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My Very Own Little post-Brexit Brexit

my brexit
Written by Robert Colls

The author of Identity of England reflects on what is really going in inside our heads as well as inside our politics. How can a democracy negotiate with a bureaucracy? What does a country do when many of its intellectuals would prefer not to be part of it? In the long run, either the British nation state will continue to falter in the face of its old liberal elite who want the world, or the European Union will falter in the face of its own electorates who want to be heard. In my very own post-Brexit Brexit, I ask, who will falter first?

As we hurtle towards a political crisis that threatens to dig up our most difficult constitutional question – what do we do when parliament doesn’t know how to express the national will? – I have to keep reminding myself why I voted Leave.  Only one close friend went my way, our oldest friend did not spare the rod over that, and one of my best friends sent me a poem he wrote on Armistice Day: they did not leave, and neither should we.  Two brilliant neighbours went on the London march.  Unless they are keeping schtum, all my academic colleagues are Remainers.  Universities have been teaching remainer Internationalism for years: any sort of history emphasizing the unity and continuity of the British state is a rare species only to be found in protected educational habitats.  My daily newspaper, once a source of intelligent record and sceptical opinion seems, quite literally, to have lost its mind.  It now prints anything inimical to Brexit while its economics editor seems to have been banished to some sort of office Gulag. My 24/7 mainstays, BBC, ITN and Channel Four news are all predisposed to Remain.  Last month my trio of European barbers threatened me with a Christmas Haircut (“it’ll be alright by Christmas”) unless I changed my mind.  Everybody is looking for concessions from the other side but I’m looking for concessions from me.  What have I not understood that I should have understood?  What have I missed?  Why have I got no friends or barbers?

Then there’s the negotiations: for two years we’ve been like a country trying to look normal with a knife sticking out of its chest.  Who is to blame?  The EU is very clear.  You stabbed yourself, it says.  Nothing to do with us.  Get over it.  But having read Mr Varoufakis’ Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment, getting over it is clearly a one-sided piece of advice.  The hapless Greek finance minister never knew where he was with the EU negotiators.  Under EU rubric, negotiations proceed slowly, process before substance, but whose interests does this most serve?  The British government, who are racing against the clock, or the EU Commission, which controls the agenda and has all the time in the world?  It is I suppose a sign of our political vigour that Westminster makes a fearful noise, but you can see Mrs May’s problem.  She is the plaintiff while M. Barnier sits en banc.

Of course we can’t know how the negotiations have gone unless we’ve been there, and the nearest we get to being there is on television.  But in truth, Mrs May doesn’t do well on camera.  I admire her fortitude, but she comes across as the head of an independent day school looking for a good deal for the new 6th form coffee bar.  While the governing body fight over everything, from the terms of the loan to the cost of the coffee, Mr Corbyn, head of geography, sits in the cupboard plotting his promotion.

I don’t think Labour has played straight or taken its chances.  Corbyn and McDonnell have been anti-Brussels all their lives.  One would have thought that their natural position would have been to build the platform for a left-patriot social democratic Brexit.  Instead, their position runs along all the options in the hope that the ripe fruit of a defeated government will fall into a general election before they are hit on the head by their own membership for a second referendum.  Even so, a general election would not be a shoe-in. They have to gain 62 predominantly English seats and this might prove difficult in circumstances where an electorate could be unforgiving of any faction, or coalition, or party, that sank the deal and left the knife in the chest.  But even if Labour won, Corbyn would have to go forward holding in his left hand a wad of socialist promises that are likely to be contrary to EU treaty obligations and therefore non-negotiable (ask Mr Varoufakis), while holding in his right hand, aloft, Mr Starmer’s short fizzing promise that he will be able to cut a better exit in half the time. 

As for a second referendum, Labour Remainers seem to think that Project Fear, EU intransigence and the formidable Mrs Thornberry will be able to enlighten the white van men.  But even if she did learn to love the working class, and they her, what would a vote to Remain yield?  Where would it take us?  Right back in?  Half back in?  More out than in?  And how long would Labour have to settle it in Brussels and the country?  They would be prodigals alright, but could hardly expect a welcome party.  In any case, if a second referendum voted to Remain, Leavers would have every right to ask for the best of three. Fair does innit?

For this is a crisis of democracy before it is a stalled trade deal.  The EU moves forward by law and treaty.  The Commission and the European Central Bank control the major decisions.  Politics are strictly back-room.  There is therefore no means of claiming democratic legitimacy on their side (there is no ‘European People’ to claim it from) and I note that the EU and its supporters have stopped trying to do so, even to the point of facing down their own electorates.  In contrast, for all its faults, the British nation-state still hangs together as a consensual relationship between the political class and the people where the legitimacy of one rests with the legitimacy of the other.  Our crisis of democracy is that we are in serious danger of damaging that relationship.  EU negotiators flatter us that we are a pragmatic people, that we can’t expect to get everything because we are not going to get everything.  But in this case, nothing less than the legitimacy of government is at stake in the UK and the EU because when it comes to representative democracy, the nation-state is the only deal in town.  I tell myself in certain moments that there are no Europhiles left; that nobody in the Remain camp makes a serious case for democracy.  I tell myself in uncertain moments that not enough people in the Leave camp are thinking about how a serious case for democracy has room for Remainers. 

I keep returning to my own negotiations.  Pretty tough going I can tell you. I didn’t ask for a referendum but it was parliament, whose sovereignty I want to restore but which is largely Remain, who gave me the choice.  I didn’t want to support the status quo but nor did I imagine myself left standing at the bus stop with Boris and friends (not that Boris’ friends are all his friends).  Try as I may, I still find it entirely reasonable to want a politics that most people can understand and feel they can share.  Is it so unreasonable to suppose that a social democratic Britain would not sound like the EC, the EP or the ECB?  If you don’t know what these acronyms mean I rest my case and am going to use another one.  Who would argue that leaving the ERM in 1992 and not joining the Euro in 2002 were bad moves?  The big question for Remainers on workers’ rights is, is this low wage, low investment, low skill economy as good as it gets?  The big question for Remainers on the size of the economy is how can we trust long term projections when two year projections were so wrong?  All economic forecasts bar one talk of single digit losses to expected rate of growth over 15 years and are therefore entirely speculative and reductive.  The one exception is the Bank of England’s ‘possibility’ of 8% drop in GDP in the first year which is nothing if not clear. 

On the other hand, is it so unreasonable to suggest that the EU experiment is not going well? that the system is elitist? that mass immigration doesn’t work for everybody? that freedom of movement doesn’t work for everybody? that the Euro is a thumb in the scales for one half of Europe over the other? Markets are internal political constructs surely best left to internal social and economic circumstances?  When did that stop being common sense?  And if as they say free trade is a universal good inside the bloc trading-out, why is it not a universal good outside the bloc trading-in?  I have spent two years negotiating these things in my very own little Brexit and, in all honesty, my only concession is to bewilderment. 

On the Border question I have to admit talks have foundered.  Again, I must be missing something obvious.  What happened to the EU study (Smart Border 2, 2017) that confirmed the technological solution?  What happened to those technology companies and customs people who agreed?  Republicans were as much responsible for imagining the Border as the Unionists.  If Belfast and Dublin say they don’t want a hard border in the future and there isn’t one now, well then, why have one now?  Why does a 300-mile line with at least 200 official crossing points with, shall we say, a ‘loose’ history of actual recognition, present such an insuperable problem? Is there something back-room going on here?  If as Paul Rouse the Irish historian says, you wouldn’t know the Border was there unless you knew it was there, why can’t those who don’t know it is there come and go with normal visa arrangements further on down, or in this case across, the line?  Stalemate on this one, Prof Colls.  Could do better.

Here’s where we walk into something new. Ever since student days I have been aware of the disconnect between the intellectual classes and the common culture of the country.  But of late I have come to the view that intellectuals are not only disconnected, they are habitually not mindful of being British and would, on the whole, vaguely prefer some other arrangement that is less demanding on their liberties and less testing of their loyalties.  I’m not saying that being anti-British is common.  It’s not.  I am saying that Brexit or no Brexit, being British, for intellectuals at least, is an invisible, awkward, historically embarrassing and occasionally painful subject.

There are issues for which trans-nationalism is obviously a useful point of view.  Greens, neo-liberals, global capitalists and maybe even gender activists and socialists of a certain type all tend that way.  We are all trans-national in some things.  The harder part concerns those in the political mainstream who are not honest about their vagueness because to do so would mean annihilation at the polls.  Tristram Hunt is right.  Labour MPs have a problem with Englishness.  Rather than patriotism, they’d rather talk of diversity even though the nation is the most diverse formation on earth.  Rather than representing the nation, they talk of representing their constituents even when their constituents think differently.  Rather than believing in borders, they believe in human rights and reparation.  Sir Gus O’Donnell the former cabinet secretary once said that he thought it was his “job to maximize global welfare, not national welfare” and it occurs to me that it is entirely possible that Remainers would be happier living in a trans-national bureaucracy ruled by judges and commissioners rather than by democratically elected parliaments. 

I’m not sure how well thought out all this is.  That it is not spelt out can be glimpsed in a column in the Guardian (3 Nov 2018) where Ian Jack says ‘Everything Must Go’ in our national past if we are to face the future.  Included in the Great British Closing Down Sale is everything from Steam Engines to Spitfires to Kent (Kent?).  But note, this is not the distinguished columnist talking, it is his anonymous infantile friend who, turning his face to the sunny uplands of a gold-star blue-suited future, sees only sky. 

But the world has moved on from the Treaty of Rome, and in the new political order that is fighting to exist, it’s not national democracies that are the problem but transnational commissions; not back to the far left but back to proper jobs and welfare; not back to populism but forward to majoritarian control of immigration; not something on the right or on the left but moving into a new middle from both directions.  Successions have to exist before they can happen, and this one is fighting to happen.   

I have to report that my negotiations with myself are now in their final stages.  Preferring life without the knife, I cannot support Mrs May’s deal.  Pitching for the middle in defence of parliament is never a bad idea except when it doesn’t defend parliament. As Dicey put it in 1885: “no person or body is recognized by the laws of England as having a right to over-ride or set aside the legislation of parliament”.  Surely one would have thought that the EU could see Mrs May’s problem and put it right?  But no.  Already the Irish, Spanish and French are warming up for the next round, on the Border, on Gibraltar, on fishing rights, on anything indeed that 27 nation-states choose to come up with.  ‘Norway’ and ‘Canada plus’ are touted as alternative deals but the trouble with them is the trouble with the Border: we will be negotiating a domestic constitutional crisis with a politically insensitive foreign bureaucracy. 

Even if Mrs May gets her deal through the Commons, that will not mean a new succession. Either the British nation state will continue to falter in the face of its old liberal elite who want the world, or the European Union will falter in the face of its own electorates who want to be heard.  In my very own post-Brexit Brexit, I ask, who will falter first? 

Robert Colls is Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort Univrsity

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Robert Colls