The MP for Clacton tells Prospect why he will not run for re-electionby Alex Dean / April 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
Douglas Carwell, the Independent MP for Clacton, walked through the glass-roofed atrium of Portcullis House and took a seat in the building’s member’s lounge. Elites “are in the process of pivoting—and it is a glory to watch,” he said, nursing a cup of coffee. He is pleased that, having initially campaigned against Brexit, “elites” are on their way to implementing it. Carswell’s campaign work helped “Leave” to achieve its stunning victory in last year’s EU referendum.
Carswell spoke to Prospect on Tuesday, the day that Theresa May called a snap general election and has since announced that he will not be standing in it, writing on his website that: “I have done everything possible to ensure we got, and won, a referendum to leave the European Union… I have decided that I will not now be seeking re-election.” He told Prospect exclusively: “I’ve stood for election 5 times. Won four, helped win a referendum. I feel I’ve done my bit.” Gisela Stuart, another leading Brexiteer, has announced she will not stand in June. Carswell said: “I suspect we were thinking the same thing.”
If there is one thing that’s certain, though, it is this: Carswell will not just go away. Having delivered one revolution, he has his eyes set on another. In the wake of his announcement today he told me: “I’m certainly looking for what next to do.”
Carswell was elected a Conservative MP in 2005, and then in 2014 he dramatically defected to Ukip. His reason? David Cameron was not “serious about change” in Europe, he said. Carswell certainly was. When the referendum was announced in early 2016 he set to work, and quickly became the Leave camp’s intellectual muscle—along with his longtime friend and collaborator the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. In March, he left Ukip and became an independent MP, and at the same time published his most recent book. This new volume will only help bolster his reputation as a fearsome Brexit attack dog. At 400 pages, it covers politics, economics, Roman history, ancient Greek philosophy and much else in-between. He is signing off with a bang.
Its title provides a valuable clue as to Carswell’s way of thinking: Rebel. He explains: “It is both a verb and a noun.” He is anointing himself a rebel, and also instructing the reader to do the same—rebel! Carswell cultivates an “outsider” image, despite his rather conventional career path for a politician. After attending Charterhouse and University, “I worked in television for a bit,” he said. “I worked in fund management, I worked for the CEO of a FTSE 100 fund management company, Invesco.”
Carswell was certainly a rebel within the Ukip camp and his book makes clear that he never got on with Nigel Farage. When the former Ukip leader’s name is brought up he says, in characteristically prickly fashion: “Dom and Matt [Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliot, strategists for the Leave Campaign] did this graph, I remember seeing it, where they had the committed Eurosceptics on this side, the Fed-heads—pro-federalists, sorry, I shouldn’t have been pejorative about my fellow citizens—on that side, and it was a bell curve. And, in order to win, the campaign had to be directed at the people in the middle. I am not surprised some peoplecouldn’t see that.” It is clear who he is talking about.
His distaste for the Ukip clique does not stop there. Ukip donor and self-professed “bad boy of Brexit” Arron Banks announced earlier this week that he will run for office in Clacton—Carswell’s seat—in June, despite living near Bristol. When asked for his reaction, Carswell tried to brush off the question, before delivering a scathing verdict on his former ally: “Who? I am always sceptical about Banks, I think we need to reform the Banks. Why are you asking me about someone who lives on the other side of the country who has a twitter account? Who will he stand for? Whatever.”
Carswell’s book—and, arguably, his entire philosophy—boils down to the word “control.” Top-down control constrains, rather than aids, human flourishing. “You don’t have to talk to many of my colleagues around this building for very long to realise that many of them always have a blueprint for something in mind. This is always the way: the rulers have a grand scheme. I say that a successful society is one which can constrain that ability to organise human affairs according to a ruler’s—or would-be ruler’s—blueprint.”
“When I studied British Imperial history I remember reading a lot about the official mind—there is such a thing as the official mind.” The European Union is, for Carswell, run by “official minds”—it is a centralised organisation which exercises control over states which would be better off left to their own devices.
Central banks come in for a battering in his book too. “It is funny how all of these clever dick economists invoke Keynes. Even Keynes was reduced to talking about ‘animal spirits,’ in other words he said: ‘I don’t know.’ It is human action, you can’t know it, and that is why you shouldn’t bloody presume to and that is the root of the problem.”
Carswell’s criticism of the “controllers” runs one step further. They do not simply hinder the flourishing of other groups; they actively exploit them, siphoning off the products of their labour. Carswell splits the world into the “productive” class and the “parasitic” class.
“I think perhaps the key point I wanted to make in the book is that if you have a pessimistic view of the human condition you open the way for blueprints and parasitism, because like Rousseau and the rest of them you think that it requires you to improve the human condition with some giant intervention.”
Pressed on whether the word “parasite” was dehumanising, Carswell said: “Like parasites, [the elite] is not merely extracting resources from the host. It is a case of a form of mind control, creating a distorted image of reality that allows the host population to be docile, passive, and accepting.”
“Wherever that parasitic elite is allowed to prevail, you get stagnant per capita GDP growth.” His language is objectionable—but his point about stagnant GDP growth has some substance. Since the financial crash, this measure has greatly disappointed in the UK.
The solution to this rigged system, Carswell says, lies in new technology. In Rebel, he writes that “the internet has started to disrupt the political marketplace.” He told me: “Digital allows a new set of expectations which means that a condescending elite is thought to be evermore condescending by people who no longer regard them necessarily as an elite.”
For Carswell, though, technology offers a further opportunity. It doesn’t just give new populations access to the political sphere, it enables political candidates to run apart from conventional party machinery. Again, from Rebel: “Previously, voter ID systems, databases and the enormously important direct mailing that they make possible required big computing power and deep pockets—and that meant being part of a big party. Not anymore. I discovered I could do it on my laptop—and do it better.”
But despite wanting a revolution, Carswell is no fan of the populists who have challenged the “elite” in recent months. Trump’s victory, Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the helm of the Labour Party, these are symptoms of the problem—not solutions to it. They do not make “compelling critiques of the system,” says Carswell.
In Rebel he explains what a real solution would look like: “Instead of a small clique—the Cameronians or the Corbynistas, the Trumpists or Farageists—trying to sell us the latest incarnation of the ‘Big Man’ myth, a party could emerge that was not in the hands of any faction.”
Perhaps when that party emerges, Carswell will step back into the limelight. For now, though, he is standing aside. The statement on his website reads: “I intend to vote Conservative on 8th June.”
The man who campaigned so fiercely for Britain to leave the European Union has, since arriving on the scene in 2005, himself left the Tories, Ukip, and now the Commons. A “Leaver” indeed.