Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016


Tuesday, 18 June 2019

For too many Conservatives there is no spoon


The Tory party has lost its battle with reality. But there remains one hope, a man with a joke and a smile that can set the UK free from the EU. Unfortunately to do that he may set the UK free from democracy as we know it.

For those not familiar with the film Matrix, there is a scene where the hero Neo encounters a boy bending a spoon with his mind. The boy hands the spoon to Neo. The dialog goes on:

Spoon boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That's impossible. Instead... only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Spoon boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Spoon boy: Then you'll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

Neo then appears to bend the spoon with his mind. In the film the spoon isn’t real, but a digital simulation fed to unconscious humans to keep them alive. But what would happen in the real world if you really, really wanted to bend that spoon, and there was another world where you could make that happen? You could get to that world by talking a blue pill offered to you by a kind of anti-Neo.

Welcome to the contest for our next Prime Minister, where the electorate is just a small group of party members and Conservative MPs. The current contest is all about Brexit. Brexit is stuck. The goal of Brexiters, taken up by many (but definitely not all) who voted for it, is to gain complete independence from the EU and all its rules and regulations. They hoped to do this by leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, and replacing them with a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU. Unfortunately they brushed aside two obstacles: the Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement.

Together they are a spoon that so many Conservatives want to bend by wishing it so. The Irish government and the EU live in the real world, so they know that an FTA with the EU would require a hard border on the island of Ireland. A hard border is incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement. As a result, either Northern Ireland or the UK has to keep their trading rules such that there cannot be a hard border in Ireland. The backstop ensures this will happen. Complete independence for the UK from the EU is therefore impossible, just like bending a spoon by thought alone.

Most Conservative candidates for Prime Minister pretend they can really bend the spoon. Many suggest it can be bent using soon to be invented technology. Technology that would make a hard border anywhere near the actual border unnecessary. But these candidates have a problem. If such technology could be found, the EU have said they would be happy to apply it. And if such technology is just around the corner, why would the Brexiters object to the backstop that will soon be removed? The fact that the same Brexiters who say the technology is almost apon us also refuse to accept the backstop suggests they do not really believe in bending spoons.

One or two candidates say that, if only they are given a chance to stare into the whites of the EU negotiators eyes, they can make the EU bend. This is also impossible. Others suggest that we can leave in October with No Deal and then we can do the FTA we want, because the EU will want the £39 billion that we have already agreed we owe them. In reality if we break our existing agreements with the EU after a No Deal Brexit the EU can do things like fail to let our airplanes fly.

Many of those voting for our next Prime Minister may understand all this deep down. They agree with the spoon boy that you cannot bend a spoon by thought alone. Instead they want to take the blue pill, and go to a world where almost anything is possible if you want it enough. A world where you can wish away the Irish border problem. The same world where we once stood alone and won WWII all by ourselves.

These Conservative party members are not hanging on every detail of alternative arrangements for the Irish border to check that they will actually work. They don’t mind too much how we leave and what is done to parliament to make that happen. They just want their blue pill and their anti-Neo to make all their difficulties disappear. They want someone to get Brexit done and banish Farage and then diminish Corbyn so they might actually win another election. They want there to be no spoon, because life would be too difficult if today’s reality turned out to be all there is. In particular, and to mix imaginary tales horribly, if they recognised reality they would have to give up their precious, Brexit.

Just after the 2017 general election I wrote about the Zugzwang that the Conservative party found itself in. Zugzwang is a term in chess where a player finds themselves in a position where every move that it is possible to make ends up making them worse off. In that situation the chess player would like to skip their move, but the rules say they cannot. What I had in mind then was that most Tory MPs wanted to be rid of May because she was clearly a hopeless leader who had called an unnecessary election with a commanding lead in the polls and lost it all. Yet these same MPs could not get rid of May because they would get a Brexiter instead.

I underestimated the Zugzwang the Conservatives were in. I hadn’t realised the depth of the rabbit hole that Brexiters were prepared to take the Conservative party and its members. Brexit could have happened if the Brexiters had not voted against May’s deal. Instead they have taken a referendum that promised the easiest trade deal with the EU in history and pretended it is mandate for No Deal at all. Their supporters in the press egg them on and most in the broadcast media let this pass.

At the bottom of the rabbit hole of Brexit, where only complete independence for the EU is acceptable, you can only survive by taking the blue pill. The blue pill takes you to another place where most Conservative members and MPs want to live. And Boris Johnson, who can seemingly make any bullets fired at him stop dead in mid air with a joke and a smile, is the person who can make this happen. Boris Johnson will offer you a red pill and a blue pill. The red pill that is reality and the blue pill where thought can bend spoons. Pills like the two articles he wrote before he decided to champion Brexit.

Unfortunately that other place where you go if you take the blue pill is not fictitious. They have seen it across the Atlantic. Johnson is in reality their Trump. Trump can get away with so many things that once were considered outrageous, and he only gets away with it because he has a party machine and media behind him that is prepared to tolerate and justify anything Trump does so they can stay in power, as long as the party serves its backers’ interests. A UK version of Trump is the only way of delivering an outrageous thing like No Deal Brexit.

Johnson, like Trump, is criticised for his lies and personal behaviour but he just laughs it off and nothing seems to matter. There are much more worrying similarities between the two. Johnson, like Trump, cannot concentrate for long, says or does the wrong thing at critical moments, has no vision except his own advancement, and makes serious mistakes that go beyond his words and his personal life. His genius is to turn his own incompetence into a joke, so he appears so refreshing compared to most politicians. Although the jokes may be well rehearsed, the incompetence is real. When you are worse off because of his incompetence it isn’t funny anymore, but you just need enough people who are yet to experience his incompetence first hand and who appreciate a funny politician and the job is done.

Which leads to a critical realisation. If Johnson is the UK’s Trump, then the spoon is not just the Irish border, or the consequences of a No Deal Brexit. The spoon has to be politics as we once knew it, democracy as we once knew it.

The first spoon that will be bent is an independent media that asks critical questions based on facts. As William Davies and others have observed, Johnson’s first leadership press conference was positively Trumpian. Journalists who ask tough questions were booed. Later pressure will be brought through the Tory media or elsewhere such that journalists quickly learn that asking such questions is more trouble than it is worth. Small outposts of critical thought may remain, because you only need to control what most people see and read to bend the spoon to your will. Whereas Trump plays the media through his tweets, Johnson can shrug off using racist imagery about Muslim women by offering the MSM cups of tea.

The spoon may become the judiciary, that has already raised the wrath of parts of the governing party, its press and its members by daring to allow parliament the final say in enacting Article 50. The already unprecedented number of attacks by politicians on the civil service will morph into a politicisation of the civil service that Thatcher would never have dreamed of. And very soon the spoon may be parliament itself. Johnson is committed to imposing the most devastating kind of Brexit on the UK if he cannot get a deal by October, and parliament may well try to stop him. Johnson has not ruled out ignoring or suspending parliament and going ahead anyway. If his poll numbers are not as favourable as some hope, or the deal he offers Farage is rejected, he may be tempted to bypass parliament rather than call an election.

The spoon that Johnson and his party want to bend or to pretend doesn’t exist is pluralist democracy itself. It will happen slowly, each stage seemingly not so bad because each happens with a joke and a smile. We can only hope that just because most Conservative members want to live in a world where there is no spoon, enough voters prefer changing the real world in ways that enhance rather than diminish our democracy.


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