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A Prescription for Cynicism

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

The Illusion of Consensus

"The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear." – Gramsci
For two decades, British politics seemed to be dominated by a simple and pragmatic political consensus: voters wanted freer markets, devolution of powers, social liberalism and a strong role for Britain on the world stage. In reality, the consensus never existed, and its fragility has been brutally exposed in the last twelve months. Support for market intervention, centralisation, social conservatism and isolationism have probably never been higher. It may be depressing for liberals like me, but since we have been very good at telling others that they need to adapt to the new world order – to sink or swim – maybe we need to start taking our own advice.

From the perspective of 2017, this consensus is already looking like a relic, but two years ago the trajectory of British politics seemed to be firmly established, and almost irrevocable: the major parties might squabble around the margins, but by and large they occupied the same political territory. Tony Blair’s three election victories provided the template, and his self-styled ‘heirs’ in the Conservative Party responded by modernising their party. Like Blair, David Cameron and George Osborne upheld socially and economically liberal values; they supported gay rights, free(ish) markets, private involvement in the provision of public services and, of course, they wanted Britain to remain a member of the European Union.

In retrospect, the strength of this consensus was also its weakness. Between 2005 and 2015, millions of ‘core’ voters shifted their political allegiance away from the main parties. The Tory right migrated angrily to Ukip, whilst voters to the left of the Labour Party grew frustrated with the triangulations of its leaders and sought out a more full-throated committed to the rhetoric, if not the practice, of socialism, which they found in the Green Party in England or in the nationalist parties of Scotland and Wales. Many socially conservative Labour voters, especially in the north, shifted to Ukip. The Liberal Democrat Party, once a safe haven for the ‘protest voter’, paid the price for entering a coalition with the Conservative Party and suffered a near-collapse in 2015.

They're not laughing now.
The voters’ flight from the consensus of the Blair years was heavily masked by the UK’s anachronistic voting system, which exaggerated support for the traditional parties to an almost embarrassing degree. In May 2015, Ukip and the Greens won nearly five million votes between them, but won only one seat apiece. Nevertheless, Cameron’s unexpected majority made the shifts in political gravity over the previous decade seem largely superficial: it appeared that most voters would still return to consensus politics when called upon to do so. But this ignored the fact that Cameron had failed to put forward any positive agenda in 2015. Instead, he focused on the threat of an unpatriotic Labour-SNP coalition that would ‘bankrupt Britain’ and the promise of a referendum on EU membership that he personally opposed. Lacking enthusiastic support from his own members, let alone the country, his victory was dependent on a toxic combination of weakness and fear. 

Neither was there much enthusiasm for the political alternative offered by Labour. Left-wing voters were appalled at Ed Miliband’s attempts to compromise with socially conservative voters by accepting the freeze on benefits and putting the promise to ‘control immigration’ on campaign mugs. There has probably never been an election in which the candidates had so little to offer their political activists or the wider electorate; both leaders campaigned on the basis of who they weren’t, and the result that there was little sorrow over their respective departures in 2015 (Miliband) and 2016 (Cameron).

And what has become of the ‘centre ground’ that both men were so diligently striving for? It has evaporated beneath their feet. Support for membership of the EU was, by 2016, the only part of the old consensus still standing, and it collapsed entirely once sufficient numbers of Remainers accepted that there was little hope of overturning the referendum result. This year, the Liberal Democrats have appealed directly to ‘Remain’ voters, and have found themselves struggling to stay relevant in an election campaign that has moved on.

In 2017, the two main parties have achieved what once seemed impossible: playing to its ‘core vote’ whilst also making electoral gains. Labour’s campaign has been an unheralded triumph. A manifesto that promises large spending increases and government intervention in the economy at almost every level will enable them to hoover up votes from Liberal Democrats and the Greens on June 8th. On the right, Theresa May’s programme offers Conservatives all they have dreamed of: hard Brexit, grammar schools, fox hunting and fiscal restraint. Her personal brand has been tarnished by wobbles over social care, but the wider message will still (probably) carry her to an increased majority.

Both platforms have done more than simply challenge the old political consensus: they have buried it. Labour may change its leader after this election, but they will certainly maintain the political course that he has set. Meanwhile, Cameronites in the Conservative Party are on the way to becoming as rare a breed as Labour’s ‘Blairites’: when Theresa May sacked George Osborne last year, she reportedly advised him to spend some time getting to know Conservative voters before returning to the political fray. Instead, he has become the editor of the largest newspaper in London, a city which remains a sturdy outpost of the old consensus, but is suddenly perplexed to find itself disregarded by the provinces: an enclave, rather than a hub.

As the process of leaving the European Union proves to be more intricate, more painful and more embarrassing than voters have calculated, the positions adopted now will harden further: scapegoats will be demanded, and unrealistic goals set. But this election may yet only mark the transformation, rather than the death, of Liberal Britain. If liberalism can move from orthodoxy to insurgency, then it can still revive the country’s prospects in the twenty-first century as surely as it did in the twentieth. Shorn of the constraints imposed by the need to maintain a non-existent consensus, liberalism can regain its self-confidence and assertiveness, and reclaim support from across the political spectrum. Macron points the way: en marche!

Tuesday, 23 May 2017


'To think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.'

Orwell, Politics and the English Language

To discriminate is a moral necessity. It is the first duty of the twenty-first century liberal. It is our only hope. Yesterday, we learned again what a lack of discrimination looks like. The man at the concert lacked the courage, and the intellect, to distinguish between a mass of enemies, and individual human beings. His victims were determined by random chance. It was indiscriminate. It has always been the guiding principle of terrorists all over the world that there is no meaningful distinction to be made between citizens and governments, between systems and individuals, between bystanders and cheerleaders. A terrorist organisation thrives on the perception that their victims could include anyone, at any time: it could be you. Terror is, purely and simply, the failure to discriminate.

But, unlike the killer, the people of Manchester are capable of discrimination. They know the difference between a murderer, a maniac and a Muslim. There are, of course, people who will mock this distinction. They will laugh at attempts to strengthen communities and re-assert human ties in the face of inhuman violence. They will scoff that this is nothing more than a deliberate denial of reality in order to defend a liberal dogma. They will pour scorn on pious do-gooders who want to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent, and they will instead urge that the time for discrimination is over. Lump the good in with the bad, they will say. We can’t take any more chances. We must get tough on the communities that have spawned sadistic, murderous fantasists: they are collectively guilty and must be collectively punished. In their hearts, of course, these old fraudsters know they are perpetuating the problem that they claim to strike at. They know that the planners of an attack such as this depend on those who use language indiscriminately to follow up the attack and do their work for them. They know it, but the temptation to pontificate is stronger than the challenge to engage. The ultimate result is that, slowly but surely, a liberal state loses the ability to discriminate between the guilty and the innocent, and Muslims are encouraged to believe that they have no obligation to discriminate in return.

Discrimination, in the aftermath of Manchester, is hard. We must practise discriminating between a killer and those who share his faith. We must practise discriminating between those who are seeking to solve the problem and those who merely say they are. We must learn to discriminate between the truth, which is hard and painful, and fantasy, which is easy, morally comforting and, eventually, psychotically violent. But if Manchester is still capable of discrimination today, so are we.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Hello, Lenin!

Sometimes – history needs a push’ (Lenin)

As the Kremlin agonises over its plans to commemorate the centenary of the October Revolution, the Trump administration is busy organising an historical re-enactment. In 2013 Steve Bannon, now the president’s closest advisor, told an interviewer that he was a ‘Leninist’ because he aimed to ‘bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment’. He has recently claimed that he does not recall the conversation, but his other public statements leave little room for doubt: ‘we think of ourselves as virulently anti-establishment, particularly ‘anti’ the permanent political class’.

‘We cannot expect to get anywhere unless we resort to terrorism’ (Lenin; January 1918)

Whilst Trump’s critics have focused intently on his suspected links to the current Russian government, his adoption of Leninist political methods has received less scrutiny. The first point stinks merely of corruption and carelessness; the latter openly exposes the hollowness of the Trump claim to embody American traditions and values. Of course, Bannon and Trump are not communists any more than they are liberals or conservatives; they are simply narcissists who are willing to borrow from any political tradition in pursuit of their goals. They have no time for the soppy, sentimental ideas expressed in the motto of the American republic: E Pluribus Unum. They thrive instead on the assertive masculinity of the language of war and destruction, a ‘braggadocious’ political style that runs directly counter to the classical traditions of American conservatism, embodied in the dictum of President Theodore Roosevelt, who advised his successors to ‘talk softly, and carry a big stick’.  As a Leninist, Trump prefers to be the centre of attention, and regards political discord not as something to be avoided but as an essential tool for purging his enemies.

A black-and-white photograph of a crowd scene.  A bald, goateed man stands on a platform in the centre-left, speaking dramatically to the crowd.
Lenin in full flow, Moscow 1920
One man with a gun can control a hundred without one’ (quote falsely attributed to Lenin)

The Leninist style that Trump imitates combines naked opportunism with the purest hypocrisy. In order to return to Russia in April 1917, Lenin accepted funding from Imperial Germany, publicly lied about it, and then fled the country when his connections were exposed, leaving his supporters to their fate. As luck would have it, Lenin’s disorganised opponents collaborated to enable him to make a triumphant return in October, whereupon he trampled on his previous promises to empower the people, and instead established a dictatorship of the party that lasted for seven decades. Before October 1917, Lenin had bitterly denounced the violence of the state against intellectuals and radicals; in power, he presided over a brutal reign of Terror that showed that the mistake of the tsar was simply that he wasn’t brutal enough. Trump is animated by similar contradictions. As a candidate, he raised concerns that the election would be rigged against him; as a winner he poured scorn on the bad losers who refused to accept the result.  As a candidate he surfed a wave of half-truths and probable lies to build up his supporter base; as president, he castigated as ‘fake news’ a report from within his own intelligence service that alleged inappropriate Russia influence over his campaign. He talks of avoiding unnecessary foreign wars and of annihilating Isis, of liberating the free market and ‘creating jobs’, of reuniting America and imprisoning his opponents. The mistake is to imagine these are absent-minded contradictions; instead they are intrinsic to the brand of the anti-politician on the make.

Image result for felix dzerzhinsky statue
'The Iron Felix': Statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, who was appointed by Lenin to head the Bolshevik secret police in the aftermath of the October Revolution. He was, by all accounts, extremely good at his job.

‘There are no morals in politics, there is only expedience. A scoundrel may be of use to us just because he is a scoundrel.’ (Lenin, or possibly Steve Bannon)

Robert Conquest, the distinguished historian of the USSR, once wrote that ‘everyone is a conservative about the things they care about’ It follows that those who care about nothing are willing to smash everything, whilst denouncing the short-sighted sentimentality of those who stand in their way. At the heart of the ‘paranoid style’ cultivated by the new president and his team, there lurks a profound nihilism. Like Lenin, Trump wears his patriotism as a mask that conceals contempt for his compatriots, and a cynical determination to exploit their grievances for his own political advancement. The least convincing moment in Trump’s inauguration speech was the one in which he claimed that ‘we will be protected by God’. There have been US presidents who have really believed this, but no one could mistake Trump for one of them. He said it simply because he knew that it would simultaneously please and annoy all the right people. Similarly, when Lenin called for ‘all power to the Soviets!’ in 1917, no right-minded individual interpreted this to mean that, once Lenin seized power he would immediately transfer it into the hands of the popular tribunes of the working-class. Instead, he used the words that maximised his political advantage and sowed confusion amongst his enemies.

Sweeping away the establishment...

‘One step back, two steps forward’ (Title of 1904 work by Lenin)

As with Lenin, Trump’s greatest political asset has been his ability to make dishonesty look authentic, and narcissism look like leadership. Will he be able to sustain these contradictions in office? At his inauguration, Trump stated: ‘this American carnage stops here.’ Instead, there have been a series of actions, culminating in the executive order banning immigration from seven countries, that have intentionally caused legal, political and human carnage. The resulting drama and noisy debate have dominated the headlines and prompted wild speculation on Trump’s true intentions. Many on the political left call him a fascist set on destroying American democracy. Some on the right are even more delusional: they think he actually shares their principles, and seeks to rework the economy in favour of middle America at the expense of the so-called ‘liberal elite’. All this is to make the mistake of assuming that Trump has any goals at all beyond the identification and destruction of those who oppose him. In this respect, he is all about the journey rather than the destination. Where he senses his opponents’ weakness, as on immigration, where the Left is out of touch with ordinary Americans, he strikes with ruthless and divisive precision. When he fears that he has gone too far, he backtracks. During the campaign, he was happy to encourage his supporters’ fantasies of prosecuting Clinton and ending Obamacare; in office, he has been equally happy to drop such talk as counter-productive. Such inconsistency offers superficial grounds for reassurance, as if there exist a core of reasonable political principles that he will not be able to disturb. But Trump’s destructive nihilism offers no long-term exemptions, and liberals should steel themselves against such complacency. In staging their re-enactment of the October Revolution, the president’s men will have learned from Lenin that those who seek to destroy the establishment only need to be lucky once.

Photograp of Lenin taken whilst he was in exile in Switzerland in 1916.