Next week I’m addressing a Stockholm law firm on the question of ‘Brexit’. They profess themselves puzzled. They invited me as a historian; and also asked for some comments on Sweden. Here are my rough notes for the talk. I’m going to have to scale them down drastically – I’ve only got 20 mins, before the discussion starts.
Brief historical Intro – UK’s relations with Europe
- An island but not insular
- Waters around us roads, not barriers. (Cf the Vikings.)
- More cosmopolitan than most other nations; and a wider cosmopolitanism than merely European. Empire only part of it.
- Ideological differences between Britain & Continent: mainly to do with our conception of ‘freedom’, and our more organic and directly democratic system of law. Individual liberty, not social. True during C19th. (Nb. I don’t necessarily agree with it.)
- No political policing, no spying.
- Hence welcoming – or rather tolerant – towards influx of refugees then. Open borders. Almost no extradition. Protective of the oppressed of the unstable, warlike Continent. Marx…
- These differences diminish during the C20th, and no longer exist today – Britain one of the least liberal nations in Europe in these senses, BUT the memory of the differences continues to inform present-day British perceptions of our ‘superiority’.
- Myth that ‘we’ won the wars against Germany, indeed ‘saved’ Europe, with no help at all from Continental powers.
- Secondary myth: that it was a victory for the British Empire too, now re-named the ‘Commonwealth’, and regarded – illusorily – as a kind of voluntary, multiracial, proto-United Nations, rather than an expression of conquest and power.
All this affected our reluctance to join the EU for 25 years after its precursor was formed. I.e.:
- Feelings of moral superiority on the part of the British. The ‘freedom’ thing.
- Sense of ‘outward-lookingness’, towards the ‘wider world’, where millions of our ‘kith and kin’ resided, plus ‘coloured’ citizens who had become Anglicised, bound to us still by the Commonwealth (unlike the Swedes in Wisconsin) and by cricket; rather than the more ethnically closed European Continent. What you call our ‘imperialism’ was seen as far more internationalist than the Continent’s, which at that time embraced only white men and women.- But of course were never so ‘isolated’ from the Continent as we’re about to become.
- Our patterns of trade were much more ‘international’ in this sense, with only about 30% of our trade and investment going to the Continent, whereas for most Continental countries it was about 80%. – This created substantial practical problems for our economy, which had to adjust in a way other European countries’ didn’t need to. For France, Germany and the rest, the Common Market reflected the normal pattern of their trade. Britain had to wrench herself away from hers.
But still, after two earlier approaches when we were turned down by General de Gaulle, who suspected us of being a stalking horse for the Americans, in 1973 we joined. One of the reasons was that the old Commonwealth had lost its lustre; another was simply economic.
Two years later we had a referendum on the issue, which the ‘Remainers’ won. Note: on that occasion the opposition to EU membership was led from the Left. The Right – the old imperialists, generally voted for. That’s a complete reversal of the position today.
So: you want to know why the Right changed sides this summer? For it was the Right who led the Brexit movement, though with the backing of a few ideological Socialists; and the mass support of very many working-class people who you would normally have expected to be on the Left. It’s that, I think – the working-class support for Brexit – that was crucial, and needs to be explained.
(Though note: parts of Britain voted solidly Remain, like Scotland, N Ireland and London.)
Everyone in Britain has different explanations for Brexit. (We’re just as confused as you.) Here’s my spin on it.
- It had little or nothing at all to do with Europe. It’s essential, I think, to grasp that crucial fact from the start. People were not really interested in or concerned with the EU. Knew very little about it.
- Nor did the ordinary voters share the rest of the upper-class Brexit leaders’ reactionary ideology: bring back Grammar Schools, allow smoking in pubs, anti-‘political correctness’, male chauvinism, etc.; some of them – like Trump’s – pretty close to Fascism.
- Even in some of those cases, that ideology may not have been deeply believed. It’s a matter of record that our chief court jester, Boris Johnson, wavered in his opinion until just before the vote, and only came down on the Brexit side because he thought it would give him a better chance of becoming PM. He seems to have been surprised and shocked by the result, as though he’d never really wanted it. (Boris is thought to be amusing, and has the reputation of being an intellectual because he went to Eton and knows ancient Greek. But of course he’s a fool. As is Farage (great chum of Trump just now). I imagine, though, that they fit quite comfortably into a common Swedish stereotype of the English – derived probably from Monty Python.)
- A large part of the right-wing owned and dominated press, however, had been pushing anti-EU propaganda for years: false stories of straight bananas, etc etc. Swedes should remember that newspapers in Britain – and not only the ‘tabloids’ – are mostly owned by expatriate millionaires – and regarded by them mainly as political propaganda sheets, rather than purveyors of objective news. Even the Times, since it was bought up by Murdoch. The Guardian the only exception; and that can be seen in some ways as a (mildly) left-wing propaganda organ. The tabloids print right-wing sensational, shocking or easily personalised political news; but in general are anti-politics as a whole, as befits a capitalist institution. Voters are simply consumers of politics, as of everything else.
- Among ordinary voters, the major issue was probably immigration (as here?); but not necessarily because it materially affected them. It was blamed for lowering wages, taking places in schools and hospitals (even though 1/3 of our doctors and nurses are from overseas), and taking more in state welfare handouts than the ‘native;’ population (which is simply untrue). – But: there was more anti-immigrant opinion in places that had in fact had little immigration, and less, even among established populations, in places – like London – which had had most. People got these ideas not, generally, from personal experience or observation, but from the tabloid press.
- (and here’s my main explanation for the Brexit vote): People were fed up with a lot of other things: their material situation – lower wages; insecure part-time contracts, austerity, bankers’ bonuses, and so on; and felt that the government of the country – Conservative or Labour – wasn’t in touch with them. It’s widely referred to as the ‘Westminster Bubble’, which includes metropolitan-based journalists People resent the fact that very few MPs have had ‘proper jobs’ before being elected – generally starting off as student politicians (Labour) or young party workers (Conservatives), mostly male, and so can’t really represent people with normal lives. They also feel that the political system of the country, and in particular the ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system, doesn’t allow their views to be accurately reflected in the House of Commons. Which it doesn’t. Our present right-wing Conservative government was elected by only third of the people who voted, and a quarter of the electorate as a whole. – Though I’m not a Brexiteer, I share most of these criticisms (and in fact broadly prefer the Swedish system for that reason; though I do like having my ‘own’ MP). So I feel it’s a reasonable complaint.
- What isn’t reasonable, however, is blaming it all on Europe. That’s what all those discontented Brits did on June 23rd, egged on by the Press barons. The reason for that was this. The EU Referendum wasn’t simply an election like our others. Each vote counted. This, then, was the first opportunity for a people who felt themselves neglected and uncared for by their governments – especially the dreadful and incompetent government of David Cameron – to have their say, effectively. They were ‘cocking a snook’, as we say, against an unpopular government, ruling class, and system of government. Which is why Cameron was so criminally foolish to allow the referendum, at that time. (He did it to appease his right-wing backbenchers.) Again, as I say, Europe had almost nothing to do with it.
- There are of course other influences. The ‘post-truth’ culture that apparently we’re living in now has a lot to do with it, as it did in the case of the American election. Brexit’s great red ‘battle-bus’ had a great slogan painted on the side of it, claiming that the EU cost us £350 millions a week, which could be spent on the National Health Service. Both of those claims were immediately revealed as lies, but the Brexiteers continued with them. (It’s being challenged in court now, for flouting electoral law.) Behind that probably lies the sound-bite society we’re living in now, with no-one reading books any more or joining ideas together, and instead depending on Facebook and Tweets. Is it the same here? I guess not.
What will happen to us now we’ve voted ‘out’ is anybody’s guess. No-one in the government expected Brexit to win, so they made no plans for it. There’s a legal challenge being prepared against the idea that we can simply leave the EU without consulting Parliament, which will probably succeed. We’re a Parliamentary democracy, after all, not a plebiscitary one. So the terms of our divorce will have to go back to Parliament. Most MPs are in favour of remaining. They could vote that way if they wanted; but whether they would do so, in a way that the tabloid press would regard as a ‘betrayal’ of the people, is hard to say. (You know about that Daily Mail headline, with pictures of three appeal judges: ‘Enemies of the People’? Another throwback to Nazi Germany.) We can only wait and see.
As well as this: Scotland will very likely seek to secede from the UK; and it looks as though the Brexit campaign has aggravated British racism, Islamophobia and even anti-intellectualism to a worrying extent.
Does that make things a bit clearer? – I’d like to finish by drawing some broader inferences from this – to my mind – quite ludicrous and disastrous situation for Britain; including some for Sweden.
For Britain isn’t alone in having this widening gap between her people and her ruling ‘establishment’. It’s a world-wide trend. I’m sure in my own mind that a similar gap accounts for Donald Trump’s support and victory in the USA. ’Drain the Swamp!’ was an even more effective slogan, I think, than ‘Build a Wall!’, or ‘Lock her Up!’, or even Trump’s most constant refrain, which was ‘Me, me, me!’ It could be – I don’t know enough about these other countries – the crucial factor behind the growth of right-wing movements in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere. That, and the after-effects of the Great Bank Crash of 2007-8, and the fact that its causes haven’t really been addressed since then.
Could that Crash, and these after-effects like Brexit and Trump, be a symptom of a crisis of capitalism? Even perhaps the final one, predicted by Marx? Happening in a globalised world – ‘globalisation’ was one of Trump’s main targets – it’s likely to be international in its effects, affecting all of the dangerously interlinked economies of the world. Even Sweden could be swept away by it. You have your Sverigedemokraterna, after all, plus your own Nazis, and your Nordic Nationalists. Until recently I thought Sweden would be sheltered from this disaster by its welfare state, strong trade unions, and its ethos of co-operation more generally, which had protected Britain, too, from ‘capitalism red in tooth and claw’ until Thatcher got in. But these appear to have been chipped away in the 20 years that I’ve been here: privatisation, public schools run for profit – even we haven’t gone that far yet! – and so on. So, in a global world, I can’t see you long escaping the broader dangers – the collapse of all this – that Brexit was a symptom of. And then there could be a similar reaction here, in broad terms, though it might take a different form.
Whether it takes a Brexit-like form, however, I rather doubt. Sweden joined the EU very much later than we did, of course, and on the basis of a pretty narrow popular vote. Like us, you spurned the Euro. But your majority political parties, as I understand it, are all pro-Europe. You used to have a UKIP of your own – your Junilistan – which won 15% of the vote in the 2004 European elections, but which seems to have withered away since. The latest opinion poll put its support at 0.3%. There’s also your Folkrörelsen (is that right?) opposed to EU membership on mainly socialist grounds, which is the direction you would expect Swedish Euroscepticism to come from (just as British Labour opposition to the EU did in 1975). The ‘Vs’ are also anti-Europe. Sverigedemokraten’s policy is to renegotiate the terms of Sweden’s membership, as I understand it, rather than to leave. The Greens are swithering. Sweden has had particular issues with the European bureaucracy over the years. It stopped them exporting snus, for example: and has its greedy eyes on Sweden’s (and my) beloved Systembolaget. So the UK is not the only ‘semi-detached’ member of the EU.
But the Swedish people? – Broader public support for continued Swedish membership did seem to dip earlier this year, to only 44%, but with a large number of ‘don’t knows’; due mainly to Europe’s reluctance to share her refugee burden with her. But apparently it’s gone back now; and I know from the way I was looked at and spoken to when I returned to Sweden for the summer after our referendum, that you think we Brits are rather mad. So we are.
Directly after Brexit I applied for Swedish citizenship (jointly with British). With a Swedish sambo, it should make things easier for me; and in any case I identify with Sweden politically. One of my several identities is European. Brexit has deprived me of that. So I’m angry; and this may have affected this analysis of mine.
Nevertheless, I rest my case.