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Not Going Gentle into That Good Night:
A Review of Two Books on Brexit, Part One

3,411 words

Part 1 of 2 (Part 2 here [2])

Audio version: To listen in a player, use the one above or click here [3]. To download the mp3, right-click here [3] and choose “save link as” or “save target as.” To subscribe to the CC podcast RSS feed, click here [4].

Tim Shipman
All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class [5]
Glasgow: William Collins, 2017

All Out War is a wholeheartedly entertaining read for anyone who enjoys political histories with lessons to be learned along the way. It provides a swashbuckling account of the events leading up to the British referendum on membership in the European Union held on June 23, 2016, now known by those who regard themselves as patriots as Independence Day, and the aftermath of a drama which has not yet ended. The author is one of Britain’s most successful journalists and gossip columnists who can now add the writing of a bestseller to his achievements.

Like all successful journalists, Tim Shipman is driven by sensationalism and the desire to reach the top ratings at breakneck speed, beating the clock for his deadlines while displaying his virtuoso skills through inside knowledge and cheeky tales from “behind the scenes” and “on the spot.” As a modern journalist, he is also adroit at connecting the dots of confusing statements, implications, and rumors in brief and pithy anecdotes. His view of politics seems to be that it is much like a stage play, even a melodrama – a public clash of egos, much more than a combat of ideas or ideals. Shipman obviously takes great pleasure in revealing what who said to whom and what played its role and when in the unfolding of dramatic events.

It helps that he is evidently an incorrigible gossip. His interest in intrigue and the twists of political plots does not flag over the course of 622 pages. Shipman’s stress on the importance of personalities in politics means that he is more inclined to believe in capricious twists of fate driving events than in any grand design or conspiracy. Early in the book, he quotes with approval Steve Duprey of the New Hampshire GOP, who told him, “In politics, before considering malevolence, assume incompetence.”

Shipman’s journalistic career extends over a wide political span, from the Deputy Political Editor of the Daily Mail to Political Editor of The Sunday Times. The American equivalent might be a career move from a top post working for Fox News to one working with The New York Times. That is no mean achievement, and Shipman seems to have made astonishingly few enemies getting to where he is, a testimony to an ability to socialize and network intensively whenever it serves his career without provoking antagonism. He could only have prospered in this kind of journalism by keeping promises and being seen to be honest, which lends strength to the plausibility of his account of events in this book. Politicians may fear him, but they do not bandy the word “liar” in association with his name. His flexibility and dispassionate approach to politics has also enabled him to write a book which is more like a military dispatch (note the title) than a serious political analysis, and this “war correspondent” held a press pass valid for both sides of the front.

All Out War is subtitled The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class, a subtitle which I consider a misnomer, on two counts. Firstly, Brexit had, at the time that the book was published and at the time of writing this review, not taken place. Many enemies of Brexit and some supporters have been speaking about the results of Brexit as though Britain has already left the European Union; so strong is the shock and impression of the referendum result that people are second-guessing what will happen years in advance and half-deceiving themselves that it has already happened. Secondly, it is because the campaign, its result, and the ongoing struggle to overturn it is an ongoing story, something which Shipman well realizes himself (did he try to stop his publishers from using this erroneous subtitle?). His book does not end on June 23. Maybe Shipman will write a sequel (The Return of the Empire, perhaps?). The confusion and drama which has taken place since Independence Day would warrant one.

All Out War is written in the style of a thriller – W. E. Johns’ Biggles, say, or Ian Fleming’s James Bond, or the bestsellers of Jack Higgins. Each chapter of All Out War ends on a cliffhanger, compelling the reader to read on; it is what the critics would say “unputdownable.” Here is a typical end of a chapter:

Coetzee responded in his broad South African accent. “Oh yeah. Shit” – the key word pronounced sheet. The eavesdropper was disturbed by the final exchange. That was the moment I thought, “We really are fucked.” (p. 375)

Shipman’s chapters are also put up in thriller mode: “The Coup,” “The Deal,” “Turning Points,” “The Waterloo Strategy.” What we have here is politics as soap opera, more Game of Thrones or Dallas than the sober study of a political upheaval.

This Twitter- and Facebook-influenced rollicking account of intrigue, betrayal, joy, and triumph, with its huge cast of dramatis personae is, after all, a reflection of politics in our time. Politics has become as capricious, personalized, short-sighted, “spin”-obsessed, pragmatic, and media-driven as Shipman makes it out to be. He is as much a product as an observer of our times. It is a considerable feat, the kind of feat which our times expect from its amoral hectic reporters, in Shipman’s case to rush out a 600-page book half a year after the events he describes took place while holding down a high-powered job at The Sunday Times, not forgetting that he is the writer of the New Statesman Diary, not to mention the time-consuming networking which his work demands of him.

Even allowing for the fact that most of the book is probably taken from his notes made at the time of the events it relates, it is an energetic tour de force. Shipman likes to tell his story as though he had heard from leading players first-hand or as a fly on the wall, which cannot always be true, but Shipman is so immersed in his blow-by-blow account that he can probably hardly distinguish between being there himself and hearing from someone who was. This opening paragraph from a chapter entitled “The IDS of March” is a good example of Shipman’s style:

No one had seen David Cameron angry in a long time. “You have behaved dishonourably,” he spat. Some claim the words “You shit!” also passed his lips. It was just before 9.00 am on Friday, 18th March and Iain Duncan Smith, the secretary of state for work and pensions, had just informed the prime minister that he was resigning from the cabinet. It was a month into the referendum campaign, and two days after George Osborne delivered a crucial budget that Cameron hoped would give the Remain side a boost. Yet now a former party leader was quitting in disgust at the same budget, with a parting shot that seemed to be designed to destroy the credibility of the chancellor. Cameron was furious and did not hold back, launching into an expletive-laden rant. (p. 202)

Is this anything more than a political history written in the style of a Jack Higgins? Does it hold a message for political wannabes or for anyone who aspires to alter the course of political events? I believe it does. Early in his account, Shipman brings in a well-known quotation from the 1950s – apocryphal, like Nietzsche’s beaten horse in Genoa or Goethe’s “More light!” but no less the powerful for that. When asked what is most dangerous for a politician, Harold Macmillan (the British Prime Minister from 1957 until 1963) is said to have responded, “Events, dear boy, events.” This is the lesson of the book and a lesson to be taken to heart by anyone involved in politics of any kind, the lesson namely being that the best calculations can be confounded by accidents, coincidences, improbabilities, and freaks of fortune, unfathomed depths of human ineptitude, and on occasion, courage and resilience. You cannot, by definition, predict the unpredictable, and the unpredictable can always happen.

Can David Cameron have been reasonably expected to know that EU leaders would be so stubborn and blind to their own interests as to refuse to even give him an alibi, pseudo-concessions which he could take home to Britain and which might have persuaded the undecided that he could safeguard British interests within the Union? Shipman reports that one female Conservative MP burst into tears in public when the PM announced the obviously worthless minimal concessions he had obtained after negotiating with Brussels in the run-up to the referendum, because she had been torn between her misgivings about the EU and her loyalty to her party leader. She realized to her dismay that Cameron could not provide her with the concessions she desperately needed to hear. Now she had no choice but to campaign against him, hence the tears.

Shipman’s book is full of such psychologically-laden instances and insights. They provide a warning to those engaged in politics: do not neglect the human factor with its conflicting loyalties, hidden weaknesses, subjective inclinations, and aversions. Could Cameron have been expected to foresee the abrupt late decision by the charismatic former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to throw in his lot with the Leave cause? Shipman of course has genned up on the personal element, as though he were present as the proverbial fly on the wall:

That same month, Ben Wallace visited Johnson in Thame for lunch. They cooked a couple of steaks and drank a memorable bottle of 1970 claret. Johnson chose the moment to take his pro-EU campaign manager into his confidence. “I must warn you,” he said, “that I could always recommend that we leave Europe.” (p. 171)

How could the Leave campaign have reckoned with the murder of a prominent Remain campaigner hours after the Leave.EU group’s controversial anti-immigration posters appeared on billboards?

The message is: never be so confident as to be complacent, or so pessimistic as to be defeatist. For good or ill, do not be too sure. Events, dear boy, events.

A second lesson to be learnt from Shipman’s book is that there is more natural justice in political developments and outcomes than many (especially, of course, those on the losing side) may allow for. Individuals, and not just key players, affect events. The index of All Out War provides column after column of the names of the people featured in his Brexit thriller. I have never heard of most of them. I doubt whether many of Shipman’s readers have heard of most of them; but they all had their contribution to make to the events that unfolded.

Shipman hints strongly that he believes that David Cameron was punished by his overconfidence. The Prime Minister had successfully fought two referenda and was confident that he could win a third. But history does not repeat itself the same way, and the Scottish independence referendum was nothing like the EU referendum. Interestingly, Shipman also states that among Cameron’s miscalculations was a personal shortcoming: a deficit of imagination. He could not imagine that MPs in his party would put personal conviction above personal loyalty to him. But in many cases, they did, and this ponderable psychological insight of Shipman’s is a refreshing counter to the oft-cited cynical maxim that politicians always put career and personal loyalty before conviction.

Cameron had reason to feel pleased with himself at the beginning of 2016. The 2015 election had confounded the polls’ expectations and returned a Conservative government with an absolute majority, so that Cameron was no longer obliged to share power with the rival Liberal Democrats in a coalition government. The loud anti-EU party, UKIP, was stalling and was even reported to be losing members. Its leader, Nigel Farage, had failed, thanks in large part to a ruthless no-holds-barred campaign against him by the Conservatives (there were even rumors of voting fraud) to win a seat in Parliament. The more radically nationalist and racialist British National Party had folded into insignificance. The Scottish Nationalists had egg on their face after losing the Scottish independence referendum, prompting their charismatic leader, Alex Salmond, to resign. The Labour Opposition was riven with a bitter wrangle between moderates and paleo-socialists over the leadership of the party. It must have seemed an opportune moment for Cameron, Shipman muses, to fulfill the party manifesto’s pledge, the one which had promised a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU not later than the end of 2017.

Cameron, reports Shipman, aware of the delicious irony, did not want “Europe to define his premiership” (!). There was a strong warning voice. George Osborne, Cameron’s friend, ally, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, had been opposed to the referendum pledge from the start and did not share his leader’s assurance of victory, and argued that the party should not honor its pledge, but there was no damping Cameron’s confidence, and perhaps – who knows? – a sense of obligation, too. I am reminded of another fateful moment in history: Robert E. Lee (had he made a pledge to President Jefferson Davis to knock out the Army of the Potomac by December?) deciding on a frontal assault at Gettysburg, and Longstreet’s fearful warning: “Sir, I do not think we can take that hill.”

One notable aspect of a campaign not short of incident and not lacking in the outlandish was the fact that not only two major groups campaigned in the In/Out referendum, but four. There was the Conservative-dominated and well-financed “Britain Stronger in Europe,” and there was the Labour Party’s “Labour in for Britain.” In a mainly unbiased account, Shipman lets his pro-Remain sympathies show here, not quite concealing the resentment that many Remainers feel to this day concerning Labour’s insistence on running its own pro-EU group and its refusal to share a pro-EU platform with Conservatives, subsequently neither properly supporting nor funding its own organization. All this went along with the lukewarm, even ambiguous, support for a Remain vote from the new socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, which fatally played into the hands of the Leave campaign. Corbyn’s lack of energetic commitment to the Remain cause caused great resentment among Remainers.

There were also two groups on the Leave side: Vote Leave, which was supported and led by well-known establishment politicians such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, and Leave.EU, which was financed by the millionaire euroskeptic, Arron Banks [6]. The two groups were involved during much of the campaigning in their own civil war and heartily despised one another. The question posed by this double division is, how destructive is division on the same side in politics? Looking at the Remain campaign, it is easy to argue that it divides strength, creates an impression of disunity, and wastes resources, yet viewed from the Leave perspective, it may be seen as a source of strength. Contrary to what some people believe, division and splits are not necessarily damaging. They may even be a source of strength, and there is a good case for arguing that the split in the Leave camp actually helped to increase the Leave vote.

What Shipman’s book makes very clear is the considerable influence exerted by the impression made by personalities, by dramatic performance, and showmanship on both the public and on wheeler-dealers behind the scenes. The perceived image of personality, irrespective of policy, played an important role in the referendum. The Vote Leave group may have had trouble currying favor with parliamentarians and businessmen if it had included “rowdies” like Farage, or extremists like Galloway, or Labour “outers” in its ranks. It did not have to do so, because such people migrated to Leave.EU. Similarly, the appearance of Conservatives like Johnson or Grove campaigning for Leave in the Labour heartlands, arguing the case for a free-trading, profitable UK outside the EU, far from being helpful to the Leave cause, might even have been counter-productive to it. As it was, both major Leave groups were able to focus on their core subjects, free trade and immigration, and target groups linked to those subjects, and left it to the other group to field discussion on “their” subject.

The ruthless professionalism of both sides is a tribute to the energy of those involved. This, too, carries a lesson. If we care about something, we are enjoined to fight for it. Life is eternal struggle, said Nietzsche, the distinguishing characteristic of the life force itself being struggle. Struggle is not a manly addition to life or evidence of a full life, it is what defines life, it is the soul of life. An abandonment of all struggle is quite literally death. So there is more justice in victory and defeat than we sometimes allow for. Neither side in the course of the referendum campaigns as described by Shipman had very much time for bemoaning their lot. The referendum galvanized them to a struggle which gave them hardly time to draw breath.

Shipman’s account is full of interesting observations which can be applied to other fields of conflict. Here, for example, is a comment on Dominic Cummings, the organizational brain behind Vote Leave. Farage had opined that Cummings did not understand the importance of the immigration issue, but Shipman dissents:

. . . these [Cummings’] writings show that he did understand the issue, particularly its linkage with the strain on the NHS. But in 2015 his priority was to get a fair hearing from the media, and that involved downplaying immigration.

That remark would not go down well with non-compromisers on immigration, but uncompromising nationalists were hardly heard during the referendum campaign, and Dominic Cummings was. This inconspicuous character is thus described by Shipman:

Few people would have given the scruffily dressed man on the bicycle a second glance as he pedalled between offices and coffee shops during May 2015. Dominic Cummings never wore a tie, preferred Converse trainers to work shoes, and with his high forehead and wire rimmed spectacles had the air of a middle-ranking civil servant on an awayday – if your idea of a civil servant is of a hedge dragged through a man backward. (p. 36)

Someone who, according to this account, was not much loved, this prêt-à manger plotter, this coffee-quaffing nerd, opposite in character to the gregarious, deep-drinking, party-loving Farage, turned Vote Leave into a relentless, efficient number-crunching machine dedicated to just one target: winning the referendum. Quitting the EU had been a consistent priority of every nationalist or racial nationalist party in Britain from the moment the country joined the Common Market, but it was not they who drew up the agenda, it was not they who forced either EU referendum to take place, and in fact no radical nationalist party played a significant role in either referendum (except that in the first referendum, the Remainers themselves cited Sinn Féin and National Front statements in favor of leaving as an argument for “nice” people to vote to stay in!). Cummings and Farage, profoundly different characters though they were, and involved in very different approaches to winning the referendum, had one quality in common: they never allowed idealism or purity of belief to distract them from their hard-headed determination to win what they, as well as Shipman, regarded as a war.

The sub-plot to this referendum was the demand that only a British government could decide for itself who has the right to live in Britain. This has far-reaching implications, of course, and explains why internationalists are determined, and at this moment working, to overturn the referendum result. The great British public is obviously unaware of the sub-plot. The extent to which the actors in the campaigns, and for that matter Shipman himself, were similarly unaware, is open to question. But of Joe Public’s indifference to the broader implications there is little room for doubt. In the general election which was held at the beginning of 2017, the UKIP vote tanked. This could not be interpreted as remorse by the voting public, for the two major parties entirely committed to the EU, namely the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Democrats, fared very badly, too, and leading Remainers Nick Clegg and Alex Salmond were not returned to Parliament. The message here from Joe Public seems to run something like this: “You’ve heard our opinion about more open borders and love thy neighbor, we don’t like it. That’s enough Brexiting from the lot of you. Now let’s get back to normal politics.” Joe Public does not worry about the long-term issues. “Keep it sweet and simple, mate. Demographics, independence, democracy? Sorry, I haven’t got all day.”