Tragedy, disaster, catastrophe—over-used and frequently mis-used words to be sure. But in relation to Brexit they are appropriate. For this is, without doubt, the worst and most destructive event in British politics in my lifetime (and I’ve lived through some grim and bleak nights of Tory election victories). After a campaign characterized by fear and negativity, and above all by dishonesty, xenophobia and racism, a terribly misinformed and historically bad decision has been made that will affect millions of people now and many more millions into the future. Just because it was a democratic decision does not make it wise or right. If ever there was an example of democracy making a disastrous error of judgment, then the EU referendum is it.
Brexit is many things. It is a political deed that will have countless consequences, most of them bad, for the politics, economy and society of Britain, and quite possibly for wider Europe and the world too. It is a bleak and dispiriting expression of how Britain sees itself and its relation to the rest of the world—as disengaged, closed off, turned inward, and, with an absurd and misplaced grandness, ‘special’. And it is a historical moment that decisively marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one.
It will take some longer than others, but ultimately reality has to be faced. Brexit is irreversible; Scottish independence is highly probable; Britain and England will be diminished and suffer. Tough times lie ahead. The pain that Britain will endure is less important than the need to ensure wider international stability. Europe should focus on containing and limiting the risk of chaos and the spread of nationalism; that is far more important than showing any favours or sympathy for Britain. In political terms it is right to accept a tough and unsympathetic EU if that is in the interest of the greater good of Europe. Boris Johnson’s ‘pro having my cake and pro eating it too’ stance should be exposed for the infantile wish that it is: if Britain refuses to cooperate and engage constructively with Europe, then we can hardly expect Europe to cooperate and engage constructively with us.
But despair needs to be resisted. In the immediate aftermath of the vote I certainly felt this. The temptation simply to give up, to find a way of leaving Britain, to disengage from politics in a life of higher contemplation—all of this was strong. But I’m an historian, so I know that historical turning points do not mean the end of history. Life goes on and politics goes on. I also know that few things are inevitable. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, Britain (or more accurately and likely England) has decided to turn away from Europe. And right now internationalism, progressive politics and the Left are in disarray, while nationalism, irrationality and xenophobia are marching ever more successfully and triumphantly. It is a critical point, a crisis. More than ever it means that those of us who believe in progressive politics need to engage, and to strive for clarity and purpose in that engagement.
Little, of course, is clear at this moment. Brexit is the manifestation of many complex things, some specifically British, many European or global in nature. It raises questions about the way politics is conducted, about the nature of debate, the media and political culture. It exposes deep divisions and faultlines in Britain as a society, and within British politics: the Tories are deeply divided as they attempt a reincarnation as UKIP; Labour and the Corbyn leadership look increasingly like a busted flush; and where now for the moribund Liberal Democrats? There is much to explore and understand historically, politically, socially, culturally and intellectually—and all with a view to trying to shape the next chapter in British and European history.
What I hope to see is the following: the EU address the implications of Brexit in ways that lead to reforms and to a reinvigorated European integration; Scotland to achieve independence and continued membership of the EU, so that at least one part of Britain remains engaged with Europe; a concerted resistance to neoliberalism, xenophobia and nationalism in England, and the revival of a meaningful and relevant progressive politics.
If there is one silver lining to Brexit, it is this: the establishment (among whom are numbered Johnson and Gove) will now find anti-establishment anger directly at their door, rather than at the EU’s door. They can no longer blame social injustice and the democratic deficit on the EU; and they may find that the misplaced anger at the EU is concentrated upon them, as questions are raised about how socially just neoliberalism is and how democratic Britain is. They have unleashed one revolution, but are they ready for the revolutions to come? It is a critical moment, and the far right will undoubtedly try to exploit it. Hence the importance of the liberal and progressive left to reflect, regroup and re-engage.
Ultimately I hope that a progressive England will rejoin a reformed EU, an unlikely short-term achievement, but a reasonable medium- to long-term goal.