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Human Rights and the Unwritten Constitution

One of the most idiosyncratic elements of Britain’s political framework is its unwritten constitution. Almost alone amongst the many countries of the world, Britain’s political structure is defined not by reference to a single codified text, but instead is made up of a varied assortment of texts, laws, judgements and principles which have evolved since time immemorial. The lack of a codified constitution is not merely a historical accident, though – it is a manifestation of Britain’s historical scepticism of the possibility of a rational grounding for government and rights. The modern-day idea of a written constitution is a concept deeply wedded to the Enlightenment, and to the possibility that a group of men or women could – using solely their reason – formulate a document which would be sufficient to act as a cornerstone of a body politic.

This was not the route chosen by Britain. Edmund Burke, in his Observations on a Late State of a Nation, wrote that ‘politics ought to be adjusted, not to human reasonings, but to human nature; of which the reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part.’ Burke’s argument here – that politics is the realm of human natures rather than minds and should be treated as such – is in many ways one of the key justifications for an uncodified constitution.

Many written constitutions contain references to human rights. The constitution of the French Fifth Republic, for instance, speaks of ‘human rights [droits de l’Homme] and the principles of national sovereignty, as defined by the Declaration of 1789’ explicitly linking human rights with a man-made declaration. The American Declaration of Independence, similarly, suggests that ‘men […] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ But are human rights any stronger if grounded in a codified constitution than they would be in an unwritten one such as Britain’s? It would seem otherwise – that Britain’s constitution provides one of the best and strongest defences for human rights due to its pliant nature and irreducibility.

The basic human rights enjoyed by British citizens might correspond to those enacted in British law by – for instance – the Human Rights Act of 1998, but they do not stem from it. Such principles as the rule of law or the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment can be found in texts such as the English Bill of Rights of 1688; indeed, even the Norman Magna Carta contains references to liberties of Britons still in force today. Each of these texts, unlike the French ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’, does not seek to suggest that human rights can be grounded on something as flimsy as a piece of paper – they imply that they are reassertions or reaffirmations of pre-existing ancient rights. As the 1688 Bill of Rights puts it, the British constitution makes reference to ‘ancient rights and liberties.’ Such liberties cannot be removed through a constitutional amendment or reinterpreted according to judicial whim. The effect of our rights being ‘ancient’ is to make them integral to the essence of what it has always been to be a British citizen.

Written constitutions can often become fetishized merely by virtue of being a constitution (and thus a symbol of a country.) Such a situation reduces constitutional elements like human rights into slogans – contingent upon a singular wording at a particular point in history which is then taken to be a transcendent and eternal truth. Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, has written of how this process ‘divorces [rights] from any context of law, custom or tradition’ and makes them ‘uncertain in their meaning.’ But by transcending the inherent limitations of the fixed word upon the page, ‘the security which an Englishman enjoys for personal liberty does not really depend upon or originate in any general proposition contained in any written document’, as A.V. Dicey put it.

 

When rights are tied to specific wordings arising from specific historical moments they can be both too permissive and too limited. One example of this can be found across the Atlantic in the American Constitution. The Second Amendment argues that ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.’ This right, arising from a highly specific historical context, is today used in a highly  contentious fashion to justify the possession of assault rifles by citizenry. By contrast, the framers of the American constitution did not foresee extending many of the rights they codified to African-Americans; this tying of rights to historical moments through the act of codification was what eventually led to the state-sanctioned enactment of such practices as segregation and Jim Crow laws.

In other constitutional systems there can often be a tension between the right of the people en masse to legislate as they will through the vehicle of parliament, and their individual rights. The former is embodied through parliamentary sovereignty, and the latter through the rule of law. Part of the brilliance of the British system, though, lies in its ability to locate human rights as something which emanate from neither but are guarded by both. The British judiciary and the British legislature both defend differing aspects of British ancient liberties, and the ambiguity as to which is supreme – an ambiguity which is a central element of our uncodified constitution – means that our constitution is flexible enough to allow the precise interpretation of rights to reflect the nuances of each individual act of interpretation, keeping both individual rights and collective political rights in balance.

Considerable public debate regularly takes place on questions of human rights in this country. Such discourse should not be seen as a failure of the unwritten constitution, but in fact a vindication of it. Through its refusal to be tied to specificities – whether a specific document or a specific historical moment – the British constitution takes on a uniquely universal aspect. This is particularly important in terms of human rights – the constitution sees them not as being grounded in written texts but instead merely reaffirmed by them. Certain rights are, and have been since time immemorial, the inalienable property of all British citizens – it is around this understanding that the constitution has evolved.

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The Relativism of Diversity

The diversity cult – that self-appointed clique of navel-gazers, dilettantes, idealists and do-gooders – has recently claimed another scalp. The unfortunate victim? Author and journalist Lionel Shriver, who recently dared to question the core tenets of diversity politics in a column written in the Spectator. Shriver took issue with an email from the publisher Penguin Random House, in which it declares that it is

A new company-wide goal […] for both our new hires and the authors we acquire to reflect UK society by 2025 […] this means we want our authors and new colleagues to reflect the UK population taking into account ethnicity, gender, sexuality, social mobility and disability.

Shriver (quite rightly) saw this for what it was; tritely smug virtue-signalling of the highest order, and something which would inevitably bring about the triumph of mediocrity in literature. She observed that it was increasingly becoming the case that the criterion of what is ‘good’ in literature is based upon diversity rather than aesthetic merits – as she tartly puts it, ‘if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published.’

Naturally the bien-pensants who have entrenched themselves into the heart of the artistic scene in Britain and America, and who like to think of themselves as the intellectual elite espousing a sort of noble liberalism from their eye-wateringly expensive enclaves in the metropolises, were having none of it. Shriver was first fired from her position judging entries for a writing competition run by the apparently notable ‘women’s writing’ magazine Mslexia (no, me neither.) This was swiftly followed by the disapprobation of author Hanif Kureishi (a man whose entire literary career has traded off his identity as a South Asian despite having lived in Shepherd’s Bush for most of his life.) Kureishi, with an astonishing lack of tact, denounced Shriver as ‘the usual knuckle-dragging, semi-blind suspect’, and accused her of trying to protect an establishment ‘more or less entirely dominated by white Oxbridge men.’

Shriver’s comments have touched a nerve precisely because she has identified the malaise afflicting the literary world’s self-appointed gatekeepers – cultural relativism. To Kureishi, to Mslexia, to the unnamed author of the Penguin memorandum, there is no longer such a thing as ‘good’ literature. The telos of a text is not its quality, but whether it accomplishes socio-political goals. This instrumentalization of literature has been, it appears, implicitly accepted by the vast majority of scholars in the Academy today – hence the proliferation of identity-focussed fields of study such as postcolonial studies or gender studies.

This model of literature – one predicated on iconoclasm – represents a move away from the accretive understanding of literature which has been dominant for the last few millennia. Previously, authors were understood as operating ‘on the shoulders of giants’, taking influence from the works of others and embedding their texts within a literary continuum. So Milton drew upon Shakespeare, and himself was drawn upon by Wordsworth. This continuum manifests itself most critically in shared values which are contained within these texts – Western humanist values – that also enable us to meaningfully judge them.

Shriver’s critics recoil at this model. To them, such values are inherently repressive relics of a tyrannical Occident; we must create works of literature which both repudiate Western liberal values and which actively resist judgement by them. Such works will do two things; they will destroy the canon by consciously existing apart from them, and they will bring to the forefront perspectives which are intimately wedded to categories such as gender or race.

Whether these perspectives are aesthetically good or bad is, of course, irrelevant; they are different to the perceived hegemonic ones, and hence it is a moral imperative that they be published. The literature industry has ceased to think of itself as the guardians of cultural heritage, and has begun to view itself as radicals who can use culture to effect acts of resistance. And considering the power which agents, critics, publishers and opinion-formers hold, such acts of resistance can have profound effects in directing the zeitgeist, undermining Western culture in favour of relativism.

Of course, this is nihilistic nonsense. Literary merit might not be commensurable between cultures – but the very act of comparing literary texts between cultures (cultures, bear in mind – not races or genders or even necessarily languages) is a naïve universalist fantasy. When we confine ourselves to a single cultural paradigm – an act which requires confidence in that paradigm – we can easily refute relativism. The standards of judgement for Western literature have been fixed over millennia, arising from the finest products of the canon. They exist as very real entities – they are not immutable, but develop very slowly, whilst still retaining certain underlying qualities.

The fact that we can pass meaningful judgements upon literature means that we can salvage the idea of books being ‘good.’ And if we can do this, we can continue to uphold the standards that underpin Western civilisation. The stakes being contended over between Shriver and her foes are bigger than merely ‘diversity’ – they are the foundations of culture itself. There is such a thing as right and wrong, and those things are worth fighting for. Diversity in culture is no more an intrinsic good than diversity in literature; Western culture has produced some great and abiding values (often, incidentally, embodied in great works of literature, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment) which need to be protected.

Perhaps, then, both Shriver and her critics can agree on one thing – that literature is political. They see it as something to be used in disrupting and destroying hegemonic culture, and in replacing it with a bland relativist dystopia. But equally literature can be seen as the last and strongest line of defence of Western culture – a way of embodying and developing values which predicate civilisation, and placing them in literature as a way of instructing future generations of their worth. If we see literature in this (equally political) light, it becomes clear that like Shriver we too must take our stand. The alternative is not merely ‘diversity’ but the undermining of civilisation.

 

The Fallacy of Secession

The question of secession has recently become particularly topical in light of the twin independence referendums in Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan. Whilst the history and geopolitical situation of both regions is hugely different, at the heart of both referendums is a shared principle; that it is legitimate and right for a body of people to, by majority vote, declare themselves independent of the political entity to which they presently belong.

Catalonia and Kurdistan are not unique in holding to this view. Indeed, this view of sovereignty and secession seems to have been in the ascendancy for the last sixty years or so; it has formed the crux of arguments for decolonisation, and is generally accepted by the international community, hence the UN’s support for referendums on ‘self-determination’ in South Sudan or East Timor, or indeed the British government’s decision to permit a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

This view of secession, however, has multiple flaws. The most important of these – in fact, the one upon which the others are predicated – is the fallacious assumption that popular opinion can affect the fundamental essence of a nation. According to this line of argument, there is no thing which cannot be altered if a sufficient number of people approve of the alteration, up to and including the character of a country as manifested in its borders.

The flaw here is that popular opinion can never be more than a snapshot, a freeze-frame of what the majority of the people think at a certain point in time. To rely upon that in deciding questions of sovereignty is to ossify that one moment for all of eternity. This is patently absurd; popular opinion is as mutable as the tides, and with regards to sovereignty particularly there is often considerable change – one example might be the enthusiastic vote in 1974 for Britain to join the European Union, followed by the vote in 2017 to leave it.

Taken to its extreme, this position seems to imply that secession is an inevitability which merely needs to be ‘ratified’ by asking the same question over and over again until the people can be worn down. An example of this is the present situation in Scotland; the Scottish people voted against independence in 2014, yet Scottish nationalists are already agitating for a second vote. Even if a second such referendum were not held imminently, it is almost certain that it will take place at some point. Such a system is grounded in the belief of an elite that secession must happen; it is the people’s fault for not voting for it, and they must be pressed again and again for a ‘correct’ response.

Beyond this, there is a further objection. Secession is often presented as something which only affects the seceders, but in reality to secede is to create two new polities – the new state and a remaining rump. This is often a profound alteration of the national identity of the rump; for instance, Catalonia has been central to Spanish culture for centuries, and contains much of the historical heritage of the wider Spanish nation. Equally there may be economic imperatives at stake; Iraq’s wealth is staked on its hydrocarbon deposits, of which a great amount are located in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Surely, then, when secession entails such a great alteration to the condition of both entities, it is only right that a vote take place (if it take place at all; see above) across the entirety of the initial state? And that the consent of a majority in both polities be required for secession to be actualised? But even here we see the absurdities of predicating sovereignty on popular opinion. What if secession is only approved by a slim majority? What if only by a single vote? Is it then the case that the views of the minority, even if that majority constitute 49.9% of the populace, be disregarded? Such aggressive majoritarianism seems a profoundly instable way to ground sovereignty.

The logical conclusion of the belief in self-determination as justifying secession is individual independence; a dystopic libertarian scenario in which each individual might declare independence purely out of dislike of his neighbours or the prospect of being ruled over by someone else. If all that matters is opinion, then we end up in such a nightmarish situation.

Of course, none of this should be construed to suggest a total opposition to secession per se. There are a variety of situations in which secession is justifiable; one is particularly minded of instances where peaceful co-existence between two groups seems impossible, and the only pragmatic solution is to divide them into two states. The partition of the Palestine mandate in 1948 is one such situation; equally the implosion of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

But the situation in Catalonia and Kurdistan is not similar to either of these. In Catalonia, Catalans have prospered under Spanish rule for centuries, and presently enjoy a very generous political and economic settlement. Similarly in Kurdistan, the current compact between Erbil and Mosul allows the Kurds profound autonomy. In both cases, one suspects that the motivation behind secession is more likely the ambition of nationalist elites than a general will of the people.

The essence of a state is not something which should be set in stone; states evolve and change along with their societies. But those who suggest that secession can be effected by a mere referendum are risking fundamentally altering the national identity of two peoples on the flimsiest of grounds. Both the Catalans and the Kurds should proceed with caution.

The Dialectical Presidency

Donald Trump is not a normal politician. That, at least, both his detractors and supporters agree on. To the former, it’s a sign of his dangerous unpredictability and callow inexperience; to the latter, a token of his status as one unaffected by the rot of the Washington bubble. But if that’s what he’s not, the question remains of what he is.

To answer that, we must journey back in time long before a Trump presidency was ever anything other than a punchline to a particularly bad joke. For before Trump the politician, there was Trump the businessman; the blond-haired bruiser from New York’s Midtown, clad in a sharp suit, beautiful supermodel in tow, butting heads with rivals across boardrooms. Times may have changed, the tawdry glitz of Trump Tower may have been exchanged for the grandeur of the White House, but at heart Donald J. Trump is best understood as a businessman.

Seeing him as this rather than a politician helps explain much that is bewildering about him. Trump is not bound by the conventions that politicians are normally constrained by; the expectations to speak truthfully, to fulfil promises, to act in a measured way. Businessmen have no truck with any of this. A Manhattan real estate investor, sitting across a table from his competitors, doesn’t act like a politician; he curses at them and cajoles them, he slams the table, he insults them, and eventually he wins.

All the bombast of Trump – all the gratuitous offensiveness, the rude tweets, the childish appellations he attaches to his rivals (of which ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘Lying Ted’ are the highlights) should be seen through this lens – as a posture Trump adopts in order to help him win. He doesn’t even seem to believe much of it; witness how fast the vitriol directed at Ben Carson, for instance, was replaced by the warm embrace of an offer of a job on his campaign. We’ve all been taken in by the act of a showman.

But this act extends to far more than Trump’s pugnacious demeanour. Far too many people – on both sides of the political spectrum – were taken in by Trump’s grandiose statements of policy during the campaign. Perhaps reasonably, they viewed them as they viewed policy announcements by prior politicians – that is to stay, statements of intent that, if elected, he would follow through on.

With the benefit of hindsight, though, their true nature becomes clear. They were not statements but opening gambits in negotiations. Take Trump’s so-called ‘Muslim ban.’ Trump made his ‘offer’ to the American people, so to speak, with his call for ‘a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.’ The reaction was mostly shock and disgust – but the initial bid had been made.

Upon Trump’s election as President, opposing ‘offers’ were made in the form of vociferous opposition both Congressional and judicial. What took place next – the wrangling between Trump and various judges – might be termed the ‘negotiations’, much as an aggressive property developer might argue with a tenant over a disputed term in a contract. What eventually emerged was a travel ban that is, by all sane accounts, very reasonable – common-sense, time-limited restrictions on emigration from a handful of notoriously dangerous countries.

This isn’t how politicians operate; it’s precisely how businessmen do. No self-respecting businessman worth his salt will walk into negotiations and state the price he wants, knowing that the cut and thrust of negotiations will drive it down. Instead he names a figure twice as high as he wants, knowing the response will be half as much as he wants. Through slow back-and-forth argumentation, eventually the two parties arrive at a price both consider ‘fair.’ It’s an almost dialectical style of governing, one which has never really been tried before.

The same applies with Trump’s flagship policy – fighting illegal immigration. When Trump started talking about building ‘a big beautiful wall with Mexico’ and repealing DACA, he almost certainly never wanted to do anything of the sort. Instead, he was seeking to do two things; firstly to make illegal immigration (by all accounts a genuine issue) part of the national debate, and also to make an extreme initial demand, knowing that he’ll never get it but that negotiations are now open.

Upon his election, Trump immediately faced pushback from liberal voices in Congress. What most failed to realise was that Trump intended for this to happen. Trump is not a moron; he employs many undocumented workers himself, and recognises that a blanket deportation would be economically damaging to the country. But by demanding a huge amount initially, he was able to pull negotiations in his favour and eventually conclude an agreement with Democratic leadership which meant that key provisions of DACA would be kept in place, with funding for a wall highly unlikely.

One of the few people who understood all this about him was the Democrat who worked alongside him on hammering out this deal, Chuck Schumer. Schumer, like Trump, is a New Yorker, and like all New Yorkers he’s steeped in the commerciality of that city. He recognises Trump for what he is; a negotiator willing to brawl a bit to get the deal he wants. Though politically he seems the antithesis of Trump, Schumer is more similar to the man than many realise. Neither are beyond a bit of chest-thumping and posturing, but fundamentally both are nothing more than negotiators. By all accounts the two have a good personal rapport – an indication that Trump’s aggressively partisan demeanour is an artfully-constructed artifice.

‘We are not wholly bad or good,’ Dylan Thomas reminds us. The same might be said to hold true for Donald Trump. It’s beyond dispute that he’s a thin-skinned sexist who will do or say pretty much anything to attain wealth and power. It’s also true that politically he’s proving to be far more nuanced than anyone had assumed. He has at least three more years left (and, who knows, perhaps even seven) and the world would be advised to prepare themselves for more surprises.

‘Dunkirk’ reviewed

As topics for war films go, the evacuation at Dunkirk is strikingly atypical. Fundamentally, it was a narrative of catastrophe – the hurried retreat of the British Expeditionary Force from Western Europe, still reeling from the force of the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg. It was a botch-job of a military operation, with civilian boats and pleasure yachts sailing across the Channel to ferry soldiers away from France, and thousands of weapons and vehicles left behind. If there was eventually to be a happy ending to the tale, it would not have seemed apparent to anyone there on those beaches; only after five more years of blood, sweat and tears would there be a final victory over the Germans.

Perhaps that is why ‘Dunkirk’, by Christopher Nolan, does not seek to conform to traditional assumptions about what war films should be like. Nolan’s work eschews generic conventions – narrative movement, character development, purple dialogue – and instead delivers a movie which is startlingly minimalist and stripped-back. The result is, in every sense, a cinematic triumph.

Nolan opts to split the action into three strands – The Mole, The Sea and The Air – each operating on a different scale of time (a week, a day and an hour respectively) but whose timelines slowly converge. It’s a tool he’s used before, in movies like Inception, but where previously it’s always been a somewhat self-indulgent gimmick, here it functions to structure the whole film into a coherent whole. Instead of breaking up the action – as such a narrative technique inevitably risks – it means that the whole film is one continuous crescendo of tension, culminating euphorically in the convergence of all three strands.

This is not a movie about individuals. The soldiers – unshaven, grimy and terrified – blur into one. Even the name of the protagonist of the first strand, Tommy, calls to mind the nickname for British soldiers. That’s not to say that Fionn Whitehead’s performance is not strong – but in many ways what is much more effective is Nolan’s characterisation of him as an Everyman, wandering through a hellish landscape. For the most part, dialogue is absent from the film, and that which is there is mostly functional; the terse back-and-forth of Spitfire pilots, or the barked orders of officers. Without the crutch of dialogue to fall back upon to propel the narrative, Nolan is able to let the images tell the story.

And ‘Dunkirk’ is a deeply visual movie. Even in the most character-driven of the three strands, the story of a shipowner who sets sail with his son and boat-hand to Dunkirk to rescue soldiers from the beaches, Nolan revels in spectacle. Ships sink, planes crash, oil slicks burn, columns of smoke rise. It’s testament to Mark Rylance that he’s able to anchor the plot in a rich seam of humanity, with his portrayal of the quiet dignity of a man called by duty to war. Against a backdrop of apocalyptic grandeur, the details in Rylance’s portrayal become all the more striking – his ramrod-straight posture, his softly authoritative voice.

By contrast, the third strand – the Air – features characters almost invisible to the audience. Tom Hardy, playing the Spitfire pilot Farrier, has his face covered by goggles and a mask for almost the entirety of his role, yet is able to portray an intensity which harmonises perfectly with the much-compressed timeframe of his strand. His final scene – and indeed the final scene of the entire film – is the first time we see him unmasked, as he almost ceremonially burns his plane before being taken into captivity by the Germans. It’s a moment of glorious symbolism; the Spitfire ablaze, but its pilot still steadfast and undefeated, staring stolidly into the distance.

Nolan’s command over the dramatic energy of the film is mostly outstanding. The claustrophobia and terror of the initial attempts at evacuation are conveyed brilliantly through the positioning of the camera on a stretcher as it is carried by Tommy and the mysterious Gibson (played wordlessly but effectively by Aneurin Barnard), the camera pivoting like the head of the wounded man being carried. Later, with the protagonists on board a torpedoed ship in the harbour, the camera almost bobs up and down frantically, mimetically replicating the experience of drowning. Occasionally Nolan slips into cliché – the episodes with the naval officers standing on the Mole seem somewhat artificial, despite a brisk performance by Kenneth Branagh – but generally he offers forth an authentic and sincere film.

‘Dunkirk’ is a masterful piece of art, something to which many films aspire but which few attain. Freed from the demands of a linear narrative, Christopher Nolan is at liberty to produce a film which is almost wholly visual and which relies upon spectacle to carry its energy. For a director whose earlier efforts have been criticised for being over-cerebral (‘Inception’ or ‘Interstellar’, for instance), ‘Dunkirk’ is refreshingly humane and at times wonderfully poignant.

(Third) Party Time?

There are two fairly inevitable things about two-party systems. First, that there will be perennial discussion of the creation of third parties. Secondly, that in the end pretty much nothing will upturn the two-party status quo.

James Chapman, the former Special Advisor to the hapless David Davies, is the latest in a long line of people to have proposed such a party. Since parting ways with his former boss, Chapman has been announcing to apparently anyone who will listen that he intends to set up a new party – ‘The Democrats’ – which will function as a pro-European centrist party.

Chapman might be a slightly odd character (his Twitter feed suggests a man suffering the effects of too much Mediterranean sun and too little caution) but the concept of a new centrist party isn’t altogether a strange one.

The main stimulus, of course is Brexit, something which has altered – perhaps perpetually – the political calculus of the country. We are no longer a nation defined by our attitudes to economic issues; we are one defined by our position vis a vis globalisation. On one side sit the 52% – against the European Union, immigration and neoliberal politics. On the other are the 48%, supportive of international trade and the free flows of capital and people.

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, however, a curious thing took place. In their haste to win votes, both Labour and the Conservatives positioned themselves firmly on the side of the thin majority who voted in favour of Brexit. Both parties deposed their leadership in favour of figures opposed to internationalism (Jeremy Corbyn, whatever his youthful fanbase might believe, is and has always been a trenchant nationalist and opponent of the European Union) and have enthusiastically courted former Leave voters.

But if Britain’s political realignment saw the creation of a political coalition united by its opposition to globalisation, the entailment of that was the creation of another one, one which defines itself in terms of a positive attitude to neoliberalism. Yet this demographic has been almost completely neglected by both major parties. Corbyn’s Labour Party professes a neo-socialist programme taken directly from the 1970s, while the Tories have opted to pursue a rock-hard Brexit (though whether they’ll get it, considering the sluggish state of negotiations and the reluctance of the European Commission to compromise, is as yet unclear.)

This leaves a large pro-globalisation lacuna in the political landscape. Who can fill it? Some have suggested the Liberal Democrats, but this seems unlikely. Their brand has been irreversibly tainted by their decision to go into coalition with the Tories in 2010, and the few electoral successes they enjoyed in 2017 came not from their pro-European agitation but from what they’ve always been best at – locally-focussed campaigns won through intense canvassing.

If not the Lib Dems, does this leave room for a new centrist party – of the sort suggested by Chapman – to enter the scene? Contrary to the somewhat febrile speculation of many commentators, some of whom seem in need of something to write about during the long hot summer, this seems unlikely.

Firstly, it relies upon the assumption that all of the 48% of the electorate who opposed Brexit are ideologically internationalist. This is as mistaken as presuming that that all of the 52% of the country who supported Brexit are swivel-eyed bigots. Whilst at least some of those 48% are, many more are the economically cautious; those who voted to Remain out of an innate reluctance to jump into the void. The small cadre of hardcore Remainers do not constitute enough of a pool to form a new party of.

Secondly, it mistakes internationalism for centrism. Indeed, this difference has been elided over by multiple commentators online, who assume that a centrist party is per se going to be internationalist. Genuinely centrist parties in the past have been grounded on economic centrism; that is to say, fairly high government spending and a fairly equitable tax burden.

None of this is compatible with the brand of internationalism being espoused by those encouraging a third party; returning to the European Union would, for a variety of reasons, require adherence to the ‘German model’ of economics, one which would see spending cut and foreign labour permitted entry to the country. Theoretically an internationalist party might achieve limited success in certain areas; but it would be unable to capitalise on the potential that true centrism holds.

This leads to the final reason for the likely failure of a new third party, namely the deeply entrenched political differences that transcend the pro-globalisation/anti-globalisation dichotomy. Profound differences exist between left-wing and right-wing internationalists, both in their attitudes towards internationalism and in their stances on various other issues.

Indeed, it could almost be argued that the gulf between right-wing internationalism and left-wing internationalism is almost as profound and impassable as the one between parochialism and globalism. A centrist party would have to find a way to reconcile wildly different positions on issues like defence, non-European migration, civil liberties and the environment.

This all highlights a problem with the basic premise of Chapman’s; that a party can be founded upon an issue. UKIP tried that, and it didn’t work – after essentially exhausting the mileage that could be made out of Europe, they’ve been reduced to a risible fringe movement of nutcases and Islamophobes. Parties shouldn’t be founded upon policies; they should be founded upon ideologies.

So it is with both the Conservatives and Labour (and indeed, to their credit, the Lib Dems.) The Conservatives are not a party of low immigration or monetarist policy; they are a party which believes in the concept of hierarchy, of the inevitability of inequality, and of the importance of incremental societal evolution. Similarly, Labour is a party which is rooted in a belief in the importance of trade unionism and of egalitarianism.

Deprived of such an animating spirit, a centrist or internationalist third party cannot hope to thrive. At best it will succeed in agitating enough to make its voice heard – which may well be enough to accomplish its goals – but in reality a third party of this sort has no hope. If James Chapman wants to stop or to mitigate Brexit, a new party isn’t the answer.

New Liberalism – a manifesto

Much – too much, probably – has been written about why liberalism seemed to fail in 2016. None of it is particularly convincing. That’s not to say it’s worthless – it’s not. But whilst each of the explanations has been true, none has been both necessary and sufficient. In reality, it will take many decades – centuries, perhaps – before an intelligible and explanatory narrative can be found for the events of 2016.

That doesn’t mean that, in the here and now, we can’t react. In fact it is absolutely imperative that liberals regroup and prepare to mobilise against the forces of reaction and anti-modernity. The alternative is unthinkable; to simply surrender and watch as the 1930s repeat themselves.

But if liberalism is to go on the offensive, it needs to arm itself with a coherent ideology that can compete with the numerous anti-liberal ideologies presently ascendant. The failure to articulate such an ideology was one of the key reasons that this present period of liberalism came to an end. Far too often it seemed that the liberalism of Blair and Obama was an ad hoc menu of policies rather than a philosophy; a confused jumble of ideas with little in common.

The (perhaps inevitable) result of this was that liberalism began to be perceived as little more than a façade, merely a byword for pragmatic politics. And therefore, when the tides turned and liberalism no longer delivered prosperity (i.e. after the financial crash of 2008-9) there was no longer a valid case for it. Liberalism had predicated itself solely upon ensuring prosperity, and as such it provided no convincing reason to support it when that prosperity was gone.

In the void left by the collapse of liberal hegemony, both the far right and the far left have sought to take its’ place. Both despise liberal values, and have spent much of the last sixty years waiting to attack them. Though they (clearly) differ greatly from each other, they have shown themselves to be willing to co-operate in their attacks upon liberalism. It is this grotesque coalition – pairing Edward Snowden with Vladimir Putin, Jean-Luc Melenchon with Marine Le Pen – who liberalism must confront, if it is to ensure that liberal society can survive the next few years.

In light of all this, I propose a new paradigm for liberalism. I have provisionally named it New Liberalism – it seems the most appropriate name for an ideology which clearly follows in the tradition of liberalism, whilst seeking to distinguish itself from older and flawed versions of it. New Liberalism is not a political party or movement; nor is it even a platform of policies. It is against the essence of liberalism that it be ossified and turned into a single entity. Instead, New Liberalism is a series of principles – ten, to be precise – that I suggest should underlie liberal thought in the coming years.

 

  1. New Liberalism is the belief that a better future for all humans is possible, and that we have a moral obligation to actualise it.
  2. New Liberalism seeks social harmony, whether between classes, between genders, or between ethnicities.
  3. New Liberalism is respectful of cultural difference, but demands adherence to liberal values as a prerequisite of toleration.
  4. New Liberalism supports a gradual progression towards transnational integration, whilst acknowledging that nation-states and national identities will not disappear until a popular will exists for them to do so.
  5. New Liberalism embraces the principles of free trade and economic neoliberalism, but accepts that mistakes have been made in the implementation of both, and resolves to learn from them.
  6. New Liberalism rejects majoritarianism and demagoguery. It is predicated in consensus politics and concern for the interests of all citizens.
  7. New Liberalism seeks to build links between the left-wing and right-wing based on shared commitments to the ideals of liberalism.
  8. New Liberalism is a broad church; it is not dogmatic, nor is it monolithic. There is room for considerable debate and discourse within it.
  9. New Liberalism values the rule of law and adherence to established methods of governance, eschewing populist demagoguery.
  10. New Liberalism is a muscular and evangelical ideology, insofar as it seeks to propagate itself around the world. It is unafraid to confront anti-liberal ideologies situated anywhere on the political spectrum.

These principles are both broad and narrow. They are broad, insofar as they are not ostensibly a commitment to any specific policies. But they are narrow, inasmuch as commitment to these principles will inevitably preclude many policies. This is intentional. New Liberalism is, as (8) says, not a monolithic entity. One can be a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat or a Labour member, and also a New Liberal. It is an ideology which seeks to occupy the areas of intersection between all these parties. This area is not homogenous; there is plenty of debate to be had. But the foundational premises of this political space are not challenged.

They are also intentionally antagonistic to the far right and allied movements. Far right policies cannot conceivably be actualised in a state governed along New Liberal principles. The aspirations to equality and freedom inherent in them is repugnant to the far right. But equally these principles – particularly the unapologetic defence of the free market – are unconscionable to a far left movement.

This is not a pick-and-mix ideology. New Liberalism must be taken in its’ entirety, or not at all. The principles support each other, and indeed are all necessary consequences of the first one. Ideological flexibility – and the appearance of sly pragmatism – was the downfall of the last wave of liberalism. As such the people will respect an ideology which retains its basic principles, rather than selectively discarding them based on what seems to gain votes.

At heart New Liberalism is a reformulation of historical liberalism, one which is cognizant of its’ mistakes as well as its strengths. It recognises that liberalism failed to ensure economic stability through a variety of ill-considered policies. It recognises that mass immigration from non-Western countries has been a varied narrative, one which many are unconvinced about. It is aware of the problems of cronyism and corruption that have often afflicted liberalism before. And it promises to work towards eliminating them, whilst retaining the principles of liberalism.

Will it work? Who knows. Every ideology hubristically assumes that it is ‘right’, and history informs us that so far none has succeeded. But I do not intend to posit New Liberalism as an ideology that will last mankind till the end of time, as some kind of watertight belief system. It is specifically intended to combat far-left and far-right extremism in Europe and America. As far as this goal is concerned, it seems a beginning, at least – whilst it may not succeed in defeating the massed ranks of the radicals, it provides a platform around which opposition can rally. It plays to the strengths of liberalism, whilst reinvigorating it with new life.

The election of Alexander Van Der Bellen in Austria proves that, contrary to the wishes of its premature obituarists, liberalism is not yet dead. So too does the nomination of Sevil Shhaideh – a Muslim woman – as President of Romania, and the apparent setbacks for Marine Le Pen in France. But as liberals we must not be complacent. At any moment the situation may worsen for liberals; we must be prepared to respond.

The war is on, the armies are being massed. Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 9th will herald the beginning of open combat; another battle may well happen in the run-up to the French Presidential election in Spring of 2017. There will be many more such. But with a standard to act as a rallying-post, liberalism may not be lost.