Britain’s shame: projections and substance regarding Boris Johnson

On Tuesday afternoon, a friend in Boston emailed to acknowledge that my country was now officially more embarrassing than his. This had been a bone of contention between us: him cringing at how Trump was eviscerating the reputation of the United States; me pointing to Brexit. But the elevation of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson to Prime Minister of the UK had tipped the scales in our favour. Thus was my attempted sabbatical from political engagement brought to an unwelcome end.

On Wednesday, I had a disturbed night. I kept waking to the anxious residues of Johnson’s first day in office, as I absorbed the seizure of government by a clique of “nepotists, chancers, fools, flunkeys, flatterers, hypocrites, braggarts and whiners“ – as Nick Cohen put it, with uncharacteristic understatement.

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Dare to hope

The hounding out of the Labour Party of a pregnant, Jewish MP is both upsetting and unsettling. Who can contradict the despair experienced by Daniel Finkelstein on witnessing the episode?

“When I watched Luciana Berger deliver her speech resigning from the Labour Party I cried because of its integrity and bravery and grace. And I cried because in my entire adult life what happened yesterday is the one of the lowest, most dispiriting political moments for British Jews. I cried because I despair at what has happened. I cried because I don’t think it is over.”

That the formation of The Independent Group of MPs has elicited a doubling down by Corbyn supporters on their intolerant and antisemitic bile only underlines how precarious is democracy’s reliance on the civil resolution of difference. We may not have reached the nadir. Anna Soubry’s denunciation of entryism and tyranny among the Conservatives shows that both main parties are infected. Yet, in the courage of the eleven MPs who have now quit the two main parties, lie grounds for cautious optimism. They are calling time on the violent discourses that have overcome politics.

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Grounds for optimism

Not everything about chaos is miserable. We may be living through an epoch-defining collapse of the socio-economic settlement we have known for four decades. A reckoning with free-market, shareholder value capitalism is long overdue and it is happening in more disruptive ways than was needed. Things may look disturbing and confusing. But, as David Brooks reminds, out of chaos comes hope:

“There have been many moments in our history when old ideas and old arrangements stopped working and people chopped them up. Those transition moments were bumpy, and it was easy to lose hope, but then people figured it out. Never underestimate the power of human ingenuity.”

He doesn’t mean the kind of blind-faith, glib, muddling-through, bulldog-spirit, groundless hope that keeps churning out the same answers to new problems. He’s not British. He’s talking about the application of imagination to the invention of new paradigms; meeting a new reality with new strategies.

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A moderate proposal

Matthew Parris is worried that the UK is heading for a no-deal Brexit because the moderate majority in Parliament doesn’t know how to face down the Brexit extremists (£). A former MP himself, he thinks it imperative that scared centrists among the Conservatives and Labour find a way to break ranks with tribal party loyalties to make common cause. He has a proposal that would both break the stalemate and allow Theresa May to relinquish her loathed deal with good grace:

“Don’t whip the vote. Declare this decision to be so important, so epoch-making, that only a free vote by MPs could honestly legitimise it. The public will like the sound of this, and there’s a chance Labour might be embarrassed into lifting their whip too. The government is still likely to lose but the defeat then would be far from a ‘confidence’ issue. For May, the can is kicked a little further down the road, which seems anyway to be as far as she wants to lift her eyes.”

The appeal of this proposal is not only that it might create new momentum in the Brexit process but also that it could create a new dynamic in the wider political culture:

“When Remainer Tories walk through the voting lobbies alongside Labour MPs they’ll see opponents who have become co-campaigners, kindred spirits, perhaps even friends. Who can say what might result, but I think that in purely human terms, something might shift within that ghastly Victorian prison they call Westminster. As MPs shuffle past the tellers together, momentarily unattached from party, and in a flurry of shared glances, something might be born.”

I think this is the most likely way that we will eventually overcome polarised politics. For all the talk of a new party, the hunger for new ideas, and the waiting for a political saviour, the most plausible impetus for change will be when people of shared values link hands across traditional divides and begin exploring the possibilities that emerge.

Image courtesy Sandra Ahn Mode.

Shaping disaffection is the way to mend broken politics

Kenan Malik has an insightful critique of the failure of moderate politicians to provide an answer to populism:

“It’s not populist disaffection that is unreasonable, but the policies and institutions that have created that disaffection. Policies that have driven up inequality and driven down living standards. Institutions that have excluded people from the process of decision-making. There has been much talk of ‘out of touch’ politicians. Little expresses that out-of-touchness more than the fact that for almost a decade politicians have spent more energy worrying about populism than about the policies that have nurtured disaffection.”

That there is widespread demand for politics that addresses the disaffection is underlined by a YouGov opinion poll in The Sunday Times which suggests that nearly half of people think politics is broken. Only one in seven think the Conservatives and Labour represent the views of the public.

Two thoughtful pieces during the year gave shape to the kind of thinking that could rejuvenate the two main parties.

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The insurgency of decency

The march for a people’s vote on Brexit was a heartwarming occasion with 100,000 radical moderates quietly expressing their outrage with characteristic British understatement, self-deprecation and civility. Unlike the demonstrations of my younger years, there wasn’t a Trotskyist in sight to subvert the decency of protestors to their own ends. For a brief, glorious summer afternoon, it was possible to believe that Britain could find a way through the chaos it has brought upon itself and heal its wounds. People speculated whether the movement would be sufficient to bring about a change in course. I suspect not, at least not in the time left before Brexit is effected as a matter of law.

But in any case, there can be no going back to the world before 23 June 2016. Britain is already changed by the referendum, divided against itself and with the disinvestment plans of major employers at an advanced stage. More pertinently, there are other players in this drama. The EU shows every sign of wanting to cauterise its Brexit wound so that it can turn its attention to more pressing concerns. And the wider outlook for democracy and international solidarity has never looked so precarious in my lifetime. The Brexit referendum result, it turns out, was by no means an outlier but a precursor of a nationalistic and populist impulse which has swept through Western countries. Were we to decide against glorious isolation after all, and advocate once again for the rules-based order, it’s by no means clear that the world would want to listen.

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Political renewal needs more than bland centrism

Burke ‘n’ Marx.

What kind of politics do we need? Between left and right populism, it’s perplexing that there’s nothing inspiring emerging from the middle ground.

Is part of the problem that current hopes of an alternative are invested in something called centrism? There’s nothing to lift the spirits in that term. It suggests a bland splitting of the difference between the extremes or, worse, nostalgia for the discredited status quo ante.

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18th Century insight on 21st Century complexity

Who, these days, speaks for conservatism, the philosophical orientation that is cautious of change? We have an answer in the small band of Tory rebels, led by Dominic Grieve, who have won for Parliament a right to decide on the final Brexit deal. But the very fact of their struggle against their own party shows that cautious conservatism is not much in vogue.

My question is prompted by reading Jesse Norman’s 2013 biography of Edmund Burke, one of the founding thinkers of conservatism. Jesse Norman is a Conservative MP and current government minister. But I imagine he might be out of sorts with his party since the philosophy he describes is not much reflected in current Conservative practice. His book demonstrates, though, that even if Burke is out of fashion with the Tories, he still has much to say to contemporary Britain.

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Who will lead democratic renewal from the left?

Labour was founded as a party when its first MPs were elected in 1906.
Labour was founded as a party when its first MPs were elected in 1906.

Opposition politics in the UK are in a sorry state. The Labour Party is in the grip of a far-left cult which is not much interested in parliamentary democracy. Since the General Election, those in the Labour Party who don’t favour Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership have gone quiet – perhaps buying into the myth that by not losing the election as disastrously as everyone expected, he somehow won it instead. Because the moderates expressed their lack of confidence in Corbyn on the grounds of his unelectability, they are now shouted down by those who crow about Corbyn’s apparent popularity. What has been lacking is a principled critique of what he stands for.

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Leading is about creating a shared sense of home

Why do I write so much about politics? Because there’s an inescapable link between our political situation and the way organisations are led. It’s a moot point whether organisations align with the prevailing political discourse or whether politics is shaped by the interests of organisations. At the moment, it’s politics that’s making the running. There’s a broad consensus across the political spectrum that, whatever path Britain takes in relation to Brexit, it needs to become more inclusive. There’s not much agreement (nor even much in the way of ideas) about how this is to be achieved. But I fear many organisations don’t yet grasp the demands it will place on them to overcome the alienation and social fracturing that blight large parts of the country.

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