Fiat Justitia ruat caelum.
“I notice, talking to younger people, people who hit that Napoleonic moment of turning twenty since the crisis, that the idea of capitalism being thought of as morally superior elicits something between an eye roll and a hollow laugh. Their view of capitalism has been formed by austerity, increasing inequality, the impunity and imperviousness of finance and big technology companies, and the widespread spectacle of increasing corporate profits and a rocketing stock market combined with declining real pay and a huge growth in the new phenomenon of in-work poverty. That last is very important. For decades, the basic promise was that if you didn’t work the state would support you, but you would be poor. If you worked, you wouldn’t be. That’s no longer true: most people on benefits are in work too, it’s just that the work doesn’t pay enough to live on. That’s a fundamental breach of what used to be the social contract. So is the fact that the living standards of young people are likely not to be as high as they are for their parents. That idea stings just as much for parents as it does for their children.
“This sense of a system gone wrong has led to political crises all across the developed world. From a personal point of view, looking back over the last ten years, some of this I saw coming and some of it I didn’t. I predicted the anger and the decade of economic hard times, and in general I thought life was going to become tougher. I thought it might well lead to a further crisis. But I was wrong about the nature of the crisis. I thought it was likely to be financial rather than political, in the first instance: a second financial crisis which fed into politics. Instead what has happened is Brexit, Trump, and variously startling electoral results from Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere..
“Sociology would have been a better social science than economics for understanding the last ten years. Three dominos fell. The initial event was economic. The meaning of it was experienced in ways best interpreted by sociology. The consequences were acted out through politics. From a sociological point of view, the crisis exacerbated faultlines running through contemporary societies, faultlines of city and country, old and young, cosmopolitan and nationalist, insider and outsider. As a direct result we have seen a sharp rise in populism across the developed world and a marked collapse in support for established parties, in particular those of the centre-left.
“Electorates turned with special venom against parties offering what was in effect a milder version of the economic consensus: free-market capitalism with a softer edge. It’s as if the voters are saying to those parties: what actually are you for? It’s not a bad question and it’s one that everyone from the Labour Party to the SPD in Germany to the socialists in France to the Democrats in the US are all struggling to answer.”
– John Lanchester, After the Fall, London Review of Books, 5 July 2018.
Lanchester hits some of the right targets in this jeremiad from last summer, but – like everybody else these days – is guilty of being a little too laissez-faire with his language. What he refers to as capitalism since 2008 is what many of us have been calling, with perhaps greater precision, crony capitalism over the same period. True free market capitalism would have seen all of the bad banks go under and replaced by healthier competitors, notwithstanding the no doubt severe temporary damage to the economy such a hefty transfer of capital would have entailed. Fiat Justitia ruat caelum.
Similarly, many objective observers would struggle to reconcile his version of austerity with what the UK – and many other – western economies have experienced since the Global Financial Crisis: a swelling of national debt with relatively minor adjustments to an already burgeoning and unsustainable welfare bill. If Lanchester is right to side with the younger generation – and morally he probably is – it’s partly because his is the generation that scarfed down most of the pies.
Brexit has, of course, managed to fracture an entire country. Lanchester is also right that we’ve seen a marked collapse in support for established parties. Perversely, the “established parties” have responded to this state of affairs by going to, in Lanchester’s own words, “ridiculous, Basily Fawlty-ish lengths” to ensure that their support, already ailing, well and truly disintegrates at the next national elections. This clip from the 1970 Richard Harris biopic of Oliver Cromwell nicely and articulately conveys much of the anger felt by the politically disenfranchised in contemporary Britain. The language is both stirring and relevant enough to be quoted at some length:
It is six years since I handed over
to you this great responsibility…
…in the hope that you would make
good and wholesome laws…
…which the people of this nation
expected of you.
I must confess to some abatement
of my hopes…
…for what has happened
in my absence.
Instead of uniting the good people
of this nation…
…with righteousness and peace…
…which would have been a glorious
and Christian thing to have done…
…what do I find?
…division and dissatisfaction.
2I say that the enemies of this nation…
under your protection.
You were from the beginning
a provisional government…
…not truly representative
of the people.
For have the people elected you?
Has this House gone once
to the people it purports to represent?
No, it has not! And after six years
of misgovernment, what do we find?
Sir Thomas Fairfax moves a bill
to give this House a further lease…
…of its worthless
and dishonourable life!
Gentlemen, an immovable Parliament
is more obnoxious…
…than an immovable king!
You are drunkards, tricksters,
You are no more capable of conducting
the nation’s affairs…
…than you are of running a brothel!
You are scum, sir.
And not truly elected scum at that.
This is no Parliament.
I shall put an end to it.
I hereby declare this Parliament
<You are a traitor, sir.>
It is the likes of
you who have turned my hand to this.
I have sought the Lord’s guidance
night and day in this matter.
It is not idly done,
for this nation will be justly governed.
The litany of political betrayals that have befallen 17.4 million Leave voters are too manifold and familiar to be reiterated here. The one line that has stayed with us since June 2016 is a response from a South African commentator on Twitter shortly after the referendum, when he suggested that
Those who wish to overturn a democratic vote should be forced to go and live in a banana republic, where overturning popular vote choices is de rigueur.
This gets to the heart of our lingering concern about the course of events in 2019 Britain. It is widely acknowledged that among the essentials for a successful modern economy are democracy, established property rights and the rule of law. When legitimate plebiscites whose outcomes have been endorsed by both major political parties are essentially thwarted by a political class with a strange respect for their own manifestos, promises, public statements, referendum results, General Election results, constituents and party memberships, all bets are – economically as well as politically speaking – off. This political class presumably thinks that capital will stick around irrespective of where it will be best treated. That would be naïve. Capital will go where it can be best rewarded and best respected. If foreign markets are both more attractively priced and protected by functioning rather than arbitrary government, so much the better. This week’s commentary is dedicated to Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe, who displayed his unswerving commitment to genuine democracy in the face of a craven political establishment, in the following terms:
Events today are no longer about Europe or the European Union. By failing to accept a lawful democratic instruction, by constructing an exit deal which is a prison in which to await our defeated return to “The Project”, officialdom has made this a question of who governs and by what authority. It is now of little consequence whether you voted Leave or Remain, Conservative or Labour, Liberal Democrat or Green. Does your vote count?
The spite, pride, mendacity and pitiless commitment to trampling democracy with which we are governed today leads me to describe the situation without hesitation as wrong: deeply, profoundly,
intolerably wrong. The entire nation, and especially Members of Parliament, have a duty to defeat this constitutionally in the division lobbies and at the ballot box with an unyielding resolve, a restrained wrath and a ruthless commitment to the principles of a free and open society.
I hope everyone will stand with us so that from this descent, our country and our institutions can arise renewed, without fear of falling into the same fate for generations.
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