Bigger than Brexit, by Gerry Simpson

Three years ago I drove through England, from London to Scotland, and was surprised to see so many English flags either flying from cars and windows or on flagpoles planted defiantly in front gardens. I live in Remain London and holiday in Remain Scotland, so it is rare for me to come across these symbols of a Brexitish English nationalism. Such flag-waving, largely unseen outside English football stadiums, seemed to portend something. I wasn’t yet sure what. When I arrived in Scotland, my sister came to the door to greet me and whispered, ‘Eoghan is voting for Brexit. I don’t know whether I can continue to speak to him’. So there it was, another surprise. I had ended up with a Brexit brother-in-law. Two, in fact, because my other sister’s husband, Bill, was also voting to leave the EU.

Still, I was optimistic that good sense would prevail on the day of the referendum. On that day in June, things seemed to be going smoothly until the figures came in for Swindon. It was expected to be a close call (a number of tech companies in Swindon were pushing for a Remain vote) and so the 55 per cent vote in favour of leaving seemed disconcertingly high. I think I knew then that the situation was bleak. I went to bed that night and in the morning my daughter, Rosa, called from Melbourne: ‘Dad, they voted to leave Europe’.

(A few months later, Donald Trump was president of the United States and a few days after that Leonard Cohen’s death was announced (Cohen had, after all, once predicted that ‘democracy was coming to the USA’). A bad year in politics, then.)

But who are they?

The politics of Brexit are complicated. Where I live, the vastest majority of people are Remainers. In fact, I’m not sure that I have met anyone in North London who voted to leave (this reminds me of the period when Thatcher was in power and it was unusual to meet anyone who had voted for her). Among this group there is tremendous certainty about the likely terrible effects of Brexit. Indeed, Brexit has become associated with a poisonous combination of far-right toffery (Rees-Mogg and his ‘European Research Group’), Maybot decisionism (the prime minister’s determination to leave Europe for the sake of making a decision to leave Europe), tabloid xenophobia, economic self-harm, and the blasé buffooneries of the Boris Johnson–David Davies faction. There is a lot to dislike here. And Rees-Mogg et al. are the sort of class enemies one can enjoy fighting.

It is striking, too, that people with expertise in government, law and administration seem to be universally of the view that Brexit will be a very bad thing (for the environment, for human rights, for workers, for business). They can quote chapter and verse about why that is so. The arguments for Brexit seem puny or non-existent in comparison (reducible to ‘don’t worry, everything will be fine, or, at least not too bad’). And now there is talk of evacuating the Queen and putting troops on the streets (Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, is one to watch: he gives the strongest impression that he would like to see troops on the streets). Curiously, immigration (the casus belli of Brexit) has pretty much disappeared off the radar. Brexit has become bigger than Brexit.    

The battle lines, then, seem clear. Right-thinking, pro-European progressives amassed on one side; Tory neanderthals, economic illiterates and (c)overt racists on the other. In some ways, this is how the matter is framed and comprehended around Hampstead dinner tables. To be for Brexit is to cast one’s lot with the latter group (no one ever does).

But there are some problems with this picture. One problem is Jeremy Corbyn. Another is the bankers of the City of London. If politics is the art of arranging the duvet around strange bedfellows, then, with Brexit, we are in the realm of high (or low) art.

First, the bankers. Didn’t Clive James once say that if he found himself sharing an opinion with Jane Fonda he went back and re-examined his opinion? One feels the same about the bankers and business people who protest about Brexit. If the City is overwhelmingly in favour of remaining, then might there not be something to be said for leaving? (How the Left has ached for a moment when a Western government would act against the interests of its mercantile classes! How ironic that it should be a right-wing administration that does it.)

This original sin goes back to the referendum campaign itself, where the leading lights of the Remain campaign were David Cameron and George Osborne. (The leading Leavers were Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Talk about not having a dog in the fight.) Osborne, an especially heartless brand of Tory politician, threatened an austerity budget if people voted for Brexit. But it was too late: he had already imposed austerity on the most impoverished people in Britain. These were some of the enraged individuals who voted to leave. Philip Alston’s scathing UN report on the human rights implications of austerity UK is a telling indictment of this policy (itself largely regarded as wrong-headed by many mainstream economists and imposed to remedy the losses incurred as a result of a reckless banking sector).

But the Leave voters were a mixed group. Certainly, years of dog-whistling had taken their toll and there were anti-immigration elements here. But it is likely that many Leave voters were protesting not about Europe but about the state of their own lives. The referendum marked a big opportunity to give the Etonian establishment an almighty bloody nose. And put this way one sees the dangers of a second referendum. In his poem ‘The Solution’, Bertolt Brecht suggested that the Communist Party should dismiss the electorate and re-elect a new one. A Remain victory in a second referendum might leave a Brechtian bad taste in the mouth—some Tory politicians have seized on this thought and warned of ‘civil unrest’ in tones that suggest they might welcome such unrest (in the hope of either riding that horse or cutting it down with brutal force, both options attractive to a certain type of reactionary politics).

Alongside the victims of enforced poverty, though, were relatively well-to-do Leavers. Some, like my English brother-in-law, voted to leave after years of disillusionment with Eurocratic bureaucracy. And, of course, there were the tax-evading, celebrity super-wealthy, whose unerring capacity to be on the wrong side of every argument was on full display here, too. To go back to Clive James, if Ian Botham and John Cleese are for something then it is probably wise to be against it (whatever it is). 

Amid all of this, though, whither Corbyn? Corbyn is understood to be ‘ambivalent’ about Brexit. His ambivalence is driving everyone crazy. Yet Corbyn has been remarkably consistent on Europe. He belongs to a distinguished left tradition of being sceptical of the EU’s ordo-liberal and centralising tendencies. This is one reason that it would seem strange and an exercise in bad faith for him to suddenly become an EU enthusiast. The other reason is that he has an old-fashioned belief in democracy and, especially, the results of a democratic vote.

To put this into some sort of long view, the Left has principled and historical reasons to be worried about efforts to unpick electoral decisions because it has been on the receiving end of this for at least half a century (from the coup d’état in Guatemala in 1954 to Chile in 1973 to Australia in 1975 to the internal politics of the Labour Party today (remember Peter Mandelson saying, after Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader, that it was ‘too early to remove him’)). Situated in this tradition, a second referendum begins to look like a recipe for a very British coup.

What Corbyn would prefer, then, is either a democratically reconfigured and welfarist EU or a very lukewarm, soft Brexit in which workers’ rights are secured and in which there is free movement and tariff-free access to European markets. In some respects, there is not much to choose between these positions.

But Corbyn’s problem here is an old one for those of us on the left and it revolves around the familiar difficulty of the relationship between tactical manoeuvring and ideological purism. Should Corbyn give up his ambivalence about Europe and do everything in his power to avoid ‘crashing out’ or food shortages? This is a risky moment. It is likely that the far-rightist elements in the Conservative Party and its fringe associations would be happy enough with a bit of chaos. Aristocratic out-of-touchness (Rees-Mogg), shoulder-shrugging little Britainism (Johnson) and mini-me Trumpeting (Farage) will thrive in such a moment. In which case, a crash-and-burn exit would be deeply inadvisable, possibly distressing.

But none of the other options look especially attractive, especially in a febrile atmosphere in which a tiny and unelectable Tory fringe (deploying the sacral power of a very vague electoral mandate) have held British politics to ransom at a time when bigger questions of redistribution, the distorting effects of hyper-affluence and our ecological destiny should be galvanising us instead.

About the author

Gerry Simpson

Gerry Simpson is Professor of International Law at LSE. His latest work, The Sentimental Life of International Law: Literature, Language and Longing in World Politics, will be published by Oxford University Press in late 2021. He is currently writing a study of the Cold War (with Sundhya Pahuja at the University of Melbourne) as well as The Atomics, a philosophical memoir.

More articles by Gerry Simpson

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