Speak for Britain! by Martin Pugh

This text argues that Tony Blair is a Tory. It situates him in a tradition of conservative figures who have joined the Labour Party. As a revisionist history of the party, it makes the reader question some of their core assumptions. However, the book loses some credibility with its uncharitable judgements on Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee, Michael Foot, John Smith, and Gordon Brown. This is largely because it tends to downplay the difficulty of the political and economic circumstances in which Labour leaders usually operate.

The real strength of the book is in its close attention to geographical detail. This permits it to show how the Labour Party emerged from local political cultures. The approach means that the reader becomes conscious of the complexities associated with building and maintaining effective alliances in diverse constituencies.  The weakness of the research is that it lacks a solid theoretical base. This means that its judgements can be sweeping and misleading. Putting the capitalist state back into the equation would enable people to see how Blair is not simply a Tory. His Third Way fuses economic liberalism with some unpleasant authoritarian values, but his soft brand of neo-liberalism does diverge from the harsh individualism of Thatcherism in several respects. For example, Blair’s National Minimum Wage attracted a deluge of inaccurate criticism as a ‘job destroyer’ from the right prior to its timely introduction.

Histories of the Labour Party tend to be written by people trying to make a strong point about the present. Blair is discredited enough without claiming that he is something he is not. Pugh worked really hard to produce a colourful narrative, but (like those of Robert Clough) his efforts are slightly damaged by the intensity of his emotions. Pugh’s crude dismissal of the intellectual Foot is typical in its arrogance:

“In  particular he never acquired an interest in economics and championed a vague moralistic socialism redolent of an earlier era that did not show up well in the scrutiny of the television age. In effect Foot was a throwback to Keir Hardie and George Lansbury.”

 

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Brexit as a late capitalist show

Back in the 1970s, the Marxist theorist Ernest Mandel came up with the concept of late capitalism. In recent years, the controversial term has come back into fashion. While Mandel was making his economic argument during the Cold War, the revival of late capitalist thinking has much to do with environmental issues. Although Mandel was a critic of Stalinist thought, the presence of ‘actually existing socialism’ gave a solidity to his theory which postmodern philosophers might envy.

Nevertheless, the dialectical approach of Mandel lent excess certainty to his views. Postmodern thinking on late capitalism would share his reluctance to admit to a purely chronological mindset. However, it may question ‘late’ and ‘capitalism.’ Mandel reasoned late capitalism was distinctive because of efforts:

“”to bridge over, at least partially, the contradiction between the anarchy of capitalist production inherent in the private ownership of the means of production and the growing objective pressure to plan.”

Varieties of economic liberalism have burned down these bridging efforts. Nor is economic nationalism likely to lead to satisfactory planning. As a result, capitalism has evolved into something of a pageant in several nations. While the environmental crises worsen, a huge push is being made to keep the show on the road. As low interest rates prevent economic stagnation from arriving prematurely, the cultural conflicts triggered by Trump and Brexit cement elite hegemony by bringing fresh fears to the fore. Although the lateness of different types of capitalism can be debated, the distracting political debates that blaze across the United States and the UK are clearly about kicking the most serious issues into touch.

Has the UK become an ‘elective dictatorship’?

Lord Hailsham suggested the UK was an elective dictatorship in 1976. While the concept might have seemed unusual in that decade of working class assertiveness, it now seems to fit with reality more closely. The Brexit referendum has allowed the executive to debate the use of ‘Henry VIII powers’ in Parliament and a small coalition majority may facilitate the use of this authority. This could diminish future democratic scrutiny and would underline precisely who has gained from the ‘take back control’ slogan.

The experience of the United States shows that voters who want to kick the status quo can end up with an alarming outcome. The fuzziness of Brexit is enabling the Conservative Party to take the country into a dangerous place. The idea that low skilled British workers will benefit from restricting immigration from the European Union is risible. Limiting immigration excessively is likely to undermine the efficiency of British capitalism, while departing from the single market could have other negative consequences.

It would appear that a general election is more democratic than a referendum in the British context. This is primarily because the public is accustomed to regular general elections. As the UK lacks a proper written constitution, holding a referendum on a constitutional matter can be highly problematic. The elite set the terms of the debate and then interpret the outcome. In the case of the EU referendum, the failure of successive governments to clarify the economic importance of immigration was disastrous. For the Conservative Party to continue to put authoritarian populism ahead of economic prudence is irresponsible.

Sylvia Pankhurst by Mary Davis

This brilliant text illuminates a life of struggle. Lenin treated Sylvia Pankhurst with respect, while the campaigner spent decades in the fight against sexism, imperialism and racism. Pankhurst was eccentric and prone to alienate others, but her sincerity, vision and passion cannot be questioned. While the Pankhurst name is commonly associated with the suffragettes, Mary Davis reveals how one of the family retained her radicalism after the franchise victory had been attained.

Pankhurst may be attacked for inconsistency. However, in such turbulent economic times sticking to a party line would have brought its own difficulties. Those who adhered to the principles of the Labour Party were betrayed by Ramsay MacDonald and others, while those enthused by the Russian revolution were swept into compromising positions by the complexities of international socialism. For a feminist, the political problems of the period were compounded by patriarchy.

Pankhurst was quick to warn people about the terrible dangers of fascism. An early critic of Mussolini, she did not think the new type of dictatorship was similar to other forms of undemocratic rule. She wrote:

“Fascism…is essentially a manifestation of capitalism having felt danger and revenging itself for having been made to fear for its existence.”

The prospects for Labour north of the border…

“Well, I have a message for the Scots: Be afraid, be very afraid. The risks of going it alone are huge.”

Economist Paul Krugman, prior to the referendum on Scottish independence, was clear that the SNP was advocating a leap in the dark. His argument was that Scotland might lack the economic levers to sustain a prosperous future, given the raging controversies about the future currency.

Since his intervention, the fluctuating oil price has underlined the potential vulnerability of an autonomous Scotland. An independent Scotland would need a diverse economy, good fortune and excellent external relations to thrive.

The revival of the Scottish Conservative Party has arguably been something of a surprise. It has flowed in part from resistance to the stuttering independence movement. However, Scottish Labour has become ineffective due to weak leadership, poor strategy and internal divisions. This may change with the departure of another leader. If Scottish Labour can become coherent again, it might be able to win over those sections of the electorate who are aware of the economic problems with the case for independence.

Neoliberal zombies can’t explain early deaths

“The brain has apparently long since ceased functioning, but the limbs are still moving, and many of the defensive reflexes seem to be working too. The living dead of the free-market revolution continue to walk the earth, though with each resurrection their decidedly uncoordinated gait becomes even more erratic.”

Professor Jamie Peck

Professor Iain Buchan has highlighted the fact that young adults in the North of England are much more likely to experience premature death than their southern counterparts. This trend has triggered some debate among the British media. Since the publication of The Spirit Level, all the participants in the discussion should know about the correlation between inequality and poor health. Nevertheless, apparent perplexity about causation haunts sections of the neoliberal establishment. Surely their favourite policies cannot be culpable for suicides or drug addiction?

Many years after their international economic crisis, unreconstructed neoliberals are turning a blind eye to the real consequences of their policy-making. Professor Peck was quick to detect that the international elite was unwilling to do much to alter the system which had required massive bailouts. The banks may have more capital, the regulators might be more alert, but the enthusiasm for privatization and cuts still burns.

There is of course a rush to examine individual behaviour. But the statistics show a grim pattern which indicates that over forty years of neoliberal excess is taking its toll. Of course, neoliberalism is a complex and contradictory ideology, which has been applied in distinctive phases, but its role in dividing British society is too blatant to ignore.

5 days in May by Andrew Adonis

The political economy of the UK has been affected hugely by the decision of the Liberal Democrats to enter a coalition with David Cameron. In 2010, the Liberal Democrats could have opted to try for a ‘progressive alliance’ with the Labour Party. Andrew Adonis has shown that the Liberal Democrats had an antipathy to Gordon Brown and were eager to start cutting the deficit as soon as possible. He has also revealed that the Bank of England  may have lent its support to George Osborne’s rhetoric in relation to fiscal rectitude during the crucial talks.

Adonis has illustrated how the centre party of Charles Kennedy had ceased to exist. The party had been largely taken over by politicians who backed liberal ‘solutions’ to a crisis of neoliberalism. They were even prepared to ignore Conservative hostility to the European Union for a few seats at the top table. The contradictions in the coalition permitted the Conservatives to marry elements of social liberalism with dysfunctional economics.

The pro-European Liberal Democrats failed to secure the constitutional changes they craved. Punished for opportunism by the electorate, they could only watch as the Brexit drama unfolded. The budget deficit persisted despite the harsh Conservative medicine, but it should not be thought that the Liberal Democrats possessed an alternative economic strategy.  The Liberal Democrats had agreed:

“The new government will ensure that the health of the public finances is restored as quickly as possible while taking no action to jeopardize the recovery. In light of market concerns further and faster action on the deficit will be taken; this will include some in-year cuts.”