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.
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.
- New Liberalism is the belief that a better future for all humans is possible, and that we have a moral obligation to actualise it.
- New Liberalism seeks social harmony, whether between classes, between genders, or between ethnicities.
- New Liberalism is respectful of cultural difference, but demands adherence to liberal values as a prerequisite of toleration.
- 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.
- 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.
- New Liberalism rejects majoritarianism and demagoguery. It is predicated in consensus politics and concern for the interests of all citizens.
- New Liberalism seeks to build links between the left-wing and right-wing based on shared commitments to the ideals of liberalism.
- New Liberalism is a broad church; it is not dogmatic, nor is it monolithic. There is room for considerable debate and discourse within it.
- New Liberalism values the rule of law and adherence to established methods of governance, eschewing populist demagoguery.
- 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.
Much has been made in recent days about the alleged idiocy of colonial strategists in drawing flawed boundaries in the Middle East which are now the cause of the present bloodshed. This is patently a ridiculous explanation; the boundaries were not in fact drawn ‘at whim’, but structured carefully and with a great deal of thought, to the extent that the British and French nearly came to blows over the exact position of a boundary marker in the Syrian desert near Palmyra. Moreover, blaming boundaries for sectarian bloodshed seems uncomfortably close to exonerating the perpetrators of the mayhem. Whilst it may be in vogue amongst the left to indulge in historical self-flagellation and blame imperialism for all the world’s ailments, the reality is that having a multi-ethnic society in no way necessarily leads to civil war. Dozens of countries, from India to Belgium, have religiously and ethnically pluralistic societies who get along perfectly well. The boundaries drawn in the Middle East are actually remarkably good at preventing the persecution of minority groups and reducing the danger posed by ethnic confusion.
But still many now point to partition along ethno-religious grounds as the cure to Iraq’s woes, a sort of variation on the ‘Iron Wall’ speech of Ze’ev Jabotinsky – if two groups simply refuse to co-exist, the only solution is to separate them absolutely. The current belief is that the partition of Iraq is either a fait accompli or imminent, and that it should be encouraged; a Kurdish state encompassing the north, a ‘Sunnistan’ in the vast central belt possibly linked to contiguous areas of Syria, and finally the Shi’a state in the south. The belief is that hastening the inevitable partition will be the best solution to the Sunni insurgency, and prevent a repeat of the sectarian insurgency which plagued Iraq during the last decade.
Such a solution sounds both simple and attractive, but on further examination is neither of those things. In fact, the territorial integrity of Iraq is vital to the future security of the region and of the world at large. The first reason for this lies in the impossibility of a ‘clean’ partition. The confessional outlook of Iraq has been grossly oversimplified by the media, to the point where many simply assume there is simply a line in the sand with Shi’as on one side and Sunnis on the other. In reality the boundary is convoluted, vague and blurred. Any attempt at drawing a line of division will inevitably mean leaving a huge minority population within a foreign state – Sunnis in a Shi’a state and vice versa. The fate of such populations will not be enviable judging by Iraq’s previous treatment of minorities. Conversely, they will remain a constant thorn in the flesh of their host nation, being a potentially dangerous minority in the dangerous border regions of both states. So what to do with them? Population transfer is almost never successful; the Israel-Palestine conflict shows that the populations being transferred almost never want to go, and are generally forced out at gunpoint with little or no compensation, and only memories of their former homes. Meanwhile the sorry tale of the Sudetenland shows the danger of leaving minorities in situ; the likelihood is that they will indeed form a fifth column undermining the state. Finally, even if some solution to minorities could be found, a thornier issue would emerge; irredentism. In a region in which natural resources are the difference between poverty and untold wealth, the exact placement of a border post could become a dispute which could easily turn into a war. Yet it remains entirely uncertain exactly where a border would be located, and any line of division imposed upon Iraq would become a point of extreme tension and potentially war, much like Kashmir is fought over between India and Pakistan. Far from simplifying the regions’ problems, partition would simply exacerbate them.
Secondly, the partition would not favour the Sunni state. Kurdistan is amply provided with huge mineral and petrochemical wealth (especially after its’ recent conquest); the Shi’a south holds some of the largest oil reserves in the world. However, the Sunni state will mainly consist of nothing but desert – hot, flat, featureless desert. Moreover, it would also be landlocked, a sure recipe for disaster. Partition would turn the Sunni portion of Iraq into an impoverished wasteland, with very little to trade and nowhere to trade it from as a result of its’ landlocked nature. Poverty would lead to resentment, and resentment to political instability; by creating a homogenously Sunni state, partition would in fact result in a volatile state which will almost inevitably turn into an incubator for terror. It would be al-Qaeda’s wet dream, so to speak; an abandoned country full of recruits and with a government thoroughly in sympathy with terrorism and willing to enforce Islamist policies upon the populace. Partition would lead inevitably to Sunni Iraq becoming another Afghanistan, and that is not an appealing prospect for the world. Already we have seen radicalised European Muslims return home from ISIL territory to commit acts of terror against Western targets, such as the heinous attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. It is imperative that Iraq cannot become a training camp for more such terrorists.
The next reason for opposing partition stems from the fact that partition is a surrender. If we accept the ‘facts on the ground’ through partition, we will lend legitimacy to ISIL, an organisation which has none. Not only are ISIL a terrorist organisation allied to al-Qaeda and thoroughly supportive of attacks against Western targets, but their human rights record is frankly appalling. In Syria they have revived such medieval practises as crucifixions and floggings, and are busy imposing a particularly unpleasant version of Sharia law upon their latest conquests in Iraq. Women are beaten up for walking in public without a veil; Christians are threatened with death unless they pay a protection tax, the jizya. ISIL cannot be accepted or legitimised, but partition will do both of these things. The de facto rulers of Sunni Iraq at present are ISIL, and thus it stands to reason that partition will result in ISIL being the transitional government of the area. But the majority of Sunnis are not terrorists and have no sympathy with ISIL, regarding them as repressive terrorists – it would be immoral and unjust to deliver them into the hands of the group for convenience’s sake. Partition is unthinkable entirely until ISIL have been vanquished; only then can consideration of political autonomy for Iraq’s Sunni minority be discussed.
Finally, the partition of Iraq would create a mosaic of satellite states which would increase regional tensions intolerably. Each of the key nations comprising Iraq – Kurds, Turkmen, Sunnis and Shi’as – are in reality supported and backed by powerful foreign allies. Currently their political union prevents this support from turning violent, but if the three constituent nations were to split then tensions amongst their supporters would escalate uncontrollably. Iraq’s Sunni populace are already supported by the Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and partition would lead to ‘Sunnistan’ becoming a Saudi protectorate dominated by Wahhabi fanatics. Meanwhile the Shi’a rump state would then become increasingly aligned with Iran, viewing it as the natural leader of the Shi’a world. We would then be in the unenviable position of having an Iranian satellite state and a Saudi satellite state abutting each other. The two countries do not hold each other in high regard; in fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that they loathe each other. Partition, however, would put Iran and Saudi Arabia right next to each other, effectively. This would be a nightmare scenario; the two most formidable armies in the region attacking each other in a Mesopotamian battlefield. Meanwhile the Iraqi Turkmens remain tied intimately to Turkey proper; the Kurds on the other hand are traditional allies of Israel. Turkey, Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia all jockeying for influence over the wealth and strategic importance of Iraq would be catastrophic, and cannot be allowed to happen. The only way that this could be prevented is by maintaining Iraq’s union, and thus enabling it to act as an independent and autonomous entity rather than being forced into seeking alliances with bigger powers.
Partition is unthinkable, now or ever. Iraq must remain a single unit, for the sake of the region. But it is also evident that the current status quo is also unacceptable. The ISIL insurgency is, we recall, a direct consequence of al-Maliki’s corruption and sectarian bias, which in turn is a result of Saddam Hussein’s discrimination and persecution of Shi’as. A new ethno-religious settlement must be found in which each of Iraq’s nations can achieve genuine autonomy within a single strategic framework, and the optimum solution lies in a confederal structure. Even looser than the federalism posited by some, this would turn Iraq into four states which have total political independence (n.b. the fourth state would be a Christian region in the Nineveh plains). However, these four states would be united in a single foreign policy, a single non-sectarian military, and a single monetary policy. Efforts would be made to co-ordinate other matters, and to increase co-operation between states; nonetheless, the states would be independent in everything other than the above. A confederal solution has the advantage of satisfying the legitimate concerns of all the groups in Iraq, whilst keeping it united politically. There will be no issue of minorities in a confederal Iraq, as minorities would be protected by the single confederal constitution; similarly confederalism would not allow any state to turn into an incubator for terror, by maintaining a single army. Most importantly, however, the united and monolithic foreign policy would prevent parts of Iraq from becoming dominated by other nations. Iraq would remain as a buffer between the Gulf and Iran, thus maintaining the uneasy peace between the two great powers.