Only the Conservative party can save us now

A catchpenny headline, I grant you, but I hope to persuade you of the truth of it.

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By any measure, yesterday in parliament was an extraordinary spectacle. Here we had the least successful prime minister of all time, whose government has not won a single vote since he came to office, who has lost his majority live on television then compounded that loss by expelling more than a score of his party’s most loyal members (a band later joined by a defector from his own cabinet) – thereby rendering himself incapable of governing – who had the day before been the subject of an utterly damning defeat in the Supreme Court which judged him to have acted unlawfully in proroguing parliament for five weeks instead of the usual few days at a time of national crisis, yet in the face of all that, he was brazenly unabashed.

The warm-up act was his loud-voiced Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who in an extraordinary demonstration of what psychiatrists call ‘negative projection’ attributed to the benches opposite every fault that was true, a fortiori, of his own government – that they were paralysed, incapable of coming to a decision, a dead parliament,  a disgrace, a zombie parliament without the moral authority to occupy the benches they sat on; he charged them with cowardice for failing to call a general election when his own government is so powerless that it cannot even do that for itself – he actually called on them to move a vote of confidence, not because he thought they would lose, but because he was sure his own government would be defeated.

Then came the main act. The tone was set early on when the Prime Minister asserted that he meant no disrespect to the Supreme Court when he said that they were wrong – this is a man who speaks in conundrums and contradictions, who likes nothing better than to deliver a sentence where the second part flatly contradicts the first and to move rapidly on while mouths are still gaping at the sheer brazenness of it – did he really say that? It was the same with the most infamous episode, where he dismissed as ‘humbug’ the plea by Jo Cox’s successor to moderate his language because it would inflame violence and put MPs’ lives at risk; while people were still fuming at that, he went on to suggest that the best way of honouring Jo Cox was ‘to get Brexit done’.

Given that Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death in the street, in the run-up to the 2016 referendum, by a man who shouted ‘Britain First’ as he murdered her and later gave his name in court as ‘Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain’, it is difficult to find a scale of inappropriateness on which the Prime Minister’s remark can be measured.

And yet there will have been those looking on who thought, not in spite of this shocking behaviour but because of it, that here was a man who could win an election.

In that they will have been emboldened by the success of Donald Trump on whose behaviour Boris Johnson has increasingly modelled his own, as last night’s performance demonstrates – and be in no doubt that a performance is what it was, cynically calculated to play well with pro-leave voters as it is conveyed to them through the sewers of The Daily Mail and The Sun and the other conduits of feculence that form their views. Those rags will present it as ‘the people’s champion’ standing up to the ‘Liberal Remainer Establishment’ – a term that encompasses Parliament, the Supreme Court, experts and anyone who is capable of articulating a reasoned argument to show that we are better off in the EU.

And this is where the Conservative party faces a stark choice. Across the Atlantic, the Republican Party ushered in the reign of chaos by throwing in their lot with a man they knew to be dangerously unfit for office, whose political credentials as a genuine Republican were doubtful at best, all because they thought he could win and keep them in power. That act of ignoble self-interest has not only served their country badly, it has made the world a more dangerous, unstable place.

If the Conservative party back Johnson because they think he can win and he does, then they will find themselves prisoners of their choice in precisely the way that the Republicans have in backing Trump: we will be out of Europe (on bad and economically-damaging terms), trying to stand alone against economic superpowers – China, USA, India and indeed the EU – and our government will be in the pockets of a small band of very rich men. It will suit the likes of Mogg, Duncan Smith, Johnson and the wealthy, privileged elite they count as friends but the notion that it will be a victory for ‘the people’ is a very sick joke indeed.

Para. 55 of the Supreme Court’s judgement opens with a timely reminder:

‘Let us remind ourselves of the foundations of our constitution. We live in a representative democracy. The House of Commons exists because the people have elected its members. The Government is not directly elected by the people (unlike the position in some other democracies). The Government exists because it has the confidence of the House of Commons. It has no democratic legitimacy other than that.’

 

Once you start talking, as an MP,  in terms of ‘people versus parliament’ you are disavowing the very thing that gave you authority to speak in the first place and espousing gangsterism – the gangsterism of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Putin and Trump. There are, I am sure, enough decent Conservatives who are deeply worried by the direction in which Johnson and his advisers are taking their party, and who are as appalled as any decent people would be by his shameful and cynical conduct last night.

Now is the time for them to put Country before Party. Johnson has to go, and it is they who should take the lead in ousting him.

 

This way to the oligarchy

An odd collocation: I came home from a visit to Stanley Mills to find that Dominic Cummings had said he wanted to ‘get away from rich remainers’ and ‘talk to ordinary people.’ As many were quick to point out, Cummings himself is exceedingly wealthy, as are his closest allies in the Brexit camp; so this was clearly a bit of ‘projection’ on his part, the device where you attribute to your enemies the very fault you yourself are guilty of – if one thing is evident from the whole affair, it is that Brexit is being driven by wealthy men. But what is the connection with Stanley Mills?

Stanley Mills typify a period in the early industrial revolution, when energetic entrepreneurs saw the moneymaking potential of the mechanisation of weaving that happened in the 18th century. This led to the construction of vast multi-storey mills which were essentially huge complex machines for processing cotton from raw material to finished goods under one roof, generally driven by water power.

These mills required a numerous workforce so their construction was accompanied by the building of houses and related infrastructure for the workers and their families (many of the millworkers were young children, small enough and nimble enough to get in below the machinery to help keep it working by clearing away waste, etc.). 

Thus, the construction of a mill was also the creation of a community, with the millowners providing not only housing but schools, shops and churches. There was no doubt that the living conditions (and pay) were an improvement on anything the workers had known previously – most of them would have been agricultural workers – though the working conditions were in a variety of ways hazardous to health, from the perils of unguarded machinery, the deafening noise of the mill and the atmosphere thick with lung-threatening dust.

However, it was certainly possible for the millowners to consider themselves benefactors, giving their workforce clean, modern housing with sanitation, providing education and meeting their spiritual and material needs; and it is probable that many of their workers would have shared that opinion, especially if they still had relations toiling on the land and living in primitive conditions. But another aspect of this set-up was that the relationship between community and millowner was one of total dependence – they were relatively well-off and certainly well-provided-for, and as long as they did what the mill-owner wanted (working hard and causing no trouble) it would stay that way. And of course the millowner had a vested interest in treating his workforce well, since they in turn made him rich.

This looks, from some angles, to be what the Americans call a ‘win-win situation’: the workers get a secure livelihood and all sorts of benefits while the owner not only gets rich, but gets to feel good about doing so – ‘what’s not to like?’ as they say.

Well, the inherent inequality of the relationship, which for all its apparent modernity has a strong whiff of the feudal about it – the mill-owner holds the lives of his workers (and they are ‘his’ in every sense of the word) in the palm of his hand: all is in his gift.

The counter-argument is to say that this is all right as long as the owner is well-disposed, as he has every incentive to be – the better he treats his work-force, the more the rewards for him; and in any case, are there not strong social constraints among the mill-owners as a body, who see themselves not only as enlightened men who are benefitting the whole country through the application of modern ideas but generally as pious, upright Christians, with a strong sense of decency?

We will leave aside what happens when forces beyond the owner’s control – the American Civil War and its effect on the supply of cotton, for instance – lead to an economic downturn which imperils the livelihoods of the millworkers, and concentrate instead on the relationship between these two distinct classes of people, one of which is responsible for the livelihood – indeed, in many ways, the very lives – of the other.

It is an old-fashioned patriarchal model: the father provides for his children, who in turn do him proper respect and give him his place – which is in charge, naturally enough: the responsibility for direction and decision-making falls to him.  It seems obvious: after all, has he not created all this through his own acumen, built it up by his shrewdness, to the benefit of all (though most of all himself)? And everyone does well out of it, as long as they all know their place in the scheme of things.

This, I think, is the model that Johnson, Cummings and his fellow wealthy ‘Brexiteers’ are aiming for (and doesn’t the swagger of that title, ‘Brexiteer’, with its echo of ‘musketeer’ and ‘buccaneer’, fit perfectly here?). Look at recent history: the painful wake of the collapse of Soviet communism led not to the promised democracy but an oligarchy allied to political dictatorship – and did so by allowing the seizure of what were hitherto state assets (in theory, at least, the people’s assets) by private individuals, who have profited massively from exploiting them. [though advocates of free-market capitalism will doubtless recast this as proof that what becomes moribund under the dead hand of state control has its potential realised by enterprising individuals]

Look at what Trump is doing: weakening legislative power and state regulation in every direction, and benefitting the super-rich who already control so much of the American economy. He aims to revive the days of the ‘Robber Barons’  – Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Morgan, Rockefeller et al. before anti-trust laws brought them under some sort of control. The ambiguity with which America still regards the effects of concentrated wealth is neatly expressed in this lesson plan, quoted in the Wikipedia article on ‘Robber Barons’:

‘In this lesson, you and your students will attempt to establish a distinction between robber barons and captains of industry. Students will uncover some of the less honorable deeds as well as the shrewd business moves and highly charitable acts of the great industrialists and financiers. It has been argued that only because such people were able to amass great amounts of capital could our country become the world’s greatest industrial power. Some of the actions of these men, which could only happen in a period of economic laissez faire, resulted in poor conditions for workers, but in the end, may also have enabled our present day standard of living.’

The key that links all these groups – from eighteenth century mill-owners to Cummings and the gang – is the sense that large affairs of state are best left in the hands of a few wealthy individuals, as untrammelled as possible by any state regulation or legislation, whom the great mass of ordinary people (who know little of such things) should trust to do what is best. Of course they will get even richer as a result, but we should not worry about that – isn’t it their just reward? In any case, doesn’t it mean we’ll all be better off in the long term (just as long as we all remember our proper place in the scheme of things and don’t get ideas above our station)?

Viewed in that light, that bastion of democratically-agreed legislation and regulation, the European Union, for all its faults, looks very much the safest refuge in an increasingly dangerous world for ‘ordinary people’ who ‘just want to get on with it’.