Britain and the Sargasso Sea: on 'WHAT NEXT', by Anthony Barnett

If you want to understand the underlying currents which pushed Britain towards Brexit (and where we need to go now), pre-order a copy of Anthony Barnett's book What Next.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
8 September 2016

The Sargasso. Image,, public domain

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean lies the only sea on earth with no coast-line. Notable for its brown seaweed, calm blue water and as the birthplace of every eel from the wetlands of Venezuela to the fjords of Norway, the boundaries of the Sargasso Sea aren’t marked by land. Instead, its edges are defined by the great oceanic currents: the Gulf Stream, the North Atlantic Current, the Canary Current and the North Atlantic Equatorial Current.

Like the Sargasso, Britain’s current crisis cannot accurately be described in terms of any one political trend. Instead, it exists at the confluence of a number of them: currents rather than static land-masses; whose boundaries are not obvious to the untrained eye, but can clearly be delineated and described by those who watch closely. And like the eels who gather there to breed, satisfactory explanations can be hard to grasp a hold of, and quickly slip out of reach.

For the months running up to the EU referendum, I had a regular routine. Most afternoons, I would climb up Edinburgh’s Carlton Hill. On the walk, I would ring my colleague, a long term oceanographer of British politics, Anthony Barnett.

Anthony was the first co-ordinator of the campaign for democracy and human rights in Britain, Charter 88 (which influenced New Labour for the better), and is founder of openDemocracy. He was now writing a book about what was going on, which he called Blimey, it could be Brexit. It started in March, and I was publishing it, a chapter a week, in live instalments, here on openDemocracy.

The experience was fascinating: for decades, Anthony and his friends have monitored the broad forces of politics across the UK and beyond, attempting to understand them in their oceanic complexity rather than reducing them to any one, over-simplified story.

Each day, Anthony would talk me through the breadth of what he had read as he followed debates, speeches, articles and books. He would talk through the shifts in data he had been following for years, the expansion of Englishness, the trends in the Tories, the implications of Cameron’s deal, the reaction of the German and the French and American governments and also what was missing and why, like the absence of a positive commitment to being European, or Simon Jenkins’ theory of the continuity of Blair and Brown with Thatcher or the shift from rule by an establishment to a political caste.

Perhaps most interestingly, he would talk through the history: how it related to a culture seeded in the Falklands war – itself a response to the decline of empire; why Enoch Powell’s endorsement of Labour in 1974 was key moment; how the centripetal force of devolution acted on Britain’s constitution to take it to this point.

His thoughts were often framed by his old friends: great thinkers like Benedict and Perry Anderson, Tom Nairn, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. For half a century, the intellectuals of the New Left grasped for the wider meaning, and asked vital questions. I felt we were living through the latest development of their analysis.

Every week, a new chapter of “Blimey, it could be Brexit” would arrive in my inbox. They picked up events in the last seven days but mainly showed how they could be understood through longer trends and often un-noticed currents. Sometimes, the prose would be punchy, angry, clear. Anthony’s forensic denunciation of David Cameron ended up being read by thousands. Sometimes, the analysis would be refreshing, sharp and explosive. The chapter on English nationalism became the most popular of the whole book. Occasionally, there would be a Monnet-like blur: leaving you with an impression of a vast and multicoloured whole, without quite bringing any one detail wholly into focus. These were usually my favourites, though they were less widely read.

When – blimey indeed! – it was Brexit, we had another phonecall, at around 4am. It was clear that the intense work on this live book would need to be turned into something else: an exploration of what has happened and what needs to happen next. And so, after months of intensive writing, Anthony got up the next morning and started again; turning his live account into an immediate reaction.

This new book, “WHAT NEXT” will be the product. In order to get it out quickly, because it is needed quickly, it’s being funded, eighteenth century style, by subscription. So if you want it to happen, you need to order your copy now – here on the Unbound website. And why not get one for a friend too. I can assure you, you will find no better account of how the galleon of Cameron and Osborne sunk without trace, how the Brexiteers are choking on their own seaweed, and how the left became stranded, becalmed in the political Sargasso. And you will find no better chart for how we can to get out of this mess.

Pre-order your copy of Anthony Barnett's 'WHAT NEXT here.

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