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The British Road to Dirty War

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The Remainer establishment appears indifferent to strong feelings in the country, and seems poised to throw petrol on the flames. We may all regret the consequences.

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What do you get when you have a Conservative Party that doesn’t conserve, a Labour Party that doesn’t represent the interests of the working class, and a Liberal Democrat Party that is neither liberal nor democratic?

The answer is: a pretty accurate description of the current British political landscape. Here are different kinds of political ice cream for sale, but when licked they all turn out to have roughly the same unpalatable taste: a bland, socially progressive, anti-traditionalist, globalist, corporatist flavour. And, you the people, don’t ask for anything else! We know how to make ice cream. You don’t.

Of course, it is Brexit and the reactions of the political classes to it, that most clearly reveals the startling democratic deficit in the United Kingdom. Brexit is, though, not the cause of political strife. It is merely the symptom that has brought these latent anti-democratic inclinations to the surface. Arguably, they have always been there in one form or another since ancient times.

In November 2016, Nigel Farage told the BBC’s Andrew Marr: ‘Believe you me, if the people in the country think they’re going to be cheated, they’re going to be betrayed, then we will see political anger the likes of which none of us in our lifetimes have ever witnessed in this country’. It was an obvious point and true. Yet the striking thing about such a warning has been the degree to which national politicians and media have tried to ignore it.

How, we might wonder, has it all come to this and, just as vitally, what are the possible long-term consequences?

The rise of the new political establishment

That there has existed a patrician political establishment in Britain, which has for many years implicitly assumed a right to rule based on a patronage system of education, class, and social connections has been indisputably validated over the years by those like Jeremy Paxman, whose instructive book, Friends in High Places: Who Runs Britain (1990), appeared 30 years ago.

It has only been within the past two decades, however, that commentators, such as Peter Oborne in The Triumph of the Political Class (2008), noted the growth of a new ruling establishment, which despite its outward modernity, has become ever more careerist, self-serving, cynical and manipulative, especially in its reliance on spin and clientelistic relations with mainstream media outlets. Characteristic of this political class has been an increasing disconnection with, and often contempt for, the rest of us.

As a consequence of the decline of mass based parties, political reliance on big-business donors has grown. At the same time, a technocratic political elite has arisen that is willing to contract out decision-making to supranational organisations like the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and United Nations on just about everything from finance, the law, border security, and the environment. The result is what political theorist Peter Mair perceived as increasingly hollowed out national political institutions. One had the technical appearance of democracy, via things like elections, but no real substance. Whoever was elected to office merely perpetuated the same ruling orthodoxy under slightly different guises.

The title of Peter Mair’s work in which he observed the rise of post-national and post-democratic practices was Ruling the Void (2013). And, presiding over a democratic void is just how the new political classes like it, for in this state they remain largely unaccountable, free from serious scrutiny, and free to propagate and enrich themselves.

Towards state capture

All this, it might be said, merely reflects human nature, which has a predisposition to form into hierarchies, with powerful elites and sectional interests establishing themselves at the top of the social structure. Amongst others, Adam Smith recognised this condition in his discourse on the economics of markets. Successful enterprises, which may once have sprung from free-markets, have a tendency to grow into monopolies and oligopolies that contrive to rig the market in ways that keep prices artificially high and exclude competitors.

For thinkers like Adam Smith the rule of law was intended to maintain balance and ensure the integrity and fairness of the market to prevent monopolistic behaviour. In a not dissimilar manner, the role of parliament in a mature democracy like Britain was to balance out competing interests and claims to power, which included giving a voice to the lower orders. For such a system to flourish it required parliamentarians to be somewhat representative of the people who elected them. Thus, they functioned as the will of the people in parliament, whom through dialogue and debate would mediate and resolve issues in a manner that broadly accorded with the expressed wishes of the electorate.

With the rise of the new political classes, a different political dynamic is emerging. Drawn from similar backgrounds (often middle-class, university educated, with little prior career experience outside politics itself), members of parliament increasingly sound alike, think alike and act alike. The evolution of a monochrome political establishment is producing a radical disconnect, which the Brexit denouement is throwing into stark relief. What we appear to be witnessing is the corrupt mutation of the notion of the representation of the people in parliament, into the substitution of the will of the people by the interests of the political class. We are entering the realms, no less, of state capture.

What happens when sectional interests capture the political institutions of the state? This is a question we will get to, but first it is worth reiterating that in many senses this has been a long time coming, and to emphasise, in the British case has little or nothing intrinsically to do with Brexit. Therefore, let’s take a dive back into the recent past to identify at least some of the sources of this political mutation.

Betting against the people

It seems that for at least twenty years the new political classes in Britain have been placing a bet on the political future. They are betting on the quiescence of the public at large, who will either not notice or not care that elites are entrenching their own power and interests. They are gambling that the public, kept compliant by political spinning, a constant diet of soaps and reality television, debt, social media pap, welfare dependency and the like, will not work themselves up into any state of anger of the sort anticipated by Nigel Farage if their political preferences are dishonoured. Or at least not enough of them will to make a difference.

In other words, for many years now, governments, along with a significant fraction of the population, have calculated that the bulk of the people can either be kept in a state of apathy or bullied into submission. How, it might be asked, have they reached such conclusions?

To start, let us go back to 1989, and illustrate how times have changed. In that year, thousands of British Muslims, mainly from the Barelvi and Deobandi communities, rioted and called for the death of the novelist Salman Rushdie on account of his portrayal of Mohammed in the novel The Satanic Verses. The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1988 but lost out to Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.

Fast-forward three decades and Rushdie’s novel today would likely either be unpublished or quite probably the author would find himself at the wrong end of a hate crime investigation. In an interesting sign of the times, following the killing of 12 of the staff of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in the spring of 2015 by jihadists for depicting cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, Peter Carey was amongst the many authors who vilified the murdered writers and illustrators, decrying the ‘cultural arrogance of the French nation’. How times change? Je suis ne pas Charlie.

Cumulatively, over the past three decades, then, the empirically demonstrable lesson is that violence and threats work. Crudely, there is simply no arguing with the fact that violence is the deus ex machina for changing the way people think and act. Physical force is a method of political communication, and when it is sustained it invariably succeeds in changing minds and changing policies.

Under the threat of violence, it is often easier for governments to knuckle under for the sake of maintaining a semblance of peace, to wax piously about societal cohesion and resilience, and to climb onwards as though the status quo ante were not crumbling beneath them. The progressive factions of academia, culture, and media cheer them for it. So, if the populace don’t really react in the face of such threats and actual violence, and merely light candles and hug teddy bears, then the bet of the political classes is sustained. They have gambled correctly.

A cornered political class

The flipside of this bet against the political future is that it operates under a level of diminishing returns. When it becomes evident, as it increasingly has in many Western societies, that changing things politically is nearing impossible within the rules of the system, by the power of the ballot not the bullet, the calculus begins to change. When it seems that the system is so kludged up because the government is weak, parliament is duplicitous, the bureaucracy is intransigent, the odds on sustaining the gamble lengthen.

To illuminate the point, extreme Europhiles fail to apprehend the significance of the current moment. Imagine, if the UK had elected to stay in the EU, voting 52% Remain against 48% to Leave on 23 June 2016, what would be the mood in Remainer households if Prime Minister Boris Johnson just announced that on the advice of his Europe Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg that Britain was leaving the European Union after all? Would apathy reign?

It is not as though the playbook of the Remain fraction, namely, most of the political class—which is a minority fraction in the country, but a majority fraction, in parliament—has been particularly clever or inscrutable. On the contrary, it has unfolded almost entirely as Eurosceptics expected that it would: delay declaration of article 50, hobble the withdrawal negotiations, continue Project Fear, and most unforgivably sabotage meaningful No Deal preparations.

Aside from the lack of artifice in the Remainer/political class strategy, in the face of an obvious attempt to frustrate the democratically expressed will of the people, the odds lengthen further. Control over events begins to be break down. Parliament votes for an in/out referendum: the establishment almost uniformly campaigns to Remain. The government warns of the dire consequences. Foreign governments are dragooned to bolster the message. But the people, having grown sceptical of the political classes for the past two decades, vote to leave anyway.

Trapped by a result they didn’t want or expect, the major parties both, nevertheless, fight the general election on a manifesto pledge to honour the result of the referendum. The government defends its right to declare article 50 in the High Court and then Parliament votes for it setting a date of departure, 29 March 2019, to which we are now speeding. Events have slipped out of the control of the political elites.

Throwing away the rule book

There is a dominant theory of the cause of revolutions, analysed by those like Ted Robert Gurr in Why Men Rebel (1970), according to which people rebel not so much when they are materially deprived or when they are repressed but when a significant gap materialises between the future they have been promised and expect and the reality of their actual circumstance.

Consider these promises: ‘In or out, you decide, we implement’, Prime Minister David Cameron said during the referendum. ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’, Prime Minister Theresa May pitched in afterward, adding ‘Brexit means Brexit’, to boot. Consider then the messages now emanating from Westminster: not-Brexit is Brexit! Vote again but do it right this time! No deal cannot be contemplated (or planned for)!

Political theory, especially in the British tradition stemming from philosophers such as John Locke, enshrines the principle that democratic political order rests firmly upon the consent of the people to be governed. People are individually naturally and rightfully free, but they surrender some of their liberty in return for some collective goods. It is this practice that is embodied in the ‘mother of parliaments’, which is perceived as being a gift to the world. As seen in the founding acts of the now Commonwealth dominions, these gifts may be summarised as peace, order, and good government.

The system works because everyone behaves by the rules. On either side of the bargain—the governed and the government—mutual obligations are observed in service of the common interest, which is the stable continuance of a non-tyrannical political order. Here we come to the disquieting part of the continuing Remain campaign, a campaign that seemingly supersedes party loyalty, not to mention national loyalty, which is its willingness to throw away the rulebook. Only a brazenly confident, or foolishly out-of-touch, political class would chance this. The bet on the future is doubled.

The object of all these machinations has been to corral the British population into a Hobson’s choice between Brexit-In-Name-Only and no-Brexit. It is no secret now. The plotters, finally, so close to the bell calling time on Britain’s membership of the EU with a deal or without one, have declared it openly that they will not permit to occur what is the current legally mandated outcome of events. They will instead tie the government in knots, prevent its preparations for No Deal Brexit, and if necessary, crash it.

Yellow vests / white vans

Thus, we come to the ultimate gamble of the political class, one that appears strongly to be operative in the minds of many in Parliament, namely, that Britons do not rebel and, therefore, faced with a fait accompli they will lump it even if they do not like it. Unlike the French, Italians, or Germans each of which nation is prone in its own way to violent mass spasms of political passion, the British are a phlegmatic people given to the sensible path. So the cliché goes.

It is true to an extent that revolution is a continental phenomenon that does not travel well across the English Channel—British governments have been better at responding to incipient uprisings, sometimes deflecting them, betimes co-opting their leaders, but mostly muddling through by accommodating their demands within the parameters of the status quo. This is a system that has succeeded precisely because parliamentary democracy, for over 300 years now, is able to internalise the will of the people, even when faced with threats of violent revolt, be it in the demands of Chartists, Irish nationalists or suffragettes.

Should we be so sanguine to believe that the British political system, for so long a beacon of stability, is immune from the turbulence that has afflicted other societies? As Remainers are so keen to remind us, we are not an island whose fortunes and follies are separate from those of our near-neighbours. If people, goods, and ideas flow freely across the borders of Europe why should not the concept of the Yellow Jackets too? White Van Man voted strongly for Brexit, after all. Why should there be an Alternative for Germany movement but not an alternative for Britain, even though the people were asked to choose one and did?

Where are we going?

To these questions, the British establishment appears curiously indifferent, underestimating the degree to which passions in the country are inflamed, not on the ‘radicalised’ fringes but squarely in the middle, and more than half of Parliament looks poised to throw petrol on the flames. Pundits often talk of the ‘Westminster bubble’ but it would be better to call it a box, a box into which politicians themselves have barricaded themselves.

Those behind the plan to thwart Brexit by altering the standing orders of the House of Commons on the fly imagine this as a temporary alteration to the established mechanisms of power, which will return to normal after Brexit. That is to say, when the rules serve their ends, they are inviolably sacrosanct; but when they do not, they are perfectly mutable administrative procedures. ‘This is not a wholesale reordering of the British constitution’, averred one of the plan’s prime movers. ‘It would be a one-off surgical strike and afterwards things would go back to normal’. Such thinking reflects an astonishing degree of mental closure, an astonishing degree of hubristic contempt, or an astonishingly dangerous wager—anyway it is simply astonishing.

That the political class was taken aback by the 2016 referendum result, demonstrated that it has only a tenuous grasp of the feelings and aspirations of the wider population. If they miscalculated people’s position on the EU, then we have no guarantee that the gamble on the people’s willingness to remain compliant in the face of further broken promises and the dishonouring of a clear democratic instruction will go unanswered. Political failure has consequences about which the elite seems to have given no thought whatsoever.

Historical parallels are inexact at the best to times but one doesn’t have to look too far back to see where the corrosion of democratic legitimacy can and probably will lead. It leads to extreme societal polarisation, and a miasmic concoction of fear, radicalisation and violence. We can see this in the condition that is currently afflicting France and its yellow jacket uprisings. We saw it in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s when the country slid into the anni di piombo – the years of the bullet. And, most insidiously, we saw it in the actions of the Latin American governments and their so-called dirty wars, in which sections of the population fought each other openly and covertly.

Behold the new Bourbons

Last week the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling warned that putting a stop to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU may end the centuries of ‘moderate’ politics that the UK has enjoyed since the English Civil War. Remainer politicians rounded on him, predictably accusing him of scaremongering and practising ‘gutter politics’. The veteran Labour politician Roy Hattersley waxed imperiously, ‘I don’t think many people would regard Chris Grayling as an expert on these matters or, indeed, on anything’.

But we are expert on these matters. We have for decades studied why things fall apart, how a stable, essentially self-policing, productive society can turn into an ungovernable tumult roiling with rage. We know that this happens at first very slowly, a creep-creep-creeping to the limit; and then very fast indeed after the limit has been passed. We also know that no amount of free beer and pizza parties will swiftly return a society deranged by the shattering of the social contract by its own elite back to normality.

The Hattersleys of this world are deeply complacent. They are the new Bourbons who have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. The threat of violence is not absent in the British polity. It is there, lying dormant. From time to time, it even makes an occasional appearance. A hollowed out and increasingly discredited set of political institutions is all it can take to set the flames alight. This is the British road to dirty war. The political classes are sowing the wind. They shall reap the whirlwind.

Professor David Betz is Professor of War in the Modern World, Department of War Studies, King’s College, University of London

Professor Michael Rainsborough is Professor of Strategic Theory, and Head of the Department of War Studies, King’s College, University of London. 

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About the author

Professor David Betz

About the author

Professor Michael Rainsborough