The fall of Theresa May has ushered in a new phase in the UK's never-ending Brexit crisis. Energy is once again behind a hard-Brexit right led by Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. Two members of Renewal's Editorial Board explore this new political moment, and the fresh challenges it poses for the left.
'Labour has assimilated Brexit within a crude class analysis'
Alan Finlayson: In 1957, Stuart Hall remarked that 'the disorderly thrust of political events disturbs the symmetry of political analysis'. (1) Living through our present moment I feel the truth of this statement daily. There's so much going on it's hard to line it all up neatly and 'explain' it.
There's an economic crisis: austerity, intensifying inequality and the running down of the public realm; the ongoing effects of 'globalisation' and technological change. There's a political crisis: within the main parties and Parliament but also nationally, where the split between regions and between rural and urban seats is such that we don't have 'national' political parties anymore. There's a deeper crisis of legitimacy and consent: people think that Westminster lacks the will and capacity to address the situation, which is why the Hansard Society recently found 54 per cent wanting 'a strong leader who is willing to break the rules'. (2) Finally, there is a crisis at the ideological/cultural level--the things that sustain the political 'imagined community' (attachments to shared myths of nation, belief that there is a 'social contract' which others will honour) are no longer effective. The nature of news and opinion media consumption in digital culture is now such that there often aren't the shared premises for a meaningful political dispute even to take place.
I start with these very general remarks because I want to make clear the scale of the mistake being made by 'Remainerists' who mistake Brexit for surface noise. Thinking of Brexit as an unfortunate mistake caused by David Cameron and aided by cynical media, they think it can be put right by invoking the law against politics, or by getting 'the facts' out there more effectively. That's a huge underestimation of the crisis. The results of the EU election showed what a miscalculation it is. But the Labour leadership isn't in a much better place. It has, I think, assimilated Brexit within a crude class analysis, and then done what Labour leaderships always do: reduce political tactics to 'triangulation'. The result of the Peterborough byelection, where Labour retained the seat with a few hundred votes more than the Brexit Party, might be thought to confirm that strategy. Good organisation and intense effort led to an outcome which should be celebrated. But I fear it will encourage the party to think (yet again) that if everyone follows the line and joins in with the singing, then 'one more heave' will be sufficient.
The heart of the problem is that they all still think that 'Brexit means Brexit'. It has never meant that. In actual Brexit discourse 'the EU' is a name for experiences of the various crises I described above. It stands for any and all of the technocrats (national as well international) who have forced their vision of the future on us, without our consent. Brexit, then, is the name of an act of heroic refusal of that future. That name has brought together people animated by all kinds of general and specific resentments: about jobs, immigration, religion, the countryside, small businesses, moral values and so on. It's a form of Powellism but with a wider social base, a political infrastructure, a more effectively articulated chain of grievances--and the internet. It's not going to go away of its own accord.
The Conservative Party is not going to elect a leader who will distinguish themselves from that politics. It's a politics most of its members share, especially now that its more obviously fascist advocates have been side-lined in UKIP. We are seeing a realignment on the right as the Tories work out how to articulate the form of English cultural/identity politics that has been birthed by the Brexit Party, while continuing to act in the interests of rich people who don't care about those things. They have the chance, being in government, to make institutional and policy changes to sustain that alliance. I think we will see them try to do that, although the contradictions of Brexit will hamper them. The issue for the left, as always, is whether Labour tries to do everything itself or, instead, accepts a role as leader of a coalition that necessarily includes the SNP: a problem given the dangers of seeming anti-English. Ultimately, however, a 'progressive alliance' can't only be about political parties in elections--it's about a much broader coalition of organisations, interests and forces. It's a question not just of whether or not Labour can be part of that and lead it, but also of the extent to which the party is willing to be led by social forces that it does not control.
'Britain is no exception to the growing polarisation of opinion around Europe'
Lea Ypi: I think there is at least one plausible sense in which 'Brexit means Brexit'. It is that, for all of Labour's wishes to, first, defend the very plausible assumption that 'Remain' and 'Leave' are not authentic political cleavages, and, second, to 'bring the country together', it is not clear that this is also what 'the country' believes or wants. In this sense, Britain is no exception to the growing polarisation of opinion around Europe (or more specifically the European Union) and all that it stands for.
Other European countries may not be facing the question of 'remain' and 'leave' with the same sense of urgency and drama, but they are similarly divided with regard to how progressives should respond to a contemporary crisis that is partly of their own making. In the European parliamentary elections of May 2019, the centre-right European People's Party group and the centre-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats lost their usual combined majority, thanks to the rise of greens and the far right. The emergence of the Brexit Party is therefore no exception to a pattern that we have also observed elsewhere. It's a sign of how far Brexit has 'Europeanised' British politics, pushing it into a broader pattern of fragmentation and polarisation.
To call the Brexit Party a...