Dear American friends: Don’t mistake Brexit for Anglo-Trumpism

Dear friends and associates across the pond.

I’ve noticed a great interest in Brexit among you in recent days. It’s a momentous event, so of course people who take an interest in current affairs should be interested. But it’s becoming evident to me from the tone of discussion, as well as in the articles that I see repeatedly shared as explanations of what is going on, that the subtext for at least some of your discussion is an attempt to read the tea leaves for your own presidential race, in particular where it concerns Trumpism.

I would like to suggest that Brexit is less useful as an analogy in this respect than might seem superficially the case. There are some commonalities, which I will discuss later, but at the risk of repaying your assumptions with some of my own about an American political context I am less than well-versed in I would like to suggest some of the ways in which the campaign for Britain to leave the EU emerges from and reflects a very different cultural and political context.

Argument

It is popular among the commentariat to characterise the vote for Brexit as an incoherent, logic-free howl of protest by ‘the left-behind’ against the elite. It is simply assumed that the EU is by definition a good thing, and that objections to it must therefore represent a nihilistic, under-educated anti-politics stance oriented more towards backlash than positive political change. It is hence less popular, at least among that substantial section of the media that is in favour of the EU, to explore the possibility that many of those objecting to the EU might actually have a case – let alone to explore what that case actually is.

The campaign for Britain to keep its distance from the European Union is as old as the European Union itself. Though it has often been painted as such by the prevailing consensus, it is not merely a hobby-horse for ideologues and eccentrics but (admittedly along with a share of eccentrics) a serious campaign with coherent arguments and a lengthy, thoughtful tradition, covering economic, cultural and constitutional issues. I will not attempt to sum these arguments up here, except to provide some links to places where the case is stated better than I could myself.

Brexit: The Movie is a 90-minute documentary created to put the case for leaving during the referendum campaign. It was crowdfunded and created outwith the official Vote Leave campaign by a coalition of long-term Brexit campaigners, and documents some of these well-established arguments for leaving the European Union. It makes the case for an open, globally-oriented free-market Britain trading not with the EU’s protectionist customs union but with the world as a whole.

Lexit: The Movie was less well-publicised, because created and released later in the campaign, but does a similar job reviewing and putting forward the left-wing case for leaving the European Union.

Elsewhere, this extended essay from the civil society think tank Civitas does a good job of setting out the history and development of the UK constitution, and the extent to which this settlement has been eroded by the radically different assumptions and priorities of the EU mode of government.

Finally, this campaign is not without proposals for the future. The long-running Brexit campaign has a well-developed proposal for a phased withdrawal from the institutions and acquis of the European Union – with the slightly ungainly name Flexcit –  that sets out a pragmatic, de-risked and market-oriented process that, far from being a grand rupture, would see a staged separation between the UK and the European Union that optimised stability and positive relations on all sides.

While I am here at risk of myself projecting my own assumptions onto a political context with which I am not deeply familiar, it is not my impression that Trumpism has any equivalent long-term campaigning history, core arguments, political objectives or worked strategy for getting there. If I am wrong I would be grateful to learn more from you all about how and in what ways.

History

It scarcely bears repeating, but the islands that make up the British Isles have an ambivalent history with the European continent that stretches back some 2,000 years. From the Roman conquest of England to the Anglo-Saxon invasions that drove the Celts into the hills of Wales and Scotland, to the Anglo-Saxon fight under Alfred against the counter-invasion from Scandinavia, to the Norman conquest that added a Scandinavian/French aristocratic superstructure to a Saxon peasantry. The incursions of the English Crown into France in the Middle Ages, the combative race against other European nations to colonise the world through the early modern period, and the eventual English defeat of Napoleon’s attempt at a unified Europe. And of course the role played by Britain in ending another attempt to create a unified Europe, a century later, in the carnage of World War II – a continent-wide catastrophe that itself forms the backdrop for the creation of the European Union.

This essay is not interested in passing moral judgement on the events and interactions that form this narrative. But it is clear that the history of British relations with the countries of Europe is a complex, sometimes explosive blend of cultural interchange, invasion and counter-invasion, intermarriage, interaction, intervention and immigration. The guilt-ridden post-colonial narrative of this being ‘a mongrel island’ comprising influences from all these pasts chooses to highlight the cultural interchanges that have shaped the British Isles but tends to omit the conflicts that annealed that shape. It is at best perversely ahistorical, if not downright irresponsible, to attempt to understand the British cultural reaction to the steady encroachment of European Union governance onto these islands without reference to this deep history of interchange and ambivalence.

(It should be emphasised of course that the UK is not unique in this deep history, though our position as both culturally interwoven with but geographically distinct from Europe does give our perspective a particular tilt. But the presence of equally complex stories in nations across the continent helps to account both for the elite enthusiasm for the European project, and also the ambivalence of many ordinary Europeans to the same project.)

Returning to our theme of parallels (or their lack) between Trumpism and the Brexit movement, I struggle to see how equivalent issues of deep history and cultural memory might inform Trumpism, though again I would be grateful to be corrected on this front.

What the EU actually is, does, and aims to achieve. (The democratic case.)

It is far from clear to me what impression Americans in general have of the European Union. Indeed it is far from clear to me that many in the United Kingdom have more than the most superficial understanding of its operations, ambitions or relation to individual member states. The popular perception among many who support it seems to me to be of a sort of benign superstructure that guarantees certain rights, in some indefinable way makes foreign holidays cheaper and which generally encourages everyone to travel and be nice to one another. The slightly more detailed view perceives it as a trading bloc, permitting tariff-free commerce and harmonising regulations across a continent in order to ensure prosperity and mutual benefit all round.

But one need only read the European treaties to realise that the EU is none of these things – or at least to describe the EU as any of those things is a little like holding an elephant by the tail and describing it as being somewhat like a pencil. As trenchantly set out by Ben Kelly, the EU is not just a trading bloc and was never intended to be a democracy. Its ambition is to become a single federal state, and the slow accretion of treaties pushes each time inexorably in this direction: extending beyond trade into justice, foreign policy, law enforcement and immigration with the Maastricht Treaty, expanding to new territories with the Treaty of Amsterdam, further geographical expansion with the Treaty of Nice and effectively introducing a state constitution by the back door with the Treaty of Lisbon. The Five Presidents’ Report, the 2015 white paper that sets out the broad objectives for the next EU treaty, proposes in the interests of saving the eurozone from further crises to introduce further integration in areas as diverse as banking, tax, social security, company law and property rights, and replacing individual nations’ representation in key international bodies with a single EU representative.

Each of these changes requires what is described in the EU as ‘pooling sovereignty’. This euphemism in fact means the surrender of key national competencies to the supranational jurisdiction of the EU Institutions.

By analogy, the formation of the European Union is equivalent to inviting the United States to support the creation of a Pan-American Union, with a parliament situated – say – in Mexico City, and a stated ambition of creating a federal Americas bringing together the entire continent. This political construct could then grant freedom of movement for all the peoples from Canada through the United States to the nations of South America, to live and work wherever they liked in the Americas. These nations could then begin the process of harmonising tax, labour, property, social security and criminal justice practices under a single system, and like the other member states the USA would be required to give up the supremacy of its Supreme Court for a Pan-American Court whose job would be to enforce the terms of the Pan-American Treaties and any laws or directives emanating from the government in Mexico City.

Should someone suggest such a project, it is likely that objections would be widespread in the USA. It is also unlikely that those doing the objecting would be solely dispossessed blue-collar Americans. Indeed, should an observer from another continent seek to present the project as wholly benign, and those objecting as the illiberal, under-educated, backward-looking losers of globalisation’s great leap forward, it is likely that the mildest possible response to this interpretation would be that it might be worth considering the situation from a few different perspectives before drawing this conclusion.

Common ground

Having said all of this, it cannot be denied that there is common ground between some aspects of the EU referendum moment and the rise of Trumpism. While the issues I have outlined briefly above represent a political and cultural context with (to my eye at least) no clear parallels across the Atlantic, it is also true that the long-running campaign to detach the UK from the European Union has been amplified by a growing gulf between the political elites that continue to drive European integration, and the populations of the countries they seek to integrate.

This has found its clearest outlet in protests against European freedom of movement, which for a minority has fanned the flames of xenophobia but which for many more represents a proxy issue for the loss of democratic control implied by ‘pooling sovereignty’,  as well as impacting materially on the earning capacity of those at the unskilled end of the labour market. Additionally it has raised questions of identity, belonging and cultural cohesion that the elites who benefit most from freedom of movement, wedded as they are to a decontextualised New Left model of identity, are simply without the conceptual framework to address. In this highly contested field of globalisation, international trade, migration, community and identity there may well be some parallels between the angry proletariat that has mobilised for Brexit, and the angry American proletariat mobilising for Trump.

In summary, then: the case for Brexit is complex, well-established and coherent and – whatever you think of its merits – should not be mistaken for Anglo-Trumpism. However this is not to say that the British Isles is not also experiencing a revolt similar to the one that has propelled Trump so far into the presidential race. That said, I would be cautious about extrapolating this common ground too far, beyond saying that globalisation is (to be trite) a global phenomenon and it is probable that the proletarian pushback against its downsides has only just begun. It is my view that the European Union is one of many ways in which the global political order has been steadily adjusted over the last five decades or so, in the interests of an elite that benefits hugely from globalisation while externalising its many downsides, and that this adjustment has occurred in many ways at the expense of popular sovereignty. Those in countries with a tradition of democracy, but without any recourse to the corridors of power other than their vote, are rapidly waking up to the attenuation of that vote and are beginning to clamour for their franchise back. This is likely to lead to further upsets over the coming years.

 

The state of democracy in this country is worse than I thought.

I know I should stop screenshotting the metro-lib tantrum happening all over Facebook, but this image – with multiple shares among my acquaintance – genuinely appalled me.

referendum

Though I don’t know the source, the table is clearly taken from a book critical of the EU, as it shows the number of times referenda in EU nations have been ignored by the EU institutions, or routed round by other means.

And yet it is being shared excitedly, hopefully, by Remain voters delighted to see that the EU institutions they love so much have form for ignoring referenda. This is a good thing! The people know not what they do! Wiser, more powerful heads will prevail. Teacher will step in and adjudicate. Everything will go back to normal.

These are normal, decent middle-class people, with whom I thought I shared basic values, among which was an appreciation of the importance and power of democracy. You win some, you lose some, but you engage and campaign and argue your case. And the majority wins, and if that’s not your side then you campaign again and maybe you carry the day next time. That’s how democratic politics is supposed to work. And its power is supposed to lie, ultimately, with the electorate.

Are these people really, truly, not the slightest bit troubled by the idea of a set of political institutions willing blithely to ignore the will of the people if it returns the wrong result? To keep holding referenda until they return the right one? Is their understanding of what democracy is, how it functions, its importance truly so debased that this track record of indifference to fundamental democratic principles is actually seen as a sign of hope?

For decades now, our elites have increasingly sought ways to insulate their decision-making processes from democratic scrutiny. Though it is not the root, the EU has been a paragon of this process. While retaining the formal appearance of democracy, it has used treaties and bureaucratic rulemaking progressively to narrow the Overton window across its territory, until national governments are so constrained in the policy options they are permitted to put to the people that our electorates have, rightly, lost interest in democratic participation as ‘They’re all the same’ and ‘nothing ever changes’. In so doing, it has debased the popular, public appreciation of the power and importance of democratic participation to the point where it is estimated that only 36% of young people bothered to vote in this epoch-defining referendum. (Though those that did reportedly plumped 3 to 1 for Remain, while even those that did not are now howling with rage at the awful oldies who did bother, and whose votes for Leave carried the day).

oldies

These young people learned a harsh lesson today: when you’re doing democracy properly, everyone’s voice really does count. When real, serious, important issues are up for discussion and a democratic vote,, instead of being locked away in smoky back rooms as the subject of horse-trading between unelected technocrats, then voting really can change the world. This is how it’s supposed to work – scrappy, argumentative, passionate, engaged, powerful, world-changing – not the etiolated simulacrum of ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’ we’ve been increasingly fed since long before I voted in my first General Election, the year Blair swept to power.

And yet, rather than seeing the excitement, the power and potential of this transformative event that has seen democracy enacted in the United Kingdom for the first time in decades, people of my acquaintance are pointing to examples of the European Union’s disregard of similar such events as a beacon of hope. Hope that the stifling centrist consensus can once again be re-imposed, hope that choice can once again be narrowed to a consequence-free wavering between mobile phone contract types or holiday destinations. Hope that teacher will come back in, stop the children rioting and set us all a pre-prepared worksheet. Put us back in our boxes.

This might have been an aberration, posted in haste and without critical thinking by someone in a haze of emotion following a momentous political event. But if it wasn’t, and those hoping for an end to this brief democratic excursus genuinely think it’d be better all round for us to get a pat on the head before business as usual resumes, then we do after all not deserve the democracy I believe our country is capable of. We should hang our heads in shame, apologise for messing up the lesson for everyone else, pick up our pencils and resume colouring within the lines.

Reading today: Blimey, it is Brexit!

Reading Anthony Barnett’s excellent series of essays for Open Democracy on the deep history of the European project, and the situation that’s brought us to this referendum, written in the runup to the 23rd and its immediate aftermath.
 
I know for a lot of people the mood of the day is still disappointment and anger, but anyone interested in a progressive response to where we are now as a nation might find his writing well worth a look. Not least because the analysis on offer takes us well beyond the tired cul de sac of ‘racist thicko’ tropes.

Thanks poor people, for wrecking a generation’s future. No?

75percentInteresting that people are now saying ‘Thanks old people, for wrecking a generation’s future’.

Ashcroft’s poll suggests it was just as much C2DE voters (ie the poor) who swung it for leave as older people. The unemployed mostly voted Leave. Two-thirds of people living in council houses voted Leave. People with lower levels of education voted Leave.

What about ‘Thanks thickos, dole scroungers, council house types, manual workers, for wrecking a generation’s future’?

Anyone?

No?

This isn’t a general election. It’s far more important

A recurrent theme in the Remain campaign particularly is to identify politicians involved in the Leave campaign and create sneering memes that invite the reader to consider what the country might look like were these individuals to be in charge.

Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage in particular come in for a good deal of this nonsense. The clear inference is that, following a win for Leave, these three would be in charge of running the country. Never mind the fact that we are not voting to elect Boris, Michael or Nigel.

CautionSlippery

This line not only insults the intelligence of British voters, it debases the real importance of the referendum. We are not being asked to decide whether or not Boris should get the keys to No.10.

We are being asked to decide how much power is, or is not, wielded from that famous address. And we are being asked whether we want that power to be accountable to us, the voters.

We are not being asked this routinely, as in a general election, with an opportunity to change our minds in five years’ time. Whatever we decide will be it, for good.

We won’t get asked again.

It has been 40 years since the last referendum on EU membership. Based on the rate of acceleration toward EU federalism over those four decades (and assuming the EU does not succumb to the greatest likelihood and implode in some horrific economic catastrophe in the next four) it is reasonable to conclude that we would not have enough of a home-grown government left by 2056 to call a referendum on EU membership, let alone govern following a vote to leave.

So make no mistake, this is our last chance to change direction. And what we are being asked to decide is far, far too important to be determined on the basis of whether you think Nigel Farage speaks sense, or whether you find it sad that a young MP was recently murdered by a mentally-ill extremist. Or indeed on whether you think Boris Johnson would make a good Prime Minister.

What we are being asked to vote on is how much power our politicians are able to wield. Whether our politicians are ‘allowed’ to tighten or loosen the country’s immigration policy. Whether they are ‘allowed’ to nationalise or privatise an industry. Whether they are ‘allowed’ to give aid to strategically important national industries when faced with dumping practices from producers overseas.

And we are being asked to determine how accountable our politicians should be to us. In the event that our representatives do something that displeases us, should we be able to vote them out? Should we be able to hold this power over our leaders, to ensure they are sensitive to public backlash against unpopular policies? It is difficult to imagine the unelected Eur0pean Commission responding so flexibly to public outcry over forced academisation in schools, say, or tax credits cuts.

Whether you think these were the right Government decisions or not, one cannot deny that they demonstrate a sensitivity by elected politicians to the likely impact of forcing through truly unpopular measures, within a system that can see the executive voted out by the people they govern. Where the executive comprises individuals appointed, not directly elected, there is no equivalent incentive to pay much attention to the people at all.

So, then, this is not a vote on who governs us, but how we are governed: should our politicians be subject to supranational restraints in the policies they are permitted to promise to the electorate? And how much influence do we, the wider electorate, wish to retain over the politicians who take up roles within our system of government?

Seen in that light, the puerile jibes about a vote for Brexit being ‘for le Pen’ or ‘for Geert Wilders’ or such bilge are also revealed for the half-arguments they truly are. Yes, there are politicians with stronger, less centrist views – on the left as well as the right – who strongly support our departure from the EU. There is a good reason for this, and it is not that Brexit is somehow inherently right-wing. No, it is because to depart the EU is to end the stifling, EU-imposed centrist consensus in favour of politicians who are genuinely empowered to make meaningful policy promises and then enact them. And this goes for the left as well as the right. The only way that this can be seen as frightening, dangerous or regressive is if you consider the will of the people itself to be frightening, dangerous and regressive.

If you are sick of supposedly opposing political parties trotting out the same set of minute variations on broadly identical policies; if you have had enough of a political class that increasingly seeks to insulate itself from pushback by the people it supposedly represents; if you have faith in electorates to engage in and make good decisions, together, for our country. If, in a nutshell, you believe in the democratic project, there is only one choice. We must not allow those who would keep us muzzled and docile to pretend this vote is reducible to X-Factor-like voting on the basis of cartoon personalities. It is far more important than that: it is our last chance to turn the ship away from bread and circuses, towards democracy. We must take it, and vote Leave.

I thought we were better than this

Perhaps more even than the dog-whistle racism from some quarters I’ve been appalled at the eagerness of many in the commentariat and even the European Commission to link poor Jo Cox’s murder with the referendum, based on facts that are sketchy and ambiguous at best and in some cases practically before her body was cold.

The police leaks and rumour-mongering are shaping up to a deliver a very poor chance of a balanced investigation into why this obviously disturbed person could have done such an awful thing. We have no facts yet, not really, and yet the politicisation of an appalling event has preceded full pelt. I have found it disgusting.

There is an ugly atmosphere developing in the country. Its emergence long precedes the referendum and the sometimes unpleasant views the campaigns have brought to the surface. These are symptoms rather than causes. The dignified thing to do would have been for everyone to step back, disentangle the referendum and murder and let the police do their job. But no, the political opportunity was too great.

If this proves decisive in swinging the referendum it will have been won for the worst of all reasons: on the back of moral panic, not reason, driven by an opportunistic exploitation by profoundly cynical opponents of democracy of a gifted woman’s murder and her young family’s bereavement. Every bit as bad as immigration-based fearmongering. I went into this campaign full of optimism about the potential for a democratic renewal after freeing ourselves from the dead hand of technocracy, but I’m starting to worry that it’s too late. I truly thought we were better than this.

“But how can you be for Brexit when [insert names of unpleasant politicians] are too?

As a Leaver, I agree that there are some arseholes on the Leave side. I think the context for this perception needs a bit of study though.

The EU is the political manifestation of a consensus among the elites of a number of countries about what politics should look like. An ever increasing number of questions are, quite intentionally, removed from democratic scrutiny and managed technocratically via treaties and laws instead of via negotiation, engagement with the public, or any kind of open debate. Big questions handled in this way include, for example, the consensus view that the right mode of government must be socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

To put it another way, the EU is a technocratic (ie non-democratic) means of narrowing the range of acceptable political options within member states to minor variants on the same centrist consensus. You only have to look at the oft-repeated fear of ‘populism’ within the European Parliament to see that. There is a profound fear of electorates, of giving electorates too much power and of them doing rash or ‘extreme’ things.

Now, perhaps you agree with that and perhaps you don’t. Personally the centrist take is pretty well-aligned with my interests and personal views. But the problem I have with using technocratic means of narrowing the Overton window is that removing from public the scope to debate or indeed democratically alter fundamental aspects of the type of government wanted or needed turns what should be a benign, self-sustaining consensus on what constitutes ‘moderate’ government into something altogether more suffocating and authoritarian. (I also think it’s a major contributor to the modern perception that ‘they’re all the same’ and it doesn’t matter who you vote for. Because, increasingly, it doesn’t, as all politicians are constrained within the same narrow band of what the EU consensus considers acceptable political policy.)

That quiet, smiling and superficially democratic suppression of any political view deemed to deviate too far from the consensus – either leftwards or rightwards – is reflected in a similarly stifling social pressure that declares that All Serious And Nice People hold views within a narrow range that corresponds to the centrist political consensus. People whose political views fall within that range tend to be supportive of the EU, because they see it as a safeguard of their moral outlook against the vaguely dangerous forces of ‘populism’, ie those riotous, under-educated plebs who persist in holding political views that don’t quite fit. Why would we want to give any encouragement to fascists or communists? Surely we’ve worked out the right way to do politics in the centre and that’s that? Similarly, at the level of culture and beliefs, surely the social consensus condemning racists, anarchists and other outlier views is a good thing?

So in a very real way the European centrist consensus has created the EU as a mechanism for keeping unruly electorates on the political straight and narrow. And the same mindset has set busily about painting anyone whose views fall outside its acceptable range as mad, dangerous, evil, racist, destructive and otherwise generally Not Our Type. In a word, arseholes.

On the whole my own views are pretty centrist. But I don’t think it’s healthy to shut discussion down like this. We shouldn’t stifle political diversity, even when it’s unpalatable: it pushes more extreme views underground and gives them a sense of grievance. You only have to look at the steady rise of right- and left-wing protest movements across Europe to see this in action. And by the same token we shouldn’t silence arseholes: we should debate them, and let their unpleasant views bury them. But fundamentally I welcome viewpoint diversity, because I think it’s a sign of a healthy civic society. And that means allowing scope for there to be a few arseholes – gasp – sometimes even politically aligned with me in some respects.

It’s really important to recognise that the eurosceptic movement – and it is a movement, that goes way beyond left and right, as well as way beyond the UK – is as much about fighting for political and viewpoint diversity in general as it is about the specific grievances that more right- or left-leaning eurosceptic groups have with the EU.