Douglas Carswell, who held the safe Tory seat of Clacton, has defected to UKIP. Photo: Getty.
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What Carswell's defection means for Labour and the Left

How confused has politics become when it takes an irritable right-winger to state a philosophy of the Left?

Friends of the political establishment should be disturbed by Douglas Carswell’s defection to UKIP this morning. It was a surprise to all; unaccompanied by the familiar rumours and cryptic-burblings in the media that normally precede major political "moments". The announcement was bold and resolute, made in considered and perspicuous language, and formulated to persuade rather than deceive. In short, it was the antithesis of the type of politics it was designed to subvert.

It is nothing new to say that Cameron’s brand of Toryism is vapid; without serious intellectual heritage or direction. Radically undermining the family unit through cruel and sadistic benefit and tax changes, whilst simultaneously increasing the public debt, Cameron’s administration has been a clumsy experiment in neoliberal political management, utterly devoid of ideological guidance, relying on specious sound-bites to spasmodically jitter from crisis-to-crisis. We all know this and Carswell critiques it more brilliantly than I ever could so I refer you to him.

What I am more concerned about are the consequences of Carswell’s arguments for the Labour Party, where my allegiances lie. I fear that in the long run Carswell’s announcement will reveal less about the internal struggles of the Tory Party than it does about the intellectual inadequacies and impoverishments of the Left.

In his announcement this morning Carswell took a decidedly un-conservative position. He rejected the assumption that consensuses are the product of collective reason and experience – they are simply constructions that serve a sectional interest.

Invoking Paine more than Burke, Carswell noted how his party sustains itself on this myth.  We might be told that certain constraints are non-negotiable, and certain assumptions must be held, but this is just a rhetorical guise to conceal their partial and transient character. On Carswell’s account the cross-party deference towards the financial services, or to the EU, says less about the philosophical or economic merits of such a position than it does about the insular world of modern British politics. Put simply, there is an alternative to the status quo.

A familiar trope of the Left, you might say. But then why has it been left to an irritable right-winger to state it?

How confused have our politics become when Labour are arguing that our relationship with Europe should roughly remain the same? That, while the EU may be a Hayekian fantasy of unaccountable bureaucracy and anti-inflationary consensus, we should stick with it for the sake of economic stability.

And that we should be grateful for the occasional token directive enforcing gender equality or upholding workers conditions – as if these social rights were the invention of a benevolent Belgian bureaucrat, rather than the product of a long and bloody struggle in this country which often meant rejecting our European neighbours for a genuinely internationalist outlook. If we had a referendum on the EU we would be seen as eccentric and esoteric, the argument runs, unable to deal with "modernity".

We should be big enough to take that criticism. Like Carswell I remain optimistic. Consent for the consensus, even the passive variety, is waning. As ever, Labour is one step behind the electorate; the glib New Labour promises of consistency and competence are insufficiently rousing to achieve major electoral success. It might just be that an irritable right-winger is exactly what we need to shake up the Left.

Matthew Ward is taking up an MPhil in Political Thought and Intellectual History at Clare College, Cambridge.

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear