On the Competition for Recognition Part IXA The Political Right in Britain

In the face of the disarray and ineffectiveness of the right under Donald Trump’s stewardship, my goal is to answer the question whether the divisions within the Democratic Party can be overcome sufficiently, first to beat the Republicans and recapture both the presidency and the Senate, and, second, if successful in that task, provide effective government in America. In last week’s blogs, I suggested that the conflicts on the left in the U.S. were not just about personalities, but were theoretical – about the nature and purpose of the state and the values that ought to guide its governance. Those conflicts are embedded in policy debates over health care, immigration, the environment.

I will move back to an analysis of the liberal-left in the United States, but I thought it would be helpful if I moved over to Europe first. For the divisions in the U.S. are not unique to that country. They have variations elsewhere in the world. In this blog, I focus on the right in Britain and in the next look at the divisions on the left. I will then move onto France and the rest of Europe.

In the U.S., the populists have seized control of the Republican Party. The parallel in Britain has been the conquest of the Conservative Party by the Brexiteers. However, given the virtual impossibility of implementing that goal without massive political and/or economic disruption, that conquest has only been partial in Britain. Given the parliamentary system in Britain, the victory is not as overwhelming as in the U.S., which is a democratic monarchy with enormous power granted to the President. But a victory it was.

Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg may appear to be only a minority force within the Conservative Party, but so were the Tea Partyers and, before them, the followers of no-holds-barred Gingrich in the U.S. Numerical weakness can be a source of political determination, discipline and strength. But determination and discipline may well be accompanied by, not only illusions and delusions, but intolerance, ignorance, incompetence, ineptitude and insensitivity. The Brexiteers claimed that Britain had been subjugated by the EU for the past forty years and that an escape from the EU would bring back the glory of the UK of old while keeping out foreigners – except the ones Britain wanted.

Without proper preparation, plans or prudence, the Conservative Party stumbled and blundered under Theresa May, compounding the problem of her predecessor, David Cameron, who flirted with populism and submitted a question of British pride to a ballot in the referendum on leaving the EU. How did Cameron end up trapped in a corner in which he only saw a plebiscite as the way out? First, there was the 2008 economic crash. The U.S. bailed out the banks, but not those whose houses were financially underwater. However, Britain, driven by fiscal conservatism and a resistance to a massive increase in the national debt, opted for austerity. That has gone on for ten years as house prices escalated, job growth stagnated and services, particularly health services, suffered. Thus, instead of hurting a marginal minority as in the U.S., the whole of the working and middle class suffered.

Against this terrible background, Cameron sought a way out of the deep divisions within his own party, divisions that had brought down John Major and Margaret Thatcher, even though the populist Conservatives were then a minor force. But 2008 had seriously weakened the traditional free enterprise economic conservatives while creating a constituency for the populists. Then there were the non-ideological Tories like Cameron himself who hoped to use the vote to press European concessions in return for Britain remaining within the EU. But this strategy seemed flawed logically, let alone politically. For if the British voted to stay in, then the EU had no incentive to negotiate at all for Britain had nowhere else to go. And if Britons voted to leave, then, as happened, Europe would exact the most strenuous terms, first and foremost to deter others who might be inclined to leave the union.

Nevertheless, the strategy helped Cameron win a decisive victory in the 2015 election while sowing the seeds to lose the referendum vote 52% to 48% on 23 June 2016. But the seeds did not have to grow into a huge tree that came crashing down. Serendipity had entered the picture in the form of massive numbers of refugees entering Europe in the same period as a number of terrorist attacks. Further, as in the U.S., these problems were greatly compounded by the tremendous expansion of the new social media and the discovery of how to use it to spread disinformation and manipulate the public, including by foreign governments committed to weakening the West. These changes provided an impetus to the far right both in the Conservative Party and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Boris Johnson is Britain’s Trump prone to grotesque hyperbole – Britain transferred the equivalent of 350 million Pounds per week that could be invested in improving Britain’s fractured health system, he claimed. Johnson offered promises on which he could never deliver, as well as the message that Britain had sold its soul to Brussels and had been turned into a vassal state of European bureaucrats. And the greatest lie of all – the promise that Britain would thrive outside of the EU once it regained sole control of its own destiny.

Boris Johnson: “EU politicians would be banging down the door for a trade deal on Friday.”

David Davis: “There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside.”

Michael Gove: “The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want.”

But, as in America, conditions favoured hucksterism. Cameron resigned following the referendum loss and a soft anti-Brexiteer, Theresa May, who had to negotiate a divorce, became leader of the Tories, helped to victory by two candidates on the right who divided that vote. However, May, instead of pushing for a Norwegian solution – leaving the EU but retaining tight ties – pushed exit with the key goals of the Brexiteers intact:

  • limit immigration
  • ditch the common market and the customs union
  • throw the European Court of Justice to the wolves.

The right was actually deeply divided among four groupings:

  • The xenophobic and anti-EU right wary of Brussels bureaucrats

and led by a very ambitious Boris Johnson

  • The small-c community conservatives led by May who wanted the core of Brexit (Brexit-lite) but without the guillotine
  • The pragmatic political pro-EU right willing to accept an EU-lite
  • The ideological economic globalist pro-EU right

The referendum strategy of terror fighting Islamicists and foreigners alike succeeded only in spreading the fear of Europe among Brits. The strength of the first two groups above grew. The UK voted to leave. But on what terms? The interests and beliefs of a very divided population of 66 million were set against an even far more divided European population of 442 million divided among 27 other states. And look at the horrific consequences for Britain if there was no deal. Looking at just one area, Britain imports 40% of its food from Europe and exports butter, wheat and cheddar cheese to the continent. If Britain leaves without a deal, those foods will attract an average of over 50% duties.

The question was how to leave, how to cut off your leg to get rid of the pain in your big toe. May thought she had the answer when she went to the voters when she was riding high in the polls in 2017. May miscalculated. On 8 June 2017, not only did she not get her decisive mandate, she lost her majority.

She went forward nevertheless, even more determined to find a way out of the maze in which Britain found itself. Finally, a deal was struck. But not struck. For it was conditional on unanimous approval of the European states. More importantly, it was conditional on a further Parliamentary vote in accordance with a ruling of Britain’s High Court. After arduous negotiations over a long period, the 27 other member states of the EU endorsed the agreement on divorce, including the penalties for leaving and the conditions and terms for remaining connected to the rest of Europe. The problem – it was not a divorce agreement but a separation agreement. Further, the divorced parties agreed to live in the same house. It was EU-lite or Brexit without Brexit that most Britons and most parliamentarians found distasteful.

May managed to get cabinet support for the accord she reached in November with the EU. However, it was unsatisfactory to a majority of Parliamentarians so that Theresa May was forced to abandon her plan to bring the agreement before the House last week. The negotiations with the EU turned out to be a meaningless diplomatic victory, for Theresa May could not get enough votes in the Commons to support the negotiated terms of the agreement. Humiliated, she postponed the 11 December 2018 parliamentary vote until the second week of January following a week of debate starting 7 January 2019.

May had to return to Europe, cap in hand, begging for a few more handouts. The possibility of further meaningful concessions was virtually nil. Therefore, it is unclear what she can bring back to the debate that is new – except that the apocalypse Britain faces has moved closer along with the possibility that those fearful enough of that prospect will turn around and support May’s compromise. Fintan O’Toole in The Guardian, quoting Vincent Gookin, a 17th century English colonist in Ireland, wrote, “the unsettling of a nation is an easy work; the settling of a nation is not.” What took decades even a century to build can be unravelled in only a few years.

“Make up lies about the European Union, throw patriotic shapes, get a smugly overconfident prime minister to call a referendum whose dynamics he does not understand, tell more lies, make promises you don’t believe in yourself, use stolen Facebook data to target voters with xenophobic images, tell everybody that they will have all the benefits of membership with none of the costs. Easy work, all of it: no plans, no complexities, no responsibilities.”

When posing and posturing replace performance in politics, the political process is doomed. May insists she is still determined to get Parliament to approve her deal, presuming that parliamentarians will understand that this deal is better than the apocalypse of no deal. However, deals require patience. Deals require prudence. Deals require planning. Deals require deft negotiating skills. Deals require creativity and compromise. May, however, seems, perhaps only for appearances, either determined to ignore what she sees as the Scylla of a rising swell of opinion for a second referendum or the Charybdis of a negative parliamentary vote that Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has pushed so that the deal can be dispatched once and for all.

Britain is in a terrible bind. After all, look at the various different divisive ideologies and the different regional interests – most Scots, Northern Irish and Londoners had been strongly opposed to any type of divorce – while the Welsh, central and northern English largely favoured Brexit.  And each of those two groups were split into a further division. The March date for the guillotine had been capital punishment of the Tory’s own making. But Brexit without a deal was a recipe for national suicide. The alternative – another referendum, not on whether to leave, but whether:

  1. to leave without a deal;
  2. to leave with the deal on the table;
  3. to stay until a better deal could be struck;
  4. to simply stay.

Then there is the perennial problem of Ireland and the Westminster Accord that promised a soft border between the north and the south. The deal struck with the EU postponed the Irish question for the EU was determined to maintain the Irish peace and, therefore, retain the open border essential to that peace. Therefore, Northern Ireland could remain within the EU customs union and part of the single market, at least until the Irish problem could be resolved in a different way. But no one had any idea what that alternative could be – Northern Ireland part of the EU but England, Scotland and Wales not? A line would have to be drawn down the North Sea. And this with May in a coalition with Ulster – no possibility.

To survive, May dithered and dragged her feet on the Irish issue while she was pushed into the corner of an EU-lite – not only Northern Ireland, but Britain as a whole remaining in the EU customs union indefinitely with Britain subject to EU rules and laws re governing labour and the environment while paying its EU dues. These were precisely what the Brexiteers wanted to get rid of with the exit option. EU-lite was effectively Brexit without Brexit, taxation without representation while regaining at least de jure control over immigration.

In the larger picture, any of the four alternatives above effectively entailed further years of deep divisions that will likely shatter the Tory party and bring Labour to power. Perhaps, under the current conditions of the Labour Party, the last may be even more dangerous alternative of all. There is one out – the Centrist Tories and the liberal left in the Labour Party uniting to back both a new referendum and option 3 above. That would require a cross-party agreement to beat the Euro-sceptics in both parties. Highly unlikely! Further, that compromise would be greeted with trench war for years to come.

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