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James Butler

James Butler is a co-founder of Novara Media. He is currently failing to write a book about utopia.

Follow the Science

James Butler, 16 April 2020

Tory politicians have been keen to emphasise that their policy has strictly followed the science, rather than being dictated by any other concern; one of the justifications for the extraordinary powers granted by the Coronavirus Act was that they would be used only if they became genuinely medically and scientifically necessary. Both the constructive disagreement intrinsic to science and the adversarial scrutiny necessary to politics disappear in this invocation of science as the ultimate authority – this trick will become familiar in the coming months. An extraordinary emergency requires extraordinary powers; no one disagrees with that. But it is politics, not science, which grants these powers legitimacy. How long will they endure? The law provides a mechanism for six-monthly renewal, though it is unclear how effective a means of restraint or scrutiny that is. Few believe Johnson is an Anglo-Orbán, eager to use the crisis to institute rule through decree; but it would be unwise to trust to his libertarian disposition.

From The Blog
12 March 2020

Given the economic orthodoxy over the past ten years, the smiles and sunshine approach is hard to swallow. The chancellor proposes deficit spending, and by the end of the parliament expects the national debt to hit £2 trillion: the measures that the longer-serving Tories have grizzled, harrumphed and waved their papers in support of in the Commons since 2010 have vanished. Debt numbers that once seemed sacred are swept away like plaster idols. What, then, was the last decade for? The stagnant wages, the shrunken services, the slashing of the social state? George Osborne’s apparent claim – that austerity paved the way for the new munificence – is in no way credible. The NHS is about to discover that a few extra billion now can’t make up for frayed investment over a decade; new intensive care services, and trained staff to run them, cannot be conjured from thin air.

The BBC on the Rack

James Butler, 19 March 2020

‘The nation divided always has the BBC on the rack,’ Michael Swann, then chair of the BBC governors, told a meeting of irate Tory backbenchers in 1971. The MPs were unhappy about the BBC’s coverage of Northern Ireland, which, though fastidiously cautious, they deemed insufficiently patriotic. Swann’s line came from a draft, written four years earlier, of a report...

From The Blog
14 February 2020

Cummings’s triumph over Javid illuminates the government’s likely trajectory. Burke Trend – a career civil servant in the Treasury before he became cabinet secretary in 1963 – once remarked that whatever the prevailing economic theory, the general ethos of the Treasury was fixed: ‘Spending money, like eating people, is wrong.’ This entrenched conservatism has occasionally been praised – Keynes thought it a bulwark against madcap governmental wickedness – but has more often frustrated politicians of both left and right intent on reshaping the economy. Bringing its political wing under his influence suggests Cummings is eager to break the Treasury’s taboo, and serious about realising the Conservatives’ so far vague spending pledges, to firm up their potentially volatile electoral coalition. If he is serious about Whitehall reform, he also underestimates its complexity and intractability. The Treasury’s inertia is not caused by a few indolent spads at the top, easily replaced.

Autopsy of an Election

James Butler, 6 February 2020

In​ ‘After the Landslide’, a newsletter written shortly after Labour’s defeat in the 1983 general election, the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, a faction within the party, argued that any conversation about the future must acknowledge two things: ‘the sheer depth of our defeat, and the shallowness of much party reaction to it’. The defeats of 1983 and 2019...

From The Blog
13 December 2019

I think of the young canvassers – thousands of them – who were out on the doorsteps for the first time, in cold and miserable weather, lit up by a politics that spoke to them and for them as no political party had done before. They will be told they were wrong to believe in it. They were not. I think of the woman, a carer for her disabled brother, who said that her life had got worse for years and years, and politicians always promised it would get better, and it didn’t, and how could she trust Labour? I think of the man who voted Labour in 2017, but wouldn’t now, because his Polish partner was scared of living here much longer. And the man who said you can’t change anything anyway, because ‘it’s all fucking rigged even when you win, look at Brexit.’

From The Blog
10 December 2019

‘Hijacked by Marxists’, promised the Sun: Corbyn’s ‘hardline cabal’ exposed! On Saturday, the paper published a network map it claimed was drawn up by ‘former British intelligence officers’, detailing a web of ‘hard-left extremists’ supposed to lie behind the current Labour leadership. It had even coded a natty little chatbot to help its readers decipher the sprawling chart. ‘Who is James Butler?’ I asked it. It told me I co-founded Novara Media, which is at least true – though it got the dates wrong – and that I was connected to various people I’ve never met. I have yet to be invited to any cabal, hardline or otherwise.

From The Blog
6 December 2019

Despite their far-reaching consequences, the horizons in elections can seem narrow, confined to the five-odd weeks of the campaign, strewn with invocations of the recent past. Zoom out, though, and one thing that comes into focus is that the anti-austerity movement in the UK – the chief engine of the rise of Corbynism – is the last in Europe to reach its major electoral showdown. It does so in unique circumstances, forced to grapple with inimical constitutional questions that warp its electoral calculus, and later than its sister movements in other countries, which, though they found more immediately amenable political vehicles, either burned up on contact with the might of the ECB or were neutered in wider political coalitions.

From The Blog
2 December 2019

Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were killed at London Bridge on Friday, at a conference on prisoner rehabilitation. Their murderer, Usman Khan, had been imprisoned for terrorist offences, and was released last year; the Guardian warned at the time that the police and probation services lacked the resources to deal adequately with a wave of prisoner releases. Khan was electronically tagged, and had been given permission to go to the conference. It seems he planned the attack, making himself a fake suicide vest. He was stopped from further bloodshed when members of the public, including other former prisoners at the conference, intervened to stop him. Police, responding to the hoax vest, shot and killed him. Merritt’s grieving father made this plea: ‘My son, Jack, who was killed in this attack, would not wish his death to be used as the pretext for more draconian sentences or for detaining people unnecessarily.’

From The Blog
29 November 2019

YouGov has released the results of its MRP (multilevel regression and post-stratification) model. It shows the Tories taking 359 seats, Labour reduced to 211 – losing significant heartland constituencies to the Conservatives – and Boris Johnson winning his party’s first substantial majority, of 68, since Margaret Thatcher’s in 1987 of 102. The political impact of such a result is hard to overstate: it would mean a reworked Conservative Party in parliament, singing in unison from Johnson’s hymn sheet, clearing the way for his Brexit deal to pass without a hitch – along with everything else in the manifesto.

From The Blog
25 November 2019

Boris Johnson launched his manifesto yesterday in Telford. Both document and event were marked by only the lightest dusting of the Conservative brand: everything was instead blazoned with ‘Get Brexit Done’, the recurrent theme, too, of an otherwise flimsy manifesto. ‘As a blueprint for five years in government,’ the IFS noted, ‘the lack of significant policy action is remarkable.’

From The Blog
20 November 2019

Last night’s head-to-head debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn did not scale Socratic heights. There were few surprises. When TV debates emerged during the US presidential race in 1960, a canny understanding of the medium gave the telegenic Kennedy an opportunity to shift past Nixon in the polls; modern debate rules are subject to interminable inter-party negotiations, which usually seek to tamp down any risk of actual debate breaking out.

From The Blog
15 November 2019

With both parties competing over spending, the strategic calculus for the election alters: whether or not spending is a good thing matters less than where the money is spent, who it will benefit, and whether the parties can be trusted to keep their promises. Serious questions await the Conservatives on how sustainable their spending can be without raising taxes on the wealthy, or with the economic dislocation of a hard Brexit. It’s difficult, too, for them to resurrect 2010’s attack lines on the economy when austerity has vanished from the policy lexicon; Harold Macmillan warned his party in 1959 not to talk of Labour ‘spending sprees’ – for people who have lived through a straitened decade, spending may sound rather appealing. The last true disciple of Coalition-era doctrine turns out to be Vince Cable, grumbling about a ‘raid on Santa’s grotto’. 

From The Blog
12 November 2019

Nigel Farage announced last night that the Brexit Party would stand down its candidates in 317 Tory-held seats across the country, promising instead to concentrate his fire on Leave-voting seats with Labour incumbents. Having last week lambasted Boris Johnson’s deal as the ‘second-worst in history’, he now claims to be satisfied with the prime minister’s commitment to leaving on 31 January, and seeking a Canada-style free trade agreement. However he tries to disguise it, this is a capitulation: there had been enormous pressure on Farage from senior colleagues – including the Brexit Party chair and candidate for Hartlepool, Richard Tice – to moderate his opposition to the Tory deal. Farage has found a Surrender Act all of his own.

From The Blog
8 November 2019

The Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru have made an electoral pact under the rubric ‘Unite to Remain’. The three parties have agreed to stand down candidates in sixty constituencies: in 43, only a Liberal Democrat will stand, ten will have only a Green candidate, and seven only a candidate from Plaid. The purported aim is to return the maximum possible number of pro-Remain MPs to parliament; the parties’ self-interest is an unspoken factor. The lash-up may help Plaid and the Greens win one or two target seats, but the chief beneficiaries – if it succeeds – will be the Lib Dems, who are looking to retake a slew of Tory-held seats in the south of England.

From The Blog
5 November 2019

The Brexit Party launched its general election campaign in Westminster yesterday. There had been much talk that a pact – formal or tacit – between the Conservatives and Farage’s vehicle might emerge, handing them a swathe of leave-voting seats in England. Instead, Farage, speaking from the rostrum to an audience of Brexit Party candidates and registered supporters, lambasted the Tories’ ‘conceited arrogance’, mocked the ERG for falling in like ‘good little boys’ behind their leader, and lambasted Johnson’s deal for taking the UK into ‘three more years of agonising negotiations with Michel Barnier’. These are not words from which rapprochement is made. Farage himself is not standing – seven Westminster defeats perhaps enough – but intends to campaign across the country.

From The Blog
1 November 2019

A number of MPs have announced their retirement from politics in the last few days, many of them women who have been targeted by torrents of personal abuse and threats to their family. Some have been advised by the police that it is too dangerous for them to hold open surgeries, or campaign door-to-door after dark. Others are leaving parliament because they feel their party has left them; the most prominent is Nicky Morgan, the last standard-bearer of David Cameron-style conservatism, who is quitting politics at the age of 46, in what would conventionally be considered the prime of her career. The exodus has prompted newspaper eulogies to the ‘last moderates’ and laments over our ideologically divided times; all assume that sharp ideological division is intrinsically negative.

From The Blog
23 October 2019

In his speech immediately following the defeat of the government’s programme motion last night, Jeremy Corbyn said that the Commons had ‘emphatically rejected the prime minister’s deal’. Johnson, in his response, proclaimed his joy that parliament had got behind a deal, but lamented its relapse into delay. That two diametrically opposed politicians can look at the same vote and both interpret it as a victory suggests little progress has been made. In truth, neither was right: 19 rebel Labour MPs voted for the second reading of Johnson’s bill in the hope of finding a way through the mire; but most of them voted against the attempt to bounce the deal through with minimal scrutiny. It is unclear that an amended bill would be acceptable to the government, and unlikely that an unamended bill would pass third reading. MPs don’t seem resolute so much as exhausted. In this, at least, the Commons reflects the country.

From The Blog
3 October 2019

The important thing for Johnson is to have someone else to blame. If a withdrawal agreement isn’t signed before the end of October and he provokes the EU into refusing another extension, then he can blame them for the turbulence that ensues. If he finds himself obliged to seek and accept an extension, then he can paint himself as the standard-bearer of Brexit, having offered a harder deal than May’s, but with his hands tied by a sinister cabal of Europeans, parliamentarians and spider brooch-wearing judges. Johnson calculates that a clear history of confrontation will keep the bulk of Brexit Party votes behind him, and deliver the ‘People v. Parliament’ election he believes he can win.

From The Blog
27 September 2019

This week’s nadir came with the prime minister’s wholesale importing of the language of the alt-right into his performance at the despatch box: over and again he spoke of the ‘Surrender Act’ passed before prorogation; his attorney general, in the warm-up slot, bellowed that this ‘dead Parliament’ had forfeited its ‘moral right’ to sit. When reminded that the language of ‘surrender’ and ‘treachery’ was associated with the murder of Jo Cox, Johnson gave little more than a sneer. It was hard to watch the malevolent pantomime without thinking of the earnest anxiety of some of the Labour Conference debates, or the distraught and unvarnished message delivered by Greta Thunberg to the UN two days earlier: ‘You are failing us.’

From The Blog
19 September 2019

The major announcement in Jo Swinson’s closing speech to conference on Tuesday, much trailed, was that the Liberal Democrats – were they to form a majority – would revoke Article 50 on their first day in government, ending Brexit overnight. She decried both Labour and Conservative as ‘tired old parties’, and suggested that Boris Johnson – somewhat perplexingly – was acting like a ‘socialist dictator’, while linking Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage in a feat of rhetorical contortion. As if to prove the Lib Dems’ moderation in all things, she unveiled a lukewarm climate policy, aiming for net-zero emissions by 2045, knocking five years off the government’s goal but giving themselves far more wiggle-room than the target of 2030 due to be debated by Labour next week.

From The Blog
10 September 2019

Beyond the theatrics, and the justified outrage, three major changes now affect the next two months of British politics. First, the prorogation means the government avoids parliamentary scrutiny until October: Johnson escapes not only the pantomime of Prime Minister’s Questions tomorrow, but also avoids the more forensic questioning of the Liaison Committee, to which he was due to give evidence afterwards. During prorogation, government statements on Brexit will endure only the haphazard interrogation – or adulatory stenography – of the British press.

From The Blog
2 September 2019

Boris Johnson announced last week that Parliament is to be prorogued days after MPs return from their summer recess: both Houses of Parliament will stand empty for five weeks. A new session will begin on 14 October. A Queen’s Speech debate typically takes a week of parliamentary time, which leaves just over six sitting days until the Brexit deadline. Across the press, opposition politicians have described Johnson’s power grab as an affront to democracy. The speaker of the House of Commons said it was a ‘constitutional outrage’. The thousands of people protesting in cities and towns across the UK on Saturday were clearer and bolder: they called it a coup.

From The Blog
23 August 2019

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.

From The Blog
14 August 2019

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.

From The Blog
8 August 2019

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.

From The Blog
30 July 2019

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.

From The Blog
24 July 2019

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.

From The Blog
26 June 2019

‘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.

From The Blog
20 June 2019

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.

From The Blog
12 June 2019

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.

From The Blog
4 June 2019

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.


From The Blog
28 May 2019

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.

From The Blog
22 May 2019

The recent spate of milkshake protests against the far right began in Warrington on 2 May. A young Asian man was being harassed by Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (a.k.a. ‘Tommy Robinson’, formerly of the BNP and EDL, now Ukip). As henchmen bristled around him, he defended himself with what came to hand. Yaxley-Lennon got another dousing in Wigan the next day, and Nigel Farage caught a banana and salted caramel coating in Newcastle earlier this week. Various professional hyperventilators have decried the apparent coarsening of British politics and predicted a rapid skate down a slippery slope. But this form of grassroots censure has a long history. George Eliot wrote of Mr Brooke being ‘disagreeably anointed’ under a ‘hail of eggs’ while campaigning in Middlemarch.

From The Blog
15 May 2019

Saturday’s Times carried on its front page a protracted complaint by the headmaster of Stowe School that Oxbridge was actively discriminating against the beneficiaries of private education, and that any complaint about the staggering overrepresentation of the privately educated in every avenue of British life was born of the same reasoning as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was a particularly inept rendition of a favoured right-wing talking point: that any analysis which talks in terms of groups or classes is already merrily chugging along to the gulag, with precious individuality flattened under its wheels.

From The Blog
7 May 2019

Before the local elections last week, the Conservative Party had said that losing a thousand councillors would be a disaster. In the event, the collapse of the Tory vote was more than three hundred seats worse than that. The wipeout in Chelmsford left the Tory MP, Vicky Ford, in tears; at a gathering of Welsh Conservatives, the prime minister was greeted with active heckling, a rare choice for the Tory grassroots, who generally prefer to dissent in truculent silence. Andrew Mitchell, a former chief whip, was ‘surprised anyone was bothered to vote for us’. At the coming European elections, with the Brexit Party in contention, the faithful remnant may be yet further diminished.

From The Blog
1 May 2019

I remember the Admiral Duncan bombing through the media coverage: footage of fire engines and a policeman with a bloodstained shirt on the Nine O’Clock News that evening; the gouged-out front of the bar in grainy newsprint photos the next day. And I remember thinking: ‘They really hate gay people.’ It’s the kind of awkward thought you have on the cusp of adolescence: ‘they’ is hard to define, but it’s large, out there and armed; and ‘gay people’, you are beginning to sense, however scrupulously you may draw the third-person boundary in speech, includes you.

From The Blog
24 April 2019

Extinction Rebellion’s strategy, though it appears to break a number of recent activist taboos, echoes the earlier strategy of the Committee of 100, the non-violent direct action group that emerged from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament under the tutelage of Bertrand Russell.

From The Blog
17 April 2019

Assange’s initial info-optimism looks fragile in an age newly sensitive to encroachments into the private realm by states and digital corporations, and when set next to his own sloppiness of redaction and politicised publication choices. The problem has never been just that there is a secret body of knowledge reserved to the state, but that our capacity to interpret and act on it is catastrophically limited. Mere facts do not suggest their own solution. Transparency is not an intrinsic good: the disgorgement of secrets may paralyse as much as catalyse. Only one person was prosecuted because of the video that Wikileaks released under the title Collateral Murder: its leaker, Chelsea Manning.

From The Blog
11 April 2019

At a meeting on Tuesday of the Bruges Group, one of the proliferating and fissiparous Tory sectlets devoted to hatred of the European Union, Mark Francois topped off a speech of near-hallucinatory weirdness by lapsing into Poetry Voice – cod solemnity with pauses and emphases scattered at random – and sweating his way through the last few lines of Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, a doughty lump of patriotic Victoriana to ginger up a senescent audience.

From The Blog
22 February 2017

Milo Yiannopoulos is done for. The Breitbart editor, who made a name for himself by peddling ‘unsayable’ things, and riding the waves of right-wing adulation and left-wing horror which followed, finally stumbled over a genuine taboo. A recently recirculated tape of remarks on the benefits of relationships between adolescent boys and older men has finally caused the American conservative establishment to cut its ties with him. He has lost his slot at CPAC, the premier right-wing political gathering in the US, which has previously hosted defenders of internment and slavery; Simon & Schuster, the publisher which gave him a $250,000 advance for a book (working title Dangerous) and defended the offer on the grounds of freedom of speech, has cancelled his contract. Last night, amid rumours of staff threatening to walk, Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart. One might marvel at what stirs the underused muscles of conscience in a Breitbart staffer were the temptation to schadenfreude not so overwhelming.

From The Blog
4 November 2016

The British papers are at it again: a ‘loaded foreign elite’ (the Sun) have triumphed in their court challenge to the prime minister’s plan to use the royal prerogative to trigger Article 50; the judges have been declared ‘Enemies of The People’ on the front page of the Mail (the Telegraph, with venerable caution, has merely decided that the judiciary are ‘at war’ with the people). The judges’ personal lives are probed for telling details: one has an interest in European law, another – imagine the Mail journalist’s delight – is an ‘openly gay’ former Olympic fencer, practically a textbook decadent cosmopolitan. The Express, ever aware that it’s poppy season, says we are in the gravest crisis since Churchill exhorted us to fight on the beaches.

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