Boris in Brussels

There are still a couple of weeks to go before the final result of the Conservative party leadership contest is due, but Boris Johnson already seems assured of victory. (I was going to add a qualifying statement like “barring some unexpected development”, but actually I can’t even imagine a scandal of sufficient gravity to derail him now).

No one, not even the man himself, seems particularly enthused by this state of affairs; it is as if the country has just accepted this latest humiliation as another inevitable stage of our long national decline. For all the candidates’ talk of going back to Brussels to get a better Brexit deal, it’s inconceivable that any of them actually believe such an outcome is possible, which means that, once he is ensconced in Number 10, Johnson will immediately be faced with a tricky choice between presiding over a catastrophic no-deal exit, or explaining to the electorate that his tough talk was mere bluster, and that he will have to accept the deal on the table, Irish backstop and all.

The support that Johnson has gathered across the parliamentary party seems to indicate that more moderate Tory MPs are banking on him following the latter course of action, presumably calculating that, like Nixon in China, he has a high enough standing among the Brexit true believers to sell the necessary compromise. This is questionable, to say the least; the hard right is poised to denounce any hint of concession as a betrayal, severely limiting Johnson’s room for manoeuvre, and there is no sign that the EU27 are in the mood to offer even cosmetic changes to the deal to help him out.

The no-deal option is no more straightforward; there is still just about a majority in the Commons determined to block it, and the talk of dismissing parliament, aired by some on the wilder fringes of the debate, would surely be too dictatorial, even for Johnson. A general election would be politically suicidal, so logic points towards Johnson taking a populist gamble and trying to secure a mandate in a second referendum. Logic hasn’t exactly been an infallible guide to events in this saga so far though…

Battle for the past

Back in 2014 we wrote about the 70th anniversary of D-Day, noting that the event had started to take on the character of distant history, as it slipped beyond the reach of living memory. Five years on, the surviving veterans are fewer in number, and the connection between the reality of their experience and the role it plays in present-day political discourse has grown correspondingly tenuous. This is especially true in the UK, perhaps unsurprisingly; given the state into which the country has descended in the last three years, we can hardly be blamed for looking back fondly on a time when we could still claim to be a global power. This does require some re-writing of history; even the normally-reliable BBC has been attributing the defeat of the Nazis entirely to the battles on the Western Front, without even mentioning the significant contribution of the Soviet Union. (Recognising this does not lessen our respect for the bravery of the troops who stormed the beaches in 1944; the action in Normandy may not have been on the scale of Stalingrad or Kursk, but it still involved a ferocity that is almost unimaginable in our more peaceful times).

Politicians using history selectively to further an agenda is not a new development of course, but it is depressing to see the sacrifice of those who fell in the titanic struggle against fascism being exploited to advance the petty schemes of the modern-day right. It shows the importance of defending the internationalist spirit that should be the true legacy of that generation, and opposing those who would see Europe once again divided.

Temporary catharsis

In a welcome break from the dispiriting grind of domestic politics, we’ve got the chance to hit the streets tomorrow, to protest against the visit of the left’s favourite boogeyman, Donald Trump.

The US is currently our only serious rival for the title of “Most Dysfunctional Liberal Democracy”, so it’s fitting that we’re distracting ourselves by shouting at the President. It’s unlikely to cause him much discomfort, but it will make us feel a little better, while we’re waiting for the result of the Tory party leadership contest to plunge us back into despair.

A nation divided

So the results of the European elections are in, and they reveal that the population, or at least the 37% of it not too alienated to vote, is almost completely polarised on the Brexit question. This is not particularly surprising, given that politicians at Westminster have spent the last three years systematically trashing the whole concept of compromise, but it is still quite depressing.

What is clear is that the next Prime Minister, whoever he or she turns out to be, will have absolutely no democratic mandate to take the UK out of the EU, or indeed to stay in. In a rational world there would be a general election, but it seems unlikely that a new Conservative leader would care to take another chance with the electorate, so it’s just about possible to imagine that he or she might seek to circumvent a deadlocked parliament by going straight to the people with a second referendum. It is looking like Labour, which haemorrhaged votes to more openly pro-remain parties, is belatedly coming round to the idea that a new plebiscite is the way to break the impasse.

On the other hand, the Tories are almost certainly going to pick a hard-core leaver to succeed Theresa May, and there isn’t really much anyone could do to stop them leading the country over the cliff when the article 50 extension runs out in October. There is talk that more sensible members of the parliamentary party would support the opposition in a no-confidence vote in such circumstances, but that seems like a slender thread to hang the future of the nation on.

Either way the newly respectable far-right are going to be happy – if there is another referendum they will have a betrayal narrative to exploit (and they may even win again), and if there is a no-deal exit the resulting chaos will be a great opportunity for recruitment.

Can an unhappy outcome be averted? Perhaps, if the left seizes the opportunity to counter the tide of reaction by positively making the case for internationalism and tolerance, but it’s going to be a hard struggle.

 

There may be trouble ahead

So, after hanging on grimly to her premiership for what seems like forever, Theresa May has bid us a tearful adieu. The identity of our next Prime Minister, and with it the fate of the nation, and perhaps the continent, lies in the hands of around 300 Conservative MPs, who will choose two candidates to go forward to the final reckoning, at the end of which a victor will be anointed by the hundred thousand or so elderly oddballs who make up the Tory party membership. What could possibly go wrong?

Darkness before the dawn

On the eve of what promises to be another disastrous electoral experience for the Conservative party, what little authority Theresa May still has is rapidly draining away, as cabinet ministers openly question her judgment, and backbenchers bay for her immediate resignation.

This might be amusing, were it not for the fact that the main beneficiaries of the Tory meltdown look likely to be the extreme right, currently coalescing around the Brexit party. With the pro-Remain vote split, the resulting narrative seems set to be one of triumph for the forces of reaction.

I’m not too discouraged by this though. The immediate practical consequence will be that the next Conservative leader, most likely Boris Johnson, will feel obliged to pull the party even further rightward, which does not seem like a strategy for success in the general election which must surely happen sometime before October. Assuming that Labour move far enough towards promising a second referendum to capture most of the votes of the anti-Brexit constituency, we might well have a progressive government before the end of the year.

Local confusion

After a relative period of calm over the Easter holidays, politics has broken out again with a vengeance, as voters had their first chance to deliver a verdict on the Brexit debacle in the local elections.

But what was that verdict? Superficially it seems obvious; the populace is mightily pissed-off with the establishment parties. This mainly affected the Conservatives, who lost over 1300 seats, but also Labour, who failed to make any progress, despite the Tory meltdown; instead the beneficiaries were the Lib Dems and the Greens, plus a host of independent candidates.

The cause of this mass disaffection is less clear-cut though. Are people annoyed that Brexit hasn’t been delivered, or are they signalling that they want a second referendum? The gains posted by the Liberals and the Greens suggest that the latter is true, but the absence of an unambiguously pro-Brexit alternative to the Conservatives on most of the ballots may have limited the scale of the anti-EU protest. In any case the results are skewed by the fact that important remain heartlands like Scotland and London weren’t voting in this cycle.

Of course this uncertainty hasn’t stopped politicians from all parties declaring that this outcome unequivocally supports their position, whether that is Leave or Remain, and it seems unlikely that there will be any significant changes as a result of it. It does increase the pressure on Theresa May to somehow secure a deal in time to cancel the European parliament elections at the end of the month, since that poll is likely to be even more of a horror show for the Tories, but the Westminster numbers just don’t add up; the concessions that might get Labour on board – a customs union, perhaps a confirmatory vote – would alienate large swathes of her own party. Labour have little incentive to help her out; they may do badly in the Euro vote, but the Conservatives will undoubtedly do worse, and the fallout may precipitate the general election that Jeremy Corbyn has been aiming for all along.

So, we’re back on the Brexit rollercoaster; no doubt the political classes will be up to fever pitch by the time we vote on the 23rd. I’ll try to keep up the commentary, but it might all get too much…

Incassable

As I’ve noted previously, I’ve had some good times in Paris, so it was sad to watch fire ravage Notre Dame cathedral last night. Fortunately, the skill and courage of the Parisian sapeurs-pompiers ensured that the flames were extinguished before the whole structure collapsed, but it’s still going to take years, if not decades, to restore.

It’s tempting to see this event as some sort of metaphor for the fragility of seemingly eternal European institutions, but I suspect it may end up symbolising exactly the opposite; the ability of the EU to survive temporary conflagrations like Brexit. Whether the UK will be part of that future remains doubtful, though the chances of a remain outcome are certainly better than they were a few weeks ago, and seem likely to be further boosted by a good showing for pro-EU parties in the European elections next month.

As time passes, the fire at Notre Dame will become just a footnote in its centuries-long history; hopefully Brexit will fade into a similar obscurity.

Once more on Wikileaks

It’s nearly seven years since we last posted about Julian Assange and Wikileaks; our take at that time was that freedom of information was a good thing, but that promoting it didn’t give anyone a pass for sexual assault.

Now that Assange’s falling-out with the Ecuadorian government has brought the issue back into the news, should we reconsider our position? Since 2012 the waters have been significantly muddied by the role played by Wikileaks in the 2016 US election, but I see no reason to think differently; we would oppose his extradition to the US on hacking charges, but think he should answer the rape accusations in Sweden.

More broadly, I think the last decade has seen a change in the way that the ruling class tries to control information. Keeping secrets by throwing people like Assange (or Chelsea Manning, who is much more deserving of support) in jail seems old-fashioned; it’s more effective to undermine the whole concept of objective truth by flooding the internet with conspiracy theories, so that any real scandal that leaks out can be plausibly dismissed as fake news. Social media, which promised to democratise information flow, has instead concentrated control in the hand of a few secretive corporations, with links to government that we can only speculate about.

We’ve known since the days of Marx that workers’ control of the economic levers of society is a precondition for progressive change, but economics is not everything; Gramsci illuminated the importance of cultural hegemony in maintaining the dominance of capital. Today our culture is more than ever mediated through the control of information; transferring that control from the bourgeoisie to the masses is perhaps the most pressing task facing revolutionaries in this era. The lesson of the Wikileaks story is that such work is too important to be left to fallible individuals; it must be a collective, democratic enterprise.

Intergalactic perspective

I always feel that, in uncertain times like these, it’s helpful to step back and take a cosmic view, so I was interested to see the image from the Event Horizon telescope of the black hole at the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy, 55 million light years away. When one can actually see an object six billion times as massive as the sun, warping time and space with its unimaginable gravity, and spitting out particles heated to billions of degrees at nearly light speed, it’s hard to get too bothered about the petty squabbles of this insignificant planet.