A.C.Grayling on Brexit & Britain

I was reading this piece by the philosopher/public intellectual A.C.Grayling on Brexit https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/ac-grayling-on-brexit-1-6322238

I sympathise but there’s an awful lot of wrong in there and while I agree with the general thrust of his argument, I think there are deep flaws that need highlighting.

Naturally, I’ve no particular complaints about the sections which describe how uniformly awful Tory policy and internal politics have been prior to and throughout the Brexit debate. Manifestly, Cameron’s austerity policies deepened divisions, insecurity and unrest in Britain. Equally manifest was the cynical use of a referendum to resolve internal Tory tensions on Europe not only spectacularly backfired in terms party unity but also led to what was an internal toxic debate within conservatism become a national toxic debate. It was the equivalent of picking at a zit an causing a massive facial infection that runs the risk of spreading to the brain. On these points Grayling is correct but also they are (or rather should be) unremarkable.

I do have issues with some other matters though. The first has to do with the Labour Party:

“Miliband’s mistake was to change the rules for Labour Party membership and for election of the leader in such a way as to make the party hostage to the least electable – and as it has proved, least effective – leadership since Foot. His changes led to an influx of entryists from the left and their choice, with the artificial power of the block vote of Len McCluskey’s Unite union, of Corbyn as leader. This has proved one of the biggest helps to the Tory Eurosceptics on the far right of politics, because Corbyn, who has learned nothing and not moved on from his apprenticeship at the feet of Peter Shore and Tony Benn half a century ago, is a Brexiter and has abetted the Brexit cause mightily, only very lately being moved – with a sound of screeching dug-in heels – by the massively Remain Labour members and voters to less of a fudge on the issue. “

Grayling sees this very simplistically but I’d contend he is largely wrong and right only by evading key aspects. I have always been doubtful about Corbyn’s capacity to lead the Labour Party and there is a factual element to Grayling’s point about Corbyn’s electability. However, Grayling treats this just as a matter of fact about Corbyn, as if ‘least electable’ was some intrinsic property of the man. Corbyn has his flaws but his views are neither as extreme as his detractors make out and his abilities as politician and thinker are not particularly poor – indeed compared to the man who is the actual Prime Minister, Corbyn is a model of careful thought and wise leadership. Corbyn has made missteps but nothing anywhere near as appalling as David Cameron’s error — a politician that prior to Brexit was held up as an epitome of moderate, sensible leadership.

The truth about Corbyn is that he is unexceptional except in one regard: he is to the left of the Labour Party. Otherwise, he is unremarkable in his qualities as a Labour leader. Even his approach to Brexit has been typical of Labour leaders with major issues of the day: try to manage a principle compromise and avoid taking a strong ideological stand. On nearly any other issue other than Brexit, the pressure on the Labour leader to the square the circle on divisive matters would be the norm. It is Brexit that is exceptional in that it is an issue in which the centre and self-perceived moderates of British politics feel a strong and full commitment to the EU is needed. They have a point but it is a point the left has made to plethora of Labour leaders in the past: take a strong stance on a issue and you will bring voters along but vacillate and you concede ground to the right.

The electability (or otherwise) of Corbyn is no mystery either. The Labour Party is a coalition of political movements and ideologies. All mass political parties with hope of forming a majority in government are coalitions of this kind. However, that coalition within Labour has been built on a premise that the right of the Labour Party will not concede to the left and the left must always concede to right. For Corbyn to succeed he would have needed to have been an exceptionally adept and probably far more ruthless politician. Milliband’s “mistake” was that rank and file support for a Labour leader would not necessarily transform into support from Labour MPs. However, party political reform is never easy nor swift. Labour wouldn’t transform into (or back into) a more participatory mass movement party overnight. At a different period of history this would have been just another chapter in the evolving nature of the British labour movement. The ‘mistake’ was that this coincided with the absurdity of Brexit.

“That moderated, with a more temperate tone entering politics in the period between the end of Thatcher and the post-2010 coalition. But as a result, politics became somewhat less attractive to energetic, clever and ambitious people, with the result that – with some extremely honourable exceptions – the general quality of MPs is not nearly what it was.”

I don’t know if this is true one way or another. I suspect it isn’t but more to the point Grayling skips over how this argument is actually a strong argument for Corbyn. Grayling is also skipping over a deep and obvious political divide in the UK during those years that is directly relevant: the Iraq War.

In both the UK and the US the ostensible left-of-centre political parties supported the pointless, globally destabilizing, incompetently run, morally compromised and politically deceptive war in Iraq. The difference in the UK was that the party in power was that very left-of-centre political party. Britain’s support for the US war in Iraq was a terrible decision on multiple levels but if we focus just on how it shaped future party politics, it led to whole swathes of Labour politicians being essentially compromised by their support for a monumentally bad policy. Tony Blair’s support for Bush’s war created a deep chasm of distrust within the Labour Party and between Labour and it’s electorate in general. The Global Financial Crisis was less a creation of Labour’s but being in power when the GFC also helped deepen the mistrust between Labour and the wider population.

On other matters were Grayling is not wrong but not entirely right either consider:

“And finally on this fourth point, we need to recall that our hopelessly undemocratic first past the post electoral system lies at the rotten core of these arrangements. It disenfranchises the majority of voters, turning them off politics. It puts majorities into the House of Commons on minorities of the popular vote. It entrenches two-party politics, in which elections produce one-party government by turns – with the foregoing ‘elective tyranny’ resulting. It is a mess, and reform is urgently needed.”

This is true but I suspect secondary to the core issue. Once Brexit became a national topic of debate, it would only be properly resolved with a substantial majority one way another. A more proportional parliament might have a different spread of political parties but it is not clear that it would have a majority of MPs in favour of Remain. Yes, more proportional voting or voting that doesn’t penalise smaller parties (as in Australia) may have eased divisions with the Tory party *if* the system had been running for years but only by making it easier for Eurosceptics to gain electoral success outside of the Tory party. Indeed, that is what happened with UKIP gaining votes in the more proportional European Parliament elections.

Which takes me to what Grayling is avoiding: why support for the EU is less strong than it needs to be to defeat the nationalistic Brexit supporters. Yes, the right wing press in the UK has been running anti-EU propaganda for decades and the Brexit campaign during the referendum used lies, nationalism and xenophobia to drum up support. However, Grayling is complaining about the far-left being insufficiently in support of Remain. Yet he doesn’t take time to consider why people who otherwise don’t buy into either Boris Johnson’s pathological lies or Nigel Farage’s racism, may still be less than 100% in favour of the EU. Without that understanding Grayling makes the same common error that runs through all of this: politics is about building coalitions of people with divergent views.

The European single currency placed those countries participating into an inflexible monetary policy. The impact of this in the light of the Global Financial Crisis was severe economic policies placed on a number of countries such as Greece, that would still have suffered economic hardship but which could have managed better if they had had more control over their own monetary policy. The UK wasn’t Greece and wasn’t part of the single currency, but in the years leading up to Brexit, the EU took on some o the worst features of the EU as a project i.e smaller states having to buckle under pressure from the bigger economies. I personally don’t think that invalidates the EU as an entity, anymore than bad government policy by a given government invalidates the idea of the nation it is governing. However, without acknowledging the flaws in the EU, Grayling’s analysis is clearly incomplete. There is left-wing scepticism of the EU for a reason.

I do think Britain should Remain and even a less traumatic Brexit than the possible No-Deal Brexit will cause untold harm. However, either stay focused on the specific issue of Boris Johnson and the failed conservative government or look at all the issues underlying the divisions.

5 thoughts on “A.C.Grayling on Brexit & Britain

  1. Pretty sure ‘electability’ is purely a measure of how well a politicians fits the preconceptions of what a “proper” politician looks like, rather than a measure of whether people will vote for said politician.

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  2. I would take marginal issue with the argument that a proportional House of Commons would perhaps not have as many “Remain” MPs on the grounds that a proportional House of Commons would not have got close to a referendum as mad as this one. Yes, it would have had actual UKIP MPs (which is a good thing) but they would have been small fish in a big pond – and we would have had e.g. more than 1 Green MP too (and that 1 was a real struggle to get to.) Brexit would never have become the issue that broke the country in the same way, although that’s not to say that something else wouldn’t have done – we’ve probably been heading towards this point in the UK since the SDP split and the Thatcher landslide of 1983, if not longer.

    But I agree on the wider point. Labour was scarred by the Iraq War, no question. And it was destroyed by the Global Financial Crisis, meaning that the “austerity project” had no real pushback. And the leadership processes of all parties inherently lead to leaders who are supported by the members rather than leaders who will necessarily be attractive to the country. Corbyn and Johnson were inevitable as each side slowly drifted apart.

    For me, Grayling suffers from what I call Dawkinsitis – they are both very smart men, I don’t deny that, and I respect a lot of their expert work. But that seems to mean that they don’t notice when they fall for the solipsism fallacy (“This works for me, therefore it must be the correct answer and anyone who doesn’t see that is an idiot.”)

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    1. I think long term a more proportional parliament would have avoid much of this but not short term i.e. it would have needed years and broader changes to UK governance (which to be fair to Grayling he says as well).

      But yes, he’s trying to score points rather than solidify an argument and politics isn’t his natural sphere.


  3. “However, that coalition within Labour has been built on a premise that the right of the Labour Party will not concede to the left and the left must always concede to right.”
    Which is a common assumption in the U.S. Republicans doing stuff for the base is normal and acceptable; Democrats are repeatedly told they have to stand up to the base or that their policies are way too far left for most Americans

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