The Eurosceptics’ moment

Time for them to step up and extract Britain from the EU

December 14, 2016
©Bob Harvey
©Bob Harvey

The cruellest conceit of the strange utopianism that gripped British politics this year is that our relationship with the European Union can be viewed in isolation from the rest of our national life. Perhaps a British government will perform a surgical manoeuvre, lifting the country intact from the institutional claw of “Brussels” and Britain will continue as before, its prosperity elevated, its sovereignty more delicious. Perhaps Britain will tweeze itself out, a splinter from the flesh, and will grow economically stronger and politically prouder, while the EU integrates, freed from its slightly awkward partner. Perhaps Britain will leave, and nothing else will change.

This clean exit seems difficult. However much politicians have pretended otherwise, membership of first the European Economic Community and then the EU was the core of Britain’s politics for over 40 years. It was the bind that held us together, augmenting the Britain we knew. Postwar governments all wanted European integration to succeed. Britain could not deny its geography. The continent’s stability, security and prosperity were essential for Britain’s own.

Membership was the heart of an inexplicit bargain between parties, the state and society, at least since the 1956 Suez crisis. This is why British politics now seems so cast adrift, loose from the moorings of history and a sense of its destination, in hoc to the wind of those who shout loudest.

The bargain was initially this: membership of the European Community boosted Britain’s sovereign power, it strengthened the country because it underpinned Britain’s economic growth. The EEC’s economic cohesion gave it political force. Membership multiplied Britain, making it the only power with a voice in all the world’s key counsels (the EEC, Nato, the United Nations) and with access to the privileged ear of Britain’s most important ally, the United States. Europe was the heart of Britain’s world role. This compromise satisfied—just about—the Tory grandees who remembered the influence of the empire, and modernisers on left and right who saw Europe as an alternative to Britain’s outmoded world role.

From the mid-1980s, the bargain strained. Margaret Thatcher twinned a nationalist rhetoric—“our money” back—with deeper economic entanglement, but resisted integration into social and monetary affairs. Members of her front bench, eager to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism to preserve Britain’s influence, ousted her from power. Under pressure, John Major held the consensus, committing Britain to the EU but retaining opt-outs in social policy and from the euro.

The end of the Cold War birthed a new pact: a British accommodation with globalisation. The right appreciated the extension of economic neoliberalism across the continent. The left believed the EU had strength to regulate markets and grant rights to workers. EU enlargement had always been a British goal, for many Conservatives a way to weaken supranationalism; for many liberals the EU’s most successful foreign policy. All EU citizens should be able to go anywhere, to see and do anything. Travel, cultural mixing, freedom of speech and economic opportunity gave the EU an unrivalled power of attraction.

Why then, did Britain vote to leave? The backdrop was the challenge of international terrorism and the financial crash. But this was a British moment, and the answer to the question of Brexit is the referendum campaign. Leave’s victory was gifted by grave misjudgements of a prime minister who did not give due weight to the possibility he might lose. It exposed a crisis of Britain’s identity, both of Britain-in-the-world, and, of British society at home.

Britain’s role in the world, punching above its weight, acting as a force for the good, has not recovered from the fallout of the Iraq war. Iraq was unpopular because Tony Blair flew too close to the US, and was cavalier with international law. With Iraq, went Blair’s desire to seat Britain at the heart of Europe. Subsequently, British leaders have havered over Britain’s identity in world politics: leading but overblown in Libya; uncertain, late and weakened in Syria. Without a clear sense of what Britain is for in world politics, the bloodless soul of economically-conceived national interest has risen to the fore.

British politicians have struggled too to create a vision of British society that convinces. People make their living in ways that did not exist before the 1980s—IT consultants, web designers, online betting managers, call centre workers—jobs that might be lucrative but also precarious, and that do not so obviously fit into a national narrative. And in the smartphone age, people look increasingly to their own experience, their individual lot, to understand global and national trends.

That is not to say that politics has served the population well. After the 2008 crash, the already gaping differential in incomes between society’s top and the bottom widened, and the divisions of a property-owning democracy sharpened. Real incomes have stagnated, affecting below-average earners hard.

Consequently, people “left-behind” by globalisation, often depicted as northern communities unadjusted to de-industrialisation, were proportionately more likely to vote to leave. But, by themselves, the “left-behinders” do not explain Brexit. There are too few people in the lowest social categories to have won departure on their own.

The interesting discontents are among the expanded middle classes. Partly, Brexit was supported by older voters—numerous and ballot-box conscious—who remembered Britain in the 1950s. It could be seen as the vote of reasonably affluent, often conservative, rural or small town dwellers, protesting about the unseemly freedoms enjoyed by the nation’s youth.

At the same time, it was a vote against asset wealth and the sense that, through housing, some people have grown unfairly rich. People voted to dent the wealth of London homeowners. But they voted too to preserve their own inheritance, if they have it, in housing; and to have a home of their own.

Across social categories, people voted leave: financiers who no more thought that politics could shape their worlds, manufacturers, business-people, teachers, shop-keepers who thought life would improve outside. Brexit seemed to be a vote of people who suddenly believed they could have it all, and who, rather than living on the cusp of survival, had forgotten that the veneer of Europe’s civilisation has in the past been perilously thin.

The Leave campaign successfully made departure the route to a better Britain, although not, necessarily, to a fairer society. The heavyweight leave campaigners did not promote a radically new vision. Their arguments were born of party protest. Britain, they decreed, would be—well, just more British—outside the EU. Their arguments counted because Britain’s economy has performed relatively better than some, and because of the poor EU handling, first of Greece, then of the political and human catastrophe on Europe’s shores.

And the Remain camp failed in a way pro-Europeans had never failed before. They failed to separate the hard, sometimes racist and mendacious Eurosceptic pulse from the Conservative protest, and failed to distinguish Conservative protest from the most numerous moderate voice that might not love Europe, but that had been satisfied enough with the status quo.

The key, of course, to Remain’s defeat was immigration. For the first time, a determined politician—Ukip’s leader Nigel Farage—could flaunt his proof that the EU had a pernicious effect, not just in one sector (hill farming, say, or fisheries) but in an issue entwined with every aspect of national life, and which chimed with a visceral sense of patriotism. The importance of immigration was not so much immigrants, but the common sense demonstration that the EU was bad for Britain because it meant, in these uncertain times of austerity and mass migration that Britain did not have “control.”

It all suggests a country unable to discard the languages of its past—the superiority of its empire and wartime experience, the certainty of its society clearly divided by class—as it accommodated to the future. It shows a country not sufficiently able to convince that through the EU, Britain could best have both the past and the future, even when times were bad.

Now, politics on left and right seem trapped by their activists. The great assumption of parliament in the democratic age—that parliamentarians represent all their constituents, not just their most vocal—could be lost.

The Eurosceptics, therefore, have to step up to their victory. Even the senior Brexit-possessed are still behaving like coyotes who have stolen the jam, afraid of nameless snatchers of their spoils. It shows how much the campaign created and consolidated the divisions it was supposed to end. But this is the Eurosceptics’ moment.

They have to show how this country can make this transition without eroding the elements—parliamentary sovereignty, economic prosperity, the integrity of the union, stability, openness and influence—serious Eurosceptics claimed to hold dear. To do so, they must confess to the depth of Britain’s entanglement with the EU, and thus to the uncertainty of the future. From the sound of great exit and the silence of strategic vacuum, they must orchestrate a narrow extraction.

This article was awarded the Hennessy prize for essay writing on British politics by the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London. @MileEndInst