Do you believe this Referendum in June, 2016 is about Europe? It isn’t. Perhaps you think it is about divisions within the Conservative Party? It is a perceptive thought, but perhaps not in the way we are invited to think.
Ever since the Credit Crunch of 2007-8, Governments throughout the West have slowly discovered that their failure to face, still less to solve the appalling economic and social problems created by the financial crash for the mass of ordinary people by the congenital, recurring, destructive flaws of the Established Neo-Liberal Economic and Financial Order, has real political consequences – including dire consequences for the established political parties. ‘Spin’ works, but only for so long; eventually dysfunctional reality impinges even on the fantasy world created by politicians.
The political Establishment throughout the West failed ordinary people by supporting, without limit the economic and financial interests which were responsible for the Crash, and the political parties have continued thereafter exclusively to serve these same vested interests. The British people (for example) were ‘fed a line’ that “we are all in it together”; but they have since taken note of the rather obvious lacuna in the claim: “we” meant only the public were “in it”, while injustice has been done to the (politically and economically) weakest in our community, paying heavily for the failure of others. Even the Conservatives seem to have realised that they are gradually being ‘found out’. This does not stop politicians looking for a way out – at least for the politicians and the vested interests that keep the parties in business.
In consequence of the failure of the established political order throughout Europe and the United States, a political gravitational wave has rippled out from the financial Black Hole that formed and grew within a Financial Sector dominated by the City and Wall Street, passing through the West with ever widening effects over the last decade. Ordinary voters in Europe, in the United States and in Scotland have turned decisively against the established political party order. In the United States this rejection of conventional wisdom happened only after popular opinion had first discovered the disappointment of “Yes, we can” (that all too soon turned into a mumbled ‘no, we can’t’), followed by dalliance with the very American ‘Tea Party’ movement, but in the wake of discovering the nature of its narrow obsessions, Americans have turned back, not to the discredited mainstream party order but to an authentic populist voice, either in the form of a modern ‘take’ on Barnum and Bailey, in Donald Trump, or the wistful remembrance of greater things past, with the quasi-Rooseveltian Bernie Sanders. In Spain other traditions have directed solutions towards strikingly different polarities like Podemas or Catalonian independence. In Scotland rejection of the catastrophic failure of the established political order principally benefited the SNP.
Throughout Europe populist movements (not always savoury) have found support; all of this is a function of the capitulative failure of mainstream political parties; a gross failure of talent, of wisdom, of authority, of basic credibility. In England the 2015 General Election, producing a victory for Cameron’s Conservative Party, appeared to show a reassuring return to the political conventions of the past. The reality underlying the election however, suggested something else; the failure of Labour (but the rise of Corbyn), the collapse of the LibDems, and for the Conservatives the running sore of UKIP, were actually telling a quite different story. The consequences for the political parties were not what they devoutly wished were true. The mainstream political parties and their supplicant media pretend to a confidence in the established order that even they no longer believe.
The European Referendum in June, 2016 is not about Europe. The Conservative Party requires to realign itself for uncertain times it does not quite understand. We have been here before with the Conservatives, who panic and blunder as a matter of course, but rarely pay dearly for their terrible failures; starting with the Glorious Revolution in 1688. The ‘Tories’, the authentic Jacobite Party, the party of dynastic continuity provided not just Jacobitism with its politics, but an alternative ready-made version of itself; a list of grandees who dumped James II and VII for political opportunity under William, that is legendary in helping provide the 18th century with its reputation for self-serving cynicism (a list including Bath, Cornbury, Danby, Grafton, Halifax, Lindsey, Mulgrave, Norfolk, Rochester, Somerset, Thanet – the list is long and I have tried to leave out those with a tendency to change sides more than once) of a kind and depth that Namier, with some zeal, turned into a defining characteristic of the age of Whiggism. Party Conservatism is built on a single principle; blame the Whigs and change sides.
The Liberal (Whig) Party were the Government during WWI, and were the so-called ‘natural party of government’ in Britain from 1714-1918. They did not form another Government in the 20th century after Lloyd George; they paid the full electoral price for their leadership in a very bad war. The Conservatives served in the Asquith and Lloyd George Governments of WWI, but did not pay the same electoral price for responsibility as the Liberals. The Conservatives then became the Party of Appeasement in the 1930s, and again paid no lasting electoral price for simply reinventing themselves in WWII as the Party of Winston Churchill – an established Whig-Liberal who was widely detested within the 1930s Conservative Party by becoming a Conservative through the simple political expediency of crossing the floor; indeed the Chairman of Churchill’s constituency party in the 1930s attempted not only to have Churchill de-selected, but thrown out of the Conservative Party. The Chairman failed, returning to Scotland where he was rewarded by Appeasement fellow-travellers with a Conservative seat in Parliament. Meanwhile, back in London the Conservative Party’s first Director of Research repaid the disappointment by bugging (hacking) Churchill’s telephone. The Conservatives lost the 1945 election because the electorate remembered precisely what the Party is still trying to forget; but by 1951 the Conservatives were back in power under Churchill, and ever since then the Party has been representing Churchill to following, gullible generations of electors as the paradigm Conservative leader. He isn’t, but he saved the Conservative Party from themselves.
It was the Conservatives under Edward Heath who took Britain into Europe (1973), and it was John Major who signed the Maastricht Treaty (1991); both were Conservative Party and Government operations, and nobody else; worse, the arguments on both sides of the question have not changed on the fundamental issues since. Everbody has already forgotten what is in David Cameron’s new European deal (and nobody cares, for the content always was irrelevant); only the fluctuations in currency mark its slithery trail. But the issue for the Conservative Party and its vested interests is never a matter of consistency, of fundamentals or of principle, of taking responsibility for decisions, or living with the consequences of your actions, but the opposite. The Conservative Party lives in order to ensure it (and its most privileged supporters) never pay for the mistakes or blunders they make, or the ideology they support; but to ensure that, whatever happens, sooner rather than later they are running the Government again; and nothing changes, not the Party, not the policies, not even the politicians (or at least the same politicians sans some cheap sacrifice made for the sake of appearances).
The Conservative Party is confronting perhaps the most serious political assault on the established political order since 1945. Chickens are coming home to roost; chickens they would prefer to disown. Faced with that kind of challenging problem the Conservative Party prefers to decide what the question is, what the answer is, what options are legitimate to discuss; what they can’t accept is the public thinking it through for themselves; the Party would lose control of the Agenda and such revelatory thinking would undoubtedly raise awkward questions, present uncomfortable facts, or lead to rejection of a Party that has so consistently, so often and so cynically, so grossly failed the people.
What looks like ‘division’ within the Conservative Party, therefore the Party rather presents as their new fail-safe strategy to ensure they can’t lose. The Party has nicely balanced its opinion, almost as neatly as if it was ‘a cunning plan’; with as many Conservative MPs seeming to be against membership of the EU, as there are in favour. The Conservatives have first created the issue on their terms, not the public’s: an issue chosen because it is likely to generate more heat than light, or better, no light at all – “Europe”. They then present themselves as both the Party of Europe and the Party against Europe: whatever happens the Conservatives will be on the “right” side, which is the winning side. Whoever wins the referendum, the Conservatives are supporting it. Why would they attempt to fight a case they might lose, with unforesseable consequences for them? Even the Conservatives in a panic do not quite see themselves as being that stupid.
The Conservative Party is fighting this campaign only on the basis that they, alone among the UK parties, cannot lose. Whatever the British people decide in the European Referendum in June, 2016 the Conservative Party is there to ensure that in Britain at least, come what may, for the British people, nothing changes; the Conservatives will be there to ensure that the same spivs go on endlessly ripping-off the British people, inside Europe or outside Europe, but only guaranteeing that through the efforts of the Conservative Party alone, the British people will go on being ripped-off, inside-out. After all, this is how Glorious Revolutions are delivered.