As England lurches to the right and Blair readies his army of lawyers for the incoming Chilcott, as Hillary glides on a sea of cash into pole position for the American Democratic candidacy, and countries like Spain teeter on the brink of social and political crisis, as Nicola Sturgeon prepares to defend Britain and Scotland’s place in Europe, we are at another tipping-point with radically different outcomes.
First up let’s be clear it’s definitely an Exit not a Brexit. Leave or Remain is an English question, initiated by a tiny group of public schoolboys based on a series of myths about Europe inculcated and obsessed on by the English tabloid media for decades. So from current polling it looks possible that England and Wales will vote for Brexit while Scotland may vote to Remain at a level that will keep the UK in the EU. More likely we will be removed against our will and in direct contradiction of the lies of the referendum. This much we know. We saw this coming. Tom Nairn wrote in After Britain in 2000:
“The Constitution of old England-Britain once stood like a mighty dam, preserving its subjects from such a fate; nowadays, leaking on all sides, it merely guides them to the appropriate slope or exit. Blairism has reformed just enough to destabilise everything, and to make a reconsolidation of the once-sacred earth of British Sovereignty impossible. As if panicked by this realisation, his government has then begun to run round in circles groaning that enough is enough, and that everything must be left well alone. The trouble is that everything is now broken – at least in the sense of being questioned , uncertain, a bit ridiculous, lacing in conviction, up for grabs, floundering, demoralised and worried about the future.”
So this is a crisis of English politics engendering a crisis of the British state.
As Anthony Barnett writes in ‘Its England’s Brexit’ on Open Democracy:
“Like a bad cyclist who stares at the large, wild-looking dog they are trying to avoid and therefore steers into it, the English nation that alarms you so much is now giving you a well deserved bite up the bum. You should have befriended it. Whatever the result of the referendum, whether it is a healthy majority for Remain, a narrow one, or a vote to Leave, the heart of the matter is that England has to have its own parliament. What the referendum reveals is that England both monopolises and is imprisoned by British Westminster and its culture of ‘to the victor the spoils’. To escape from this England is embracing Brexit because no other solution is on offer. It may be intimidated into remaining in the EU through fear of the economic consequences. But England’s frustrated desire for democracy has turned it against the EU rather than the real culprit, the British state.”
“Like a bad cyclist who stares at the large, wild-looking dog they are trying to avoid and therefore steers into it, the English nation that alarms you so much is now giving you a well deserved bite up the bum. You should have befriended it. Whatever the result of the referendum, whether it is a healthy majority for Remain, a narrow one, or a vote to Leave, the heart of the matter is that England has to have its own parliament.”
This won’t quite do, for reasons we can come to in a moment, but Barnett’s careful dissection of the voting patterns puts lie to the repeated assertion by many Scottish commentators that distinct political cultures simply don’t exist between Scotland and England. The ‘you’re the same so you don’t really exist’ line of argument was put again and again and again by David Torrance, Alex Massie, and a coterie of writers dedicated to the Union during the referendum. The forced Brexit just nails that lie.
There is no such thing as a united coherent ‘Britain’ any more. And what ‘Europe’ are we talking about? As Suzanne Moore writes today: “Lots of people say, vaguely, that they love Europe, that they feel European, and talk as though the EU is some sort of benign, almost charitable organisation. No. The EU is an organisation of free trade. It exists to deliver the neoliberal capitalism I thought the left was not so keen on. Sure, make the argument that free trade is a way of maintaining peace, but this is not some humanitarian NGO. It is run by Jean-Claude Juncker, former leader of Luxembourg, Europe’s biggest tax haven. Mario Dragi, a former CEO of Goldman Sachs, runs the European Central Bank, while Donald Tusk, a former rightwing prime minister of Poland, is president of the European Council. Angela Merkel heads up the most influential nation within it.”
So both Britain and Europe are highly contested concepts with multiple meanings projected as if they are unified certainties.
Everyone from the Sun to the Guardian is guilty of this. Barnett rightly chastises Martin Kettle for talking about Britain in glowing singular unitary terms, arguing: “It’s wrong to write about the UK like this. Britain is no longer a single political country with a unified people. If Brexit happens it will only be because a majority of English voters have lost confidence in the way they are governed.”
But here’s the problem. While Barnett may be right that there may be an undercurrent of dissent and dissatisfaction behind the Leave movement that stems from a rebellious streak about ‘how they are governed’, a larger current of it stems from a set of assumptions about a false victim status that England cradles in its arms. From Boris and his Bananas to the grand presumptuousness of ‘Thirty Years of Hurt’ to the Brexit campaigns squalid, racist NHS broadcast – to Farage’s foul conflation of sexual and racial threats – the false sense of entitlement and idea that England/Britain has been stolen or undermined by some external force (not the failed elite they elect) is palpable and enduring.
It’s an exercise in massive self-deception foisted on the public by a governing class that have been systematically asset-stripping the NHS and the rest of the public sector for a very long time. Blaming it on Brussels or immigration is an age-old trick of the stage-hypnotists but it doesn’t stand a moments scrutiny.
If you think this week’s revelations about ‘Shirebrook’ (which sounds like a fusion of a failed 80s Channel 4 soap-opera and a Tolkien re-boot) are appalling – a company where zero hours contracts, surveillance, poverty wages, harassment and routine searching of workers are everyday realities – consider this. This is what a large section of the English electorate vote for. This is the reality of all those years of ‘cutting red tape’, ‘being open for business’ and stripping back ‘the power of the unions’.
This is Tory law. Who thought it would have a different outcome?
One of the two agencies Sports Direct uses for a permanent supply of 3,000 temporary workers had already been prevented from operating in the food sector by the Gangmaster Licensing Authority. New female workers we’re told are referred to as ‘new meat’.
This is Britannia Unchained.
The idea that Britain is being held back by egregious EU bureaucracy, that pesky Human Rights Act or similar is just part of the pattern of mass delusion that is being indulged in. Exit will only accelerate and exacerbate these abuses of workers rights as the far-right is further emboldened.
Barnett is aware of the problem: “The English nationalism that shouts out today from the Daily Mail is at once over-baked and half-cooked. Unable to find a proper home it feeds UKIP’s appeal for self-government and control of our borders. The response needs to be what Billy Bragg calls Progressive Patriotism in his autobiographical argument for the need to prevent the right with its capacity for racism and neo-fascism from occupying the terrain of national identity – with a songwriter’s sense of public need. Instead of being acclaimed, Bragg’s arguments have been largely ignored, even patronized, as being the voice of an unsophisticated, working-class Essex boy.”
But where is the progressive patriotism of England?
This is where we get back to the media and who controls and frames the ‘national’ agenda.
England needs not just a platform for Bragg and Barnett’s declamatory progressive patriotism it needs a coherent movement for reclaiming democracy and instating an English Parliament. The problem remains: why would you do that when you control the British one?
Of course the British Parliament and its institutions work on behalf of the British State and an economic class and strata. But the constant pride and propaganda that is pumped out to celebrate these institutions and traditions – combined with a political culture that has already swallowed wholesale the myths of a country stolen, undermined or at threat by external forces – means that the energy for an alternative is nowhere to be seen.
Britain is broken, but England doesn’t have the energy or intuition to do anything about it. This is a country built on bunting. Get the Carling out, it’s the Euros.