Brexitism is destroying Britain, says Andrew Levi. If our political parties fail us now, we face an existential threat.
During the United Kingdom’s long march into the European Communities, leading to membership in 1973, then the referendum in 1975 on whether to stay in, ‘anti-marketeers’ invoked the appeasement of Hitler at Munich to attack their opponents.
The likes of Edward Heath, they implied, were Quisling traitors. This might seem extreme. It must have been the exception rather than the rule, one might think.
But, as Lindsay Aqui documents in The First Referendum – Reassessing Britain’s Entry To Europe, 1973-75, it was anything but. It was routine, sustained and strident.
The underlying intellectual assertion, such as it was, revolved around sovereignty. To the likes of the English nationalist Conservative MP Enoch Powell, or Peter Shore, the Labour politician and socialist nationalist advocate of economic autarky, “giving up” sovereignty to the supranational structures of the European Communities was like submitting to a Fourth Reich. Or, as Ian Paisley – the Northern Irish fire breather – argued, handing over power to the Pope.
Europe and the American Century
The proposition was visceral, emotional, and based on a deep misunderstanding of Britain’s past and the dramatic changes leading to British imperial demise, global chaos from 1914 to 1945, then American dominance.
One might have thought those forces and events would have been obvious enough in 1904, when the Entente Cordiale was agreed between Britain and France because our mighty empire couldn’t even stand up alone, in its own back yard, to an ever more powerful Germany. Or in 1940 when the British Expeditionary Force was ejected from the European mainland. 1942: fall of Singapore. 1945: USA as the obviously decisive power in the global post-war settlement. 1947: Indian independence. 1956: Suez. 1971: withdrawal from east of Aden.
And indeed they were obvious, to many.
The American Century had begun – earlier than 1945, but no matter: it’s as good a date as any. A united (initially western) Europe, with a powerful economy, contributing to its own security but with American guarantees and protected from a contained Soviet Union, was (after much debate) seen in Washington as the most efficient way to further US interests as the globally dominant technological, economic and military power. The EU, as it became, has been and remains one of a few indispensable pillars of that American-led global system.
And we – more precisely, the hundreds of millions in the privileged classes of the more prosperous American-allied countries of Europe and elsewhere – have done very nicely out of it for eight decades, thank you.
Denial is inherent to Brexitism, just as it was to Peter Shore, Enoch Powell and Ian Paisley. Denial of the realities of the United Kingdom’s situation. Denial of the impacts of such denial itself when put into practice, most glaringly in the last couple of years since we left the EU. Denial of the personally and factionally corrupt motives for Brexit, alongside the emotional drivers so notoriously summarised in slogans such as ‘take back control’ and ‘breaking point’.
Brexit has been going for under two years. (Although the referendum was held on 23 June 2016, and the ‘leave’ result had immediately damaging effects, the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement was not entered into force until 1 February 2020, and the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement was applied provisionally from 1 January 2021, entering into force on 1 May 2021). Even in that short time it has shown itself to be an obviously unsustainable, accelerating disaster.
Queues at Dover and absurd, fabulistic lying about the “benefits of the CPTPP” (Pacific trade deal) are just a couple of recent manifestations of the horrible truth. The UK faces deep economic, social and political trouble unless an urgent, radical policy reversal takes place. One which charts a path the EU can agree to (that will take time) and which the UK can survive (too long and it’s game over).
You ain’t heard nothin’ yet
In the first instance, making this change happen is the duty of the current government and a majority in Parliament. They – not football commentators or the supposed ‘cultural elite’ – have the power.
It is also the duty of the leader of the opposition and all those who are willing to back him. There is no prospect of the necessary parliamentary majority without them. And the case has to be made, not just to politicians but to the country as a whole.
It is the duty of everyone, in every political party and none, to understand the truth of the UK’s situation, and the scale and pace of change required.
This isn’t politics as usual.
Although many may find it hard to credit – and that complicates the political calculus – the debilitating, destabilising effects of Brexitism and Brexit reality will, if allowed to fester and multiply, destroy us. It’s existential. No Pacific Rim (or other) knight on a white unicorn is coming to the rescue.
Not – although it’s a major issue in itself – to save the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a particular form of union, as opposed to potentially more of a federation, confederation or, perhaps, separate countries, on the international stage. Rather, as a society (or societies) founded and able to rely on credibly assured internal and external security, a prosperous economy, the rule of law, democratic and human rights, social justice, and (with all, inevitable, imperfections) decent governance.
You perhaps think the UK hasn’t met those standards for decades? Well, as Al Jolson famously called to the orchestra, “wait a minute, wait a minute I tell yer, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet”. When some highlight actions and language of government ministers and others as reminiscent of 1930s Germany it’s because – unlike the anti-marketeers’ baseless “appeasement” claims and the “EUSSR” type nonsense lobbed by the Brexitists – they are.
You don’t need gas chambers to create a political, social and economic horror show.
Everyone has lost
Avoiding calamity will take much more than a rapid, decisive UK pivot back toward the EU – to the single market (common regulatory zone) and customs union (common internal and external trade and customs zone) – but such an about turn is a necessary step.
Fantasies, and the inevitable almost undiluted diet of lies to which they give rise, butter no parsnips. (Not that most can now afford much butter; and the Brexitists want to feed the country turnips).
There is no way around the single market and customs union. Not for the Irish dimension, and therefore not for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Not for the economic future of the UK. Not for its geopolitical and security needs.
The EU can do without us. Although it’s foolish to pretend that the supposed ‘advantages’ to the EU of UK departure outweigh the disadvantages. They opposite is the case. Everyone has lost.
Zero point one percent
The UK, by voluntarily gifting electoral power to an anxiously authoritarian minority and through historical blindness, has driven itself into an unnecessary, terrifying crisis.
No, the EU doesn’t need the UK. But the UK does need the EU. Those who claim not to understand that several per cent (if we’re lucky) permanent damage to UK economic output amounts to serious harm with far reaching consequences, are either ingesting a banned substance, or lying.
But Brexitism’s purpose isn’t primarily about leaving the EU. It is destruction (sometimes fancily dressed up as ‘Schumpeterian creative destruction’) of the systems and rules which divert productive resource outputs toward the 99.9 per cent and away from the 0.1 per cent. That’s around 70,000 people in the UK who, with noble exceptions, bitterly resent the constraints even a little bit of something along the lines of social democracy places on them.
As for the millions of unreconstructed Brexit voters and the obviously-not-zero-point-one-per-centers in politics and journalism who are Brexitists: part can be explained by greed, mendacity and authoritarian anxiety. Nonetheless, the last seven years have vindicated Arthur Quiller-Couch’s acid assessment: “When first I met you I thought you a fool. Today you have grown into an unmitigated ass”.
Millions believe what is demonstrably untrue, blind to the wreckage they help to cause. Many will never be convinced of the truth. If we are to survive, our political system has to find a way to circumvent that constituency, while also treating them with a decency they would withhold from the rest of us. If our political leaders don’t upend the current electoral incentives they face, by working across party lines to create a solid majority in the collective UK interest, marginalising the Brexitists, we are perilously close to fatal implosion.
Such a political transformation requires imagination, courage, determination, deep knowledge and exceptional statesmanship. That is the least we should expect of those who aspire to be prime minister, or remotely close. And it is the least we must insistently, vocally, overwhelmingly demand.