Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the relationship between the Leave/Remain split and the Labour Party’s spectrum from left-of-centre through soft left to hard left. There is a great German word that comes in handy here: Deutungshoheit, or “interpretative superiority”. Something – some inchoate and contingent historical event – happens, and then politicians struggle to impose their rival interpretations on it. This has a lot in common with the great skip full of initiatives, aka Michael Cohen’s Garbage Can Model of decision-making. By choosing an interpretation, we make events amenable to the solutions we have available in the skip.
If you successfully achieve interpretative superiority, you have set the terms of the debate and therefore defined which skip the solution will probably be found in. The red one? The blue one? The word is constructed by analogy with “air superiority” and in fact the two concepts have a lot in common. If you have air superiority, but not air supremacy, you can’t guarantee you will never see an enemy aircraft, but you do have the initiative and you get to fight on your own terms with a good chance of success. The enemy has to react to your decisions and wait for opportunities rather than shaping the campaign themselves.
Very few things have been subject to quite as much of this as the EU referendum. The battle for interpretative superiority has been especially important and intense because the referendum was such an event. There is no such thing as a Leave or Remain Party in the British political system. The system is based on the key building block, the parliamentary constituency, but there is no such thing in a national referendum. In the absence of any of these things, the interpretations that get imposed are the ones that already exist within the system.
One of the most influential analyses of the result, Chris Hanretty’s, tellingly took the form of trying to convert the referendum results into the results of a virtual parliamentary election. His readers couldn’t consume the referendum until it had been interpreted as a first-past-the-post parliamentary election in a primarily two-party system. Paul Nuttall, Nick Timothy, Theresa May, Jim Messina, and Lynton Crosby can testify to the radically misleading nature of this interpretation. It held that Leave voters were voters for a Leave Party. UKIP and the Conservatives both tried to be this party. Meanwhile, it also held that Remain voters were voters for a Remain Party. The combined conclusion was that Labour couldn’t possibly do enough to satisfy either the Leave or Remain voters, that either UKIP or the Tories would sweep the North, and the Lib Dems would make a comeback in the South.
This spoke to the fears of Labour MPs sceptical of Jeremy Corbyn, to the hopes of Lib Dem MPs feeling their time had come again, and to the ambitions both of newly empowered Tory Eurosceptics and of a newly installed Tory leader casting about for solutions. That being a large chunk of the system, it became a hegemonic interpretation. Meanwhile, the doctrine that being against Brexit meant being against Corbyn was also imposed as an interpretation because it had a constituency – centrist Labour MPs and Lib Dems. Events come from outside the system but interpretations from within.
The “Leave=UKIP=Tories” interpretation was also hopelessly wrong. For a start, it overstated the coherence and stability of what it took to be a Leave public. It also understated the coherence of an emerging Remain public. The psephology of the 2017 general election shows that tactical voting by (presumed) Remain voters was an enormous factor in the loss of the Tory majority. The fascinating thing here is that despite all the Twitter drama, the ephemeral new parties of the centre and constant declarations that they’re all the same, Remain voters seized on the most effective means possible to oppose Brexit. Sometimes the British public wields FPTP like a cow with a pen, but on this occasion it was more like a katana.
Theresa May’s strategy from the referendum to the general election was to pick up the hegemonic interpretation and run with it – to define herself and the Tories as the Brexit Party. Within the party, there were differences between the believers in the Nick Timothy/Fiona Hill, protectionist/conservative interpretation and the Hannan/Gove, libertarian/unilateral free trade interpretation. Although these two schools of thought have almost antithetical consequences for policy, they share one thing in common – they both seek dramatic changes to policy and therefore require a large and compact parliamentary majority to achieve their aims.
The basic, overwhelming fact of British politics since last June has been that whatever interpretation you want to impose on Brexit, there is no majority for anything more than minimal adjustments to the UK’s relationship with the European Union. The only options that are acceptable would be the status quo, or something very like the status quo. Going by the polls, this is also true of any foreseeable parliament. There are really only two people who have made any impact against Brexit – Gina Miller, by denying the government the ability to implement it by executive prerogative, and Jeremy Corbyn, by denying the government the ability to implement it by legislation.
There is a classic split in Labour between people who believe that, in the end, parliament is the central institution of British politics and whether a majority there is 10% or 90% of the problem, it’s the first 10% or 90%, and those who believe in a wider conception of politics. Jeremy Corbyn is usually classified into the second. However, events since the referendum definitely seem to support the view that everything eventually passes through the Commons. The only thing that has had any effect has been taking the Tories’ majority away.
This, however, is an interpretation that doesn’t have a sponsoring actor inside the system, which is why you have to get it from my blog.