Brexit was expected to end the blame on the EU and foster political accountability. Yet, Brexiters like Truss, Anderson, and Braverman shift blame to globalism and wokeism, fuelling radical Brexitism, seeking new targets, and desiring to “smash the system.”

O ne 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 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 last 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.

PMP Magazine

GOING FURTHER




Sources:

▪ This piece was first published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 6 March 2024 under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Dreamstime/Leklek73.



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