The French can be cruel.

The French can be cruel.


It was hard not to escape the conclusion from the reaction to the shock Brexit vote that this was an internal Conservative leadership contest that had somehow spun out of control.

What sent it out of control was how an unconvincing elite political project of British sovereignty from high Tories became joined with an anti-elite push from working class voters, especially in the north of England. The problem with that anti-elite push is that it seems to have nowhere to go.

The supreme irony of the Brexit vote was that a result that was supposed to be about the sovereignty of the UK Parliament must now be enacted by said Parliament that has no interest in doing so. It is not just that over three-quarters of UK MPs were for staying in the EU, nor that all parties represented were for staying (except the one UKIP MP), but that all the careful political arrangements set up by the UK political class over the last 50 years have now fallen apart. It is especially damaging to the Conservative and Unionist Party (to give its full name) that is currently in government and called the referendum in the first place.

Take Scotland for example. One of the arguments against Scottish independence in 2014 was that an independent Scotland had nowhere to go, since leaving the UK would mean reapplying to join the EU, and at the time the EU’s answer was no. Countries like Spain were already facing regional separatist movements, and allowing Scotland to separate and re-join would potentially have had a knock-on effect elsewhere. This is no longer valid – or at least as much – and there was the potential for Scotland less to have to re-join than simply to stay where it was and let the rest of the UK leave.

Quite how much the EU would still be open to this is debatable, since the separatist movements remain very real elsewhere (although Scotland is now claiming precedence that allowed the departure of Greenland from the EU while Denmark remained). Certainly if the EU was smart it could indulge Scottish hopes as a bargaining chip against the UK, much as it (rather ineptly) indulged Ukraine nationalism against Russia, only to leave it swinging in the breeze after Crimea.

But it may not even come to that. Part of the management of the separatist tendencies in the UK and the weakening grip of Westminster over the last 20 years has been the devolution of powers to regional assemblies. Along with increased autonomy has been increasing integration of regional assemblies into EU legislation, effectively giving them veto powers over any disentangling from the EU. The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has now indicated she will use that veto. This would suit her position which appears cautious of heading into another referendum so soon – and if that veto is over-ridden would only add to their cause further down the line.

Less tangible, but even more sensitive, is the situation in Ireland. It was a sign of the desperation of the Remain camp in the closing weeks that former Prime Ministers Blair and Major were willing to highlight that Brexit could undermine the Good Friday Accord in Northern Ireland. Built on the back of the military defeat of the IRA, the Agreement of 1998 allowed nominal power sharing of its political wing, Sinn Fein, and nominal Irish unity with an open border. With the exit from the EU, especially on the issue of limiting free movement, now putting that open border in doubt, it has at the very least forced Sinn Fein to respond with a call for a vote on the border – even if approval for such a vote from Westminster is almost impossible. A similar quasi sovereignty compromise was also used to manage claims from the Spanish government over Gibraltar, something that has also revived after the Brexit vote.

On top of those delicate internal arrangements, the result, and the campaign leading up to it, have also destroyed the delicate arrangements Britain has set up to manage its declining global position over the last century. British policy in Europe, nicely summed up here, had always been to prevent a dominant power in continental Europe, arguing for extension of the EU over centralisation (leading Brexiters like Johnson, Hannan and Carswell were lobbyists for Turkey’s entry into the EU) – now made extremely difficult by the UK being locked out of the EU.

Britain’s position in its two other spheres of influence, the Commonwealth and US, were damaged by the Remain side during the campaign. Cameron lined up Commonwealth leaders to argue against Britain leaving, but most damaging was Obama exceeding his brief by telling Britain it would be in the “back of the queue” if it left – leaving British politicians in the uncomfortable position of having to hope for the victory of a Republican candidate it was pompously debating to deny entry to just a few months ago.

It was why, after the result was declared there seemed a striking reluctance for those campaigning for Leave to act on it. Almost immediately the first promise to be broken was to invoke Article 50 that would automatically start the two year clock ticking towards exit. After having promised to invoke it straight away after a Leave win, Cameron has deferred it to whoever succeeds him in a few months. But the leading contender to do so, Boris Johnson, has said there is no hurry either. The irony is that the one who seems most keen to enact the will of the people is the EU, which wants the process to start now, while the UK Parliament is using its real sovereignty to delay it at least, and most likely smother a result it does not want.

To help it do so, some on the left have adopted an increasingly anti-democratic tone to delegitimise the result. One approach was to point out the older age of the Leave voters, as though a vote should be proportional to life expectancy. More common has been to “explain” the Leave vote in working class areas in the north of England, which reached around 60-70%, was solely driven by a vote against immigration on the back of racism, xenophobia etc. etc. or, the more sophisticated version, as “anger” over deindustrialisation.

To argue this it would then be needed to explain why that vote flipped the opposite direction as soon as it went north of the Scottish border, which is presumably no more racially sensitive, and clearly no less deindustrialised. Alternatively it might be that in northern England immigration was seen as a policy highlighting the collusion between Westminster and Brussels elites, whereas in Scotland regional nationalism sees the EU as an alternative to Westminster.

Unsurprisingly this anti-democratic tone has come through in the moves underway in Labour to remove the hapless Jeremy Corbyn. The move is being claimed as a need to be more responsive to north English working voters, with the implication that Labour needs to be more anti-immigrant. But the key charge against Corbyn by the Labour parliamentary party was not that he was out of line with the Leave sentiment of working class voters, but that he didn’t argue against it effectively enough – this position ignoring the Leave wishes of its voters unsurprisingly led by a Remain MP who posted one of the lowest Remain votes in London.

The consequences of the Brexit vote go beyond just the UK. Not just due to it being a major economic power, but from a political influence that goes beyond that. Overnight, a major stabiliser of the global political order has turned into its destabiliser. At the centre of it was a democratic vote that is now likely to be systematically and carefully annulled. It is hard to see right now who has an interest in preventing it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 27 June 2016.

Filed under International relations

Tags: ,


12 responses to “The confusions of anti-politics: Brexit – an update”

  1. Frank on 27th June 2016 9:18 am

    More than likely there will be a new election – but which parties will represent the 48% of the population which voted to stay? The liberal Democrats will, but they are a rump. The Tories cannot and stay as a coherent party. The Labour party cannot and retain seats in Northern England. They may both cease to exist in their current forms. We may see a realignment of politics to sit in the new faultline of society – the globalists v the nationalists.

  2. F on 27th June 2016 9:22 am

    The problem for Scotland is that it makes no sense as an economic entity outside of the UK. There is no way that continued trade with the EU trumps continued trade with the UK. Now, you could argue that of course trade would continue, but that is not how the EU has operated in recent history. Scottish Independence only made sense if both the UK and Scotland remained in the EU. In fact, it seems to me that what the EU actually achieves is the illusion of a smooth transition to a semi-Independent status with all parties remaining in the supra-national body, not the real world hard landing it would probably be. Strugeon is in a difficult position. The Nationalists have been very cagey about calling for another Referendum (till now) because the economics are even more difficult than they were in 2014. Now, any pretence of Scotland maintaining a currency with its largest trading partner, investor, and most complimentary economy (the UK) are pretty much out the window in any Independence move. Scotland would have to join the Euro, and I don’t know if you have noticed but for small Euro area economies that have a similar economic make-up to Scotland, the Euro area hasn’t been all that pleasant a place to be in (**see below). I have my doubts that if/when another Scottish referendum is called Leave will be in anyway as popular as the knee-jerk polling has shown it to be. If we think of Northern Ireland as being heavily integrated with the South both culturally and economically (which we do), then Scotland and the rest of the UK is that on steroids. All that being said the overwhelming evidence of economic misfortune didn’t stop the English voting Brexit, so we may well see an independent Scotland, but it certainly won’t be because the economic grass is greener on the other side.

    As for UK policy when it comes to destabilizing Europe, stopping a “super state” from forming, have you considered that Brexit has achieved exactly that? All the evidence points to this being a crisis for the EU.

    The EU hierarchy had two options: to be accommodating, perhaps allowing an exception this time, or to be rigid and aggressive. They’ve chosen the latter, but really both options carry significant risks that the “ever closer Union” is just another failed Brussels dream. One only has to look at what national leaders are saying (Merkel, Hollande as examples) compared to what Juncker and other senior EU leaders are saying. The national leaders are very measured, even cautious, more carrot then stick, while the EU hierarchy is apoplectic. The EU knows that Brexit is a total disaster for it because it forever scuppers the illusion that the EU is inevitable. Why this is so was beautifully highlighted by Hollande inviting Sarkozy AND Le Pen to the Elysée Palace. If the French political class is considering what an anti-EU movement could achieve in France, then the EU doesn’t have much of a future.

    **It is also a bit rich for the EU and Eurozone to be asking the British to expedite this process in a speedy way. We are into our EIGHTH YEAR of the Euro crisis. Eight whole years of EU/Eurozone failure to resolve what could be resolved at the stroke of the pen.

    Perfidious Albion, indeed.

  3. Frank on 27th June 2016 9:26 am

    Worth noting that the angry and embittered 45% who lost in the Scottish referendum delivered nearly every seat in Scotland to the SNP

  4. F on 27th June 2016 9:28 am

    Agree with F: the main game now in the UK is how this has completely destabilized English politics. NI and Scotland are side shows. Both the major parties have put huge sections of their bases up for grabs, from who is as yet uncertain. Superficially this looks like UKIP, but once Farage let it out that the party kinda wants to dismantle huge sections of the Social Compact(NHS) I think that is now far from certain.

    If the UK stays together I expect there to be a clamoring for an English parliament as part of nay settlement.

  5. F on 27th June 2016 9:43 am

    Agree with Frank for above, not with myself(which I do, but seems weird when you write it out)

  6. Riccardo on 27th June 2016 12:27 pm

    Is the idea of Geographic politics and representation out of date?

    I have always asked myself this question. Why am I grouped with ‘Australians’ who, by and large, I don’t like and have little in common with, apart from sharing the land mass.

    I would like to be grouped with ‘Globalists’ as was suggested as one alignment above. Nativists, of any persuasion, can take the longest walk off the shortest pier, in my book, and swim for their ‘homelands’ whereever that might be.

  7. F on 27th June 2016 5:30 pm

    This is the quality of journalism on the subject:

    If the EU thinks it can treat the UK, a top 10 economy, with a large and competitive industrial sector, and with its own currency and one of the worlds three financial “command centres”, like Greece it is living in a fantasy land(read Brussels)

  8. Riccardo on 28th June 2016 9:22 am

    I don’t think the EU thinks that – agree journalism on most topics is atrocious.

    But I don’t think the UK can vote against Europe and not have consequences – and the ones who believed UKIP have been sold a fraud.

  9. F on 28th June 2016 11:28 am

    Riccardo: Brexit is so all encompassing it has consequences for everyone, almost as many for what is left of the EU as for the UK.

    But I will say this: as loathsome as the leaders of UKIP are, at least they have a base of voters that they have to answer to. Can anything close to that be said for Juncker and other top bureaucrats in Brussels?

    You may think its better to have a Cosmopolitan future where no one feels tied to any one place, but all I see in that is the creation of an elite with zero reasons for doing anything other than what suits them….pretty much how the EU and world is currently. Funny that.

  10. Riccardo on 28th June 2016 1:15 pm

    Is not ‘being tied to one place’ one of the barriers placed on the poor and disadvantaged?

    Surely removing barriers like that one would be high on the list of priorities for any ‘progressive’?

    Xenophobia is not just the last refuge of the scoundrel, but one of the ways the disempowered are made to feel better with their miserable lot in life.

  11. Carolyn on 28th June 2016 3:19 pm

    Surely most of the so-called “anti-democratic” responses are not saying that Leave voters’ opinions don’t count, but rather that many Leave voters were misguided as to the likely consequences of a Brexit and, now that the campaigners are backing away from their more ludicrous claims, would perhaps vote differently a second time around.

  12. The Interpreter on 29th June 2016 3:22 pm

    Will the times suit Malcolm Turnbull?

    Will the times suit Malcolm Turnbull?

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