Blimey, it could be Brexit: your views

Anthony Barnett's Blimey, it could be Brexit! has provoked perceptive discussion among our readers. Here, we bring you the best of Blimey, below-the-line.

Billy Sawyers
31 May 2016

At the centre of openDemocracy's pluralistic coverage of the upcoming EU referendum is our week-by-week publication of Anthony Barnett's ongoing investigation into this generational event, which eventually will assume the physical form of a book: Blimey, it could be Brexit!

The benefit of this approach is that it allows Anthony to reformulate his ideas as events unfold. More importantly in my view, it also enables him to engage with you, his readers, who from day one have offered an intelligent and lively commentary on his analysis. Anthony participates in these debates himself, elaborating his arguments and regularly taking your suggestions on board. This makes Blimey an inclusive, sometimes collaborative project, as befits the values that Anthony co-founded openDemocracy with in 2001.

Anthony Barnett. Photograph by Scarlett Freund. All rights reserved.

Anthony Barnett. Photograph by Scarlett Freund. All rights reserved.On the most part, your conversations have been strikingly gracious and dignified, which is indeed unusual for online public commentary. Mark A Cohen was rightly enthused by such hospitality:

My God, after going on numerous fora discussing everything under the sun political, finally one in which the people commenting actually respect and read carefully what others have said.

Online praise for Blimey has been commonplace, as it should be, but far more impressive to me is the breadth and depth of the discourse that each chapter provokes below the line. Like Anthony’s own analysis, your discussions consistently rise above the entangled, exasperated debate that continues to perplex us from television screens. They are thoughtful and enlightening, and worth looking back on.

Frequently, your comments have extended Anthony’s historically-grounded approach into a broader archaeology of British politics, excavating the roots of europhilia and euroscepticism. I found this exchange a nuanced expansion of Anthony’s ‘terrible twins’ analogy:

Gustav Clark
British politics has a mental block: we can see back as far as Thatcher, but it is embarrassing for both right and left to remember further, apart from mythical figures like Churchill and Bevan. It really destroys any serious attempt to formulate policy as every proposal has to be judged by how it fits with her vision.

Personally I find myself increasingly drawn to Blairism as the only effective force on the left. I hated Blair when he was in office, but looking back I think I was fooled by the PR. England manages to be the only country in Europe where the organised left is irrelevant in day to day politics, and perhaps the current state of the Labour Party is an indicator that it is happy to stay that way.

The 'narcissism of the scornful' precisely captures my feeling exactly. When I read another denunciation of the 'Tory scum and their pals the neoliberals' I get a reminder that someone is taking my allegiance for granted, sort of 'I am writing this for my friends and if you disagree please stop reading now'.

There's no accounting for tastes but it is surely one of the central arguments of Barnett's essay that Blairism is a form, and perhaps the dominant one, of Thatcherism?

Actually it seems to me that the organised left, if by that is meant the current leadership of the Labour Party is less irrelevant than, for example, the Socialists/Social Democrats in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Ireland or Greece in all of which places they either support governments or put forward policies that are indistinguishable from those of the EU Commissioners.

Gustav Clark
I would distinguish Blair from Thatcher mainly from the impact she had on manufacturing. She was brilliant at picking fights, but useless at building something new out of the resulting wreckage. It was recognised at the time that North Sea oil was basically bad for the economy, as a strong pound inevitably hit manufacturing exports, however it did make for political popularity. Blair, for all his faults, took a far less pugnacious line. He tried to maintain her policies of the modernising the government estate, but economically he was happy to just back whatever was doing well, meaning the City. His pupil Mr Osborne can see that there is political kudos in backing manufacturing, and is quite happy for the state to pay for the investment.

You are right to talk about manufacturing. And Port Talbot highlights the problem. The net result of Thatcherism is that much of the population is surplus to Capital's requirements. Nobody will invest to mobilise an enormous pool of underutilised and unemployed labour. Even those employed full time are often doing jobs that are of no national benefit. And Blair did nothing about this, the structural problem of rapidly deteriorating social infrastructures. Indeed, under his rule the rot grew worse: social services and particularly the Health service were torpedoed. So was Education in its most useful form.

Thus we have a population with diminishing health prospects, educated only to the minimal levels required by unskilled servants. And, as time passes and such things as the Private Public Partnerships lead to bankruptcies and failures, layoffs and staff cutbacks in the NHS, conditions will get worse. The likely result is the expansion of a vast class of paupers abandoned by their country and reduced to criminality.

On the topic of former prime ministers, Kippers offered a pertinent reminder of past Tory policies on the question of Europe:

Thatcher and Major both pushed for the expansion of the EU to include southern and eastern European countries, possibly to try to dilute German influence. This was supposed to create a wider, rather than a deeper, Europe. It has however left the EU as an unwieldy 28-member body that is wide but also deep (in certain areas). This includes countries (such as Greece) that do not even have an effective tax-collection system after 30 years in the EU.

Some of the criticisms of the EU therefore have some validity, but are often the consequence of past UK policies (and Tory ones at that).

As subsequent chapters of Blimey brought us closer to the present, scrutiny of past governments evolved into a critique of the 'malaise' of our current political leadership. This could range from the subtle and thought-provoking (from openDemocracy stalwart Tony Curzon Price):

I think there is a tactical detail that you hint at that is quite intriguing. In December 2011, Cameron really angers the rest of the EU by not allowing the Eurozone members to use the EU treaties or institutions to solve EZ problems. ( ). At the height of the crisis, Cameron effectively makes an unrelated set of demands. Think of it this way - your house is burning down. You ask your neighbour for access through his driveway, a driveway he is not using at the time. The neighbour says, as the house burns, "well, only if you agree to cut that tree down that we've been arguing about."

As I read it, the "Economic Governance" section of the deal that you quote are essentially Cameron cashing in that chip that was won at such a high price for Europe and for goodwill towards the UK in Europe.

So does Cameron let the house burn in order to acquire a bargaining chip that he'll cash in for some cosmetics? Or does he find himself with this unexpected bargaining chip going into 2012 and decide to use it to win the next election?

...To the more forthright and arresting:

John Ward
This should be turned into a pamphlet and given to the Opposition Front Bench, perhaps entitled "Don't try & teach a pig to sing".

Mr Cameron is a product of his class, his education, and his times. He feels superior, he has no philosophy beyond his personal power, and his constitutional ignorance/vandalism is terrifying.

But in the end, he is like couch grass: uproot him, and another five strands come through by the following week.

The problem is one of culture, civilisation and citizen responsibility. It long ceased to be a political problem, and it will not be solved via Westminster politics. However, banning ALL donations to Parties would be a good start.

Neither has the left escaped your discerning eyes, mostly being criticised for its inertia in tackling the issue of Brexit:

The problem, perhaps, is that there is no one on the Left - no Bob Crow or Tony Benn - making a left-wing argument for a post-Brexit UK. It is that complete lack of imagination/leadership that makes handing the reigns to BoJo/Gove/Fox more likely. It's not all doom and gloom though, I rather like David Davis and Dan Hannan, and maybe the Left will reorganise and start doing their job if we leave.

And from openDemocracy's Jeremy Fox:

Totally share your criticism of Labour which has become an irrelevance in the referendum debate. I see that BBC Question Time is to hold two one-man(sic) sessions with Gove and Cameron respectively. A simple recognition of Labour’s insignificance.

The referendum process itself has also come under scrutiny. Robin Kinross put forward an interesting point about qualifications, an aspect that I had not previously considered:

Qualifications would be nice, but I'd be most happy to see:
— a minimum percentage level for the turnout (say 40 per cent of registered voters)
— something more nuanced than "achieve 50.000001 per cent and you win". Maybe: it has to be at least 60 per cent of votes cast to achieve a win.

I don't suppose there is an obliging MP able to push through such a modification, at the last moment. (Remembering George Cunningham in 1978.)

Beyond the present event, we really need to think hard about referendums and to integrate them into the whole system of government, with rules and standards. Who can call them? Who can vote in them? But of course that means rethinking the whole UK constitution.

Elsewhere, I was struck by Damien Hockney's suggestion that the referendum may not be as final as it seems:

Excellent piece and a great analysis of how little trust we must have in the words of the PM. They are just words for the moment and for convenience...and of course just as much a falsehood is the Project Fear claim by the PM that a vote to Leave is final. We surely all know that, like all the other things he has said and which you list so well, this is simply not true and will be belied by events: in the event of a Leave victory, another referendum will come along on a tortuous pretext, following 'further negotiations' which themselves will be dressed up as delivering 'game set and match for Britain'.

And people will have to keep voting until they deliver the 'correct' answer. Ireland too was told by its elite on more than one occasion about referenda on EU matters; 'the vote is final, so vote how we want'...and when it didn't go the way of the elite the people were told to vote again (this time with the elite changing the rules about balance and barring opponents from much of the media!). The piece itself is required reading for anyone interested in the campaign.

There have also been some insightful comparisons between this plebiscite and the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. I thought BC was enlightening in this regard:

Labour is still in a state of uncertainty about the long term effects of campaigning with the Tories on the independence referendum. They're not sure whether they're on the verge of recovery or living on borrowed time in Scotland. I think that Corbyn and co must be concerned that they might reap a similar outcome from this referendum. Apart form the fact that this is moral cowardice, it is a false comparison.

The base support for Scottish independence was working class and left. The strongest support for the union came from the leafy suburb middle classes and the rich and it was part of the Tory Party's reason for existing in Scotland. It was a pre-polarised stand off and they were imbeciles not to realise that they were walking into an obvious trap.

The differences between Remain and the separatists are far more complex. The solid Brexit support is lower middle class and small business oriented - that is why, despite a few localised scares, it is the Tories who have been threatened by UKIP in the main. While there are certainly working class separatists, the majority of the working class in the UK as a whole are uncommitted to either position and are looking for leadership and eludication. Labour separatists at least have the courage to nail their colours to the mast and fight for them. Remain supporters in Labour risk being seen as something far worse than traitors as they were in Scotland. If they do not commit and fight their corner they will be seen as irrelevant. There is no way back from that. Ask a Liberal.

On a more existential note, I found that this discussion of sovereignty and globalisation cuts to the heart of the dilemma that the referendum presents to many of us:

Chris Irvine
Interesting article and I am in the 'Leave' camp however I am not ensconced and am open to correction. I had hoped a mature debate however that has been sadly lacking as political opportunism appears to have overtaken the issue. For me the fundamental tenet is sovereignty, should we elect a government (as limited as 'first past the post is') for them to abdicate accountability to others? Are our freedoms being eroded and birth rights being handed lock, stock and barrel to others? On the other hand do our politicians no longer capable or competent to do so and deserving of the power we invest in them?

Guest no 1
National sovereignty no longer exists for any country, owing to the decades of neoliberal globalisation policies and the inability of any country -- bar a few, like Russia -- to go it alone. That is why the entire world has organised itself into regional political-economic arrangements (with the EU being the most developed) and also why it is just absurdly stupid to think that the UK can recreate its world empire again. It is also stupid to think that it can benefit from being a small trivial country in an aggressive and competitive world populated by regional power blocs.

Chris Irvine
I disagree we have acquiesced to globalisation, to think we cannot go it alone is a nonsense.

Indeed, but it is a question of arguing for that I think.

Not against the EU, but for the UK.

Finally, it is worth showing an instance of Anthony perfecting his work based on your interjections—especially as evidence of how below-the-line comments can help shape public debates.

John Osmond
Hi Anthony, Am enjoying these posts - an excellent intervention. You mention the SNP but not Plaid Cymru. We have just launched our Manifesto for the National Assembly election on 5 May today - it can be downloaded from our website - it's the most visionary and radical manifesto in our history I believe. Look especially at the section on 'Building the Nation - A new Wales, A New Britain' and our call for a constitutional convention leading to a Confederal UK.

Anthony Barnett
Thanks John, I've mentioned it now, and your comment! Quite right to call me on that.

So, please continue to contribute to this ongoing debate on openDemocracy. Your comments have helped make Blimey one of the most cogent and refined accounts of the EU referendum.

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