Cunning Cummings

Labour’s main tactical error – among many lesser ones, I’m sure, like most of the other parties’, except perhaps the SNP – was to agree to a general election before  Brexit had been settled; either by voting Johnson’s ‘deal’ through – it was already halfway there, whatever Boris said about that nasty Parliament’s obstructing it – or by means of a second referendum. I imagine Labour was ‘dared’ into it by the prospect of the Conservatives and the press painting them as ‘chicken’ – or ‘frit’, to use Thatcher’s schoolgirl word – if they were seen to avoid it. The result however was to allow the election to be dominated by the issue of Brexit, and – so far as Labour was concerned – by many of its traditional voters’ deep resentment at its apparent equivocation on the issue. If Labour had either got its referendum in first, or  waited for Boris’s withdrawal bill to pass, the question would have been swept under the table before a general election fought on the issues that Labour wanted to fight it on could be called. The electoral situation then would have been entirely different.

I imagine that extreme ‘Remainers’ – like the Lib Dems – were partly responsible for this, elevating the EU issue above all others. That was self-defeating. As most people are now aware, the election hasn’t ‘Got Brexit Done’, as Boris pretended, because of the long negotiations that still need to be pursued in order to finalise Britain’s relationship with the rump EU. Those could  keep the UK within the – or a – European customs union, which is what Corbyn had proposed, and what he would have secured if he had been returned as prime minister. The Europhobe zealots wouldn’t have liked that, any more than the Europhiles, but they would have had to lump it. Then a new Labour government, which must  have come about in these circumstances – the Tories were just waiting to be skinned alive – could have turned to their manifesto promises, and started building the new, compassionate, internationalist, egalitarian and above all hopeful  nation that Corbyn seemed to promise to his young acolytes. As it is now, however the ultimate Brexit deal turns out, the Tories are left free afterwards to do their neoliberal pro-American worst to us.

I suspect that this was on Dominic Cummings’s mind all along. Brexit, being unfinished, could be ridden by the far Right to the sort of victory it  wanted. Europe was only a means to this end. He’s a cunning bastard. (‘Cunning’ implying not only ‘clever’, but also ‘unprincipled’.) I don’t think we’ve given him enough credit for that.

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Wealth and Propaganda

Labour’s manifesto was broadly popular. More than that, I felt it was absolutely necessary in order to rescue the country from the neoliberal pit into which it has fallen. It was also practical, ‘costed’, and not all at all ‘extreme’ by comparison with the past (the 1940s-‘60s, say), or with what is considered mainstream opinion in many European countries today. At the beginning of the campaign Corbyn was not the villain he came to be portrayed as at the end. That was the doing of – yes – the media, whose appalling treatment of him during the election – its monstrous lies and distortions – is recognised by everyone, even those who benefited from it.

Britain’s media is in fact the problem, although it sounds a snowflakey sort of excuse to say so. The Tories and their backers were, quite simply, less honest and principled than the opposition, and cleverer, in a Machiavellian way. Not more ‘intelligent’: that requires an entirely different mindset, obviously not taught at Eton. They had the best liars. Our side hardly lied at all. That’s confirmed by several objective studies. (See And it’s why we lost; together with the great tsunami of proto-fascist populism that is presently engulfing both Europe and the United States (the ‘last stage of capitalism’? It certainly looks like it); and of course the extremist pro-Israel ‘lobby’, with its weaponising of the Jews’ horrific sufferings under the Nazis to libel the gentle and tolerant Corbyn as an ‘anti-semite’. That really was the pits. I’m expecting any Jewish friends of mine to distance themselves from it if they still expect my friendship; just as Americans here in Britain feel – quite rightly – than they need to distance themselves from Trump. And as I’m expected, in Sweden, to make it clear that I don’t go along with Brexit.

I was hoping – though not with any great confidence – that Corbyn’s policies and character might raise the level of political debate in Britain to overcome these huge obstacles. That they didn’t, reflects worse on our present political environment than it does on him. His critics now say he should have – in effect – modified his line in order to pacify the Right-wing press, as Blair did, for example, by seeking out Rupert Murdoch to get the blessing of the Sun and the Times. That looked to me at the time to be giving in to blackmail, and it certainly didn’t have the effect of allowing Labour to pursue a radical (socialist) policy, but merely to perpetuate Thatcherism in a slightly softer form. In Corbyn’s case, can anyone seriously see him managing to placate the Press billionaires and the ‘pro-Israel lobby’, short of dumping his genuine social-democratic views and his support for the Palestinians? That he didn’t should add enormously to our respect for him. (As you can see, I’m still a fan.)

What to do now? Take a page from Dominic Cummings’s book, and resort to lies and dirty tricks just as his side have done from the 2016 referendum on? That might be acceptable to the very far Left, and I’m sure we social democrats could be clever enough; but it might clash with our sense of moral superiority (!). Set up barricades and try to launch a violent coup? I’ve toyed with this idea (, but only to reject it, partly out of cowardice, and from my historical knowledge of how violent revolutions usually turn out. Merely replacing Labour’s leader won’t do it, and achieve anything like the results the Labour election manifesto promised.

In fact it will require, first of all, an overhaul of our whole political system; starting with our voting system (see, and the ownership of our press. That might make all the difference. After that would be the restoration and reinvigoration of ‘Civics’ teaching in schools; and, as I’ve advocated before, education in ‘Logic’ (see Abolishing the Public schools – or, short of that, insisting they’re subject to taxation – would probably help. Encouraging people to think and act socially rather than individualistically would be a great improvement, but I don’t know how that could be done. (In 1945 it required the shared experience of a war to do it. That’s a bit drastic.) Politicians could be sent over to Scandinavia to see how it’s done there, though they’d have to hurry – the Rightist tsunami is currently edging in that direction too. But the first two reforms – parliament and the press – are the most essential ones.

Johnson has promised a ‘commission’ to enquire into our constitution, such as it is: Everyone assumes that his purpose here is to strengthen the hands of the executive branch; but it’s possible that it could be hijacked by liberals and radicals to make the House of Commons more genuinely democratic. The press is in a bit of a crisis now, losing out in competition with ‘social media’. That might dilute its impact. (But then of course the social media present other problems.) And, beyond all this, there are signs that the Labour manifesto sowed some ideas that are catching on. Rail nationalisation is apparently popular. Parents are becoming desperate for better and cheaper child care. Students can see that their enormous debts could be lightened. People are becoming persuaded that ‘austerity’ was a choice, not an inevitability. The Tories are even now promising great things for the neglected North of England, to pay the Northern working classes back for supporting them. Scotland has been reinvigorated to push itself free from its dominant Tory neighbour. Ireland may come closer to unity after the Brexit split. Light has been shed on the sufferings of the Palestinians. The ‘toxicity’ of politics has been widely deplored. All these ideas came to the surface during the election, and as a result, in part, of the Labour manifesto. So all might not be lost. And if Labour keeps its nerve, we may see a social-democratic government yet. In which case Jeremy Corbyn could go down in history as its John the Baptist: ahead of his times, rather than behind them, as he is so often portrayed.

That shouldn’t be taken as a prediction. This latest demonstration of the ability of great wealth armed with diabolical means of propaganda to cheat its way back into power offers little real hope for us on the Left. And in any case it wouldn’t do much good for my generation, who are unlikely to be around to see the new dawn.

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Another Victor

One of the ‘victors’ I left out of my post a couple of days ago ( is that section of the British Jewish community that purported to regard Jeremy Corbyn as an existential threat to them; which was one of the most egregious lies of the whole Right-wing campaign. I was chary of mentioning this for fear of being labelled an ‘anti-semite’ myself. (That’s the way they work.) Right up to the last moment Tories like Gove were parroting the same slander. Of course there were many other Jews who tried to counter it, including my old thespian friend Miriam Margolyes; and it’s difficult to say what proportion of the blame (or credit) for the election result should be attributed to this factor. But it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. My hope is that it doesn’t engender a new and this time genuine anti-semitism among disappointed Labour supporters. It was a dangerous weapon for Jews and Rightists to employ.

If the ‘Israel Lobby’ was a winner, the Palestinian cause is obviously a loser. Corbyn was the first potential PM to espouse it. Hence the slander.

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A Different Place

Katherine Viner, editor of the Guardian, tells us that when she woke up yesterday morning, she felt that Britain was ‘a different place’. It was the same for many of us. The country had suddenly flipped over to a condition that many sensed had long been coming, but with Boris Johnson’s overwhelming victory had finally become a reality. There seemed no way back.  All our modest hopes – for a return, no more, to the state of social decency that had been ours, roughly speaking, before Thatcher came on to the scene – had been smashed. The future looked grim; cut off from our best friends in Europe, and ridiculed mercilessly internationally; apart from by the USA and Russia, who adjudged that Brexit was in their own interests, and may have helped plot to achieve it, but were no real friends of ours. Freed at last from ‘Brussels bureaucracy’, we were now soft-bellied and vulnerable, open to be exploited by US capitalist imperialism. On all the ‘Brits in Europe’ and ‘Europeans in Britain’ Facebook sites I subscribe to, Britons were bitterly complaining of losing their European citizenship, and Europeans of being made to feel unwelcome for the first time in their British homes with their British families. The sense of pain expressed there is distressing to read. Brexit is incontrovertibly the most disastrous foreign policy decision Britain has ever made, even taking Suez and the Iraq War into consideration. No wonder we’re depressed. I couldn’t even look at a newspaper or watch a TV news programme for 24 hours after the event. If I do it now, I have to have a strong drink to hand.

Actually, it’s not primarily ‘Brexit’ itself that has got me down. We’ve still to learn how exactly that will turn out. Johnson’s winning slogan, ‘Get Brexit Done’, was one of his (or Dominic Cummings’s) many blatant lies. Negotiating trade arrangements to replace those we are losing will take months, if not years. It is difficult to believe that the result will be as ‘hard’ a Brexit as Johnson seemed to threaten originally, in view of the crippling harm it must do to the British economy, and – as some commentators have pointed out, trying to cheer us up, I imagine – the freedom his huge majority gives him to ignore the swivel-headed Europhobic ideologues who made so much trouble both for him and for Theresa May while the latter had only a few votes to play with. We might even be able to wheedle ourselves back into the Common Trading Area, which was of course Corbyn’s compromise. I’d go along with that.

There are two things that worry me far more. The first is the effect of the process  on our public life: the toxicity of the debate, the insults, the murder and rape threats, the anger, the xenophobia, the irreconcilable divisions… in sum, the sheer nastiness  that has been either created, or perhaps revealed, in our national character; fired by the unprecedented degree of sheer lying and cheating that was resorted to by (mainly) the Brexit side, and especially by Johnson himself; and the distrust in politics and politicians generally – ‘they’re all the same’ – that this seems to have given rise to.

Since the election this has been diverted into a rather unsalubrious blame game on the Left, targeting Corbyn in particular. As a probably naïve and old-fashioned admirer of Corbyn, I’ve been distressed at the criticism he’s getting now from members of his own party, after he’s bravely – even heroically, in my view – withstood three years of the most savage attacks from the Right-wing press, with a rare dignity. This filial tribute by his sons, though obviously not impartial, expresses my view: It’s unfair in the extreme, I think, to lay all the responsibility on his shoulders. The worst that can be said of him is that he is too ‘good’ for modern politics; from which I would infer the lesson that it’s our politics that must be changed – the press, for example: do British people realise how badly it compares with almost any other country’s, or with Britain’s own in the past? – and not the man. This must be possible. Other European countries – Sweden, for example – don’t have this problem. Until then it will take a long time, and a lot of effort, to restore trust and civility to our public life. It’s in this sense that Britain is now ‘a different place’ to me too.

My second worry is for what Johnson is going to do with his great majority in the future. He’ll have to pump money into the NHS – this will be a welcome effect of the Labour campaign – and into the police. But that won’t rule out further privatisation and Americanisation of the former; or the rest of the neoliberal agenda he and his and his wealthiest supporters are wedded to. And then there’s that ominous paragraph tucked into the end of the Tory election manifesto, promising a ‘reform’ of Britain’s parliamentary and judicial constitution (, in order to further empower the Executive branch, which at the moment, of course, is him. That way, I believe, could  lie Fascism, albeit of a misleadingly cuddly, Borissy, kind.

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The Victors

Of course it’s a great victory for Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, and for the spirit of Machiavelli hovering over their heads. It’s also a triumph for our Right-wing press, perhaps the least ‘free’ and fair in Europe; and for Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, both of whom were backing Boris for national reasons of their own. Lastly, because one of its effects is likely to be the continued onward march of unfettered Anglo-American capitalism, it could be said to bear out those Marxists who hold that capitalism cannot be reformed (a la Corbyn) but must be allowed to go on to self-destruction before it can be replaced. That, after all, is the main trend just now all over Europe, in the strange guise of ‘populism’, and taking on quasi-fascistic forms. Britain can’t, it seems, escape the grand imperative of history, any more than any other nation. In her particular case, Brexit is the horse her ultra-Right have ridden to their victory.

Just as in a ‘Khaki’ election, so here Brexit was used to override (or ‘trump’) every other issue. First it was the issue itself, albeit with Europe serving as a scapegoat for other concerns; then the time it was taking to settle it, which was inevitable in view of its complexities, but which Johnson blamed on Parliamentary ‘obstruction’, which enabled him to mount a ‘people versus Parliament’ campaign. ‘Get Brexit done’ was virtually his only appeal to the voters. Well, now perhaps it will be done; although most authorities believe that, with detailed trade negotiations to follow, there’s a long way to go yet.

What the election result can’t do is to ‘bring people together again’. For a start, the Scots will be even more determined to break away from a Union whose policy towards Europe doesn’t represent their democratic wish at all. Then the Northern Irish won’t be too pleased with Johnson’s arrangements for them. In England the 48% who originally voted for Brexit – it would almost certainly be more if the referendum were taken today – won’t rest content with a result largely achieved by lying and fraud. That spells years more angry division. Corbyn’s strategy might have healed our wounds. But that’s out of the window now.

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What To Do if We Lose?

On my way to vote this morning I was buoyed by all the Labour posters in the windows of our professional middle-class inner suburb. The only non-Labour one was a solitary Green. (Bless their hearts!) But of course I’m worried about the country generally. And thinking about what we should do if Boris does get the overall majority he wants, and leads us into a bad Brexit: a quasi-colonial relationship with the USA; a sell-off of the NHS; a bonfire of all our other social services; abolition of the state-funded BBC and Channel 4 (the latter because it ridiculed him: shades of Donald Trump); the derision of most of our neighbours; and – last but emphatically not least – a brand-new constitutional settlement putting greater powers into the hands of the Executive – i.e. him – at the expense of the Legislature and Judiciary (see All this quite apart from my – widely shared – distrust of his morality, veracity and character.

My dilemma now is this. In view of all the blatant and unprecedented deceptions, illegalities and dirty tricks that have helped bring us to this point, will we Lefties, Remainers, liberals, and disillusioned old-fashioned Conservatives be justified in refusing to accept the result, and fighting back extra-parliamentarily?

But of course it’s not done and dusted yet (while the polls are still open). I’ll be watching the results come through tonight, hoping for a miracle. Apparently young voters are braving the driving rain in order to get out and vote. The country depends on them to bring it to its senses. Not my generation, which is the one that has let them down.

So far as I am personally concerned I always have Sweden to flee to. Or do I? On my last visit I learned that the Moderaten (Conservatives) are planning an electoral alliance with the Sverigedemokratera (Sweden’s equivalent to UKIP), whom they had spurned like lepers before. (Sorry, lepers.) In Britain, of course, the far Right has taken over the Conservative Party. That seems to be the dominant political trend of the time.

I don’t want to man the barricades (although – be warned – I did gain the rank of ‘Marksman’ in my school CCF). But Brexiters have threatened this, if the election goes the other way. Why should we keep to the rules when they don’t? (That by the way was Churchill’s excuse for bombing Dresden.)

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Island Stories (Review)

Back in Blighty, and back to serious blogging soon. And aren’t these serious times? In the meanwhile I’m posting here a review of mine that has just been published in the Literary Review. Or, rather, my original version of it; the LR  edited a couple of things out, including my waspish reference to Cambridge High Tables.


David Reynolds, Island Stories. Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit.  294 pp., William Collins, 2019; £16.99.

Bernard Porter

It’s probably too much to hope that anyone on either side of the current ‘Brexit’ debate will have a proper grasp of the history which many of them claim backs up their positions on the issue. This is despite the fact that a number of the leading Brexiteers have themselves dabbled in British history, and even written books about it; most notably Boris Johnson with his fairly well-received The Churchill Factor. How One Man Made History (2014); and Jacob Rees-Mogg with The Victorians. Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain (2019), which was – it is fair to say – not so well received, at least by academic historians. (‘Clichéd’, ‘lazy’ and ‘mind-bogglingly banal’ were just three of the terms used to describe it.) The problem with those books goes beyond the actual history recounted in them, and is indicated by the subtitles of both, which imply a view of how history is ‘made’ which not many of today’s academic historians would share. Both regard history as essentially moulded by ‘great men’. Most commentators on Johnson’s book saw it as an effort to acquire at least a patina of Churchill’s ‘greatness’ for himself.  (His Churchill book has been called an ‘auto-biography’.) Very few academics, of course, can claim to be ‘great men’, even in the making, or would want to be; which may be one of the less reputable reasons why they were so rude about Johnson’s and Rees-Mogg’s trespassing into their territory.

Another is that they disagreed with the emphasis on Britain’s past national ‘greatness’ that these two authors clearly felt their ‘great men’ (and one great woman, Queen Victoria, in Rees-Mogg’s account) had created; so, no doubt, offering hope to Prime Minister Johnson that he could do the same. This scepticism over their country’s high status could be attributed to a simple lack of patriotism, such as one might expect of ‘liberal élitists’; but is also, David Reynolds would say, borne out by a proper reading of British history. By that he doesn’t mean a reading that over-emphasises its less admirable aspects – though these should certainly be given their place, in the interests of balance, fairness and truth – but one that acknowledges that Britain’s history has been highly complex – ‘this is a book about “stories”, plural’ – and was to a great extent beyond its own, and therefore even its ‘greatest’ men’s, control. ‘In reality,’ writes Reynolds,  ‘“we” have been “made” by empire, Europe and the world as much as the other way around’. This is crucial. And when it comes to what is generally acknowledged to have been the ‘Leave’ campaign’s most effective slogan – ‘Take Back Control’ – it must be salutary, at the very least.

The core of the book is built around four main themes, pursued across the last thousand years of British history. The first is the idea of ‘decline’, stemming of course from the notion of Britain’s former greatness, and possibly also feeding it retrospectively. (We must have declined from something.) Margaret Thatcher was particularly moved by this. ‘I can’t bearBritain in decline. I just can’t. We who either defeated or rescued half Europe, who kept Europe free, when otherwise it would be in chains. And look at us now!’ Hence her ambition to ‘make Great Britain great again.’ (Did Trump get this catchy slogan from her?) This has been the Right’s obsession ever since Britain’s ‘decline’ first began to be noticed around the time of the Boer War; and also – as Reynolds points out – some of the Left’s, although in a different guise. It is certainly one of the things feeding into Brexit. In the view of the Right it all came down to a lack of national ‘nerve’, or ‘leadership’ – in other words of ‘heroes’; like Churchill, to whom, as Reynolds puts it, ‘the heroic narrative has been sharpened down’ in recent years. Hence Johnson’s book, and his own pretensions.

In the following chapters on ‘Europe’, ‘Britain’ and ‘Empire’ Reynolds spikes most of these arguments: for Churchill’s dominating ‘greatness’, for example; for Britain’s achievements in World War II – forget the Battle of Britain, think Singapore; for the myth of Britain’s ‘splendid isolation’; for the notion that her imperialism was either a sign or a source of strength – ‘Looking back now,’ he writes, ‘the great British Empire seems like a bit of a con’ (how dismissive can you get? But he’s quite right); and for the idea that Thatcher really did anything to reverse Britain’s ‘decline’ in any meaningful sense. In fact it was her neoliberal economic policies that were largely responsible for the social divisions in Britain which were the real fuel for the Brexit vote – nothing at all to do with the European Union – so contributing to the final decline into national chaos that marks the country’s situation today.

In any case, whatever Britain’s ‘greatness’ really consisted of, it can’t be attributed to strength of individual ‘will’. Reynolds’s book is punctuated throughout with examples of the ways good (and bad) fortune mainly determined her progress during the years: from her literal insularity, through that ‘Protestant wind’ that scuttled the Spanish Armada, the fact that Europe’s internal squabbles left Britain the pick of the wider world to colonise freely in the nineteenth century, and her early industrial start. Without these slices of luck she could never have sustained her illusion of ‘greatness’, which was always artificial and fragile, and which renders the condition she is in now the normal one for a nation her size. Which means that it doesn’t need to be ‘explained’, and cannot hope to be reversed by returning to past glories, as Johnson appears to wish. Finally, it was only a ‘decline’ in relative terms. Those people (there can’t be many of them – it probably depends on what kinds of schools they went to) who bemoan the fact that Britain is not ‘top dog’ any more forget that although ‘other dogs are bigger… the British dog is now a lot fatter than a century ago.’ Which is the better measure of the nation’s good? If you think it’s her so-called ‘greatness’, Reynolds writes at one point, ‘this may not be the book for you.’

For those who believe that the great Brexit split really was over ‘Europe’, Reynolds supplies a brief history, over a thousand years, of Britain’s relations with her Continental neighbours which should at the very least disabuse them of the idea that she was never a ‘part’ of it.  Even ‘Britain’ itself  – Teresa May’s ‘beloved Union’ – has always been a smoke and mirrors thing; and was certainly not as ‘exceptional’ – in its ‘liberties’, for example – as British patriots like to claim. (Think Ireland, which seemed to take Brexiteers by surprised in the autumn of 2019; and the Scots Nats.)

‘Both sides’ in the Brexit debate, writes Reynolds, ‘tended to use “history” instrumentally’ – although, to be fair, nearly all his examples are taken from the ‘Brexit’ side. The ‘Remain’ camp mainly gets away with it lightly; apart from some possibly unfair (rather Cambridge High Table?) comments on Corbyn, whose views on the EU were, after all, rather more nuanced than most, which is usually what academic historians like. Reynolds’s main complaint against the Remainers is that they failed to make a sufficiently positive case for Europe, which could itself have been based on history. But it’s the Right who were guilty of actually distorting the historical record. For David Cameron, one of whose favourite books was apparently Henrietta Marshall’s Our Island Story. A Child’s History of England (1905), history ‘seemed to figure mostly as a reservoir for national pride’. For others ‘the past served as a repository of slick historical analogies’, or of ‘sound-bite warnings’, like Boris Johnson’s notorious citing of Hitler to warn of the dangers of the EU ‘superstate’. None of them used the past in what a professional or academic historian would regard as a proper way. ‘Johnson, of course, was a rhetorical showman, who understood the utility of history as entertainment.’ Which is probably why more people will read him than Reynolds; and why it’s such a shame that the ‘Remain’ side never had a popular rhetorician to compare with him.

This is a splendid book: a clear, well-written and highly stimulating account of the flaws in our understanding of our national past that bedevilled the great existential debate of 2016-19, and helped produce the result it did. We could have done with it two or three years ago. But then ‘real’ history, based on extensive reading, research and the wisdom of a true historian, takes a while to write.

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Back to the Stuarts

The following comes towards the end of the current Conservative Party manifesto. Armando Ianucci has brought attention to it in a recent tweet. He thinks it’s alarming, as do I. It clearly arises out of Boris Johnson’s frustration at the very proper ‘checks and balances’ that Parliament and the Courts imposed on his recent efforts to drive his Brexit legislation through quickly, and without proper scrutiny; which of course is what led him to trigger the current election.

But its implications go far wider than that. It could empower the Executive over the other branches of our government to a degree unknown in peacetime Britain since the seventeenth century. It also fits in with the populist – ‘people against Parliament’ – narrative that Boris has being trying to push in the campaign. That way, of course, lies Fascism. Which is not to say, of course, that we’re anywhere near there yet; but it is well to be forewarned.

Here’s the passage (p. 48):

‘After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people. The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime is critical. We will update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and elective government. We will ensure that judicial review is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays. In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates.’

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Chapter 14

Back in Sweden, I’ve just completed my additional chapter for the sixth edition of The Lion’s Share. It’s called ‘Brexit and the Empire’. I thought of pre-posting it here, but it’s rather long. The publisher and I are hoping to get the book out at roughly the time that we leave the EU. If we don’t  ever leave, which is still possible, I’ll need to adapt it a bit, but not by much. It’s about the Brexit movement, rather than Brexit itself.


Otherwise, and on the great issue of the day, I’m feeling a little more cheerful than when I left England. The polls seem to be improving for Labour. Boris, now exposed in an unfamiliar (i.e. serious) role, is getting universal condemnation and scorn for his waffly, ignorant and mendacious TV interviews. Jeremy is looking more statespersonlike by contrast. Or is this simply the stuff I’m getting through Facebook, automatically selected to fit my prejudices?

In the face of criticism by correspondents, I’m still enamoured of Corbyn’s approach to Brexit. Why should he come down on one ‘side’ or the other, when (a) he’s anyway a critical  ‘European’ (like me); (b) there’s a compromise to be had, which (c) will be far more likely to ‘bring the country together’ than either of these two alternatives, and (d) is the most transparently ‘democratic’ of them all, simply because it gives the final say to an informed (this time) electorate?

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What is Brexit Really About?

For any historical event, there are usually several layers of explanation, interacting with one another. In the case of Brexit I wouldn’t like to claim that what I offer below is the only explanation, but it’s worth considering, among all the others. It may look like a ‘conspiracy theory’, but it isn’t really, because it doesn’t require a small group of people ‘breathing together’ (conspirare) in secret. Often people act in unison but independently of each other, and for their own reasons. And their beliefs and actions may not in themselves be the ultimate causes of the events they appear to be promoting, but may be affected and even formed by impersonal, and unperceived, forces beyond their control.

Our present political difficulties, I should like to suggest, come into this category. Here, the ‘unperceived force’ is the ‘crisis of capitalism’ that has been impatiently predicted for decades by Marxists, but seems only just to have arrived; after several false alarms that were defused in the past by, for example, imperialism, wars and welfare socialism, all of which acted to solve, temporarily, the inherent and inevitable self-destructive tendency of late-stage ultra-free-market capitalism. That’s the elephant in the Brexit room, looming over the deliberate or conscious motivations of the ‘Brexiteers’ themselves, including nationalism, racism, romanticism (Boris), self-aggrandisement, anti-élitism, and the host of littler resentments and prejudices that surround what is called ‘populism’ today.

Many of these motivations are inconsistent, even contradictory; but one major one in the case of the leaders of the Brexit movement shines through. That is the ambition to ‘free’ Britain from unwelcome economic and political restrictions, some of them emanating from Europe but not all, in order to return Britain to the condition that is supposed to have been hers in the glorious nineteenth century, before all those interfering socialists came along. Because the USA is seen as the true inheritor of that tradition in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the nation that is still holding the torch of ‘freedom’ proudly aloft, it is natural for the Brexiteers to wish to get closer to her, notwithstanding ‘chlorinated chicken’, the marketisation of the NHS, and all the rest. It also explains President Trump’s support for Brexit, and his closeness to Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. If Britain achieves Brexit along Boris’s lines, then it is almost certain that she (or rather, her government) will follow it by using her newly acquired ‘freedom’ to dismantle some of the domestic restrictions on enterprise represented by, for example, trade unions and legislation on ‘health and safety’. That will bring her closer both to the neo-liberals’ utopia, and to the USA.

Of course Brexit is ‘about’ Brexit for millions of those who voted for it; either that or – as I have argued before ( – arising out of a general resentment against the Tory-Lib government, austerity and our flawed political system. For those who have seized the reins of the movement over the last three years, however, and have now taken over the old Conservative party (Keith Simpson’s) almost completely, like those extra-terrestial human-devouring aliens in the old science-fiction movies, it is about something else. It’s the culmination of the movement Margaret Thatcher set in train in the 1980s in what I’ve called elsewhere the ‘Great Reaction’ against the social democracy of Attlee’s and Wilson’s Labour Party, and has been growing in ascendency ever since, even through ‘New Labour’ times. We can tell it’s really that if we examine the social and financial situations of most of its rich and privately-educated leaders and propagandists; including, of course, the billionaire and tax-avoiding owners of 85% of the British Press. It’s also borne out by their quite unbalanced hatred of Jeremy Corbyn – who is reacting against the Great Reaction – which is what is mainly firing the Conservatives in the present election campaign. It is also suggested by the unprecedented political cheating and foreign meddling (American, Russian, Israeli) that have brought us to this situation. Lies and dissembling are more characteristic of capitalism, I would venture to claim, than of the Left. It’s something to do with advertising, commercial amorality, and ‘winning at all costs’. – But I’ll put some more thought into that.

The Right has been sitting waiting for this since the 1960s. Now Brexit has given it the perfect opportunity to achieve its long-term aims. The ‘anti-semitism’ row has been a further unexpected (because untrue) bonus. What a bit of luck (for the Right)! Whether or not this entirely or even mainly explains Brexit, it’s undeniable that the neo-Liberal Right has cleverly exploited whatever other reasons there may have been for it, to its own material advantage. And it may well win.

I’m off to Sweden soon, but will be back just before the election. The result of that may decide whether I move to Sweden permanently, to get away from a country I used to love but now hardly recognise any more. I’m not alone. 8,000 Brits have applied for and been granted Swedish citizenship over the last year. And the figures are probably higher for warmer countries.

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