Two hundred miles from Hartlepool

I’m going to interrupt my present blog cycle about my book A Small Farm Future for one post to comment on recent political events in Britain. Where this post ends up in fact is pretty relevant to some of the larger arguments of my book.

The events I’m referring to are last Thursday’s elections in which, among other things, many people across the country voted for their local councils, electors in Wales and Scotland voted for their national assemblies and – most prominent in the news – a byelection in the ‘postindustrial’ northeast English town of Hartlepool that had previously only ever elected a Labour MP opted for the Conservative candidate by a large margin.

That candidate, Jill Mortimer, has been described in the press as ‘a farmer’, but I haven’t seen any descriptions of her farm nor any discussion of agricultural issues around the election. As I’ll relate below, the issues thrown up by this election do seem destined ultimately to devolve towards farming, but only by a roundabout route which I shall attempt to unpick here.

Mortimer’s main electoral pitch seemed to be about creating more local jobs by ‘cutting red tape’. It surprises me that anybody would still buy the line that the lack of jobs in Hartlepool arises from an excess of ‘red tape’, especially when that line is spun by someone from a party that has increased red tape and reduced jobs by exiting the European Union. But Brexit has always been more about political symbology than rational calculation. It’s the Excalibur of contemporary British politics – the true leader in these times of trouble shall be known by the fact they can extract a well-honed Brexit from the recalcitrant stone of Brussels.

Hartlepool was held by Labour in the 2019 election under present Labour leader Keir Starmer’s more left-wing predecessor, the much vilified Jeremy Corbyn – though perhaps only because back then the non-Labour vote was split between the Brexit Party and the Tories, who on Thursday vacuumed up the votes from the now defunct Brexit Party. Since Starmer took over, he’s ruthlessly purged the left-wing elements of the Labour Party (including Corbyn) and gone on a quest for the Holy Grail of electability by trying to recover votes from historically Labour-voting but often socially conservative postindustrial working-class constituencies in the north like Hartlepool, talking tough on immigration, going large on Union Jacks and patriotism and avoiding saying anything at all left-wing that might get him into trouble. It seems to me the byelection result is a straw in the wind for how that will turn out. Over the last few years, the Conservative Party has transformed itself into a right-wing populist coalition of the classic kind, and Starmer’s search for electability through winning back working-class votes via ‘pragmatic’ social democracy seems to me to be destined for failure and many more years out of office for as long as he continues trying to out right-wing populist the right-wing populists.

Eventually, I suspect the contradictions of right-wing populism will undermine it, the Excalibur of Brexit will lose its lustre, and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s obvious preference for the billionaires of London over the ‘red wall’ electors of the north will count against him. But by then the last remnants of the centre ground in English politics will probably be gone, perhaps replaced on the one hand by an even more red-toothed and nativist English nationalism, and on the other by whatever political grouping can speak for a more radical and less belligerent alternative. On present performance, that grouping is unlikely to be the Labour Party.

The loss of the centre is so disorienting that old-guard social democrats like Will Hutton are trying to explain the Conservative Party’s success in terms of a new grassroots Keynesian centrism that the left can emulate. Well … I don’t mean to deny the impact that resourceful local politicians can have on creating new jobs and a bit of local buzz, but to enthuse about regional airports, free ports and public-private finance initiatives is to miss the larger structural reasons why Johnson’s billionaires are destined to remain in London, not to mention the large social-ecological reasons why the entire economy is running on empty.

Indeed, for all the chatter at the moment about Hartlepool, I’d suggest that much the most important political event in Britain – in fact, the world – this year will be occurring 200 miles to the northwest, with the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. If the outcome of this meeting is a binding international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by around 2050, starting right now, then maybe I’ll breathe easy again enough to think it’s worth debating how to create jobs in Hartlepool – though it’s hard to see airports or free ports fitting into such a scenario.

But if, as I fear, no such agreement is forthcoming, then the time is upon us to stop caring about which politicians can best mobilize non-local capital to create new jobs, and to focus on local survival instead. In various talks I’ve given after the publication of my book, I’ve been struck by how out on a limb I seem to be with this view that the climate path we’re currently on will spell the end of the political and economic world we now know – not necessarily because of its direct environmental effects, but because of the knock-on human implications. So I felt a certain grim vindication, hardly satisfaction, when I recently read Anatol Lieven’s book Climate Change and the Nation State, which made much the same point.

It interests me that Lieven, a conservative nationalist with considerably more mainstream gravitas than me, has come to many of the same conclusions that I did in my own book about the shape of future politics – in particular, on the need for what he calls civic nationalism (and I call civic republicanism) where people can find ways to meet the challenges of the climate emergency collectively in their communities. On many points, I fundamentally disagree with him, but in the face of that larger agreement I see little virtue in dwelling on them. The main problem as I see it is that Lieven’s own vision succumbs to the same problem he detects with more leftist versions. Lieven is scornful of greens and leftists who invoke a “nice, ideologically positive apocalypse” of open borders, multiculturalism, intersectionality and so on, which he sees as “ideological luxuries”. But exactly the same could be said of his own view of a nice, civic nationalist apocalypse in which all the contradictions and nasty bits of nationalism have somehow been excised.

The difficulty that both of us – in fact, all of humanity – faces, is that there’s no very obvious politics that can take us from where we currently are in the world (which isn’t that great for multitudes of people) to congenial forms of human society in a world of climate breakdown. To my mind, that doesn’t mean we should give up trying to find it, but I think a certain honesty about how the odds are stacked and a scepticism towards easy optimism and solutionism is called for.

Unfortunately, that easy optimism and the soft pedalling of climate change remains a common tic of contemporary politics. In a review of ecological economist Tim Jackson’s new book, Oliver Eagleton wrote that “environmental theorists” including Leigh Phillips (sic) have raised “serious questions about the practicability of degrowth models … can degrowthers prove the ecological benefits of their agenda justify the risk of plunging millions into poverty?”

The ecological, economic and political illiteracy of Eagleton’s comments is staggering, but this kind of thinking remains standard fare in mainstream political discussion – a world that’s still all about jobs, listening to voters, attracting investors, cutting red tape, growing the economy, investing in the future, positive visioning. A world of getting Brexit done, making America great again, green transitions and finding the Holy Grail.

I think we need to dispense with these emotional props and face the challenges of the future with more honesty. But I’m fearful of what might happen if and when we do, which is perhaps faintly visible in outline in Hartlepool and many of the other election results. On the one side, for all their differences, people like Anatol Lieven, Jeremy Corbyn or Keir Starmer trying to articulate some kind of rational collective politics, and on the other, a nativist politics of friends and enemies where might makes right.

The sliver of hope that I tried to promote in my book is that in the world to come it will probably be more obvious than it is right now that livelihoods must be wrested locally from rural land, and in countries like Britain there are very few people currently who are doing that – which is a problem, perhaps, but also a blessing, because it will be easier to create new peasantries of disparate origins in such circumstances.

So instead of a farmer gaining political advantage by promising to cut red tape and create more jobs, instead of trying to reinvent the industrial past of England’s northeast and reinvent the voter base of the political party that once represented the people who worked in those industries, I think we’d all be better off if we focused on creating more actual jobs in local farming. After COP26, it’ll be easier to say whether those jobs are more likely to arise by design or default.

13 thoughts on “Two hundred miles from Hartlepool

  1. By default expect, but I still have a bit of hope that your proposed arrangement might happen. I used to chuckle when some public figure questioned the rationale for degrowth, and warned of the consequences, but now it’s just boring and annoying.

    Politics in U.S.A. are equally volatile and the center is not holding here either. Current labels and past tribal demarcations are not adequate. Fractures are deepening.

    I’m just finishing an interesting book that gives an alternate, but similar way to civic republicanism that reruralized society might govern itself. “From the Soil” is a translation of the Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong. Written in 1948, it describes a rural China that is quickly fading these days, but has some analysis of how a long term agricultural society behaves. The central concept is that instead of the nation state governing with laws, society basically governs itself through respect for tradition and local peer pressure.

    Obviously, a bit more complicated than that, but my main takeaway is that in 1940’s China, they were still very much an agriculture based society that had a way of organizing that had long gone in western countries because we were building extractive empires. The enlightenment and several industrial revolutions ( which one are we on now, four, five?) has enabled a goodly portion of people to make a living away from the soil, and any indigenous land based patterns have faded. Nation states have enforced “good behavior”.

    So there are more ways of generating a stable, less dystopian governance than I had imagined, but still seems like it would take a long time to reestablish that type of culture.

  2. IMHO
    This is just an outlier to the future , people voted for a better life more decent jobs and pay , problem is it ain’t there and never will be , energy shortages are just beginning and with out ample cheap energy cities do not work , “green energy” can not replace carbon based energy , numbers from the USA state that to replace today’s base load carbon generated electricity the USA would have to find 350 000 square miles of land for the windmills plus another 50,000 square miles for transmission lines / and enough cable to go round the world 11 times , that can’t be done , as the population are forced into using less and less energy the political knock on will become more heated and polarized , nationalism will appear at far greater level when people struggling with daily life are asked to share with others / foreigners in general . If say Russia decides to look after its own population long into the future and stop the sale of gas to Europe there would be instant chaos . People are voting for the best outcome for their own personal lives that’s what humans do , that’s why for thousands of years there has been tribes , city states and countries .
    The labour party is comiting suicide by ignoring the needs of their base voters , they have become Champaign socialists , Starmer fired the only working class member of his cabinet replaced by another middle class Oxbridge crony . The unions have done the same so there is a yawning chasm between them and what was their political base, THAT has made room for far more strident and dangerous leaders . no party is a saying that the status quo is over, the planet is ! No one is saying that we must live with a lower standard of living instead they talk of the green new deal replacing the old at the same or better standard of living , that ain’t going to happen .
    Turbulent times ahead !

  3. Fascinating review of your island’s political landscape. UK’s political outlines even manage to turn over the meaning of ‘Red’ vs. ‘Blue’ (compared to a US-centered view of the political world).

    Like you, I’m not building much hope for COP26 – though I still imagine it a very important exercise (even a little hope is better than none).

    For the present comment though I’d like to focus on something you said about Boris and his London billionaire constituency… and this bears on billionaire constituencies in other locations as well (perhaps Ruben and I agree on something). Local wealth is more important (or at least it should be) than distant wealth.

    If finance capital has to move long distance to find opportunity, it should suffer some penalty for the trespass. Tax perhaps… but I’m thinking there might be other ways to enforce the matter. The definition of ‘long distance’ will obviously matter in the final analysis – London being much closer to Bath than NY City is to Omaha for instance. And I’m not convinced this thinking stands up in the face of multi-trillions of dollars (or euros, or pounds Sterling)… but if local wealth is really grounded in local resource capital (soils, water, weather); local human capital (knowledge, ambition, community resolve); THEN distant finance capital will have fewer homes to take hold of, to extract from. Then distant holders of enormous finance capital might discover a need to move to the hinterlands to have any hope of deploying their largess. And the welcome received by such dandies where the neo-peasant populations reside – might make for interesting developments. [cue theme song for Green Acres – ’60s sitcom]…

    You’ve written here more than once about the disconnect of mobile capital vs mobile populations. Perhaps this should be returned to and reexamined in the light of current events?

    Along the lines of Wendell Berry’s eyes to the acre, there are advantages of local finance vs distant finance. A local lender will obviously be concerned with rates of return, but a local lender will also be concerned with, and tuned into, local circumstances. One might compare the local notion to the finances of a family – if the local capital resources are limited, choices and tradeoffs must be based on what is available; not on dreams of what might be enjoined from some far off perch where knowledge of (or care for) local conditions is small or nonexistent.

    • I think “red for GOP” and “blue for Democrats” have only been in use in the US for a few decades. Red for the left in the rest of the West is much older. The UK isn’t turning anything over in this case!

      I’ve seen it proposed elsewhere that for a lot of history we have effectively had city states rather than nation states. I’m no historian, but I wonder if we will see a return to that. I do feel like some of the Tory (or, well, neoliberal) hollowing out of the welfare state in the UK has been done by disempowering local councils, both by reducing the portion of central funding that goes to them, and by measures like the Right to Buy for council houses — which came with a stipulation that the money from the sales of such properties could not be used to fund more council housing. This, predictably, to a boom in buy-to-let and an increase in the rentier class.

      And if we ever do escape London, one of the things we’ll be paying attention to in deciding where to go is “how much does this town/village/council do to encourage and support a local-based, low-carbon economy?” There will be other factors too, but at the moment, that local government/governance looms larger in my mind than which region to move to. (Perhaps it’s because I regularly cycle through areas with both more and less cycle infrastructure than my own local area, and the difference in traffic can be astounding.)

  4. Chris wrote, “livelihoods must be wrested locally from rural land,” and he pointed out the challenge of achieving “congenial forms of human society in a world of climate breakdown.”

    If non-local finance capital is discouraged, as Clem suggests, or absent (as in communities which don’t attract non-local investors), then it seems like social capital (relations, associations, networks) would have a much greater role.

    Social capital doesn’t seem as mobile as human capital (knowledge, skills, abilities), so I’m wondering about the challenge for all the rural newcomers to somehow build social capital in the neo-peasant communities. Learning new skills seems more straightforward than building one’s social capital.

  5. Thanks for the interesting comments, and apologies for my tardiness in responding.

    Steve C makes a nice point that there are many ways of generating stable & non-dystopian governance. It’s as well to remember this against the constant drone of modern civilisation’s love affair with itself and its conviction that life in the past was unrelentingly grim. Generally, I try to tread carefully in this area to avoid over-romanticization of past agrarian lifeways – not that it’s protected me from such accusations – but I’m inclined to start pushing this point a little harder in future, in the face of the endless romanticizations of the present and future. More on this in another post soon.

    Nevertheless, some of the ways of generating non-dystopian governance can look quite dystopian to modern eyes, as suggested by Joe and Ruben under my last post. More to chew on there.

    Regarding the other comments concerning changing politics and local/non-local capital, this bears strongly on my discussion of the supersedure state in Part IV of my book, so perhaps I’ll reserve fuller discussion until then. But I think these points about the forms of capital – fiscal, agrarian, human, social, local or non-local, abstract or grounded – are going to be absolutely crucial for how the future unfolds. I think Steve L is right that building social capital in challenging and mobile neo-peasant circumstances is a huge challenge. In my book, I try to make a virtue of this necessity by arguing that the fact most people will be in the same boat in many places might make it easier to build the pragmatic forms of social capital necessary in crisis situations. But of course it may not turn out that way.

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  7. There have been a lot of meetings, and none of them have done much to sort out climate change.

    What makes you hope COP26 will be different?

    (Water in here seems nice and warm. Ribbit, ribbit.)

    • What I hope and what I expect are two different things. The former springs eternal, whereas the latter … no, I’m not expecting COP26 to be different.

      But I think it will have personal significance for me. I’ve invested a lot of time and emotional energy in proposing publicly that the entire structure of the global political economy is fundamentally flawed and will not long endure. It’s a strong claim, and it’s surely understandable to entertain some doubts about it – particularly when it’s so outwith the normal bounds of political debate that I’m routinely dismissed as an idiot. COP26 has assumed a kind of watershed significance for me in that context – it’s the last stand of the ‘business as usual’ or ‘smooth transition’ view. If it goes as you and I both expect, then I’m going to embrace without shame a more full-on renunciation. I’m not yet sure what that will amount to in practice, but I’m hoping you all on here might help me define it 🙂

      • “What I hope and what I expect are two different things. The former springs eternal, whereas the latter … no, I’m not expecting COP26 to be different.”

        Fair enough, fair enough.

    • Greg – I’d suggest ‘many’ systems work the war they are designed… but if ‘all’ systems worked as designed, the realization of unintended consequences would be far rarer than what we have on record.

      To the satisfaction of the greedy – I agree with you wholeheartedly. And putting one and two together I’d further agree there are some systems which are sold as having one goal where in fact the ‘unintended consequence’ was actually intended by the system designer all along.

      Further along the timeline, where do the greedy come from? Is anyone greedy from birth? Are there genes for greedy? Evolution would be a poor gatekeeper to weed out greediness.

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