Monday, 13 February 2017

The internet in the age of illiberalism


It will not have escaped your notice that the age of liberal globalisation, which began some time in the mid- to late-1970s, is now under attack from every angle. What seems to be happening is akin to Europe's shift away from popular and liberal nation-building, and towards nativist populism and protectionism, duringthe 1860s and 1870s. The phenomenon was a little delayed in the United States - but even the US got there in the end. Those developments were generally thought to be in retreat by the outbreak of the First World War, but at the time they created a whole new wave of customs barriers, bureaucracy, statism, spying, officiousness and national 'competition' at every level, from the scramble for colonies in Africa to the scrabble for state-led 'competitiveness' in terms of health and education: national health insurance, of course, proved alluring to governments worried about the vigour of their so-called racial 'stock' just as much as it appealed to socialists worrying about equality.

Economic globalisation has stalled or slowed, rather than gone backwards - so far. But what is really noticeable is the return of the state, not in the optimistic, expansive, join-the-dots, one-stop-shop guise of the 1990s, but in the paternalistic, meddling, micro-managing format imagined as a key part of Theresa May's premiership. Third Way approaches in the Blair-Jospin-Schroeder era were optimistic, and they possessed to some extent an eschatology - that sense of an ending that posited that governments were going somewhere and had an end point in mind. As befits Mrs May's Conservative (and Tory) roots, and to a lesser extent Angela Merkel's Christian Democracy, what we are looking at today is a less rosy (though still historically very recognisable) creed, a day-by-day, get-through-the-challenges pragmatism of intervention that would push meddling forward without end: a new sheltering of the mind, perhaps, but also, and more seriously, a creeping protectionism of the soul.

That's where western states' increasing authoritarianism and moral monitoring - emphasising especially electronic and online policing - come in. The internet, in its 1990s guise a ceaseless, restless and above all inevitable progenitor of worldwide progress, has become something to fear or circumscribe, perhaps to all our detriment and danger.

The UK Government's recent Investigatory Powers Act - and its Digital Economy Bill, currently coming to the end of its Parliamentary passage - are good cases in point. There's no doubt that law enforcement agencies have a tricky job balancing citizens' right to privacy with the state's duty of care. Nor that new social media technologies are emerging all the time, and that Britain's legislative superstructure had failed to keep up.

But consider the drawbacks of such legislation, of which there are many - disturbing in practice, as well as in principle. Bulk interception of your private data is now permissible whether or not you are suspected of anything at all. Bulk collection of your browsing data is mandated for twelve months - not in itself perhaps a catastrophic element of these laws, but a standing danger to personal security if hackers (especially foreign governments) take a keen interest in any individual or group. It won't just be the security services and the police having a good old root around your emails, by the way: the Department of Health, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and the Home Office can request access as well. Trust them to keep it all under lock and key? No, neither do we. The Government, and Internet Service Providers, are by the way deeply uncertain about how to do all this safely: given these concerns at the highest levels in Whitehall and industry, some alarm is probably warranted. It's hard to see, in the new intelligence landscape, how any of this is particularly wise from a national security point of view either. If you're reading this in the UK, other powers within the UK's long-established security network might well now have access to your data - including the USA. That is not, shall we say, an entirely encouraging thought in the present political environment.

The whole basis of bulk data interception and retention is also deeply contested: not only is the Investigatory Powers Act as finally enacted a bit of a mess, but the UK government's similar recent practice in this sphere has recently been ruled illegal anyway by the European Court of Justice. Now, yes, Britain is heading out of the European Union, but a new Great Repeal Bill is going to incorporate all that European statute in British law, so governments will find no escapes or short cuts that way for some years to come. Invasive, unwise, potentially unsafe, a potential threat to individual and national security: this is the character of a top-heavy state in the new age of conservative intervention.

The Digital Economy Bill that's currently before the House of Lords has the same inherent flaws, and the bureaucratic nightmare you might create if you pushed it to its logical conclusions is if anything even worse. There seems to be no limit to the state's ambition in this particularly baggy and poorly-drafted legislation: data can be thrown around Whitehall for the purposes of looking at citizens' 'contribution to society', or their 'health and wellbeing', whatever that all means. There's an apparently absurd and unworkable ambition in there to classify and censor every single video on the internet: yes, every single one. All very laudable on the surface of course, but as instructive as everything else that's going on at the moment about the nature of the stern and judgemental state we're in: proposals for 'migrant lists' assembled by employers, region-by-region immigration rules that would see migrants having to show their papers in different parts of the kingdom, global threats to web neutrality and non-proprietary systems that would see the whole online world slow down to a crawl.

As the liberal-global era appears to recede, and the contest between populist and conservative globalisation begins to remove its potential as a potential category of choice at all (while social democracy struggles even to gain a hearing), this sort of format might be one we just have to get used to. So the questions before public policy might no longer all be about economic intervention and resource redistribution, less about equality of outcome or opportunity, and more about the efficacy or otherwise of security versus liberty; state morality versus secularism; borders, policing, regulation and control against that fissiparous, ragged yet energetic spirit with which we've all lived since the late 1960s. It is a doleful prospect, displayed via different histories in - for instance - Hungarian and Polish politics revolving around just those axes. But that's where we've been before, and it might well be where we're heading now.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Short-term noise: long-term challenges


Sometimes it’s hard to keep your eye on the ball. As the news flak flies about, and event piles up on event, the idea that you can stand back, take a breath and have a think becomes more and more alien. Scrolling down your smartphone alerts, the longer-term trends are hard to keep a handle on. But everyone needs to do that. Beyond the Article 50 shenanigans in Parliament is the ultimate shape of a trade deal between the UK and her future partners and rivals; behind the French and German elections is the question of how Europe defends itself – economically as well as militarily – if the Americans will not; beneath the populist turn in electoral politics lurks a series of very nasty questions about our culture, our shared public space, our very definitions of state and nation. 

That’s why it’s handy to have a historian or two on tap. Not too many, mind: we hold no brief to advocate the mass production of history experts. But you just can’t grasp what’s really going on without a long-term perspective. That might come from disciplines far removed from academic History – from Sociology, Statistics, even theoretical Physics – but it has to come from somewhere if public policy is even to begin answering the really big questions in front of us. Here’s a few, in no particular order, to which we might start raising our eyes.

Why is our labour productivity so abysmal? The UK’s productivity per worker has not moved upwards much since the crisis of 2007-2008 (above, courtesy of the Office for National Statistics page on this topic). That’s not a phenomenon limited to Britain, and indeed even Germany has suffered a sharp slowdown on this indicator, but it is particularly acute in terms of the British workforce. Diagnosing the problem is critical to any roster of solutions. Why has it happened? We’d be tempted to pinpoint long-term sociological trends – the role of chance in spreading inheritance around the system, rather than investing in the skill and endeavor you require if you don’t have any money passed down to you. But so sudden is the change, and so obvious the axe-blow to productivity’s upward drive, that the reasons look more proximate, more precise. Is it the blow to confidence, or the ultra-low interest rates that superseded very low rates as a reaction to the developed world’s economic heart attack? Is investment too low? Is the UK hunkered down in its retail sector bubble, hiding from the chill-but-clear winds of competition? Is the labour market so full of eager young people working long hours waiting tables – performing roles that are notoriously hard to capture in terms of any rising efficiency - that the UK just can't innovate all that much, or even picture the rising tide if it is there? Are wages just too low, too squeezed, even as the quality of the UK workforce rises? It’s hard to tell, and while all this remains difficult to pin down, we’re not going to be able to do much about it.

How can we overcome the new culture of risk? It won’t have escaped your notice that older voters have apparently decided to burn down the entire world. Oh, Brexit’s risky is it? Who cares, let’s have a go anyway. Allowing people to raid their pensions pots might force them to fall back on the welfare system? Whatever: let’s see the cash. What’s that you say? Young people need houses? I’d rather see a field out of my kitchen window, thank you very much. Now, we know that’s a very crude caricature and we’re sorry about that (we’re not, really): but if this goes on, the myth of a generational war of old against young will gain an ever-greater hold on our public life, and make governing much harder. What if average London house prices overtop one million pounds? What if Britain crashes out of the EU without a good deal, there’s a recession, and youth unemployment soars? What if the National Health Service buckles under the pressure of an ageing population that needs more and more help, while their younger relatives are too far away – working two or three jobs at once – to assist? Then there’ll be a war of the generations, all right. So the question here becomes: how can older Britons – indeed, not-so-young citizens across the developed world – be encouraged to think more squarely about their grandchildren's interests? Can they be coaxed, or will they need to be forced, to buy extra insurance for their residential care? Will the Government honour its pledge to cap care charges, so that ageing Britons can take up any extra strain by buying tailored packages to pay for unexpected costs? Will taxes on land and property – overwhelmingly owned by older people – have to go up to take the strain? How can their enormous store of goodwill and knowledge be tapped, helping to relieve the resentment caused by being treated as one of society’s appendages? Again, these are questions, and not answers, but they are at least probably the right questions.

Can we recapture our daring? Many of our problems are indicators of decline – warning signals from a tiring, conflicted, petty and distracted society that is rapidly becoming relatively poorer in the face of developing societies’ deep and sustained challenge. The very values on which democracy depends – a shared frame of reference, accepting at least the good will of your opponents’ arguments, the idea of rational betterment and step-by-step reform – are wobbling, just a little. So the question here becomes: how can we coax our respective political tribes to emerge from their deeply-dug trenches, to engage with each other on the basis that they at least mean well, and that they at least share the same rules? One way to do this might be infrastructure spending, long hoped-for as a point of contact between Congressional Democrats and the new Trump administration in the US – at least before their relations were placed in the deep freeze given the uproar over the President’s use of Executive Orders. Here in Europe, the toxic admixture of single currency politics, essentially preventing peripheral economies devaluing their currencies at the same time as fiscal and structural remedies for their ills are ruled, is a roadblock on progress. But there’s no reason why the EU regional funds can’t be vastly increased, in an era of probably-rising but still very low interest rates; there’s no reason why the UK cannot increasingly tap China’s vast need for investment, and build anew - as the country did in the Victorian era. What we need is the political will to punch through: to ignore the Nimbies and the vested interests, just as this week’s UK Government White Paper on Housing so obviously failed to do. It’s more than possible. Whether it will actually happen is more doubtful.

That’s just three of the key dilemmas before us. We could go on and on. If the US will not upheld the Paris Treaty on climate change, will China take up the challenge? How quickly does China want to step up, lead the world and keep the peace – especially in the South China Sea? Will automation steal more jobs and make the culture wars even more acute? The world of leaders and plots and caucuses really pales into insignificance when compared to these big historical questions. Keep these issues in mind, when the detail of events comes up at you. They’re not background noise. They’re the symphony.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Prime Ministers fly too close to the sun


Prime Ministers usually ride high at least once. So it was on Friday night, when Theresa May (above) looked in general to have pulled off a tricky mission on her trip to Washington, DC. The new US President, Donald Trump, is deeply, deeply disliked in Europe: Mrs May had to get close enough to him to keep dreams of a decent trade deal alive (and the Western security alliance on the road), while not alienating her own voters. When she walked out of the White House - and misguided, unfortunate handholding aside - she looked like she'd managed it. Taken together with a forceful speech on the likely speech of Britain's exit from the European Union, and a well-received address to US Republicans that even contained some shade and nuance, most observers were thinking: is it skill, or just luck, that keeps her bandwagon on the road? Whatever it was or is, everyone could do with some.

But that was Friday. By Saturday night, the visit looked like a burning car, overturned in the rear-view mirror as everyone tried to get out the neighbourhood. News of President Trump's ill-conceived and deeply counter-productive asylum and immigration Executive Orders had broken, to widespread protests across both the US and UK. That was bad enough. But Mrs May's refusal to come out against them during her visit to Turkey made the impression that she was hand-in-glove with a dangerous right-wing demagogue stick to her like oil from the aforementioned car wreck. Basically, diplomatic victory had turned to political defeat in not much over 24 hours.

Now Mrs May will get away with this one, if she learns her lesson: not to get quite so close, physically, politically, imaginatively - to The Donald. She's going to have to get pretty close, now that Britain's going for a complete and clean break with the EU, but cosying up itself has got to be off the agenda. Otherwise, she's going to get burned by every single stupid stunt, nasty mendacity and straight-out, burn-the-world nihilism he comes out with during the next three years and ten months. 

Mrs May doesn't need to worry too much at the moment. The main Opposition Labour Party isn't up to a pillow fight right now. If there was any real action, they'd disappear in a cloud of their own making. They don't even look like they want any power, let alone think that they should have power. But one day there'll be an opposition worth the name, and she will have to concern herself with what the voters think. In the meantime, there's that more amorphous beast to deal with: Conservative MPs, the views of party members and the deep, slow-to-change feelings of Middle England that lie behind them. If she allows the impression to gain a hold that she is leaden-footed, slow to react, not decisive in a crisis, it's feeling there will slip remorselessly away from her. Then she'll really be in trouble.

None of this comes as much of a surprise to historians. Prime Ministers have always walked a tightrope between success and failure. The gap between them is often much thinner - and the time taken to descend from one to the other much shorter - than you would think. Anthony Eden, elected in a landslide victory of his own in 1955? Humiliated by the catastrophic Suez Crisis in 1956, and bundled out of office, shunted onto a good long 'holiday', early in 1957. Harold Macmillan, again triumphant at the polls in 1959? By 1963, he was so distressed and wrung out personally, and his stock has plummeted so quickly amidst recession and a failure to get into the European Economic Community, that he announced his resignation to a stunned Cabinet that would happily have soldiered on with him as its leader.

You could play this game with all of them. Harold Wilson, swooping down decisively on the crisis when the Torrey Canyon oil tanker smashed into the Isles of Scilly off Cornwall in the spring of 1967, never recovered from his devaluation of sterling the following November. After three years defending sterling's parity, when he tried to make a virtue of its new dollar value, it just did not ring true: nothing was ever quite the same again. Edward Heath, triumphant in finally getting Britain into the EEC, brought low by the oil crisis in February 1974; Jim Callaghan, who skilfully brought country and party through the IMF loan and pegged inflation back, dragged down by the Winter of Discontent; it gets to them all in the end. Margaret Thatcher thought she could buck that tide, of course, but her own intransigence over Europe and the Poll Tax did for her; even after John Major won the unlikeliest of come-from-behind victories in the General Election of 1992, he faced his own devaluation catastrophe just five months later. Tony Blair's Iraq, and Gordon Brown's election-that-never-was, well, you know about them.

David Cameron? Well, when he stood on that table cheering on the Liberal Democrats' drubbing in May 2015, he thought he had finally secured a Parliamentary majority. Little did he know that he had replaced one set of herbivorous and harmless housemates with much, much more dangerous enemies: extreme Eurosceptic nationalists who were determined to bring him down at any cost, a mission in which they proved successful. 

Mrs May should take heed: one day, one of these sentences will apply to her. Something out there - maybe Trumpism, maybe Brexit if it turns out to be an economic disaster, more likely something completely different - will bring her down. The seeds of that fall from the sun will probably be planted at a moment when she feels most successful - closest to the heat and warmth of power itself, in fact. A bit like she probably did last Friday.

Are there lessons from all this? Well, beyond the injunction to get done what you want to do, as fast as you possibly can, while you have power, there might not be that many elements that can be anything like codified. One important point is that you will probably make your most important mistake at the moment of your greatest success, partly because of overconfidence, partly because of events pressing around you, possibly because no-one will say 'no' to you. Watch for that. But probably the deepest lesson is this: your days in No. 10 are numbered. They are probably short. Behave as you would want to see yourself when you look back. Because you're going to be looking back at these decisions for an awfully long time. 

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Labour will probably hang on in Copeland and Stoke


Now 2017's up and running properly, two pending byelections now due in February will give us some indication of how British electoral politics is looking. Labour is defending two seats - semi-rural Copeland in Cumbria (above), mainly famous for the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, and the rather more urban Stoke Central in the potteries. So what's likely to happen?

Start here: nationally, Labour is in a mess. You knew this already, of course, but the party's cruel dilemma over how to approach the UK's exit from the European Union - no fault of Labour's leaders, in and of itself - has made things even worse than they might have been. Yesterday former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg rightly warned that Labour's vote could be drawn away in two directions, from the Right by the United Kingdom Independence Party, able to call for a rapid and ragged Brexit, and from the Left by the Liberal Democrats themselves, ready and willing to pose as the party of Remain. In two seats that voted heavily to Leave the EU, Labour's liberal (but confused) stance on immigration and its at-least nominal commitment to Remain will hurt them. Jeremy Corbyn's deep unpopularity will hurt them. Their gradual cultural estrangement from their own voters will hurt them. Their own divisions will hurt them. There is even panicked talk - almost certainly overdone, if it is not deliberate expectation-managing spin - that Labour might come fourth in Copeland. You get the picture.

So should we expect Labour to lose these seats? Not so fast. It's actually incredibly difficult for sitting governments to win seats from the official Opposition. Not unreasonably, voters like to give any administration a bit of a risk-free kick, just to keep them up-to-date on who's boss. Most seats' holders will usually have a reservoir of well-liked and hard-working party activists to draw on for candidates, while parties without such a rich history in any seat will have a much sparser bench of talent. The government down in London might face any sort of popularity-eating problem in the few days leading up to any poll - think of the recent National Health Service beds crisis - and that would hit their poll on the day.

Note in this respect that the Conservatives - Labour's main challengers in Copeland - are not riding all that high in the polls compared to their General Election victory just a couple of years ago. On average, they stand at about 40 per cent - so they're only two per cent or so up on 2015. Labour have fallen a little bit more than the Conservatives have risen: on a six-poll rolling average they're attracting about 27 per cent of the vote, down about four per cent since the last national vote. The swing implied? Just over three per cent. The swing needed for the Conservatives to gain Copeland is 3.23 per cent. Even if we just took the opinion polls at face value - and they are absolutely excellent for a government in its second term - they wouldn't quite make it. Nor is there much sign in local by-elections that the Conservatives are storming ahead in real voters. Over the whole of last year, there was a small move from Labour to the Conservatives, of less than one per cent - nowhere near enough to give the Conservatives a gain here. And with a massive nine per cent or so swing needed for the Conservatives to grab Stoke Central - a seat in which they would have to come from third to first - that doesn't seem all that likely either.

And UKIP? UKIP's record in traditional British elections is awful. They can win seats on regional lists in European elections, taking advantage of an election and a system that enormously favours them, but they have never won a Westminster seat where they weren't taking advantage of a sitting MP defecting to them - not even Eastleigh in 2013, at a time when the Liberal Democrats should have been sitting ducks. UKIP has been experiencing a collapse of its vote in recent council byelections (perhaps because it relies on voters who are less likely to actually turn out than other parties). And it's gone absolutely nowhere in previous Westminster byelections, either since the last General Election or the referendum. New UKIP leader Paul Nuttall is standing in Stoke, and he may think that he's the answer to Labour (or ex-Labour) voters' prayers, but his ratings are very poor - even among those voters who have an opinion about him, since 'don't know' is easily the winner when pollsters ask people about him. At least he's turning up and putting his trousers where his mouth is, so to speak - unlike previous UKIP leader Nigel Farage, notoriously wary before he'd commit himself to likely defeat in byelections. But he's not likely to be as effective as many media boosters think he will be.

The history of these contests tells us a lot about how unlikely Labour losses are. The last time a governing party gained a seat was 1982 - at a time when Labour was even more split than it is now. And there have only been two such occasions in the last sixty years. Yes, Labour did lose a couple of contests (Bermondsey in 1983 and Greenwich in 1987) to the famous Liberal/ SDP byelection machine in the 1980s, but since the Liberal Democrats are very unlikely to win either of these seats, a Richmond Park-style shock seems even less likely than Conservative or UKIP victories. If we look at the data on all such contests since 1983, as polling expert Matt Singh does in this post about Copeland, you'd expect Labour's majority to increase, not decrease, even adjusting for present polling. Only using data from the recent Sleaford by-election - for a seat won in 2015 by the Conservatives and not Labour - can you make Copeland look competitive. If history holds - and we accept that we live in uncertain electoral times - these seats should stay Labour.

Nor does local intelligence from either Copeland or Stoke really speak to the kind of earthquake that Labour losses would require. The party is unpopular, sure: many of its traditional voters didn't like the Remain campaign much; in Copeland, it faces the additional headwind of Mr Corbyn's past opposition to nuclear power. But there are pluses for Labour too, not least local anger about the state of the local hospital in Copeland. Have we really heard the explosive detonation we'd expect if there were to be a total collapse of Labour support - have we felt the rushing drumbeat that will mark the moment the dam bursts? We don't think so.

Now perhaps all this doesn't matter all that much. With Donald Trump in the White House, likely to instigate a naval faceoff with China just as quickly as he can - and then to eyeball the Russians over Iran's nuclear programme - what happens in a couple of vacant British Parliamentary seats isn't really anyone's idea of the first order of business.

Nor are these byelections likely to change Labour's political trajectory. One gets the impression that Mr Corbyn could trail by twenty five points in the polls and lose hundreds of council seats in May - and he'd still be re-elected against any challenger. The results are also unlikely to matter much even in narrow electoral terms. If Labour hangs on to these seats, as we think they will, they probably still face a very severe drubbing in the next General Election. If they lose one (and especially both of them), as they still might, they probably face a defeat that cannot even be described as a catastrophe. Such a result would be a sign of impending cataclysm: the opening of a political black hole from which there may be no escape. But in a way: so what? European social democracy as a whole is in rapid retreat, and the speed of its recessional is not particularly important.

But the point remains that we will learn something from two Labour holds: that Labour's voters are not quite giving up the ghost just yet, and that although they dislike the party's leader and are happy to moan about him on the doorstep, the Conservatives and UKIP are seen as an unappealing alternative. And that tells us something else: that however bad things seem right now, Labour will probably still recover - one day.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Where do the UK parties stand now?


So, it’s the New Year, and there’s a long, long list of things to get through. There’ll be the French and German elections, the onset of the Trump administration in the US, and policy questions galore. Will the UK be able to disentangle itself from the European Union without a great deal of economic pain and wasted bureaucratic energy? Will Russia be happy to trade a more muscular American foreign policy for a more semi-detached stance from Uncle Sam in Europe? Will rising interest rates slow growth? How long can China continue to fuel the world economy? All these questions will be to the fore in 2017. For now, let’s kick off the year with a review of where British politics stands right now, shall we? We can take each party in turn if you’d like.

The Conservatives. The Conservative government led by Theresa May (above) is in a strange position. On the face of it, ahead of them lies a grim, grey task: managing Britain’s exit from the EU. It’s uncontroversial to say that this is the greatest task the British state has had to tackle since 1945. It won’t be complete for many, many years, despite the likeliest exit date in formal terms still being the spring of 2019. European law could take decades to wash out of the British statute book; the country’s trade will only slowly adjust itself to the new realities; the UK will probably want to avail itself of many EU institutions, such as policing and student exchange, on an indefinite basis. At the same time, some Conservatives are beginning to fret that Mrs May’s undoubted popularity masks a fundamental lack of grip and decisiveness. This might arise just from the inevitable hesitation involved in the heavyweight decisions that face the Prime Minister. But if might also be that her popularity is built on sand. She is not much of a public speaker, isn’t very quick on her feet, and is said to be a control freak of an administrator. Mrs May seems to shift about in a very cramped manner, inching two inches to the left, and then one to the right, before starting all over again. She hasn't moved very far from the spot since becoming Prime Minister. It's not particularly inspiring, to say the least, and there doesn't seem to be much of a guiding philosophy behind it all. All that bodes very ill for a national leader who will have to manage years of hard negotiations in Brussels, all the while trying to bind the wounds of a country that has become very divided over the European question. Conservatives seem united for now, but can they really hold together harmoniously as Britain leaves not only the Single Market, but – it appears – the EU’s Customs Union as well? We seriously doubt it. Their real salvation is their lack of opposition, which neatly brings us to the state of the other parties.

Labour. You come to this site for a historian’s insight into public policy questions, don’t you? Well, here’s one: the Labour Party is in by far its most serious crisis since 1931. It will probably survive as an institution, but its future as a party that seeks to govern on its own at Westminster is now clearly in doubt. Labour is being buffeted by so many crises, all at one and the same time, that it’s hard to count them up. It faces a very long-term decline of its relevance to a populace that increasingly experiences work as a series of overlapping, fragmented, kaleidoscopic, even chaotic tasks. Its blue-collar ethos, its union backers, the settled communities that might once turn out to vote for the party en masse: these are becoming a thing of the past. On top of those long-term trends, large-scale immigration and a reputation for financial profligacy have both helped to loosen solidaristic bonds of loyalty and fellow-feeling among an electorate now less disposed to vote for measures that might help incomers. Added to that, Labour have in Jeremy Corbyn a leader who is clearly just not cut out for the role, and who the public have mainly taken against. The week just gone, which was supposed to involve a New Year 'relaunch' of Mr Corbyn's 'brand', ran like an episode of 1970s Doctor Who: its terrible acting, frenetic plotline and mock gravitas came with an atmosphere of affected and unconvincing semi-comic seriousness that made you want to hide behind the sofa. Then, to add to that, Labour is now afflicted by ‘Brexit and Trump’, those poorly-realised twins of impossible choices and foreign policy dilemmas. Labour is being transformed into an anti-austerity party obsessed with the domestic sphere at a moment when almost all attention will be focused on foreign policy: on whether to reinforce NATO and rearm if the Trump administration looks likely to abandon Eastern Europe, and on the means by which the UK leaves the EU. That latter issue looks likely to tear Labour’s two remaining electorates apart, since working-class northern English towns and the Welsh valleys share almost nothing on this one with liberal big-city urbanites. Labour is being hit by a serious of storms that add up to a tsunami. It seems unlikely to hold power on its own again for many, many years.

The United Kingdom Independence Party. UKIP’s new leader, Paul Nuttall, faces what seems like an insuperable challenge. If the Conservatives have problems, and Labour is in a really dreadful state, then UKIP isn’t far behind. Having lost its very raison d’etre when Britain voted to leave the EU, it has been undermined from within by the kind of vicious infighting that will happen when a party loses both its compass and arguments in one fell swoop. Mr Nuttall has made a big noise about ‘replacing Labour’ in its northern strongholds, which is undoubtedly the right call given just how weak Labour is becoming: but it would have been much easier to assault some of those huge Labour majorities if UKIP had lost the referendum. They needed a sense of grievance, a cause, a justification for their politics of anger: instead, Mrs May’s insistence on a so-called ‘Hard Brexit’ is likely to steal lots of their voters, much to Labour’s disadvantage in marginals where they face a Conservative challenge. Their record in council by-elections over the last year has been terrible, and they’ve got nowhere fast in Parliamentary by-elections such as those held at Sleaford. Their poll ratings, although hovering at about where they ended up in the 2015 General Election, are nothing to write home about. They’re going to lose all their Members of the European Parliament when Britain pulls out of it in 2019, and unless they start winning actual elections soon – at Copeland, Stoke Central or Leigh, all Labour seats that should be in their sights – no-one is going to take them that seriously as a threat under First Past the Post. Mrs May seems to have shot their fox.

The Liberal Democrats. Now the yellow team look quite a lot healthier than UKIP, despite still wallowing rather lower than them in the polls after their disastrous showing at the last General Election. This is mainly because, unlike UKIP, they have a grievance to exploit, and can pose as the champions of the 48 per cent of the electorate who voted to stay in the EU. In this age of political rage, where shouting at all and sundry on Twitter can stand in for actually engaging everyone’s brains, that matters a lot. They did well in the Richmond Park by-election, of course, and they’ve been running the board on almost everyone else in local council by-elections. We tend to think that the latter phenomenon is in part due to fired-up activists turning out angry Remain voters, often in areas where the Liberal Democrats were previously strong. Their national opinion polls have gone up a bit, but not very much – perhaps a couple of points since the autumn, an increase well in line with previous boosts the party has received after its many by-election triumphs since the Second World War. Even so, that all-Britain rating probably won’t matter very much when we come to a General Election. The Lib Dems will have to focus all their fire on perhaps twenty seats that they think they can realistically win. With the higher profile that being ‘the party of Remain’ lends, with some fire in their bellies, a bit of luck and some Brexit blunders from the government, they can make headway. Their leader, Tim Farron - not, shall we say, a man hitherto overtroubled by the hallmarks of leadership - will be hailed as a liberal hero if he doubles his party’s seat tally, an entirely possible scenario that looked barely even conceivable just a year ago.

That’s the survey done. In a 2017 that’s likely to be pretty bleak, Britain’s political parties don’t have a vast amount to look forward to. Labour is fading away like a wall of bold colours facing a sunny window. UKIP faces an existential crisis scarcely concealed by the party’s bluster. The Conservatives will probably govern for the next decade, but it might be a loveless and grinding affair. The Liberal Democrats feel like the sky’s the limit only because they’ve spent the years since 2010 locked in an electoral dungeon. Hey, you come here for the historical insights, not the cheer.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Goodbye - for now


Well, we tried. We tried to warn you that Brexit was far, far more likely than people said. We tried to wave the flag about the unknown-but-mounting likelihood of a new age of rage and danger. It wasn't enough. In a year when analytical approaches, data-driven techniques, the art of using evidence and even reason itself were in retreat throughout, we tried to hold tight to just those methods. It didn't always work. But we hope you were informed, enlightened, and perhaps even sometimes moved by what you read here. We'll be back on Monday 16 January, to track the French and German elections, ongoing Brexit negotiations, Labour's gloomy travails, and the first days of the Age of Trump. Don't you dare miss it. But in the meantime - look after yourselves, and enjoy your holidays.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Welcome to the age of the gangsters


Now you know all about Donald Trump (above) by now. He says that he could shoot someone down in the street, and he'd still be popular. He says he might not respect election results. He flirts with torture. He threatens to jail his main opponent (before saying he won't). He singles out individual journalists and trade union leaders for verbal harangues, both on social media and in person. He calls on the Russian state to hack rival politicians. He praises the autocracy of Vladimir Putin. He tries to cave in the businesses of companies - from Boeing to Vanity Fair - who happen to disagree with him. He cajoles. He wheedles. He shouts. He bellows. He stamps his feet.

There's a good word for this, and before you say, it isn't fascism: it's gangsterism. Mr Trump lacks the private militia, the uniform-wearing - and if everyone's really honest, the will to total power - that gets you a really paid-up season ticket to the fascist club. He's not interested in ideology, particularly - though as mid-twentieth century fascists' grip on ideological consistency was often deliberately slippery, that difference on its own doesn't matter all that much. So. He is a bully, a narcissist and a sociopath, but reality seems a bit more prosaic than all the epithet-slinging that Democrats will (understandably) subject him to. The President-Elect is an almost perfect reflection of and vessel for the fury of older white men in the Rustbelt. He feeds off the power of that anger all the time: and as such, he often just indulges himself in an endless stompabout designed to stoking both his ego and the self-image of his voters. He must be the outsider pitched against the know-it-all insiders. He has no choice. History has veered off, somehow, into burn-it-all down biker gang nihilism, and if striking a pose that looks very much like a fist with a wig on top isn't to your taste, you'd best look away now.

While Mr Trumps stamps around as deafeningly as possible, it just so happens that both himself and his nearest and dearest will become just as rich as they possibly can. His daughter sat in on his first summit with the Japanese, all the better to assist with her business interests in that country. Mr Trump's hotel in Argentina suddenly got clearance when he was elected (though any outright collusion has been denied). He has hundreds, perhaps thousands, of conflicts of interest all over the globe - including, reportedly, in Taiwan, site of his first confrontation with Beijing. He's not going to put all his investments in a blind trust, whatever anyone says. Perhaps he'll do very tidily out of the wall-and-fence on the Mexican border. No doubt his Cabinet of billionaires will profit very nicely out of the likely economic boom of the next two or three years, as Mr Trump smashes through all the deficit limits and budget caps that Republicans used to say they cared about.

Now, we'll grant you that this is leagues less sinister than Mussolini's take-over in Italy (for instance), but it's still not great. Most dangerously, it's a recipe for confrontation between the USA and Russia that could boil over in all sorts of frightening ways. Bear in mind that most wars are caused by miscalculation about the extent to which rivals and opponents will fight to protect their interests. The first Iraq War of 1990-91 began when a US official erroneously gave Saddam Hussein the impression that the Americans might not protect Kuwaiti independence, for instance. Mr Trump has already given out by far the most dangerous signals of his short time in public life: that he is not altogether keen on NATO, and that he might not defend NATO states (such as Russia's Baltic neighbours) if they don't pay their way. John Kennedy said of the Soviet leadership in his inauguration that the US 'dare not tempt them with weakness'. That's exactly what Mr Trump has done already. He's sown the seeds of future miscalculation, and bigly. No doubt the Russian cyber-attacks, misinformation and nativist propaganda are already lined up ready to go.

When and if Mr Putin betrays The Donald - over Iran, perhaps, or over the Baltic States, or by continuing to meddle in American domestic politics - Mr Trump necessarily has to take him on with the same blowhard red-faced rantathon that he's indulged himself in so far - shouting at China, for instance, over the seizure of a not-particularly-significant US naval probe. So the bromance will fade rather quickly. The White House's new inhabitant knows, for one thing, that he has to keep the rage up. That's how he continues to signal to his core electorate that he's battling for them. That they're not small. That the type of language that they recognise and admire is being sent out to do their work in the world. That 'the system' is still being attacked - in whatever new way lies to hand. That America's status, and by extension the status of everyone in America who feels threatened by globalisation and interdependence, is being puffed up by talking about the great big stick they've got ready if they're really forced to use it.

The second reason why an era of eyeballing is likely is that Mr Trump no doubt recognises his mirror image when he sees it. Where have we seen this before, this concentration of power in the hands of one bully-boy leader prepared to talk over the heads of 'the political classes'? This interest in personal and familial enrichment, this decadent life of gold elevators and big plush hotels? This constant demonisation of the many apparently sinister non-national and non-nationalist forces of opposition who threaten 'the people', backed by the unnamed and unnatural forces of global banking and finance? That's right - in the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union, among the ruins of which a lot of extremely unscrupulous people became very, very rich. Richard Nixon was paranoid without much cause. Mr Trump can see a very good reason to be paranoid in the reflection cast back at him by Mr Putin and his increasingly-impressive cast of mini-mes and yes-men across both Europe and the world. 'What would I do in his position?', Mr Trump will ask himself. That's right: threaten, negotiate in bad faith, and then throw any agreement in the bin as soon as its usefulness has expired.

That'll tip everything into a new cold war defined not by staring at each other in Berlin, but by shouting at each other over the internet. Because what will inevitably happen if you pitch a comedy wrestling fanatic with a serious inferiority complex up against a top-off, horse-riding, judo-loving, bear-wresting ex-KGB tough guy? Probably this: a jaw-jutting, musk-spewing, arm-wrestling struggle. That's the third reason we're heading for confrontation between East and West, whatever the warm words that you'll hear for now: the sheer machismo of the new world disorder, not so much a howl of rage against modernity as a grunt of image-building weightlifting effort for the watching masses. It's not going to be pretty - like watching not one but two past-their-best John Waynes strutting around the international system as if they own the place. The fact that, yes, they do actually own the landscape makes things even worse.

International diplomacy has always been a grey world. Real people have always got crushed beneath its wheels. But the next four (and quite possibly the next eight) years are going to be marked by a kind of hyper-'realism' that is no realism at all given how much a transactional politics this stark raises the risk of outright confrontation. Consider these questions: will an apparent pass to do what they like in Syria mean that the Russians will cut their Iranian allies loose, allowing harsher American economic or even military action against Tehran? Will any American soft-pedaling on the defence of Eastern Europe get the Americans the reward of a harsher Russian line on China in the Pacific? Will the two powers want to team up and stifle internet neutrality and free speech itself? Will Washington's sudden silence on human rights and anti-Russian sanctions win them some juicy Eurasian business contracts? Those are deals for high stakes indeed, and they could easily come apart at any time. If they were ever going to work, they would involve both men learning to walk a diplomatic tightrope. Any such agreements would also depend on the two Presidents understanding the role of empathy and trust, lest immediate defection from any one of those deals become too tempting. Their past actions demonstrate no aptitude for this whatsoever. Betrayal, mistrust and the increasingly-fervid swamp politics of national self-interest are far more likely.

So - welcome to the age of the gangsters. It's going to be yuge. And yugely dangerous.