A choice of dystopia: on George Osborne’s political trajectory

George & the Standard

George Osborne has taken the obvious flack for taking up the editorship of the Evening Standard.  There’s even a petition.

I expect he’s sitting back and enjoying it all enormously, confident in the knowledge that the noise about him ignoring his constituency, taking conflicting interests into parliament, or playing at journalism, all spectacularly miss the point about why he’s taken on the editorship, and massively underestimate how important that is.

This piece is about what I think he’s up to, what may develop more generally in British Convervatism, and why Labour needs to be starting to respond now, not in three years’ time (under whatever Labour leadership there is then).   Part II, as and when it appears, will put flesh on the bones of what I think Labour’s response should be.


I suggest that Osborne’s key ambition is not to pretend-edit the Evening Standard, but to become the Conservative candidate for the next London mayoral election and in 2020, with the backing of the capital’s most influential newspaper, win it.

London will just then be in the first deep wave of recession post-Brexit (though there may already have been waves), and he will be able to position himself as the knight in shining armour, come to rescue innocent Londoners from the fate that has befallen them.

He will win in large part because he will be able to play the extreme devolution card, pointing to his support for devolution in the Northern Cities from 2014 onwards, and to the support he received in those cities from Labour leaderships  who lapped up the promise of new powers like, well, lap dogs, happy to  critique austerity as election strategy at the same time as negotiating their own aggrandisement by building in that austerity to their own institutions for the sake of a few million quid on pet strategic projects [1].

The changing face of British Conservatism

But this will just be the tactical part of the victory, the bit most prominent on the election leaflets, perhaps.

Much more fundamental to his victory, and to his pre-eminence in British politics into the 2020s, will be that his very candidature will open up a new ideological divide in British Conservatism which, far from allowing Labour a way back towards power, will see it further squeezed from relevance, as the main dividing line becomes not left versus right, but between what I will call authoritarian conservatism and cosmopolitan liberalism,  In the wake of this new divide, aspirations to inclusive democratic socialism will start to fade into history.

This new Conservatism for the 2020s, with its two distinct strains vying more openly for power, will mark a definitive end to the shallow but, in historical terms, exceptional statecraft period we may come to know as Cameronism.

Throughout his time as Conservative leader, Cameron sought to play to both the socially liberal and old authoritarian sections of the overall Conservative movement, and did so relatively successfully until June 23rd 2016, not least because it was able to depend on its narrative of “sorting out Labour’s mess” much longer than might have been the case had Labour got its act together in around 2012.

To a significant extent, May’s tenure will be a fading continuation of Cameronian statecraft (just as Major was a faded continuity to Thatcher), with the need for party unity now enforceable by the circumstances of Brexit, but in this period the new dividing lines and power bases for the 2020s will be established, and the ideological standpoints will be firmed up on both sides.

The last great ideological divide [2] in British Conservatism was between the ‘wets’ and the ‘dries’.   This was marked by the dispute about whether the post-war settlement over the welfare state had any enduring virtue, or needed to be consigned to history.    The ideological argument was won by the ‘dries’, though it has taken another period of government (the first Osborne Supremacy) to take us past what is probably the point of no return (at least as far as the original welfare state was conceived).

While Labour (or sections of it) is still fighting this long lost battle (renamed anti-austerity), the new divide in British Conservatism will be drawn.

Authos versus Cosmos

This will not be a divide of opinion on how the post-EU, post-welfare national state should be managed in its decline. It will be about the geography of how that decline should be managed.

For Theresa May’s (or her successor’s) authoritarian wing of British Conservatism (hereafter ‘the Authos’), the ideology will be of business as usual.    Government, and the increasingly draconian measures needed to keep it stable in the face of national post-Brexit social and economic turmoil, will continue to be highly centralised, although the old Bulpittian distinction between ‘high’ politics, a matter for the great and the good, and ‘low’ politics such as health and education will emerge even more strongly, now that the management techniques of devolving responsibility without devolving resource or power are much better understood within Westminster right-wing cadres.

At one end of the scale, government under the Authos may well tip towards outright Trumpist fascism but, in any event, the main ‘othering’ needed to provide the political ballast will be of those considered internally to be the ‘enemies of the people’, with ever-heightened racism and xenophobia also driven by the need to blame Europe for not having negotiated in good faith.

That much is obvious, and the early indicators of this are already to be seen.

But George Osborne’s Evening Standard-fuelled vision of 2020s British Conservatism will be very different, and it will be very appealing to those he seeks to reach.   This vision, or offer, I will call (with due sense of irony) liberal cosmopolitanism, and its adherents ‘the Cosmos’.

Early on, the Standard’s editorial line, increasingly anti-May in the context of the ever closer Brexit economic collapse, will be seen as resulting from personal antipathy on the part of Osborne.  As noted above, this is likely to satisfy him and the white cap in his lap [3].

The real story though, over time, will be the emergence of a ‘London position’ on its relationship with the EU, ready for implementation when he wins the mayoralty, a year (or less) after Brexit.

This ‘London position’ will, I suspect, amount to something close to an application to re-join the EU on a special city status, with the four freedoms guaranteed in as far as possible.   What will be possible then will depend on the work done in the intervening period, often through intermediaries like Osborne’s Michael Bloomberg but also European ’eminences grises’ (ex-Kanzlerin Angela Merkel?) to develop some kind of legitimacy parallel to or even exceeding that of the UK nation state (Scotland may already have done of the donkey work here), and in keeping with Article 1 of Lisbon’s commitment to decision making “as close to the citizen” as possible.

In effect, the ‘Cosmos’ will be working towards a coup-by-devolution, in which London becomes some kind of city state (it has a head’s start with the City of London) of course, followed by other big economic players who want to follow the same path;  probably Oxford & Cambridge, probably Manchester, possibly Bristol.

Within these new quasi-states, a cosmopolitan liberalism will be fostered in which overt racism has no part, and free trade is fostered.   Socially liberal, (wealthy) younger person oriented, these cities will seek to regain the cosmopolitan feel that has started to desert them, and to the wider world it may look like the UK has, after a tumultuous few years, regained some of its pizazz.

As such, these renewed cities will be the opposite of what would develop under the ‘Authos’: dark, hostile places where everyone is a stranger and relief is to be found only in the countryside beyond.

But the Authos’ new England will come at a cost.   The cost will be the regions – the towns and villages that don’t fit the newly demarcated dystopian economic geography (though  of course the economic imbalances on the late 20th century has been the key driver for this new formal demarcation.

Beyond the city states, the ever more impoverished rump hinterland will be allowed to follow the ‘choice’ they made for isolation.   After all, that is what they voted for, will be the retort from the urban areas now recovering some sense of economic stability.   That’s what the American version of the ‘Cosmos’ is already doing, and you can expect Osborne’s people to refine.

The menials will be bussed into cities in the daytime, and bussed out again when they come alive at night.  Think Johannesburg, think Soweto.

Two dystopias: one under the Authos, with hints of Orwell’s 1984 and Gilliam’s Brazil, with its ‘enemies of the people’  narrative to sustain its political hegemony (guns and tanks may also be needed); and one under the Cosmos, perhaps closer to the massively and purposively unequal economic geography depicted in the Hunger Games series of novel and films.

I do not know which new strain British Conservatism will win out, though at the moment I’ back the Cosmos’, but neither looks good from where I’m standing in the Lancashire hinterland.

Labour’s response?

Currently, Labour sees nothing of this, content it seems to stand and heckle Osborne from the morally righteous sidelines.

Labour’s new National Policy Forum online consultation (deadline May 31st) asks what we should make of Brexit without giving any sense how critical it will be to have a response, not just to May’s version of it, but also to Osborne’s (it’s tucked away in the international section).    If Osborne’s Conservatism works out as he plans, this will sweep away the urban middle-class vote from Labour, including but not only in London (there’s a reason for his chairing the Northern Powerhouse Partnership) and leaving a few local administrations to oversee, until they too are swept away, the further decline of the discarded regions.

A more coherent response is, of course, possible.  Indeed, I have outlined the mechanics and legislative detail of how to start it here (and I will put flesh on the bones if this get enough attention to warrant a part 2.

But the first step, as ever, is to ‘know your enemy’.  Clue: it’s not Momentum, or Progress: it’s both wings of British Conservatism, and the fact that there are now two wings makes it especially dangerous.

[1] This is perhaps a mean-spirited interpretation of the Liverpool and Manchester City Council leadership’s  attitudes t Osborne’s devolution advances, and there is another interpretation  which holds some weight  – that the leaders were just doing what they thought best for the cities in time of crisis.  I do not think history will judge their decisions well, but I acknowledge motivations may have been mixed.

[2] The late, great EHH Green demonstrated that throughout the 20th century British Conservatism has been, beneath the veneer of a national party,  more often than not been deeply divided ideologically, from the Edwardian freedtrade/protectionism split onwards, and that the wet/dry split was only one more example.

[3] For convenience in this short piece I have preferred to caricature Osborne as an evil mastermind, and to suggest that the ‘Cosmos’ phase of British Conservatism will be his personal design, should it come to pass.   In a longer piece,  I would have argued that Osborne, like all political actors, operates within the constraints of political and social structures and that, while he does have more agency than most, these still apply.  This is, of course, why he did not seek the leadership after Cameron stepped down, and why he is re-entering the fray in this way.





Labour’s local path to Brexit relevance

Labour’s response to Brexit to date  has been painful to watch.  It can probably most kindly described as irrelevant.

I don’t attribute this, as most of the media are keen to do, to weak leadership by Corbyn, or to the fact that Corbyn and McDonnell  are quietly pleased about the Brexit vote, and don’t want to rock the boat; neither of them are stupid, and while they may have once been in the ‘EU is a neoliberal cabale’ club before the prospect of Brexit existed, their pro-Remain stance before the June 23rd vote will have been genuine enough.

The reason for Labour’s current irrelevance is that it is stuck between a rock and a hard place.  On the one side, Labour can’t ‘do a LibDem’ and set out its stall in favour of remaining in the EU on account of the clear economic catastrophe that we are now due.

The LibDem core vote is Remain-supporting, and it loses nothing in adopting this stance, while gaining some core-remain support from Labour.  A lot of Labour’s core vote did vote Leave, though, and any approach that looks like it’s rejecting the legitimacy of that vote is fraught with electoral danger in the form of UKIP.

On the other side, Labour can’t, and shouldn’t ‘do the full UKIP’, celebrating our so-called sovereignty and our new found power to keep out the foreigners etc..

So we end up with Corbyn in the pretty impossible position of having to argue the freedom of movement is a bad thing on the basis of arguments about exploitation of labour by capital that no-one really gets.

There is, though, some belated hope that Labour has stumbled on a route past the current impasse.   Yesterday’s reaction to May’s announcement that we will, indeed, be pursuing the hardest of hard Brexits, brought a non-response from Corbyn, but two interesting statements from two other Labour MPs.

Andy Burnham, likely to become Mayor of Greater Manchester, continues his pointless kowtowing on freedom of movement, but does manage an important step forward

Rather than leaving these crucial decisions to a London-centric right-wing clique around the prime minister, it is time to open up the debate, give Greater Manchester a voice in it and establish a Brexit committee of the nations and regions.

But Steve Rotheram, his Liverpool City Region counterpart, was better:

During our meeting last week I suggested that the North of England, in particular the Liverpool City Region, should have a voice at the Government’s negotiating table, as the decision to the leave the EU is likely to define the future of our area for the next generation.

If I’m elected in May 2017, I will demand that Brexit Ministers ensure full consideration of the interests of our City Region are at the heart of their exit strategy, as we cannot afford to allow the 1.5 million people across Merseyside and Halton to be left behind again.

This, I sincerely hope, is the opening salvo in Labour new campaign for a reasoned, locally relevant Brexit, through to the local elections and then beyond.

The messaging from now on should be all about wresting control from an incompetent central government led by May and peopled by buffoons intent on making us a tax haven for the rich, and about localizing the Brexit process according to local need and, most importantly, local democratic wills.

It needs to be joined up to the new but to date ignored policy announcement about the Council for the North, with the story developed (however post hoc) that the two issues of Brexit and devolution have always been joined up in Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s minds.

At the moment, Burnham and Rotheram are both just at the stage of rhetoric, and of making demands on the centre which they know the centre will not respond to, so they need to push further, and quickly.

I have already set out details of the legislative process that they might use to push the localisation agenda on, and these ideas are now starting to gain a little bit of traction – three months late but better later than never – within the very outer cricles around the inner circle.

But even if this particular route is not chosen, Burnham, Rotheram and others (initially in remain-voting areas), including of course Sadiq Khan, need to be liaising right now with their regional MEPs and getting themselves on Eurostar to Brussels to meet the right people in the Commission about options similar to the one which, as and when the Supreme Court finds in favour of the crucial but widely ignored Northern Ireland intervention in the Article 50 case and, requires that that country be allowed a separate voice.

Of course it will be more difficult for Greater Manchester, say, to argue for its own powers to remain within the Single Market than it will be for Northern Ireland, should that be the wish of the local electorate via its local representatives.

But Burnham will get a much warmer reception in Brussels than Johnson, especially if he talks intelligently of how dealing with English regions fits with the aspirations set out at article 1 of the Lisbon Treaty that “decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen” and it is not out of the question that the EU negotiation team will start to consider carefully the potential for picking off bits of the UK for serious negotiation, if it is felt that this might be a way of talking sense into May’s bunch of arrogant fools.

In any event, local regions making a bid for negotiating status themselves can be developed as a proper democratic alternative to the current mess, in which the government will try (probably in vain) to negotiate special deals for Nissan and the like.

These are the kind of discussions I hope Corbyn and Keir Starmer are involved in.  None of the top dogs have ever had the courtesy even to reply to my emails and letters setting out these kind of proposals, but I suppose it is possible that some of the guidance set out in them has been picked up.  I’ll keep trying – next stop the European Movement UK conference in Sheffield on February 4th – because there is still some hope that, if Labour actually does get creative about its options – we ca still save the country from the worst by doing what we’re best at, which is local government.

10 things I learned in 2016

1) Gramscianism, as interpreted by the New Urban Left in the 196os and still pervasive in the British left was dead before 2016 as a productive political direction, but now it’s really, really dead.

2) The left must now start anything it seeks to do from a different place in a different world. ‘Post-truth’ is the word of the year for good reason.

3) For the left to recover its position as something of hope for those now beset by the brutal impacts post-truth politics, the old ‘truth to power’ strategies, which will not win, will need to be superseded by political practices geared to truthfulness.

4) Truthfulness is not the same as truth-telling. Truth telling only works when truthfulness is accepted. This is what Corbynism offered, though not consciouslly – Corbyn was an unwitting cipher. But the moment for that is now lost, squandered by the sub-Gramscians (see 1)

5) Political practices geared to truthfulness must be implemented in the knowledge that people are ill from worry. Ill people are hard to work with. Nevertheless, a range of associational and everyday democratic options remain open to us, many of them forged in the 20th century and still fit for purpose with only mild tinkering.

6) Brexit may not happen, as there is a middle course to steer via Single Market retention which will make Brexit redundant.

7) But it may do, and it may be ‘hard Brexit’. In this case, the economy will crash and burn, probably from mid-late 2017. It will be awful.

8) Nevertheless, a Labour party that positions itself well in advance of the crash and burn may be in a position to work with a new generation on the creation, via an appropriate process of collective guilt and atonement, of a humbler, properly post-colonial country in which institutions are re-legitimized and people take a quiet pride in civic and state renewal.

9) However, we may be too late, and liberal democracy may, to all intents and purposes, collapse.

10) Time is short. Shorter than I thought in Jan 2016. And I thought it was short then.

Why Habermas?

Hardly a day passes without someone coming up to me on the street and saying something like this to me:

Paul, you are my excellent local councillor, assiduous and magnanimous in all your works.  You are also a highly competent Chair of Governors with your finger on the pulse of education and a sense of how to negotiate a difficult course through often frankly senseless policy, as well as being known as much for your good works in many charitable areas as for your good looks and strong physique, such that in the distance I often mistake you for Hollywood A-lister Mr George Clooney.

I therefore value your opinion highly, and am interested in your current preference for the political philosophical project of Jurgen Habermas. What is it about the works of this elderly German gentleman which you find so persuasive in the context of modern Brexit Britain?

And I tend to reply to my supplicants in these terms:

I think your question, in your lowly position as my constituent, is well articulated and contains within it a high degree of Geltanspruch, or validity claim, in the sense that it is both reflective of the truthfulness of your current questioning position, and sincere in that you genuinely wish to know the answer. I am therefore prepared to invest my time in providing you with the answer you seek.

As an individual, Habermas is one of the only living, and almost certainly the only active political philosopher to have lived through fascism and the reconstruction of a nation in its aftermath. As such, a great deal of his intellectual energies have gone into a forensic project to understand and then “reconstruct” the processes – from the basic tenets of inter-subjective communication onwards – of stable states governed by the rule of law and by the “validities” required to make that so, and alongside this to understand both the perversions which occur in any turn to fascism and what we, as engaged citizens, need to do to protect the Enlightenment values which were destroyed in Germany and elsewhere before being re-established in stronger (though not unassailable form there) than in the so-called victor countries.

It therefore seems appropriate, at a time when democratic values and practices are now being actively subverted through a determined process of non-truth telling, in which lies are used primarily to conceal truth,but (in a way Hannah Arendt understood only too well), but to subjugate, by a requirement to repeat those lies and thus to corrupt the self.

It is this overarching grasp of how unchecked power has made the civil rights notion of “truth to power” untenable, and created instead a need to organise a defensive “truth to lies” movement, which makes Habermas’ work so important.

In more concrete terms, I draw your attention, noble constituent of mine, to what Habermas says at p.382 of the English translation of his masterwork Facts and Norms.  He says this:

“Under the conditions of a liberal pubic sphere, informal public communication accomplishes two things in which mobilization depends on crisis. On the one hand, it prevents the accumulation of indoctrinated masses that are seduced by populist leaders. On the other hand, it pulls together the scattered critical potentials of a public that was only abstractly held together by the public media, and it helps this public have a political influence on institutionalized opinion and will -formation. Only in liberal public spheres, of course, do sub-institutional political movements- which abandon the conventional paths of interest politics in order to boost the constitutional regulated power in he political system- take this direction. By contrast, an authoritarian, distorted public sphere that is brought into alignment merely provides a forum for plebiscitary legitimation.”

The reason Habermas is so important now is that we are at a critical juncture. We can become again a properly liberal state, in which conversations between equals matter, and are bound by norms of truth. Or we will descend into authoritarian rule, or worse, in which “the masses” are used to legitimate lies-become-truth.

It remains our choice. For now.”

With that, I say good day to my constituents, and continue on my way, all the while continuing to think through and plan how, as comrades for democracy, we might effect these principles in local and national political practice.

A post-Trump Enlightenment

Just as complement to what Owen Jones has so wisely set out…..we urgently need a new (post-Trump) Deleuzian /Guattarian rhizomic politics:
[T]he rhizome is made only of lines; lines of segmentarity and stratification as its dimensions, and the line of flight or deterritorialization as the maximum dimension after which the multiplicity undergoes metamorphosis, changes in nature.
These lines, or ligaments, should noy be confused with lineages of the aborescent type, which are merely localizable linkages between points and positions… (A thousand plateaus).
So bloody right.
If we can just strategically and intersubjectively ‘interlace’ a rhizomic, ethico-aesthetic politics with a Beck/Habermasian universalist transcandentalism in respect of the elemental of a discourse ethic, in turn (rhizomically) rooted* in a post-Althusseran but also post-Lacanian sense of ideological apparatus as linguistically and subconsciously retrieved by a deliberate process of Baudrillardian compromise with the virtual, then we stand a genuine change of renewing the Enlightenment for a technological age and in the face of the dark forces of an irrationality only half-knowingly exploiting a ontological insecure post-proletariat precariat untouchable by a Gramscian process of concientization and incapacitated for the kind self-mobilisation described by the totally boss EP Thompson
I know this sounds simple enough, but it might not be.
We might have to talk to people about stuff and then help do stuff about the stuff.
* Ah, always wanted to make that joke, and it took a Trump presidency

Diminished expectations

I am not in a position or mood, and won’t be for a bit, to make original comment on the election of the new US President.

So here instead, in these days of diminishing expectations of what America might offer, is intelligent American cultural conservative & pessimist, Christopher Lasch near the end of his seminal 1979, not entirely coincidentally titled, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations:

The best defenses against the terrors of existence are the homely comforts of love, work and family life which connects us to world which is independent of our wishes yet responsible to our needs, It is through love and work, as Freud noted in a characteristically pungent remark, that we exchange crippling emotional conflict for ordinary unhappiness.

In some ways that not much further on than Voltaire’s closing wisdom in Candide “Il fault cultiver notre jardin”, though Lash’s closure is rooted in the psychological ills that 20th century capitalism has wrought rather than the barbarism born of 18th century philosophical and religious ‘purity’ (maybe that’s only just begun again in earnest).

But for a few days – before we get started on building the institutions of associations and trust that Lasch has no confidence in, but which actually are our last Habermasian hope for the renewal of the enlightenment – Lash’s advice will do.


Election day message

To avoid security, I’m sending my US election to Donald Trump by way of Tupper’s self-referential formula, which as, I am sure he knows, states that
for any given value (k), where y ∈ <k, k+17) and x ∈ <0, 106, a self-referential result can be obtained by way of applying the formula
1/2 < floor(mod(floor(y/17)*2^(-17*floor(x)-mod(floor(y), 17)),2))

All he has to do us go on to http://tuppers-formula.tk/ copy & paste the k value provided below (without the k) into the blank ‘number’ box, then just click on the ‘number to graph’ button just above the box to get his message


You can try it too.