Sunday, 28 February 2016

Are the big parties coming to pieces?

Tories at war. Labour at war. Whichever way you look, our traditional parties are in trouble. The Conservatives are caught up in their own internecine struggle over Europe, something they seem to have been firing at each other about for about the past thousand years. No doubt they'll be warring over subsidiarity and sovereignty as the sun boils and burns up the solar system. Labour? Well, the People's Party are caught up in what looks to be a long-running war between the party's left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the increasingly left-wing leadership, and party activists, staffers and MPs (most of whom frankly regard their titular leader as something between a bad joke and a terrible nightmare).

All of which means that people are asking whether our old parties are no longer fit for purpose. Whether they are going to break up, in the end, splintering into many, many pieces under the stress of social and ideological change. And you can see why. There's lots of evidence for it. Lots of Conservative MPs have been going around this weekend apparently threatening their leader, David Cameron (above), with a coup whatever the result of our forthcoming referendum on membership of the European Union. One of his best friends in politics, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, has apparently knifed him in the back - and by so doing, encouraged others to do so. The Prime Minister has responded in kind, lashing out with barbed words and scarcely-veiled taunts at London Mayor Boris Johnson in the Commons. Rather effectively, it has to be said, reducing that shadow of a fake of a fraud of a ghost of a politician to just folding his arms and looking crestfallen. But it's not a good look for any party, really, and it shows just how much binary constitutional issues - rather than social and economic questions that can be compromised on, elided and parsed all you want - really split parties.

Labour's ongoing crisis is probably more deep-seated. While we've been declining to chronicle the party's decline into irrelevance, it has been subject to a whole load of allegations about far left anti-seminitism in (for instance) the Oxford University Labour Club, had a Young Labour Conference descend into red-on-red bitterness and farce (followed by demands for a recount and yet another rash of bullying allegations), seen the Shadow Chancellor muse about abolishing the unit that weeds out entryism and extremism, and watched Mr Corbyn march against his own party's policy on nuclear weapons - on the same day that Labour was trying to mount a big campaigning push to argue that we should stay in the European Union. The party is entirely dysfunctional. It is more of a soap opera than a functioning political movement that seeks to govern. It is so far behind in the polls that it would need the Hubble Space Telescope to see any actual power.

Let's face it: neither party is in great shape. So you're inevitably seeing commentators muse about the deeper sociological roots of their travails. The gradual tides of social change are probably making the fixed markers of class ever less relevant in Britain today, undermining Labour's sense of identity where challenged for instance by the United Kingdom Independence Party, but also breaking up the broadly 'respectable' and bourgeois sense of togetherness that held the Conservatives together (within and around the Church of England, for instance) for so long. The progress of what social scientists term 'glocalization' is also helping to undermine state narratives at the level of the United Kingdom taken as a whole. Each nation and region that makes up the UK seems to be doing its own thing, disintegrating the idea of a 'national' debate and swingometer. The Scottish National Party, in particular, does seem to have dealt a death-blow to Labour's dominance of the Scottish political landscape (which, given how long they took that country for granted, may be no bad thing in and of itself), while Labour actually seems to be doing pretty well in London - and, to be honest, London alone. National newspapers' dominance of the intellectual scene seems to have been on the wane for a long, long time, breaking up every General Election into six hundred skirmishes on social media rather than a single daily press conference pitted one against the other.

But will the Conservatives and Labour really struggle, buckle and break up? It seems unlikely, for three or four reasons. But the biggest one is that we've been here before, in both cases. The Conservatives defenestrated a powerful sitting Prime Minister over Europe in 1990, pushing Mrs Thatcher out in a nasty and contested coup that has resonated down the political ages - and done them immense damage, all the while. Labour spent most of the early 1980s fighting itself in a battle that (so far) makes today's hand-to-hand combat look like a bit of an echo rather than a shout. Momentum and other Corbynite movements are many things, including nastily and messily divided among themselves, but they do not at the moment particularly resemble the 1980s Militant Tendency: a single, organised, hidden party of sworn adherents trying to blow up the Labour Party and replace it with a Trotskyite sect with more voters than the comrades would then have known what to do with. Some of the rhetoric is the same, sure, but most Labour members who voted for Mr Corbyn are not entryists or hard left activists: they just wanted a clearer and more consistent opposition to economic austerity. These are the soft left - the persuadables - and eventually they will coalesce around a more presentable standard-bearer: a Neil Kinnock for our times, you might say. Labour might in the end have to conduct a proper, in-your-face, let's-be-having-you civil war. But things are still relatively genteel. So far.

Most of this has all happened before. And, on both occasions when it did, the two dominant players picked themselves up and then just got on with existing, with being - the great standing facts on the political battlefield. Inertia is usually more powerful than change. That looks the most likely outcome this time, too.

Where would all the dissident Conservatives and Labour people have to go, in any case? UKIP would be the natural home for furious Conservative refuseniks if Mr Cameron does secure a 'Remain' vote in June, but the purple 'people's army' are giving off the unmistakable smell of crankdom and decline as their party, too, wars with itself at the top. And will Labour centrists really break off and try to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats? No, probably not. Our first past the post electoral system should stop anyone in their tracks before they thinking about setting up a new political party - a Social Democratic Party Mark II - and it seems increasingly clear that the Liberal Democrats' parliamentary representation may be cut to as low as just two or three MPs after 2020 (we should note in this respect that they are currently struggling to hold on to any representation at all in the Welsh Assembly). Boundary reforms, less publicity, a sheer paucity of representative critical mass and the eminently targetable nature of most of their parliamentary majorities says one thing: there's no point Labour's self-styled 'moderates' breaking off to join up with them.

We've been musing a lot really about the role of structure and agency in political history. Here, again, there's likely to be more agency - more deciding consciously to stick together and try to defy some of these so-called big battalions of social change - then there is going to be the structural transformation of our politics (and the inevitable decline of the 'big two') at the hands of economic post-modernism and the rise of nationalist, regionalist and localist politics. Those forces are definitely in play, but will they really blow up the Conservatives and Labour? Reader, we doubt it.

So the answer to the question in our header is probably this: no, the big parties are not about to come apart. They are under immense pressure, from inside as well as outside, but they are almost certainly going to hold together. That conclusion might not last forever, but it will probably last us for this Parliament. Accept no big old talk to the contrary.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Boris Johnson's alternative histories

Counterfactual history is controversial. To recap, it's the idea that you can play with some of the variables in the past and try to see where events would have washed you with a critical bit of the story taken out, reversed or altered. So what if Charles I of England had never gone for that Prayer Book gamble in Scotland? What if James II had held his nerve in 1688? What if the Armada had made it to the shores of the Spanish Netherlands, and then of England? What if Halifax, rather than Churchill, had become Prime Minister in that critical meeting with the King in 1940? And so on. The genre is usually associated these days with Niall Ferguson's collection entitled Virtual History, published in the late 1990s, and it's a book that's spawned endless imitations. But this thread of thinking goes further back - into economic history, for instance, and the question of what the United States would have looked like in the late nineteenth century without a railway system.

Now you can have a go at picking apart lots of these ideas, if you want to. One main criticism, of course, is that it's hard - perhaps almost impossible - to single out one element you can change without lots of the others being different as well. There are lot of gears here. A lot of moving parts in play. So your judgement as to what would change based on what you know - and historians are often storehouses for a lot of sheer, raw detail about their periods - might not really be taking into account the networked web of cause, effect and counter-cause that we're really looking at. The writer's perspective on the knock-on effects of a single alteration (highly subjective outside the formulae and models of economics, themselves theoretical constructs) aren't therefore the limit of critics' scepticism. One might reply that the determinism and questionable logic of 'things had to happen that way, they were determined, look at all the factors or causes lining up' is just as problematical: the debate is an interesting one.

But what if you could abandon these debates for a moment, and use the technique looking forward? Because British politics' tumult, especially over the last few days, does now seem to be leading to a defining moment of decision. In or out of the European Union. Continuing with the United Kingdom in its present form, or breaking up. European trade - or the world. And, of course, after yesterday's intervention by the Mayor of London, the relatively minor matter of whether David Cameron should be able to serve out his term and define his own legacy, or whether he should be bundled out of power this year by a certain chaotically-haired opportunist and fantasist whose name just happens to start with 'B' and end with 'Oris' (above) - not that that's the way they'd complete the word in Downing Street, but still. What if you could look at a politics counterfactual going forwards? Look at the disjuncture in our politics that will either see the rapids bubble and roar in summer and autumn, or return to their relatively placid course of the spring and summer?

Let's have a proper look, because two roads clearly diverge in front of us. The EU referendum campaign now looks likely to be quite tight. It might not be, but it probably will be. So voters hold in their own hands - in their wisdom-of-the-crowds collective decisions - one of the following scenarios. Pictures of the future that illustrate that agency, as well as structure, is critical in the making of narrative junctures and disjunctures.

The first: a relatively small Remain victory. David Cameron emerges from No. 10. He rather smugly declares victory. Labour people who've surprised themselves cheering him on for weeks suddenly feel a bit queasy, but relieved in any case that the social legislation and worker protection laws of the EU has been protected, by whatever means necessary. Mr Cameron then holds a reshuffle in which he demotes a few Leavers, but in the main stays his hand in the interests of party unity. Think Harold Wilson in 1975, all father-of-the-nation relaxation and wisdom. Britain's place in the EU - albeit in a rather semi-detached form - is assured for the next generation. Mr Cameron is probably replaced in 2018-19 by a Eurosceptical leader, but it's still not clear who that might be. If Priti Patel's perceived to be a bit right-wing for the electorate, perhaps another Outer like Dominic Raab might fit the bill. Or a sceptic-who-went-to-Remain, perhaps a grey John Major-style figure such as Philip Hammond. It's hard to see past Boris right now, and he might still seize the crown, but his defeat in the referendum would inevitably dull his lustre. Things can change. So the future of the Conservative Party - and the premiership - would be up in the air.

The second alternative: there's a razor-thin win for Leave, won in part by the half-true jokes and aphorisms that pour out of Mr Johnson. Mr Cameron resigns. Labour people suddenly realise that things can actually get worse for them when Mr Johnson immediately turns up at No. 10 patting his suit trousers with clammy hands, looking at the ground and throatily shouting about 'whiff waff' and 'piff paff'. The voters (inexplicably) love it. He negotiates British entry into the European Economic Area and basically accepts all the European Union's rules without Britain any longer having any say in them. Conservative Eurosceptics realise they've been had, but it's too late. Like an absurd microwavable version of General de Gaulle called back to power to protect France, or Benjamin Disraeli overturning Sir Robert Peel as his leader over free trade, he would have done it in order to be in charge himself, reasoning that Europe will be okay as long as he's running the show. What did de Gaulle and Disraeli then do? Exactly the same as the people they replaced. And that's what London's soon-to-be ex-Mayor will do. Like the good Europhile Boris privately is, he'll then start touring European capitals clinking glasses and speaking loads of languages - all the while laughing at his backbench underlings and their gullible ways.

Then he'll appeal for a personal mandate to confirm his 'new deal' with the EU, dare Labour to face him down, win the vote and cruise to a vast Parliamentary majority that will entrench him in power for a decade. Before appointing Michael Gove as Chancellor, planning to cut public spending much more ferociously than George Osborne ever did. Scotland will hold a second independence referendum and vote to leave him to it, join the EU (as well as the Euro) and entrench a hard currency and travel border splitting the island in two. Boris will zipwire across it and land (face first) in the mud. Everyone will giggle and say 'good old Boris'. They'll laugh along with a man who somehow manages to combine a terrifying basilisk stare of ambition with the weasel face of a furtive conspirator. A man who you wouldn't trust to put out Larry the Downing Street cat's food bowl without fearing he'd walk off with it. Someone who you know in your heart is an utter, utter, utter fraud and mendacious trickster, a calculating master of the mask and the pose, a bender and a twister with an icy political heart the size of a frozen pea, will have triumphed over all and any opposition. The resistible rise of your tinpot braided tomfool of a dictator will be complete.

This is what's inside Boris' head, the echo chamber of a poor man's Silvio Berlusconi endlessly replaying his own triumphs and legends back to himself. That's what you can see behind those faux-puppydog eyes of his, darting from side to side as he seeks friends and advantage among what he imagines are the admiring crowds. That's the fools he wants to make of you. Many of his opponents (not least Labour) are now too weak to stop him. But you're not. You have a vote, dear reader. You can use it, in June, to help kick Boris and his ambitions back where they belong - into the dustbin of history.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Structure and agency in the history of the now

Historians are disputatious people. One of them says something is white? Others will say it's black. One scholar says that up is down? Well. Others will soon appear to say that up was, after all, very up all that time. Partly that's a generational effect, as each group of doctoral students rightly overturns the wisdom of their masters; partly it's a way to make a name and a career for oneself; partly it's all to do with the availability of new sources, particularly in contemporary history, which allows each orthodoxy to be questioned in its turn. Then there's the effect of fashion. The economic and social history boom of the 1960s and 1970s, with its overt Marxist and economistic turn, gave way during the 1980s and 1990s to histories of discourse, language and identity; and then, during the 2000s, to a fissiparous, complicated history of the local, the fractured, the 'de-centred' and (perhaps) the surprising. No-one's sure where we've got to now, but we've got somewhere. We know a lot more than we did in the 1960s, though we've had a load of rows along the way. Polite ones, you understand.

One of these debates is very simple: what is the role of structure, and what is the result of agency, in historical change? That is to say, the big basic effects of our time - deindustrialisation, perhaps, or the information deluge of the online age, or the (return to) globalisation - clearly set the scene for the enormous forces that shape our lives. But loads of historians - not all conservatives wedded to their narrative stories of powerful people doing apparently momentous things - would say 'hang on a second, what's the role of personal choice here? What about chance, that great decider? What about lived lives, and their ability to bend and remake those so-called "impersonal forces" we're talking about here?' They're both right, by the way, and the skills of both types of historian are needed to build up a really clear picture of any period in the past. In part this depends on what you're looking at - what your question or your problem is. Want to know about meat-eating in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? You'd better bone up (sorry) on the history of refrigeration and shipping costs, as well as on the environmental transformation of the non-European lands (hello, New Zealand) on which all that protein was grown. But want to understand something very different - let's say the course of Britain's Second World War campaigns - in any detail? You can't do that, in the example we've chosen there, without plunging into the complicated life story and personality of Winston Spencer Churchill.

Anyway. Let's give you an example of what we mean, for one of the great moments of 'structure' and 'agency' is nearly upon us: the impending campaign as to whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union.

Elements of structure? Well, the competing claims cultural Americanisation and Europeanisation, in flux and playing one against the other; Britain's trade with the EU, which has boomed so much since the 1960s; the lure, on the other hand, of new markets in India and China; mounting public fear about immigration, evident at least since the turn of the millennium; and so on. Chunks of agency? The Prime Minister, David Cameron (above) seems at the moment to have made a grave mistake by copying his predecessor, Harold Wilson, in opting for a re-negotiation of Britain's terms of membership. Coming back to the voters with some good and worthy - but dull - compromises, it just all looks a bit shoddy and tawdry. It's as if Mr Cameron is trying to fool his electors (he isn't, really: he's just desperate to protect his job and his legacy). Labour's accidental left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, would probably prefer Britain to leave the EU, in his not-so-secret heart of hearts, so he doesn't exactly sound strident in its defence - and nor will Labour (or the increasingly left-wing and isolationist trade unions) really, really strain every sinew to keep the UK inside the EU.

So there are great big forces in play. But there are also elements of chance, among our 'leaders' and their choices. An observation that doesn't end there. Maybe hundreds of boats will fill the Mediterranean in the early summer, frightening British voters into cutting ties with their neighbours. Perhaps the increasingly-shaky European banking system will implode, taking what remains of the Euro's credibility (and much of the EU's claim to legitimacy) with it.

How this balance of context and choice play out will decide the question. It might be very tight. There might only be a few tens of thousands of votes in it (it's impossible to say at the moment). But however it falls, that will then have knock-on effects in the future. If Britons vote to leave the EU, with some of those elements of chance deciding the day in a very, very narrow way, Mr Cameron will probably have to resign. He may then be replaced by a much, much more right-wing leader (even the deeply unconvincing Liam Fox is being touted for this role among the membership, as much of a right-wing mirror-image of Jeremy Corbyn as it's possible to get). And then Labour might have a chance, at the next General Election, of salvaging something - anything - from its likely very heavy defeat.

It's also very likely that, in the event of a 'Leave' vote, Scotland will then itself decide to leave the UK, so it can defend its European identity and security. Who could blame them, really, if they had voted by something like 70%:30% to stay in the biggest trading group in the world, and then English and Welsh voters had pulled them out anyway? Anyway, that issue's for another time.

The point here is that lots of commentators will then say 'ah, it was coming all the time. English nationalism; Scottish nationalism; the parochialism and populism of the age of rage; the sense that the governing elite at Westminster were far, far, far away from the voters; it was all there, all the time'. But maybe it wasn't. Maybe a poorly made, cramped campaign that boxed the Prime Minister in from the moment he made his 2013 Bloomberg speech was a tactical misstep that doomed us to leave. Maybe Labour's turn towards a Marxist Eurosceptic who can only make a very tepid case for Europe (and who very few voters listen to anyway) thrust us out of Europe. Maybe something will just turn up - a migrant crisis, a banking crash - that is decisive in pushing us out.

There's structure there all right. But there's also agency. And there's the blind, brute, base force of chance. Welcome to the history of the now.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Towards an age of hope

Last week we looked at the reasons why a politics of rage appears to be taking hold across a lot of the developed world. Across Left and Right, people bellow at you now as if you're engaged in some sort of civil war; scream about immigration and cultural change as if our societies are on the brink of coming apart; throw their toys out of the pram the moment you present some data (a matter for argument and interpretation as that must always be). Sure enough, we do face some enormous strategic challenges. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is puzzling over what to do about Russian revanchism in the East, while every week the risk of a miscalculation over Scotland, Sweden or the borders of Turkey and Syria seems to increase. Somewhere in the Chinese banking system there is probably lurking a very, very nasty serious of surprises indeed - perhaps risking a repeat of the world financial meltdown of 2007-2008. And all the while there is the uneasy and growing sense that, long term, the human race may be the greatest threat to its own survival, the increasing risks associated with runaway global warming becoming starker all the time. Frightened? If you're not at least a little bit worried, you are seriously lacking in imagination.

But you know what? There are also enormous grounds for hope - countervailing forces which rub up or run against the politics of rage that we looked at last week. We promised last time to list these, too. So let's look at just three of them.

Extraordinary young people. Most pictures of young people that you see in the news see them poring over books as they get more and more stressed about exams, or else flaked out on the pavement after a big and boozy night out. Now there is no doubt that western societies over-emphasise academic qualifications, with deleterious effects on young people's stress levels and mental health. Most such countries also have problems with binge drinking on Friday and Saturday nights. True. But actually this generation of under-25s is one of the finest cohorts ever to have passed through the West's schools and universities. Serious, sober, committed, informed and articulate, they are now staffing campaigns such as Bernie Sanders' shot at the Democratic nomination in the US with so much passion and energy that it's a thing to behold (and make you smile). They drink less. They smoke less. They take fewer drugs. They get better qualifications. They care more. They speak up more. Their grasp of gender issues, bullying, identify, evidence and argument take your breath away. They don't vote as much as their more senior fellow-citizens, but have you seen the choice on offer lately? For all the recent controversies about safe spaces and the denial of platforms, for all the many problems with getting rid of statues such as that of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford, at least the young people calling for that to happen care about something. Ask yourself this: when did you last speak up for a cause as strongly as those Oxford students do, or express it so passionately?

Scientific breakthroughs. It's hard to know where to start on this one, really. Maybe a list of the head-spinning progress that we're making on energy and efficiency will do the trick. Moroccan solar arrays designed to be the biggest in the world, and to power the country into the twenty-first century (above). Rapidly falling solar power costs. Massive increases in car engine efficiency and shifts in consumer preferences towards less fuel-hungry engines, moving California and then the rest of the world towards a much, much lower carbon emissions future. German renewables progress replacing nuclear power. There's a reason the price of energy is falling, and it's not just due to US fracking. It's because it might get cheaper (and cleaner) for generations to come. Or maybe we should look at medical progress? Gene mapping for mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, holding out the hope of medical progress on that front. Rapidly improving cancer care - and results, with better and earlier diagnosis combining with new drugs to push death rates right down. Life expectancy averages, also driven by all those falls in drinking, smoking and eating processed foods, that look likely to go on surging upwards - towards living into our late 80s by the time we reach the 2030s. There's no need for us to go on: you get the picture. We can push back the threat of global warming; we can greatly reduce pollution; we can conquer diseases which once had us terrified. It's happening now.

Declines in world poverty. One thing you usually won't hear - either on Left or Right - is just how successful the post-Cold War age of the World Trade Organisation and the wireless economy have been in reducing absolute want. It's not just a shallow line bearing down on need: it's a vertiginous, dizzying decline in the numbers of people living below incomes at which they can feed themselves and gain access to clean water. Now there are many reasons for this. The first is an emphasis on governance, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, that went by the by in the age of the Cold War - when Washington and Moscow sent out their satraps to fight each other with not a thought for how corrupt or just how downright nasty their clients really were. The second and perhaps more important reason is that even poor countries can now rapidly adopt cheap and light technology that allows them to jump ahead, in just the same way that we understand the eighteenth and nineteenth century's two industrial revolutions within the framework of that catch up and convergence that is likely to occur given a free trade in ideas. Now there is plenty of injustice and corruption in the world right now, but it goes challenged - by the UN, by aid agencies, on social media. Africa is emergent. China is on the rise. The great disruption, the rise of Europe and its offshoots from the seventeenth century onwards which made the world less and less equal, is now closing. Although inequality within many states has increased since the 1990s (not by very much at all in the UK, by the way, or at least not yet), the world has been getting quite a lot more equal overall. This is having explosive geopolitical consequences, of course - not least growing Chinese assertiveness - but also with the upshot that you are just much, much, much less likely to go to bed hungry than you were in the 1980s.

Nothing we've written here should be taken as complacency or triumphialism. Far from it. The risks of nuclear proliferation, the world credit system's weaknesses and climate change are very high indeed, and the consequences of getting policy judgements on them wrong might well be catastrophic. But young people's outspoken and articulate dynamism, technological progress, the changing context of human life and longevity themselves, and our shared victories over want and disease can and will change the picture. We've done so, so well that it would be churlish to talk about the politics of rage without understanding the mechanics of progress.

You can criticise Western governments and cultures all you like. Since 1945, they have together built the richest, most stable, most democratic and most egalitarian free choice societies that world history has ever known. That helps to explain the enormous anger we see in our politics in one way, of course - because those who feel excluded from these great leaps forward are battering on the doors of the powerful with grievances and differences even more acute than in the decades when everything seemed lost anyway. But it should also allow us to say this, loud and clear: the merchants of fury are wrong. On both Left and Right, they've misinterpreted convulsive change as decline. This is simply incorrect. Change is making the world a better place in more ways than is commonly understood. Anger? Innovation and resolution are better. Fifty years ago President Kennedy yoked together faith in the future, and shared confidence in human inventiveness, with a real daring about what was possible in national and international politics. That third element was dependent on the first two, and it still is.

There's hope there. If someone can grasp it again, decode it, give it voice - there's the material for a really new politics of progress. Can anyone do it? Will anyone try?