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The NS Interview: Robert Harris

“Like Rome, governments need that five-year sacrifice and sweeping away”

Were you ever tempted by a career in politics?

When I was in my teens, I was very interested in politics - the mid-1970s were an exciting time in that respect. Back then, I was thinking of becoming a Labour politician. (And of course my time would have coincided exactly with New Labour, so I have some sort of feeling about the whole experiment, in a way.) But then I went to university and became aware that one was either one thing or another. One was either a writer, with all the things that went with that, or one was prepared to make the compromises - not only in terms of lifestyle but also in terms of what you could say - and be a politician.

In the end, I am unhesitatingly a writer. I would not want to be a politician.

Yet it is clear from your novels that you regard the profession of politics as an essentially noble one.

It may not be the case today, but certainly up until the past 30 or 40 years, anyone with any talent often tended to gravitate towards politics. Although to survive and prosper in politics you have to make compromises and do deals that, sooner or later, will catch up with you, nevertheless there is something noble about it.

Do you agree with Enoch Powell's line about all political careers ending in failure?

I think that's indisputably true, because there is a false assumption built into the whole rhetoric of politics, which is to think that somehow things could ever be solved. Every politician and political party connives in this falsehood. The National Health Service is not a problem that can ever be solved, because people are always going to get sick and die. I have sympathy with the view of François Mitterrand that politics is not a crusade, it is a profession.

That is what attracts me about Cicero: he was a practitioner of the humane art of governance. There were few politicians more skilled, yet he was crushed by the forces around him.

One career that hasn't ended yet is that of your old friend Peter Mandelson. What do you make of his return to government?

It has been an absolutely remarkable resurgence. Peter is a professional - a supreme professional. He can run things and see things quickly in
politics, and so he has been brought back - clearly because he is very good at what he does.I don't think that he has burnt out as a poli­tician, and that is very unusual. I think that's partly because he doesn't have a wife and family, so he's perennially fresh.

Your new novel, Lustrum, is set in ancient Rome, as was Imperium. What is it about the period that interests you?

I think there is a wonderful parallel with our own world. I'm trying in these two novels to show some of the universal rules and laws, the dramas and excitements, treacheries and intrigues of politics, in order to suggest that nothing has really changed. The Roman Republic was an incredibly sophisticated operation in terms of its political structure. Indeed, if you were to overlook the slight flaw that you had to own property and not be a woman, you could argue that the Roman Republic had a much more effective democracy than we do ourselves.

The elections were annual. Judges were elected. Whereas we currently live in a country in which we have an unelected head of state, an unelected revising chamber, an unelected prime minister and a whipped House of Commons - which means that the ordinary backbencher has no opportunity to influence the course of events.

It sometimes feels like one doesn't really live in a functioning democracy, which is why I find ancient Rome rather appealing.

You take the title of the novel from a ritual purification that occurred in Rome every five years. Do we need something similar?

I think so. In Rome, it was seen that this ritual purging, with the census coming in and clearing out the senate every five years, was needed. And yes, we're definitely about to have one.

Although I'm no Conservative, I do think in a way a change of government is to be welcomed, because this lot do seem to have run out of ideas. We need that sort of five-year sacrifice and sweeping away to see whether we can find something new, some fresh way forward. I feel we have now run into a dead end, and I think that there is generally a strong feeling of that
in the country.

Is there a plan?

None whatsoever. I've just gone on from day to day and have done what seemed interesting to me at the time. I remember when I was about eight or nine years old having a very powerful conviction that I would be a writer, and I don't think that's ever varied. But no plan.

Are we doomed?

Obviously, in one sense we are; but on the whole I am an optimist.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire
“Lustrum" is published by Hutchinson (£18.99)

Defining Moments

1957 Born in Nottingham
1975-78 Studies English at Cambridge
1978 Joins the BBC as a TV correspondent
1982 Co-authors A Higher Form of Killing, the first of several works of non-fiction
1987 Becomes Observer political editor
1992 Fatherland, the first of several novels
2001 Enigma is adapted for the cinema, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard
2003 Wins Columnist of the Year at the British Press Awards
2007 The Ghost, a novel allegedly based on Tony Blair, is published

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.

 

 

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The tories/the people