So, farewell then, EU. Well, sort of. Almost four years ago, on the eve of the 2016 referendum , I wrote about why, whatever the result, the underlying issues would not be addressed:
But, if the world will not end for Britain, neither will the key issues at the heart of the Brexit debate have been resolved – or even properly addressed. Hostility to the EU, not just in Britain, but throughout Europe, has been driven by frustrations about democracy and resentment about immigration. The Remain campaign, recognizing that it has few answers, has largely avoided both issues, focusing almost entirely on economic arguments. Leave campaigners have been equally opportunistic in the way they have addressed questions of democracy and immigration…
Neither side in the debate has been willing properly to consider the real issues at the heart of the Brexit debate. Remain campaigners have largely sidestepped concerns about democracy…
Leave supporters, on the other hand, have not so much addressed issues of democracy and immigration as exploited them in an opportunistic, and often reactionary, fashion. In reducing the problem of democracy to the bureaucratic structures of the EU, they have ignored the broader shifts in politics and the economy that have left large sections of the electorate feeling politically voiceless, and which will not be addressed simply by leaving the EU. In conflating democracy and national sovereignty, and promoting border controls as the key expression of sovereignty, they have advanced a narrow, divisive notion of democracy.
Whatever the result on Thursday, neither popular disaffection with mainstream political institutions, nor the sense among large sections of the electorate of being politically voiceless, is likely to subside. Nor will it until we begin to address directly the reasons for that disaffection.
More than three years on, that argument still holds. And it will do so after 1 January 2021 when the transition period will (probably) end. So, to mark Brexit (or, at least, its latest stage), not a new article, but some of my previous ones from the past three and a half years that set out the some of the arguments and debates that we should have had.
Britain, Europe and the real crisis
29 June 2016
A key slogan of the Leave campaign was ‘Take back control’. It was often derided as hollow and meaningless by Remain supporters. For many sections of working class voters, however, whose world seemed to have been turned upside down by forces they could not shape, it was a sentiment that resonated deeply. ‘One of the biggest failures’ of contemporary mainstream political parties, the American philosopher Michael Sandel recently observed, ‘has been the failure to take seriously and to speak directly to people’s aspiration to feel that they have some meaningful say in shaping the forces that govern their lives’.
In 1950s Britain, manual workers accounted for 70 per cent of the male workforce in Britain. Nearly ten million people belonged to trade unions. The Labour Party had strong links to the working class. The so-called ‘postwar consensus’ – the cross-party acceptance of Keynesian economics, the public ownership of industries and services, and the welfare state – allowed union leaders to influence government policy. All this helped incubate in working class communities a sense of identity and solidarity, and fostered a belief that ordinary people could shape the political process.
All that is no more. The postwar consensus was shattered in the Thatcher years through the entrenchment of free market policies. Britain’s manufacturing industry has all but disappeared. Public services have been savaged, and austerity imposed. Trade unions have been neutered. The Labour party has cut most of its roots to its traditional working class base. Society has become much more atomized and more riven by identity politics. The world seems much more precarious. The forms of social organization that once gave working class lives identity, solidarity, indeed dignity, have disappeared…
The reasons for the marginalization of the working class have been economic and political. But many have come to see it primarily as a cultural loss. As people have become disenchanted with politics, and as class-based politics in particular has become deprecated, so the language of culture has become increasingly important as the means through to make sense of society and social relations. The same social and economic changes that have led to the marginalization of sections of the working class have also made it far more difficult to view that marginalization in political terms.
As economic and political change is perceived as cultural loss, so those regarded as culturally different come to be viewed as threats. ‘Taking back control’ has become translated into a desire to protect borders, defend national culture and keep out immigrants. The failure of the left to address properly either the democratic deficit, both at home and at the European level, or the sense of social dislocation felt by many sections of working class, has meant that a progressive desire, within many working class communities, for a democratic voice has become intertwined with regressive arguments about immigration, nationalism and protectionism. Feeling abandoned by the left, many traditional working class voters have abandoned the ideals of the left, looking instead to populist politics as a means of regaining a voice, of seemingly taking back a modicum of control.
And yet, in the wake of the referendum vote, rather than address the fundamental reasons for popular discontent, those on the other side of the political faultline have responded with same kinds of attitudes that led so many to vote Brexit in the first place. Supporters of the Remain camp have raged against the ‘idiots’ and ‘racists’ easily swayed by xenophobia and lies. Many have demanded a second referendum to overturn the result of the first. They have urged MPs – the majority of whom support British membership of the EU – to block any moves towards Brexit in the best interest of voters who know no better. They have, in other words, treated the working class, and the democratic process, with the same contempt that first created the chasm between the political elite and large sections of the electorate.
‘I want my country back’
27 October 2016
‘I don’t recognize my country’. ‘I want my country back’. These have for many years been the sentiments of those opposed to immigration into Britain. Immigrants, so the critics claim, have taken over ‘our’ country, turning cities into mini-Kingstons or little Lahores, creating, in the words of David Goodhart, former director of the centre-left think tank Demos, ‘an England that is increasingly full of mysterious and unfamiliar worlds’. Or, as the Oxford University demographer David Coleman, a vocal opponent of mass migration, put it when I interviewed him for a BBC radio documentary a decade ago, ‘Many of our major cities are more like foreign countries than those of the ordinary English domestic scene’.
It was also a theme at the heart of the Leave campaign during the EU referendum. For many Leavers, ‘Take back control’, one of the key slogans of the anti-EU campaign, became translated into a desire to protect borders, defend national culture and keep out immigrants.
Since the EU Referendum on 23 June, however, it is not opponents of immigration but supporters of the EU who have been claiming not to ‘recognize my country’ and demanding ‘I want my country back’. Aghast at the victory of the Leave campaign, they have suddenly found themselves, as they see it, in a nation full of xenophobes, bigots and ignoramuses. Ironic the phrase may be for some, but it also expresses a profound sense among many Remainers that England isn’t England anymore since 23 June.
I have over many years fiercely challenged hostility to immigration. Indeed, my previous post on Pandaemonium was ‘In defence of freedom of movement’ – and not just within the EU. But if the ‘I want my country back’ cry of those hostile to immigration is troubling, so, too, is that of the Remainers. Both groups have a fixed notion of what ‘their’ country consists, and insist that those who don’t conform to that vision do not truly belong.
Britain did not become a different country on 24 June. It did not overnight get taken over by xenophobes and racists and the ignorant. Rather people, and views, that many liberals, and many within the elite, were able previously to ignore, they no longer could.
Populism and immigration
5 October 2017
The forms of social organization that once gave working class lives identity, solidarity, indeed dignity, have disappeared. Much the same developments can be seen in many other European nations. ‘One of the biggest failures’ of contemporary mainstream political parties, the American philosopher Michael Sandel has observed, ‘has been the failure to take seriously and to speak directly to people’s aspiration to feel that they have some meaningful say in shaping the forces that govern their lives’.
The result has been the creation of what many commentators in Britain call the ‘left behind’ working class. In France, there has been much talk of ‘peripheral France’, a phrase coined by the social geographer Christophe Guilluy to describe people ‘pushed out by the deindustrialization and gentrification of the urban centers’, who ‘live away from the economic and decision-making centers in a state of social and cultural non-integration’ and have come to ‘feel excluded’. Both these terms are, in my view, problematic, but both also give a sense of the social, political and existential changes that have been wrought.
Immigration has played almost no part in fostering the changes that have left so many feeling disaffected. Immigrants are not responsible for the weakening of the labour movement, or the transformation of social democratic parties, or the imposition of austerity policies. Immigration has, however, come to be a means through which many perceive these changes.
The so-called ‘left behind’ have been left behind largely because of economic and political changes. But they have come to see their marginalization primarily as a cultural loss. In part, the same social and economic changes that have led to the marginalization of the ‘left behind’ have also made it far more difficult to view that marginalization in political terms. The very decline of the economic and political power of the working class and the weakening of labour organizations and social democratic parties, have helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems. And as culture has become the medium through which social issues are refracted, so the ‘left behind’ have also come to see their problems in cultural terms. They, too, have turned to the language of identity to express their discontent.
Through this process, the meaning of solidarity has transformed. Politically, the sense of belonging to a group or collective has historically been expressed in two broad forms: through the politics of identity and through the politics of solidarity. The former stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture. The latter draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal. Where the politics of identity divides, the politics of solidarity finds collective purpose across the fissures of race or gender, sexuality or religion, culture or nation. But it is the politics of solidarity that has crumbled over the past two decades as social movements have eroded. For many today, the only form of collective politics that seem possible is that rooted in identity.
Too polarised? Or not enough?
24 December 2017
Nations today seem divided down the middle on critical issues – whether Catalonia over independence, Britain over Brexit or America over Donald Trump. This is not just a western phenomenon. A week ago, Cyril Ramaphosa won the election for the ANC leadership by the narrowest of margins – 2,440 votes to his opponent Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s 2,261. Earlier this year, the referendum called by the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan , to extend his powers approved the measures by 51% to 49%. Every electorate seems divided and uncertain.
Many see in such polarised nations societies that no longer possess a sense of common values and so have little material with which to bind themselves together. The consequences, many fear, are more unstable societies with governments that lack authority among large sections of the electorate and a political system open to exploitation by extremists, especially far-right extremists.
From a historical perspective, though, contemporary polarisation does not seem particularly acute. Go back a generation. Is Britain more polarised now than it was in 1984, at the height of the miners’ strike? Today, newspapers might describe judges, of whose decisions they disapprove, as ‘enemies of the people’. Then, it was government ministers who called striking miners ‘the enemy within’. The full force of the state – from the police to propaganda – was mobilised to crush the strike, leading to mass invasions of mining communities, bloody confrontations, as at Orgreave, tens of thousands arrested and a Britain far more divided and embittered than it is today.
Or, as fractious as America is today under Trump, is the nation more divided than it was in the mid-1960s, when its major cities were in flames as black protesters confronted a deeply racist state, and when anti-Vietnam protests so inflamed the authorities that National Guardsmen gunned down student protesters at Kent State University?
It is a myth to imagine that societies in the past had an undisputed vision of the common good that bound them together. Societies have always been fractured and fractious and values always contested. What is different today lies not in the way we look at our commonalities, but in the way we look upon our differences…
Social divides today seem more intractable because they have become disconnected from social movements. Symbolism has come to take the place of real change. And there is the irony: it is not that societies are too polarised, but that they are not polarised enough. Societies have become divided, but without the possibility of real social change.
Elite racism and the working class as alibi
23 April 2018
Today, race is far less salient in defining elite identity. Indeed, it is difficult to talk of ‘elite identity’ in the singular and populists often deride the mainstream political elite as too ‘cosmopolitan’. Nevertheless, immigration retains its symbolic role in politics, being both emblematic of, and an explanation for, unacceptable social change. Control of immigration – and of immigrants – remains a means by which politicians seek to demonstrate that they are ‘in control’.
And the working class continues to provide an alibi behind which the elite can hide its own prejudices and failures. ‘We are only responding to popular concerns,’ claim politicians every time a more coercive policy is introduced.
Popular concerns are, however, only a response to politicised panics about immigration. They stem largely from the way that politicians frame the issue; for instance, blaming ‘benefit scroungers’ or ‘health tourists’ for Britain’s social problems. Theresa May’s creation of a ‘hostile environment’ was an attempt to give the impression both of a nation under siege from fraudsters and of a government taking firm action against them.
External controls inevitably entail internal controls. The tighter the external controls, the more coercive the internal controls. And, inescapably, more and more sections of the population become treated with suspicion and their rights trampled upon. Hence the Windrush scandal.
Certainly, many within the working class are hostile to ‘uncontrolled’ immigration and often blame immigrants for wage cuts or housing shortages. But most are also driven by a sense of fairness and equity. Which is why, even though they may be hostile to immigration in the abstract, many also want just treatment for migrant groups in practice, whether those groups be EU citizens or the Windrush generation.
Many politicians, on the other hand, may pay lip service to liberal values, but too often care little for fairness or equity, whether for migrants or for the working class. Until the public pressure got too great, Theresa May and Amber Rudd were happy to ignore the evidence of gross injustice towards the Windrush generation. That is not an aberration. That is how the elite has always acted. That is how the system has always worked.
Who will give shape to disaffection?
12 October 2018
Yet, it’s not populist disaffection that is unreasonable, but the policies and institutions that have created that disaffection. Policies that have driven up inequality and driven down living standards. Institutions that have excluded people from the process of decision-making. There has been much talk of ‘out of touch’ politicians. Little expresses that out-of-touchness more than the fact that for almost a decade politicians have spent more energy worrying about populism than about the policies that have nurtured disaffection. Macron has been derided for behaving like a king; contempt for ordinary folk is visible, however, in much of the debate about populism.
A key question often raised is whether disaffection is driven primarily by economic or by cultural factors. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ has increasingly been replaced by ‘It’s culture wot matters’. Disaffection, many argue, is the result of a sense of cultural loss, primarily as a result of immigration.
The French protests show, though, that the relationship between the economic and the cultural is more complicated. The immediate cause of the protests was economic – fuel tax rises. It was one expression of the anger at the erosion of working-class living standards endured across Europe. What worries people, though, is not just stagnating wages or cuts to public services, but also their loss of power in influencing policies that shape their lives. Material hardship is viewed through the prism of political voicelessness…
The question we need to ask is not, ‘How should we create a centrist bulwark against populism?’, but ‘How can we give progressive shape to people’s disaffection?’ Otherwise the left will either remain standing on the sidelines, allowing the radical right to take centre stage, or be driven, as has already happened, to promote illiberal notions of immigration, culture and belonging. Whatever the fate of the gilets jaunes, this wider issue – who will give shape to disaffection? – has still to be addressed.