For Leavers at least, the morning of 1 February ought to have been like ‘swimmers into cleanness leaping’ (though, come to think of it, that didn’t go so well the first time). For Remainers, it was always going to be a case of ‘ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain,/On the bald street breaks the blank day.’ What was surprising, then, was that some Leavers too were a little fractious. Even before Big Ben had failed, as it turned out, to bong in celebration of the UK’s deliverance (Northern Ireland only sort of), there were spots of disillusion already visible on the sunlit uplands.
Five days before B-Day, Theresa Villiers, the environment secretary, standing in her wellies in a farmyard, told the BBC that the UK would not be importing chlorinated chicken or hormone-fed beef from the US or anywhere else. Both of these products are ‘illegal under EU law which we are importing into our domestic system’. The UK would hold the line: ‘We will defend our national interest and our values, including our high standards of animal welfare.’ You couldn’t ask for a more categorical pledge.
Even before the interview was broadcast, having seen an advance clip, the Brexiteer Dominic Lawson exploded into polemic in the Sunday Times, echoed a few days later by a leader in the Times. The continuation of the ban would be a disaster, the argument went, which would prevent a big trade deal with the US, certainly a quick one. It isn’t just Trump. Joe Biden has sworn that ‘we are not going to sign a trade deal that the chicken farmers of Delaware don’t like.’ The EU ban is ‘pure protectionism, lacking the slightest scientific justification in terms of human health or animal welfare’. A few years back, Europe’s own Food Safety Authority pronounced that ‘exposure to chlorite residues arising from treated poultry carcasses would be of no safety concern.’ In any case, far fewer Americans contract salmonella than Europeans.
Which all sounds fair enough. On the other hand, Boris Johnson has to think of the good chicken farmers of Norfolk. And as for British consumers, they can hardly be said to be grossly exploited when you can buy a small British chicken in Aldi for £1.87 and a medium bird for £3. The president of the British Veterinary Association and the head of food policy at Which? continue to insist that chlorine-washing chickens does mask dodgy animal husbandry and that rates of foodborne disease are far higher in the US.
Nor are things getting off to a smoother start in the high-tech sector. The government has refused to fall into line with Trump’s furious ban on Huawei’s involvement in Britain’s 5G network, and the bombardiers of Brexit – Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, Liam Fox et al – are furious too. The industry points out that Huawei kit has already been installed in dozens of cities across the UK and to a more sophisticated standard than the US can currently provide. Ripping it all out would cost billions and cause a delay of several years. To the layman, the US insistence on keeping Huawei out seems to have less to do with fears for national security than with good old-fashioned protectionism of the chlorinated chicken type. Then there is the UK’s proposed digital tax on Google and Amazon, in response to which Trump has threatened to retaliate with tariffs on British motor cars (he has already forced Macron to put aside a similar proposal by threatening to whack tariffs on champagne and Camembert).
So far then, in the first few days of actual Brexit, the Johnson government has ganged up with the EU on the three hottest issues of the day. And there is plenty more to come. It’s hard to see how Johnson can avoid ‘betraying’ Britain’s fishermen all over again by letting EU boats continue to trawl in UK waters as they have for centuries. These spats are conducted by all sides in Trumpish style: fortissimo, strutting, the protagonists always talking back to their domestic audience. Quiet diplomacy is for wimps. Meanwhile, the great corpus of European law continues to squat on our statute book, and the £30 billion committed to future European projects under the withdrawal agreement still has to be paid. For Brexiteers, the EU is a visitor who long outstayed her welcome and has now left her luggage blocking the hall.
The chancellor, Sajid Javid, talks brightly of ‘divergence’ from EU norms. He told the Financial Times that ‘there will not be alignment, we will not be rule-takers.’ However, when he arrived in Davos last month, that line changed subtly: we would not be ‘diverging for the sake of it’. Almost every business group consulted regards these airy assertions as puerile. In the North-East, supposedly Johnson’s darling, the region’s branch of the CBI, its chamber of commerce, federation of small businesses, entrepreneurs’ forum and trade union congress, not to mention its local authorities and four universities, all signed up to a demand for continued access to the single market. On present form, even if we obtain a Canada-style free trade agreement which does not insist on full regulatory alignment, it seems likely that most industries will go along with fresh EU rules for fear of losing business. To use the language of feudalism beloved of the Brexiteers, we shall become tacit vassals. How much better off will we be than we were as members of the customs union and the single market?
Free trade zealots such as the economist Patrick Minford are happy to say in public that they wouldn’t mind seeing large parts of the British agriculture and automotive industries disappear so long as there was a net increase in national wealth. This is not, I think, what voters in Sunderland and Cornwall voted for. Enthusiasts like Jacob Rees-Mogg compare Brexit to the repeal of the Corn Laws. They tend not to dwell on the terrible agricultural depression that set in after the American railways and steamships started bringing corn from the Midwest into the country in the 1870s. Thousands of British farmers went bust and labourers left the land in droves. Even Adam Smith conceded that
humanity may require that the freedom of trade should be restored only by slow gradations, and with a good deal of reserve and circumspection. Were those high duties and prohibitions taken away all at once, cheaper foreign goods of the same kind might be poured so fast into the home market as to deprive all at once many thousands of our people of their ordinary employment and means of subsistence.
The political reality is surely that the outcome of the tortuous trade wrangles to come will be decided ultimately by voters’ fears rather than by the speculative calculations of economists. If Johnson is to continue to be God, he will have to temper the wind to the shorn lamb.
These absorbing struggles should not distract us from the fact that the Tory right is engaged on an ambitious enterprise of demolition and detachment, of which leaving the EU is only the most conspicuous – though so far the most momentous – element. Yes, national solitude is the Holy Grail for the Knights Not Round the Table – Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Sir Bill Cash, Sir John Redwood et al – and they have devoted their adult lives to it. But they have more in mind than this. They hope also to undo the constitutional and administrative reforms of the Blair years. What they want to achieve is a simplification of democracy. The overall goal is often described, and with justice, as a sort of national populism, of the kind practised by Orbán, Bolsonaro and Erdoğan. But the mechanisms by which this new style of politics is to be delivered and entrenched are peculiar to Britain.
The Tory right always loathed what I’ll call for convenience the Blair reforms (though some of them pre-date him – or postdate him – and he wasn’t always their most enthusiastic proponent). The indictment was drawn up most plangently by the late Roger Scruton and most pugnaciously by David Starkey. It accuses ‘the liberal elite’ of foisting five abominations on the long-suffering British people who asked for none of them and find them all alien intrusions: membership of the EU, mass immigration, devolution to Scotland and Wales, the introduction of human rights into English and Scottish law and the invention of the Supreme Court. Taken together, Starkey has written, these reforms have done ‘serious and perhaps irreversible damage to the fabric of the historic British constitution’.
The Johnson government is beginning the long haul of mitigating the effect of these unwelcome innovations, if not of obliterating them entirely: by leaving the EU and abolishing free movement; by forbidding another referendum on Scottish independence and denying further powers to the devolved assemblies (if possible, cutting down the pretensions of what used to be called the Scottish Executive to be a full-blown government). Less often noticed, but crucial, is the refusal to restore the old financial freedoms of local government: the new initiatives to revive the North are strictly London-led, as was George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse project. The Supreme Court (never to be forgiven for its refutation of Johnson’s prorogation) is to be starved of oxygen by limiting the right to judicial review – ‘a bit of constitutional plumbing’, as the attorney general reassuringly calls it.
The Tory manifesto promised a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission in order to ‘restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates’. But the people who have lost trust most absolutely are the Tory hardliners. The intention is clear enough. Human rights law must be updated to ‘ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government’. Judicial review must not be ‘abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays’. That is, the government is not to be blocked.
No more Lady Hales, and no more John Bercows either. At the time of writing, Bercow is the first retiring Speaker of the UK Parliament not to be offered a peerage in 230 years; his bullying of Commons staff is the official reason given. We should mention here the half-baked project to remove the House of Lords to some undecided location in the North, an eye-catching publicity gesture, the practical effect of which would be to cut the Lords out of the national dialogue. It is a token of contempt for the second chamber rather than a sign of fresh interest in it. This contempt has been glaring every time projects for Lords reform have come forward to the Commons. Tory MPs hate the idea of sharing any extra ounce of power with a chamber which has so often put up reasoned resistance to their pet ideas. Perhaps most unsettling of all is the Conservatives’ determination – a manifesto promise – to abolish the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, thus restoring to the government of the day its privilege of choice over the date of an election, a privilege which it has often muffed but which this government of all governments is not to be trusted with. More ominous still is the promise of ‘introducing identification to vote at polling stations’. This is a remedy for the almost invisible problem of voter fraud, designed in fact to deter poor or disorganised voters from turning out or even registering, the way the Republicans do in the States with such dire results.
The net effect of all this would be to restore the unqualified control of the majority in the House of Commons in all matters. It is to restore, in all its brutal simplicity, what Lord Hailsham in a 1976 lecture called Britain’s ‘elective dictatorship’. (The phrase had first been used of Garibaldi.) Hailsham himself had used the phrase before, in 1968 and 1969: so always when Labour was in power, never, heaven forfend, when he himself was a Conservative lord chancellor. He assumed, and most Conservatives agreed with him, that the dangers of an unbridled Commons majority applied only to a left-wing government. Only Labour governments proudly deployed their majority as the ‘battering ram of social change’, to use Dick Crossman’s pretty phrase. Not any more. This long march through the institutions is being conducted by the right.
Johnson’s government may be able to make considerable progress on this project, not just because it has a thumping majority of eighty, but also because, before the election, Johnson had expelled the conspicuous spokesmen of liberal Toryism from his party in one of the most brutal purges in modern British political history. At the same time, we are told that the central apparat of government is to be weaponised. The traditional system of cabinet committees is designed to bring disparate viewpoints to the table and to pluralise deliberation, often slowing or watering down poorly thought-out proposals. Now cabinet committees are to be, if not abolished, largely replaced by taskforces on the Cobra model, with their members and agenda picked by Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s in-house Svengali. This sounds suspiciously like a rerun of the ‘sofa government’ style of the Blair administrations – not a happy precedent, the dodgy dossier and the Millennium Dome being only its most conspicuous outputs.
Cummings has called for a wave of weirdos and technocrats to wake up Whitehall, but at the same time warned hopefuls that they will be ‘binned in six weeks’ if they don’t shape up. Similar warnings have allegedly been issued to cabinet ministers. And of course every Tory candidate standing at the election had to promise to ‘get Brexit done’. This is not in fact a government likely to encourage dissent or unexpected suggestions. The prevailing atmosphere will only encourage Johnson’s notorious weakness for wizard wheezes – the Boris Island airport, the Garden Bridge, the hop-on hop-off Routemaster buses – all of which in their short lives managed to waste amazing amounts of money. Now HS2 seems to be on its way, dwarfing all the rest in the billions it will consume for promised benefits that keep shifting as each previous rationale is shown to be flaky. What is clear above all is that this prime minister does not even pretend, as previous prime ministers have usually pretended, to be merely primus inter pares. He is the Capo, the Duce. The Conservative manifesto included no fewer than seven huge colour pictures of Johnson, and concluded with a full-page illustration of workers in hard hats holding a makeshift placard saying ‘WE LOVE BORIS’.
At this point we need to look beyond Westminster and Whitehall. If we compare our wider political culture with the landscape fifty years ago, we can’t help seeing an extraordinary thinning out. The trade unions have become a shrunken irrelevance (except when it comes to electing a new Labour leader). The Conservative Party, too, has become a shrunken irrelevance (except when it comes to electing a new Tory leader), its membership down from two million to something over one hundred thousand. The big business organisations are derided by Tory hardliners as out-of-touch elites – ‘fuck business’ was Johnson’s immortal phrase. Local authorities have been starved of funds and legally emasculated. The BBC, which Ivor Jennings called one of the pillars of the British constitution, is now threatened with the loss of the licence fee and a demotion that would leave it as just another subscription-based network. It’s hard to exaggerate the irrational loathing of the BBC among Conservative MPs. For years, Cummings has been tweeting and blogging that the BBC is ‘the mortal enemy of the right’. Notice too the unashamed Bannonesque use of the term ‘the right’, where previous propagandists would have said merely ‘the Tories’ or ‘the Conservative Party’. The new simplifiers are proud to be recognised as the ideologues they are.
In this impoverished political landscape, the nation and national pride bulk ever larger, bolstering our sense of self-worth, tickling up our resentments. This emboldened nationalism has a weather-beaten old ally in the shape of the popular newspapers, which are jubilant about Brexit, not without reason regarding its achievement as largely their own work – ‘yes, we did it!’ the Daily Express declared. Their circulations may be sadly shrunken, but their pretensions to be the Voice of the People are more strident than ever. The simplifying of democracy is just the ticket for the midget heirs of Northcliffe and Beaverbrook, incurably impatient as they are with intermediate institutions and constitutional restraints. But even the press is being subjugated, along with the broadcasting media. Ministers are now instructed not to talk to awkward interviewers like Andrew Neil or appear on shows with an alleged anti-government bias, like the Today programme. There are to be new restrictions on the parliamentary lobby’s access to briefings from the PM’s spokesperson, thus making it possible to freeze out unfavoured reporters. Again, this recalls the worst behaviour of Alastair Campbell when he was Blair’s spokesman. It needs to be said plainly that this is not a pleasant government, or an overscrupulous one.
I do not romanticise the politics of fifty years ago. Governments were often bumbling, often underinformed, slow to confront or to understand the challenges that faced the country. And yet, on the whole, they were good-humoured and good-mannered and respectful of those institutions with which they were in almost daily contact. And, through those institutions, people, on the whole, felt that they were in some sort of conversation with their rulers.
One major casualty of the new style is the doctrine of the separation of powers. But then it is axiomatic to the absolutists that the separation of powers has never had any place in the British constitution. Starkey calls it ‘one of the worst and one of the most influential ideas around’. It only ever got any airtime because Montesquieu couldn’t really speak English and misunderstood how the British constitution actually worked, a misunderstanding which he then bequeathed to the luckless Americans. The simplifiers can claim support here from several of the most revered writers on the British constitution. Walter Bagehot believed the ‘efficient secret’ of the constitution to be precisely that there are no checks and balances in it: ‘Hobbes told us long ago, and everyone now understands, that there must be a supreme authority, a conclusive power, in every state on every point somewhere.’ That’s why the US constitution was so appallingly weak. A.V. Dicey put it more brutally: ‘Under all the formality, the antiquarianism, the sham of the British constitution, there lies an element of power which has been the true source of its life and growth. This secret source of strength is the absolute omnipotence, the sovereignty of Parliament.’
But Edmund Burke didn’t talk like this at all – and yet most of our modern Conservative thinkers fancy themselves as Burkeans. What Burke said was that in making our political arrangements ‘we compensate, we reconcile, we balance.’ What successful nations could boast of was ‘not an excellence in simplicity, but one far superior, an excellence in composition’. For Burke, to describe the British polity was not simply to highlight the ultimate law-making power of the parliamentary majority; you had to encompass and respect the whole ecosphere of law and custom. His indictment against the French revolutionaries was that
the tenant right of a cabbage garden, a year’s interest in a hovel, the goodwill of an alehouse or a baker’s shop … are more ceremoniously treated in our Parliament than with you the oldest and most valuable landed possessions … We entertain a high opinion of the legislative authority, but we have never dreamed that Parliament had any right whatever to violate property, to overrule prescription.
Burke combined a reverence for our tried institutions with an openness to change when practical considerations prompted – what Michael Oakeshott later called ‘intimations’. The trouble is that Burke himself, like many other conservatives, tended in practice not to recognise such intimations. Nothing could have been more obvious than that rotten boroughs ought to be abolished and the new towns and cities of the Midlands and the North given their representatives in Parliament. Nothing, however, could have been more stubborn or more devious than Burke’s defence of the status quo, which damaged the cause of reform for a generation and fomented lasting class conflict.
In the same way, Bagehot panicked at the prospect of extending the vote to working men in 1867: ‘The masses of Englishmen are not yet fit for an elective government.’ After Disraeli’s Reform Act became law, he confessed that ‘I am exceedingly afraid of the ignorant multitude of the new constituencies.’ Dicey was even more panicky at the prospect of Irish Home Rule. As for votes for women, that would be a total disaster. There might even come to be women in the cabinet! When our great constitutional interpreters have been so hysterically wrong in the past, why should we believe their much diminished modern equivalents?
The ‘terrible simplifiers’ were first identified and denounced by the Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt at the end of the 19th century. Burckhardt’s forecast was that the pursuit and possession of unimaginable material wealth would introduce a brutal simplicity into political culture, eroding the rule of law and flattening social relations. But his critique did not restrict itself to the threat he foresaw in his own time.
Boris Johnson is fond of claiming Pericles as his classical political hero. He is said to keep on his desk in Downing Street a bust of the great man in his general’s helmet. For Victorian schoolmasters and classically minded imperialists, Pericles was indeed the ultimate icon, just as he has been more recently for the founders of American neoconservatism, the Yale classicist Donald Kagan and his sons Robert and Frederick, both of whom were influential in promoting the second Iraq War. And yet for the Founding Fathers of the United States, Hamilton and Madison in particular, Pericles was a warmongering imperialist who instigated and persisted in the fatal war with Sparta and debased Athenian political culture. That’s what Burckhardt thought too. Like the later Roman emperors, Pericles had debauched the people; ‘he was also forced to humour their greed with pleasures of all sorts – not to satisfy it would have been impossible.’ He may even have welcomed the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War because it deflected popular anger away from him.
What we do know from Thucydides, Aristotle and Plutarch is that Pericles had instituted strict racial criteria for Athenian citizenship: every citizen had to have two Athens-born parents, which caused trouble for his own immigrant second wife. He had achieved power by having his rivals ostracised, with a campaign as ruthless and deceitful as anything dreamed up by Cambridge Analytica. To tighten his grip, he neutered the upper house, the Areopagus, which had acted as a restraining influence on the popular Assembly. And he diverted the tribute paid by the so-called allies (in reality, colonies) of Athens from the mutual defence for which it was intended, to tarting up the city and making payments to the citizens for attending the Assembly – in short, a policy of bread and circuses, thus creating a client citizenry which could be relied on to re-elect Pericles as strategos time and again. His famous speeches are masterpieces of eloquence, but they are also typical of all war leaders’ speeches: we have right on our side, we’re great, we’re winning, don’t believe the gloomsters. After Pericles died of the plague, possibly a side effect of famine, the Athenians began to have second thoughts about his type of democracy. There was a gradual but marked shift back to the more complex and nuanced system that Cleisthenes had devised a century earlier: the Areopagus was revived, and there was a greater reliance on expert managers and professional generals on longer-term contracts. A return to elites in other words, though the democratic tradition still flourished. You could say that over the years Athenian democracy was recomplicated.
It is always tempting to believe that normality continues to prevail, that the government we now have is basically a continuation of previous governments with only the personnel and the style altered. Any incoming prime minister with a modicum of cunning will welcome this cloak of normalisation. Johnson is already being described as ‘governing like a pragmatic centrist’. He lets it be known that he sees himself as a sort of reincarnated Michael Heseltine, ‘a Brexity Hezza’. These early months, even years, are typical of authoritarian regimes settling in and seeking to gain the confidence of voters nervous of what they have let themselves in for. It is painful to recall the dewy-eyed reports that foreign visitors brought back from early visits to the dictators of the 1920s and 1930s.
Well, it may not come to that. Under the pressure of events, the Johnson government, and others in the same mould, may back down towards normality, or be replaced by genuinely centrist leaders. But what is clear is that this is not a continuation of Thatcherism at all. There are not many hymns being sung to the free market and deregulation, no reluctance to intervene, to splash public cash (or at least promise to splash). Every opportunity is taken to avoid being tagged as ‘austerian’ or ‘neoliberal’. In its hectic tone, its personality cult, its flattening of the surrounding political landscape, this government is, at the very least, not ordinary.
How and why did this new approach rear up as the new orthodoxy? How did a politician who was generally regarded as a busted flush only a couple of years ago come to exercise such unquestioned dominance? I think the best base camp for this excursion is Edward Luttwak’s article ‘Why Fascism Is the Wave of the Future’, in the LRB of 7 April 1994. At the time, this essay, delivered in Luttwak’s inimitable style, at once torrential and precise, must have seemed utterly counterintuitive, appearing as it did only five years after Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History’. Fukuyama argued with a seductive confidence that liberal democracy was here to stay, that in this sense the great struggles of human history had come to an end. Oh no, they haven’t, Luttwak retorted.
According to Luttwak, only now was capitalism at last wreaking its full devastating impact, as described and prophesied by observers from Marx to Schumpeter. In Europe and the US, heavy industry and mining had already run their course, leaving shattered communities all over the old industrial heartlands. But now the technological revolution was hollowing out the white-collar classes too. The back office was emptying, to be filled with computers. No longer would generations of clerks troop down the hill into the City every morning. Yes, new jobs would emerge, but they would be worse paid, less satisfying and less secure. Phrases like ‘the gig economy’ and ‘the precariat’ were still uncoined, but it is remarkable how accurately Luttwak voiced our current concerns 25 years ago. Of course, there are some things to dispute. Some research has shown that on average people stay in their jobs just as long as they used to; pay statistics vary from country to country and from sector to sector; and some young people may actually enjoy working in the zero-hours economy. But there is no doubt that shifting stacks in a supermarket lacks the arduous heroism of the pit or the steel mill. The low self-esteem that millions of people suffer at work today is not a media invention, and in some parts of the new economy – call centres, Amazon warehouses – wages are as dismal and working conditions as oppressive as in a Victorian mill.
There is now evident a puzzled disillusionment with the workings of capitalism which was not visible in the 1950s and 1960s. At the same time, there is no answering confidence that classical socialism would do us much better. As Luttwak argued in 1994, neither free-market Republicans nor state-control Democrats seemed to have a convincing answer. The word that has since crept into political debate is ‘security’. It is not by any means a new word in politics. Although an aficionado of the free market, Jeremy Bentham preferred ‘security’ to ‘liberty’ as the purpose of policy.
What does ‘security’ imply in the politics of today? Well, at the very least, measures to help farmers and small shops and businesses, dollops of aid to hard-pressed regions, repeated hikes in the minimum wage to enable families to survive with a single earner. Tempering the gale of creative destruction is the name of the game. This will require agile mental gymnastics for the old Thatcherites on the Tory benches. But we cannot blink away the piquant irony that the morning after we have sacked the Belgian governess, we are seeking new domestic help.
Only at the end of his essay did Luttwak sketch what he guessed might be the ultimate consequence of these upheavals. He foresaw
a space that remains wide open for a product-improved fascist party, dedicated to the enhancement of the personal economic security of the broad masses of (mainly) white-collar working people. Such a party could even be as free of racism as Mussolini’s original was until the alliance with Hitler, because its real stock in trade would be corporativist restraints on corporate Darwinism, and delaying if not blocking barriers against globalisation. It is not necessary to know how to spell Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft to recognise the fascist predisposition engendered by today’s turbocharged capitalism.
Is this then the new end of history, a sort of low-tar fascism which you don’t actually have to inhale? Faced with this dismal prospect, the first priority is surely to revive our remaining links with European institutions and to devise fresh ones to meet the altered reality. But there is a challenge at home too. I would have thought this was also the moment to defend and improve our present constitutional settlement: to entrench the human rights of ordinary people, to improve their access to local power, enable them to travel and work where they please, give trade unions a voice in the workplace, give constituency parties back their ability to choose their candidates, give local authorities back their financial freedom, defend the BBC and the Supreme Court and even the House of Lords and any other institution that the simplifiers are attacking. Does this all sound a bit high-flown? Probably, but when the weather is closing in, there’s something to be said for flying high.
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