The present crisis and the questions we must ask.

Author:Finlayson, Alan

One of the most surprising things about the success of the Leave campaign is that so many are surprised by it. Could we really have expected any other result--after forty years of misrepresentation of the EU by politicians and media alike, and in the midst of a calculated intensification of hostility towards immigrants? Thirty years after the abandonment of coal, steel and fishing industries and communities--eight years into a brutal and unnecessary regime of fiscal austerity imposed to save the banks--we may be shocked but there are no grounds to be surprised by the size and intensity of public mistrust of politics and rejection of the status quo. A post-referendum review of the polls conducted during the campaign suggests that in fact Leave was always ahead. (1) Of course it was.

The situation is not surprising; nevertheless, there is much we must learn from it. The referendum has clarified and illuminated a complex set of fractures which now define our nation: between north and south; former industrial centres and the places of the 'new' economy; rural and urban, inland and shoreline; those with a university education and those without; white collar and blue collar, skilled and unskilled; Eastern and Western Europeans, older and newer immigrants, those from the Commonwealth and those from the EU; older and younger; those who own a house or have a private pension and those who do not. As Will Davies has noted financialisation has produced distinct political divisions. (2) But their effects are, as we now say, 'intersectional'.

The situation demands immediate responses. There are old policies and positions to be defended as well as new ones to be formulated. But there is also a need for patient analyses which specify and measure the forces and contradictions of which referendum votes were expressions.


Often when the left asks 'what is to be done?' what we really mean is 'how can we construe things in such way that we are the answer'? But we need to be willing to look unblinkingly at our situation and simply ask 'what is it?' without preconceived answers in mind.

There are precedents for such an approach. Perry Anderson's and Tom Nairn's controversial 1960s studies of the Origins of the Present Crisis, showed how economic and political decline were linked to the peculiar failure of the first capitalist nation to adapt fully to modernity. (3) In the 1970s Stuart Holland in The Socialist Challenge recognized that the crisis of Keynesianism was linked to the growth of new kinds of capitalist enterprise--multinationals operating in markets for multiple products, and that this posed problems for national welfare states. (4) In the 1980s Stuart Hall and colleagues explained how the ideology of Thatcherism was connected to deeper cultural preoccupations with nationhood and crisis that were themselves part of a transition from Fordism to Post-Fordism. (5) In the 1990s, Anthony Giddens' Third Way analysed the profound impact of globalisation on politics, economics and culture. (6) His was a rather broad-brush analysis but its shallowness is instructive. Any interpretation of deep and long-term sociological trends which is not allied to a political analysis of the powers at work in and around the state will fail. And no one person can grasp all that has to be grasped. Academic specialisation and expansion are such that no individual can synthesise all the ideas for us. We have too many 'intellectual' gurus producing grand but thin statements about the end of something old (violence, nations, professionals), the coming dominance of something 'unprecedented' (amateurs, sharing, data) or the One Big Thing Nobody Has Ever Thought Of Before Which Can Explain Everything (the 'evolution' of emotions, the 'framing' of cognition, the Network).

What we need is what we have. Good, smart, thoughtful and experienced people, pooling resources and ideas in a common project. At Renewal we certainly do not know all the answers. We think we know some good questions. But we are certain that we know a lot of the people who can find out the right answers. Indeed, some of what we need to know has appeared in these pages. More of it is in academic journals, in pamphlets and books, waiting to be re-presented to general audiences. There is much work to be done consolidating, connecting and interpreting it all. Here are seven themes upon which we might think and about which--we hope--readers have things to say. They are not all there is to ask about. And they are certainly not discrete. They are a start.


If we didn't know it before we surely know now that the political and economic geography of the UK is far from simple. To understand it we have to make sense of the ongoing reconfiguration of political relations between Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and London. These will be a driving feature of the politics of 'Brexit'. But beneath all that is a slower and deeper shift in the balance of dependency between the centre (the political and economic capitals in London and the South) and the national periphery. That London is, in some domains, more closely connected to Frankfurt, New York and Moscow than it is to the UK has fuelled the centripetal forces forcing the Union apart. Perhaps the capital's decreased dependence on the resources of the rest of nation on which it once relied...

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