Tuesday
Aug282018

Centrists won't save Britain

Liberals are peddling an ahistorical nostalgia. The people aren’t buying it.

-Published in The New York Times
-August 2018

LONDON — As Brexit and its attendant chaos hurtle toward us, one of the most darkly humorous features of contemporary British politics (a competitive field) is the ubiquity of parliamentarians, pundits and business titans who wail and gnash at our ceaseless political tumult but appear utterly incurious about the conditions that produced it.

Ten years on from the start of the financial crisis, they cannot entirely ignore the many ways in which politics has been reconfigured by the 2008 crash and its aftershocks. Such stalwart defenders of a certain brand of “common sense” capitalism have watched in horror as ill-mannered upstarts — on both the right and the left — build power at the fringes. But these freshly emboldened centrists pretend that the rupture has no connection to their own dogma and seem to envision the whole sorry mess as some sort of administrative error that will be swiftly tidied away once the right person, with the right branding, is restored to authority.

“There is a hole in the center made for a savior,” an op-ed essay in The Times of London declared earlier this year. That article, like many similar ones that have appeared before and since, mentioned the former Prime Minister Tony Blair, his fellow New Labour luminary David Miliband and Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister under David Cameron’s first government, as possible candidates to lead a liberal revivalist movement along the lines of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party in France. There’s never any shortage of speculation on who might fill the hole. The trouble is that neither the would-be figureheads nor their media cheerleaders seems to be interested in why it appeared.

Take United for Change, a centrist political vehicle founded by the multimillionaire entrepreneur and former Labour donor Simon Franks. The nascent party is on a mission to “break the Westminster mould.” To this end, Mr. Franks has secured private investment of £50 million ($64 million) reportedly and put Mr. Blair’s son on its board of directors. The form this mold-breaking might take remains hazy: A brief (and now deleted) section on the party’s website setting out its political views included a promise to “address all the big questions which politicians have swept under the carpet for too long.” What those questions are or how they might be answered are concerns that can seemingly wait for another day. All that matters now is the noise and the lights, the razzmatazz that announces “I am here” and need say nothing more, because the assumption is that you want to be here too.

United for Change is entering a crowded marketplace. Since the Brexit referendum, we’ve seen the emergence of a host of abstract nouns masquerading as political parties: Radicals UK (floated by a journalist at The Economist), Democrats (the brainchild of James Chapman, a former adviser to the Tory chancellor George Osborne), Advance and Renew. There’s nary a fleshed-out policy platform to be found among them, just a deep and abiding ahistoricism with nothing to say about how yesterday’s Third Way ideology, which reduced politics to a mere epiphenomenon of market forces, might have contributed to today’s disarray.

Mr. Clegg has published a book, “How to Stop Brexit (And Make Britain Great Again),” which rails against the economic damage that Britain’s exit from the European Union will inflict but rarely mentions the brutal austerity program he helped preside over, which by 2020 will have seen $36 billion per year cut from the social welfare budget. Last month, a study by an economist at the University of Warwick concluded that austerity may have boosted the Leave vote by as much as a decisive 10 percentage points. Policy Network, a think tank intimately associated with New Labour, recently published a report examining the crisis within the party between the centrist old guard and an increasingly dominant left. It included an entire section on the creation of a “personality cult” around the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, but made no mention of wage stagnation or housing affordability.

These absences matter because they lie at the heart of why for so many people, especially Britain’s youth, the social compact upon which pre-2008 politics was based has crumbled beyond repair. The elite promises underpinning the age of supposed technocratic legitimacy — university education or vocational training leading to a life free of poverty, the dream of a “property-owning democracy,” a claim for capitalism’s ethical superiority — are broken. For a generation that has witnessed the longest period of declining real incomes in 200 years, and that will be the first in over a century to end up poorer than their parents, the prospect of returning to an era of political gradualism and passive spectatorship does not hold much appeal. That’s partly why the bold leftism of Labour under Mr. Corbyn has proved popular even as center-left parties across Europe are being decimated.

The breakdown of any political order can be both emancipatory and revanchist, and today both dynamics are in plentiful supply. In Britain, the far right is on the march both in the streets and in the halls of power, and the struggle against it is critical. But this fightback will not take the form of reheated slogans and nostalgia for the “end of history,” as illusory as anything conjured up by flag-waving, little-Britain Brexiteers. Instead, it will be led by new forms of political organization built by the people and communities that were marginalized under the pre-crash order.

That’s already happening. You can see it at Westminster, where the grass-roots Labour group Momentum is forming a bridge between radical social movements and institutional politics, widening the party’s membership base in the process. It has manifested itself in the emergence of movements like the London Renter’s Union, which is using the collective strength of tenants to agitate for new housing solutions and resist exploitative landlords. And it runs through the string of victories racked up by insurgent trade unions such as United Voices of the World and the Independent Workers of Great Britain, which both represent and are run by some of the country’s most insecure workers and which are growing even as traditional unions continue to shed members.

The practitioners of “post-ideological” managerialism can no longer couch their private interests in the language of the common good; politics is being reanimated from below. Against this backdrop, United for Change is a spectacle masking an intellectual void. The party and the class it represents have forgotten that many of the people they are advertising to are children of the fall — their fall. Please forgive us if we don’t look to them for advice on the rebuild.