Why Brexit? It's the English, stupid.

A response to a vigorous polemic against a core argument in the author's The Lure of Greatness

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
24 October 2017

A month ago, Jeremy Fox published a severe reprimand for what he regards as the erroneous flaws in my book The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump. He is generous in his praise too, saying it is thoughtful and at times inspiring. Then he plunges straight into his criticisms. These are wide-ranging. We both agree that a key cause of Brexit was the economic and political failure of neoliberalism, but Fox thinks my description of it is inadequate. On another, central and for many the most painful issue, however his disagreement is more findamental. It is this that I will respond to. It can be put in the form of a question: should the English declare themselves to be politically English?

It is a very strange question, but Brexit is a weird business. Asked in the context of leaving the EU, the question is not a conundrum of identity but an immensely important practical concern. Fox’s reply is ‘No’. My answer is ‘Yes, because it is essential to reversing Brexit’.

I wrote the Lure of Greatness with the aim of unveiling how we can return to Europe. By this I don’t mean that leaving is inevitable. Article 50 can be stopped. If it isn’t, then leaving can be severely limited, for example, by a long transition, or by staying in the single market with the jurisdiction of the European Court. Thanks to the populist forces unleashed by the referendum, however, the rage and frustration at any such outcome will be huge. Hostility will be magnified by the economic downturn already under way thanks to the May government’s incompetence. In these circumstances, to be defeated, Brexit must be counter-attacked.

A fully successful counter-attack will involve changing the nature of the EU. Here, I agree with Yanis Varoufakis and DiEM25 and, indeed Jeremy Fox who has written brilliantly about the current nature and drawbacks of Brussels. But the question in this exchange is how we in the UK can return to the union of our continent while governing ourselves democratically.

This means dealing with Brexit for what it is. Not as a rational policy but a profound breakdown in our political system. To defeat it, we must understand it. Rather than repeat myself, you can watch a handy summary posted above and here on Labour Tube where I also talk about how, along with more familiar factors, it was the response of ‘England without London’ that determined Brexit.

I’ll cut to the chase with some brutal simplifications of a rich and embedded society that I write about at depth in the book.

Brexit is an act of British nationalism. It is a claim that Britain can and should be a global force on its own, and that the participation of Britain in Europe is a form of subordination to a European empire.

But Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voted by very large majorities to Remain. The source of this British nationalism is a frustrated England without London.

The large majority of the English who backed Brexit are frustrated in one obvious political sense. There is no institution that represents the interests of England. Instead, they identify with ‘Great Britain’ and this turns them against Europe.

They have not put the Second World War behind them. Their – our – broader society has changed a lot. It is energetic and contemporary. We are not looking at a response to ‘decline’, but at a failure of renewal. A two-part renewal, first Thatcher’s then New Labour’s.

The failure lies in our defining institutions. They have not changed their spirit while the rest of our society has. Enter the routines of Britain’s Westminster politics and you enter a parallel universe. One in which ‘absolute sovereignty’ generates the logic of legitimacy. This may seem ‘abstract’, such is the impoverished nature of public discourse in Anglo-Britain. In fact it is a lived reality. (in Scotland or Ireland, what I say is blindingly obvious.)

Absolute sovereignty is an imperial form of rule. It generates an immensely strong structure of feeling within the parliamentary universe of Westminster politics. So strong, it has been able to resist the contemporary world despite all the change around it. Aided by the way – and this is an important part of my argument – its bellicose winner-takes-all culture feeds and is fed by the media values of Murdoch and the Daily Mail.

The consequence is dire.

The United Kingdom is an old, multi-national uncodified entity. An arrangement that cannot but feel threatened within a larger, younger, constitutionalising entity. The latter, the EU, is about sharing sovereignty. The core principle of the former, the UK, is absolute sovereignty.

The two worlds of the UK and the EU could cohabit the same home uneasily and to mutual material benefit. But for such a relationship to be sustained one partner had to change more than the other. Given its size and dynamic, this meant the UK had to change - by constitutionalising itself. It began to do so, with the Scottish parliament, the London Mayor and the Human Rights Act. But these changes never reached the centre which clung to its old regime routines when it had to become a European democracy to flourish in the context of the EU. Not because the EU is democratic. I am fierce in the book about how it is not. But in order for the British to participate in the essential battle to make it democratic. Because what happens to Europe happens to us.

The dire consequence is that such was the grip of its old regime the UK did not change politically. This meant that British politicians and the country’s leaders were – and are still – unable to express any positive desire to be part of the EU, without threatening the sacred character of the Kingdom’s sovereign, uncodified nature. The issue put to the public in the referendum was ‘Do we belong to the EU?’. All that the leaders on the Remain side could say was, ‘We can’t afford not to’.

This pathetic argument was upstaged by the deceitful rhetoric of Leave because the Brexiteers also had something positive to say. They called on the public to rally to ‘Global Britain’, code for Great Britain. A significant, vocal and persistent body of politicians, many with knighthoods, believed in Brexit with all their heart. They clobbered us. There was no equivalent political passion for Europe from any of our Westminster rulers. The only significant exception, Caroline Lucas of the Greens.

So, how can we break free of Britain’s now Brexiteering Empire State and its structure of feeling that is so antipathetic to sharing sovereignty and becoming part of the modern world? This is the question my book asks. The obvious answer is to embrace a democratic, written constitution. But since the advent of the Scottish parliament this is no longer straightforward. A constitutional convention called to forge a democratic constitution would have to consider federal options and permit independence if this is what the nations want. Otherwise the Scots would not participate in it.

It is imperative to democratise the way the UK governs itself, to safeguard against further populist exploitation of its centralised structures. This can't be achieved except by a process that is itself both pluralist and democratic. None is conceivable that would prevent England from having its own political voice and therefore being free to chose.

Rather than beat about the bush, I simply advocate that England should have its own government, with Scottish and Welsh independence and the unification of Ireland. Then we can all co-operate in a Council of the Isles while being part of the EU. Britishness as a culture, something that many other countries share in as well, can also then flourish, freed from its Britannic integument.

Above all it means replacing the Westminster state. But as I try to emphasise, the objective of my advocacy is nations that are all in the EU, where we will be sharing sovereignty. This is a cardinal principle for me. I’m against any reproduction of competitive, exclusive nationalism - such as Brexit Britishness.

An alternative is a federal solution that gives England voice. I'm not against this if such an outcome has democratic assent. The crucial point is that all the nations of the UK must be rid of the Anglo-British regime that comes between us and being European.

In arguing this, Jeremy Fox thinks I am advocating English nationalism. I am not, I am advocating pluralist constitutional democracy.

I don’t call for an English parliament, for example, something that the millions who live here and are not English might feel excludes them. I point out that we already have our “house of the common people”, the House of Commons, to represent our civic democracy.

I am not calling on us English to ‘be nationalists’, as Fox thinks. On the contrary I’m saying we should be ourselves in the sense that we recognise ourselves institutionally as what we are – and become like other people instead of pretending to be better than them. I think many fear the English. They think only by being caged in a more civilised Britain can the English hooligan be kept safely away from trashing civilisation. I think the opposite, that the English are at least as creative and fair-minded and supportive of human rights as anyone else. And it is the arrangements that force us to be subjects of Britain that provoke resentment and generated the 'up yours' sentiment of Brexit.

I can see that I might have been even clearer in The Lure of Greatness. This issue is personally difficult for many, especially those on the left in our country. I tackle the difficulty head on in the apparently unlikely form of Paul Mason, whom Fox defends. I think Mason is outstanding. In terms of his range, arguments, politics, courage and commitment he is world class. Unlike many a prevaricating columnist, when it comes to the heart of the matter he is unembarrassed. This led him to be frank about a feeling many share but dare not utter when he wrote in a Guardian column, “As an English person I would like to declare up front: I do not want to be English”.

He goes on to say that English as a world language is sufficient to define him, “don’t try to burden me with yet another layer of bogus identity politics. The only identity I need can be created by speaking and writing in the most malleable language on earth”. I go on to show how, ironically, the belief that one does not need a national identify is the form taken by English nationalism. It can indulge itself in the privilege of not needing the burden of ‘being English’, because it was historically, the first-mover, the first modern nation and originator of industrialisation. While other nationalisms had to prove themselves by struggling into existence against the domination of foreigners, above all the English and their Empire, the English alone did not.

The English presumption that they do not need to ‘be English’ allows them to dominate, while asking in all innocence what the fuss is about should the others complain. One example I give is the Daily Mail front page that shouted in a huge banner headline, ‘WHO WILL SPEAK FOR ENGLAND?’ when its Editor feared no leading politicians would step forward to support Brexit. In the editorial below he added, “of course, by England… we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”. It is just one example of the way the English slip into ‘Great Britishness’, and presume a right to determine the future of Scotland and Wales, not to speak of Northern Ireland.

How do we get away from this other than by simply normalising English government?

I don’t believe in 'identity politics' and am not advocating it. What matters is membership of a civic community, in terms of what layers of government you can vote for. This is the starting point of democracy. Just as the thigh bone is connected to the hip bone, is connected to the knee joint, so democracy is joined to the constitutional is joined to the national.

The Brexiteers understand this. Their connected trinity starts with a plebiscitary, winner-takes-all democracy, in which accountability is defined as the right to ‘kick the buggers out’. Their constitution will continue to be an informal arrangement so weak it bows and scrapes before Murdoch and the Mail in return for their trumpets of support. Freed from Europe, this toxic combination will allow them to celebrate a Great British show-the-world-our-willy nationalism.

Realising that this is unlikely to wash north of the border, less febrile Brexiteers such as Iain Martin, following the lead of Robert Salisbury, propose a federal Kingdom, turning the House of Commons into an English parliament and replacing the Lords with a British chamber. Thus, they would import the Johnny Foreigner principle of shared sovereignty into the land, to make a success of wiping his dust from our shoes! And in the case of Salisbury, at least, seeking with some guile and seriousness to evade genuine normalisation and a codified constitution. 

What is a feasible alternative? It has to be constitutional democracy, founded on the sovereignty of the people and fundamental human rights for all, satisfying the rightful claim for some political control over policies, and able to share sovereignty with our European neighbours. The latter is essential so that we can participate in and make a claim on the fate of our continent as a whole.

Such a settlement will displace and replace the 'absolute sovereignty' claim of the once great Empire State, that now blows the minds of British politicians. In such a process, England needs to become a normal European country with its own representative institutions, hopefully with Jeremy Fox as one of its citizens. This is the road back to Europe that will defeat and not just frustrate Brexit, because it is also a response to the justified fury at the appalling way we have been ruled. This is what I mean when I say that those of us who are English persons need to become politically English.  

Join us to discuss this and other aspects of Brexit with Caroline Lucas MP, Clive Lewis MP, Suzanne Moore and Anthony Barnett, chaired by John Harris. Tuesday 31 Ocotober, the Emmanuel Centre, London SW1P 3DW. Tickets here 

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