Would you believe it, Boris and Gove defy corporate fatalism

The Maggyites vs the Blairites: the latest chapter of Blimey, It could be Brexit!

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
18 April 2016

When a country is forced to take a decision as consequential as leaving or remaining in the union of its continent, an immense cast of players will have their moment. But just four characters who have known each other intimately over decades of friendship, rivalry and entitlement, dominate the battle over Britain. At stake is their place in what passes for history in today’s United Kingdom. But so far, rather then offering the country a great debate their clash is closer to a pantomime: We are stronger in! Oh no we’re not! Oh yes we are! We are stronger out! Oh no we’re not! Oh yes we are!

As the spectacle is forced upon them, members of the public are asking themselves why they pay their leaders to behave like this. Meanwhile, it seems their homes are being robbed via their back doors. I showed last week how David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum was forced on him by circumstances and how this led him to commit the outrage of telling voters he thought it would be viable for Britain to leave while telling Chancellor Merkel he did not mean this. But if the referendum is contingent and poorly spun it may also prove convenient as a distraction. As the campaign got underway it was announced that Britain’s quarterly balance of payments deficit with the rest of the world crashed, going down from £20.1 billion to £32.7 billion in the last three months of 2015, equal to to 7.0% of gross domestic product, “the largest proportion since quarterly records began”.

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At the same time the Office for National Statistics reported that overall productivity in the UK fell by 1.2 per cent; output per hour in the service sector had grown modestly while “manufacturing output per hour… was lower in 2015 than in 2010”. In response, the Office for Budget Responsibility, noted the marked worsening of its forecasts since November and helpfully illustrated how much it did not know by providing a ‘fan’ of what might now happen:

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Just as the British economy might be, well, hitting the fan, its chief policy makers hold a plebiscite on membership of the EU. What a glorious distraction.

When Britain was on the verge of first joining what was then the European Economic Community in 1971 there was a ‘Great Debate’. Whatever its limitations, everyone understood that Britain suffered a chronic problem of relative decline. The ruling Establishment decided that throwing in its lot with the growing European economy was the way to stop the rot. Those opposed demanded loyalty to the Commonwealth and an independent world role. All argued about the need to find a new way forward. In 2016 there is no serious concern expressed by leading politicians about the chronic problem of the British economy, dramatically illustrated by the trade figures graph. Far from seeking a new way forward, the Tory four are of one mind in believing that Britain is a success story.

For sure, the indisputable failures of the Eurozone system give our Tory entertainers a cover for revelling in the supposed achievement of their management of Britain’s economic performance. The fearsome four share a mystifying belief in the UK’s wellbeing as “the fifth largest economy in the world” with its rising employment, even if poorly paid, precarious and under-productive. The pantomime horse of Cameron and Osborne warn us that this success, which they have overseen, will be put ‘at risk’ by leaving the huge marketplace of the EU. But the main point is that they hold success has been achieved. As Cameron said when he presented the deal in Brussels,

As I have said, I’m not saying that Britain couldn’t survive outside Europe.


But after nearly 6 long years of difficult decisions and hard work by the British people, our economy has turned a corner.


In an uncertain world, is this really the time to add a new huge risk to our national and economic security?

The pantomime dames, Gove and Johnson, assure us that our island’s success will be redoubled when freed to make the world our oyster. Neither side suggests there is anything intrinsically unbalanced, inadequate or unsound about the UK’s situation. British decline is over, there is nothing wrong with our fundamentals that the Tory exercise of power cannot deal with.

Their shared view is summed up by this week’s CapX email roundup by Tim Montgomerie, an ‘Outer’:

Whereas Britain joined the EEC in the 1970s when it was plagued by destructively powerful unions, industrial decline, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, a sense that it was closing for business, the boot is on the other foot today. Britain is the fastest growing major economy in Europe, London can claim to be the world's capital, our creative industries are booming. Europe - with devastating levels of youth unemployment across its southern periphery because of the euro project, unable to agree a common refugees policy and losing its share of world trade at an accelerating rate - looks like the past.

Their joint complacency over British success is overlaid by a shared delusion – that in so far as Europe is pressing for common standards and policies this is inherently suspect if not entirely negative. They all agree that the last thing the UK needs is better regulation, planning or long-term investment of a continental kind. Such nannying represents a threat to the well-being of Anglo-Saxons (certainly those fortunate enough to benefit from tax havens). All four share the profoundly un-conservative aspect of Thatcherism: that the vigor of market freedom in itself delivers the goods and the good life – provided its magic is replenished every so often by a war dance around “parliamentary sovereignty”.

They also share, this time in their favor, a disapproval of overt racism. They desire more control over immigration but they are upper-class liberals when it comes to foreigners, tolerating their welcome energy and contribution, knowing that their class needs cheap labour, loathing vulgar UKIP style dog-whistling – with Boris Johnson indeed boasting of his Turkish heritage.

In short, they are all Eurosceptics; culturally the prime minister perhaps most of all. A shared rejection of European solidarity unites them. Indeed it stretches across the Conservative party from libertarians like David Davis, who rightly fear the authoritarian state, to hardliners like Theresa May.

What then, divides the four?

The referendum is not a choice between being in or out of Europe... It is a disagreement over how to have as little as possible to do with it

The Brexit debate as they define it is a conflict between two forms of anti-Europeanism. The referendum is not a choice between being in or out of Europe, taking Europe to mean sharing government in order to secure a place in a globalising world. It is a disagreement over how to have as little as possible to do with it. Far from being a clash of principle between pro-Europeans and Commonwealth nationalists as in 1971, the argument is between the Cameron-Osborne camp who want an arms-length membership, allowing the UK to use the EU as a platform to serve Britain’s self-interest, and Gove-Johnson who argue Britain will do better without the hand of Europe on its shoulder. It is a narrow argument about how to best secure the least influence of the EU while maximizing the UK’s economic advantage. 

Yet however narrow, the difference between them will define the country’s direction. Asked how they rated the forthcoming decision, rightly, “79 per cent of the public thinks [it] is the most important Britain will take in decades” (as Olivia Bailey reports in a masterful survey). All four have put their political lives on the line. The dispute will be ruthless and unforgiving. However close they might have been, the two couples are pointing the UK in different directions. How should we map the different routes they want Britain to take?

Tory Blairism: the corporate populism of our time

Cameron and Osborne are seeking to renew the ‘corporate populism’ that has shaped British government this century – I will define my terms in a moment. We can call it Tory Blairism. Gove and Johnson are urging its replacement by what I’m calling Maggyism, until a better word comes along. It is a form of national populism, in their case British populism in contrast to the English national-patriotism of Farage and UKIP. If you are as alert to these things as you should be, you will immediately object that Britain is not a nation. True, but this does not prevent it from generating its own nationalism, an important paradox. The particular characteristic of British nationalism is its ambition for a world role. While Cameron and Osborne might want to deny the label to their opponents, by chaining themselves to the EU they have conceded the flag of what Andrew Sparrow has dubbed ‘patriotic globalism’ to the Brexiteers. For corporate populism regards national boundaries as impediments to trade.

I first found myself up against manipulative corporate populism, and then came up with the term for it, at the end of the last century. Any discussion of its strengths and weakness today needs to be situated in the context of the past quarter-century. I’m going to ask the readers’ patience by including some stories about my own experience of British politics over this time span. My hope is that you will be rewarded by an insight into how the present government’s corporate populism came about, its attachment to the EU as an aspect of its embrace of the global power system, and its failure to institutionalise significant pro-European interests within England. My aim the whole time is to share an understanding of how a sophisticated political system got itself into the situation of holding a referendum in the first place, and dividing the country in such a weird way. Understanding is a human process not a mathematical one. It involves moments of saying, ‘ah, I see’, or, ‘now I know where you are coming from’. Sharing bits of my own bumpy voyage may help achieve this.

It is not surprising that well-off conservatives such as our current prime minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, both from elite families, should embrace the interests of financial and media corporate power and train themselves in the market research and public relations essential for commercial popularity. What could be more natural than to apply their methods and values to develop a politics that wins elections and then furthers their interests. In old English language: whiggery meets globalization.

What is more puzzling is that it took the Labour party to pioneer such a development and show the Tories how to adapt conservatism to ‘New Times’. The Blairism of ‘New Labour’ that achieved this was not such a stupid choice for social democrats at the time. On the contrary, it offered supporters who were not corrupt a way of funding badly needed reform of public services. Furthermore its capacity for innovation, openness and delivery broke from the lethargic corporate culture of Labourism and led to the Labour party’s longest period of office.

I had a walk-on role in the creation of New Labour. From the late ‘80s as the coordinator of Charter 88 I campaigned vigorously and lobbied adroitly to make Britain a constitutional democracy, and I understood this to mean the internal Europeanisation of the U.K.. With others I helped convince the Labour leadership, starting decisively with John Smith who headed the party from 1992-94, that the left had to include reform of the system alongside its policies for fairness and improvement. Smith gave a Charter 88 lecture in January 1993 that set out his embrace of such a programme. He started with the need for a Human Rights Act and connected it to a call for a “new constitutional settlement”. 

Smith had made Blair his shadow Home Secretary and we both sat in on a preparatory drafting session. After the lecture, in reply to a question, Smith told the audience, “Parliament is weak in this country… we do have an elective dictatorship. I’ve come to realise that. I used to myself believe in the sort of mysteries of the British Constitution. My experience… has caused me to change my mind quite fundamentally”. A convinced European, John Smith began Labour’s abandonment of its defensive trade union politics and its profoundly conservative relationship to the British state.

When Smith was struck down by a heart-attack, Tony Blair took over the leadership of the Labour party in partnership with Gordon Brown and they created New Labour. Blair embraced Smith’s reform programme as one of his calling cards. By committing to a Human Rights Act, Scottish and Welsh parliaments, a mayor for London, a referendum on PR, and replacing the House of Lords, New Labour expanded its support, attracted Lib Dems as partners in a progressive alliance and if necessary a coalition, pushed back trade union collectivism, and confronted the withered routines of the old regime. It also, and this might have been the greatest attraction for a group obsessed with winning, assisted the creation of a ‘radical narrative’ that was not too frightening and reinforced a sense of momentum against the stasis of a sleaze-wracked Conservative government.

I was delighted. But from the beginning Blair and colleagues dropped John Smith’s commitment to a “new settlement”. Even this formulation first drafted, as with so much of New Labour’s phraseology, by Gordon Brown, pulled back from the promise of a written constitution. Peter Mandelson played a part in this, the most Machiavellian of the power-mongering Blair clique. At a private House of Commons seminar called by Blair when still Shadow Home Secretary, to consider how best to ‘sell’ the new commitment to human rights, Mandelson proposed the slogan “Human Rights means better government”. I suggested “Human Rights mean a better system of government” would be more attractive. Mandelson responded, “System, system, that reminds me of Grosvenor Square”. A reference to the 1968 riots against the Vietnam War outside the then US Embassy in which I participated and he did not.

It was an early warning. At the time, I felt that such was the unity of the inherited informal system of British rule any one significant reform would assist another – and three or four would surely create a chain reaction that could not be stopped until a new settlement had to be confronted. In this I was wrong. After winning the 1997 general election what Blair and company did with respect to the constitution was extraordinary. They immediately set in motion the most far-reaching programme of reforms, implemented by Derry Irvine – a no-nonsense Scottish barrister, who Blair appointed as Lord Chancellor. The constitutional ‘experts’ shook their heads and said it was all very complicated and would take decades. Irvine drove the whole package through with a bracing vigor and contempt for precedent in two years. An assembly for Wales, a parliament for Scotland, a mayor for London all based on the outcomes of referendums, Scotland also voting on giving its parliament token tax-raising powers; the ejection of hereditary peers, freedom of information, a Human Rights Act; this was a transformative package to which they added independence of the Bank of England in setting interest rates.

Thatcher had shown that if you turned your guns on the old establishment it would crumble. The Blair crew took her example and ran with it. Westminster’s convention-ridden old regime had a moth-eaten coherence: a single parliament, not many; its upper chamber one of privilege not patronage; legitimacy bestowed by Westminster not by referendums; the top judges as law lords sitting in parliament, not a Supreme Court with its own building; a culture of liberty not foreign rights; a secret, gentlemanly exercise of executive power, not freedom of information.

Twenty years before and these would have been shattering changes, impossible without strong motivation. But the disintegration of self-belief in the established institutions of the British state reinforced by Thatcher’s neo-liberal marketization of the public realm, meant they were lamely accepted as mere ‘modernisations’.

This was also how the perpetrator-in-chief saw them. Blair did not believe in the transformation these changes could have prefigured. Graphite was poured between them to ensure no chain-reaction took place. He refused to give a speech addressing the reforms as a whole (one was drafted for him by baffled civil servants). He compared the Scottish parliament’s tax raising powers to a “parish council”. His team had freedom of information re-drafted and delayed. They made the Human Rights Act a minimal incorporation of the European Convention rather than a British Bill of Rights that could attract public popularity. They turfed out the 800 odd hereditary peers in exchange for granting them, weirdly enough, the right to elect 92 of their number back into the second chamber, which they then left unelected and therefore stuffed with life cronies. The coup de grace was Blair’s out-manoeuvering the Lib Dems who had hoped to negotiate a proportional electoral system. He crushed Paddy Ashdown with a ruthlessness that foreshadowed Cameron and Osborne’s destruction of Ashdown’s chosen successor Nick Clegg.

I found the process unnerving. Blair and his team had used a programme of democratic reform to plough up a pre-democratic order only to reward themselves with even more central power! Whereas previously the winner-takes-all system created a government that was checked by a range of informal but powerful restraints, these were now annihilated. The result left Blair with even more unchecked, dictatorial command than Thatcher.

Yet the reforms Blair presided over, far from being negligible would prove explosive in the absence of any overall new democratic settlement. The modernization he was setting in train used the flag of reform I advocated. But it would spell destruction not democracy. Appalled, I wrote Blair a blunt letter of warning. His chief-of-staff, Jonathan Powell, telephoned me to say the prime minister thought it a “good letter” and summed up my argument to me saying, “after us the deluge”. I was asked to meet with the Lord Chancellor Derry Irvine. A strange encounter followed in the chambers Irvine had decorated with scandalously expensive wallpaper. He agreed “the genie is out the bottle”. This was not Blair’s view. He told his party conference, “to those who say devolution has let the genie out of the bottle, I say, look at the Tories. They clung to the status quo; they do not have a single seat in Scotland or Wales to show for it. The enemies of the Union are the advocates of the status quo and the separatists alike. We have defeated the one and we will defeat the other”. It was an argument for the continuation of the status quo in its Blairite guise.

As the way was cleared for the new Scottish parliament a special Newsnight programme was hosted from Edinburgh. Its main protagonist was Donald Dewar, the Secretary of State for Scotland, who like Irvine had been a colleague and supporter of John Smith. A rare, decent man he was to leave the government to stand for the Scottish parliament, to become his country’s first First Minister. I was one of the chorus of commentators on the Newsnight programme and attacked the way the new parliament was being created without connection to any larger programme democratising the United Kingdom as a whole.

Afterwards, a pained Dewar reprimanded me, “you should not have said that, not when we have the opportunity of a programme going out to the whole country”. He was clearly hurt. I felt abashed and tried to defend myself, he interrupted, “I am your strongest supporter in the Cabinet”. It was a decent thing to say and perhaps meant to flatter. My heart sank: at that moment in Edinburgh I knew for sure the cause was lost. There would be no new democratic settlement in Britain. 

From my point of view a catastrophe was taking place. I had allied myself with politicians impatient with the old regime, eager for power and ambitious to make progress. I was right to appreciate their ability, drive and alertness to a changing world. What had gone wrong? My analysis in Prospect in February 1999 was – is – that Blair’s corporate populism had become the determining framework of politics, the successor to Thatcher’s conviction politics that had usurped postwar consensus politics.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair had embraced globalization rather than democracy, as the best replacement of traditional labourism whose proletarian form had clearly failed. They saw in globalization not what we now call the marketization of everything, or, to give it its technical name, neo-liberalism; at least not at first. As social-democrats their ambition was always to improve, not replace, capitalism and here was a form of capitalism that was international, productive, socially emancipating and seeking regulation as well as de-regulation. 

How would such an approach best be run? Blair’s answer was to apply the model of corporate power to government, with market research leading back to a central board and chief executive, who then sell services back to the public who are treated as consumers not citizens. The manipulative populism of corporate capitalism managing public assent in a growing global marketplace became his model for the conduct of power. It explained the refreshing “can do” nature of his government in contrast to the aimless drift of the Wilson and Callaghan Labour administrations. It also meant it abjured the creation of any public institutions of a new kind. This applied to the EU also. It did not build on the French commissioner Jacques Delors’s notions of social union, that had inspired Labour in the 1980s. Instead, after 13 years of centre left government, Blair’s embrace of the market economy left Britain, as Nick Pearce notes, “without deeply embedded structural and political interests in the European project beyond those of the single market”. 

I got two things broadly right and one completely wrong.

In 1999 the Blair group was determined to limit the effect of its reforms. Jack Straw, the then Home Secretary and ever labile at expressing the agreed line, said “the more powers are devolved to parts of Britain and to citizens, the greater the need for a strong, small centre.” A concerted effort was planned to ensure there would be a unified civil service across the devolved administration in Scotland and Wales and ‘concordats’ were proposed to agree administrative policies in advance while politically every effort was being made to control who was to become Labour's leader in each country – notably, at first, in Wales.

I predicted that, “if not in 1999, then before 2009, there will be first ministers and powerful mayors who are not the placemen of No.10 and that ‘the system’ which governs the United Kingdom will be changed”. The strong, small, centralised world of Westminster power that Blair sought to renew is indeed now challenged by autonomous power centers elsewhere. No one has experienced this more painfully than Cameron. Obviously, his first experience of the new reality came from Scotland. And now it comes from Johnson who would never have been able to mount his challenge without being Mayor. 

Second, I was also right to discern the corporate model as Blair’s ideal. A decade later, writing his memoir, he told his readers the problem with government was not policy ideas but implementation.

Take the way a large company works today and compare it to a government department. In the company there would be a continuous reassessment, from first principles, of what the company is trying to do and how it is doing it. In particular there would be a relentless focus on system improvement through use of technology, perpetual analysis of the customer base and how its habits and wishes were changing; and a comparative study of what the competition is up to.

“The point is”, Blair continues, “that the way the world around us is changing means we can’t afford to stay still. We have to stride out; and our method of politics is holding us back.”

It’s essential to my argument that the full implications of this high-energy aimlessness is seen for what it is – authoritarian capitalism.

It’s essential to my argument that the full implications of this high-energy aimlessness is seen for what it is – authoritarian capitalism. From the beginning Blair positioned himself as neither left nor right but as a moderniser; an approach Cameron and Osborne internalised. Stride where? Where does “modernisation” lead to? Blair does not question the way the world is going by asking if it is just; that would make him a reformer of the left. He does not question if such striding might knock down valuable aspects of the past; to do so would make him a conservative of the right.

The aim of corporate populism is change that ‘works’. The measure of success being the method of the restless, ever-accumulating global corporation (and Blair tells readers that 40 of the largest 100 economies are companies not countries). Applying his approach to Europe, Blair perceives the problem of the EU as being the need to project power, not express concern over its parliament and institutions. “For Europe the challenge is strength”. The danger, “weakness”. In an openly right-wing figure, such naked worship of strength would trigger immediate alarm bells. It doesn’t with Blair because of his Labour origins. But the classic New Labour contrast of ‘realism’ against idealism goes back to a long trade union and Stalinist tradition of hostility to liberty, asphyxiating emancipation in the name of leader-centric discipline, only in Blair’s case having freed itself from any loyalty to tradition.

Which meant I was wrong to assert Labour’s continued embrace of corporate populism would fail. Blair’s manipulative populism was closer to Thatcher’s market-fundamentalist ‘conviction politics’ than to Keynesian ‘consensus politics’. He was laying the foundation for the revival of a conservative government, that would embrace his reorientation of the British state.

While most of the Tory party was thrashing around with impotent anti-European spasms and homophobic nostalgia for the era of Thatcherite sado-masochism, two of its ambitious MPs grasped that the Labour premier was showing the way out of their impasse. His manipulative, corporate populism offered a path for the right: socially tolerant, at ease with the world of money, confidently dismissive of the restraints of convention and ruthlessly focused on the exercise of power. It was an approach they could adopt without any of his residual loyalties to public welfare; Thatcherism with a human mask. In October 2005 on the eve of his election as the new leader of the Tory party, David Cameron had a dinner with a group of newspaper executives. He told them, “I am the heir to Blair”. According to Andrew Pierce of the Times, “if his hosts were in any doubt about what they had heard, Mr Cameron repeated the mantra". George Osborne was also at the dinner, “Mr Osborne, defending the heir to Blair boast, said: 'we have nothing to be ashamed of in saying it’”.

It is well documented that Cameron and Osborne referred to Blair as ‘The Master’ and regarded him as their compass as they set out for Downing Street. They were bestowed with two gifts, one fortuitous the other eventually lethal. Gordon Brown finally wrestled the premiership he deserved from the comrade-in-arms who had deprived him of the prize. But Brown retained a sense of moral purpose and was an easy target for the Tory upstarts, unlike the predecessor they admired. Then came the 2008 financial crash. Brown had the judgement to limit the disaster nationally and internationally. He approved coordinated action to save the banking system from catastrophic meltdown. The combined result of the need to save the banks, provide an immediate fiscal stimulus plus the loss of tax revenues, created a devastating deficit (the amount the government has to borrow more than it spends). As Nick Pierce eloquently puts it, Labour’s biggest mistake,

was to overestimate consistently the growth in tax revenues during this period. It mistook the buoyancy of revenues from the housing market and the City for a secure, sustainable tax base. When the accumulated asset and debt bubbles finally burst, revenues from these sectors collapsed. Fully a quarter of all corporation tax derived from financial services before the crash, and this revenue fell from £10.3bn in 2007/2008 to £4.6bn in 2009/2010. Stamp and share duties fell from £14.1bn to £7.9bn… The UK's volatile tax base explains the size of its deficit relative to other countries that experienced a similar loss of economic output in the first phase of the financial crisis. In Germany, the general government deficit reached just 4.3 per cent of GDP, whereas in Britain it rose to nearly 12 per cent at its peak, even though Germany's fiscal stimulus was larger than the UK's.

The young Tory leaders had urged on Brown’s deregulation that led to the financial sector’s meltdown. But they were able to turn the resulting deficit against him and did so with elan, positioning Labour as a “tax and over-spend” administration – a party that had not changed over the past fifty years. This made them appear to be a break from Labour and camouflaged Cameron and Osborne’s embrace of Blair’s corporate populism. But they were New Labour now. 

In the longer run the financial crash will turn them into its victims too. The regime of austerity they embarked upon will not provide the growth needed to eliminate the deficit, something they have made the measure of their success. More important, 2008 has fatally undermined the premise of their economic philosophy, that the market should be freed as much as possible from the restraint of government and regulation. Everyone now knows that, when push comes to shove, the government is relied upon to support a financial system generating unparalleled inequality and low rates of growth. To use an expression that was a favorite of Philip Gould, a back-room architect of New Labour’s aspirational programme: today corporate populism feels like a busted flush.

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By ‘busted flush’ I don’t mean that Remain will lose. A full scale operation is being mounted to ensure the British population accepts currently existing reality and recognizes that whatever may not be good about the present circumstances, trying to alter them by “taking control” will make them worse, perhaps considerably worse. But the capacity to persuade the public to believe in the ways of corporate populism and lend it positive consent belongs to the past. A measure of this is the way that the magical ideologues of that era now seem like shady salesmen of low grade pornography flitting in their raincoats past the tables of our lives.

Tony Blair, having proved disastrously counter-productive in his efforts to stop Labour supporters making Corbyn leader, has been buried. The Leave campaign must be praying for him to break his silence. Peter Mandelson gave early confident interviews to the BBC to ensure the country came to its senses and when asked about his support for joining the Euro replied that never advocated joining, only that the UK “retain the option” to do so when, in reality, he had said it would be a “disaster” not to. The Daily Mail promptly exposed him. His once fabled ability to re-write history was shredded.

David Miliband, who the Blairites still hope will be called back to save the project, flew in from his exile in New York. His ability to strike a smart, colourful phrase has always distinguished him from the ranks of his grey colleagues. Applying himself to the Brexiteers he accused them of being “arsonists” of the world order, risking the world’s equilibrium at a time of danger.

Arsonists! From a creator (however junior at the time) of a system that has left the Middle East in flames. His pitch was about strength in a way that echoes his old boss. To leave the EU would be to threaten “the international world order”, staying “multiplies” the UK’s power; leaving would be “unilateral political disarmament”. Milband told the Evening Standard “in politics it’s really important to know the difference between what you think exists and what is reality. The best politicians can see where the world is going and apply their values to it, not start with their values and then apply the facts.” This is essence of Tony Blair. Get real and stay real. As for applying “values”, well, the key value is to get real and stay real. But what if that reality is not acceptable? What if it is inhuman? What if ‘reality’ is not acceptable, not just for those at the bottom of the heap but for those who want to exercise self-government – even if what they want to do with it is right-wing? The referendum has become an opportunity for the most serious challenge yet to the hegemony of corporate populism as a major country decides should it accept the existing terms of membership of the “international world order” as fate.


A short book by Mark Fisher, barely more than pamphlet length and ignored in the mainstream press, has considerable influence on the left in England especially among those involved in modern culture. Published in 2009, it nails the mental environment we live in as Capitalist Realism. Fisher writes about how the young people he knows are “resigned to their fate… not [out of] apathy, nor of cynicism, but of reflexive impotence. They know things are bad, but more than that they know they can’t do anything about it”. He describes some of the pathologies and illnesses this can create and the way that social media can stimulate but not resolve the longing for a way out that it is assumed the system will never allow to exist.

Those growing up through the naughties experienced the ubiquity of corporate populism summed up in Margaret Thatcher’s original slogan ‘there is no alternative’ not as a matter of the wilful choosing of a policy direction by a political leader but as a description of the totality of their life chances. Condemned to a fate of insecurity they have become members of a new kind of class, that Guy Standing calls the precariat. The first humans of the digital age are less empowered not more, full of debt not hope. The solipsism of social media turns an entire generation into a networked Narcissus, paralysed by its collective self-obsessions. In the name of the ‘free market’ they are condemned to lives without effective agency. In a world where everything is turned into profit and loss in the name of enterprise and ‘social mobility’, actual self-determination becomes a long lost ideal, like the primordial freedom of hunter-gatherers that still haunts our genes.

To resist, Fisher calls for the creation of a public, general will – this was before the occupy movement. After publishing The Precariat in 2011, Standing drafted the Precariat Charter to offer direction to the generation whose economic fate he had named. In next week’s chapter I aim to consider how the hollowing out of choice and the rebellions against this on both left and right shape the Brexit debate as a whole. Here I just want to focus on the politics of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson as they emerge as the leaders of the call to Leave. In different ways each decided there had to be a response to the crisis and found themselves, perhaps to their surprise, lined up against corporate populism.

There were already three right-wing lines of resistance on offer. The first was UKIP’s dog-whistle racism, axing rejection of the EU on opposition to immigration as such. The second was the celebration of the ‘Anglosphere’ as an alternative 'imaginary horizon' to trading with the European Union. The third, an embrace of Douglas Carswell’s direct democracy, Carswell being UKIP’s rogue MP and early defector from the Conservative party. All these alternatives risked marginalization if not ridicule or worse. The choice they took was a straightforward appeal to preserve Britain’s historic democracy; the home of the ‘national popular’.

When the official referendum campaign began on Friday 16 April, Boris Johnson made a keynote speech in Manchester under the shrewdly chosen banner of ‘Take Control’. He turned on his opponents and especially, while without mentioning him by name, the self-proclaimed eurosceptic David Cameron, saying,

You know the most depressing thing about the campaign to ‘Bremain’. It is that there is not a shred of idealism… they keep saying that they are eurosceptics, but we have no choice.


We agree with you about the democratic problem, they say – but it’s the price we have to pay. My friends they are the Gerald Ratners of modern politics. The EU, they say – it’s crap but we have no alternative.

Ratner ran a country-wide down-market chain of jewelers and infamously told the Institute of Directors in 1991 that he sold products so cheaply because they are “total crap". The share price collapsed as customers fled. Johnson is being unfair to Ratner, who did not want an alternative and was simply being honest. Cameron by contrast does regret association with the EU but argues we cannot afford to leave it. With respect to the Prime Minister, Johnson is spot on. In effect, he accuses him and his colleagues of reflexive impotence. They know it is bad but they can’t do anything about it.

Johnson continued, “we do have an alternative, and it is a glorious alternative”. This alternative is to carry on being what we have always been. Glorious or not, before we think about it let's look at what he and Gove have achieved. Simply by asserting there is an alternative to membership of the EU, that the way out is via the door, they have broken the spell of fatalism vital to the reproduction of the dominant order in which they have been notable players. What distinguishes them from their Cabinet colleagues is not euroscepticism, which is indeed shared, but their decision to act on it. The referendum has allowed them to take a pitch for self-government to the whole country: calling on British voters to take responsibility for our political future. It does not matter if you think their vision of how this can be done is incredible, or simply another way of reviving market domination over everyday life. The crucial point is that they have punctured capitalist realism in the UK and torn a Boris-shaped hole in its Truman Show hemisphere. 

I say Gove and Johnson have done this. Nigel Farage and UKIP may have tried. The Greens want to try. The SNP has done it in Scotland. The English left is still in its Erehwon. What Gove and Johnson have done is make Leave a credible choice to millions of voters. By closing the gap between it and support for Remain, they have also made it possible for millions more to consider the possibility of voting with their heart not their head, to defy the realism of saying we can’t afford the price. 

Before the two of them turned the referendum into a close fight, the Anglo-British system was noisy but closed. The elites of all parties agreed that we had to be in the EU’s regulated space. Those arguing against this were marginalized. For all practical purposes, there was a single reality. Now there is not. From the point of view of neo-liberal capitalism this is dangerous, for it retains its hold by obfuscating its origins as an ideology and making itself appear inevitable. The danger is lessened if the threat comes from a good pair of capitalist hands, but still.

For what Gove and Johnson have done is to demand democracy. Their kind of democracy to be sure, the crude English kind where winner takes all and accountability is the threat of being chucked out of power over-night; the democracy of elected dictatorship mitigated by the assurance that at some point the dictator will be peacefully unelected.

As Gove put it in his statement, and it deserves quoting at length,

My starting point is simple. I believe that the decisions which govern all our lives, the laws we must all obey and the taxes we must all pay should be decided by people we choose and who we can throw out if we want change. If power is to be used wisely, if we are to avoid corruption and complacency in high office, then the public must have the right to change laws and governments at election time.


But our membership of the European Union prevents us being able to change huge swathes of law and stops us being able to choose who makes critical decisions which affect all our lives. Laws which govern citizens in this country are decided by politicians from other nations who we never elected and can’t throw out. We can take out our anger on elected representatives in Westminster but whoever is in government in London cannot remove or reduce VAT, cannot support a steel plant through troubled times, cannot build the houses we need where they’re needed and cannot deport all the individuals who shouldn’t be in this country. I believe that needs to change. And I believe that both the lessons of our past and the shape of the future make the case for change compelling….


Our democracy stood the test of time. We showed the world what a free people could achieve if they were allowed to govern themselves…..


by leaving the EU we can take control. Indeed we can show the rest of Europe the way to flourish. Instead of grumbling and complaining about the things we can’t change and growing resentful and bitter, we can shape an optimistic, forward-looking and genuinely internationalist alternative to the path the EU is going down. We can show leadership. Like the Americans who declared their independence and never looked back, we can become an exemplar of what an inclusive, open and innovative democracy can achieve.

For Johnson, much more cosmopolitan and naturally European, the issue was less clear cut at first. On 7 February, after the letter from the EU’s Donald Tusk to David Cameron was published that set out the framework for deal, Johnson wrote in his Telegraph column that on sovereignty the prime minister had done better than many expected, “but how bankable is this?” he asked. Questioned on the Andrew Marr show after he declared for Leave, he explained,

in the days leading up to that summit and indeed while the summit was going on there was a huge effort, which I was actually involved in, to try to make sense of the so-called sovereignty clauses. And a huge intellectual effort went into creating this language by which we could somehow ensure that our courts, our Supreme Court, our House of Commons, could overturn judgements of the European Court of Justice, if we felt, if Britain felt, that they were in some way capricious, or were going beyond the treaty  


Marr: Exceeding their powers?


Exceeding their powers, exactly. So finally we had some language that seemed to have some bite and seemed to work. I was very pleased with it. We went back to the government lawyers and the government lawyers said… they blew up. They said this basically voids our obligations under the 1972 European Communities Act. It doesn’t work. We can’t do it. That I’m afraid is the reality. You cannot express the sovereignty of parliament and accept the 1972 European Communities Act. There is no way of doing both at the same time. 


Marr: This is the moment when you decided which way you were going to go? When you saw that that sovereignty matter could not be resolved?


We were told that we were going to receive fundamental.. 


Marr: It’s a specific question.


Yes. The answer is specifically yes. We were told there was going to be fundamental reform, he didn’t achieve that and I think that the lesson of the whole business has been that reform is not achievable. 

Writing later about the threat to steel production he said, “people sighed when I was going on about sovereignty but now you can see why, it is a matter of being able to take control”. And when interviewed in the Times,

Johnson sums up what is at stake: “This is a moment of destiny for this country, it won’t come round again, it’s now or never. The fundamental issue is who runs this country.”

I am not saying that Gove and Johnson made their stand for intellectual reasons. They are politicians seeking influence, office and that nebulous ‘place in history’. But both are surely able enough to know that you can’t play the national card for purely instrumental reasons or for personal ambition alone. It is too explosive. ‘Who is in control’ and ‘who runs this country’ are about ‘who we are’ as a people, and ‘what we are capable of’ as a country, quasi religious forces that shape the point of being in politics in the first place. Loyalties conflict, and an intense mixture of motives, emotions and doubts swirl around – like a “shopping trolley” as Boris Johnson put it with his knack for vernacular. Then you nail your conclusion to the old oak door. After that, it's war. And while you might not have meant it so personally, once you have to fight for it you find yourself engaged in what is politically the fight of your life.

Among the first to enter the ring against them all daggers drawn was the Times columnist Matthew Parris, a personification of Britain’s narrow political-media caste. Once a Tory MP, he became an exceptionally gifted chief political columnist for the Times in the 90s while, without declaring it to his readers, helping the then prime minister John Major find a suitable form of words. Major was at the time battling the eurosceptics.

Today, Parris is married to Julian Glover who was recently Cameron’s speechwriter. He writes a Times Saturday indulgence in what was once the voice of the Establishment. His column of 26 March was a vituperative character assassination of Johnson for being homophobic, untrustworthy and superficial, “under-prepared, jolly, sly, dishonest”, etc, etc. It had little effect. His column on 16 April gave the game away. Major, Cameron and their fellow Remainers always assumed that the Leavers would be a Farage-dominated coalition of nutters that could be crushed by the alliance of the powers they headed. They did not expect Gove and Johnson to be their opponents. Parris attempts to argue that indeed, really they are not. The two are naïve cover for the “pit bull terriers” of the far-right (“spittle-flecked zealots who want their-country-back”); noble fools will find themselves consumed by the revolution they have called into being should they win the referendum.

Michael Gove has a humane fastidiousness that will in the end cause him to be cast aside — as in the end intellectuals always are — by the revolution. Boris Johnson is a cosmopolitan liberal: those knuckleheads are not his people and he knows it, which makes his collaboration with them the betrayal that it is. They will find him out, and he too will be cast aside.

This is a political version of ‘Project Fear’, an attempt to terrify Conservative supporters of a liberal turn of mind that Leave can only mean a retreat to a xenophobic nationalism and that a vote for Gove and Johnson will not end up as a vote for Gove and Johnson. Need it be so? The power and patronage of 10 Downing Street will remain in place the day after the referendum. Should the Brexiteers triumph it will not be a storming of the Bastille.

It is not hard to imagine an uncontested Boris Johnson replacing David Cameron and immediately declaring a government of ‘national unity’ with German-born Gisela Stuart as Foreign Secretary and Frank Field in charge of welfare (both Labour for Leave); with Robert Salisbury deployed to pass his newly minted ‘Act of Union’ creating an English parliament and legislating for all four national parts to hold their own referendums on membership of a federal United Kingdom; and David Owen in the Ministry of Defense to replace Trident with his plan for a modest, technologically future-proof nuclear deterrent, thus saving the odd £100 billion and pleasing the generals at the same time. With the prospect of both full, federal rights and a Trident-free Scotland gaining the support of Nicola Sturgeon and Michael Gove, now deputy prime minister, continuing his historic overhaul of the judicial and legal system, what’s not to like about this prospect for a liberal conservative?

In contrast to such refreshing right-wing possibilities, the potential of manipulative corporate populism seems struck down by lethargy. Its manipulations no longer convince. It no longer commands the terrain as a ‘natural’ force striding towards success since failing to deliver the growth necessary to proclaim its own legitimacy while being unable to restrain the greed and inequality of its 0.1 per cent. The financial crash has exposed its reliance on state support and blown up its ideological dissimulation that the market makes us free and government a needless burden and exposed the hypocrisy of its attack on state ‘dependency’. The European Union has its own, naturally more bureaucratised form of corporate populism, depoliticising decision making into a technocratic, professionalized process beyond the reach of elections. Democratic rebellion against this has to draw on the claims of the people to decide their own interests. Such claims are now being made across Europe in a wide variety of forms. In England, to everyone’s surprise, perhaps not least their own, at the head of this movement in 2016 are Michael Gove and Boris Johnson.

Twenty five years ago I helped launch an assault on the top-down, undemocratic nature of the British state, alongside campaigns such as Freedom of Information, Liberty and above all the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Considerable advances were made, Britain is now a country where people believe they have rights and seek to claim them; the national question and its democratic restlessness is here to stay; freedom of information was used to expose the expenses racket of politicians and the example is now spreading to the holy of holies, financial services and tax avoidance.

At the same time, to compensate for this disintegration a centralisation of power is taking place in the name of security. The second section of Blimey, it could be Brexit! will look at how the referendum is also lodged in the emergency reshaping of the UK state, whatever the outcome on 23 June. Across the turn of the century, however, New Labour could have drawn on the energy for renewal to build the institutions of a European democracy in Britain. Instead, tragically, it embraced neo-liberal globalisation, the Bush White House and went to war in Iraq, separating itself from France and Germany. 

When Labour left office in 2010 it had the chance with a new leader to confront the undemocratic nature of British politics, as the SNP and UKIP made it painfully obvious that the old order was on its knees. Although pressed by his advisors to do so, Ed Miliband spurned the opportunity and met his Valhalla. Now, finally, after more than a quarter century, leaders from one of the two main Westminster parties have raised the banner of democracy as a central matter of concern over the way we are governed. Thanks to the disastrous abnegation of the left, they are able to do so by calling for the preservation of the antique system of first-past-the-post and the absolute sovereignty of parliament! The absurdity almost defies belief.  P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }But while Boris Johnson and Michael Gove need not fear the tumbrels of UKIP, they are banging the drum for democracy in Britain.

P { margin-bottom: 0.21cm; }A:link { }

The left will rue the day if it ignores or dismisses this development. Owen Jones had flirted with the idea of Lexit, a left-wing form of Brexit, then thankfully understood that the left wing movement of his own generation across Europe, the true opponents of Eurozone austerity, were aghast that anyone would want to ‘leave Europe’ when solidarity was at such a premium.

He can’t accept however that the right have defined the terms of the referendum and they are having an argument for the soul of Britain driven by their own sincerity and experience, “we have no dog in this pathetic fight”, he writes in his Guardian column, “Let’s stick with those – like Britain’s Another Europe Is Possible and Yanis Varoufakis’s Democracy in Europe Movement – who have a positive, compelling vision”. I am a supporter of these initiatives. But they do not exist in a parallel universe unpolluted by the actuality of the referendum taking place. To think that those on the left can walk away untainted and choose its own Europe, without a word of recognition that the Brexiteers and millions who vote for them are genuinely engaged with “regaining democratic control of their country” as Gove wishes, is to walk away from the English left’s own failure to engage with the state of democracy in Britain, and by so walking leaves its in the hands of the right.

Read Anthony Barnett's book as he writes it, along with the rest of openDemocracy's Brexit coverage, on our Brexit2016 page.

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