Old Spooks

For those who remember the ‘Wilson Plot’ – that is, the anti-(Harold) Wilson plot of the 1960s and ’70s – or have read about the ‘Zinoviev Letter’ affair of 1924, the following, from the summer of 2017, may set their antennae quivering.


Both those earlier conspiracies involved the British secret services, endeavouring to prevent or oust legitimately-elected Labour governments, on the grounds that they were spies or at the very least ‘assets’ of the Soviets. On both those occasions the right-wing press – especially the Daily Mail – played an important part. We saw in last year’s general election the Daily Mail repeating the same smears against Jeremy Corbyn; clearly advised by MI6, one of whose heads, Sir Richard Dearlove (now thankfully retired), is quoted here.

It’s reassuring in a way to see our modern spooks sticking so lovingly to their old prejudices; which, after the Wilson Plot was revealed and so thoroughly discredited in a number of books – Robin Ramsay’s and Stephen Dorril’s Smear (1992) being the best, and even films and TV dramatisations, like the excellent A Very British Coup (1988)  – it is difficult to believe will still have any purchase among the electorate. But you never know. There’s no smear like an old smear, whatever the fetid smell of decay coming off it.

The irony now, of course, is that it’s the political Right which is allegedly in the pay of the Russians. The Daily Mail doesn’t seem to have noticed.

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The Only Way They’ll Learn

When I was a small child many years ago, and I wanted to do something foolish and dangerous, one common response from the adults was: ‘let him do it. It’s the only way he’ll learn’. How many children got electrocuted/drowned/choked/poisoned/abducted that way I can’t guess. But it taught them a lesson.

I’m now wondering whether we shouldn’t apply the same advice to today’s Brexiteers. Let them have their full-Monty, no-deal, off the cliff-edge, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ Brexit, and see how they like it. Their leaders, of course, carefully funnelling their riches abroad, and plotting the next stage of their neoliberal revolution, would come to little harm. And I can move permanently to Sweden and hopefully avoid the worst effects. But your millions of thicko Ukippers won’t have these means of escape. Nor will they still be able to put the blame on Europe, as they undoubtedly will if a ‘soft’ or ‘semi-detached’ or ‘Norwegian-style’ Brexit is negotiated, and the furriners still keep coming in. That’ll teach ’em. And allow us poor Remainers some Schadenfreude, at least. ‘Tee hee! We told you so.’ Won’t that be worth something? (No.)

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Brexit in Perspective

I’m afraid I’m not competent to make any judgment on the current shenanigans in the House of Commons, and among the Tory party, over Theresa May and her Brexit plans; let alone to predict the outcome. I doubt whether any sane person is. I rather liked this recent ‘Matt’ cartoon:48164909_10213812800013452_3036368138254942208_n.jpg

That says it all, really. What a fool of itself this once proud nation is currently making to the world! (On that subject, the LRB is planning a collection of short pieces on Continental press reactions to Brexit. Kajsa and I have done the one on Sweden. Watch this space for a preview.)

The special contributions that historians can make in these circumstances are of three kinds. They can examine and assess any historical arguments that are made on both (or any) sides of the case: Boris Johnson’s post-imperial posturings, for example, or nineteenth-century diplomatic precedents (‘splendid isolation’), or our heroic Second World War (‘we stood alone then’). These of course are mainly wrong or grossly misleading – the stuff of popular myth rather than of objective history. Secondly, the historian can look back over time for genuine precedents for the current situation. I have to say I’ve found no convincing parallel in ‘my’ special period for the goings-on in the Commons just now. The Boer War caused political divisions and rows around 1900, especially in the Liberal Party – these as it happens were what my PhD thesis and first book were about – but nothing quite like today’s. Apart from anything else, the Monty Python-esque characters of the leading Brexiteers mark them off sharply from the very serious actors on both sides in that earlier dispute over empire. Otherwise today’s events have no close precedents. Thirdly, historians may be able to provide a broader context for today’s goings-on, than the bubble of most contemporary political commentary generally provides. ‘Context’ after all is what they are thoroughly used to dealing with in their historical researches.

I tried to do that last thing in my initial reactions to the Brexit referendum, just before it had happened: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/, and  https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/20/this-dreadful-referendum/; at least to supply the immediate social and political context for the vote, which I have always maintained was never essentially about the EU, but rather a way for people to express their frustrations about other things – austerity, the government, Old Etonians, the deficiencies of Britain’s political system, ‘black’ foreigners – on the first occasion they were allowed to do this directly and effectively. That has been broadly accepted by other commentators since. (They won’t have got it from me.) The tiny and usually privileged minority of anti-European fanatics then cleverly used this to fake a populist appeal that would help them ultimately to achieve their very reactionary right-wing and neo-liberal agenda, away from the socially-concerned (if not exactly ‘socialist’) pressures they saw as coming from the EU. And the wider historical context of this, of course, is the accelerating progress of global capitalism, towards its (and perhaps the world’s) ultimate self-destruction, as good old Karl predicted (vaguely) all those years ago.

To return to today’s dramas: personally I’d like Brexit to be scrapped, probably after a referendum, and Britain to return to the EU with a Labour government which would then strive with Continental Leftists (who are on the rise, almost as much as the Nationalists and neo-Fascists are, and might draw support away from the latter), to make the European Union as socialist, or socialistic, or at least as social-democratic, as it promised to be at the beginning, before the global capitalists started nibbling at it too. The trouble with this is that the Right has so stirred up the Brexiteers – or a vocal and violent section of them – that ‘civil war’, no less, is being predicted and even encouraged if the latter are ‘betrayed’ in that way. That’s put the wind up Labour in particular, and probably explains what is widely presented as the ‘prevarication’ on Jeremy Corbyn’s part. Actually his policy is quite rational and consistent: wait for May’s plan to fail, force a general election, then (probably) have a second referendum which may show that the populace has changed its mind; then withdraw Article 50, go back in, and start reforming the EU from the inside. Short of that, the fairest solution, surely, would be a ‘soft’ Brexit – perhaps the Norway model – which would represent a fair reflexion of the country’s roughly 50:50 vote in 2016. But the Brexit fanatics and their millionaire tax-dodging expatriate allies in the popular press probably won’t stand for that. The EU is shortly to bring into effect measures to outlaw international tax avoidance, after all. Rich turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, even if lumpen ones can be persuaded to.

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Bloody Hell. Isn’t it patently OBVIOUS that underlying all these cris de coeur – the yellowjackets, Trumpeters, Ukippery and the rest – is the failure of late-stage unrestrained capitalism in all the countries affected?

But of course if we point this out we’re labelled as loony Lefties.

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The Empire Strikes Back

I thought the age of oratory was over. Our present leaders, after all, are not very good at it: May endlessly repeating the same tired mantra – ‘strong and stable’, ‘will of the people’, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and so on – and Trump with his boasting and insults. But then, yesterday, came David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, in the House of Commons – speaking in the great Brexit debate – with this.

https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/watch-david-lammy-speech-to-the-house-of-commons-on-brexit-1-5806571. (Click the link down the page.)

Lammy’s parents came from Guyana. You can look up his career on Wiki. He’s a striking example of one of the unintended after-effects of British imperialism abroad, and of the substantial immigration of Africans, West Indians and others into the ‘mother country’ that accompanied the Empire’s fall. Here he’s teaching us – the indigenous British – our own best values, in a way that should be shaming to all racists and Brexiteers. Could he become our first black prime minister?

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Our Flawed Referendum

Found on Facebook: a highly persuasive letter to her MP by an expert in these matters – an international election observer, no less.


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Reckitt’s Red

I’ve interrupted my blogging recently for more urgent projects. The latest is a short piece Kajsa and I have been asked to write for the LRB about Swedish reactions to our Brexit shenanigans. We’ve not got round to that yet. (Any ideas?)

The last project was a paper I gave recently to a women’s history conference on ‘Prominent Beverley women’. (Beverley is an attractive country town, with a wonderful late mediaeval minster, a few miles to the north of Hull.) I was asked to speak on Eva Reckitt, who was born there, and who came to the attention of MI5, which was one of my old research areas. I thought I’d post my effort here, more or less as it was delivered, to compensate for the absence of regular blogs, and in case anyone’s interested.


It may surprise denizens of present-day, respectable and doubtless staunchly Conservative Beverley to learn that not so long ago it harboured a woman who was for thirty years under MI5 surveillance as a Communist, and possibly a Russian agent. Even more surprising will be the fact that she started life as the rich daughter of one of the county’s leading capitalists, Arthur B Reckitt the starch manufacturer (‘Reckitt’s Blue’), whose premises can still be seen in Dansom Lane, Hull. The fact that there is a large secret service file on her, recently opened to the public at the National Archive (and online), obviously tickled my curiosity as a historian working in this area, who had not come across her before. She must have been interesting. Perhaps she was a female spy (‘the name’s Bond. Jane Bond’), or a double agent, or a local Mata Hari, performing exotic dances and wheedling secrets out of gouty old generals as she snuggled up to them in bed.

I suppose I should have known better, having immersed myself in ‘secret’ history for so long. It’s almost never like that.  MI5, during the time they were watching Eva, were a bunch of boring old soaks – read Stella Rimington’s account of her time as head of MI5 – and rather stupid to boot. Most of the people they kept a watch on as suspected foreign spies or ‘subversives’ were entirely innocent – Edward Heath told a story of how they would follow a man they spotted in Tube train for reading the Daily Mirror – or otherwise they missed them. That was usually because the real spies were upper-class, and they couldn’t believe that people they’d been to Public School with could be traitors. (That’s how they missed the ‘Cambridge Five’.) They were also professional liars (of course), which is why they couldn’t necessarily be trusted on Eva Reckitt. Unfortunately its records on her only bear out my earlier experience of MI5’s activities. They consist almost entirely of mail intercepts and phone taps; which may have told the Security Service something useful about Eva’s Communist contacts, but otherwise – these are MI5’s words – ‘little of value’ about her. I’m glad I didn’t have to rely on them for this chapter. The Hull History Centre file on her has proved of rather more use.

So, what can we find out from that? Well, she came under the eye of MI5 because she was a Communist, and Communists were regarded as tantamount to traitors at that time. (Nazis weren’t, by the way; and indeed some MI5 officers were rather that way inclined themselves.) Her early years were spent in a house called ‘Park Field’, behind York Road, close to Westwood, and then, from 1895, in St Mary’s House, Hengate, which was later badly damaged by fire and demolished. (The site is now the War Memorial garden). In 1901 however, when Eva was ten, the family moved to the south coast. (So strictly speaking she wasn’t a Beverley woman.) The Reckitts were originally a Quaker family, but Eva’s mother Helen was in fact ‘high’ Church of England; and her brother Maurice became a leading Anglo-Catholic.  Both were major influences on her. Remember that many Anglo-Catholics were social reformers then. As a child Eva describes herself having been brought up in a ‘conventional conservative and religious’ family, and ‘imprisoned not by poverty but by convention and affection’ – a telling phrase – and with ‘no function’. It was at her very poor secondary school (apparently) that she began to leave her ‘Conservative’ background behind, and to take up radical reading – HG Wells, GB Shaw, Chiozza Money, Robert Blatchford – which led her to progress quite quickly though the ‘New’ Liberalism of the time – veering to socialism – and the Independent Labour Party, on to Fabianism and beyond. Initially, however, she kept her new convictions to herself, for fear of upsetting her father. After his death by suicide in 1927 she felt free-er, she later wrote, to ‘come out’ as a Communist. In the meantime she was a leading worker in the Labour Research Department.

Her social radicalism had been reinforced by a spell of war work in a munitions factory, where – as she later wrote – ‘I saw something of the conditions of work and housing in the factories… particularly for the women workers.’ She was of course (!) a suffragist, but not very actively. Living on the south coast, and moving in the same political circles as he, she must have met Robert Tressel, of Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist fame. She was friendly with the Communists there, but didn’t join the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) initially because of its sectional hostility to other ‘Left’ groups (Monty Python’s ‘Splitters’); until ‘Dimitrioff’s call for a United Front… against Fascism… broke down my resistance and I joined the Communist Party in 1934’. (Georgi Dimitrioff, a Bulgarian, was the head of the Russian Comintern, responsible for the spread of socialism beyond the USSR.) That incidentally was after MI5 began taking an interest in her.

So far as the CPGB was concerned her main value was as what one of her comrades called a ‘milch-cow’, donating generously to the Party and other Left-wing causes. She may also have been instrumental in bringing Russian money over to Britain – what was called at the time ‘Moscow gold’ – to supplement this. (She made at least three trips to Soviet Russia, under the guise of fetching out documentary films.) The CPGB always denied it was financed from Moscow, but we know now that it was. That could well have been a major reason and indeed a justification for MI5’s interest in her. She may also have acted as a channel between the KGB and its many spies in Britain. All this foreign activity is strictly guesswork on my part, as it probably was for MI5; but it seems to me to have been a reasonable suspicion. I don’t blame them for stalking her.

If her political activities had been confined to this, she wouldn’t, I think, have been of outstanding interest. In a letter to Professor John Saville, written four years before her death in 1976 – Saville was working on his entry on her for the Dictionary of Labour Biography – she wrote that in her ‘lone and rambling life’ she ‘seem[ed] to have had a very small finger in so many “progressive” pies… that I find it very hard to see what is at all relevant or interesting for publication.’ I don’t think that was false modesty. – But then came the bookshop.

I may be wrong, and I’ve not known Eva (vicariously) for very long; but it’s my strong impression that books, and especially radical literature, were her major interest and love all along. In the 1920s, feeling under-educated in this respect, she enrolled at University College London to read Philosophy, where she won a First Class degree, was appointed as a lecturing assistant, and offered a Readership. That pointed to an academic career. But she gave that up partly through illness (she had bouts of quite serious ill health throughout her life), but partly also because of her ‘realisation’, as she wrote later, ‘that my outlook on these subjects differed too markedly from that taken for granted in the faculty.’ (Why are we not surprised?) She obviously felt at a bit of a loose end – ‘with no function’, as she had complained about her earlier life.  But then, as she wrote: ‘out of the blue came the chance of Collet’s.’

Collet’s was of course the famous left-wing bookshop that used to be in Charing Cross Road until quite recently. It had been a radical bookshop previously, popularly known as ‘the bomb shop’, which Eva bought up on its previous proprietor’s death, in 1934, apparently at Harry Pollitt’s request. (Pollitt was general secretary of the CPGB.) She didn’t call it Reckitt’s, for fear I think of offending her family; but instead used her middle name. So ‘Collet’s’ it became; an invaluable resource for political left-wingers who could find very few shops willing to stock their ‘subversive literature’; and in perfect time for the wave of popular political books that swept over the reading public at this time: Penguin’s sixpenny ‘Specials’ and Victor Gollancz’s ‘Left Book Club’ among them. The rest, as they say, is history. She ran Collet’s supremely well, by all accounts; and on a non-profit basis, consistent with her politics. She didn’t flinch when the Charing Cross Road shop was attacked and smashed up by Fascist gangs. Collet’s blossomed out into other cities, and other kinds of merchandise: gramophone records, for example, selling jazz and what today is called ‘world music’; and consumer goods from Russia and China – arousing yet more suspicion from MI5. Eva Reckitt had found her métier at last.

There: that’s the boring history. What can we say about her?

Well, all the accounts from people who knew her personally painted her very sympathetically.  She was ‘a kindly and generous person with a streak of shrewd determination and a refreshing candour about accepted conditions’; ‘petite, with a flamboyant personality’, and with ‘gaiety and a quick wit’. Young people apparently found her particularly attractive. She was fond of music, playing the violin, and was apparently a budding composer early on, to judge from a ‘Chant’ by her preserved in the Hull History Centre file, and apparently sung in Chichester Cathedral in November 1907 – when she was 17. She travelled a great deal, mainly in politically-sensitive parts of Europe. As well as the CPGB she gave oodles of money to the Spanish Republicans, the Peace movement, the Daily Worker, and – latterly – the anti-Vietnam War movement. (Remember she lived until 1976.) Another thing that contemporary acquaintances remarked on was her continued loyalty to Moscow Communism, even after the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, when many other Socialists (including I think John Saville) left in disgust. This may be because, despite her Philosophy degree, she took little interest in political theory. Which would explain why she resolutely refused to get caught up in the doctrinal rows that divided Socialists from other Socialists in the 1930s (and later), which she regarded – surely rightly – as weakening the far more vital general socialist and anti-fascist cause. But sticking to the Moscow line must say something more about her: her loyalty, perhaps; or her cussedness.

There’s something else about her. As a young girl her preferred reading – before she got into the subversive stuff – was boys’ literature: Henty, school stories, comics. She never married, which of course was expected of upper-middle class women at the time, but formed her deepest friendships with other women, including what one French account calls ‘une relation ambiguée’ with Olive Parsons, wife of a well-known communist, which lasted for 60 years. She was passionate about cricket, and once admitted that she always wished that she had been a boy, so that she could have played for Yorkshire. All this suggests to me – though I’m chary of speculating in this area – that she wasn’t entirely happy being a woman; or, at least, one who was expected to fit the normal expectations of middle-class women (wife, mother) at that time. The only female stereotype you might say she did conform to was the ‘Lady Bountiful’ one: a rich bored middle-class woman dispensing charity to the poor. Except in her case the ‘charity’ came in the form of Communist propaganda, which she clearly felt would help the poor more than the customary bowls of soup and cast-off clothing could do.

On the other hand she was, of course, as an upper-middle class ‘spinster’, privileged beyond what 99 per cent of other contemporary women could expect to be. She had no expectations to live up to, apart from the conventional womanly ones. She had independent means, which was why she could be so charitable. She could live her own life, without a man to support her. She could also have her own ideas; even quite shocking ones.In fact she wasn’t alone, even among very upper classes women, in espousing ideas that appeared to go against her class interests. (Daisy Greville, the socialist Countess of Warwick, was one.) We could do with more of her kind today.

And she still might, of course, have been a spy for the Russians, as MI5 suspected, but way too clever for those sozzled old dummies to pin down. We can’t tell for sure, in the ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’ that is the Secret Service World. But I don’t think that would have made her any more interesting.  I have to say that, after a very brief acquaintance, I’ve rather fallen for her.

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Trump’s Trump Card

It shouldn’t all be about trade, of course, and personally that isn’t my main reason for being anti-Brexit.  But if it’s trade that brings Theresa May’s Brexit plan down, I shan’t complain.

Trump’s statement yesterday, that her proposal will stand in the way of an Anglo-American trade agreement, could well do that. Trump’s objection, I imagine, is that May’s proposal is not Brexity enough. Britain’s remaining in the (or ‘a’) European single market will mean that she must continue to adhere to European standards – of food quality, employment practices and so on – which are higher (or more restrictive) than the US’s. This means that America will not be able to have a competitive advantage by exporting its rubbish to us.

At the time of the referendum campaign one after another of the leading Brexiteers was telling us that we could ‘easily’ compensate for any European trade losses by means of an agreement with America. But now we can see that that will carry a price. We could sign a deal with the USA by cutting loose entirely from the EU and lowering our standards. Most of the ideological Brexiteers won’t mind that at all: ‘free-er’ trade in this unfettered ‘race to the bottom’ sense is what they’ve been after all along. Indeed, it could be the main motive – though only a whispered one – for their Brexitism. But now its implications been more clearly revealed, it’s not certain that the bulk of their compatriots will agree. They’ve been rather put off recently by the idea of ‘chlorinated chicken’ and bug-infested cheese.

So thanks, Donald. Now let’s see if his ace of spades has any effect – either way.

PS. my FB friend Marie Clausén adds this, helpfully: ‘From what I’ve gathered, it’s not just that product and practice standards will have to be lowered in order for a trade deal to materialize between the UK and the US, or indeed between the UK and Canada or the UK and any other non-EU country. It’s that the deal, as it is currently worded, prohibits the UK from making extra-EU trade deals without the explicit approval of the 27 EU states in each case.
‘So for the UK it will be a case of having the shite cake (not being in the EU) and eating the shite cake (still not being allowed to independently negotiate trade agreements globally), too.’

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What Theresa Might Have Said

This is what Theresa May should have written in the papers today:

My dear people,

I’m appealing to you  directly in order to bypass my cabinet and Parliament, who seem to be merely playing politics with Brexit for party or sectional advantage, and in the hope that you, the people, will put pressure on them to pass the divorce agreement I have negotiated with the other countries of the present EU, despite the fact that it isn’t popular with anyone. But isn’t that in the nature of any ‘negotiation’, whose best outcome is invariably a compromise?

I myself can see the flaws in it, and admit that Britain’s situation under it will be worse in almost every respect than if we had stayed in the European Union. Indeed, that was the reason why I advocated and voted for ‘Remain’ at the time of the 2016 referendum; which, I agree, makes it odd that I should be the one who is endeavouring to implement the result of that referendum now. So let me try to explain.

There are a number of reasons. One is that the other possible candidates have all ruled themselves out: some by resigning as soon as the impossibility of the task became clear (Davis, Raab), others because they can’t be taken seriously as political leaders (Boris, Jacob, Govey, Farage), and probably won’t be, by the wider electorate. (Although who knows? I understand that Boris made quite a name for himself once, simply by bumbling on Have I Got News For You. The English seem to like eccentrics, even stupid ones. And with politics now being regarded rather like a TV popularity contest, they don’t have any other means of judging great issues.) My own great advantage here is that I seem boring – ‘robotic’ is the epithet usually applied to me – which means that I have no charisma that might lead you astray.

So far as I’m personally concerned, one of the reasons I’m here is that I’ve always wanted to be Prime Minister, and the fiasco over Brexit just happened – quite fortuitously – to give me the chance. Another, more principled, reason is that I’ve long felt strongly about immigration; the effort to control which dominated the agenda of my long depressing spell as Home Secretary, albeit unsuccessfully. (They still kept coming in.) The ‘hostile environment’ was one of my earliest slogans in this connexion; ‘queue-jumping’, ‘go home’ (on the side of a truck) and ‘only if they’re rich enough’ are the latest ones. I’m sorry if these don’t sound very sympathetic to poor oppressed refugees, but that’s the sort of woman I am. (Don’t be fooled by the fact that daddy was a Rev.) Never mind that I already had control of extra-European immigration (the darkies), and even of European immigrants if they couldn’t find work (it’s in the EU constitution); putting the blame for immigration on the EU was a sure-fire way to make me popular (I hoped) with voters who had been persuaded by right-wing newspapers that Europe was at the bottom of it. (Together with outlawing bendy bananas. It was clever Boris who made that up.)

OK, so Brexit was always a terrible idea; leaving Britain weaker, poorer and more vulnerable to outside forces that are far more powerful and malevolent than ‘Brussels’: like the USA (insisting on lower food and labour standards if we want to trade with it); the onward march of global capitalism; and even Russia, the old enemy. Of course it would be better if we could call the whole thing off, and go back to being a part of the EU, on the same (generous) terms, if it would let us. We’re all saying that, privately. There are also the undeniable facts that the Referendum was won for the Brexiteers by means, just coming to light, of chicanery and foreign interference – it makes sense to both Trump and Putin that Europe is broken up; that it was foolish of David Cameron to have called it in any case, on those terms (a simple majority and on a vague question) and just then (at the peak of austerity, when the electorate just wanted to get at him); and that it was largely the elderly who voted for Brexit, many of whom have died since, with new young and Europhile voters taking their place – meaning that the ‘popular will’ has almost certainly shifted in the EU’s favour since June 2016. All this would seem to suggest that it would be wise to have another popular vote on the terms of our departure, which no-one was clear about in 2016; not only wise, but also pretty democratic, one would have thought. The Brexiteers in my own party, however, have a different view of ‘democracy’, holding that once the ‘people’ have voted one time they can’t be allowed to change their minds – or, in this case, their demography. I’m not sure that I accept this, but I’ve been parroting it robotically, because it’s what my Brexiteer MPs expect of me. And they have been shouting louder than anyone else over the last couple of years.

This really is at the root of my problem. It’s not just my MPs, but also the right-wing media, presenting the debate in terms of a battle between ‘the People’ and ‘the Establishment’, with the Establishment said to be only too willing to ‘betray’ the People at every turn. This ignores the fact that most Brexit leaders are Etonians and currency speculators. But quite apart from that, the effects have been to make the debate far less rational than it would have been otherwise; to split the country violently, at least in its public discourse; and to raise the spectre of serious social and political unrest if I’m seen to renege on that original ‘people’s vote’. Of course, in reality the split was there before all this Brexit business started. It was largely the result of ‘austerity’: the erosion of the welfare state and so of any kind of ‘social contract’ between government and people; and behind that – probably – the development of capitalism into its late, self-destructive phase. But the true response to this – more social democracy – is too much for a Conservative like me to swallow. So the only solution – an interim one – is to give the impression of obeying that 2016 ‘people’s’ verdict, in order to make the best of a bad job. That’s what my European settlement does.

You may not like it, any of you; but just bear in mind the alternative: more domestic conflict, and the emergence of all kinds of political extremes as a result. It’s hardly far-fetched to fear that neo-Fascism (of a distinctive British, Daily Mail kind) could be one of those. Or the Commie terrorist-hugging Jeremy Corbyn living in Number 10. You don’t want that, do you? – So, back me. And tell your MP to.

Your faithful servant (supposedly),


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The Guardian is currently running a series of reports and articles on European and American ‘populism’, of which this is one of the latest and, I think, best: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/22/populism-concept-defines-our-age. Cas Mudde (A Dutch political scientist) defines and explains populism not in terms of ideology, but as centred around a perceived or instinctively felt ‘opposition between the people (good) and the elite (bad).’ That perception can have both Right- and Left-leaning forms, but today is mainly associated with Right-wing nativism: extreme nationalism, xenophobia and the like; and authoritarianism: ‘firm government’, exclusion, protective walls, masculinism, intolerance of difference, and – in the USA – guns. The Left-wing alternative made a brief appearance a few years ago – Podemus, Syriza, Corbynism – but now seems to have been eclipsed by Trumpism, Ukippery, the Sweden Democrats, and all the other forms of overtly Rightist – sometimes suspected of being proto- or neo-fascist – movements all over Europe and Trumpland. These movements’ particular political ideologies are important, and in the case of Rightist populism are I think to be feared, but they vary from case to case, and at bottom are merely attached to this underlying feeling of resentment of political elites – hierarchies, experts, metropoles, snobs, ‘bubbles’ – who are considered to have no ties at all with ‘ordinary people’ and their concerns.

All this crystallises my own views, which I think I’ve vaguely indicated in some of my blogs: for example, https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/20/this-dreadful-referendum/. Mudde doesn’t supply an answer to the problem – if it is such – in this brief article. (He may do so in his books, which I haven’t got round to yet.) My solution to them would be twofold.

The first would be to study the people’s resentments and their real roots (which may not necessarily be what they think they are) more empathetically, and without dismissing them as merely stupid, even if many of the expressions of them objectively are. Apart from anything else, that merely puts the populists’ backs up. Remember, this is – in part – a revolt against ‘elitism’, which can easily be confused with knowledge, expertise (viz. Michael Gove) or even intelligence. Expressions of superior knowledge, or even ‘facts’, can be provocative. We must tread carefully here.

Secondly: can’t we try to make our (British) Parliament, both Houses, more truly representative of the generality of our population: electing or appointing Members, for example, who have done real jobs, quite apart from student politics, privileged placements in Party central offices, or public relations and journalism? (I’ve also posted before on this: https://bernardjporter.com/2017/07/19/boris-the-harlot/.) That should pop the ‘bubble’ which is felt to surround our ‘political class’ just now. It would also allow us to point out how fundamentally unpopulist and indeed elitist most of the present leaders of our (British) Right-wing populist movement are – mostly Old Etonians and rich stockbrokers. And it might even warm the ‘people’ – as it did at the very beginnings of the ‘Labour Representation Committee’ in 1900 – to a radical Labour Party as a truer and more hopeful expression of their deepest feelings than a movement led by the likes of Farage, Boris and Rees-Mogg can ever be.

It could also ease the transition to a genuine social democracy, whose betrayal at the hands of Thatcher and the late-capitalist behemoth lies – in my humble and more controversial opinion – at the root of all our troubles, including the blinder sorts of populism. But first we have to – gently, and without sneering at them – see the current populists off.

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