James Butler


23 August 2019

Mad Max Style

Eighteen months, one government and two Brexit secretaries ago, David Davis promised that a post-Brexit Britain wouldn’t gut agricultural standards or workers’ rights: we were not entering ‘an Anglo-Saxon race to the bottom, a Britain plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction’. Last Sunday, details were leaked from Operation Yellowhammer, outlining the Civil Service’s ‘base scenario’ for a No Deal Brexit: port and border chaos is expected, along with food and fuel shortages and disruption to medical supplies; there is a ‘plan to evacuate the queen’ in case of civil unrest. Priti Patel, the home secretary, has promised the immediate end of free movement on the first day of a No Deal Brexit, threatening the status of EU nationals resident in Britain and British nationals abroad, but tickling the bellies of the Tory base. Lobbying from the backbenches, Iain Duncan Smith praised thinktank proposals to raise the state pension age to 75 as ‘removing barriers’ to work.


14 August 2019

Red Meat for the Faragists

Boris Johnson is on a law-and-order kick. Since coming to power, he has promised to recruit 20,000 new police officers, create 10,000 new prison places, and restore blanket stop-and-search powers. It’s a headline-grabbing reversal of the cuts to police numbers made by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and continued under May; it also does away with May’s reforms to stop-and-search, one of the few unalloyed goods to have come from her otherwise authoritarian Home Office, though already substantially reversed under Sajid Javid. Alongside his new home secretary, Priti Patel, who spent a significant part of her early career agitating for the return of the death penalty, Johnson promises a culture of fear for criminals.


8 August 2019

The UK’s Flexible Constitution

Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s greatly overestimated aide, promises that however Parliament tries to constrain the prime minister, even by toppling the government, he will force through Brexit on the promised departure date. The hope is to turn Brexit into a runaway train, with Vote Leave cadres guarding any access to the driver’s cab.


30 July 2019

‘The rules there are different’

When Britain’s insular political class thinks of Italy, it is usually as a byword for instability or venality – an unwarranted form of self-congratulation. Britain had no Tangentopoli: its forms of corruption are more sedate and domestic, and, if not always entirely legal, usually occupy a grey zone of establishment omertà.


24 July 2019

Bring your own sunshine

Boris Johnson has mugged and gurned his way into Number Ten, through a leadership contest with a virtually preordained conclusion. It is hard to imagine how he could have lost – perhaps a hostage video with the queen in a grimy basement would have swung the needle away from him a few points – but harder still to imagine how he might govern.

Energy and optimism have been the watchwords of Johnson’s press ambassadors since his victory was announced; the man himself continues to duck press scrutiny. The stress on sunshine and optimism makes Tory politicians and hangers-on sound improbably like wide-eyed Californian acolytes of The Secret, but without any solution to the problems that felled Theresa May it is hardly surprising that his defenders fall back on voluntaristic brio.


26 June 2019

‘They are concentration camps’

‘They are concentration camps,’ Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said of the immigration detention centres on the southern border of the US. Right-wingers angrily replied that she was either simply wrong, or making trivialising comparisons between mere brutal, dehumanising detention and the Nazi project of mass extermination. Not so, Ocasio-Cortez argued: concentration camps existed long before the death camps, and it’s an accurate term for the border facilities, which are characterised by the deliberate combination of extrajudicial internment, bureaucratised neglect and institutional cruelty.

She was right, though the camps’ defenders may have been relieved to be embroiled in an argument over terminology and historical propriety.


20 June 2019

Ministries of Fear

Fear of a Corbyn government stalks the Tory leadership race. Each candidate has claimed he alone possesses the necessary quality to defeat the red menace: Gove points to his gyrating denunciations at the despatch box; Johnson’s proxies emphasise his anti-politician charisma. The closer a candidate comes to elimination, the more obvious the recourse to fear and the more outlandish the claims made in its service: Sajid Javid, now out of the race, said on Monday that a Corbyn government would put Tories and journalists ‘against the wall’. There is some strategic wisdom to this, since a recent YouGov poll suggests that Corbynphobia is the only animating passion equal to Brexitphilia among Tory party members.


12 June 2019

Democratic Rancour

The race to replace Theresa May as leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore as prime minister, is formally underway. Ten candidates passed the 1922 Committee’s nomination threshold, and now enter a series of ballots of Conservative MPs to whittle them down to two, who will face a ballot of around 100,000 party members with an average age somewhere around 65 (according to the Bow Group’s estimate). The rest of us can do nothing but watch with impotent horror.


4 June 2019

Trump’s Way

Protesting against Donald Trump’s state visit to the UK is, first, an act of elementary political hygiene: a refusal to endorse the British government’s eager servility to the United States, and a rejection of the politics of the president and his various global allies. Trump provokes a curious mixture of fascination and repulsion, however, and the reasons for protest go beyond a rejection of the current US government, to a sense that Trump presages a new and dangerous way of doing politics.



28 May 2019

Unhinged

Peter Mair once observed a curious paradox in European elections: people often use their votes to express their dissatisfaction with the fundamental nature of the European Union, despite that being outside an MEP’s purview – the Union is founded on treaties signed by national governments. Conversely, national governments are often elected to pursue policies that are properly the domain of the European Parliament, and so find themselves unable to deliver on their promises – an effect especially pronounced in the Eurozone’s smaller economies.