By Tom Ewing
Blue Lines Revisited
June 24, 2016
An A to Z of Brexit. Cathartic fragments, pessimistic conjectures. I had to write something, and so I wrote this.
A is for Alliance: The Leave coalition seems to be made up of at least six different strands, with widely different motives and demographics. There are the blue rinsers — Tory heartland Eurosceptics, mostly now quite old, motivated by dreams of British exceptionalism and an ancient tribal cause. There are left-behind Labour — mainly in the north of England, Midlands,and Wales, motivated by their belief that immigration has inflamed the pressures of austerity. There is the Far Right, racists who hated immigration in the first place. Those are the biggest groups. Then there are also the leftists voting for “Lexit” (motivated by dislike of the EU’s implementation of neoliberalism), the Gove-ite ultra-neoliberals (motivated by dislike of the EU’s non-implementation of neoliberalism), and last and frankly also least the tiny rump of original UKIP, genuine sovereignty wonks like Alan Sked. In other words, the half of the country voting Leave was and is very divided in motive if sadly united in action. Pleasing all, or even most, will be impossible.
B is for Blair: Anthony Barnett points out the continuity between Blair and Cameron (who called Blair “the Master”) — corporatist managerial government with the PM selling new restructurings to the board and shareholders of UK plc. In that sense Brexit closes the loop on Blair’s 1997 win, the end of a 19-year managerial experiment. The difference is that Blair acted the photogenic chief exec, happy to dissemble to the public for the sake of “the project”, but Cameron’s background was PR, which is the deft art of crisis management via lying. Each of Cameron’s moves, until the final, fatal referendum, were designed for short-term benefit — stave off a threat here, win a vote there. But because he seemed to have no strategic sense, each raised the stakes a little higher.
C is for Calais: One of the things the Leave campaign was quiet about is the threat/promise of the Mayor of Calais to scrap the arrangement which lets the English border be, de facto, in France. When this happens, it’s going to change the immigration debate in fairly nightmarish ways. Little England was stricken with fear and loathing of migrants when refugee camps in Calais were bottlenecks caused by the French stopping people getting to Britain. What happens if a populist Mayor says “Not the EU’s problem any more” and waves them through? Bodies washing up at Bournemouth? Internment camps on the Isle of Wight? Racist vigilantism in UKIP’s coastal strongholds? I don’t know and neither do Leave, but it’s terrifying.
D for Devolution: Bye Scotland! Sorry Northern Ireland! And glad to have you with us Wales, our masochistic mountainous pal. But it’s England that’s the interesting case in many ways. Anthony Barnett — him again! — points out the unpalatable truth that this is England’s referendum, born of a need to placate English nativism, swung by English counties. His conclusion is that English nationalism will have to be constitutionalised sooner or later (eg with an English parliament) and that this will be an opportunity for radical voices to be heard and a positive, diverse Englishness to emerge. It is very hard to have any faith in this idea right now — not that a positive, diverse Englishness is impossible (it exists! — see G is for Greater London) but that an English parliament right now would be anything other than a total horrorshow.
E for Empire: The story of the referendum is the story of open psychic wounds — generational losses never quite atoned for which come back to haunt current decisions. Trying to explain the Baby Boomer’s preference for Brexit, most commentators have fallen back on the idea of the vanished Britain of their youth, which they feel might come back if we left the EU. This is a bit glib, I think. What motivates bitterness isn’t just nostalgia but a sense of wider loss. The Boomers grew up in a Britain which was simultaneously special — it had held the line against Fascism, won the war, and was now a young and lucky country — and also one that was losing power and influence at a vertiginous rate. British exceptionalism — the idea that Britain is uniquely plucky, favoured, etc. — is an Imperial myth, not a natural by-product of nationalism. The wrenching glorious win and enormous loss of the 40s to the 60s is the psychological root of exceptionalism, and of that strand in Brexit. We have never recovered from the Empire. But today the Brexiteers have got what they wanted: for a moment, Britain really matters.
F is for Far Right: The Far Right — and I’m happy to lump UKIP in here — make up a small part of the Leave coalition but obviously they’re a vocal part and they will do very well out of the referendum. They would have done just as well if Remain had won, though — around half of UKIP supporters believed attempts were being made to fix the vote, and a betrayal narrative would have taken off very quickly leading to a surge in UKIP support. (As it is the betrayal narrative will wait a bit — see Stab In The Back). A lot of people think Britain has some kind of natural inoculation against fascism — I hope it’s true, but I suspect we’ll see far right support jump from the 13% UKIP vote at the last election to something closer to the higher levels you see on the continent.
G is for Greater London: Aside from Sutton in the south (virtually Surrey) and old UKIP stronghold Barking in the east, London was solid Remain. Inevitably, Londoners woke up this morning to voices, even friendly voices, telling us we lived in a bubble, we were cut off from ordinary people, etc. A response: fuck you. London is not a bubble, it’s an example. It’s hardly perfect — it has gentrification, soaring inequality, it seems determined to price people out of living there, and it has its share of tensions rippling below the surface. But it is also outward-looking, diverse, successfully multi-cultural, and a place Britain could be proud of. It’s one of the places the New Labour experiment in building a modern Britain (or England) worked. Obviously, it got that way because of high and sustained levels of investment which the rest of England has mostly been starved of. But the silver lining to that is that it shows investment can work. Anyway, for better or worse London is now Labour’s heartland, and even if it won’t ever be enough, neither side of that arrangement should act ashamed of the fact.
H is for House Prices: One of the important things about this vote is that it’s the point where the traditional levers of getting Middle England to do what you want — house prices, interest rates, etc. — have stopped working. This is partly because “taking back control” was such a strong story — implying that things are already chaotic and will somehow get less so — but it’s another nail in the coffin for the managerialist idea that steady affluent improvement (if delivered) will always beat out revolt or grand narrative.
I is for Iceland, whose support among Europe’s football fans just jumped to sky-high levels.
J is for Jeremy: Corbyn had a pretty bad campaign, not for what he said — his “7 out of 10 in” struck an honest chord — but for how little visibility he had. This may or may not have been calculated — you might see the grey hand of Seumas Milne at work. But his uselessness at working the traditional media is a given at this point. In the long game this might not have mattered — the media is corrupt, etc etc, build alternative message channels. But with an election possible this year, we may not have a long game any more, and Brexit has probably erased the (real!) progress he was making on hauling the Overton Window leftwards. Let’s face it, though, none of Corbyn’s opponents or wannabe inheritors had a good campaign either — none of them found a way of getting through, except maybe for Sadiq Khan who had a relatively easy job. The most prominent and principled Labour voice in the Referendum was only heard at all after she was murdered.
K is for Kennedy. For a long time the most significant sudden death in UK politics was John Smith, whose heart attack cleared the stage for Blair. Now I’d say it’s Charles Kennedy, whose illness and death deprived British politics of perhaps its only genuinely popular, populist pro-European voice. As it was, Britain’s most pro-European party was a spectral presence at the Referendum. The post-Kennedy Lib Dems have now seen their two most cherished and identifiable policies — voting reform and Europe — directly annihilated at the ballot box.
L is for Literally The Worst: David Cameron is the worst post-war Prime Minister, a gambler without even the spine to bet his reputation (and the country’s economy) on something he believed in. The ruin of his reputation is a Brexit silver lining, but a very thin and unsatisfying one.
M is for Miltonic: Unfortunately Cameron’s humiliation has the price of Johnson’s elevation. He is ensconced now as the country’s most popular, luckiest and most successful politician, his rebellion looking to have paid off in spades. Better to reign in hell than serve in Brussels.
N is for Nowhere To Go. Blairism, the most successful electoral machine in modern British politics, was based on a particular time bomb of a calculation, one that the weather as I walked out this lovely, bitter morning reminded me of. It felt like 1997, and Brexit is both the reverse of 1997 and the end of its story. Mandelson declared of the old Labour vote that they had “nowhere to go”. On June 23, after decades of contempt, they finally went there.
O is for Opinion: Expert opinion, to be exact, which turned out to be largely worthless and actively mocked. This is not, as people are saying, a new strand in Anglo-American politics — Boris Johnson in the big final debate literally ripped off Reagan’s “There you go again” judo move from 1980 when confronted with an inconvenient fact. The pressing question isn’t just “what the hell can we do about this tactic?” which Boris will use again and again and again — it’s what happens if and when the experts turn out to be right. Will anyone admit it? Almost certainly not, because our brains don’t tend to work that way — people like clinging to being right (or ‘right at the time’) a very great deal.
P is for Prisoner’s Dilemma aka Leave’s negotiation strategy. Leave’s claim has always been that the EU has too much to lose to not give us a good deal post-Brexit. This claim is already being tested. But it’s always rested on a very bizarre idea. The idea that in a tit-for-tat scenario, non-cooperation (a Brexit vote) will be met with cooperation (preferable trade deals). It won’t. Even before the electorates of Europe get their own chances to vote for parties for whom Britain might be a useful whipping boy in the effort to save the EU’s crumbling centre from populist nationalism.
Q is for Quangos, Bonfire Of. Which we might finally get, heaven help us. The right keeps on winning the battle on “regulations”, partly because it always manages to frame them as “regulations”, instead of “protections” and “rights”. It’s very easy to think of a regulation we don’t like, such as a parking ticket or speeding fine. So we’re encouraged to think of them as unnecessary barriers. The things regulations help prevent — food poisoning, pollution, turds floating past you as you paddle, hanky on head, in the freezing Brexitland sea — are not present (because of regulations!) so don’t seem as tangible or real. They may soon enough.
R is for Racism: One of the things you hear a lot is that talking about racism has stopped us having a “proper conversation” about immigration. But the opposite is also true. Talking about immigration has stopped us having a “proper conversation” about racism — it’s blurred the lines, given racists an off-the-peg excuse whenever they’re called on it.
S is for Stab In The Back: Brexit won. So why will the Brexiteers and Leave voters need to develop a betrayal narrative? Because the promises made to secure the win can’t and won’t come true. Brexit won’t get favoured trading deals. It won’t mean more money spent on the NHS. It won’t bring jobs and houses back. It won’t even have much of a visible impact on immigration. At this point Leave voters could say “we fucked up” or even, “well, we had to try”, but some won’t. Because Britain is Exceptional. They’ll find someone to blame. The rest of Europe, for their retaliation. The young remainers, for their youth. The cowards north of the border, for not Sticking It Out. The immigrants, for still existing. The markets — or go one better, the Shadowy Forces behind the markets… and there’s plenty of pre-existing conspiracies just waiting for such fertile soil to grow in.
T is for These New Puritans: My Brexit playlist included Kate Bush’s heartbreaking “Oh England My Lionheart”, Plan B’s awkward but passionate “Ill Manors”, The Fatima Mansions’ furious “Blues For Ceaucescu” and “Belong Nowhere”, PJ Harvey’s ghost-ridden Let England Shake LP, The Fall’s vicious “The Classical” (which gives this post its title) and the Pet Shop Boys’ damning “Kings Cross”. But most of all the most striking British ‘indie’ single of the decade, These New Puritans’ astonishing “We Want War”, the spectres of history rising vengeful from the drowning wetlands of the East of England. It sounds like an elegy, a curse and a promise.
U is for Undeliverable: The heterodoxy of Leave voters doesn’t just mean they won’t all be happy (Remain would have left very few people actually happy). It means in the pragmatic short term that the different forces on the Leave campaign can happily go about tearing up each other’s empty promises. This started happening — with Farage dismissing NHS spending and Hannan rubbishing immigration limits — well before anyone might have expected.
V is for Volatility: “The pound will go where it will”, said Boris pre-referendum, getting his “Crisis? What Crisis?” in early, perhaps. Some of the market volatility around Brexit will indeed settle. But where will it settle? It’s hard not to get the impression that this is a gigantic correction, a national devaluation, not just of the pound but of Britain itself, as the markets adjust to our new reality as a small rainy island which doesn’t make much and just told its friends to fuck off. Of course, it might be that in a couple of years we are better off than the EU, because we have helped demolish it. That will be nothing to be proud of.
W is for Women: South and east of the borders, it was a very blokey referendum, a late-night gambling session among public schoolboys. This matters not just because voters heard a dreadfully limited range of views, but because it meant the most important question facing Leave — what EU regulations are you planning to liberate us from? — was asked a lot less. Childcare, flexible working, part-time working, parental leave… these are issues which affect women more and which received very little focus.
X is for Generation X: The one fact we all know about the referendum is that it’s a generational split — Baby Boomers went for Leave, young people went for Remain. My generation were split. Older Xers swung behind Leave, younger ones went for Remain. Of course the impact of Brexit on young people will be seismic and probably destructive. But I think its impact on people my age — 40somethings — will be profound in a different way. Not necessarily economically, but psychologically. Britain in the EU, an internationalist Britain, is the backdrop of our entire lives. It’s shaped — often unknowingly — our way of life, our careers, our senses of possibility, or if we didn’t like the EU our sense of limits and the Other. The EU Britain was our country. And now it’s gone. Subtly rebooted overnight. We might not miss it all at once, but when we get to that dread 65+ demographic, when we look around at what’s gone from the world, I bet this is what we’ll think of. Will any demagogue whisper to us, “You can have it back…”?
Y is for Yorkshire: If English nationalism is the great benefactor of Brexit, what about its hidden cousins? Cornwall, Yorkshire, London, Merseyside… places with a more or less well developed sense of separation, sometimes with languages and movements of their own. All — in the current and likely electoral landscape — wedded to representatives that never touch actual power. What do they do? Might all countries be Balkans if subjected to enough pressure?
Z is for Zeitgeist: Brexit is insular but not wholly British. You hardly have to try and see parallels, across the Channel or the Atlantic. Better thinkers than me have addressed this crisis, the arrogance of neoliberal elites in constructing a politics designed to sideline and work around democracy while leaving democracy formally intact. Democracy becomes a potential weapon, a trigger you can vote to pull. But weapons don’t fire themselves, and the genius of Farage and Johnson and Gove (and Trump, potentially) is to get people to focus on the target, not on the one holding the gun.