Blimey, it IS Brexit!

England has voted to leave the EU. The conclusion of Blimey!

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
29 June 2016

Michael Gove, a key Leave supporter, Wikimedia

What led the English to decide to try and take the whole of the United Kingdom out of Europe?

A striking victory for what I dubbed ‘Maggyism’ has taken place. It seeks the “liberation” of Europe from a ‘super-state’, not isolation. It might even succeed, this being a time of surprise, as the EU is struggling with a dysfunctional currency and has other electorates already enflamed by its rigid policies and lack of democracy. In England for sure, under the banner of  Maggyism’s alluring yet chilling command to ‘take back control’, a new form of populist Toryism will be tested. The challenge for the left across England will go deep and it will have to discard its attachment to the ruins of Labourism if it is to recover.

The first thing to register is the scale of the outcome, then its nature. Already some Labour MPs are pointing to how narrow the outcome is. The left is brilliant at denial. Since last year’s general election many on the left can be heard to say that the Tories won only 24% of the electorate – as if this means it was not a ‘real’ victory for Cameron and company. A more clear-eyed reading is that whereas in 2010 the parties of the left and centre (Labour, Lib Dem, SNP and Green) got 16 millions votes between them and those of the right (Tories, UKIP and BNP) only 12 million, last year the combined vote of the centre and left went down to 14.3 million while the right rose to over 15 million. In 2016, for the first time in sixty years, the combined parties of the right outnumbered those of the left and centre. The referendum is a further step in this rightward trajectory.

Yet it is also an amazing democratic moment and not a right-wing one of the kind we have been used to since the rise of neoliberalism at the end of the 1970s. The popular rebuke delivered to the corporate political class is devastating. A week ago, the Financial Times spoke for the ruling system in its editorial saying a British vote to withdraw from the EU would be nothing less than “a grievous blow to the post-1945 liberal world order”, one that would strike at “the coherence of the west”. It went on to contrast the liberalism of those like itself who wanted to stay in Europe with the “pinched nationalism” of Brexit. This characterisation is partly correct but partly – and it is an important part – mistaken. However, the FT’s call for the UK to stay could not have been weightier. It stood at the pinnacle of a staggering alliance, domestic as well as international. With the important exception of part of the London and Murdoch media, all the main parties in parliament, all living prime ministers, the financial, business, trade union and cultural establishments, mobilised all of their considerable persuasive powers for Remain. [See Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail]

The government used its position to the hilt. It spent £9 million sending an official booklet to every household. It issued Treasury warnings. It coordinated with the Bank of England. The age of deference may have ended but the authority of high office still commands respect. The outcome of the prime minister’s renegotiation exposed the main flank of the Remain campaign to his failure to bring back powers from Brussels as he had promised he would. He managed to prevent any debate in parliament of the deal he negotiated, which would have revealed this and damaged him. The BBC never pressed the issue. The advantage in any election accrues to the status quo, in this case the status quo used its advantage in every way it could and not without considerable success. Many chose the path of caution that both Downing Street and the Labour movement advocated. In their heart, a far larger majority of the English wanted to support Brexit than actually voted for it. This makes the outcome all the more decisive.

The people of England have spoken.

But so far all they have said is that they do not want to be told that their voice is worthless or they must accept their fate as decided in ‘Brussels’.

Cameron called the referendum as a tactical device to deal with the threat from UKIP, which is, in the personification of Farage, a racist movement that can speak with all the devices of prejudice. But the English are not a racist people any longer. And will not become so again. Nor are all members of UKIP racist, at least while Douglas Carswell remains a member. Nigel Farage will seek to brand the referendum outcome as his own even though it belongs to a far larger movement of sentiment than his. Perhaps the most important question then, in different ways, for the victorious Maggyites, for the crushed left, and for the defeated but still established authorities, is to ensure that Brexit and its aftermath does not belong to Farage and indeed Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders.

How can we claim Brexit, even if, like me, you wanted to remain in Europe to take the battle for democracy to the Commission, arm-in-arm with fellow Europeans like DiEM 25? The immediate, practical way is, immediately, to start to forge a new relationship with Europe. The English are not racist but they are broadly speaking anti-European, above all thanks to a love affair with Britishness. This too may come to an end should Scotland leave the UK. If only by default we have to help create and give voice to a civic, multi-racial Englishness. This is likely to be the crucial battleground in the coming encounter with Faragism.

For it also means England becoming a normal European country. How can we prevent the referendum from poisoning this possibility? For the entire referendum campaign was marked by a transactional relationship to our continental neighbours, which has now seeped into peoples’ attitudes. It was boosted by the prime minister himself. I tried to analyse this at the start of the referendum. As the campaign unfolded the clearest example was the dispute about how much the UK’s membership of the EU costs. Technically, Britain pays £350 million a week into the EU and then gets a large rebate. The net figure is closer to £100 million and the larger claim is “absurd”. Nonetheless, it was imprinted on the Leave battle bus. Much fuming about the lies and distortions followed. But never once in the three months of the referendum campaign to my knowledge, and I followed it as closely as I could, did any official or influential supporter of Remain say that whatever the amount it was a snip, a bargain, good value, exactly what “the fifth richest country in the world” should be paying to equalise and strengthen a Europe from which we drew so much mutual gain. Never did the word “solidarity” pass the prime minister’s lips. No attempt was made to communicate with the country that we are European. Anything at all we paid them was a loss. The “lies” concerned only how much this was!

Nor did the Labour party suggest that we should embrace Europe as Europeans. The difference with Scotland and the Scottish National Party was striking in this defining respect. Just take one example of Labour in action, to see how it too embraced an entirely self-interested, calculating relationship about being “better off” in the EU. Here is Jeremy Corbyn’s brief video appeal, his final, official battle cry for the Labour campaign. It has all the passion of passing a turd:

This is the biggest choice in a generation, whether Britain remains in the European Union or not. It's a choice that puts jobs, workers rights, its economy and the National Health Service on one ballot paper. If Britain leaves all these will be put at risk. Working people will have less protection from a Tory government, which has shown quite clearly it will not stand up for them. The European Union has its problems. Not everything about it works. But despite that Britain is undoubtedly better off by remaining in. This is a one-off choice between staying or leaving completely. Given what is at stake, I and the Labour party believe that Britain is better off in Europe. Vote Remain.

The concepts of ‘Voice’ and ‘Exit” may help us understand what happened. The terms were developed by Alfred Hirschman to explain behaviour in politics drawing on his analysis of markets. Crudely, if you do not like what is happening you can stay and seek to change it – which he termed Voice – or you can regard such an effort as pointless and leave – which he termed Exit. Usually ‘Exit’ is seen futile and the question for ending alienation in politics is to encourage Voice as positive engagement. If we apply this comparison to the referendum then the Brexiteers embraced Exit. However, it was they who claimed the vision saying they would leave the stifling, undemocratic control of the EU to give regular voters ‘Voice’ in the crude form ‘control’. Whereas Cameron, Corbyn and all those arguing for the official Remain opposed Exit but instead of offering engagement proposed only a sad relative advantage. For Cameron’s EU deal removed the UK from active participation in the EU’s core project. He called this a win-win, a “best of both worlds” outcome where the UK gained access to the single market while being relieved of ever closer union. But it meant that UK citizens had no say.  So Hirschman’s terms were reversed in the UK’s referendum: Exit from the EU was purposive, while remaining was voiceless. Little wonder that Exit won.

Yet 16 million voted to be European. And many of those who voted for Brexit are also European. It’s really important not to caricature those who said Busta! An anecdote. I was in a London mini-cab two days ago and asked the driver if business was better or worse than last year. “Worse”, he said, and added that migrants were coming and using Uber to reduce his business. I enquired further. He was a tall Nigerian I’d guess in his 40s. He has been a driver for ten years. A naturalised Briton, his wife and two children were born in London. He is self-employed and supports competition “you have got to have it, I’m against monopolies”. He was in favour of Europe and against isolation. But he was for ‘Out’. Why? The uncontrolled pressure of immigrants and the usual stories; they sleep three or four to a house, drive up rents, send their money home and he had quite a detailed view as to how Germany managed its migrants and employment better.

Unlike the ‘Outers’ Adam Ramsay and I met in Doncaster he is not a nihilist, suffering in a town hollowed out by the impact of neoliberalism. He believed in the change he thought was needed. Indeed it would be hard to find a better poster figure for globalisation. No racist, he is hardly a little Englander, opposes isolationism and supports Europe. But he wants government. Whether he will get it is another matter. But he and many like him have delivered a historic defeat to the one-time corporate populists: Blair, Mandelson (who worked so closely with Osborne on the referendum) and Cameron the self-described “heir to Blair”. Their approach has been annihilated. It began with the Corbyn surge and has now expanded to the wider UK political caste, ironically becoming part of a European wave.

One of the themes of all the weekly instalments of Blimey, it Could be Brexit! that I’ve been writing since March is to assess the way that market fundamentalism hollowed out politics since the UK’s first European referendum in 1975, and how, after the crash of 2008, we are witnessing the return of politics in so-called populist forms of both left and right. Maggyism is an attempt by the right to scoop up this energy and make it its own, to “Take the wind out of the sails of the extremists and those who would play politics with immigration”. That wind is part of the long history of the adroit pre-emption of consent by the British governing elite. I did not expect it to succeed so dramatically so fast.

But its leaders could have a surprise in store. It is the people of England who have spoken. But Boris Johnson is a Great British Churchillist who thinks making jokes about Africans is funny and Michael Gove an intellectual Scot. Can the left grasp the opportunity this offers to link the spirit of London with its country? It will have to embrace a genuine programme for democracy as a central part of its revival. Jeremy Gilbert makes the point with brevity and panache. I have made the same argument with a focus on England in a response to a powerful confession by Owen Jones as to why he feels he can't support Jeremy Corbyn.

It is not clear that Labour is capable of hearing these arguments. In which case another form of opposition will have to replace it. This is one of the first consequences of the Brexit vote. The referendum was a heaven sent opportunity for Corbyn’s Labour party. It was a platform on which to take command of defining what kind of country Britain should be and of what kind of democracy it wanted. Because its limelight was not the hideous theatrical of the House of Commons it was, to use Owen Jones' phrase, a perfect opportunity "to define oneself". Instead, the argument over Brexit was treated tactically, as a Tory fight that Labour had to keep away from. This was a catastrophic misjudgement. Corbyn gave his support for the EU as "seven or seven and a half out of ten". His defenders say this placed him close to the view of the population. But this misses the point by a galaxy. The referendum was not about Europe it was about us. It was – and is – about our country’s direction, solidarity and internationalism. The referendum was a singular moment of existential commitment not a grade assessment. The demand for leadership is overdone but if it means anything the referendum called for leadership in the sense of a definition of purpose. Labour did not have it give it with respect to this vital choice. The country knows.

The referendum ends with a decision and at the same time everything to play for. I could see from the start that a Leave vote was possible. I thought this was extraordinary enough to be revealing about the state of the country and the potentially explosive national, generational and political forces at work within it. I didn't think that a Brexit vote would actually happen. Now it has, these forces will come into the openrather than being subdued, simmering for the next round. It is a ghastly result in that it is in the hands of right-wing forces released from constraint. But it is also one hell of a challenge. Brexit is a ruin not a fortress, as George Monbiot argues. Have we the capacity to start building its replacement? The consequence could be an immensely positive, which is why, despite the right-wing nature of the moment in Britain, the world order as a whole is trembling at the consequences. One can also see the unravelling of neoliberal depoliticisation in the response of young people in the UK. They had never ‘taken an interest in politics’. They had assumed, as they had been encouraged to, that politics was irrelevant to life and the market place. Suddenly they discover that, no, their ‘natural’ right to travel and reside across Europe is a function of policy. A privilege that needs to be governed and secured and if they want to recover it they must engage politically.

Dark as well as democratic forces have been unleashed by Brexit. It will be the fight of our lives to ensure a positive, progressive outcome: one that is fully European, cosmopolitan, tolerant and pluralist. We are entering a civilizational struggle over the future of our continent and country in which the usual clichés fall away like broken leaves in the gale. To prepare ourselves for this fight we need a clear grasp of what the hell is going on. I hope that Blimey, it Could be Brexit! has helped to contribute towards this, with all its faults and omissions of haste. More was planned but I am now going to draw breath. A new era of British politics has begun. The simple fact that moves to secure the independence of Scotland are now conservative is evidence enough. Either the UK will break apart or a federal future awaits us. That this is now only one measure of the changes that will come in the next few years shows how far reaching they will be and they will not be confined to the UK. The European experiment is going to undergo a parallel transformation. My hope is that it will end with us together not apart. 

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