In March, openDemocracy’s founder Anthony Barnett embarked on a bold experiment, to write a book about the UK’s impending referendum on EU membership, publishing a chapter each week about the real forces that have been unlocked by the debate around it. Blimey, it could be Brexit! was an ongoing interrogation of the “meta-politics of this strange event”, from the corporate populism of the elite, to the strained silence of the Labour Party and the unique political energies shaping Scotland today. Now it is now available in a single pdf that you can download into a reader or tablet, just click on the top right hand corner of the above.
I began following Blimey in April, with the publication of its fourth chapter, ‘Would you believe it, Boris and Gove defy corporate fatalism’. It wasn’t chance that drew me to this installment, but an almost magnetic attraction to its headline, which so brilliantly captures the eerie energy that is now breaking through the nihilistic ‘capitalist realism’ of recent years. In this chapter, Anthony lays bare the divisions within the current Tory party, demonstrating how “four characters [Cameron, Osborne, Gove, Johnson] who have known each other intimately over decades of friendship, rivalry and entitlement, [now] dominate the battle over Britain”. What follows is a rich historical exposition. He attempts to strip away the simplicities of slogans like “take back control” and “safer, more secure” and also dismisses the snide shallowness of seeing the referendum as a merely a vehicle for settling of scores. Instead, he describes the conflict as a bleak clash:
"between the Cameron-Osborne camp who want an arms-length membership, allowing the UK to use the EU as a platform to serve Britain’s self-interest, and Gove-Johnson who argue Britain will do better without the hand of Europe on its shoulder. It is a narrow argument about how to best secure the least influence of the EU while maximizing the UK’s economic advantage."
This apparent difference, he argues, is also the starting point for two alternative directions for neoliberalism after the crash.
What is striking about Blimey is that despite its presentation of a 'bad referendum', fuelled by the self-interest of these pantomime characters, it genuinely respects the public’s investment in this event. Anthony takes seriously the sensation that this is ‘the most important vote in a generation’, and sees the cultural significance of ‘Brexit’ within a wide array of political and economic factors. And so, with considerable grace and metaphoric energy Blimey suggests a schema for making sense of it all, guiding us through the logic of Britain’s disparate constitutional apparatus: “the playground where there are no rules” as he puts it. The result is that rarest of all political texts: a meticulous analysis that is both literary and a convincing call to arms.
Blimey’s core thesis is that the energy behind Brexit is symptomatic of a misdirected English desire for democracy which has subsequently been forced to represent itself in the “toxic sludge” of UKIP. The Left, as Anthony argues, has failed to articulate and represent this, leading to a surge in right-wing populism. Now that this energy is awakening, a political struggle has been unleashed over how it will be shaped and who will shape it. The most ‘healthy’ outcome in Anthony’s terms would be the founding of an English parliament, and subsequent reform of Britain’s ancient uncodified constitution. A civic nationalism of this type would not feed isolationism but on the contrary would provide the necessary energy to begin a genuine reform of the EU through participation in a pan-European movement such as the nascent DiEM25.
Many millennials, like myself, are uncomfortable with the idea of English identity, which is often presented as irredeemably tied to the far-right and at the very least incompatible with the progressive political vision of a pan-European politics. Yet what Anthony achieves in this book is a clear counter argument to such a simplistic assumption. Using the examples of Occupy Wall Street, the indignados and crucially the Scottish referendum he convincingly makes the case that for young people elsewhere “vivid, networked national identity [is] a natural part of the fight against exclusivist nationalism while expressing defiance of neoliberal globalism.” Why does English national identity deny its progressive expression so emphatically then? And what might be unlocked if it were to recognise and go beyond this? These, for me, are the biggest provocations of a provocative book.
Like many I was soon tired of hysterical arguments for in and out that dominated headlines on social media for weeks - the arrogance of Farage and co, the bitter divisions on the left, and the absurdity of the ‘flotilla battle’. The Brexiteers presented the EU as if it were a Star Wars like intergalactic superstate, while many on the Remain campaign have lost all perspective, talking of apocalypse, of world war III in the case of Brexit. Under the circumstances I had considerable sympathy with those whose instinct was to dig a hole and enjoy the silence.
But as Anthony makes clear, there was and is no escaping the implications of this ‘constitutional moment’. However impoverished the public statements and analysis, the EU referendum was a real choice and the 17 million votes for leaving the EU will have an impact on political culture in Britain as well as thousands of human lives. Blimey is a river of sanity and humanity flowing into the European ocean of populism and power. It is still flowing. Now, there is a chance to enjoy it, as many are waking up to the fact that Brexit still means we are in Europe up to our necks and had better start swimming.
(Updated from the original published on 19 June)