Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday, 16 June 2018

The bankruptcy of the centre right: Brexit edition


If you want to see how the centre-right can lose out big time you just need to look at the US. Last week a Republican senator who had been critical of Trump lost to a Trump loyalist in a primary. Partisan voters prize loyalty, you may say, but this is loyalty to someone who lies all the time, and prefers the US’s traditional arch enemy Russia to its traditional allies. The US is just a few threads away from becoming yet another elected dictatorship. One of those threads is the Mueller investigation, and we will see if any Republican ‘rebels’ who want to impeach Trump are made of sterner stuff than the Brexit rebel Conservative MPs.

The story of neoliberal overreach is in part about how centre-right politicians set in place or promoted causes or institutions that would allow for the ascendency of the hard-right and then eventually their own demise. In the US this stretches from repealing the fairness doctrine, which led to hard-right talk radio and then Fox News, to increasing the role of money in elections and finally allowing Trump to win the presidency. In the UK it involved promoting austerity and an immigration target that was bound to fail, both of which directly led to Brexit.

Once these conditions have been set in place to win votes or shrink the state, there seem to be two stages in the process through which the centre-right concede power to the hard-right. The first stage is a belief that the centre-right are still in control when clearly they are not, or a blind optimism that the hard-right can be easily bought off. In the UK that is the stage where Cameron gave in to UKIP and newspaper pressure and agreed to a referendum on EU membrship. The centre-right make concessions to the hard-right to preserve party unity.

The second stage is where the hard-right have control, and play on this centre-right belief in party unity to prevent the centre-right from rocking the boat. [1] We saw this in the US under Obama when the Republicans scorned all the President’s overtures for bipartisanship. In the UK we are seeing it right now in how easily most Remain voting Conservative MPs are happy to go along with the current farce, and how easily the small band of rebels can be persuaded to cave.

The latter is due in part to our equivalent of Fox News conducting a hate campaign against these rebels. There is nothing subtle about this: try to vote against the government to prevent a national disaster and those big four right wing newspapers will headline on saying you are going against the will of the people and even imply you are a traitor. Whipping up this kind of hatred is no joke when followers of the ultra-right have already murdered one MP and tried to murder another. Yet before you start feeling some sympathy for the rebels subject to these newspapers attacks, remember these same centre-right Conservative MPs were quite happy to indulge the same papers by voting down Leveson 2.

It is also a result of the BBC increasingly shying away from anything that could be construed as critical of the government, and dumbing down political discussion. The rabid right wing press pretend that any form of dissent from the government’s chosen path of implementing Brexit is betraying the will of the people, confusing the government with the people just as authoritarian governments have always done, yet the BBC panders to the idea that these rebels are really trying to stop Brexit by constantly labelling the rebel MPs as Remainers.

As a result, Conservative MPs duly voted through substantial increases in executive power at the expense of parliament. There is now a grave danger that they will get played by the Brexiters. The Brexiters should by now know that any deal that can be done will be some form of soft Brexit, remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market for goods for sure. That is not the kind of divorce they wanted. They keep saying that the possibility of No Deal must be kept in play to increase our negotiating power, having conceded all our negotiating power by invoking Article 50 with no discussion and little plan. Perhaps the real reason is that they would not be at all unhappy that through their belligerence time for a deal disappears, and we get No Deal by default. Chris Grey calculates there are only 62 working days left to do a deal, and May is not even near the range of possible deals yet. If the Brexiters plan is to talk out a deal so we exit without one, it seems to be going very well.

For months I have been saying that No Deal would not happen because parliament would not let it happen. I still think it is unlikely, but as a result of the votes last week and the UK side in the Brexit negotiations going backwards since December I am much less confident than I was. The slide from a pluralist democracy to an elected dictatorship or a right wing plutocracy [2] is full of moments when sensible people say this could not possibly happen here.

[1] Contrast Conservatives voting on block to sweep aside the Lord’s amendments to the Labour rebellion over the EEA. Often the fact that Labour MPs have views for which they are quite prepared to vote against their leadership is seen as a political weakness, but what we are seeing right now is the Conservative desire for party unity as a colossal political weakness.
[2] Before anyone objects, of course this only applies to the UK on the single decision of Brexit, for now. But Brexit is perhaps the most important change in UK politics since the election of Margaret Thatcher, and the way this change has come about does show structural similarities to the transformation of the US Republican party that led to the election of Donald Trump.

21 comments:

  1. Could it be that they in fact do want a no-deal scenario with ensuing chaos? It would lay the groundwork for a right wing coup, potentially.

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  2. What you are portraying here (and numerous times before) is a political structure in crisis and this has little to do with Brexit or austerity; it is a wholly manipulated edifice based on lies and deceit.

    The irony is that the only thing that might change that is a profound shock; let us say a "no deal Brexit". However you effectively argue for a "business as usual" solution (continued membership of the EU; ease up on austerity) which is likely to keep, and indeed, reinforce the current arrangements. When I studied politics at Oxford I had an American tutor and he said that in the UK the system was about the suppression of conflict in order to preserve the power structure and he was right. Although you might never acknowledge it it actually needs episodes like Brexit to disturb the water and, far from being the disaster that you portray it as, is actually a good thing.

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  3. Typos:
    and even imply you [are] a traitor

    The rapid right wing press -> rabid ?

    BTW, Hitler was helped into power by the conservative right wingers who thought they could control him. Some of them were later arrested/executed (see Franz von Papen wikipedia page).
    --
    rps

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  4. Great post as always, thank you.

    I think there is a typo where "The rapid right wing press" should read "rabid".

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  5. I understand wanting to control the comment process however the absence of comment due to a uncommon process of commenting detracts, I feel, from the, dare I say brilliant, insightful posts.

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  6. No comments have been accepted on this blog since June 2. Is this because the general public have no interest in this blog or because the blogger has no interest in processing comments from the general public?

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  7. Amazed that you're doubling down on the "newspapers culpable for murder" line after your "Parliament should start directing Brexit" post. This really is shameful.

    While the Tory Brexiters are of course right-wing on economics or nationalism or both, it's strange to criticise the referendum as being a concession to the hard right when the idea of a referendum was popular with the public of all shades. You don't have to be a Brexiter to see your rhetoric in this and various other posts as hysterical, you made a comparison with Russian revolutionaries before while calling the papers "rabid".

    And you don't have to be an admirer of Russia -- Putin is evil -- to be aware that Trump is not pro-Russian and does not "prefer" Russia to his Western allies. They're his allies, and Russia is not! He is providing arms to Ukraine as well as fighting Russia in Syria. Do you not remember his first missile strike in Syria which had the liberal and Democratic talking heads calling Trump "presidential"?

    Yes, he complained during his campaign about NATO countries not spending enough, but when asked if he would punish them for this he said no. It's weird when people try and paint this as a LACK of commitment to NATO by Trump when in fact it's a lack of commitment to NATO by Europe. It isn't necessary to make things up to attack Trump when there are plenty of real things about him to complain about. In your case I'll assume it's ignorance rather than malice but it's something to think about when you condemn conservative media and not the liberal equivalent.

    On that note, while the BBC has indeed given tons of coverage to Leavers it's not like they haven't been covering Brexit doomsday scenarios too. There was lately a report on Newsnight about dissident republican terrorists in Northern Ireland. It's weird when the second-biggest republican group has actually called a ceasefire in recent months, which they would not have done if they thought Brexit was an opportunity for attacks or for recruitment. The terrorism threat level in NI has always (since the system was introduced) been "severe", from 2016 the NI-related terrorism threat in GB was "substantial" but was downgraded to "moderate" in March!

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    1. I have only the stamina to correct your NATO misunderstandings. This article pretty much summarizes how NATO is not committing enough to NATO and how Trump has continuously misrepresented (in truth, he simply hasn't committed any energy toward understanding the facts... a very common problem on the right, it seems) the Direct and Indirect spending for NATO: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2017/05/31/trump-on-nato-funding-still-misleading-after-months-of-fact-checks/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.5ad946499ab8). Also, this article covers a litany of on-the-record statements from Trump where he has continued to challenge the purpose of NATO, considering it potentially "obsolete" and that some members should be kicked out if they don't meet the voluntary defense spending amounts (the Indirect funding) (which can in no way be ignored by honest people who want to characterize Trump as just concerned about funding): https://www.factcheck.org/2016/05/whats-trumps-position-on-nato/

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  8. I'm glad you're shifting on the threat of "no deal" which I've brought up in comments a couple of times before.

    For a deal to be passed it requires a united majority in the Commons. Since many Leavers have mutually-incompatible goals for a deal that is not guaranteed. The danger of a cliff edge can also be ignored by some of them since the predictions of disaster on the day of a "Leave" vote did not come to pass and market fundamentalists may assume the economy will easily adjust to a hard Brexit.

    I wish you had taken this up ages ago since a priority has to be preparation for no deal, such as getting ports working smoothly and customs checks in Northern Ireland, where the Republic's new computer system can handle the tenfold increase in customs declarations but the UK's new system will not be ready.

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  9. "The story of neoliberal overreach is in part about how centre-right politicians set in place or promoted causes or institutions that would allow for the ascendency of the hard-right and then eventually their own demise. In the US this stretches from repealing the fairness doctrine, which led to hard-right talk radio and then Fox News, to increasing the role of money in elections and finally allowing Trump to win the presidency. In the UK it involved promoting austerity and an immigration target that was bound to fail, both of which directly led to Brexit."

    This is excellent.

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    1. Both parties are involved -- If Brown had done a bigger stimulus and concentrated on getting unemployment all the way back down by 2010, instead of getting the deficit down, he could have stopped the Tories getting elected.

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  10. Typos:
    - and even imply you [are] a traitor.
    - The rapid right wing press -> rabid
    --
    rps

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  11. The rapid right wing press pretend...

    should likely be

    The rabid right wing press pretend.

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  12. Perhaps they are not merely after No Deal by default by running out the clock, but by presenting us as unreliable and unrealistic and untrustworthy negotiators they are attempting to poison the well so much that the EU will not only not allow anything other than No Deal now, but refuse to let us back in if we realise our mistake in the future and ask to be readmitted.

    After all, after passing up an opportunity to join right at the beginning, it took us 3 attempts to get in last time...

    (They're sure as hell not going to allow us any opt-outs next time...)

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    1. If rejoining means joining the euro then we must never rejoin. In which case, if Article 50 cannot be rescinded then we are indeed out of the EU for good, deal or no deal.

      Doubtless powerful Remainers will want to build common structures between the UK and EU in future. But they would not concede something to us which they would not under Cameron or May.

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  13. Let’s be clear the only thing that will bring a Right Wing Armageddon to this country is the thwarting of the result of the referendum. The Maastricht treaty was pushed through without any democratic mandate and people have patiently waited for 25 years to have their say on this and they voted in good faith on the understanding that the outcome would be valid for ‘a generation’.

    The strength of this country is its tolerance. The Remainers should gracefully accept that they lost the vote and they should try and suggest a constructive path forward in the Brexit negotiations. The alternative is a breakdown in the social contract and permanent social strife. The idea that we can reverse the result of the Referendum and return to business as usual is unrealistic and laughable. We do not wish to see this country descend into the acute partisanship that characterises the US. There is only one way to avoid this and that is for the Remainers to accept the outcome of the democratic vote.

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    1. Indeed, and I think would be doing us more of a service (since as economic policy blogs go this one is popular) and so would other Remainers if they did more to publicise the no-deal cliff edge problems to get the government to act on them i.e. agricultural tariffs in Ireland and freight traffic at ports in GB and the systems for custom declarations. This country *should* be able to prepare for this in time, even if there is only 1 year left, and certainly should have been able to do it in 2.

      Remainer talk of "racism", a second referendum, Legatum, dark money etc has its place but it's a SMALL place. The main thing is if we can prevent people suffering avoidably in the near future. Engaging in unrealistic moaning after both Article 50 and a general election has brought us closer to sudden disruption and a recession.

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  14. I know it's the world cup but "rapid right wing press" might need a "b" instead of a "p"

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  15. You give took much credit to "the fairness doctrine".

    The right-wing invented free lunch political-economics that promised increased benefits from cutting costs, in every area. A denial of zero sum.

    On human rights, eliminating zero sum means society is better, freer, when Christian radicals can dictate to Christians, Muslims, Jews, agnostics what to believe and how to behave, because Christian radicals are merely exercising their religious liberty.

    Likewise, cutting costs, of living, energy, food, health care, goods, services, labor, makes everyone better off by putting more money in everyone's pockets, thus growing GDP faster. As if cutting labor costs, and all costs but monopoly and rent profits are labor costs, means more money in worker pockets.

    Conservatives invented a message that justifies rent seeking and monopoly profits as being the free lunch they claimed socialist or communism promised.

    The problem with tax and spend, it hits zero sum. When conservatives wanted more military spending to profit their businesses, they had to find the way to hike taxes to pay for it. When taxing workers not in the military supply chain, they demand spending to their benefit, so higher taxes mean less of an increase in military spending, or much higher taxes to pay for much higher spending over all.

    So, free lunch economics argues that the entire economy can be substitutes for lower cost goods and services to grow the quantity of everything consumed. Ie, lower food prices will increase the food per person consumed enough to raise total food spending. Cut cookie costs by 50% and 125% more cookies will be consumed. Cut gasoline costs by 50%, and everyone will drive 150% more miles per day, 200% more miles if cars become more fuel efficient.

    Electronics costing less led to increased total consumer costs by cutting consumer spending on other things, like paper and pencil and typewriters and typists and secretaries and manual machine operators and newspapers and books, plus a bit of added income from more people working more hours. But you can pay for increased consumption from lower costs AND PRICES by cutting consumption of lots of other goods and services for every single part of the economy. Cutting costs in every part of the economy requires cutting the size of the economy.

    Zero sum.

    Tanstaafl.

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  16. He is a Representative, not a Senator.

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  17. He was not a Senator. He was a member of the House of Representatives.

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