The Mourning After: A British expat’s post-Brexit blues

27678701211_6125a9b158_bEveryone deserves their ‘I told you so’ moment, and I don’t intend to deny myself mine. Back in the early 1990s, with the UK’s European future a matter of often angry debate both between and within political traditions, I argued against further integration on the basis that it was undemocratic and, in the long run, unworkable. The great majority of progressive opinion, and hence my friends, were in favour of the EU; but on the left of the left, the feeling was different. For political figures like Tony Benn – a pipe-smoking radical with a large and loyal following – it was clear that a democratic deficit was built in to the European project: the executive had far too much power and the legislature hardly any at all. Moreover, the EU was a rich boys’ club that would enforce a broadly neoliberal program, stiffing the poorer countries in the process. It was bound, and indeed deserved, to fail. No doubt I made these arguments from a position of almost total ignorance, and in the infuriating tones in which earnest left-wingers in their early twenties specialise. But make them I did. So: I told you so.

Like many, however, I derive little joy from the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the union to which it has been linked, one way and another, since the early 1970s. Yes, Brexit was a poke in the eye for a smug and disconnected political class. Yes, it was thrilling to see economic ‘experts’ put in their place by a resurgent demos that feels (rightly) that it has been taken for granted. Yes, it was inspiring to witness the representative principle reassert itself over technocracy. But still I feel deflated. Why?

Part of it has to do, of course, with the terms in which the case was made. Both sides in the debate were guilty of fear-mongering, but the Leave side’s fear-mongering was of a different order, morally and intellectually, than the spurious economic arguments mounted by the Remain campaign. Tapping in to popular resentment about large-scale immigration into the UK, it stoked the kind of downward envy that is now all too common on the European continent. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) unveiled a poster one week before the vote that depicted a great throng of refugees (all of them on the dusky side, mark you) and the capitalised slogan ‘Breaking Point’ – a sentiment redolent of Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, and even of the 1964 General Election, in which certain Tories in the British West Midlands sought to advertise their hard stance on immigration with the imperishable, and imperishably disgusting, couplet, ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour’. It’s possible to overstate this phenomenon: I’m sure the great majority of Leave voters are perfectly respectable folk. But there is no doubt at all that the Leave campaign came served with steaming dollops of John Bullshit.

That such a case could be made in the twenty-first century gives the lie to the argument, much favoured by the Remain campaign, that the EU is all about securing ‘peace’. Talking on US television, Global Justice Now’s Alex Scrivener suggested that it was thanks to the EU that the European continent had remained free of conflict since the end of the Second World War, a comment that managed not only to downplay the EU’s failures with regard to the former Yugoslavia but that also managed to suggest that the EU bears no responsibility for the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece, of Jobbik in Hungary, of the PVV in Denmark or of the Freedom Party in Austria, to name only a few examples of the fascist and quasi-fascist elements now cluttering up the political scene. The recrudescence of European nationalism is not happening in spite of Europe’s failures. It is happening, to a large extent, because of them. In the minds of many liberals and progressives, the EU is a sort of coalition of the broad-minded: a bulwark against the Little England-ism of UKIP and its analogues on the European mainland. In reality, however, there is a deep connection between the austerity policies pursued by the troika and the most recent visitations from the far right.

As for the hard left, its position on Europe is split (was split) between three positions: Remain and Reform (former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis; British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn), Remain and Get Out at a Later Date (Paul Mason, author of the brilliant Postcapitalism) and Get Out Now (the Socialist Workers Party, who set up Lexit in order to distinguish its position from the rightwing populism of UKIP etc.). But while these factions differed in emphasis, their essential case against the EU was the same: in both formal and socio-economic terms, the EU is anti-democratic. Having emerged from a cartel of heavy industry and (later) agriculture, it takes an essentially technocratic view of economic management, and all of its major institutions – from the European Central Bank to the European Commission – reflect that fact. The Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, two years after the fall of communism, and the architects of the modern EU were steeped in the economic fatalism of the time – in the sense that liberal capitalism really was history’s final word. The supranational beast they created was designed to prioritise price stability and austerity over economic justice and to come down hard on governments with the temerity to take an alternative course. Hence the contempt for the Greek electorate’s decision to reject the austerity package offered to them in 2015. The UK is not, and never was, a member of the Eurozone. But if a Corbyn-led Labour Party had come to power two years after a vote to remain, it would have had to implement much of its program in defiance of EU treaties. The Social Chapter was always a fig leaf on naked economic ‘rationalism’.

The sadness, then, is very close to the feeling with which certain sections of the left regarded Margaret Thatcher’s assault on the British establishment: it is the feeling that it could have been, should have been us that brought the inevitable crisis to a head and pushed forward with a different ethos. Brexit is a hinge event in UK politics, and it is the right, once again, that has kicked the door open. The results may well prove catastrophic.

To think what Europe could have been is to drive this sadness even deeper. One vision is put forward in the manifesto of Varoufakis’ DiEM25, which agitates for a decentralised, pluralist, internationalist, imaginative, modern and sustainable Europe – an alternative engine of globalisation run on solidarity and an awareness of the transforming power – for democracy and economics – of new technologies. The best things about the European Union – the free movement of peoples across national borders; the soothing of ancient animosities in countries such as Ireland and Spain; the dedication to human rights – afford glimpses of that other Europe. They should have been the paradigm. In fact they were peripheral.

I read today that the Brexit vote was ‘a proxy vote against neoliberalism’. The author meant it as a note of hope: take heart, for within every spasm of reaction lies the live nerve of a revolution! But ‘proxy vote’ is a term that elides some very uncomfortable truths. As I write this, UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage is gloating loudly on the floor of the European Parliament. Magnanimity, it appears, is not in his makeup. And while other Leavers will display more grace, the situation is what it is: the British, or at any rate the English, are departing the European scene, not in the spirit of anti-austerity, but under the red, white and blue of the Union Jack. There is now a lot of work to do – within Labour and on the left more broadly – to ensure that the route by which we got to this point does not determine the road ahead.