Brexit might just be a productive disaster

Two nights ago, in a widely-acknowledged ‘blame game’, Theresa May backhandedly suggested MPs were at fault for the Brexit stalemate – and that she alone shares the public’s ‘frustration’.  The day after, Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom, in her well-publicised feud with John Bercow, criticised the Speaker for telling Tory MP Sir Peter Bottomley to ‘grow up’ as he loudly heckled Labour MP John Cryer – who dubbed Theresa May’s performance the night before as ‘one of the most contemptuous statements I’ve ever heard’. This came on the back of news that opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, stormed out of a cross-party meeting because Chuka Umunna, The Independent Group’s standing representative, was present when, in matter of fact, ‘he wasn’t a real party leader.’

This begs the question: are we right to feel totally pessimistic at the current state of affairs in our deeply divided political system? Are we right to despair at the hopeless cadre of our floundering leaders? The answer is yes and no. While it’s depressingly true that inequality is at its worst level for decades, public trust in political leadership is all-but-absent, regional prosperity is non-existent and nothing seems likely to change any time soon, it’s also the case that this fiasco could be exactly what Max Weber termed a ‘productive disaster’.

As a prospective political candidate that failed to get elected, Weber spent ages poring over German parliamentary systems. He was writing in the early 1900s – just before European affairs were about to take a nasty turn – and identified the most important feature of modern politics: that of perpetual conflict and struggle.

Instead of viewing politics as the profession of idealistic peace-keeping, he recognised that it is precisely because of the impossibility of total peace and prosperity that parliament can nurture and elevate genuine talent. Crisis, believe it or not, gives people a chance to shine and become creative, charismatic individuals (as well as weeding out the ones who haven’t got what it takes).

Most importantly – and nobody can deny this – Weber argued that political conflict is the only thing which keeps citizens politically educated and engaged: preventing individual liberty from being buried under unaccountable civil service bureaucracies (who do everything secretly, under the guise of specialised ‘officialdom’). The 2016 EU referendum, as we know, boasted an unprecedented turnout of 72.2% – with 33.6 million exercising their right to vote. In effect: Brexit has, for all the wrong reasons, forced us to become politically literate, and awoken us from our passivity.

Weber’s beef back in 1900s Germany was with Otto von Bismarck and the Kaiser: two Prussian Conservative leaders that had reduced parliament to bureaucratic shells – quashing all diversity of opinion and the space for new leaders to rise and gain prominence. Their mess-ups, unbelievably, caused even more grief than Brexit (like a World War).

Weber recognised the cynicism of his line of reasoning, but decided that WW1, in many respects, was an opportunity. The horrible, crushing defeat by the Allies – though awful for German citizens who had been humiliated on the international stage – killed off the Emperor’s uselessly bureaucratic rule, giving parliament a chance to assume greater power and dictate policy. It also afforded citizens opportunity to become a ‘nation of masters’: this being a people who cared about their political destiny and strove to shape it.

Weirdly enough, the model for Weber’s theory of ‘charismatic leadership’ was William Ewart Gladstone. Liberal British parliamentarian for over 60 years, and many-times over British Prime Minister, his proto-populist campaigns of the late 19th century rallied his electorate round to his cause – whatever that may be – and stopped the stagnation of parliament, society and culture in general.

By constantly changing tack – whether it be quitting the Conservative Party only to attack it from opposition benches, or crusading against Irish Home Rule and then crusading for Home Rule – Gladstone kept the political landscape alight with passion, persuasion and public engagement. His ability to flexibly bend towards voter sentiment was not seen as disingenuous tactlessness, but strength of his virtues as a parliamentarian.

Contrast the era of Gladstonianism with stagnating, rigidly adversarial political parties of 21st century Britain, beset with pointless in-fighting and a tendency to become bogged down by dogma, discipline and technicalities rather than national interest and voter opinion – something both parties are guilty of.

But already, we’re starting to see elements of Weber’s back-against-the-wall productivity coming to the fore.

We know that it is likely Theresa May will resign should her deal be defeated again, or possibly even before; and already, we know that scores of Labour MPs are unhappy with the Party’s current leadership. Tom Watson has delivered an urgent warning to Jeremy Corbyn to ‘reach out to all wings of the party’ or risk further alienation and even more defections to The Independent Group, while many other Northern and Midland Labour MPs feel the front-bench’s commitment to a second referendum is a betrayal of voter trust and direction. Emma Lewell-Buck was among a group of defiant Labour MPs that ignored Corbyn’s whip to abstain in a second referendum vote, already showing greater independence and a nascent disintegration of overly-partisan structures.

To many, this breakdown of traditional party-political edifices is worrying: but it is also an episode that history will look favourably upon. If through all this tired Brexit haze and broken-record rhetoric emerges new talent, new ideas, new opportunities and new thinking (and even if all of it goes to nothing and we end up with a second referendum and or a revocation of Article 50), you can best believe that people will, ultimately, somehow somewhere, be intellectually better off for it. In other words – let’s embrace Brexit, embrace radical change and embrace an historic recasting of an out-of-date political landscape.


The North-East is doomed – it has been for a thousand years. But does it have to be this way?

Originally published in Backbench.

1066 is an important date in British history. It was the year William the Conqueror landed in Hastings ready to wrench the throne from the deserving (and probably dashing) English King, Harold Godwinson. But this didn’t just initiate sweeping changes in landscapes and government. It launched Anglo-Saxon England into a turbulent millennia of North-South civil unrest which continues to this day. 

The North’s seething animosity towards its Southern counterpart is more than an extended response to the violent class wars of the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher and her band of ‘dry’ economic disciples no doubt ring-fenced Northern prosperity for decades to come and intensified regional-metropolitan divides. But her crippling of Northern manufacturing industries is less important than the fact that she felt this was historically and politically acceptable – and, as a matter of fact, ‘necessary’. Why is that?

Go back 1000 years, and we find her predecessor in Duke William II of Normandy. His ‘Harrying of the North’, which involved ‘wasting’ land in an effort to deter rebellious Northern lords, established a precedent. This was the strategic and ‘necessary’ depletion of the region’s population, community and sustenance in an effort to solidify centralised governance and consolidate Norman rule. 

A 1/3 of Yorkshire was declared uninhabitable as a result. This raid laid the foundations for an embittered Northern separatist movement that has ever since struggled to wrestle itself from the yoke of Norman London and its descendants.

As the South quickly ‘Europeanised’ through trade with modern-day France, the North was weakened and subdued. York, once a powerful political contender to London, was demoted. The Archbishop of Canterbury was made supreme, with the Archbishopric of York left flailing in the remnants of its former importance. Vital trade with Scandinavia was cut off. 

Today, the castles that litter the Scottish border and East Coast of Northumberland are relics of a Norman plot that drove northern communities inwards and stripped them of their autonomy.

Unbeknownst to William, this was not to be a temporary phenomenon: it condemned the North, and particularly the North-East, to a fated political subservience that has proven all-but-impossible to overcome.

The political consequences of the Battle of Hastings are still being felt today – even if historical impasses allowed for the temporary levelling out of regional inequalities. 

Almost 800 years after the Norman Conquest, a brief pattern of co-industriousness between North and South emerged during the time of the Industrial Revolution. Back then, the North fed the capital with its vast reserves of coal and enjoyed a prodigious, though short-lived, prosperity. But fast-forward to the 1980s and Thatcher’s brutal policies signify a return to normality: a vicious re-imposition of an entrenched North-South divide that politicians feel far more comfortable with. 

Stripping Northerners of their rights in the 11th and 12th centuries was a tragedy, but imposing inequality upon them in the 21st century has far more sinister consequences. Lower life expectancies, higher suicide rates, consistently high levels of unemployment, lower central investment on infrastructure projects and culture, less spending per person on education and transport, hardly any attention in the national media and next to no representation in political professions: these are all innumerable realities that pervade parts of Northern England without any justifiable cause other than careful neglect. 

It’s no surprise that the Confederation of British Industry estimates that the North-East region will be the hardest-hit under a ‘No-Deal Brexit’, or that government support rate to Northern councils is among the highest-cut in the country. This has simply become tradition.

Indefensibly, most governments view the North-South divide as a historically determined reality over which they have no control, obviating government obligation to reverse the decay and rendering it politically fatal to commit to doing so.  George Osborne gave it a feeble attempt with his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ solution, but this hasn’t materialised in any substantive sense. 

Democratic politics commonly consists of five-year cycles that leave little time to address regional disparity with any genuineness. Just like New Labour’s stint, which did so little to revivify the North during its time in power, Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to rejuvenate the High Street will equally fall flat without adequate funding proposals and attempts to create sincere power-sharing regional authorities. Simply preventing high-street bank closures is not enough. Theresa May’s assertion, meanwhile, that the North East will ‘not be left behind’ after Brexit is highly dubious.

Norman Tebbit – one of Thatcher’s closest aides during her time in government – expressed remorse at the way the Thatcher government treated Northern mining communities many years after the damage had been done. In 2009, he claimed that the enormous ‘devastation’ inflicted by closures ‘went too far’ – ‘with people out of work turning to drugs and no real man’s work because all the jobs had gone.’ There is no doubt, he admitted, ‘that this led to a breakdown in these communities with families breaking up and youths going out of control.’

Perhaps David Cameron and Theresa May will, in due course, express their own forms of nostalgic regret about the way their governments have slashed resources and investment for deprived Northern communities. But what good is this to those who have suffered at the hands of a recurrent insensitive elite?

An EU membership referendum and then supposedly ‘Delivering on Brexit’, will not, contrary to Cameron and May’s electoral logic, make the North feel adequately ‘listened to’ or represented by those in Westminster in the long run. It will not undo years of deliberate political devastation. We need a far deeper reassessment of the country’s fundamental regional power prejudices if we ever hope to emulate a civilised nation; starting with acknowledgement that regional disparity is anathema rather than an inevitable state of affairs.  If we fail on this account, it’s clear that the next millennia will unfurl in the exact same way as the last one. The North will remain doomed, and history will happily repeat itself.