The left’s conversion to common sense has come shamefully late

UK Politics: The electoral shocks of 2016 have forced those on the left to reorder priorities

Sceptics of globalisation feel queasy to be on the same side as Stephen Bannon, the Trump adviser who favours a “nation with a culture” over a market economy porous to foreign capital. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters

Sceptics of globalisation feel queasy to be on the same side as Stephen Bannon, the Trump adviser who favours a “nation with a culture” over a market economy porous to foreign capital. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters

 

If an investment bank threatened to move staff out of Britain in normal political times, the left would drive them to the airport, bundle them on to the plane and arrange a transfer at the other end. The enemies of rootless capital now cite such threats as prima facie evidence against Brexit. Even Goldman Sachs, the cartoon villain of high finance, can count on Labour MPs, and not just Blairite ones, to rue its relocation of workers to Frankfurt and Paris.

This sudden concern for the City of London is only strange until you remember what else the left has come to cherish of late, spurred by the realisation that populists do not. An unexhaustive list includes the European single market, free trade, Nato, America’s role as guarantor of world peace and, ever since US president Donald Trump questioned their work, intelligence agencies.

All of these things used to be taken for granted or held in suspicion by the broad, “soft” left, the people who – to define our terms – constitute received opinion in the arts, academia and newer intakes of the parliamentary Labour Party. The kind of people who wished that Tony Blair had run a less martial, business-friendly premiership but, for the most part, resist the unelectable pacifist-socialism of Jeremy Corbyn, his heir but two as Labour leader.

Last year turned out to be an intellectual audit of the left. It exposed what really matters to them

There is no shame in the positions they have come to in recent months, which amount to many people’s idea of the blandest common sense. The shame is what it took to get them there: nothing less than the electoral shocks of 2016, the sense of encircling menace to a liberal order they now realise is not just a rightwing stitch-up and the reasonable hunch that whatever is opposed by Trump and the wilder edges of the Eurosceptic movement deserves protection.

Last year turned out to be an intellectual audit of the left. It exposed what really matters to them and led to a reordering of their priorities, even if they seem only half-aware of the fact. People who hated bankers after the crash now recognise them as enthusiasts for open internationalism. Those who sided with Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers, for reasons that sometimes verged on counterculture, now appreciate the integrity and professionalism of the security state.

Generations of American taxpayers have looked at their wage slips in the knowledge that some share of the deductions fund the safety of other peoples.

Sceptics of globalisation feel queasy to be on the same side as Stephen Bannon, the Trump adviser who favours a “nation with a culture” over a market economy porous to foreign capital. The kind of person who might have decorated a London dinner party with some asinine jibe at the “world policeman” a few years ago now fears the eclipse of Pax Americana.

Edward Snowden speaking via video link during a news conference in New York City last week. The Washington Post said he should show himself “willing to go to jail for [his] beliefs”. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters
"Those who sided with Edward Snowden (above) and other whistleblowers, for reasons that sometimes verged on counterculture, now appreciate the integrity and professionalism of the security state." Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Tribal politics

It is the last of these conversions – deathbed conversions, perhaps, given the electoral predicament of the western left – that should have come much, much earlier.

Europe’s recovery was not inevitable after 1945. America had to design a rules-based order at Bretton Woods, pump-prime it with the Marshall Plan and secure it with military commitments. Generations of American taxpayers have looked at their wage slips in the knowledge that some share of the deductions fund the safety of other peoples.

“Enlightened self-interest” does no justice to their forbearance. For this, America’s reward from some (by no means all) European progressives has been low-level resentment and an impugning of motives. Criticism of real follies – Vietnam, Iraq – became a generalised sneer at the crassness and presumption of the new empire.

Now, faced with a nativist in the White House, so sure his nation has been on the sucker’s end of the postwar deal that he tables an actual paper invoice for services rendered by Nato to the German government, the left worries that America is in strategic retreat from the world.

We are social before we are political. We pick a team

If they have come around to the idea of a trading system underwritten by a flawed but well-intentioned hegemon, they have come around late. At least it teaches us a thing about politics. Most people do not work out their views through great deliberation and then join the corresponding tribe, they join a tribe and then go along with the corresponding views. We are social before we are political. We pick a team.

Last year confronted the left with populists who, while clearly the enemy, espoused opinions that were not light years away from their own. The same suspicion of markets and “globalism”, the same vision of an America that knows its place. Forced to choose between tribe and substance, they chose tribe. They evolved new views. They are now among the hardiest defenders of things they were arch or hostile towards until 2016. Perhaps it is rude to question how someone arrives in the right place as long as they arrive in the right place.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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