"They set the stage for the elevation of a populist leader"

Posted by economia 11/12/2019 0 Comment(s) Economia Blog,


interview by Harry Savides

(continuation of part one)

Professor Kevin Featherstone is Eleftherios Venizelos Professor in Contemporary Greek Studies and Professor in European Politics at the LSE. I met him in his office in the LSE, to discuss Brexit and the coming elections. He was concerned about the impact of Brexit and the prospect of Boris Johnson being strengthened by the coming elections, but still optimistic that after all “life will be more complicated” than we think.




Are there any direct comparisons between the Brexit referendum and Greek referendum of 2015?

I am not sure there is easy direct comparison, but I suppose one is the difficulty of the question. In 2015 you had this amazingly complicated question on the basis of a deal that the EU redundantly said no longer exists. So there is a sense of voting to a fictitious question. Similarly for us now. In the UK we have no precedence, no prior history of a referendum which is not just a binary choice, yes or no. We have no history like Switzerland of setting two questions or conditional questions. So that is why for the moment, for example Jeremy Corbin is suggesting that there might be a referendum between a specific deal and remain. So with referendums I think we are reluctant and also concerned about the difficulties of setting them clear – what is the meaning of the question.



Are there any other parallels between the UK-EU and the Greece-EU rows?

I think there are also many parallels with the Greek case in terms of the campaign. Athens and London have misjudged Berlin, believing it would become more flexible on the last minute – that they will back down.  Johnson used these words. He said something very-very similar to Alexis Tsipras, talking about backing down. That was definitely the establishment of the Brexiters in 2016: “Don’t believe what they are saying now. At the last minute they will back down”. Well they did not. Perhaps they both received dubious messages. Athens in 2015, London from 2016 have basically misunderstood the game. Feeling it is a game of chicken and you just have to wait until the 11:00 hour, plus, plus… and they will back down. So Athens and London separately believe that they were playing a certain game, which is fine. But that was not the game that Brussels, Berlin and Paris were playing at the same time.

Moreover, both Varoufakis and successive governments in London since 2016 have assumed that they will be able to create some kind of counter-coalition in the EU. So after 2016 the argument was that we will actually divide and rule, given that the British Empire was built on this. Again, both have found that the game is different, precisely because the EU is very rule based organization. It is not a question of individual political leadership interpretation. For one thing there is not one person for whom the gun being put to the head – it is 27 and then you add the institutions. It is very-very much a rule based organization. We must maintain the rules of the single market, in the British case or the Euro currency regime, in the Greek case: a highly path dependent system – legalistic. Michel Barnier clearly epitomizes that it is a wonderful Cartesian French logic of rules, rules, rules, with a clear mandate from the 27. And that conflicted with a cultural perspective in London, which was based on the idea that this would just be a pragmatic issue, that it would be the two of us across the table, looking an eye to eye and find some kind of compromise midway. It was not a Mexican standoff because the other side has 27 mandates to a single, so London is not negotiating with 27 plus the other institutions - it is a single mandate, emphasizing the integrity of the single market or previously of the euro, with Greece. We both had the misperception that we could create alternative coalitions and we utterly failed. The EU in both cases has remained remarkable united.


Does Brexit has any effect on British institutions?

The biggest long-term question is about the repercussions off all these on the British institutions. Since 2016 many of the established assumptions about British institutions have just been contradicted. We had the newspaper headlines about judges being the enemies of the people. McCarthy would have been very comfortable with that. Secondly, we had parliament being suspended, with a narrative that somehow parliament was not doing its job – in a way parliament was the enemy of the people, fighting the popular will. And a third aspect has been in terms of the government machine: the assumption about the high quality, well-coordinated, expert, pragmatic public administration of Whitehall. Well, we now have very senior people saying that, for the first time in living memory, there are major dilemmas of loyalty. If you are a senior civil servant in the British government then there is a kind of conflicting loyalties you are serving. We don’t actually have a notion of a public servant serving the national interest – they are there to serve the Prime Minister. And of course the suspension of parliament also brought the Queen into a more sensitive political territory.


All those controversies will not be forgotten, when the Brexit procedure will be over?

These things have occurred in such a significant fashion that I do not thing they will just disappear in a short term. Even if Johnson wins in the election and gets his Brexit deal, then there are those close to him, like Cummings, who argues that the British tradition about the public administration should be overturned and we should have more political appointments, like Athens and Washington.

I guess preBrexit we had a long term decline of the Westminster model and also of public trust in the institutions. So we have had a scandal about the press and problems of privacy with the press, we have had the scandals with corrupt financial payments to members of parliament, the royal family it has been through so many scandals it is impossible to remember. Now with the Brexit and judges being the enemy of the people and parliament against the people. There is a preBrexit story which is continuing to the present, of declining public trust. And of course part of that was also a lack of trust in experts. There was a wonderful phrase in the campaign that we have had enough from experts, so we don’t want to listen to experts any more. Many of the traditional assumptions have just been shaken to the foundation.

No let’s assume that in 2020 there is a Brexit deal, some kind of result. Many of these things will continue within the system for some years: experts not trusted, parliament, the judiciary, the queen as someone who may be manipulated for political reasons. These things are here to stay for at least the medium term. They are setting the stage for the elevation of a populist leader.


Could this blow on trust to institutions prove beneficial, forcing them to evolve? For example, could it be now stronger the case for a written constitution?

There are some people who think, precisely as you say, we must go to a written constitution but there's very little political support for that. For generations in the UK we've assumed that we have a checks and balances system based on informality and now we realize actually we don’t. We can’t easily facilitate a populist or radical Prime Minister. The checks and balances aren’t really very strong. I think it will take a very-very long time for the system to be restored or to change. In other words I think to the next decade we will be in a situation where our system institutions will remain very vulnerable to political manipulation, trust will be low. Even if Johnson was to be defeated the cause of the Boris remains.


How long will it take to tell whether Brexit was a good idea, at least on economic terms?

I think unfortunately with these things we have such passionate emotional positions but we don't have a simple causality. So both sides will be able to claim but even if we come out with Johnson hard Brexit and it leads to negative economic impact, unfortunately I am sure they have already planned, to make arguments to say that what went before undermined our strategy etc.

It is rather like the economic situation at the moment. The central predictions of the economic hits of Brexit made in 2016 in the referendum have been proved to be direct. OK there is a spread of projections, but if you take the average, and indeed the BoE projections, then our loss of output has been very consistent with the graph line predicted by the Bank in 2016. But it's also the case that our growth rate is not so different from that of Germany or France, the Eurozone is not doing so good, the bigger economies, and so we can't have the wonderful clean simple social science experiment. People on both sides of the argument can make the story more complicated and say “yes, but if this have happened we could have had the pure Brexit” and we could have had the typical salvation that Brexiters promise.

However, there's a huge irony that the UK is seeking Brexit so that it can trade freely with the rest of the world, when the rest of the world is shifting from multilateralism to regional blocks and trump-like protection etc. So it's a bit we are leaving 10 years previously, assuming that multilateralism is that force to benefit from.


Is Washington a motivating force for Brexit?

The strongest supporters of Brexit are as we would describe Atlantisists and some of those are pro-Trump, Farage, probably Johnson. Putting Trump aside, it will play well with British public opinion, to be seen to be closer to Washington than Paris or Berlin - that is still a historically correct. Trump, just as in Greece or other European countries, is seen as an idiot – a jester. So for example Trump made a comment to on the British election the other day – this is not helpful to Johnson.

But again Trump saying that you get a true Brexit we will give you a big-big trade deal, that's highly consistent with the Brexit argument and people like it. Some of those who vote for Trump, say yes if we had Trump we would have had a better Brexit deal. Perhaps the two governments are talking about this behind the scenes, but actually until the article 50 process is finished legally we're not allowed to talk to other countries.

Even from the US point of view, Trump can offer anything he likes, but it in Congress, who decides on trade deals, there is Nancy Pelosi. And if you are talking about tough negotiators I think Nancy Pelosi will be no.1 or in the top-3. So she has made it very clear that Congress Democrat controlled House of Representatives, would not been agree with any trade deal, as part of any package, which damaged the Irish Republican cause. And also let us see whether Trump will be reelected. Who believes that a new trade deal can be negotiated before Trump is history.

So I think to suggest it seems a motivating force is a bit difficult to be sure about. I think to say there is a strong overlap between those that are pro-Brexit and the general values of Atlantisism is correct. And those who are pro-Brexit would like the idea that Trump offered a big, open, deregulated trade deal. So there are many correlations, but to say that it was an original argument for Brexit I think it is more complicated than that.

Lastly, when Obama made a comment before the referendum, to say that Brexit would be a strategic mistake, domestic opinion was already so strong, that the Press was able to rubbish Obama. So the American factor, even when it was deployed in favor of remain, didn't work.


What is your prediction for the coming election?

What is defeat for Johnson In the coming election? Is that he finishes with something like Teresa May results, with no majority. Although in terms of long term electoral trends that would be a relatively stable sort of outcome, it will be interpreted as a major defeat for him. Even if the Conservatives come first with no relative majority or a majority of say five, Johnson will be in a very-very difficult position.

For Labor victory is precisely the Conservatives not having a majority and I think this can happen. I think we have one of the more unpredictable elections here for a number of reasons. One that’s part of the Conservative strategy rests on being able to win normally Labor areas that voted for Brexit and I think they are probably misjudging the tribal loyalty to the Labor Party and the toxic idea of a labor voter voting for the Conservatives and especially for Johnson. So I think they could be wrong with that. Secondly, Liberals will pick up some seats from strongly remain areas. So I think it is very unpredictable. We were just discussing at lunch I think the most likely outcome was within the range of no party having an overall majority and the Conservatives having a majority of say less than 20, which in our system is small – if you have 650 seats. And I think the other aspect of the unpredictability is that, not for the first time, we have an election where it is assumed it's going to be on one issue. Well it will not be. Life will be more complicated.

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