“Teresa’s New Free Britain!” screamed the headline of the Daily Mail, the word “free” printed in red. That is seriously deranged. British newspapers used to reserve the use of red-ink headlines for coronations. What prompted this display of home counties hysteria? May had just confirmed that “Brexit means Brexit”. The post-EU UK would not be offering freedom of movement to EU citizens. And it would not be getting access to the EU single market either.
This latter point is the crucial one. Since the shock victory of the “leave” vote, the Tory business faction, and much of the Labour centre, have been scrambling to try to patch up some arrangement whereby the UK has easy access to the 300 million-strong market on continental Europe. Sure, said the EU, but you have to accept freedom of movement as well. Since “open borders” was the issue that most people voted “leave” on, there was no chance of that — though people like Boris Johnson explored the possibility.
Denial of access to the single market is obviously a disaster for the UK, however much the “leavers” are trying to spin it. The process of negotiating separate free-trade agreements with other nations will be arduous, and what rewards it offers may take years to eventuate. The initial shock of the referendum result gave markets a quick fall and then a bounce back, which many are wilfully misinterpreting as a boomlet resulting from the decision. But they know the truth. It was once said that without the empire, Britain would be a cold island dependent on apples and herring. Now? Well, there’s no more herring.
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Having left open for months the question of how Brexit would be done, May now had no choice but to move decisively and cleave to the vote’s clear intent. The whole purpose of the referendum was to preserve the unity of the Tory Party by giving the “eurosceptic” right what they wanted. In running it, and then dealing with the aftermath, the Tories demonstrated how the asymmetry of right and left politics works in the right’s favour. The right assert a situation that “is”, the maintenance of it, and the “is-ness”, the reality, asserts a basic unity, a oneness of reality, that a party coalesces around. The left, being organised around what is not, but should be, will always fissure, and need to be regrouped.
Thus has it come to pass in the UK (and in Trump’s US, as well). You have to admire the ruthless, near autonomous process by which the Tory party re-integrated after the “leave” victory. Cameron went in an afternoon, without fuss; the leadership campaigns of the most ideologically identified Tories, Boris and Michael Gove, withered away. May, who had been identified with the Tory centre — she had once warned that they were coming to be seen as the “nasty party” — swept in, and became a zero point of ideology, someone whose mandate is shaped by the enactment of the referendum result. Her broader appeal is guaranteed by the parallel victory of Jeremy Corbyn. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who voted for Blair three times will have no problem voting for May’s Tories.
The problem is, as Goering allegedly said to one of his aides, as the announcement of the invasion of Poland came across the radio, “OK, now what?” The buzz that some people gained from the “leave” result has now largely dissipated; there is nothing like the sustained euphoria around Trump, still floating through the US. The immediate notification to the public by the Tory business class, that “no, there won’t be any more money for the NHS” or this or that, was an immediate kick in the guts for millions of very gullible, not particularly well informed, sometimes not particularly bright people who latched onto Brexit with the same magical thinking as people latched onto Trump.
Both have come along in an era in which every narrative of progress and improvement — such as sustained both countries since the end of WWII — has now been exhausted. The New Deal and post-war UK social democracy were replaced by Reagan and Thatcher. These, in turn, were replaced by vaguer ideas of “modernisation”, “hope”, etc, yoked to the sudden galloping pace of techno-change. All of these proposals offered rational and executable strategies for achieving the society people want but can’t articulate: steady, interesting work, plenty of free time, support to make child-raising straightforward, the opportunity for steady self-development and flourishing. They didn’t happen, but they could have. In the midst of their failure, and the dawning prospect that life in the West now offers the same degree of work for less security, opportunity and advantage, a whole section of people have reached for talismanic solutions that would restore a half-misremembered (and half-accurately remembered) recent past.
But of course that wasn’t the whole explanation for Trump and Brexit. The other part of it was a clear commitment to closed borders, stable communities and a slowing, or ceasing of the degree of ethnic recomposition. In the UK, this does not appear to have devolved into an all-out white-skin nativism, but it has become a powerful sense that, for a while, inflows should just stop. Much has been made of the fact that “leave” and UKIP votes are lowest in London, and highest in more rural areas, where there’s been little migrant influx. But that isn’t exactly true. The highest “leave” votes — up to 75%, 80% — were in areas like the big towns and small cities of the east midlands and north-east, places like Boston, Lowestoft, the well-named Grimsby, and others, many of which have had significant inflows of east Europeans in recent years.
The numbers are comparatively small — in Boston, the population has swelled by around 8-10% with Portuguese and Polish migrants — but these are places which delight in a sense of localism, continuity and parochialism (in a descriptive sense). Anyone who cavilled against that has long since gone to Manchester or London. So the influx of foreign workers into such towns (which is where the majority of the English live; London, for all its size, holds about 15% of the population) may mean no more than a few Polish shops set up in long vacant High Street stores, a pub taken over as a restaurant, etc, foreign chatter in the street, a Polish language service in the local church once a fortnight. But people mind it. They really mind it. You can damn them for that, tell them that’s the way of the world, not to be nostalgic or close-minded, or resistant to new and exciting changes. But — well, that’s what a referendum’s for. So people get the chance to stop being told. And to tell you that they mind it.
That was perhaps the great miscalculation — one of many — of the “remain” campaign. They worked on the assumption that xenophobia was organised around skin colour, based perhaps on the occasional two to three year spikes — one in the late ’60s, one in the late ’70s — of virulent political racism in England. This was entirely misleading. The relationship of white English people to the West Indians and Pakistanis who arrived from the ’50s on was complex and contradictory. They arrived in the middle of a labour shortage so severe that England was grinding to a halt, so they were not minded; they were Commonwealth and imperial subjects, and so there was a commonality there (even one of past exploitation); they brought great music and food, which people took to pretty quickly.
By contrast, the east Europeans have come as aliens, uninvolved with England, indifferent to it. They represent not an evolution of the Commonwealth collective but an open-border policy that suggests the dissolution of nation states into a municipal Europe; they are there, most, to take advantage of the exchange rate gap, which makes crappy British wages relatively good (the post-Brexit sterling crash may have made actual Brexit unnecessary).
Their food is … well, it’s not curry. The music they like is mostly Oasis, c.1998. Their public persona is reserved, which looks hostile and arrogant. There are many, many examples where such people have been welcomed by local groups and intermingled (especially through churches). But there are many other places where the two groups move through the same public space without much contact — which makes everyone feel like an alien. This disjuncture, this cultural failure of free movement, has been far more of a factor in the Leave vote, far more than the fear of Islamist terrorists etc etc (the British are far less bothered than any other culture about being bombed; it reminds them of the sodding war).
All of this went in the mix. All of it delivered votes for Leave. None of it was really picked up on by the Remain forces of either left or right — because they were constitutionally unable to admit that a certain section of any population does not find cosmopolitanism exciting or enticing. They feel it, even a little of it, as the destruction of their life-world and bounded culture, and they don’t rate what’s offered in exchange for that. When they get the chance to reject it, they do.
In the process, a passive dislike of some foreigners has become, on the part of some people, an active and virulent xenophobia, with everyone from Polish builders to Dutch tourists to people with an inherited Mitteleuropa accent being abused in the street. This has peaked, but not disappeared, and there is no sign that it will. The great disaster of the referendum is that it has turned British political culture inward, obsessive and elevated victimhood. Having won the process, the Tories now have to own it, now and into the uncertain future. Free Britain? Nothing comes without a cost.