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Big Little Britain, by Guy Rundle

When the political compact loses its ground

Published: 21 Feb 2019

her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering

—Cecil Spring Rice, ‘I Vow To Thee My Country’

The famous British newspaper headline of the 1910s, ‘fog in channel; continent remains isolated’, has been getting a bit of a workout once more with the latest round of Brexit negotiations, and the increasingly white-knuckle brinkmanship politics being played inside and out of the British parliament. On 29 March 2019 the United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the EU, a date set by a UK Withdrawal Act voted up in the wake of the 2016 referendum, which committed the country to quit the EU, by a vote of 52 per cent to 48 per cent. If there is no agreement in place, the United Kingdom will leave as a ‘no deal’ crash-out, with no specific frameworks in place for myriad questions of trade, movement, transport operations and the like.

Last year, Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated an agreed-upon withdrawal process with the European Commission. This envisaged that a UK–EU free-trade agreement would be negotiated over ensuing years but that in the interim UK law would continue to conform to EU regulations, in order to create a customs union and a single market. The agreement stated that this arrangement would be in place ‘indefinitely’—i.e. until a full free-trade agreement could be reached. In particular, it included an ‘Irish backstop’, designed in light of the form of (very) partial unification of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The backstop stipulated that, in the negotiation period, Northern Ireland would be treated as a full member of the EU. This avoided the re-imposition of a ‘hard border’ on the island of Ireland, but only by imposing an EU border within the ‘United’ Kingdom.

The agreement was condemned by Leavers and Remainers alike when it was announced; by Leavers because it re-established many of the EU powers they sought to do away with, and by Remainers because they now wanted any deal to be contingent on a second referendum on the question, arguing that this was necessary for genuine democracy now that the consequences of leaving had been fielded in public. Facing defeat, May withdrew the bill last year, and attempted to talk round sufficient ‘moderate Leavers’ in the Tory party in order to gain a majority for the bill in January. This was widely judged as having no chance of success. Various factions of Leavers and Remainers pitched a number of amendments, most of which put in tripwires that sought to make it ‘necessary’ for the prime minister—in her role as representative of the executive—to delay the United Kingdom’s departure, should no deal have been ratified by the House of Commons. Related amendments, piloted by fervent Tory Remainer Dominic Grieve, sought to reverse the executive’s control over the priority of bills to be considered by parliament, thus allowing a cross-party coalition of Remainers to get up a series of delay amendments and bills. The speaker, John Bercow, permitted this, thus reversing the executive–legislative relationship that has held for more than a century in the United Kingdom, the imposition of which having been bound up with the United Kingdom’s transition to an administered empire in the nineteenth century.

May presented the agreement unchanged in late January; it went down to the greatest government defeat—220 votes in a 650-seat house—in the history of the Commons. The ‘delay’ bills—the most prominent of which was known as the Cooper-Boles amendment—were put to parliament. They were defeated, too. By February, with eight weeks until the United Kingdom was to leave the EU, the only vote the May government could win was against a Labour-brought ‘no confidence’ motion, and the ‘Brady’ amendment, which instructed May to return to the EU to try to ‘renegotiate the backstop’, something the EU had already stated it had no intention of doing. The Tory tabloid papers celebrated this as May’s triumph, working off the idea—unquestioned by many of their readers—that the United Kingdom could somehow dictate terms to the fog-bound, isolated EU. Meanwhile, a series of stories based on a leaked document made it clear that, contrary to denials, the government was stockpiling food and medicines, and making contingency plans for civil unrest. In Derry a republican splinter group, the New IRA, set off a car bomb in the centre of the city, a clear message that violent struggle would be recommenced should the hard border that reconstitutes six-county Ulster be re-established by default.

Anyone reading this significantly later than the publication date will know what happened next. It’s a measure of the situation now that there is no easy way, from here, to guess what that would be. Should the United Kingdom fail to gain some extension of departure from the EU—something on which all twenty-seven EU nations will have to agree—then some form of no-deal/incomplete-deal crash-out remains near-inevitable. Labour could help May to ratify the negotiated withdrawal agreement, or vote up a second referendum; it wants a new election, both for the chance to get a genuinely democratic socialist party into power, and because it needs to refocus politics on party choice, as it will otherwise be torn apart by the deep Leave–Remain division that exists within its support base.

That this extraordinary process has been one in which ‘imaginary’ politics—many pro-Leave advocates such as Boris Johnston had no desire to leave whatsoever—came to have real effects has been much observed. Much of the Leave vote was an absolute rejection of high immigration levels, as created by the EU’s freedom-of-movement principle. But this was wrapped up in a fantasy politics of ‘taking back control’, which drew on nostalgia for a remembered United Kingdom, and that for the further past—the high-growth and more socially integrated postwar period, keenly remembered, and pre–Second World War imperial glory, when the United Kingdom remained the ‘workshop of the world’. Many Leave voters, when interviewed, were clearly ignorant of how much basic manufacturing and agricultural supply the United Kingdom had given away since the 1970s, and how dependent it was on a single EU market for smooth access to goods. Thus, even more than the election of Donald Trump—which had a rational, economic nationalist core to it—the Leave campaign represented the most significant example to date of a post-class, post-party and, in a limited sense, post-social political process. The Leave majority was constituted, during the referendum period, by a process in which class affiliation, and the economic politics that might go with it, was wholly displaced by identities supplied by a media/image political process, cued up to satisfy a deep desire for regrounding in one’s own history. There was, and is, a good argument for a ‘left Leave’ position—that only national sovereignty can provide a bulwark against the EU’s neoliberal project—but this played almost no part in the referendum campaign.

What has been less explored is the way in which the Brexit process has absolutely exploded any simple notion of ‘legitimacy’ in globalised high-tech societies that continue to be politically constituted around national borders, parliaments and monarchies/executives whose origins well pre-date the current period. Thus, though there was a lot of grumbling about the EU—itself largely a product of Tory tabloid media—prior to the 2015 general election, it was not a genuine cause. No-one was marching to get out of the EU; the party constituted around it—UKIP—barely figured in UK elections, and gained its support from returning fifteen MEPs to the European parliament, in the low-turnout elections for such. The cause was passionate within the Tory party, as an organising principle of the Right, and it was in an attempt to undermine them that Prime Minister David Cameron promised a referendum if the Tories won the 2015 election. The move thus projected an intra-party struggle onto the canvas of the general public.

What was barely questioned at the time has now become an obvious question: do instruments such as referenda constitute the public in a certain way, by the very nature of their origin, the framing of the question, and the implied consequences flowing from a result? In an era when mass intermediate institutions—political parties, trade unions, church movements, clubs and fellowships, and so on—have disappeared, the general population serves as a pretext for the exercise of discursive executive and legislative power. The general population has no organs with which to represent itself, to group, and to make demands and proposals. The top-down imposition of a referendum even precludes boycotting as a tool of legitimacy refusal, via the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’: whichever side enacts a boycott is the side that will surely lose.

Hence the bizarre ‘buyer’s remorse’ on the morning that Britons woke to find that they had voted themselves out of a single market that gave them access to the whole of Europe. Significant numbers said they had only voted ‘Leave/no’ because they never thought it would win; it was a vote against the very process within which the ‘no’ vote was offered, a process in which a ‘yes’ vote to the path of continued supra-state modernisation was simply assumed. The sense of breach that people felt with the result—many describing it as like ‘a car crash’ or ‘being punched’—was a moment of the Real (in Lacanian money) breaking through the Symbolic/Imaginary stitch-up of the status quo. The Real—but not what the public ‘really’ feels, because the result was an event constituted by the processes and institutions existing independently of the actual public process. Real, in the sense of a percussive shock, lacking clear determination, something that purports to have clear content but has no interior. The real ‘Leave’ case—‘let’s leave the EU, risk ensuing economic loss and recession, in order to reclaim the right to sharply reduce immigration, and reshape it along preferential ethnic lines’—was never put. Removing the mask would have driven away a whole middle group of ‘Leavers’ who would not want to see themselves as that sort of person, even though that was precisely what they wanted. At the same time it would have demystified the claim of the Tory Right to be a movement of liberal-conservative Burkean principle and not simply ethnonationalists—an admission that would have made it, ironically, more like a European reactionary party of the continental tradition coming out of De Maistre, and limited its ability to claim that it represented a British political tradition deserving of mass affiliation to principle.

The growing demand for a second referendum has only served to make this legitimacy disjuncture all the more visible to many of the general public. The insistence of Leavers that a further vote would be undemocratic came up against the common-sense judgment that many ‘speech-acts’/promises of this sort are, in everyday life, obviously provisional. You might agree to buy your brother-in-law’s car; then you see the car. The simple proposition of those advocating a second referendum is that people would now be voting on two concrete proposals, and the consequences flowing from them. But this was barely raised at the time of the first referendum, as the Remain camp saw victory as straightforward, and Leave saw it as a roll of the dice, which might yield an epochal result—and so those objecting to a second referendum can claim that there was an implicit acceptance of a one-round referendum at the time. This makes visible the ‘state of exception’ that lies beneath simple claims of legitimacy, especially in societies in which pre-modern and high-modern institutions exist with postmodern social and cultural frameworks, in which a million ‘likes’ on Facebook must be weighed against a public march, a letter to the editor, or a car bomb, as an ‘expression of opinion’.

The position pro or con a second referendum is simply one of competing disjunctive legitimacy claims, which must be chosen between. Thus, the determination of what the public will actually is returns to the House of Commons, where it is decided by a series of amendments drafted by drawing on five centuries of parliamentary arcana, knowledge possessed only by a few experts. If there’s a takeaway from all this—both as principle and strategy—it’s that any referendum committed to on the basis of finding a given public will, as if it were an independent external object, is simply a projection of political action in search of a legitimacy it does not yet possess. Referenda only gain legitimacy with the more reflexive features they incorporate. Compare, for example, the dominion of Newfoundland, which, in 1948, held a two-stage referenda process to decide between British protectorate status, independence, or confederation with Canada; and which fielded debate on the matter for two years, across the country, and in every social context, all of it broadcast on radio. The result—50.5 per cent in favour of confederation, 49.5 per cent against—held because the matter had been debated to exhaustion. The process had been committed to in such a way because sovereignty was bound up with individual and collective selfhood more genuinely than was at play in the UK referendum. Indeed, the UK referendum appears as a farce-parody of the Newfoundland process. What Newfoundland became in 1948—a small fishing nation, or the province of a major power—was what Newfoundlanders would become. It is precisely what is not at stake that figures most prominently in the UK referendum. Like Brigadoon, it has become a fantasy place, emerging from the mist from centuries past, with the reassurance, for those most passionately committed to the given result, that, though nothing about their country is real, nothing has changed.

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