- January 31, 2020
More than four years after the referendum that plunged the UK into what has been the most bitter and divisive political crisis in its history, we have finally reached the day that so many Brexiters have dreamed of and yearned for. For many of those who voted and campaigned to leave the European Union, today is the day when Britain becomes a ‘free country’ once again, and extricates itself from the ‘shackles’ of EU membership – or what Brexitspeak terms ‘dictatorship’.
As we heard ad infinitum during the election campaign last month, today is the day when Brexit finally gets ‘done’. Like so much that comes out of Johnson’s mouth, this claim is a lie, because today’s ‘end’ is actually the beginning of years of difficult wrangling over trade deals, and grappling with technical details that successive UK governments have either ignored or failed to understand.
The UK may or may not escape the spectre of No Deal, depending on how much the government is prepared to concede in terms of regulatory alignment and extending the transition period. But Brexit will dominate British politics for decades, as successive (Tory) governments fight over which laws and regulations to change and what to replace them with; over immigration and the rights of EU nationals and Brits abroad; over fishing rights and fishing export markets; over a thousand crucial details regarding customs checks in Northern Ireland, supply chains, tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade; over Scottish and possibly Irish independence and so much else that has been largely ignored, treated as irrelevant or breezily dismissed as ‘Project Fear’.
For some Leavers, all this pales beside the symbolism of recovering ‘sovereignty’ and ‘taking our country back’. Like Trumpism, Brexit has also been driven by a reactionary vision of ‘greatness’ that was often steeped in imperial nostalgia and splendid British isolationism and national exceptionalism. Consider these sinister meditations from Jacob Rees-Mogg in the Daily Mail this week, which hailed Brexit as the beginning of a new golden age:
The moment of national renewal has come. While spring is yet to sweep the chill from the air, fresh shoots of rejuvenation and regeneration are piercing through the cold earth. The electorate, the British people, the most patient and forbearing in the world, will finally have their decisiveness rewarded and, thanks to the General Election result, we will have got Brexit done. By unleashing a reviving wave of blue MPs to rehydrate the parched soil, the British people have set the scene for the biggest restoration of vitality and viridity to our land in generations.
As George Orwell once observed, bad prose is often an indication of bad thoughts, and it takes a strong stomach to accept Rees-Mogg’s claim that ‘Over two millenniums since mighty Augustus quelled the unrest and strife in ancient Rome and brought in a new golden age, our auriferous Prime Minister is bringing in a new era of revitalisation to our nation.’
For those who didn’t know ( I was one of them) ‘auriferous’ means ‘containing gold’. This is the kind of epithet that you would have expected from some fawning sixteenth century courtier trying to curry favour with Henry VIII, and the comparisons between our sleazy Etonian charlatan and a Roman dictator ought to be as worrying as Rees-Mogg’s vision of ‘national renewal.’
And at the other end of the political spectrum, Socialist Worker offered another form of magical thinking, which is no less painful to read:
Brexit presents opportunities for the left, not just the right. It’s an opportunity to fight for a huge programme of renationalisation and state aid that EU rules were designed to stop. Brexit has unleashed four years of crisis on British politicians, bosses and bankers. Their divisions give us more chance of stopping Tory assaults—and of challenging the neoliberalism and austerity that dominates British politics.
Coming only one month after the Labour Party was comprehensively slaughtered, perhaps for a generation, the least you can say about these predictions is that they reveal a tendency towards excessive optimism. Nevertheless these fantasies of national transformation – whether imagined by the right or the left – are part of the explanation for how we found ourselves in our current predicament: a mid-range power that has detached itself from membership of a trade bloc and political organisation whose concerns it had a crucial impact in shaping, in pursuit of an ‘independence’ that leaves it in a far weaker position -politically and economically – not only in regards to Europe, but to the United States, whose support Brexiters see as crucial to the success of their project.
At present we are not aligned to either Europe or the United States, and there is absolutely no guarantee that any of this will work out well. Yet we have embarked on this adventure without weighing up the consequences, without moving cautiously and carefully, without trying to forge consensus based on expert advice and wise counsel. Instead we have allowed charlatans, demagogues, liars, fanatics and ignoramuses to drive Brexit forward, and actively ignored expertise that told us what we didn’t want to hear.
All this is a terrible indictment not only of the politicians who campaigned for it and made it possible, but of the entire political class. It has been a political failing, a failure of public education, a failure of leadership and responsibility, and also a media failure, in which large sections of the British media either churned out pro-Brexit propaganda or failed to challenge and unpick it.
It has been part of the tragedy of Brexit that three of the worst governments in British history have overseen this process in the face of the worst opposition in British history. This failure is not simply due to Jeremy Corbyn, though Corbyn’s Labour is certainly at fault.
During last year’s election, Labour had what was probably the most sensible of all the positions available, in terms of forging some kind of national unity. A confirmatory vote was certainly a more democratic way of reaching across the Leave/Remain divide than the Lib Dems’ promise to revoke Article 50. The problem was that Labour had been dragged to it so slowly, and with such obvious reluctance, that it made no sense to many voters, and the Labour leadership often seemed as divided and lukewarm about this policy as it was about EU membership during the referendum itself.
In effect, the Labour Party failed to show leadership on the defining political issue of the age, and it has now been punished so comprehensively that it is difficult to imagine how it can find its way to power again. Some have attributed these failings exclusively to Corbyn’s leadership.
But too many politicians across the spectrum refused to tell the electorate things that it did not want to hear, for fear of being seen as undemocratic and ‘anti-Brexit’. Too often ‘democracy’ was reduced to the zero sum game of the referendum, in which the side that wins is the side that gets its foot over the finishing line first.
This view essentially left more than half the country, which either explicitly rejected Brexit or didn’t vote for either option, without no choice but to accept whatever form of Brexit transpired. ‘Loser’s consent’ works in elections, because there is always the possibility of changing the result every few years. A referendum involving permanent constitutional change and the loss of rights for millions of people is an entirely different matter, and it should have been treated as such.
The possibility of reaching consensus was more or less shot to pieces when Theresa May tacked to the right in 2016 in order to shore up her position within the Tory Party, only to back down when faced with the practical consequences of realising her ludicrous ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra. Now that schism remains as sharp and as brutal as it was in the beginning, and it is difficult to see the more emolient and magnanimous speechifying from Johnson and some Tory politicians as more than a cynical attempt to share ownership for a project that belongs exclusively to them.
There may some kind of karma in watching a country that once specialised in divide and rule imperial governance – often with tragic consequences for those it ruled – so comprehensively divided and undone by the stupidity, venality and incompetence of its own rulers, but that is the situation we are in.
The last four years have diminished and shrunk us morally, politically, economically, culturally, and intellectually. We have seen parliament, judges and the civil service attacked in the press and by the government for being infiltrated by traitors’ and ‘Remoaners’ – supported by a mob chorus from the streets. Again and again, we have seen successive Tory governments seeking to weaken parliament and remove the Brexit process – and themselves – from accountability and scrutiny. To get Brexit, they have tried to neuter judges, prorogue parliament, suppress reports indicating Russian interference in domestic politics, and much else
Most depressingly of all, there has been an almost blanket refusal across the political class to recognise the dangerous rise in ‘take our country back’ hate crime, or stand up for the EU nationals who have been variously used as ‘bargaining counters’ or treated with shameful hostility, contempt, and indifference.
The left has been, for the most part, no better than the right, in opposing these forces, relying too often on formulaic ‘migrants welcome here’ slogans that fail to recognise the very specific victimisation and/or marginalisation of EU nationals – or the extent to which Brexit has emboldened and legimised racists and xenophobes across the country.
Even now, some sections of the Labour left blame ‘Remainers’ for Labour’s defeat and dismiss the genuine sense of pain and separation with which millions of people – both Brits and EU nationals in this country – have felt in response to Brexit and the loss of their European identity.
The EU can certainly be criticised, but the contemptuous dismissal of Europeanism by some sections of the left as a truncated form of internationalism fails to explain what kind of internationalism can take its place – in a country that has rejected even the limited ‘European’ concept of pooled sovereignty and transnational citizenship.
Throughout this dismal process, I have often been struck again and again, by the mean-spiritness, selfishness, arrogance, jingoism, and petty vindictiveness at the heart of Brexit. In these last four years, I cannot think of a single generous sentiment or idea that has come out of it – unless you consider the persistent calls to ‘put our own people first’ as the basis for some kind of social solidarity.
I don’t think it is. I very much doubt that many of those who claim to care about ‘our people’ really care about any people. If they cared about ‘our people’ they had various opportunities to vote for Labour governments that would have taken steps to alleviate austerity, homelessness, food banks etc.
They didn’t. Instead they voted for a reactionary political project, lubricated by the fear and loathing of immigrants and foreigners and fatuous delusions of Global Britain that I suspect will be painfully unraveled over the coming years.
All this may get worse, when the promises of our newfound ‘freedom’ fail to materialise. Because the radical conservatives, populists and far-right groupings that supported Brexit didn’t do all this just to end at this point.
For all Johnson’s talk of ‘healing’, social media is awash right now with Brexiters exulting in their victory and inviting ‘Remoaners’ to ‘suck it up.’ Rarely, as Nigel Farage and his gang showed in the European Parliament yesterday, has victory been so joyless, so lacking in grace, dignity and magnanimity, so steeped in bitter relish at the humiliation of the opposition.
Millions of us did not want this outcome, for various reasons that cannot be encapsulated by the label ‘Remainers’. We failed to stop it or even to mitigate its destructive impact. Now we will have to live with the consequences for a long time.
So today we have a right to mourn what we have lost, and then we will have to move on to our common task: to fight a destructive and clueless Tory government that will seek to shift the balance of political and economic power even more than it already is in the interests of the rich and powerful; to show solidarity with the minorities that will come under attack and who are already under attack; to stand up for the values of internationalism, liberalism, and solidarity which the European Union itself as not always upheld in practice.
If we can do this, we might become a half-decent country once again.
But right now, that day is a long way off.