Brexit was a wake up call - but a wake up to what? A nightmare of Farage proportions that drags Britain further into an Atlantic of fear and chronic isolation? Or a wake up to mend our broken democracy and heal a profoundly torn society? If you agree we want a society where ‘taking control’ means our being capable of shaping a future with the rest of the world, not one where we are ‘controlled’ by our past like a straight-jacket, then we need to understand, I mean really understand, why Brexit happened, what it means and how we build a future we want.
As both a passionate European and a long time campaigner for democracy and liberty, I analysed the referendum in openDemocracy, writing a weekly overview,Blimey, it could be Brexit! Now, I’m building on this to write a forensic explanation of why Brexit happened and a call to action: What Next: Britain after Brexit.
It is being published by Unbound who combine the 18th and 21st centuries – I have to crowd fund the book with advance subscriptions and then write it by November. They will publish and distribute early in the new year. On the night of 23rd June the country signalled a democratic intent to stop being a member of the European Union. It did not stop being European – and Europe’s positive ambitions of cooperation, civility, progress and enlightened hope live on. As Europeans across the UK can still help keep this flame alive. Whether you are British or not, if this is what you want I hope this will be a book for you. Here is the draft introduction.
If you are young and British you have had your freedom to move, live, love and work in another country of our continent taken away from you by the outcome of the Brexit referendum. Your right to be a European and, just as important, your right to welcome Europeans to live with you, has been removed. Perhaps your expectations were unspoken and it is only now you realise something precious has been lost that is akin to bereavement.
Since the end of the Second World War we have seen both individual freedoms and shared human rights develop and strengthen across Europe. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel grew up in East Germany behind the wall that literally divided her country. No one was at liberty to cross it without permission or they put their life at risk. For her in an extreme form, but also for hundreds of millions of us, freedom to move means the end to a kind of imprisonment. Even if most of us decide to stay in our own country, this is a chosen destination when we have the freedom not just to travel but also to settle, temporarily or permanently, anywhere across the EU. Now, a new wall has been thrown up across part of Europe. At the moment the barrier is just a declaration. Perhaps it is all the more alarming because its meaning and consequences are still unclear.
Put the pain to one side for a moment. When 17.5 million people voted to take the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland out of the European Union by a majority of one and a quarter million, they did at least three things: they repudiated their governing elite; they challenged the oligarchy of the European Union and its associated network of global power, even if they did so by walking away; and they tore our country apart from our neighbours in a dangerous fashion that risks turning it into a closed and bigoted place.
We face the prospect of England being reduced to a self-regarding country: prejudiced and divided, impoverished yet obsessed with money-making, separated from Europe’s culture and leaving its immediate close neighbours Ireland and Scotland infuriated by our selfish recklessness.
This is not why the Brexiteers voted as they did. Nor did they act alone. Brexit happened at least as much thanks to Remain’s pathetic efforts. With all the advantages of official power on its side, the ‘Stronger In’ campaign shares responsibility. The legitimate heart of the cry for Brexit lay in the call for self-government and sovereignty against the encroachment of the European Union, coiled within the cunning slogan of ‘Take Back Control’. Against this the Prime Minister and the Remain camp set out their case in terms of narrow, transactional advantage. Claiming that the UK would be better off In and worse off Out was a visionless perspective, echoed in the Labour campaign that the EU is on balance preferable for workers, in terms of their rights and the economy, without any larger sense of solidarity. The government spent £9 million of public money sending a pamphlet to every household saying why it believed voting to remain was best for Britain. Patronising and simplistic, it opened with 5 negative points about the EU to show that the UK had “secured a special status”. These included, “The UK will not be part of further European political integration”. In its own way the government also ran an anti-EU campaign. It implied that it too did not really want to be part of the European Union but felt we should hang on to our special membership out of self-interest.
The outstanding exception on the Remain side in England is Caroline Lucas, the unique Green MP. She called on her supporters to commit to a shared Europe to change it from within in alliance, it is important to note, with DIEM 25, a cross-European campaign. She was largely ignored - as usual the British showed little interest in serious European ideas. ‘Stronger In’, meanwhile, asphyxiated the independent cultural mobilisation for Europe essential for generating positive energy.
The story of why voters were led to make their historic judgment is not therefore a whodunit, it is a why-did-we-all-do-it, with both sides to blame for the referendum’s outcome.
But what will be the outcome of the outcome? If the historic decision of 23 June 2016 was like a thunderclap, the oncoming storm it signals is akin to a civil war over democracy and self-government. At the national level on each side of the shared Irish border, as well as in Scotland, parties for independence from London are marshalling their forces. Across Britain new alliances are being projected on the centre and left, within and without the Labour party. The Tory party is in post-traumatic stress. UKIP may renew itself. Unions, universities, businesses, farmers, hospitals, local governments, NGOs, are all considering their positions - not to speak of two million Brits who live in Europe, a considerable force feeling ignored and aggrieved, and many EU citizens vital to the UK’s economy who no longer feel welcome. European governments are meeting to consider their interests. Nations, factions, institutions, associations, and networks, all with their associated media and social media, are testing their strength. Fundamental issues of identity, liberty, livelihood and sovereignty are in play that touch the soul and can generate stubborn resolve. A domestic political elite that is loathed in a more ferocious and visceral fashion than the EU itself is on the skids.
By ‘political elite’ I mean, in particular, the form of rule represented by Tony Blair and David Cameron, the two defining British premiers of the early 21st century, whose form of government can be called manipulative corporate populism - personified in their respective consiglieri, Peter Mandelson and George Osborne, who together plotted and strategized the Remain campaign.
They embraced the EU as “a means to an end” as Cameron boasted. For them the real end they had in mind was the amplification of British power in the form of their ‘leadership’ on the world stage - and integration in the playground of globalisation whose lavish perks they so enjoyed. When it came to the referendum they avoided deliberating questions of sovereignty, democracy and responsibility for international policies, especially migration and finance. Instead, like a dying emperor of Rome hoping to revitalize his fading energies, they turned the referendum into an extension of the entertainment industry. Even though their own approach was gloomy and doom laden, they chucked the European Union into the pit of London’s media colosseum and were horrified as it was savagely outfought by an upstart Leave campaign pretending it was Spartacus.com. The BBC, once a sage and careful state broadcaster, held its defining debate on the eve of the vote in the Wembley arena that it filled with a literally baying crowd. The House of Commons itself did not debate the choice offered by the referendum at all – an absence of great significance.
A contrast should shame those responsible for Britain’s government. While serious discussion that might shape public opinion was ducked in London, in Edinburgh the Holyrood parliament did debate the referendum. By their votes and speeches its members showed the Scottish public where their representatives stood, while its First Minister made her position clear without pretention. Although its constitution is still incomplete, Scotland now has one that works.
England-Britain by contrast, does not. Its once proud constitutional settlement has become a plaything of the executive. With something as important as the future of the United Kingdom in Europe, there should be rules to ensure the leading figures of the two sides are obliged to defend their views in a process that gives them plenty of time to challenge and correct each other. Instead the Prime Minister, who called the referendum and ultimately controlled the Remain campaign, agreed with his advisors that he should not debate the issues with anyone, let alone thoroughly and at length. The system permitted this.
Not that there is a single, calculating consciousness we can dub ‘the system’ that said ‘Right, boss’, when its Premier concluded it was best not to have the issues deliberated comprehensively in parliament or on television. There was a system failure in a now antiquated political setup. It allowed Cameron to shirk testing the arguments in a competitive context – which is, or was, the whole point of having a parliamentary system. He followed the advice of the cunning guides who had kept his empty vessel in Downing Street for six years. They sought to triumph by evasion. They, at least, got the result they deserved.
But neither Britain nor the EU deserves to be pulled apart from each other. The policy problems highlighted by the referendum would all be much better resolved together rather than separately. On some, such as the environment, peace and security, human rights and trade we simply have to ‘share sovereignty’ with our European partners. How we do so will be a central part of the ‘civil war’ over our democracy that is about to unfold.
My intention in this short book is to map the key issues and propose a way forward. This is far from being just a matter of policies or asking what ‘line’ should be taken. It is indeed a matter of what kind of country we are. There is an underlying pathology across the whole of British politics that embraces change in order to remain the same. Since the 1970s it has drawn on the energy and ruthlessness of the market to refresh a traditional love of authority embedded in imperial and wartime success. First Thatcher then Blair tried to fit Churchill’s mantle to their shrunken shoulders. Cameron flailed around seeking a transformative moment that would slot him in as well. At the start of the referendum campaign he told the Independent, “the world I want my children to grow up in is… a big, bold, brave Britain… That’s the kind of country I want my little ones to grow up and inherit.... a swashbuckling, trading, successful, buccaneer nation of the 21st century within the EU”.
Only the wealthy classes could afford to bring children up with such a greedy attitude. Leaving this aside, Cameron’s language and ambition is that of the Brexiteers. One of the reasons I wanted us to stay in Europe was the hope that it would bring such nonsense to an end. Despite my strong opposition to the EU’s institutions and methods, I voted Remain because I judged that a wholehearted commitment to Europe would start a long overdue process of humanising English politics.
Cameron’s effort to have it both ways was not exceptionally dishonest. By flashing his Francis Drake while embracing the EU he was simply reproducing the perfidious tradition of his predecessors. They always sought to use the EU to preserve British power against Europe. But for all its crises and its criminal embrace of German-led austerity, the EU has been a considerable success and intends to continue to be so. It believes in itself as a shared project. Thanks to his greater familiarity with the EU, Cameron’s nemesis Boris Johnson saw that the game was up for the old British approach of undermining this. He could have embraced his self-proclaimed “liberal cosmopolitanism” and sought to change the country accordingly by leading the Remain campaign. Instead, he bid to become a successor to the apostolic tradition of Churchill, Thatcher and Blair in the only way now possible, by declaring the need for ‘independence’ from the EU.
Boris Johnson won the vote. Should we therefore call for an immediate reversalof its outcome by parliament or by a second referendum on the grounds of his dishonesty and opportunism? Not if this means trying to return to the status quo – should the EU want Britain back, which should not be presumed. The EU itself needs to change and, tragically, the UK cannot now directly participate in this. But our country’s political system needs to change even more. The old way of getting around this by being half-in half-out of the EU preserved decades of bad faith. It enabled politicians and media to blame others - from immigrants to Eurocrats - for our own failures, relieving our leaders of the need to suggest that we really should change. Brexit is another stage on this process of denial. Except that it is wilful not evasive, and has abandoned Britain’s natural allies. It is a provocation that may permit the real battle to begin. The real battle being cultural as well as constitutional, to ensure England becomes a European country again and puts its imperial British phase behind it. Much of British society has done so already, now it is the turn of its political arrangements.
In the contest over this defining battle we need to ask who the two sides are that oppose each other. The nature of the popular vote on 23 June suggests that the division between those who backed Brexit and those who preferred Remain does not reflect the rift that really counts. Millions in the UK who share a desire for change based on economic justice, democracy, basic rights and a sustainable environment can be found on both sides of the Remain/Leave divide. We are, so to speak, the potential alliance for change. On the other hand, Nigel Farage and David Cameron are alike in the way they combine decadence and primitivism - the dual hallmark of Westminster’s melancholy dance. Farage may only be a member of the European Parliament but both his natural supporters and Cameron’s are allies in opposing the creation of a modern, democratic, rights-based polity. Despite their clash over membership of the EU, the Cameroons just as much as the Faragists are at one in not wanting to become European. Cameron’s resignation honours distributing baubles and peerages to his chums is different only in degree and not in kind to Farage’s saloon bar mateyism. In their spirit both of them and their backers are creatures of the closed, enemies of modern liberty, constitutional democracy and planetary humanism. Creating a wide and inventive association of opposition to them is what will matter in the future.
With respect to the present, for millions who backed Leave, their vote was about much more than simply membership of the EU. It was also about whether we can trust those currently in charge of Britain. It is wrong to suggest that their victory was illegitimate because it was only the result of hatred of immigrants, racism, deceit and tabloid propaganda. For in addition, as I will set out in my opening chapter, there is an underlying truth to the judgment that took place.
The vote for Brexit was a brutally refreshing verdict on the autocratic way in which Britain is governed. It is a matter of attitude, culture and language as well as policy and can be illustrated here with one example. Jonathan Portes was Chief Economist to the Cabinet. He is a serious, well-meaning professional who despairs at the irrationality of Whitehall. He defended immigration in theObserver two years ago by writing that it is “likely to boost the UK economy without doing much, if any, damage to the prospects for native workers”. He continued, “Immigrants have different skills and experiences to native workers, so they complement rather than substitute for natives, helping raise wages and productivity for everybody”. He quoted a government paper that refers to “native employment outcomes”. Earlier he co-authored a column in the Times with no less a figure than Gus O’Donnell, who as Cabinet Secretary from 2005 to 2011 was the most powerful civil servant in the land. The two of them shared the same insulting terminology, claiming immigrants “increase the incentive for natives to acquire new skills”.
You can welcome immigrants as people as well as their positive impact while recognising that this language is a repugnant way of referring to the British people. Yet top policy makers regarded such language as normal. As far back as the 1970s there was evidence that the UK itself was becoming “the last colony of the Empire”. Scholarly analysis showed how Westminster drew on imperial experience as it centralised its control over the once mighty municipal cities, while Tony Benn used the notion rhetorically to condemn the way the executive treats its subjects.
It seems that globalisation has not just given a new lease of life to the machinery of the British state; it has also brought into the open its latent contemptuous view of the people. Brexit was not just a revolt of the natives; it can be seen in particular as a revolt of the English against being treated as natives. All successful anti-colonial uprisings have middle class leaderships. The attitude of imperial power is always to regard rebellious upstarts as stupid sheep misled by power-hungry adventurers and publicists.
Step forward, Patience Wheatcroft, Baroness of Blackheath and former Editor-in-Chief of the Wall Street Journal Europe. She proposes that her fellow, so-called peers of the realm should overturn the referendum verdict. Nothing would be more likely to provoke a neo-fascist bloodbath against migrants than her suggestion that a few hundred appointed cronies upturn a decision of the people (I mean, natives). Everything that is disgustingly cosy, self-regarding, privileged, corrupt and unaccountable about the way Britain is governed is represented by the House of Lords. The idea that it should claim a right to override the hoi polloi, shows a complete failure to understand what has happened. Patience Wheatcroft wins the Marie Antoinette prize for obliviousness if she thinks that she and her fellow Ladies and Lords can save Britain in Europe by reversing the referendum. Brexit does not just mean Brexit, it means the tumbrils are out for the Lordships’ house as well.
I aim to show why.
Brexit was led by the right and far-right but it was hardly conservative. Its contradictory nature creates all kinds of openings. It seeks to restore ‘Great Britain’ but has accelerated the breakup of Britain. Its slogan was ‘Take Back Control’, but for many of its supporters this was a call for more government not less, as its hedge fund backers hope. The selfish spirit of Leave threatens to make Britain a closed society, yet its call for accountability and an open economic relationship with the world, including Europe, cannot be achieved if there is an internal lockdown. It demanded the restoration of the sovereignty of parliament but the supremacy of the referendum has subverted this one-time principle of Westminster’s rule. Perhaps the greatest irony of all, certainly the most immediate, is that this declaration of independence from the EU has put the fate of the UK into the hands of Berlin and Brussels.
All this generates confusion and could turn the courage of Brexit into a noxious injured pride. It also creates the opportunity to transform its energy into the full-scale democratic revolt that Britain badly needs. No such response is possible unless it is built on an understanding of why Brexit happened. There were at least four great reasons for the strength and energy of the vote to Leave, and the lethargy and smallness of preferences for Remain. In the book I will examine each in turn, drawing on my research and reporting published on openDemocracy during the referendum campaign.
The first touches an uncomfortable nerve of voice and identity. Brexit was essentially an act of the English. But most English people define themselves as English by saying they are British. At the same time most show complete indifference to Scotland, without which the country cannot be Britain. Yet as a result of Brexit, Scotland is likely to go its own way. Whereupon we English willhave to be ourselves. Alas, for many of us this is not a happy prospect as it releases forces of denial, repression and discomfort bound up with illusions of grandeur, alarm over becoming a ‘small nation’, and the country’s peculiar class and social system. This complex, and its failure to find a healthy voice in the way the Scots and Irish mostly now have, lies at the heart of the culture of Brexit.
Second, there is the much commented upon world-wide rebellion of the working and middle classes against the super-rich and a political system that while nominally democratic insists they are powerless in the face of globalisation.
Third, joining the locally specific issues of identity with the planetary forces of contemporary capitalism is the distinctive nature of the British state and London’s political-media caste, its greed and constitutional vandalism.
Fourth, there is the dual nature of the EU, at once a realm of open solidarity overcoming historic differences and a cartel oligarchy run by unaccountable bureaucrats and judges seeking to expand their sway. The ongoing crisis of the EU contributed directly to the Brexit verdict.
It is striking that the forces of the left in all its once gloriously strident colours had no great influence either way on any of these four processes. This means there are in total at least five ongoing and intertwined stories. The last of these, adding to the mystery, is an absence where there should have been a player.
But, and this is one of the most significant developments of the short period since the 2015 general election, people have been joining the Labour Party in unprecedented numbers. Inspired by the unexpected figure of Jeremy Corbyn, the initial wave of new members shot him to the leadership in 2015. Now, as I write this in August 2016, 640,000 ballot papers are being sent out in a second party leadership contest. It is a mind-boggling number compared to all other English party memberships. The media, obsessed with Westminster and personalities, is failing to report and analyse a potential transformation in UK democracy. Cameron committed the UK to a referendum as a tactical ruse; Ed Miliband altered the rules of electing Labour’s leaders so as to dish the unions. Without meaning to each unplugged veins that led to the same volcanic resentment. And both saw their politics blown away. The first ‘Corbyn surge’ was a harbinger of Brexit, the second, current one, is a continuation of its defiance of established politics. Like Brexit, ‘Corbynism’ opposes globalisation’s “neoliberal fatalism”. It does not follow that either will be a success. All that is for sure is that together they have brought the old corporate politics to its knees.
National identity, political economy, a greedy and indifferent global elite, the lack of real democratic government, the collapse of an influential left, the rise of large, wild, popular movements, the accelerating movement of people internationally - all combined to generate the Brexit insurrection. The outcome puts into question the kind of country Britain is. I hope it is a relief to know that there isn’t yet a one-word answer to the meaning of Brexit.
The government would like us to think the opposite. “Brexit means Brexit” the new Prime Minister tells us – apparently we can be assured she will deal with any issues of implementation and normal services will be resumed. However the situation is anything but normal. We are undergoing an interruption without precedent. So far its violence takes the form of verbal abuse and humiliation, the enormous falsehoods of corporate rule and ominous but low-level hate crimes; the only exception being the horrible assassination of the new Labour MP Jo Cox by a member of the British National Party.
Grief over the loss of a shared European future is not confined to the young. Scientists, artists, scholars of all kinds, medical researchers and engineers are still involved in creative work embedded in international collaboration that the EU has assisted hugely. Ripping the UK out of these networks is an act of philistinism. Brexit could close off the UK from the EU’s achievements while demonstrating an ill-judged presumption of superiority. Most over sixties supported Leave out of complacency rather than wisdom and could menace the achievement of their generation: the end of fascism. This may sound alarmist but the images of Nigel Farage basking in the applause of Donald Trump signal the danger. It will be intolerable if the rejection of the EU for its undemocratic practices turns into animosity towards all those from around the world now living within the UK who have made it a much more interesting and lively country. Are we wrong to fear the rise of prejudice both at home and across the EU, the re-awakening of racist violence, the arousing of white supremacy, the barking of an upper, middle and working class chorus of bigotry - threatening purification, exclusion, expulsion and regimentation? Should anything like this should raise its head we are going to fight it with every means we have - and we fear this too.
The immediate issue for the powers that be, even in their state of shock, is how to put the lid back on. They too are asking ‘Where do we go from here?’ How will they seek to replace the discredited corporate populism of Blair and Cameron, whose manipulations have dominated this century so far? Can the Whitehall elite bounce back in the shape of a controlling, surveillance state, which appears to underlie the practical authoritarianism of Theresa May? Or will we instead have to resign ourselves to government orchestrated by tabloid populism, prejudice, distortion and alarmism that turns elected politicians into pulp?
Or can the vote for Brexit create a chance for an honest democracy of citizens to emerge across the nations of the UK, whether separately or federally, secured by a principled, rights-based constitution? The status quo has been dismissed. This creates an extraordinary and unexpected opening in a society run by some of the world’s most skilful gatekeepers. We have a chance, I would say an obligation, to ‘Reset’ the way Britain is governed, as Henry Porter put it in openDemocracy. The people of these European islands need to regroup to become a meaningful democracy, socially inclusive, internationally responsible, environmentally balanced, economically fair, institutionally inventive and politically free.
In What Next: Britain after Brexit I intend to set out the arguments telegraphed all too briefly in this introduction. You don’t need to agree to want to see it published. Your pre-order in advance can make this happen. Thank you.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence