Friday, 1 July 2016

BREXIT: CAN’T HAPPEN HERE – UNTIL IT DID!

(A sort of sequel – well more of a prequel – to this)


Most people in my social circles took it as almost axiomatic that Leave couldn’t win. After all, everyone that everyone knew was voting Remain. Our social media was thick with it. Like the Bush election, common sense would surely reassert itself. Can’t happen here. (Myself, I had imagined it would go to Remain by a slender margin, once the don’t knows were forced off the fence.)

And okay, it only went to Leave by a slender margin. Seemingly trivial factors, such as if young people had voted in greater numbers, might have nudged it the other way. It virtually went down to a coin flip. But a miss is a good as a mile. Leave did win. Talk of re-runs is not just fantasy but absurdity. So – shortly after taking a stab at what might happen next - we need to backtrack a bit and look at how we got here.

Remain campaigners have tended to reply with “well Leave lied”. And yes, so they did. But Remain lied too. What about Osborne’s projected Project Fear budget? The point about Leave is that those were the lies people wanted to hear. People could be even told “these are lies” and they’d reply “I don’t care”. To say “you shouldn’t listen to these lies” proved about as useless as telling an alcoholic they should stop drinking. The question to ask is what made those lies resonate.

Let’s ask a more specific question. In the (interminable) debates whenever Leave were asked a difficult question (like, say, what’s the plan? Or, is any of this even true?) they could just cry “but we’re British!” and everyone would cheer. As almost anything counted as a difficult question for them, this happened rather a lot. But it still worked every time. It’s ludicrous, of course. Once Britain was the strongest country in Europe. But it was over a century ago and one or two things have happened since then. Why are people primed in that way?

What’s widespread in Britain, and was all over Leave supporters, isn’t just nationalism but feelbad nationalism. We've all experienced feelbad, feelgood for masochists. People wallow in it, just like it makes them feel good. Even though it makes them feel bad. Feelbad is almost a national sport in Britain. In fact it overlaps to a considerable degree with out official national sport -football. The Mail and Express are like the crack cocaine of feelbad. But feelbad seems almost the exclusive form of British nationalism. When you hear someone, almost always from another country, expressing feelgood nationalism it seems strange.

And this expressed itself, inevitably enough, through stab-in-the-back theories. You heard it over and over again. We should be the best country in the world but we got robbed. The EU is just a scam to fleece us, and burden us with other countries’ surplus populations. In Brussels they dream up regulations just to taunt us. Rip up the rip-off contract and we will be great again.

Very many people in Britain today are not just very poor, but very poor in a very rich country. And that has a special spin. You see wealth all the time, you just don’t get to touch it. And that’s something which has happened within the past few generations – jobs for life, wages you could live on, social housing, dole money not food banks… all those are still within folk memory at the same time they’ve been determined as politically impossible.

And if you can’t have anything else you can at least have an identity. People who live on the estates of Brighton, such as Whitehawk, will often have a strong sense of local identity. While for me where I live is just where I happen to be living. They don’t, in the main, like living in Whitehawk. As them what it’s like and they’ll quickly tell you it’s a shithole. But it’s something that’s theirs.

And feelbad nationalism, particularly with its stab-in-the-back narratives, fulfils a similar need in a broader context. The value of it is that it feels like a projection of your own situation. Despite all the ‘Benefits Street’ poverty porn propaganda that infests the TV, most working class people are actually working. That's how middle class people get to lead middle class lives. Yes, they’re reliant on benefits as well. But that’s because wages are so low and work so insecure.

You pick up all the shifts you can, and you can still barely keep your head above water. Clearly, you’re being robbed. So it fits that your country would be too. “Take back control” has a special resonance when you feel like you have no real control over your own life, when you're on a zero hours contract waiting and hoping for the next text offering the next shift.

It may be some Leave voters were even setting themselves up for the next stab. They'll take our votes and then renege on their promises? Of course they will! You think you need to tell us that? It's what always happens! And when it does it will be all the more confirmed, we will have another stab-in-the-back narrative to add to the others. In one way, when it happens it will be reassuring. We will feel more like ourselves than we did before.

But that’s just to describe how the kindling got so dry. You also need to look at who dropped the match.

It seems to me that the Eurosceptic Tory right is fairly unique to Britain. There isn’t really an equivalent among, say, the German Christian Democrats. In most continental countries Euroscepticism is confined to fringe groups. Or at least, groups which were fringe twenty years ago. (Anyone reading this who knows of a counter-example please do comment and let me know. I would genuinely like to hear of it!)

And that is mostly to do with the remarkably rapid shift to neoliberalism in Britain. The EU is without doubt a neoliberal institution, closely tied to the International Monetary Fund, keen to promote austerity and privatisation wherever it can. (Like I say, Leave lied a lot too.) But it is not keeping Britain’s pace on the road to neoliberalism – indeed it can’t. The British working class, after successive defeats, is unable to act as much of a brake against it. While, for example, the French working class is quite actively applying the brakes - quite hard and right now. For Britain, European neoliberalism is yesterday’s neoliberalism. And so pernicious, so deep-rooted is neoliberal ideology that yesterday's neoliberalism is equated to old-school “socialism”. “Too slow” means the same thing as “all wrong”.

Then put those two groups together, and do not return once lit. You can’t call it an accord because one group is quite clearly being manipulated by the other. But there’s a relation and it’s that which leads to Leave winning.

…all of which may sound specifically British. So at least there's an upside – it can happen here, but nowhere else, right? Unfortunately not. On the continent, it’s partially the lack of Euroscepticism in mainstream parties which has led to the growth of far-right fringe groups. (To a degree we haven't seen here. UKIP, politically speaking, are effectively a pressure group on the Tory party.) But, as said last time, such a growth is now much more likely in Britain. This Out is, by and large, bogus. But the next one might not be. While on the continent the reverse is occurring - those far right parties are getting a lot less fringe even as we speak. (There's also the irony that our first past the post system, the bane of many, serves to keep the far right marginalised at the same time as the more progressive groups.)

The choice we were given in this referendum was essentially between globalised neoliberalism and xenophobic isolationism. (Well, the apparent choice. The real choice was between two types of globalised neoliberalism, one of which was pretending not to be.) Neither option is good for you or me. But the second was once merely a protest vote against the first. Whereas it is now fast becoming a political force in its own right.

In Greece, for example,everyone knows the story of how Syriza won a popular vote but were prevented from carrying out their programme. So what is stopping people now turning to the second-fastest growing party after them – the blatantly fascist Golden Dawn? Where to go when democracy has let you down? Authoritarianism must be looking like a choice.

Marie Le Pen may be proved right. Brexit may be a seismic moment for the European far right.

And if that doesn’t scare you it should do.

2 comments:

  1. I hate it all. Hate it hate it hate it.

    What is even the point of rational discussion when we know that chanting catchy lies over and over again always wins?

    And as for the people who voted for Gove, Farage and Johnson? It's hard for me to have any sympathy with them as they face the inevitable consequences of their pandering to the Express's and Mail's xenophobia. A pox on everyone's house.

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  2. I don't think the thing was the catchiness. "We're British!" isn't terribly catchy. I think the thing was people's circumstances primed them to respond to some lies against others.

    The funny thing for me is, it always feels like anti-EU sentiment is something my lot should be expressing! As I say in the piece, it's a neoliberal, austerity-imposing body which screwed over Greece against the express wishes of its people. And in the 1975 referendum, that was much more the case. What angers me more isn't so much that they lie - of course they lie - but they've slanted things so we don't get to speak at all.

    Whenever I brought that up people would say "well of course the EU needs to be reformed". But I can't see those reforms being at all a realistic prospect. You might as well ask a shark to reform it's mouth into a hospital for small fish. In the end, while I didn't want Leave to win because that was letting UKIP and the Tory right win, I couldn't bring myself to vote for it, so I abstained.

    But then again, if I was minded to argue against myself, the recent EU ruling against Apple dodging tax in Ireland isn't just welcome, it's the sort of thing that only a transnational body could achieve. Otherwise they could just carry on playing nation off against nation, like they normally do.

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