Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Beyond the ‘one-size-fits-all scapegoat’, what? Britain and the ignominy of ‘Brexit’

In a speech on 19 April, which was hailed by most of the Brexiters as definitive, Michael Gove finally made it clear that Out means Out. Not tagging along like Norway or Switzerland, not seeking a new and complicated relationship like Canada, not a country member or a candidate member, but OUT. Gove, looking more than ever like a gleeful hamster on steroids, announced that Britain would leave the Single Market, would not seek to be part of EFTA (the organisation that includes Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein), and would remain a member only of ‘the European Free Trade Zone that stretches from Iceland to the Russian border’. Alas, despite this grandiloquent description, the EFTZ exists largely in the imagination. The UK would be as Out as Bosnia, Serbia and Albania (the signal difference being that Bosnia, Serbia and Albania are all trying to get into the EU). We would be launched on a journey to become a Greater Albania. […] Albania has no EU passport for financial and other services and no access to EU deals with the outside world. [1]
Yet, before the Second World War, the phrase “Britain and Europe” was much less prevalent, and there are good historical reasons why. In messy historical reality, as distinct from much present-day polemic, “Britain” and “Europe” have rarely followed entirely distinctive paths, any more than they have ever – either of them – been monolithic structures. [2] 

So, "we" voted for ‘prolonged turmoil and stagnation simply for the exhilaration of being on [our] own at last’[3]. As Ferdinand Mount argued, this was not so much the Garbo ‘I want to be alone’ option as the ‘Third Division’ Millwall option: ‘No one likes us, we don’t care’.[4] This piece seeks to understand why Britian left the EU and to critique the discourses used by both the Leave and Remain camps. As Neil Kurkarni has argued, the level of debate was leagues below 1975. This is a more considered approach than I took to the issue in my review (with Adam Whybray) here of The Legendary Pink Dots' dystopian The Tower (1984), written on 24th June. I seek to make a pro-European intervention, and synthesise some of Britain’s wiser counsel that didn't prevail.

To counter a first myth, this vote wasn’t necessarily about the old stitching up the young, so much as the media and political establishment (generally those born in the 1950s-70s) misleading everyone. Those of pensionable age have generally been the most eloquent: Ferdinand Mount (b.1939; 76) and Bernard Porter (b.1941; 75) in the LRB, Neal Ascherson (b.1932; 83) in the New York Times, Linda Colley (b.1949; 66) in the New Statesman, Anthony Barnett (b.1942; 73) in Open Democracy and John Major (b.1943; 73) on the BBC.

Why did I vote to ‘Remain’, against the 3.8%-margin “tide”? No great matter of consistency or principle, due to the EU's treatment of Greece, for example. However, philosophically and geo-politically: being on your tod and being an increasingly angry little England is not a good idea. Global issues such as climate change and terrorism cannot be dealt with locally. And it would be England, as “Brexit”, rather than being a naff breakfast cereal, risks the future of the UK as well as endangering the legacy of 1998’s Good Friday Agreement. In addition, Farage and Johnson were a disgrace: their campaigning pandered to the lowest human impulses. Paul Mason spoke pointedly about the degradation of our political system and national culture that Boris Johnson embodies:
“Let me be clear about what I’m saying about the Conservatives. We now know what a £35,000 a year education at Eton buys you. It’s that ability to stand up, slag off your opponent. If you’re not winning the argument, stand up and raise ludicrous points about the EU banning banana bunches more than three.

If that doesn’t work, you tussle your hair and you grin in an inane manner. If I spent £35,000 a year and sent somebody to Eton and they came out saying that, I’d be disgusted.

I’m talking about Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, who is debasing the rationality of this debate, and you should be very worried that this guy could be leading your party if he wins the referendum.”

Speaking to Andrew Marr, ex-PM and retired Tory John Major also weighed in against the Leave tactics and rhetoric:
“What they have said about leaving is fundamentally dishonest and it’s dishonest about the cost of Europe. And on the subject that they’ve veered towards, having lost the economic argument, of immigration, I think their campaign is verging on the squalid, and I’ve said so before and I’m happy to say so again.”[5]
Porter argued that the Leave campaign did not articulate what they wanted for the future, apart from coveting ‘woolly abstractions – ‘control’, ‘freedom’, ‘greatness’, ‘the good old days’ – and some totally inappropriate models: Canada, Norway, Switzerland’.’[6] The problem for those of us who will have to live through ‘Brexit’ is that it is far from assured we will get as good a deal as a Norway or Switzerland, and the likes of Gove do not even want such actually existing beneficial trade deals, as they would still have to abide by EU regulations, as Mount has explained.[7]

As Mount explained, for the ‘Brexiteers’ ‘it isn’t about economics’; former Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson gave him no economic arguments but emphasised ‘self-government’.[8] Few commentators will know more about Tories than ex-Thatcher adviser Mount, and he elaborates a pointed critique of the Tory ‘Brexit’ mentality as inherited from Enoch Powell: ‘Powell had not only a passionate attachment to his own nation-state but a chilly indifference to everyone else’s. He thought the Cold War was a delusion […] He insisted that the Republic of Ireland be treated in all respects as a foreign country. Other countries, other minds have no meaningful existence. Weapons-grade solipsism.’[9]

Mount argued that the Powell tendency persisted in today’s Tory euro-sceptics whom he described as ‘incurably chilly, sometimes abnormally intelligently, often physically awkward and requiring a good deal of personal space.’[10] He contrasted their paranoia about the EU as a ‘deep-laid plot to undermine and eventually to extinguish the nation-state in general and Britain in particular’ with the ‘energy and farsightedness’ of Wellington, Aberdeen and Palmerston in maintaining the Concert for forty years after Waterloo.[11] He could also have mentioned Churchill’s integrationist credentials. Johnson is always up for claiming Winnie’s mantle but descended into characterising this organisation which, in its infancy, his idol had actively supported into an ‘out-group’, a ‘them’ against ‘us’.

Linda Colley mentioned the fact that other EU states such as Denmark, Holland, France, Germany, Portugal, Belgium and Spain, all had maritime empires, like Britain, and yet they don’t have a national self-image as ‘exceptional’.[12] She argued against the constant placing of “Britain and Europe” as oppositional binaries, and points to many deep historical connections. She identified the ‘overly iconic’ myths of WW2 as primarily causing the British to see themselves as ‘different’, not having experienced defeat and invasion. This lack of humility is our Achilles heel.

Many of the Leave camp exhibited a myopic view; as Mount argues, all of the ‘frictions of modern life’ were blamed on the EU, whereas most ‘excessively fussy regulations’ are due to our parliament, and, I might add, our hegemonic ideology of neo-liberal capitalism is behind present frictions.[13] All of these stunted ‘arguments’ apparently justify the set of massive risks that Mount identifies: recession, trade deal difficulties, a flight of capital, unemployment, the Union with Scotland and the ‘morale of the rump EU.’[14]

Considered economically and pragmatically then, “Vote Leave” simply did not articulate a case to leave or any viable future vision. ‘Brexit’ will leave us prone to a needlessly destructive period of difficult bespoke negotiations – Christopher Chope MP’s ‘WTO option’ is not being ruled out – that will harm British businesses and freedom of British people to travel and work in EU states. It is no surprise that all world governments and a vast array of academic analysts say that it is, on balance, much better to stay. 80-90% of scientists backed Remain for the reason that it was the better option for British and European science, which should know no borders.[15]

There is a fundamental dividing line in the Tory Party and the Right in Britain, and it concerns immigration: the Cameron-Osborne position of being generally relaxed about it, according to the neo-liberal capitalist ideology vs. the Gove-Redwood-IDS position of pulling up the drawbridge, favouring old-school nationalism and specious ideas of ‘the Commonwealth’ welcoming us with open arms. Ascherson discussed the con of Boris Johnson, who claimed he would have his cake and eat it, leaving the EU but remaining in the Single Market, before Gove and others advanced ideas of a glorious isolation, further ‘out’ than even Norway or Switzerland.[16] The City of London financial sector, and the broader UK services sector will lobby intensely for retaining access to the SM; will the Tories be able to resist such calls, especially if public opinion turns even more decisively against Brexit than it has thus far?[17] As Porter argued, four days after the referendum result, the ‘government has been all too willing to disregard the popular will in the case of ‘austerity’.’[18]

Who were the arguers? What authority did they have? Remain had Barack Obama and virtually all world leaders. Leave had among the worst specimens available in the fields of politics, business and ‘punditry’ in 2016: not merely Katie Hopkins and Donald Trump, but also Nicholas Ridley – who, as Mount acidly recalled, showed the same ‘flamboyant optimism’ in his previous role as chairman of Northern Rock.[19] Then there was the supposed bright spark Michael Gove, someone worth listening to above ‘expert’ opinion, apparently…

I would rather listen to academic and world opinion than to Ian Terence Botham on an issue of this magnitude, seemingly many millions did not.

I am unsure quite how the distrust of ‘experts’ fits in with the national characteristic of trusting empiricism over ideas… Many in England clearly have felt starved of emotional and atavistic attachments to identity – and this arrogant sense of national grandiosity has overridden concern for data or fact-based arguments. As Ascherson argues, ‘Behind Brexit stalks the ghost of imperial exception, the feeling that Great Britain can never be just another nation to be outvoted by France or Slovakia.’[20]


How did Leave voters justify their gamble? Channel 4’s interviews with Barnsley Leave voters revealed a sentiment important in the result: "It's all about immigration". They were no doubt further riled up by the scaremongering claims about Turkey joining the EU, rightly dismissed by John Major as ‘nonsense on stilts’.[21] I feel sad for the deluded people of Barnsley. As Hanley has argued, they were expressing that ‘the way the modern world works was not working for them.’[22] In reality, they are clearly not going to get what they want – unless the anti-single market isolation mania of Gove wins out – and, either way, they will face more austerity as EU Regional Development money goes towards corporation tax cuts, or just goes. Will they be open to learning about what the actual, complex situation with immigration is? Will they be open in attitudes to the world and the 48% of their country who took a different view? Or will they just have to accept their part in our sliding backwards in outlook towards the sort of brutality depicted in Oi for England and Tales out of School: ‘Made in Britain’?

"I think it's put England back on the globe again, and I feel very proud!"

Yes, but as an infinitely sadder, poorer, more isolated island, with the prospect of a "brain drain" of a much larger scale than the mythical 1960s/70s one. As Ascherson explains, the USA would turn from London to Berlin.[23] As he states, ‘isolation brings out the worst in Britain’ and giving a detailed example of its ineffectiveness when peddled by Chamberlain in the 1930s; then, how we learned the lesson and got involved in a unifying Europe, post-WW2.

A problem for Remain was, of course, the lack of positivity in the message they articulated. But could the likes of campaign-leader George Osborne credibly offer ‘positive’? Would the media allow such a case to be heard? Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats were all marginalised by a pathetic, Johnson v. Cameron-framed media perspective on the referendum. As Tom Ewing has argued, there was sadly no popular voice of pro-Europeanism around like Charles Kennedy.

Mount stated the major unarticulated positive of the EU; it being designed to ‘retrieve the nation-state from ignominy and demoralisation after two catastrophic world wars’; a ‘worthy’ purpose in exchange for an ‘ultimately retrievable […] sacrifice of day-to-day sovereignty and a piffling contribution from national revenues’.[24]

The arrogance of Leave was in its assuming that all EU countries want to be ‘freed’, just like an over-entitled Gove hamster. As Mount argues, ‘there are still plenty of nations that regard membership as the best guarantee of peace, stability and prosperity and are clamouring to get in. They may be deluded, but who gave the gleeful hamster [Gove] licence to set about demolishing the shelter they are struggling to reach?’[25] Colley argued that we in Britain have become ‘cosseted’ and ‘blissfully forgetful about the prospect of military conflict’.[26] She also stated that both NATO and the EU (and its predecessor organisations) have ‘played an essential role’ in keeping the peace. She warns of US isolationism under a possible President Trump and the possible US drift from backing NATO – ‘Europeans […] will need to collaborate ever more closely to defend themselves’.[27]

Nobody in the Remain camp saw fit to counter the myths of anti-democracy in the EU, but conceded the argument. Mount refers to how the European Parliament ‘gives democratically elected representatives from the whole EU an opportunity to help frame the rules, which British MPs don’t really have’. He also defends the European Council of ministers, as ‘itself an elected body’, with its dinners and wrangles thrashing out a consensus in the style of an Indian panchayat: perhaps ‘a more appropriate method of seeking a way forward for such a vast and heterogeneous community’.[28]

So, 17-odd million people on this self-mythologising island have thought in a meagre, limited way and not about the impact on the future of the UK itself or on the impact on the rest of Europe. They have regarded the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and Boris Johnson MP (the most odious politician ever, as grinning superego to Farage's id) as more worth listening to than academic experts. These sadly myopic attitudes will mean 23/06/16 will be an infamous day in world and UK history, instead of some equivalent of American Independence Day for the people of Barnsley.


[1] Mount, F. (2016) ‘Nigels against the World’, London Review of Books (38)10, 19th May [online] Available at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n10/ferdinand-mount/nigels-against-the-world[accessed: 01/07/16]

[2] Colley, L. (2016) ‘An island, but not in isolation’, New Statesman, 10-16th June, p.35

[3] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[4] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[5] Major, J. (2016) ‘Sir John Major’s Interview on the Andrew Marr Show’, The Rt Hon Sir John Major KG CH, 5th June. [online] Available: http://johnmajor.co.uk/page4401.html [accessed: 28/06/16]

[6] Porter, B. (2016) ‘Historic failure’, LRB blog, 27th June [online] Available at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2016/06/27/bernard-porter/historic-failure/ [accessed: 01/07/16]

[7] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[8] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[9] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[10] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[11] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[12] Colley, L. (2016) ibid., p.35

[13] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[14] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[15] Galsworthy, M. (2016) ‘Angry scientists must fight to pick up the pieces after Brexit’, New Scientist, 27th June. [online] Available at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2095198-angry-scientists-must-fight-to-pick-up-the-pieces-after-brexit/ [accessed: 28/06/16]

[16] Ascherson, N. (2016) ‘From Great Britain to Little England’, New York Times, 16th June [online] Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/19/opinion/sunday/from-great-britain-to-little-england.html?_r=0 [accessed: 01/07/16]

[17] Dearden, L. (2016) ‘Brexit research suggests 1.2 million Leave voters regret their choice in reversal that could change result’, The Independent, 1st July [online] Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-news-second-eu-referendum-leave-voters-regret-bregret-choice-in-millions-a7113336.html [accessed: 04/07/16]

[18] Porter, B. (2016) ibid.

[19] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[20] Ascherson, N. (2016) ibid.

[21] Major, J. (2016) ibid.

[22] Hanley, L. (2016) ‘Divided Britain’, LRB blog, 24th June [online] Available at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2016/06/24/lynsey-hanley/divided-britain/ [accessed: 01/07/16]

[23] Ascherson, N. (2016) ibid.

[24] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[25] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.

[26] Colley, L. (2016) ibid., p.35

[27] Colley, L. (2016) ibid., p.35

[28] Mount, F. (2016) ibid.