Time to drop the fantasies
Lawyer Charles Parselle analyses the origins of Brexit. Perhaps it was because we had not talked enough about the major events of our history: two world wars, the creation, actual conduct and loss of empire. And so people just wish to leave, without considering the realities of government or of Britain's place in the world. It is time for the Exit psychosis with its England-alone fantasy to yield to an understanding of Great Britain reaffirming its place within the European community of nations.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
Certainly, the more things change, the more they remain the same for the Prime Minister. Events are swirling rapidly around her, with defections from both parties towards some putative centre ground that might be firm enough to hold the structure of an imagined new party. But the PM’s personal maxim “nothing has changed” remains true as she returns once again empty-handed from Brussels and from a ‘summit’ in Egypt with EU leaders.
The PM’s latest defeat in the Commons was by ‘only’ 45 votes, but by now these defeats are just another day in the life of a paralyzed government trying to drag itself over the supposed finish line.
The Prime Minister's strategy remains to run out the clock so as to terrify MPs to vote for her (bad/despised/hated) deal in preference to the no-deal catastrophe. However, the group she is trying to win over, the misnamed European Research Group [it is anti-Europe and does no research], a party within a party with its own whips and funding, consists of Tory MPs actively promoting no-deal exit.
Is This What A Psychotic Episode Looks Like?
What is happening now feels like a long delayed psychotic break: “an abnormal condition of the mind that results in difficulties determining what is real and what is not.” . Or, to put it more kindly, a long delayed national conversation about what we used to be, are now, and wish to be going forward. This might seem extreme but the distinguished scholar Timothy Garton Ash just wrote: “A divided country in the midst of a nervous breakdown is painfully dependent on the reaction of its now much stronger EU negotiating partner.”
WWI destroyed an entire generation of youth. WWI was followed by the depression of the 1930s and the rise of Hitler. Out of the ruins of WW2, Britain undertook a social revolution and simultaneously embarked on the task of dissolving the 300-year old empire, roughly from 1947 to the mid-1970s.
Imperial Britain was a massive exporter of people, mostly to the Americas and Antipodes, and relatively few to other parts of the empire. At the height of the British Raj, fewer than 200,000 British lived in the Indian sub-continent. But then the direction of travel reversed, so that now perhaps twenty times that number of former imperial subjects reside in the UK as British citizens. The human composition of the UK today is very different than it was seventy-five years ago.
Yet for centuries ‘British’ has included Scots, Irish, Welsh and the descendants of Celts, Picts, Romans, Vikings, Franks, Lombards, Saxons, Jutes, Angles, Vandals, Goths, Alemanni, Burgundians, Normans, Huguenots and Dutch. The Duke of Argyll pointed this out in a letter to the Times in 1887: “We are all mongrels, and not only are we all equally mongrels, but we are the results of the intermixture of precisely the same breeds all over the United Kingdom.”
Perhaps that is what made our island nation resilient enough to dismantle such a vast empire following two world wars, without suffering any of the consequences often attendant on imperial dissolution.
In his famous speech to the Athenians 2500 years ago, Pericles spoke of the dangers of empire: “Your empire is now like a tyranny: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.” But Britain, that had no empire when Shakespeare was young and has no empire now, has not had to suffer the fate of the Athenians. Instead, people flock here to enjoy the good things Britain has to offer and to be part of our national destiny.
Laudable Pus or Fatal Infection
Now belatedly comes our national psychotic break, along with a contentious national conversation that is producing a good deal of what 19th century doctors called ‘laudable pus’ to describe the stuff that formed in a wound after surgery, and was thought to be a beneficial sign of healing.
The Brexit conversation is producing enough pus to suggest that something significant is happening, though the term itself went out of fashion because pus could also signify massive and often fatal infection. Even so, a conversation is happening both horizontally, in layers of complexity, and also vertically, by region.
We have been waiting a hundred years for our national therapy event. After WWI, there was little conversation or therapy, except outpouring of great poetry. My father on his return from probably a difficult two years in a German POW camp was promptly promoted and given command of an RAF base in Lincolnshire. No one thought of talking about what had happened, let alone getting therapy, PTSD was not even recognized as a diagnosable condition until 1980, but everyone had heard of alcohol. As a small boy I often served as a juvenile drinks waiter at cocktail parties; my recollection is that the guests never refused the next drink or the one after that. “Keep calm, carry on, and for goodness sake, don’t talk about it,” was tacitly agreed by those whose indomitable spirit had won the war.
EXIT as a Solution to Absence of VOICE: The Analysis of William Davis [London Review of Books (paywall)]
William Davis’ remarkable hypothesis is that what has been missing in Britain for many years has been Voice - literally, too little talk, too much stiff upper lip. We are at a point at which we really do not know as a people what is real and what is delusion, in terms of our place in the world and our future prospects. We lost an empire but have not found our Voice(s). Perhaps it is not surprising that our political system is being shredded before our eyes, but that it has taken so long to start the conversation about it.
Davis: “Leave’s greatest advantage was that it didn't have to specify exactly what was being left…. Leave was a coalition of rejecters, a great refusal that didn't require a positive or viable program in order to flourish.”
He cites Paul Gilroy on Britain’s ‘post-colonial melancholia’, and Fintan O’Toole’s puzzlement on Britain’s sudden sense of ‘victimhood,’ and asks “But what if the answer has been staring us in the face all along, that there is in British political culture a deep, generalized urge to depart?”
This hypothesis fits the facts well. Brexiters are oppositional; in power they don’t stay long, they just leave – Boris Johnson, David Davis, Dominic Raab, all major figures and a host of lesser ones who, after accepting offices of state, simply Exited. Nigel Farage was always an outsider looking in, but after the 2016 referendum he exited even UKIP, the party he had founded. Leading industrialists supporting Brexit have made alternative exit arrangements, like James Dyson’s relocation to Singapore. The most strident of Brexiters, William Rees-Mogg, has a safe haven in Dublin, a bolthole, his personal exit. There is a sense of an ideology “that cannot survive its own implementation.”
‘Leave’ serves as an alternative to ‘Voice’. Many Remainers have experienced this reticence of Leavers. Leavers talk to us in slogans. They know what they want, which is to leave, exit, get away, and they have a handful of slogans to explain why, but the rest is silence. They are parodies of Gary Cooper in High Noon: “If you don’t know, I can’t tell you.”
Davis asks: “How did the ideology – or the fantasy – of Exit engulf British politics? How did a principle that belongs in the market place, the principle of expressing dissatisfaction through departure, trigger the greatest constitutional crisis since 1945?”
He theorizes: “(Perhaps) where the art of Voice has atrophied too much, there is an increasing appetite for the Exit alternative….Brexit is an ideal of withdrawal that is at odds with basic realities of government and politics.”
Davis’ analysis then probes deeper, citing the ‘recent, wise book’ Down to Earth by the influential French thinker Bruno Latour. France values its intellectuals as much as England distrusts them – e.g. Michael Gove: “We’ve had enough of experts,” and the United States despises them, e.g. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner: “We’ve read enough books”, which may explain why the best-paid person in any U.S. university is usually the football coach.
Latour speaks appreciatively of Britain and is sorrowful about Brexit: “The country that invented the wide-open space of the market on the sea as well as on land; the country that ceaselessly pushed the European Union to be nothing but a huge shop; this great country, facing the sudden arrival of thousands of refugees, decided on impulse to stop playing the game of globalization. In search of an empire that had long since vanished it is trying to pry itself away from Europe, at the price of increasingly inextricable difficulties.”
We have seen how Donald Trump and Nigel Farage showed such affinity for each other, two mountebanks on common ground. Trump supports Brexit and is attempting to ‘exit’ the United States from the rest of the world, exiting the Paris Climate Accord, exiting the Nuclear Arms Control treaty with Russia, musing about exiting NATO, exiting trade agreements with China, etc.
The National Conversation in Five Horizontal Layers, Plus Foreigners
‘Horizontal’ refers to layers of the national conversation, including (a) marching in the streets; (b) slogans, like the Brexit bus and media ads; (c) media articles; (d) parliament; (e) learned journals and books, and (f) foreigners. ‘Vertically’ refers to the very different conversations taking place in different geographical regions of the UK.
Remainers marched in London in October 2018, estimated nearly 700,000 people, a multitude of amusing signs mostly using EU as the trope: ‘I Will Never Leave EU; My Life Sucks Without EU: Never Gonna Give EU Up: We’ve Made A EUGE Mistake; Bollocks to Brexit.’
Leavers also marched though in far smaller numbers and with more sombre signage: ‘Leave Means Leave; No Deal No Problem; I Believe In Britain; We Want Our Country Back.’
Remainers clearly won the battle of the street, both as to greater numbers marching and greater creativity of the signage, reflecting the greater number of young people in Remain compared with older people in Leave.
Slogans and advertisements in social media
Leave has made greater use of advertisements on social media and Leave’s ads have been clever, reflecting use of paid consultants. Leave’s tropes are: ‘Control of Laws; Sovereignty; Border Control; Global Britain.’ Remain has lagged in the department of slogans, just as Leave has lagged in the department of sentences. Leave may also have committed criminal offenses by exceeding the allowed spending limits, which is still under [very slow] investigation. The Brexit campaign kicked off with the gigantic lie on the side of the Brexit bus, and Leave’s carefully crafted slogans are still very much in vogue – ‘Tell Them Again’.
The Print Media and Opinion Writers
Boris Johnson. The chief verbalizer of Brexit has been Boris Johnson, formerly Foreign Secretary but more at home writing highly paid opinion pieces in the Telegraph. The Telegraph was not so long ago regarded as one of Britain’s serious newspapers. Now it is owned by two expatriates who prefer to live ‘off-shore’ in Monaco and the Channel Islands; “nothing to do with taxes,” they say. Among trolls, Johnson is a superstar. His articles are easy to analyze because they are all pretty much the same – chatty, amusing, skimpy with facts, with many clever turns of phrase. Johnson specializes in walking away, especially from the Cabinet, indeed any place of responsibility for anything; he is the Pied Piper of defection and abandonment.
He specializes in short, pithy sentences, like: “I would like to reach out to that person and shake them warmly by the throat… I have no idea why the PM has failed to make up her mind for so long….The prolonged uncertainty emanating from the top that has been so damaging for Britain….” His piece is remarkable for the extent to which he so completely distances himself from policies of a government of which he was recently the holder of one of the great offices of state. He writes of “the prolonged uncertainty emanating from the top” as though he had nothing to do with it.
Caroline Flint. She is a Labour MP voting with the Tories for Brexit. Her opinion piece in the Guardian of Febuary 5th gives one a fair idea of the intellectual firepower that can be brought to bear in support of leaving the EU, which is to say, not much. She proclaims a. that she pledged to oppose a second referendum, so she will; b. she promised the best deal for jobs for Doncaster; c. she is tired of parliamentary games and of being lectured, but offers no further insight; and d. her vote is not for sale, without hinting who might want to buy it. The rest of her sparse opinion piece consists of sixteen questions, perhaps hoping that someone out there has the answers. It seems improbable that Flint will be able to make good on her promise to bring jobs to Doncaster, considering that her votes are currently propping up a Tory government whose austerity policies have, in the opinion of the Labour party, devastated the North.
Gary Younge. The best place to find coherent statements of the Leave position is Remain writers, of which this Guardian opinion writer is one. From him we get the succinct summary: Leavers want 1. Sovereignty 2. To Make Own Rules 3. Immigration Control 4. To Be Independent And Impregnable. And that’s about it; in fact Younge says there’s nothing wrong with voting to be worse off, and that ‘liberals’ are patronizing to think otherwise.
But it is quite untrue that Brexiters voted to be worse off. They were promised No Loss of Material Wellbeing because ‘independent and impregnable’ UK would make more and better deals with other nations that Cabinet minister Liam Fox promised would be “the easiest in history.” It is not patronizing to insist that Leavers were told a pack of lies and sold a bill of nonexistent goods about Escape to Fantasy Island by a bunch of people whose chief talent is Walking Away.
Joseph Harker is an editor for the Guardian and a Remainer, but whose recent piece tells us that Brexiters just want “meaningful lives,” and criticizes Remainer ‘liberals’ for failing to empathize with those “ordinary voters,” who have been left behind. He is an excellent opinion writer but one feels that he and Younge are eating their own tails. Surely it is not that Remainers are deficient in understanding, but that the Leave campaign was and is run by liars whose promises were false. Surely also Brexit is the internal fantasy of a minority of Tories based on a delusional sense of restoring some vision of grandeur that had its zenith around the time of the Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee.
Clearly the House of Commons has not fulfilled the need for Voice. MPs love to say: "Let me be very clear," and sometimes they are, but it seems that everyone outside and a good many inside have abandoned all sense that MPs are talking to or for the country, or in any way that relates to where we are now as a country. The House feels like a tortured, misshapen remnant of the greatness it once was. To make matters worse, Prime Ministers Blair and Cameron so packed the House of Lords that it has lost all its credibility and any kind of reputable Voice.
Learned Journals and Books
It seems that virtually everything written has been in favour of Remaining in the EU. There is literally no good news about Brexit, and one of its high priests, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is on record explaining that we might have to wait fifty years to see if it works out.
An old Punch cartoon has Ernie say to Bert: “Eh, Bert, there’s a foreigner.” Bert replies: “ ‘Well, Ernie, ‘eave a brick at ‘im.” It’s intended as a joke, but the cartoon reflects a certain attitude from the late Victorian era. However, at this time the voices of Europeans have been very kind to us during our national nervous breakdown. In spite of the fatuous new Foreign Secretary likening the EU to the Soviet Union, they have steadfastly held out olive branches. They remember the time, well within our living memories, when all of Europe had succumbed to the Nazis; one country stood alone and unyielding, bayonets fixed. They are not going to abandon us now; they are only praying that we do not abandon ourselves.
Ayn Rand’s novels are a sort of blueprint for Brexit, complete with a toxic philosophy of exit-the-world-and-leave-the-masses-to-perish, that is still attractive to many right-wing Americans including the former Speaker Paul Ryan, popular with Silicon Valley millionaires and rich Brexiters, who like to buy themselves remote islands or disaster getaways in New Zealand or Alaska, along with Irish passports.
Brexit is a centrifugal force, with exiters (and their capital funds) flying off in all directions. It is the sound of escape, the refusal to engage, the longing for things past. It is a desolate cry: Stop the World, I Want to Get Off. But what a country, and especially an island nation, needs is the centripetal force of people coming together in recognition of common fates and destinies.
Greta Garbo, great star of Hollywood’s classic era, is best known for the line: “I want to be left alone.” Later, approaching her 60thbirthday, she also said: “In a few days, it will be the anniversary of the sorrow that never leaves me, that will remain with me for the rest of my life.” This may be our fate too unless we allow the psychosis which is Brexit to dissipate.
In 1655 in a time of great trouble, Oliver Cromwell told the House of Commons: “We are Englishmen, that is one good fact.” Another good fact is that immigrants came here of their own free will to embrace the Englishness that many of us take for granted. It is time for the Exit psychosis with its little England fantasy to yield to a resurgent Great Britain reaffirming its place within the community of nations. “Today Doncaster, tomorrow the world,” is what Labour MP Caroline Flint should have said, instead of voting to prop up a minority Tory government with an inexplicable dream of national miniaturization.
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