I have been trying to get my head around the peculiarly fevered and intemperate tone that passes for political debate in much of the democratic world these days, and particularly in some of the countries I know best: the UK, the US and Spain. Not long ago, it would have seemed inconceivable for a British conservative journalist to accuse a Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer of treason, especially if the deemed treachery appeared to be reluctance to increase the government deficit for some ill-specified contingency fund. Obviously, this charge was levelled on Twitter. Similarly, Donald Trump has dragged American political discourse to a place where denying the sitting President's place of birth, as he did until this time last year, appears borderline sane. Everywhere you look people are not just disagreeing about politics, but accusing each other of stupidity, insanity, sabotage, sedition, disloyalty and elitism. Especially, but not only, on Twitter.
Nowhere is this more true than in Spain, where in short order the long-running dispute over the relative powers and fiscal arrangements between Catalonia and the Spanish central government has spiralled into police brutality, a unilateral declaration of independence (albeit apparently suspended) and a threat from Madrid to invoke an emergency clause of the constitution to suspend Catalonia's institutions of self-government. The merits of the case for or against Catalan independence are complex and can be left for another post. Here I want to focus instead on the way people are talking about the issue: with barely concealed frustration and incomprehension of the reasons of the other side.
The President of the Catalan government Puigdemont claims to have a mandate to declare independence on the basis of a vote declared illegal by the Spanish constitutional court, held with unclear procedures, alleged opportunities to vote multiple times, and most of the electorate not taking part. Polling suggests between 40-50% of Catalans favour independence, and around a third of Catalans vote for parties that are firmly against the very idea. Yet suggestions that unilateral secession might be politically and legally problematic are often dismissed with a wave of the hand and irate reminders of Catalonia's long history of subjugation to Spain, Woodrow Wilson's 14 points, and appeals to the 'dignity of nations'.
Mariano Rajoy, and unfortunately the King of Spain, seem to think that invoking a constitution drawn up four decades ago in the shadow of Basque insurgency and a twitchy military obsessed with the unity of Spain is the only possible framework for dealing with the country's fast evolving political moods. Since this framework does not allow a self-determination referendum to take place, the strong support for such a vote in Catalonia was dismissed as illegal. Worse, police were sent in to confiscate ballot boxes, and there were reports of hundreds of people injured, a small number seriously. The pictures made grim viewing. Yet, the King's crude and obtuse speech on the day after the vote offered no solace to around two million Catalans who are prepared to march, vote and defy the truncheons in pursuit of their dream. Instead, he accused the Catalan institutions of 'disloyalty'.
Not only has political debate become absurdly polarized, the politicians throwing abuse at each other almost seem to be colluding to make each other's task easier. Both sides of this debate appear more than ready to invoke the horrors of the Spanish Civil War to score a political point. Last week a conservative politician reminded Puigdemont of the fate of the last Catalan leader to invoke independence: Lluis Companys was tortured and killed in a Francoist prison 77 years ago. The Catalan Left party, of course, organized an event to commemorate Companys' murder, held today. Intellectuals do no better: some of the contributions from social scientists have shown scant interest in sober rigorous analysis (no links, for reasons I hope you understand).
Spain's transition to democracy in the 1970s was based around a determination on the part of the leading politicians of the time to avoid a return to conflict. Political scientists described the transition process as an example of 'consociationalism', a concept coined by Arend Lijphart to describe post-war democracy in the Netherlands. In a consociational democracy, political elites work to overcome social divisions by establishing stable patterns of power-sharing between different groups, absorbing political tension and downplaying differences between the groups to avert open conflict. Politics becomes a way of weakening social conflict and institutionalizing cooperation between people who may have little in common. A good recent example of such arrangements is Northern Ireland, which is facing its own pressures as Brexit threatens to unravel its consociational model.
But what we are seeing in Spain in 2017, and indeed across many of our democracies, is the opposite: what we may as well call 'dissociationalism'. Rather than working to absorb and channel conflictual impulses in society, politicians such as Rajoy and Puigdemont are mobilizing, exaggerating and magnifying conflict. Catalan nationalism, almost exclusively peaceful, has long paraded flags and other symbols of identity inside Catalonia. But the spiralling of the independence dispute has lead to a corresponding surge of nationalistic symbolism in the rest of Spain. The photo below was sent to me by a friend in Madrid. In thirty years I have never seen Spanish flags hanging from balconies in the capital.
Why is this happening? In part, real social divisions are present and they have been made more acute by the deep economic crisis afflicting Spain and most other democracies. In hard times, there is no money to smooth differences, and everyone feels put upon (Catalans, in particular, feel aggrieved by their fiscal surplus with Spain). But politicians are also deliberately mobilizing these divisions for electoral gain: for example, the former Catalan nationalist leader Artur Mas, on the eve of his shift to a pro-independence position, was offering his parties' votes to Rajoy's Partido Popular in the Spanish Congress in exchange for reciprocal support in the Catalan Parliament. His volte-face in September 2012, abandoning compromise with the Spanish right and opting for independence, was a political calculation which in turn had dramatic effects on wider support for independence in Catalonia, as we see below.
The weakness of incumbent elites - the mainstream Catalan nationalist coalition which has governed Catalonia for most of the period from the first autonomous elections in 1980 until now has haemorraged support over the past decade - is an important reason for the increasingly conflictual nature of their discourse. Consociationalism, to be successful, requires strong political parties, cultural associations, and trade unions to act as 'pillars' holding together social groups in such a way as to allow elites to make compromises on their behalf. Unfortunately political parties and other organizations in western democracies are increasingly fragile and distant from their constituents. Having to preside over economic decline weakens them further, and mobilizing resentment becomes first a temptation, and then a necessity as radical insurgent parties outbid them from the extremes. The Catalan nationalist leadership, like the Partido Popular in the rest of Spain, has become embroiled in a series of major corruption scandals over the past decade, creating a strong incentive to shift voter anger away from politicians and onto out-groups to shore up support.
Going for the politics of dissociation is a short-sighted strategy. Like Brexit or Trump's promises to Make America Great Again, Catalonia's pro-independence movement is unlikely to produce any miracles. Even should a majority of Catalans support it, and even if the rest of Spain agrees to a painless separation (and there is no indication that will happen), sorting out the logistics and international ramifications of such a shift would be difficult if not intractable, and undoubtedly painful. More than a dozen companies have hastily moved their corporate headquarters out of Catalonia in the past week. If things escalate, jobs and capital will follow the paperwork. At that point, politicians will have to either step back from the brink and lose face, or engage in a chicken game strategy in the hope their opponents will back down. And there is not much comfort to be had from the history books if that happens.
Sunday, October 15, 2017
Saturday, June 10, 2017
After the Brexit vote in June 2016 was followed by the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in November, an emerging theme amongst the commentariat was that the combination of economic stagnation, immigration and a wave of terrorist attacks was driving politics to the populist right in western democracies. This reading of contemporary politics has been so influential that it provided the intellectual underpinning for Theresa May’s ambitious strategy of calling an election to exploit the populist turn of ‘white working class’ voters. The fact that this gamble has clearly failed – May brought forward the election by three years yet turned a narrow majority into a hung parliament – is already being blamed on the Tory leader’s own personal limitations, her over-dependence on a narrow coterie of advisors, and specific mistakes made in the campaign. But in fact it is less surprising than it seems.
During the election campaign, some broadsheet newspapers published remarkable data showing that only Greece – Greece, the economic cautionary tale for the 21st century – has endured a worse performance in living standards since the 2008 financial crisis than the United Kingdom. The Conservative party has been in office for 7 of the 9 years since the crisis, and according to many influential economists, the austerity programme followed by these Tory governments carries a large share of the blame for this poor performance. Last year’s referendum on Brexit became an opportunity for some of Britain’s poorest citizens in its most depressed regions to express their fury at economic decline and the squeeze on incomes and public services. Theresa May’s smart footwork in abandoning her pro-Remain stance and presenting herself as the leader to achieve a full-blooded Brexit could not entirely conceal her role as a major figure in the Conservative and coalition governments over this period. May was a novelty in June 2016; by June 2017, she had become the incumbent, responsible for the NHS crisis, the social care crisis, the housing crisis, the wage freeze, and student debt.
The 2017 UK election, therefore, is beginning to look like yet another case of voters punishing incumbent governments for their failure to pull the economy out of the comatose state provoked by the financial crisis of almost a decade ago. If we look around the advanced western democracies, electoral ‘earthquakes’ are becoming a matter of routine, with governing parties suffering electoral meltdowns and the traditional parties facing challenges from a variety of anti-system parties on both left and right. This year so far, the Socialist parties in France and the Netherlands have been unceremoniously booted out of office and reduced to a rump, in the former case by an independent candidate who was not backed by any party. Last year, not only did Donald Trump, a man with no experience of political office at all, win the US presidency, but a grouchy independent Socialist whose ideological sympathies that made him a pariah in the US Senate almost took the Democratic nomination. This is not a good time to be a member of the political establishment.
Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, Labour leaders who were in office at the time of the 2008 financial crisis, are now long gone, and the Labour party is led by a figure who may be controversial and out of step with public opinion on a number of issues, but who is not the remotely tainted by association with the policies and choices that led to Britain matching Greece for economic distress. Theresa May, on the other hand, made timid hints at a shift towards a more ‘caring’, one nation Conservatism, but had no real story to tell about how this could be achieved. In the end her election campaign was a very crude attempt to cash in on her supposed authority as Prime Minister, and her tough stance on immigration. Yet many voters regarded Brexit as a done deal, and were clearly rather more interested in hearing about how she would improve the economy and public services, issues that she never actually addressed.
Jeremy Corbyn focused his campaign very strongly on a set of fairly standard left-leaning policy ideas relating to the economic and the welfare state. The cuts to the NHS and schools would cease, university tuition fees – the highest in Europe – would be abolished, Britain’s expensive and inefficient railways would be taken under state control. Whilst Theresa May repeated ad nauseum that she would provide ‘strong and stable leadership’, rarely mentioning precisely what policies she would implement, Corbyn hammered home a message that fiscal austerity was unnecessary and cruel, and that Labour would end it. The Tory debacle on social care, when May proposed a plan in mid-campaign to use the homes of dementia sufferers to pay for their care, inadvertently made Corbyn’s point for him. The hamfisted attempts to reverse the policy only served to undermine her central, perhaps sole, message: that she alone had the toughness and single-mindedness to steer Britain through the challenging times ahead.
Theresa May has therefore become, after less than a year in Number 10 Downing Street, the latest victim of popular wrath against political elites. The evidence is stacking up that citizens across the democratic world have had enough of an economic system that delivers spectacular financial rewards for a minority yet stagnant living standards for everyone else. Established political parties have lacked ideas on how to address this economic failure, and even the parties of the centre-left, whose voters have suffered the most from the crisis, have mostly had little to say about how to improve things. As a result, new political leaders who appear to offer some hope of change are emerging almost everywhere. The mainstream political elites are on notice: austerity and inequality make for angry and unpredictable voters.