Paul Mason, the former Channel 4 Economics editor, is an interesting character. He has been both mocked by George Osborne for being a ‘revolutionary Marxist’ and denounced by the teenage inhabitants of that political La-La-Land known as ‘Momentum’ for being a ‘Secret Tory’. He recently resigned from Channel 4 in order to express them more freely, and has written a book with the intriguing title, Postcapitalism. However, more recently we have discovered that he
is might be a representative of that strangely elusive species — the Leftie Brexitarian. If that wasn’t interesting enough, he has admitted that although he believes the EU to be an appalling, anti-democratic, corporatist racket, he may will not actually vote for Brexit on June 23.
So to kick us off, here are the edited highlights of his appearance on BBC Question Time 19 May 2016 (less than 5 mins):
The Left Wing Case for Brexit?
First let’s take a quick look at his arguments in favour of Brexit (quotes from his article in The Guardian of 16 May 2016):
The leftwing case for Brexit is strategic and clear. The EU is not – and cannot become – a democracy. Instead, it provides the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites and organised crime. It has an executive so powerful it could crush the leftwing government of Greece; a legislature so weak that it cannot effectively determine laws or control its own civil service.
I have no argument with any of that. I would not have voted for ΣΥΡΙΖΑ myself, but it was a democratically elected government that was overthrown by unelected EU bureaucrats. Although he doesn’t mention Italy, I have no reason to suppose that Paul Mason is any more relaxed about the overthrow of Berlusconi’s administration just because Il Cavaliere was on the Right (as well as being a priapic old crook). The same principle applies.
State aid to stricken industries is prohibited. The austerity we deride in Britain as a political choice is, in fact, written into the EU treaty as a non-negotiable obligation. So are the economic principles of the Thatcher era. A Corbyn-led Labour government would have to implement its manifesto in defiance of EU law.
Setting aside the fairytale of a ‘Corbyn-led Labour government’ for a moment, he’s correct here too. By ‘state aid’ I assume he means partial or total nationalisation. I think that there are better ways for governments to support struggling industries than through ownership and control (to take a topical example, the UK government could take steps to lower energy costs for steel producers by exempting them from certain environmental taxes). Governments are not terribly good at making cars or providing telephones, so why should we expect them to be successful in other industries? But these are issues for national politics and general elections. If the British people vote for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in 2020 (or before), then a properly elected Labour government should not be prevented from enacting its manifesto by the EU, however catastrophic those manifesto policies might turn out to be. If Britain wishes to become the Venezuela of the Northern Hemisphere, then that’s our business, not Brussels’.
As a man of the Left, Mason naturally sees the EU commitment to free trade as evidence that it is ideologically ‘right wing’, and even ‘Thatcherite’, so it’s a triple whammy — the EU is undemocratic, bureaucratic and right-wing. And this is where, surprisingly for a thoughtful and independent-minded man, he trots out well-worn, lazy caricatures of the Right (see Postcapitalism, passim). The Right are pro-free market, but because markets are about profits, surely it follows that the Right must be in favour of huge corporations making huge profits, at any cost?
Well no, actually. It may be in the interests of Acme Valves Ltd to shut down its competitors and become an monopoly, but it’s not in the interests of consumers and therefore militates against the Common Good. There is a world of difference between a government that is pro-business or pro-market and one which is corporatist. It is one thing for a government to seek to create an hospitable climate for business and enterprise (and thus create jobs and wealth for the nation) and quite another to favour a particular business over another due to lobbying or money in brown envelopes.
For a thoughtful, ten-minute treatment of this very point, have a look at this:
Indeed corporatism is one of the reasons that those of us on the Right who believe in markets are so unhappy with the EU. It is not the free-market ‘fantasy island’ that Paul Mason supposes. Indeed, I’d suggest that the EU is not really committed to free trade at all. The more important principle is uniformity: economic, monetary, and political union. The Eurocratic view is that there cannot be barriers to trade between member states because those states are on the way to becoming, in effect, one nation. The EU further behaves as if it were a single country by encircling the single market with an external tariff.
The EU’s commitment to free trade, so far as it goes, might have a liberalising effect in some member states where there has traditionally been a great deal of government regulation and protectionism, but in other member states, such as the UK, its effect is rather stifling and restrictive. It’s not so much a race to the bottom (let alone the top), as a race to the muddled middle.
“Crazed, Right Wing Conservatives”
The term ‘right wing’ is far from univocal in reference (as is ‘left wing’, to be fair). There is an understanding of Left and Right based on competing theories of political economy in which the role of the state diminishes and the freedom of the individual increases as one moves from Left to Right. On that basis, I am more than happy to be labelled a ‘right-winger’. But in the real world of cultural and social attitudes it is rarely that simple. Often, ‘left wing’ connotes concern for the poor, and ‘right wing’ implies being ‘on the side of the rich’. Political groups like the BNP are labelled ‘right wing’ despite their rather left-wing policies of protectionism, nationalisation and immigration control. In this example, of course, ‘right wing’ is a synonym for ‘racist’ or just plain ‘nasty’.
In the world of The News Quiz and The Guardian, the syllogism goes more or less like this:
A. Hitler and the Nazis were Right Wing
B. Free-market Liberals (and Conservatives) are Right Wing
C. Therefore Free-market Liberals (and Conservatives) are Nazis
Pointing out that these arguments have an ‘equivocal middle term’ is not going to get us very far. That right wingers are racists and xenophobes is an article of faith for some on the Left, even though there is nothing especially ‘right wing’ about being concerned about immigration, as the growth of UKIP in the traditional Labour heartlands of the post-industrial North has shown.
But, to be fair to Paul Mason, he does spell out exactly why he regards Boris, Gove and other Brexitarians as ‘crazed’ right-wingers:
Johnson and the Tory right are seeking a mandate via the referendum for a return to full-blown Thatcherism: less employment regulation, lower wages, fewer constraints on business. If Britain votes Brexit, then Johnson and Gove stand ready to seize control of the Tory party and turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy island.
Who is indulging in ‘fantasy’ here? What evidence is there for this charge? The hint comes in Mason’s Question Time appearance (3’18” — 4’45”) where he indulges in a quite extraordinary attack on Boris Johnson on the basis of where he went to school and suggests Amber Rudd MP should be ‘worried’ about his leading the Conservative Party ‘if he wins the referendum’ (sic).
Let’s agree, for a moment, that Boris Johnson’s schtick is partly based upon self-conscious buffoonery and that his assertions about bunches of bananas, for example, have been unhelpful. Why is Paul Mason so scared of such an apparently ludicrous figure?
If Mason is genuinely convinced that Boris Johnson is a swivel-eyed, right-wing loon, then he has good reason to be frightened — Boris showed, twice in a Labour city, that he has wide appeal. Mason is teetering on the edge of a trap into which many politicians, especially those on the Left, have fallen. The trap is one that exposes a less then full-throated support for democracy. Democracy is a fine principle, as long as people can be relied upon to use it ‘properly’ or ‘wisely’. If they vote the ‘wrong’ way, well, Bertolt Brecht has the answer:
…Wäre es da
Nicht doch einfacher, die Regierung
Löste das Volk auf und
Wählte ein anderes?
So, just how much of a lunatic right-winger is Boris Johnson? If he is simply a bumbling idiot, prattling about bananas and whiff-whaff, then perhaps it doesn’t matter; but Mason knows what anyone who has dealt with Boris knows: that for all his frothy bonhomie, he has a razor-sharp mind and a keen grasp of detail. Let’s consider, then, a couple of examples of the crazed, right-wing ideology that he slavishly peddled while Mayor of London.
Strangers into Citizens
This was a campaign led by community groups in London which has now rather run out of steam, but was a significant issue during the 2008 mayoral election. Its opponents painted it as an opening of the floodgates and an ‘amnesty for illegal immigrants’, though in actual fact it was rather more pragmatic than that. It was based on the undeniable truth that there are hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, illegals and over-stayers in the UK, a significant proportion of whom are in the capital. To remove them is expensive and, as we know only too well, all but impossible. Because of their below-the-radar status, few are in receipt of state assistance, but are working in a black economy.
Strangers into Citizens argued that a proportion of these should become legal by means of a two-year work permit available to asylum-seekers or economic migrants who can show they have been in the UK for four years or more. The proposals put forward by the campaign would give indefinite leave to remain at the end of a two-year period, subject to criteria such as an English language test, a clean criminal record and valid references from an employer and community sponsor for those qualifying for a work permit. Campaigners described this as a “pathway to citizenship” and pointed to the Spanish amnesty of 2005 as a possible model for the UK, in which 700,000 were granted legal status and which l(surprising to many) ed to no increase in illegal immigration (in fact, the opposite).
Nobody’s fool, Boris Johnson saw that, among other things, it is illegal immigrants that drive down wages. If you are employing an illegal immigrant as your domestic slave, then paying the NMW is the least of your concerns. To the shock of Phil Woolas (then Labour’s Immigration minister and Joanna Lumley’s bitch), Boris came out in support, expressing pride in his Muslim immigrant ancestry, saying that his Turkish great-grandfather who had fled from Turkey would be proud to have a descendant standing for mayor. He told a London Citizens assembly:
If an immigrant has been here for a long time and there is no realistic prospect of returning them, then I do think that person’s condition should be regularised so that they can pay taxes and join the rest of society,
The policy didn’t progress, probably because although it might have made economic sense after the 2008 crash, it would have been a very hard sell, politically speaking. But there was another policy position which did see the light of day…
The London Living Wage
This was another idea that came from community groups in London and is rather more well known. The London Living Wage (currently £9.40 per hour) was calculated independently of government and adopted by employers on a voluntary basis. To the surprise of many, the companies who adopted it with most enthusiasm were an evil axis of banks, accountancy firms and law firms. It meant that low-paid workers (for example cleaners and catering staff) saw their hourly rate increase considerably and employers were left scratching their heads because their wage and R&R costs frequently went down. Alongside the enthusiasts at KPMG, arguably the greatest advocate of the Living Wage was none other than Boris Johnson.
You might imagine that Boris’s support consisted of encouraging words along the lines of “Well done chaps, carry on the good work.” However, I know from my own involvement in this campaign that he was actively involved at every stage. Moreover, he put his money (actually our money) where his mouth was and ensured that the London Assembly and Trust for London paid all staff the Living Wage (long before the Labour-run boroughs caught up). He was an enthusiastic advocate for an idea that changed the lives of the poorest workers in the capital and lifted many out of poverty.
Confusing the issue
So, Boris may be posh and rich, and he may be a buffoon, but the idea that he is hellbent upon crushing the poor like some nineteenth century factory owner is just bizarre. I would say the same for Gove and for IDS. You may profoundly disagree with the policies that they have pursued in government, you may even think that those policies have done more harm than good, but it is another matter to trash their intentions. Iain Duncan Smith is a wealthy man (thanks to his wife, we’re told), yet very few politicians in his position have felt so concerned about social mobility that they have embarked upon their own fact-finding tour of the country and then set up a think tank specifically to conduct research and suggest policy in the area of social justice. It’s true that Michael Gove made few friends among teachers, but on the other hand he strenuously resisted the pressure of his own party to apply the ‘Grammar School Solution’ in education. His policies were aimed at improving every (comprehensive) school. That is undeniable, even if you think he missed his target. (My only criticism of his tenure at the DfE was that he centralised and increased government control of education.)
But let’s pretend, for a moment, that these three men are, in fact, crazed right wing lunatics who want to rip up social protections for workers, abolish trades unions, get rid of the minimum wage and let their ‘banker friends’ run Britain. As Paul Mason fears:
Johnson and the Tory right are seeking a mandate via the referendum for a return to full-blown Thatcherism
Even an overwhelming vote for #Brexit would give them no such ‘mandate’. A vote for remain gives the government (currently a Conservative government led by David Cameron) a mandate to do nothing. A vote for leave gives the government a mandate to withdraw from the EU. That’s it.
What Paul Mason seems to be saying is, “I want more democracy in theory, but in practice I don’t because I can’t trust people not to vote Tory.”
That’s a perfectly understandable position, it’s just not a very admirable one.