Jimmy Reid, addressing Glasgow's ship-builders; educationscotland.gov.uk, fair use
“Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today.” Jimmy Reid’s words have been on my mind a lot lately. The “today” he was referring to was 1972. But the Glaswegian dock worker’s analysis applies as much in 2016.
“People feel alienated by society.” He said, in his widely acclaimed speech on accepting the Rectorship of Glasgow University: “In some intellectual circles it is treated almost as a new phenomenon. It has, however, been with us for years. What I believe is true is that today it is more widespread, more pervasive than ever before. Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It’s the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.”
The alienation in Britain in 2016 is so ubiquitous it can go unseen. Like the air pollution which kills thousands in our cities or the gravity which stops us floating away, it shapes and can end our lives, but we never see and rarely notice it. It is everywhere, it feels endless. And it’s absolutely key, I think, to understanding what has gone on with the EU referendum.
Since Jimmy Reid gave his speech, our economy has financialised and globalised even more. And this means that the forces which shape our communities and our lives are financial and global. Forty years ago, the miners in Doncaster were exploited, but they could see their exploiters in front of them, and had a union through which they could organise and fight back. Their children, the people Anthony Barnett and I spoke to this week, don’t have the same direct experience of their own collective power, nor those against whom they might mobilise.
Infuriated by being trapped in a stifling present, they see the referendum as the only lever they have been offered. Will it open the door to a better future? Most Leave voters we spoke to didn’t think it would. Most thought nothing could change. But why not give it a try?
That is why, whatever the result today, millions of British people will have voted to leave the EU in a mass rebellion against the leaders of parties with 98.6% of MPs. That simple fact is extraordinary, and should shake British political debate to its foundations.
Whatever the result today, millions of British people will have voted to leave the EU in a mass rebellion against the leaders of parties with 98.6% of MPs.
The irony, of course, is that the EU is in part an attempt to give us some modicum of democratic governance of those forces of globalisation. This morning, I laid out the openDemocracyUK front page. At the top, there are two debates – a video of Steve Hilton and Paul Hilder, and a podcast of Caroline Lucas and John Hilary. Below that, there are ten articles arguing the case for each of Remain and Leave.
On the Leave side are a number of people whose opinions I have often quoted and looked to on other questions. Thousands of miles from the explicit racism of thugs like Nigel Farage and Zac Goldsmith, thoughtful and committed democrats Joe Guinan and Thomas Hanna write compellingly and in vivid detail about the impossibility of securing the reforms to the EU the left would want. The excellent Olly Huitson, until recently my co-editor, shows the complicity of the EU in forcing neoliberalism on the continent. Ellen Engelstad shows how well the Norwegian model works.
Likewise, many have pointed to long lists of specific failures of the EU. Harry Blain, for example, has written well on the failures of EU environmental policy, and pointed to the swarm of lobbyists working daily to ensure that it continues to fail. Enrico Tortolano makes a compelling trade unionist case against the EU.
In their criticisms, they are all broadly right, I think. But ultimately, I find myself convinced, if less enthusiastically than him, by the piece written by my brother, Gilbert: Specifically, as he puts it: “Compared to its obvious peers, the EU wins hands down. Where is the NAFTA parliament, for example? Which specific political assembly exists to hold the WTO to account?”
In his article, Olly strolls directly onto this turf: “The idea that Britain could not trade with the EU is possibly the biggest nonsense of the Remain campaign. Of course we would have a trade deal, we are a big economy and a big importer of EU goods: we could join the EEA, EFTA, or simply strike bilateral agreements.”
To vote to leave the EU is not to leave behind the forces of globalisation which are magnifying the alienation of the people of Doncaster and thousands of others across the world. It is to take a step away from the only attempt in human history to build an interstate architecture with some direct democratic accountability, and replace it with one with no democratic accountability. It is not to escape the brute power of Angela Merkel and global capital, but to remove any restraint on them. The idea that the North American Free Trade Area is anything we’d want to emulate in Europe seems to me to be utterly extraordinary. It is not to vote to replace the deeply undemocratic British state, but to empower it.
That anger, and the alienation it stems from, won’t go away whatever the result. But if we are to address it properly, people need to secure some real collective power over their lives once more. Of course that means radical democratisation of our economy. But it also means that our political structures must become properly democratic too. Today, the future of the EU lies in the hands of the peoples of Britain. One day, perhaps we will be trusted with our own fates too?