For the times they are indeed achanging

When I saw a Brexit-related link on instapundit, clicked on it and realised I had arrived at the New Statesman (!!!), I almost clicked the back button. Decades ago, I gew up in a household that took the New Statesman – a schizoid hard-left rag whose first (political) half lauded the noble working class oppressed by the evil Tories, and whose second (social) half reviewed avante-garde books and arty-farty plays that no representative member of the working class would go within a mile of, in pretentiously-predictable articles mostly written by the sort of reviewers described in George Orwell’s essay “Confessions of a book reviewer”. You can picture my amazement at finding that the article instapundit linked, written by the New Statesman’s book reviewer John Gray, though not without flaws (and with a title chosen more to encourage the average New Statesman reader to read it than to convey its contents 🙂 ), has some valid points.

Trivially, the writer’s thoughts on Burke are wrong – but he’s right that misquoting a travesty-version of Burke is one of the ways the remoaners (haute-remainers is his phrase) whistle in the dark to keep their spirits up. And I’m unsurprised that a man who writes for the New Statesman, even one with some sensible observations, has a cluelessly cynical attitude to tradition.

More germane to his thesis, the writer’s idea that, for Cummings, “strategy takes priority over any ideology” perhaps shows he watched the BBC dramatised series on Brexit referendum campaign more attentively than he read Cumming’s own articles. The series was (I think, AFAICT) competent at showing the how of winning the Brexit campaign but revealingly clueless about the why – the remainers got to explain themselves but one could not tell from the script why Cummings, Boris and other leavers wanted to do what they were doing. Things must first work before they can work to any given end, and the more the ‘haute-remainers’ make politics warfare, the more Boris, Cummings and the rest have no choice but to outmanouevre them before they can pursue any end not immediately part of that – but that hardly shows they have no desired end. Gray also does not discuss (does not see?) that Blair’s constitutional innovations (e.g. the supreme court, only 10 years old this month) might not evolve but simply be abolished along with the FTPA.

More germane still is his limited understanding of how the public, as opposed to the pundits, grasp the issues.

Pundits and MPs kept saying ‘why isn’t Leave arguing about the economy and living standards’. They did not realise that for millions of people, £350m/NHS was about the economy and living standards – that’s why it was so effective. (Dominic Cummings, How the Brexit Referendum Was Won)

Gray says that

Farage has never wavered in his commitment to libertarian economics, and today this is a clear vulnerability. Johnson has to show he is committed to using the power of the state to repair the damage inflicted on society by markets [NK: ‘markets’, a revealingly inadequate word – ‘globalism’ would be less imperfect]

Gray does not realise that (to paraphrase Cummings) for millions of people, controlling immigration is about protecting them from the damage that elitism, political correctness and globalism inflict on their society.

These (and other) constructively-intended criticisms aside, the article has grasped one thing: the futility of an immediate remoaner victory even if they could gain it. As Burke developed his campaign against Warren Hastings in the mid-1780s in what looked like a very difficult political environment, a perceptive government supporter wrote, “I do not see how they will get rid of Mr Burke.” Similarly, the article grasps how all the remoaners’ tactics positively push them further away from getting rid of Brexit: “Ces institutions périssent par leurs victoires.” He also understands how modern “liberals” (US sense, though very appropriate to today’s LibDems) are very far from being the rational ones.

When liberals talk about reason they mean a mishmash of ideas they picked up at university. Scraps of Rawls, Dworkin and Thomas Piketty, together with a smattering of modish conspiracy theories, form the folk wisdom of the thinking classes. Rationality means deferring to this ragbag of ephemera and ignoring enduring truths about the deciding forces in politics.

Sense peeps out from an article in the NS! – not the Britain of my youth indeed! 🙂

Updated: 27th October 2019 — 12:09 am


  1. My apologies but I am finding this a bit difficult to follow. For instance:

    Who is “Watts”?

    What does AFAICT mean? As Far As I Can T___?

  2. As far as I can tell.

  3. AFAICT: usually As Far As I Can Tell, but in this case As Far As I Could Tell

    In my draft of the article, in which I could not recall the name of the NS book reviewer, I used the placeholder ‘Watts’. I corrected (as I thought) and then published and only a few hours later noticed another two mentions and corrected them to show the correct name. I apologise for the confusion

  4. One has to admire Mr. Gray’s magisterial writing style. But he entirely misses the point that the principal reason Brexit has descended into farce was the failure of the Brexiteers to think ahead.

    It is rather obvious that most of the Brexiteers had not thought through the consequences of the land border with the EU in Northern Ireland, which has so disrupted the process of separation. It is a reasonable guess that many Brexiteers had forgotten Northern Ireland was part of the UK.

    The big mistake was to celebrate victory with a narrow plurality as if it had been a full-throated overwhelming-majority demand for Brexit — instead of recognizing the need for Brexiteers to work hard at continuing to persuade the majority of their countrymen.

    Bray misses those key points — but I still stand in awe of the articulateness with which he presents his incomplete view.

  5. Gavin, that’s bollocks.

    Simple you identified a price to be paid to implement a policy, not a failure of the policy.

    Most Remainers fail to price in the cost of no longer being able to sack their leader.

    That too is an opportunity cost.

    I am quite willing to leave Scotland in the EU, along with Wales and NI to start the long road towards self governance where I can sack my leader.

    It’s that simple.

    I don’t care what the EU or Ireland does or what their problems are.

    I want Independence.

    PS Remainers cooked up the Ireland border issue in whole cloth to try and stop Brexit. It’s only a problem if we engage it. Remainers who had power until Bojo came along. Remainders created a problem, deliberately failed to deal with it and are now trying to make it a bigger problem.

  6. I browsed through Gray’s essay when it was linked on Instapundit. I felt somewhat uncomfortable reading it: i had the impression that Gray is speaking a language unfamiliar to me, using a conceptual framework unfamiliar to me. I know this feeling, because i get it also when i read Hume’s political essays. (I also got it when reading Plato, Aristotle, or Machiavelli, but when you slog through the whole dialogue/book, the feeling goes away. An essay is too short.)

    Part of the problem is what seems to be a contradiction. In the 2nd paragraph, Gray writes:
    The solution to Britain’s ills, some have argued, is to return to true conservatism as expressed in the enduring verities of Edmund Burke. Instead of abstract ideas and principles, politicians should rely on the slowly accumulated wisdom of past generations.
    Where “some” are, of course, Remainers.

    Later, Gray writes, apparently of the very same Remainers:
    Reason has been tossed aside because the masses – encouraged by amoral rabble-rousers – have been allowed to vent their ignorant passions. It is not hard to detect the reek of class hatred in this ruling liberal narrative. But there is something more powerful here than mere snobbery: the belief that politics can be governed by formulas derived from some large theory.

    So what is it that Remainers stand for, “the slowly accumulated wisdom of past generations” or, on the contrary, “abstract ideas and principles”, “reason”, and “formulas derived from some large theory”? Gray does not say.

    BTW this post would seem to fit just as well on Samizdata.

  7. itellyounothing: “Gavin, that’s bollocks.”

    Thank you. I guess we would both end up as also-rans in an essay-writing contest with Mr. Gray. 🙂

    I fear that I may not have made the point clearly. I am not arguing against Brexit — my concern is that Brexiteers have so far made a dog’s breakfast of the process. (And I believe Mr. Gray failed to recognize this in his wonderfully-written piece).

    That is something to be concerned about, because post-separation it will be largely the same group of bureaucrats and politicians who will be representing the UK in all those trade deals that have to be negotiated, in WTO, in NATO, in the UN, in IATA, and in who knows how many other international links that an “independent” UK will unavoidably have in this increasingly inter-dependent world.

    Past mistakes by Brexiteers are water under the bridge. We are where we are. But learn from the mistakes and start planning now to do better on the Day After Brexit. It is glaringly obvious that there need to be significant changes in the governance of the UK post-separation — and those changes will require building consensus in a currently deeply-divided body politic.

  8. “So what is it that Remainers stand for, “the slowly accumulated wisdom of past generations” or, on the contrary, “abstract ideas and principles”, “reason”, and “formulas derived from some large theory”?”

    I think he means rule by the traditional Institutions of the British Establishment, but the elites that fill them, and by the Rule of Law that encodes their procedures.

    I’m guessing the “enduring verities of Edmund Burke” refers to Burke decrying the destruction of the ruling Institutions of society by the French Revolution. The “formulas” is more clearly referring to the modern legalism in which written rules are considered constitutionally sovereign over political negotiation and agreement, rather than written rules being merely an attempt to encode the result of the politically negotiated agreement which is sovereign.

    Thus, EU-granted rights and rules are sovereign over the feelings of the British populace because that’s the Institution that makes the rules. Parliamentary procedure and the absolute sovereignty of the Commons trumps the will of the people because that’s the Institution that has been set up by history to do so. The ruling Institutions make the rules, and we have to follow the rules because those are the rules. Following the established rules and procedures, deference to the ruling Institutions, are the bedrock of social stability, of law and order, of the wise rule of the elites. If you start doing anything as ridiculous as *what the populace wants*, you’ll wind up with the French Revolution!

    Social scientists classify personality types into hierarchical, egalitarian, individualist, and communitarian, along two axes. What’s being described here is an extremity of hierarchical thinking, which is commonly associated with conservatism. Johnson and Cummings are more from the Individualist quarter. Hence the conflict of worldviews.

    But I agree, it’s a bit unclear exactly what’s meant. And I’m not convinced that what he suggests for their motivation is the whole story. But it feels like there may be an element of truth to it.

  9. It is rather obvious that most of the Brexiteers had not thought through the consequences of the land border with the EU in Northern Ireland, which has so disrupted the process of separation. It is a reasonable guess that many Brexiteers had forgotten Northern Ireland was part of the UK. (Gavin Longmuir 27th October 2019 at 4:35 pm)

    Hardly. We knew in 2016 that the EU has land-borders with non-EU countries (and narrow sea borders, e.g. between the Channel Islands and France) and that most countries have land borders with other countries with whom they are not in a customs union. It’s fair to say the way the Irish border issue has been exploited was not much in our minds then – but if it hadn’t been that it would have been some other excuse.

  10. Gavin, I’m sure I come last in an essay writing competition to a chimpanzee with closed eyes.

    The second and third order effects of independence or remain were massively incalculable in 2016. The reason being that we had no way of knowing what the EU were going to ask for next as part of the ever more unified superstars.

    My wife is a Remainer, but freely admits she’d want out if they explicitly demanded the pound sterling go for instance.

    For others it would be raising taxes for more subsidy for French farmers.

    A border issue with Ireland is simple to deal with.

    We shrug, say come on in and do the checks away from the border.

    There were no leavers on a position to do all the thinking needed post referendum. The Remainers knobbled Theresa, a Remainer, into power and she was so awful she threw away a 20 point lead at election time.

  11. itellyounothing: “The second and third order effects of independence or remain were massively incalculable in 2016.”

    Some parts of the future are always unknowable — today, just as much as 3 years ago. Your Remainer wife might want to leave in the future if the EU insisted that Sterling be replaced by the Euro. Equally, there may be Leavers who would prefer to remain in the future if the Japanese decide to move their car factories in the UK to the EU.

    Other parts of the future are entirely knowable. An “independent” UK will be significantly tied down by a broad web of international agreements and commitments, just like Gulliver. Future trade agreements will take years (literally years) to negotiate. And the UK will be moving forward with a deeply divided population and a Political Class which has made itself a laughing stock around the world because of its demonstrated incompetence.

    Outsider’s view — the challenges facing the UK have all along been much more internal than external from the EU. If separation from the EU leads the people of the UK to make significant changes to UK governance, then it has the potential to be a major success. Leavers should be leading the way in planning for the future and making that potential success real.

  12. Thank you, NiV, but there is a rather important point on which i must disagree with you.
    The “formulas” are, according to Gray, “derived from some large theory”, not from a legislative body. So i do not think that Gray is referring to anything like statute law, which seems to be your interpretation.

  13. Snorri,

    My interpretation was based in particular on the last two sentences in the following extract.

    “But there is something more powerful here than mere snobbery: the belief that politics can be governed by formulas derived from some large theory. In the past, such theories were derived from Marxism and positivism, utilitarianism and Fabianism, among other ideologies. Today they emanate from the prevailing variety of rights-based liberalism promoted by philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. The key feature of this liberalism is that it transfers decision-making from political to judicial institutions. Liberals are turning to law to entrench values and policies for which they cannot secure democratic assent.”

  14. Gavin, agreed with the need for internal reform.

    But our political / media complex have used the EU to block that since the Maastricht treaty.

    The political leavers are part of the group who don’t really want changes beyond giving them power. The deep leavers who have thought about what comes next are mostly think tankers, Samizdatists, Harrogate Agenda types or Dom Cummings, advisor to the PM whose blog has a lot of ideas I like.

    Thinkers don’t get high profile media exposure in the MSM as that is all part of the establishment.

  15. Nullius: in view of that sentence, your interpretation seems reasonable — though not necessarily correct 🙂

    The fact is, i doubt that “rights-based liberals” would accept the decisions of, for instance, a US Supreme Court with 4 Justices appointed by Trump.

    To me, it looks like a half-wave rectifier: judicial decisions (and elections/referenda) legitimize “rights-based liberalism” when they endorse it; when they don’t, then they are themselves illegitimate.

  16. Point of Information — if anyone has time to explain it to an ignorant furriner:

    There have been all kinds of discussions about the restrictions imposed by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, and its requirement for a 2/3 supermajority to call an election before the regular end of the specified 5 year term. Now it seems that MPs can just say — Hey! Let’s have an election! — and all it takes is 50%+1.

    Is the FTPA a steel barrier or a sheet of tissue paper?

  17. Gavin,

    The answer is that for a GE, it was necessary to follow the FTPA 2011 mechanisms, e.g. 2/3rds of all MPs vote for it, or 2 no confidence votes, or simply pass a new law that says as here, that the requirement for an early GE is deemed to have been met regardless of the FTPA 2011 otherwise preventing it. One Act of Parliament coming after another is generally regarded as implicitly repealing an incompatible earlier one or is interpreted as superseding it unless expressly not doing so, the European Communities Act 1972 being an exception.

    On my reading of this Bill, I could see it being challenged by some prick as it doesn’t quite say explicitly that the FTPA 2011 shall not apply.

  18. “Is the FTPA a steel barrier or a sheet of tissue paper?”

    It’s a barrier it requires the other side’s help to move.

    Triggering existing law doesn’t change the law. But trying the change the rules and make a new law allows the opposition to introduce amendments that wreck the bill or do other things you don’t like, and the amendments only need 50%+1 too. So if you don’t have a majority, you require the aid of your opposition in changing things. If they choose not to cooperate, you’re stuck.

  19. Mr. Ed, NIV — Thanks! Very helpful.

    If I understand NIV’s point, it sounds like a government that has a small majority in the House of Commons would not be able to trigger an early election using the FTPA 2/3 majority rule — but would at any time be able to pass a new law requiring an immediate election (while using its simple majority to block any spoiling amendments the opposition might try to add). That suggests the FTPA is pretty much an empty shell.

  20. Gavin,

    It is if you control a majority. If you don’t (like Boris now) or if some of your majority defect, it’s a real obstacle.

    It was created to placate the Lib Dems who were in coalition with the Tories, and were concerned about their partners being able to control the electoral agenda without them, just because they held the office of Prime Minister. It was designed specifically to make the major party in any coalition dependent on minor party cooperation. The effect in the current circumstances, where Boris doesn’t even have control of a coalition with a majority, is to render the government powerless to achieve anything and powerless to escape from the trap. Minor parties holding the balance of power can hold the government to ransom for anything they want.

    However, you’re right that in normal circumstances it wouldn’t have this effect, and any majority government could bypass or even repeal it.

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