Unintended Consequences

Talk about ‘unintended consequences’! Who – apart from me (well, elliptically at any rate: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/08/31/two-cheers-for-the-eu/) – predicted that voting for Brexit would make Britain more reliant on the United States, and consequently less essentially ‘independent’, than if she had remained in the EU?

Now that unexpected chicken is coming home to roost. The effect of Brexit has been to prise push us back into the American no-liberal (or liberalish) sphere, in our desperation for a trade deal to replace the European common market; and away from the only organisation that might have saved us from it – though I have to admit that the EU hasn’t done a very good job of that so far. But it could. (And it did resist TTIP.) In other words, Brexit won’t enable us to reassert ‘control’ over our own affairs at all, which could only be achieved in co-operation with others. And if one of Brexit’s longer-term effects is to boost other nationalist and separatist movements in the remaining EU countries, aided by Trump’s and Putin’s clear ambitions to see an end to the Union, it could spell the end of all collaborative resistance to untamed global capitalism; or to what that great economic thinker JA Hobson – the subject, as it happens, of my PhD thesis long ago – called ‘capitalist imperialism’: imperialism, that is, which is neither pursued nor controlled by governments, but by the far more powerful internal logic of the system itself. That’s the stage of history we’re entering upon now.

It’s for this reason that I hugely regret that we in Britain can’t have a second bite at the Brexit cherry; that and the fact that the decision to hold the original referendum, the form it took, and the conditions in which people voted in it, were so inadequate, and so the result so essentially fortuitous, as to make it – ‘the will of the people’ – the flimsiest of pillars on which to re-build our country and even the world. A nation shouldn’t have to make great life-affecting decisions in this trivial and accidental way. I hope, then, that a good number of Labour MPs do defy their party whip, and vote against Article 50. The Daily Mail will give them hell, and of course they’ll lose. But the fact that they stuck with their principles could redound to their benefit later, when the wider repercussions of Brexit reveal themselves.

There is, I think, a historical precedent for this. It is roughly what happened to those Labour MPs who resisted the siren call of (national) imperialism before the First World War. The jingos traduced them too. (See my Critics of Empire, 1969.) But it paid dividends after the War, which turned many people against the imperialism that they believed to have been the cause of it, and so rehabilitated those who had seemed to be flouting the popular will before; to the extent that just a few years later one of them even became the first Labour Prime Minister. It may be wise today for Labour to establish itself firmly on the ‘Remain’ side (with the Libs), and then wait a while for the unintended consequences of Brexit to row back. Who can say what will happen then? Except that it will almost certainly be unintended, again.

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