I chaired this Res Publica seminar with Adrian Vermeule, Ryzard Legutko, Patrick Deneen and Phillip Blond discussing the future of post-liberal politics across the world.
In his valedictory speech as outgoing European Council President, Donald Tusk described Brexit as a delusion driven by the foolish nostalgia of those Brits still “longing for the empire”. His words prompted the usual harrumphing, but the truth is he has it precisely backwards. It is not Brexiters who are chasing an imperialist high, but those devoted to the European Union.
Since its founding, the EU has self-mythologised as a project of peace, whose principal aim is to prevent a repeat of the two World Wars of 1914 and 1939. The basis for this argument tends to be a notion that the World Wars were caused by an excess of “nationalism”, with the aggressive and expansive German identity promoted by the Nazis held up as the primary exhibit, and that by diluting the power of Europe’s nation states nationalism will also be attenuated.
Lately, despite its convoluted and multivariate origins, the First World War has also been recruited by European leaders as a cautionary tale against nationalism. But the origin of the Second World War can just as reasonably be described as a multi-sided jockeying for power between imperial powers.
And as Yoram Hazony has argued in The Virtue of Nationalism, Hitler was less a nationalist than an imperialist, who sought to expand German-controlled territory and as such was resisted by the rival empires of Britain, the United States and other allies. That is to say, the two World Wars were arguably more driven by the competing interests of imperial players than an excess of national identification as such.
Over the horrific bloodshed that took place between 1914 and 1945, these imperial powers lost or began the irreversible process of losing their empires. The British Empire was at its greatest, not to mention most crisis-ridden, after the end of the First World War, and by the end of the Second was exhausted to the point where it no longer had either the will or the resources to sustain its imperial reach.
The international world order that replaced the Old World empires from 1945 until relatively recently was, in effect, an empire of American-influenced rules underpinned by American military and economic dominance. And in this new age of Pax Americana, international conventions established the right of nations to self-determination. It was no longer the done thing to invade countries halfway round the world for the purpose of grabbing resources, extending geopolitical influence and/or “civilising: the natives.
With no one overseas to colonise, what happened to the old ruling bureaucracies of the formerly imperial nations of Europe? What now for those educated with imperial dreams and a global vision, trained from a young age to run international business and political institutions, dreaming of rule across vast territories and hundreds of millions of benighted souls in need of guidance?
The solution they came up with was to colonise one another. To console themselves for the loss of the riches and ready supply of servants in their overseas colonies, the washed-up post-imperial nations of Europe agreed to pool their reach, influence and unwashed natives into a kind of ersatz empire.
It did not greatly matter whether the natives in question liked the idea or not, as the pooling was undertaken largely without public discussion and in practice (to begin with at least) made little difference to their everyday lives. Rather, the extension of ‘reach’ and ‘influence’ was largely a bureaucratic one, harmonising rules on the kind of trade and manufacturing standards which most ordinary people care very little about.
The result provided an imperial buzz for a cadre of civil servants, who got to dictate standards on the minutiae of countless areas of commerce for hundreds of millions of people rather than mere tens (and enjoy the perks of a colossal corporate lobbying industry in the process).
Even better, they could do all this without any of the demonstrable dangers of the kind of overheated jingoism that came with the style of imperialism that ended in bloodshed with the two world wars. A kind of diet imperialism, if you like: all the fun of civilising the heathens, with none of the guilt.
Their diet empire now constituted, the post-imperial civil servants of each EU member state could enjoy something of the lavish transnational lifestyle, money-no-object pageantry and grand entertaining they missed out on by the unfortunate fact of having been born too late for a career enjoying absolute power in the colonies while feathering their own nests. Indeed, the strange disappearance of a 2014 report on corruption within EU institutions suggests the diet imperialism of Europe offers ample opportunities of the nest-feathering variety.
Those in the administrative class who missed out on the opportunities for self-enrichment in the prewar empires can enjoy instead the huge and relatively unaccountable sums of money that flow around the European Union’s various budgets.
Indeed, even when misbehaviour tips over into outright criminal activity it can sometimes go unpunished, as was the case with IMF head Christine Lagarde, who received a criminal conviction in 2016 for negligence over inappropriate payouts while in the French Government but was nonetheless installed this year as head of the European Central Bank.
The administrative empire also delivers a servant class, at a scale appropriate to the post-imperial nostalgia it serves to alleviate. The debate around the Brexit referendum was full of dire warnings about the looming loss of staff to (among other things) wipe bottoms, look after children, pick fruit and make lattes.
These laments strongly hint at the preoccupations of a colonial class reluctant in the extreme to let go of a rich supply of subaltern masses whose services were rendered affordable by the expansion of the labour market through freedom of movement.
It is not just the servants. The prospect of losing the European extension to their shrunken, empire-less British geopolitical self-image cuts to the heart of our modern governing class. As one would expect, then, those lamenting Britain’s post-Brexit loss of “standing” or evolution into a “laughing stock” (who cares?) are not the supposedly imperialist and thin-skinned Brexiters but those who wish to remain. Because in their view the only available modern source of the suitably elevated pomp, influence and imperial “standing” to which they feel entitled is our membership of the EU.
Paradoxically, in the act of accusing Brexiters of the imperial nostalgia of which they themselves are guilty, the Remain Europhiles have hit on a term which is more accurate than they realise for their Brexiter foes: Little Englanders. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the original Little Englanders were anti-imperialist, and wanted the borders of the United Kingdom to stop at the edges of the British Isles.
The epithet tends to be used against Brexiters to imply jingoistic and probably racist imperial aspirations, but this is the opposite of what it meant when first used. And taken in its original sense, calling Brexiters Little Englanders is entirely accurate: they would like the borders of the nation to which they belong to be at the edge of the British Isles, not along the edge of Turkey or Russia.
Should they get their way, this will present the United Kingdom with the prospect of life as an independent nation of modest size. We can then look forward to a future going about our business much reduced from the giddy, extractive and racist highs of the early twentieth century but hopefully more stable, more content with ourselves and, importantly, perhaps even finally at ease with the loss of British imperial reach.
For the imperialist nostalgists of Remain, though, unable to reconcile themselves to the notion of the United Kingdom as anything but a world power, this possibility is anathema. The argument tends to be that unless we join a large power bloc we will be ground to dust between them. Gideon Rachman argued recently in the FT that “the EU needs to become a power project”, saying that future geopolitics will be a contest between four or five large blocs including China and the US and the individual nations of Europe cannot hold a candle to these behemoths.
But must this necessarily be so? Rachman’s future is just a projection, and many projections – such as Fukuyama’s famous one about the “end of history” have been proved wrong by subsequent events. Admittedly, a multipolar future seems likely. But any age of competing superpowers has always also contained smaller nations that managed to avoid absorption into a larger empire by one means or another. Why should Little England not be one of them?
The only thing holding us back from a post-Brexit and doubly post-imperial future, at ease with our reduction in stature and ready for a new chapter in our national history, is the imperial nostalgia of the Europhiles.
Yesterday I attended the SDP’s party conference. The rump of the party that merged with the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats has enjoyed something of a revival in the last year under William Clouston, who has led the charge to reinvent its social-democratic platform along distinctly post-liberal lines. The party is a minnow compared to the big hitters of conference season, but the conference was important. Here’s why.
With very few exceptions, the party’s leadership do not live in London. Its strongest support base is in Yorkshire, notably around Leeds where the conference was held. Clouston himself lives in a village in the North-East. In his closing remarks, he apologised to delegates for the fact that the next meeting will be in London. Where most of the big parties now talk about the need to take note of the perspective of people outside the capital, within the SDP the reverse is the case.
The party leans centre-right on social issues and centre-left on cultural ones. Broadly speaking, it stands for family, community, nation and a robust welfare state, and bears some similarities to ‘Blue Labour’, Maurice Glasman’s project to bring issues such as family and patriotism back into Labour politics. But whereas Glasman’s project was to a significant degree driven by metropolitan intellectuals, the SDP is not driven by London voices or perspectives. This is also perhaps why the SDP has to date had little cut-through in media terms despite numerous polls that suggest widespread support for a combination of redistributive economic policy with small-c social conservative values.
Movements that articulate concerns or perspectives widespread in the UK population outside major cities have in recent years often been traduced in the media as ‘populist’ or even ‘far right’. But while several speakers at the conference inveighed against identity politics and ‘political correctness’, the SDP is not reactionary. The first motion to carry was one to amend the party policy banning non-stun slaughter to one regulating it, both in the interests of religious tolerance but also to avoid far-right dogwhistles. Clouston himself referred in his speech to a ‘decent populism’ that seeks to return the common concerns of those outside major cities and the liberal consensus to mainstream political discourse.
The watchword was ‘community’ and ‘solidarity’. A key theme emerging from the speakers was: what are the proper limits to individual freedom? Where is it more important to consider the needs of a group? Who pays the price for ‘double liberalism’, and how can we mitigate those costs?
For some considerable time, politics has been something done by Anywheres (Goodhart) and more done to the Somewheres. Efforts to rebalance this have tended to be treated as monstrous aberrations that must be contained, whether with disparaging media coverage or more government funding for some client-state scheme or other.
But looking around on Saturday, my sense is this may change. The Somewheres are beginning to organise.
In a Quillette article about universal basic income and the risk of tyranny, Shai Shapira makes a highly plausible case that political participation develops in direct proportion to the need a state has for its citizens:
We don’t have to go back to ancient history to see this trend – these days we have many countries in the world whose incomes are based on extracting resources from the ground, requiring little to no participation from the common people. Which countries are functioning democracies, and which are autocracies? The World Bank gives us a list of countries ordered by what percentage of their merchandise exports comes from fuels. At 50% or more we find, in this order: Iraq, Angola, Algeria, Brunei, Kuwait, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Oman, Norway, Colombia, Bolivia and Bahrain. Can we notice a trend? How many of these countries provide a good set of political rights for their citizens?
This should not be surprising. This pattern is not often discussed, as it conflicts the image we like to have of political rights as being the result of enlightenment and struggle, of the heroes of our past who overthrew despotic regimes and created a better world for everyone. But reality, unfortunately, seems more cynical than that. We do not get our rights because we deserve them, or even because we fight for them – we get our rights because the government needs us. It is a common hope that countries that escape poverty will move on to adopt democracy, and this indeed happened in some notable cases, like South Korea or Taiwan. But South Korea and Taiwan became rich from industry, which means their wealth came from the work of their citizens; meanwhile, Qatar or Angola became rich from natural resources, and their political situation became no better. A country that generates its wealth from its citizens has no choice but to keep those citizens happy, at least to some degree; a country that generates its wealth from oil wells, only needs to keep a handful of mercenaries happy as they guard the access to those wells.
The article is well worth a read. But for me it sparked off a connection with the strange phenomenon we live with nowadays, that of a Labour Party that gives voice to pretty much anyone except the labouring classes. Put simply, the working classes no longer have a major party giving them political representation because the state no longer needs them, and arguably has been working for some decades to ensure that continues to be the case.
Applying Shapira’s insights to the development of mass political participation in the UK, the hypothesis remains plausible. Despite some decades of suffragette agitation, it was not until 1918, when women began to be needed as participants in civic life to replace the men being shipped off to die en masse in the trenches of Europe, that the first women were enfranchised. What is less often remembered is that the same Act also enfranchised some 5 million non-property-owning men. The state needed these men and women – hey presto, improved political participation was the sweetener demanded by the masses in exchange.
Throughout the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries, the United Kingdom derived much of its wealth from manufacturing; the workers who staffed the factories were needed. The same period traces a trajectory of ever-growing mass political participation, and is often narrated as a moral development, a steady march towards enlightenment in the form of the universal franchise. But was it as much about the need to acknowledge reciprocity between the working masses and the political class? The extent to which workers were increasingly able to use the leverage their labour in industry collectively gave them, to demand political concessions from a previously patrician governing class, forms the history of the trade union movement and, from 1900 onwards, the Labour Party.
What followed from the end of World War II until the Winter of Discontent and subsequent election of Margaret Thatcher is, arguably, a tale of this leverage developing first into its strength, then beyond strength to complacency, hubris and stagnation. We all know the denouement, as rolling blackouts left swathes of the country reading by candlelight, rubbish lay uncollected in the streets and the Iron Lady declared ‘There is no alternative’ and deployed all the resources at her disposal to smash the unions. In her grim determination to rein in the unfettered power of trade unionism to bring the country to a standstill, she shuttered entire industries and impoverished vast swathes of the United Kingdom, changes still palpable (and, in parts of the country, unforgiven) today.
Thatcher moved deliberately to tilt the UK’s economy away from manufacturing and towards knowledge and services – notably financial services, the behemoth that now sits astride London, sucking in all cultural capital from the surrounding 300 miles as well as much of the world. That is, she restructured the entire British economy so that the state no longer needed the working classes as it had in the 19th and 20th centuries. Who knows whether she did this intentionally to reduce the workers’ leverage over the state, but that was the effect of the changes she wrought.
The consequence, nearly 40 years on from her first election victory, is that as the political classes’ dependence on a mass industrial workforce has waned, political parties on both left and right are increasingly indifferent to their needs.
Indeed, Tony Blair’s decision in 2004 to open the UK borders to Eastern European EU accession countries meant that the working classes were needed even less than before. Where, a century previously, the supply of labour was relatively static and if the state wanted to ask something significant of the working masses then political sweeteners were needed in exchange, now in the days of free movement it didn’t even matter if the indigenous working classes withheld their labour, as employers would just import replacements from the EU!
Thus was the bond of reciprocity broken between the state and the working classes. Commentators on both right and left now agree – as do the statistics and Labour’s own data – that Labour is now firmly a party of the middle class. Indeed, there is a distinct whiff around much of the left these days of disgust at the working class, as Brendan O’Neill never tires of pointing out.
It is no wonder that Labour ceased to see its role as representing the interests of those workers: they had nowhere else to go and would probably continue to vote Labour, so could be taken for granted. The result has been a hollowed-out Labour Party, reduced from a grand coalition of middle-class socialists and working-class firebrands to a kind of well-off clerisy, shy of talking about class but ever so keen to tell you what to think. Ultimately, it has led us to Jeremy Corbyn, a man who speaks entirely to and for the middle classes (free university tuition fees is the sort of outrageous middle-class bung that the Tories would be pilloried for) but does so in a strange, stylised parody of the 1970s, the last days of the trade union Raj.
The only difference between left and right on this front, today, is the consensus on how large the welfare-state bung should be to buy off now politically-irrelevant class. Stereotypically, the Conservatives believe the working masses should be handed free money, buck up, get jobs, pay taxes and become needed by the state so they can participate politically; this view is indifferent to any barriers to doing so. In contrast, Labour believes this class should be treated with patrician generosity, and handed as much free money as necessary to keep them quiescent. In practice, both sides operate the same welfare system, with minor tweaks at the edges blown up by the Westminster bubble into giant ideological differences.
So what is to become of the working masses now? What chance of reclaiming representation? Movements come and go that seek to represent working-class interests: Britain First, the EDL, the Football Lads’ Alliance. Such movements are generally demonised as ‘far-right’ by the chattering classes; and (with the exception of the mass working-class vote to leave the European Union) these movements are largely cultural rather than political, pushing back less against contemporary politics than incursions by foreigners, or political correctness, or other manifestations of the elite’s vision of the good life. If Shapira’s formulation holds good, the masses will have little success in reclaiming political representation until they are actually needed again by the state that governs them. And in a world of increasing robotisation which, instead, proposes to make an ever-greater proportion of the population unnecessary to a state’s prosperity, that seems a prospect both distant and, in its profound implications for the health of our democracy, deeply worrying.
Theresa May’s big conference announcement for the day was…wait for it…extra dosh for Help to Buy.
Great. Fantastic. Muted applause.
The announcement disappoints, on so many levels.
Level one: it’s a stupid policy that will make the situation it proposes to ameliorate worse. Why is there a crisis in the first place? Housing prices are too high. What happens when you increase demand (give more young people the means to buy) without increasing supply accordingly? Prices go up. It’s barely even a sticking plaster on an endemic problem that will take a degree of political boldness undetectable in this government.
Level two: it’s weak and calculating, and trying not to look that way. The Tories are in a bind, because no-one young votes Tory. To entice more young voters their way, they need to do something to help more young people become the property-owning middle classes that traditionally vote Tory. That means building enough houses to keep prices stable or encourage them to fall. But on the other hand, housebuilding on that scale will annoy the older people who like the countryside as it is, and who see the rising value of their home as a nest egg. These are people who already reliably vote Tory. So, May must choose whether to protect the interests of the Tories’ core vote or risk alienating this core vote in order to appeal to another demographic that may or may not be swayed by her efforts. She has tried to square this circle, with a policy that will enable more young people to get a toe on the housing ladder, while ignoring the need to increase supply; her policy will thus avoid too much desecration of the sacred Green Belt and continue to drive up house prices, hopefully keeping the core Tory vote on board. Everyone wins, right? Except it’s a stupid policy that just defers the fundamental problem, which is either too few houses or too many people. She must know well that this is the case but lacks the clout, the boldness or perhaps the vision to do more than paper over the cracks and try to keep these competing interests onside.
Level three, and fundamentally, this policy disappoints because it’s such a sad capitulation to the bland, vision-less, tinkering-with-the-dials modern politics of ‘me, me, me’. What will the government do for me? What about my interests? Sod the country, I’m voting for whoever has the best deal for me. Forget having a vision and trying to govern in the national interest. Forget trying to carry the people with you when you do so. Ignore the big questions, fiddle with this tax or that incentive, try and triangulate for as many selfish subsets of the demos as you can isolate.
Whatever what your views on Brexit, it is clear that many people voted Leave knowing full well it was likely to result in an economically bumpy ride but believing that leaving was in the national interest regardless. By and large it was a vote that rejected the selfish nest-feathering insularity of retail politics in favour of a bigger vision. In uncertain times, faced with many competing narratives to explain ever more unpredictable outcomes, the Brexit vote spoke of a people – 52% of them, anyway – looking for a politics that is more about vision than retail offers. Arguably the popularity of Corbyn’s unaffordable promises speaks to the same impulse. But has May sensed the national hunger for vision and boldness in politics? Has she fuck. After her disastrous attempt at grasping nettles in the national interest – the so-called ‘dementia tax’, a genuinely bold and progressive effort to stop kicking the pretty troubling can of elderly care down the road – she has retreated from the big picture into the horse-trading politics of buying off this or that demographic.
What the Conservatives need is a leader with the courage and vision to make a clear case for tackling the country’s vested interests and getting the political consent for this by inspiring political solidarity. In the case of housing that means getting the NIMBYs to accept that they have to choose between keeping their pretty view at the expense of a thriving community, or letting development happen so their children can afford to buy in the area. We need someone who can speak to the whole country and draw out a sense of solidarity, of being willing to compromise so that the country overall can thrive.
The Conservatives were once able to find the kind of language to capture that kind of purpose and collective endeavour. Sadly, though, Mrs May has shrunk from the task in hand and I don’t see any likely successor who strike me as more plausible. So instead we get a shit policy that aims to buy off one group while keeping another pacified. A policy, and a party, that utterly fails to meet the mood of the times but instead harks back to the selfish, narcissistic politics of the ‘End of History’ post-Cold War era. A policy and party that resolutely refuses to acknowledge the fact that history has come roaring back, and that our current elected representatives are painfully, woefully not up to the job of dealing with it.
The Guardian has an interesting piece on the how the Stronger In campaign saw the referendum. Along with the campaign’s evident, amazingly hubristic assumption that the result was a done deal, there are a couple of bits that I think deserve more comment than they get in the article:
“The starting premise of the remain campaign was that elections in Britain are settled in a centre-ground defined by aversion to economic risk and swung by a core of liberal middle-class voters who are allergic to radical lurches towards political uncertainty. They could be identified, profiled and targeted by the technical wizardry of professional pollsters. Their anxieties, hopes and priorities could be plotted on charts that would then be translated into simple messages. EU membership might thus be established in the minds of this audience as a proxy for security and continuity – the natural preference of the sensible majority, as reinforced by every institution that carried cultural authority; the experts would be heeded. […] No one on the remain side fully anticipated an emotional groundswell of contempt for the very idea of political authority as dispensed from a liberal citadel in Westminster. The remain politicians found themselves besieged by an angry insurrection, channelling grievances that were well known. They stood for a cause that became emblematic of a system that was alien, arrogant and remote – and they had no answer.
Stronger In became the holding company for a liberal centrist political concept that had been transmitted in varying forms through the rise of New Labour and the ascent of Cameron. This had been the bastion of political orthodoxy for a generation, but its foundations had been corroded. […] The unique opportunity of a referendum was to give voters the option of punishing a generation of politics, regardless of party allegiance.
What jumps out at me is the way no-one really seems yet to be questioning the moral bankruptcy of this entire worldview. How did we end up in a situation where it was considered absolutely okay to run election campaigns calibrated purely towards tiny groups of centrist voters? Not only that, but to invoke a complicit media establishment to paint any views that diverge (right, left or elsewhere) from that consensus as mad, swivel-eyed and dangerous? Did no-one ever stop to wonder what the people who were excluded from the focus groups and policy calibration might think of it all?”
The whole schtick of the Westminster discussion has for years been ‘Oh we need to get more ordinary people involved in politics’, while busily disregarding the interests and political priorities of vast swathes of ordinary people. Then they made a mistake of offering two choices with distinctly different outcomes, with the result that ordinary people just got involved in politics. And the aftermath was a lot of centrists screaming ‘WHO THE FUCK ARE THESE NASTY IGNORANT VENGEFUL RACIST THICKOS????!!!!!1111’.
Much is being made among the bien-pensant of how simply ghastly Leave voters are. But I really, honestly think not nearly enough is being made of how simply ghastly the worldview is that has depicted more than half the country as at best electorally irrelevant, and at worst something ideologically to be kettled, neutralised or (ideally) eradicated.
It’s a major bugbear of mine that a lot gets said about diversity in gender, race etc but no-one has much to say about political/viewpoint diversity. This is an issue that Jonathan Haidt tackles in academia, but which is percolating relentlessly into many other arenas. In my view the referendum result was a fightback for political diversity, and it is a fight that is well overdue.
For ultimately, what kind of democracy can we have if the window of acceptable debate is policed? And it has been, for as long as I have been eligible to vote: not with batons or threat of imprisonment, but with social pressure, Facebook shaming, awkward silences if a view is expressed that diverges from the small, pale palette of acceptable ones. This silence has helped to reinforce the cultural divide that our liberal press has suddenly, belatedly woken up to: that between the ‘speak as I find’ culture of the backward, ignorant provinces and the carefully tone-policed one of the metropolis.
And this cultural divide, in turn, has helped to conceal a more serious economic one, indeed even to justify it, somewhat after the fashion of British colonialists using the backwardness of the tribes they conquered as justification for their exploitation and abuse. After all, how could it be the fault of we enlightened ones if the proles are too ignorant, malignant and morally retrograde to take advantage of our brave new world? Surely it must be our job to bring them into the light and, if they cannot be thus educated, to ensure they are placated with handouts and kept well away from the levers of power.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As Richard North once again wearily points out, Cameron’s ‘tough negotiations’ on EU membership are all theatre. The deal has long been done, and the resulting ‘British model’, also known as ‘associate membership’ and under EU discussion for years, will be trailed until the eleventh hour and then spun as a major victory and solution to all our woes.
In the meantime, this fine performance of the Upton-on-Severn Stick Dance sums up perfectly the reality of the performance our broadsheets are lapping up and regurgitating for the public as though it were high drama.
Two ‘sides’ face off against one another. They advance and retreat in perfect synchrony, holding symbolic weapons which they clash at prearranged moments with simulated aggression. Everything is highly choreographed, intended as a performance, and the members of both ‘sides’ are in fact part of the same team.
The europhiles (and make no mistake, Cameron is a ‘phile) would reduce political discourse to the level of shopping-centre Morris dancing, and have us believe that Morris dancing is real negotiation. Don’t be taken for a fool. The deal is already done. We have one chance to salvage our national sovereignty – the referendum – and must not allow ourselves to be swayed by the EU’s bread and circuses.