21 May The Brexit Humiliation
The Brexit Humiliation
With the UK about to vote in elections for the European parliament, it is fair to say its politics have become increasingly strange. The country is stuck in a weird pre-Brexit twilight zone, with its ruling class too proud to admit that the Brexit project is on the verge of failure but not quite stupid enough to self-inflict a catastrophic no-deal. The result is that Britain remains in a kind of chaotic state of institutional denial.
The two main political parties are unclear about the way out of this three-year-long political crisis. The ruling Conservative Party is deeply divided, and Theresa May is a lame duck leader who is on the verge of suffering yet another defeat on her attempts to get a withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons. Labour is similarly divided, with a significant portion of its MPs being deeply opposed to the leadership. Labour policy appears to oscillate between a second referendum and a customs union, depending on which senior party figure is speaking. Thus, neither party has a clear policy on the issue of Brexit, and both are deeply divided.
So too is the UK as a whole, with the country seemingly split evenly between leave and remain. Add to this the fact that secessionist movements are growing in strength in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the result is that the UK is arguably the most divided polity in the Western world. It faces the very real possibility of breaking up completely.
To add to the chaos, we have the newly formed Brexit Party—now the most popular political party, according to polls. Except it is not a real political party; it has no membership and no manifesto. It might more appropriately be seen as a vehicle for wealthy donors and angry no-dealers to amplify their political voice and to disrupt the European elections.
The strange and chaotic nature of British politics is further revealed when one considers that the Brexit Party, whilst being the most popular “party”, is also the most unpopular. Its leader, Nigel Farage, faces protests wherever he goes, and cannot campaign in public without being doused in milkshake. Indeed, the absurdity and chaos of British politics at the moment is best encapsulated by the fact that milkshakes have inexplicably become a potent political weapon. Their subversive nature is now recognised by the forces of law and order who recently ordered an Edinburgh branch of McDonalds to cease sales of the frozen treat whilst Farage was in town.
All of this madness stems from the simple fact that the UK has put itself in an impossible position. There can be no happy ending to the Brexit tale; there is no outcome that can satisfy even a small majority of the country. Whatever happens, history will rightly judge the Brexit endeavour to be one of failure.
It could only ever have been thus, for Brexit was a concept that, from whichever angle one conceived of it, could never succeed. The idea of taking back control by retreating toward a 20th Century conception of national sovereignty makes little sense in a globalized world. Similarly, the concept of a left-wing Brexit that confronts a neoliberal EU fails to account for the fact that any left-wing agenda can, in an interconnected world, only be realised with international cooperation. The ideological justifications, from both left and right, were quite simply wrong.
The British people were presented with a proposition for decisive change. Outlandish promises were made, and with the help of shady corporations and large donations from who-knows-where, lies and propaganda were spread throughout social media. The result was that people voted en masse against their own economic interests. They did so because it was viewed as a vote against the establishment. It is now painfully clear that whilst they rejected the status quo, they have been given no credible alternative. The political class in Britain are not willing to present this truth, hence politics in Britain becomes stranger by the day.
So, what happens next? How does the UK get out of its bind? It doesn’t, at least not in any way that is satisfactory or beneficial. All of the potential outcomes to Brexit are going to have severely negative repercussions for Britain.
A deal with the EU, whether it is something that approximates Theresa May’s deal, or whether it is Labour’s idea of a customs union, does not fulfil the promises upon which the Brexit vote was based. The result of either, or of any similar outcome, will be to leave the UK in a position of diminished sovereignty. They will be bound by the rules of the EU whilst having very limited input into the shaping of these rules. The joke of “taking back control” will have been exposed, leaving half the country furious. And even with a withdrawal deal, it’s not the end of the story. Britain will still be conducting negotiations with the EU for many years; the shadow of Brexit will still loom over all of British politics and the perceptions of failure and betrayal will be ever-present.
Of course, we don’t know that there will be a deal, and it sometimes seems more likely that a no-deal will occur. The success of the Brexit Party and the likely removal of Theresa May from office may make this outcome all the more likely. Any new leader of the Conservative Party might feel compelled to take up a very confrontational stance with the EU, and the result of this may be a complete breakdown in talks and an eventual no-deal Brexit. There is no need to go into the details of the economic catastrophes that this would unleash; suffice to say it would be an event of a similar magnitude to the 2008 banking crash. Obviously, this is not what those who voted for Brexit desired.
There are, of course, many voices opposed to this outcome and one popular solution is the holding of another referendum, a proposition MPs will soon vote on. The dream of some on the remain side is that a second referendum will enable the failed endeavour of Brexit to be killed off by a contrite population that has realised the error of its ways. But were this to occur, it would not be the panacea that it is hoped to be. A second vote will open a Pandora’s box of resentment and betrayal; it will divide the country even further and very possibly may not result in a remain vote in any case. Even if it does, the leave side will consider the score to be 1-1 and will continue to agitate for Brexit, which will continue to dominate political discourse.
Whichever policy the British political establishment settle upon, (and who can tell what this will be?), there will be no happy outcome for Britain. Whether it’s a highly divisive second vote, or a country with reduced sovereignty, or a country that has inflicted severe economic wounds upon itself, the outcome will be one of humiliation. Britain might have the trimmings of a great power—a nuclear arsenal, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, military bases across the world—but Brexit has brought home the fact that Britain outside the EU will be a much-diminished country.
Indeed, all the likely scenarios that may conclude Brexit will result in the type of situation that historically only arises when a country has been military defeated. Britain leaving the EU will either result in its sovereignty diminished or in economic catastrophe. A Britain that stays in the EU will be the most distrusted and reviled member of the group. Either outcome is a national humiliation and this sense of humiliation can only be strengthened by the fact that Britain has brought all of this on itself.
Herein lies the danger. Whatever the outcome, there is the threat that the current strange and chaotic state of British politics morphs into something more sinister. Many people, particularly those in poverty who have been crushed by years of austerity, will take the national humiliation personally, and may turn to dark, anti-democratic solutions. Those who promised a Brexit paradise will start speaking about treachery from within, and humiliation at the hands of a foreign power. There is the potential that many voters will buy into this narrative, as it will give meaning to their anger and give them the illusion that their feelings of humiliation can be overcome.
A historical analogy comes to mind. Germany, after World War One and the subsequent decades of economic crises was a defeated and humiliated nation, whose democratic institutions failed to function properly and whose political and financial elite inflicted severe austerity on its public. The result, as we know, was a horrific backlash; many German people turned to the far-right for answers and eventually Adolf Hitler ascended to power, with devastating consequences.
The historical comparison is obviously not exact, and thankfully no leader or movement has yet emerged that would be capable of bringing fascism to Britain. But Britain is in real danger of becoming a fertile breeding ground for such a movement. Since the Brexit vote, there has been a massive increase in racism and in nationalist nostalgia. Millions of British people have suffered years of austerity at the hands of an uncaring elite, and now, with Brexit in such a mess; there is the danger that widespread feelings of national humiliation come to the fore. Just as Germans in the 1920s railed against foreign powers that imposed a punitive peace treaty on them, so too may some British people have the perception that they have been undermined by a foreign power and betrayed by treacherous elements at home.
The potential for some truly nightmarish outcomes exists. During visits to England, I have witnessed some seemingly very ordinary and decent people say some very horrific things about people of a different heritage (i.e. non-whites). Many people appear to think that the state itself favours ethnic minorities over white people, that they get better housing and better medical care, and that many of them are in Britain simply to live on welfare. Some people I spoke to even suggested that once Brexit was complete there might be mass deportations of immigrants. I suspect large portions of the white working class perceive themselves as victimised and forgotten, and that there is somehow a racial element to all of this. For many, Brexit was perceived as a way out of their predicament and a reassertion of their honour. Inevitably, they are realising that this is not the case. With Brexit, hope and honour becomes humiliation.
It is still unclear how the saga of Brexit will end. The real fear though is what comes next.