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All that seemed solid in liberalism is melting into air. In Europe the EU struggled for over seven years to reach a trade deal with Canada, one of the most “European” countries in the world; at the same time, banking crises are festering in Italy and Germany and the continuing migrant crisis continues to strengthen far-right parties. In Britain Jeremy Corbyn’s strengthened hold over Labour following an ill-considered attempt to unseat him has reinforced a transformation in the party that reaches well beyond his position as leader. At a global level, Vladimir Putin is redrawing the geopolitical map with his escalating intervention in Syria, while the chief threat to the repressive regime Xi Jinping is building in China appears to be a neo-Maoist movement that harks back to one of the worst tyrannies in history. A liberal order that seemed to be spreading across the globe after the end of the Cold War is fading from memory.
Faced with this shift, liberal opinion-formers have oscillated between insistent denial and apocalyptic foreboding. Though the EU is barely capable of any action, raddled remnants of the old regime – Ed Miliband, Clegg, Mandelson, “the master” himself – have surfaced to demand that Brexit be fudged and, in effect, reversed. Even as the US election hangs in the balance, many are clinging to the belief that a liberal status quo can be restored. But Trump’s presidential campaign has already demolished a bipartisan consensus on free trade, and if he wins, a party system to which his Republican opponents and Hillary Clinton both belonged will be history. Dreading this outcome and suspecting it may yet come to pass, liberals rail against voters who reject their enlightened leadership. Suddenly, the folly of the masses has replaced the wisdom of crowds as the dominant theme in polite discourse. Few ask what in the ruling liberalism could produce such a debacle.
The liberal pageant is fading, yet liberals find it hard to get by without believing they are on what they like to think is the right side of history. The trouble is that they can only envision the future as a continuation of the recent past. This is so whether their liberalism comes from the right or the left. Whether they are George Osborne’s City-based “liberal mainstream”, or Thatcherite think tanks, baffled and seething because Brexit hasn’t taken us closer to a free-market utopia, or egalitarian social democrats who favour redistribution or “predistribution”, an entire generation is finding its view of the world melting away under the impact of events.
Today’s liberals differ widely about how the wealth and opportunities of a market economy should be shared. What none of them question is the type of market globalisation that has developed over the past three decades. Writing in Tribune in 1943 after reviewing a batch of “progressive” books, George Orwell observed: “I was struck by the automatic way in which people go on repeating certain phrases that were fashionable before 1914. Two great favourites are ‘the abolition of distance’ and ‘the disappearance of frontiers’.” More than 70 years later, the same empty formulae are again being repeated. At present, the liberal mind can function only to the extent that it shuts out reality.
It is not surprising that there is talk of entering a post-liberal moment. The idea has the merit of grasping that the liberal retreat is not a revolt of the ignorant masses against enlightened elites; it is mostly the result of the follies of liberals themselves. But the revulsion against liberalism is not all of one piece. There is a world of difference between the May government inching its way towards a more intelligent way of living with globalisation and Trump’s dream of globalisation in one country. The creeping advance of anti-liberal forces across the European continent is something else again.
Accepting that this is a post-liberal moment does not imply that we should give up on values of freedom and toleration. Quite the contrary: the task at hand is securing the survival of a liberal way of life. But the greatest obstacle to that end, larger even than the hostility of avowed enemies of liberalism, is a liberal ideology that sees state power as the chief threat to freedom. Liberal societies have a future only if the Hobbesian protective role of the state is firmly reasserted. Balancing the claims of liberty against those of security will never be easy. There are many conflicting freedoms, among which political choices must be made. Without security, however, freedom itself is soon lost.
Nothing illustrates the decay of liberalism more vividly than the metamorphosis of the Labour Party. There has been a tendency to interpret Corbyn’s rise as a reversion to the Trotskyite entryism of the early 1980s. Some in the party – possibly including the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell – may see their role in terms of converting Labour to some type of neo-Marxism. That does not explain why so many of Labour’s new members seem to want to bury the party in the form in which it has existed throughout its history.
Something like a blueprint for the shift of power in the party was set out in Ralph Miliband’s Parliamentary Socialism. first published in 1961. Miliband’s attack on the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) anticipated the Corbynite strategy with uncanny prescience. Cautioning his comrades on the left who wanted to use Labour as a vehicle for socialism, Miliband wrote in a 1972 postscript to the book:
The kind of political changes at the top which a good many socialists hope to see one day brought about in the Labour Party, and which would signify a major ideological shift to the left, would presumably, given the nature of the political system, have to be engineered from within the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party. But to say this is surely also to indicate how unrealistic that hope is. It is unrealistic because it ignores the perennial weakness of the parliamentary left. That weakness is not accidental but structural. There have been some exceptions: a few Labour MPs have, so to speak, slipped through the net. But they have remained isolated and often pathetic figures, bitterly at odds not only with their leaders but with that large and permanent majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party which entirely shares its leader’s orthodox modes of thought.
Ralph Miliband condemned the PLP as an obstacle to fundamental change and looked to a mass movement outside Labour’s core structures. But history has proved more fertile than his imagination. In a strangely poetic turn of events, an anti-parliamentary party of a kind he believed Labour could never become was brought into being, more than 40 years later, when, by changing the membership rules, Ed Miliband created a historic opening for one of
its most isolated and insignificant figures. Promoted by moderates as a modernising move, on a par with Tony Blair’s revision of Clause Four, this accidental reform has altered Labour structurally and irreversibly. Corbyn’s rise to power could not have occurred if the party’s moderates had not been so devoid of new thinking. They realised that Ed Miliband’s social-democratic moment had failed to arrive and knew that Labour faced an uphill task in becoming electable again. But all they had to offer were empty slogans that reeked of the past. As a result, Labour has become unelectable in any foreseeable future.
Anyone who imagines the party’s electoral fortunes could be revived by a new leader – a charismatic figure from across the water, perhaps – has not taken the measure of the change that has taken place. Although parts of Labour remain outside Corbyn’s control, including much of local government – most importantly, Sadiq Khan’s London – the chief power base of any future leader of the party will be the mass movement that Corbyn has built. Realigning Labour with the electorate can only be done against the opposition of most of the party membership. In these conditions a campaign of the sort Neil Kinnock waged against Militant is no longer feasible. Internecine warfare will continue and may intensify, but Labour’s moderate tendency has no chance of regaining control.
In one sense, Corbyn’s Labour is the practical realisation of Ralph Miliband’s dream. Yet it is not a party Miliband would recognise easily. Labour has become not a retro-Trotskyite sect, but a contemporary expression of formless discontent. Trotsky was a vain and pitiless figure, who crushed a workers’ rising in Kronstadt in 1921 and rejected criticism of the practice of hostage-taking that he implemented during the Russian Civil War as “Quaker-vegetarian chatter”. But, even at his worst, Trotsky could not have proposed anything as inane and intrinsically absurd as retaining Trident submarine patrols while removing the missiles’ nuclear warheads, as Corbyn did in January.
The party Corbyn has created is not easily defined. Aside from the anti-Semitism that is a strand of its make-up, it has no coherent ideology. The legacy of Marxism is notable for its absence. There is no analysis of changing class structures or any systematic critique of the present condition of capitalism. Such policies as have been floated have been plucked from a blue sky, without any attempt to connect them with earthbound facts. The consensus-seeking values of core Labour voters are dismissed as symptoms of backwardness. As for the concerns about job security and immigration that produced large majorities in favour of Brexit in what used to be safe Labour areas, the Corbynite view seems to be that these are retrograde attitudes that only show how badly working people need re-education.
Corbyn’s refusal to specify any upper limit to immigration at the last party conference in Liverpool illustrated his detachment from electoral realities. But far from being a debilitating weakness – as it would be if Labour were still a conventional political party – this rejection of realistic thinking is the principal source of his strength in the new kind of party he has created. From being a broad-based institution that defended the interests of working people, Labour has morphed into a vehicle for an alienated fringe of the middle class that finds psychological comfort in belonging in an anti-capitalist protest movement. While a dwindling rump of trade union barons continues to act as power-broker, Labour’s northern fortresses are crumbling.
The defining feature of Corbynite Labour is not an anachronistic utopian socialism, but a very modern kind of liberal narcissism. Looking two or three general elections ahead, the party could well reach a membership of over a million even as it struggled to elect a hundred MPs. The party’s role would then be one of permanent opposition, without the privileges that go with being an alternative government.
The claim that what has emerged from Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party is an inchoate and extreme type of liberalism may seem perverse. He and his followers never cease to inveigh against neoliberal economics – a blanket term that seems to include every market economy in the world – even as they show a consistent bias in favour of tyrannies in their protests against military action, their anti-war campaigns focusing solely as they do on the policies of Western governments. It might seem that Labour under Corbyn has abandoned liberal values altogether, and there are some who talk of a new left-fascism.
Yet this is too easy an analysis of the change that has taken place. Corbyn’s Labour is no more crypto-fascist than it is Trotskyite. In some respects – such as his support for unlimited freedom of movement for people – it embodies a hyperbolic version of the liberalism of the most recent generation. In others, it expresses what liberalism has now become. There have always been many liberalisms, but the mutation in liberal thinking over the past few decades has been deep and radical. From being a philosophy that aimed to give a theoretical rationale to a way of life based on the practice of toleration, it has become a mindset that defines itself by enmity to that way of life.
Corbyn’s “inclusive” attitude towards Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA fits in with a left-liberal world-view that supports anti-colonial struggles in a general embrace of identity politics. Fashionable nonsense about cultural appropriation may not matter much, as it has been largely confined to increasingly marginal universities. However, it expresses what has come to be seen as a liberal principle: the right of everyone to assert what they take to be their identity – particularly if it can be represented as that of an oppressed minority – by whatever means are judged necessary. If free speech stands in the way, the practice must be discarded. It terrorism is required, so be it. This represents a fundamental shift in liberal thinking.
The overriding importance given to rights – a selective reading of them, at any rate – is one of the marks of the new liberalism. In one form or another, doctrines of human rights have been around for centuries, and a conception of universal rights was embodied in the UN Declaration of 1948. But rights became central and primary in liberal thought only in the 1970s with the rise of the legalist philosophies of John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, which held that freedom can be codified into a fixed system of interlocking liberties that can be interpreted by judges. On the libertarian right, Friedrich Hayek proposed something similar with his constitutional proposals for limiting democracy.
Protecting liberty is not just a matter of curbing government, however. Rolling back the state in the economy and society can have the effect of leaving people less free – a fact that was recognised by liberal thinkers of an earlier generation. Maynard Keynes understood that free trade allowed consumers a wide range of choices. He also understood that freedom of choice is devalued when livelihoods face being rapidly destroyed on a large scale, and partly for that reason he refused to treat free trade as a sacrosanct dogma. He never imagined freedom could be reduced to a list of rights.
The move to rights-based liberalism has had damaging effects in many areas of policy. A militant ideology of human rights played a part in some of the worst foreign policy disasters of recent times. The ruinous military adventures of the Blair-Cameron era did not fail because there was not enough post-invasion planning. They failed, first, because in overthrowing the despotisms of Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Gaddafi they destroyed the state in both Iraq and Libya, leaving zones of anarchy in which jihadist forces could operate freely. More fundamentally, they failed because human rights cannot be imposed on societies that have never known them and where most people may not want them.
Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal will provoke spasms of righteous indignation. Liberals cannot help believing that all human beings secretly yearn to become as they imagine themselves to be. But this is faith, not fact. The belief that liberal values are universally revered is not founded in empirical observation. They are far from secure even in parts of continental Europe where they were seen as unshakeable only a few years ago. In much of the world they are barely recognised.
That liberal values belong in a particular way of life was the central theme of the essays collected in my book Post-Liberalism (1993). Modern liberalism is a late growth from Jewish and Christian monotheism. It is from these religious traditions – more than anything in Greek philosophy – that liberal values of toleration and freedom have sprung. If these values were held to be universal, it was because they were believed to be ordained by God. Most liberals nowadays are secular in outlook, yet they continue to believe that their values are humanly universal.
It has never been clear why this should be so. A common response conjures up Enlightenment values against the demon of relativism, somehow forgetting that modern relativism emerged from the Enlightenment. Others invoke cod-theories in social science which claim that only liberal societies can be modern. Francis Fukuyama’s thesis is the best known, but they all assert that globalisation is producing a worldwide middle class that is demanding political freedom, as the European bourgeoisie is supposed to have done in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In fact, the European middle classes threw in their lot with authoritarian regimes as often as they supported freedom and democracy, and the same is true at a global level today. Much of the middle class in Russia appears wedded to a combination of consumerism and nationalism, and in China most seem to want nothing more than rising living standards and freedom in their private lives. In the United States, on the other hand, unchecked globalisation is destroying the middle classes.
If the liberalism that has prevailed over the past generation was a falsifiable theory it would long since have been abandoned. There is no detectable connection between advancing globalisation and the spread of liberal values. Liberals resist this because it empties their lives of significance. For them, liberalism is a surrogate religion, providing the sustaining illusion that their values express the meaning of history.
These may seem arguments far removed from everyday politics, but they have important practical implications. Liberal societies cannot depend on history for their survival. They need to defend themselves, and here the cult of rights needs deflating. Human rights may have value as symbolic barriers against the worst evils, such as genocide, slavery and torture. Where they are not backed by state power, however, human rights mean nothing: less than nothing, in fact, if they encourage people to believe they will be protected when (as in Srebrenica and now in Aleppo) the power to protect them is lacking. Human rights cannot serve as a template for world order. When they are used to promote evangelical military campaigns they endanger the way of life they were meant to protect.
Popular revulsion against established elites has produced some curious responses. There is constant talk about reason being junked in an emotional rejection of experts, as was supposed to have happened in this year’s EU referendum campaign. Yet the record hardly justifies any strong claims on behalf of those who claim special insight into economics or politics. Much of what has passed for expert knowledge consists of speculative or discredited theories, such as the sub-Keynesian ideas that support quantitative easing as a permanent regime and the notion that globalisation benefits everybody in the long run. When rattled liberals talk of the triumph of emotion over reason, what they mean is that voters are ignoring the intellectual detritus that has guided their leaders and are responding instead to facts and their own experiences.
What British voters are not doing is repudiating the society in which they live. For some critics of liberalism, what is needed is a rejection of individualism in economics and culture. This is the message of John Milbank and Adrian Pabst in The Politics of Virtue (reviewed by Rowan Williams in this paper on 14 October). The book promotes a neo-medievalist vision of organic community that would be familiar to Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton, whom Milbank and Pabst cite approvingly. Post-liberalism of this kind is, in my view, a dead end in politics. Most people in Britain do not want to live in organic communities. They are not nostalgic for an imaginary past, and show little fondness for the claustrophobic intimacy of unchanging, homogeneous neighbourhoods. They want what Thomas Hobbes called commodious living – in other words, the amenities of modern economy – without the chronic insecurity that is produced by unfettered market forces. Rather than rejecting market individualism, they are demanding that it be constrained. They would like to inhabit a common culture but are happy for it to contain diverse beliefs and lifestyles.
A post-liberal society is one in which freedom and toleration are protected under the shelter of a strong state. In economic terms, this entails discarding the notion that the primary purpose of government is to advance globalisation. In future, governments will succeed or fail by how well they can deliver prosperity while managing the social disruption that globalisation produces. Obviously it will be a delicate balancing act. There is a risk that deglobalisation will spiral out of control. New technologies will disrupt settled patterns of working and living whatever governments may do. Popular demands cannot be met in full, but parties that do not curb the market in the interests of social cohesion are consigning themselves to the memory hole. The type of globalisation that has developed over the past decades is not politically sustainable.
To expect liberals to comprehend this situation would be unreasonable. For them, it is not only the liberal order that is melting away, but any sense of their own place in history. From being the vanguard of human progress, they find themselves powerless spectators of events. But they insist that the solution to the crisis of liberalism is clear. What is needed is more of the same: a stronger infusion of idealism; an unyielding determination to renew the liberal projects of the past. The notion that any of these projects needs to be revised or abandoned – global free trade, say, or the free movement of labour across national borders – is unthinkable. The only thing wrong with past policies, they will say, is that they were not liberal enough.
Adamant certainty mixed with self-admiring angst has long defined the liberal mind and does so now. Yet beneath this, a different mood can be detected. All that really remains of liberalism is fear of the future. Faced with the world they thought they knew fading into air, many liberals may be tempted to retreat into the imaginary worlds envisioned by left-leaning non-governmental organisations, or conjured up in academic seminars. This amounts to giving up the political struggle, and it may be that, despite themselves, those who embodied the ruling liberalism are coming to realise that their day is done.
John Gray’s latest book is the new and enlarged edition of “Gray’s Anatomy: Selected Writings” (Penguin)
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You hear it in the dingy corners of a crumbling Westminster Palace, at discreetly expensive restaurants and in noxious, Christmas-festooned pubs. You hear it from former prime ministers and lowly special advisers, and even from foreign leaders.
“Brexit will not happen.” It cannot actually happen. Parliament, we are told, will force the deluded people to come to their senses, aided by the judiciary and big business. If the people have made a mistake, then can they not be shown the latest economic forecasts and be obliged, somehow, to think again?
With respect to all involved, and – briefly – to adopt the demotic of Boris Johnson, this must be cobblers. If parliament asked the people of the UK to vote on a subject of such huge importance; and if, after exhaustive and exhausting debate, they made their decision, by a clear majority; and if they were then told that it wasn’t going to happen, or at least not without a second vote, the glossy fabric of British democracy would be ripped to shreds. Frankly, I dread to think what would follow.
It is time to think differently. Brexit is coming, and relatively soon. We have to assume that the UK will be outside the EU within two and a bit years. An entirely new chapter in our politics will then begin. Yet most of the British political class is so battered and demoralised by the Brexit decision that they cannot take what is likely at face value, and start to chart how they intend to reshape a country that has much more power over its own governance.
This is odd; and it is a dangerous wasted opportunity. Parliamentary power, expanded and reinforced, gives new opportunities to both the left and the right to change Britain. Rather than being paralysed by fear, we ought to be on the lip of a great invigoration of our democracy. Yet hardly anyone seems to be talking about the new agendas that are opening up.
On the left, this may reflect a terror that leaving the EU will inevitably result in a slaughter of regulations and a Hobbesian global-trade state, in which workers’ rights and environmental protection will go by the board. On the right, the lack of imagination about what, after all, so many people have been campaigning for, and for so long, is stranger still. It mostly adds up to a vague feeling that there will be less “meddling” and that the pungent odours of the 1950s – coal-smoke, hand-knitted woollen jumpers, bleach – will magically reappear.
Yet we are not going to be a different people. The instincts of the British electorate haven’t suddenly changed during 2016. It’s unlikely that we will veer enthusiastically back to the distant pre-European-migration past, or cast aside liberal and environmental ways of thinking that have become valuable to us in recent decades. For left and right alike, this is going to be a time of fresh, vivid and urgent debate.
We have to start, of course, with trade. Through the thick miasma of official waffling, some things are already becoming clearer. We will be out of the single market and will be out of a customs union – because if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to negotiate our own trade agreements around the world. Theresa May would hardly have created a new Department for International Trade if she intended it to have no purpose.
Yet the pressure from business and industry for access to European markets is also such that her government is going to have to offer Europe a deal on the movement of workers. The logical conclusion is that we will see sector-by-sector agreements to allow in X thousand electricians, or Y thousand careworkers, with industry bodies given coupons by the government and allowed to issue the work visas they require. This is the kind of thing that might allow EU leaders to grant low-tariff or tariff-free access to some markets, and stave off a downward economic lurch.
What it will also involve, obviously, is a higher level of continued movement from the EU into the UK than many Brexit voters expect. But the government will honourably be able to claim that it has “taken back control”. It will allocate the numbers coming in, giving it more direct influence on business and industry generally. As was hinted at with the early deal with Nissan, the change could prompt a move towards more physical manufacturing, at the expense of the service sector.
This is something politicians have been talking about since the 1970s, from Harold Wilson to George Osborne, to relatively little effect. After the deindustrialisation and Big Bang of the Thatcher/Geoffrey Howe era, our economy has drifted steadily further into financial services. We have been arguing, increasingly bitterly, about some of the consequences: the huge rewards for a small minority of bankers; the lack of German-style support for industrial manufacturing and the consequent lack of jobs for people who want to work with their hands; and the increasing imbalance in wealth and power between the metropolis and the Midlands.
Some of the measures the left would like to take to support and protect the steel industry, or engineering, or to enhance our growing advantage in robotics, are made impossible not by British Conservatives, but by EU regulations on competitiveness and state funding. Make no mistake: an awful lot is back in play. Rail renationalisation, for one, despite the announcement this month about franchising of train tracks.
It is true that a Brexit deal that secured the interests of British carmakers while failing to secure the City’s “passporting rights” – so leading to a haemorrhage of financial institutions to Frankfurt, Dublin or Paris – would be extremely painful for the Treasury and the British state. Indeed, whether or not Brexit can be made to work financially will depend to a large extent on our ability to strike an early UK-US trade agreement that allows Britain to sell its service sector into the American market. Otherwise, the loss of tax revenues would be something the rest of us would have to make up, and austerity would be extended to cover a screeching handbrake-turn for the economy. Philip Hammond’s pallor is scary enough as it is, thank you very much.
Looking further ahead, however, manufacturing is already being transformed with new materials and 3D printing; there is no longer any reason to assume an endless downward spiral. The prospect of a new industrial policy is, in a sense, being forced upon Britain by the Brexit vote, but that is good news, not bad news: it ought to produce the most vigorous and excited debate.
Shrewder politicians on the left and right are already thinking about the opportunities raised by new trade agreements. Leading Tories see deals with poorer countries leading to cheaper clothing and food imports than we have now. Many EU trade deals with developing countries don’t include services because they don’t matter so much to other EU member states; they can now be extended to benefit us.
On the other side of the fence, Labour’s Brexit committee has been looking at how the left might develop a critique of globalism. Part of this could involve the trade treaties to come so that they include environmental and worker protection clauses (and, indeed, human rights provisions) alongside agreements on tariffs.
Those involved, such as John McDonnell and Barry Gardiner, are discussing how a future Labour government could use British corporate expertise to leverage deals that are both progressive and expand trade. The Scotch whisky industry wants lower tariffs for the Indian market, for instance, but also boasts immense expertise on water quality, a big issue for Narendra Modi’s government. Are there more creative and imaginative agreements to be struck between Britain and India post-Brexit?
Defence is another significant area that will change. We remain, of course, in Nato and we should stop trying to hector the remaining EU countries about their own defence arrangements. But with Donald Trump in the White House, Nato will feel very different and with Putin’s Russia pushing hard, an independent UK will need to think about defence afresh. Now that even senior members of the defence establishment privately accept that Trident is old technology and increasingly vulnerable to satellites and drones, we ought to be having a big debate about what kind of defence we need and where our deeper interests lie (Estonia? Turkey?). What once was unthinkable no longer is.
Given that Britain, with GCHQ, is already a world leader in cyber security, we may well decide to ditch nuclear submarines in favour of a vast increase in intelligence. It is very unlikely, as the world gets more dangerous, that we will be able to spend less on defence. There won’t be a “No to nukes, Yes to better childcare” option of the kind the left would feel comfortable with. Our armed forces won’t be cheap but they will be very different; and yet politicians have so far said almost nothing about this. We have had a deep-frozen defence debate for years; it’s time for that to change.
The same kind of profound changes will be available in foreign policy. Able to act independently, Britain can forge a different policy for the Middle East; we can make our own policy on human rights in China, too. After Brexit, we should see a return to something like health for the ignored and enfeebled Foreign Office.
All of this, however, is only the beginning. The range of domestic policies that can now be thoroughly altered is breathtaking, covering everything from the funding of schools to forestry to employment rights. One area with scope for change is agriculture, which has been deeply enmeshed in EU lawmaking policy covering everything from the size of hedgerows and gates to inspection regimes for various kinds of farm, all tied to the doling out of subsidies from urban voters. Whatever version of Brexit is finally agreed, it seems inconceivable that farmers won’t want the best possible access to European markets for their meat, cereals and even wine. Consequently, any new inspection and hygiene regime will have to be at least as good (and therefore as intrusive) as the one we have now.
There are many other possibilities, though not all farmers will be pleased to hear about them. A different subsidy regime could tilt away from the largest landowners, who are already wealthy, to give extra support to struggling family farms and hill farmers – the kind the urban public most often admires and supports. (Cue howls of outrage from the Lords.)
We could have new laws to encourage the replanting of hedgerows and coppices, to protect our endangered birdlife. Some interesting work on forestry futures has been done by the government’s natural capital committee. Across the UK, only 6 per cent of our economy is low-carbon, but that has produced 30 per cent of growth over the past three years. Our island ecosystem is European but also subtly different, and we can handcraft legislation to reflect that.
Or, if we choose to accept that we are now an essentially urban country, a future government could tear up restrictions on housebuilding and urban sprawl and give the green light for widespread planting of genetically modified crops. At its most extreme, it could stop subsidising farming altogether, arguing that we already import most of our food, and that limited countryside space may be needed more for housing and recreation. Whether you think that’s a clever idea, or likely to lead to hideous shredding of communities, at least it’s a choice that will soon become available.
Environmental policy could be another area of change, though we are highly unlikely to follow Donald Trump’s lead and ditch all our green commitments. The big choices on energy policy will be the same outside the EU as inside: carbon emissions are now dealt with by a global treaty. Post-Brexit, are we going to opt for a somewhat less secure or safe nuclear industry? I rather doubt it.
In practice, we are becoming a more environmentally sensitive culture. It is hard to see a future government loosening laws on restricting airborne pollution from industrial plants, or on the disposal of chemical and electrical goods. Even the most right-wing Conservative administration is unlikely to make it easier to open new landfill sites or dispose of chemicals into rivers or near beaches.
Are we likely to want to reverse the effects of the EU’s Birds Directive? On the contrary, after Brexit, I would expect great British organisations such as the RSPB and the National Trust to become bigger voices in the national debate. In most of these areas, the freedom for manoeuvre will enable us to bring in better and tighter regulations, based on the needs of our own wildlife and landscape. At the very least, we can now look forward to arguments about pollution, waste and the proper protection of the landscape becoming fiercer than ever.
Coastal communities could be transformed by our leaving the EU. Old fishing towns have lost out to the growth in big corporate fleets, often owned by non-British companies, scooping up and processing the fish offshore. Gutting, smoking and the rest of preparation is no longer done around the ports and much of the “under ten” (smaller boats less than ten metres long) has vanished. All of this can be reversed.
Much of the EU regulation on fishing is designed to prevent overfishing and to protect stocks from spread of disease, particularly on fish farms. So unless we decided to overfish our own waters brutally, a quickly self-defeating policy – or unless we don’t care about exporting seafood – the space for expansion would seem limited. We could, however, go in entirely the other direction and introduce more stringent safety and hygiene rules, so that our exports would be particularly valued. Thinking bigger, there is now nothing to stop us creating our own extensive undersea conservation areas. Environmentalists are worried about the effects of bottom trawling on the North Sea. We could fish less, not more.
On the other side of the world, the New Zealand government is creating the Kermadec underwater conservation park, a thousand kilometres north-east from the country’s shores. It will be an enormous area where all fishing as well as oil and gas exploration will be banned. New Zealand has shown that by putting “Keep Out” signs on significant parts of the ocean, it can even replenish fish stocks and biodiversity faster than scientists once thought possible. Could we do the same up here? The North Atlantic is a very different environment from the North Pacific, but a future British government could take a more assertive approach to underwater conservation. Whether or not it pleases pro-Brexit fishermen, it could prove a far-sighted environmental policy.
Those are just a few thoughts. There are probably many other areas where we will see a revived policy debate. Once we have control over VAT rates, and indeed the ability to create our own purchase tax, we can do away with absurdities such as taxes on tampons, and craft a tax system to encourage and discourage different kinds of spending – say, differential rates for high-sugar products, or special tariffs on electronic products that are hard to recycle. Why not?
There’s going to be a vigorous argument about all of that. But that is exactly my point. Almost without notice or comment, British politics has developed its own dependency culture, losing self-confidence about important changes of direction. Because of “Brussels”, politicians and civil servants have become a bit “computer says no”, taking it as the first principle that we can’t do this, we can’t do that. We can’t protect industries. We can’t really change economic direction. We can’t create new industrial hubs. We can’t change policy for the countryside. Well, now we can.
The defeated centre has spent a lot of time since the referendum asking whether the Great Disaster was “really” all about ingrained racism, fear of the modern world or media manipulation. Wouldn’t it be healthier to decide that the Leave side’s victory was about what it said on the tin – reclaiming political control – and then ask ourselves what we can now do with that extra freedom?
For all of us who believe in British democratic culture, there can be exciting times ahead. The winds of change can be invigorating, not simply bloody cold.
Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.