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The limits of political pain: 2 February 8, 2019

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

And speaking of same… I thought Andrew Rawnsley made a compelling point in the Observer at the weekend. Writing about Oliver Letwin’s plea last week in the HOC that he would at this stage vote for pretty much anything that May brought forward ‘because if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal and the consequences are bad, “my party will not be forgiven for many years”.’ he noted that:

Were I a Tory, I’d pay attention to that warning. Sir Oliver speaks with experience of what follows when politicians wilfully inflict abominations on their voters. He was one of the architects of the poll tax in the 1980s. Some readers may need reminding that this reckless experiment in changing local taxation without thinking through the consequences led to rioting in Trafalgar Square and the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher at the hands of her own party.
The poll tax will look like a mild kerfuffle if Britain exits the EU without an agreement or a transition period and the result is widespread and severe havoc to some of the most basic aspects of everyday life. More klaxons have sounded in the past few days, including warnings from supermarkets that some of their shelves will be empty. If we tumble over the cliff edge without a parachute, opinions differ about whether it would be merely calamitous or utterly catastrophic.

I suppose this elides with the thoughts earlier about the tolerance of contemporary societies for actual ‘pain’. Quite reasonably – as we saw during austerity, such tolerance is extremely limited. And yet in the context of Brexit we see incredible expressions rhetorically of a willingness to absorb levels fo potential economic and social and other hardship that would be quite unlike anything seen in recent times.

And Rawnsley notes that while the threats and impacts to come are to some degree unknowable…

My view of what no deal would mean is informed by my chilling conversations with ministers, civil servants and heads of government agencies who have responsibility for essential services and commerce. They are sweating fear. So are public sector and business leaders. The people who would have to handle the consequences of Britain crashing out of the EU are very scared indeed. This fright is shared in the highest reaches of the cabinet. So if we end up in a no-deal scenario, it would mean that senior ministers had allowed it to happen, fully conscious that they were playing roulette with Britain’s future like a last chip gambler in a Las Vegas casino. Sir Oliver is surely correct when he says that the blame for a nightmare Brexit would be indelibly stamped on his party.

And Rawnsley looks back to the three-day week and how that destabilised the Tories under Heath and arguably paved the way to usher in Thatcher.

In fact, and he mentions Black Wednesday (September 1992 – I remember that day particularly well as it happens) and the ‘Winter of Discontent’ along with the Three Day Week and the Poll Tax, what we actually see from the historical record is something quite other than a willingness for populations to absorb such pain. Austerity – imposed in the UK almost glibly and a political weapon, clearly destabilised the polity there. It’s no indulgence to argue that had a Labour administration returned instead of the Tories matters would be different today – in terms of national policies and context. And while it gives me no comfort to say this it seems reasonable to argue that that austerity itself paved the way for Brexit.

Some people like to talk the talk, to say they’ll accept higher prices, inflation, lower wages, shortages of food, barriers to movement, and so on. And to do so over a protracted period. I’m sceptical.

There’s a further question. If austerity, in part, did serve to destabilise the polity in the UK (and consider its impact in Scotland too) then what will a Brexit depression do? What sort of politics will emerge on foot of that – particularly in a polity where rhetoric about ‘betrayed Brexit’ and ‘traitors’ is already gaining currency?


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