Europe: the gift that keeps on giving misery to Conservative whips







With delicious timing, tomorrow’s House of Commons vote on Europe comes almost 20 years to the day since the Conservative whips were in deep panic about one of the key votes held on the Maastricht Bill.  The ‘paving motion’ vote – the vote to re-start the Maastricht bill’s progress – was held on 4 November 1992, and as Douglas Hurd recorded in his diary on the eve of the vote: ‘no one in the know believes we will win at 10 tomorrow’.

Indeed, even as late as eight o’clock on the night of the vote, the Conservative Whips Office still believed that they would lose by one or two votes.

In the end, they won – but narrowly, and only with the support of the Liberal Democrats.  There were two separate votes on the paving motion.

The first was on a Labour amendment; the second, and most important, was the paving motion itself, which inter alia noted that the Bill had received a majority of 244 at its Second Reading and thus invited ‘Her Majesty’s Government to proceed with the Bill’.

The first saw 23 Conservative MPs vote against the Government with around 10 abstaining.  The Government won by 319 to 313, thanks to the support of all but one of the Liberal Democrats.

The second vote – on the main motion – saw the rebellion increase to 26 cross-votes, together with at least six abstentions.  The Government’s majority was even narrower (319: 316), despite the continued support of the Liberal Democrats.

The irony was that this was an issue on which the Labour frontbench officially supported the Government.  They welcomed the Maastricht Treaty, and would have signed it too.  There was an overwhelming majority in the House for the treaty.  Its ratification should have been simple and painless.  Yet despite the Labour leader, John Smith, being avowedly pro-European, he was prepared to use almost any parliamentary device available to drag the process out, finding areas where his party could disagree with the Government, highlighting the Conservative divisions.  It was not, he felt, the Opposition’s job to make life easy for the Government.

As a result, of the unholy alliance between the Labour frontbench and Conservative rebels, it took more than a year of parliamentary debate, marked by continuous backbench dissent on the part of Conservative MPs, before the Bill was passed.  One Conservative MP described the victory over the Paving Motion as ‘like the Battle of the Somme… The Government has gained ten years but at a huge cost’.

Twenty years on, the battle is still being fought.  Tomorrow’s rebellion is merely the latest in a string of rebellions over Europe.  In a particularly rebellious parliamentary party, this is the most incendiary  issue – during the first session of the Parliament, rebellions over Europe were, on average more than double the size of those on other issues, including the whopper two years ago over demands for a referendum.  The nature of the divisions may have changed.   The split of twenty years ago – between ‘pro-Europeans’ and ‘eurosceptics’ (the labels are crude, ugly, and contested, but necessary) are now over; the new battle lines for the Conservatives are between gradations of scepticism, between hard and soft sceptics.  But its ferocity is undimmed.

Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart

Cézanne’s truth










A confession: I have spent five years writing a life of the painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). Another confession: it is another damn’d thick, square book, 500 pages long, though weary readers will have the consolation of forty pages of colour plates, the ringing endorsement of Julian Bell in the Guardian and the knowledge that it is Book of the Week in the Independent.

Why is the life of Cézanne worth writing? Or perhaps more to the point, worth reading?

Cézanne is now recognized as the most important artist of the modern age. He should properly be seen as a world-historical figure, a climate of ideas, and a part of the culture. If in the final analysis a great artist is a man who has lived greatly, as Albert Camus proposed, Cézanne seems to embody what was required. He shows what human beings are capable of. His life story is the exemplary life story of the artist-creator in our time. Countless artists take Cézanne as their model. And not only artists – poets and philosophers, writers and directors, thinkers and dreamers.

Cézanne created a new world order. His way of seeing radically refashioned our sense of things and our relationship to them. He once said of his mighty Woman with a Coffeepot (illustrated above) that a teaspoon teaches us as much about ourselves and our world as the woman or the coffeepot.  The revelations of Cézanne are akin to those of Marx or Freud. The transformational potential is as great. The impact on our selves and our world is as far-reaching.

Put another way, he was a revolutionary. The successor generation knew this well enough. Braque: ‘He was not a rebel, Cézanne, but one of the greatest revolutionaries; this will never be sufficiently emphasized. He gave us a taste for risk. His personality is always in play, with his weaknesses and his strengths. With him we’re poles apart from decorum. He melds his life in his work, the work in his life.’ Picasso: ‘It is not what the artist does that counts, but what he is. Cézanne wouldn’t be of the slightest interest to me if he had lived and thought like Jacques-Émile Blanche, even if the apple he painted had been ten times as beautiful. What is of interest to us is Cézanne’s inquiétude, that is Cézanne’s lesson … that is to say, the drama of the man. The rest is false.’

Inquiétude – restlessness, anxiety – is his signature condition, in life and afterlife. Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s celebrated essay, ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’ (1945), made the point in slightly different terms, discoursing freely on his morbid symptoms, his psychological disequilibrium, his ‘schizoid make-up’. Cézanne the musical has yet to appear – no one has dared – but the opera is Cézanne’s Doubt (1996).

The anxiety and the eccentricity have been overdone. The salient thing about Cézanne’s condition was that he had purpose – moral purpose – he was inquiet de vérité: hot for truth. ‘He is inquiet,’ said one commentator, ‘but only to know if his values are true, and the humanity in his paintings rests on the value of a value,’ a pun on moral values and colour values. Cézanne was a Nietzschean revaluer of all values. It was entirely characteristic of him to write to one young artist that he owed him the truth in painting and that he would tell it to him; or to another that he would speak to him more truly than anyone, and that in art he had nothing to hide. Cézanne the revelator could do no other. Painting was truth-telling or it was nothing.

Cézanne was a curious mixture of pride and humility. According to his son, he would say: ‘Politicians, there are two thousand of them in every legislature, but a Cézanne, there is only one every two centuries.’ Who is to say that he was wrong?

 Alex Danchev

Globalisation and the threat to democratic legitimacy






Globalisation challenges national governments on many fronts, as illustrated so clearly by the fallout from the banking crisis of 2008-9. Perhaps the most important threat posed by globalisation is to the very legitimacy of those governments, and their authority to act on behalf of their populations.

This problem is clearest amongst the young, something that suggests that the current crisis of democratic legitimacy will only deepen. Using data from the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement, this blog post explores that gathering threat to representative democracy.

Stuart Fox

Do Government Chief Whips have an afterlife?

Sir David Butler is one of Britain’s most respected and experienced political analysts. In this Guest Post he discusses what happens to Chief Whips when they leave their job. 

The Government Chief Whip is little known to the British public – Andrew Mitchell’s ill-fated moment in the spotlight being one of the exceptions – but the post holder is at the centre of British politics. The Prime Minister has to rely on the incumbent to manage parliament, to quell revolt and to spot talent. The Chief Whip in turn has to employ tact and charm, bullying and bribery to control the troops; it is not for nothing that they are known as the Patronage Secretary. MPs know that their prospects fate, to a significant extent, lies in the hands of the Chief Whip. The voters remain in ignorance because the Chief Whip almost never speaks in public; the carrots and sticks, essential to the job, are seldom unveiled.

Sooner or later however the time comes for the Chief Whip to move on, especially once the Prime Minister – or the MPs – lose faith in them. Perhaps the occupant has come to feel the post is too onerous or too boring.

But is the office the end of a career or a stepping stone to new opportunities? It is worth looking at what has happened to Patronage Secretaries over the last ninety years.

Since 1922 there have been 30 individuals in charge at 12 Downing Street. One (Lord Monsell) took  over the office three times and a further three held it twice (William Whiteley, Bob Mellish and Nick Brown); another four shared the position during the wartime Coalition.

Almost all ended their days in the House of Lords. Among Conservatives, Edward Heath is the shining exception. Seven Labour Chief Whips refused or were not offered peerages (Spoor, Kennedy, Edwards, Whiteley and Silkin and, recently, Hoon and Smith). It was not until the 1970s that a Labour ex-Chief Whip reached the Lords.

A more important question is: how many had a significant political life after leaving 12 Downing Street?

In 12 cases their tenure was ended by a General Election, although six of these had a significant parliamentary career when in due course their party returned to power.

Of the 17 others who left the post in a mid-term reshuffle: 15 jumped straight back into ministerial office; 8 of them into the full Cabinet, including two (David Waddington and Jacqui Smith) who moved to brief spells as Home Secretary, and one (John Wakeham), who had ten years at the top as Leader of the Commons and then the Lords. Francis Pym was later to become Foreign Secretary. Only David Margesson was promoted straightway to the obscurity of the Lords while Richard Ryder retired to the back benches awaiting his peerage in the 1997 dissolution Honours.

Few ex-Chief Whips however became very important on the political stage. Wakeham, and, still more, Heath stand out as the eminent exceptions.

So while many Chief Whips do have a political afterlife, the post is often the most significant that an individual will ever hold. Andrew Mitchell may want to take note of that rather depressing fact.

Reading Gramsci









In my book Unravelling Gramsci (2007) I argued against a mechanical application of the thought and practice of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci. Instead, I developed an interpretative method that drew from Gramsci’s recommendation to grasp the leitmotiv or rhythm of thought of a thinker in relation to practical concerns relevant to the present. After all, as Karl Marx relayed in the Theses on Feuerbach, the question of the relevance of theory has to be grounded in the ‘this-sidedness’ of thinking in practice.

Hence, for Gramsci, historical materialism should not be conceived as a total or rigid doctrine beyond question but as a philosophy of praxis. Indeed, in a newspaper article for Il Grido del Popolo entitled ‘Our Marx’, dated as early as 1918, Gramsci rejected any perception of Marx as a ‘shepherd wielding a crook’, or ‘some Messiah who left us a string of parables laden with categorical imperatives and absolute, unchallengeable norms, lying outside the categories of time and space’. Just as Gramsci received Marx in this manner then this is how we should receive Gramsci. How can this approach to the history of ideas in general and the significance of historicising Gramsci in particular be further developed?

A new review article of mine in Capital & Class and available to download here draws on a noteworthy contribution to questions of method and hermeneutic understanding when approaching the reading of texts. In terms developed by Tony Burns in his book Aristotle and Natural Law (2011) the ‘reading’ of a text is an endeavour at the most elementary point of engagement in an attempt to understand a text, assuming that it can be understood in different ways. Flowing from this starting position, he then distinguishes three approaches to reading a text in order to develop an approach to hermeneutic understanding, which involve establishing meaning by interpretation, by appropriation, and by negotiation.

In brief, meaning by interpretation is an attempt to understand a particular text as the author of that text understood it herself or himself. An interpretation of a text is an attempt to understand the ideas in a text in their own terms, or as the author of the text in question might have understood them, based on someone seeking the ‘truth’ in relation to the meaning of the text in question.

Second, meaning by appropriation has a practical or political relevance for the person who produces it. In such readings the ideas of an author are taken up and used by the reader for purposes of their own. The person who appropriates a text, or the ideas which it contains, is not motivated by the desire to offer a ‘truthful’ interpretation of the text. Appropriations in this sense are regarded as distortions of the meaning of a text and radically alter the meaning of the concepts contained within the text. The act of appropriation is an intentional hermeneutic manoeuvre. Additionally, according to Burns, ‘if an appropriation of a text were presented as an interpretation of it then it would be rejected by the vast majority of scholars working within the field, or even all of them, as being false or invalid’.

Third, establishing meaning by negotiation represents a compromise, perhaps, between interpretation and appropriation or a theoretical synthesis of the two. From this point of view, the act of hermeneutic understanding is always an historical enterprise and therefore there is an acceptance that the meaning which is given to texts written in the past can and will alter. Nevertheless, background conditions do set a limit to the range of possible readings that might legitimately be given of a specific text by an individual reader living in a particular society at a certain moment in time. Negotiation represents in effect some sort of dialogue between the author of the text and its reader. The meaning of a text and the ideas which they contain can and do alter over time.

These conceptual distinctions are clearly useful for historians of ideas and students of the history of political thought in that they distinguish between the enterprise of establishing meaning by interpretation, by appropriation, or by negotiation when approaching a thinker. Not least, when disputes between competing interpretations of texts arise these may be evaluated on the basis of recourse to the text. As a result, misinterpretations of texts are possible rather than misreadings. Further, an appropriation of a text can be revealed as a selective reading of a text whereby the ideas of the author are taken up by appropriators and used by them for purposes of their own. Such readings reflect the interests and concerns of the appropriator and not necessarily those of the author.

The import of these conceptual distinctions to Gramsci studies could be highly significant. After all, when approaching his texts readers should be clear in their own minds which of these activities they are performing – interpreting, appropriating, or negotiating – in developing a reading of Gramsci. In my earlier work, Unravelling Gramsci, such interpretative groundwork was attempted, specifically in heeding Gramsci’s own method of absolute historicism when reading texts germane to the past and present.

In recently surveying a “new phase” in the use of Gramsci’s ideas and writings, it has been astutely remarked by Marcus Green and Peter Ives in Rethinking Marxism that one might hope for ‘a turn away from the all-too-common invocation of Gramsci in vague repetitions of compelling but general motifs’. In my view, one result may be the prevalence elsewhere of devout but errant students producing vague repetitions and invocations of Gramsci’s thought that are reliant on an unreflexive appropriation of, rather than negotiation with, Gramsci (see here my post ‘Turkey: what kind of passive revolution?’).

Now might be an apposite moment to provide greater clarity and self-reflexiveness on what method or hermeneutic approach one actually adopts when reading Gramsci.

Adam David Morton