Can we please just revoke article 50 already?

May’s deal is terrible. Compared to remaining in the EU, it is economically harmful, reduces cooperation between the UK and other EU member states in many areas of life, including scientific and academic research, reduces the diplomatic clout of the all member states, particularly the UK and has no real upside. The positive case of further trade deals with non-EU states simply does not stack up: the UK would struggle to replicate relationships even close to as favourable as currently exist with non EU members, because of the terms of the withdrawal agreement and existing FTA’s between the EU and non EU states such deals would likely require regulatory alignment with the EU anyway, and, even if all this were not the case, economic gravity implies that any deal with the EU is far more important anyway.  The only ‘positive’ argument for May’s deal over and above EU membership is that may allow the UK to restrict free movement. The main problem with this argument is that there aren’t any real benefits to restricting free movement within the EU, just a large amount of extra economic pain, fewer personal opportunities, and a large dollop of gratuitous cruelty, particularly given the way such restrictions are likely to be implemented by a Conservative government.

The one remaining argument for May’s deal is increasingly her own: it’s that or no deal. I assume anyone reading this is already convinced that ‘no deal’ is unfathomably terrible, so it will suffice to say that it avoids none of the cruelty or long term badness of May’s deal, but with a lot more short term chaos. I suppose if the choice really is May’s deal or no deal, May’s deal is the only choice in town, being, unambiguously the lesser of two evils, albeit quite an evil evil to begin with.

The elephant in the room is obvious. Why not simply call the whole thing off? There is an answer to this, which is worth seriously considering. This is that it represents the best possible political compromise. It is not true, as some suggest, that such a compromise cannot represent a stable outcome simply because nobody would choose it above their preferred outcome. This is as, so the argument would go, neither side gets exactly what they want, but both sides get something better than their worst fear. There are then two strands to how this argument progresses.  The first is that the stability of a compromise- any compromise, is of value. It allows life to continue and future diplomatic and economic relations to be built. The second strand is political- only if both sides feel a compromise has been reached, and, leavers in particular feel the referendum result has been upheld, can a damaging narrative of betrayal be avoided. This modern Dolchstoßlegende,  so the argument goes, would feed the far right in an already precarious time.

The problem with this argument is it presupposes that leading Brexiteers do in fact see May’s deal as a worthwhile compromise. They do not.  They will cry betrayal regardless, just this time in the backdrop of a lot of economic pain and cruelty. Perhaps if they were rational and responsible they would value the stability of whatever outcome occurs over the prospect of winning a game of chicken, but the willingness of leading Brexiteers to advocate no deal, and indeed the whole Brexit episode itself, suggests this is not the case.

In what sense, then, does May’s deal represent a compromise? It is at best a compromise between remainers desires and their own, likely misplaced sense of obligation to see through the results of an extraordinarily problematic referendum. Unless the alternative really is no deal, this is not a road it makes any sense to go down. Let’s revoke article 50 already.

Is 'anger at the status quo' a useful concept?

Much of the British commentary on the politics of Brexit assumes, either implicitly or explicitly that the referendum result was the result of a sense of disenfranchisement, or disempowerment, present in a wide section of the electorate. This notion of disenfranchisement is not typically defined, but is typically taken to exist as a general sentiment over and above specific political motivations or goals, acting both as an emotional  intensifier and a general sense of anger at politicians and political processes. This notion is used both as a form of apologism for otherwise unsavory political developments (describing, for example, anti-immigrant sentiment as focusing on a lack of control over migration policy) and as part of an argument in favour of other radical political programs. It is particularly significant that many supporters of Jeremy Corbyn argue that a sense of disenfranchisement among the population could be channeled towards a left wing movement if it adopts the proper rhetorical strategy to compliment its policy platform (this notion has deep roots in the left).

But while there may be some use of this notion of disenfranchisement in general, in makes no sense in the particular context we find ourselves. First and foremost, in making sense of the leave vote, it makes sense to remind ourselves of certain basic facts. The first is that having voted for the governing party prior to the referendum is a pretty good predictor of your vote in the referendum, but in the opposite  direction to what would be consistent with the narrative of disenfranchisement. 66% of those who voted Conservative in 2015 voted Leave in 2016, 68% of Labour voters voted remain. While only a plurality of leave voters (43%) voted Conservative, this is largely a product of the British electoral system (to illustrate this, consider by the same logic that around 80% of remain voters did not vote for the government). For the leave vote to be motivated by a sense of political disenfranchisement, it would require precisely those who have had the most success in determining recent election outcomes to be most likely to also have voted leave. This, while not an absolute logical impossibility, is certainly quite hard to reconcile with the undifferentiated notion of disenfranchisement typically discussed. What’s more, the election result of 2017 seems to only strengthen rather than weaken this trend. 

A second reason to distrust the idea of general disenfranchisement as a motivator in the referendum is to look at policy in recent years and whether those who voted leave were more or less likely to have been represented in this sense. Here too, the idea of disenfranchisement seems equally backwards; the referendum result in many crucial senses tells the opposite story. As Simon Wren Lewis notes on a blog post micro-economic impacts of austerity, those groups with the loudest voices and who represented the greatest electoral asset to the Conservatives were least hit by cuts since 2010. The state pension, for example, has seen real term increases at the same time that other state provisions have seen cuts. The correlation between age and the vote in the referendum is well known, at a time where government gerontocracy, in content if not in form. It is worth noting here that widely quoted figures on higher income voters tending to vote remain miss precisely this dimension: as leave voters are far more likely to be pensioners, their incomes tend to be lower, but in terms of assets leave voters tend to be wealthier, for much the same reason. An attitude to economic policy bares this out quite clearly. Leave voters tend to respond less favorably to redistributive economic policies, and more favorably to deregulation, to ‘capitalism’ as a system .

In what sense, then, can Leave voters, as a group, claim to be, or have been disenfranchised? There is one obvious sense, which is once again most consistent with the basic facts of the referendum result. Leave voters tend, overwhelmingly, to feel antagonistic towards the liberal social values which increasingly formed the political consensus. Numerous surveys have shown a leave vote to be closely associated with support for the reintroduction of the death penalty, corporal punishment in schools, and of course, negative views on multiculturalism and immigration. It is quite plausible to describe this as a form of political alienation. The sense that these views were increasingly marginalized, and those who held them strongly and unapologetically ostracized in recent decades is not a false one. But we must ask ourselves if this is a kind of disenfranchisement we want to be reversed, particularly when it is not associated with any general dislocation from political processes. We need only replace talk of addressing a sense of disenfranchisement with talk of empowerment for this to appear both intuitive and morally defensible. It is not that Leave voters feel less disenfranchised in a generic sense from political processes now the result has been achieved, it is that they feel more empowered to hold and vocalize what were previously unacceptable views on specific areas by  a result which appeared to legitimate and embolden those who held them in doing so.

This matters because it means in absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, we should not take seriously the idea that Labour, or any kind of progressive movement can or should seek to make use of the dissatisfaction of the Leave vote for progressive ends. To the extent it is about anger at existing political norms, it is precisely because these are insufficiently authoritarian and excessively socially liberal. There is no reason to suppose these forces exist as something, which could be redirected to achieving precisely the opposite aims.

What we think of the People's Vote campaign shouldn't matter

I am little dismayed over how often I have heard some variation of the following from what might normally be sympathetic voices: "I was warming to the idea of a second referendum, but the elitist and aggressive tone of People's Vote put me off." For what it's worth, I don't think this kind of characterisation is fair; there has been some fantastic work by some very dedicated people, and cameo appearances from celebrities have to a large extent been about generating coverage in an environment where the idea of a second referendum was all but written off a year or so ago.

But even if we agreed with this kind of characterisation (I have at times myself found myself agreeing with it), it should not affect our attitude to the policy. There are some instances in which the character of the proponents of a policy does matter. This might be when we elect a government, or when we judge that there is a significant normative effect of a campaign suceeding. But in this instance, the former is not the case, and the latter is surely less significant than what is at stake. Indeed, rationally, we might even think that if an argument is put forward badly, all other things being equal, the actual case in favour of it is likely to be stronger than it appears.

This is not to suggest that the the effectiveness or strategy of the People's Vote campaign is unimportant. It is deeply important. But we should not base our own support for a second referendum on our appraisal of it.

Is the Alt-Right Fascist?

Is the alt-right fascist? The ideological overlaps between the modern alt-right, and to some extent contemporary European and American right wing populism and inter-war fascist movements are  certainly striking. These include conspiracy driven explanations of world events, ethno-nationalism, a cult of masculinity, demonization of outsider groups, the belief that liberal or progressive values are at the root of social decay, the tendency towards idolization of strongmen, the desire to replace institutional rationality and the rule of law with common sense action to name a few. But there are clear differences also. Racial ideology, biological racism, or racial determinism, as theoretical frameworks that purport to explain historical events, are less at the forefront of the contemporary alt-right (though not absent). Racism, on the other hand, plays quite a significant role. 

How, therefore, are we to evaluate this question? Firstly, it must be noted that it is not an entirely an analytic one. Very few people would be happy to openly identify with a fascist movement, so the question is to some extent about whether an political movement is viewed as legitimate or not (a sillier variant of this, on the right, is the reminder that the term “National Socialist” contains the word ‘socialist). 

Secondly, it is worth remembering that the fascist movements of the inter-war period were in some ways ideologically divergent. Racial theory was one, if not the defining feature of German National Socialism. With Italian Fascism, at least in the 1920’s, this was not really the case. This is not to trivialize the horrors of the Italian Fascist experience, or deny the significance Mussolini’s apparent conversion to racial ideology in the mid to late 1930’s, ultimately resulting in the implementation of brutal race laws in 1938. But racial ideology was not part of the foundational mythology of Italian fascism in the way it was of National Socialism, however we are to understand the regime’s ideological shift.  Anti-clericalism, on the other hand, was a foundational idea of Italian fascism. The same can hardly be said to be true of Spanish, Portuguese or Austrian (pre-Nazi) fascism, all heavily supportive of Catholicism.

Moreover, as Mark Mazower’s brilliant Dark Continent shows, some of the peculiar (and grotesque) obsessions of interwar fascist movements had more general appeal at the time.  Concern with falling birth rates was near universal in Europe following the First World War, and pro-natalist policies were by no means unique to fascist countries. Eugenics drew support from figures as enlightened as John Maynard Keynes, and virulent anti-semitism was not confined to fascist countries.

Finally, the nature of political movements is not purely about their ideology, but the social, political and technological context in which they find themselves. Here the contrasts could not be clearer. Interwar fascism always required, in combination with popular support, the use of military or paramilitary force. There is nothing analogous to the paramilitaries of inter-war Germany or Italy in contemporary Europe or North America, though one could imagine something similar quickly arising in the US due to prevalence of firearms.

Where does all this leave us, with regard to the initial question? As a rhetorical device, the comparison is powerful, and, I think, important. As a starting point for political analysis, it has some use too, but not without qualifications. It can help understand certain developments, traits, and possibilities by providing a set of useful comparisons with a degree of family resemblance. This should not be to the exclusion of other, more contextually specific forms of analysis, even less leave us with a kind of deterministic pessimism about the prospects for resisting this wave of right wing populism. 

When Metaphors Go Wrong

The cognitive linguist George Lakoff has argued that metaphors play a crucial role in how we interpret the world. Political questions are no exception, so our metaphor of choice in understanding an issue might have a powerful effect on the answer we are likely to give. 'Should we, as a society, provide X' might well essentially be the same question as 'should the state use tax payer money to fund X', but it is not hard to see that those different ways of framing the question might well lead to different answers being given. One conceptualises the state as an external actor, the other does not. It is of course very hard to establish the chain of causation: does the metaphor bring about the opinion, or does the opinion lead to a tendency to find a particular metaphor more intuitive? It might well be some combination of the two.

In this light, Anand Menon is right to see the centrality of metaphors in the debate over a no deal Brexit, an option which should surely be ruled out as insane. In his appearance this Thursday on BBC question time, something quite shocking happened. The audience cheered loudly and enthusiastically when the prospect of no deal was raised. The metaphor used to encourage no deal was key: it had been compared, by Isabel Oakeshott, to whether or not to buy something. The problem with this, as Menon recognised, was that it implied on some level that no deal meant something akin to the status quo ante- if we decide not to buy something, we are in a position no different to the one before. His deconstruction of this was impressive, and I would recommend viewing it here

We may be on the verge of an extraordinarily bad outcome to the Brexit negotiations, and a bad metaphor may well end up playing a crucial role. In some sense, this is nothing new. The household metaphor for the economy was likely an important part of the psychological appeal of austerity. In a typical household, spending has no impact on income, which is more or less fixed. The only way, in that situation, to pay down any debts is to do so from existing income, which all other things being equal, means economising elsewhere. 

With regard to no deal Brexit, I fear that there might be deep reasons why Oakeshott's metaphor carried the audience. This is as many people fundamentally do not believe the EU is institutionally necessary. By this I do not mean that people do not think it does any good things. It is that the legal and institutional structures of the EU are viewed as burdensome and pointless. This is distinct from saying they fulfil a role badly. It is that they are often viewed as fulfilling no particular role at all. If this is the starting point, why shouldn't 'no deal' represent the status quo ante? The only difference would be the absence of things which are burdensome and pointless. This preconception may unfortunately be too hard to change in the space of time available. 

Brexit and Perestroika

When, a few months ago, the Bank of England released some conditional forecasts on the impact of a no deal Brexit, Paul Krugman, by no means a Brexit fan, took issue with their findings. How could even a no deal Brexit result in an 8% drop in GDP? Figures derived from changes in trade flows would surely result in a much smaller number. Later, he explained than he had been informed by members of the BoE that such forecasts were not merely based on analysis of the effect of trade barriers on patterns of trade , but the impact of supply chain disruption if authorities failed to implement an effective new regime quickly. His response was telling: OK, that makes a little more sense, but surely the British state would be a little more competent at dealing with disruptions of this kind than the BoE figures seem to imply. Perhaps, but perhaps not.

What this illustrates is an important distinction. Picturing what a system might look like in the long term when it adapts to a series of changes is one thing, how, immediately, a system responds to such a set of changes is another. The example of Perestroika in the Soviet Union is a case in point. When, in 1987, Gorbachev presented the basic theses of Perestroika to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, he was presenting policies based closely on what (certainly outside the Soviet Union) were widely accepted economic ideas. The eventual goal made sense: to end central economic planning, and to move towards something more akin to the social market economy, with an active state, but firms largely operating on the basis of price mechanisms. The problem was not with the end goal, it was how it was to be reached. Ending central planning and removing price controls in a system where supply chains, management, political and social structures had evolved under the direction of Gosplan proved so disruptive that the fabric of the Soviet, and later Russian economy, state and society that not only was the short term catastrophic, but the end goal was never reached. Living standards did not return to the level of the mid 1980s until the early 2000s, indeed by some measures they still have not done so. 

What does this mean, in the context of Brexit? Even a good idea, in the case of Perestroika based on an enormous amount of thought and research, and with a clear end state in mind, can end in catastrophe if the short term systemic shock is one too severe for the system to adapt. In the case of Brexit, what we have is a kind of crap Perestroika. There is little in terms of a rationale for the long term, but an analogous risk of short term disruption. This comes through the risk to supply chains, and to political structures in the form of the enormous legal black holes of what happens in a no deal, and the administrative burden of response which may be beyond the capacities of the British state.  Perhaps the British economy, society and politics will be better placed to respond to the shock of a no deal than the Soviet Union was to Perestroika. It is probably impossible to quantify such a risk too precisely. But it is surely worth having a vague idea that such a risk may be real.

Why the democratic case for a second referendum doesn't cut through with leavers

Why the democratic case for a second referendum doesn't cut through with leavers

How can having another vote on something be considered undemocratic? It's a good rhetorical question, posed by many remainers like myself, advocating a second referendum. There are, however, numerous possible answers to this. One is a point often made by Andrew Lilico, that rethinks should only happen after implementation, for the first to have had any meaning. We might then challenge the assumption that the first vote does indeed have to be meaningful (perhaps by saying that the process was flawed, or simply that giving the referendum this significance ex post facto is too harmful given other factors). We might also assert that the period of negotiations following the triggering of article 50 was that meaning. The vote can be seen as about starting a process, and once that process has arrived at a set of more concrete proposals, it might then be natural to see a referendum to ratify or reject that deal as a natural conclusion. None of these interpretations, of course, Lilico's included, were clearly defined prior to the result by anyone with the authority to do so, and we do not have the experience and precedent with this kind of referendum (where the yes option is not supported by a parliamentary majority) to have much of an established legal, political or philosophical framework to deal with these questions. Any response could be plausible depending on your desired outcome, and absent a massive shift of public opinion, that means any interpretation will therefore be disputed.

But I suspect there is a deeper reason why the case for a second referendum has had limited success cutting through with leavers (and quite a bit of success recently with unsure remainers). It is to do with how we conceptualize such a processs in the first place. The democratic case for a second referendum typically rests on the assertion that such a vote would amount to the 'people' having a say in what happens now. This may be justified by reference to people being allowed to change their mind, new facts being available, shifts in demography etc but to be persuasive it requires some kind of notion that such a vote would represent an organic process whereby what emerges is what 'the people' want. In other words, a vote is something to participate in, something that you are part of, rather than something which is imposed on you. The problem is, in highly divided societies, with a large amount of mutual suspicion, it is quite possible to see such a vote as an imposition rather than a valid participatory process. Such processes could simply represent an opportunity for some group seen as the 'other' to assert control your own life. It is quite easy in such a society to believe that your own group represents some true notion of what the people are. This might mean the working classes, it might mean inhabitants of the home counties, it might mean Nigel Farage's 'Little People' (or in the US context, the 'real America'). It is in the context of these kinds of social divisions that in the interwar period fascist movements could defend the overthrow of parliamentary systems in familiar democratic language. While perhaps always somewhat present, when cultural and social divisions become extreme it is quite possible to see any tactic as legitimate and any process which may not lead to your desired outcome as an illegitimate and imposed threat.

The American cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues that metaphorical systems are central to understanding how politics plays out, and that the prevalence of your preferred metaphor is key to political success. In the context of welfare, this means whether we conceptualize the state as a fatherly, disciplinary figure, or a nurturing, maternal figure might determine how active a state we are willing to support. In the context of a second referendum, the major battle for remainers should be to try and get people to conceptualize a second referendum as something participatory, something that is an action undertaken by a group called the 'people' which they are part of. As long as many conceptualize such a vote as something imposed from outside, the case for it will not cut through. Unfortunately, in a society divided as our own, and with those opposed better placed to get their message across, it is a very difficult one to win.

Is Brexit democratic?

Chris Dillow and Simon Wren Lewis have both recently written compelling articles about when and whether Labour should support a second referendum. I am big fan of their blogs, so when they write ostensibly contrasting views on a subject very close to my heart I have to wrack my brain a bit to decide what to think. I won’t try and summarise their arguments, as I’m not sure I would do them justice, but would heartily recommend reading both here and here. For the most part I am not certain that there is much practical disagreement about what to do now. Dillow is more convinced that a second referendum can only be offered as a last resort when all other options fail, but given this failure will likely occur within the next few weeks such a difference may be insubstantial.

One thing I do disagree with in Dillow’s piece is the accordance with the characterisation of delivering Brexit as ‘the democratic thing to do’. This is certainly what is widely believed, and Dillow is correct in saying that some remainers underestimate how significant this belief is as a motivator. I don’t doubt that many people in the Labour party have a strong sense of duty to deliver a result they themselves do not like. And politically, this belief is a very significant factor to consider. Dillow may simply be referring to the beliefs of others. He argues that politically this needs problem needs to be answered before Brexit can be stopped, which I think is both correct, and suggests at most an ambivalent attitude to the democratic nature of the vote. In case this is not so, I would like to offer a few reasons why I do not believe the referendum process or its implementation should be viewed as democratic.

Firstly, a vote cannot be considered democratic if key stake holders are excluded from the electoral process. This particular vote disenfranchised both EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU; in other words, precisely those most  likely to be affected by the decision had no say in it.

Secondly, there are some decisions where we would not think it legitimate for decisions to be taken on a majoritarian basis, even where relevant stake holders were included in the decision making process. Some decisions we would think of as only legitimately taken by the individual, some locally, some  by particular interest groups like trade unions etc. This, practicalities aside,  is why we tend to believe in restrictions in the role of central government in the private life, in some measure of local government, and in some idea of legitimate action by governments internationally. It is why a referendum on Scottish independence is not a UK wide referendum, why minority rights should be protected even if the majority does not want to, and why certain areas of life should be considered as belonging to the private sphere, either de facto, or through formal written constitution. It is not clear to me why a decision which is explicitly taken  by those with political power as a mandate to curtail what were previously viewed as political rights, particularly important to a now vulnerable group, should be viewed as democratically legitimate.

Thirdly, the most important thing about democracy always struck me to be about the system, rather than the particular moment or decision. The value of elections was more about its role in allowing for representation, empowerment and accountability than in any particular result being the ‘correct’ momentary aggregation of preferences. This means that what really matters about Brexit democratically is its effect on the constitution as a whole. This has been uniquely corrosive, and will continue to be so. It has led to an executive power grab, called into question the role of MPs, had lasting damage on political norms, and was won initially by breaking the rules. Which course of action will minimize this continuing damage is a difficult question, but I would argue that there is substantial damage to  liberal democratic norms by continuing on this path.