What is Brexit Really About?

For any historical event, there are usually several layers of explanation, interacting with one another. In the case of Brexit I wouldn’t like to claim that what I offer below is the only explanation, but it’s worth considering, among all the others. It may look like a ‘conspiracy theory’, but it isn’t really, because it doesn’t require a small group of people ‘breathing together’ (conspirare) in secret. Often people act in unison but independently of each other, and for their own reasons. And their beliefs and actions may not in themselves be the ultimate causes of the events they appear to be promoting, but may be affected and even formed by impersonal, and unperceived, forces beyond their control.

Our present political difficulties, I should like to suggest, come into this category. Here, the ‘unperceived force’ is the ‘crisis of capitalism’ that has been impatiently predicted for decades by Marxists, but seems only just to have arrived; after several false alarms that were defused in the past by, for example, imperialism, wars and welfare socialism, all of which acted to solve, temporarily, the inherent and inevitable self-destructive tendency of late-stage ultra-free-market capitalism. That’s the elephant in the Brexit room, looming over the deliberate or conscious motivations of the ‘Brexiteers’ themselves, including nationalism, racism, romanticism (Boris), self-aggrandisement, anti-élitism, and the host of littler resentments and prejudices that surround what is called ‘populism’ today.

Many of these motivations are inconsistent, even contradictory; but one major one in the case of the leaders of the Brexit movement shines through. That is the ambition to ‘free’ Britain from unwelcome economic and political restrictions, some of them emanating from Europe but not all, in order to return Britain to the condition that is supposed to have been hers in the glorious nineteenth century, before all those interfering socialists came along. Because the USA is seen as the true inheritor of that tradition in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the nation that is still holding the torch of ‘freedom’ proudly aloft, it is natural for the Brexiteers to wish to get closer to her, notwithstanding ‘chlorinated chicken’, the marketisation of the NHS, and all the rest. It also explains President Trump’s support for Brexit, and his closeness to Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. If Britain achieves Brexit along Boris’s lines, then it is almost certain that she (or rather, her government) will follow it by using her newly acquired ‘freedom’ to dismantle some of the domestic restrictions on enterprise represented by, for example, trade unions and legislation on ‘health and safety’. That will bring her closer both to the neo-liberals’ utopia, and to the USA.

Of course Brexit is ‘about’ Brexit for millions of those who voted for it; either that or – as I have argued before (https://bernardjporter.wordpress.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/) – arising out of a general resentment against the Tory-Lib government, austerity and our flawed political system. For those who have seized the reins of the movement over the last three years, however, and have now taken over the old Conservative party (Keith Simpson’s) almost completely, like those extra-terrestial human-devouring aliens in the old science-fiction movies, it is about something else. It’s the culmination of the movement Margaret Thatcher set in train in the 1980s in what I’ve called elsewhere the ‘Great Reaction’ against the social democracy of Attlee’s and Wilson’s Labour Party, and has been growing in ascendency ever since, even through ‘New Labour’ times. We can tell it’s really that if we examine the social and financial situations of most of its rich and privately-educated leaders and propagandists; including, of course, the billionaire and tax-avoiding owners of 85% of the British Press. It’s also borne out by their quite unbalanced hatred of Jeremy Corbyn – who is reacting against the Great Reaction – which is what is mainly firing the Conservatives in the present election campaign. It is also suggested by the unprecedented political cheating and foreign meddling (American, Russian, Israeli) that have brought us to this situation. Lies and dissembling are more characteristic of capitalism, I would venture to claim, than of the Left. It’s something to do with advertising, commercial amorality, and ‘winning at all costs’. – But I’ll put some more thought into that.

The Right has been sitting waiting for this since the 1960s. Now Brexit has given it the perfect opportunity to achieve its long-term aims. The ‘anti-semitism’ row has been a further unexpected (because untrue) bonus. What a bit of luck (for the Right)! Whether or not this entirely or even mainly explains Brexit, it’s undeniable that the neo-Liberal Right has cleverly exploited whatever other reasons there may have been for it, to its own material advantage. And it may well win.

I’m off to Sweden soon, but will be back just before the election. The result of that may decide whether I move to Sweden permanently, to get away from a country I used to love but now hardly recognise any more. I’m not alone. 8,000 Brits have applied for and been granted Swedish citizenship over the last year. And the figures are probably higher for warmer countries.

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10 Responses to What is Brexit Really About?

  1. “Unambiguous choices are usually false ones.” [Bernard Porter]
    Dining in Hull recently, I explained to the waiter that I was mulling over the choice between the fish and the veal. To my surprise the man at the next table, whom I later identified as Professor Bernard Porter, intervened with the comment: “Beware, unambiguous choices are usually false ones.” When I asked for a clarification, he responded with a Delphic silence.
    Then, time travelling to Germany I arrived on Sunday 31 July 1932 for the federal election. Pondering the choices, especially between the NSGWP led by Adolph Hitler and the SDP, I heard an echo of Professor Porter’s statement warning me that: “Unambiguous choices are usually false ones.” Surely this cannot be true in this case, I mused.

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    • Sorry for the ‘Delphic silence’ – I’ve been travelling. And Norwegian Air’s boasted wifi only allows a few seconds at a time in the internet!
      Your metaphor only works if you were forced to have either the fish or the veal. Otherwise it IS a false choice. Not much liking fish and not approving of veal, I’d have asked for an omelette, or just the side veges, and walked out to a nearby restaurant in the unlikely event they couldn’t oblige me. In the Brexit case, there is similarly another alternative to Remain or Johnson’s ‘Hard’ Brexit, which is Corbyn’s: a ‘softer’ Brexit which keeps the UK within a European customs with all that that entails (like, yes, free movement). That would be my choice. It doesn’t completely satisfy me, as a Remainer, but it should be a workable compromise; and has the advantage of bringing the country together. Both the ‘false’ ones could risk something approaching civil war.

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      • Thus, in a choice between (a) hard Brexit or (b) hard Remain and (c) soft Brexit, you argue for (c). The choices are not ‘false’. We are pretty clear what each option entails, there is a low degree of ambiguity and therefore the claim that unambiguous choice is false is not borne out in this case. So why would Corbyn not campaign for (c)?
        I think you have avoided addressing the point of view advocated by The Guardian pieces which you recommended. They advocate the government delegating responsibility to an unspecified process to decide on difficult and divisive issues. This is antidemocratic.

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      • You have hijacked my example, Bernard. In the scenario I am the one choosing between veal and fish not you. For me, they are not false choices at all. On the other hand, your choices are between an omelette or the side vegetables or exiting the restaurant: they are not false choices for you. In our daily lives we are faced with real choices like this all the time: should I fly to Sweden or should I catch the train or go by bus or drive my car or sail by boat or travel using a combination of the above? Out of all the real choices, you opt for flying.
        Political parties and voters face similar choices: should public transport be owned by the state, private companies or some combination of the above? Corbyn’s nationalisation policy versus the Tory option for continued private control is a real choice. It is difficult to see how you could validate this claim. A false choice in this case might be between ownership by a PRC-controlled enterprise and the ownership status quo, when no-one is arguing for PRC control.
        By the way, the ‘Delphic silence’ was embedded in your unexplained statement, “Unambiguous choices are usually false ones.” I was not commenting on any failure to reply quickly to my metaphor.

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  2. Jeremy Corbyn’s interview with Andrew Neil does not play well for Labour. Corbyn, on becoming prime minister, will negotiate a Leave deal with the EU, which contains everything he thinks the UK needs; however, in the referendum that follows, he will not lead the campaign in support of his deal. He will remain neutral. As Neil reasonably points out, Corbyn will not have a position on the most significant issue the UK has faced since the Second World War.

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      • Tony says:

        Corbyn’s ambiguity can be seen as a problem or as an attempt to introduce some nuance into a complex problem that has been reduced to a ‘for’ or ‘against’ issue, more dangerously for Labour, as it cuts across social class, regional and economic lines.

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      • The lead piece in The Guardian which you recommend, Bernard states:
        Paragraph One: The finest and most successful leaders today – in business, education, sport and elsewhere – are facilitators and enablers, not the outdated and misguided purveyors of the “This is what I say and this is what we are going to do and you will follow me, or else” school that too many people still believe we need.

        Paragraph Two: I am not a supporter of Mr Corbyn, but leadership is also about vision and conviction – and, whatever we may think about the Labour manifesto for this election, it certainly presents a very clear and bold vision for the future of our nation.

        This is clearly contradictory. How could you support a manifesto [see paragraph two] if it is full of projects the Labour leader wants to implement on taking office, when you are also in favour of [see paragraph one] the idea that successful leaders should merely be facilitators, who should not say “this is what we are going to do and you will follow me”?
        Indeed the concept of ‘government as facilitator’ subverts the whole point of parliamentary democracy, which requires voters to chose between competing policies and projects; if elections are to be meaningful voters need an unambiguous choice..

        By remaining neutral in the referendum itself, Corbyn ‘facilitated’ the situation where the Brexiteers won the day. Bravo, comrade Corbyn!

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      • Unambiguous choices are usually false ones.

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  3. Tony says:

    Also, the breakdown of the social democrat consensus which lasted pretty successfully from 1945-1979 capitalism unleashed new ways of covering up its weakness and conflicts by encouraging materialism, greed, and selfishness. The Conservatives ceased to be a ‘Tory’ Party and became the instrument for this under Thatcher and with the adoption of bogus neo-liberal ideologies to replace the previous Tory mix of Burke and Keynes. This was reflected in the right wing press which went from being pro-Europe – even the Daily Mail supported EEC membership in 1975 – to a purveyor of anti EU propaganda. ‘Europe’, in particular sovereignty, became the surrogate means of pursuing older obsessions like nationalism, imperialism and the cult of heroic failure – ‘we will die [and be defeated] defending our honour as an independent state’. We live with the consequences, a right wing government of ideologues and deluded liars for, its looks like, another five years

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