Thursday 9 January 2020

Brexit, the EU and the Whig Interpretation of History

Lord Glasman, who announces in his by-line in Unherd that he is a Labour peer and the founder of Blue Labour, is a most interesting thinker. Like Patrick Cockburn, also a man of the left and almost the only good British journalist writing about the Middle East, he thinks the assassination of Qassem Soleimani may save the Iranian regime, which faced huge challenge from discontented Iraqi Shias and from Iranians.

We shall see. The truth is that no-one knows what the Iranian mullahs will decide or, more importantly, what millions of Iranians and Iraqis will decide.

This morning it looks as if Iran has settled for some fairly symbolic retaliation to American bases with nobody killed or injured. The fact that Iranian media is telling Iranians that many Americans have been killed suggests that this might be the end of the matter.

I have reread and am fascinated by the essay by his lordship produced on the British election result. He thinks that the EU is killing social democratic parties by imposing 'the rectitude of Hayek' via the Treaty of Lisbon and has now killed the Labour Party just as the UK is leaving. I cannot forbear to quote more from it.

It is a minor irony in all this that Andrew Murray and Seamus Milne, who prided themselves on their Marxist analysis with a central role for class ran a campaign based on ‘values’ and were trounced by the Conservatives who placed a relentless stress on the working class and transferring their loyalties. Labour Marxists turned out to be Whigs. What a lot of luggage for such a short journey.

The deep complicity between New Labour and the Corbyn Project was shown here. The progressive certainty that history was going in one direction, towards the free movement of people and things, that technology would dissolve place and borders in an undifferentiated swirl in which only the individual and Treaty law mattered.

That the future was based on globalisation was unquestioned between them, as was the idea that the nation state and democracy no longer really mattered. This Whig theory of history is as untrue now as it ever was. The working class, the Nation-State and democracy are key features of the new era. Far from being losers, the post-industrial working class has decided the two most significant votes of our time.
And the Left was the loser. The progressive illness has dissolved the ties that bind because it has no concept of society, of the social, of belonging and inheritance. Trapped in an endless now, it lost the future. The coalition of Peter Mandelson and John McDonnell that tied Labour to a second referendum is the key to understanding the catastrophic defeat because it finally ruptured the connection between the working class and Labour. It said, you didn’t know what you were doing. It said that democracy does not decide issues in our society. It said that it had no faith in our country to decide its future through democratic politics but that it had to be contracted out to an unaccountable system of directives and laws.
There are so many ironies here. One is that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell always wanted the UK to leave the EU in order to achieve socialism. 

In retrospect they should have accepted a left-wing adaptation of Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement. Thank God they did not.

Seamus Milne is no Whig in the sense of caring about freedom and much less, despite having gone to Winchester, in the sense of loving rule by the upper classes. However he and most of the left believe in rule by salons. If not by the sort of well-bred intellectuals one met at Holland House in the 1830s, who included European liberals like the Hungarian nationalist 'Stephen' Szechenyi, then by the people one meets at literary, media and academic London parties today. 

Lord Glasman, however, does not have Sydney Smith in mind when he calls Milne a Whig, but someone who sees history as continual progress. This is the philosophy of Tony Blair, who sees conservatism as always wrong, about votes for the working class, votes for women and so on. Up and up and up, on and on and on, as Ramsay Macdonald encapsulated it. 

The truth is that history is not like this, with the conservatives by definition behind and wrong, the progressives by definition in front and right. Liberals have often been behind and conservatives ahead, as with giving votes to women and the working class.

History is also full of progressive ideas that later were considered to be wrong. Eugenics is an example. Imperialism was progressive once, for very good reasons by the way. Keir Hardie, the first leader of the British Labour Party, considered himself a prohibitionist first and a socialist second. Both ideas were foolish.

The left had a strongly antisemitic strain before the First World War in Britain and Europe. Bolshevism was considered by many as progressive. Many more reasonable people were in favour of nationalising the commanding heights of industry. In the 1950s and 1960s state planning seemed to be the future. The EEC was a top-down, statist Napoleonic, civil law project when it began in 1957 and it will always be so until it dies. Nothing is as old-fashioned as a future that has failed.

Its only chance of survival is by becoming democratic, which requires the creation of a European demos. Such a demos is very hard thing to create, but it should be based the recognition that Europe is based on the heritage of Greece and Rome and is predominantly Christian. Because of these things its peoples have much in common. 

Immigration from outside Europe is the biggest of the many stumbling blocks to creating such a demos. But to stop this huge phenomenon someone has to provide a moral justification to do so. The obvious institution to do so, the Catholic Church, is doing the opposite, while engaged in normalising the sin of Sodom.


  1. I think if you look at Corbyn, he probably believes that Socialism is a major step closer now, as he expects the next government to fail spectacularly.

    Sometimes a temporary loss is a big win. Corbyn could not have taken Britain out of the EU, the Labour party would have turned against him. He wants Johnson to do it for him and prepare the ground for the Socialists to come back.

  2. I always thought there would be a stitch-up between the late Mrs T. May and Corbyn. They both wanted to pretend to leave the EU, without actually leaving it. But the biggest thing that saved us from that was surely the epic bungling of T. May, the nearest thing to a complete idiot we have ever seen in number 10, Downing Street. If she had had even one grain of charm or common sense in her, she might have pulled it off, thank goodness she didn’t.

    1. Thank God for the Spartans and for Boris. George Osborne, whom you don't rate, thought her deal was doomed as soon as Boris resigned. Would he have done so had David Davis not done so first? I tend to think probably not - if so, we owe it all to the generally useless Davis.

    2. Sure, Davis is also useless, but how many would we not say that about? Rees-Mogg is a clear thinker, and even he supported the T. May deal at one point. I doubt if there are ten backbones in parliament.

    3. Theresa May made Sir John Major look competent and Sir Anthony Eden a titan. Thank God for Boris!

  3. Could Europe ever achieve a European demos without a single shared language? Latin was that once but for a Feudal elite. English is the nearest it may have to a lingua franca and is perhaps not so much a preserve of the elite but is it seriously conceivable as the language of pan European demos?

    1. Yes, for all of Europe except France. L’ ennemi héréditaire.

  4. Good point, but speaking English will not mark out Europeans from non-Europeans.

  5. The word "Whig" once meant someone who believed in limited government and a government where the power of the monarch and their ministers was limited by the Parliament - specifically a Parliament where the landowners had great influence. Whigs believed themselves to be traditionalists - opposing people who were pushing an idea of an absolute monarchy against all tradition (whether their view of history was correct or not - this is what the Whigs sincerely believed).

    Somehow, by the end of the 18th century, the word "Whig" came SOMETIMES to be used to mean someone who believed that "the people" should control the government (a very different idea from seeing Parliament as an instrument to limit the power of the government over the liberty and property of the people) and, even more dramatically, that any-change-was-good.

    Edmund Burke found it necessary to call himself an OLD Whig to make a clear divide between himself and those people who even welcomed the French Revolution (a savage attack on private property and individual liberty - by a Revolutionary regime that believed that there should be no limits on its powers at all). By the 20th century even the radical socialist Bertrand Russell was calling himself a "Whig" - when his beliefs were just about the opposite of, say, Sir John Holt (Chief Justice from 1689 to 1710).

    The Old Whigs believed they were struggling to PREVENT changes that would threaten liberty and turn this island into an absolutist regime such as France or (worse) Spain. "Whigs" such as Bertrand Russell thought that such people as the "Sun King" (Louis XIV of France) had not nearly far enough - and there should be no private property in the means of production at all. They are opposites.

    1. I read like a madman in my summer before going up to university and read Namier but I am woefully ignorant about 18th century history. You are right, of course about the strains of Whiggery exemplified in Burke and Fox. The left are always attracted to progressive tyrants from Robespierre and Napoleon to Stalin and Ho Chi Minh.

      I always thought Lord Russell was a lifelong liberal,which I am coming to realise is even worse than being a socialist, but it wasn't before 1960. Wikipedia says that when he visited Russia 'and met Vladimir Lenin in 1920, he was unimpressed with the system in place. On his return he wrote a critical tract, The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism. He was "infinitely unhappy in this atmosphere—stifled by its utilitarianism, its indifference to love and beauty and the life of impulse." Although critical of its implementation in Soviet Russia, he still believed "that Communism is necessary to the world." He believed Lenin to be similar to a religious zealot, cold and possessing "no love of liberty."'

      I used to pass the 4th er every morning asleep on a red bench behind the throne in the House of Lords dressed like a tramp. He lived in a sordid caravan and only once addressed the House in a long rambling speech about free love and drug taking which was copied from Hansard and reprinted by a hippy publishing house. This was in the 1960s. It enjoyed a certain vogue.

    2. Erratum: the 4th Earl Russell, Bertrand's son. And he must have spoken in the 1970s as the philosopher lived until 1970.

  6. This tweet is interesting and might be prophetic.

    sean thomas knox
    Imagine you’re a big company in 2023. You need somewhere for a new European HQ and a European factory. You want English language. You want access to london finance. And law. But you also want market access to the EU. Before you’d have gone for Dublin or England. Now? Ulster

  7. 'On migration, to which Ed Miliband is giving much thought, Glasman has previously accused New Labour of lying about the extent of immigration. Now he goes further, arguing – in terms more radical than the Conservative front bench would dare use – that Britain should renegotiate the rules on European workers and freeze inward migration for EU and non-EU citizens, except where employers or universities make a case for a specific, skilled individual.

    "We've got to reinterrogate our relationship with the EU on the movement of labour. The EU has gone from being a sort of pig farm subsidised bloc... to the free movement of labour and capital. It's legalistic, it's administrative, and it's no good. So I think we've got to renegotiate with the EU.

    His call is to restrict immigration to necessary entrants such as highly skilled leaders, especially in vocational skills.'

    Article in the Daily Telegraph by Mary Riddell, 18 July, 2011.