‘Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mister Jones?’ sang Bob Dylan in ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’. It’s a refrain appropriate to the political situation in the wake of the EU referendum (which increasingly seems to have occurred in a past life rather than a mere fortnight ago). For about the only thing about which we can be fairly certain is that nobody—not Mister Jones or Mr Gove or Mr Johnson or Mr Cameron or Mr Farage, not Mrs May or Mrs Leadsom, not the leader writers or the commentators, not the investors or the speculators, and, for sure, not me—knows what is happening or what will happen. The atmosphere is febrile, tumultuous and astonishingly, gloriously clueless. Perhaps, ultimately, nothing much will happen, yet Britain feels different, as if anything could happen—the real possibility of a bona fide loon such as Andrea Leadsom becoming Prime Minister is evidence of that. When not dispirited by the alarming and hideous rise in racist incidents over the past two weeks—hardly surprisingly the far right, among whose number one should include the Faragiste wing of the Brexiteers, are feeling very chipper right now—I will, a little guiltily, confess to finding the ‘Brexit crisis’ rather exciting and invigorating. How can one not when so clearly something is indeed happening here?
And yet—is it? On the one hand: the Prime Minister has resigned; Farage has resigned; most of the Shadow Cabinet has resigned; Boris Johnson’s absurdly vainglorious ambitions lie in tatters; the Tories remain divided, and yet find themselves, for the first time in British history, with the remarkable privilege, and strange constitutional quirk, of directly electing the next Prime Minister; Labour are daily disintegrating before our eyes; the pound is plummeting; the FTSE is ailing; even the Greens are in the midst of a leadership election. On the other hand, Brexit has not happened, is not likely to happen anytime soon, and may in fact never happen (and the chances of it happening in a way that would satisfy the Faragistes, who are pinning their hopes on the hopeless Leadsom, and the Goveites seem, to me at any rate, extremely remote—the reality is that even Brexit will have to involve, at the very least, some access to the single market and some concessions to freedom of movement).
All of this has consigned Britain to limbo (a place in hell, according to the Catholic church, it is worth remembering). For example, Britain is still a member of the EU. But nobody seems sure what this means. For some in the EU, and in Britain too, the referendum result makes Brexit a fait accompli; consequently Britain should no longer participate fully in EU decision-making. The UK is due to assume the EU Presidency in July 2017, yet will it or indeed should it? Doubtless all over Europe heads are being scratched, for until Britain invokes Article 50 so that exit negotiations can begin, the UK remains formally as much a member of the EU as it ever did—and even in the event of Article 50 being invoked, the two-year negotiating process could easily become overwhelmed by events that force dramatic rethinks of Brexit. With the Tory leadership contest still to be resolved, as well as elections in France and Germany that could well transform the situation by offering new possibilities and paths, the most likely thing to happen over the next few months is nothing much.
Even if not much happens for a while—apart from what now seems to be the business-as-usual fever, panic and wild, clueless running around in Westminster and the City—we will nevertheless be stuck in the ‘Brexit crisis’. Whether or not something is genuinely a crisis (and I think this is), calling it a ‘crisis’ always benefits some. Newspapers, journalists, commentators, even bloggers can do well out of a crisis as a feeding frenzy for information, opinion and comment takes hold. One can be sure that Brexit, both as potentiality and as actuality, will be the making of some people. Crises invariably are.
The words of the free-market guru Milton Friedman are relevant here:
Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that happen depend on the ideas lying around. (Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982; originally published, 1962), p. ix.)
Whatever one thinks of Friedman’s economic ideas, it is hard to dispute his assessment of crises. Revolutions and radical political change are born from them. The Bolsheviks and the Nazis emerged out of actual crisis; Margaret Thatcher came to power against the perceived crisis of 1970s union strife and the ‘Winter of Discontent’; and, as Naomi Klein has shown in The Shock Doctrine (London: Allen Lane, 2007), for the neoliberal disciples of Friedman economic crisis presented the perfect opportunity for radical free-market ideology to be imposed on states. The Brexit crisis has opened up a rare moment for those who desire radical change to progress in their goals.
Alarmingly, however, the main ‘ideas lying around’—the ideas likely to shape what happens over the coming weeks, months and years—are nationalism (both in its nasty form as embodied by the Faragistes and Goveites, UKIP and other far right groups, and in its cuddly variety as embodied by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP), neoliberalism and racism. The political centre and left, both in some disarray, currently offer little in the way of a coherent vision. When Theresa May represents the best hope for the moderate centre, then there are grounds to worry about the tectonic shifts in British politics.
Yet Brexit, unwelcome as it may be, surely presents opportunities. Consider what it has already achieved: the end of Cameron, the effective termination of Osborne’s political ambitions, the wonderful demise of Johnson, the accidental (and, let’s be honest, quite funny given it all stemmed from some supposedly clever—too clever as it turned out—Macchiavellian manoeuvres) harikiri of Gove’s ambitions, and in general the mayhem and panic across the political landscape. What more could follow?
I did not, and do not, want Brexit to happen, but in so far as we now are stuck in a Brexit crisis, and in so far as there can be no return to a pre-Brexit state of affairs, then we may as well make the best of it. After all, the Leave campaign have trumpeted the ideas of taking back control, of reclaiming democracy. So why not pick up their baton and run with it? We live in a country with an unelected head of state, an unelected upper chamber, an unrepresentative voting system, an excessive concentration of power in the executive, and a politics dominated by unelected media bosses, big business and the City. The potential for co-opting the Brexiteer slogans and arguments for progressive ends is great.
Perhaps this more than anything explains why Corbyn and Momentum are so determined to survive: they want to ensure that the Left has a dog in the political fights and struggles to come. It would be interesting if they succeed. In a couple of months both the government and the opposition in Westminster may be commanded by minority and comparatively extreme factions: the Tories by Leadsom and her Faragiste followers, Labour by the Momentum-backed Corbynites. If so, we could be in for a period of car-crash politics. But would this be so unwelcome if it continued the process of ripping through the familiar Westminster politics and bringing about some overdue political change? We could find ourselves in some heady days as different varieties of progressives and reactionaries battle it out.
But I am getting much too far ahead. For one thing, the Establishment, divided though it is about Brexit, invariably finds a way of asserting itself in the face of challenges. For another, it is worth being careful about what one wishes for: Germany had its heady days of progressives and reactionaries in the 1930s, and the possibility of something similar arising in Britain in the near future is remote but not non-existent.
And for another thing, I return to the words of Dylan: something is happening, but we don’t know what it is. Perhaps that is because we are so dazzled and seduced by the undeniably exciting high politics—the machinations, the party in-fighting, the psychologies of the central actors in the drama—that we are missing the more important things that are happening beneath the surface. Cameron, Farage, Johnson, Gove, May, Leadsom and Corbyn; Momentum and UKIP; the plummeting pound one day, its slight recovery the next; Merkel, Hollande and Sarkozy—these may be no more than the ripples and the froth on the surface of the ocean. To understand what is really happening one may need to make the more difficult journey into the dark depths, for there is to be found the currents that generate the tide of events. And to get that one needs the mind of an historian (or a Bob Dylan perhaps…) rather than a journalist (or a Mister Jones). We might do well to consider the ideas of the great French historian—arguably the greatest of all twentieth-century historians—Fernand Braudel, to which I shall turn in the second part of this blog post.