Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, June 27, 2016

Rue Britannia!

A few quick observations on political leadership.

David Cameron will resign as Prime Minister later this year, apparently without having triggered the Article 50 process for exiting the European Union.  This probably means that it will be up to his successor to hammer out the contours of Britain's new relationship with Europe.  Meanwhile the Labour Party appears to be falling apart, with a massive wave of resignations and firings in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.  The U.K. therefore appears to lack leadership at a time when it needs it most.

To help understand what is going on, I think it is worth looking at the last few weeks of the 2016 Republican presidential primary.  Ted Cruz was desperately trying to rally the party to reject Trump, something that was clearly desirable, if not necessary, from a big picture perspective.  And yet many of the party's elites propped Trump up while slamming Cruz.  This is like responding to an infection by attacking your own white blood cells.  What was going on?

Well, partly Cruz is simply an odious person who spent the last several years stirring up unproductive wars between the party's base and its leaders.  But more importantly, I think, Cruz spent most of the primary in a tacit alliance with Trump, convinced that his best chance was a one-on-one race against an obviously unqualified and unprincipled candidate.  (In this he was probably right.)  It is a little rich to help Trump kill off all of your competitors and then declare him a monster who must be attacked with the full weight of the Republican establishment.  That this was basically true didn't make it any more palatable to the people who watched Cruz maneuver himself into this position.  So in other words, the elites had good reason to stand by while Cruz was gored, even if we might debate about whether they truly had sufficient reason to accept a Trump nomination.

The British situation is similar.  Cameron campaigned hard for remaining in the European Union, and he faced a reckless and dishonest exit campaign that essentially poisoned the well for the exit negotiations.  It is impossible, I believe, to meet the expectations of the "leave" voters, because those expectations were inflated to unrealistic levels by politicians whose real target was Cameron and his occupancy of 10 Downing Street.  So Cameron is in a position similar to the GOP elites after Cruz had teamed up with Trump to destroy the establishment candidates:  he could take one for the team, but he understandably has no inclination to do so.  (No matter what he accomplished, even if he struck the best deal possible under the circumstances, he would likely be blamed for whatever downsides remain.)

What about Labour?  Well, I don't pretend to understand what is going on there, except that many Labour politicians strongly opposed leaving the EU, and Corbyn seems to have hindered the "remain" campaign.  (So far I've seen reports that he withheld crucial support, framed the "remain" argument poorly, and generally didn't show any enthusiasm for the fight.  I'm unaware that he actively sabotaged the campaign, but certainly you can argue that he bears a fair degree of responsibility for the outcome.)  In fact Corbyn's attitude may have been similar to what I outlined above:  Cameron called for a referendum for electoral advantage, and the result was a crushing defeat for Labour.  Why should Corbyn then bail him out?

But anyway you can see how Labour politicians would be reluctant to let Corbyn benefit from a costly shitstorm that was partly his own making and that will probably be disastrous for Labour's preferred policy outcomes.  As a quick side note, this is true even if subsequent developments prevent Britain from leaving the EU.  It was bad enough that the vote opened a new cleavage that is likely to be problematic for Labour—it also let the cat out of the bag about where public sentiment lies.  Labour politicians who prefer to remain in the EU now have to choose between their preferred policy and democratic legitimacy, a choice that was thrust on them by Cameron and (arguably) Corbyn.

So we have a situation where individuals are responding rationally (or at least understandably) to the machinations of their opponents, but where the collective result is chaos.


Blogger Zed said...

I am a little hopeful that the chaos will prevent any coherent govt. from forming and executing Brexit. The fixed-term parliaments act means that there won't be any general election until 2020 or so, and at this point complete gridlock seems preferable to the alternatives.

10:20 PM  
Blogger James said...

That would probably be the best realistic outcome. A better, but less realistic, outcome would be a no-confidence vote followed by an election, returning a "remain" mandate for the new government. I don't see that happening, unfortunately. And the problem with your scenario is that while it is probably better than actual exit, it creates tremendous uncertainty for years with significant economic and regular-life consequences.

12:49 PM  

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