The Conservative party has a problem. And it isn’t the problem that first comes to mind. Islamophobia, lack of leadership or a ‘nasty party’ reputation do not pose the same existential threat as that which is rotting this institution from the inside out. The Tories’ problem is buried so deeply that it remains unnamed. Which means it remains not only unaddressed but even undenied. Despite this, it remains hidden in plain sight, openly feasting on the fetid carapace of an ideology that I have never liked, but at least always respected. Or at least used to. The root of the problem is a small faction of fundamentalist, highly radicalised zealots who are murdering the party in a blasphemous manipulation of its core values. These are of course the Reactionaries of the ERG/Hard Brexit faction.
The failure of the Tory party to identify early on that these people are not ‘Conservatives’ may well yet lead Britain blindly off a cliff. We may fall to the sunlit uplands of a new Bolder Brighter Britain, or we may cripple many generations with the sins of the father (though I am sure Sextus will be fine) but no-one knows. And the problem is, that is neither conservative not Conservative. Reactionaryism is nothing new. The Luddites – machine-breaking artisans of the British Industrial Revolution, who would smash factory equipment and leave notes signed ‘Ned Ludd’ sought to arrest the progress of mine and mill and reverse the irreversible. The term now is used for a certain type of technophobic fuddy-duddy, but the reality of history anything but quaint. Often the Army was deployed to stop their actions.
Reactionaryism is fundamentally different to Conservatism. Conservatism is ‘the ideology of imperfection’; it seeks to preserve the best of the past while accepting that, history, like shit, happens. Change will occur and it is the job of the conservative, through respect and understanding of the past to shape and temper that incrementally to preserve continuity and the best of what has gone before, in the context of a humble acceptance of its inevitability. As Mark Lila, one of the best thinkers on this subject puts it,
“the conservative is (also) reconciled to the fact that history never stands still and that we are only passing through. Conservatism seeks to instil the humble thought that history moves us forward, not the other way around”
By contrast, the reactionary is the Cher of politics; If only she can turn back time, things will be great again. The frothing, rabid, fundamentalists of Brexit draw their legitimacy from our shared past which allows them to masquerade as Conservatives, whilst tearing apart shared institutions and values, and driving a cleft through the middle of their party and our country. The modern Britain that has developed since World War Two, (with apologies to Billy Joel) the Britain of NHS, Windrush. Vindaloo, butternut squash. TUC, BBC, David Bowie, Maggie T may not to be everyone’s tastes, but it was ours and is now also part of our tradition. They draw instead on older myths of (English) sovereignty and a Britain that never was, to legitimise the complete destruction of the current state of things. Rhetoric about ‘taking back control’ and sovereignty are a smokescreen for their desperation to erase the visible signs in our society of progress.This is a revolutionary ideology of the right, not Conservatism. Whilst claiming to be the guardians of tradition, they rip at the very seams of British society. At least Farage never hid that when he declared the referendum our ‘Independence Day’.
Reactionarism is an idea that is becoming increasingly widespread. From Trump, to Orban to Golden Dawn, there are politicians and parties of the ‘right’ who are borrowing from the playbook of the radical left to fling us backwards into a mythical past, destroying hard-won, incremental progressive victories. One of the great strengths of Conservative ideologies is that, in spite, or perhaps because of their suspicion of change, those that do stick become canonical. A Conservative would be unlikely to abolish the NHS, but a Reactionary would happily tear it down, claiming they were taking us back to a better time of medical independence and giving a ‘Free and True Englishmen’ the hard-won right to die in their own piss. You could argue there is a strain of the same ‘back-to-the-future’ iconoclasm in the Islamic State, the first experiment in reactionary Statehood.
Now I do not suggest that we are likely to see Jacob Rees-Mogg performing a Facebook live beheading – though I have a feeling he would bring back the death penalty – but if I was a true Conservative I would be worried. The once-great party is being hijacked, and it is to the detriment of the whole body politic, not just the right, and the current atmosphere is so febrile that no-one dares call it out. But if any Tories out there read this, and they care at all about their country – the Britain we all live in now, not some fictionalised, whitewashed past – then they must. This has gone on too long and it is a danger for all of us.
As the passion and polemic of the Scottish referendum fades, after the impassioned cries over the lost chance for an ‘alternative way’ and a ‘more equitable society’, through to the Braveheart tub-thumping across the pond that claimed the Scots squandered (or were, somehow through a direct democratic vote, were robbed of) their freedom, what have we really witnessed last week?
It seems to me that the ‘Scottish Question’ is a very specific, localised symptom of a global affliction, an ailment that draws a line between global terrorism and local government, racist politics and the supranational organisations. There is very little chance I will do this thought justice in a blog post, but, in the spirit of FailToPlan, I will push on with the thought. I would rather fail to express it adequately than not try to express it at all.
From a UK perspective, the Scottish referendum it seems was asking the wrong question. The Scottish desire to be more in control of their own destiny caused by the political and psychological distance from Westminster may be most keenly felt when mixed in with a head dose of intoxicating nationalist sentiment, but across the UK other regions suffer similarly. Policies that are meant to be national are cooked up in Westminster and seem better suited to dealing with the peculiar problems of the capital rather than those of the country as a whole. When government, civil service, media and the most vocal parts of industry sit within the M25, it’s is no wonder that it starts to feel as though one very unrepresentative part is standing in for the whole. Rather than looking at whether we should be hiving off Scotland, the real question is whether the Scottish desire for independence reflects a broader need for a federal or at least regionally devolved Britain, where the Midlands, the South-West, the North-East and the North-West get a stronger say in they way their share of the tax take is spent and the way in which industry and perhaps even education is shaped. A more successful UK needs to give places other than London the tools they need to thrive. People need to feel confident that if that have a great idea or a game changing business they can start it in Manchester or Newcastle, because they could attract the talent and the connections & conditions. These regions and cities should be allowed to (re)build and encourage their economies, legislate for their peculiarities and set out their global brands. A federal Britian would give them the power and the political space to grow.
So there is a bigger question for Britian as a nation that has been raised by this, but the second, more curious, element of the Scottish devolution question I wish to highlight fits into broader shifts in international, rather than specific problems in national, politics. Who got to vote in last week’s referendum raised all kinds of question around Nationhood. A good friend of mine, Croydon-born, a Londoner and European through, voted in Glasgow, having been there a month, yet die-hard ‘Scots’ were denied because their were living in Birmingham, or Baku. But the problem is, in the fluid, international and highly mobile world we live in, what is a Scot? Or British? Or Burmese for that matter? Which becomes particularly thorny when you are un-uniting a multi-ethnic liberally defined ‘Nation;’ How do you define the voters and going forward, if successful scythed in half, the citizenship? This is a question underlying a disparate bag of rapidly-mainstreaming long-tail weirdness globally. Whether it is Kurds in Iraq and Turkey or the EDL, far right parties in Sweden holding the balance of power or the Front Nationale in France, narrow and exclusive definitions of the nation are once again increasing, in the face of a world that operates ever-more transnationally.
On one hand this can be seen as part of a reaction to the (post-) recessionary environment, where even as GDP recovers, people feel poorer still, but at the same time the rallying round the exclusively defined nation comes at a time of unprecedented diminishing of the Nation-State. There seems to be an inverse correlation between the rhetoric and the reality. As the noise increases, the nation-state becomes ever weaker. Its hands tied by the primacy of multinational companies and transnational networks of capital, not to say bilateral trade agreements, supranational bodies like NATO and global justice entities such as the European Court. As the sound and fury of what constitutes your nations increases, the state may be coming to signify nothing. Even the ‘bad guys; can’t be pinned down- we saw the ‘success’ of trying to declare conventional war on the unconventional ‘state’ of Terror…
This of course is where is starts to get weird… whilst many are arguing increasingly vociferously over the 19th century Nation State, we are facing down the first truly 21st Century one, in the form of ISIS. As my good friend Steve Grant put it, currently in swathes of Syria and Northern Iraq we are facing
“…a salafist version of burning man. Seriously –young people from around the world in a conventionally lawless space, running under its own set of newly instantiated social norms, all brought together by the internet. Fewer drugs, more small arms and beheadings, same spirit. really”
Jacques Attali, in ‘A brief History of the Future’ outlines a 21st Century where Corsairs and Corporations battle over land and resources and the conventional nation state fades into the past while impotently defending its claims to relevance. Suddenly it seems like that imagined future is not so far off. Scotland wants to leave Westminster because that State, nationalizing it’s banks to ‘save’ them (a very anti-market and anti-Captial measure in truth!) as well as propping up private enterprise in rail, road, energy and infrastructure is willingly tying its own hands, becoming little more than steward of the market rather than the leader of a ‘nation’ (whatever the hell that means now) putting us all in hock to the unaccountable. At the same time, a violent and bloody experiment in alternative forms of governance is clearing itself a white space in the Middle East and acquiring the mineral wealth to continue financing their bizarre and brutal thought experiment. All of a sudden you have drawn a rhetorical thread from Alex Salmond to the Islamic State, via the Tea Party and the outliers on the loony left.
We are at an inflection point for the state as we have known it, and there is any number of interest groups, of which Citizens are only one, making demands on its future. The next few decades should be interesting. So far it is the (very) lunatic fringes who are experimenting with alternative forms to redefine the great and irrelevant 19th century conception of what ‘The State’ is. It is time that the political mainstream began having these fundamental discussions rather than propping up a potentially untenable status quo, else ISIS and others will take the global conversation (and potentially many more innocent people) hostage. Hopefully the failure in Scotland will begin to mainstream these conversations in the UK, and frankly, looking around us now, these kind of free and frank discussions can’t happen soon enough.