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The bankruptcy of the centre right: Brexit edition


If you want to see how the centre-right can lose out big time you just need to look at the US. Last week a Republican senator who had been critical of Trump lostto a Trump loyalist in a primary. Partisan voters prize loyalty, you may say, but this is loyalty to someone who lies all the time, and prefers the US’s traditional arch enemy Russia to its traditional allies. The US is just a few threads away from becoming yet anotherelected dictatorship. One of those threads is the Mueller investigation, and we will see if any Republican ‘rebels’ who want to impeach Trump are made of sterner stuff than the Brexit rebel Conservative MPs.

The storyof neoliberal overreach is in part about how centre-right politicians set in place or promoted causes or institutions that would allow for the ascendency of the hard-right and then eventually their own demise. In the US this stretches from repealing the fairness doctrine, which led to hard-right talk radio and then Fox News, to increasing the role of money in elections and finally allowing Trump to win the presidency. In the UK it involved promoting austerity and an immigration target that was bound to fail, both of which directly led to Brexit.

Once these conditions have been set in place to win votes or shrink the state, there seem to be two stages in the process through which the centre-right concede power to the hard-right. The first stage is a belief that the centre-right are still in control when clearly they are not, or a blind optimism that the hard-right can be easily bought off. In the UK that is the stage where Cameron gave in to UKIP and newspaper pressure and agreed to a referendum on EU membrship. The centre-right make concessions to the hard-right to preserve party unity.

The second stage is where the hard-right have control, and play on this centre-right belief in party unity to prevent the centre-right from rocking the boat. [1] We saw this in the US under Obama when the Republicans scorned all the President’s overtures for bipartisanship. In the UK we are seeing it right now in how easily most Remain voting Conservative MPs are happy to go along with the current farce, and how easily the small band of rebels can be persuaded to cave.

The latter is due in part to our equivalent of Fox News conducting a hate campaignagainst these rebels. There is nothing subtle about this: try to vote against the government to prevent a national disaster and those big four right wing newspapers will headline on saying you are going against the will of the people and even imply you are a traitor. Whipping up this kind of hatred is no joke when followers of the ultra-right have already murdered one MP and tried to murder another. Yet before you start feeling some sympathy for the rebels subject to these newspapers attacks, remember these same centre-right Conservative MPs were quite happy to indulge the same papers by voting down Leveson 2.

It is also a result of the BBC increasingly shying away from anything that could be construed as critical of the government, and dumbing down political discussion. The rabid right wing press pretend that any form of dissent from the government’s chosen path of implementing Brexit is betraying the will of the people, confusing the government with the people just as authoritarian governments have always done, yet the BBC panders to the idea that these rebels are really trying to stop Brexit by constantly labelling the rebel MPs as Remainers.

As a result, Conservative MPs duly voted through substantial increases in executive power at the expense of parliament. There is now a grave danger that they will get played by the Brexiters. The Brexiters should by now know that any deal that can be done will be some form of soft Brexit, remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market for goods for sure. That is not the kind of divorce they wanted. They keep saying that the possibility of No Deal must be kept in play to increase our negotiating power, having conceded all our negotiating power by invoking Article 50 with no discussion and little plan. Perhaps the real reason is that they would not be at all unhappy that through their belligerence time for a deal disappears, and we get No Deal by default. Chris Grey calculatesthere are only 62 working days left to do a deal, and May is not even near the rangeof possible deals yet. If the Brexiters plan is to talk out a deal so we exit without one, it seems to be going very well.

For months I have been saying that No Deal would not happen because parliament would not let it happen. I still think it is unlikely, but as a result of the votes last week and the UK side in the Brexit negotiations going backwards since December I am much less confident than I was. The slide from a pluralist democracy to an elected dictatorship or a right wing plutocracy[2] is full of moments when sensible people say this could not possibly happen here.

[1] Contrast Conservatives voting on block to sweep aside the Lord’s amendments to the Labour rebellion over the EEA. Often the fact that Labour MPs have views for which they are quite prepared to vote against their leadership is seen as a political weakness, but what we are seeing right now is the Conservative desire for party unity as a colossal political weakness.
[2] Before anyone objects, of course this only applies to the UK on the single decision of Brexit, for now. But Brexit is perhaps the most important change in UK politics since the election of Margaret Thatcher, and the way this change has come about does show structural similarities to the transformation of the US Republican party that led to the election of Donald Trump.

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