Selected and edited from the Inroads listserv by Bob Chodos
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A column in the Guardian by prominent British commentator Simon Jenkins the day after the U.K. election1 sparked an exchange between John Richards and Philip Resnick. Others were not slow in weighing in.
From: John Richards | June 9
You may have seen the Guardian column by Simon Jenkins on the implications of the U.K. election. It hints at a Norwegian-type arrangement between the U.K. and the European Union, not unlike what I had suggested re Brexit before the election. Needless to say, I’m delighted by the drubbing Theresa May and her party received, in England and Wales at least, and by the sterling performance of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, a leader that everyone in the commentariat and within the Blairite wing of his party had been deriding ever since his election. Everything else aside, I can’t help but see a vindication for an unpretentious but principled socialist, who can actually speak the language of the common man or woman, and much like Bernie Sanders mobilize the young. Too bad he won’t get the chance to be PM on this round.
Now in the 2017 election campaign, Corbyn to his credit took on May and her party over Brexit by stating clearly that an imperfect negotiated deal with the EU was better than no deal at all. This suggested an openness to a Norwegian-type arrangement – not ideal, but better than raising the moat at Dover. Moreover, given the significantly greater demographic and geopolitical importance of the U.K., both within Europe and internationally, the U.K. would be in a stronger position than Norway (and would have allies within the EU) to influence future EU policy in a number of areas.
Yes, I read Simon Jenkins’s “day after” column in the Guardian. Like Nigel Farage, Jenkins predicts that the “Remainers” will raise their heads and may succeed in sabotaging the whole Brexit initiative. I hope they are right! The majority of the Labour caucus, all the (weakened) Scottish Nationalist caucus, all the (much humbled) Lib Dem caucus, and a sizable minority of the Tory caucus think that leaving the EU is a monumental error. Combined, they form a comfortable majority in Parliament. Unfortunately, they are spread among several parties and lack an obvious leader able to counter both May’s and Corbyn’s pro-Brexit position.
I admit that I underestimated Corbyn’s campaigning strength. Both Sanders and Corbyn illustrated the potential advantages of a much more generous welfare state. Injecting optimism drew in many disengaged young voters. Corbyn’s optimism proved for many more attractive than Theresa May’s brittle recitation of “Brexit means Brexit.” Her drubbing is a result worth cheering. Her majority in Parliament now depends on the small contingent of Protestant MPs in Northern Ireland, descendants of a leader, Ian Paisley, as unsuitable to the problems at hand in his time as is May to today’s problems.
The weakness of both Corbyn and Sanders is a refusal to lead on the “tough” aspects of governing. In Corbyn’s case, you should acknowledge that he is partially responsible for the U.K. being in its present post–Brexit referendum chaos. There are many reasons to explain why Britain conducted its Brexit referendum last year and why a (slim) majority voted to get out of the EU. Corbyn is not the main “sorcier apprenti.” But nor is he innocent. Had he campaigned in 2016 half as vigorously for the U.K. to stay in the EU as he did against Blairites among his colleagues, he probably would have persuaded enough marginal Labour Brexiters to vote Remain. After all, the EU poses no obstacle to the U.K. running a more generous welfare state than the Tories or Blairites advocate. Corbyn shares with May a quasi-isolationist view of the world and a dislike of Britain’s active engagement in European affairs. Her ideal harks back to past British glories; his is a nostalgic hope that the past four decades of public reaction against the downside of “old Labour” can be erased and that Britain can return to the optimism of Labour’s first post–World War II government.
I acknowledge also that a “Norwegian” solution is better than a hard Brexit or no deal at all. But a “Norwegian” solution is far from ideal. It implies that one of the major European countries will be passive in the evolution of European policy, whether related to trade or to the use of military force. (Britain and France are the only two European countries with a sizable military presence.) Over the last generation, Britain has played a positive role in the EU: it championed expansion to include the former East European colonies in the Soviet empire; it provided a much-needed pro-market counterweight to the dirigiste excesses of Brussels bureaucrats and the French; it (unsuccessfully) advised against the euro, which has turned out to be one of the most severe self-inflicted wounds of the EU.
In response to John’s comments, I would add the following. It is a pity that Corbyn did not campaign more forcefully for the Remain position in 2016 – here he was following in the footsteps of Tony Benn, who had always seen the EU as a major obstacle to the New Jerusalem that Labour would some day inaugurate. Having said that, as you acknowledge, Corbyn was hardly the principal sorcerer’s apprentice in the Brexit fiasco – David Cameron, Nigel Farage, the Murdoch press et al. deserve the lion’s share of the blame.
From: Reg Whitaker | June 10
In its own way the U.K. election is as much a shocker as the Brexit referendum or the Trump vote. To be sure, May is still PM (for the moment) and Labour is still in opposition (for longer). But May’s cynical gambit has failed disastrously, adding a spectacular own goal to her former boss Cameron’s referendum. Labour, led by a man who at the outset of the campaign was nearly universally seen as an unelectable disaster, has just increased its share of the vote over its last election by a margin larger than any Labour Party campaign since the Attlee sweep to power in 1945.
It is still too early to come to a clear consensus about what happened based on detailed analysis of the vote, but a number of points seem to have already emerged.
Brexit was in a sense responsible for everything, yet was nowhere clearly present. Brexit was like Banquo’s ghost: it haunted the proceedings but was visible only to some.
The Brexit problem is the old problem of Europe in British politics. Europe has always divided the Brits, but these divisions crosscut, rather than follow, partisan-ideological lines. Europe is not a left-right issue but British politics have always been left-right. So Brexit split the Tories and split Labour.
Only the Lib Dems tried to make Remain an issue again, but they were tainted by their time in coalition with Cameron and fell between the renewed tribal rivalry of Tory and Labour. May did try to make her faux Churchillian stance at negotiations with the EU (“a bad deal is worse than no deal”) the last desperate shot at her majority, but this fell as flat as her tough-on-terrorism stand after Manchester and London Bridge. Corbyn countered with the obvious point that a “soft” Brexit was better than no deal. But in neither case was there much content to what Brexit would actually mean in practice, and neither May nor Corbyn seemed willing to confront the magnitude of the Brexit challenge to the British economy and to the stability of the Union.
But when you look at the areas where Labour did best and made gains, it appears that these tended to coincide with areas where Remain did best in the referendum. The identification of Labour support with Brexit scepticism is strengthened by Corbyn’s capacity to mobilize the millennial and first-time voters – precisely those who are most pro-Europe. The Labour vote, we might say, is the accidental beneficiary of Brexit anxiety, and vice versa.
I agree with Simon Jenkins (always a very wise head) that this result does reopen the Remain case, even if it will take some convolutions to arrive at that point. Somewhere down the line the U.K. should have to confront the necessity of a second referendum to pass on the actual Brexit negotiated by actual negotiators. There is a Canadian precedent: in 1980 the PQ referendum on sovereignty-association would have been followed by a second referendum to ratify or reject the actual deal negotiated. That respected the Quebec people in a way that the second referendum in 1995 did not. Given 50% + 1, Jacques Parizeau would have gone for a unilateral declaration of independence. Quebecers, he enthused, would be like “lobsters in the pot.” Britons, it seems, are lobsters in the pot with 52%. That is just not acceptable.
Commentators have made much of the losses suffered by the Scottish National Party and the emergence of the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland as May’s strategic partner as evidence that fears of the Scots leaving the U.K. and perhaps Northern Ireland reuniting with the Republic to remain in the EU have been overblown. Perhaps, but I am not convinced. First, because the election was a U.K. election, not a referendum on post-Brexit Britain. Scots voted on issues of concern to all Britons. The DUP would push for a soft border. Second, since Brexit has no actual shape, there was less reason to pose a Scottish or Irish response at this point. Following an actual deal that could change again dramatically.
The other main point I would like to make is about the remarkable campaign of Jeremy Corbyn. Negatively branded well in advance – as much by his own party as by the Tories and the rabid right-wing media (think Stéphane Dion kitted up in terrorist revolutionary clothes!) – he turned it around in the campaign in an unprecedented way. His own modest and eminently reasonable demeanour, once exposed directly without the demonizing filters of the media, charmed and won over many who had previously dismissed him. But this conversion cannot be detached from the fact that Corbyn was speaking on the basis of a Labour Manifesto that was (a) resolutely left-wing and (b) surprisingly popular, especially with the young but with many older voters as well. Corbyn addressed the concerns of ordinary people, in words that were clear and accessible. And he offered hope over fear, which was the sole Tory offering. I take this as entirely encouraging in the time of Trump and Brexit The dead hand of “there is no alternative to neoliberalism” is loosening its grip and the political space is opening up.
There is a Britain, particularly among the young but not limited to them, that does not want to retreat into Little England and rejects the deceitful constraints of neoliberal orthodoxy. Jeremy Corbyn (like Bernie Sanders) is just the old, white-haired prophet of progressive change that could come from below. “Could,” not “will,” of course, but at least the possibility has been presented.
From: John Richards | June 10
Among the thoughtful postelection articles in the U.K. press, I quote a passage from Deborah Orr in the Guardian:
I feel that Britain has voted Irony. I hate the way people keep talking about “the kids”, when they mean young adults. I’m supposed to be thrilled that Corbyn got the kids out. Maybe he should have got the kids out a year ago during that terrible, dishonest EU referendum, that Cameron promised in order to be prime minister for what turned out to be an extra 13 inglorious months. The kids have voted for the man who made it plain that he didn’t really care about the EU, one way or the other, even though the kids who did vote last time voted overwhelmingly to stay in Europe.2
May evokes past British glories; Corbyn wants a more generous welfare state and renationalization of the railways. Between the two, I prefer Corbyn. But Orr rightly insists on rubbing her readers’ collective noses in the key political problem currently facing the British: Brexit. Given that Guardian readers are overwhelmingly Labour supporters, hers is a necessary voice. Neither May nor Corbyn said anything of substance in the campaign about Britain’s future relationship with Europe. If Britain withdraws from the EU, it will almost certainly suffer economically. But the remaining EU members will also lose. That the second largest European economy is succumbing to nostalgia of the right or left is not good news for Europe’s future.
From: Arthur Milner | June 10
The white underclass has seen / sees globalization – free trade, lots of immigration – as its enemy. The consequence has been the increasing success of the far right. Corbyn – not least because of his equivocation on Brexit (Sanders, too, opposed free trade) – is seen as an opponent of globalization and a friend of the working class.
American political scientist Thomas Frank, who generally denounces free trade, said this: “The orthodox economics on the subject says trade agreements are going to be good for some people and bad for other people, and you have to compensate the losers. What do Democrats do after they get these trade deals done? They scold the losers. They say, ‘Well, you didn’t go to college’” (CBC Sunday Edition, November 13, 2016).
He was talking about Bill Clinton, but of course it also applies to Tony Blair.
I generally support globalization. But if you get free trade without protection for those who lose out in the short term, you get Trump and Brexit.
So when Deborah Orr rants against Corbyn’s not caring about the EU, she’s exactly wrong. Had he cared more, he would have been seen as another Labour elitist.
I blame Blair for Brexit, not Corbyn.
From: Garth Stevenson | June 10
I don’t think I belong to the underclass, white or otherwise, but if I had lived in England in the 1970s I think I would have voted against joining “Europe.” England is part of Europe only in the trivial sense that Saint-Pierre and Miquelon are part of North America. It has a different history, a different legal system, and the English even drive on the other side of the road! Its cultural, historical and sentimental ties are with the United States and the Commonwealth, not with Europe. Historically since Tudor times it resisted every attempt to unify the continent, whether by Habsburgs, Bourbons, Bonapartists or fascists. Its heart was never really in the postwar European project, whose most enthusiastic advocates always envisaged a common currency and federal institutions at the end of the road, not merely free trade. General de Gaulle, the greatest European statesman of the 20th century, knew that the English were not really Europeans, which is why he tried to keep them out. Ireland, which is mainly Catholic, and Scotland, which has civil law rather than common law, have more in common with Europe than England does, and historically both countries used European neighbours, especially France, as counterweights to England. Presumably that is why they want to stay in.
Having said that, I also think that it is probably too late for England to get out, except at the cost of massive inconvenience, uncertainty, economic loss, possible separation from Scotland and lasting bitterness between England and its neighbours. So if had been an Englishman last year, I would have voted against Brexit. The least bad alternative at this point in time, a deal similar to that which Norway has, will be very difficult, and perhaps impossible, to negotiate. At the very least, Reg is absolutely right that there should be a second referendum to ratify the final deal (if there is a final deal) just as the Quebec government proposed in 1980.
The other option for the U.K. government might be to say, “Our people are deeply divided, they probably didn’t realize last year how difficult and inconvenient Brexit would really be, so let’s just forget the whole idea and not even try to negotiate a Brexit.” I’m not predicting that they will say that, but it is what I would probably do in their situation. Strictly speaking the Brexit vote was only a plebiscite, not a legally binding referendum, because there is no provision in British law for a binding referendum, so there would be no legal obstacle to this course of action.
The SNP would certainly support the minority government on this issue, and Labour would probably do so also, since Corbyn was never much of a “European” enthusiast and his very effective campaign has reinforced his authority over the party. Of course the DUP, on whose ten seats the government is currently relying for its temporary majority, would be unhappy, but the alliance with the DUP is already becoming controversial in England because of the DUP’s opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Apparently an online petition opposing the alliance with the DUP for that reason has attracted half a million signatures.
May, however, doesn’t seem like a strong enough leader to take such a bold step as abandoning the Brexit initiative. Run-of-the-mill politicians like May don’t take bold steps that abandon their previous policies the way de Gaulle accepted the independence of Algeria, so we will have to wait and see what happens. Que sera, sera.
From: Reg Whitaker | June 11
England part of Europe only in a trivial sense?
If we go back far enough to the origins of human settlement on what we now call the British Isles we discover that it was not an island but attached by land to the continent – and the movement of people and culture was continental in scope.
Two thousand years ago there was the little matter of Britain being part of the pan-European (and Near Eastern) Roman Empire, signs of which can be found whenever any one digs (as with the CrossRail project).
Then there were the Angles and Saxons, and then the Vikings (go to York and take a look at the evidence), all coming from Europe.
Of course let’s not forget 1066 and the Norman Conquest and the ruling class speaking French first for centuries after.
From: John Richards | June 11
Arthur, There is an important distinction between the role of historian and politician. If we consider Brexit as historians, there are many factors in play. Clinton and Blair bear some responsibility inasmuch as they too easily accepted “neoliberal” notions about deregulation in the financial sector. Given the importance of London and New York in financial matters, this meant both the U.S. and the U.K. suffered more seriously in the wake of the financial collapse of 2008 than most countries – and exacerbated working-class misgivings about free trade arrangements. Much as Angela Merkel admitted a large number of refugees in 2015, Blair invited large East European immigration a decade earlier. Both experienced political backlash, which in the U.K. case contributed to working-class mistrust of the EU. We can invoke other factors. The U.K. had a “good war” from 1939 to 1945 inasmuch as the U.K. played a crucial role in destroying the Nazi threat. The Germans and French had very “bad wars” inasmuch as the French role in World War II was ambiguous and inconsequential, and too many Germans supported the Nazis. Post-1945 the French and German elites had a viscerally powerful desire to put an end to a century of warfare between their two countries by constructing an “ever closer union,” a goal that British elites never shared. If we consider Brexit in terms of expectations of politicians engaged in the debate, David Cameron obviously deserves to be damned for placing peace in his party above the potential damage that a lost Brexit referendum might inflict. But Corbyn should not escape criticism for his role as another “sorcier apprenti.” As Philip noted in his post, Corbyn has consistently over his career perceived the EU as an unwelcome constraint on U.K. social policy. He has rarely been frank in arguing this case. In the present context the reason for his dissembling is obvious. The great majority of his new supporters – many of them young, well-educated voters anxious to remain within the EU – do not share his quasi-isolationism. His solution has been to mumble about Britain’s role in the EU and the consequences of Brexit. Which brings to mind Edmund Burke’s letter to the Bristol constituent who had written to damn Burke’s position on an issue of the day. Burke replied that Bristol voters had elected him to exercise his judgement, not respect every sentiment of Bristol voters.
From: Garth Stevenson | June 11
Dear John, You criticize Corbyn for perceiving the EU as a constraint on U.K. social policy. Isn’t that what the Liberal Party of Canada, the NDP, the Ontario government and just about everyone who reads (or has heard of) Inroads thought about the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement in 1988, and NAFTA a few years later? And NAFTA in fact is little more than a free trade area with no central institutions and seems to have had no effect on Canadian social policy that I am aware of. The EU on the other hand has elaborate central institutions, significantly reduces the autonomy and sovereignty of its member states and has aspirations to do so even more. It even has a flag and a “national” anthem (borrowed from poor old Beethoven, no less). So why are Brits who are sceptical or apprehensive about the EU targeted as isolationists, reactionaries, members of “the white underclass” and so forth, while Canadians who had similar misgivings about NAFTA (i.e. ourselves) are spared this kind of criticism? There seems to be a double standard at work here.
From: Joe Murray | June 11
When reading election result tea leaves, it’s important not to lose sight of the impact of ephemera and good electioneering craft and lack thereof.
There’s been a bit too much of a focus on policy as the salient factor in determining votes. Voters’ choices are based on a multitude of factors: identification with a party, identity formed in opposition to a party, perceptions of parties’ recent history, campaign platforms, specific policies in the platforms, positioning of the campaigns with respect to each other generally on key issues, key messages of the campaigns, narratives that explain the motivations and character of the leaders and what they will do, deliberate and inadvertent messaging sent by the type of events and backdrops the campaigns employ and don’t employ, the sophistication of messaging through various communications channels (TV ads, earned coverage, social media, etc.) and weaving them together into a convincing whole.
Some specific observations on this campaign:
- There were high expectations of May and low expectations of Corbyn going into it. As the campaign developed, May’s underperformance and Corbyn’s exceeding expectations became self-reinforcing stories.
- May chose a safe style of campaigning typical of campaigns with huge leads. Like “time for a change” against governments long in the tooth, “arrogance” is a familiar attack against this approach to campaigning. The Tories didn’t manage to inoculate themselves against that attack or respond effectively. May failed to pivot when the wheels started falling off her bus.
- Given the problems Corbyn had in public image and within his party, focusing on a person-to-person comparison made sense. “Strong and stable” are antonyms to how Corbyn was perceived at the campaign launch, not just what European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker wanted in his negotiating partner.
- In an attempt to present a contrast with the “easy answers” of a spendthrift Labour manifesto, the Tories aimed to be straight and sober minders of the purse. Their manifesto proposed changing from a universal winter heating subsidy program to a means-tested one and, much more importantly, arranging for more of the value of more seniors’ homes to be used in calculating what they could pay for their senior care, all while lifting a lifetime cap of £72,000. In ensuring protection for those worst off while addressing looming demographic challenges to the budget, this is consistent with May’s reviving the British “One Nation” strand of conservatism so close to Canada’s Red Toryism, while retaining the support of fiscal conservatives. But this was looking only at their own move, not how their opponents could respond – a rookie mistake that wasn’t caught because the circle of consulted advisers to her co–chief of staff was too small.
- In some excellent jiu-jitsu, Labour used these key messages to remind voters of previous Tory cuts and general hard-heartedness. When Tory grandees who hadn’t been consulted dissented, May flip-flopped on key parts of her platform. This totally undercut the central messages of “strong and stable.”
- Corbyn, having gained a reputation as a crazy inflexible old leftie who hadn’t changed his doctrinaire views since the 1970s, when actually seen by voters seemed like a guy who cared about real people – the opposite of an out-of-touch, stuck-up politician. His campaign put him in the midst of people. By contrast, May’s trouble delivering her message convincingly in the spotlight provided an awful picture of an inauthentic, wooden person repeating a self-serving message ad nauseam. Good craft versus bad craft.
- In terms of positioning, the Lib Dems put having a second referendum at the centre of their manifesto as an appeal to Remainers. Their leader’s commitment to abortion rights and same-sex equality was called into question by weak responses to questions about his religious faith. They lost votes, winding up with their worst percentage since 1956. I think it shows there was no Macron-like latent support for a pro-EU, anti-Brexit relitigation of last year’s referendum. May was explicitly hard-Brexit and didn’t benefit much, but I don’t think that was crucial to the campaign. Corbyn tried with reasonable success to change the channel from his soft Brexit to talk about Tory cutbacks and austerity and the need to rebuild the welfare state.
In sum, campaign f***-ups and personal failings made a difference. Perceptions of personality as well as character made a difference. Campaign strategies made a difference. And to a certain extent, the polity’s views on the high policy questions of the day also played a bit of a role.
From: Reg Whitaker | June 13
As the stunning results of the U.K. election have begun to sink in, there has been much speculation about the immediate political future. But the most recent development – still ongoing this week – of a pact between the shrunken and shaken May government and the ten-member Democratic Unionist Party caucus to keep the PM propped for an indefinite period in to the new Parliament is a most sinister matter. It is not exactly a deal with the devil (that would be to adopt the biblical rhetoric of the DUP) but it is a very dangerous deal, dangerous for the U.K. and particularly dangerous for Northern Ireland. If Theresa May were not in a state of desperation, this pact would never have been acceptable.
To understand why, we should first recognize that the entire Brexit debate was an English controversy, which utterly ignored the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement was based on the joint membership of Britain and the Irish Republic in the EU and the disappearance for all practical purposes of the once-policed “hard” Irish-British border. Free movement of people, goods and services also permitted joint administration of all-Ireland matters – in effect a fudging of the once unbridgeable gap between Republican demands for Irish reunification and Loyalist insistence on the Union. Brexit throws all that into question, especially if it is the hard Brexit demanded by the Tory Eurosceptics or the “no deal rather than a bad deal” that May has egregiously proposed.
Enter the DUP, and the figure of Arlene Foster now “negotiating” with May (“your money or the life of your government” would seem to be Foster’s opening gambit). Now, consider that the power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland has broken down and that there is at present no Northern Ireland government. Why? Because Foster as First Minister was personally associated with a massive corruption scandal but refused Sinn Fein’s demand that she step down. Instead, new elections saw Sinn Fein make major gains but fall one seat short of the DUP. All talks to reconstitute power sharing on the new basis have failed because Foster will not cooperate. This is the same woman who walked out of the Good Friday talks one hour before the agreement came into force because she would not countenance amnesty for the IRA – even though her DUP has always been associated with Loyalist militias that were as ruthless as the IRA in killing and maiming.
The British government is supposed to offer its good offices in finding a resolution to the power-sharing stalemate to avoid reversion to direct British rule. But now the British government will be dependent for its life on the very party that has prevented a resolution!
Much has also been made about the reactionary views of the DUP on social issues like gay rights and abortion. Already Ruth Davidson, the openly lesbian leader of the Scottish Conservatives, who have made the only real gains recorded by the Tories in this election, has signalled her severe displeasure at the prospect of the DUP holding a knife to May’s throat, and has raised the possibility of a Scottish Tory party separate from the English party. But while this is a problem for May, the bigger issue is the consequences of the DUP deal for Northern Ireland.
The destabilization of Northern Ireland is an dreadful prospect. It is doubtful that any return to the horrific days of the Troubles is likely: no one really wants that. But the delicate balance between the two communities, and between the Union and the Republic, is in jeopardy. Intransigent Loyalism can halt the slow and painful process of reconciliation and cooperation. No one will gain from this. But Arlene Foster can exert leverage out of all proportion to her real support, and May has no other recourse but to surrender.
The DUP will certainly demand even more money from Westminster even though Northern Ireland is still the most heavily subsidized part of the U.K. The Good Friday Agreement was always seen (although never openly acknowledged as such) as a way for England to relieve itself of its heavy security and economic obligations to the declining industrial rust belt of Northern Ireland. Brexit could further constrain the fiscal capacity, not to speak of the will, of the U.K. government to continue pouring good money after bad into Ulster. But now they may have no choice.
This is a serious mess. Another election and a Corbyn Labour majority government may be the only way out.
1 Simon Jenkins, “The Rise of the Remainers is about to Begin: May’s Brexit Strategy Lies in Ruins,” The Guardian, June 9, 2017, retrieve from here
2 Deborah Orr, “What is There to Rejoice about? Britain has Just Voted for Irony,” The Guardian, June 10, 2017, retrieve from here