Explaining Brexit

30 October 2018
Only in en
Brexit has been driven by an English nationalism combined with extreme globalization – but also by EU overreach, writes openDemocracy co-founder Anthony Barnett. A second referendum is hypothetical at best and a different result far from certain.

The negotiations over Britain’s decision to leave the European Union are now entering a decisive stage. European colleagues have asked me to set out what is going on. Will there be a deal? If there is, will the government hold together? Will the UK’s parliament vote it down? Might the UK crash out of the EU without a deal? Will Jeremy Corbyn become Prime Minister?

The simple answer is that no one knows, for reasons I’ll try to explain. There is, however, a serious chance that the forces seeking a ‘no deal’ will prevail with the aim of getting the UK to topple into the arms of Trump’s America. The reason why such a disaster could take place is that there is a well-funded and determined set of interests that desire it, while there is no well-organised body of support for any coherent alternative.

I should declare that I want a different process and outcome. Now that everyone can begin to see what Brexit means, I want another referendum which campaigners are calling a ‘People’s Vote’; and for voters to then choose to stay in the EU by a decisive majority of 60/40.

Alas, I am also familiar with the workings of my own country.

The only chance of such a second referendum seems to be if the Prime Minister herself calls for it. She has said she is adamantly opposed. But if she agrees a deal with the EU and then Parliament votes it down, she might decide to take it to the public. That is three big ‘ifs’. Even then, I fear that we could loose and that she would win, as the debate that is really needed has not taken place.

Which brings me to the first reason why it is so hard to explain Brexit to the rest of Europe. The British themselves do not understand it!

Although in fact, most Scots, Welsh and Irish understand it well enough. But the majority of the British are English and a majority of the English public are determined on Brexit, can’t understand why it has not happened, and justify it in terms which the rest of the world find it hard to believe.

Which brings me to the second reason why it is so hard to explain Brexit. The United Kingdom is not united. It is a multi-national union of a very peculiar kind in which the central and largest country thinks of itself as being both England and Britain at the same time. Brexit was in fact voted for by the English. The Scots voted by a huge 24 per cent majority to remain in the EU. Northern Ireland voted to remain by a smaller 14 per cent majority on a lower turnout – today it has a huge majority for remaining, according to opinion polls. But England outside London voted by an 11 per cent majority to exit the EU. Because of its size, it took the decision for the whole of Britain. There is as yet little evidence to suggest that English voters have changed their minds in decisive numbers.

However, there is a third reason why it is hard to explain Brexit and even harder to predict what will happen over the next few weeks. We are witnessing a breakdown in British society and politics. And breakdowns are inherently unpredictable.

Brexit is a potentially momentous, arguably world-historic process. It came about as an act of democratic defiance of the UK’s ruling order. Yet its leaders are corrupt, inept and ridiculous. So that while a British revolution is taking place, young people are not saying, to paraphrase Wordsworth, ‘Bliss is it in this dawn to be alive but to be young is very heaven’. Instead, women under 25, 80 per cent of whom voted against Brexit, feel only how ghastly it is in this dusk to be alive, while to be young is to be covered with embarrassment as one’s parents make fools of themselves.

So at this moment, as rumours of deals and betrayals swirl around Westminster, all I can do is to offer some understanding of the forces that have led to Britain being so divided. Although it presents itself as a simple ‘in/out’ decision, Brexit is the result of the combined determination of different forces that have come together to bring about the detonation. It is a simplification to say that there are four main conflicts in play, but I’ll limit myself to them.

Photo by Garry Knight. Source: Flickr

Spheres of influence

The first is a fight over whether the United Kingdom will leave the primary influence of the European Union for that of the United States. Will it remain within what can be called the European space or will it affiliate to Trumpian America? This is an issue of potentially enormous consequence.

There is no widespread, popular support for such an outcome. Nor do its supporters ever advocate it openly. Nonetheless, it will be the consequence of a ‘no deal’ scenario and many are working for this, including major media outlets. On the face of it, a ‘no deal’ will simply be an incredibly painful event for the UK and a huge ‘shock’, which is why it is being discounted as irrational. But in fact, it won’t be a ‘no deal’ but a different kind of deal.

When the supporters of Brexit called on the country to support them, they declared that victory in the referendum would be ‘independence day’. But the UK is not capable of being ‘independent’ in today’s global economy. It was particularly galling to hear this claim from Boris Johnson, who happily describes London as the ‘eighth Emirate’ to illustrate its integration with Middle Eastern billionaire sheiks.

The UK is in the peculiar situation of having a well-connected economy that is nonetheless dependent. For example, over half the shares on its stock exchange are owned abroad. Much of its manufacturing is completely internationalized. More important still, its financial sector is lubricated by money laundering and supported by a global network of tax havens under British suzerainty from the Channel Islands to the Caymans.

A recent IMF analysis reports that the UK government’s net worth is a negative liability of £2 trillion and, as a percentage of the public balance sheet, is the worst there is, with the sole exception of Portugal. The UK cannot function as an ‘independent’ country, for all its relative size as a middle ranking economy. It therefore faces a choice. It can remain within the European sphere of influence – i.e. in the Single Market. Or it can participate in the American sphere of deregulation.

If it embraces the latter, it will do so on Washington’s terms. Such an outcome would be a triumph for Trump, who has singled out Johnson as the leader he prefers. The president’s national security advisor John Bolton would welcome it, since it would build up the alliance he craves against Iran. Those hoping for such disruption or ‘shock’ reckon that it would provide an ideal environment for populist mobilization to create an irreversible breach in European solidarity.

The reason why such a disaster is possible, even probable, is that the alternative will make the UK a ‘rule taker’ without participating in the processes that will govern it. Such an outcome is impossible to justify in terms of the language of Brexit and self-government. And as we now know full well, out of weakness comes the hard right.

A rebellion against powerlessness

The second fight has been widely discussed and rightly so, but needs little further attention here: a popular rebellion against the unfairness of neoliberalism and powerlessness within it. The marketization, privatisation and depoliticization of society associated with the neoliberal variant of capitalism took an extreme form in the UK, after Margaret Thatcher pioneered it from the early 1980s. The UK then suffered perhaps the most acute financial crisis of any country in 2008, as its banking system tottered on the edge of meltdown. Ten years later, wages are still nearly €1,000 a year lower in real terms, while the wealthy have seen huge increases in the value of their assets and no bankers have been brought to justice. The rightwing rebellion against this took the form of hostility to immigrants. But there are left-wing forms as well, directed at the unaccountability of the EU.

The breakdown of the UK

Famously, Britain does not have a codified constitution. Instead, it has inherited a historic arrangement at the core of which is the ‘absolute sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament’. In effect, parliament took over the absolute powers of the monarch. The result has been the longest lasting capitalist regime in the world, which has survived and undergone many transformations since its origins. These can be dated back to the revolution of 1688, which put a Dutch king on the throne, and the Act of Union of 1707, which fused Scotland and England into a single power. Together they launched Great Britain on its path to Empire as the world’s first industrial power.

Today, this historic settlement is coming to an end. The course of Brexit is impossible to predict because it is a breakdown of this extraordinary legacy. It is therefore a mistake to see it as being driven by solely by anti-immigrant populism, or post-imperial global illusions. These played a part. But Brexit is not caused by anything so coherent. Rather, a combination of extreme globalization, over-centralization, reckless neoliberalism and a broken constitution has created a frustrated English nationalism that takes the form of hyper-Britishness.

I can illustrate this baffling nationalism with the stance of the Daily Mail. Under Paul Dacre, its editor for 25 years, it campaigned ferociously against membership of the EU. Defending Brexit against its critics, Dacre described the main motive for leaving the EU as, ‘a deep-seated human yearning to recover our national identity and independence’.1 This was why, he explained, it was nothing to do with economic costs or benefits.

In the run up to the referendum, Dacre was concerned that no credible national figures would step forward to lead the campaign. He headlined the paper’s front page with a vast question: ‘WHO WILL SPEAK FOR ENGLAND?’ In the editorial below he added, ‘of course, by England … we mean the whole of the United Kingdom’. The Scottish edition of the Daily Mail did not carry the editorial.

England is trapped within the United Kingdom. This generates ferocious and unresolved feelings. Recent polling shows that most of the English who support leave would be happy to see Scotland and Ireland go it alone if that opened the way for Brexit. But this appalls the political leaders of Brexit, who are in love with a global Britain. It also appalls the leaders of staying in Europe, who see the EU as the best way of preserving the country’s old regime. Almost none of the country’s leading politicians are capable of facing up to the English question. Fearing a historic rupture if they do, they preserve and deepen the breakdown they seek to avoid. This applies to both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.

The overreach of the European Union

The European Union is surrounded by opponents not least from the unexpected quarter of the White House, where the President of the United States has described it as America’s ‘foe’. It also suffers from its own delusions of grandeur and bad faith. Over the course of writing about Brexit I’ve altered my opinion of the EU in a positive way that I did not expect. I was acutely conscious of the drawbacks of the euro and its dreadful impact on economic growth and inequality. I had also written critically of the undemocratic character of the Lisbon treaty, which is in effect the EU’s constitution. What I had not appreciated is the magnificent achievement of the Single Market and the creation of a single regulated space ensuring better working conditions, a safer environment and safer products across a vast and growing continental system.

The UK was in the privileged position of having recused itself from membership of the centralizing, undemocratic parts of the EU while helping to create the best part, the Single Market. How infuriating, then, that it should seek to leave what it needs most. This also explains why the EU has so far remained unified in its approach to Brexit. Whatever its disagreements and conflicts, there is a shared understanding of the value and importance of its regulated space.

I was always a Remainer on principle, but I am now less critical of the EU than I was. But the Brussels leaders of the EU remain over-conceited about the value of its supra-national political project, as they seek to apply it to issues such as external immigration and asylum. They want the EU to be a high sovereign force, which it is not. Had they been more modest, they would have been less threatening to British voters. As I have tried to show, there are specific British issues at work in Brexit which the EU could do nothing about. But the British also struggled with energy and vigour to address the realities of sharing an international project. The conflict with the Italian government shows that the EU still seems unable to address these.

By failing to confront its own democratic failings with honesty and credibility in the run-up to the Brexit vote, and showing no interest in learning from the British debate, the EU helped the leave campaign. It cannot escape blame for contributing to the current impasse aptly described by Michel Barnier, its chief negotiator, as loss-loss.

  1. Paul Dacre, ‘Butt out, Mr Soros. You can keep your tainted money’, Daily Mail 9.2.2018, available online at: https://www.pressreader.com/uk/daily-mail/20180209/281483571838308.

Published 30 October 2018

Original in English
First published in Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 11/2018 (German version)

Contributed by Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik
© Anthony Barnett / Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik / Eurozine

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