The government is at the mercy of centrifugal forces

Lewis Thomas 23 November 2018
Credit: Dylan Nolte

This is an article about three things. The Brexit Deal; the UK; and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As the more historically perceptive among you may have guessed, any article which involves comparing a state the Austro-Hungarian Empire is not going to end with a positive conclusion for that state.

There’s a historian called Richard Evans – former Regius Professor at Oxford. His analysis for the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire runs something like this: states (discrete political units) made up of multiple nations (discrete social and cultural units) are kept together by ‘centripetal forces’ – institutions and ideas to which people across the nations can profess loyalty. These states cease to be kept together when those centripetal forces are outweighed by ‘centrifugal forces’, which disrupt those unifying ideas and pull the nations apart.

In the case of Austria-Hungary, the centripetal forces included the army, the Church and – most importantly – the Emperor. The Empire defined itself by the acronym K.u.K – Kaiserlich und Königlich – ‘Imperial and Royal’. This served to create an identity which could overcome nationalisms, binding the Empire together through loyalty to a single institution. In turn, the centrifugal forces included local nationalisms and turmoil: Hungarian demands for further autonomy within the Empire; Bohemian rumblings for independence; Balkan banditry.

To look at the UK, we can trace similar centripetal institutions. The monarchy, for one, and a common parliament in Westminster. But we can also identify centrifugal ones – the obvious ones, like the campaigns for Scottish independence and Irish Unification, but also the subtler ones: the rhetoric of people like Boris Johnson; the coding of “British” as “English”. The sense, prevalent in quarters of the country, that the past eight years have consisted of a government throwing society onto the scrapheap for ideological reasons, and then seeking a scapegoat. Put simply, the idea that Britain has ceased to work for its inhabitants.

Britain sometimes appears as a pragmatic compromise – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England have their own identities and institutions, but they work together through a sense that it is better to remain within a union than leave, and that a bit of shared institutional loyalty will help. The idea of Britain is quite weak. As a result, Britain is held together by a sense of institutional competence and stability. If things are going well, then the ‘centripetal’ forces – institutional loyalties, national unity, etc. – are stronger. If they are not, then the ‘centrifugal’ forces – nationalisms, local discontents, and so on – increase.

The past few days have potentially done much to strengthen the centripetal forces. If the UK leaves the single market, but Northern Ireland remains under the backstop, then there will be a border in the Irish Sea (so the centrifugal force increases). Additionally, if Northern Ireland is granted a single market backstop, then it will lead to a decline in investment in Scotland, fueling the pro-independence cause. If the UK leaves with no backstop and a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, then the resulting instability in Northern Ireland will, again, increase the centrifugal forces. And this is to say nothing of the impact the economic shocks of Brexit could have.

But this discussion of the backstop and broader, slightly more abstract phenomenon – instability, economic shocks, etc. – is to ignore the chief driver of centrifugal forces recently: the Government itself. I said earlier that a competent government is the core of the British project; if there is a sense that the government is functional, competent, and treating the UK as a whole, rather than preferring a particular part, then the centripetal forces are strong. When it is dysfunctional, incompetent, and seen to be ignoring a particular part (or parts) of the UK, then it can only weaken the project. Some governments are dysfunctional (the Callaghan government, for example). Others are incompetent (Eden, perhaps). Others still are perceived to prefer a particular part of the UK (Thatcher, maybe). The current government is all three at once.

Whatever you can say about Theresa May’s politics, she has shown herself over the past few days to be a survivor, driven by a sense of duty. She is in a political mess: she has bricks flying at her from an incapable opposition, and seemingly half of her party angling for her job. This has manifested in overwrought World War Two analogies; in well-paid, over-thesaurised columns in The Daily Telegraph; and in backbenchers threatening to stab her and telling her to ‘bring a noose’ to meetings. As a side note, can we just sit back and consider the emotional vileness and childishness of that? Telling someone to metaphorically ready themselves for their execution? That’s not politics, that’s not statesmanship, that’s the frothing, violent abuse of a swivel-eyed loon. Politics is the art of the possible, but it’s also the art of engaging with human beings – and you shouldn’t engage with humans through the mechanism of overwrought death threats.

Alternatively, it’s the calculated red meat thrown to a willing audience by an opportunist. And this is the worst thing – the sheer “gaminess” of the past few days. If Theresa May was in the Premiership because she enjoyed it, she would have left long ago. If she was in it because she enjoyed power, again, she’d have been out of her own volition a while ago. She is surrounded by opponents, under fire from both extremes, and yet she continues to crack on. For her, governing is not a game. Some of her Cabinet Ministers, on the other hand, have treated the whole business like some sort of House of Cards roleplay.

They have spent months treating one of the great Offices of State like an insult comedy show with an expense account, before bailing on a summit with UK allies to have a resignation photoshoot and retiring to snipe in preparation for a leadership bid. They have spent the summer negotiating a plan, before resigning in a huff at the contents of that plan. They have sniffed the breeze when colleagues resigned and smelt blood, before resigning in turn for a head-start in a future leadership contest. The actions of some former Cabinet ministers – Johnson, Raab, and McVey, for example – have demonstrated a singular disregard for the requirements of their offices and the demands of political duty. If you are Foreign Secretary, you put your personal ambitions to one side and do your job. If you are Work and Pensions Secretary, you do your job and stick at your department to solve the mess left by your predecessors. You forget leadership bids, angling for other posts, or partisan politics, and instead get down to serving your constituents and running your department. You certainly don’t swan off because that’s the way the wind’s blowing.

And this is to ignore the backbenchers. I don’t even know where to start. We have had ‘punishment beatings’ (my apologies, that was from Boris Johnson as foreign secretary), the idea that every British Citizen is entitled to an Irish Passport (Andrew Bridgen), and then everything Jacob Rees-Mogg has ever said in his “helpful” observations from the sidelines. You could say that the Government backbenches haven’t covered themselves in glory of late, but that doesn’t quite go far enough. They have crashed around with a complete disregard for the position of their government and sought to destabilise the country and the government for the sake of scoring points in an internal Conservative civil war.

This could be forgiven – well, not forgiven, but viewed a micron more charitably – if they knew what they were doing, or seemed to be doing it out of good faith. But they don’t. We’ve seen misunderstandings about Irish citizenship (Andrew Bridgen). We’ve had the argument that problems with the port at Dover are fine, as we can use Hull instead (John Redwood). We’ve also had Jacob Rees-Mogg argue that we should be able to leave any Backstop deal unilaterally at any point (thus completely defeating the point of a backstop). The hard-Brexit faction of the backbenches seem not only to lack an alternative to May’s plan, but the ability to understand what it is they are opposing.

Say what you like about duty. Say what you like about sense. Say what you like about the record of this government. But with their actions over the past few days, the Hard-Brexiters (formerly) in the Cabinet and (currently) on the backbenches have shown that they lack the first two, and care about the last only if it will fuel future leadership bids.

A country run in this way – split politically, declining economically, and with a government hijacked by narcissists, is not heading in a good direction. I’m a historian. It’s not my place to predict the future. But as English Nationalism takes an uglier turn, senior figures in Tory Party continue to indulge its fringe for their own ends, and the opposition parties fail to deal with their own extremists and offer a competent government in waiting, the ‘centripetal forces’ will continue to weaken. And as they weaken, the ‘centrifugal forces’ will strengthen.

During the Scottish Independence Referendum back in 2014, a phrase that kept cropping up in official documents and the media was “R.U.K” – “Rest of the UK.” It referred to the state that would be left after Scotland’s absence. Evans described centripetal forces destroying the K.u.K. We could see them creating the R.U.K.

With Brexit set to further increase, inflame, and entrench inequality, economic misery, and regional tensions within the UK, it seems that increasingly dominant centrifugal forces could pull the country apart.