Last Friday night, at 11pm, Britain formally left the European Union. While TV camera crews were encamped in Parliament Square, talking to booze-sodden Brexiteers for the voyeurism of remainers on Twitter, fireworks were rocketing upwards across the country. Small affairs accompanied by a few drinks, these were more an expression of that hardy perennial of British culture – the ‘any excuse for a piss up on Friday night’ – than an outpouring of political consciousness. Nevertheless such get-togethers distill the social base of Brexit: this was achieved by England outside the cities, by people beyond the gaze of the broadcasters before 2016.
Despite being a Eurosceptic, and accepting the result in 2016, I woke up on Friday filled with sadness: the last several years witnessed the surprise re-emergence, and deflation, of class politics in Britain – simultaneous with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party. Where everything seemed possible after the result of 2017, now the left faces defeat on a par with the 1980s. Of course some things are different this time round: unlike 35 years ago younger people are far more inclined to vote Labour rather than Tory, and Johnson’s majority is 80 rather than the 144 seats Thatcher enjoyed after 1983. While the Prime Minister has a large enough mandate to push through whatever he wants, Labour still have more seats than the Conservatives did after 2005. Five years later they led a coalition government.
Nevertheless the defeat remains historic, and for reasons more cultural than electoral. An ever growing chunk of the public finds the very notion of socialist politics strange, is exasperated by its intellectuals and speaks a different language to the would-be technocrats in the think tanks and universities. This explains, I think, how you end up with a situation where many agree with Labour’s policies but don’t view them as possible. There is a destination, and an appealing one, but no map or compass by which to get there. If there is a lesson from 2019 it is this: social democratic policies without class politics is a dead end. In the absence of the latter nativism will win.
Just because it isn’t economic class which is the primary frame by which many people, particularly middle class liberals, understand history, that isn’t to say there is an absence of frames altogether. Indeed it is the ongoing disintegration of one of them which came to mind while surveying the wreckage of the second referendum campaign on Friday night.
It is clear that the anger felt by many remainers (not all remain voters, most of which accept the result, but a significant minority) extends well beyond any decision to leave a political union. And while there is the issue of identity – ‘European’ often being a substitute for those of an internationalist, progressive bent – it goes deeper than that as well.
That is because Brexit represents a rupture with the single greatest ideological commitment of British liberalism – one so strong it has infused a broader folk common sense, making an indelible mark on the nation’s psyche and sense of destiny. This is the ‘Whig’ interpretation of history: a retrospective understanding of the past as representing an inevitable sequence of events towards ever greater freedom, happiness and enlightenment. Such an exceptionalist view of Britain is congruent, to some extent, with historical events and dovetails with the idea its affairs are uniquely determined by ‘common sense’ rather than utopian schemes. Almost uniquely in world affairs this has meant it avoided revolution, its democratic institutions incrementally evolving instead. “Reform so that you may preserve”, as Macaulay memorably put it ahead of the 1832 Reform Act. Let’s call this ‘The English Ideology’.
From such a starting point matters like empire and conflict in Ireland only a century ago (and more recently too) are helpfully omitted – not to mention that Britain did have a revolution (only it’s called a civil war).
For such people Brexit looks like something beyond the event horizon, a glitch in the matrix and at odds with the laws governing the universe. Such an event, for many, is clearly akin to a trauma – the world turned upside down, the routine rendered senseless.
That is because instead of viewing things like the weekend, 8 hour day and NHS as the result of contingency and struggle they assumed, instead, progress in all these fields to be natural – and that there was therefore no need for a politics capable of defending them.
It’s easy to see how such a perspective worked to the advantage of Thatcher and, more recently, austerity. How could things like income inequality – and later wages, home ownership and even life expectancy – be getting worse if things inevitably improve? How could the elite allow millions to be using food banks when they invariably govern in their own rational self-interest – which maps more generally over the common good? It was the prevalence of such a view of politics, and conflict, which meant those liable to care most deeply about the European Union – which we now know is a significant minority – were less likely to become politically mobilised. Until it was too late. Simply put, they had no account of politics as competing interests, nor any room for ideology or historic setbacks.
This is also why remain-ultras paint those who voted for Brexit as ‘thick’, even though – politically speaking – voting to leave before June 2016 was no more absurd a proposition than demanding a second referendum after it. Such sentiments easily lapse into outright hostility to democracy, and many of the arguments first deployed against expanding the franchise in the early 20th century are seen again here: maybe voters don’t know what’s really best for them, perhaps democracy is government by an uneducated mass, maybe ‘the people’ shouldn’t be sovereign after all.
If there is a single realisation that Brexit should make clear to the liberal middle class it is this: politics and history are contested, and the Whig view of history was, is and always will be wrong – no matter how many black cab drivers James O’Brien ritualistically humiliates. In its place they must grasp that democratic politics requires building a majority around the values you hold and the things you want. And if you don’t, someone else will.
What is more politics, in this instance, doesn’t mean rallies in central London (which are fine), stunts in central London (also fine, I love a stunt), the occasional talking head on the telly (guilty as charged), or even an impressive canvassing operation in a general election. It means all of these things, of course, but much more too. Fundamentally it is about building significant counter-power to the ultra-wealthy and the billionaire-owned press. This should happen through workplace organising and the formulation of a different culture: through cafes, bars, publishing houses, media outlets, worker-owned and ethically-centred businesses, club nights and so on. It requires demonstrating, to the majority of the public, not only the superiority of social democratic and socialist policies but also their plausibility – and that this can only happen through collective power rather than getting the right person in at the top or the next astro-turf campaign. On this subject there is much I agree with in this new article by Marcus Barnett for Tribune. All of this should spur many remain-ultras into greater political engagement, catalysing a mind-shift away from the mental furniture of whig history and things getting better without building a politics fit for the task.
For now, and perhaps quite understandably, it seems a certain fatalism is instead the default response: mocking leave voters, equating our departure from the EU to fascism (it isn’t although it is a historic opportunity for the ultra-nationalist right) or, even worse, that the campaign to re-join the EU should begin immediately. The fatalism verging into classist misanthropy of the first position helps nobody, while ‘rejoin’ is the definition of a political dead end. Anyone with an ounce of common sense, or that simply doesn’t wish to waste the next decade of their lives, should entirely ignore it.
In recent years the most widely known expression of Whig history was the work of the American academic Francis Fukuyama. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War it was Fukuyama who memorably declared that history was over:
‘What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’
Fukuyama’s contention was that, while clocks would still tick and years would continue to roll by, no new ideas would emerge, at least none capable of challenging the status quo. In making this extraordinary claim, he referenced the unlikely sources of Karl Marx and Georg Wilhelm Hegel. In their different ways both had claimed that history had a final destination. Now, with the end of the Cold War, they were proven right – only rather than the Prussian state or the downfall of capitalism, the twilight of ideology was Big Macs and Coca-Cola.
If there was a political entity in global affairs that signified the end of history it was the EU – post-sovereignty and post-ideology. What should be clear by now is that the Whig interpretation of history is wholly inadequate for anyone who might wish to defend or enhance it.
By extension, Britain’s departure from the EU – which finally happened last week – is perhaps the most obvious expression to date that Fukuyama was wrong: history isn’t over and all that is good, from political and economic rights to a society comfortable with multiple cultures, must be fought for. As I write in Fully Automated Luxury Communism while it was the crisis of 2008 which marked the return of history, it was the election of Trump and Brexit, some eight years later, which were its first political overheads. The 31st January, when Britain formally departed, was another seismic moment.
And if history isn’t over, and the Whig view of history is mistaken, then the liberal middle class must recognise they can’t ignore politics any longer. Similarly they must also understand that the neoliberal settlement – all-powerful a few short years ago, and which they still near universally defer to, is rapidly disintegrating. Critically they must understand that they can never hope to exercise political power without working alongside the labour movement and accepting the return of class politics. Of course some will not – these will be the remainers who more closely resemble Amber Rudd and the Best for Britain astro-turf campaigns, or the rump of Blairites in the Labour Party – but many will.
From this perspective the collective breakdown we are seeing among remainers is entirely predictable. Indeed, if anything, they are coping with the obliteration of how they view the world rather well. But history has returned, as has ideology. The comfortable nostrum that ‘things can only get better’, that platitude belted out by every Blair-loving hack at Labour’s annual party conference, couldn’t be more wrong. Things can get much, much worse – and only a politics of solidarity can stop it. Fukuyama’s lost children need to find their compass – fast.