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Should the Labour Party revert to Blairism?

In the wake of Labour’s worst performance at a General Election (in terms of seats won) since 1935, there is a strong current of opinion both within and outside the Party that it needs to return to Blairite strategy and policies. I’ll summarise this argument, before posing some questions and problems which Blairites would need to answer for their argument to be convincing.


The Blairite argument points to the fact that Tony Blair won three general elections by placing the Labour Party in the centre ground, with moderate policies on the economy, law and order, and defence and security which are designed to appeal not just to the Labour membership, but to floating voters who may often feel drawn to, or actually vote for, the Conservatives, or other parties to the right of Labour. Blairites point to the fact that, without this strategy, Labour has really struggled to win general elections: any leader who has drifted too far from the centre ground by being too left-wing on economic and other issues, such as Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband, and now Jeremy Corbyn, has failed to win. Even if more radical left-wing policies would be morally and practically justified, the Blairite can say, there is no point proposing these policies if the Party cannot win the power necessary to implement them. So the best bet from any point of view is to set up stalls as a moderate party, win an election, and at least be able to help *some* of the poor and disenfranchised with that moderate, but still progressive, manifesto.


One part of Labour’s recent electoral history may not seem to sit comfortably with the Blairite argument: Gordon Brown’s 2010 loss, which after all was a Blairite loss. However, this doesn’t seem to threaten the Blairite argument too much. Consider that the 2010 election came in the context of the financial crisis, which made it difficult for incumbents to hold their seats. Also, everyone agrees that the Blairite strategy doesn’t *guarantee* victory. It just makes it possible.


The Blairite argument might seem formidable, based on incontestable historical evidence as it is. After the pain of the last few days, Labour members might feel lurching back to Blairism is the only sensible option.


I am not convinced. I think a Blairite strategy at this time would face serious problems. These problems might be surmountable, but I think advocates of Blairism need to engage with them seriously, if they hope to persuade the party that their way is the only practical one. So when I pose these problems, I do so in the spirit of kick-starting a debate.


If I had to sum it up in one sentence, my concern about Blairism is that being a Blairite in 2019 seems to be to continue politics as though the financial crisis and the subsequent economic and political fallout never happened.


Problem 1: The Financial Crisis and Economic Policy Today


I mentioned that, from the Blairite point of view, Brown’s 2010 loss is an exception to the rule, which came in extreme circumstances, created not least by the 2008 financial crisis.


The trouble is that *every* election since 2008 has been shaped by the extreme circumstances of the 2008 financial crisis and its fallout. When the economy was steadily growing, people generally felt their lot in life was improving, and we generally perceived the scourges of poverty and inequality to be in decline, having a moderate, centrist economic policy seemed perfectly sensible, pragmatic, and likely to be popular. I don’t dispute that New Labour’s spending on health and education benefitted many people.


The economic circumstances we face today are just utterly different, and it’s not clear that moderate policies are going to cut it any more, either in terms of practical impact or electoral popularity. Inequality is rapidly rising, poverty (including in-work poverty) and homelessness are through the roof, public services like the NHS are massively strained in a way they were not 15 years ago, and economic growth has been patchy and low.


The danger for Labour if we follow a Blairite route on the economy is that we will be seen as a status-quo party. (If you want an example of how toxic it can be for a party to be perceived this way, consider Hillary Clinton’s fortunes in 2016). Many people are really suffering from the economic fallout of the financial crisis and the austerity which followed it, and Labour cannot afford to be seen as a Party which will neglect such citizens by settling for modest reforms and modest increases in spending on crucial public services, which arguably avoids getting at the root of the problems.


You might be thinking, “Hang on! If this is all true, why aren’t the Conservatives suffering at the ballot box for not promising to help these people more?” Two reasons: first, Johnson actually promised quite significant increases in public spending in this campaign (unusually for the Tories). Second, the Tories have avoided being seen as a status-quo party by promising to clamp down on immigration, through Brexit and by offering a more austere Australian-style points-based immigration system. Many voters, particularly in the areas lost by Labour in this election, see immigration as a threat to their own economic status and a drain on public services.


To sum up, it’s unclear whether the economic strategy which worked for Labour pre-2008 will work post-2008. Would a moderate platform do enough to answer the much greater economic anxieties and problems people now face in this country compared to Blair’s days? Also, would a Blairite economic policy lead Labour to be perceived as a party of the status quo which offers nothing different?


Problem 2: Brexit and Immigration


Plainly, Brexit was a big issue in this election, and one of the main reasons people voted for Brexit in 2016 and voted for the Tories last Thursday is because they have concerns about immigration. What would a Blairite Labour leader have to say on these crucial issues?


Blair himself is a staunch Remainer and supported a second referendum on Europe, like Corbyn did in the end. The majority of Blairites in the party are, it seems to me, also Remainers and liberal on immigration. So one option would be to elect a Blairite leader who is liberal on immigration and campaigned against Brexit. The problem is that it is highly unclear whether such a leader would go down any better with Leave voters and anti-immigration voters who used to vote Labour than Corbyn did. Perhaps the contrast in Labour’s fortunes between 2017 and 2019 can be explained, at least in part, because Corbyn endorsed a second referendum in the latter, but not the former, election. If so, a Remainer Blairite leader would not help matters.


Again, the 2008 crisis has changed the playing field. Immigration is now a burning issue for the electorate, as it never was in the Blair years.


You might be thinking that this issue will go away after Brexit is resolved. I am sceptical about that: the issues of multiculturalism and immigration transcend Brexit. Brexit will not stop migration altogether, and even if it did, we are seeing across Europe that far-right policies, like banning the burqa, are gaining popularity. The issues Brexit raises are not going away any time soon. The EU referendum brought a spotlight to how deeply the country already was on the issues surrounding multiculturalism and immigration. Those tensions pre-date Brexit and will persist after it.


A Blairite Labour leader would, then, have to take a stand on these issues. The traditional Blairite liberal stance, though, whatever its merits, seems unlikely to help win the crucial votes Labour lost in this election. On the other hand, even if a Leave-supporting Blairite can be found to lead the party (and it’s not obvious who this would be), one concern would be that it might get hard to distinguish such a leader’s views and policies from the Conservatives’. On top of that, such a Labour leader would alienate vast swathes of existing Labour support, including myself (I am a staunch socialist, but cannot support an anti-immigration nationalist party).


You might suggest a Blairite leader should try to stay quiet on these issues. Well, that sounds a lot like repeating Corbyn’s 2019 strategy of staying neutral on Brexit. Since that didn’t work, we should think very carefully before doing the same again.


To sum up, on the crucial issues of Brexit and immigration, it’s just not clear that reverting to Blairism would help in any way. Since the financial crisis changed the playing field and brought the issue of immigration to the fore, it’s not easy to see how to adapt Blairism to meet this challenge in a way that avoids major problems.


In many ways, Corbynism seems to have a better answer to economic anxieties and concerns about immigration than Blairism. In response to concerns about immigration, the Corbynist can say: actually, your problems are not caused by migration or migrants, but by a rigged economic system which is producing horrible inequality, and needs fundamental reform. (This is why I continue to think that Sanders has the best chance against Trump of any potential Democratic candidate). By contrast, the Blairite does not want ambitious economic reform, and they probably don’t want to radically change tack on immigration and multiculturalism either. So it’s not obvious to me how Blairism promises to engage with the kind of voters Labour needs to win back.


Of course, if the basic left-wing tenets of Corbynism are retained, we must make changes in other areas to do better next time. I have two suggestions here. First, the next leader needs to take major action to cleanse the party of anti-Semitism by introducing a zero-tolerance policy to all forms of racism, which actually rids the party of those guilty of racism in a swift, but fair, manner. This is the right thing to do and should ensure that the next leader is viewed more favourably by the public. Second, I think the next leader should have less radical views than Corbyn on foreign policy. Plainly, Corbyn’s history of friendly or semi-friendly stances towards what most voters regard as hostile groups, like the IRA and Hamas, goes down terribly on many doorsteps.


If we make changes on these important issues, perhaps a leader on the left of the party could still make headway at the ballot box. In any case, it’s far from clear that Blairism would help, for the reasons I outlined above. I invite other Labour members, though, to answer my concerns about the prospects of Blairism. Ultimately, we’ve got to find the best strategy for getting a Labour government, and if I can be convinced that *is* Blairism, I’ll happily jump on board.











The Case for a Fresh Vote on Brexit

It has become urgent to work out whether it would be justified, from a democratic point of view, to hold another referendum relating to Brexit.


Those who oppose the idea of holding any further referenda on Brexit often claim that holding another vote would be undemocratic. They also often claim that holding another referendum on the matter would be an insult to voters, particularly Leave voters, and that Leave voters in particular would, in the event of a further vote, feel “betrayed” by the politicians who instigated that second vote. This feeling of betrayal may undermine democracy and the already fragile trust between politicians and the electorate. Ergo, such critics conclude, it would be wrong to hold any further referendums on Brexit.


There are many bad arguments in favour of having another referendum. Many of the ideas and arguments in favour of having another referendum are either openly or covertly anti-democratic. While I shall not be defending democracy here, I am going to assume that if holding another referendum on Brexit would be undemocratic, we should not hold another referendum. But while there are many bad and undemocratic arguments for another referendum, I will try to show that democrats, whether Leavers or Remainers, should be more open-minded about having another referendum on Brexit. In fact, I now believe that having another referendum is the most justified choice, from a democratic point of view.


Those in favour of another referendum damage their own position by asking for a “People’s Vote”. Is the suggestion supposed to be that the first referendum wasn’t a “People’s Vote”? It was just as much a vote by the people as another referendum would be. It is also a mistake to consider a potential further referendum a mere re-run of the previous one. I suggest that it starts to make much more sense to hold a further vote if we get clear that the next referendum should not be a mere re-run, but rather a new vote on a distinct set of issues and circumstances.


The problem with the idea of having an exact re-run of the 2016 referendum is that doing this would probably be undemocratic, for the following reason. Yes, it is true that voters now have more information about Brexit than they did in 2016. But this is not a sufficient reason to re-run the vote, or indeed any democratic vote. Voters have more information about the Party they have just elected to government 6 months after a General Election, but it would be undemocratic to have another General Election at that point simply because the public now had more information. The idea of re-running a General Election because the public now has more information would, one suspects, be a simple partisan manoevre, motivated by the idea of getting rid of the incumbent government. Such a manoevre does not seem to me democratically justifiable.


Another bad excuse for holding another Referendum is the idea that voters were not sufficiently well-informed before the 2016 vote. Even if it is true that voters were not sufficiently well-informed (and I take no stance on that issue here), that is a problem that cannot be addressed post hoc. In a democracy, it is of course vital for voters to be well-informed, but we must ensure, so far as possible, that voters get good information before the crucial votes – i.e. before it is too late. I have never heard anybody argue that General Elections should be repeated because voters were not sufficiently well-informed before the vote. We would usually instead think: well, too bad if the public were badly-informed! Now we have to put up with the outcome of the vote! I do not see why we should not think the same about the 2016 referendum result.


The problem, then, with simply re-running the 2016 referendum is that there is no clear, democratically justified reason for doing so. But this does not preclude having a further referendum of a different sort.


What, then, IS the case in favour of a fresh vote? My idea is that a new vote would NOT simply be a re-run, because it would address a different question. The Government has tried to implement the wishes expressed in the 2016 referendum, but its attempt has been blocked by the House of Commons. We have reached an impasse, since the Government cannot find approval for a Deal Brexit, yet still wants to avoid a No Deal Brexit. It is also unclear exactly why the House of Commons rejected the Government’s deal. Some MPs had concerns about the Irish backstop, while others believed that the Deal did not promise a close enough relationship with the EU. Basically, we have a big mess.


There are two ways we can try to deal with this impasse. The first is to let the politicians handle it. However, I for one have little faith that they will be able to actually escape from this impasse. There is currently no Parliamentary majority in favour of any Deal or No Deal. Furthermore, the DUP and the right wing of the Conservative Party have clearly indicated that they will only agree to a Deal if the Irish backstop is scrapped (see e.g. Dominic Raab’s interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday 20th Jan). Yet the EU appear very unlikely to agree to any deal which does not involve an Irish backstop (see e.g.


If there is no further public vote, there are two possibilities. One is that we crash out with a No Deal Brexit, and one is that politicians manage to scrape together and pass some sort of Deal just in time. These possibilities would lead to radically different futures, and so from a democratic point of view there is good reason to let voters have a choice about which option they actually want politicians to pursue. Yes, this Government has been elected to represent the voters who elected it – but let’s be honest, the Government have little idea of how voters actually want them to deal with the present impasse. Hence the best solution from a democratic point of view seems to me not to simply let the politicians get on with it, only for them to guess what the public wants and scrape a decision through at the last minute, which may not reflect the public’s priorities. Rather, we should have another vote, which is not simply a re-run of the 2016 vote, but instead asks: how should the government proceed from the present point of impasse?


One advantage of holding a vote, and holding it quickly, would be that it will give the Government a clear sense of direction and thereby resolve a lot of uncertainty. If we do end up leaving with No Deal, at least we will have been forewarned a little. Or, if the public voted for a Deal Brexit, Theresa May would have a very strong mandate to negotiate a compromise, and she would likely find it much easier to get approval for a Deal from the House of Commons, with MPs knowing that the public wanted a Deal of some sort.


I hence believe there is a very strong case, from a democratic point of view, for having a further vote. The real question is whether or not a Remain option should be on the ballot paper.


I think there is a good democratic case for answering “yes”. In a democratic system, the people’s vote is binding, but with one crucial caveat: the decision of one public vote can be overturned by a subsequent vote. Hence, plainly, the decision at the latest General Election overrules the decision at the previous ones, just as the 2016 referendum decision overturned the 1975 choice to sign up the UK to the EEC.


Of course, as I mentioned above, we must reject proposals to simply re-run votes for no good reason, since this is undemocratic. However, as I argued above, in the present situation there is good reason to hold another vote about Brexit. This is that the Government’s attempts to deliver Brexit have stalled, and it is unclear which option they should pursue next – so why not let voters tell them?


That being so, I see no reason why a Remain option should be left off the ballot paper on the potential next referendum which I am proposing. If a majority of voters now back Remain, then the “will of the people” has changed, and present voters have a right to overturn the decision of the 2016 referendum if they so choose. Moreover, there is a general democratic principle in favour of giving the electorate the widest possible choice. There is no legal barrier to the UK remaining in the EU (, so strategically speaking this is one of the ways the government could proceed from the present impasse – although it would only be democratic to pursue this option if this decision was approved by voters, since otherwise it would be violating the 2016 referendum result.


I turn, then, to the practicalities of the further referendum I am proposing. The question would address how the government should proceed in the Brexit negotiations. There would be three options: Remain, pursue a Deal with the EU, and No Deal. To be fair to Leave voters, Remain would require 50% of the vote or more to win – it would be unfair if Leave options attracted more votes but the victory was given to Remain. Of course, specific wordings would have to be worked out by the appropriate authorities, but I maintain there is a genuine conceptual distinction between asking voters “Do you want the UK to remain in the EU?” and “How should the government respond to the impasse resulting from the Government’s Brexit Deal being rejected by the House of Commons?”, and it is basically the latter question which the public should be answering.


To sum up, then, there should definitely be a further vote on Brexit, to help clear up the present impasse. The more difficult question is whether Remain should be on the ballot paper in this further vote, but I argued that there are two democratic reasons in favour of including it: i) IF a majority now supports Remain, it would be a shame, from a democratic point of view, if the government did not proceed according to the wishes of this majority; ii) in a democracy the people should be given the maximum possible choice.

An Exploration of Pelagianism

Pelagius was a British theologian born in the 4th century AD. He is associated with several controversial doctrines, some of which were condemned as heretical by more orthodox Catholic theologians such as St. Augustine. One major common theme of Pelagius’ moral and theological teachings is the human ability to do good – or lack thereof. As such, he wrote about freedom of the will and original sin. For simplicity, I am going to focus on one particular view associated with Pelagius, which I’ll call “Pelagianism”. This is that human beings are capable of goodness independently of divine grace (i.e. assistance from God).

It is possible to accept Pelagianism even if one is atheist, or agnostic. You might believe that we could only do good if God existed and helped us, but still deny that God exists. This would lead one to the bleak conclusion that we are incapable of doing good. Conversely, some theists are Pelagians, following Pelagius himself – they may believe that God helps us do good, but claim that we could do good even without God.

While Pelagianism was condemned as heretical in medieval times, today we might think that Pelagius’ thesis strikingly anticipated modern ethical ideas. Most people in industrial societies today probably are Pelagians, since they are atheists or agnostic, but believe we are capable of goodness (even if they might say we don’t fulfil this potential very often).

There is a certain story certain historians of ethics tell, which presents Kant’s work as a key turning point at which we realised how to “do” ethics without making God the centre of everything. One unfortunate consequence of this over-simplistic view is that it passes over the complexity of, and variety of positions generated within, medieval and early modern (Reformation-era) debates about the relationship between God and human goodness. Paying closer attention to these debates – especially the debate about Pelagianism – should interest modern Pelagians, and those tempted by Pelagianism.

Rejecting Pelagianism may seem like an extreme, or highly austere, position to take. Why should human beings not be capable of goodness independently of divine grace? Even if you are a theist, we might say, imagine that it turned out God did not exist: surely it would not follow that one would have to revise one’s view of history, and say that after all no good deeds had ever been done? Does this thought experiment not show that God’s existence is besides the point as to whether human beings are capable of good deeds?

Moreover, rejecting Pelagianism might appear problematically misanthropic. Isn’t the more balanced and reasonable view that human beings are capable both of great evil and great good? Isn’t it also morally problematic to ignore or play down the genuine positive aspects of human life and action?

To answer these objections, we have to distinguish the various positions that can be adopted by those who reject Pelagianism. At the opposite extreme end of the relevant spectrum is Luther, who claimed that human beings are capable of good only in the sense that God can use us as conduits for achieving some good. According to Luther, human beings post-Fall are fundamentally corrupt, and even when God achieves some good working through us, only God truly is responsible for the goodness achieved. The situation is akin to one where a woman uses a hammer to nail a painting in the wall – although two entities are involved, the woman and the hammer, only the woman gets any credit. The difference, on Luther’s view, is merely that in the God-human case the human is actually in a sinful state, whereas the hammer is morally neutral.

To reject Pelagianism, we do not have to go for this extreme Lutheran view. Most medieval Catholic philosopher-theologians understood good human deeds as a two-way cooperation between human beings and God, for which both parties are partly responsible. Rather than being passive conduits, humans are understood, on this view, to have to awaken themselves to God’s grace and pro-actively respond to it through thought and action, in order to work good deeds. The reason this view is not Pelagian is that God’s assistance is still deemed necessary.

If we adopt the Catholic “takes two to tango” view, there are ways of answering the objections raised above. (There may also be ways to do this on the Lutheran view, but I confess I do not see what they are). First, it is true that human beings are capable of great evil and great good. So the Catholic view is not misanthropic. However, it is essential to appreciate that while we are capable of great good, this is so only because we receive assistance of certain kinds, including divine grace.

Putting aside God for a second, many people would subscribe to the view that we cannot achieve positive things without help of some kind. Acknowledgments in book covers and victory speeches often testify to this. Barack Obama often claimed that every successful businessperson should acknowledge that they managed to get where they did only because they received help from others – that crucial piece of advice, that timely loan… Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that human fragility implies we are always, to some extent, dependent on the support of others. The mother-child relationship is a case in point.

Within a theistic perspective, this sort of help – whether from other persons, creatures, or simply the natural world – are just some of the many forms which divine assistance take. Since this world is God’s world, parts of nature – including human beings – are vehicles which God can make use of and collaborate with to deliver his assistance to us. So if we think that we always depend help from someone or something external in order to do good, and we believe God created the world, it would make sense to reject Pelagianism.

What about our thought experiment – what if, contrary to our expectation, it turned out God did not exist? The issue here is that switching from theism to atheism would probably shift one’s understanding of the natural world itself. It is not as though the theist will accept that history remains exactly the same as he thought it was prior to discovering that God did not exist after all. Since most theists believe God is actively involved with the world, they would come to think of human history in a quite different way. And they may think those differences justify changing their judgment; saying that good deeds had not been done after all.

A final thought to conclude: drawing a parallel between the rejection of Pelagianism and acknowledging our dependence on others brings to light an advantage of the anti-Pelagian position, namely its connection with humility. If a strength of Pelagianism is that it appears to acknowledge the positive potential of human nature, some anti-Pelagians can claim their position fits better with the apparent truth that we need help to become good. There is a harmony here with Aquinas’ profound remark:

“Natural reason tells us that because of the inadequacies we perceive in ourselves we need to subject ourselves to some superior source of help and direction; and whatever that source might be, everybody calls it God.”

What do you think about Pelagianism? I’d be very happy to hear your thoughts.

Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly”: A Commentary, Part 1 (Introduction & Wesley’s Theory)

“I remember you was conflicted
Misusing your influence
Sometimes I did the same
Abusing my power, full of resentment
Resentment that turned into a deep depression
Found myself screaming in a hotel room
I didn’t wanna self-destruct
The evils of Lucy was all around me
So I went running for answers
Until I came home
But that didn’t stop Survivors’ Guilt
Going back and forth tryin’ to convince myself of the stripes I earned
Or maybe how A-1 my foundation was
But while my loved ones was fightin’ a continuous war back in the city
I was entering a new one
A war that was based on Apartheid and discrimination
Made me wanna go back to the city and tell the homies what I learned
The word was respect
Just because you wore a different gang color than mine’s
Doesn’t mean I can’t respect you as a black man
Forgetting all the pain and hurt we caused each other in these streets
If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us
But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, just another nigga”


Can we understand Christianity better than as a particular way of realising, and responding to, our own inadequacies? To Pimp a Butterfly is, I suggest, a story about that journey, that tragic struggle. This pivotal concept is articulated Kendrick’s “Another Nigga”, quoted above, which unfolds gradually and incompletely as the album progresses before being read out in full in the final track, “Mortal Man”. (The lines above gradually taking a more and more complete form parallels Kendrick’s increasing self-awareness and maturity as the album proceeds). As I hope to show in this series of commentaries, the order of the themes in the album mirrors the order of the themes in the poem.

My thoughts on each track, and on the album as a whole, are in no way intended to be comprehensive (nor could they be, if I had so intended). They are also not intended to be “the final say” on any particular interpretive or aesthetic issue. Being a privileged white male, my understanding and appreciation of this music is – sadly – bound to be limited in various important ways. So it is also important to convey that I do not intend to put words in the mouth of Kendrick or any of the artists on this album. Rather, I should like to think of my role in this commentary as a novice, encountering a brilliant, sophisticated creation and attempting to understand it in my own (inferior) terms. If my attempt helps the reader engage, to any degree, more deeply with this (in my view) incredibly (musically, politically, religiously/spiritually) important artwork, it will have been worthwhile making this commentary public.

Note: Although the n-word features in the words I write below, it does so only when I’m quoting somebody else.


1 Wesley’s Theory
The album begins with a simple, trebly, sickly-sweet mutiple repetition: “Every nigger is a star!” But suddenly this gets rudely interrupted – “Hit me!” – and the cheesy brightness of the intro music collapses, to the stark contrast of an incredibly punchy, in-your-face rhythm and deep bass line. We’re being told that this album is going to involve self-questioning, and it is going to challenge us; lulling us into a sense of security before slapping us in the face. (The self-questioning is particularly sharp, and particularly directed towards Kendrick’s identity as an African American, in “Blacker the Berry”, as we will see later). This is a wake-up call. But what are we supposed to wake up to?
The facade of the cheerful idealism in the opening – “every nigger is a star” – is quickly attacked. When the “bubble” of this facade bursts, i.e. when “the four corners of this cocoon collide”, Kendrick is told, you will struggle to survive.


This realization of the risk of destruction prompts an effort to induce self-questioning: “Gather your wit, take a deep look inside: Are you really who they idolize?” It is significant that this verse is not delivered by Kendrick; as is usually the case in life, we tend to need others’ help to realise we might have a problem. You can view the first several tracks of the album as Kendrick answering – or trying to answer – Leimberg’s question.


Leimberg’s vocal challenge sets a pattern, since throughout the album, we will see, voices that are not Kendrick’s – or the words of others, spoken or quoted by Kendrick, such as his grandmother’s – have absolutely crucial roles in the album’s story. I think this reflects Kendrick’s humility: he does not pretend to have found the answers to his troubles on his own, and he has the courage to admit, and lay bare, his dependence on others.

One role the other voices play is to interrupt. Just as the cheesy opening was interrupted and partly thereby exposed as a facade, so too Kendrick’s illusions are often interrupted and challenged in the course of the album’s dialogues.

Kendrick’s first answer to Leimberg’s question is incredibly honest: “At first I did love you, but now I just wanna fuck/ Late nights thinking of you, until I get my nut”. It’s not just that his focus has changed from love to mere sex, but that it is now based on selfishness – hence why he thinks of this person only until he “gets his nut”. The other person is now primarily a mere means to his own pleasure.

Along with this admission comes more than a twinge of regret: “Bridges burned, all across the board/Destroyed, but what for?”

On one reading, this question is not answered, and we instead witness what appears another interruption – although in this case (importantly) a self-interruption. Kendrick suddenly changes the subject to all of the crazy shit he will do “when [he] get signed”, ranging from sexual exploits, to splurging money on expensive items, to encouraging violence by handing out M-16s in the hood (verse 1). While this behaviour is “uneducated”, he “got a million-dollar cheque like that”: in this mindset, his fame and financial success justifies – or at least excuses – him doing whatever he wants. The question of why bridges were burned with his “first girlfriend” remains unanswered; the only answer is an escape into the superficial and easy pleasures wealth and fame allow.
An alternative reading might have it that Kendrick’s answer to the question “but what for?” is given here, albeit in a roundabout way. His relationship was a casualty of his ambition to achieve fame and the easy pleasures that accompany it; hence the literal answer to “what for?” is “to get famous and the easy pleasures coming with that”.
The two readings set out here might be compatible. The ambiguity could reflect Kendrick’s own uncertainty as to whether he believes that becoming famous justified wrecking his previous relationship, or whether he merely considers this (non-justifying) autobiographical explanation.

Insofar as he does think himself justified in this way, Kendrick would be subscribing to “Wesley’s Theory”, which counsels dealing with the pressures of life – life as a prominent black American man in particular – through a selfish hedonism, a trap that Kendrick suggests Wesley Snipes fell into.

Dr Dre interrupts this to warn Kendrick of complacency: “Anybody can get it [security, success], the hard part is keeping it, motherfucker!”

Despite this, the focus in the next verse remains materialistic, specifically on what Kendrick can buy with his new-found money: ” a house or a car / Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?” But, significantly, this verse does not seem to be spoken by Kendrick’s own voice but rather “Uncle Sam’s”, which counsels “Too much ain’t enough, both we know… Get it all, you deserve it Kendrick”. The impression is very much of a devil on his shoulder, relating this verse to later ideas about “the evils of Lucy [Lucifer]… all around me” (see “Another Nigga”).

There are multiple ominous sounds and messages in this track which hint at the deep unsatisfaction and unease Kendrick feels with (following) Wesley’s Theory. Uncle Sam threatens: “I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before thirty-five”, hinting that Kendrick is aware that the path of Wesley’s Theory can lead to prison, or worse. (Wesley Snipes was sentenced to three years in prison for failing to file income tax returns). Highly significantly, the figure of “Uncle Sam” represents white power: it is not only that the overwhelming majority of lawyers and politicians in the US are white and socio-economically elite, but the personification of this powerful elite in the figure of “Uncle Sam” is an old, white man. (As we saw in the previous paragraph, the figure of Uncle Sam has also been connected the the devil). If African Americans “get above their station”, like Snipes, Uncle Sam will come calling to “put them back in their place”. (I use this language not to in any way endorse the racist narrative that justifies white power, but to give a sense of the source of Kendrick’s (rational) fear that he remains vulnerable to white power despite his fame and financial success).

George Clinton’s bridge reminds Kendrick that it’s “quite a drop from the top”. Perhaps most troubling are the repeated lines (not sung by Kendrick) “We should’ve never gave niggas money/ Go back home, money, go back home”. The suggestion seems to be that, by using his fame and money for selfish and thoughtless purposes, Kendrick is to some degree fulfilling the evil prophecies of those racists who believe they “never should have given niggas money” due to their belief that African Americans lack the discipline to use fame and money responsibly.

The track comes to a tumultuous halt with another interruption, this time of increasingly hysterical voices yelling “Taxman coming!”, which gradually drown out the rest of the music. There are a few levels to this: first, the taxman’s arrival represents Uncle Sam’s fulfilment of the threat to “Wesley Snipe [Kendrick’s] ass before thirty-five” (this threat is issued as the music drops out, making it more emphatic and shocking); second, it suggests that Kendrick’s (financial) exuberance is going to be reigned in (by the white Government), lastly and most generally, it signifies that wider forces are at play which are going to bring Kendrick to account. The metaphorical idea is that Kendrick has debts not of a financial but a spiritual kind to account for; particularly his unresolved internal tension about the burning of bridges with his first girlfriend.

The latter idea has special significance particularly given Kendrick’s Christian belief and background, which (as I hope to show throughout this series) is very often important for grasping the meaning of particular lines as well as general themes in his music.



Kendrick’s conscience prickling him about how his previous relationship ended could be understood as, on his part, consciousness of sin. I am here reminded of Kierkegaard’s claim that the only non-treasonous route to Christianity is through consciousness of sin. In that light, the line about the “taxman coming” and the associated idea of Kendrick having debts to pay could be understood as (partial) recognition of a debt to his neighbour and God to rectify and atone for the mistakes he has made. (We will see how Kendrick eventually tries to atone as the album progresses. Some basic ideas are already made explicit in “Another Nigga”.)

In the Christian moral system, the notion of “atonement” has a particular role and meaning related to the literal “at one” (i.e. unified). The sinner fails to be at one with God, but also fails even to be at one with his or herself, and hence needs Absolution (to be made whole). Consider this concept with reference to the words of “Another Nigga”: the first line, “I remember you was conflicted”, explicitly sets out that Kendrick understands his problem (the problem with his mental health) as being about the conflict within him; i.e. the fact that there are different parts of his personality pulling him in different directions.

How does this inner conflict manifest? Above, I suggested that Kendrick interrupts himself when he dodges the question “why did you burn your bridges?” by boasting about the cool stuff he can buy now. This could be read as Kendrick’s hedonistic, Wesley’s Theory-side interrupting his conscientious, reflective side.

Like anything torn by two internal forces pulling in opposite directions, if nothing is done there is a risk of “self-destruction” (see again “Another Nigga”: “I didn’t wanna self-destruct”.) This theme is particularly prominent in the later track “u”, and I will comment upon it later.

We will also see below that Kendrick’s quest for atonement – unity, wholeness – will also involve an effort to unify his community. Here I am reminded of Plato’s insistence that societal peace is impossible where inner peace is absent and vice versa. But first he will have to quiet (at least to some extent) the chaos or “conflict” in his own mind.

The function of “Wesley’s Theory” in this album is to lay bare how and why Kendrick is “conflicted”. On one hand, Kendrick is clearly attracted to Wesley’s Theory, with the (veneer of) power and pleasure it brings. At the same time, we see that following it does not rest well with Kendrick’s conscience: he is unsure whether he was right to burn bridges with his past girlfriend and he apparently cannot put this issue out of his mind. The more senior voices around him are warning that he is currently on a course for disaster. Perhaps most pressingly and most forcefully to his egoistic side, he now realises that if he carries on this way (e.g. “handing out M-16s in the hood”), Uncle Sam is going to put an end to his misadventures by force. It is more accurate to say he possesses a veneer of power than true power, since (like Snipes) he remains vulnerable to Uncle Sam despite his apparent worldly success.

Although there is some sense that Kendrick is conflicted from the words of this opening track, I would like to remind the reader of the point I made in the Introduction: that the gradual unfolding of “Another Nigga” mirrors, among other things, Kendrick’s self-awareness at various stages throughout the album. Here, it is significant that “Another Nigga” has not yet even begun: the first line, i.e. the one where Kendrick makes an admission (confession?) about his internal conflict, has not yet been uttered. The reader/listener might consider whether this represents how, at this stage of his life, Kendrick’s awareness of his inner conflict was very rough and inexplicit. Perhaps he was (to some extent) in denial about the problems he was facing. Before a confession is made (and the denial phase is thereby cut short), how can one begin one’s process of religious/spiritual/mental healing (or atonement)?

In light of the decisive multiple anxieties about blind obedience to Wesley’s Theory raised in this track, some alternative response must be found before the taxman arrives, but at this stage we have no idea what that solution might be. We are left anxious: what will happen when the taxman arrives?

“Wesley’s Theory”, then, is about “misusing your influence”, being conflicted, and “abusing your power”. It is not just an honest expression of Kendrick’s temptations but also the beginnings of a problematization of them, and hence counts as the start of his recognition of his own inadequacies. But, significantly, this process is now only in embryonic stages.

Corbyn’s Position on Northern Ireland

Here’s a question: is Jeremy Corbyn’s position on Northern Ireland the only one consistent with true faith in the peace process?


He has been hammered by the Conservative British press for responding to the question “Do you unequivocally condemn the IRA?” by saying that he condemns all violence against civilians, whether committed by Irish nationalists or British nationalists.

Why is this a problem? On my understanding, the whole motivation behind the peace process in Northern Ireland is to acknowledge that the violence committed by both sides was wrong, unjustifiable, and needed to stop. That means that, whether violence is carried out by one side or the other, it should be regarded as an equal affront to us all (irrespective of nationality) as a threat to the peace that we have worked so hard to maintain.

To focus, in one’s rhetoric, on condemning and blaming one particular “side” is to fall back into that old trap of vilifying the “other side” while refusing to be honest and open about the evils committed by “one’s own side”. As Orwell argues in “Notes on Nationalism”, this is the hallmark feature of nationalism: a complete refusal to acknowledge uncomfortable truths about your own group’s complicity in injustices. Condemning the violence of both sides in the same breath, as Corbyn insists on doing, is the only way I see to avoid this nationalist pitfall.

That pitfall is not just regrettable in its own right, it is what fuels nation-vs-nation conflict in the first place. To see one’s own nation as a lone crusader for goodness against the evils and barbarities of foreigners is usually what makes it possible to see war against those “evil-doers” as a viable and even attractive option. Make no mistake, it is that ideology which lies behind the British press’ condemnation of Corbyn’s comments. Why hammer somebody for saying both sides are unjust unless you refuse to accept that “one’s own” side shares some guilt?

When you pick on one side only, part of the problem is that it fuels a negative and reinforcing cycle. Since you pick on one side, the people (historically associated with) that side feel aggrieved, and start picking on you back, and hating you back. Just the kind of negative cycle that spirals out of control to the point of war.

You could also ask: Where are the British reporters demanding to know if party leaders unequivocally condemn the actions of British soldiers on Bloody Sunday?

It is true that some British voices have condemned the killing of civilians on Bloody Sunday. David Cameron’s apology was at least honest in condemning the British Army’s violence against civilians as unjustifiable. But what I am worried about now is whether those voices – the voices genuinely loyal to the peace process – are going to continue to speak up and not to fall on deaf ears.

You may think I asked that question about Bloody Sunday because I am, in truth, an Irish nationalist and an IRA apologist who wants to attack the British establishment. On the contrary, I am saying only that genuine commitment to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland requires that we abandon the kind of nationalistic jingoism which thinks it appropriate to publicly condemn only the “other side” and to brush “our own” side’s sins under the carpet. Corbyn appears to have done that. Have other party leaders?

Various commentators have drawn attention to the fact that, after Brexit, the Irish border is going to become problematic. All serious parties have paid lip-service to keeping the border safe and maintaining peace, but the truth is that if we are going to weather the oncoming storm, we need to transcend playing petty nationalistic blame-games. We need to stop naming and shaming historical opponents while deflecting the troubling past of our own nations. To do anything else should be considered an affront to the spirit and the security of the peace process.

That’s why the question should be, not “why did Jeremy Corbyn refuse to pick out the IRA?”, but rather, “aren’t the British press fools, for repeating the same mistakes that led us to war before and could lead us to war again?”


Some Arguments Against Tactical Voting

I have some concerns about the popular tendency to vote tactically. Let’s define a tactical vote as one which is cast, not for the party/candidate that the voter believes would be the best, but for another candidate, in the hope of influencing the outcome in a certain way (e.g. trying to prevent the candidate of a party you dislike from winning).


To clarify, I readily accept that there are certain situations in which one should vote tactically (e.g. Germany 1933). But I am not convinced that there are many situations where it is the best choice, nor am I convinced that it is appropriate to vote tactically in the upcoming election.

Here are my arguments. If you’re only going to read one, go for 1: it’s probably the most important and convincing.

1) It is a Mistake to Think That “Seats Won” is the only Factor Relevant to Party Influence

A popular defence of tactical voting is the idea that, although it might ideally be better to vote for the candidate you think would be best, we have to decide based on the practical consequences. The fact is, one might say, we need the influence of the Tories must be reduced, or we must at least attempt to reduce it, any way possible and as much as possible. This means that the majority of non-Tory voters,if not all, should vote tactically, to try to reduce the number of Tory MPs as much as possible.

I think the assumption being made here is clear enough: the primary question we must consider when deciding who to vote for is, e.g., “which choice is most likely to lead to the defeat of the Tories in this seat at this election?”.

Now of course, this is an important question to bear in mind, but it would be a grave mistake to think that seat-winning is the only factor affecting party influence. This is evident from the influence and success of UKIP in the last several years.

Why and how did UKIP wield so much influence, despite having just 1 MP!?

a) They won a lot of votes.

b) They attracted a significant number of votes in various regions, in pretty much all areas of England. (Unlike e.g. the Greens, whose support is mostly confined to certain very atypical areas like Brighton).

c) They attracted a significant number of votes not only in traditionally Conservative areas, but also in areas traditionally loyal to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. (Again, unlike e.g. the Greens).

The result of this has been that all the major parties started to worry about losing votes to UKIP. The fear was not necessarily just that UKIP would win those seats, but that traditionally loyal voters would defect to UKIP, increasing the incumbent party’s vulnerability to other rivals.

This fear from the major parties presumably at least partly explains some broad, but major strategic decisions made in the last several years by the leadership of the major parties:

i) The decision to hold the EU referendum.

ii) Ed Miliband’s suprisingly conservative stance on migration and various social issues. (viz. the influence of so-called “Blue Labour” figures such as Glasman during Miliband’s leadership).

iii) Corbyn avoiding taking a strong stance during the EU referendum campaign and Brexit.

iv) The Liberal Democrats, despite being ostensibly the most internationalist and Europhile party, still using patriotic/nationalist rhetoric and still conforming, to some degree, to nationalist policies such as denying immigrants from claiming benefits as soon as they move to the UK.

v) May’s tough stance on Brexit i.e. refusal to entertain “soft Brexit”, and her move to nationalist and right-wing policies in various other areas.

If you accept that fear of UKIP was the primary influence behind these major decisions, which I think is plausible, you have to accept that parties don’t need seats to wield great political power. As the chess grandmaster Aron Nimzowitsch said, “the threat is stronger than the execution”.

What if all those millions of UKIP voters had reasoned that UKIP candidates stood little to no chance of winning the seats in which they stood, and hence voted for their second favourites instead? British political history would look very different. If you wanted Brexit to happen pre-2016, voting UKIP was the best way to make that happen even though most UKIP candidates had no chance of becoming MPs.

That being said, why not conclude that the best way to increase the chances of progressive policies being implemented in the near-to-medium-term future is to vote for whatever party is pressing for such policies most strongly, whichever party you believe that is?

Imagine the following scenario. The Liberal Democrats start to significantly increase their number of votes (unlikely, I know), not only in areas where they have traditionally done well, but also in areas traditionally loyal to Conservative and Labour. However, they don’t win any more seats than usual. Despite this, the latter two parties start worrying about haemorrhaging votes to the Lib Dems, and hence start to moderate their stance on immigration and Brexit.

(You need not agree that the Lib Dems have the best policies on those issues to see the point. I would also encourage Labour sympathisers in traditionally Conservative vs. Lib Dem seats to vote Labour for parallel reasons).

I conclude that tactical voting is not obviously the best way to use your vote in terms of the likely political influence of your vote. In fact, as the hypothetical scenario of UKIP sympathisers voting tactically shows, tactical voting may destroy the possibility of the ideals you believe in being put into practice.

2) Tactical Voting on a Mass Scale Obfuscates what the Electorate Actually Wants

If lots of people vote tactically, i.e. vote for parties that they do not really believe are the best, we end up with governments and oppositions that, to at least some extent, ipso facto do not genuinely reflect and campaign for the ideals that people want and believe in.

Parties use elections to gauge which policies and proposals are popular, which is an important part of how they decide to govern, if elected, or how they decide to campaign and hold the government to account, if they become the opposition. Since I do not believe in restrictions in immigration, I want to vote for a party that agrees. If I give my vote to a party that disagrees – which may nevertheless be a justified choice – I still cannot ignore my partial complicity in the immigration policies that I tacitly endorsed by giving that party my vote.

When tactical voting happens on a large scale (i.e. hundreds of thousands of voters), the gap between the outcome of what an election legitimizes, and what people actually want to legitimize, is magnified. If democracy is supposed to be about getting the government to rule in accordance with the wishes of “the people”, tactical voting hence causes a significant problem for democracy, by obstructing the links needed to make that happen.

3) Tactical Voting and Ideological Reflection

Part of the point of democracy, at least in the views of some of its scholars and defenders, is to encourage the populace to think about their political views and to learn more about political issues. Now, we are all busy and we have limited time to think about politics – that may be a shame, but it is just how it is. At election time, many of us are usually stimulated a bit more to spend time considering the facts, as well as our own views. This is a good thing.

I think there is a potential negative relationship between tactical voting and this process of political self-reflection. If I resolve to vote tactically, the choice is usually very simple: I want to keep the Tories out, this is a traditionally Tory vs. Labour seat, so I will vote Labour. This is so nice and easy that we might not make as much effort to research what other parties are saying, whether we really prefer Labour policies to e.g. Lib Dem or Green policies. If we resolved to vote only on the basis of ideological preference, we would by contrast have a great incentive to scrutinize our own beliefs, the facts, and the options in much more detail. Again, this seems like a good thing.

(Of course, many tactical voters are very self-reflective, knowledgeable, etc. But this doesn’t detract from the point that, generally speaking, we might be more reflective, questioning, investigative etc. if we didn’t vote tactically – or at least maybe some people would improve in this regard if they didn’t vote tactically).


4) Is the Point of Voting Influence?

This is my most tentative point, but I question whether the whole point of voting is to try to wield influence. Political scientists can prove to you that a single vote, or even a modest number of votes (hundreds), is statistically very, very unlikely to swing the outcome of the result of any particular constituency. (This is not to say that smaller numbers of votes don’t influence politics at all; see point 1). But it does raise the question whether there are reasons to vote other than influence. I think there are at least two:

i) Maintaining the institutions of democracy. Obviously, democracy can’t continue unless people vote, and low turnout levels threaten democracy for reasons relating to my point 2, above. So part of the reason to vote is that if you believe democracy ought to be sustained, by voting you are doing your bit to keep the house in order (or at least standing). So our reason to vote might not just be about influence, which would remove the motivation for voting tactically.

ii) Self-Expression. I think there might be some inherent worth in exercising the opportunity to go and express your political views to the world, no matter how crazy or unusual they are. If that seems silly, consider what it must be like to live in a society where there is neither democracy nor freedom of expression. That this is important to people would also account for the frustration often felt by those who feel they have views which are not represented by any of the parties – going back to my immigration example, I find it really annoying that I can’t support a party which is, to my mind, genuinely non-nationalist. I gather eurosceptics had a parallel frustration before the existence of UKIP. If you agree there might be something inherently therapeutic about expressing yourself in the political realm by voting, you should really consider voting for the party closest to your personal beliefs.


Although I have these arguments against tactical voting, I’m open-minded and am not 100% convinced I shouldn’t vote tactically at this election. Why? As I said above, tactical voting might be essential in certain cases. Maybe this election – the Brexit election – is one where some tactical voting needs to be done, at least in certain constituencies. What I hope to have shown is that tactical voting comes with a lot of serious problems, and the decision to vote tactically should not be made lightly. Anyway, thoughts on this or related issues very much welcome.

Why to Vote for Britain to Remain in the European Union: Maintaining World Peace and Stability

Consider the name of the prominent pro-EU campaign group “Britain Stronger in Europe”. This is a good example of making a tacit concession to nationalists. Of course what we want is whatever makes Britain stronger, the name suggests; it just so happens that what will make Britain stronger is remaining in the EU. The view that we shouldn’t cast our vote based wholly or mainly on which alternative makes Britain stronger gets brushed under the carpet, since even the pro-EU side doesn’t air it. The language of the debate is subtly, part-unconsciously skewed to the nationalist side. It becomes more and more difficult to make a convincing pro-EU argument, since pro-EU individuals have to fight in territory which we fail to realize we have already conceded to the nationalists. Nationalists gain confidence. Since their own principles are going unchallenged, their views seem all the more immune from rational criticism.

Here is a dissenting voice. It is vital that Britain remains in the EU. This is not primarily because remaining in the EU would benefit Britain, though it would do that. The primary reason, in my view, is because Britain remaining in the EU makes the outbreak of an inter-state war in Europe considerably less likely in the long-term. (Since an inter-state war in Europe would, like the World Wars, greatly damage Britain, I argue even those who care primarily about British interests should hence vote for Britain to remain in the EU).

This is a big claim. What do I have to back it up? My view has two sources: a consideration the history of Europe in the 20th century, and contemporary International Relations (IR) theory.


Part One: Neo-Realist Theory and the Causes of War

First, a crash course in IR theory. My claim is that Britain exiting the EU will make peace more difficult to maintain in Europe. To see whether this is true, we need an analytical tool which helps us understand the causes of war.

The dominant theoretical school in IR, neo-realism, offers a simple and convincing explanation of the persistent outbreak of inter-state war throughout history. Waltz (1) considers three kinds of explanation of inter-state war: Man (is human nature to blame?), the State (the policies of individual states?), and the Structure of the international system. Waltz does not entirely discount Man and the State as contributory factors, but argues that Structural explanations have not received nearly enough attention.

The aspect of the structure of the international system to blame for war, according to Waltz, is anarchy. Within the domestic sphere, the state almost always enjoys a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In the international sphere, no state enjoys such a position: there is no super-state policing nation-states, hence why the international realm is “anarchical”. Domestically, individuals’ demand for security is outsourced to the state, which provides security for all citizens. Since states cannot outsource their security needs to another, over-arching institution, they need to provide for their own security, which involves paying for and maintaining an army.

Tragically, this causes grave problems at a systemic level. Even if a state builds up military force for purely defensive reasons, neighbouring states have little way of knowing whether the militarily expanding state is gathering forces for defensive or offensive purposes. This uncertainty means that the growth of power in a neighbouring state presents a security threat. In response, neighbouring states have little choice but to build up their own military, or risk invasion and destruction, thereby aggravating the problem in a vicious circle. Since another state’s gain in power seems to represent another state’s loss, international politics becomes a zero-sum game where competition is rife and cooperation is difficult. If a new state’s power is gradually expanding, the status-quo powerful state’s leaders may decide that it is better to fight today, on more advantageous terms, than to lose horribly in 20 years time.

Neo-realists can explain why even states with peace-seeking leaders end up pursuing militaristic and aggressive foreign policies. Properly understood, neo-realism does not say that war is inevitable in an anarchical system, but rather that the anarchical system imposes extremely strong incentives on political leaders to pursue militaristic policies. In a dog-eat-dog international system, it is hard to survive if you do not pursue militaristic policies: since fellow states will be worried about their security and power, neighbours will surely aggressively take advantage if one state leaves itself in a vulnerable position. As Waltz points out, non-militaristic states are more likely to be wiped from the system by rivals, so they are not as numerous or long-lived as their militaristic rivals. Moreover, the citizens of states are likely to promote their own security, and remove from office governments who fail to defend their security against rival states, which are seen as threats. The result is that political leaders are not left with much choice: militaristic and power-seeking policies are usually the only option.

This is why the Structural explanation of war is so much more convincing than the human-nature and individual-state policy explanations. Even if political leaders seek peace and have smart policies, the nature of the system pushes towards war anyway. This explains why inter-state war has recurred throughout history, despite its gigantic costs: the international system has always been anarchical, so leaders are stuck in a system which repeatedly leads to undesirable outcomes.

It is clear that, as Waltz claims, “a structural defect requires a structural remedy.” The massive incentives which push political leaders towards war will not be removed until international anarchy ends. Perhaps long-term peace is faintly possible in an anarchical system, but it would be exceptionally hard to achieve in a system which is essentially zero-sum, or close to it. The EU is itself a “structural remedy” to the problem of anarchy: by pooling the sovereignty and economies of European states to a significant degree, it has mitigated the destructive effects of anarchy in Europe and hence preserved peace.
In this brief explanation, I have not been able to do justice to the nuances of neo-realist IR theory. For those of you who remain unconvinced, I recommend reading Waltz’s works. At the very least Waltz’s theory is a useful tool with which to analyze European international relations. The neo-realist perspective, I shall be arguing, supports the view that the EU, and Britain’s continued membership of it, are vital for the preservation of peace in Europe in this century.

Part 2: 20th-Century International Relations Through a Neo-Realist Lens

Let us reconsider some of the events of 20th-century international relations through a neo-realist lens. It is important to bear in mind what a neo-realist lens does not give us. Neo-realists do not pay much attention to, for example, cultural factors relevant to the outbreak of war, such as nationalism. The neo-realist theory is hence incomplete. But that does not mean it has no explanatory value. We can agree that international anarchy and the resulting security dilemmas are a major contribution to the outbreak of inter-state war while insisting that cultural factors play a role too. But recall that the neo-realist theory suggests that, under anarchy, even states which have a culture which favours peace find it hard to avoid militaristic policies.

The historical analysis which I am about to provide, therefore, is in some important ways simplistic. It is not intended to be in any way comprehensive. My aim is instead to use the neo-realist theory to pick up on some of the major contributing factors to the outbreak of the two World Wars. Later, I will argue that the EU is making sure that the same tragic patterns do not recur in this century.

The maintenance of peace in the first half of the last century was made difficult by the growing power of Germany, which had been developing significantly since its unification in 1871. Germany’s power came to utterly overshadow that of any of its near rivals, taken individually: consider that during WW1 not even France, Russia and Britain together could defeat Germany without the intervention of the US, while Germany lacked a single major-power ally. The pre-eminence of German economic might and its potential for military strength remain highly important factors in today’s geopolitical and diplomatic landscape, as I will argue below.

As Paul W. Schroeder points out (2), both the First and Second World Wars were “about a two-sided German problem”. In both cases, Germany’s rise caused security problems both to the East and West of Germany.

First, in the East, Russia, conscious of its comparative industrial backwardness and its diplomatic isolation, grew scared by Germany, particularly after German leaders changed course from neutrality in diplomatic disputes over the Balkans to backing Austo-Hungary against the Russians. As a result, Russian leaders became increasingly assertive and unwilling to make any strategic concessions to Germany and Austro-Hungary. After several close shaves during diplomatic crises over Balkan affairs, Russian intransigence eventually contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914, when Russian leaders refused to make any concessions to Austro-Hungary and intervened with force to preserve their ally Serbia’s sovereignty.

In the West, Germany’s rise caused similar fear in France. France’s vulnerability to Germany was made painfully clear in 1871, when Bismarck won a rapid victory in the Franco-Prussian war. The French political elite aligned with, and heavily invested in, Russia from 1891, in an effort to reduce their vulnerability to Germany. However, the result was that German leaders felt they were surrounded, especially after their failure to secure British alliance or neutrality later in the 1890s. (Britain too was worried by Germany’s rise, particularly in the naval arena). In this situation, German leaders like von Schlieffen reasoned that it would be preferable to pursue an aggressive strategy in a crisis situation: if France could quickly be eliminated, Germany would avoid fighting a difficult war on two fronts. This was close to the strategy eventually pursued in 1914.

Next, consider the prelude to the Second World War. As Germany re-armed, France was once again left highly vulnerable. Although on the winning side in WW1, France was left economically prostrate and politically divided after 1918. To make matters worse, the great strife in Russia during and after the Communist revolution, and the poor relations between the USSR and the West, left France minus one major ally they had in 1914. Meanwhile, the US had returned to isolationism. The problem of Franco-German cooperation had not been satisfactorily addressed by post-WW1 diplomatic and political changes.

To Germany’s East, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires after WW1 made way for the formation of a panoply of smaller national states such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. These, however, were economically weak and divided among themselves. Support from Britain, France and the US was minimal. On the one hand, the new Eastern European states feared risking German anger by aligning closely with France and Britain. On the other hand, France and Britain were reluctant to take on the burden of protecting the borders of small and isolated Eastern European states, which in any case would, in their view, be hard to defend from German or Soviet attack. In the end, the isolated Eastern European states made for easy targets for resurgent German aggression, and the Soviets and Germans divided Eastern Europe up between them, putting Germany in a dominant position in Europe and leading to global war.
The point of considering the “two sided” problem caused by Germany’s rise, and the ensuing developments, is to establish that the pursuit of peace in Europe in the first half of the 20th century was made exceptionally difficult by the following three factors:

1) The anarchical nature of the international system, which meant that Germany’s rise caused strategic dilemmas for both Germany itself and neighbouring states, leading to a vicious cycle of aggression and conflict.

2) In particular, France’s vulnerability to Germany made it highly difficult for those two states to cooperate economically or politically, since French gain seemed to amount to a German loss, and vice versa. This was a significant contributing factor in leading to the outbreak of the Two World Wars, both fought between pro-German and pro-French coalitions.

3) Furthermore, the vulnerability of states to the east of Germany (including, at times, Russia and the Soviet Union) led to diplomatic problems, like the Balkan crisis of July 1914 and the Sudetenland crisis of 1938, and a lack of cooperation. German leaders were hence able to dominate Eastern Europe, making Germany all the more threatening to France, Russia/USSR and even the US. German dominance in Eastern Europe, while especially marked during the early years of WW2, was also eminent during WW1 (consider the dominant German position in the East at the time of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, prior to US intervention). In Schroeder’s view, instability in Eastern Europe was the primary trigger of both World Wars.

Part 3: The European Union and International Relations Today

In light of Waltz’s argument that anarchy in the international sphere imposes strong incentives on state leaders to pursue aggressive, militaristic policies, it is natural to think that, for the cause of world peace, some form of sovereign international governance must be introduced. Recall Waltz’s claim that “a structural defect requires a structural remedy”. The formation of a global state would end international anarchy, affording the potential to create an international system based on mutual advantage and universal security. Waltz himself believes that a global state would prove impossible to establish. Even if he is right, though, that does not mean that the project of sovereign international governance is dead in the water. Sovereign international governance could be set up at a regional level, as a second-best alternative. This would end the anarchical state of affairs within certain regions, making peace within the region significantly easier to maintain.

This is the most important raison d’etre of the European Union. After two incredibly tragic and bloody inter-state World wars kicked off by fault-lines in Europe’s diplomatic sphere, some leading Europeans realized that the zero-sum nation-state political system was, in significant part, to blame for the chaos of the past half-century. It had to be changed. The European Union project today marks a brave attempt to remove anarchy within one of the world’s historically most volatile, war-prone regions, thus promoting peace.

To understand how the European Union’s existence is currently so crucial to the maintenance of peace in the long-term, consider how the EU neatly resolves the “two-sided” German problem which so tragically contributed to the grief of the 20th century.
First, there is the issue of Franco-German cooperation. The initial point of the European Economic Community was to pave the way for Franco-German cooperation by tying the fortunes of the French economy to the German economy and vice versa. By placing France and West Germany in one economic unit, leaders of both countries have much more of an incentive to promote the interests of the other nation. In such a context, aggression by one state against the other would be obviously self-defeating. As George C. Marshall put it, “the remedy lies in breaking the vicious cycle and restoring the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole” (my emphasis). Marshall’s strategy of prioritizing the economic future of Europe as a whole differed markedly from that of the Allied leaders in the post-WW1 settlements, which involved a deliberate attempt to weaken the economies not just of Germany but all states on the losing side of the conflict (see Steiner 2005). Marshall’s strategy has proved far more successful. Economically, the EU and its predeccesor organizations have removed the zero-sum competition which existed between France and Germany before 1945. So the European Union, from its earliest days, healed one of the fault lines originally thrown open by the unification and rise of Germany, namely tension and conflict between France and Germany.

Since 1990, the inclusion of Eastern European states in the EU has helped address the second “side” of the problem. Recall that the major problems for Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century were A) The division and weakness of states to the East of Germany, and B) the lack of support Eastern European states had from Western states. These twin problems made the region highly volatile: from the perspective of a great power seeking to advance its own power and security at the expense of its major rivals, Eastern Europe made for rich pickings. Moreover, the two problems, A and B, were mutually reinforcing. The weaker and more divided Eastern Europe became, the more strategically onerous it was for France and Britain to take on responsibility for protecting East European states. The more France and Britain distanced themselves from Eastern Europe diplomatically, the more vulnerable Eastern European states became. The situation was a vicious cycle.

The EU has addressed both these problems: by bringing Eastern European states into a wider political and economic bloc, they become more unified among themselves (problem A) and also more closely linked economically to Western European states, giving the latter more incentive to maintain the security of their Eastern European allies (problem B). If the EU collapses or is significantly weakened, I fear there would be little reason preventing the two-sided problem, which made peace so hard to preserve in Europe in the last century, emerging once more.

It is unfortunate that Russia could not be integrated into the wider Western/European bloc after the collapse of the Soviet Union (though perhaps this was never practically feasible). The “New Cold War” situation of poor relations between Russia and the West, which has gradually snowballed over the last decade, entails a particular danger to European security.
Russia itself presents a formidable enough security threat to Europe on its own, according to estimates conducted by the Pentagon in 2014. (3) Presently, however, it seems unlikely that Russia would seriously consider a unilateral large-scale attack on a NATO member-state, since its economic and military forces are already being stretched far enough by the war in Ukraine, its intervention in the Middle East, and sanctions imposed by Western states.

The more troubling concern is that Russia’s assertiveness could win it more allies in Europe. The vast majority of far-right nationalist parties (e.g. the Front National, UKIP, PVV, etc.) in Europe admire Putin, and seek closer relations with Russia. At the same time, those parties express deep misgivings about the EU, and US-led international organizations such as NATO. The vote share of those far-right parties has been steadily increasing, and now averages around 15% in many Western European states. Also, as Cas Mudde demonstrates in an important paper (4), the ideological sympathies of a much wider section of European society than that lie with the far right, even if that sympathy does not always translate to support in the ballot box. Perhaps most strikingly, 57% of German citizens recently polled said they would not want German soldiers to stand in defence of Poland and the Baltic states in the event of a Russian invasion of those nations, according to a survey conducted by Bertelsmann Stiftlung and the Institute of Foreign Affairs conducted in March 2016.



Furthermore, in 2014, the former leader of the German Social Democratic Party, Matthias Platzcek, advised that “the annexation of Crimea [by Russia in 2014] be retroactively recognised by international law, so that it be acceptable for all”. (“All” seems to exclude Ukranians, on Platzcek’s view). This is a clear indication that some centrist European politicians, as well as the far-right ones, seek to re-direct their nation’s foreign policies to the tune of appeasement of Putin.

What is the danger here? One problem with Platzcek’s statement, and the view that Germany ought not to defend Poland and the Baltic states, is that it shows disregard for the rights of Eastern European states. If German leaders opted for greater reconciliation with Putin and stepped away from cooperation with the EU, NATO and the USA, the security situation of Eastern European states would look even more precarious than it does currently. A German-Russian accord could spell utter disaster for Eastern Europe, as it did in 1939. Recall my conclusion in Part 2, that the weakness of states to the east of Germany was one of the major contributing factors to the outbreak of world war in the 20th century. It is imperative to guard against this rift being re-opened.

What has this has to do with the United Kingdom? Firstly, while it remains in the EU, the United Kingdom has a clear economic interest in preserving the security of Eastern European states. The more Britain is bound to Europe economically and politically, the less likely British governments will be to return to the isolationist approach to Europe which Britain often adopted in the 20th century. British isolationism would drastically reduce the stability of Eastern Europe, leaving East European states more isolated and vulnerable.
Secondly, whether Britain remains in the EU is bound to have a serious impact on Berlin’s strategic direction. Germany is faced with a choice: it can continue strongly siding with the EU and US against Russia, as Merkel has done, or it could opt for an appeasement-style approach as indicated by Platzcek and those Germans who would not want to stand in the way of further Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. If Britain leaves the EU, the cost of continuing Merkel’s strategy goes up significantly. Regarding Eastern Europe, German leaders will be even more reluctant to take the already-unpopular and formidable task of defending Poland and/or the Baltic States if they are less confident they can count on British support. Moreover, with Britain less attached to the continent, Russia may come to be seen as a threat to Germany itself, particularly given that Germany lacks a sizeable military. In such a situation, the pressure on Berlin to manage the Russian threat through a policy of appeasement will only increase. United, Europe presents a formidable barrier to Russian expansionism; divided, it could quite easily succumb to it.

The principal objection to my case will perhaps be the idea that, even without the EU, or a strong EU, NATO should be sufficient to keep peace in Europe. But just because you inherited two bodyguards does not necessarily give you reason to sack one; one must consider the gravity of the threat one faces. More importantly, the existence, and membership of, NATO in themselves give little reason for member-states to maintain a policy of alliance with fellow NATO members. Contrast it with the EU which, as mentioned above, gives state leaders to support other members, due to the economic and political integration which it fosters. NATO is simply a formal institution of alliance, like the League of Nations was. But if a nation no longer sees an interest in maintaining alliance with other member states, there is nothing to stop it leaving, or simply ignoring fellow member-states’ calls for help. Consider Germany leaving the League of Nations in 1933, and other League members failing to come to China’s aid following the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. Clearly, then, the mere existence of a multilateral defence-based alliance is insufficient to keep peace if the underlying mechanics of the international system are zero-sum. NATO has its uses, but to keep NATO strong, the underlying economic and political links which bind its members together must be held fast. None of these is more important than the EU.

Additionally, note that the principal weight behind NATO is the United States. It may be thought that the US will maintain European security and contain the threat of Russia regardless of whether Britain leaves the EU. But the rise of isolationist politicians such as Trump makes clear that continued US commitment to protecting the security of its allies, particularly distant ones such as the Baltic States, cannot be assumed to extend indefinitely into the future. While Obama has strongly committed to protecting the security of Eastern European states, even he has tried to lower the extent to which Europe is dependent on the US for resolving its security issues. (5) There is a growing sense in the US that it is unfair for Americans to foot the bill for European security, which could be seen as a European responsibility: very few European states currently meet the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defence, while the US far exceeds that amount. Also, a declining US commitment to Eastern European security partly reflects the geopolitical reality that the US is now stretched uncomfortably on several fronts, perhaps most importantly in East Asia. The most prudent course is to mitigate the extent that Europe is dependent on the American crutch, given that said crutch cannot be counted on to remain strong and present in the near future. This means avoiding complete dependence on NATO, and, by implication, keeping the EU as strong and unified as possible.

For these reasons, the EU is absolutely vital for keeping Europe united and for continuing to dampen the fault lines which caused chaos in the 20th century, namely the competition and conflict between France and Germany, and the weakness and vulnerability of Eastern Europe. The EU would be substantially weakened by a British exit, giving German leaders less incentives to continue a pro-EU, anti-Putin policy. Britain leaving the EU would hence be a major step on the road to further disunity and, eventually, violent conflict. This is the most important reason to vote for Britain to remain in the EU on the 23rd of June.



(1) Waltz’s seminal works are Man, the State, and War (1959) and Theory of International Politics (1979), see especially the latter, Ch. 6, for neo-realist explanation of inter-state war.
(2) Paul W. Schroeder, “The Lights that Failed, and Those that Never Lit”, The International History Review, Vol. 28 (1), 2006, p. 122
(3) See
(4) Cas Mudde, “The Populist Radical Right: A Pathological Normalcy”, West European Politics Vol. 33 (6), 2010.
(5) See