Consensus has perhaps never been quite so scarce a political commodity, yet it seems that there is at least one thesis upon which most now agree. Implicit in the overwhelming majority of inquests into the UK’s decision to leave the European Union is the claim that Brexit can rightly be seen as the first serious flashpoint in the struggle between nationalism and ‘globalism’. Considered as one symptom of a broader disease that heralded the ascent of Donald Trump and the decontamination of Marine Le Pen, Brexit has been both celebrated and derided as a victory for a species of exclusionary populism that seeks to push back against the unforgiving winds of globalisation.
Although the veracity of this interpretation of the referendum result continues to elude meaningful disagreement, a closer inspection suggests that it’s as unimaginative as it is convenient for its proponents. Resting on a set of lazy assumptions about the motivations of the contemporary voter, the ‘anti-globalism thesis’ supposes that the driving force behind the political choices made by individuals is economic self-interest. And following this, it claims that through enduring decades of depreciating living-standards and growing economic insecurity, working class voters in provincial England came to see globalisation – in its economic, political, and cultural forms – as their true enemy.
While with this attempted explanation of Brexit certainly touches on some truths, it stops short of telling the whole story. What’s especially unprofitable and misleading about such an interpretation of the June 23rd decision is the way in which it sees the debate through the simplistic lens of class. By depicting Brexit as the manifestation of an anger with market forces harboured by an impoverished and ignorant working class, it rather conveniently fails to take into account what many Leavers saw, and continue to see, as the broader degeneration of the political system (both at the national and supra-national levels) and the widening of the chasm between Westminster and the provinces.
Many who voted for Brexit last year had not merely lost out to the financial realities of globalisation. Instead, they had for some time found themselves looking on patiently as the political institutions of Brussels and London began to appear ever more incestuous, and not to mention increasingly concerned with supporting a carefully-chosen set of interests. They watched on as a cabal of childhood chums governed the nation; as parliamentarians picked the pockets of the tax-payer with impunity; and as the competence of the state expanded to an ever greater degree, depriving individuals of longstanding rights while plunging the country into a condition of untenable indebtedness.
For all the activism of Westminster – both under New Labour and the Coalition – not of it seemed to matter. As London and continued to grow as a financial and cultural centre fluent in the language of political correctness, the remainder of the country simply stagnated – and was often mocked for it, privately if not publicly. And New Labour’s penchant for using the resources of the Exchequer to top-up the wages of the poor introduced many to a new form of indignity. The provinces, it seemed, had been at best forgotten, and were at worst held in contempt by those charged with managing the affairs of the nation. Emily Thornberry’s open disdain for the flag of St. George was, for some, confirmation of this. The political elite were no longer simply detached from the country; now, they had stopped trying to hide this fact.
If the above sketch of the divide between the provinces and Westminster is in any way accurate, it would suggest that history might very well rhyme after all. The inhabitants of the British Isles have been here before; locked in a tussle with a distant and indifferent political system seemingly corrupted by the ambitions and aloofness of its operators.
Three centuries ago the English political lexicon revolved around the polar concepts of virtue and corruption. The latter signified the degeneracy of politics and the way in which the rights and independence of the whole had supposedly been sacrificed in the interests of a detached elite. Mourned by the ‘Commonwealth men’ of the eighteenth century, virtue signified a devotion to the broader public good and the importance of making use of one’s political rights. During this period, the corruption of the political order in England was said to be most visible in the supposed shift in power from a “free” Parliament to a prime minister chained to the interests of others. The rise of prime ministerial patronage, the aggrandisement of self-interest, and the elevation of ‘commerce’ above all else were seen as emblematic of a growing trend toward corruption in the political system, and the demise of virtue in the political culture.
In 2016, a similar perception existed. Only this time, the impression was that the power vested in Parliament had been transferred to a different, albeit equally unaccountable, source in the form of the European Commission. Equally important was the perception that the machinery of government – both in Brussels and London – had become increasingly organised around advancing a distinct set of interests and ideals which were alien to many in the provinces. It’s in this sense that the many ingredients that made up the paradigm of virtue and corruption in the eighteenth-century are back with us today – albeit with slightly different nomenclature. Many who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 found in Brussels a detached elite concerned to the point of obsession with expanding an already cryptic and inscrutable power base. This feeling was only reinforced by the apathy on display in London, where an elite who delivered little, while promising the earth, exhibited almost no resistance to the EU’s many power grabs. Those who were alarmed by the gradual erosion of British sovereignty (whether fictitious or not) were, paradoxically, those who had the least share in it.
The importance of perception
The question, it should be said, of whether or not the political and cultural elites of London and Brussels are indeed corrupt and parasitic is in many ways immaterial. In the paradigm of virtue and corruption, perception is all that matters. Similarly, whether or not it is true that Brussels can be found siphoning-off power and suppressing the oxygen of democracy, the perception is that the institutions of the European Union are doing just that – and doing it with abandon and a disdain for the people over which they govern.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the UK’s referendum campaign was the way in which this latter perception was scarcely challenged. An oft-heard refrain from the Remain camp was that while the institutions of the EU were by no means “perfect”, the economic advantages engendered by single market membership were such that any losses in liberty and democracy were undoubtedly worth it. In championing the economic benefits of the European project as compensation for losses in political and individual freedom, those charged with making the argument for continued membership offered up an enormous intellectual concession, and one that was significant enough to cost them the broader argument.
Of course, prizing economic security and growth over political liberty is an understandable position to take. In a sense, we all do it in our personal lives. And indeed, the trade-off between freedom and prosperity is a foundational pillar of society – the only disagreements are about where to draw the line. But when the perception was that only a fraction of society benefited from the bargain, the economic advantages championed by Remainers appeared as little more than selfish interests.
Where the Remain argument expressed in the language of economics, the rationale behind the Leave campaign was cultivated in a set of political considerations. Something that the Remainers failed to grasp was that many of their opponents accepted the economic case for continued membership. They were keenly aware that the economy could suffer, and suffer greatly, if Britain were to leave. And they were mindful that they were risking London’s status as the world’s financial capital by using their ballot for the Leave side. The crux of the matter, however, was that they simply didn’t care. The idea of being held to ransom and cowed into submission was anathema the majority who don’t see themselves as part of a wider European demos. Being free, both personally and politically, is, for some, worth almost any financial price.
The key point is really this: the focus of the Remain campaign – namely the economic self-interest case – was conceived of by a group of politicians (both of the left and right – party affiliation does not matter) who were seen to deal only in self-interest. For them, it is the primary driver of politics. But the self-interest argument failed in the provinces where other ideals and principles were prioritised. Notions of individual liberty and parliamentary democracy – concepts derided by Remainers as ancient relics with no place in the cosmopolitan twenty-first century – actually mattered, and will continue to matter, to many. And with this, the silent language of virtue and corruption resurfaced after a hiatus that spanned nearly three centuries.