Delusional Thinking from a Bygone Age

Why Martin Kettle is wrong about the Tory right

Martin Kettle, Guardian columnist and longtime Blairite, has written a piece in the Guardian(11/4/19) claiming that whatever happens next, “the nationalist right has lost the Battle for Brexit”. This is a spectacular example of wishful thinking, of trying to analyse the present through the optic of the past, more specifically, as we explain below, trying to squeeze today’s reality into the world as it existed before the 2008 financial crash. In today’s world, the Tory nationalist right has not lost the war for Brexit, on the contrary Brexit has already enabled it to win many battles and opens up the prospect of much bigger victories.

Martin Kettle claims:

“It is now nearly five months since May signed the EU-UK agreement on Brexit. Since then, the Conservative party’s rightwing nationalists have repeatedly tried to defeat the deal and to oust May. They have dominated the airwaves and won some famous victories along the way, but in the end, they have decisively lost the war.”

What Martin Kettle means is that the latest extension from the EU – certainly to June, maybe to October – has scuppered the hopes of the Tory right for a short-term ‘no deal’ Brexit. But the nationalist right inside the Conservative Party and beyond is playing a longer and more important game. And it continues to pose a massive threat to the working class, the oppressed and the labour movement.

Martin Kettle too easily dismisses the longer-term and more fundamental nationalist threat. He says:

“They [the Tory right] talk as if they will still capture the party leadership over breakfast, rewrite the Brexit deal at lunchtime, abolish the Northern Ireland backstop at tea, and win a general election on a populist English nationalist and deregulatory platform in the evening. It is all a fantasy. They have lost. Their strategy is bust.”

The key phrase here is “it is all fantasy”. What is the evidence for this claim? Simply that:

“Their bravado comes from a failure to understand the subtle change in mood that is happening in parliament and, to a degree, in the country. Even if they capture the leadership, which is not certain, their other triumphs are wholly imaginary. There is no majority for no deal among Tories, let alone among MPs more generally. On the contrary, the majority against the go-it-aloners is growing. Their bluff has been called, and they are too foolish and too dogmatic to realise it.”

This much too easily conflates the medium-term danger of a hard-right Tory government with support now for a hard Brexit, and is much too sanguine about the ‘mood in the country’.

Three days before the 2016 referendum SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon claimed it was an attempted coup by the Tory right[i]. That it was, and much more – an attempt to push British politics sharply to the right.

To see how Brexit has affected the political climate, consider two things.In the summer of 2012, the EDL led by Tommy Robinson, went to Walthamstow and suffered a humiliating defeat. Routed around the back streets by the police, and outnumbered by the anti-fascists, the EDL suffered a humiliation. Vice magazine wrote an article entitled ‘Walthamstow, where fascists go to die’and said that the EDL had grunted to a halt. Robinson was visibly upset by the fiasco. And yet seven years later he has hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, and speaks to thousands at rallies in London and elsewhere. At the same time Sunny Handal wrote in the Guardianthat multiculturalism had won the day in Britain, period. Now we are in the midst of a tidal wave of Islamophobia and xenophobic racism.

Obviously the background to this change is the sharp turn to the right internationally, of which the election of Donald Trump is just the most dramatic example. And the more general background is fallout from the 2008 crash and the damage done to working class communities and the labour movement by all the defeats since the 1980s. 

Lexiteers will point out that countries inside the EU suffered equally from a rise in racism and the far right, but its British form has been crystallised by the referendum and Brexit. There’s no question that Brexit provided a focus and a linchpin anchoring all the xenophobic arguments about immigration, enabling the radical right to reach out to new audiences. It wasn’t so long ago that British leftists and liberals would look askance at the rise of the Front National in France, and be grateful that the extreme right wasn’t such a threat in the UK. No longer.

What has Brerxit achieved for the hard right? First, it has focussed political attention on immigration and away from austerity, grinding poverty, and social exclusion. Labour canvassers in Greater Manchester preparing for May’s council elections report that there’s only one issue on the doorsteps: Brexit. Like antisemitism for the Labour right, this is an issue that keeps on giving for the Tory right, UKIP and Nigel Farage and his new party. 

Multiculturalism, deeply embedded in ethnically diverse communities[ii]and among young people, has not been crushed. But its opponents are on the offensive. And it is deeply shocking that many working-class people in former labour movement bastions take xenophobic anti-EU nationalism as straightforward common sense. Helped of course by the mass media’s incessant Islamophobia, campaigns against EU migrant workers and rantings against Jeremy Corbyn.

More than just focussing attention on immigration, Brexit has enabled a giant political scam, one typical of the fascists and extreme right for the last hundred years, the claim that they stand with ordinary people against the ‘elite’, which is frustrating their interests. Brexit has given the entire right wing a cause, a banner and a goal to mobilise millions.

The Brexit campaign has succeeding in pushing the Conservative Party further to the right, and their de facto candidate Boris Johnson seems likely to become the next Tory leader. If the Conservatives win the next general election, Johnson (or someone like him) would lead a brutally right-wing Tory government that would threaten many of the residual gains of the post-1945 settlement – for example an NHS free at the point of need. 

The prospectus for a hard-right Tory government was published in 2012 by five MPs – Dominic Raab, Elizabeth Truss, Chris Skidmore, Priti Patel and Kwasi Kwarteng – in their book Britannia Unchained, Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity. The core of their argument is simple – people in Britain don’t work hard enough:

“The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”[iii]

In 2012 the book was widely derided and denounced as the rantings of young Tories who have read too much Ayn Rand[iv]. Its prescription is that the economy and the labour market must be further deregulated. In the epoch of Trump and with Boris Johnson at the head of a right-wing Tory government, this programme would be an imminent threat.

Like Martin Kettle, The Economistreckons the Tory hard Brexiteers have lost the immediate battle. Accusing them of tactical incompetence, it compares them with ‘ravening crocodiles’ and finds them guilty of ‘foaming intransigence’[v]. However:

“Does this mean that the headbangers have finally had their day? They are undoubtedly at risk of losing the Brexit war… But that does not mean that they have lost the battle for the future of the Conservative Party…The Brexiteers have numbers on their side. …more than 170 Tory MPs wrote to Mrs May demanding that Britain should leave the EU on April 12th, deal or no-deal…The numbers are even more lopsided in the constituencies: more than 70% of Tory party members support a no-deal Brexit. MPs who have peddled a softer line on Brexit, such as Sir Oliver Letwin and Dominic Grieve, have faced deselection threats from their local parties.”

In consequence theEconomistthinks that the Tory party is done for as a mainstream party of the British ruling class:

“…competing theories about what is happening to Britain’s ruling party—that it is undergoing a process of collective nervous breakdown; that it is splitting asunder; or that it is being misled by UKIP infiltrators—are wrong. The truth is more dramatic than this. The party that was once the instrument of the British establishment is in the process of metamorphosing into a full-scale nationalist-populist party. That may involve a certain amount of splintering as the likes of Mr [recently resigned MP Nick] Boles decide that they cannot stand it any longer, but that is rather different from a split down the middle.”

Some recent polls show Labour doing well in any upcoming European elections, given Tory disarray. Don’t bank on it. These polls were taken before the public launch of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. European elections, if they happen, could result in massive defeats for both main parties and a boost for Farage. The experience of the 1980s shows how third (and fourth and fifth) parties can be used together with an enormous media anti-Labour campaign to stop Tory disarray turning into Labour victories. 

Any type of Brexit includes a core element that is common to all shades of Tory opinion, and to which Labour has largely surrendered – the end of free movement of workers. That is the irreducible element of ‘taking back control’ and the symbol of its xenophobia.

Outside the Conservative Party the xenophobic right and the fascists await the prospect of further advances. In a previous period, in the years following Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979, the hitherto growing National Front was marginalised by the Thatcher government. A right-wing Tory government might similarly marginalise UKIP and Tommy Robinson, but again don’t count on it. We are living in a different period, and the examples of Hungary, Italy and Poland show that a huge right-wing political space can encompass a strengthening variety of hard right and fascist movements.

Martin Kettle’s apparent minimising of the risk of the Tory hard right probably reflects a yearning for the golden years – not Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘golden age’ of the post-Second World War boom and its mixed economy, welfare state, settlement[vi]– but the Blairite years, the neoliberal equivalent in which the Tories were marginalised, and poverty and inequality were papered over by tax credits and public-private partnerships. Only mass disaffection with Blair’s participation in American wars discomfited the post-social democratic right in government and its media supporters. This Blairite idyll was blown up by the 2008 crash, and its demise was heralded by the huge vote for UKIP at the 2009 Euro elections, as I commented at the time.

There is no use pretending that the Blairite version of the golden years can be recaptured. It is as kaput as Michael Palin’s parrot. 

For Blairites it’s not just Brexit, but Jeremy Corbyn that symbolise these changes. And the massive polarisation that has occurred in British politics, which cut the ground from under them.

How it pans out depends, in part, on what the Labour leadership does. But also on what the rest of the Left does. There is no way forward that gives an inch to racism and Islamophobia, or which fails to champion multiculturalism, or which doesn’t appeal to the youth, migrant workers and ethnic minorities.

Phil Hearse, 16 April 2019


[i]https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14556787.nicola-sturgeon-leave-campaign-is-an-attempted-coup-by-right-wing-tories/

[ii]But not in some ethnically divided communities like Oldham and Bolton.

[iii]Palgrave, 2012

[iv]See: Rand, A., Branden, N., Greenspan, A. and Hessen, R. (1946). Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Signet. Ayn Rand is the author of Thatcher’s phrase ‘that there is no such thing as society’.

[v]https://www.economist.com/britain/2019/04/04/the-tories-are-transforming-into-a-party-of-populist-nationalism

[vi]The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, Eric J. Hobsbawm, London, Michael Joseph, 1994, ISBN: 9780718133078; 640pp.

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1 Comment on Delusional Thinking from a Bygone Age

  1. Serious contribution and essentially correct.

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