Tuesday, 5 July 2016

A new landscape?


Within less than a fortnight some of the consequences of Brexit are becoming clear. What was dismissed as ‘project fear’ turns out to have been true. The pound has collapsed, the FTSE-250 has collapsed, foreign investment has collapsed, the UK is facing breakup and the political system has broken down. These aren’t just short-term things and they will reverberate for years to come. A country that a week ago seemed like a bastion of stability now seems a scary and unstable place. The leaders of the leave campaign have mainly disappeared and those that are left don’t know what to do. Someone said to me the other day that the issue is not that the remainers are ‘bad losers’ but that the leavers are ‘bad winners’: at their moment of victory they regret it and exit.
The UK media are hardly reporting the big strategic and economic issues and are obsessing about the Westminster politics of who will lead the political parties. That matters, a bit, but does not begin to speak to the political and economic meltdown that is happening. For that, you have to go to the foreign press. And there is also a cultural meltdown, most obvious in the rise of racist abuse and attacks. This has been widely reported but to personalise it a friend of mine, out shopping in the afternoon, was punched in the face for having a foreign accent; a Chinese student I know was spat at and told to pack her bags. Welcome to post-Brexit England.
I’ve written before about how the divide now is between cosmopolitans and locals, and Tony Blair – of whom I have plenty of criticisms, but few can doubt his sensibility to events – has said something similar, arguing that the political cleavage is no longer left versus right but open versus closed. So the shape of twentieth century politics, based on capital versus labour, no longer makes sense and nor do the party structures that mirrored it.
We need, fast, a political realignment around this. What we currently have is a situation where the locals (or closed) have defeated the cosmopolitans (or open) but the irony is that the former look to the latter to deliver what they have voted for. It’s striking that about the only person in the UK showing any sort of leadership now is Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England. And who is he? A technocratic expert, and an immigrant to boot!
This new politics certainly makes for some strange bedfellows, especially between the internationalist left and the global free-market right; but this is the landscape that we are now going to have to work within. It makes a nonsense of the politics of most of my lifetime, and I am still adjusting to it. I talked to a friend of mine the other day, a lifelong working class socialist, who said that he wanted the working class who voted Brexit to suffer unemployment and punitive public service cuts so as to teach them the error of their decision. That seems incredibly harsh but he said the alternative is to infantilise those voters by saying that they did not know what they were voting for. We shouldn’t patronise them, and so we have to say that they have to accept the consequences of their choice.
I kind of understand that argument and at all events I see a very strange situation having opened up in which the people expected to sort out this mess are those in business, the civil service, civil society or even academia who largely did not vote for it and who were derided as the experts and the elite. Where are the leaders of populist insurgency? Nowhere to be seen. So their insurgency is to be put into practice by the very people they have rejected. I’m not sure that there has ever been a situation quite like that in modern history.
We are very, very far from seeing the dust settle on the Brexit vote, but I think that the dynamics I have described here define where the dust will settle. And, if so, that has an import far wider than Brexit as it seems to define what the politics of post-globalization will look like. This isn’t a matter of merely British interest. For one thing, when such a big economy makes such a bizarre decision it has global effects. But, beyond that, it could be said that Britain led the industrial revolution, led the neo-liberal post-industrial revolution and is now leading this post-globalization, post-truth, revolution.
I don’t pretend to have a complete handle on this, and these are just preliminary thoughts, written during a crisis which is both personal and political. In a few months they may seem naïve or just misguided; and the one thing which social science should teach us is to be wary of prediction. Even so, I think that what has happened here these last few days and what it will mean over the next few years is something fundamental which will change all our lives.

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