Friday 22 March 2024

Brexit Britain’s ailing state

Although not the commonest of the taunts aimed at remainers at the time of the referendum, a recurring one was ‘don’t you think this country is capable of running its own affairs?” The obvious answer was that it was based on the false premise that the EU ran the country, and that EU membership was one way in which the country ran its own affairs capably. Nearly eight years on, it’s increasingly tempting to think that the answer to the question should simply be ‘no’.

Of course, that is partly because of the particularly useless, almost absent, government we are currently enduring. It’s a government with virtually no discernible policies or even ideas, and the most discernible, the frenzied desire to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda, is as morally grotesque as it is impractical. It’s a government which doesn’t even have any ideological coherence: notionally Conservative yet engaged in an endless internal debate about what ‘true Conservatism’ means. The sense of political decay is palpable.

That is accompanied by an equally palpable sense of a country in decay. That ‘nothing works any more’ has become a cliché. Introducing an article this week bemoaning how the country is “stuck” waiting for an election to somehow unblock things, Suzanne Moore captured (£) the everyday manifestation of this sense:

“Someone in the queue for the bus replacement service had had enough. The train was cancelled because of “rain”. There was little information about when and where this bus would arrive. Some were struggling with luggage and buggies. Many were muttering under their breath. This happened to me recently and it has probably happened to you, too. Every single person was saying to each other: ‘this is just how things are these days’.”

A state in decay

These quotidian experiences are not, of course, the most serious examples of decay. A swathe of official figures released yesterday show how on multiple measures poverty is rising, including that 18% of the population are now in absolute poverty following the sharpest rise in 30 years. Last year saw a 6.8% increase in homelessness, and a record high in the number of households in temporary accommodation. The dental crisis which is seeing people extracting their own teeth is now so longstanding that it is reported abroad with puzzlement as to how this can be happening in a G7 country. People are spending their life savings to have routine, but vital, operations done because NHS waiting times have become so long, again a situation which has been developing for years. The Food Foundation’s latest survey found that 14.8% of UK households experience food insecurity in January 2024.

These, and many similar examples that could be given, are not just irritations, they concern some of the basics of life: food, housing, medical care. They are instances of the many ways that ‘nothing works any more’, but that, in turn, is a sign of something deeper, the way that, as the journalist John Harris wrote this week, “the state is abandoning its people”. He was writing primarily about the impact of the cuts being made by the now effectively bankrupt council in Birmingham but also about the way that “squalor, mess and festering social problems are now seen as the norm” much more widely than Birmingham.

That may be most painfully evident in relation to the welfare state, broadly conceived, but there are even more profound signs that what is happening is not so much governmental incompetence or callousness as it is a wholesale crumbling of the state. Those signs include the now entrenched crisis in prisons and in the criminal justice system as a whole, and, this week, the latest news from the dysfunctional HMRC, which is to close its helpline for half the year, having utterly failed to solve its longstanding problems. A more trivial, but telling, example this week might be the report that the Defence Secretary was flown in a jet which lacked electronic protective equipment because the RAF could not afford to install it. For that matter, the ultimate reason why the government has got into such a mess over asylum seeking is the abject failure of the Home Office to create an efficient and effective processing system. These examples are significant because they relate to things which all but the most crazed libertarians recognize as the core functions of even a minimal model of the state.

So what has this to do with Brexit? It is certainly not the case that it is the cause of these problems. Many of them have their origins in the Austerity years, and some have been decades in the making. Some have been exacerbated by recent events, especially the Covid pandemic and its aftermath. Yet Brexit is part of the mix, in two senses.

The permanent drag of Brexit

One, which is now going to be a permanent fact of British economic and political life, is that our problems are going to get worse, and their solutions less likely, because the country is poorer than it otherwise would have been as a result of Brexit. I’m really not going to rehearse the evidence for that yet again. There is simply no honest way of denying it, even if there is room for debate about the extent of the impoverishment. Within that debate, wherever the true figure lies within the range of credible estimates, which run from long-term annual GDP being between 4% and 6% lower than it would have been, it represents an economically significant cost by historical standards. This isn’t a one-off ‘hit’, it is a permanent effect.

That’s not going to be changed by the bogus graphs and misleading, cherry-picked data which some Brexiters are still churning out. It’s not going to be changed by this or that piece of economic good news which may sometimes be genuinely attributable to Brexit. It’s irrelevant whether or not the damage is as extensive as some predictions claimed. It’s irrelevant whether other countries also have economic problems. And it’s irrelevant that it is not the sole cause of this country’s economic problems. It would be far better for Brexiters to say, if it’s what they think, that this is a price worth paying for Brexit. That would at least have an honesty to it, although it would entail admitting the massive dishonesty with which they campaigned for Brexit, a campaign that emphatically denied there would be any economic costs at all, and promised economic benefits.

So that is one issue, and unless or until there is a political possibility of reversing Brexit, this drag on economic growth, and what that means for the tax base and for public services, is a truth which just has to be accepted.

Brexit overload

The second way that Brexit is part of the mix is related, but different and more subtle. If what we are experiencing is a crumbling of the state, in the sense of its basic functionality, then that is in no small part because Brexit has simply overloaded the bandwidth or capacity of the state. That this would happen, and has been happening, has been obvious to many of us from the outset, but it is only really now that its full meaning is becoming clearer. This has been brought into focus by a recent excellent report from the UK in a Changing Europe research centre entitled Brexit and the State (hereafter, the UKICE report, which includes coverage of many relevant issues beyond those discussed in this post; see also Jonty Bloom’s discussion in the New European).

This state overload began in the period spent ‘doing Brexit’ in its most literal sense, that’s to say from the referendum in June 2016 through to the completion of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) in December 2020. During that time, Brexit was self-evidently the major focus of politics, and of much governmental activity, at least until the arrival of Covid in early 2020. Brexit inevitably ‘crowded out’ other concerns and priorities, neglect of which might be regarded as one of its ‘opportunity costs’.

According to the UKICE report, following a period when civil service numbers fell, the referendum saw an immediate increase, so that there are now 100,000 more civil servants than there were then, with Brexit a key, though not unique, reason. Yet at the same time, as I’ve discussed many times on this blog, the relationship between politicians and the civil service deteriorated, at times to the point of almost open warfare, and this was entirely because of Brexit. So Brexit had a dysfunctional effect both in absorbing state attention and in disrupting the basic axis of its operation, namely the interplay of elected politicians and permanent officials.

At the same time, from the referendum right through until the present day, Brexit unleashed massive political and, at times, constitutional instability, the most obvious manifestation being the fact that there have been five Prime Ministers, four Tory leadership contests of varying extents, and two general elections. Not all of this was due to Brexit – a Johnson regime, under any circumstances would have been likely to generate scandal and instability – but none of it is separable from Brexit. That is obviously true of the chaos, and eventual demise, of Theresa May’s premiership, but no less so of the even more dramatic collapse of Liz Truss’s short-lived ‘true Brexit’ regime (£). Meanwhile, Tory factionalism and infighting, much of it related to Brexit, has been a constant feature of the post-referendum period, and is probably worse right now than it has ever been.

This political instability inevitably has consequences for the effective functioning of the state. If nothing else, it has meant very high levels of ministerial ‘churn’ with each change of leadership as well as between times. This applies to most government positions, but one striking example is the post of Housing Minister, which has had no less than thirteen incumbents since the referendum (although the present one, Lee Rowley, was one of the earlier holders), compared with four in the period between the 2010 election and the referendum. I highlight this example because, although it is a relatively junior post, housing is one of the most fundamental ways that the state is failing to deliver and a good example of how the UK is lagging behind other countries.

The other consequence of the political instability since 2016 is that even when issues other than Brexit have received political attention, and even where the problem of ministerial churn did not prevent consistent policymaking, the government’s capacity to pursue a policy programme was compromised. That was most obviously true after the 2017 election, when May lost her working majority, but, actually, it continued to be true after 2019 despite the government having an apparently healthy majority. For there have often been enough actual or potential rebels to force the government to dilute or abandon policies, not least because at the root of the Tory factionalism is a profound dispute about the actual meaning of Conservatism. 

The strain on state capacity

Apart from the general way in which Brexit has overloaded the state, it has also occurred in the more specific sense of the state taking on all of the new activities and responsibilities that had hitherto been undertaken by the EU. These include the operation of the much-vaunted independent trade policy, as well as the repatriation of the regulatory functions of the EU. Taking back control may have been a fine-sounding slogan, but in practice it means a massive amount of fiddly, boring, but vital administrative effort, which is also part of the reason for the increase in civil service numbers.

It is now abundantly clear that Brexiters did not have the remotest idea that this was the case, or about how to undertake it. That is an outgrowth of their central failure, which has dogged the entire Brexit process, to specify even the general outlines, let alone the detailed mechanics, of what Brexit actually meant. This would have been bad enough, but they compounded that by their paranoid insistence that Brexit had to be done as quickly as possible, despite the fact that much time was wasted by all the Tories' internal conflicts and leadership changes, thus resisting every extension of the Article 50 process and eventually making any further extension impossible. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this was because they realized that, as the meaning of Brexit became clearer and public support for it fell, there was always the possibility that the political impetus to abandon Brexit would prevail.

There was not even that rationale, reprehensible as it was, for their initial resistance to even the idea of a transition period, and refusal to extend the short transition period that there was, despite it coinciding with the major crisis caused by Covid. By then, Britain had left the EU and Brexit was assured. As I wrote at the time, the demand to extend the transition period wasn’t the last stand of remainers, it was the first chance for Brexiters to show that they could govern post-Brexit Britain. They failed the test and, in doing so, not only made the Brexit process even more damaging than it needed to be, they also undermined capacity to deal with the pandemic.

Perhaps the most obvious consequence of this mixture of ignorance, dishonesty, and irresponsibility has been the multiple postponements to the introduction of import controls, which still hasn’t been fully completed. The UKICE report also highlights the unresolved issues of the EU settled status (EUSS) scheme and the farm payments scheme. On regulation, there is a long list of new agencies that have had to be created and staffed, some with long and ongoing implementation periods. There are far too many to itemize here but many of them have been discussed in previous posts.

It is important to stress that, whilst burdensome, almost all of this new activity for the British state is also unproductive and pointless. Some of it, such as import controls and EUSS, is extra cost to do things which would not have needed to be done but for Brexit. Much of it, especially the new regulatory agencies, is unproductive not, as Brexiters would have it, because it is unnecessary bureaucracy – on the contrary, for the most part it is vital bureaucracy – but because it simply replicates what the EU was doing anyway. For reasons discussed endlessly on this blog, regulatory ‘independence’ is largely chimerical.

The structural weakening of the state

So all that has been achieved is the ‘freedom’ to pay more to have, at best, the same regulation but, more often, less effective, more clunky versions of the same regulation. The issue here isn’t so much the financial cost – the staff and other budgets are not, in the scheme of Brexit costs, huge – but the poor functionality of what has been created. This is partly a result of the difficulty of recruiting staff with the necessary skills, but even if that were resolved it would leave the bigger difficulty of the structural deficiencies of UK-specific regulatory infrastructure. An important example, which I’ve discussed in the past, is that however well-staffed and effective UK food safety regulators may be, the structural fact that they are not fully hooked in to the various EU databases and agencies means that they can never reduce health risks to the same extent as was the case before Brexit.

To all this can be added the confusing mess left by the attempt to expunge retained EU law which, again, was driven by Brexiter impatience and dogmatism. In the event, the chaos that would have been caused could not be ignored even by Brexiters like Kemi Badenoch, who ended up with responsibility for the legislation when Rishi Sunak became Prime Minister, and so it was substantially watered down in what became the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act, 2023. This climb-down was a relatively pragmatic piece of damage limitation. Nevertheless, as a Bar Council briefing note earlier this month explained, it has left substantial areas of uncertainty in fundamental areas of the law, something compounded by the lack of detailed parliamentary scrutiny of the legislation.

The consequences of this will play out over several years, as issues arise for the first time in what, in many cases, will be complex and highly technical areas. How extensive these consequences will be is impossible to say. Indeed, as the briefing puts it: “a central part of the problem is that no one yet knows quite how much of our law has been thrown into question by this new legislation” [emphasis added]. In terms of the theme of the basic functions of the state decaying or crumbling, there could hardly be a more potent example than the uncertainty about the law that governs us which Brexit has created.  

An ailing state

No country is, was, or could ever be, perfect, and the UK certainly isn’t alone in facing numerous problems, including problems of state capacity and effectiveness. But the now widespread sense of decay and failure here isn’t an illusion, as shown by how we are seen abroad, for example in a powerful short film just made by Annette Dittert of Germany’s ARD TV. It shows not just poverty and desperation but, tellingly in relation to this post, notes that “the state has long since disappeared from people’s lives here” (at 6.50). Or as the Telegraph’s Assistant Editor, Jeremy Warner, wrote this week (£):

“People sometimes come up to me at conferences abroad and ask, with faux sympathy, what has become of our country, which is now frequently characterised as almost third world. This may be a gross exaggeration, though scarcely so to judge by the mounting litter in my neighbourhood. In any case, you’d be a fool to think there wasn’t at least something in it.”

The UK is not a “third world”, failed or even a failing state, and it would be insulting to the many people around the world who have to endure in such states to say otherwise. But it could reasonably be called an ‘ailing state’, increasingly unable to meet the basic expectations of what a rich and technologically advanced country should be able to deliver to its citizens.

Brexit isn’t the only or even the main cause of that, but it does seem increasingly obvious that Brexit is not so much the straw that broke the camel’s back as the addition of a crushing, new, and permanent burden upon what was already a struggling beast, and has put leaden shoes on to its feet into the bargain. In this sense, although the UKICE report identifies many of the features of this new burden, I think there is more at stake here than its overall conclusion that “the post-Brexit state is still very much a work in progress”, whilst true in itself, suggests. The question is, more, whether there is a viable post-Brexit state at all.

Is there a remedy?

In the first instance, that is going to be a question for the expected Labour government. There’s certainly a good chance that at least the Brexit-induced political instability since 2016 could end, which is arguably a justification for Labour’s unwillingness to re-open the fundamental issue of Brexit. There’s also a good chance of some possible easements to the regulatory burdens of Brexit.

One early opportunity will be linking the UK and EU Emissions Trading Schemes so as to avoid the looming “regulatory nightmare” of the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) that the Financial Times reported on this week. Quick delivery of the SPS agreement Labour have committed to will be another. Whilst it’s widely observed that such moves won’t make a huge economic difference, they, and Labour’s evident commitment to ‘alignment’ as a default, would partially address some of the issues of Brexit overload of the state. That would speak to the need for a post-Brexit strategy, but would not address the deeper structural and systemic problems of the ailing state.

Warner suggests that radical planning reform, a central Labour pledge, offers the only obvious solution. That may be true, but it shouldn’t be underestimated how controversial it will be. Still, it is at least an example of something which only needs political will, rather than a lot of money.  Also in that category, and potentially addressing the more fundamental issues, is Labour’s commitment to reforming the machinery of government (£), and to constitutional innovations like Citizens’ Assemblies. In a climate of fiscal constraint, such initiatives could at least give a sense of momentum and progress, and the public some much-wanted hope of better times to come, though delivering on them – and doing so in ways which clearly improve everyday life – is quite another matter.

How all this plays out remains to be seen. So, going back to the Brexiters’ taunting question, ‘don’t you think this country is capable of running its own affairs?”, the answer is still in the balance. But if it turns out to be that we are, it will have been achieved despite Brexit, rather than because of it.

Correction (22/03/24, 10.00): In the post, I state that the HMRC has decided to close its helpline for half the year. In fact, having announced it, the HMRC reversed that decision a couple of days later. However, the ongoing issue of poor service levels remains.

I will be taking a break from blogging over Easter and so, unless there is a major development, the next post will be on Friday 12 April.

Friday 15 March 2024

‘I want my country back’: what’s in a phrase?

Lee Anderson’s decision this week to join the Reform Party, becoming its first, if unelected, MP brought into focus several of the Brexit themes I’ve been writing about in recent months. At the beginning of October, discussing the ways that Brexit has driven the Tory Party mad, I made specific reference to Anderson, then the Deputy Chairman, as illustrating how there are no discernible differences between many sections of the Tory Party and Reform. So, given the prompt of losing the Tory whip, it was an obvious move for him to make. It’s possible that other Tory MPs will follow him to Reform without that spur to action, but none have done so yet. And why should they? It is now obvious to all, as it should have been for a while, that, as I wrote in February 2023, Brexitism is eating Conservatism.

Thus the end-game for the Brexitist (or NatCon populists, or Five Families, or whatever label we might use for them) is to take complete control of the Tory Party after it loses the election, and then to bring Reform Party voters and politicians, perhaps including Nigel Farage, into an invigorated ‘true Conservative’ Party. Meanwhile, the job of Reform is to siphon off as much as possible of the vote, so as to inflict a catastrophic defeat upon Sunak, facilitating the Brexitist takeover and paving the way for an actual or effective merger. Who knows, Anderson himself may re-enter the Tory fold in the process. Or perhaps he will disappear into well-deserved oblivion, a footnote in dusty volumes of political history.

Why Anderson matters

Whatever his personal fate, the more interesting thing about his defection (though, technically, it wasn’t quite that, given that he had already lost the Tory whip) was the way Anderson explained his motivation. It was, he announced, using the kind of grave tone that implied it was some deeply thought-out, startlingly original insight, because “I want my country back”. Fellow Brexitist Andrea Jenkyns was in agreement, though apparently miffed since she had been “saying this for months!”, as if she had the copyright. In fact, it was exactly the decades-old cliché which I referred to in my post only a couple of weeks ago when discussing the politics of nostalgia feeding what I called ‘radical Brexitism’ (though the precise words I used there were ‘I just want my country back’).

Anderson claims, probably rightly, that his is a desire shared by “millions of people up and down the country”, although whether, as populists believe, it amounts to a (‘silent’) majority is another question. Allison Pearson in the Telegraph (£) certainly thinks, using a formulation with a certain redolence, that “Lee Anderson was right.” And it is the extent to which his idea has support, rather than Anderson himself, that matters. It is at least part of what gave us Brexit, but in doing so, as I suggested in my post, that revealed how chimerical it is as a political goal. After all, immediately after the referendum, Nigel Farage declared that “We’ve got our country back” and yet now, eight years later, Anderson and his ‘millions of others’ are still complaining, still aggrieved, still making the same demand.

One thing I didn’t know when I wrote my own post about nostalgia, but learned about this week from a poster on X-Twitter, is that in 2016 the critic A.A. Gill wrote a highly incisive critique of the ‘I want my country back’ motif, and its role in the nostalgia that informed the case to leave the EU. It is far better-written, and far more amusing, than my own effort, but there’s one important thing which Gill doesn’t mention, and which I only briefly touched on, which is that, whilst the demand suggests that at some point in the past those making it had ‘had their country’, but lost it due to recent changes, that suggestion is invalidated by the way that the demand is an old and recurring one.

Nostalgia - or déjà vu?

I certainly recall it being an expression which was widely used by adults when I was growing up in the 1970s. It was a sentiment channeled by Margaret Thatcher who, as the distinguished sociologist Stuart Hall wrote: “has always spoken quite authentically on behalf of those people who felt they were left behind by permissiveness … challenged by the sexual revolution, who never wanted a libertarian society” [1].

That was most obviously connected with the then prevalent Mary Whitehouse crusade against moral decline, a backlash against the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s, and as such may seem rather passé now. However, something similar continues to exercise the Conservative right, as shown this week (£) by Melanie Phillips’ equation of populism with social conservatism and traditional family values. That’s a view shared by the co-leaders of the New Conservatives, Tory MPs Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, and notably all three make the foundational Brexitist claim that the vote for Brexit was an indication that their socially conservative policies have majority support. Notably, too, all three of them, plus Anderson, were amongst the speakers at last year’s London NatCon Conference.

In other words, the conservative, and sometimes Christian conservative, critique of ‘the permissive society’ is by no means an historical curio from the 1970s. Certainly there is much contemporary resonance in the way that those who Hall described (using a term familiar from Brexit, though with an accent on its cultural rather than its economic meaning) as “left behind” were as alarmed about rising crime and disorder as they were by sexual licence.

That alarm was examined, at the same kind of time, by another sociologist, Geoffrey Pearson. His analysis showed how such fears in the 1970s and 1980s typically referenced an imagined past, vaguely referred to as ‘about 20 years ago’, before things got ‘out of control’. Yet, he demonstrated, going back about 20 years to the 1950s and 1960s revealed that exactly the same fears were being expressed, and also with reference to the period ‘about 20 years ago’ or ‘since the war’, and so on back into the even more distant past [2].

I was reminded of this when Reform leader Richard Tice expanded on Anderson’s reference to wanting his country back by talking about the way things have changed “over the last 25 years or so” (I can’t find the link, unfortunately, but elsewhere he waxed lyrical about the 1980s and 90s), showing the enduring relevance of the pattern of ever-refreshed, ahistorical grievance that Geoffrey Pearson identified. Even more pertinently, Pearson showed how the sense of crime and social breakdown, and the decline of traditional British or English (and he notes the frequent slippage between the two, also evident today) virtues, both in the 1980s and in previous periods, going back to the nineteenth century, was almost invariably linked to immigration and the arrival of ‘alien’ cultures.

This is also almost invariably what lies behind contemporary demands to ‘get my country back’, with Allison Pearson writing that “our nation is being abducted by aliens” (though also, inadvertently, demonstrating the endless recurrence of these claims by opening her article with a mournful lament for England written by Philip Larkin in 1946). It is plainly what Anderson meant, as suggested by his reference to his desire being to “speak my mind” (prompting some giggles from the assembled journalists), presumably a nod towards his remarks about Sadiq Khan which led to him losing the Tory whip. That was made explicit when he went on to use his new-found freedom by airing his “concerns” about legal and illegal migration and “hate marches”, concerns which he, just like his predecessors, ran seamlessly together with those about “street crime” and “the shoplifters” who go unpunished.

It’s not just immigration which is a recurring theme. The preoccupation Anderson and his fellows have with fighting culture wars against ‘wokery’ also reprises earlier anguish about ‘political correctness gone mad’ and, in Geoffrey Pearson’s telling, the persistent 1970s complaint about “the 'softy-softy, namby-pamby pussyfooting' of the 'so-called experts’” (p.4). That latter side-swipe at experts is another point of resonance with Brexit and Brexitism, as is the reference to social liberalism, which could effectively be expressed in the present-day terms of wokery, snowflakes, and safe spaces. Conversely, it’s not hard to imagine the next line being a quote from some preposterously-named, reactionary, over-privileged, 1970s warhorse of a Tory MP calling for the workshy to be conscripted for compulsory national service. But in fact that call was made just his week (£), by the fabulously wealthy, ferociously pro-Brexit Tory MP Richard Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, formerly of the Coldstream Guards, and descendent of pioneers of the sugar and slave trade.

In short, with some minor modifications of language and emphasis, there’s really no difference between the complaints made by people like Anderson, Tice, Cates, Kruger et al. now, and those made by their predecessors at the very time, whatever the time, they want to ‘get back’ to.

When nostalgia turns vicious

It's important to notice these recurrences and continuities partly because they help to explain why the demand to ‘have our country back’ is based upon an imagination of past stability and harmony – what might be called ‘simple nostalgia’ – which means that, even if the clock could be turned back, the recovered past would not be what people think they remember. But what is even more important is that it reveals the essential dishonesty of the pretension to moderation and reasonableness. That pretension is implicit in the word ‘just’ in the phrase ‘I just want my country back’, as if it were merely a humble demand. It also figures when that word is used in a different way, namely the claim commonly made by such populists that they ‘have nothing against immigration or immigrants, it’s just that the numbers have got too big’, or that they ‘have nothing against equality, it’s just that it has gone too far now’.

Yet the fact that such suggestions are recurrent, so that even when, say, immigration levels were much lower than they have been in recent years, exactly the same disclaimers were made, shows populists to have a highly immoderate agenda, which might be called ‘vicious nostalgia’. That is, they say that it is only now that immigration is too high that they are concerned, but in fact they said the same thing when immigration was lower. So were their demands ever to be satisfied, say by enforcing a low immigration cap, they would immediately demand even more extreme restrictions, all the way down to compulsory repatriation or even worse. For once the basic premise of ‘getting our country back’ is accepted, the list of who no longer belongs, of who is not ‘us’ but ‘them’, can only get longer. This is also an illustration of Brexitism, in that it is the wider application of the way that, with Brexit, as soon as one form of it was proposed, there was a demand that only an even harder form would be ‘true Brexit’.

This does not just apply to immigration. That is but one, albeit crucial, aspect of the more fundamental issue of who are the ‘we’ or ‘us’ in all this. Even leaving aside the obvious question of whether it refers to the English or the British, it is always implicit, and often explicit, that ‘getting our country back’ means, like Brexit, expunging ‘the enemies of the people’ and the ‘saboteurs’, and the ‘wokerati’ more generally. So what happens to all these people, numerous and powerful enough to have taken ‘our country’ from us? Public recantation? Imprisonment? Re-education? Deportation? And who are to be the arbiters of what is acceptable in ‘our country’? A Star Chamber of Lee Anderson and his pals?

So in these and other ways the apparently humble, slightly self-pitying, lament that ‘I just want my country back’ leads, or at the very least points, to the darkest corridors and most degraded chambers of human history.

Inverted snobbery

This mock-humility finds another kind of expression, superficially benign but deeply malign, which again was illustrated by Anderson’s explanation of his defection - all this in a statement which lasted just under two minutes! Rehearsing his trademark ‘prolier than thou’ schtick, he simpered that “I might not know some of these long words that people use in parliament”.

At one level, it was a horrible, Uriah Heep-ish, attempt to ingratiate himself – horrible not least for trading on precisely the stereotype of the northern working class which populists like Anderson ascribe to ‘the sneering remoaner elite’. At another level, it was self-evidently an example of the passive-aggressive inverted snobbery which some Brexiters have made their own. For it’s quite obvious that Anderson is not inarticulate, and doesn’t regard himself as such, but wants to use the idea that he is as a way of depicting himself as a plucky, plain-speaking underdog, standing up against effete privilege. It evidently struck Cambridge graduate Allison Pearson that way, as she breathlessly recounted how he had spoken in his “no-nonsense, Nottinghamshire miner’s style”, for all the world like Constance Chatterley meeting Oliver Mellors for the first time.

Again this is worth commenting on because it has a much wider currency and significance than Anderson himself. It is a recurring conceit amongst Brexiters, on both the right and the left, that their opponents are cushioned, self-indulgent, and privileged. Examples include representing ‘remainers’ as only concerned to keep their cheap EU nannies or plumbers, or to preserve the ease with which they can take foreign holidays or own holiday homes. It was evident recently in some responses to the report that the introduction of import controls has, predictably, led to shortages of artisanal delicatessen products, responses which were reminiscent of the comment in Gill’s essay about the desire to go “back to gooseberries, not avocados”.

It’s cartoonish at multiple levels, as if working-class people never go abroad, never employ childminders or plumbers, and subsist solely on bread-and-dripping and pints of wallop. But it serves an important purpose, which is to ignore the significant levels of support for leaving the EU amongst affluent middle-class southerners as well as the significant support for remaining in the EU across the UK, but especially in Scotland and Northern Ireland, amongst poor and working-class people.

Indeed part of its dishonesty is not to differentiate between ‘poor’ and ‘working class’ at all, even though the notion of the Red Wall was originally bound up with Labour-held constituencies where there were large numbers of people with characteristics of home ownership and small-business ownership which associated with voting Tory in other parts of the country. It was these older, probably leave-voting, working class but relatively affluent voters who were central to turning the Red Wall blue in the 2019 election. They may not be rich, but they are not living precariously on the very fringes of society, unacquainted with avocados and confining their holidays to Bridlington. Ignoring this is again part of a rhetorical strategy to depict Brexit – and the more extensive agenda of Brexitism – as being the people’s crusade against the elite.

So just as ‘I want my country back’ codes a vicious agenda of exclusion, Anderson’s ‘man of the people’ act, and similar efforts by Farage and others, mobilize inverted snobbery in pursuit of that agenda.  

Who are the baddies?

We can obviously expect the Brexitists to go on mining this seam, and it will be much easier to do so in opposition than in government. That’s because, as with Brexit itself, it can’t translate its promises into deliverable policy. This is one of the reasons why Sunak’s government is in such a mess, as it constantly tries to assuage the unassuageable demands of the Brexitists within the party and the electorate, whilst maintaining at least a semblance of rationality and competence. Hence Sunak’s periodic forays into populism, such as last year’s embrace of the ’15 minute city’ conspiracy theory, which go nowhere in policy terms.

More recently, and to the present point, his strange, impromptu speech condemning extremism was evidently designed to speak to current concerns - about the safety of MPs, rising Islamophobic and antisemitic attacks, public disorder and ‘no go zones’ - some of which are genuine, but others exaggerated or deployed opportunistically by Brexitists. Indeed it spoke to precisely the issues and events which were the proximate cause of Anderson’s demise as a Tory MP, and promised “a new robust framework” to deal with extremism (the first step, it later emerged, being to get Michael Gove to define it).

This may have been intended to placate Brexitists, perhaps even to promise them that they were about to get their country back! Yet, far from being satisfied, they were infuriated because Sunak included far-right extremism in his condemnation. Yet he could hardly do otherwise without losing all credibility as a mainstream politician, given the widespread evidence of such extremism, including, for example, the fact that last year saw the highest ever number of those in prison for far-right terror offences.

So, suddenly, the Brexitists began to be concerned that the “robust framework” this speech was going to lead to might include them, with, most prominently, Miriam Cates fearing that “attempting to define such nebulous terms as ‘extremism’ and ‘British values’ will have a further chilling effect on those with lawful, conservative views”. Quite what existing ‘chilling effect’ there is on expressing ‘lawful, conservative views’ was not clear when Cates wrote those words, and has become even less so since, given Sunak’s equanimity about holding on to Frank Hester’s money, despite his remarks about Diane Abbott.

At all events, the Brexitists needn’t worry about facing their ‘are we the baddies?’ moment because, ironically, what is almost certainly going to unfold is a textbook illustration of why populism can’t give rise to workable policy. After all, it’s not as if we haven’t been round this loop before, sometimes even with Gove flying the plane, in the fruitless quest for a definition of British values which isn’t either so narrow as to exclude everything except Morris dancing and eating baked beans or so broad as to include everything but satanic rituals and cannibalism.  As it turned out, although he did produce a new definition of extremism yesterday, Gove seems to have avoided re-opening the issue of ‘British values’ directly. Perhaps he felt, as my father did when faced with the task of telling me ‘the facts of life’, that it was better to leave the details only vaguely hinted at (so that at the time, and for some years afterwards, I thought he had been explaining the basic skills I would need if I wanted to pursue a career in plumbing).

What will happen with Gove’s definition, which has already predictably been criticised for going too far and for not going far enough, remains to be seen. I suspect that in practical terms it will amount to nothing and will soon be forgotten. But what Cates’ initial reaction inadvertently demonstrated was the essential fatuity of the central Brexitist ideas of ‘the people’, ‘the will of the people’, and, with that, of their outgrowth in the slogan ‘I want my country back’. For all of these things falter on the same rock as attempting to define British values. There simply is no single ‘people’, with a single ‘will’, and a single set of values, and nor is there a single ‘country’ that belongs as of right to one segment of it. There’s almost certainly not even any agreement within the segment which ‘wants their country back’ about what that actually means, just as there was no agreement amongst those who wanted Brexit about what that meant.

A joke

The fundamental problem in all this is that attempts to define extremism in what is still a liberal democracy inevitably rely on some notion of the tolerance of diversity of beliefs, lifestyles, speech and so on. But, at the same time, the underlying implication of the desire to ‘have our country back’ is the politics of vicious exclusion which is at odds with such tolerance and, itself, a form of extremism. Of course liberal democracies can, should, and do have laws prohibiting many kinds of extremist behaviour, from terrorism to hate speech, as the UK does. Yet, evidently, that is not enough for Anderson and the millions who agree with him.

However, although what is, again, still a liberal democracy isn’t going to give those people what they want, most politicians, and certainly Sunak, continue to pander to them. That is a doomed enterprise, since they remain aggrieved, and it is unsatisfactory for everyone else because it constantly gets in the way of useful, productive and effective politics. It is the political equivalent of indulging a childish tantrum and, again, Brexit provides the template.

Perhaps the best response whenever someone shrieks ‘I want my country back’ would be to say: ‘Well you can’t. You’ve been given Brexit, and that’s more than enough. So suck it up’. It’s true that such treatment would provoke screaming populist rage about the insufferable arrogance of the liberal elite, but that reminds me of one of my favourite jokes, in which a man goes to the doctor, who prescribes a medicine but warns that its side-effects are depression, weight gain, impotence and hair loss. The patient replies that he already has the side-effects, so he might as well start taking the medicine.



[1] Quoted in Philip Whitehead, The Writing on the Wall. Britain in the 1970s. London: Michael Joseph, 1985.

[2] Geoffrey Pearson, Hooligan. A History of Respectable Fears. London: Macmillan, 1983.

Friday 8 March 2024

A country on hold

Writing this weekly blog creates a certain rhythm, though the nature of it has changed over the years. In fact, in the early years it wasn’t always weekly, as I often wrote several short posts in some weeks. But it gradually settled into a weekly pattern of posting on a Friday morning, not necessarily rounding-up the week’s events but certainly based around them. As that happened, the length of posts also settled to being about 2000-3000 words each week. Occasionally they become even longer, but I try to keep to a 3000-word ceiling although it is often difficult to do so, and sometimes impossible.

For a long time, throughout most of 2017-2019, I more or less knew what the week ahead would bring in terms of particular scheduled parliamentary events, or negotiations with the EU. Of course the exact detail of what those events would bring could be highly unpredictable so that, often, the bulk of the post would be written in the small hours of Friday morning.

Since that period things have changed in that it is less common for there to be a predictable set of events, with the consequence that almost every Sunday and Monday I find myself thinking that there will be nothing to write about this week. Yet, invariably, and despite Brexit featuring less in the news than it did in previous years, there has always been plenty to say by Friday and the problem is just that of trying to find a coherent theme which isn’t simply a repeat of things I’ve already written, and which keeps close to my self-imposed word limit.

No news is bad news

All of this is a long-winded prelude to saying that this week, for the first time in over seven years, there is almost nothing new worth saying about Brexit. Of course there are, as always, a few news stories of note. In last Friday’s Financial Times (£) Valentina Romei, drawing on the latest ONS figures, reported that “UK goods trade has suffered its steepest five-year fall on record”, with Brexit at least one factor, and possibly a major factor. But it was hardly a huge surprise, any more than was the usual ‘yesbuttery’ from the usual suspects.

The most superficially plausible objection to Romei’s report is that the focus on UK goods trade ignores the far better post-Brexit performance in services trade, as discussed by Emily Fry, the Resolution Foundation's Senior Economist. However, as John Springford of the Centre for European Reform explains, “if the UK had remained an EU member, its services exports would probably have grown much faster”. Brexiters would no doubt huff and puff about the ‘probably’, but the basic fact remains that there’s no plausible reason to explain how three years of increased trade barriers with the UK’s biggest trade partner, and only very marginal, and very recent, reductions in (mainly goods) trade barriers with a couple of very small trading partners, could possibly mean anything other than less trade, including less services trade, being done than would otherwise have been the case.

To avoid this obvious fact, Brexiters go through all sorts of contortions, with Kemi Badenoch yesterday using the shop-soiled trick of claiming post-Brexit export growth by using figures without adjusting for inflation. It’s like someone who earns £30K a year saying that they are much better off than their granddad was because he only earned £25K when he was their age. It’s bad enough when it comes from some pseudonymous Twitter account, or some woeful Brexit-dogma website. But this was the Trade Secretary, giving a major speech the central point of which was the need for "realism, realism, realism" in discussions about trade! Inevitably it was picked up to be the front page of this morning’s Express, a screaming headline of Brexit’s success, based on a claim which bears as much relation to economic realism as potato printing does to fine art.

Relatedly, we have also learned this week that, on top of the recently announced ‘pause’ in the UK-Canada negotiations, an imminent UK-India Free Trade Agreement is looking increasingly unlikely. But that’s not surprising, either, and it makes little difference anyway. The entire idea that having a trade policy independent of the EU’s is of any value was always bogus. Even the now moribund idea of a UK-US trade deal, supposedly the great economic prize of Brexit, would make only a tiny dent in the costs of leaving the EU. In passing, it is almost forgotten now but, during the referendum, the then real possibility of an EU-US trade deal (TTIP) was regarded with horror by many Brexiters and touted by some as the main reason to leave (on the spurious grounds that it would have meant privatization of the NHS). It’s another small reminder of the contradictions, dishonesty and opportunism with which Brexit was sold.

Meanwhile, ‘Global Britain’ Brexit ideologue Daniel Hannan is reduced (£) to lauding Argentina’s Javier ‘El Loco’ Milei as an inspirational model for British economic policy. This, apparently, is what we could have had if only Liz Truss had been allowed free rein and, in fairness, that, at least, may be true. This one was especially striking because prior to the referendum one of the most perspicacious warnings about Brexit came from the Conservative commentator Garvan Walshe, in which he suggested that it would set Britain on a pathway of decline similar to that which Argentina took from its relative prosperity at the start of the twentieth century. In doing so, he noted that the country “suffers from a chronic political virus: with only brief interludes, it has since the 1930s been run by populists who maintain that the system is run for the elite, and against the people; that any experts are the system’s hired clerks, their wisdom corrupted by money; that the plain anger of the ordinary man isn’t just right, but righteous”. Now, Milei’s loony-tunes regime, which exemplifies such ‘anti-Establishment populism’, is proposed by Hannan as the template for post-Brexit Britain. At least it shows that one thing can be relied upon: if nothing else, there will always in any given week be one, and probably several, insane articles by Brexiters in the Telegraph.

Other than that, the sorry saga about import control introduction also continues to limp on, this week with the news that physical checks on goods moving from Ireland to Wales are unlikely to begin before spring of 2025. This is a delay within a delay in that, as is well-known, controls on imports from the EU have been delayed five times, and are only this year being implemented in full, with the physical checks aspect due to begin at the end of April. However, goods from Ireland (which mainly route through Welsh ports, especially Holyhead), were already exempted from that date, and checks were due to begin in October 2024. It is that latter date which now looks set to slip.

That these checks serve important purposes is something I’ve written about before, with one of them being to reduce the risk of contaminated foodstuffs entering the country. Without reprising the detail, this risk is increased by Brexit not because EU goods have ‘suddenly become dangerous’ (as Brexiters invariably sneer when these risks are mentioned) but because the UK no longer has full access to the EU databases that help to track criminal and accidental dangers, and relies on a rather patchy, understaffed and underfunded system of its own. The importance of this increased risk is shown by this week’s reports of soaring hospital admissions for food poisoning, some of which is attributable to Brexit.

Exactly how much is down to Brexit is difficult, probably impossible, to know. There are certainly cases, such as a major salmonella outbreak last year linked to Polish poultry, where EU imports are to blame. But of course it cannot be proved definitively that this would not have happened without Brexit, for the simple reason that the risks were not, and never could be, completely eliminated by EU membership and nor can they be by import checks. The point is that, in the absence of EU membership and of import controls, these risks are increased, in principle, and so it is hardly unreasonable to think that the observed increase of cases, in practice, is linked to this. It is just one of many ways in which, with almost no public recognition of the reason, Brexit makes our lives a little bit worse, contributing to an aggregate which degrades our overall quality of life, with everything becoming more grubby and more ramshackle as the damage accumulates.

Waiting for god knows what

So, yes, there is some Brexit news, as always. But the reality is that the entire British polity is now on hold, waiting for an election with an almost palpable impatience. Even Tory MPs, leaving aside the many, currently numbering sixty-two, who have announced they won’t be standing again, seem to be gagging for the orgy of blood-letting that will follow. We have a rotting, maggoty sack of a government which is clearly bereft of any kind of policy agenda whatsoever, and certainly of any Brexit agenda. It's true that many of its backbenchers still harbour fantasies of massive regulatory divergence, but the government knows that they are totally impractical and would be heavily resisted by business organizations.

In fact, this government has no purpose at all other than to cling on to the trappings of power, and persists simply in the hope that the opinion polls may improve if it does so for long enough, a hope which rests primarily not upon anything which it may do, but upon the Labour Party committing some kind of massive error. Conversely, this means that the Labour Party are now animated solely by the desire to ensure that they commit no such error before the election. As regards Brexit, that means saying as little as possible, and promising as little as possible.

Notably, in the main political and economic event of the week, the Budget, Brexit was not mentioned once in either Jeremy Hunt’s speech or Keir Starmer’s response (even though the OBR forecasts that accompanied it stuck to their estimate that the evidence continues to support their original calculation that GDP will be 4% lower in the long-term than it would otherwise have been). If this silence persists – and, frankly, there’s no doubt that it will – then the Tories will go into the election saying almost nothing about Brexit, their defining policy since 2016 and their flagship policy at the last election, for the simple reason there is nothing to boast about and the people who still support it mostly think that the government made a mess of it. And Labour will do the same due to the (not unreasonable) fear that to do otherwise might give the Tories a chance to re-group around a ‘save Brexit’ slogan, perhaps even to the extent of spiking the cannibalization of their vote by the Reform Party.

That we have arrived at this situation is actually quite remarkable, and the more so since, as I recorded at the time, the details of Brexit barely featured in either the 2017 election or the 2019 election. So this great ‘national liberation’, this economic and geo-political reset will, once again, and despite all we now know about its consequences, be left as something virtually undiscussed, in substantive terms, since the short and stupid referendum campaign of 2016.

Labour in power?

Assuming Labour win the election, whenever it comes, it’s at least possible that Brexit, or, rather, the UK’s relationship with the EU will become discussable again. That’s partly for the reasons of security and defence which I’ve discussed in recent posts, as these are the areas where the Labour leadership is already indicating it is keen to deepen the relationship. But the economic issues won’t go away. It’s difficult to exaggerate the scale of the mess Labour are going to inherit, not least because, to the extent that the current government has any policy at all, it is to deliberately ensure that the mess be as bad as possible.

The political comparisons with the 1997 election may have some validity, but the economic outlook will be totally different, and more like that (or those) of 1974, in the era of stagflation. The elections that year, it bears recalling, occurred when the Tories had just implemented a European policy about which the Labour Party was deeply split, and entertained reversing by holding the 1975 referendum. I’m not suggesting that is a direct parallel, but Labour will have to fix the economy they inherit, and especially its impact on public services, and do so very quickly if they are to avoid voter disillusionment. For such disillusionment is likely to set in rapidly given that the main thing propelling Starmer to power is disaffection with the Tories rather than enthusiasm for Labour.

That will make the ongoing negative impact of Brexit more difficult to avoid than it has been in Opposition. The 4% drag anchor on growth that the OBR estimate (and other credible estimates are even higher) is a big elephant to ignore, especially given Starmer’s pledge to make the UK the fastest-growing economy in the G7. Attention will quickly focus on what, realistically, might be achieved via the 2026 review of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), with some recent signs that, from an EU perspective, there may be more scope than was once thought. That isn’t altogether unrelated to the security situation and certainly isn’t unrelated to whatever the outcome of the US Presidential election turns out to be.

But even the most maximal refinements possible within the TCA framework won’t do much for economic growth. This week the former MEP Andrew Duff has published a detailed, gradual plan for a bolder approach that Labour could take, and, for all the red lines that Starmer has drawn, it’s not hard to see this plan, or something like it, gaining a lot of support within his party, much of which is far less reconciled to Brexit than is its leadership. Even Duff’s first step, a UK-EU customs treaty, would have a strong economic rationale in terms of reducing some border frictions, and therefore compliance costs. Brexiters would screech about the loss of an ‘independent trade policy’ (even though the loss would be purely symbolic), but they will do that about anything Labour do, no matter how unambitious, that they could portray as a ‘betrayal of Brexit’ (as Suella Braverman already started to do during the Budget debate).

How loud would those screeches be, and how much political cut-through would they have? There are two, related, factors here. One is that it shouldn’t be under-estimated how much a change of government will change the dynamics of the right-wing media, which will become more compliant and much less influential overnight, as will the numerous thinktanks that have thrived on Tory patronage. That would be especially true if there was a huge wipe-out of the Tories. The scale of their defeat, and of a Labour victory, is the second factor. Whatever its size, the Tories look set to fall into vicious in-fighting which will consume most of their energy. And if it is as large as the largest current predictions, Labour’s freedom of action would be very considerable, at least initially. The question, however, remains the extent to which they would use it.

There is also, as ever, the question of whether the EU would enter into a significant change in the relationship. It can’t be assumed that even a total Tory meltdown would, in and of itself, make much difference to this. After all, the much-cited parallel of the 1993 Canadian election, which saw the near-extinction of the Progressive Conservative Party, ultimately led to a realignment of the right which brought the populist Stephen Harper to power in 2006.

The death row government

All of this is for the future. For now, Sunak will hold on, conceivably only until May but more likely until the autumn, especially as this week’s budget doesn’t seem to have ‘landed’ especially well. That means it is quite likely that we will have to endure another ‘fiscal event’, as well as whatever other nonsense they come up with, before the election. It’s a ludicrous and abhorrent situation, for all sorts of reasons, not limited to Brexit; the political equivalent of those ghastly death row stories where, long-ago convicted of some squalidly bestial crime, the inmate rots for years waiting to be strapped into the electric chair.

But, as the cliché has it, ‘we are where we are’. There will probably be many more weeks to come when there is little to say about politics, and even less about Brexit other than to record the endless drip of damage it is doing, and the endless drip of evidence that the promises made for it were false.

Friday 1 March 2024

How the failures of Brexit feed Radical Brexitism

One of the more ‘highbrow’ arguments for Brexit – these things are, of course, relative – was that, having left, politicians would no longer be able to blame the EU and would have to take responsibility themselves. Needless to say, this has proved as illusory in practice as it was improbable in theory. Even leaving aside all those they blame for the failures of Brexit itself, the politicians who brought us Brexit have never ceased to blame others for all the country’s woes.

That has been glaringly obvious in the last week. Ever since the her disastrous mini-budget, Liz Truss and her allies have been blaming her downfall on everything from the Establishment to ‘left-wing’ bond traders. Now, in Washington to promote her peculiar-sounding forthcoming book and to court the pro-Trump, QAnon weirdos, she let rip at globalism, wokeism, socialism, and liberalism. Then came the much more high profile row of the week, starting with Suella Braverman’s claim that “Islamists are in charge of Britain” (£), which was followed by Lee Anderson’s more pointed attacks on Sadiq Khan and London as being “under the control” of Islamists, for which he lost the Tory whip. Since then he has renewed those attacks, whilst Braverman has gone on to talk in almost apocalyptic terms about Britain becoming “unrecognizable” (£).

Clearly this is about more than the utterances of a few Tory MPs, although even if that was all it was it would not be insignificant, given that they comprise a former Prime Minister, former Home Secretary, and former Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party. But, in fact, some version of this analysis is now commonplace across numerous groups of Tory MPs and, very likely, the majority of the Tory Party membership, as well as the Reform Party, carrying all the way through to the street-fighting hard right of ‘Tommy Robinson’ and the English Defence League. Actually, we can be more precise: some version of this analysis is now commonplace across many, if not most, of the leading advocates of ‘hard Brexit’ including even harder forms of Brexit than we actually have. 

As an analysis, even leaving aside its conspiracy theory nonsense, it is totally incoherent. Many of its proponents are in favour of global free trade, but opposed to ‘globalism’; liberal but opposed to ‘liberalism’; ‘libertarian’ but in favour of state clampdowns on those protests they dislike; hugely privileged, yet ‘anti-elite’. There’s not even the tiniest attempt to explain how globalists and socialists and Islamists can all be running Britain. The only coherence is the idea that whoever is running things, and whoever is responsible, it isn’t the Conservative Brexiters. And this idea is impervious to the observation that Conservative Brexiters have been running the country for years, since its proponents insist that those in charge were not ‘true’ Conservatives and Brexit was not ‘real’ Brexit. This is now a standard belief of ‘Brexitists’ and is promulgated across the right-wing media, including, and in particular, their own propaganda channel, GB News.

The deeper failure

So, at one level, this is yet another example of Brexit having failed to live up to its promises. Far from ushering in a new era of political accountability it has seen an intense denial of responsibility, not least for Brexit itself. However, this reflects a much deeper level at which Brexit has failed: it was supposed to have resolved all the things that Truss, Braverman, Anderson et al. are still complaining about.

For, whilst Brexit had multiple meanings and motivations, many of them are captured by the idea of it being a great ‘re-set’, a return to ‘the time before’. It’s true that even contained within that single idea there are also a wide variety of apprehensions of when that time was, and what it consisted of, but they all entail some notion of a supposedly simpler, more comprehensible world (or, perhaps, country). As the word ‘supposedly’ implies, this entails gross simplification, if not downright fantasy, about the past, and it is easily mocked as being about silly symbols like blue passports or imperial measures. But it does have some real, empirical basis in referencing a world which was less economically and culturally globalized (though there’s plenty of room for debate about the nature and meaning of that, too).

It’s a notion that finds all sorts of expressions in relation to Brexit, though perhaps lurking in the margins rather than in the headline slogans. It’s most obvious in the many invocations of the Second World War. It’s present, in a more subtle way, in the many varieties of the idea ‘that we managed perfectly well before’ EU membership. It’s also present, though not necessarily explicitly linked to Brexit, in all those sly little social media memes where English street scenes are circulated with expressions of regret about ‘how different things are nowadays’, which might refer to the fact that such scenes show men wearing hats, high street shops that are flourishing, towns that are not choked by traffic, or even roads that are free of potholes - but more likely refers to there not being a non-white face in sight.

As that last example suggests, issues of race and racism are integral to this idea of a return to the past, often coded by the lament ‘I just want my country back’, and they are clearly also integral to the idea of an Islamist takeover. But they are only one element of something which is more subtle and nebulous. The Vote Leave slogan ‘take back control’ was certainly in part a message about controlling immigration, and perhaps about political accountability, but it also had the wider resonance of ‘regaining’ all manner of losses, and in that sense is best understood in terms of nostalgia.

The politicization of nostalgia

Nostalgia isn’t the only reason why Brexit had, and still has, far more support amongst the old than the young, but it is surely one of them. These older voters may have had some overlap with those ‘left behind’ economically but, more obviously, they were those who were left behind psychologically and culturally. That is not a sneering disparagement. It’s just a recognition that it is quite normal, perhaps natural, for older people to tend to see the world they grew up in as being the normal and proper order of things (just as the reason why younger people tend to be relaxed about multi-culturalism and social liberalism is not because they have some special virtue but because it is what they have grown up with). It’s equally normal to overlay nostalgia for that world with the different kind of nostalgia for youth and vitality; perhaps, even, to conflate the two so as to feel, if only unconsciously, that if the proper order of things could be restored then so could that lost vitality.

There’s nothing particularly objectionable about nostalgia as a psychological phenomenon, but it is dangerous as a political philosophy and doomed as a policy programme. Yet, at the same time, it is also profoundly powerful as a political motivator, especially when combined with the politics of grievance and with nationalism. What that three-part combination creates is not just a neuralgic sense of loss, but the anger of having been cheated, and the chauvinism of having been cheated by external and internal enemies. It means that the passing of time is not something to be accepted, if regretted, but is the theft of a birthright by alien forces and something to be outraged by.

Prior to Brexit, EU membership could act as a symbol of that theft and be ascribed as the cause of all that had changed in the world in previous decades. That wasn’t entirely implausible, if only because the EU is a part and parcel of those changes, but leaving the EU could never deliver a return to the past. That’s partly because the EU was only one aspect of what had changed, but primarily for the obvious reason that time only goes in one direction. The world prior to 1973 could not be regained by a vote to return to it, but one dishonesty of Brexit was to allow people to think that it could be. Far worse, because voting for Brexit was ‘democratic’ then when the past failed to re-appear ‘the will of the people’ had been thwarted. In this way, the original theft has been compounded by a second, more blatant, offence.

‘Ordinary’ people, the Brexit Delusion, and the culture wars

The consequence is that the pre-existing boil of nostalgic grievance has not been lanced by Brexit, but has become infected and inflamed by Brexit. Would we be having current debates about Islamists running the country, or about multi-culturalism, or about woke social liberalism, if Brexit had not happened? Of course we would. Despite the idea, yet another piece of grievance politics, that these are things ‘we’re not allowed to talk about’, they have been talked about, endlessly, for decades. To take just one example, the term ‘Londonistan’ emerged in the late 1990s, and Melanie Phillips’ book of that title, published in 2006, claimed the Islamification of Britain to have begun twenty years before that. But we wouldn’t be having them in quite the same way.

In the days when, according to Phillips, Islamification was getting started, Lee Anderson worked, as he never ceases to remind people, in the coal mines, before emerging to become first a Labour and then a Conservative politician. An ardent campaigner for Brexit, he became a Tory MP in 2019 and is taken, not least by himself, to be emblematic of ‘Red Wall’ leave voters (£). And whilst there’s always been a political market for his kind of plain-speaking man-of-the-people, professional Northerner schtick, it’s hard to imagine him having come to prominence in anything other than the post-Brexit Tory Party.

Whilst also not entirely new, Brexit has given focus to the idea of regional, ageing, working-class Englishness as being the template for ’ordinary people’, from which any divergence is a sign of elitism and the privilege of ‘luxury beliefs’. More even than Nigel Farage, who can’t quite shake off the taint of being Southern and middle-class, Anderson represents a voice which is almost as angered by the thought of London itself as it is by ‘Londonistan’. Ever since 2016, such voices, which have always represented themselves as ‘the silent majority’, have been able to persuade themselves and others that they are the actual majority – a phenomenon which Week in Brexitland author Nick Tyrone recently described as “the Brexit Delusion”:

“This is the idea that because 52% of the country voted to leave the EU in 2016, that means that 52% of the country agree with all of the ideas held by the hard right Brexiters who roam SW1A. 2016 made them become convinced that they have a god given right to govern the country their way because, hey, when finally given a “real” vote (which in their minds, the 2016 referendum was the only example of, really) they plumped for their politics, supposedly.”

To give just one example of this delusion, Tory MP Jonathan Gullis claimed that deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda was what people wanted when they voted for Brexit, precisely as if the referendum had been a mandate for an entire policy agenda rather than a vote on whether or not to leave the EU. Ironically, it is a delusion which relies as much upon the liberal middle-class guilt of remainers bending over backwards to try to understand Brexit as it does upon the aggressive working-class machismo embodied by Anderson. At all events, it is this idea of an ordinary people, girded by their referendum victory, who have been cheated by history, that gives a new inflection to cultural debates, to the extent that, now, we call them culture wars.

It’s in this context that Anderson matters, not just as the supposed tribune of the common man, but for his self-declared commitment to fighting these culture wars. That is why Sunak made him Deputy Chairman of the Tory Party, but, if anything, he matters more to the Labour Party. That is because he is also seen as representative of a certain kind of traditional Labour voter, who may not be quite as numerically important as party strategists think, but who symbolizes what within Labour political psychology still seems to be the archetype of the ‘real working class’; the male, unionized, manual industrial worker.

It is a ludicrous and offensive archetype, if not stereotype, of such workers as Gerhard Schnyder has eloquently explained, but it exerts a powerful hold on Labour for reasons of its own version of the politics of nostalgia. It’s as if Labour accept the proposition made endlessly by populist Conservatives like Matthew Goodwin, that they have betrayed the ordinary working-class people of Britain to become the party of ‘the new elite’ of woke, urban graduates.

One of the many things missing from that proposition is the implication of the line, so striking when it was first said by Neil Kinnock in 1987, but now so common as to be almost a cliché, of someone explaining their working-class credentials by saying they were ‘the first in their family to go to university’.  Missing, too, is any sense of justifiable pride from Labour that this transformation in access to higher education was in good part due to the Wilson and Blair governments. Perhaps most importantly, what’s missing is a recognition that, if only because of the changing nature of the British economy, millions of ordinary working people don’t fit this narrow template of the ‘real working class’, and yet are by no means the elite, ‘new’ or otherwise.

From Brexit to Radical Brexitism

The overall effect of all this has been that post-Brexit political debates in general, and those about multi-culturalism and social liberalism in particular, have become more rather than less toxic. Rather than accept that liberal multi-culturalism is not only a reality, but, actually, in Britain, has been rather successful – not perfect or unproblematic, but that’s true of all societies, most certainly including illiberal monocultures – it is invariably framed as if it were an affront to ‘ordinary, decent people’, as Farage called those who had voted for Brexit.

Thus a new ‘knot’ of grievance has been created: these ‘ordinary decent people’ have not only been denied ‘real Brexit’ but they have been denied the more amorphous great re-set they were at least implicitly promised. The clock hasn’t been turned back, the past hasn’t been regained, and the politicians who promised to ‘take back control’ have not been able to deliver on any of the senses of that slogan. From which one obvious conclusion that can be drawn, and which brings us back to where this post began, is that ‘someone else’ – the globalists, the Establishment, the Islamists, perhaps all of them! – Them! Them! The Others! – must be in control.

In this way Brexitism has become radicalized by the very failure of Brexit so as to seek new targets, other than the EU, to blame, and to pursue ever more extreme projects than leaving the EU in order to regain the lost past. Whether, given the demography of support for it is actually quite limited, that agenda can be realized is another matter, certainly at the moment, when it looks as if that support will be split between parties at the next election.

However that split may not last forever, and it is perfectly possible that this more radical Brexitism will attract new recruits, even amongst the young, at the same time as disillusionment with a future Labour government reduces faith in alternatives to Brexitism and reduces voter turnout. In those circumstances, and assuming the First Past the Post system remains in place, it’s not that difficult to envisage a government imbued with the kinds of ideas that Truss, Braverman and Anderson have been advancing this week. The ‘silent majority’ is not an actual majority, but it does not need to be to gain power.

If put into practice, the irony is that whilst animated by a conservative desire to return to the past, these ideas are predicated on the distinctly unconservative desire to ‘smash the system’. In this, and other ways, they, like Brexit, contain the seeds of their own failure. The more they succeed in their mission of destruction, the less they will deliver on their promise of restitution. But this is hardly a cause for comfort since, along with all the damage that would do, such a failure would, like that of Brexit, generate a clamour for even more extreme policies.

An elusive target

I’m aware that this post is slightly different to my normal ones, and perhaps (even) less satisfactory. That may partly be because I have had a stinking head cold all week, which doesn’t aid clarity of thought or expression. That aside, it’s also because the issue addressed is far harder to pin down than those of, say, trade and regulation, or politics. It could be called populism, of course, but that is a blunt and generic term, which doesn’t capture the specificities of this case, if only because doing so is impossible without reference to Brexit. It’s certainly not identical with, say, Trumpism or Orbanism, even though it has some resemblances to those and other manifestations of populism. It’s not fascism, and it would be glib to call it that, although it has some elements of Ur-fascism. It’s not even an ideology in the normal senses of the term because, although there are elements of that, it’s more about a certain kind of cultural mood, or ethos, or feeling.

As such, it is hard to articulate – hard even to give supporting evidential links to – and all too easy to dismiss as stupidity or absurdity. But it’s important to try to understand it. After all, it’s not that long ago that the idea of Brexit was dismissed as stupid and absurd, the purview of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. It would be rash to dismiss what, for want of any better label, I’m calling ‘Radical Brexitism’ in the same way.