Newsnet commentator Christopher Silver considers the real implications of Brexit as articulated by Theresa May and other leading Tories in Birmingham this week.
Across the world governments are having to deal with referendums delivering results that see the instigators fail to return their desired result.
This week began with news of two abortive referendums. In Columbia, the people threw out a painstakingly crafted deal to end a decades long war between the state and FARC rebels.
In Hungary, the right wing populist government of Viktor Orbán failed to get the minimum turnout required to validate its desired opt-out from EU refugee quotas. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after the people had spoken both governments immediately set about re-moulding their original proposals to follow a broadly similar course.
Not so in Britain. Swaddled in its long tradition of infantile exceptionalism the Conservative Party have resolved to perform a kind of live re-birth in sight of the nation. The party of the establishment now talks of channelling a “quiet revolution” after six years in power. If the rhetoric is to be believed this transition will mark a radical departure: undoubtedly among the most substantial shifts from one premiership to another since the war.
No election was necessary, naturally. All that was required was a summoning up of the popular will. To suggest otherwise, we are told, would be to argue with the wishes of 17,410,742 voters.
Perhaps the current glut of fateful plebiscites will one day be seen as an odd historic fad — the strange behavioural symptom of a political order running out of credibility and thrashing about for the elixir of popular legitimacy.
But if the demand for binding referendums is more present that ever, the disappointment engendered by them is also inescapable. Proposals to block or re-run the vote on Europe are still rattling about, three months on, as if there really is some means of placing this new British nationalist populism, with its terrifying proportions, back in the bottle.
Burrowing frantically into its native soil, British conservatism has remembered its roots. There is an “us” and a “them” and no matter of policy can stand apart from this basic article of faith. The act of marking out the divide, of being the voice that names it, is primal and potent.
Brexit was a winner-takes-all contest in which fair play was sacrificed in favour of victory and in which the most brutal contender was always bound to end up triumphant. The party of government, now transfigured into a people’s army, knows that it has to build new power and legitimacy on such a foundation, or perish.
Possibly mindful of the phenomenal electoral success achieved when the SNP became the repository for so much of the energies of the defeated Yes campaign in 2014, the current transformative effort on the part of the Tories is alarming because of its potential dominance. A marriage of popular insurgency and centralised power, unfettered, no longer has to acknowledge the niceties of civic decency when bulldozing its narrative towards the promised land.
NATIVISM AND NOSTALGIA
Theresa May has established the regime based on nativism and nostalgia that Leave campaigners longed for and is rapidly fattening up its appeal with a glorification of chauvinism and tirades against cosmopolitanism. Across Europe fascists squeak with delight, sensing the possibility of contagion.
The prospectus on offer from May, which at moments could be mistaken for old-fashioned social democracy, is not particularly concerned with the details.
The “privileged few” it turns out, are a rather eclectic bunch. The enemies are everywhere, from the “activist left-wing human rights lawyers” to the sneering expert, via foreign students, taxi-drivers, doctors and corporate fat cats.
But there is one clear thread that links up such a diffuse cast of scoundrels in our midst – they all represent different faces of cosmopolitan Britain. They all remind British conservatism of the many forces it can’t control and that must be re-ordered or expelled for the benefit of the party and the national will.
There is a demographic time-bomb ticking away underneath the Brexit project. The Tory party know that the young voted overwhelmingly for Europe. As in the Leave campaign, the zeal is existential, pressing and dangerous, because for many this is a glorious last chance to get their country back to a long lost heyday of order and deference. If they want to kill cosmopolitanism in Britain, they will have to do so solemnly and in short order.
This new “centre ground” creates a situation where the break-up of Britain feels more certain than ever. If Thatcher dug its grave, May must surely dispatch the beloved union to the hallowed ground it has long seemed better suited to.
Sensing this, many Scots are desperate for a second referendum. Many thirst for its catharsis, for a re-match on better terms and the tantalising possibility of that exhilarating moment of victory that some felt was stolen from them in 2014. But there are still those for whom Brexit was also perceived as a vote for “independence” too. So the risks associated with a second independence referendum in Scotland have only grown as demands for it have become more pressing.
Because a referendum is inherently a political gamble, even the most exemplary cases still have a tendency to encourage the maximising of political returns with polarities. In Scotland there is a rump Britishness, full of a new-found sense of isolation and anxiety about its own identity in a rapidly changing world. We must learn to treat this, where possible, with understanding.
Why? Because many Scots have now also had to grapple with the awful sense of loss people feel when the society they are a part of marches off, without warning, to a place that they find dark, unknowable and deeply disturbing.
In a recent essay on Trumpism, The Nation’s Adam Haslett noted:
“…contests over leadership of the executive branch have transmogrified in recent decades into something we experience less as debates on the direction of the nation than as zero-sum battles over who will be allowed the pleasure and relief of feeling they are not alone in their own country.”
Referendums, like the imperial U.S Presidency itself, are ultimately products of democratic failure and the inability of a political community to cohere or remain functional enough to feel truly open, inclusive and representative.
What we are left with is another key feature of the new right insurgencies. Trumpism, as Haslett observes, is not so much the product of anger, as the product of shame:
“…the deeper, more private, and more pervasive feeling animating our current politicalmisery is the shame that has always accompanied poverty, or not being able to provide all you want for your children, or enjoying less than you see others enjoying, or—in this second Gilded Age—simply not being rich.”
Thus shaming has become a vital political tool on both sides of the Atlantic. Your poverty, your hard work, May tells us, will be alleviated in the humiliation of companies that employ foreign workers, in the creation of a Nationalist Health Service, by closing the borders and by attacking those with a more complex sense of their own identity.
All of this is the product of decades of unrestrained inequality and the rapid disappearance of civic institutions, collective power, solidarity and the public realm, at exactly the moment when we need them most.
For the modern nation state, with its institutions sitting awkwardly astride mass contemporary societies, the plebiscite often seems like a blunt and therefore damaging implement.
Then again, anxiety over the vulnerabilities of democracy are as old as democracy itself. While Plato recognised that the democratic city state was susceptible to tyranny, we often forget that the ideal size of hisepublic was small enough to be discernible from a single hill.
With all their complexities and competing constituencies: large, fragmented and atomised nations are vulnerable to the promise of stability, order and cleanliness in a world full of messy contradictions.
The resultant “post-truth” politics is in fact very old, and as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave reminds us, control of perception and perspective is the foundation of all political realities. Hence why the final breakthrough of tabloid politics into the form of an actual governing agenda this week has been long in the making.
The ancients seemed to implicitly understand that democracy is contingent on shared spaces. As western societies have sold off, restricted or neglected the public realm, democratic contests often seem to only give frustrated expression to this unsated yearning for authentic collective experience and belonging .
In desperately seeking this out, many people forget more basic truths. That you either live a life that thrills at the thought of the multitude, or cower, ashamed, in fear of it. You either open yourself to the risks and the potential of life, or you shut yourself off. You either see yourself as an island, complete with in itself, or a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
Having chosen isolation with a brutal clarity, this island is drunk on the taste of its own fate. A country that thinks it can cut itself off in a world of intricate and intimate global connections is dangerously deluded. Mad enough, at least, to think it can command a rising tide to flow out. Faced with the choice of self harm, or seeing itself as others see it, it chooses the former.
Worse still, it is a country that will do anything other than confront its own sense of shame at what it has become.