Brexit and the Age of Incoherence

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Yves here. This post by Richard Murphy makes similar observations to those made by reader David on a Brexit post earlier in the week:

There’s sometimes a stage in a political crisis where it becomes insoluble within the constraints of the existing system. In this case (and simplifying a bit) all the technical solutions are politically impossible, and all the political situations are technically impossible. The British political system as a whole (and that includes the Northern Ireland dimension) is not simply hopelessly divided, it has no possibility of finding a majority-based compromise solution. No matter how serious the economic consequences of Brexit may prove to be, I have a feeling that the political consequences may be worse, and that we are headed for the running aground and subsequent disintegration of the British political system as we know it. Short of divine grace arriving to persuade the system to revoke the Art 50 declaration, or at least put it on ice for a while, the system looks set to consume itself, with heaven knows what practical consequences. No imaginable initiative by the EU can help here, because the real crisis is not between the UK and the EU, but within the British political system, and especially the Tory Party.

It’s worth remarking here that other comparable European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal) have undergone massive political crises and changes of political systems several times in the last century. Britain never has, and I’m not at all sanguine the “the last functioning medieval state in Europe” in Peter Henessey’s famous formulation will be able to withstand the strain. In a sense, it’s the post-Brexit political crises we should now be concerned about.

By Richard Murphy, a chartered accountant and a political economist. He has been described by the Guardian newspaper as an “anti-poverty campaigner and tax expert”. He is Professor of Practice in International Political Economy at City University, London and Director of Tax Research UK. He is a non-executive director of Cambridge Econometrics. He is a member of the Progressive Economy Forum. Originally published at Tax Research UK

Sometimes you just have to stand back from what is going on and reflect on it. I am trying to do a bit of that right now.

It is not greatly encouraging. Such reflection must be spiced and informed by reality, of course. This morning the news that the government plans that a second motorway is to be used as a lorry park in the event of Customs chaos after 29 March adds that input. That I actually had to check where the motorway in question was did not matter. What did was that we have reached the stage where the government appears to be responsible by planning for economic chaos that is entirely of its own creation. And, despite the obvious absurdity of that situation, this government still seems to have as much popular support as the Opposition, at least in England.

We live in surreal times. The danger is we have become used to them. But worse, we live in a time when government has ceased to have any direction at all. I say that because the reality is that no one really knows what Brexit is actually about. We can speculate endlessly as to why people voted to leave. The truth is every answer may be true. And so none is collectively. But we are doing it anyway. Because apparently that is what democracy demanded, even though we do not know why.

Hence, bluntly, the mess. The Tories can’t agree.

The Cabinet is hopelessly divided – with no sign of any solution.

Labour still has at least four Policy options it might adopt and no one seems clear which might prevail.

Only the SNP of the major groupings in Parliament seems to know what it might do. And no one is paying them much attention.

In the meantime, chaos ensues because no one ever knew what Brexit was about and no one still does, but we are doing it anyway.

Despite which no one seems willing to ditch the government that created this complete mess – because this is a Tory creation from beginning to end.

Standing back what does this imply? I would suggest that it is the end of coherence. There is now no goal. That is true as a nation. It is true of much of the body politic. It may also be true as a society. We no longer know what we want. And the result is we have got what our incoherence inevitably delivers, which is a mess.

But why? That’s the harder one to answer. I’ll suggest this. Too many believed Thatcher. She did mean ‘there is no society now’. The mantra of individualism has played out. And we can no longer find a reason to live with each other. Our neighbour has ceased to be our problem.

There is, however, just one problem in all this incoherence. And that is that our neighbour is still there. And they still have an opinion. And we can’t do without them, much as we try to do so.

The difficulty is that we have lost the narrative of community, but we still live in communities. The result is much more worrying than lorries parked in the M26, absurd as that will be. The consequence will be that until we can find a new narrative that brings us together the age of incoherence will last. And the risk is that the new narrative may be as divisive as the incoherence, or even build on it.

I am worried.

When I was a teenager my elder brother assured me often that when the glorious day came, whoever’s glorious day it was, I would find myself up against the wall. I would always be too awkward to survive. I feel that the threat of that wall is there for far too many now. And the risk that it will be used to enforce coherence is all too real.

The need for community has never been stronger. It cannot be built simply by solving the Brexit mess. Sometime it will have to be built on common aspiration of the people of this country, and others, to live in harmony and not fear. The price of the alternative is much too high.

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71 comments

  1. PlutoniumKun

    Brexit is clearly more than just a stupid policy move. It is a long suicide letter for the UK as it exists. It can only have arisen from a political system that has been resisting change too long and has rotted from the head down. Times like this are both times of crisis and danger, and times of opportunity – for a new way of doing things – as the quote above says, most countries have had to restructure and reinvent themselves in order to stay stable. The UK has avoided this for far too long.

    It would be nice to be optimistic to say that this is an opportunity for Corbyn to take power and genuinely restructure society in a more progressive way. But it seems almost certain that the chaos unleased by Brexit will be too damaging, too unpredictable for this to happen. Even if the government collapses and Labour wins a majority it would be like trying to stop an avalanche with a shovel.

    Its a fools game to try to predict the next steps, but its hard to see this as resulting in anything but a catastrophic recession, parliamentary breakdown, widespread unrest, and most probably, the splintering of the Union (certainly Scotland has what it takes to go it alone).

    Reply
    1. voislav

      It’s a final act in destruction of what you can call Imperial Britain. Even though the Empire has been gone for 50 years, it has been very much alive in the minds and attitudes of the English ruling class. Private schools and Oxbridge served to instil those values onto new generations who are in power now and think they can dictate terms of Brexit as if they just won a war against Europe.

      Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, they are all the same when it comes to this, they are part of a system that failed to notice that they are not an Empire and that they are only 10% of European economy, most useless and destructive 10% at that.

      It will be interesting to see whether there will be a new leadership class that emerges out of the carnage or whether the denial runs so deep that the current aristocracy will be keep a hold on power as the state caves in.

      Reply
      1. DHG

        It will not be going down as the Anglo-American world power goes down at the hands of Gods Kingdom at Armageddon, fully functional.

        Reply
  2. flora

    I wonder if a part of the Tory party welcomes a crash out. But why would they? Donning foil bonnet: “Seasteading meets the shock doctrine” (as it has in Puerto Rico*) might be part of the answer. Are there ultra rich in the UK and elsewhere that see opportunity in the chaos that will follow a crash out?

    *https://theintercept.com/2018/03/20/puerto-rico-hurricane-maria-recovery/

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      Indeed there are. Many of the Brexit campaign funders are wealthy libertarians, many made fortunes in Russian and Eastern Europe in the 1990’s. Their motivations are mixed – they seem to hope for creating some type of Hong Kong in the Atlantic, but no doubt they are already prepared to profit from the initial chaos.

      Reply
  3. ACF

    I think the author’s pegging the shift to Thatcher’s ‘there’s no society now’ is accurate, and analogous to Reagan’s definition of the Government as bad/the problem. The collective became so denigrated, and the individual so idealized, that common purpose is gone. Common purpose thrives at sub-national levels, but not at national ones, at least in the UK and the US. And this is particularly problematic because we need strong nation states to bring transnational capital to heel. It is also particularly problematic because as the author suggests, one path–perhaps the most likely path–to common purpose is violence, in which the winning side defines and imposes the “common” purpose.

    Reply
    1. begob

      There was a counterpoint in an article linked here a couple days ago:

      Seventeen million people voted for Brexit. For some it was their first political act; for many it was the first time they felt their vote had changed things. The centrist commentators in the press often show working class supporters of Brexit as depoliticised and disorganised. But Drakeford warns that is false. ‘I never thought these communities were depoliticised. Faced with a local issue they are engaged. I’ve been the health minister — and try making changes to a health service where people are deeply attached to the services they know. The idea that people are not interested is wrong.’

      Reply
      1. ACF

        Lacking a common purpose is not the same a being depoliticized or apathetic or even disorganized. It’s lacking a national identity, a shared definition of ‘what we stand for’, a shared sense right and wrong. Of course it’s true that America and every nation has always to some extent lacked a common purpose, as large and small swaths of the population were disenfranchised, delegitimized, ignored and actively harmed in the name of the state, in America most obviously but not only by race. But the atomization and division in our national identity now is unique in my adulthood–I came of age in the late 80s–and it seems to have accelerated as the elites/the government destroyed the ‘American dream’, lowering the standard of living/economic prospects of many many millions, and as the democratization of information made disinformation much easier and targeted manipulation much easier.

        Reply
        1. finlandstation

          Pray tell what then is the common purpose behind Remain? To be forever beholden to a distant, alien, faceless center of diffused bureaucratic power – arrogant, unyielding anti-democratic and wholly unresponsive to all local/community let along national/regional territorial agency. Speak of incoherence. If ever there was an a common act of common purpose representing a higher, singularly transcendent – and very much coherent – claim to a “national identity”; or more appropriately, to a “shared definition of ‘What We Stand For”, and “a shared sense of right and wrong”, given or rather, against all odds, then Brexit was certainly such a demonstration. And despite its uncertainties and all the misplaced, grossly distorting (even vulgar anti-working class), reified narratives of outrage that are presented here, Brexit represented an outrageously radicalizing moment that broke thru the iron curtain of control and domination by centralizing syndicates of elitist power. And thus should be applauded rather than used as a kind of repurposing elitist justification to deny the working classes their power.

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          1. Grebo

            To be forever beholden to a distant, alien, faceless center of diffused bureaucratic power – arrogant, unyielding anti-democratic and wholly unresponsive to all local/community let along national/regional territorial agency.

            Sounds like Westminster. Remainers, I suspect, don’t see the EU your way, or they see that the real problem is closer to home.

            The working class have been screwed and it is nice to see them do something for once. It’s a pity it will have no positive effect for them.

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            1. finlandstation

              Agree, the working classes have been screwed by the EU! And yet so many here – who profess to care or more appropriately, speak for the working classes – instead take up the cause of the anti-democratic progressive left represented by the bureaucrats in . Brussels.

              Reply
              1. Anonymous2

                ‘the working classes have been screwed by the EU’

                That depends which working class you are talking about. Lots of Eastern European working class have benefited greatly from joining the EU.

                Reply
          2. Yves Smith Post author

            In fact, polls show the public liked things the EU does even if they don’t recognize they come form the EU, namely, labor and environmental regulations. This “take back our sovereignity” is code for “crush labor and trash the environment..” Tories and Blairites were perfectly happy to implement austerity all on their own. They didn’t need the EU for that, but it was convenient to blame them anyhow.

            Reply
            1. RMO

              I’m curious if the crucifixion of Greece played any part in the leave voters – with the tender loving care the EU showed Greece so recently I wonder if that could have influenced some people towards the leave option. Not that the leaders behind Brexit would behave any differently than the EU did in a situation like that but it sure made the EU elite seem rather evil and sadistic.

              Reply
              1. Newton Finn

                Slaves see a master brutally–almost gleefully–whipping another slave. Then they’re given an opportunity to vote on whether they want to stay within the security and stability of the plantation, or would prefer to leave and take their chances. Perhaps Malcolm’s famous distinction between the house slave and the field slave helps to explain the closeness of the Brexit vote.

                Reply
              2. PlutoniumKun

                I don’t think the details of what happened to Greece were followed by more than a tiny percentage of the UK population – as a non-Eurozone member its not really in the same club.

                Reply
            2. witters

              Of course, inside the EU everyone must be an austerian. Inside the EU Corbyn is no threat. Ensuring this fact seems very important to many people.

              Reply
              1. Yves Smith Post author

                I don’t know who these “many people” are. It is an urban legend promoted in the UK that the EU cares. It doesn’t. Barnier met with Corbyn, presumably because the EU recognizes the Government might fall and Corbyn might be the new PM.

                And if you had read the article we presented on what Brussels might do to Italy for defying the EU, the sanctions don’t have any teeth if you have your own currency.

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            3. finlandstation

              No its not. Rather trashing those that want to separate from authoritarian control and administrative domination by a distant power is just narrative that sustains the current power arrangements that ultimately disenfranchises working and middle income people.

              Got it backwards. But of course that’s so much of what is so distorting and damaging about our current identifications and classifications. It’s a failure of political linguistics. Almost everything is the opposite of what it purports to be.

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              1. Penny

                Again this contribution reads like a troll bot Be interesting if this sort of comment is becoming more common o this site Obvs it only makes sense from a Mercer type perspective

                Reply
              2. vlade

                better trolls please. ERG and co are pretty explicit on their regulatory race to the bottom.

                Barnier gave an example, of where for cost of chemicals, regulatory parts are 2/3rd labour/environmental, 1/3rd REACH. For anything exported to the EU, REACH would still apply, so any improved costs were either from a magic fairy that means free of EU burden on their mind UK workers get suddenly so much more productive (that they finally manage to catch up with Germany, or even, *gasp* France!), or that they cut the 2/3rds of the labour/environmental costs. Hmm.. Let me think what is more likely.

                If you’d want to really enfranchise working and middle income people (well, really more like 95% of the UK population) you’d run around the country telling them to dump FPTP. The great system, where maybe 100k of people decides how the country is run. Where you can get majority of the votes, w/o majority of the MPs. Where you can get >10% of the vote, and 1MP. Where a party that gets just below 1m votes (SNP) gets almost three times the MPS (35) a party that got over 2m votes (LibDem, 2.4m votes, 12 MPs).

                EU is last of UK’s problems. Although inability to see that is likely one of the largest.

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      2. el_tel

        The idea that people are not interested is wrong

        I think this is the core of the matter. We have a first-past-the-post system where our government is effectively decided by a few tens or hundreds of thousands of people spread across a limited number of key electoral constituencies. Nobody else “matters” – AND THEY KNOW IT. You introduce a referendum where “every vote counts” – literally – to a system where people have views but feel disenfranchised? Of course they’re gonna be obnoxious to the “ruling elite” (no matter who the elite are). This seems to be a no-brainer. Why did the Houses of Parliament never allow referenda on things like capital punishment after it was abolished? Because they knew full well emotions would rule and it’d be re-introduced, when miscarriages of justice had been common enough to convince our elected representatives that “they knew best”.

        Referenda are incompatible with the Westminster system and used by parties who have internal systemic problems as a way to paper over their cracks. Labour did it and now the Tories have done it. Stop trying to reconcile fundamentally different types/models of government – it’s bound to end in tears.

        Reply
        1. NT

          I think this is true. The westminster system is not very democratic but to replace it by the even more undemocratic system of the EU is going the wrong way. We need reform of the westminster system so it is MORE democratic. If the EU kept to just common trade issues that would be fine but since the introduction of the euro 20 years ago it is taking more control of financial and political issues. just need to rewind the EU 20 years ha ha.

          Reply
          1. finlandstation

            Exactly. Brexit was/IS a strike against the bureaucratic empire – the centrality of power. And as a consequence, arguably the single most organic expression of democratic agency in what has become the age of post-modern political disenfranchisement. Any laughably comments we see on this site wringing their hands of what it means with piled on descriptions like right wing, fascist, stupid, ignorant, regressive, and reactionary got it – like so much of what now passes for “progressive” left wing cant – exactly backwards.

            Remaining under the EU’s current draconian administrative straightjacket is akin to describing Kafka’s Castle as a symbol of transparency and accountability.

            It’s all been a ruse to further the interests of the elites. And the counter-attacks against those in support of Brexit has and is almost entirely about status – cultural status – a means to further divide “society” along socio-cultural divisions.

            Reply
            1. JTMcPhee

              It’s too bad that the “regulatory state” part of the EU can’t be severed from the financialist-globalist-ur-imperialist part. It is good that the EU bureaucrats and lawgivers and policy types want to do stuff like keep GMO and toxin-fed food out of the “all important supply chains” that the other parts of the Ruling elites have shoved down our throats, and seem to want to regulate, in the best sense, the great takeover of so much of the political economy by the Googles and Amazons and the like. Seems there are actually civil servants who have some interest in the political-economy homeostasis that might lead to some reining in of the worst forces that are killling us mopes and the planet. Of course corruption and other facets of regulatory capture are in play, as of course are the people who have the Ruler genes and want to use the “common forms” to advance their parochial interests at the expense of mopes like the ones they refer to as “PIGs on the periphery.”

              The constant struggle of decent people disabled by their decency and aversion to “taking power” to try to even keep up with the predators and parasites… So instead there are these occasional spasms of “I’m not going to take it any more” by people with disparate definitions of “it,” people who have been disenfranchised (as the REAL electorate in the UK, the very few whose votes actually matter) and don’t understand how to focus, organize, and gain power over their lives again. And too many of them ‘see their opportunities and take ‘em’ when they do actually cross over that disabling reluctance to play power games.

              Is there a training program and set of values that might produce more “civil servants?” Oxbridge and such sure are not gong to do it.

              Reply
              1. finlandstation

                Well, I probably agree with you but it comes with the territory. One follows the other. And speaking more broadly, as a means of political agenda, Brexit then should be seen as a process – or as a new alignment of political formation – to achieve what you want to see come about. Voting to Remain has precisely the opposite effect.

                Reply
          2. Anonymous2

            ‘The westminster system is not very democratic but to replace it by the even more undemocratic system of the EU’.

            I disagree that the EU is less democratic than the UK. On the contrary, it is the other way around.

            Parliament
            – the Commons in the UK is elected by FPTP, the EU Parliament by the more representative PR.system
            – the House of Lords in the UK is appointed (or hereditary peers elected by other hereditary peers) . The closest equivalent in the EU – the far more powerful Council of Ministers – consists of Ministers from Member States, almost entirely elected by their own national electorates.

            Media – in the UK the papers are controlled, with a few exceptions, by a few right wing press barons and a neutered BBC takes the Government line. The result is an electorate which is woefully misinformed and therefore unable to vote in an informed manner (other than that they know, most of them, that their life sucks). In the rest of the EU there is a far wider range of media outlets and therefore less scope for public opinion to be controlled by one ‘party line’.

            One point which is often made is that the EU Commission alone has the right to propose legislation. This is true and needs reform. What is far less well known is that the great majority of the Commission’s proposals have been at the demand of the Member States – the Commission takes soundings in advance as to what the Council of Ministers wants because the Commission knows that without large majority support in the Council it is wasting its time. I know this because once upon a time I was part of the process.

            Reply
  4. Tom Stone

    I blame this mess on the corrupting influence of American culture.

    “Hold my beer and watch this!” is a meme that has apparently infected the UK to a degree no one could have foreseen.

    Reply
    1. Oregoncharles

      But the US isn’t visibly coming apart, as the UK is. As an outsider, I’d ascribe it to the end of Empire. There are still adjustments to be made. If it leads to the collapse of an archaic and anti-democratic political system, that might be a bonus. (That part could apply to the US, but it isn’t quite AS anti-democratic.)

      Reply
      1. Mark Pontin

        Oregon Charles wrote: But the US isn’t visibly coming apart, as the UK is

        The US is more visibly coming apart than is the UK, in my view. I spend time in both countries regularly.

        Consider, particularly, the vulnerability to climate/natural catastrophes alongside the inability to rebuild, evidenced by the fact that the U.S. now cannot even manage a subway expansion in New York. The Brits can still put in a new underground line in London, at least.

        The US is a society that has hollowed out its disaster response — its immune system — simply because there’s no financial profit in it. As the saying has it, the future is already here, just unevenly distributed. Scenarios like Puerto Rico and Flint, Michigan — where essential civic infrastructure has been destroyed and not been rebuilt, which would have been unthinkable in the 20th century — are on current form going to be an increasing part of the US future.

        Here’s a poster on NC using the handle ‘Wyoming’ on Wednesday, and it has the ring of truth to me: –

        Wyoming October 11, 2018 at 12:43 pm

        … I deploy with one of the disaster relief organizations regularly (just got back from North Carolina, did Houston, and undoubtedly will end up in FL/GA soon) and it has been a long time since we had the capability to actually fix the damage from these events. What we do is partially mitigate the immediate suffering and return as many folks back to a semblance of their former lives as is possible in the time between events. When the next one comes we move in mass to it and so on. Behind us there is permanent loss as there is no one with the resources to fix it. But most of this is hidden from the general public as the news media quickly moves on to the next ratings pumper and the previous events fade into the black. New Orleans was never rebuilt after Katrina, nor will Houston, PR, NC or FL/GA be fully rebuilt. When the West Coast goes, and it will, then there will be no hiding the true state of affairs.

        Consider also, alongside the above, the F35, the most expensive weapons system in history, that cannot fly.

        Or the $1.5 trillion in U.S. student debt and all the inevitable municipal bankruptcies when insupportable pension plans collapse, as they will.

        Or the insupportable looting of the US medical-industrial complex which has double the healthcare costs in percentage of GDP but produces the 38th-40th worst outcomes in the developed world (whereas the NHS still limps along).

        Reply
        1. Yves Smith Post author

          Huh? We got a subway expansion done and it have even gotten very good reviews. So I have no idea what you are talking about. It does take ridiculously long, but a lot of that has to do with building regs and the protections of holdout tenants (they can take a long time legally to turf out. So you regard dumping them on the street as a social plus?). Our subways are also quite shallow, generally only a flight and a half under street level, which may affect construction times too.

          Having said that, I agree it took a very long time, but a lot of the reasons are explainable and peculiar to very high density NYC (London is no where near as dense as Manhattan).

          Reply
          1. Adrian

            Transit construction costs are the highest in the world per kilometer in NYC and we take years longer to build than peer cities like Madrid, Paris, Shanghai, etc. the MTA is horribly mismanaged, corrupt and inept, look at how awful they are at making the stations ADA compliant. Installing one elevator can take a year, costs millions and then immediately breaks. Sorry YVes but you are really underplaying the crisis in the MTA right now

            Reply
          2. witters

            I’ll bet the house that the Chinese could and would have done it in a fraction of the time even in the face of “inexplicable” and “peculiar” high density living.

            Reply
            1. Yves Smith Post author

              Not with NYC regulations. And you seem to labor under an illusion regarding Chinese infrastructure projects. From the Financial Times:

              “Poorly managed infrastructure investments are a main explanation of surfacing economic and financial problems in China. We predict that, unless China shifts to a lower level of higher-quality infrastructure investments, the country is headed for an infrastructure-led national financial and economic crisis.”

              The paper takes aim at what it calls the “prevalent view” among economists that high rates of infrastructure investment are crucial to growth for developing economies and that China offers a model for others emulate. On the contrary, Mr Ansar warns that countries such as Brazil, Nigeria and Pakistan should not follow China’s path. President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative, the New Silk Road, calls for the country to finance road, rail and port construction to connect China with central Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

              “It is a myth that China grew thanks largely to heavy infrastructure investment. It grew due to bold economic liberalisation and institutional reforms, and this growth is now threatened by over-investment in low-grade infrastructure,” Mr Ansar said.

              Three quarters of all projects suffered a cost overrun, which has exacerbated the debt problem, said the paper, which appears in the current issue of Oxford Review of Economic Policy. The authors estimate that a third of China’s $28.2tn debt load is attributable to such overruns.

              https://www.ft.com/content/b1d9177c-7650-11e6-bf48-b372cdb1043a

              Mind you, I agree this project took a very long time, and some of it was due to poor project management. But China is no paragon on that front.. Moreover, the funding was halted and it sat idle for a long time. In addiiton not being in NYC. you would not know the project was delayed by needing to buy and demolish buildings where new subway entrances would be. At virtually every stop, there were renters in rent-regulated apartments with very strong property rights. It took a while to get the holdouts out.

              Reply
      2. Grebo

        India became independent in 1947. What was left of the Empire then was insignificant and was given independence as soon as they would take it. All done by the early 80s except for the tiny outposts of the banks. Hong Kong was returned to China in 1999 (as per the T&Cs) without much wailing or gnashing of teeth.

        As a middle-aged Englishman I am always surprised when someone (usually an American) brings up the Empire. It is a distant memory.

        British hubris tends to rest more on its successful resistance to the Spanish, Napoleon and Hitler. All counter-imperial actions.

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        1. JTMcPhee

          “Counter-Imperial actions?” I’d say it was just a contest of wills and wealth between imperial behemoths. Far as I can tell, there was a reason why Limeys bragged that ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire.’ Though metaphorically as well as physically, that is now not true at all.

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          1. Grebo

            Well, at the time of the Spanish Armada England had no empire and was very much the underdog. Napoleon was the first real ‘Balance of Power’ thing, Britain was not yet the hegemon. Hitler was building an empire from nothing and Britain had already been eclipsed by the US, though that was not apparent to all until Suez.

            What amuses me is Americans insisting that Britain is in denial over its lost Empire then adamantly denying that the US has one at all.

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            1. JW

              You’ve never had the experience of being a non-Brit, even an American, being talked down to by a Brit who has a deep belief that you are a congenitally stupid foreigner. Most Brits don’t have this mentality but a lot do. And that kind of arrogance paved the way for Brexit and is now paving the way for absurd expectations of sweetheart deals from the EU, Commonwealth countries and even the US. And it also sewed the seeds of a lot of Shadenfreude among many of the rest of us. None of which is deserved by most Britons who would never look down on anyone, but, sometimes a chain is only as strong as the weakest links.

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        2. Collins

          Ok, since you live there, and have been around awhile (middle-aged), do you share the author’s opinion that Brexit will be a defining moment in your country’s history – for the worse- societal chaos, breakdown?

          Reply
          1. Grebo

            I haven’t lived there in over ten years. As to history it could go either way but odds are it will be another turn down the spiral.

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        3. vidimi

          the brits greatly overestimate their contribution to the defeat of hitler. they think they did it singlehandedly. so do the americans. these kinds of national myths contribute to acts of self-mutilating hubris such as brexit. when you tend to believe you can overcome anything, you tend to bite offf more than you can chew.

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          1. Grebo

            Most Brits are well aware that we didn’t beat Hitler alone, after all we did host 2 million US and Canadian soldiers before D-Day. And the Americans never left.
            However, apart from a fondly remembered contribution from the Polish air force, we stood alone in 1940 and beat back the Nazi onslaught. The only country, apart from the USSR, to successfully do so. We also beat them in North Africa, singlehandedly.

            The hubris of the British ruling class long predates WW2 of course. Just being part of a ruling class gives you hubris.

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  5. Skip Intro

    This seems well aligned with the observation that various neoliberal think tanks are preparing the new political normal, in the form of white papers and regulatory templates, that will be imposed during the ‘shock therapy’ period, when the crisis hits. Those who can’t escape the UK may look to the experience of Chile under Friedmann’s Chicago Boys, or any of the many subsequent applications of shock therapy to dismantle and capture political infrastructure overnight.

    Reply
  6. joey

    What occurs to me, but hasn’t warranted a mention in any of my readings, is that Pax Europa is at grave risk. DUP in particular would appear willing to bear arms to protect their minute corner of policy. Perhaps whomever takes over for May will be willing to pull a Bismarck circa 1870. Identify the EU as the common enemy for sake of fostering unity in the isles. I don’t think many allies would join them, but they might be tempted to negotiate with the sword to get the position of strength that Brussels mocks with dessert trays ‘without cherries’.

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  7. el_tel

    I don’t disagree with the main points made in the article. But there HAS been a major party re-alignment within the last 100 years in the UK – the replacement of the Liberal Party by the Labour Party as the (supposed anyway) party of “non-capital”. Of course this transition was more gradual. It might have been a LOT more sudden and severe had not King Edward VII died during a process that stopped the Tories from sabotaging Liberal legislation.

    Yes, the first Parliament Act was passed, curtailing the ability of the (Tory dominated) House of Lords to go against the (popular voted) House of Commons. But Lloyd George was supposedly not pleased with this compromise and wanted to go further…..but a King who had the “common touch” (especially with, it is pretty well known, a lot of *ahem* commoners of a certain type) died at an inconvenient time and reform was stalled at a crucial point, allowing something to happen that never happened in Canada – the replacement of the Liberal Party by the Labour Party as the “official” left-wing party.

    So maybe we just need – even though it WILL be extremely painful – the completion of an electoral re-alignment that got stalled 100 years ago. Am not saying it will be pretty or that the author is wrong…..but perhaps “pulling off the band-aid quickly with immense but relatively quick pain” might be what we need….

    Reply
    1. Synoia

      I’m from the generation who watched the dissolution of the British Empire.

      I’ll use a little story of Ireland to illustrate many of my generation’s views:

      The story is set in apartheid South Africa, where a number of us retreated from the misery of the UK at in the Early ’70s. A misery which started with at least WW I.

      An Irishman, Tim, who became a good friend, and I were have a few beers at the Sunnyside Hotel in Johannesburg. Tim, a “prod” from Belfast, stated to recite all the evils the English had inflicted on the Irish. The list was long and I did not doubt any of his facts; in addition the next round was his to buy.

      His accusation started “You English…” and proceeded for a while. I considered to potential for a fight, and decided, no fight.

      So I said, yes the “English did those things.” I did not even wish to argue his view of History, because I was sure his learning of the record was much better than mine.

      Tim recoiled in shock.

      I added, “But I personally did not of them.”

      That resolved the issue. And he bought his round.

      The same applies to my generation’s view of the British Empire. There was one, and now it is gone, and I know no one, even those from the English Public School System of which I am one, who wanted to look back, and take any attempt to recreate it.

      I do know what my peers believe of the EU. In 1972 the UK, joined a trade agreement. Not a common currency or a nascent European Empire. We, the “Baby Boomer generation”, never expected it to morph into the EU.

      Britain joined in trade area. Not join a European Empire, dominated by Germany. Our Parents and Grandparents fought and died fighting Germany, and there is much history, all bloody, of the actions of a unified Germany.

      The UK young are different. They have only known the EU, and want to remain.

      I’m astonished that a referendum, a very unBritish mechanism, with a small majority was implemented.

      The British Ruling Class, our version of the oligarchs, will proceed as they have historically, and crush the working class, again.

      Countries do not escape their History.

      What the future may bring has to be considered in the light of Climate Change. That’s going to kill millions in the UK, and Billions world wide. On reflection, all else is foam on the waves of history.

      We are faced with a new dark age, one which may end with extinction. Reflecting on the failure of SETI, I now have a hypothesis: A civilization as we know it, energy based, is a life extinguishing event and an evolutionary dead end.

      Reply
  8. DanieldeParis

    Great post, really. Thanks a lot. I enjoyed the whole post and could not agree more as you say!

    However may I say I will take exception with the stuff below:

    But why? That’s the harder one to answer. I’ll suggest this. Too many believed Thatcher. She did mean ‘there is no society now’. The mantra of individualism has played out. And we can no longer find a reason to live with each other. Our neighbour has ceased to be our problem.

    That point makes little sense IMHO. It does not even cross the Channel. Let alone the rest of OCED countries. Why? On the other side of the above-mentioned “Channel”, we have had definitely essentially left-leaning governments over the last 40 years with time-limited and documented exceptions. But French society has evolved here as well and has certainly drifted to towards the same individualistic patterns.

    In the end the social fabric is way softer than it was more than it was before Mitterand in the early 80s. And our socialists were certainly no “Blairites”

    This not moral or political opinion. Just matter-of-fact assesment: couples, families, unions (I understand NC commentariat does care about them), businesses, workers even schools. Everybody is in constant arbitrage, including political staff of course.

    Consumer choices (the Amazon syndrome) everywhere: when shopping for sure. But on job markets as well. Behaviours as business or as candidates, partnerships in life, family choices – social patterns are now in constant flux. IMHO this change in social fabric – is this a weaker one? – is largely unrelated to right-or-left political choices.

    Is this society showing solidarity? Can it operate as a working democracy in the long run? Does the world community mean something to-day. It is becoming a laughable word here by the way. I undertand that it still convey some value in the Kent or in London. Glad to hear that!

    I will not indulge in nostalgia. Past times were rough as well. I would neither jump to conclusions. But the issue is NOT a left-vs-right issue at core. Way more complex.

    Any thanks for the healthy debate on this great site!

    Reply
    1. Olga

      Where exactly have you spotted “left-leaning” governments across the Channel in the last 40 years? Yes, there were socialist countries in 1978, but 11 years later they were gone – courtesy of those (perhaps) left-leaning govts you invoke. The sad truth is that in W Europe, there had not been a true left in a very long time. All of the govts in power cater to the rich elites.
      On Brexit, I try to ignore it – seeing it as just one of several manifestations, when most (or all) contradictions of a society in deep decline burst to the top and collide. But maybe one should not ignore it, as the consequences will be unpredictable. The UK desperately needs to uproot its (centuries!) entrenched elites, but whether the regular joe-pint-pack has the stomach for it is a difficult question.

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      1. el_tel

        Quite a bit to agree with there – after all, Mitterand did a 180 after election when the then European Community didn’t like his ideas on socialism. I’d add that I was an ardent EC/EU fan during the 1980s/90s. I saw it as a force for good, that would ensure social democracy, “temper” Thatcherism whilst “toning down” the “extremists” like Mitterand. Now I’ve realised Corbyn’s suspicions were right all along and whilst I DON’T count myself as a Corbynista (he and the Shadow Chancellor don’t understand MMT for instance), I certainly understand the “kickback” against Europe – even when such kickback is for the wrong reasons, often kicking at the wrong people and likely to lead to something really really bad.

        As you mention regarding elites, we need first to uproot the media elites and those (hello Duke of Westminster) who extract economic rent to levels that would make anybody’s blood boil.

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  9. Gordon

    I am reminded of a BBC programme I saw several years ago on the years leading up to the French Revolution.

    IIRC, Louis XVI (1754-1793) had a series of ministers who all tried and failed to levy taxes on the aristocracy but they had the political power to block those taxes. So, that left only the peasants and borrowing as sources of revenue.

    One consequence was that better financing enabled a smaller UK to triumph in the long series of wars for global domination of trade and new lands – in particular the 7 Years’ War (French & Indian War in the US).

    Another consequence was that “let them eat cake” ignorance or perhaps lack of concern for the welfare of the poor eventually caused the storming of the Bastile in 1789, with most of the aristocracy losing their heads shortly thereafter.

    The parallels to present day UK or US are unmistakable.

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    1. The Rev Kev

      Bit fuzzy on French history before the Revolution but I seem to recall reading that not only was the aristocracy immune from taxation but a large chunk of them were also receiving pensions and the like from the government. This was of course funded off the backs of the peasants and was a bit of a reverse Robin Hood. I always reckon it as a cardinal rule to never cheat people that have nothing to lose.

      Ooh, ooh! I have to go. There is another Royal Wedding on the telly!

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    2. finlandstation

      But you might want to pause for a brief moment and reflect on who the new Jocobins are. And whom – if they get their way – will be left headless. Hint – it ain’t the elites.

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    3. vidimi

      it was also a textbook case of epic blowback. the french king had been a staunch supporter of american independence from britain. when the americans won, they declared independence and created a constitution that became the basis for the french revolutionaries “égalité, liberté, fraternité”.
      basically, the americans, whom the french supported and propagandised for, had shown that it was possible to have nice things so the french bourgeoisie said gimme some of that too.

      Reply
  10. Susan the other

    This was a great little piece. And it’s nice to see RM’s extended resume and learn he is an established thinker and not just a radical genius. Well, both. I wonder if the British establishment recognize that the EU banking system is in such dire straits that it will destroy the last edge of UK finance anyway and so it’s almost 6s if the UK just crashes out now rather than wait for the EU to grind to a miserable halt. It was nice to learn, in Yves post, that we in the US are getting things restructured better than before at least. She made a good point about Continental Illinois willing to step in because they were under a government resolution at the time. It feels as tho’ the US might be on the path to some social/financial sustainability whereas the EU is medieval – not just the UK. So far nobody, US included, is looking at our greatest wealth: our society, our neighbor, our planet. I really think we are at a turning point in human evolution.

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  11. Clive

    For me, I think Brexit is now a worked example of The Chris Carter Effect.

    It’s all been playing out in U.K. politics and U.K. society for so long, with such complexities, that no “ending” can ever cover all the various plot threads, give the characters a fitting closure and leave any audience segment thinking that keeping up with it all was worth it.

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  12. Unna

    Some disparate remarks on Brexit:

    There are real problems in the UK starting with the very existence of a monarchy, aristocracy, etc, extending down to their morally corrupting social and political influence on UK’s middle and lower classes. Crowds of peasants lining the streets cheering their oppressors? England’s Norman feudal regime with post modern characteristics. This regime, feudal, financial, political, and social, is all coming under great stress now which is why there was Brexit and I suspect that’s why the Queen likes very much having royal marriages, births – can that now royal girl have a fourth or a fifth? Royal natalism as a counterrevolutionary act.

    Of course, all this is exacerbated by Thatcher, Blair, the Tories, and their brutal austerity and disgraceful money grubbing. But the English keep voting for this, don’t they? The Germans like to say, each people gets the government it deserves, and then they proceed to argue about whether Germany really did deserve Hitler or not. Whatever. But there is more than just a little bit of truth to that statement. The last shoot’em up revolution the English had was in 1688, and that really wasn’t much of an affair. Consolidated power more broadly across the upper classes and in parliament, at least that’s what I remember reading. Hey, maybe it’s time for another one.

    Asking the Tories to rescind the notice to the EU to leave as a solution to Brexit problems, and blaming them for not doing that, or blaming Corbyn for not adopting this or that anti Brexit position, is like saying that if only Louis XVI had rescinded his order summoning the Estates General or if only Lafayette had grape shot the Paris mob, the French Revolution could have been avoided and everything would have been just happy happy. The English need to get their minds right about who they are and what they want to be. I’m not too much concerned about the Scots. I imagine they’ll be out when the SNP thinks the time is right. And so what if Westminster doesn’t agree to another referendum. Are they going to send in troops and shoot people in the streets? They’re too spineless for that. The UK will fall apart gradually and then all at once. The EU will accommodate itself to the opportunities presented.

    On a lighter note: An ill wind blows over Albion when that Prince William fellow looks too much like the “Harold” character in the Canadian sitcom Red-Green. And so how can you take him seriously? And my guess is that his little heir will be lucky to inherit the territory of a minor 10th century Anglo-Saxon war band leader, I mean “king”, if he in fact inherits anything.

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  13. John Zelnicker

    What a great post! Murphy’s analysis applies far more widely than just the Brexit chaos.

    Thatcher’s (and Reagan’s) hard turn from the idea of a caring community to aggressive individualism has promoted the social side of the right wing takeover of government at all levels as first proposed by the Powell Memo of 1971.

    As many have said before me, if we don’t find a way to reacquire that sense of a caring community we are doomed, regardless of who gets elected to what office or what happens with the climate.

    The real battle, IMNSHO, is on the ground, working to reestablish that society we seemed to have at one point, where neighbors cared about, and for, each other. (E.g., Lambert’s “concrete material benefits”.)

    (I’m not naive, I know that most of the “caring” was restricted to the members of one’s socio-economic and ethnic group, but even groups that were oppressed found strength and succor in their caring community.)

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  14. JTMcPhee

    Can anyone venture to state an “organizing principle” for how us disparate atomized humans dominated by various elites might get to that state of “people caring for each other and the planet?” A lot of what’s in the comments above sure sounds like a yearning for that principle, and the organizing activities that ought to spring from it — but it seems “triangulation” and “interests” always seem to find the most destructive long-term path and force or trick the rest of us into marching on down it. Solidarity, across large and disparate polities hag-ridden by looters? “Democracy,” that vastly undefined but “everybody knows what it is” aspirational and identitarian word?

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    1. Whip

      Forget principles. Invite your friends into the woods and have intimate conversations around a fire. Dream together, and then go from there.

      A few dozen friends and I in the Southern Appalachians do this in different groups regularly (birthday gatherings in the woods, men’s and women’s groups, and so on). And you listen and listen and learn to share honestly, and decide your own future… within the context of things as they are.

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    2. knowbuddhau

      You’re already doing it, my loquacious friend. This, what we’re doing here, is a doing, too. Was kinda hoping someone would notice this is what I’m on about.

      RM means the UK, of course, but it applies here as well. We can start by simply being excellent to each other, practicing an ethos of hospitality.

      The difficulty is that we have lost the narrative of community, but we still live in communities. The result is much more worrying than lorries parked in the M26, absurd as that will be. The consequence will be that until we can find a new narrative that brings us together the age of incoherence will last. And the risk is that the new narrative may be as divisive as the incoherence, or even build on it.

      Reply
  15. VietnamVet

    There are so many coincidences between the USA and the UK that it can’t be happenstance. The decline of government into incoherence is the same for both. As in the USA, the life expectancy for the average person in Britain is worse. In the USA maternal mortality rate is rising. The infant mortality rate in England and Wales is rising. Inequality is increasing. This corresponds with the rise of multi-national corporations, financialization, privatization and the isolation of the Midlands. The tragedy is that the solution is rebuilding society by the return of wealth horded offshore and in financial instruments. If not, the world will someday collapse from climate change or the apocalypse of a war for profit with Iran, Russia or China. Fixing this would be a reversal of the trends of the last four decades. Not likely, as long as western politicians are millionaires in service of billionaire oligarchs.

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    1. Anonymous2

      An interesting piece. Thank you. I could write at length but at present would just offer one thought. WW2 undoubtedly had a bonding effect on UK society which was reflected in the years immediately after 1945 by a greater sense of being a collective. This was wearing off by 1980 as the generation who had fought through the war started to lose their leadership role. Thatcher and her allies identified a growing individualism in UK society which they exploited. I do not think it a coincidence that Thatcher was the first UK Prime Minister since 1945 not to have seen wartime service. Perhaps if those born since 1945 in the UK had also had a bonding experience British society would be less individualistic?

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  16. knowbuddhau

    ISTM that’s exactly what Murphy is on about here (pardon me for repeating, but people scroll, and it bears repeating).

    Thatcher’s “there is no society” atomized people, conceiving us as “nothing but” individuals on their own (just like atoms in a vacuum, in the antiquated Newtonian model, I’m willing to bet).

    A shared narrative would provide exactly the bonding experience you’re looking for. IdPol is having a similar disintegrating effect.

    The difficulty is that we have lost the narrative of community, but we still live in communities. The result is much more worrying than lorries parked in the M26, absurd as that will be. The consequence will be that until we can find a new narrative that brings us together the age of incoherence will last. And the risk is that the new narrative may be as divisive as the incoherence, or even build on it.

    Reply

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