Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Brexit and British Pragmatism

The UK's relationship with the EEC and later the EU was unusual because "Europe" as an ideal never took on a positive national political role here, as it did in most other member states. The relationship remained almost exclusively transactional, hence the emphasis on "market access" and Thatcher's emblematic rebate. It was neither seen as constructive in terms of the polity (as a guarantor of democracy) nor as a component of national identity (membership of a "club" that implied a historical and cultural homogeneity). The result was a tendency to think of Europe as an optional extra, a plug-and-play extension to both the state and the economy that did not affect the underlying integrity of either. Just as leavers doubted the warnings of "project fear" over the potential damage to the economy that Brexit would entail, so many of them imagined that uncoupling would be straightforward and risk little disruption to the constitution of the UK. The failure to appreciate the impact in Ireland was not just a routine lack of interest in the "other island" but the result of a wilful blindness to the way that the EU had become intimately intertwined with the UK's governance beyond bendy bananas and meddling judges. It was like mistaking a major organ transplant for an over-tight suit.

To a large extent this misunderstanding arose because Europe had never been successfully grafted onto the national self-image, or at least not in England and Wales. Scotland went further in this regard, though that owed much to a popular history in which Europe was held up as the antithesis of England. In contrast, Europe as a civilisational ideal had played a part in the identity of continental states since the Enlightenment. For the original signatories of the Treaty of Rome, European integration carried greater expectations than the mere coordination of markets or even a contingent defence against the revival of fascism and the contemporary threat of Soviet communism. This aspirational dimension enjoyed broad (if sometimes shallow) support across mainstream parties and social classes. It wasn't just limited to the consumers of haute culture and it appealed to both conservatives and progressives. Even when the left opposed the EEC as a capitalists' club, there was a conscious effort to maintain a higher ideal of antifascist and pro-worker European solidarity: the phrase "another Europe" has a long lineage. For later member states, Europe variously offered an inoculation against military rule (Spain, Portugal and Greece), a road to technocratic modernity (Ireland and Denmark), and a means of securing national independence through a supra-national federation (Poland, the Baltic states etc). In all cases, this meant elevating the harmony of rules and cultural affinity above national will.

The UK wasn't unique in its transactional approach, but nowhere else was the EU presented as mutually-exclusive to national identity (unsurprisingly, this sense of identity among leavers has been reinforced by the referendum result, which goes a long way to explain the lack of buyer's remorse despite pessimism about the economic impact - see pgs 14-19 of the latest British Social Attitudes Survey). While there has been no shortage of continental populists blaming the EU for the "migrant crisis" or criticising its interference in domestic politics, what they aren't doing is rejecting Europe as an ideal but promoting national identity as another pole in political discourse (one example of this, and an obvious difference with the UK, is that migration and freedom of movement are seen as quite distinct). If anything, the nationalist right have become even more fervent in their "defence of Christian Europe" and their insistence that we face a continental-scale threat from Islam. But though there are echoes of the Fascist era, we are not seeing a resurgence of the exclusivist nationalism of the 1930s (outside the exceptional case of Ukraine), any more than we are seeing a revival of economic autarky in the current protectionist spasm. Though "Europe of the nations" may have displaced "Europe of the regions" in discourse, it remains an ideal of Europe nonetheless, albeit one with a not always respectable pedigree. Poland and Hungary are not about to quit the EU: their aim is to be treated as equals, not supplicants.

Where the UK was unique was in its retention of an image of itself as a global power with interests beyond Europe that would be threatened by greater integration. Though the delusions of empire quickly evaporated after 1956, the idea that the UK retained a global significance lived on in the "special relationship" with the US. That centrist politicians from the 1960s onward promoted both Europe and the special relationship was an example of tactical necessity trumping strategic coherence, but it was (and remains) no more incoherent than contemporary Tories who promote both the anglosphere and the Commonwealth. After the UK joined the EEC in 1973, the appeal of the special relationship as a compensatory fantasy grew (under Macmillan it had been little more than a rhetorical flourish to obscure the post-Suez asymmetry), which was ironic given that its actual importance was the political leverage it now afforded the US within European institutions. That comes to an end with Brexit, but that in turn means that Atlanticist politicians in Britain are ever more desperate to preserve the myth of mutual regard, hence the embarrassment of Donald Trump's recent visit. The importance now given to a potential UK-US trade deal, which would be trivial in its benefits and unpopular in its costs, is a continuation of this, showing how far we have moved from pragmatic self-interest.

While its most fervent British supporters tried to present Europe as an ideal of liberal internationalism and thus congruent with the UK's historic self-image, this was always in tension with the desire to use Europe within the context of domestic politics for partisan ends. Brexit happened because Europe remained a divisive issue within party politics, not because it remained a major public concern (the success of the press in promoting Euroscepticism depended on the issue's political salience, without which it would have looked as eccentric as an obsession with fluoridation). Paradoxically, this wasn't due to strongly-held beliefs among politicians. The constant true-believers were always a small minority, outweighed by those who used Europe as a metaphor for either progressive modernity or the overmighty state. This instrumentality has two causes. First, you have the periodic oscillation between isolationism and internationalism that has marked British politics (the inescapable tension of an island nation, which you can also see in the histories of Ireland and Japan). As a fundamental worldview, this cuts across parties organised on class lines so it tends to manifest as intra-party division and it also tends to change over time (consider the way the left and right in Labour have swapped positions since the 1950s).

The second factor is the antagonistic nature of a first-past-the-post electoral system. I don't mean to suggest by this that proportional representation would have made a difference to British attitudes, as the divisions on Europe were largely within parties rather than between them, but that governments indulged the topic to maintain party unity in the Commons. The 1975 and 2016 referendums were both called for this reason. As UKIP showed, there aren't enough voters who consider Europe to be the primary political issue to secure representation in Parliament, but there are enough to effect the outcome in seats for the two major parties. Calling a referendum makes it the primary issue, which risks producing a result that the legislature will struggle to process because it cuts across parties (as an aside, and contrary to the centrist media, Labour has been far more adroit in dealing with this than the Tories, and not just because it is in opposition). On the continent, Euroscepticism has either been channelled through minor parties that might conceivably hold the balance of power in a coalition or been opportunistically adopted by existing parties of the nationalist right. Though these might appear worrying developments, they suggest that the issue will be diluted through compromise or diverted into gestures. That the new Italian government has rowed back on quitting the euro and focused instead on a non-existent "migrant crisis" is indicative.

This dynamic of absorption and deflection might look unedifying from the outside, but it presents a lower political risk than a binary referendum whose mandate is open to interpretation. Though some Eurosceptic parties on the continent have talked of popular votes on the euro and EU membership, it is unlikely that these will come about. More likely is that the parties will continue to leverage Europe to build domestic support in national legislatures and the European Parliament. As UKIP found, a referendum can be a political death sentence (though equally, as the Tories are now discovering, the "betrayal" of a referendum can revive the corpse). Despite the claims of the right, the EU is not in conflict with nationalism, and has on occasion been happy to promote a liberal version of it, notably in the immediate aftermath of 1989. For all the promotion of a supra-national ideal of Europe, the reality of the EU is a project to reconcile capital's continental goals with national sensitivities. We are in a phase when national sovereignty is in the ascendant, but this is less about an existential threat to the EU than the advancement of particular factions of capital in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. A more assertive national identity is not incompatible with either greater EU institutional integration or neoliberal economic reform, as Macron is busy proving in France.

What has been remarkable about the Brexit process is the failure of the UK government to approach it in transactional terms, which can only be partly blamed on the way that it has been instrumentalised within parties for sectional interests. In a strange rejection of its historic practice and self-image, the UK has been more concerned with the ideal - sovereignty, the freedom of the high seas, constitutional integrity - than with the pragmatic, hence the profusion of cake and unicorns. In contrast, the EU has been predictable both in its insistence on its own ideals - notably the indivisibility of the four freedoms of the single market - and in its commitment to a rules-based process of negotiation. Criticising Boris Johnson for his incompetence or David Davis for his laziness is legitimate, but it takes the spotlight off the wider failure of the political class to articulate a coherent vision of the UK's future at a time when our relationship with the EU must inevitably weaken and when the "special relationship" with the US, which I'd argue was terminally damaged by the Iraq War, is unlikely to survive Brexit (Trump, as ever, has not signalled a shift in US policy, he has merely blurted out a truth that would otherwise be obscured by more diplomatic language).

That historic failure does not arise because our current political leaders are pygmies, but because the latest turn of the isolationist/internationalist gyre does not align with party formations, which constrains them from offering much beyond mitigation of the electorate's 2016 decision. That won't change. A pro-remain centrist party is not going to arise out of the ashes of Brexit because the chief concerns of the electorate beyond next March will be wages, housing and public services. The fundamental oscillation between closed and open is electorally decisive only when it aligns with material and thus party interest, as over the Corn Laws and Tariff Reform. The association of the EU with migration proved decisive in the 2016 referendum, but immigration itself has never turned an election. In the circumstances, the best any party can offer is an ameliorative programme that is honest about the UK's actual position in the world: a mid-sized power with the advantages of the English language and proximity to continental Europe, but with no delusions of global significance beyond that. We could do worse than study contemporary Japan, much as the Japanese pragmatically studied Britain during the Meiji Restoration.


  1. Ben Philliskirk18 July 2018 at 10:33

    I suspect the sensible course of action now would be to recognise the practical inevitability of 'no deal' and concentrate on that. That way Labour can expose the government's lack of planning while focusing on how it might deal with 'bread-and-butter' issues after March 2019.

    Unfortunately UK politics and the media seem so sucked into the immediate short-term party management crises that the shock of 'no deal' is inevitably going to lead to chaos.

  2. I think things are looking good from a Lexit view point. The internal Tory coalition is split but fear of Corbyn belts it together. This allows May to get her white paper just about intact to Europe, where presumably Oly Robbins has already tested the waters. They get some kind of deal in the autumn with free movement conceded but disguised by a registration provision (similar to that used by Spain now) and spun as a victory. The Goods rule book fudges the Irish question. The Tories sign up to the EU state aid rules. That's when the penny drops and the Tories go down. Arise Lord Jeremy over a completed Brexit. What's not to like??

  3. Herbie Kills Children19 July 2018 at 18:20

    This just highlights how pathetically inadequate the referendum debate was, the actual issues were drowned out by fear and bigotry. The fact that the particularities were not debated at all are proof that Brexit was a vote of bigots and racists little interested in facts.

    Now this hostility to Europe may be based on Stalin's principles of the nation state (this article reminds me of it in places) but the vote itself was a gigantic pander to most stupid and bigoted citizens, a demonstration of the wonders of democracy it certainly wasn't.