Monday, March 21, 2016

The blind fury of the Euro-sceptic Tories


Iain Duncan Smith was not one of those ministers we heard serial encomiums about when he was actually in office.  A former backbench rebel against John Major, he was thrust unprepared into the leadership of the Tory party, from which role he was ignominiously ousted by his fellow MPs a couple of years later.  He is now, of course, the best Work and Pensions Secretary we've ever had, a reformer of remarkable quality who has sacrificed his career in order to warn the Tory party of the dangers it faces under its current evil, election winning leader.

Mr. Duncan Smith's past and present are useful fables on the wider problem of the Conservative party as a whole.  He was elected as a leader in what became a two-way contest against Kenneth Clarke.  Clarke was by  far the most experienced of the two, as well as having a popularity in the world outside the Tory party.  He may have been a consummate politician,  but he also had character and an appeal as a "regular" guy who spoke sense in politics.  He was, however, a pro-European and this proved toxic in his various leadership bids, including the one against Mr. Duncan Smith.  The Tories showed that they preferred an unknown, untried serial rebel to allowing a Europhile anywhere near the leadership, and much good did it do them. Within two years IDS had become such a liability as an opposition leader that he was gracelessly ejected by his own parliamentary colleagues.

As leader IDS had proved a poor speaker and a poor tactician.  He failed to fulfill the function of an Opposition Leader when it came to the Iraq war, which he supported (and which Clarke opposed) and found it difficult to identify any strategic vision to help the Tories overcome their trenchant unpopularity.  He was succeeded by the more experienced Michael Howard, who went on to show that an initially poor public profile didn't need to be a handicap for an accomplished and intelligent political operator.  Howard stabilised the Tories and while he didn't win the 2005 election in the UK, he shored up his party's position and won the most votes in the populous but electorally under-represented England.

It was Howard who mentored David Cameron, his successor as leader who went on to bring the Tories back into government in coalition in 2010 and on their own in 2015.  Cameron is thus the most electorally successful Tory leader since Thatcher, and has proved a less divisive figure nationally.  He is also a pragmatist and has most recently, of course, come out as a pro-European, leading the Remain camp in a referendum that had only one political aim, which was to try and appease the Euro-sceptics in his ranks.

To hear the wild stories now circulating, and provoked by the resignation of Mr. Duncan Smith, is to see again the full lunacy of the Tory Euro-sceptic right.  There is talk of backbench rebellions whatever the outcome of the referendum, a desire to see the back of Mr. Cameron, serious allegations against his dictatorial leadership style and even condemnations of just how closely he and his Chancellor work together.  Nearly all of these criticisms lack merit.  Cameron's "dictatorial" leadership style is nowhere near as domineering as the late, sainted Margaret Thatcher, while his closeness to George Osborne has delivered remarkably harmonious government.  This has been in stark contrast to the thirteen year trauma of the Blair-Brown years.

None of this matters to the Euro-sceptics though. As their hysterical interventions in the current referendum campaign indicate, there is no fury equivalent to that of the Tory Euro hater against anyone who suggests there might be another side to the European debate.  Mr. Duncan Smith himself was the author of one of these polemics recently, railing against the fact that the Remainers were, er, putting their case.

The Tory sceptics will never accept a referendum vote to stay in the EU and they will continue to push the self-destruct button in their own party long after the referendum is past.  Much of their campaign at the moment is dedicated to the idea that Remainers are somehow cheating in the debate.  This includes the notion that the Prime Minister himself shouldn't really be campaigning at all and that Downing Street should stay above the fray.  The Outers are worried that they will lose and are setting up the next stage of the campaign.  For there will be a next stage.  As in Scotland, the referendum won't end the debate and it won't silence the sceptics.  If they lose they will seek the first opportunity to oust the most successful Tory leader in decades and neuter as many of his supporters as they can.  Like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the Labour party, they will have the majority of the Tory grassroots with them and it will be this populist endorsement that powers their attempt to re-take control of the leadership of the Tory party.

Mr. Duncan Smith is an unlikely political martyr, but the sound and fury accompanying his self-imposed departure from government has far less to do with the issue at hand than he might protest.  He may indeed be passionately committed to the social welfare reform he feels has been undermined by Mr. Osborne and the rest of the government.  But his resignation storm is not about that.  It is about the undying hatred of the Euro-sceptics towards a successful leader who refuses to share their views on Europe, and might even take those views to a substantial public endorsement in June.  But that won't matter.  The right have already shown they prefer purity in opposition to electoral success that depends on compromise.  It was what propelled them to choose Mr. Duncan Smith as their leader back in 2001, and it's why they are so vociferously using his resignation now as a wedge against their current leader.  Mr. Duncan Smith proved a useful fool when they adopted him in the leadership contest before and is alas proving so again now.  Such is the madness of the modern Tory party.




Saturday, March 12, 2016

A land where they punch people at political rallies

Look I don't want to go too far with this analogy.  It's flawed and there really are many variables, but you know, as someone who teaches the morphing of Weimar Germany into the Third Reich, the whole violence at political rallies thing obviously raises a few disconsonant tremors.

The Trump rally in Chicago had to be cancelled because protestors violently disrupted it.  Not Trump's fault you might say.  And you'd be wrong.  A couple of days earlier, at another Trump rally in North Carolina, one of his supporters socked a protestor firmly in the face.  And wasn't it Trump who calmly noted that "I'd like to punch them in the face, I really would" when referring to protestors who dared disrupt his meetings?

It's no great surprise that if you deal in the politics of populist hate and demonise whole sections of the population, then you might get throw-back in your political meetings.  Hate isn't easily contained. And what starts in a campaign can easily go on to infect a whole nation.  Political leaders have a responsibility for the way in which a nation's discourse is conducted, and it's one which Trump is failing mightily.


EU Remainers need to take Tony Blair's advice


He’s the subject of a new, savagely attacking book by TomBower, but sometimes it is worth remembering Tony Blair’s strong points.  The most obvious of these is that he was one of the twentieth century’s most successful electoral politicians, the Labour Party’s most successful ever leader, and an undoubted driver of social liberalisation.

It is his election winning expertise that is most pertinent when we consider his recent intervention about the EU referendum debate.  In an interview with Nick Robinson on Friday’s “Today” programme, Blair urged the pro-EU (or “Remain”) campaign to adopt a far more positive and enthusiastic stand.  Implicitly criticising the emphasis on negative results if we leave (what the “Out-ers” have dubbed “Project Fear”), Blair said that he wanted to see “passion” on the side of those campaigning to stay.  Indeed, in his interview he showed once again how well he can articulate his cases, outlining a cogent and clearly heart-felt belief in the positive benefits of the European cause.

Blair is right.  While the Remain side appear to have had the best of the arguments up to now, they are going to have to make out a case that inspires people as well as one that injects fear of the unknown.  For all its flaws there is much that inspires about the EU project and the Remainers shouldn’t ignore its capacity to hold the voters’ imagination.  One of the great errors of political leaders supporting the EU over the years has been both a failure to properly articulate that belief and a reluctance to challenge some of the developments of the EU lest they be seen as undermining the whole project.

The referendum should be welcome to pro-EU supporters as a chance to gain proper public approval for the whole extraordinary project and to stop skulking around in the shadows of bureaucratic torpor.  That the Out campaigners, with their recourse to almost the whole of the British print media, should be able to pain themselves as plucky insurrectionists is partly a damning indictment of the failure of leading pro-EU politicians to do more than assume the rightness of their cause. 

Well, the EU campaign is, for the moment, the “Remainers” to lose.   They have a credible case, more credible leaders and a single campaign compared to the scrabbling between three different “Out” campaign for the electoral commission’s money.  Boris Johnson may be emerging as the face of the anti-EU protagonists, but his shtick is becoming old and less potent with voters outside of the Tory party.  Set alongside him is a group of largely grumpy and unappealing politicos who look and sound as if they are seeking refugee status in the 1950s.


As for Tony Blair, he has not only given the In team a prodding to more urgent and positive action, but has shown an often unrecognised level of self-awareness in his own precluding of himself from the campaign proper.  Cameron and co may be happy with that, but they at least need to imbibe some of his electoral elixir if they are to assure themselves of victory on June 23rd.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Re-Defining the western consensus


Donald Trump's startling success in the current Republican primaries is starting to hit home and spark a tranche of "we could have a president Trump" articles.  None of them make for happy reading and they're not intended to.  Trump is the horror story that most liberal observers of politics - whether that be liberal-right or liberal-left - hoped they wouldn't have to witness.  Could it be that the "pax occidentalis" that has held since the end of the Second World War is about to come apart?

Trump is an easy to recognise trope of the populist nationalist variety.  He shares none of the internationalism of any of his post-war predecessors.  His candidature hearkens back to the days of Warren Harding, but with an added nastiness.  His victory would bring to the White House a man who is perfectly capable of bringing the old international, American protected consensus crashing down.  Anne Applebaum considers this disaster in her Washington Post column, and adds a potential Marine Le Pen presidency of France with a British exit from the EU to the mix, just for good measure.  It's a pretty depressing vision.

Comparisons with Hitler are over-used and inaccurate, but what is apposite is the comparison between the frustrated, politically dislocated electorate of Weimar Germany in 1933 and the current frustrated, politically dislocated electorate of America in 2016.  The Spectator's Freddy Gray has provided a fascinating and cogent analysis of both what it is that Trump is tapping into in America, and how it is likely to play out in America's world role (worth buying this week's edition for, an online preview is here).  Gray writes that  "an ever larger number of Americans feel angry at the system.  The Donald embodies their rage and multiplies it as in a hall of mirrors".  Yes.  Exactly.  That's what populist demagogues do, and when a nation feels uneasy about itself and its manifest destiny, an electorate can turn quite nasty.  Nasty electorates produce nasty leaders.

Gray is particularly good, later in his piece, at acknowledging the huge impact America has had on the nature of the post-war world, and the democratic security that western nations have rather taken for granted, even as much of the rest of the planet disintegrates into strife and savagery.  A president uncommitted to such a role is more concerning than we might think.  As Applebaum notes, Trump has little time for modest democratic politicians and their compromising, negotiated positions, but he does express admiration for Vladimir Putin.  Putin is arguably the most sinister and dangerous man to govern Russia since the late Josef Stalin.  He seems to combine similar levels of paranoia about the non-Russian world with an opaqueness that makes him impossible to read.  (He is, incidentally, superbly portrayed in Netflix series "House of Cards", as fictional Russian president Petrov.)

Of course, much of this is speculative.  Trump is not only not president, the odds are still against that possibility.  Marine Le Pen is not yet president of France and could suffer the same fate as her once popular father.  But electorates are not bound to elect moderate, reasonable men and women, and we may just have reached a time in the affairs of liberal nations when de Tocqueville's fear of democracy may prove wholly justified.