Anthony Barnett. Photograph by Scarlett Freund. All rights reserved.On 23 June the British could take leave of their traditional rulers whose self-interested wisdom they have deferred to for so long, and vote to exit the European Union. Or at least the English could do so. Two weeks after the Prime Minister David Cameron announced a June date for a referendum on staying in the EU or leaving, a poll of six polls held between 24 February and 6 March had Remain on 51 per cent and Leave on 49 per cent, while the Financial Times running poll had Remain on 45 per cent and Leave on 40 per cent with 15 per cent undecided. The result is too close to call, especially as turn-out by the anti-EU voters is likely to be higher.
A decision to Leave would be a colossal upset for the country’s government and civil service, the interests they represent and their international and corporate allies. From the start their hope and presumption was that any referendum would be a foregone conclusion. However, against the backdrop of trans-Atlantic discontent with the global elite, and our European continent’s chronic financial insecurity and unprecedented influx of refugees, something quite extraordinary and surprising is taking place in the UK. The Westminster ruling order has splintered and the political system is going into a nosedive from which it may not emerge intact.
The likelihood is that the lucky country will pull round at the last minute with only a few bits and pieces of its governing machinery breaking away. Since Wellington declared that winning the battle of Waterloo in 1815 was “a damned nice thing — the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”, there has been a dramatic lineage of narrow escapes. The British expeditionary army evacuated Dunkirk in 1940 because the Germans failed for three crucial days to press their advantage. The Argentinians surrendered the Falklands just one day before 100 mile an hour winter storm would have made the British attack unsustainable, and anyway there were almost no shells left.
When, tired of a relentlessly negative and patronising official campaign, Scottish opinion swung towards voting ‘Yes’ to independence and leaving the Union in their referendum less than two years ago, a last minute ‘Vow’ by the leaders of the three main London parties to give more powers to the Scottish parliament was scrambled together. It made sure there was a ‘No’ to the break up of Britain. As an escape artist the British regime is up there with Houdini; putting itself into situations it should never have been in and then, through cunning and fortitude as well as luck, finding a way out. As an escape artist the British regime is up there with Houdini.
Yet it is far better than Houdini, being no mere act of entertainment even if it is that as well. For in the process of dodging death it also transforms itself, sometimes profoundly, discarding its own past like a moth leaving its chrysalis. It was an Empire that declared war on Germany in 1939; it was a country that emerged victorious in 1945. It was a dispirited, nostalgic, social democratic, Churchillist country that dispatched an expeditionary force to recapture the Falklands in 1982; it was a priapic, nostalgic Thatcherite state that returned from the re-conquest determined to turn its guns on the trade unions. It was still a British union that negotiated the holding of a Scottish referendum in Edinburgh in 2012; it was a permanently fractured one that emerged in 2014, with Labour’s hegemony north of the border broken forever - and with it any prospect of a once united Kingdom enjoying rule by a single party with majorities across its two main nations.
The 2016 EU referendum will be another watershed. It was conceived (in so far as those who thought it up thought it might happen) in complacency, as a way of “putting the issue to bed” as if it was a noisy child, and dealing with the “fruitcakes” of the UK Independence Party and Tory backbenchers who believe what they say. Instead, the referendum is proving to be an earthquake not a pacifier. The referendum is proving to be an earthquake not a pacifier.
What is very interesting indeed about this referendum is that it for real. Unexpectedly it is not a foregone conclusion. A momentous question of the country’s future is being put to the British people when majority opinion has not been stitched up! This is both a welcome step towards becoming an authentic democracy and signals the coming breakdown of the traditional regime.
The quality of British rule was always to seek with every sinew of its skill the consent of the unwashed (preferably through deference rather than enthusiasm as the latter was dangerous and might not be contained), while at the same time never letting go or permitting its fate to be decided by them. To give an example, when the expansion of the franchise in the second-half of the nineteenth century threatened the merest whiff of the possibility of a working class government, the device of a permanent civil service was created to put the administration of state power ‘beyond’ politics. Whatever the outcome on the referendum battlefield the country will not be same. The first European referendum of 1975 remained within this framework. Although an unfortunate precedent, the actual risk of a negative outcome was so minimised as to make the result inevitable. It gave a patina of democratic legitimacy to a decision already taken by a cross-party governing establishment which had no intention whatsoever of allowing it to be reversed. It merely permitted the then Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson a means to frustrate the left wing of his party led by Tony Benn and emboldened by working class militancy. Cameron hoped to repeat precisely this exercise. His aim was to host a tournament that looked like a battle. Instead we have a genuine clash.
Whatever the outcome on the referendum battlefield the country will not be same. Little will remain unchanged if voters embrace Brexit. That is unarguable. But what if England votes Leave but the UK as a whole does not, thanks to Remain majorities in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland? This will unleash a fight for democracy in Shakespeare’s land and a federal Britain will materialise, if the union lasts at all.
What if a Remain vote is in the end decisive, as everyone once expected? Will all default back to ‘normal’? Can we carry on with ‘carry on’ when a decision to Remain will finally bust the myth of the ‘absolute sovereignty’ of parliament.
The question of sovereignty should have been tackled in 1972 when the UK passed the European Communities Act that subordinated our government to the Treaties of what was to become the European Union,
Which means, ‘That’s that’. The legal reality of ‘Parliamentary Sovereignty’ evaporated at the hands of Parliament itself. However, in life collective self-belief is the reality that counts. Myths do not need to be true to be effective; often the opposite is the case. And the myth of the sovereignty of parliament lived on. But it is hardly likely that this can continue if the British consciously vote Remain when warned that it terminates the historic form of parliamentary self-government in both principle and in detail. How does a proud country move forward after it has torpedoed what it regards as the ark of the covenant of its constitution?
So change is coming - significant change suddenly accelerated by the before-and-after nature of the Referendum; change that will set the UK’s direction for years to come.
Why is it happening in this way? What are the forces causing and shaping it? Who will determine the consequences and how? And, a question that matters for me, is it possible to organise a progressive, egalitarian outcome… eventually.
Which leads on to deeper issues coming into focus thanks to the referendum.
There is another question especially pertinent but not confined to those of us on the left as we observe the Conservative government battle it out and puzzle and fear the consequences. There is a story about a warm summer night when Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson decided to sleep rough on the Moors rather than head for the local inn still some miles away. In the middle of the night Holmes shook Dr Watson by the shoulder and woke him. “Look up there, Watson”, he said, pointing to the stars, “what do you make of the significance of that?” “I’m not sure”, said the sleepy Watson, “it shows the night sky of the northern hemisphere”. “No, no, my dear Watson, what else?” “Well, Holmes, it is a dark, clear moonless summer night and Orion is in the ascendant.” “No, no, something more important than that, Watson.” “Oh I don’t know, Holmes”, Dr. Watson replied now wide awake, “what does it show?” Nothing stirred across the bleak, windless moors. After a short silence Sherlock Holmes replied, “It means, my dear Watson, that someone has stolen our tent”. What does it mean that we can see the strange movement of the planets of the UK’s Conservative party so clearly?
What does it mean that we can see the strange movement of the planets of the UK’s Conservative party so clearly? It means that something has stolen away the British left. The Conservatives have no need to hide their differences as they sense no serious threat to their heavenly supremacy. Just as the absence of a thrusting, profitable European Union has made Leave a credible option, so the absence of a viable, threatening, popular Labour Party, confident of winning the next election, means the Tories feel no need to stick together to preserve their current advantage. More significant, the Labour Party has almost nothing to say of any vitality or interest about the future of Europe and why the UK should, or should not, be involved. I’m not blaming Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn as if it’s his fault. None of the many who are ambitious for his job have uttered any credible arguments worthy of the stakes in play.
We are approaching one of the biggest decisions this country will face in our lifetimes. Whether to remain in a reformed European Union – or to leave. This choice goes to the heart of the kind of country we want to be.
And the Labour leader dismisses Cameron’s negotiations as a “theatrical sideshow”, as if it doesn’t really matter what the referendum outcome is.
Should this abdication continue over the next three months, another generation of Conservative hegemony may be assured. It is not passivity without consequence, for if Labour supporters are demotivated from voting thanks to the party’s lethargic evacuation from the referendum debate, Remain could lose. In addition, such absentionism also risks Labour's own electoral collapse. Once a great party withdraws from history how can it ever regain a role in shaping it? The left will be condemning itself to marginal status in the articulation of who rules, how they do so and the country’s self-perceived nature and international standing, if this embarrassed shuffling and paralysis of brain synapses continues. If I can achieve anything writing this, it is to lay down some foundations for a revival of the left in England after the referendum.
So I am going to draft a book, publishing a chapter a week if I can, through to the referendum itself; whereupon, if I survive, I will go through it and turn it into a publishable stand-alone account. My personal starting point is that I am privileged to feel European while being a vigorous critic of the oligarch-nature of the EU. I want to engage with efforts to change it and am for Remain so as to transform the EU into a democratic association of free countries. That’s different from the free-market plus corporate power arrangement that Tory Brexiteers want to see. I’ll happily ‘share sovereignty’ to secure liberty, indeed it’s essential. However, my position is no more interesting than that of anyone else. Possibly less so as it is not ‘on offer’ so far as the wider public is concerned, despite the efforts of the Green Party backed Another Europe is Possible.
In an essay in the New Humanist on the responsibilities of a writer, Philip Pullman describes how he does not set out to create a fictional story with the cause decided, knowing in advance what he thinks about the characters and events. Writing is a journey that explores and resolves these things. Something similar attracts me to the lesser investigation of writing about the present. I enjoy the tension of trying to keep my judgment while retaining an open-mind. It demands listening to those I frankly regard as enemies of the good, who all too often have a cunning grip on reality from which we must learn, even if they use it to play on the fears of those who are anxious for their jobs and their children. Already, in sketching out the initial issues thrown up by the referendum I have had to ask questions I’d not done before and sketch out answers that I’m not sure will fly. What better way to test this than to publish draft chapters – I say “draft” to give myself the privilege of re-formulation – in openDemocracy.
I start this investigation with the noteworthy fact that the UK’s traditional governing party is split from top to bottom. You might regard this as a sign of its weakness. The playwright David Hare has just argued that the “Tory project is bust” and its “engine has died”, not least because Margaret Thatcher’s “grafting of foreign ideas onto the British economy has failed”. Somehow he implies that their immigrant status contributed to the problem. Should we embrace Keynes because he was a Brit? Thatcher’s interest in ideas was a virtue as was her indifference as to their country of origin, even if the ideas themselves were not. To be sure she signalled the abandonment of traditional post-war ‘consensus’ conservatism. That project is indeed long bust. But the English ruling classes famously embraced ‘flexibility’ camouflaged by tradition, since James II was sent packing in 1688 in what its historian Steven Pincus calls “The First Modern Revolution”. Today, flexibility goes by the term ‘modernisation’. It can be more or less successful or it can indeed fail. The conflict, which has broken out at the very top of the Conservative Party, is about how best to embrace the power of change. With which forces should it bend? What is the direction of the winds in the howling financial gales of the early 21st century? Tory England has begun a battle over how to reposition for the post-crash, post-Iraq and probably post-Euro world. Fortunate is any party that has the vitality and striving for renewal to be ‘bust’ like them - even if the vital fluids of their life-support is oodles of dosh from hedge-fund managers while the party membership withers.
There were two weeks between the publication, on 2 February, of the draft agreement over the Prime Minister’s deal to renegotiate the UK’s terms of membership of the EU, in the form of the letter (along with accompanying statements and declarations) from the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and the final agreement issued on the 19th by Europe’s Council of Ministers. During that time British Leave campaigners fell out. Two organisations, Leave.EU supported by the far-right UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Vote Leave supported by UKIP’s only MP Douglas Carswell, a techno-democrat, vied with each other to become the group that would be designated as their side’s official campaign. The dispute was over substance and money. According to law, the Electoral Commission that regulates referendums designates the official campaign if there is more than one organisation seeking this role. It then alone is authorised to raise and spend money and publish the literature that goes through every front door. As much as £6 million is at stake. The substantial disagreement between Leave.EU and Vote Leave is over strategy: should migration and fear of the costs of continued membership of the EU lead the case for Brexit, or should the emphasis be on the positive prospects of a Britain freed from overbearing EU regulation?
Some of the bitter rows between the two campaigns and their personal vitriol was leaked to the press. How perfectly auspicious, the Government must have thought. As Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne lined up their Cabinet colleagues to back their renegotiation and support Remain, the “fruitcakes” were falling out attacking each other. The Prime Minister looked forward to storming into a confident lead in the opinion polls as the referendum was declared. The game plan was that by the end of the first week, the ‘Outers’ would be reduced to a melange of the marginal led by UKIP’s Nigel Farage. The only exception was going to be the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, the one time Tory party leader from 2001 to 2003. But his weirdness would if anything be confirmed by his holding hands with Farage. An alliance of the Government, the civil service, the BBC, the CBI and the TUC, not to speak of Labour and the Lib Dems would be more than sufficient. An unassailable 15 to 20 point lead would be established from the get-go and the Leave campaign would be marginalised as a protest movement with perhaps 30-35 per cent support.
After the usual drawn-out European summit, the other 27 European countries unanimously agreed to tweak the UK’s terms of membership. I will analyse the deal they concluded in a later chapter. Cameron then announced there would be a referendum on 23rd of June. The days that followed did not go as the Prime Minister had hoped. Instead, and surely in part due to the pressure, encouragement, arguments and influence of the right-wing press, some key celebrity-politicians with a patina of gravity sufficient for them to be considered ‘heavyweight’ in today’s Westminster, gave all-important credibility to Leave. Their arguments appeared to be cogent; their demand for self-government and sovereignty seemed democratic; the refugees storming Europe gave their call to control the borders urgency; they turned the tables on what they scorned as Remain’s ‘project fear’. More important, they positioned the EU as a backward, dis-functioning dinosaur from the past, whereas theirs is a vision of Britain getting back its mojo as the world’s fifth biggest economy. The country is, in their view, a British Gulliver tied down by a web of Lilliputian Brussels regulations and restraints. It can break free and rise up to its full height, if only the people have the courage to snap the petty bonds - for they have the strength.
The EU is an institution rooted in the past and is proving incapable of reforming to meet the big technological, demographic and economic challenges of our time. It was developed in the 1950s and 1960s and like other institutions which seemed modern then, from tower blocks to telexes, it is now hopelessly out of date. The EU tries to standardise and regulate rather than encourage diversity and innovation. It is an analogue union in a digital age.
There was a personal twist to this neat, epochal condemnation. It repeated a taunt that Cameron had made to Gordon Brown ten years ago, attacking the then Labour leader’s budget, “He is an analogue politician in a digital age. He is the past.” Apparently the journalist Sarah Vine who is Gove’s wife scripted it for Cameron. So when the Prime Minister read these words he would have known the taunt he had borrowed was now turned on him.
On Sunday 21st, Gove was followed by Boris Johnson, an MP and the Mayor of London. A media favourite, whose delightful, learned and unpredictable personality is as fat as his principles are withered, and who turns a cunning column in the Telegraph, ‘Boris’ is that rare thing, a genuine European Tory unlike the Prime Minister. His leadership ambitions, however, ensured his allegiance to his party’s Europhobia (a majority of members and about half its MPs favouring Brexit). And why not, isn’t this what political parties are for, to find leaders who will express their wishes?
The combination of Johnson’s stout pragmatism and Gove’s willowy principle might in other times has looked like Laurel and Hardy. Not now. The valency of Iain Duncan Smith was transformed by his attachment to these two senior colleagues. Whereas in bed with Farage the peculiarity of Duncan Smith would have come to the fore, joining forces with G & J brought out his unmatched consistency. He had always been hostile to the EU. It was this that ensured the support of Margaret Thatcher and his elevation into the role of Conservative Party leader in 2001 despite his obvious lack of qualification for the top job. For someone had to stop Ken Clarke, who obviously was made for a leadership role, but was a pro-European patriarch through and through (and had joined those telling Thatcher her time was up in 1990). Duncan Smith’s brief two-year tenure as Conservative leader before a no-confidence motion by his own backbenchers forced him out, led him to witness the state of Britain. He came face to face with the millions of long-term unemployed. Ironically, Thatcher’s destruction of British industry and her squandering of the state’s share of the North Sea Oil bonanza on unemployment benefits, had created a situation where Iain Duncan Smith concluded, “A system that was originally designed to support the poorest in society is now trapping them in the very condition it was supposed to alleviate”. He dedicated his political life thereafter to reversing this legacy.
With Tim Montgomerie he created the Centre for Social Justice and developed the concept of a universal credit system that would integrate the range of different payments going to those out of work and their families so as to ensure that ‘work always pays’. The simple narrative had huge appeal to British conservatives: everyone should be obliged to aspire for their own good and find work; the genuinely poor are properly helped to ensure their dignity; dependency was to be abjured – combining the tough, the compassionate and the cost-effective. It became a project of such influence that Cameron was obliged to make him Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in 2010 when the coalition that preceded the present Tory administration came to office. There he remained because there was nothing else he wanted to do or be.
Under conditions of economic growth and supremely good administration Duncan Smith’s approach might have worked, because it needs funds in the short term, care of application and consistency. Instead, appalling implementation making it “years behind schedule”, combined with the cruel folly of austerity and its increasingly arbitrary targets, undermined it. The Chancellor and Prime Minister ruled out cuts to high-turnout, Tory voting pensioners. The public welfare bill for pensions rose by 25 per cent from 2010 to over £90 billion. Instead it was the disabled who were singled out for punishment in the pre-referendum March budget, to help pay for a tax reduction for the wealthier. The Treasury told Duncan Smith that even if they rolled back the controversial cuts for the disabled he would still have to find extra billions from his welfare budget. He resigned. Penning at remarkable speed a devastating two-page letter to the Prime Minister observing that the cuts are now “distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest”, he said not enough is being done to ensure "we are all in this together" (Cameron’s own catch phrase).
Duncan Smith’s explosive resignation had nothing to do with the referendum, ostensibly. He was already taking full advantage of the lifting of collective omerta and official permission that Cabinet members were free to speak their minds. And he was speaking his without any apparent restraint. But his resignation could not have been better designed to strengthen Leave. It was a well-aimed, well-timed arrow that broke through the Chancellor’s armour plating. It wounded his integrity by exposing his deceitful manoeuvring and punctured the government’s claim to be acting for the people as a whole. On the morning of Sunday 20 March, on the BBC’s flagship interview programme, the Andrew Marr show, Duncan Smith went further. He said Cameron and Osborne deprived the poor and needy since they are not Tory voters, rather than govern as “one nation” and this had broken the “narrative” of helping everyone get the chance they deserved. He achieved three things in one blow. He reached out to working class voters tempted by Brexit but hostile to the Tories' welfare measures. He positioned the Prime Minister and his Chancellor as deceitful, self-interested and unpatriotic. He put himself foreward as a man without ambition who compromised, of course, when necessary but was fundamentally decent and straight. Provided he is not destroyed by the counter-attack this will lift the perception of Duncan Smith’s stature in the crucial weeks to come, as a man of integrity whose arguments can be trusted.
If Gove represented an intellectual judgment about the need for Brexit, and Boris the opportunistic one, Duncan Smith personified an unwavering belief now justified by events. He had suffered no inner turmoil or need to wrestle with his decision to support Leave. This apparently moral stature allows him to propagate the dark side, and he lit the touch paper to a theme we will hear more of: that it is sticking with the EU is the ‘leap in the dark’, full of the risk of uncontrolled mass migration threatening everyone’s security and well-being.
Over the course of a historic weekend Michael Gove and Boris Johnson joined Ian Duncan Smith: the Lord High Chancellor, the Mayor of London and the then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions became The Three Brexiteers. Together they created a strike force of a different calibre to the outriders of UKIP. Four more Cabinet colleagues joined them. Not many out of 23 but enough to ensure they were not visibly isolated. The cause of Brexit was transformed. As The Times noted: Brexit was no longer in disarray and is no longer led by “fringe figures” but enjoys the “intellectual ballast” of Gove, the government’s most “energetic reformer”, and the “political viagra” of Johnson, the country’s “most popular politician”. What Cameron and his Chancellor and strategist, George Osborne, had hoped would be a protest movement had become an alternative direction of government.
I want to stress this point. A country can’t take a new direction without credible replacement leaders if the old ones are committed to staying on the existing course. If a vote for Brexit meant giving power to the beer swigging, UKIP populist Nigel Farage, it would be lost already in the vapours of an unfashionable saloon. But Nigel now is noises off. The argument is no longer about the ‘case’ for leaving the EU but the choice of doing so, thanks to this distinguished breakaway group, at the top of the governing Conservative Party.
And to prove the point, should they win a Brexit, Gove and Johnson will have support within the Cabinet far more extensive than the six who have declared openly against membership of the EU. The Economist reports that Oliver Letwin who runs the Cabinet office “actually supports Brexit but thinks now is the wrong time”. Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Business, a close ally of George Osborne (already tagged as his future Chancellor if Osborne becomes Prime Minister), said in November that the costs of staying in the EU outweigh its benefits. He infuriated the Remain campaign by declaring his support for Cameron’s deal in the Daily Mail like this,
It's clear now that the United Kingdom should never have joined the European Union. In many ways, it’s a failing project, an overblown bureaucracy in need of wide-ranging and urgent reform.
Had we never taken the fateful decision to sign up, the UK would still, of course, be a successful country with a strong economy. We would be an independent trading nation like the US, Japan, or Canada. Over the years, we would have developed trade agreements with the EU and with others, all without surrendering control over immigration or our economic independence.
If this year’s referendum were a vote on whether to join in the first place, I wouldn’t hesitate to stand up and say Britain would be better off staying out.
But the question we’re faced with is not about what we should have done 43 years ago. It’s about what we should do now, in 2016. That’s why, with a heavy heart and no enthusiasm, I shall be voting for the UK to remain a member of the European Union.
With this kind of support, the Remain camp is doomed. Javid was promptly instructed to keep a zero profile henceforth. But his views demonstrate how easy it will be for a Brexit administration to assemble an experienced team in the unlikely outcome that they win. More ominous is his phrase, “with a heavy heart and no enthusiasm”. For in the more likely outcome of a majority for Remain this is likely to be the depressing mood of England’s acquiescence.
Who will be the fourth Brexiteer? There is some healthy competition. David Owen could emerge as a striking, white-haired d’Artagnan. Now too old to be a contender, none could doubt that Owen proved himself to be his own man: the youngest Foreign Secretary in Callaghan’s Labour government of 1976-9, an international figure in global affairs, leader of the momentarily influential SDP as it sought to displace Labour in the early 1980s. Seen as right-wing by Labour traditionalists, Owen is a hard-working advocate of replacing the folly of Trident nuclear weapon system with a modest nuclear capacity as a contribution to negotiated disarmament. He has also used his position in the House of Lords as a life peer to advance by far the most principled defence of the NHS. No one in recent British politics did more. His analysis of how the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the USA and the EU would marketise the NHS in a way that puts reversing this beyond the powers of any new British government was exemplary. It became one of the factors turning him from being a leading British Europhile (though never a federalist) into an opponent of Remain. He added the credibility of experience to Leave.
A younger candidate for the d’Artagnan role is Daniel Hannan, an MEP of wit and eloquence and a relentless opponent of the EU and its follies. Or perhaps it should be Gisela Stewart, the Labour MP from Birmingham who has just become the Chair of Vote Leave and will coordinate its campaign with Michael Gove. Born in Germany, Stewart participated in the failed process of drawing up a European constitution in 2005, so she can hardly be accused of Europhobia. It could make her a brilliant choice in a debate bereft of influential women.
Because they are from the same party the Conservatives will seek to deny the depth of their differences.The press will trivialise the clashes as ‘blue on blue’ disarray. Those who despise the Tories will be enticed into seeing the arguments as a squabble between right-wingers who advocate the free market, embrace corporate power and are ‘as bad as each other’. But there are different ways of being reactionary. Behind all the blather about Cameron carrying on should he lose the referendum, the reality is that on 23 June Britain is being presented not just with a decision to remain or leave the European Union, but with a momentous choice of how the country will be led as well as by whom. A clash of orientation if not ideology is shaping up in the arguments between contending parties of a hegemonic conservatism. Early twenty-first century Toryism is splitting. How should the two sides be described and in what direction does each point? I intend to set out an answer next week.