Popular Strongmen

There has been a lot of speculation about the motives for Johnson's proroguing of parliament. Is it to bypass parliamentary opposition to no deal? Force MPs to opt for a no confidence vote as a means of preventing no deal, rather than a legislatory route, in order to have a general election imposed on the government? Or simply a gesture to Brexit hard liners, that the government is willing to crush opposition if it has to? The first two possibilities both imply that a prorogation is a meaningful impediment to parliamentary procedure, with the aim of preventing MPs from taking their preferred course of action on this vital issue. The third, which does not exclude either of the first two, is a symbolic act of disregard for parliament. What all of these have in common is they set a dangerous precedent, and they are well received by supporters precisely because of symbolic baggage they carry with them.

Let's not kid ourselves about what that symbolism is. It is of a strongman crushing his political opponents and getting rid of constitutional checks and balances to their power. The image isn't accidental. It's the point. Parliament is filled with remainers who won't accept the referendum result, so the line goes, and now we have a leader who will take them on. Just look at the front pages of Brexit supporting press: "PM secures approval from Queen to suspend Parliament in bold move to sweep aside MPs hell bent on stopping Britain from leaving the EU" (The Express), "Boris takes the gloves of" (The Mail),  or: "Ballsy Boris comes out fighting" (the Sun). But the creepiest of all has to be the Telegraph: "The Prime Minister must give effect to the will of the nation."

There has been many a good sardonic comment on the tension between the symbolism of this act and the rhetoric of democracy coming from the Brexiteers. But I think it's worth taking their own rhetoric more seriously. The notion of the strongman as the expression of popular will is not a new one. That idea can be powerful and popular. Whatever doubts there are about Russian democracy, there is no doubt that at many points, Putin has been a tremendously popular figure, who would have won a fairly contested election. Erdogan and Orban are also contemporary examples, as, in his own way, is Trump (popular enough to win in the electoral college, if not the popular vote, having promised to lock up a political opponent).

The appeal of a strongman as the true expression of popular will has deep roots. There has always been a constituency for the idea that institutions frustrate common sense. Think of the popular trope surrounding criminal justice, that strict interpretations of the law lead to criminals getting off on technicalities. Likewise, the idea of politicians and political institutions as corrupt is not new either, (and not always false).Think of Nixon promising to take on the crooks in Washington. And in societies with highly fractured politics, there is deep suspicion of other sections of society that may be undermining a real or imagined majority. Strongmen claim to be championing a popular will frustrated by institutional constraints or by elements of wider society. They claim a higher source of legitimacy that supersedes that of 'normal' democratic institutions. As Carl Schmitt put it, it is the Ausnahmezustand, the state of exception, in which the ruler has the ability to transcend the rule of law in order to implement popular will.

This idea of popular will expressed in the strongman has two important features. Firstly, it is exclusive in who it claims to represent. It represents what is in fact a part of the population and calls it the whole. Secondly, it is also uninterested in finding out what public opinion actually is, or involving the public in an ongoing discussion about this. You might note, in the context of Brexit, that Brexiteers are opposed to any kind of process for further discussion of the issue, be that parliamentary scrutiny or a further public vote. This too can have an appeal. If people are suspicious of the institutional mechanisms for further scrutiny, and suspicious of other sections of the electorate, why would you want more discussion? Better to have someone else impose your will from above. But it also has the appeal of not having to think about the issues, which in the context of Brexit may often seem quite dull.

It's very difficult to tell how accidental this new popularity for the political strongman is. It's worth conceding that the referendum result does pose genuine challenges to which this is partly a response. The absence of proper definitions of either the legal status of the referendum or what it meant to implement poses real problems when the majority of MPs do not want that outcome. Many Conservatives may have found themselves as accidental proponents of strongmen, because right now that is the only way to implement what they feel is a legitimately obtained result. Those who want this kind of politics may not constitute the majority of the population or the entirety of leave voters. But the strength of approval from a substantial, and important minority is troubling. Often, that's all strongmen need.

Merkel and Johnson's meeting, as reported in the German press

Remarkably little is published in the British press about reactions on the German side to Brexit developments, so, following Johnson’s meeting with Merkel, I thought I would gather together a few thoughts and observations about how the event has been written up in Germany.

The first, perhaps least surprising thing to say is that most of the commentary has been extremely suspicious of Johnson’s motives. Andrea Ross writes in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that Johnson’s claims about wanting a deal are largely a game of “passing the buck” in attempt to shift the blame for a bad outcome on other EU member states. Ross also writes in defence of Steinmeier, the German President, who said that Johnson’s latest gambit is made in bad faith. This is particularly striking, as Ross notes that doing so is a breach of diplomatic protocol. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the Frankfurter Allgemeine is a conservative newspaper and Steinmeier is from the SPD.

Ulrich Ladurner goes one step further writing in Die Zeit. In an article bearing the headline “scapegoat- no thanks!” he states that “the populist and dogged opponent of the EU seems not to be interested in a real solution”. Cathrin Kahlweit says much the same in the left-liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung. “ [Johnson] knows full well that border and customs controls are unavoidable in the event of a no deal because of international law, but claims the government in London has no intention of putting up controls, so if they are put up, Ireland and Brussels will [according to Johnson] be to blame.”  

In the same article Kahlweit also addresses the way in which the meeting between Johnson and Merkel has been discussed in the British press, arguing that it has been intentionally misreported. “The British media,” Kahlweit writes, “misunderstands a remark made by Merkel at her meeting with Johnson, and likely not entirely unintentionally”. Kahlweit describes “nonsense and confusions of language” which contribute to a “hysterical spin which is presented to the British public.” Merkel remarked that “it has been said that a solution [to the Irish border problem] will likely be found in the next 2 years. But it could also be found in the next 30 days.” This has largely been reported in the British press as an ultimatum, whereas it should, Kahlweit writes, be understood as underscoring that the backstop is a placeholder solution.  Her remark was meant to emphasise both that such a solution is temporary and could be replaced at any point, but that until a replacement is found it would have to remain in part of an exit agreement (an article in Die Zeit makes a similar point here). Kahlweit singles out the Sun and the Telegraph for particularly misleading headlines. This is another example of the asymmetry in Brexit coverage in the UK and Germany- while theBritish press is largely uninterested in what is written in German newspapers, the same is not true the other way round.

Die Welt’s reporting notes the disconnect between the appearance and reality of the meeting, but is more focussed on how Johnson wanted it to be portrayed, rather than how it actually appears in the British media. Their video report states Johnson gave the impression “he was celebrating a victory”, but in reality he “is leaving the meeting with empty hands”. Merkel’s previously mentioned remarks were similarly alluded to as signalling that scrapping the backstop is not an option. An accompanying article refers to Johnson’s letter to Tusk demanding an alternative set of arrangements to the backstop, but “what he means by this is left unanswered”.

This is likely rather unsurprising to most readers, but its nonetheless significantly underreported in the British press. Perhaps even less reported is the fact that Johnson, as mayor of London, was actually talked of rather favourably in the German press. The stories of a classically educated, bumbling eccentric were not that dissimilar to those on this side of the channel, albeit with somewhat less interest. Whatever charm this persona may have had has, rather unsurprisingly, lost its appeal.

False epistemic modesty

There is an article published by unherd that has been making the rounds today, on the danger of overly trusting expertise. Michael Gove approvingly retweeted the article, saying it was ‘in praise of epistemic modesty’. The article itself makes some reasonable enough points about uncertainties in science, problems with economic knowledge and a particularly interesting example of a problem in biology that we will come back to later on. So far, so good. There are plenty of gaps in scientific knowledge, some fields (particularly in the social sciences) where there are big question marks about what kind of knowledge can be obtained, and plenty of reasons not to be overly deferential to the ranks and titles of the academic community. That isn’t to say that an entirely irreverent attitude to these things is warranted either. The fields of human expertise are so vast and in many cases the subject matter so difficult that we couldn’t do without taking a lot on trust. And we need markers like titles and institutional kudos, consensus (alongside our own background contextual knowledge) to know what claims to take seriously. Suffice to say that how much attention should be given to heterodox thinking is not a straightforward question.

It is important, however, to distinguish between a genuine call for irreverent, critical thought that and what is a disguised excuse for, or an afterthought to anti-intellectualism as a political project. Genuine heterodox thinking might well challenge accepted ideas, but it also seeks to build new ways of understanding the world that is itself susceptible to scrutiny. It cannot completely distrust science or expertise per se, because it hopes that one day its results will be regarded as scientific expertise. When it raises doubts, it does so providing reasons for distrust and grounds for uncertainty. It is epistemically modest, but allows for the situation in which doubt is resolved. And it accepts that it is no good simply trusting common sense. Common sense is often wrong, and can be just another kind of dogma. It may even be the result of some old prevailing orthodoxy. As Keynes put it, “practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any form of intellectual influence are usually the slaves of some defunct economist”. Moreover, even with a highly contested and uncertain field like economics, we simply have no choice but to best approximate knowledge, because the decisions it relates to are important.

Gove may like to talk about epistemic modesty, but at least in his political life (if not his personal) it is not what he practices. His infamous remark, that people have ‘had enough of experts’ was neither a call to be honest about what we do not know, nor part of an attempt to create some new, heterodox understanding of the economics of Brexit. The only serious attempt to do that was a widely discredited publication by Patrick Minford. Instead, it was part of a campaign strategy aimed at encouraging people to systemically disregard arguments of the opposing side. Vote Leave did not respond to arguments to remain in the EU, they merely labelled them ‘project fear’. This is not epistemic modesty- it is certainty that an argument is wrong, decided on the basis of who is making it or what it is being made for. It is an attempt to make your own position immune to any kind of doubt.  In a debate with Jonathan Portes in 2016, Gove had all sorts of interesting things to say about the falsification principle and herd mentality in academia, but the political campaigns he has been part of have hardly been tempered by doubt. Dominic Cummings has similar things to say about the fads of the educated middle classes (he likes to quote Tolstoy on this) but his chief practical contribution to critical thought has been developing techniques used for mass disinformation.

To return full circle, the article originally mentioned in the introduction dedicates a large portion of its body to the discussion of an unusual species of crayfish. Two genetically identical crayfish, exposed to (almost) identical environmental stimuli nonetheless exhibit dramatically different features. The familiar dichotomy of nature vs nurture, or genetics vs environment, don’t seem to capture the full picture. Something else must be at work. One response is to try to understand what is going on, accepting the very real possibility that we may not be able to do so. But for some commentators the real message is a different one. It’s “screw the goddamn crayfish”.  

Inadvertently promoting the far right

A few weeks ago I saw a rather curious thread on Twitter. A journalist, who I otherwise rather like and would rather not name, wanted to introduce American readers to Katie Hopkins. He attached a series of links to her speeches, explaining why these showed how dangerous she was, and why American viewers should be wary of her. This is, of course, a profoundly stupid approach to the far right. Because sites like Twitter and Youtube use algorithms which push content based on views, this approach gives the far right more prominence by generating additional traffic on their videos and social media accounts. As in the famous Mitchell and Webb sketch, it doesn't matter if the viewers love the content or hate it (or are enjoying it ironically). The numbers show up just the same.

The additional prominence this gives to the far right almost certainly outweighs any benefit from the refutations or warnings that originally generated it. Yet an alarming proportion of content on social and broadcast media is doing precisely that. The problem here is both a supply and a demand side one. There is undoubtedly an enormous appetite for content involving TV and radio debates with the far right, and with social media content aimed at refuting or gazing in horror at its messages. Such content is entertaining, and, in a polarised political environment, often very satisfying. I myself admit that one of the most satisfying videos I have watched on Youtube is of Tony Blair angrily denouncing Nigel Farage in front of the European Parliament. It's a great form of vicarious wish fulfilment. 

This generates incentives for both broadcasters and individuals to produce such content. Why else would BBC Question Time invite Farage on so often? Those in charge of such decisions can easily offer justifications by reference to public interest, balance, or the value of open debate, but the arguments themselves do not add up.  Something similar is going on with individuals on social media. Posts which offer horrified denunciations or refutations of far right users and their material get wide circulation. They generate likes, clicks and prominence for the individual who decided to post them. An aspiring (or even established) journalist has a huge incentive to post this kind of material as a way of promoting themselves. This is a serious market failure.                                                                                
People can easily justify their decision to do so to themselves. What is essentially about self promotion can easily be narrated as a story of making a moral stand and speaking out against the far right. And individuals are apt to think that self promotion is itself a moral goal. It is easy to imagine that your own prominence and success will ultimately allow you to serve the greater good as you will be better placed to use your own talents.                                                                                   

This is essentially a collective action problem. Few liberals or left wingers actually want to live in a world where Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage have a significant impact on public life. But the individual gains accrued by promoting their material, be they in terms of extra following, or the satisfaction righteous indignation, seem more real and significant than a tiny bit of extra prominence their own work gives to the far right. But there is so much material out there attacking the far right that any more gives almost no additional social benefit. And the game of who gets to be among the most prominent who debate and condemn the far right is largely zero sum. The result is rather tragic. 

Hollowing out Democracy's Core

One of the interesting features of post war literature on Nazism and totalitarianism is the broadness of its understanding of democracy and what makes it work. Many of the leading political theorists and philosophers of this period understood democracy not just in terms of formal processes (majority votes, checks and balances of power) but in terms of the wider political and cultural practices of open and free societies. Jürgen Habermas's idea of communicative rationality stressed the importance of discussion and reflection for coming to ethical decisions which consider the value of others. In the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt located the rise of Nazism in the late 1920s and the radicalisation of policy once in power in a fragmentation of public discussion of politics. Hans Mommsen's idea of cumulative radicalisation can also be thought of in discursive terms, as can Karl Popper's idea of the open society.

Without wanting to get bogged down in the specifics of their arguments, what these all have in common is the idea that things go very wrong indeed when meaningful public discussion breaks down. People are no longer forced to confront the ethical implications of their desires or their impacts on others. There is no longer a mechanism for gathering and processing new information about decisions, attempting to come to some kind of consensus, or falsifying bad propositions about how the world works.

This, it should be noted, is not primarily a question of the formal rules or constitution of a country. A democratic majority can be more or less considerate of the view points of those in a minority, and more or less open to information coming from outside sources. We might consider the following analogy, in want of a better one. Imagine a pub quiz team. They decide that when they disagree on an answer, they take a majority vote. Imagine, now, that a question comes along where there team is split, but one person in the group is quite certain of a particular answer and wants to explain why they know it to be correct. There is nothing about the formal rules of the team which means that person has to be listened to. It is not clear how you could possibly build a mechanism for doing so into the rules. But there is nothing stopping the other members from listening to that single person and changing their viewpoint. To insist that they do not have to and would rather stick with what they know to be a gut reaction would be mad, albeit technically allowed.

Granted, this is a silly analogy. And it's true that the value or reality of considerate public discussion can be overrated. But I think there is a specific danger in the direction of political argument in the UK at the moment. It is increasingly towards the idea of an opinion being widespread as a justification in and of itself, be it because it is held by a majority or because those that hold it are seen as somehow more authentic representatives of the population as a whole. This is not just about Brexit. Discussion of immigration and criminal justice which focussed on 'reasonable concerns' of 'decent, hardworking people' go back at least as far as the Blair years. The media response in 2010 to Gordon Brown's remarks caught on a microphone after speaking to Gillian Duffy are another illustration of this.

The point here is that this is not primarily about majoritarianism or what the rules of a democracy are. Yes, there is a good case for limits on state power and constitutional checks and balances, but beyond this there is a serious question of how discussions about those decisions are held. This is not just about protecting minorities (important though that may be): the majority loses out too when a mere statement of current opinion becomes a justification. This is as this kind of justification does not allow for new information to be considered that that majority itself might want to consider. And contrary to the authoritarian populist line that this kind of argument is patronising or elitist, the opposite is in fact the case. It assumes people are rational, interested in new information and want to participate in the democratic process. It makes no claim on what eventual decision people will come to to. And the opposite view, that people's opinions are fixed, unreflective, and uninterested in information or ethnical considerations of their judgements, is to paint the electorate as monsters. Those keen to defend this idea of open, ongoing discussions, which do not see opinion as fixed or disinterested in others need to win this argument. To do so, they need to turn the authoritarian populist argument on its head: it is they who are being patronising and elitist by presuming that ordinary people are too stupid and dogmatic to want real discussions of the issues.

No More Games

Earlier this week I wrote a post criticising the Labour leadership for playing election games that risk allowing no deal. I would like to extend that criticism to the Liberal Democrats.
Jo Swinson has said she would rule out supporting atemporary Unity government headed by Corbyn in the event of a successful voteof no confidence. Such a government would have to be headed by a backbencher like Yvette Cooper to gain Lib Dem support.

I am no Corbynista, but this is pretty preposterous. So long as the Labour leadership does not budge on their current position, that any administration would have to be led by the Labour front bench, the Lib Dems are effectively throwing away what may be the only means of preventing no deal. Their argument, that they could not countenance putting someone like Corbyn into Downing Street does not even make sense on its own terms. The governing coalition would likely only exist for a few weeks, with the sole purpose of negotiating an article 50 extension. It would have neither the time nor ability to pass any other legislation, and any hint of an executive overstep of the coalition agreement could immediately be met with a withdrawal of support and a vote of no confidence.

Their real motivation is surely just another electoral game. Most of the Lib Dems target seats are Tory marginals, and they do not want to be associated with a government that has Corbyn in Downing Street, even if just for a few weeks. This is dangerously cynical.  

It’s true that the Labour leadership is playing cynical games too. But that does not negate collective responsibility. Trying to force the Labour leadership to change their position is just irresponsbile at this stage. What's more, it is unlikely to work. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, the Labour leadership is intensely (perhaps primarily) worried about losing control of the party. It has woken up to the fact that Brexit poses an existential threat to this, and they believe that a government of national unity headed by a backbencher would provide a locus around which a leadership challenge could be mounted. For many figures around Corbyn, this may be more important than any other considerations.

Secondly, the leadership likely has ambivalent attitudes to the political consequences of no deal. It is quite possible they see themselves as the likely beneficiaries as the consequences of no deal fuel backlash against the government. The main fear that they too would be blamed if they did not form or support a unity government is more or less neutralised if the Liberal Democrats make the same mistake.

Finally, some may even see the economic consequences of no deal as offering an opportunity for Labour to remodel the UK. It is quite possible that large parts of the British economy will effectively have to be operated as a command economy if supply chains break down; nationalisation and the introduction of price controls would be much easier to justify in such an environment.

The main strength of the Lib Dems at the moment is that if they are willing to support a Corbyn led temporary government, the Labour leadership is not in a position to refuse. This, in the long term, I think, would offer actually offer a better electoral strategy for the Lib Dems anyway, as it would put distance between the party and their role in the Cameron’s coalition government.

There is a big opening for a Europhile party of the centre left, particularly one that embraced expansionary fiscal policy. This seems to offer more of an opportunity than mopping up the relatively small number of disaffected Cameroons. But there is no room for that strategy if the Liberal Democrats become yet another appendage to the political culture that brought about a no deal Brexit. And even if that's wrong, at this stage, who cares. Now is not the time for electoral games.