Commentary by Christopher Silver
Britain, we are told, doesn’t go in for revolutions. The urge to completely overturn the established order is said to be foreign. Our democracy is so sinuous and durable it never comes crashing down and our commitment to the rule of law is definitive. Our tyrants and extremists are the stuff of fairytales rather than living memory.
Before Britain went to the polls on Thursday night, this is the kind of observation that might be made calmly by Daniel Hannan or more aggressively by a Daily Mail editorial. In the morass of that vote’s aftermath, with all the strange ironies that such moments of febrile change bring, Britain’s fundamental home truth has been wrecked. Britain chose, with its gut, to take back control of its own affairs from the European Union. In doing so it unleashed exactly the kind of political chaos from which its most loyal subjects claim it is immune.
This is England
Of course the reality is that Brexit is an English nationalist revolution. The smaller polities within the British Isles have never had enough centrifugal force to break up Britain. The rapid disintegration of the United Kingdom was always contingent on an English crisis. That crisis has arrived unlooked for. We are now living it, moment by moment, as almost every certainty that has underpinned British politics for a generation comes crashing to the ground.
While the shock may have been sudden, the forces at play have been with us for decades. Brexit is the logical conclusion to Thatcherism with its deeply ideological urge for chaotic economic ‘liberation’. It is also an inevitable by-product of Blairism, with its notorious failure to reverse growing social and regional disparities. It is the crowning achievement of Rupert Murdoch and his 40 year project to simultaneously control, discredit and destroy Britain’s political elite (along with our trust in the media, experts and the professional classes).
The problem that few could have foreseen is that the erosion of a shared British culture and identity has played a big role in this now precarious state. If you tear down the great British institutions there’s not much to fall back on. Britain is the monarchy, the NHS, the BBC and the army. For the working classes it was also underpinned by nationalised industry on an enormous scale — now largely the stuff of folk songs and bitter memories.
It is therefore no coincidence that, like Yes in Scotland, the Leave vote maps onto post-industrial England and Wales. From Corby to Middlesbrough, South Wales to Tyneside, in places where the uninterest of an entire political class allowed so much to wither, there was nothing to lose. The vox pops told us this, but these were voices from the hinterland, alien in their disillusionment to both centre left and centre right. They speak of lives that do not have a place in a neoliberal and globalised Britain.
What else could we have expected? A mass of the dispossessed, many scarcely able to afford a bus fare to the local ASDA let alone a city break in Florence, were given a megaphone by this vote and started using it. Unsurprisingly they said you can shove your easy cosmopolitanism, your gîtes in the Pyrenees and your Erasmus exchanges. In response they were given endless claims that Britain’s economic strength was too precious to be endangered for the sake of baser nationalist urges. Those who crafted these messages clearly forgot that economic strength means nothing in an economic wasteland.
As the debate became more and more abstract, the emphasis on a vicious cocktail of emotions from both sides grew. This created an acceptable way for opportunistic mainstream politicians to ride a tsunami of discontent. Across great swathes of Britain people have lost control over their own economic destiny and have seen rapid changes in the shape of their already battered communities. When one side tells you to protect the status quo and the other repeats that you must take back control, there’s no contest. Economic strength is an abstract concept, the impact of immigration, for better or worse, feels far more tangible.
On Friday morning Londoners, Scots, Irish, Europeans and many middle class Britons, awoke to a clamorous assertion that the country they knew wasn’t real. As Farage claimed, his was a victory for “real people” unlike the inauthentic multicultural and metropolitan Britain that so many Remain voters identified with.
Stepping out from amid the debris of fact and counter fact, it turned out that contemporary Britain was a sham, a stitch-up, a place where you couldn’t put your finger on anything solid or certain. This was only a final acknowledgement of what most of us already knew — a country that ceases to hold anything truly meaningful in common has only an undead existence left. Britain stopped being real because it ceased to share something real to believe in. With no plan for Brexit, we have a political vacuum. Far from a return to the orderly, deferential (and more white) Britain of the 1950s, we’re in difficult and uncharted waters without a map.
Last week reminded us that UK politics is nowhere near as calm, polite and consensual as we’ve been led to believe. The Brexit leadership offers a choice between boozy populist demagoguery and an intellectual libertarian bloody-mindedness. It conducted an exercise in political brinkmanship and was totally oblivious to the consequences. These are people who only feel responsible to their own ambitions —raised with a neat conception of the world that told them whatever they did to further those ambitions would be good for their country. They were wrong.
Their campaign was based on that age old right wing yarn — someone stole something from you (land, territory, culture, jobs) and we will give you it back. All other aims are contingent on getting back what was wrongfully taken. Whatever the context, this is the most dangerous form of political myth-making.
Lacking experience beyond the media, financial or political establishment, it’s little wonder that the Brexiteers were oblivious to the forces that they might unleash. Their sudden absence and astonishing indifference has left a hunger for ‘control’ amongst their followers. If the Leave campaign’s leadership cannot offer something to feed it, darker days lie ahead. As can be seen in the lower-middle class certainty that Britain is ‘full up’ and the unvarnished xenophobia of a native underclass — an enormous political opportunity for the far-right, the product of Johnson and Gove’s elitist complacency, has opened up.
There is no consensus about what Britain is anymore. It is a place of fragmented communities with mutually exclusive stories to tell about where the country has been and what it might yet become. Remarkably, while Labour is catatonic in the face of Brexit due to its own internal crisis, many of a progressive and tolerant mindset have looked to Edinburgh.
Scotland has its own demons and its own Brexiteers, but it has two crucial assets at this crucial moment — a unifying and popular figurehead to steer the nation through the crisis and a political movement that wears its tolerance with pride.
That movement’s internationalist anthem (written by a communist, bisexual, polymath) Freedom Come a’ Ye, claims that in turbulent times freedom at home and abroad are one and the same. Sturgeon’s response to Brexit was the product of a long term effort to shape a narrative around Scottish nationhood that is not defined by ethnicity. Thursday’s ballot transformed Scottish independence into credible goal for Scottish civil society and the First Minister’s articulation of inclusiveness aligned with it.
Of course getting Scottish statehood could totally change the predominantly positive approach to immigration currently expressed by Scotland’s mainstream political parties. But for now Scotland can be a place of initial resistance. Brexit has also made its common cause with the English cities far more apparent. If the centre cannot hold, in the country or the Labour party, those seeking change need to look to the peripheries and the margins. There are many people who now need to be embraced, protected and fought for and an enormous effort of solidarity is required to stem the tide of rising xenophobia.
Yet in all of this I still pity the natives, the old and the lost. Those who grew up in a world of certainties and structures were sold a lie of return. These are the real exiles, wandering for the rest of their days in a country they don’t understand that no one bothered to explain to them. Desperate for a return to order in a land that glories in a filthy morass of identities and competing demands, their vulnerabilities and fears have been exploited by a callous elite dressed as familiar figures from yesteryear. Their lot is the stuff of tragedy.
Nigel Farage’s claim that Britain was at ‘Breaking Point’ was prescient, but not because of an existential threat from terrified Syrians carrying their children on their backs. Britain is at breaking point because it is a country of reasonable consensus transformed into a country of extremes, a country of continuity riven by enormous uncertainty. It is a country afraid to know itself.