“It's raining Thursday. Brexit. Economic crash. Food riots. Slide into fascism. At war with China. Trenches all across Mongolia. Bloody rain.”
– Frankie Boyle, Scottish comedian
The Island Becomes an Empire
Once upon a time there was a little island. The little island was cold and wet, far from anywhere. The Roman Empire invaded the island and garrisoned troops. They hated it. It wasn’t worth the misery. They abandoned their distant outpost for sunnier climates. Invasions shaped the island. The indigenous population fought, assimilated and fought some more.
For large periods of history the island was seen as part of the same geography as the vast continental European landmass it lay just 21 miles north of. The kings and queens of the island traversed 20-odd miles of water regularly, sometimes seeing this stretch as nothing more than a water-feature on their land and sometimes seeing it as a moat to withdraw behind. They left their genes scattered across Europe.
The kings and queens of the little island wrote their royal cousins across Europe quaint letters, “My Dear Cousin…,” asking them for help, or begging them not go to war. From time to time they helped and from time to time, they didn’t, instead invading and taking over.
All of this changed when the islanders decided that their island was far too small for their appetites. They built ships, sailed across the oceans conquering some 13 million square miles of the Old and New World, creating an empire over which it was said “the sun never set.”
This empire was expansionist, mercantile and colonialist. It relentlessly pursued profit. It pursued profits during famines, worrying more about the impact of giving food away on market prices than on millions of famine victims. It drove the Atlantic slave trade (and helped end it by buying off slave owners). It believed unwaveringly in its own deeply racist civilizing mission.
At the core of this mission was a nation called England. England yoked the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh into forming a British-identity, one that conveniently funneled the people of all four countries into the very English business of empire building. A globalized economy, believing in the civilizing mission of capital, would not exist with the globalized proto-market that was the British Empire.
This Empire would have gone the way off all racist imperial Empires preceding it, leaving a few things to be proud of, and a lot to be ashamed of. This was not to be, mainly because of a failed Austrian artist called Adolf Hitler.
The Second World War saw the declining British Empire – with all its imperial citizens, white and non-white, take on Hitler’s Germany. Even as one myth died, a bloody new one emerged. Mouthed with an edge of irritation by an old Imperial solider, it went something like this, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
The end of the British Empire in the middle of the last century did in fact give new life to the reach of these impossible islands. London took its place in the halls of the Security Council, one of the Five Big Powers, ending the twentieth century as the fifth largest economy in the world.
It has been 16 long, troubling years since. The contours of power in these small islands have changed brutally. Old verities have fallen and troubling new realities erupted on the ground.
The 2015 general election, held little over 12 months ago is a shotgun blast to the chest of these islands, representing the end it seems, of the United Kingdom as a Big Power. A pattern that has held across the centuries, ever since the islanders decided to become shipbuilders with global appetites has ended. Those appetites have collapsed in on themselves.
In just 16 years the centuries long burn of a ruthlessly expansionist English energy seems to have exhausted itself. Half the electorate, representing a quarter of the country, has voted for an isolationist stance. “Britain Exits,” is a superstitious spell to ward off the outside, a panicked retreat away from the outside. “Brexit” then is the whimpering war cry of a frightened nation saying little more than “leave us alone.” How did this happen?
Imagine for a moment an election with a choice between two political parties – one on the Right and the other the Left. The Right believes in the Market, the Left believes in the State. In these tough economic times, the Right believes that we should be dramatically cutting public spending, the Left believes that we should be increasing public spending dramatically.
The Right believes that we should privatize public services, like healthcare, the Left believes that the sale of public service is a criminal dismantling of the State. And so on. The clear choice is put before the electorate and they decide on the basis of what they believe is best for the country.
The scenario above is what we want to believe. The reality looks a little more like this: the party on the Left is frozen out of power for many years. A reformer comes along and drags the Party to the Right, embracing many of the policies formerly identified with its opponents. This is Tony Blair. The Party of the Left, now the Party of the Center Left, decisively wins power for a decade. This is the Labour Party.
In this situation arises a new Party, a Party to protect against this lurch Right by both mainstream parties. These are the Liberal Democrats. In the last tussle for power in 2010 citizens refused to give any one party the majority required to rule. The Party of the centre, the Liberal Democrats, allied themselves in a surprise move, with the Party of the Right, the Conservatives, to form a coalition government.
The Conservatives, led by David Cameron embarks immediately on its ideological agenda to radically rollback the State embarking on an unprecedented cost-cutting exercise. This experiment is called “austerity.” The Labour Party elects a leader promising a return to the Left, a promise of a return to our imaginary scenario where Right is Right and Left is Left. This is Ed Miliband.
During the course of five years in power, as junior partner in the government, the Party of the Middle, the Lib-Dems, abandons almost every single one of it’s positions. In doing so it betrays those who believed in their promise of protecting against the worst excesses of the Right. During these five years a Party of the Far Right emerges, challenging the Conservatives for not being Right-Enough. This is the UK Independence Party, or UKIP, who are a little too white, a little too xenophobic, for a party that claims not to be racist.
Then, the horizontal power-struggle between Left and Right, gives rise to what can be thought of as a new vertical power, a Party of the North. This Left leaning Party of the North declares the triumph of the Right in the South to be corrupt and demands independence. This is the Scottish National Party (SNP). Their demands for an independent Scotland are narrowly defeated by a close-fought referendum. This seemingly averts what could have been the most serious constitutional crisis in the history of the union. Seemingly. David Cameron is seen wiping his brow and muttering, “That was close.”
This was the situation on the eve of the 2015 general election.
The results of the general election that that May, 2015 morning revealed a battered new political landscape. Along the Left-Right axis, the Party of the Centre, the Lib-Dems, have been wiped out, with almost their entire leadership being savagely punished by the electorate, losing their elected seats.
The Party of the “so-called” Left, the Labour Party, predicted to be neck-to-neck with the incumbent Conservative Party of the Right, has fallen far behind. They have fallen far behind mainly because of the vertical the Party of the North, the SNP, have attacked and taken virtually every single seat north of the border. Labour’s historic Scottish heartlands cease to exist.
The seemingly averted constitutional crisis is back, now in the form of 50 or so tartan-clad elected members ready to utilize every means available to members of parliament to press a resurgent claim.
This includes the youngest MP in 350 years, a 20-year old who beat a political mastermind of the Labour Party. The SNP are now the third largest party in Parliament. Through all this, the number of people voting for the Party of the Far Right, UKIP, has grown astonishingly, with 3.8 million people voting for them, even as they end up with only one MP.
In the immediate aftermath of the elections, Miliband, humiliated at the polls, steps down as leader of the Labour Party. In his place comes Jeremy Corbyn, potentially the most unlikely candidate ever to lead the Labour Party, a socialist MP, a rank outsider, someone who has spent decades banging the drum of leftist politics. The Party elite are appalled at such vulgarity. He is a political outsider if there ever was one, a Bernie Sanders of the UK. The Labour Party elite are appalled at such vulgarity.
Blair comes on the air, arguing that such a return to retrograde Left-wing politics as represented by Corbyn is a fatal choice that the Party will not recover from. No one listens to him. He lied about Iraq. Why should we listen? Corbyn wins by a landslide. The people’s revolt against the elite marches on.
Prior to the 2015 elections, in order to appease a phalanx of Conservative Euro-skeptic MPs, Cameron, agrees to a referendum on Europe if he wins the general election. He didn’t have to do this but he did so because of a decade long internal Conservative Party cage-fight. In other words, he did an internal deal, “get me into power and I’ll give you a fair shot at the country voting on its 43-year old EU membership.”
As Cameron takes office in May 2015 for the second time the country stands dangerously divided along multiple dimensions, Left and Right, North and South, old and young.
Drinking the Brexit Kool-Aid
In February 2016 Cameron announced the EU-Referendum would be held in June, leading to a six-month campaign.Two of his old friends, London’s now ex-Mayor Boris Johnson and Cameron’s charmless Lieutenant Michael Gove lead the “Leave” campaign, while Cameron leads the “Remain” campaign. This formalizes the split within the Tory Party.
The Euro-skeptics sharpen their knives and begin carving out a particular virile series of lies. The Remain campaign is labeled as “Project Fear” by Leave as they paint a bleak picture of post-Brexit life.
Polling prior to voting day showed numbers that were too close to call, the country was clearly split again. Most opinions were that the Remain camp would win a narrow victory. Putting aside campaign noise, few really believed that the Leave camp would succeed in ending an integration effort that began in earnest after the Second World War, almost 70-years ago.
In hindsight the results are fairly simple to explain, with 52 percent voting Leave and 48 percent voting to Remain.
The votes fell cleanly across a series of fault lines, in the words of the Financial Times, “Two tribes of old and young, rural and urban, traditional and metropolitan, and above all those fearful of globalization, and its beneficiaries.”
The seduction of the Brexit spell is that it would cure these islands of all the ills of living in a globalized world. British steel lofted by British muscles to build British homes for British people would become a reality. As one Leave voter put it the day after on Facebook, “My £1 is still worth a pound in the UK.” No, not really.
During the campaign the blame for current ills fell squarely on those most optically visible – immigrants. Brexit is also an anti-immigrant or an anti-Muslim spell. It will now white-wash and Euro-wash the population from scavengers who are different to “us” wrecking the economy. This line of attack bought the xenophobic Faragistas into the Leave camp as they lied about the impact of immigration on the economy.
On June 16, Labour MP Jo Cox is murdered on the street by a 52-year-old allegedly shouting “Britain First.” On June 23, islanders went to the polls under some extremely dark clouds.
Ignored in this whole tragic argument is the fact that a second major causal determinant of misery on the ground. This is the austerity – the rollback of the State by the Conservative Party, an ideology first promulgated by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
Interestingly, the primary architects of austerity, Cameron and chancellor George Osborne, have basically been ejected from office.
The reality of a provincial little England, white-washed and happy, will never come true, partly because it was never really true. These islands became rich because of a ruthlessly mercantile spirit of overseas expansion, Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, not because the inhabitants of this island kept their heads down in the rain minding their own business, as Brexit presupposes.
The myriad forces of globalization, once so handsomely benefitting these islands, cannot be stopped or contained by a provincial nationalism. The borders cannot be put up against capital – because keeping it in is the same as keeping it out. It’s that simple.
Already the calculus of Leave-campaigners is unraveling. A number of “Leave” geographies are desperately reminding the Leave-political-elite of their campaign promises. The Welsh First Minister declares that Brexit must not “lose a penny” for Wales. Such a utopian aspiration would be nice for the 53 percent Welsh majority who voted to leave, but it’s hardly a simple matter of London saying “sure, here’s the cash.”
While the short-term volatility of the markets might be contained (or they might not), the larger long-term economic questions are troubling. Will businesses relocate out of a closed market? Will we see capital flight? Will Britain be able to access the European single market? How much will that cost? Is there a risk that there’s no financial benefit with every political downside? Most importantly, will the overall calculus of money leaving the islands for the EU square with the money no longer coming into these islands?
The government-to-come will have to try to square some vicious integrals. What will happen when we formally invoke Article-50 of the Lisbon Treaty announcing our exit from the EU? What impact will both the short-term volatility of the markets and the ire-of-European leaders have on the British economy? What pecuniary punishment will the Europeans attempt to impose in order to discourage other Exiters? What impact will a second Scottish-referendum have on the islands? What if a Scottish referendum leads to the dissolution of the United Kingdom? What exactly is our negotiating strategy? Boris-bluster probably won’t cut it.
No one knows the answer to these questions but all the early signs are bad.
The tragedy, of-course, is that the grievances at the heart of Leave are real, the demands for justice comes from a place of real pain. The diagnostic of the causes of that pain are, all too often, just plain wrong.
Blaming immigrants is easy. It’s a cheap little diagnosis coming from cheap little minds. Blaming the EU is easy. No one really loves the EU. The numbers are really hard. This lends an anti-elite air to the Leave camp. But they just don’t know, they cannot know. So what we have is not an anti-expert stance, but a profoundly anti-intellectual stance. While a lot of genuine criticism could be applied to the EU, the arguments of the Leave campaign amount to little more than tactical lying.
In reality that pain animating Leave voters stems from having to compete in a global economy and from austerity imposed by the Conservative party through two election-cycles. It is worth remembering that these two election-cycles squarely belong to the wider war against British trade unionism and labour begun by Thatcher decades ago.
Unfortunately, drinking the kool-aid of Brexit may well kill the patient, which was the confused message of Remain all along. The leaders of the Leave camp have a little too much in common with Jim Jones: charismatic, power-hungry and fatally ungrounded. Now they stand to lead these islands.
Whatever the outcome, whatever fantasy campaign-promises were made by the Leave campaign, the fact is, there is no leadership, there is no plan, there is no clear road forward through the forces unleashed by Brexit.
While it is easy to blame the Brexiters and the Leave camp for this moment, the forces that have led us to a profoundly unequal society are a product of our political system.The interplay of Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, New Labour and SNP party-dynamics have led us to this point.
As we head into another leadership contest, we will see the disenchantment of the voting public with its political classes come complete. What little faith the electorate has left in the political classes, left and right, will vaporize as the scale of breakdown becomes clearer and clearer. It will leave a vacuum unlike any seen before.
These islands are now likely set on a path to becoming what they once were, a little island, cold and wet, far from anywhere.