The Brexit disaster is an existential crisis in the ‘Idea’ of Britain

Brexit – driven by unenlightened, defiantly anti-modern nationalism – could be the most serious constitutional crisis since Great Britain’s inception in 1707.

Gerry Hassan
7 December 2018
scotland brexit.jpg

Image: Scotland and union flags being waved at anti-Brexit demo outside Westminster, November 2018. Rights: Alberto Pezzali/Nur Photo/SIPA USA, all rights reserved.

Last week I attended an event at Dundee University on the ideas and impact of the Scottish thinker Tom Nairn. Many of his books were discussed, including his critique of the monarchy, and the insularity of the British left, but his most important work - ‘The Break-Up of Britain’ - published 41 years ago, seems more relevant than ever as we live through Brexit.

‘The Break-Up of Britain’ explores the archaic, ossified relic that is the British state; undemocratic, anti-modern and that sees itself as ‘the mother of Parliaments’. It is also a book in which the state of England is central to this mindset - its gathering unease at events in Europe and the European project, and in which a reactionary English nationalism is emerging, initially around Enoch Powell (who was obsessed with ‘sovereignty’), but then taken up by Thatcher, and now by Brexiteers.

Brexit has caused many surprises, but it should not have come as a surprise. The UK Government has shown a scale of incompetence unprecedented in recent times. Leavers have had a cavalier disregard with coming up with a feasible plan for leaving, while the Labour Party has been too often posted missing in action without a Brexit policy worthy of the name. And to cap it all, Theresa May and her Tory Government have managed to lose three Brexit parliamentary votes in a single day – including for the first time having a UK Government held in contempt of Parliament.

We should not be completely shocked at the direction the UK is travelling, only the incompetence of our supposed drivers. The UK not only never became a fully fledged signed-up member of the European project, in many places it never even embraced the ‘idea’ of Europe, choosing to see itself as apart, while the UK never really fully embraced the modern age (i.e. the 20th century) with elements of its elites still living in the age of feudalism.

Brexit did not just occur because of Nigel Farage, Arron Banks and Boris Johnson. Or because they based their campaign on a mixture of calculated lies - the £350m for the NHS, and whipping up xenophobia with Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster and the lie that Turkey was about to join the EU allowing its 75 million citizens the right to come and live in the UK.

English discontents

The reasons for Brexit lie much deeper in part of the English psyche. A significant part of England, along with Wales, and smaller elements in Scotland and Northern Ireland, never warmed to the idea of Europe. And as society has changed in recent times with economic dislocation, social flux, the wave of immigration post-2004, the decline of traditional authority from churches to unions, many people have felt lost and asked who is looking out for them. It certainly wasn’t Blair and New Labour, or Cameron and his smooth Conservatism modelled on the Blair project.

The last two and a half years have revealed unattractive things about the English political imagination. First, there has been the ridiculous language of Tory Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Steve Baker, Nadine Dorries and Boris Johnson. They have talked of the UK as a ‘vassal state’ and a ‘colony’ permanently stuck in ‘servitude’, while comparing the EU to Napoleon, the Soviet Union, and of course, Nazi Germany. Then there is the petulant dismissal of any idea of compromise – based on the narrow 52:48 Leave victory, with the priest Giles Fraser telling Polly Toynbee, ‘You lost. Get over it’.

Second, irresponsible sentiment and bad history are also found on the Remain side. The People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum has made real headway, but hasn’t been helped by the support of Blair and his ex-spin doctor, Alastair Campbell. The latter seems to have no insight into his role in tarnishing public standards through his media manipulation which came a cropper over Iraq. How else can one explain Campbell going on about ‘lying’ in public life? In the last week, Matthew d’Ancona in ‘The Guardian’ said Brexit was driven by ‘an extremely unpleasant nativism’ and ‘Britons who just don’t much like people of foreign extraction’, while Andrew Marr stated to Blair: ‘The English in particular have never been ruled by anyone else.’

Tory and Labour troubles

None of the UK political parties has come out well. Theresa May has earned a grudging respect, with even opponents talking of her resilience and determination against all odds. But that does not get away from her lack of political leadership. She boxed herself into her current predicament by her Lancaster House speech over Brexit of January 2017 and her ‘red lines’ – which precluded a Brexit based on the customs union and single market. And subsequently she has failed to come clean on the need for a Brexit compromise – including the way she has presented her Withdrawal Agreement.

The approach of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour has not been better. Corbyn was posted missing in action in the 2016 campaign, and he or the people running his office did all they could to undermine the Remain side. Since then Corbyn has doggedly aided Brexit – seeing an upside in a UK removed from EU restrictions, saying Brexit ‘can’t be stopped’ and keeping the party’s position vague. Maybe Labour will come out next week for a second referendum, but Corbyn, the arch supporter of party democracy, has consistently ignored the will of party members: pro-EU, pro-single market and customs union, and for a second vote: 86% on the last.

There is the bitter aftertaste of the actual EU referendum. Even more damning than Leave playing fast and loose with the truth, facts and experts, was the issue of its finances. Arron Banks is the biggest political donor in British history with his £8m donations to Leave. But despite numerous fines on Leave and legal rulings that they broke the law (both for the official Vote Leave and Banks funded Leave.EU), Banks refuses to give a straight answer to the simple question - where did his money come from?

Isabel Oakeshott, who ghosted Arron Banks’ Brexit memoir (‘The Bad Boys of Brexit’), claims that she never once asked him the killer question. Meanwhile she continues to ridicule and dismiss ‘Observer’ journalist Carole Cadwalladr who, along with ‘OpenDemocracy’, has done much to break this story. Worthy of note is the role of Andrew Neil, a man of many hats, one as a BBC anchor, who has been personally abusive and sexist to Cadwalladr, and even more significantly, continually dished the story of where the Leave money came from and the role of Banks. Strange behaviour for a journalist.

If Brexit had really been about ‘Taking Back Control’ then the 2016 vote would have resulted in a flurry of proposals for greater democratisation in the UK: to reform Parliament, to more effectively hold the Executive to account, in how laws were made, and about decentralising one of the most centralised countries in the developed world. They could even have begun thinking about England – the state of which fed Brexit.

Not only has this supposed great historic moment of ‘Taking Back Control’ brought forth no plethora of ideas to renew democracy, the reverse has happened. There has been the use of Henry VIII powers to push legislation through Parliament, while the UK Government tried to prevent the Attorney General’s full legal advice being published and found itself in contempt of the UK Parliament. And it is just possible that the 11 December vote won’t happen if the Government knows they face massive defeat.

Scotland is not totally detached from this mess whatever happens

Scotland sometimes seems to think it is immune from this malaise. Brexit has posed big questions for Scottish politicians and the SNP; in the event of a hard Brexit it makes independence more messy with a potential hard border between Scotland and England. The campaign for a second Brexit referendum has also posed problems for the SNP with senior figures such as Alex Neil and Kenny Gibson concerned that such a campaign could undermine the cause of independence and winning a second Scottish vote. They worry that it could create a politics where those that lose do not accept the result and call for a rerun, and could be used in the aftermath of a pro-independence victory.

In the last few days some SNP people have floated the idea of Scotland becoming independent without an indyref. This was slapped down by Nicola Sturgeon, but revealed frustration - and a lack of political nous in independence opinion. The argument asked what would happen if Westminster refuses to grant a Section 30 for a legally binding vote all sides agree to. Thus one option floated was a Westminster or Holyrood mandate for independence. This did not face up to the prospect Westminster-wise of an independence mandate on say 35% and one million voters being used to over-ride 55% and two million voters. That would never work but says something about its advocates.

Some SNP figures even worry about a Brexit last minute compromise such as extending Article 50 – as this could they imagine further delay the prospect of a future indyref. This ignores that any Scottish vote before 2021 and the next Scottish elections is extremely unlikely, and that Nicola Sturgeon is in no rush to call such a poll, knowing there is a good chance in present circumstances, independence could lose.

There is though a chance in the foreseeable future that May and the Tory Government could fall and a Corbyn administration take office – which in even the most optimistic election scenarios would be a minority - and needing parliamentary allies. This would give the SNP huge leverage – much more than the current DUP – and while many in the party see this as all about indyref2 it is clear Sturgeon would play a cannier game. There is no chance in a hung Parliament of the SNP even passively allowing the Tories to govern if they have the numbers to block them: to let the Tories in would be kamikaze politics. But that does not mean the SNP would not have major influence. Not all roads directly lead back to independence and a referendum, at least in the medium term.

Breaking up is hard to do – Tom Nairn and the crisis of the ‘idea’ of Britain

This then is our future. Constitutional wrangling over Brexit for decades. Over the terms of a divorce settlement (and a UK election or second referendum don’t end all this and we go back to ‘normal’). In Scotland there is no easy escape clause because all we can do is work out if we want our own special terms of divorce. For some people this is the defining issue: whether it is ‘our’ divorce, but it offers up the prospect, either way, of years of acrimony.

There is little prospect of this ending well for the UK, or resulting in the utopia/dystopia of a right-wing ‘Global Britain’ or a reindustrialised, egalitarian, Corbynista UK. What we can see is the damage that can be inflicted by an unenlightened, defiantly anti-modern nationalism obsessed by a Britain and England that never really ever existed. The dogmatists of the Tory Eurosceptic right have conducted a long, guerilla campaign since the days of Powell, and finally made the Tory Party in their image: a party of different shades of Brexit which finds political compromise with our European neighbours problematic.

This is a geo-political and territorial set of crises of the UK: one which raises questions about where Britain sees itself in the world, who it allies with, and how it understands its own nature and character. This is as many have argued much more serious than Suez and 1956. Indeed, given 1938-40 – from appeasement to Churchill’s ‘finest hour’ – was not a constitutional crisis, we’re now in potentially the most serious constitutional crisis since the inception of Great Britain in 1707.

Underlying this is the fact that the ‘idea’ of Britain is exhausted, and in particular, the historic Conservative and Labour visions of Britain: one traditional and bringing the working classes into the system on the elite’s terms, and the other bringing the people into the system to change it.

This brings us back to Tom Nairn and ‘The Break-Up of Britain’. This understood that the UK would face a series of existential challenges driven by capitalism, globalisation and Europe that would increasingly fragment the union, taking Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in a different direction from England. Forty years on we are still waiting for English left-wingers to speak about an English politics. We have paid a high price for their unwillingness to talk about this: an abdication which has aided the likes of Farage and Johnson to stoke an English rage.

The UK voted for Brexit without much debate or understanding of what the EU is and the UK will – as things stand - leave the EU with many still defiantly ignorant of Europe and the UK’s relationship with it. And such willful ignorance has only strengthened a politics of little Englanderism and reaction – to the cost of all of us.

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