The confusions of anti-politics: Brexit

Tuesday, 24 May 2016    

The current state of the British political project.

There is a fundamental (and fairly obvious) flaw at the centre of the Brexit campaign. What was supposed to be striving for sovereignty has found little support from the political class that would exercise and presumably benefit from it. This is especially true for its leadership, with the leaders of all the main UK political parties, except UKIP, preferring to submit to the diktats of the EU.

In reality, of course, the issue of sovereignty is bogus. The referendum itself is an act of sovereignty. Westminster could decide tomorrow to leave if it wanted to. The bureaucracy in Brussels is a product of the bureaucratisation that is occurring in politics across the developed world, but in Europe finds its home in Brussels. The European national political classes submit to the bureaucracy they themselves created, making it the embryo of a ‘super-state’ in the truest sense of the word.

The relationship between the national European governments and the EU was (or should have been) made clear last year with Greece. The opposition to the austerity imposed by Brussels did not translate to opposition to the EU itself. However, much the EU is disliked, it is still preferred to what is seen as the corrupt national political class. Syriza could overturn its mandate to resist austerity several times, including the No referendum in July, because it could also pitch itself against the old parties, but just try to get a better deal from Brussels.

This was confusing to northern Europe since there the anti-political mood tends to lump national politicians and the EU together, especially on the issue of immigration. UKIP has arisen from dissatisfaction with both sides of politics (especially Conservatives) but is now making inroads into Labour as well. What is confusing in the UK, however, is that in the Brexit campaign this dissatisfaction with politicians is being led by something else entirely.

Signs of the bureaucratisation in UK politics were already starting to appear in the last EU referendum in 1975. Then it was the Labour party that was more split like the Conservatives are now. With the EU being seen more as a pro-market option, heartily supported by the Conservatives under their leader of the time, Margaret Thatcher, opposition from Labour tended to be more from the left wing of the party with closer ties to the unions.

Several of the leading pro-EU Labourites were to lead the split in Labour a few years later, helping to form the SDP in the early 1980s. While the SDP later submerged into the Liberals, the rest of Labour was soon to follow. While Labour, and the unions they represented, suffered defeat after defeat in the 1980s, the EU bureaucracy became an inviting haven for politicians with nowhere else to go.

By the time it returned to power under Blair in 1997, Labour was fully pro EU and former leaders like Neil Kinnock (and family) were finding their careers as EU MEPs and technocrats. The echoes of this still linger on in Labour’s current debasing strategy to argue that if Britain left the EU, basic workers’ rights would be lost, a fairly open admission that Labour is now incapable of defending them in the national political arena.

To some extent, the EU has played a similar role for the Conservatives. The defeat of Old Labour and the unions, and the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, left Thatcher’s Conservatives with nothing to be against (although she did try with the spectre of global warming). The EU became a touchstone for Conservatives struggling with their identity as it had for Labour. But while Labour’s discussions around the EU were largely internally focussed, the Conservatives wrangles over Europe have not only been about their role, but Britain’s role in the world as well.

For decades, British foreign policy had been centred around Churchill’s “three spheres of influence”: Europe, the Empire/Commonwealth, and the transatlantic relationship with the US. The argument made by the Eurosceptics was that being drawn into the European project came at the expense of Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth and the US – so giving away Britain’s unique position in the world.

In reality the spheres of influence was more about dressing up British decline than a real policy. By pretending to be Jack of all trades, it allowed Britain to avoid recognising it was master of none. By maintaining a delicate balance, it allowed the Conservatives to avoid the political consequences of erosion of influence in all spheres.

Cameron called the referendum in order to flush out the Eurosceptics that brought down the last Conservative government under John Major 20 years ago. But in doing so, has also flushed out and damaged the broader political project the Conservatives had presented to themselves for the last 70 years. The weakness of that project has been exposed by the inability of the Brexiters to put forward any coherent vision of what Britain outside the EU would look like.

The biggest blow came with the intervention of US President Obama last month. His comment that Britain leaving the EU would “go to the back of the queue” in any trade deal was largely seen in terms of the damage it did to the Brexiters’ economic argument. But the real damage was political. It not only exposed the emptiness of the special relationship, which Obama reduced to being about “friends telling friends like it really is”, but also undermined Britain’s case for special treatment in the EU based on its unique transatlantic ties. To rub it in, Obama then went off to visit the US’s real partner in Europe, Germany, and praise its immigration policy.

Boris Johnson’s remark that Obama bore a grudge against the British Empire because of his half-Kenyan ancestry was a remark pitched at the Conservatives MPs – which is basically what his Brexit campaign is. For others, however, without a coherent national political project to put across, they have had to increasingly resort to playing the lowest national card there is, anti-immigrant. In this, the official Leave campaign, run mostly by Eurosceptic Conservatives, increasingly resembles the UKIP dominated Leave.EU campaign.

This appeal to the “great unwashed” (a term still casually used in British political discussion in a way unthinkable in Australia or the US) is making the Eurosceptic Conservatives increasingly uncomfortable. It not only has forced them to make unconvincing promises to use money given to the EU to fund the NHS, but raised the question of governance as they are drawn closer to a party described by Cameron as “mad, swivel-eyed loons”.

This strange collusion between a political project of Conservative elites with an anti-politics mood elsewhere bear some similarities to the dynamics of the Scottish independence campaign last year. There, a cause that had historically been a concern of more middle class rural voters in the north and west of Scotland, suddenly caused panic when it was taken up by what were traditionally more unionist working class voters in the cities that saw it as a way to kick Westminster. This led to a rushed scare campaign on the economic cost of independence (the Bank of England warning that Scotland would leave the pound was especially effective) and the middle class vote came back to save the day.

A similar campaign is underway now by the Remain campaign to frighten the more Eurosceptic traditional Conservative voters in England on the economic consequences of leaving, and the polls suggest it’s starting to work. There has been talk that in the increasingly likely event of a win for Remain that this will not be the end of it, and the Eurosceptic Conservatives will continue to make trouble for Cameron. Maybe. More likely though is that the Conservatives will be grateful to Cameron to allow them to forget the whole ghastly business.


Locked in

Monday, 9 May 2016    

David Rowe, AFR

David Rowe, AFR

It is not right for Australians to be forced into a guessing game, and it’s not right for Australians to not face this year with certainty and stability. So in the interests of certainty, in the interest of transparency, in the interest of good governance, I have made the date clear today.

J Gillard, January 2013

Turnbull’s bold play came as the latest Newspoll showed his authority sliding, and his government wearing the costs of a perceived drift. Turnbull’s frustration at these perceptions has been as evident as it has been pointless. Having so many unknowns in play at once has done the new PM no favours.

This special sitting / early budget / early double-D election announcement will change all of that smartly.

Mark Kenny, 21 March

Poor polling is making the decision to defer the election until July look increasingly questionable.

Mark Kenny, one month later

This is the second election in a row that the date has been locked in well in advance. The key advantage of choosing an election date, so helpful to a Prime Minister’s authority, has been thrown away by Prime Ministers who desperately needed all the help they can get, because other concerns prevailed – namely the need to lock in a party behind them that was in danger of drifting and fragmenting beneath them. Read more …


Book review: Niki Savva’s Road to Ruin

Monday, 28 March 2016    



Like a dead fish, a paralysed government soon flips upside down in the water. Read more …



Monday, 29 February 2016    

Photo By Gary Ramage

Why has everyone been so desperate for Tony Abbott to quit the political stage? Read more …


The confusions of anti-politics: US edition

Monday, 1 February 2016    

The pitch.

Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say China in a trade deal?

I beat China all the time. All the time.

Republican and US Presidential front-runner Donald Trump

When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?

Rupert Murdoch 18 July 2015

London elites, media, etc sneering at Trump, others. No understanding of mid-America conditions or politics.

Rupert Murdoch four months later

Mr. Trump, in 1999, you said you were, quote, “very pro-choice.” Even supporting partial-birth abortion. You favored an assault weapons ban as well. In 2004, you said in most cases you identified as a Democrat. Even in this campaign, your critics say you often sound more like a Democrat than a Republican, calling several of your opponents on the stage things like clowns and puppets.

When did you actually become a Republican?

Megyn Kelly at the Fox debate

It might seem to be similar. Like UK Labour, the US Republicans are now stuck with a front runner they don’t want and have been trying to get rid of.

But there the similarities end. Read more …



Wednesday, 23 December 2015    

untitled2David Rowe, AFR

LEIGH SALES: OK. Let’s whip through a few other things. Your minister, Mal Brough, …

MALCOLM TURNBULL: You’ve lost interest in innovation, have you?

LEIGH SALES: (Laughs) I haven’t lost interest, but there’s a lotta things to get through and there’s limited time.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Aunty ABC loses interest in innovation.

LEIGH SALES: I wish we had unlimited time.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Yes, well, there you go.

Press gallery loses interest in the ishoos

I do love Catholics who now think Martin Luther & the Reformation are an example for other religions to follow. Welcome to the 16th Century.

Alex Hawke MP

The attempt by Ian Macfarlane to switch Coalition parties was widely portrayed as marking the end of Turnbull’s honeymoon as it showed that he faced dissension in the Coalition. If that’s the criteria, then it never began. Read more …


An incomplete revolution: Liberal edition

Tuesday, 15 September 2015    

David Rowe: AFR

David Rowe: AFR

A “humble” Malcolm Turnbull promised to be a team player, pledged no radical shifts in policy, and assured there would be no recriminations.

“I listen to everybody,” he said. “I am a great believer in networking. I am a great believer in communication and consultation.”

Malcolm Turnbull assuming the leadership in, er, 2008

For the last five years, Australia has had to endure the tedious process of both major parties regaining control from what Barrie Cassidy called the “party thieves”, Rudd and Turnbull, only to see the major parties make such a hash of it that both “thieves” ended up taking the party back again. Sort of. Read more …


The confusions of anti-politics: UK edition

Tuesday, 8 September 2015    



Can I just finish?

The Unstoppable Jeremy Corbyn

If the struggle between Rudd and Gillard over the dead soul of the Labor party, and the hollow leadership election that followed, occasionally descended into farce, it is nothing compared to what is now going on in UK Labour. Read more …



Monday, 24 August 2015    


To paraphrase a great rugby phrase ‘go you Goodes thing’ and to quote Warren Mundine ‘stop the boos’

Tweet from the very clever Scott Morrison

I just find it incomprehensible that the state of Australia is so racist that we have widespread tolerance and support for the most vicious kind of racism that I haven’t seen since the dark days of the end of apartheid

Some perspective from Marcia Langton

Probably for some the jeers are mindless, just revelling in something taboo. But increasingly, that dull drone is sounding like an assertion of power: crowds of non-Indigenous people declaring, “We will keep doing this and you can’t stop us”.

One sports writer expressing the darkest fears

Like most developed countries, Australia has a race problem. It might not take the form it does in the enlightened country this writer comes from, of cops regularly shooting black people in the streets (curiously omitted in the piece), but it exists and mostly is focussed on indigenous people.

Here are a few examples highlighted by this blog. Read more …


Leadership watch: Morrison on 730

Friday, 14 August 2015    



They’re my personal views, Leigh, and I’m not going to impose those on the rest of the country.

Scott Morrison formulates the platform for the Australian right

Scott Morrison’s had a very good week and it’s written all over his face. Read more …


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