I thought we were better than this

Perhaps more even than the dog-whistle racism from some quarters I’ve been appalled at the eagerness of many in the commentariat and even the European Commission to link poor Jo Cox’s murder with the referendum, based on facts that are sketchy and ambiguous at best and in some cases practically before her body was cold.

The police leaks and rumour-mongering are shaping up to a deliver a very poor chance of a balanced investigation into why this obviously disturbed person could have done such an awful thing. We have no facts yet, not really, and yet the politicisation of an appalling event has preceded full pelt. I have found it disgusting.

There is an ugly atmosphere developing in the country. Its emergence long precedes the referendum and the sometimes unpleasant views the campaigns have brought to the surface. These are symptoms rather than causes. The dignified thing to do would have been for everyone to step back, disentangle the referendum and murder and let the police do their job. But no, the political opportunity was too great.

If this proves decisive in swinging the referendum it will have been won for the worst of all reasons: on the back of moral panic, not reason, driven by an opportunistic exploitation by profoundly cynical opponents of democracy of a gifted woman’s murder and her young family’s bereavement. Every bit as bad as immigration-based fearmongering. I went into this campaign full of optimism about the potential for a democratic renewal after freeing ourselves from the dead hand of technocracy, but I’m starting to worry that it’s too late. I truly thought we were better than this.

“But how can you be for Brexit when [insert names of unpleasant politicians] are too?

As a Leaver, I agree that there are some arseholes on the Leave side. I think the context for this perception needs a bit of study though.

The EU is the political manifestation of a consensus among the elites of a number of countries about what politics should look like. An ever increasing number of questions are, quite intentionally, removed from democratic scrutiny and managed technocratically via treaties and laws instead of via negotiation, engagement with the public, or any kind of open debate. Big questions handled in this way include, for example, the consensus view that the right mode of government must be socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

To put it another way, the EU is a technocratic (ie non-democratic) means of narrowing the range of acceptable political options within member states to minor variants on the same centrist consensus. You only have to look at the oft-repeated fear of ‘populism’ within the European Parliament to see that. There is a profound fear of electorates, of giving electorates too much power and of them doing rash or ‘extreme’ things.

Now, perhaps you agree with that and perhaps you don’t. Personally the centrist take is pretty well-aligned with my interests and personal views. But the problem I have with using technocratic means of narrowing the Overton window is that removing from public the scope to debate or indeed democratically alter fundamental aspects of the type of government wanted or needed turns what should be a benign, self-sustaining consensus on what constitutes ‘moderate’ government into something altogether more suffocating and authoritarian. (I also think it’s a major contributor to the modern perception that ‘they’re all the same’ and it doesn’t matter who you vote for. Because, increasingly, it doesn’t, as all politicians are constrained within the same narrow band of what the EU consensus considers acceptable political policy.)

That quiet, smiling and superficially democratic suppression of any political view deemed to deviate too far from the consensus – either leftwards or rightwards – is reflected in a similarly stifling social pressure that declares that All Serious And Nice People hold views within a narrow range that corresponds to the centrist political consensus. People whose political views fall within that range tend to be supportive of the EU, because they see it as a safeguard of their moral outlook against the vaguely dangerous forces of ‘populism’, ie those riotous, under-educated plebs who persist in holding political views that don’t quite fit. Why would we want to give any encouragement to fascists or communists? Surely we’ve worked out the right way to do politics in the centre and that’s that? Similarly, at the level of culture and beliefs, surely the social consensus condemning racists, anarchists and other outlier views is a good thing?

So in a very real way the European centrist consensus has created the EU as a mechanism for keeping unruly electorates on the political straight and narrow. And the same mindset has set busily about painting anyone whose views fall outside its acceptable range as mad, dangerous, evil, racist, destructive and otherwise generally Not Our Type. In a word, arseholes.

On the whole my own views are pretty centrist. But I don’t think it’s healthy to shut discussion down like this. We shouldn’t stifle political diversity, even when it’s unpalatable: it pushes more extreme views underground and gives them a sense of grievance. You only have to look at the steady rise of right- and left-wing protest movements across Europe to see this in action. And by the same token we shouldn’t silence arseholes: we should debate them, and let their unpleasant views bury them. But fundamentally I welcome viewpoint diversity, because I think it’s a sign of a healthy civic society. And that means allowing scope for there to be a few arseholes – gasp – sometimes even politically aligned with me in some respects.

It’s really important to recognise that the eurosceptic movement – and it is a movement, that goes way beyond left and right, as well as way beyond the UK – is as much about fighting for political and viewpoint diversity in general as it is about the specific grievances that more right- or left-leaning eurosceptic groups have with the EU.

The Renegotiation Morris Dance

As Richard North once again wearily points out, Cameron’s ‘tough negotiations’ on EU membership are all theatre. The deal has long been done, and the resulting ‘British model’, also known as ‘associate membership’ and under EU discussion for years, will be trailed until the eleventh hour and then spun as a major victory and solution to all our woes.

In the meantime, this fine performance of the Upton-on-Severn Stick Dance sums up perfectly the reality of the performance our broadsheets are lapping up and regurgitating for the public as though it were high drama.

Two ‘sides’ face off against one another. They advance and retreat in perfect synchrony, holding symbolic weapons which they clash at prearranged moments with simulated aggression. Everything is highly choreographed, intended as a performance, and the members of both ‘sides’ are in fact part of the same team.

The europhiles (and make no mistake, Cameron is a ‘phile) would reduce political discourse to the level of shopping-centre Morris dancing, and have us believe that Morris dancing is real negotiation. Don’t be taken for a fool. The deal is already done. We have one chance to salvage our national sovereignty – the referendum – and must not allow ourselves to be swayed by the EU’s bread and circuses.

On the ‘liberal EU dream’ and the ungrateful working class

The working classes of Europe are right to resist the demise of the nation state.

Rafael Behr writes in today’s Guardian that right-wing ‘populism’ is threatening the ‘liberal dream’ of the EU.

Behr’s article is striking in the accuracy of his observations and misguidedness of the conclusions he draws from those observations. One paragraph in particular stood out:

The case for keeping Britain in Europe has always been hampered by its reliance on abstract liberalism and historical romanticism: extolling openness and continental engagement as emblems of a modern, self-confident nation; recalling the founding purpose of the EU as the elimination of nationalism by blurring borders; rejecting Euroscepticism as a form of reactionary cultural protectionism, coloured at the fringes by outright xenophobia. Those were never easy arguments to configure as campaign themes with mass appeal. But what pro-Europeans now confront is something altogether more challenging, not just to the practical pursuit of their cause but to its very premise. There is still a liberal case for integration with the rest of Europe, but it gets progressively harder to make when so many countries in the rest of Europe seem to be turning their backs on liberalism.

So, then, there is nothing wrong with the idea of ‘blurring borders’ in the interests of ‘eliminating nationalism’ – even though he concedes that the average thicko is unlikely to be enthused by the prospect. The only problem, he concludes, is that blurring borders has become rather less appealing now that it means trying to integrate with all those nasty racists – sorry, nationalists – running rampant throughout the EU.

Indeed the entire article radiates the fundamental assumption that nationalism is, ipso facto, a Bad Thing. But this assumption, rooted in Europe’s decades-long post-WWII trauma fugue, has gone unchallenged for too long. Certainly history shows us nationalism can have some ugly consequences; but in large part the revived enthusiasm of Europe’s’little people’ for nationalism is not driven by a desire to find scapegoats, justify pogroms or generally hate on ‘bloody foreigners’. Rather, it is fuelled at base by the instinctive realisation that without some form of nationalism, there can be no nation-state; without the nation-state there can be no democracy; and without democracy, the little people get shafted, again and again.

The liberal dream of destroying nationalism has, in effect, worked to undermine the main bulwark ordinary people have had against the relentless march of globalisation: the sense that, by joining their voices as ‘The People’ to whom a government is accountable, they could ensure their interests remained in consideration. But one of the most significant trends of the twentieth century has seen national sovereignty inexorably nibbled away, whether by international regulatory bodies, trade agreements or the move towards EU federalisation. And with each reduction in the power and manoeuvrability of sovereign democratic states, the people to whom those states are accountable have lost power in turn. And as the power of electorates has ebbed away, so too has the power of each sovereign state to protect its ‘little people’ against the more predatory edges of globalisation.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the disjunction between the views of working-class people to the prospect of mass immigration, and the attitude of the middle and upper classes to the same phenomenon. The former group sees wages stagnate and living standards slump as competition for low-skilled jobs gets hotter and hotter. The latter, meanwhile, enjoys the benefits of price competition in the market for nannies and plumbers, not to mention the pleasant effect of housing scarcity on the value of their homes, all set off by a pleasant frisson of righteousness as they condemn the narrow-mindedness of the lumpenproletariat.

This class division is borne out by the data: a report published  today by europhile think-tank Chatham House shows that lower socioeconomic class and education is a strong predictor of euroscepticism. Now, you could read that as a contemptuous write-off of Brexiteers as ageing, ignorant thickos; or you could begin to ask yourself why the poorer, older and less educated don’t feel the ‘liberal dream’ of EU federalism is working in their interests. Could it be less because they are old, thick or poor and more because of an instinctive recognition that the aims of the EU are against the interests of the working-class populations of nations across the EU?

Rafael Behr may sign wistfully at the high-flown ‘liberal’ ideals that inspired the European project, and look askance at the under-educated, vulgar little xenophobes that challenge its legitimacy and belief system. He may grumble about the waning attractiveness of a federal EU clearly inhabited by groups of proles all of whom are every bit as resistant to mass immigration and the end of nation states as those awful Sun readers in the UK. But in lamenting the return of nationalism he has missed the inextricable connections between patriotism, belonging, democracy and a working class that wields some measure of power in the direction of politics.

The dying of the nation state throws the working class to the wolves of globalisation. Resisting this is not xenophobic, but thanks to the blindness of bien-pensants like Behr it has been left to the xenophobes for too long.

On the Front National, and EU populism

So Marine le Pen’s Front National has won one in three regional elections in the first round. This reflects a trend across Europe. Populist parties on both the right and the left are on the rise and have been for some time. There are a number of contributing factors, but the main impetus is a sort of inarticulate protest by people who feel ‘left behind’ by globalisation, at the ways in which globalisation is negatively impacting their lives. Things like mass migration, outsourcing of blue-collar jobs, weakening of nation states in favour of regulation at the global level, the widening gap between rich and poor in many countries, the tottering state of social democracy as the welfare state Ponzi scheme starts to come unstuck.

For most people, the willingness to see globalised consumer capitalism as a Ponzi scheme is inversely proportional to how much you expect to gain from the system. That is to say, the more you are likely to get out of how things are, the less likely you are to see anything wrong with it. That’s just human nature. The elites trying to merge the EU as a superstate have everything to gain from continuing as they are; the 50% of Spanish youth consigned to long-term joblessness may take a different view.

There’s also a conflict between the elite view of communities, which sees them as random groupings of people within a specific geography, and that of most ordinary people who experience a nation or their own community as bound by ties of culture, tradition, interpersonal relations and shared practices. That leads to a situation where those in power think nothing of importing a million people from elsewhere – because we’re short of workers and the birth rate is low, so why not? – and those on the ground who feel anxious and threatened by the sudden arrival of large numbers of people with whom they have no shared bonds of family relation, cultural practice or often even language. Then the latter view is demonised, again by the elites, as uneducated, ignorant, bigoted, racist when in fact it’s quite rational on its own terms.

The reaction of many is to look nostalgically backwards to a time when everything was peachy (Even if that time never actually existed) and then to try and reverse-engineer the imagined conditions of that time. This doesn’t work: conservatism after the fact is always doomed. But there’s a real problem brewing in the failure of the elites driving (and benefiting from) globalisation to hear the objections coming from the masses. Ultimately refusal by the ruling class to accommodate the concerns of the people results in civil unrest and even revolution. We’re not quite there yet but the widespread nature of public unhappiness with the direction of travel is very worrying.

Globalisation is happening, whether we like it or not. But what we need is an open discussion about the best forms of social organisation to handle that, and to ensure the interests of ordinary people are taken into account given the huge impersonal forces of global change we face today. The elite viewpoint is that nation states are an obstacle to ‘development’, focusing as they do on the interests of a geography rather than transnational changes or agreements. This underlies the current trend toward neutering and even trying to dismantle nation states; popular resistance to it is demonised as ‘populism’ or ‘racism’, a narrow-minded, uneducated fixation on one nation as opposed to global concerns. But to me, from the point of view of the little guy, dismantling nation states is a major problem. Nation states define a community of interest based in a particular geography; without that definition, how can we have a meaningful electorate, voting for any but the vaguest policies? And without an electorate or proper policies, how can we have any kind of meaningful democracy? The utopian vision of world government looks downright creepy and totalitarian to me, and I’d prefer to keep things a bit messier and small-scale.

I will be very surprised if Le Pen gets anywhere near actual government, at least this time round. But the anti-politics, anti-globalisation, populist trend is there across Europe. Pankaj Mishra argues, in a related theme, that the rise of ISIS is part of the same trend. Though I have concerns about the way these issues get dumbed down into ‘bloody foreigners’ or ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ I think they have a voice that needs to be heard, as they point to a debate that is not being had and whose suppression will result in far worse unrest than we’ve seen yet.