The current state of the British political project.

There is a fundamental (and fairly obvious) flaw at the centre of the Brexit campaign.

What was supposed to be striving for sovereignty has found little support from the political class that would exercise and presumably benefit from it. This is especially true for its leadership, with the leaders of all the main UK political parties, except UKIP, preferring to submit to the diktats of the EU.

In reality, of course, the issue of sovereignty is bogus. The referendum itself is an act of sovereignty. Westminster could decide tomorrow to leave if it wanted to. The bureaucracy in Brussels is a product of the bureaucratisation that is occurring in politics across the developed world, but in Europe finds its home in Brussels. The European national political classes submit to the bureaucracy they themselves created, making it the embryo of a ‘super-state’ in the truest sense of the word.

The relationship between the national European governments and the EU was (or should have been) made clear last year with Greece. The opposition to the austerity imposed by Brussels did not translate to opposition to the EU itself. However, much the EU is disliked, it is still preferred to what is seen as the corrupt national political class. Syriza could overturn its mandate to resist austerity several times, including the No referendum in July, because it could also pitch itself against the old parties, but just try to get a better deal from Brussels.

This was confusing to northern Europe since there the anti-political mood tends to lump national politicians and the EU together, especially on the issue of immigration. UKIP has arisen from dissatisfaction with both sides of politics (especially Conservatives) but is now making inroads into Labour as well. What is confusing in the UK, however, is that in the Brexit campaign this dissatisfaction with politicians is being led by something else entirely.

Signs of the bureaucratisation in UK politics were already starting to appear in the last EU referendum in 1975. Then it was the Labour party that was more split like the Conservatives are now. With the EU being seen more as a pro-market option, heartily supported by the Conservatives under their leader of the time, Margaret Thatcher, opposition from Labour tended to be more from the left wing of the party with closer ties to the unions.

Several of the leading pro-EU Labourites were to lead the split in Labour a few years later, helping to form the SDP in the early 1980s. While the SDP later submerged into the Liberals, the rest of Labour was soon to follow. While Labour, and the unions they represented, suffered defeat after defeat in the 1980s, the EU bureaucracy became an inviting haven for politicians with nowhere else to go.

By the time it returned to power under Blair in 1997, Labour was fully pro EU and former leaders like Neil Kinnock (and family) were finding their careers as EU MEPs and technocrats. The echoes of this still linger on in Labour’s current debasing strategy to argue that if Britain left the EU, basic workers’ rights would be lost, a fairly open admission that Labour is now incapable of defending them in the national political arena.

To some extent, the EU has played a similar role for the Conservatives. The defeat of Old Labour and the unions, and the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, left Thatcher’s Conservatives with nothing to be against (although she did try with the spectre of global warming). The EU became a touchstone for Conservatives struggling with their identity as it had for Labour. But while Labour’s discussions around the EU were largely internally focussed, the Conservatives wrangles over Europe have not only been about their role, but Britain’s role in the world as well.

For decades, British foreign policy had been centred around Churchill’s “three spheres of influence”: Europe, the Empire/Commonwealth, and the transatlantic relationship with the US. The argument made by the Eurosceptics was that being drawn into the European project came at the expense of Britain’s relationship with the Commonwealth and the US – so giving away Britain’s unique position in the world.

In reality the spheres of influence was more about dressing up British decline than a real policy. By pretending to be Jack of all trades, it allowed Britain to avoid recognising it was master of none. By maintaining a delicate balance, it allowed the Conservatives to avoid the political consequences of erosion of influence in all spheres.

Cameron called the referendum in order to flush out the Eurosceptics that brought down the last Conservative government under John Major 20 years ago. But in doing so, has also flushed out and damaged the broader political project the Conservatives had presented to themselves for the last 70 years. The weakness of that project has been exposed by the inability of the Brexiters to put forward any coherent vision of what Britain outside the EU would look like.

The biggest blow came with the intervention of US President Obama last month. His comment that Britain leaving the EU would “go to the back of the queue” in any trade deal was largely seen in terms of the damage it did to the Brexiters’ economic argument. But the real damage was political. It not only exposed the emptiness of the special relationship, which Obama reduced to being about “friends telling friends like it really is”, but also undermined Britain’s case for special treatment in the EU based on its unique transatlantic ties. To rub it in, Obama then went off to visit the US’s real partner in Europe, Germany, and praise its immigration policy.

Boris Johnson’s remark that Obama bore a grudge against the British Empire because of his half-Kenyan ancestry was a remark pitched at the Conservatives MPs – which is basically what his Brexit campaign is. For others, however, without a coherent national political project to put across, they have had to increasingly resort to playing the lowest national card there is, anti-immigrant. In this, the official Leave campaign, run mostly by Eurosceptic Conservatives, increasingly resembles the UKIP dominated Leave.EU campaign.

This appeal to the “great unwashed” (a term still casually used in British political discussion in a way unthinkable in Australia or the US) is making the Eurosceptic Conservatives increasingly uncomfortable. It not only has forced them to make unconvincing promises to use money given to the EU to fund the NHS, but raised the question of governance as they are drawn closer to a party described by Cameron as “mad, swivel-eyed loons”.

This strange collusion between a political project of Conservative elites with an anti-politics mood elsewhere bear some similarities to the dynamics of the Scottish independence campaign last year. There, a cause that had historically been a concern of more middle class rural voters in the north and west of Scotland, suddenly caused panic when it was taken up by what were traditionally more unionist working class voters in the cities that saw it as a way to kick Westminster. This led to a rushed scare campaign on the economic cost of independence (the Bank of England warning that Scotland would leave the pound was especially effective) and the middle class vote came back to save the day.

A similar campaign is underway now by the Remain campaign to frighten the more Eurosceptic traditional Conservative voters in England on the economic consequences of leaving, and the polls suggest it’s starting to work. There has been talk that in the increasingly likely event of a win for Remain that this will not be the end of it, and the Eurosceptic Conservatives will continue to make trouble for Cameron. Maybe. More likely though is that the Conservatives will be grateful to Cameron to allow them to forget the whole ghastly business.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 24 May 2016.

Filed under International relations

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7 responses to “The confusions of anti-politics: Brexit”

  1. Mitchell Porter on 25th May 2016 3:54 pm

    “the lowest national card there is, anti-immigrant”

    Wake up. The political transformation roiling the European Union and the United States is *all about* opposing the national transformations brought on by uncontrolled mass immigration.

  2. Michael on 26th May 2016 1:12 pm

    “The political transformation roiling the European Union and the United States is *all about* opposing the national transformations brought on by uncontrolled mass immigration.”

    Is it really about that – or has opposition to migration become proxy for economic and political disenfranchisement of the working class in the face of globalised capital? It seems there is no longer a politics that can both articulate these fears and appeal to a mainstream populace.

  3. Dianne on 27th May 2016 8:38 am

    Interesting piece Shrike. I was particularly struck by your observation that there are fears that workers’ rights would be lost if Britain left the EU. Indeed that is a stark recognition that British Labour can no longer be the workers’ party.

    The major parties of established democracies both here and abroad seem to be thrashing about in battle not recognizing that they are dinosaurs whose days are numbered.

    In his piece today, Waleed Aly claimed that even if the two established parties in Austria had combined their votes, they would only have come third behind the ex-Green who won and Hofer.

    Is it any wonder?

    We have long been told that a healthy democracy requires a prosperous middle-class. The middle and working classes have been squeezed by the forces of globalization and technological change. People are either working longer hours for less money or are employed part-time or casually for fewer hours than required.

    Those who have benefitted from globalization and its attendant servants, privatization and de-regulation, are doing very nicely indeed.

    It is a pretty stark contrast. No wonder voters are antsy.

    And no wonder politicians hurl abuse at one another.

    They have nothing left in their kit bags to sell us except more of the same.

    And the media, with notable exceptions, plays the same game, describing tactics, exulting in ‘gotcha moments’, taking yawn-inducing pictures of politicians kissing babies and high-fiving teenagers or wearing high viz and hard hats and Akubras for the regions. At least we have been spared the speedos.

    And while I am feeling irritated …. is there another country in the world where a candidate has to literally run for office? At least Shorten does not appear on camera as Hewson did, shaking the sweat from his hair
    like a spaniel after a dip in the dam.

  4. F on 27th May 2016 9:31 am

    “Wake up. The political transformation roiling the European Union and the United States is *all about* opposing the national transformations brought on by uncontrolled mass immigration.”

    Well yes and no. Objection to uncontrolled immigration is just one of the few ways European voters have to object to a political elite that is almost completely unresponsive to electoral pressure.

  5. Dianne on 27th May 2016 10:28 am

    Re: asylum seekers

    I find it frustrating that we cannot have a measured, productive debate about this issue,including numbers, without it being shrouded in fear and prejudice.

    It is utterly sickening to me that certain politicians use the plight of these poor people for their political advantage.

    It seems to intensify every election.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 27th May 2016 5:13 pm

    The issue of immigration is not straightforward even on its own terms. The majority of immigration coming into Britain is non-EU, which Britain is supposed to have total control over. If Brexiters in the government, say, are concerned about immigration why haven’t they already done something about that? Even Farage has indicated that he is open to non EU (especially Commonwealth) immigration rising.

    The reality is that even to many of the politicians who bang on about immigration, it is secondary to the more political project of sovereignty, national identity etc. that is their primary concern. When I say anti-immigrant is the lowest form of it, it is less a value judgement than just saying it is the last resort when they have singularly failed to project a positive coherent national political project.

    As for working class voters, I think the real “confusion” as in the title is sorting out what is coming from above and what from below. Disenchantment and detachment from the political system in the UK is hardly new. It relates to a lot more than immigration.

    But it has been able to be ignored. The Labour party has spent years bureaucratising and finding its future in the EU bureaucracy with little problem, and helped during the Blair years by the weakness of the Conservatives.

    What is new is that the break up of the political system has meant that figures like Farage and Trump have been prepared to make use of this disenchantment for their own political ends. But they have no answer to that disenchantment, and certainly Farage/UKIP, which represents a break up of the Conservatives, can in no way reforge the type of relationship lost by Labour.

    It is why ultimately these political break ups lose momentum if they’re not clear that their populism is not much more than a bargaining chip with the political class. It also means that turnout of working class voters may still continue to be low, the best chance the Remain campaign has got.

  7. Mercurial on 8th June 2016 4:33 pm

    Where is the evidence that mass immigration is detrimental to the economies of Western nations? I certainly haven’t seen any other than the scaremongering of “mad, swivel-eyed loons” of the far right.

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