Flowers left after the death of Princess Diana: a moment Barnett describes as a 'foreshock' of Brexit. Image, Maxwell Hamilton, CC 2.0
It’s perfectly possible that the Russians managed to interfere in British and American democracy. It seems plausible that the House of Saud would try to swing British votes. Why wouldn’t they? After all, we know that the Israeli government even has the time to play around with British student politics.
If it does turn out that foreign states are working to sway British voters, then this is something we should be concerned about, sure. But I have to confess, over the last nine months, when Peter Geoghegan and I have been looking into where the DUP got their Brexit money from – and then a number of the stories that have followed from this – I have had a nagging worry.
If the liberal wing of Britain’s establishment concludes that Brexit happened because the other side cheated, it will never come to terms with the real reasons why so many people voted Leave. There will never be any introspection about what’s gone wrong, and how to fix it. They will regard it as a justification for carrying on 'as hitherto'.
This has all come home to me somewhat in the last couple of months as my colleague Anthony Barnett has started promoting his book “The Lure of Greatness”, which is the best attempt I have read to explain the deeper causes of Brexit.
Anthony writes about the era which runs from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the “end of history”, and how it, itself, came to an end. He explains how the political order in this period of Western history is defined by what he calls the “CBCs” – (Clinton, Blair, Brown, Bush, Cameron, Clinton). He writes about how this order lost its grip in the four great ruptures which have shaken trust in British politics in this period: the lies of the Iraq war, losing the Iraq war, the financial crash and the failure of the response to it.
The book draws on a wide terrain: for example, he sees the popular response to the death of Diana as a foreshock or early tremor of the coming Brexit as 'the people' distanced themselves from the 'establishment' . He researches a rigorous and damning assessment of David Cameron’s period as prime minister. He does not spare the corporate, anti-democratic structures of the EU. He details why the West Midlands voted Leave – and why Wiltshire did, too. He takes the judgement of Leave voters seriously. And he writes, powerfully, about how it was England’s Brexit, why every class and region of ‘England outside London’ voted Leave, about the rise of English identity that clings to 'Great Britain' as imperial Britain wilts and why frustration with and alienation from Westminster gets displaced onto Brussels.
In Ireland and Scotland – the two media markets which know England best – the book has had a warm reception. Fintan O’Toole, the iconic Irish Times columnist, dedicated his weekly essay to a formidable review, describing it as “the best book about Brexit so far” and recognised it as grounded in a lifetime of far-sighted arguments for the UK's democratic reform. In Scotland, Anthony was invited to speak in a prestigious slot at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and given a positive write up in Lesley Riddoch’s columns in the Scotsman and the National and later, in her well-followed podcast. Bella Caledonia gave an extract from the book the cover of the magazine they publish and distribute in the National.
In his native England, though, the subject of much of the book, it’s been pretty much nada. Beyond openDemocracy and the New Statesman (where he is, respectively, founder and occasional contributor), the book has had no media coverage whatsoever.
This isn’t to say that well known figures aren’t talking about it. A film produced to promote it includes a range of figures from John Cleese and Zadie Smith, to Caroline Lucas, Peter Oborne, and Aditya Chakrabortty as well as the country's leading historian of ideas, Quentin Skinner and the pioneering economist Kate Raworth, reading their favourite passages. It’s been watched by 158,000 people. And yet.
Despite all of this, no English newspaper journalist has mentioned it.
Partly, of course, this is because of the death of journalism: reading a whole book is a lot of work for one story or even a book review. But it seems to me that it’s also because, despite all of the coverage of Brexit, almost no one with any power in the media wants to think about the question at the core of the book: why did it happen?
For those who support Brexit, this is a pointless thing to ask: it happened because the people are wise enough to see that the EU is terrible. But for most of those with power in the press, the concern is more profound. What they want is to return to the era before Brexit. They hope to rewind the film to the moment before disaster struck, in the hope that it won’t come again in a second viewing. They are working desperately hard to ignore the fact that politics is chronological, that Brexit came after the era of the CBCs, and was a product of it.
This is a sign of a profound sickness. The inability to understand that if you lose it is partly your fault, is the way to keep on making the same mistakes over and over again.
And so that’s my concern. It is, of course, vital that the truth about the funding of the Brexit campaign is discovered. We cannot allow our democracy to be drowned by dark money. Brexit, as I see it, was the wrong outlet for legitimate rage, and we must understand who worked to channel that anger into this outcome.
But as we continue to investigate the answer to this question, I hope, sincerely, that those following our various discoveries (you can read them all here and contribute to them here) also follow the coverage on openDemocracy and elsewhere which asks the equally – perhaps more – important question: why were so many people looking for a channel for their anger in the first place?