IPR Blog

Expert analysis, debates and comments on topical policy-relevant issues

Topic: Brexit

From Brexit to European Renewal: the fracture of the social contract underlies the current turmoil

📥  Brexit, EU Referendum, Euroscepticism, future, Germany, International relations

Professor Graham Room is Director of Research and Professor of Social Policy in the Department of Social & Policy Sciences at the University of Bath

The European Commission’s 2017 White Paper on reform of the EU focussed on completion of the single market and firmer governance of the Euro, wholly ignoring inequality and social justice. Yet this is the ‘hot politics’ of European progress: the fracture of the ‘social contract’ between political leaders and the population at large. If ignored, it risks the melt-down of the whole Union.

The UK referendum in 2016 revealed deep popular disaffection with the European Union – in particular, on the part of working class communities that felt that they had been left behind, with their cohesion and their very identity under threat. Some of the roots of this disaffection may lie elsewhere – in national government policies or in the effects of globalisation more generally. The disaffection may also have been stoked by opportunistic politicians. The blame may, therefore, have been laid unfairly on Johnny Foreigner – the Brussels Eurocrat as much as the Syrian refugee. Be that as it may, it was sufficient to provoke one of the worst crises in the history of the EU.

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Three questions arise.

First, was this a uniquely British malaise: or did it tell a more general story about the European project and the European citizen? In 1848 Marx and Engels focussed their attention on the burgeoning industrial towns and cities of northern England. They assured the world at large ‘de te fabula narratur’: the story that is unfolding here shows you your own future. How far did the disaffection of working class communities in the 2016 referendum, especially across that same northern England, encapsulate a larger unfolding story about Europe more generally? If it did, the European Commission (2017) gives little sign of paying heed, to judge by its White Paper on the Future of Europe, published in March.

Second, what are the roots of this disaffection and how appropriate is it, to lay the blame at Europe’s door? Is the EU distributing the benefits of European integration evenly, so that all communities can share in its prosperity, or is it visiting the costs of change disproportionately on those who are already vulnerable? And how far is the discontent of the aggrieved being given any voice, in the long-standing debates about the ‘democratic deficit’ of the EU?

Third, what reforms to the European project might address this malaise – and maybe in the process save the EU itself from further disintegration? Whether the promise of such reforms would suffice to reverse popular opinion in the UK, and even provoke the British electorate to apply an emergency brake to the whole Brexit process, is, of course, difficult to say. What seems clear however is that without such a positive vision of Europe’s future, capable of addressing the grievances that the Brexit referendum revealed, such a U-turn is highly unlikely.

My report for the University of Bath Institute for Policy Research, From Brexit to European Renewal, addresses these three questions.

It starts with the UK referendum and the politics of Brexit. Much has been written about the defenestration of the British political class and the turmoil the referendum result has produced in the British political system. This goes far beyond the politics of Westminster, with strains to the relationship with Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and with potentially disastrous consequences for the UK’s post-divorce relationship with the EU27. My own focus, however, is on the relationship between political leaders and the population at large: the ‘social contract’ which is part of any democratic society. This is the bargain between leaders and led, the trading of political legitimacy for popular security. It is the fracture of this social contract, I argue, which underlay the Brexit vote; but it also raises for the EU the question of how far those cracks extend, across the body politic of Europe more generally.

The report argues that these cracks derive from flaws in the economic model that drives European integration. The single market involves the free movement of people, a principle that aligns well with the liberties that Europe treasures; but it also involves freedom of movement for goods, services and capital. Freedom of this sort has economic and social consequences which are not necessarily benign – reinforcing the inequalities between regions and eroding the social fabric of communities. Such persistent inequality is bound to alienate the communities most adversely affected.

Constitutional reforms to the European Parliament are here of little relevance: what matters are the principles of social justice by reference to which Europe treats its own. Yet these issues are left largely peripheral to the European debate. This is in part because of an economic orthodoxy, which expects social benefit to be evenly spread, as the natural concomitant to the free market; but also because social policy is assigned by the subsidiarity principle to the individual nation states. I argue that social policy and social justice are too important to be left there: they constitute the ‘hot politics’ of European progress and if ignored, they risk a meltdown of the whole Union.

The report sets out a programme of reforms which would accord with such principles of social justice: a social contract between European political leaders and European citizens, trading political legitimacy for collective solidarity and security. This is important for at least three reasons. First, because across Europe, ordinary people have since the financial crisis been struggling to get by on stagnant incomes, even as inequality has grown and the affluence of corporate elites continues to be flaunted. Second, because in an uncertain world, households and communities need to have some sense of stability, underpinned by public institutions. Only on this condition can they engage positively with change. Third, because the limited capacity of the individual nation state, to insulate itself from global uncertainties, means that social stability and justice have a much greater chance of being secured through collective action at European level. Such a social policy can touch the communities which other European policies cannot reach – giving them a critical voice and re-building political trust between leaders and led.

As yet, however, Europe’s political leaders seem to lack that positive vision. Germany continues to insist on austerity and financial prudence, as sufficient remedy for the economic malaise of the periphery. The 2017 White Paper makes much of the completion of the single market and the firmer governance of the euro. What it wholly lacks is any clear vision of social justice. Instead, the leaders of the EU seem stuck in a bubble, viewing the problem as one of institutional re-working.

The report concludes with the larger global significance of this drama. In the wake of the US election, the world is more turbulent and uncertain: rescuing and rebuilding Europe assumes an even greater importance. This will require major acts of political leadership by the EU institutions – demonstrating eloquently the positive benefits of European integration and shared purpose in an uncertain world. It may still be possible for the UK to be part of this grand re-working of the European project. The referendum was a collective decision: and responsible citizens, individually and collectively, are able to change their minds.

This article first appeared on LSE's Brexit blog. You can read more about Professor Graham Room's recent IPR Report, and download it in full, here.

 

 

Macron’s daunting to-do list: unite a nation, form a government, reform Europe

📥  Brexit, EU membership, EU Referendum, EU renegotiation, France, political parties, The far right

Dr Nick Startin, Head of Department, PoLIS

The French presidential election campaign delivered as many twists and turns as a soap opera. But it ended with an air of predictability. Emmanuel Macron polled two thirds of votes cast compared to Marine Le Pen’s one third. There was no late surge from Le Pen. Her performance in the only television debate between the two rounds illustrated how difficult it is for radical right leaders to move from being the anti-system candidate to serious contender.

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Le Pen and her entourage will take some solace from the fact that she polled around 11m votes in the second-round run-off – 3.4m more than in the first – but the result will nevertheless be perceived by some in the Front National inner circle as disappointing. Given the ongoing difficulties in the eurozone, France’s high unemployment rate (particularly among the under 25s), the refugee crisis, the terrorist security threat, Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, the prevailing demand-side conditions could not have been more favourable for the Front National. This is, after all, a party whose whole campaign was built around the notion of a perceived cleavage between globalists (as represented by Macron) and patriots (as represented by Le Pen).

Although Front National strategists such as Florian Philippot have always had one eye on the long-term game and the possibility of victory in 2022, it’s not a given that the Front National can continue to grow in electoral terms if the demand-side conditions do not remain as favourable. The party has worked tirelessly to detoxify its image over the past decade but doubts remain as to whether an historically anti-system, radical-right party is capable of positioning itself as a party of government.

Govern and unite

Much will of course depend on whether Macron can heal the divisions in France that were so evident during the campaign. His first priorities will be logistical. He must choose a prime minister and seek a mandate at next month’s legislative elections.

Given that a majority of his voters in the second round would have preferred to back an alternative candidate, securing a majority for his fledgling movement, En Marche! (just renamed La République en Marche), in the National Assembly will be far from straightforward. Macron may well be forced to reach out to sympathetic socialists and centre-right républicains to obtain a working majority in the lower chamber. The latter, following the defeat of candidate François Fillon in the first round, will be looking to re-establish themselves as the biggest party in the National Assembly.

The logistical problems of obtaining a working majority to fulfil his campaign pledges will be just the start of the challenges facing Macron’s administration. While his campaign (and others for that matter) have demonstrated a dilution of the traditional French left-right cleavage, the result has only served to underline the social fracture that exists in France. This is well illustrated by the distribution of the Macron vote. It’s no coincidence that around nine out of ten voters backed Macron in London and Paris. How he reaches out to those citizens who remain static in their social mobility, many of whom feel disconnected from and alienated by globalisation, will be crucial.

In his manifesto, the new president emphasised educational and economic reform as a means of generating social and economic mobility. But the stark reality is that such reforms may prove difficult to implement in a country often hostile to major structural change.

The European question

One of the strategic problems facing Macron, and one central to the so-called “globalist versus patriot” tension, is how to pitch the European question. Although the French electorate doesn’t seem ready to jettison the euro, it has become increasingly sceptical about the role of the European Union. Macron (a self-proclaimed europhile) was not scared to wrap his campaign in the European flag. He even played Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (the EU anthem) as he delivered his victory speech.

Le Pen has, in contrast, increasingly used opposition to the EU as a strategic driver in an attempt to widen the party’s electoral base. This has been a particularly successful tactic in the north of France, where post-industrial unemployment makes it difficult for many to see economic globalisation in a positive light.

How Macron deals with the European question will be crucial to the success of his presidency. He has stated that strengthening the Franco-German axis is central to his project – something which most of the electorate are likely, at least for the time being, to tolerate. However, Macron will also need to convince his doubters, including some of the 12% who either spoiled their ballot papers or failed to mark them, not to mention the quarter of the registered electorate who did not vote in the second round. To help win them over, he must demonstrate that he is prepared to fully embrace the reform agenda which the EU has often tried to dodge.

Solidifying the eurozone and developing the EU’s defence and security arm are obvious directions of travel but Macron will also need to demonstrate that he is prepared to visit more contentious issues if he is to keep the electorate on board. In talks with EU leaders, he shouldn’t shy away from re-examining the Schengen area and developing a more robust EU-wide response to the EU’s horribly high levels of youth unemployment.

And while it would take a bold French president to seek radical reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, perhaps now is the time for boldness. France has a historic, protective stance on the CAP, but it continues to gobble up nearly 40% of the EU budget. Diverting those funds into tackling social problems in EU nation states remains something of a pipe dream.

Failure to fully embrace the reform agenda within the EU could soon damage Macron’s popularity ratings. France is at a crossroads. The direction it takes under Macron will have a massive baring not only on the future of the nation, but also on the future of the EU.

 

 

The governance of England in the Union

📥  Brexit, devolution

 

cityhall

 

When the flood comes, the survivors will be found on the higher ground. Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram have joined Sadiq Khan on the new peaks of Labour politics, as metro mayors of major English conurbations. Their former colleagues in the House of Commons will be scrabbling for local boats to lift themselves above the Conservative tide that is about to wash through the country.

In England, the metro-mayors bring a new structure to sub-national government. It is more than simply a functional reform to deliver public policy at an appropriate spatial scale. In London, Greater Manchester and the Liverpool City Region, the new metro mayors give expression to strong civic identities; in time, the same may be said of Tees Valley and the West Midlands, which has Joe Chamberlain’s Birmingham at its core. Civic identity will prove a firmer foundation for sub-national government than the regional artifices of the former nine government offices for England, which were in turn the basis for the now defunct Regional Development Agencies. Lacking popular attachments shaped by history and urban cultures, regional bodies were easy targets for the incoming Coalition government to abolish in 2010.

Civic attachments are evidently weaker in the West of England and Peterborough-Cambridgeshire, where the mix of county and city, and a smaller scale, means that there isn’t an existing popular identity to which the mayors can give political expression. The West of England combined authority brings back memories of Avon County Council but these are seldom fond ones. Bristol has a strong identity but it already has a mayor. The more inchoate, though tangible, green-liberal character of the West of England runs through the region on ley lines, not the boundaries of a public authority.

The fact that the Conservatives won four of the six metro mayor elections up for grabs in 2017 will nonetheless help cement their place in the governance of England, particularly now that their main patron in Westminster has decamped to the Evening Standard. Whether they will join forces to represent the interests of the English cities in the Brexit negotiations is moot. Each of the new mayors represents areas with strong interests in one or more of the aerospace, automotive and aviation sectors, as well as leading universities – and each would be seriously damaged by a hard Brexit. But the sweeping up of the UKIP vote into the Conservative bloc will pull at least two of the Tory Mayors towards more eurosceptic government-friendly positions, while Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are likely to prioritise the demands of the wider North over the metropolitan interests they share with their fellow mayors.

In the West Midlands, the Labour candidate Sion Simon wrapped himself in the flag of St George and harnessed the Brexit discourse of “taking back control”, but it wasn’t enough to get him over the line against the UKIP collapse and Labour’s national weakness. Labour thinkers will now debate whether his embrace of Englishness helped or hindered his campaign.

Whatever the verdict, the debate on England’s future in the union will not go away. The revival of Scottish conservatism does not signal the return of a strong unionist British identity of the kind that once shaped Conservative political loyalties in Scotland, and which the English also took for granted. Its foundations in empire, Protestant loyalism, and later, the strong post-war national state, are not coming back, even if the rise of Scottish nationalism and the decline of working class Labour identities have sharpened the importance of political unionism north of the border (in passing, I suspect there is a reason why some electors voted for the unionist party in Shettleston and it is not because they have been reading Iain Duncan Smith pamphlets on social justice).

The SNP will still return a phalanx of MPs to Westminster after June 8th and they will govern in the Scottish Parliament and is major cities. They will not cede their political leadership of Scotland’s aspirations to a Conservative-Unionist government in Westminster. The SNP may exhibit greater tactical caution but a Scottish Conservative revival will not dispense with the question of whether the UK can hold its constituent nations together. Paradoxically, the election of metro mayors in England will make the federalist case for the UK that little bit harder to answer, since they take off the table the idea that the English regions can be partners with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in a new federal constitutional settlement. For that, England will need national recognition to go alongside devolved city and county governance.

 

 

 

Some Manifesto Matters

  

📥  Brexit, Euroscepticism, policymaking

I have the dubious distinction of having helped draft a manifesto for an election that was never held. In 2007, the No10 Policy Unit was mobilised to draft a manifesto at short notice, should it have been needed. It wasn’t. It is still on a hard drive somewhere.

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Theresa May evidently learned the most important lesson of that debacle, which is not to let anyone speculate that you might call an election before you have actually done so (not that it took much working out). It surely helps that her closest confidantes and advisers are not fellow Cabinet ministers.

The forthcoming general election will be a national interest election, dominated by one big issue. That makes the party manifestos less important than during “normal” times. But it does not make them redundant. The now widely held view – shared by pundits and the markets alike – is that a snap election makes Brexit inevitable and a softer Brexit more likely. This is because the Prime Minister will secure a large majority, enabling her to marginalise those Eurosceptics agitating for “no deal” or WTO status, while also convincing the European Union that there is no turning back on Brexit.

If this is the Prime Minister’s strategy, she will need to drop her line that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. If that appears in the Conservative manifesto, it will empower, not neuter, the hardline Eurosceptics (It is also worth bearing in mind that if the Liberal Democrats make gains, they are likely to do so against soft Brexit or Remain Conservatives, and that if the older UKIP vote falls into the Conservative bloc, it will benefit Hard Brexiteers). If only for this issue, what is written in the Conservative manifesto will matter.

On current polls, the other manifesto that will matter most to post-election scenarios will be the SNP one. It will doubtless include a carefully crafted line on holding a second independence referendum before Brexit, which can then be claimed as an additional mandate for the SNP’s plans. But if Theresa May is true to her Conservative-Unionism (which, as Will Davies pointed out on Twitter has “an ugly Schmittian strain to it – an ideal of a single national community, where the only (internal) enemies are all in Westminster”) she will seek to trump that with a line in the Conservative manifesto that gives her authority to refuse the section 30 notice.

Those who draft manifestos agonise over lines like these, particularly when the general framework for the content is clear, as it is in 2017. The refusal of the Prime Minister to participate in leadership debates means that the manifesto launches will get more scrutiny than in the last two elections. They will inevitably cover the waterfront of policy, as they must. But the big issues are likely to hang on a small number of words.

 

Brexit Likely to Increase Modern Slavery in the UK

📥  Brexit, International relations, labour market

Professor Andrew Crane is Professor of Business and Society and Director of the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society at the University of Bath.

Theresa May’s historic signing of Article 50 looks set to be her lasting legacy as Prime Minister. Unfortunately, it is also likely to derail her other signature policy on modern slavery. Our research suggests Brexit could increase modern slavery in the UK.

The signing of Article 50 marks the point of no return for the UK’s exit from the European Union. Although she inherited the Brexit decision, Theresa May’s political legacy will stand and fall on how successfully she manages to steer the country through the turmoil.

manacles

 

Without a doubt, Article 50 will bring untold changes to the political, economic and cultural landscape of the country. One change that will certainly be high on May’s radar is its effect on modern slavery in the UK.

Modern slavery has been May’s signature policy since she was Home Secretary. She introduced the landmark Modern Slavery Act in 2015 prior to becoming PM, and has since continued to champion the cause. In announcing a ramping up of Government efforts to improve enforcement last year, she identified modern slavery as “the great human rights issue of our time” and heralded the UK as leading the way in defeating it.

While the Act is far from perfect, it has certainly focused increased attention and resources on modern slavery. Prosecution levels also appear to be improving. This was most recently illustrated by the sentencing of the Markowski brothers to six years in prison for trafficking and then exploiting 18 people from Poland, who they brought to the UK to work in a Sports Direct warehouse.

The problem is that, despite the advances gradually being made in addressing modern slavery in the UK, the signing of Article 50 is likely to worsen the problem. As May is probably acutely aware (but is so far not saying), Brexit may well undermine the progress she has made to date. It is a case of two steps forward, one step back.

According to research I conducted with an international team of colleagues looking at forced labour in the UK (initially funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation), four main problems are evident.

1.      Brexit will increase the demand for modern slavery

The Brexit vote has already created uncertainty among the legions of poorly paid but legal migrant workers from Eastern Europe that are employed in the UK’s low-wage economy. Signing Article 50 may ultimately help stem the flow of workers into the country as intended. But who is going to replace them? Domestic workers will fill some of the gaps but companies are unlikely to be willing to improve wages and conditions to attract them in sufficient numbers. So there will be greater opportunities for unscrupulous middlemen to traffic in workers from overseas or prey on vulnerable UK citizens to force them into exploitative situations. Forced labour flourishes where local, low-skilled labour is in short supply.

2.      Brexit will facilitate exploitation

Modern slavery often occurs when workers do not fully understand their legal rights and status. Our research uncovered various examples of migrant workers being exploited because those exploiting them misled them into the belief that they were working illegally. Perpetrators would also wait for or deliberately engineer changes in workers’ immigration status in order to exploit them. The point is that Brexit will create a period of increased uncertainty around legal status that will be a significant boon to exploiters.

3.      Brexit will increase the supply of modern slavery

Modern slavery occurs when people are vulnerable, either because of legal status, poverty, mental health, or drug and alcohol problems. In our research, the most common victims were those from countries such as Romania and Bulgaria who, at the time, were able to enter the country but were unable to work legally. This vulnerability was exploited by perpetrators who were able to coerce them into working in highly exploitative situations. The more the UK puts up barriers to people entering the country legally, the higher the risk of traffickers bringing them in illegally and pushing them into debt. Once workers are in debt, perpetrators are adept at escalating their indebtedness and creating situations of debt bondage.

4.      Brexit will turn victims into criminals

Our research found that many victims of forced labour in the UK were prosecuted under immigration offences rather than being identified as victims. The Modern Slavery Act has improved this situation but as the UK moves towards Brexit, the chances of this happening will increase because policing around immigration status is likely to intensify far more than around modern slavery.

May claims that under her leadership, “Britain will once again lead the way in defeating modern slavery”. But the bottom line is that by triggering Brexit, May will be left trying to solve a problem that she is helping to create.

This post first appeared on the Bath Business and Society blog.

 

The Hard Brexit road to Indyref2

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📥  Brexit, EU membership

Of all the political parties in the United Kingdom, the Scottish National Party is the most consistently strategic. That it lost a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 and barely three years later is in a position to call another one is testament to its strategic acumen. It turns heated internal arguments into clear external purpose, executed with discipline. Yesterday, the Prime Minister accused it of treating politics as a game. She could hardly have chosen a less appropriate attack.

Thistles

 

Calling a second referendum is high risk. If it is lost, as Quebecois nationalists know, the chances of striking it lucky third time are remote. The economic arguments against independence remain formidable, and would be further complicated, not resolved, by a parting of the ways between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom over membership of the European Union.

Two factors explain Nicola Sturgeon’s decision: the intransigence of Conservative-Unionism and the weakness of the Labour Party. Intransigence is in part an artifact of the Prime Minister’s governing style, which combines “personal animus and political diligence”, as David Runciman has written. She sticks to a position doggedly and keeps things close to her in No10. She is capable of ruthless revenge, to the point of petulance, as Michael Heseltine recently discovered. It is a statecraft that has served her well until now. It is not one that is suited to sharing power in a process of negotiation and compromise across a fractured union.

Her choice of the hard route to Brexit has also narrowed her scope for flexibility. Taking Britain out of the EU single market and customs union is the proximate cause of Scotland’s discontent. It is also the source of mounting opposition to Brexit in Northern Ireland. There would be no possibility of a hard border in Ireland if the government had not chosen a Hard Brexit. And it is primarily because the government wants to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, and to strike its own trade deals with the rest of the world, that is resisting the devolution to Scotland of the powers over agriculture and fisheries that will be repatriated from Brussels. (What’s more, if Britain leaves the EU without a deal, and unilaterally removes all tariffs in order to smooth its path to the WTO, the impact would be disproportionately felt by Scotland’s manufacturers, farmers, and distilleries). The logic of Hard Brexit is Conservative-Unionist, when to meet the aspirations of its constituent nations, and to hold itself together, Britain needs a flexible, federalist approach.

History is in danger of repeating itself. The last time the United Kingdom was challenged by the aspirations for greater self-determination of a significant proportion of one its nations was during the long struggle for Irish Home Rule. Conservative-Unionists met that challenge by suppression, not accommodation. It didn’t end well.

The second factor is the decline of the Labour Party. It has been widely remarked that the SNP will use Labour’s electoral weaknesses to present the referendum as a choice between independence and indefinite Conservative government at Westminster. But a near-term calculation is at work here too: Labour’s decline means that the referendum campaign itself will be fought between the SNP and the Conservatives. Labour will not carry the banner of unionism – the very term is now toxic for the party in Scotland – and while its UK leader cannot even stick to an agreed script, it will be incapable of marshalling anti-nationalist forces, as it once did. The referendum will become the straight fight with the Conservatives that the SNP has always wanted.

Labour’s vacillation on Europe means that it is currently largely voiceless in the national debate on Brexit. It is shedding votes to the Liberal Democrats as a consequence. It fears a further loss of support to UKIP and the Conservatives if it backs membership of the single market and customs union in the Brexit negotiations. But the prospect of the breakup of the UK, the unstitching of the Northern Irish settlement, and economic decline in its heartlands should give it cause to consider the national interest, not just the party interest. Labour could make itself politically relevant to the future of the UK, and to the Brexit negotiations, if it changed tack and support continued membership of the EU single market, as well as a new (quasi) federal constitutional settlement for the UK (perhaps even creating an English Labour Party in the process). Perhaps this is unthinkable, even for a desperate party. But without such a change, there is no prospect of a parliamentary bloc that unites pro-European Conservatives with Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and other parties in meaningful opposition to the government. And without that, there is every prospect of a Hard Brexit and the breakup of the United Kingdom.

Awkward to the last: Britain and the EU

📥  Brexit, EU Referendum, voting

Professor David Galbreath is Professor of International Security and Dean of the University of Bath’s Department of Social and Policy Sciences

Following the Supreme Court ruling on the UK Government’s plans to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, Theresa May delivered a 1-page draft bill to Parliament which purposed ‘to confer power on the Prime Minister to notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU’. What will most likely become the European Union Act of 2017 signals the beginning of the end for UK membership of the most economically and politically powerful trading bloc in history.

shutterstock_414800185 [Converted]

 

In his book An Awkward Partner, Professor Stephen George set out to characterise the British role in the EU, stating that while the UK became a member of what was then the European Communities in 1973, it was never all the way in. For European integrationists, the UK was a regular break from ‘an ever-deeper partnership’ – while for European federalists, the UK encouraged state sovereignty that allowed for ‘variable speeds’ of integration. In other words, the UK became a sui generis member of a sui generis institution.

Author of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty when he was Secretary-General of the EU Convention in 2002-03, Lord Kerr set out in a recent talk just how ‘awkward’ and ‘sui generis’ the UK would continue to be – even through the act of withdrawal from membership of the EU. Entitled “Brexit: Will Divorce be damaging, and could it be amicable?”, Lord Kerr’s public lecture – which was hosted by the Institute for Policy Research on campus at the University of Bath – evidenced the argument that in addition to being damaging, Brexit would be very unlikely to be amicable either at home or in Europe.

Lord Kerr reminded us that it was Margaret Thatcher who made the strongest argument for UK membership of the EU. The UK was “stronger in Washington because we were seen to be strong in Brussels, and stronger in Brussels because we were seen to be strong in Washington.” Furthermore, the country was comfortable to assume an identity that was both British and European at that time, which followed the post-war settlement, the major political movements in the region and the quick turnaround in trade after the 1973 accession. Thatcher knew that Britain had an awkward role in the EU, but that it was a role which suited Britain in terms of where it wanted to be in Europe and the world.

Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair followed suit with a vision for Britain that was both strongly European and Atlanticist. Even more, both Major and Blair sought to enlarge the EU so that it would include more states which were like the UK, and would seek a federal rather than integrated Europe. Denmark, which joined at the same time as the UK and was similarly inclined towards Brussels, was joined by Finland and Sweden in 1995. Following this, the augmentation of the bloc continued with the 2004 Enlargement, which brought 10 new member states (Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia); further enlargements in 2007 to include Bulgaria and Romania; and the 2013 accession of Croatia. Successive British prime ministers saw this as a way to slow down European integration – and, to all intents and purposes, it worked.

Yet even before the 2004 enlargement the UK (as well as Ireland and Sweden) had opened its economy to EU accession state populations, with the greatest EU migration to the UK being in the years prior to their home country’s inclusion in the bloc.

While EU migration has continued to decline, especially following the 2007-2012 financial crisis, the impact of EU and world immigration to the UK has had identifiable impacts on many communities across the UK – especially in areas that voted to remain in the EU, an irony not lost on remainers. Whereas net migration from the EU has declined over time, the percentage of the population that was not born in the UK has increased. The view on immigration was the single most important indicator for voting to remain or leave the EU in the 23 July 2016 referendum.

The cost of ‘divorce’ is high, and Lord Kerr laid out well the negotiations that will have to go on around trade, industries, banking, and the atomic energy sector – not to mention the status of UK citizens throughout the EU, as well as the EU citizen in the UK. Controlling immigration may give a sense of power to many communities, but it will not solve the problems that existed before the referendum and, in some cases, will be exacerbated by it.

The mistake that the UK government is making is assuming that British industry and products (though not labour) will be needed in Europe going forward, despite the fact that in a globalised world there are many economies that will thrive on being an alternative to the UK in European trade and finance. Already Germany and the Netherlands are receiving marked increases in business and capital that previously would have gone to the UK, and from those that would have invested in the UK but will not following the triggering of Article 50.

To say that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are the only winners in this situation gives the European economies too little credit and discounts the power of new regional economic blocs that just might use this opportunity to build a real alternative to Europe and the UK as a whole. Now that would be awkward.

This post was inspired by a recent IPR Public Lecture given by Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, author of Article 50. You can read more about the lecture, and find links to the video and podcast, here.

 

The empire strikes back: How the Brexit vote has reopened deep wounds of empire and belonging, and challenged the future of the United Kingdom

📥  Anglosphere, Brexit

This piece originally appeared in New Statesman

Joseph Chamberlain, it has been widely remarked, serves as an inspiration for Theresa May’s premiership. The great municipal reformer and champion of imperial protectionism bestrode the politics of late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain. He was a social reformer, a keen ­unionist and an advocate for the industrial as well as the national interest – all values espoused by the Prime Minister.

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Less noticed, however, is that May’s excavation of Chamberlain’s legacy is a symptom of two larger historical dynamics that have been exposed by the vote for Brexit. The first is the reopening on the British body politic of deep wounds of race, citizenship and belonging, issues that home rule for Ireland, and then the end of empire, followed by immigration from the former colonies, made central to British politics during the 20th century. Over the course of the century, the imperial subjects of the queen-empress became British and Irish nationals, citizens of the Commonwealth and finally citizens of a multicultural country in the European Union. The long arc of this history has left scars that do not appear to have healed fully.

The second dynamic is the renewal of patterns of disagreement over free trade and social reform that shaped profound divisions roughly a century ago. Specifically, the rivalry was between a vision of Britain as the free-trade “world island”, supported by the City of London and most of the country’s governing elite, and the protectionist project, or “imperial preference”, articulated by Chamberlain, which sought to bind together the British empire in a new imperial tariff union, laying the foundations for industrial renewal, social progress and national security. The roots of these commitments lay in his career as a self-made businessman and reforming mayor of Birmingham. A leading Liberal politician, Chamberlain broke with his own party over home rule for Ireland and, with a small group of Liberal Unionists, joined Lord Salisbury’s Conservative government of 1895, becoming colonial secretary. He subsequently resigned in 1903 to campaign on the question of imperial preference.

The fault lines in contemporary political economy that Brexit has starkly exposed mimic those first staked out in the early part of the 20th century, which lie at the heart of Chamberlain’s career: industry v finance, London v the nations and regions, intervention v free trade. This time, however, these divides are refracted through the politics of Britain’s relationship with Europe, producing new economic interests and political ­alliances. What’s more, the City now serves the European economy, not just Britain and her former colonies.

Chamberlain is the junction between these two critical dynamics, where race and political economy interweave, because of his advocacy of “Greater Britain” – the late-Victorian idea that the white settler colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa should be joined with the mother country, in ties of “kith-and-kin” solidarity, or more ambitiously in a new imperial federation. Greater Britain owed much to the Anglo-Saxonism of Victorian historians and politicians, and was as much a Liberal as a Conservative idea. Greater Britain was a new way of imagining the English race – a ten-million-strong, worldwide realm dispersed across the “white” colonies. It was a global commonwealth, but emphatically not one composed of rootless cosmopolitans. Deep ties, fostered by trade and migration, held what the historian James Belich calls “the Anglo-world” together. It helped equip the English with an account of their place in the world that would survive at least until the 1956 Suez crisis, and it was plundered again by latter-day Eurosceptics as they developed a vision of the UK as an integral part, not of the EU, but of an “Anglosphere”, the liberal, free-market, parliamentary democracies of the English-speaking world.

Greater Britain carried deep contradictions within itself, however. Because it was associated with notions of racial membership and, more specifically, with Protestantism, it could not readily accommodate divisions within the UK itself. The political realignment triggered by Chamberlain’s split with Gladstone over Irish home rule, which set one of the most enduring and intractable political divides of the era, was symptomatic of this. For Chamberlain, Irish home rule would have entailed Protestant Ireland being dominated by people of “another race and religion”. Unless there could be “home rule all round” and a new imperial parliament, he preferred an alliance with “English gentlemen” in the Tory party to deals with Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of Ireland’s constitutional nationalists.

The failure of Chamberlain’s kith-and-kin federalism, and the long struggle of nationalist Ireland to leave the UK, left a bitter legacy in the form of partition and a border that threatens once again, after Brexit, to disrupt British politics. But it also left less visible marks. On Ireland becoming a republic, its citizens retained rights to travel, settle and vote in the UK. The Ireland Act 1949 that followed hard on the Irish Free State’s exit from the Commonwealth defined Irish citizens as “non-foreign”.

A common travel area between the two countries was maintained, and when immigration legislation restricted rights to enter and reside in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s, Irish citizens were almost wholly exempted. By the early 1970s, nearly a million Irish people had taken up their rights to work and settle in the UK – more than all of those who had come to Britain from the Caribbean and south Asia combined. Even after the Republic of Ireland followed the UK into the European common market, its citizens retained rights that were stronger than those given to other European nationals.

In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement went a step further. It recognised the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to hold both British and Irish citizenship. Common EU citizenship north and south of the border made this relatively straightforward. But under a “hard Brexit”, Britain may be asked to treat Irish citizens just like other EU citizens. And so, unless it can secure a bilateral deal with the Republic of Ireland, the UK will be forced to reinvent or annul the common travel area, reintroducing border and customs controls and unstitching this important aspect of its post-imperial, 20th-century settlement. Will Ireland and its people remain “non-foreign”, or is the past now another country?

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Today’s equivalent of 19th-century Irish nationalism is Scottish national sentiment. Like Gladstone and his successors, Theresa May is faced with the question of how to accommodate the distinct, and politically powerful, aspirations of a constituent nation of the United Kingdom within the unsteady framework associated with the coexistence of parliamentary sovereignty and ongoing devolution. Scotland’s independence referendum bestowed a sovereign power on its people that cannot be set aside in the Brexit negotiations. The demand for a “flexible Brexit” that would allow Scotland to stay in the European single market is also, in practice, a demand for a federal settlement in the UK: a constitutional recognition that Scotland wants a different relationship to the EU from that of England and Wales.

If this is not couched in explicitly federal terms, it takes the unitary nature of the UK to its outer limits. Hard Brexit is, by contrast, a settlement defined in the old Conservative-Unionist terms.

Unionism and federalism both failed as projects in Ireland. Chamberlain and the Conservative Unionists preferred suppression to accommodation, a stance that ended in a war that their heirs ultimately lost.
Similarly, the federal solution of Irish home rule never made it off the parchment of the parliamentary legislation on which it was drafted. The federalist tradition is weak in British politics for various reasons, one of which is the disproportionate size of England within the kingdom. Yet devising a more federal arrangement may now be the only means of holding the UK together. May’s unionism – symbolised by her visit to Edinburgh to meet Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in the first days of her premiership – will be enormously tested by a hard Brexit that cannot accommodate Scottish claims for retention of single-market status or something close to it. Separation, difficult as this may be for the Scottish National Party to secure, may follow.

The idea of Greater Britain also left behind it a complex and contentious politics of citizenship. As colonial secretary at the end for 19th century, Chamberlain faced demands for political equality of the subjects of the crown in the empire; Indians, in particular, were discriminated against in the white settler colonies. He strongly resisted colour codes or bars against any of the queen’s subjects but allowed the settler colonies to adopt educational qualifications for their immigration laws that laid the foundation for the racial discrimination of “White Australia”, as well as Canadian immigration and settlement policies, and later, of course, the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Nonetheless, these inequalities were not formally written into imperial citizenship. The British subject was a national of the empire, which was held together by a common code of citizenship. That unity started to unravel as the colonies became independent. Specifically, a trigger point was reached when, in 1946, the Canadian government legislated to create a new national status, separate and distinct from the common code of imperial citizenship hitherto embodied in the status of the British subject.

The Attlee government responded with the watershed British Nationality Act 1948. This created a new form of citizenship for the UK and the colonies under its direct rule, while conferring the status of British subject or Commonwealth citizen on the peoples of the former countries of empire that had become independent. It was this that has made the act so controversial: as the historian Andrew Roberts has argued, it “gave over 800 million Commonwealth citizens the perfectly legal right to reside in the United Kingdom”.

This criticism of the act echoed through the postwar decades as immigration into the UK from its former empire increased. Yet it is historically misplaced. The right to move to the UK without immigration control had always existed for British subjects; the new law merely codified it. (Indeed, the Empire Windrush, which brought British subjects from the Caribbean to London in June 1948, docked at Tilbury even before the act had received royal assent.)

At the time, ironically, it was for precisely opposite reasons that Conservative critics attacked the legislation. They argued that it splintered the subjects of empire and denied them their rights: “. . . we deprecate any tendency to differentiate between different types of British subjects in the United Kingdom . . . We must maintain our great metropolitan tradition of hospitality to everyone from every part of our empire,” argued Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the Tory shadow minister of labour and future home secretary.

As the empire withered away in the postwar period, some Conservatives started to change their minds. Enoch Powell, once a staunch imperialist, came to believe that the idea of the Commonwealth as a political community jeopardised the unity of allegiance to the crown, and so was a sham. The citizens of the Commonwealth truly were “citizens of nowhere”, as Theresa May recently put it. As Powell said of the 1948 act: “It recognised a citizenship to which no nation of even the most shadowy and vestigial character corresponded; and conversely, it still continued not to recognise the nationhood of the United Kingdom.”

Once the British empire was finished, its core Anglo-Saxon populace needed to come back, he believed, to find their national mission again, to what he viewed as their English home – in reality, the unitary state of the UK – rather than pretend that something of imperialism still survived. On England’s soil, they would remake a genuine political community, under the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament. If Greater Britain could not exist as an imperial political community, and the Commonwealth was a fiction, then the kith and kin had to live among themselves, in the nation’s homeland.

Contemporary politicians no longer fuse “race” and citizenship in this way, even if in recent years racist discourses have found their way back into mainstream politics in advanced democracies, Britain included. However, the legacies of exclusivist accounts of nationality persist, and not merely on the populist right. British politics today is dominated by claims about an irreconcilable division between the attitudes and national sentiments of the white working classes, on the one hand, and the cosmopolitanism of metropolitan liberals, on the other.

But thinking and speaking across this artificial divide is imperative in both political and civic terms. Many Remainers have the same uncertainties over identity and political community as commentators have identified with those who supported Brexit; and the forms of patriotism exhibited across the UK are not necessarily incompatible with wider commitments and plural identities. Above all, it is vital to challenge the assumption that a regressive “whiteness” defines the content of political Englishness.

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Brexit thus forces us once again to confront questions about our citizenship, and the question of who is included in the nation. In an ironic twist of fate, however, it will deprive the least cosmopolitan of us, who do not live in Northern Ireland, or claim Irish descent, or hold existing citizenship of another EU country, of the European citizenship we have hitherto enjoyed. Conversely it also leaves a question mark over the status of EU nationals who live and work in the UK but do not hold British nationality. The government’s failure to give guarantees to these EU nationals that they will be allowed to remain in the UK has become a matter of deep controversy, on both sides of the Brexit divide.

As only England and Wales voted for it, Brexit has also exposed the emergence once again of distinct identities in the constituent nations of the UK. Although Scottish nationalism has been the most politically powerful expression of this trend, Englishness has been growing in salience as a cultural and, increasingly, as a political identity, and an insistent English dimension has become a feature of British politics. Although talk of a mass English nationalism is misplaced – it can scarcely be claimed that nationalism alone explains the complex mix of anxiety and anger, hostility to large-scale immigration and desire for greater self-government that motivated English voters who favoured Brexit – it is clear that identity and belonging now shape and configure political arguments and culture in England.

Yet, with a handful of notable exceptions, the rise in political Englishness is being given expression only on the right, by Eurosceptics and nationalists. The left is significantly inhibited by the dearth of serious attempts to reimagine England and different English futures, whether culturally or democratically.

It is not just the deep politics of the Union and its different peoples that Brexit has revived. The divisions over Britain’s economy that were opened up and positioned during the Edwardian era have also returned to the centre of political debate. Though as yet this is more apparent in her rhetoric than in her practice, Theresa May seems drawn to the project of reviving the Chamberlainite economic and social agendas: using Brexit to underpin arguments for an industrial strategy, a soft economic nationalism and social reform for the “just about managing” classes. She has created a new department responsible for industrial strategy and advocated places for workers on company boards (before watering down this commitment) as well as increased scrutiny of foreign takeovers of British firms. Housing policy is to be refocused away from subsidising home ownership and directed towards building homes and supporting private renters. Fiscal policy has been relaxed, with increased infrastructure investment promised. The coalition that delivered Brexit – made up of struggling working-class voters and middle-class older voters (or the “excluded and the insulated”, as the Tory peer David Willetts puts it) – is seen as the ballast for a new Conservative hegemony.

Presentationally, May’s vision of Brexit Britain’s political economy is more Chamberlainite than Thatcherite, a shift that has been obscured in Brexit-related debates about migration and tariff-free access to the European single market. Her economic utterances are edged with a national, if not nationalist, framing and an economic interventionism more commonly associated with the Heseltinian, pro-European wing of her party. In a calculated move replete with symbolism, she launched her economic prospectus for the Tory leadership in Birmingham, advertising her commitment to the regions and their industries, rather than the City of London and the financial interest.

It is therefore possible that May’s project might turn into an attempt to decouple Conservative Euroscepticism from Thatcherism, creating a new fusion with Tory “One Nation” economic and social traditions. It is this realignment that has left the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, often exposed in recent months, since the Treasury is institutionally hostile both to economic interventionism and to withdrawal from the single market. Hence his recent threat to the European Union that if Britain cannot secure a decent Brexit deal, it will need to become a deregulated, low-tax, Dubai-style “world island” to remain competitive. He cannot envisage another route to economic prosperity outside the European Union.

It also leaves those on the Thatcherite right somewhat uncertain about May. For while she has sanctioned a hard Brexit, in crucial respects she appears to demur from their political economy, hence the discontent over the government’s deal to secure Nissan’s investment in Sunderland. As her Lancaster House speech made clear, she envisages Brexit in terms of economically illiberal goals, such as the restriction of immigration, which she believes can be combined with the achievement of the new free trade deals that are totemic for her party’s Eurosceptics.

In practice, the Prime Minister’s willingness to endorse Hammond’s negotiating bluster about corporate tax cuts and deregulation shows that she is anything but secure in her Chamberlainite orientation towards industrial strategy and social reform. Her policy positions are shot through with the strategic tension between an offshore, “global Britain” tax haven and her rhetoric of a “shared society”, which will be difficult to resolve. May has embraced hard (she prefers “clean”) Brexit, but a transformation of the axes of conservative politics will only take place if she combines Euroscepticism with a return to pre-Thatcherite economic and social traditions. This would make her party into an even more potent political force. The recent shift of the Ukip vote into the Tory bloc and the notable weakening of Labour’s working-class support suggest what might now be possible. This is the domestic politics of Chamberlain’s social imperialism shorn of empire and tariff – only this time with better electoral prospects.

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There are some big pieces of 20th-century political history missing from this jigsaw, however. In the 1930s, Chamberlain’s son Neville succeeded where his father had failed in introducing a modest version of tariff reform, and trade within the empire rebounded. Britain abandoned the gold standard in 1931 and cheap money revived the national economy. The collectivism of the wartime command economy and the postwar Keynesian settlement followed. New forms of economic strategy, industrial policy and social reform were pioneered, and the Treasury beliefs in limited state intervention, “sound money” and free trade that had defined the first decades of the 20th century were defeated.

This era was brought to an end by the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Her government smashed the industrial pillars and the class compromises that had underpinned the postwar world. The ensuing “New Labour” governments inherited a transformed political economy and, in turn, sought to fuse liberal with collectivist strands in a new settlement for the post-industrial economy. What many now view as the end of the neoliberal consensus is, therefore, better seen as the revival of patterns of thinking that pre-date Thatcherism. This tells us much about the persistent and deep problems of Britain’s open economic model and the continuing, unresolved conflict between finance and parts of industry, as well as London and the regions.

Brexit brings these tensions back to the surface of British politics, because it requires the construction of a completely new national economic and political settlement – one that will be thrashed out between the social classes, the leading sectors of the economy, and the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

Few peacetime prime ministers have confronted the scale and kinds of challenge that Brexit will throw up: holding together the UK, revitalising our industrial base, delivering shared prosperity to working people and renegotiating Britain’s place in Europe and the wider world. This is the most formidable list of challenges. Lesser ones, we should recall, defeated Joe Chamberlain.

Michael Kenny is the inaugural director of the Mile End Institute policy centre, based at Queen Mary University of London

Nick Pearce is professor of public policy at the University of Bath 

 

Brexit Redux

📥  Anglosphere, Brexit

If only Alan Milward were still alive. Our foremost historian of Britain’s relationship with Europe, and author of the first volume of the official history of the United Kingdom and the European Community, would have brought the full force of his intellect and scrupulous scholarship to bear on the prospectus the Prime Minister has set out for the Brexit negotiations.

Why, he asked, did our first attempt to join the EEC fail in 1963, and our national strategy collapse?  “Britain’s weakness in the negotiations did not spring from its tactics”, he wrote in his official history, “but from the direct conflict between its own worldwide strategy, which in the Conservative Party still had powerful adherents, and that of France.  It was not a part of the United Kingdom’s strategy to base its economic or political future on European preferences. France, however, would accept nothing less and the outcome was de Gaulle’s veto.” (Milward, A., The Rise and Fall of a National Strategy 1945-1963, 2020 p483).

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That history seems wearily prescient now. Should we learn any lessons from it? Contemporary eurosceptics, whose number must now be taken to include the UK government, would doubtless retort that leaving is not the same as joining: we are not petitioning for entry, but quitting. “No deal is better than a bad deal”, as the Prime Minister put it in her Lancaster House speech. Unfortunately, we have been given to such hubris before and it has not served us well. Britain has now played the key cards in its negotiating hand: to leave the single market and the customs union, and end free movement. It is left with the threat of imposing retaliatory tariffs on incoming EU goods and turning Britain into a corporate tax haven – the United Kingdom offshoring itself into one of its own dependent territories. These do not look like strong bargaining chips, even if they weren’t so patently undesirable in their own terms. And, just as in the early 1960s, we are bringing perspectives to bear that are shrouded in the mists of our national history, not the realities of contemporary European diplomacy.

Britain sought entry to the EEC when it became undeniably clear that our post-war economic performance was vastly inferior to that of the six EEC countries.    Between 1950 and 1960, GDP grew at an annual average of 2.7% in the UK, compared to 7.75% in West Germany, 5.85% in Italy and 4.6% in France. By the early 1960s, productivity levels in West Germany and France overhauled those in the UK, and have remained higher ever since. Unlike continental Europe, the UK did not successfully integrate commercial and industrial policy in the 1950s. It preferred, as Milward put it,  “nebulous rhetoric about global competition”. Thus, “while British diplomats and civil servants, pushed into action by the Bank and the financial interests it represented, argued for a “one world system” in which British industry might well in reality have been at a serious disadvantage compared to its competitors, their European counterparts kept their eyes on the finer details of the relationship between industry and trade. All of them were rewarded by higher rates of growth of productivity in manufacturing than in Britain.” (Milward A, The European Rescue of the Nation-State, 1992, p393).

The post-war regime of fixed exchange rates meant that this loss of economic competitiveness showed up in recurrent balance of payments crises and pressure on sterling reserves. Policymakers were forced to address underlying weaknesses in our economy and direct national resources towards exporting sectors. This drove the change in Britain’s strategy towards the EEC – instead of standing aside, we sought to join the new, burgeoning European market, opening up our manufacturers to the competitive pressures it would bring, as well as to its consumers. The 1960s saw the development of a new industrial strategy to support this economic reorientation. It led to massive investment in our infrastructure, a new regional policy and a huge expansion of further and higher education opportunities.

Today, a floating exchange rate means that sterling bears the weight of adjustment. Our loss of competitiveness is signalled in a weakening pound. It is just that the markets decide its level, not Prime Ministers or Chancellors.  They are absolved from addressing the root causes of our current account deficit, as and until inflation eats deeply into living standards or foreign direct investment dries up. When faced with the prospect of a bad Brexit deal and further relative economic decline, our current Chancellor and Prime Minister argue for tax cuts and deregulation, not industrial strategy, capital investment and stronger public services.

In the early 1960s, it was our failure to resolve our relationship with the Commonwealth, and what entry to the EEC would mean for their critical exports to the UK, that sunk our negotiations. But more than that, what the EEC negotiations forced the UK to confront was the accumulated geopolitical and economic problems of the post-war era; not just our relative economic decline or our trading relationship with the old, “white settler” Anglosphere commonwealth, but the economic development needs of India and Pakistan, the political demands for decolonization in Africa, the status of three European territories (Malta, Gibraltar and Cyprus) and the meaning of our Atlantic defence and security relationship after the Suez crisis. As Milward put it, the “cumulative problems of 250 years of British rule” were “all gathered together in one negotiation.” (Rise and Fall p370).

Today that list would read rather differently. But Brexit will still be a prism through which a profound set of national challenges will be refracted. Inter alia, these include: the future of the United Kingdom itself, given Scotland’s vote to stay in the EU and the positions taken by the elected SNP government; Northern Ireland’s relationship to the Republic of Ireland, given our impending departure from the single market and customs union; the balance of economic and social class interests within the economy and political system of the country, and the weight given to the regions and manufacturing vs London and the City; and, most of all, our ability to pay our way in the world, given our longstanding trade deficits. All of this takes place against the radical uncertainty introduced into global politics by the election of Donald Trump. It is a formidable challenge.

Future historians will have to rise to the task of explaining how a marginal political preference that was largely (if not entirely) the preserve of the Eurosceptic right in British politics became the official position of the UK government.  We can be pretty sure that the answers will not be found in the Whitehall archives, as they were for Milward. Brexit has become a deeply political process, inside the Conservative Party, and outside it. Official histories will only tell us half the story. But as the negotiations with the European Union get underway, we would do well to learn from our past.

 

Liberalism can survive but it has to renew its social traditions

📥  Brexit, Liberalism, Trump

I wrote this for the Financial Times yesterday on the breadth and resilience of liberalism and how it can be renewed by reaching back to the social liberal tradition.

As 2016 comes to an end, liberalism will be given a place on the roster of the year’s notable deaths, slotted in somewhere between Harper Lee and Muhammad Ali. In the year of Brexit, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, liberalism has been declared dead and buried. “The liberal pageant is fading,” writes John Gray, the dystopian philosopher, and “all that really remains of liberalism is fear of the future.” He is not alone. All around us, a “post-liberal” era is being announced.

European liberalism joined forces with nationalism in the 19th century to give political expression to demands for autonomy and self-rule. Today, the two have mostly parted company, save where civic nationalists still seek liberation from larger nation states, as in Scotland and Catalonia. Nationalism now wears an illiberal face and it does so with pride. Authoritarian, conservative nationalists govern much of the world, including swaths of eastern Europe. Liberal politics is in retreat.
Yet the rush to read the funeral rites of liberalism is premature. It is a capacious and tenacious ideology with a rich, diverse history. The concept of liberty always at its core, it has worn numerous political and intellectual guises — from the classical defence of property rights and restraints on arbitrary power, to the expansive social liberalism that gave birth to the British welfare state, and also the emancipatory liberalism of civil rights movements worldwide. Even when politically weak, it has lent its ideas and energy to other movements. John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge gave the UK Labour party the intellectual tools with which to build Jerusalem after the second world war.

Nordic social democracy can be readily assimilated to the social liberal tradition, as can Rooseveltian American liberalism. Even continental liberalism can lay claim to its part in the success of postwar Christian Democracy. With an ideological lineage of such range and influence, liberalism will not be so easily consigned to oblivion. But to thrive again it needs rescuing from its friends as much as its enemies.

In recent decades, it has been stripped of its philosophical and political power. In the quest for robust theories of social justice, liberal political philosophy grew ever more removed from daily struggles for improvement in the human condition. Liberalism lost sight of its insurgent roots in the fight against established orders and lost ground as politics focused after the financial crisis on questions of jobs, security and identity.
Meanwhile, the decline of the social liberal tradition left the field open for colonisation of liberal language by the Thatcherite right, which used it to pioneer the extension of markets, competition and new managerial regimes of regulation into public life and social relationships. Benthamite utilitarian liberalism has been recently revived but as a “science of happiness”, less often to liberate humans than to devise new means of governing them, furnishing justification for technologies to monitor moods and behaviour, corporate HR strategies and government by technocratic nudge.

Little wonder that, when they finally acquired some power by joining the UK coalition government, the Liberal Democrats were reduced to an agenda of softening the edges of public spending cuts and constraining conservative Euroscepticism. Theirs was a besieged version of liberalism, for which a heavy price was paid at the ballot box last year.

The renewal of liberalism will start with resistance. Already in eastern Europe a liberal rearguard is being fought to defend democratic and constitutional rights, from Poland to Hungary. We can expect American liberalism, at its radical and rumbustious best, to stand its ground against attacks on constitutional norms, environmental degradation and incursions into the rights of minorities. In the UK, liberals of all parties are at the heart of opposition to hard Brexit. In these battles, particular as they are to different national political arenas, liberalism can throw off the caricature of unpatriotic rootlessness and self-righteous political correctness.

But liberalism will fail if protest is all it can muster. It needs to renew its social traditions and the alliances once forged with the working classes — to rediscover social liberalism’s emphasis on the interdependence of individual and community, the pursuit of human flourishing and the economic radicalism with which to shape capitalism in the common good. It must play its part in constructing a liberal politics of community to compete with that offered by nationalists: one that responds to demands for good jobs, decent housing and social respect, and which appeals to voters outside the cosmopolitan cities.

These are big tasks, made harder by the political weakness of the UK Labour party and its centre-left sister parties elsewhere in the world. But liberalism is a resilient, adaptive creed. We should not pronounce it dead yet.