The EU referendum and the England problem
The left case for Brexit, or so called Lexit, has been well articulated during the referendum by Tariq Ali, John Hilary, and others. Paul Mason made it in one column, then rowed back again in another. A number of notable Greens have been leavers: Rupert Read, who changed his mind, and Jenny Jones, who made her case in the Guardian.
In the most recent edition of New Left Review, Susan Watkins summarised this case succinctly:
[A] vote to remain, whatever its motivation, will function in this context as a vote for a British establishment that has long channelled Washington’s demands into the Brussels negotiating chambers, scotching hopes for a ‘social Europe’ since the Single European Act of 1986… A Leave vote… would not bring about a new golden age of national sovereignty… But the knock-on effects of a leave vote could be largely positive: disarray, and probably a split, in the Conservative Party; preparations in Scotland for a new independence ballot.
And God knows, it’s hard to hold progressive views and not have one of Polly Toynbee’s famous clothes pegs over your nose as you approach the EU. [Update: Or to vote Remain through gritted teeth.] Peter Mair’s argument that the EU has the form of a democratic organisation but none of the substance is hard to argue with. The Lisbon Treaty, with all of the shenanigans involved, shifted the centre of gravity of the EU sharply towards neoliberalism and away from the social market; Germany’s imposition of ordoliberalism on the Eurozone and the brutal bullying of Greece was plain ugly.
The notion that the EU “needs to be taught a lesson”, put to me last week in a bar in France by a woman who said she’d vote Leave if she was British, has an obvious attraction.
But there’s something deeper going on, and that’s why I think that progressives have to vote Remain despite the EU’s evident problems.
The opening political window
After every financial crisis there’s a political crisis, and in the crisis there’s an open moment when change is possible, where the Overton window is blown wide open. We’re approaching that moment now.
And a bit more: as I’ve blogged elsewhere, we’re approaching the moment of a long values transition, when “postmaterialist values” become dominant in north America and Europe. Such transition points are always succeeded by a “last stand” of those who feel the world they know is being taken away from them, that they are strangers in their own land. This social and political “imaginary” is one of the views why views on immigration are much stronger in areas with little migration, and why attitude to identity is the strongest attitudinal predictor of attitudes to the EU.
The split has very clear demographics: on the one side, younger, better educated, more urban; on the other, older, less well-educated, less urban. The same split was seen recently in the knife-edge vote for the Austrian presidency, when postal votes from Austrians living abroad finally nudged the independent green into office ahead of the far right candidate.
The final “fuck you”
The social differences are captured by Populus in a couple of charts showing how Leave and Remain supporters index against the population as a whole. (Click on the image to expand it.) And these social profiles help us understand that the EU referendum has become a kind of referendum on globalisation and the Westminster elite, such that almost half of Leavers believe that the referendum result will be rigged to ensure that Remain wins.
For the UK, this division was caught, sharply, in a tweet.
So progressives need to think about more than the EU as they weight their vote. I think it was Gary Younge who first crystallised this thought for me in the Nation, in a piece about America’s electoral politics:
ne should vote for the largest immovable object in the path of the extreme right… But while defeating these forces at the polls is important, it is also insufficient. It does nothing to tackle the underlying causes for their popularity or address the grievances on which these parasites feed.
Yannis Varoufakis, writing in the Guardian a few days later, expressed the same thought in the context of Britain’s EU referendum, more graphically:
The EU’s fragmentation will divide the continent in at least two parts, the major fault line running down the Rhine and across the Alps… Only political monsters will crawl out of this fault line, spreading xenophobic misanthropy everywhere and ensuring, through competitive devaluations, that you will also be drawn into the ensuing vortex.
Varoufakis was writing before the murder of Jo Cox, but was doubtless upset to get such immediate and such bloody vindication. I’m not going to go along here with the polite fiction that her killer had mental health problems; that will be for the courts to decide. When someone with quite a long history on the far right decides it’s OK to shoot and stab an MP whom he disagrees with, whatever their mental state, the faultline has already opened quite a long way.
And it was hard not to think, watching England football fans at work in Marseille (and let’s face it, they weren’t just the victims of Russian fans’ provocation) that the Brexit campaign had somehow lurched Britain back to the dark days of the 1970s, when the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism were formed in response to the presence of racists and fascists on the streets.
Anthony Barnett’s instant serialised book on the Open Democracy site goes a long way to trying to explain why this might be, as does a piece this week by the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole. Heaven knows it must be depressing for Anthony Barnett to find himself in 2016 writing another version, 35 years on, of his Iron Britannia book from the Falklands War.
Barnett and O’Toole both see this problem as a problem for England, and not in the trivial sense of “English votes for English laws.” In his chapter on England–perhaps the best piece in an outstanding piece of political analysis Barnett writes:
If Brexit happens it will only be because a majority of English voters have lost confidence in the way they are governed. To focus on what this means, I’ll declare my interest. England is my country; I’d like it to come alive in a healthy way and don’t like to see it driven by UKIP. I am very conscious of the good people I know who are English in so many ways – one being that they deny their national identity any overt expression.
O’Toole writes of England stumbling into a kind of “accidental nationalism” through the EU referendum:
English nationalists can quite reasonably point out that many emerging nation states have even less experience of being a standalone, self-governing entity – my own country, Ireland, being an obvious example. The big difference is that other countries actually go through a process – often very long and difficult – of preparing themselves politically, culturally and emotionally for the scary business of being (to borrow a term from Irish nationalism) “ourselves alone”…
Successful national independence movements usually have five things going for them: a deep sense of grievance against the existing order; a reasonably clear (even if invented) idea of a distinctive national identity; a shared (albeit largely imaginary) narrative of the national past; a new elite-in-waiting; and a vision of a future society that will be better because it is self-governing. The English nationalism that underlies Brexit has, at best, one of these five assets.
In Scotland, before the failed independence referendum of 2014, Scotland had been testing arguments about independence since the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly in the ’70s, and the later Constitutional Convention.
The Leavers talk of “Britain”, but mean England. But their England is not a real England, but an imagined one, where Francis Drake is forever finishing his game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe and Prince Harry is summoning the ghost of St George to give courage on a French field. English nationalism might be a good idea–O’Toole suggests that it is inevitable–but wandering into it through the door of a referendum on a different subject and with our archaic and undemocratic political institutions intact isn’t likely to end well.