what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Brexit - and the reassertion of the “Nation-State”?

Readers may sometimes wonder why I so rarely discuss Brexit here – last time was a year ago!
That I know when to defer to my betters is only half of the answer since most of my posts are a combination of a personal slant and hyperlinks to recommended articles or books by those I admire…Another bit of the answer is that one of the central purposes of this blog has been (and remains) the celebration of writing that can pass the test of time. And, since noticing last year the extent of my non-English readership (see page 10 of Common Endeavour – the 2017 posts), I try a bit harder to act as an interpreter of good English-language writing on important topics to such an audience. 
But I am bored with the fixation of so much journalism on the pantomime antics of wicked witch Donald Trump – but equally offended by the barren, wooden language used by so many academics….  

Am I saying that there are no journalists or academics who have written anything about Brexit which is worth sharing with my audience? Not quite - although my list of such endeavours is a rather little one, with Chris Grey’s The Brexit Blog having pride of place. Perhaps the reason for my silence is that I can’t quite believe that my country seems so intent on destroying itself – from a combination of public and media prejudice; and an incestuous political elite…..
Brexit is the prime but by no means only example of a state apparently trying to assert itself against the forces of……what exactly?
- Globalisation? That can hardly be the case when about the only thing the Brits seemed to like about the European Union was the single market of which indeed they were, with Jacques Delors, one of the main architects; and when the current government clearly wants to push for maximum free trade.
- Supranationalism? The Federalist ambitions of the EU’s founders – so clearly evident in the recent statements of Martin Schulz – have always been viewed with a mixture of bafflement and hostility by Brits and UK governments. But the Brits had successfully negotiated a semi-detached status with the EU and a clear agreement that it would not be bound by any further “closer union” treaties….   

No! The two things which have stuck in British craws have been (1) the overriding of parliamentary power by a combination of European judges and Commission regulations (played up by a consistently hostile British media); and (ii), in recent years, a feeling that the country no longer belonged to them – that foreign immigration had gone too far.

So what exactly is being asserted? At one time we might have said “parliamentary sovereignty” but the reluctance of the British government to allow Parliament any meaningful vote has blown that illusion apart. And this important article by Bogdanor reminds us, in any case, that it only governments can actually negotiate....
Nor is it the power of the British State that’s being asserted – indeed that never appears to have been so weak, with citizens rejecting the recommendations of all its political parties during the referendum campaign; and the present government seemingly intent on open conflict with the forces of international capital.

Rather it seems more a sense of English identity that was being asserted on June 23 2016 – I say “English” simply because Scottish and (Northern) Irish citizens resoundingly voted to remain in the EU. The referendum result, however, brought home very powerfully the stark existence of two very different Englands – that of the cosmopolitan (multinational) cities and “left-behinds” in smaller towns. A contrast which is being emphasised in all accounts of Trump America – whose “America First” doctrine indeed is a powerful example of the new nationalism which seems now rampant.  

But the incompetence on display from those who lead Brexit has stunned everyone. It was bad enough that (i) no one had actually done any serious thinking about withdrawal and (ii) the new Prime Minister chose to divide the political responsibility for the withdrawal “strategy” between 3 Ministers (and departments) – one being the pantomime figure who, weeks before the referendum, was actually so torn about the issue that he actually drafted 2 completely different articles – one of which argued for staying in the EU
Not that this stopped him from being the highest profile figure on the campaign trail.
But the confusion was compounded after the PM was tempted into a General Election in June 2017 (by an apparent 20% lead in the polls) and emerged a sadly depleted figure leading a minority government dependent on a small North Irish party of hard-right bigots.

Inexplicably for many, the public mood does not seem to have changed significantly in the 21 months since the referendum. Indeed, some months ago, commentators were suggesting that the mood in England was nothing short of a return to the early 1940s when the country stood alone and when Dunkirk was celebrated not as the defeat it was but as a glorious victory. It’s not insignificant that the blockbuster films “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour” have pulled such large audiences in the country these past few months. An important article this week (in London Review of Books) mines the same vein in  arguing –
This is the sort of nostalgia which Peter Ammon, the outgoing German ambassador in London, identified recently when he complained that Britain was investing in a vision of national isolation that Churchill had played up (and vastly exaggerated) in his wartime rhetoric.
Do they even believe the myth, or is it an expedient way of bashing opponents while pursuing some ulterior goal? Historical re-enactment may be fine for the Daily Mail and the grassroots, but it doesn’t seem a strong enough motivation to support a professional political career. We need to know not just what kind of past the Brexiteers imagine, but what kind of future they are after.
One disconcerting possibility is that figures such as Fox and Rees-Mogg might be willing to believe the dismal economic forecasts, but look on them as an attraction.This isn’t as implausible as it may sound. Since the 1960s, conservatism has been defined partly by a greater willingness to inflict harm, especially in the English-speaking world. The logic is that the augmentation of the postwar welfare state by the moral pluralism of the 1960s produced an acute problem of ‘moral hazard’, whereby benign policies ended up being taken for granted and abused. Once people believe things can be had for free and take pleasure in abundance, there is a risk of idleness and hedonism…..  
As the theory behind Thatcherism had it, government services shrink everybody’s incentives to produce, compete and invest. They reduce the motivation for businesses to deliver services, and ordinary people’s desire to work. Toughness, even pain, performs an important moral and psychological function in pushing people to come up with solutions. This style of thinking drove Thatcher through the vicious recession of the early 1980s.
 The fear of ‘moral hazard’ produces a punitive approach to debtors, be they households, firms or national governments, the assumption being that anything short of harshness will produce a downward spiral of generosity, forgiveness and free-riding, eventually making the market economy unviable. Osborne liked to claim (against all the evidence coming from the bond markets) that if Britain kept borrowing, lenders would lose trust in the moral rectitude of the government and interest rates would rise. Gratification must be resisted. Pain works. Only pain forces people to adapt and innovate.

An article from the inimitable Ian Jack drew my attention today to a small book by an historian which argues that countries such as the UK and the US are suffering what he calls cultural dementia

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