Brexit or not, the left looks skewered

It will be fatal for the British left if it follows Jeremy Corbyn and treats the Brexit referendum as a sideshow - what's to come on 'Blimey, it could be Brexit!'

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
4 April 2016

I’m for Remain as I am a European and want to fight for the future of my continent. But unless things change over the next three months, what we are witnessing in real time is the collapse of any impact by the British left on the referendum over Brexit, whose outcome will decide the future of the country. Should this continue the UK will be in the hands of the right for another generation. I will now define what I mean by ‘left’, by ‘impact’ and ‘country’.

Before I do so, a word of explanation. This week, I am breaking the first rule of performance: 'Show, don't tell!'. I've found people are not sure if I am writing articles or not, and don't see why a book about the referendum is needed. Unsure of the nature of the project they do not know what to tell friends or colleagues or, indeed, the author... which means they are uncertain about what I am attempting over the next three months. Blimey! is not 'about' the referendum or reporting its ups and downs week by week. My aim is to explain its 'meta-politics': what to make of why it is occurring, where it comes from, what forces are contained within this strange event, what the consequences may be for all of us in the UK and in Europe over the longer term. So this week I'll be clearer and will share the map of what I intend.

By the left I mean an arc of those who oppose corporate power and its corruptions. It includes some who support Leave (like Labour Leave) and does not include some who support Remain (like Peter Mandelson). It stretches from Greens, Lib Dems and liberals (at least those who prefer democracy and liberty to the pure market place) the SNP and Plaid Cymru (see John Osmond comment below the article), through varieties of socialism, labourism and social democrats to Carswell-type ultra-democrats in UKIP, who embrace feminism and see a place for political correctness. Looked at from the conventional, received point of view this is a heteroclite hodgepodge. This is because the received point of view is in the pocket of the system’s vested interests. Looked at from the perspective of a democrat outside the system, seeking to upend the framework of interests that determines policy, now is not the moment to be choosey about allies.

At the moment most voters are barely aware that Labour has a view of whether to Remain or Leave. So far, not one of its major figures young enough to have a future in active politics has made an intervention of any originality, impact or eloquence, whether pro- or anti-Brexit. If the Labour party continues to absent itself from the capacious democratic canvas of what I’m calling ‘the left’, then a different, more generous, much less tribal left has to be created and organised. I’d like such an outcome. But I am not going to subordinate my writing to its interests. I’m writing Blimey! because we need honest analysis that penetrates the waffle. If this means identifying the validity of insights that are uncomfortable for those, like myself, who want to Remain, so be it. If this is a polemic, my target is not ‘the other side’ in the referendum debate but the lamentable state of official Anglo-British politics and political culture as a whole, the way it got us into this mess, and the delightful if so far incoherent and welcome rebellions against it, which run the danger of being expropriated by the radicalism of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson.

Which brings me to impact, by which I mean the ability of the left to stake a democratic claim to the outcome of the referendum whatever happens. Staking a claim is different from arguing for the result. The Conservatives are divided. It is idiotic to be cheerful about this and believe that Labour can sit back, inherit the ruins and then build a progressive outcome upon them. The opposite is true: by monopolising both sides of the clash over how to shape Britain’s future, so-called free-market, pro-corporate Tories are occupying the high ground whoever wins. Left-wing supporters of Remain and Leave are mere decoration to the right-wing voices that currently define the meaning of the vote on their respective sides. As I pointed out last week, this has led us into incredibly shallow sets of arguments. In these shallows the left dies and the right thrives.

To those who say the referendum outcome is all that matters at this point, I say we must be prepared for the aftermath either way. At present, success for Remain will be a crushing victory for corporate continuity. We need to set out a call now to secure democracy within the EU, England, Britain and Brussels if we stay in the EU as I hope. At the same time we must be primed for the success of Leave. We need to prepare a programme for democracy in England-Britain outside the EU, or we will find that our ‘self-government’ is being articulated by Michael Gove who in his statement has had the coolness - so far unchallenged - to put himself at the head of the country’s historic tradition of the “radicals and liberals who took power from unaccountable elites and placed it in the hands of the people”. 

Now for “country”. The forces that drove the Prime Minister to conceive and call the referendum are English. The English left and 'progressive' opinion squirms when faced with this fact. But it is undeniable that the other nations of the United Kingdom are at home in the EU in a way that England-Britain is not. For reasons that I will look at in lurid detail in later chapters, the multi-national but uncodified British union cannot but be put at risk politically within a larger, richer multi-national codified entity, such as the EU. This British problem is an English one, generated by bottling up English sentiment in a Westminster system which prevents it from even the mildest of national expression. So when I write, “the future of the country”, I am referring to Britain in the grip of England, as the referendum its really an expression of English dissatisfaction dragging the other nations of the Union reluctantly into the showdown.

This is not complicated, it is just difficult to see if you are trapped within it. The event of the referendum is an expression of two huge unresolved processes that grip post-war Anglo-British politics. First, the national question, especially the failure to permit the English our own parliament or distinct civic institutions within Britain. Second, the decomposition of the historic, informal constitution and the failure to replace it with a new settlement, relying instead on globalisation to legitimate the political order. The national and the constitutional questions are separate yet linked. Together they feed the sense the English have that their democracy is threatened. This anxiety, profound and justified, has been displaced onto Europe. There is indeed a threat, its source is at home. We are the problem with our democracy, not them.

Displacement is a form of denial, blaming others so as to protect oneself from change. You can see it at work in the disagreement between the high profile Tories fighting over the referendum. The government says that the EU was a threat to us but the deal it has obtained has resolved this and Britain can be “great again" as a member of the EU. The Brexiteers say on the contrary that the EU is still a threat and the only way Britain can be "great again" is by freeing ourselves of its shackles. Both share the same presumption: that there is nothing wrong with us! Both share the same prejudice, that the EU in no way improves Britain, how could it, what a scandalous idea! We are not the problem, the EU is. The government says it has solved the problem by having less EU while giving us access to its markets. The Brexiteers say the problem will be solved only with no EU and we will still have access to its markets. Both say, ‘Don’t blame us, blame them’. It is often the case that a particularly vicious argument takes place when each side shares the same mistaken premise. So it is in this case. 

The national and the constitutional questions are both part of the weird and wonderful obsession with ‘sovereignty’ that preoccupies Westminster. One group hyperventilates about it, the other very deliberately buries it (“We don’t talk about sovereignty” a British ex-ambassador told me once very emphatically, transmitting a foreign office edict that is almost certainly not committed to writing and is all the more unchallengeable because of this). The fixation with sovereignty stems from Britain being an old imperial country with great pride in its capacity to govern - others, yes, but also itself. Today its ruling institutions are still those of the Empire state. Meanwhile a quite different society has replaced the social order at home, a society full of energy, disintegrative and positive, disbelieving and impatient for renewal.

It was a very effective Empire State. The will to dominate and make money out of others still commands the ruling machinery. Its senior employees are more aware of the potentially explosive consequences of the gap between their legal order and the real country than a great majority of the population. The rise of a security state is designed to prepare for this threat, which is why it shields itself from democratic oversight.

The referendum offers a chance to write about these issues in a way that might – just might – be effective and have some traction. Try writing about liberty, democracy, Englishness or surveillance as many of us have. Each theme gathers around it worthy and passionate advocates. Yet Britain’s philistine official culture makes them seem marginal. It once did the same to arguments against the EU. “Swivel-eyed” was the Prime Minister’s term for UKIP supporters but in effect it is his description for all people who believe what they say. It is the rebuke of a man who does not regard it as necessary to believe in anything he says (as I will show next week).

Liberty, democracy, nationalism in Britain are being brought boiling to the surface by the heat of the referendum. Suddenly there is an opportunity to address them in a condition of their larger inter-connected relevance. The closed, official culture so adept at marginalising and closing down issues that matter if they challenge its dominance, has been opened up by the referendum campaign – in a way that most definitely is not the case in general elections, which operate as a way of disciplining any argument that ‘rocks the boat’.

So Blimey! is an attempt at boat rocking: not to write a book ‘about’ the referendum but to engage with the energy, negative as well as positive, destructive as well as striving for something better, that is being released as the regime cracks, to set out what democrats must call for. If we stay, we must be able to challenge the Tory-Blairites’ instrumental, market exploitation of what it means to be in the EU. If we go, we must be on stand-by to defy a Maggyite market-popular exploitation of popular defiance expressed through Westminster exceptionalism.

Three weeks in and I have already discovered that just like any book at an early stage it is a moveable feast, changing as it goes, with new material, a better reading of familiar records and a closer look at key texts (stand by next week for a look at the actual deal Cameron negotiated, it may surprise). The issues I originally sketched for myself have shaped into chapters. The argument is gathering its own momentum, I discover. But I’m not writing a work of fiction in which the characters take on a life of their own. So as part of the experiment this seems the time to share with readers a sketch of what I’m attempting and where I hope to end up. Perhaps it should have been in the introduction, but without the experience of actually beginning I would not be in a position to set it out. This is what it looks like in week three:


22 March, Introduction

PART I: The Conjuncture

30 March, Thatcherism’s twin legacy defines the choice
5 April, This text: must the left be skewered, process and content
12 April, Cameron: what a deal!
19 April, Maggyites v Blairites (Rupert’s in the background)
26 April, Gazing into the void, populism & the referendum
3 May, Europe, Varoufakis or bust!
10 May, From Miliband to Corbyn: suspended animation to animation suspended

PART II: What is sovereignty about?

17 May,  Constitution UK: even the Zimmer frame is broken (+Salisbury)
24 May, England, hello? Hello, Hello? Can you hear me?
31 May, From Empire State to Deep State, at least something works… alas
7 June,  Ireland, Scotland, Wales: each deserves a chapter

PART III: Issues and outcome

14 June, People Flow, Security    
21 June, The Campaign
28 June, The outcome, either way a toxic verdict
5 July, The economy, its government and equality after the referendum
12 July, Where we go from here

I ask readers forgiveness of the bumps to come. Thanks to a small grant from the Bertha Foundation, I have been able to have some videos made as a way of introducing each chapter. The idea is to assist outreach on social media. People want to see who it is they are reading and no longer trust words without a sense of the person. It gives a great advantage to those who appear on television. In a small way this experiment is an attempt to make up for this. We will learn whether it works or not.

I’m keen that there should be thoughtful comments and because what arrives at the bottom is in the way of things very uneven and sometimes irrelevant we may pull out the best comments into a stand-alone feature.

Next week I will look at the actual deal that Cameron negotiated and the spirit in which he went about it. Was it an honest process? Has it got the UK the “best of both worlds” as he claims, or the worst?

Read Anthony Barnett's book as he writes it, along with the rest of openDemocracy's Brexit coverage, on our Brexit2016 page.

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