William Wallace writes…The politics of unreason

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.

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 6th Jan '17 - 2:04pm

    This is a very definite appraisal of a perceived and genuine situation that would carry more weight if two things were dealt with better.

    One , we cannot dismiss the fact that Marxism in some societies , third world or second world , developing or developed, is an issue. Even in certain Eastern European societies there are tendencies we need to be aware of , offering authoritarian non solutions to genuine problems. Some Latin American societies still peddle fantasy policies bankrupting or corrupting already nearly bankrupt and corrupt economies and societies. The left in it’s more archaic and extreme variety is no more the answer to whatever the question is , than the rising right wing worrying elements .This of course does not give any credence to MS Phillips ludicrous phrase about Obama’s non Marxist background!

    Two, there is much too much acceptance of the whim or wish of big business , in the article , thankfully ,not a main thrust , but if we , as Liberals , and Democrats , are to be champions of all that’s decent in our economy and society, we must take a different , more traditionally Liberal and Democratic view. We should see all interest groups as part of the problem and the solution. We must be the party of business because we are the ones realistic about economics . But realism is not idealism. We cannot idealise that which is an interest group. Big or small, we can be for successful businesses , but for successful individuals and communities too. That means balance.

    It is time to recognise that the history of Liberalism , means even its earlier , not yet obviously social Liberal, strand and development , Liberalism was sceptical about powerful interests. Free trade , yes, laissez – faire , no. Fair trade , yes indeed!

  • It seems these Brexiteers want Britain to enjoy a relationship with the EU similar to that of Belarus.

  • paul barker 6th Jan '17 - 3:04pm

    Its worth looking at the latest Poll on Leavers & Remainers expectations for The NHS after Brexit, its covered on Mike Smithsons Political Betting site. The level of division between the 2 sides is astonishing.
    On Marxism, its quite true that it is a real threat, not just in Poor countries either but the idea that Obama is even remotely influenced by it is bonkers. He is a mainstream American Liberal, in a tradition that predates Marxism by a Century or more.

  • Steve Trevethan 6th Jan '17 - 6:33pm

    Perhaps the politics of unreason flourish in proportion to main stream media unreason and unenlightened self-interest and the ineffectiveness of the teaching of analytical thinking and incisive questioning.

  • “We have to be as active in defending the politics of reason, and reminding the public where irrational populism has led to before.”

    Problem is,…Lord Wallace,.. that the politics supporting your brand of ‘reason’, has, over the last decade,… left many of the public socially bereft,.. and scratching around on zero hours minimum pay, [if they’re lucky!], with the need of charitable food banks to supplement their life. Would you not agree Lord Wallace, that populism occurs and thrives, best, when those with lives a-plenty, blatantly ignore those, with lives on the edge.?

    So the bigger question is,.. in your desire to quell populism, what solutions do you as a liberal have, to improve the lives of those on the edge, …and thus by definition, reduce their ‘irrational’ populism, which you so clearly despise.?

  • J Dunn i’ve asked Liberal Democrats this question since the referendum and it’s clear that they have just come around to acknowledging there’s a problem. Aside from Lamb and Cable they are the new conservative party having ditched their intuitive thinking. It’s almost as if they’ve given up on thinking new radical innovative policies. That’s because they cannot work through their own prejudices on migration which is a prerequisite to thinking through those new policies. They are stuck in a rut of their own making. It’s terribly sad as they are letting down those that need them most.

  • The failure of politicians isn’t immigration its their failure to invest in training and to make it the number one priority. It was far easier and cheaper to employ foreign Doctors, nurses, electricians, IT staff, brick layers etc etc than to train the locals. Problem is if you get rid of the foreigners or even reduce the flow of them our services collapse, because we have failed to train our population to fill the roles.

  • The thing is people vote nationally on mostly national issues and you have to be fairly popular to be elected. The inability to see that democracy with universal suffrage within national borders will inevitably require some level of populism and yes nationalism is not actually indicative of “reason”. Nor is focusing on a narrow set of debatable economic arguments.

  • Christopher Haigh 7th Jan '17 - 3:20pm

    @frankie, liberal democrats believe in progressive change. Leaving the EU is a regressive change that on the whole we are opposed to.

  • Marx got some things right and some wrong. The political economies derived from it have mostly been awful and none have worked adequately but, however you parse it, the struggle between Marxism and ‘capitalism’ no longer defines the age.

    What matters today is the struggle between radically different interpretations of ‘capitalism’. On one side are those who use it to mean working as a servant of ‘capital’ – which really means those who control it – let’s call this ‘plutocrat capitalism’. On the other side are those who think people should come first and that ‘capitalism’ means the institutions and techniques needed to harness economic resources to best promote the general wellbeing. The first is a corporatist vision for the benefit of oligarchs, the second a human-centred one for ordinary people.

    One problem for liberals is that both camps can trace a liberal lineage and both use mainly the same words even though the two sorts of ‘capitalism’ are polar opposites. So, to work out which camp a speaker is from, you actually have to decode their meaning. You can’t assume that just because someone is in favour of ‘freedom’ they have your best interests at heart even if you, as an ordinary person, value it highly. The ‘freedom’ they want might only be for some company to pollute your air and water in pursuit of profit – hence TTIP.

    Plutocrat capitalism obviously has a problem – it’s a hard sell in a democracy – but it has a toolkit of solutions.

    One these is to keep people confused and off-balance. Smear opponents as ‘Marxists’, pretend that their version of ‘capitalism’ is TINA and conjure up fake threats – ‘Reds Russians under the bed’ or whatever.

    Another is to subvert the democratic process – get your stooges into key positions in any opposition party and, if you’re lucky take it over entirely.


    And if you’re really, really lucky the party that ought to offer the stiffest challenge will neuter itself by giving up on thinking. J Dunn and James have a point that the Lib Dem establishment can’t easily answer.

  • Blame the stupid voters?

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