Antonio Gramsci

Letter from England 2: Europe and the Culture War


If I were to draw up a list of the problems facing my country, and then to discuss their nature and possible solutions, I might be starting work on a rather long book. Instead, I will confine myself to what I think are the two most immediately pressing, and that are within the direct control of the British Government. These are our withdrawal from the European Union and the state of our so far uncontested culture war.

I begin with Europe. When we voted, in June 2016, to leave the European Union, we were plainly willing an end without willing any means to that end. I think the consensus among those who voted to leave was that we should have a government, elected by and fully accountable to ourselves, that would set immigration and trade policies in our own interest. For various reasons, I choose not here to discuss immigration. Our most reasonable trade policy by my estimation involves free trade with the world in services and manufactured goods, while keeping a reserve ability to produce all our own basic foods, and the ability to produce our own weapons, and perhaps a reserve ability to produce certain industrial basics like energy and steel.

The difficulty with this trade policy is that it is not immediately possible. Those politicians who want to leave the European Union without any agreement are living in a fantasy world of low taxes and light regulations. Given that world, I have no doubt, we could leave the European Union and move straight to a new set of arrangements in which we visibly prospered. But that is not the world in which we find ourselves. Taxes are very high, and the main private employers are a few hundred big companies plugged into the European Single Market.

Leave the Single Market, and we become a “third country,” subject to a thicket of non-tariff barriers at the European border. Tariffs themselves are not much of an issue. The World Trade Organisation rules would keep these low, and the self-interest of our European trading partners might keep them at or close to zero. It is the non-tariff barriers that matter. At the moment, we are in full compliance with all European regulations. These regulations may not be in our proper long-term interest. In the short term, however, they allow British goods and services to enter the Single Market without more difficulty than it is to send goods and services from Leeds to Manchester. From outside the Single Market, our exports would need to be verified at the border.

That we might be in compliance with European regulations on the day of leaving is of no account. Our exports would still need to be verified as complying before entering the Single Market, and, due to regulatory changes, there is no certainty that our exports would be certified as complying. We could make a special agreement with the European Union, but these things take years to settle, and we have only until March 2019, when we have, apparently irrevocably, announced we are to leave. A clean break then, or now, would throw us into great economic dislocations–dislocations that we are too heavily corporatised to avoid, and they are dislocations that frighten some very well-organised and influential business interests.

There may be an alternative solution. Here I come to the irreplaceable work of Richard North. I may be lucky that I have never knowingly met Richard. Everyone assures me that he is impossible to work with. His writings show more than a certain bitterness, even if that may often be justified. He is not much of an economic liberal, and his belief in the goodness of much regulation is not at all to my taste. This being said, he has one immense advantage over just about everyone else on our side of the European debate–an advantage I freely admit he has over me. He has read all the European Treaties.

His present view is that our membership in the European Union is separable from our access to the Single Market. In 1992, the British Government, on its own behalf, signed the treaty setting up the European Economic Area, and this gives its signatories–which include Switzerland and Norway, not members of the European Union–automatic access to the Single Market. While this treaty was later declared, by Act of Parliament, to be one of the European Treaties that we are about to abrogate, there is reason to believe that it will continue to operate regardless of our departure from the European Union.

The advantage of staying in the European Economic Area is that we would be free from the imperatives of ever-closer political union, and we could have control over our immigration policies, and we would be subject to only about a quarter of present European Union regulation and law. There would be no dislocation at the end of March 2019. We could then sort out new trading policies with the rest of the world while making a long-term agreement with the remaining European Union. This would give us no direct control over making the quarter of European rules that continue to apply to us, but Richard says that there are mechanisms in place to consult members of the European Economic Area before new rules are made. He knows more about this than I do, and knows more than any of my friends. Therefore, I bow to his authority.

The disadvantage of this option is that the provisional has a habit of becoming permanent. As said, there are powerful interest groups that would be happy for us to leave in name only, and continued membership of the European Economic Area might become substantive membership of the European Union. It would be useful if the British Government were to put its cards on the table, and say what was the plan, and how and by what stages it was to be given effect. But to do this would split the Government and the Conservative Party. In any event, I am not sure if there is a plan. And so we drift.

I turn to the culture war. When, back in 2007, I published my book Cultural Revolution, Culture War, I thought I was making an original contribution. Sadly, I had not yet read my American precursors–Paul Gottfried, for example–and I was merely reinventing the wheel. But I was original in the British context, and I have had much influence on conservative debate in Britain. The point I make in this book is that politics are downstream of culture. There is a cultural base, and this determines the political and social and economic superstructure. The bounds of what is acceptable in electoral politics are set by the media, by the schools and universities, by the churches, and by the general administration of the State. Anything outside these bounds is automatically “extreme,” and therefore unthinkable–or, at least, unsayable.

Now, these cultural forces have fallen entirely into the hands of the leftists–I use this term for lack of anything more precise. Since about the 1960s, a hegemonic discourse has emerged in Britain, within which no conservative can flourish, and in which he can barely survive without making fatal compromises, or just keeping quiet. We can elect conservative governments, but these will inevitably be dominated by charlatans–I used to call them “Quisling Rightists.” They imply promises without actually making them. If forced to make promises, they will always find ways to break them. If any Conservative politician tries to do something unambiguously conservative, he will be stopped by the cultural hegemons.

This is not a state of affairs unique to Britain. We see it in America. Somehow, and with much gritting of teeth, a moderate anti-leftist was elected President of America in November 2016. Since then, Donald Trump has been blocked at every move. I will not discuss current American politics. My readers will know far more about these than I do, but it is plain to see that Trump is more in office than in power.

The difference between our two countries is that most of the American cultural leftists are formally outside the control of the central government. In Britain, they are nearly all funded by the State. The BBC is our largest media organisation. It is funded by a licence fee set and collected by the State. Their senior management is appointed by the Government. The British film industry is mostly funded by the State. The universities are indirectly funded by the State, and its vice-chancellors are appointed by the Government. The big charities are largely funded by the State. The Church of England is a branch of the British State, and its bishops are appointed by the Prime Minister.

We have an immensely enlarged and centralised state apparatus. This is controlled by the cultural leftists, and all its satellites are therefore stuffed with the same. They form a critical mass of gatekeepers, rather like the ulema in a traditional Islamic state. Government is conducted by and with their consent. Elections are a formality in which the people are called on to answer questions asked by others.

But the fact of state funding is the weakness of this state of affairs. Unlike in America, total sovereignty is possessed by one institution. A majority of one in the House of Commons, and a clear electoral mandate allows the Government absolute and even arbitrary power. So long as the formalities are observed, the courts cannot stand it its way. A government of conservatives could sweep away the cultural leftists in one fit of legislation or ministerial commands. Bodies that cannot be purged can be shut down. Tens of thousands of commissars and Apparatchiks can be thrown out of work immediately. Change the cultural base, and the bounds of what is acceptable within the political superstructure will change with it in a flash.

The Conservatives have been in government with a working majority for quite some time; yet nothing has been done. Nothing has even been done at the margins. Cultural leftists have retired from leading positions in the cultural base, and they have been replaced by other cultural leftists. The universities remain one vast Gramscian project. Anyone employed there is tied by what amount to loyalty oaths–and only those are employed who already wish to obey–and is required by law to spy on their students. The BBC sprays leftist propaganda without hindrance. The only question is how many women are employed to spray the propaganda, and how much they should be paid. The Church ignores preaching the Gospel. It ignores the persecution of Christians here and elsewhere in the world. Instead, it is allowed to consume itself with arguments over the ordination of homosexuals and the solemnisation of marriage between homosexuals. On its days off from talking about sex, it preaches the virtues of an enlarged and centralised state–a state run by cultural leftists. I am not sure how many seats have fallen vacant since 2010, or how many other offices in the ultimate patronage of the Prime Minister. But I am sure not one has been filled by anyone remotely to be described as a conservative.

To say that the Conservatives have lost the cultural war is too kind. To say that they have not fought it is too kind. The truth is that most of them have shown no awareness that there ever was one to fight. Hardly surprising if the matter of how we are to leave the European Union cannot be discussed in the cold monochrome of purely British interests. Of course, there are other problems. These too cannot be properly discussed. If, by some freak of circumstances, they can be properly discussed, no workable solution is allowed to be put into action.

I never expected anything of a Conservative Government, and so I have no right to be disappointed if nothing has been delivered. But I am concerned. The ship of state is going at full steam towards an iceberg, and the crew in charge is made up of those unable to see the mountain that looms before us, and of those who believe that being pitched into ice-cold water is no more than we deserve, or is to their own advantage.

If things go other than very badly, I shall be surprised.

Sean Gabb is the author of more than forty books and around a thousand essays and newspaper articles. He also appears on radio and television, and is a notable speaker at conferences and literary festivals in Britain, America, Europe and Asia. From 2006 to 2017 he was Director of the Libertarian Alliance. He is currently an Honorary Vice-President of the Ludwig von Mises Centre UK, and is Director of the School of Ancient Studies. He lives in Kent with his wife and daughter.


  1. [quote]”The disadvantage of this option is that the provisional has a habit of becoming permanent. As said, there are powerful interest groups that would be happy for us to leave in name only, and continued membership of the European Economic Area might become substantive membership of the European Union. It would be useful if the British Government were to put its cards on the table, and say what was the plan, and how and by what stages it was to be given effect. But to do this would split the Government and the Conservative Party. In any event, I am not sure if there is a plan. And so we drift.”[unquote]

    This hits the nail on the head and is why the Flexcit Plan (which I have read) is flawed. It must be a clean break, no matter what the cost.

    Also, the solution provided by Dr. North (and Pete North) on immigration – roughly something along the lines of the Liechtenstein option, whereby we invoke an exception provision under the EEA Agreement – is extremely flimsy. It is clear that if we remain in the Single Market, then we must also have freedom of movement and any exception or limitation would not provide an adequate safeguard and could be easily assailed in the future. All of us who know and have seen how British politics works know what will happen. Again, the conclusion is that it must be a clean break in which we access the Single Market, accepting the downsides of this while also benefiting from the considerable upsides.

    On the matter of Dr. North himself, I was banned from commenting on his blog simply because I disagree with him and wished to express this opinion. I was unique among his commenters in doing so. The simple fact is that Dr. North cannot tolerate disagreement and reacts aggressively to anybody who challenges him. The same applies to his commenters who post there.

    In my case, I posted a fact-based argument to explain why leaving the Single Market could benefit the UK financially and economically – and I was banned!

    I have no idea what this man’s motives are, but anybody who visits his blog can see that his posts are incessantly negative and I do not believe this can help our country’s position.

    Obviously Dr. North is familiar with the relevant laws and regulations, but much of this subject-matter is about interpretation in light of the big picture and one’s personal beliefs about the strategic goals and objectives of Brexit. I think Dr. North’s arguments are bogus sophistry and rely on loaded preconceptions and worst-possible scenario interpretations. His blog posts amount to doom-mongering, and if they come true, it will only be because too many people bought into his jaundiced perspective.

    I do agree that some sort of formal accord with the EU should be considered essential, but I see no reason why we cannot secure transitional trade facilitation arrangements by March 2019, provided the negotiations are handled correctly.

    • Well, I don’t regard myself as an expert on the details – but I do suspect the Government has no coherent negotiating position, and that some transitional arrangements are better than none.

    • Sorry not to come back on this at once. I am retreating from my earlier pessimism, but agree that a transitional agreement must be sought.

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