Friday, 24 June 2016

Brexit: The Fuck You Vote

In one of the most contested votes in British history, the UK has voted for the unknown. Many believed the fear of change would triumph over anger. This is a moment of profound emotion. The door is wide open and there is nothing out there, but darkness. The unknown is here. The old post-war certainties are dead.

Far-right parties in France and the Netherlands are talking about withdrawing. Brexit sets a precedent for the European Union and it's unclear if it will be the catalyst for a wave of change. The US fears it will be just that. No doubt the symbolic break is enough to inspire eurosceptics of left and right across the continent.

Even the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox by Tommy Mair failed to sway the vote far enough to prevent Brexit. Mair's fixation with Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa and American neo-Nazi movements was not enough to condemn him. Instead, Mair's violence was put down to mental illness. When asked for his name in court, Tommy replied: "Death to traitors, freedom for Britain!" Some began to compare Britain to late Weimar Germany.

Cameron, out!

As the news sank in for the nation, David Cameron presented his resignation. Next, Parliament will vote on the matter. The transition will take until 2018 even if there are no stalemates in negotiations. The Conservative Remain campaign only mustered 56% of Tory voters, while the Labour In campaign won over 70% of its base. Yet Labour MPs have tabled a no-confidence vote in Jeremy Corbyn. It's as if the Blair brigade feel their europhilia has been vindicated by this vote.

This is the first putsch against Corbyn. One hopes it will fail badly, as the party membership would back the left candidate in any future leadership election. The Blairites will want to throw him overboard and impose a leader of their ilk on the party. But this seems unlikely. If Corbyn is voted out, he could stand in a new contest. He may even win with a bigger mandate than in 2015. It's unclear if the right-wingers are aware of this possibility.

Of course, if the Remain vote had won out, the Conservative government would have moved to impose new immigration controls and squeeze concessions out of Brussels. Tory eurosceptics have always been fighting for a privileged British position within a loose European confederation. This is the tradition to which David Cameron belongs. Much like Thatcher, the European question has blown up the Cameron premiership.

Unfortunately, this may mean the energy of all other political forces still fall within the nation-state. The Scottish referendum was an early sign of this, though the result was not independence. Instead we have Nigel Farage heralding an era of "British independence". It seems Project Fear was far more successful in queling enough Scottish voters into accepting the Union. But this is not the end of the line. The shockwaves of this vote will reverberate for a long time.

David Cameron wanted the referendum to consolidate his place in the history of British Toryism. He wanted to step down on his own terms before 2020. Instead, the vote has consigned Cameron to his proper place in history. Unlike Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, there was nothing seizmic about Cameron – but he filled a gap. The Cameron years have only enforced the past more vigorously. The hope is that his successor (whether it is Boris or George) will serve as an incompetent caretaker before a swift defeat at the ballot box.

What a state!

Meanwhile the liberal and progressive Remain camp has been pouring scorn on the Brexit voters online and in print. There are jokes of London seceding from the UK to rejoin Europe, along with talk of moving to Scotland. Not much mention of Northern Ireland or Wales. The rest of the country is deemed an insane hinterland of xenophobes. Naturally, Brexit inspires fear in the hearts and minds of liberals across the British Isles.

It's easy to see why, the Leave campaign has been egregious in its race-baiting and flag-wagging. Project Fear was in full swing. Nigel Farage played every card in the deck. This is why the vote spells the worst fears of EU nationals and non-British residents. It's unclear where the vote leaves EU migrants. They are vital to the UK economy, but this vote has thrown their rights up in the air. The new immigration controls could be far more restrictive.

By comparison, the Remain campaign provided thin, lukewarm gruel to its base. Most of the people who voted to stay, I suspect, either voted out of fear or dogmatism. The core of the Remain vote was pro-EU conservatives and liberals based in London and the South. It was a campaign based on muesli, quinoa and complacent smuggery. In the end, it wasn't enough to overcome the level of anger directed towards the status quo.

My grandfather will be celebrating his birthday this weekend. This may be one of the best birthday presents of his life. He lives in the Labour stronghold of Bolsover, where Dennis Skinner – the so-called 'Beast of Bolsover' – has presided as MP since 1970. Almost 71% of voters in Bolsover voted to leave, including Skinner himself. The Beast was close allies with Tony Benn, who was calling for a referendum as early as 1968.

Even my apolitical relatives turned out for the referendum. The narrative around immigration has certainly propelled forward the forces of reaction in this campaign. However, this is not the whole picture. A great deal of Leave votes were cast in Labour areas. Voter turnout was far higher in England than in the last general election. This does not mean the Leave votes came from Labour in reflection of a working-class rightward lurch.

On the contrary, the Conservatives were only able to muster 56% of the majority they won at the election (just less than 25% of the eligible electorate), whereas Labour drew most of its voters into the Remain camp. This would suggest the main source would have been non-voters, with some overlap from various parties, that's the 34% absent from the 2015 election. It looks like most came from the communities torn apart and left behind by the economic consensus.

It's as if the political class abandoned vast swathes of England. The Conservatives bulldozed through the trade unions, social housing, state education and now the NHS; while Labour took the working-class vote for granted. After 40 years of degradation, many working-class voters suddenly saw an opening to inflict a deep wound on the elite and its system. In other words, this is a "fuck you" vote. It is loud and clear.

This article was originally published at Souciant.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Brexit: Toxic Kingdom

Some of us thought this day would never come. Others prayed it never would. The long awaited referendum on Britain’s EU membership will take place tomorrow. The results will be out by Friday morning. Project Fear is still going strong. But it looks unlikely to settle one of the biggest divisions in UK politics.

How did it come to this? The reasons are political in the worst sense. David Cameron gave an ‘iron-clad pledge’ for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. He did so to throw some red meat to the hard-right. Yet this did not have the desired effect. UKIP continued to grow, feeding off of the resentment of lower middle-class Tory voters in particular. The Conservative base was under threat from an ultra-rightist outlier.

By 2014, the British press had bestowed ‘fourth party’ status on UKIP. The Conservatives lost two seats after Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless defected. It looked like Nigel Farage would take Thanet South. But this was not to be. UKIP rapidly lost momentum despite winning 3.8 million votes in 2015. Farage was thwarted in South Thanet, Reckless lost his seat and Carswell clung on.

Yet the chasm over the EU in the Conservative Party has not narrowed. David Cameron could not ignore the votes lost to UKIP. He sought to placate Tory rebels and maintain the party’s support. This is why the referendum was called. There was no grand national interest in holding this vote. It wasn’t about democracy or security. It was about the Cameron legacy.

This has meant that the whole debate has been dominated by rival factions within the Conservative Party. Naturally David Cameron and George Osborne have led the Tory Remain campaign, while Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have positioned themselves as ‘renegade’ Eurosceptics. In other words, the national debate has been a bun-fight between the entitled sons of gentlemen.

Towards the fatherlands

The so-called ‘debate’ has been unbearably parochial. It’s either anti-migrant populism, or complacent liberal arguments for the status quo. Neither the Remain or Leave campaign offers a serious account of the EU. Nationalism is taking on the role of the opposition in European politics, as Slavoj Žižek argued years ago, while the establishment takes on the guise of liberal capitalism. This is what politics has become.

We’ve seen far-right parties make major gains from Austria, Switzerland and Hungary to Germany, France and Poland. Even Scandinavia has not been immune to this resurgent nationalism, we have only to look at the True Finns and the Swedish Democrats. The neo-fascists see Europe as a cultural theme-park lacking the vitality of nationalism. So they propose a rupture with the Whitehall consensus.

Meanwhile the mainstream looks increasingly decrepit. Conservative parties have become market liberal, while social democratic parties have turned from their traditional Keynesian policies and now stare death in the face. PASOK in Greece died on its feet, but its fate should send a message to every European centre-left party. SYRIZA filled the vacuum in its wake. But the defeat of the Greek radical Left poses a new crisis.

It’s unclear where the Greek people will turn. The Eurozone has become the means by which the EU core states (e.g. Germany and France) impose austerity on the periphery (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain). The EU now resembles a neoliberal machine, much more so than the social Europe envisioned by Labour activists. There is a real danger that the opposition will rally to calls for a ‘Europe of fatherlands’.

However, the referendum will not dispel the threat of a fascist resurgence in Europe, nor will it abolish the intolerable economic conditions perpetuated by governments. Whether we stay or withdraw, the real battles will be fought after the vote. This is why the stakes are so high. And this is why the outcome will not settle the European question.

As Edward Luce points out in the Financial Times, Washington fears Brexit would be a catalytic moment for the EU, after which all smaller countries could leave. This could threaten the transatlantic alliance. A gap could emerge between NATO and European political economy. No wonder Obama came running to tell us to stay. Though Brexit would not sever the alliance on its own, it could be the catalyst for a break-up.

This would be a dream come true for Putin. The separation of Europe from NATO would mean Russia could maintain its own sphere of influence. Not that this would equal anything like the Eastern bloc of Soviet client-states. Russia cannot even exercise anything like the kind of influence it could in 1980. Nevertheless, Putin casts a long shadow in the minds of American and European policy-makers.

The Left and Brexit

Although there has been speculation that Brexit could throw the UK economy into disarray, it is debatable. For starters, growth in the UK has been lacklustre for years. It’s likely much of the country would not notice the difference between Osborne’s “economic miracle” and a recession. In short, working-class voters have little to lose. After four decades of Thatcherism, it’s understandable why working-class people are willing to take the risk of a Brexit vote.

The so-called ‘Lexit’ argument – for a left exit, as it were – has a great deal of appeal. The European Union is not democratic, nor is it open to any pressure short of an international mass movement. It is a thoroughly right-wing project and may not be open to reform. This is why Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner and Jeremy Corbyn were all of the left Eurosceptic tradition. But this isn’t the 1970s.

Today the contemporary Left is split. Typically, you have the liberal crowd who are reflexively pro-EU, but you also have Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell arguing for staying and fighting for a different kind of union. Unsurprisingly, Momentum and a host of activists in the party base support this manoeuvre. Indeed, the Labour Party is, by a clear majority, for Britain remaining an EU member. Corbyn could never win that fight.

So the mainstream Left has no real presence on this issue. Instead, the radical leave campaign has been relegated to activist circles. This has contained the central division to the Tory Party. In one sense, this means the balance of forces are conservative whether the UK leaves or stays. But the vote could spell civil war for the Conservatives. The best case scenario may be a close call, where Cameron is ousted and policy is left paralysed.

Notice that even this hypothetical scenario limits the question to Britain. What Europe needs is an international movement capable of challenging its institutions. The problem is that the Left is still reconstructing itself at the national level. If the Left cannot do so, then Europe may be doomed to continue on the same track.

This article was originally published at Souciant.