IN a modest personal archive I have two particularly prized documents: a British national identity card (discontinued 1952) and a ration book (food rationing ended in July 1954). But as a product of the post-1945 baby boom ours was the first generation since the late nineteenth century that avoided conscription into a major war. Both my grandfathers, one a rifleman the other a gunner, fought in what they called the Great War. Both my parents served in the Royal Navy in World War II. Since then British life has been shaped by three seminal developments: end of empire; a new European role and identity; and steady domestic social progress (from 1964 onwards under reforming governments) towards a more equitable society.
Those factors defined national success, but it all started to unravel last June with the Brexit referendum. Like Donald Trump’s election in the USA, it contained the potential to tear up the foundations of post-war peace, progress and prosperity. The British referendum was fraudulent from the outset, a David Cameron con-trick designed to save his riven party. He had tried something similar once before; but while the Scots blinked, the white van men did not. The outcome was also a fraud, a small margin of the sort that might decide some parochial issue, not one of colossal national dimensions. Nor does majority support make a policy or idea desirable. Indeed, the opposite is often spectacularly the case. Yet Brexit appears irreversible, although its supporters are in for a nasty surprise when the glib promises prove hollow (some already have) and England (after Scots independence, some form of Welsh autonomy, and Irish unification) is pitched into economic decline and political turmoil. In the meantime, Brexit is sending out some highly unedifying signals about the current nature of English political culture.
The most serious concerns that meaningless cliché, the ‘will of the people’: a ten-year-old could unpack the faulty mathematics of a 52% vote in a turnout of only 72% (perhaps it should become a standard exam question). The will of the people is total myth: only individuals have wills and one might just as well, and equally misguidedly, speak of the ‘soul of the people’. More importantly it is a phrase used with deliberate authoritarian intent by the right wing; while the left wilts into disempowerment faced by its supposed and spurious legitimacy. This is a process led by an increasingly rabid gutter press. High court judges rule on a point of law that parliament must be involved in the Brexit process: ‘traitors’ scream the headlines. Members of the House of Lords from all parties in their capacity as a review body of deep experience and talent go about their task of shaping reasonable compromise and amendment and are threatened with abolition. John Bercow, speaker of the House of Commons and guardian of its proceedings, legitimately states his opposition to the possible presence in Parliament of Donald Trump and admits that he voted against Brexit to be met by an attempt to unseat him.
This is toy town politics; but that, it appears, is now the nature of English civic culture. One is tempted to call it redneck politics, but that does not quite capture the curious British mixture of upper and working class prejudice which defines its extreme right wing. The rightward lurch of the Tory Party suggests that something far more fundamental is in progress, a modern day peasants’ revolt in which the very idea of debate, never mind disagreement and the proposal of alternatives, is quickly neutralised by insult and accusation: ‘partial’ judges and ‘over-privileged’ nobles, for example. The legality, common sense and rationality of an argument are of no consequence: after all, the ‘people’ have spoken. The arrogance of Brexit camp is extraordinary, matched only by its myopia.
The English have generally distrusted intellectuals. In my youth the term student (as in university) was often used as one of abuse. Today so many school leavers attend university such usage is presumably meaningless, but there now seems to be a concerted attack on those heights of civilisation known as knowledge production, rational argument and logical praxis. It has always been a source of pride that Britain entirely avoided the McCarthyite years of political madness that shamed the USA; and Australia, too. A modern-day equivalent is not far away: the pillorying, exclusion and harm visited on people for holding progressive or even informed views that contradict the prevailing right wing orthodoxy with cheer leading from social media. One MP has already been murdered.
There is a plausible argument for Brexit: a protest against globalisation, although if this is indeed the case it has taken a quarter of a century to dawn. Nor are Brexit’s most ardent supporters in any universal sense poor. Turning the nation’s back on its largest trading partner seems a strange way of recovering jobs with no other long-term, stable and highly preferential market in sight. The jobs that are lost are in fact gone forever in the inevitable tide of economic history. Migrants will continue to arrive to fill the poorly paid jobs on poor conditions Brits do not want. Nothing much will change ultimately – except growing impoverishment.
But that is not actually the point. Brexit has no rationality. It is fashionable to call it the product of post-truth politics (in other words, pervasive lying); but it is more accurately the politics of emotion. It is a snarl of rage against the ‘other’: most obviously foreigners and people of different cultures and religions, but also non-conformism and those who refuse to kow-tow to a set of comfortable, conservative values set by the orthodox. A number of commentators observed before the referendum that what many Brexit supporters yearned for was a world of tea and scones, fish and chips, bingo and cheap beer and a general sense of social conformity in a white, culturally conformist neighbourhood; a time without ‘them’, a comforting era from an imagined past somewhere in the early 1960s.
It was all summed up by MP Jacob Rees Mogg after the shameful Commons Brexit vote when he compared it, in an apparently demented statement, to ‘the battles of Agincourt and Waterloo’. So the Tory hard right represents its political triumphs in terms of war against neighbours. The xenophobia is unconcealed. What is being sacrificed in this gung-ho anti-Europeanism is the collective self-preservation that has kept the continent largely peaceful since 1945. Vladimir Putin, blessed also by the distraction of ISIS, must be busily polishing his options as he considers Ukraine and the Baltic states.
The contours of politics in the years ahead will throw further light on commitment, or otherwise, to true democracy as opposed to the crudities and warped arithmetic of referenda. Brexit and subsequent events suggest there is a nascent neo-fascist movement in Britain and that it is being incubated by Theresa May’s government. A British friend of mine argues that Brexit culture is just plain nastiness, but this is always an active ingredient in political extremism.
What is to be done? It is not too late to remind young, relatively well-educated, broad-minded voters that had they bothered to exercise their obligations in the referendum, there would probably be no Brexit. It is unbelievable that this requires saying, but it is going to take considerable courage to defend liberal democracy and civil rights in Britain in future. Marches and noisy demonstrations will be important, but largely a psychological boost for the converted that may even alienate fence sitters. In a democracy the ballot box is the key and, at present, doors are being slammed in the face of progressive thought and rational behaviour. They have to be unlocked again.
Maybe Tony Blair’s rehabilitation has started with his recent speech. Forthright things need to be said about the political midgets driving the Brexit process and the dire consequences to which its supporters seem committed. But ultimately it will be up to the young to turn around the tide of xenophobia and division that is poisoning political culture in Britain and in the West in general. Youth movements have contributed significantly before, for instance in liberating apartheid South Africa and eastern Europe under Russian oppression. Here’s the challenge to a new generation.
Sharp Thoughts from the Thornveld 55, 28 February 2017