As 2017 begins, the politics of unreason seems to be spreading its influence across British politics and media. Liam Fox inside the government, and John Redwood and Peter Lilley outside, are arguing that we don’t need to negotiate a treaty with the EU as we leave. They propose that Britain simply reasserts its sovereignty, and to hell with international law, commercial and security interests, and rights of access and residence elsewhere across the EU for the 50 million journeys UK citizens make every year. (Peter Lilley, like Nigel Lawson, lives part of the year in France; you’d have thought he might have taken rights of residence into account.) Free trade, they assert, is something that we can if necessary adopt unilaterally. The mercantilist policies of China and India, the threats of protectionist tariffs that the President-elect Trump has been making, do not disturb their tranquillity.
Meanwhile, Wednesday’s Times carried an article in its business section by Mark Littlewood, the director of the Institute of Economic Affairs, recommending Las Vegas as the model for post-Brexit Britain’s economy, in particular by spreading casinos through our ‘left behind’ seaside towns. He’s as serious about this as Tim Congdon (of Economists for Britain) is when he argues that Britain’s economy can manage without an industrial base, and as the Taxpayers’ Alliance is when it recommends further deep cuts in public spending. That’s the US Republican model they aspire to, even as Donald Trump moves away from it. It is, of course, the opposite of what most Leave supporters thought they were voting for, and what the Leave campaign appeared to be promising.
On the Op-ed page of Wednesday’s Times Melanie Phillips argued that Barack Obama will ‘return to his Marxist roots’ when he leads office, to create ‘a climate of agitation’ with ‘the potential for a permanent grassroots insurrection against the Trump Administration’, with Obama encouraging and leading it. Matt Ridley the day before had deserted his usual climate-change denial to fill a Times column with a denunciation of Marxism and its continuing influence, depicting it as a severe global and also domestic threat: it’s the left, not the right, that threatens our peaceful order. The forces of illiberalism are out there in our mainstream media, not just in the Daily Mail and the Sun.
Denial of evidence, dismissal of experts, lack of concern for the views of foreign governments and companies (except for the incoming Trump Administration) all indicate that we now face an alternative irrational Establishment, which stretches across the right-wing of the Conservative Party, the offshore-owned media, and a group of influential think tanks with links to the US Right. Mrs. May finds herself in a similar position to John Major before her, with ‘the bastards’ on the right refusing to compromise with their more pragmatic colleagues, let alone with the reasoned and detailed arguments of business and officialdom. They have become more shrill in the months since the Referendum, as the evidence has stacked up against them; it’s becoming clear that they want negotiations on Brexit to fail, and will attack proposals for compromise as ‘betrayal’. Major did his best to resist them. Theresa May seems to hope that she can hold her party together without confronting the likes of Redwood, Duncan Smith, Lilley, Lawson or Fox. So far she has managed this by delaying agreement on a negotiating position. But she HAS to spell out that position within the next few weeks, and the arguments may then get even shriller.
Liberal democracy is about continuing discussion and debate, with respect for different opinions and for conflicting evidence. That’s now under active populist attack, including by cynical media groups that promote nationalist unreason while avoiding national taxes by transferring their profits offshore. We have to be as active in defending the politics of reason, and reminding the public where irrational populism has led to before.
* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.