Today
Mon 25 October 2021

Anthony Barnett traces the cause of the Brexit vote, how it led to our elected dictatorship being replaced with even darker forces, and considers a possible path ahead

Five years on from the Brexit vote, the most remarkable outcome is the way in which voters have defined themselves by their decision on 23 June 2016. It is something that John Curtice identified early and has repeated time and again as he is invited to analyse election and by-election results: the UK is divided far more between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ than between Labour, Conservative and the Scottish National Party (SNP). 

To see this as a static outcome is a mistake. People have not embraced, and are not ‘stuck’ with, new passive identities. Something much more interesting and – when it comes to Northern Ireland – much more dangerous is taking place. We are trapped in a repetitive syndrome of frustrated decision-making. The reason the Brexiteers ‘keep on winning’ is that nothing has changed since 2016 in terms of the underlying causes of the British catastrophe. 

The first thing to understand is that Brexit is about agency, not economics. This is why all arguments about whether or not it will work are irrelevant. It does not matter whether or not the claims about costs and benefits of Brexit are true or are lies in terms of why it is happening. Of course it matters very much to those concerned if they lose their job or their business or make a small fortune printing forms because of Brexit. But this was not, and still is not, what Brexit is about. 

I do not refer to agency in the abstract, philosophical sense of who does what to whom, although this is not completely irrelevant. The question people want to know the answer to is: what meaning and relevance do I have in the power system and what difference can I make, however small? This question is especially important for all of us in a prominent country like the United Kingdom where we feel proud of what we have done and who we are. 

In the first decades of the 21st Century, the UK had a quadruple crisis of agency, during which we lost belief in ourselves. The causes can be crudely labelled as: the monarchical constitution; the globalised, hedge-fund economy; neoliberal politics; and England. All four sucked meaning, purpose and security out of our lives.

Brexit was the wrong answer to these problems. But, although it was misconceived, the compelling power of ‘take back control’ was that it offered an answer. It rightly recognised a problem of agency – of who we are and what we can do.

The Remain leaders and their main supporters, in effect, denied that there was a problem of agency. They did this by refusing to address it and dismissing the issues it posed as unimportant. The Remain campaign, in its all-important body language, claimed that that our constitution is not so bad, that our economy cannot but be globalised. Its leaders were David Cameron and Peter Mandelson, the personifications of failing, elite, neoliberal politics, and they repressed all talk of the national question. Their chosen slogan ‘stronger in’ admitted that we are weak and unable to do anything about it. They bet on British voters being too pathetic to take a risk and the English told them to get lost. 

Suzanne Moore summed it up neatly: “Brexit showed us it wasn’t ‘the economy, stupid’ that determined votes; other values were equally important. Remain did not have a story to tell or even thought it needed one, apart from sneering at Leave voters. Its campaign was a huge failure of imagination about how many people live day to day and how they really feel.” 

In contrast to the official Remain campaign, tens of millions of people came to positive views of staying in the EU. We still hold them. Five years of Brexit has not made us change our mind. Even though Cameron and Mandelson are disappearing into deserved oblivion, five years of Brexit have not shifted the views of those who supported it either. 

The launch of Andrew Neil’s GB News channel is a perfect symbol of the success and failure of Brexit. It will carry on as it has enough money, but it will not become a hegemonic, agenda-setting news channel as Fox News did in America. Instead, it will service its own word cloud: division will be reinforced not overcome; Brexit will remain a trap; the Government will continue to be wrong and malicious but loud and wrecking things while the Opposition continues to be helpless and hopeless. 

How do we break out of this?


The Collapse of Agency

Examining the collapse of agency – the problem that Brexit tries to answer – is necessary because the only way to break the influence and the narrative of Boris Johnson’s Government of Brexiters is if we can come up with a better set of answers to the UK’s crisis of agency. This cannot be achieved unless until we recognise the problems.

If we want to stop just talking to ourselves, we have to engage finally with the set of issues that broke the loyalty Leavers placed in the historic elite that governed Britain. We have to be able to say: you are quite right to want to ‘take back control’ but this is not the best way to do it. To do so, we need to understand what they had lost.        

Firstly, there was a collapse of belief in our monarchical constitution. This was not due to the monarchy but the fact that people have ceased to believe in the Commons, the so-called Lords who are mostly cronies, Parliament’s procedures and integrity. We have an openly corrupt system whereby MPs can have second jobs as consultants with foreign banks paying much more than their public salary.

The Prime Minister treats the House of Commons with contempt and misleads it continuously. Noble-minded commentators are shocked, but what is really shocking is that the population yawns. The Commons is now less important to the public than the banks and we no longer feel that the old régime represents what is special about us in the way it once did. We once delighted in a ‘winner takes all system’ that delivered ‘strong government’. Now it simply feels like one that ensures we all lose.  

Secondly, the impressive tradition of world-leading British manufacturing and banking that represented a shared interest with national workforces has dissolved. The City of London, the most successful element of the economy as a whole, cares more for the Cayman Islands than Sheffield. It didn’t care about Brexit one way or the other – its American banks will simply follow the money. Aeron Davis’ Reckless Opportunists explores the hollowness of the City, where the heads of business and finance are consumed by their own well-heeled anxiety and insecurity.

Thirdly, there is neoliberal politics. This was summed up by Tony Blair telling the Labour Party in 2005 that it could no more debate globalisation than whether autumn follows summer, and by David Cameron announcing that he was the ‘heir of Blair’. It was a politics that generated ‘post-democracy’, as choice was closed down and voters were told that there is ‘no alternative’ by all of the main parties alike: New Labour; Cameroon Conservatives; and Orange Book, Nick Clegg Liberal Democrats. 

Fourthly, the SNP resisted the tide of fatalism. Although not left-wing, its call for self-determination offered a belief in agency within the framework of an EU that empowers small countries (as can be seen in Ireland). Scotland had a patriotic party that made some sense; England-Britain did not. Blair’s New Labour reforms broke the old constitution but failed – refused, indeed – to replace it with a modern one. England especially was deprived of any political representation of its interests as a historic nation.

When these four factors are put together, we can start to understand how a deep sense of pointlessness and political that was entirely justified ennui gripped the souls of the English outside the metropolitan centres. They were invited to project their malaise onto the European Union. 


Agency Through ‘Sovereignty’

Two larger questions are now worthy of consideration: how did a historically experienced ruling class allow this to happen in the first place – what went wrong at the top?; and how did half of the country, despite this, see through it and remain Remainers? 

The answer to the first question is that the ruling elite did not simply weaponise anti-European sentiment to further their own hedge-fund, Vladimir Putin-backed, greed. The whole lot of them are trapped in the collapse of agency they brought about in the belief that not really being part of the EU – being half-in and half-out – would save their Britain from becoming like other countries.

They want to be in Europe to benefit from the considerable pickings but didn’t want to Europeanise the UK with a codified constitution that would have prevented their lucrative corruptions. This was the positioning going back to Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister, which Blair ‘modernised’ and Cameron aped. They bet the house on US-led neoliberal globalisation and made a packet out of it – including John Major who made his out of the Carlyle Group. 

It was a shameful process, with ex-British Prime Ministers such as Blair giving ‘image advice’ and speech-writing for torturous dictators like Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan; while the children of middle-class Conservative voters rack up huge debts to go to university, and working-class Labour families are thrown on the scrapheap. 

The right were onto the depth of the discontent and its dangers more swiftly in the United States. Here, the one politician who grasped that we needed to ‘end the shame’ was Boris Johnson. He understood that to do so required a patriotic story and echoed Donald Trump’s. He set out to make Britain great again. Oddly enough, to do so he had to lean into the need for ideas – and came up with sovereignty. 

Sovereignty would restore belief in the way we govern ourselves, re-establish the economy on a world scale, end the fatalism of neoliberal politics, take globalisation and shake it by the tail, and provide the patriotic narrative that the English craved. 

One half of us saw through this. Not because we are an ‘elite’ removed from real life, but because we love the freedom to travel and work across our continent and believe that there are fundamental human rights which empower us and do not take away from our sovereign essence or vital fluids. Because, for us, our patriotism is being both citizens of our own country and citizens of Europe and also the world. Because we think of Europe as a zone of freedom not a prison of regulations; a space for liberty to flourish. We don’t seek ‘ever closer union’ but desire a continent of enjoyable differences where our children and grandchildren can travel, live, love, work, and delight in the many histories and layers that we are privileged to have preserved.

As Brexit slowly fails as a psychological project, the Brexit media will become increasingly hysterical – pillorying such attitudes as ‘woke’ or worse. But we will stubbornly continue with them because they are grounded. 


Ending the Great British State

When New Labour was introducing new parliaments and, in effect, giving Scotland and Wales – and, in a different way, Northern Ireland – new constitutional projects of self-government, there was an opportunity to extend the process to England by initiating a new settlement for the whole of the UK. This moment has passed. Great Britishness is now irrevocably appropriated by Brexit. 

Once again, Boris Johnson understands this. Scotland is crucial to his success because Britishness now means a single union under Downing Street, which demands crushing New Labour’s half-modernisation: freedom of information, human rights, Scottish autonomy, the Good Friday Agreement, a London Mayor elected on a proportional system – all of the initial steps towards the democratisation of ‘elected dictatorship’ that the reform movement won, ‘global Britishness’ must now reverse.

Up against this process, half-measures are bound to fail. 

The first step towards really ‘taking back control’ is to speak for England: multi-racial, Yorkshire, West Country, London, Manchester, Midlands England. The England of green villages and beautiful towns and sweeping cities and coastal delights. An England liberated from Westminster’s Lords and Ladies and MPs working for JP Morgan. 

There has to be a counter-patriot argument to initiate a different kind of democracy to Johnson’s. The way to take Britain back is first to celebrate the independence of our countries and then join together in a free association.

This is why I believe that every democratic English person should now wholeheartedly support Scottish independence and look forward to Scotland joining the Republic of Ireland in Europe. It is the only definitive way to burst the Brexit project and, at the same time, as English, to take confidence in ourselves. 

For five years, Remainers have refused to face the national reality of their own folly – their abandonment of the central country that caused Brexit. It is time to end the evasions, cowardice, fear of one’s own people, hoping for the best, call it what you will. Let Scotland be free. Encourage it to leave. Offer the Scots all the support we can. Tell them that, if they join the EU, we will be there too. 

But the crucial issue is that England must free itself of our oppressive elected dictatorship – and the only way we can do this is to break the ‘British’ narrative. Break the spirit of Johnson and his despicable crew, and England can become the country we deserve. Europe needs us too, after we have settled accounts with our own monsters – which is another story. 

Above all, we have to embrace the need for agency. We took an executive decision about the fate of our country. It was not about projecting our vote onto a representative; a politician we could trust or not. We ourselves were invited to make a historic decision – and we did. On each side we made a call. Everyone has to build on this, not denigrate it.

In my view, it was the wrong decision – but it was taken for good reason. The elite had indeed misled us and our democracy was a hollow sham. It needed to be rejected. But it was our democracy that was the problem, not the EU. Now we have something even less democratic that is becoming more authoritarian by the week. So, once more, we must change the rules of the game. We in England must again seek our independence, this time from the real cause of our misery – the Great British state. 

Why will this break the gridlock of division? Because we Remainers will be leaning across to shake the hands of Leave voters and, instead of telling them that they were wrong or misled, we will be saying something positive: good try, well done, thank you for booting out the old elite, but the new lot are just as bad. Under Cameron we had charlatans led by a crook. Now we have crooks led by a charlatan.

Instead, let’s free England and really start to take back control.  

Anthony Barnett helped launch Europe For Scotland

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