Monday, August 08, 2016

The strange death of conservative England?

I'm not a fan of Jeremy Corbyn and I really don't understand people who are.  His campaign during the European referendum was woeful and he is, more generally, an absolute disaster for the Labour party.  I'm particularly dismayed when some quite clever people are dismissive of 'electability' as if it were a media construct or something, rather than a quality that should be glaringly obvious he just does not have.  And it is very disappointing to learn that Corbyn has no interest in opposing the referendum result, which I think anyone who cares about the future of the UK should.  He's destructively useless and his tenure as leader may well mean the end of the Labour party as an electoral force - so if I could blame him from Brexit, I would jump at the opportunity.  But I can't because I don't think it's his fault.  His campaigning was certainly inept and low-key but I was more aware of his supposed position than our current Prime Minister.  He didn't 'deliver' anything, in my view - but a majority of Labour voters opted for Remain by a margin only one percentage point behind SNP voters (according to this) despite the supposedly fabulous job Nicola Sturgeon did in these bullshitty TV debates we had.  Above all, it wasn't Corbyn's idea to have this stupid plebiscite in the first place.  The blame for that - and for losing the damn thing - lies fairly and squarely with David Cameron and the Conservative party.  The title of the post has nothing to do with the party's electoral position in the country.  They're doing rather well in the absence of any opposition.  Rather it has to do with the fact that they seem bereft of any actual conservatives.

These are not particularly novel observations, I appreciate, but I feel the need to write them down just because of the way animosity works through your system like adrenaline.  Brexit fits into the conservative model on a couple of scores, not least on account of their traditional scepticism towards, if not outright hostility to, immigration.  But there are two or three reasons why it does not.

1) Conservatives are supposed to prefer existing institutions to abstract principles.  The reason for this is fairly straightforward: intellectual scepticism has traditionally inclined conservatives to assume that institutions have accumulated understanding down the generations that is beyond the reach of a mere individual caught in a narrow time and place.  Our membership of the European Union is not particularly old but it is part of the architecture of the postwar settlement and it is, in my view, an act of extraordinary vandalism to treat these international arrangements as if they were toys.  Yet this is exactly how they were treated in the game played by these dissolute public school boys that we had the misfortune to be governed by.  Peter Hitchens is a bit, well...  A big bit that - but I've been wondering whether and what extent he might have a point when he complains that too many politicians today are essentially 'Blairite'.  There was something of the contemporary managerial bullshit in the 'be all you can be' and anyone who says you can't is 'scaremongering' in the depressingly 'upbeat' nature of the Leave campaign.  The world is not your oyster and all things are not possible: I would have thought people of a certain age and disposition understood this - but it seems that they do not, which brings me to the second point:

2) Conservatives are supposed to be sceptical about what government can achieve.  Yet this understanding has been entirely absent from those Conservatives such as Michael Gove who obviously had a raging boner just thinking about wearing the suicide vest that is Article 50.  Thank god he was eliminated from the Tory leadership contest.  As one gets older, there are many aspects of the human condition you understand that you didn't when you were younger but there's still one thing I don't get: why do people create work for themselves when they don't have to?  In relation to this, why on earth would anyone want to be the person who triggers the UK's departure from the EU?  The idea that Brexit can be done in two years is, I think most people agree, completely absurd.  Even Philip Hammond's admission that it would take at least four years is rather optimistic.  You get the impression that people are conflating will and ability.  Whether the former is there is questionable but not as much as the latter.  Among the barriers to Brexit are that those who favour it don't know what it is - and even if they did, they have absolutely no idea how to achieve it.  One would have thought at some point any politician who claims to be sceptical about the ability of government could find some way of admitting that this is just too hard - and even if it wasn't, it isn't worth it?

3) They are supposed to be the Conservative and Unionist Party.  While they have this in their name not because of the 1707 Union with Scotland but on account of the schism in the Liberal party over Home Rule, it has come to stand for their supposed commitment to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  While I have no doubt that the Brexiteers would profess their allegiance to this historical settlement, it has become painfully obvious that they don't give a fuck about it.  I'm being told, sometimes by my fellow Remainers, that I am obliged to respect the result of the referendum because it is the verdict of the British people.  This I cannot do.  It's not just that this plebiscite paid no regard to the norms of liberal democracy where safeguards are inserted to protect against what Alexis De Tocqueville described as the 'tyranny of the majority', although I think this consideration should be enough to warrant a Parliamentary overturning of this referendum.  48% is rather a large minority to have a decision imposed on it against its will - especially when this decision obliges Her Majesty's Government, according to some, to go beyond the question as it was asked.  Free movement, immigration, membership of the EEA were not on the ballot paper - but we're being told we should rule these out to appease angry Leave voters?  The Farage slate was not on the ballot paper but we need to do it anyway?  This would be intolerable enough even without the complete disregard for the delicate balance of the British constitution as it presently exists.  Perhaps you need to be a celtic outsider to get this.  Fintan O'Toole rightly upbraids the Bretixeers for their flagrant disregard for the situation in Northern Ireland:
"Recklessly, casually, with barely a thought, English nationalists have planted a bomb under the settlement that brought peace to Northern Ireland and close cordiality to relations between Britain and Ireland. To do this seriously and soberly would have been bad. To do it so carelessly, with nothing more than a pat on the head and a reassurance that everything will be all right, is frankly insulting."
 I'd go a little further than this.  There was, as far as I could see, no 'pat on the head' and no reassurance that everything will be alright.  It's not as if those who voted Brexit considered the implications for the rest of the UK but concluded that these concerns were overblown; it didn't even register.  I find myself completely and utterly unable to 'respect the decision of the British people', not least because it was not a decision of the British people.  I'm left wondering where this 'British establishment' is?  You know, the one that dispatches Mi5 agents to polling booths armed with erasers?  If they can't fix this, they don't deserve to survive.  I don't think a second independence referendum is as likely as many commentators seem to assume but if there is one, there'll be the usual economic arguments for and against.  But the suggestion that remaining part of the UK is a reasonable way to be governed is not one I'll be able to make.

Blog Archive