are told that consulting the people or their representatives is against the will of the people, you know there has been a kind of coup.

But I fear that in this case the coup leaders’ nervousness is unwarranted. Three judges have thrown MPs a lifeline, a chance to stop this coup, and MPs look like throwing it right back. Those Conservative MPs who know what damage this will do have decided they can do nothing to stop the Conservative party being taken over by fanatics. The Labour party appears pathetic: its leadership wanting exit from the SM for their own reasons (talking shamelessly about ‘access’ in the hope of muddying the water) and the PLP is more concerned about losing votes than improving their electorate’s welfare (it is the story of austerity all over again). They had a chance of coming together to lead the opposition to this coup and they have blown it. Instead of Boris Yeltsin, we have Tom Watson, who joins in the mantra that opposing triggering Article 50 is going against the will of the people.

And instead of courageous citizens of Moscow we have Labour party members saying it is best to bide time and work within for change. This timidity is obnoxious to see: they should instead be demanding their MPs take back control. It is their prosperity that will be diminished by this coup, their right to work in the EU taken away. It seems to me that approving Article 50 is the last chance for representative democracy to have its say. Once that vote is in the bag, the government can do what it likes and nothing can be certain to stop them. (A vote on any final deal is no choice, because the consequences of saying no will be far worse.)

So MPs are acting like turkeys voting for Christmas. They know that in all likelihood voting to trigger Article 50 will throw away their chance to stop the government ending our membership of the SM, thereby reducing their constituents access to public services and the chance to keep young people’s right to work in the EU. They will be handing all the levers of power to a government that seems to be run by a minority of fanatics. Is this what a once proud country has allowed itself to become? Is this what a parliament that once stood up to kings has been reduced to?


  1. I think you are missing the point here. This political climate was brought about by the millions of people for whom the only future now on offer is one of precariousness, homelessness and uncertainty. When these people circa 2008 started deciding that this globalised world could no longer offer them a semblance of consensus and was instead turning against them they decided to start hitting back at every available opportunity. This is now happening so frequently and with such reliability that nobody should be surprised anymore. Unless and until some new consensus forms, and I am really not sure if Trump, May, Le Pen and co will be able to provide it, the same slap on the face will take place at every election, every referendum, every decision where the plebes have a chance to piss all over the 'mainstream consensus'. To sit back and cry that some of these decisions will end up hurting the plebes too (possibly more than anyone else) is to miss the point entirely. Also beside the point is the call for "mobilising" against Trump, May, Le Pen and the Daily Mail. These people, ugly as they are, are nothing but the symptom of the underlying cause. So if you feel the need to say something, please try to offer some truly *radical* new consensus to the neo-destitute millions. Anything else, to their ears, sounds like a patronising Marie Antoinette and will have exactly the opposite effect. (Just like the effect that calling them 'deplorables' had a few weeks ago)

    1. Yes, I'm sure the 'plebes' (your term) will happily agree that it doesn't matter it their decisions end up hurting them more. If anyone is being patronising it is you.

  2. Single market = no immigration control from EU

    The media (both the racist & lame stream) will ensure that a principled stand is electoral suicide.

    Why should Labour MP's choose oblivion, given voters just revealed preferences?

    1. Well if I was an MP, I would not want to agree to things that I know will make my constituents worse off. On the other hand, if I was only interested in keeping my job ....

  3. I think of the remainers more as those attempting a coup. They are using the tanks of the media both public and social, an academic elite like yourself and won't stop until they overthrow a referendum result. After all leave did win the vote.
    You also need to start explaining your association by letter with the Treasury Project Fear short run forecast which is now in the bin with the reputation of many an economist. You do realise all the Project Fear stuff and the immediate hysteria on the vote has discredited many in the economics profession for probably a generation. Professor Krugman gave a warning on it but too late it seems.

    1. "your association by letter with the Treasury Project Fear short run forecast" Here is our letter:

      Focusing entirely on the economics, we consider that it would be a major mistake for the UK to leave the European Union.
      Leaving would entail significant long-term costs. The size of these costs would depend on the amount of control the UK chooses to exercise over such matters as free movement of labour, and the associated penalty it would pay in terms of access to the single market. The numbers calculated by the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance, the OECD and the Treasury describe a plausible range for the scale of these costs.
      The uncertainty over precisely what kind of relationship the UK would find itself in with the EU and the rest of the world would also weigh heavily for many years. In addition, there is a sizeable risk of a short-term shock to confidence if we were to see a Leave vote on June 23rd. The Bank of England has signalled this concern clearly, and we share it.

      You can see that it focuses on the long term costs, but it also talks about uncertainty "weighing heavily" and a short term loss of confidence. The OBR and Bank's forecasts show the former, and low investment, the fall in sterling and the need for immediate Bank action show the latter. So I think we got it pretty right. Perhaps you think the loss of real income as a result of the Brexit induced depreciation is of no consequence.

      How you can talk about us using the media given the disinformation of the tabloids is beyond me.

      You are doing exactly what was done with austerity. Take away the most extreme prediction of its consequence, not that didn't happen, and say all those who argued against austerity are therefore discredited "for a generation". It is nonsense on stilts.

    2. Apart from an occasional look at the Express I don't read tabloids. For me the media is anti-leave and pro-remain: basically EU captured. The BBC is the worst and just trolls for remain even putting a majority of remain speakers on question time. So I think that point is fair.
      Actually the fall in sterling does cost me a considerable amount of "income". Being an expat paid in sterling but majority of expenses in dollars I have lost out. But that is just netted off against those who are paid in foreign currency and with expenses in pounds. Real income loss is truly measured by price rises not just a depreciation calculation. It is not manifesting itself yet although I grant that may not last much longer. However there is a basic assumption that nominal wages will not rise which is by no means clear.
      I could roll out the stats since the brexit vote indicative of an improved financial position. GDP, UE, Investment: there is no end to them. Although I am wobbly at times it does not alter the fact that you were wrong in the short run and can still be wrong in the long run.

  4. "Ever since Edmund Burke invented conservatism as an idea, the conservative has styled himself a man of prudence and moderation. Yet the political efforts that have roused the conservative to his most profound reflections — the reactions against the French and Bolshevik revolutions, the defense of slavery and Jim Crow, the attack on social democracy and the welfare state, the serial backlashes against the New Deal, the Great Society, civil rights, feminism, and gay rights—have been anything but that. There is a not-so-subterranean strain of imprudence and immoderation, risk-taking and adventurism, running through that tradition. Conservatism is an ideology of reaction, but that reactionary imperative presses conservatism to critique and reconfigure the old regime, to make privilege popular and to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses: a new old regime, one could say, that brings the energy of the street to the antique inequalities of a dilapidated estate" (THE PARTY OF LOSS, Corey Robin, 2010.)

  5. A fine polemic indeed, but couldn’t all of these arguments have been made by an opponent of ‘our’ ratification of the Lisbon treaty? I’m pretty sure they could - and now the chickens have come home to roost.

    Also you twice raise the potential loss of the rights of our kids to go and work in the EU (again) ignoring the fact that the baked-in (and punitively applied) EU austerity means that these opportunities just don’t exist anywhere other than for the very well educated and in just a few of the northern countries. The ‘shock’ of our vote to leave has not led to any significant change in the direction of travel for the EU and I can’t imagine our deciding to stay now will have any effect either.

    I do, however, agree that the 1991 USSR coup is very relevant. The coup was faced down, but what befell the Russians in the years after was nothing short of a monstrously corrupt, western funded, corporate looting. We’ll get the same come GFC2.

  6. You are right in saying that there is an attempted coup taking place in Britain.The plotters are from the extreme right of the Tory party (who now control that organisation) , the Sun and the Daily Mail, and a few millionaires like Aaron Banks. They aim to change British politics for ever in their direction. Ultimately they want to link the country in a binding agreement with the USA which will in fact be takeover by the Trump Organisation.

    They are trying to orchestrate a hostile break with the EU which is totally at odds with their referendum promises.

    You are also right in saying that only Parliament can stop this and that Parliament actually can do just that if MPs show enough resolve.

    Where I disagree is your argument that stopping this means staying in the single market and accepting freedom of movement. If you watched Sunday Politics this week you will see Andrew Neil demolish Open Britain;s contention that the referendum gave no mandate for leaving the single market.

    The promise they made was that Britain would get full market access without conceding freedom of movement. Our side argued that it was impossible and that may well be true but we should not allow the Brexiteers off the hook of implementing their promise. They cannot now accept the arguement of their opponents.

    In other words Parliament should not authorise the triggering of Article 50 until the Government publish a White Paper stating this and the other promises as their explicit aims. Parliament is also under no obligation to repeal the European Communities Act if these terms are not met and should not do so.

    Anyone who gets in the way of the Brexit fanatics will be subject to the most ferocious verbal assault. We make it more difficult to do this if we stick to the actual commitments made by the winning side.

  7. A couple of planned coups in the UK in the 1960's and 70's that we do know about are outlined on this link. The title says it all.

  8. It's not a coup obviously.

    I voted remain. We lost. Elections and referenda have consequences.

    From then on it is surely obvious that government will lead the negotiations?

    If parliament doesn't like what TM is negotiating- then they can kick her out with a vote of no confidence. Probably there will also be a parliamentary vote on whatever final deal is reached.

    1. The vote will be: accept this lousy deal, or have no deal at all. Which effectively means parliament has no say.

    2. Parliament voted for an EU referendum.

      Parliament continues to support Theresa May as PM when she has said she wants us to withdraw from the EU (and has given no guarantees on single market membership).

      Parliament will vote for the 'Great Repeal Bill'.

      Parliament will vote on the final terms of whatever deal is agreed.

      Parliament may yet end up voting on triggering A50 depending on what the lawyers decide. (I think they should but am happy to abide by what is ruled).

      I can't see how that can be described as parliament having no say.

      You said in your original post once A50 is invoked... nothing can stop the government.

      This is untrue. Parliament can stop the government by passing a motion of no confidence. But it doesn't want to!

  9. Full membership of the SM from outside the EU is not an available option. Why? The SM is a dynamic construct that changes over time. Outside the EU we will lose most of our ability to influence direction: no MEPs, no Commissioner or officials, no seat at meetings of ministers, no veto, etc. The most we can expect is some grace-and-favour consultation. It’s like being in a club where everyone else has a vote expect us.

    It might be that this second-class membership is the best we can do. But at this stage it’s not obvious that it beats what might be negotiated bilaterally. That’s why “access to EU markets” is a more flexible stance at this point, with fallback to second-class membership if nothing better can be achieved.

    1. What you are saying is that it is not an attractive option compared to full membership, but it may still be an available option. It seems unlikely that the EU will give us a bespoke deal that is better than this, because then everyone would want it. But the key point is that, if as I suspect, we get a poor bespoke deal, parliament has no way at present once A50 is triggered of not being forced to accept it, because the alternative is no deal at all.

    2. I agree that once A50 is triggered our choice becomes “deal or no deal”. That appears to be the view of the High Court, in that ruling that invoking A50 would remove rights from British citizens and hence requires Parliamentary sanction. I was always concerned that the idea of a second referendum “when the terms are clear” offered a false promise that we could remain in the EU, as the EU27 will not negotiate before A50.

      You are right to point to EU27 reluctance to give the UK a good deal because “everyone would want it”. The Leave assumption that others will give us whatever we ask was never credible. But that just means that the EU27 will want to ensure that the UK is worse off outside the EU than inside. I would argue that there is a significant gap between full (i.e. inside the EU) SM membership and the second-class SM membership that may be available outside. This creates space for bilateral negotiation. Indeed, any deal, including second-class SM membership, requires agreement.

      To illustrate the gap between full and second-class SM membership, consider the ECB’s attempt to limit euro clearing outside the Eurozone, on which the ECJ ruled in the UK’s favour under TFEU. From inside the EU, the UK could prevent any treaty change that would reverse that ruling but outside we cannot. The same is true in other areas. The SM is a real-world construct not a modelling abstraction. Nor is it an off-the-shelf option: we would still need to negotiate our terms of membership.

  10. Remarkably well said.
    Cameron's binary referendum was a silly stunt. Let's not compound the foolishness.

  11. You’re right to highlight the uselessness of the Labour party on this issue. As a result, there is hardly any political representation for the people who voted remain. Nor for those who voted to leave but would prefer to stay in the single market. Together they would be a majority of people whose voted in the referendum. Talk about a democratic deficit !
    There are a number of more courageous individuals in the Conservative and Labour parties, but their voices are not heard in a media that is framing almost every issue with reference to the people who ran the Brexit campaign. The Liberal party in the Scottish Parliament shamefully voted against remaining in the single market. Only the Greens and the SNP are trying to talk about the issues involved in terms which relate to the future prosperity of the country and the rights and freedoms of citizens. They will vote against triggering article 50.
    Would it be possible to ‘respect the referendum result’ by triggering Article 50 while at the same time remaining in the single market ? Well, the UK government could notify the EU of their intention to withdraw from the EU under Article 50, but to state at the same time that the UK does not wish to withdraw from the EEA.
    This would mean staying in the single market, but withdrawing from political representation, participation in justice and home affairs, foreign and security policy, agriculture and fisheries. The sort of things that some of those who voted to leave, and maybe some who vote to remain, didn’t particularly like. And to the extent it makes a symbolic difference, if the UK were to join EFTA at the same time, it would not be subject to the European Court of Justice, but to the EFTA Court. It would also have the power to take unilateral safeguard measures “if serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature liable to persist are arising” - Iceland, for example, suspended free movement of capital for years after the financial crisis.
    There’s just one problem - what country in their right mind would want a Brexit-poisoned UK to join their club ?

  12. Spot on.

    And the parallels with Trump's win in the US are striking.

    I want to know why so few politicians & economists in the US and UK understand this.

  13. Oddly the option to call an early election makes no appearance in this passionate appeal for representative democracy.

    Given that Parliaments authority rests on it's claim to represent the electorate. This claim is backed by a regular cycle of general elections. If the Brexit vote had been filtered through this process (i.e. through the constituencies on a first past the post basis) then a 52% Leave victory in the popular vote would have been transformed into an 80% leave victory in terms of returned M.P.'s. Fully 80% of current M.P's (from both left & right) would now be Brexiteers. It is obvious therefore that the current Parliament reflects the pre referendum dispensation - it is a Cavalier Parliament in a Roundhead country. So on the EU and Brexit the current Parliament does not represent the electorate.

    This explains why the leavers distrust this sudden outbreak of enthusiasm for Parliamentary sovereignty and representative democracy that has swept through the ranks of the remainer establishment.

    If the Prof. really had worries about the democratic validity of the government's actions then he would be advocating an early general election. Absent that call his concerns, at least as they are expressed here, lack credibility.

    Instead we are now told that the UK government has a unilateral obligation to conduct its diplomatic negotiation in the full glare of open debate in a Parliament that (on this issue) does not represent the overwhelming majority of constituencies who voted Leave. The prof. does not demand that this novel negotiating strategy should be adopted by the UK's interlocutors in Europe. Presumably for them the complete protection offered by diplomatic secrecy is still inviolate.

    So we know what cooks here - a desperate attempt to leverage a remain majority in Parliament to thwart the public repudiation of EU powers over UK law and policy.

    If Parliament is to engage in a line by line ratification of the governments negotiating position then it cannot be this Parliament which does so. The prompt deselection of remain MP's followed by a general election will be the only legitimate way of re-aligning the representatives with the people.

    But if that happens the governments hands will not be tied by reluctant leavers (as the Economist hopes) but by committed leavers.

    Then, I suspect, we will hear a very different tune coming from the prof.......

    1. Replying a couple of days later, after the Richmond Park result, puts a slightly different interpretation on your post.

      I fully agree that the correct approach after a referendum result which 'forces' the current Parliament to approve an ill-thought out and unsatisfactory course of action is to call a general election. I don't see it as at all obvious that such an election will lead to a majority - never mind an 80% majority - for Brexit. Look, after all, at how a popular will for capital punishment has continually been 'thwarted' by MPs who actually take the trouble to study the issue.

      I have news for all those who shout 'democracy!' or 'elitism!'. A slim majority in favour of an unexplained policy option does not make it either the right or even a feasible option. That's why we have representative democracy.

  14. You're better on economics than on history or politics. The analogy you draw is thin, to say the least. In terms of democracy: the government ran on a manifesto committmemt to hold a referendum. It got elected. The referendum was had. How much of a mandate to you want? It's ok to disagree with the outcome, but give the constitutional handwringing a rest.

  15. I get it. The UK is communist now.

    The Welsh assembly was created with a smaller majority. Where are your pieces on that being illegitimate?


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