The charmlessness of Utopia: Channel Four’s Naked Attraction

 

utopiamarriage
Illustration to a 1730 edition of Thomas More’s Utopia

Once, on a first date, I had an interesting exchange along the following lines: my date mentioned in passing a spreadsheet that she was using to track and rate her dates. I assumed she was joking, and said as much. But no, she insisted, she was being serious: she had an entire spreadsheet on which she calculated according to various categories how attractive a man was. I laughed. ‘Why are you laughing?’ Ms. Spreadsheet asked. ‘Because that’s not how attraction works’, I replied, ‘it’s not something that can be reduced to numbers. It’s not a science that can measure things; it’s a mystery, like the way the best poetry or the best art is a mystery.’ But she responded by telling me (a) that I was wrong, attraction is a science, no more, no less, and (b) that I was scoring quite well according to her Excel calculations. Ms. Spreadsheet was an enjoyable date.

Naked Attraction, Channel 4’s new dating show, purports to take this scientific approach to dating and reduce it right down to its basic, logical extreme; spreadsheets aren’t involved, but if they were they would contain categories such as ‘legs’, ‘penis’, ‘vagina’, ‘bottom’, ‘breasts’ and ‘face’. By dissecting humans down to their constituent and naked physical parts, it suggests that we can get closer to finding the real basis of attraction. The programme is rooted in two ideas: first, that attraction is a (literally) nakedly physical matter; second, that there is a core person or self beneath all the clothing, jewellery, small talk and movement we are socially obliged to display, that these are just so many ways of concealing who we essentially are. Both these ideas are fundamentally wrong.

The concept of the show is remarkably simple: six naked participants are gradually revealed before one clothed participant; the latter whittles the six down to two based on their physical attractiveness before joining the remaining two in full nudity and selecting which of the two to go on a date with. It sounds dull; in reality it is duller than it sounds. When the most exciting moments consist of brief bits of rubbish pop science (‘some scientists think that men with symmetrical faces have healthier sperm’—that sort of profundity) then you know that the concept is terrible. Many viewers will doubtless watch Naked Attraction in the hope that it is mildly sexy or erotic. All bar teenage boys will likely be disappointed; they will find more sexiness and eroticism if they turn over to BBC2 half way through to watch Newsnight (and no, I do not have a fetish about Newsnight).

The participants in Naked Attraction gamely try to justify the programme by using words such as ‘empowering’ or ‘new-found confidence’, and offer Twitter-size arguments that the show delves to the deeper core of dating. On the evidence of the first episode a rather different conclusion can be drawn. Naked Attraction is tedious, dispiriting superficiality. This is dating for the empty-headed consumer generation who think they are being edgy, bright and liberal but are in fact being boring, stupid and constrained. It is dating for those who do not understand sexuality and the erotic, who think that the dismal mechanics of pornography amount to erotica. At one point a participant is described as having a body like a figure from Botticelli—I suspect the person offering this comment was confused about her artists, since the body was nothing like a Botticellian figure but a lot like a Rubens nude—but the gulf between the eroticism of Botticelli (and Rubens) and Naked Attraction is immense. Tellingly, the Rubenesque/Botticellian participant was the first of the six to be rejected.

We can, however, find in the Renaissance an interesting historical and philosophical ancestor to Naked Attraction. In Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) there is the following account of a social custom among prospective brides and grooms on the fictional island:

When they’re thinking of getting married, they do something that seemed to us quite absurd, though they take it very seriously. The prospective bride, no matter whether she’s a spinster or a widow, is exhibited stark naked to the prospective bridegroom by a respectable married woman, and a suitable male chaperon shows the bridegroom naked to the bride. When we implied by our laughter that we thought it a silly system, they promptly turned the joke against us.

            ‘What we find so odd,’ they said, ‘is the silly way these things are arranged in other parts of the world. When you’re buying a horse, and there’s nothing at stake but a small sum of money, you take every possible precaution. The animal’s practically naked already, but you firmly refuse to buy until you’ve whipped off the saddle and all the rest of the harness, to make sure there aren’t any sores underneath. But when you’re choosing a wife, an article that for better or worse has got to last you a lifetime, you’re unbelievably careless. You don’t even bother to take it out of its wrappings. You judge the whole woman from a few square inches of face, which is all you can see of her, and then proceed to marry her—at the risk of finding her most disagreeable, when you see what she’s really like. (Thomas More, Utopia, trans. by Paul Turner (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 84)

Utopia is a description of an ideal society. If it really existed it would be the dullest and most oppressive place on earth. The Utopians have reduced everything to worthiness and reason; they set no store by gold and jewels; they see no point in fashion; they do not gamble; their leisure consists of improving pursuits such as mental games and study. Everyone is equal and no-one is idle: ‘There’s never any excuse for idleness. There are also no wine-taverns, no ale-houses, no brothels, no secret meeting-places. Everyone has his eye on you, so you’re practically forced to get on with your job, and make some proper use of your spare time.’ (p. 65) North Korea is probably the country that has come closest to realizing More’s utopian fantasy.

Naked Attraction is not, of course, the first step on the way to a nightmarish North Korean future. Judging from its first outing, my guess is that the only place Naked Attraction is heading towards is the long list of programmes that are so dire they never get a second series. I am confidently hopeful that this is the case. If I am wrong, if Naked Attraction actually resonates with viewers as a telling and zeitgeisty shows that reflects their own thoughts about dating, attraction and romance, then there may be grounds for some despair. For, if the show really does tap into our sexual and human values, what would it be telling us?

It would be telling us that imagination, subtlety, mystery, complexity and the erotic are on the way out. It reduces attraction to dreary talk about the shape of someone’s penis, the amount of body hair they have, or whether their nipples are good for flicking. (I guarantee that it is more exciting reading the previous sentence than watching these things being said on the programme.) It would be telling us that those keen on metrics—things that are measurable and quantifiable—are triumphing over those who prefer immeasurable qualities. But I’m confident that not even Ms. Spreadsheet, my former date, would have taken metrics to these extremes.

Above all, Naked Attraction would be telling us that many people have a fundamentally misconceived notion of the self. In normal dating, when clothes are worn and movements are observed and conversation is exchanged, we are telling interesting stories about ourselves. Naked Attraction is obsessed with the idea that all these things—clothes, movement, social interaction—are just so many ways of concealing who we really are, that beneath all the layers can be found the pure, true self. In fact, it is the other way round. The self is something we put on. We reveal ourselves through what we wear, the way we move, the things we talk about. There is no self beyond that; there is just an invariably quite dull lump of uninteresting physical matter.

Naked Attraction unwittingly confirms this truth: what makes the show so unsexy and unerotic is its fixation on nothing more than the naked body. It demonstrates that the truly erotic is to be found in the way we transform our dull bodies through movement and clothes, adornment and conversation. Sexiness is the way we all tell stories about ourselves through what we wear, do and say. Attraction is to charm each other through these stories. It is the absence of that which makes the unadorned nakedness of Naked Attraction so unattractive and charmless.

Brexit, Bob Dylan, Braudel: Part 1—‘Something is happening here’

bob_dylan_ballad_of_a_thin_man‘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.

Iceland beats Poundland: Thoughts on Euro 2016

beautiful game
The beautiful game: Belgians tackling Ireland’s Shane Long

It being Sunday, and progress on my weighty essay on ‘Brexit and history’ moving forwards with all the purpose and clarity of England’s attack against Iceland, I thought I’d write about football. After all, Euro 2016 would seem to be a potential distraction from the Brexit clusterfuck that has descended on Britain and Europe. Brexit has, however, a habit of invading every area of life. For example, I posted to Facebook a photograph (above right) from the Ireland-Belgium match with an attempted witticism that had nothing to do with Brexit, only to discover that one of my relatives saw fit to post an anti-EU comment on it, an especially stupid and ignorant one as I subtly pointed out to him. But back to the football…

It has been a largely turgid tournament. The simple virtues of industry, organization and sticking to a basic plan have generally succeeded. Creativity has been conspicuously minimal. The prevailing tactic for many corners or free kicks in the final third has been to find a means to pass the ball all the way back to one’s own goalkeeper in order to build an attack with glacial slowness from the back. Not surprisingly, therefore, most scorelines have resembled binary computer programming.

Quality has been in short supply. This may be because of tiredness, either because of the rigours of long domestic seasons or because the widely-advertised ‘McDonald’s Player Escorts’ has been having an unfortunate effect. The standard of some of the awfulness has been impressive. In their opening group match against Poland, Northern Ireland resembled a bunch of Sunday league players who had won a prize to appear in the European Championships rather than an international football team. Fortunately for the Northern Irish, they then met Ukraine who resembled a bunch of Sunday league reserve players. Not that Ukraine were even the worst team in the tournament. Arguably the Czech Republic were even more awful; but indisputably Russia, who looked alarmingly unfamiliar with some of the basic principles of football such as running or passing the ball to a teammate, took the honour of being the most dreadful side in a tournament where the competition for that prize was intense.

Thanks to overcoming the feeble Ukrainians and then managing to keep Germany’s score down in their next match, Northern Ireland actually sneaked through to the knock-out phase. The format of the tournament has been widely, and rightly, criticized. It takes thirty-six matches to whittle twenty-four teams down to sixteen; but then having indulged various forms of risk-averse football from bad teams, the competition reverts to knock-out brutality as fifteen matches reduce sixteen teams down to the last side standing.

Defenders of the tournament structure point to how the enlargement of the Euros has meant that various minnows such as Albania, Northern Ireland and Iceland have been able to participate for the first time. But all of those countries would have qualified under the old sixteen-team format. Instead the enlargement has admitted various shades of dross. (And amid all the soul-searching in the FAs of Ukraine, Russia and England right now, one wonders what the Dutch are thinking: semi-finalists in the World Cup two years ago, the Netherlands failed to qualify for the Euros despite it being probably the easiest qualification process for any major football tournament.)

As the smallest country ever to qualify for any major football tournament, Iceland are the ultimate minnows. With a population of 330,000, once one has factored out women, children, the elderly, the sick, the obese, the researchers on volcanoes, it is hard not to wonder whether the Icelandic national football squad comprises all the able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 35 on the island. In fact, something like 1 in 2,000 Icelandic men in that age range are representing their national side in France. They are wonderfully cheered on at their matches by many thousands of Icelanders who have presented the watching world with some fantastically choreographed, and slightly scary, chants. So many Icelanders seem to be in France that one fears for their homeland: the puffins may have worked out a way of taking over by the time the population returns.

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Happy Icelandic fans doing their brilliant chant

The Icelanders did manage to upset the usually humble, modest and generous-hearted Cristiano Ronaldo. By daring to defend against Portugal in their opening group match, rather than more properly bowing down at Ronaldo’s feet, the Icelanders achieved an unlikely draw and brought upon themselves the wrath of the demi-god who accused them of having a ‘small mentality’. Ronaldo’s wider point is worth considering: is it in the spirit of football or indeed humanity that an insignificant country such as Iceland should attempt to play to its own tactical strengths rather than to the tactical strengths of its larger and more important opponents? Would it not be fairer if smaller countries actually played to lose against larger countries?

The uncaring Norsemen defied, however, Ronaldo’s prediction that ‘they are not going to do anything in the competition’ by qualifying for the knockout phase. So it was in the round-of-16 that they met post-Brexit England. Pre-Brexit England had been talked up as a highly talented and youthful squad of players, and much was made of their lively performances in the group matches which yielded a draw against Russia (yes, the same Russia who proved themselves to be the worst side in the tournament), a win over Wales thanks to a goal at the death, and an utterly dominant 0-0 demolition of the mighty Slovakia. Few pundits gave the Icelanders much hope against the English juggernaut that was trampling its way across Europe.

Now, I have to confess that I was in such a post-Brexit funk that I decided to get pissed with a friend rather than watch the match. This was because I wanted Iceland to win, but didn’t give them much hope (and having put myself through the torment of watching one hope die on EU referendum night, I did not want to repeat the suffering so soon). I shall, of course, be accused of a complete lack of patriotism—but, you know what, I wear my lack of patriotism with pride. Of the many stupid beliefs one might have, patriotism is right up there with the stupidest of them. (And this gives me an opportunity to refer to a good article on patriotism by Will Self.) I have never understood why one should identify with people just because they were born in the same country as me; the ‘my country right or wrong’ mentality strikes me as the height of idiocy. Often I quite like England to do well because I sense the local happiness that this will bring, but actually I care very little. If Wayne Rooney was a passionate advocate of international justice, or Raheem Sterling was an admirer of Virginia Woolf novels, or Joe Hart spoke lucidly about the Stuart age, or Gary Cahill was a devotee of Bob Dylan then I might care, because in general I find myself identifying with people like that. But as it is, they are product-advertising millionaires playing for a country with the world’s worst national anthem and which, thanks to the EU referendum, had just decided to unleash bigotry and racism on its own people. (But I should be fair: I genuinely do celebrate the fact that the England side is a reflection of the cultural diversity of the country.)

I have subsequently watched most of Iceland’s convincing defeat of England (which sadly did not involve them bringing on Eidur Gudjohnsen as a riposte to England’s Boris Badjohnson). Most of the analysis concluded that England’s display had been awful—indeed, that it was arguably the worst ever performance by the national side. I prefer to be more generous: I think the England side were putting on a piece of performance art that attempted to convey the confusion, lack of direction and sheer horror brought about by Brexit. It didn’t win a football match, but it won my admiration for perfectly and aesthetically capturing the national zeitgeist.

Now Iceland get to meet the host nation. I am somewhat torn: on the one hand I want Iceland to continue their Viking heroics; on the other hand I would like to see West Ham’s Dimitri Payet resume his lonely mission to inject some flair, imagination, creativity and quality into the tournament.

As I write there is still the possibility of an Iceland vs. Brexity Wales final. Wales, in their first international tournament since 1958, have won more tournament matches in three weeks than England have in their previous seven tournaments combined. (Another fun England fact I have learnt: since 1966 England have won only six knock-out matches in international tournaments.) In the best match of the tournament (yes, better than the 3-3 goalfest between Portugal and Hungary), Wales put on a truly outstanding performance to send my pre-tournament tip Belgium home. Now they get the opportunity to do what Iceland so spectacularly failed to do: pay reverence to the divine genius of Ronaldo and let Portugal win. Yet, for all that a country ought to suffer a bit of karma for voting for Brexit, it is hard not to want Wales to get to the final.

Finally, it is worth noting that Germany are, predictably, still in the tournament. For those Brexiteers who voted Leave because they believe that Germany dominates Europe, nothing in Euro 2016 so far is likely to disabuse them of their fantasy. The Germans have been the best side, and have even found a way to win when hashing up a penalty shoot-out. They would make worthy champions: they play expansive, dynamic football based on a tactical and organizational approach as coherent as England’s was incoherent. If football is a guide to anything in this post-Brexit world, then it suggests that one ought to choose Germany over England every time.


UPDATE: Sadly Iceland have been knocked out by France. Which means that we will not get to hear one of the truly beautiful national anthems again in the tournament. Still, the Welsh have a lovely anthem we can enjoy, hopefully for another couple of matches.

Brexit may never happen

A week ago today I posted on Facebook my ‘considered’ response to the EU referendum result: ‘Britain is fucked’ it read, capturing my end-of-the-world feeling. A week on—and certainly the most turbulent and dramatic week in British politics in my lifetime—and about the only thing that is clear is that nobody really knows what is going to happen. At best we can make only educated but partially informed guesses. (Partially informed because most information either about the referendum itself—for example, who voted and why—or about the immediate course of events—for example, who will win the Conservative party leadership contest, or how EU politicians are going to act—is unavailable). Like any guess, mine could well turn out to be wrong. History, after all, tells us that little is ever fully predictable, and that any number of factors can rapidly transform a situation. But for what it’s worth my guess is that Brexit will not happen.

This may simply be wishful thinking. I voted Remain and am strongly anti-Brexit for various reasons (which I have written about elsewhere). I do not intend to rehearse here why I think it is legitimate to oppose Brexit and work towards preventing it, except to make two general points. First, we live in a democracy and an open society (yes, I know both labels can be qualified but let’s not get too picky here), in which the right to express one’s views is valued and protected. Brexiteers may disagree with and oppose my position and arguments, but they are not entitled to shut down debate nor to stop campaigners from actively working for what they believe. Simply telling people to ‘accept the result’ will not do when nothing has actually been decided yet. Secondly, for a number of reasons I am not persuaded that the referendum is an example of ‘good’ democracy. This is undoubtedly a difficult argument, but I have written elsewhere (as have many others) about the legal, constitutional and democratic problems with the referendum. These problems deserve, at the very least, serious consideration as part of the ongoing debate.

There is a path to stopping Brexit. It is certainly not an easy one (but no path right now is), and it will depend on all sorts of factors aligning, but it is plausible—and we have already taken the first steps down it.

The first step, somewhat paradoxically, involved doing nothing. One of the few simplicities of the situation is this: in order for Brexit to happen, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has to be invoked, thereby formally triggering a departure from the EU; until it is, there is no Brexit. Throughout the referendum campaign David Cameron insisted that, in the event of a Leave victory, he would within hours invoke Article 50. Not only did he not do this, but he also said that he would not do it, instead choosing to resign and toss this particular grenade to his successor.

This was a smart move (Cameron—a disastrous Prime Minister to be sure—has always been at his limited best when doing nothing). It buys time, a precious commodity when the stakes are so high. Leaving the EU would be a momentous decision affecting many millions both now and for generations to come, and whether one wants to remain or leave there is little sense in rushing the decision or allowing hotheads like Nigel Farage to dictate the agenda. By announcing he would be doing nothing, Cameron, perhaps finally realizing the gross folly of his referendum, was opening up the possibility that a way might be found to prevent the impending disaster he had done so much to create.

The response to Cameron’s move (or, more accurately, non-move) further suggests that minds are turning to how Brexit may be avoided. Although, in the aftermath of the vote, a few EU voices called for Britain to clarify its position quickly, these have now died down; instead, calmer heads are recognizing that the best course right now is patience. It is anyway clear that nothing can happen before September at the earliest, when a new Prime Minister will be in place.

The most likely successor to Cameron is Theresa May, an instinctively Eurosceptic Tory but one who nominally campaigned on the Remain side during the referendum. She is a sensible, pragmatic and highly competent politician; indeed, her low profile during the referendum is evidence of her smartness as a politician, since she steered clear of the Tory civil war, bolstering her credentials as a future unifier of the party. May has said that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, a statement which, if scrutinized for a few seconds, is actually fairly meaningless, but one which she has to make: in order to win the Tory leadership she needs to reassure the Eurosceptic-inclined grassroots of the party. But she has also indicated that, should she be the next Prime Minister, any negotiations to leave the EU would not begin at least until the end of the year. She, too, is finding ways to buy time.

So it is unlikely that anything will happen in relation to Article 50—and, therefore, that Brexit will even begin moving towards reality—before 2017. Taking time over this is good in itself: the situation is unprecedented, and it is apparent (and also somewhat incredible) that no-one, least of all those on the Leave side, had any coherent plan about what to do in the event of a vote for Leave. What it means is that the debate stays open, rendering the referendum as simply one event (possibly crucial, possibly not) within a longer discussion and political process over the question of Europe. Both sides have, therefore, the opportunity to mobilize and continue the campaign.

For the anti-Brexit side that will involve making a strong case against leaving the EU—and a stronger and more persuasive case than was made by Remain during the referendum campaign—and putting pressure on parliament. Britain is, after all, a parliamentary democracy, and ultimately it is parliament, not the Prime Minister nor a simple majority of the people, who determines if and when Article 50 is invoked.

The parliamentary numbers are on the side of anti-Brexit: in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords there is a clear majority for Remain. Of course, neither MPs nor Lords are in an enviable position. Whether they choose to adhere to their conscience, to their sense of the national interest, to the apparent will of the majority, to their party, to their constituents, or to their personal political ambitions will doubtless involve tortuous individual decision-making. But one can be sure of one thing: parliament will not act as a simple rubber stamp. Nor should it: the question of EU membership is the most important in recent British political history, and the referendum result, while delivering a small majority to leave the EU, seems some way off providing a clear and definitive answer.

More time also allows the EU to formulate its own strategy to encourage Britain to remain. The EU cannot, of course, force Britain to remain, but it can help give Remainers room to manoeuvre. Publicly the EU has categorically stated that there will be no informal negotiations with Britain, a sensible position which ensures that Britain is seen to have full responsibility for its decision. But one can be confident that privately there will be discussions, as well as energetic activity, that explore all the options. There are already signs of the EU sending out low-key messages that give hope to the anti-Brexit position: Helmut Kohl’s call for Europe not to act in haste over Brexit; and the careful support from Slovakia, which holds the current EU presidency, for any moves towards reversing Brexit, as well as Nicolas Sarkozy’s suggestion that Europe as a whole should have a referendum on border controls and freedom of movement, key grievances for Brexiteers that may help turn the heads among some of their number.

There is much, therefore, still to play for, and various possible outcomes. One path to Remain may be this: the next Prime Minister, aware of the constitutional and political difficulties of invoking Article 50, decides that the only reasonable way ahead will be through a general election during which the electorate can be presented with various worked-out courses of action. There is a good democratic argument to be made for insisting that the country must go to the polls before any Prime Minister (least of all one who is being elected by that small subset of the population, members of the Conservative party) invokes Article 50 and sets about negotiating an exit. After all, the referendum only posed the superficially simple question of whether to leave the EU; it did not ask what should be done in the event of leaving. But this is clearly an important question that should be voted on; for example, the public has not been consulted on whether Britain should remain a member of the single market, and it quickly became apparent during the campaign that nobody knew whether a vote to leave meant a vote to leave the single market.

This highlights one of the fundamental flaws of the referendum: a vote for Leave can mean so many things—the Norway option, the Norway-plus option, the Swiss option, the Canada/Australia option, or something else all together—none of which have been presented to the electorate in any manifesto. Given this, the result practically demands a further vote, possibly in a second referendum over the British negotiating position and what exactly is Britain deciding to leave, but preferably in a general election. Concerted pressure should be put on parliament and the government to recognize this: Article 50 should not be invoked without a democratic mandate and parliamentary approval for where any negotiations may lead.

I would contend that this is both a reasonable and plausible way ahead. It does not guarantee that Brexit will not happen. It might, but at the very least there should be public consultation over what Brexit means and entails. But further public consultation allows the Remain side to regroup and campaign against Brexit, with the realistic possibility that Brexit itself will be reconsidered. And to reiterate what I wrote above: in a free and democratic society, it is entirely appropriate for people to continue campaigning for what they believe in—Brexiteers cannot claim that the referendum result somehow gives them a monopoly of the debate or the politics.

Of course, there are so many variables that any number of outcomes are still possible. The past week would seem to illustrate Lenin’s comment that ‘there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen’. And we’ve got several months ahead of us in which countless things may happen. Whether Gove or May (or, more improbably, one of the other three) wins the Tory leadership contest; the voices coming from Europe; the financial markets and economic forecasts; whether Donald Trump wins the US presidential election; whether Labour can form a coherent opposition—all of these are examples of factors that could affect the course of events. And there is always a high chance of completely unpredictable events that are impossible to factor in but which could transform the situation.

Finally, it is worth noting that a large part, but by no means all, of the Establishment oppose Brexit—and the Establishment traditionally finds a way of securing its ends. I do not make that point approvingly; I merely note it as a further reason for doubting whether Brexit will ever happen. Still, one ought to be honest. As an opponent of Brexit myself, I am not dismayed that on this issue the Establishment share my views. Brexit creates some fascinatingly odd alignments: many millions of voters who identify as anti-Establishment found themselves lined up on the same side as Cameron, the banks, the City, and so on. That in no way dilutes their anti-Establishment position; EU membership was never the right issue to do battle with the Establishment. (The real question for the anti-Establishment is this: are you a nationalist or an internationalist? If the latter, then you should campaign to stay in the EU and fight the battle more widely across Europe, by, for example, working towards reform of the EU itself.)

If my assessment of the situation is correct (and it may well not be), then there is a reasonable chance that Brexit will not happen. There are good arguments for why it should not happen; there are moves, whether intentional or not, to buy time that increases the chances of it not happening; there are perfectly democratic and constitutional ways for preventing it from happening; and there is a potentially powerful combination of Establishment and anti-Establishment voices who can stop it from happening. For now, at least, nothing has been decided. If this was a football match, Brexit would be leading 1-0—with the second half about to start.

Labour crisis, Brexit crisis

Labour’s current turmoil mirrors that of the country as a whole, and lessons can possibly be drawn from this. A common problem is at the root of both: a disconnection between the head and the rest of the body. Brexit is the way this has manifested itself in the country: a large proportion of the population expressed, through a vote to leave the EU, their dissatisfaction with the political, economic and financial establishment. For Labour, the dissatisfaction with their establishment—party grandees and the parliamentary party—was aired in the 2015 leadership contest won by Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn was the anti-establishment candidate, and was voted in on the back of a popular insurgency among ordinary, rank-and-file party members. In the way he dressed, spoke and acted, and in his record as a notoriously rebellious MP who put principle before personal ambition, Corbyn was a man who oozed an anti-establishment vibe. Many of those who voted for him did so because they ‘wanted their party back’—a party that, in their view, had been hijacked by Tory-lite Blairite modernizers and corporate-friendly career politicians. Optimistically, and perhaps idealistically, they hoped that by installing their man at the helm, the rest of the parliamentary head might start connecting again with the body.

The chances of this hope being realized were always remote. From day one of Corbyn’s leadership there were murmurs of plots against him, and it was never going to take much for the murmurs to become a crescendo preceding an attempt by the Westminster politicians to oust him.

The EU referendum and the subsequent Brexit crisis was the opportunity the plotters were waiting for. As a pretext they cited Corbyn’s apparently lacklustre campaign to remain in the EU, attributing to him a large responsibility for the failure of the Remain camp. It is far from obvious that they are right about this—not enough at a detailed level is understood about who voted Leave and why. On the one hand, in a campaign dominated on both sides by overblown arguments, misplaced passion and straightforward mendacity, Corbyn’s more low-key, honest and cogent position was a welcome relief; he presented reasoned arguments, without resorting to a strategy of fear-mongering, and he was upfront in his reservations about some aspects of the EU while making a sensible case for Remain. On the other hand, in a campaign that allowed for little nuance, and in which the stakes were so high, Corbyn’s contribution appears to have been both misconceived and largely ineffective: he looked too much like an informed Remain voter with one or two doubts, rather than an inspiring leader fully committed to his cause (and there are those who believe his lack of commitment masked a sanguine attitude to the prospect of Brexit).

Whether Corbyn conducted a good campaign is open to argument; for his enemies, however, the possibility of reasonable doubt over the matter presented the opportunity they had been waiting for. And so an attempted coup is under way—and a Corbynite resistance is taking shape. How it will pan out is unclear, but it is not likely to be pretty. Corbyn is most likely finished, since his position has become untenable: Labour cannot function in any meaningful parliamentary way when its leader commands so little support among his fellow MPs. At the same time, however, Labour will struggle to function as a party if its anti-Corbyn grandees and parliamentary party fail to connect with the majority of its members. Is there a candidate who can pull it all together? And would the Corbyn supporters among the membership be prepared to transfer their support to him or her? At this extremely early stage the answers to neither question appear encouraging. For it would seem that much of Corbyn’s support comes from people who do not want the ‘same old Westminster politics’, and who are reluctant to embrace a consensus politics if that involves diluting their own ideals. Stand-offs, infighting, haemorrhaging of support may all feature in the weeks and months ahead.

The parallels between Labour’s woes and the Brexit crisis are somewhat ironic. For Corbyn’s position mirrors the Brexit position; and the Labour parliamentary party position mirrors the anti-Brexit position. The former are cast as anti-establishment; the latter (less fairly, perhaps) as establishment. It is of course much more complex than that, and this is only one of many ways in which the current crises—both Brexit and Labour—can be read. And this is much more about perceptions than it is about reality: Brexit is perceived as anti-establishment, and anti-Brexit is perceived as establishment. (I write this as someone who is strongly anti-Brexit and broadly anti-establishment.) But if we do read it in this way, what might we learn? One answer is that the political and financial ‘establishment’ will do just as most of Labour’s MPs have done: they will attempt to step in to end the anti-establishment insurgency carried out by a popular majority.

It is unlikely either ‘establishment’ will succeed, in part because both have been severely wounded by huge hits. But more than that, the game is changing; old rules and certainties no longer apply. Neither the Labour party nor the Westminster and City establishments in their current form are suited to the new game that is emerging. Labour thrived on the old certainties of an identifiable working class, and on a two-party system that fostered loyalty and consensus within ‘broad church’ politics. But society and politics are now fragmented—with divisions that go far beyond class—to such an extent that it is hard to see how Labour in its current form can bring it all together. Of course, one cannot be sure: there may be an inspirational and imaginative figure or movement who is able to build bridges across the divides. But more likely is the prospect of Labour splintering or splitting. And while it could be argued that this disarray and disintegration is limited to the political left, there is mounting evidence that the Conservative party faces similar challenges on the right.

The Westminster establishment, which in essence is built on a whole political system, will similarly struggle in this fragmented political culture. Just as the Labour party may no longer be fit for purpose, so too the wider political system. In the short-term all sorts of battles will be won and lost: the Brexiters may win, or the anti-Brexiters may win; the Corbynites may win, or the anti-Corbynites may win. But these battles, interesting and exciting though they will be, are merely the froth on the surface. Beneath the surface there are wildly changing currents that may result in much more radical developments, tearing down establishments and transforming both national politics and Labour politics.

A reckless and cavalier abuse of democracy: The democratic failings of the EU referendum

The EU referendum has inflicted potentially huge damage on democracy. Superficially it has the appearance of a great democratic event. In reality it risks bringing democracy into disrepute. In the wake of the vote for Brexit, Kenneth Rogoff, a professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University, has written an excellent, thoughtful article on this: ‘Britain’s Democratic Failure’. What follows is largely my own reiteration and comment on his argument.

At the outset it is important to be clear about two things. The first is that I unequivocally believe in democracy. The quotation attributed to Winston Churchill that ‘democracy is the worst form of government apart from all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’ expresses a view that I share. In relation to the referendum the question is not about democracy versus anti-democracy, but about whether the referendum was the best democratic way of deciding the issue of Britain’s EU membership. As I suggest below (and as Rogoff argues) it was actually a fairly terrible way of going about the decision.

Secondly, it needs to be emphasized that the question posed by the referendum was not a typical political issue. The gravity, importance and implications of the result were repeatedly discussed during the campaign—although little of this resonated with the wider public. The overwhelming majority of legal, constitutional, economic and financial experts warned of the dangers of Brexit, both in the short and long term; at the very least, this was an indication that the issue needed to be treated with great care and thoughtful consideration.

It is right that in a democracy questions of such fundamental importance as EU membership are decided democratically. But was a referendum the best way of doing so? And if referenda are in general a good way of making (some) political decisions, was the specific vote over EU membership a good example of a referendum? There are persuasive grounds to answer ‘no’ to both of these questions, and in particular the second of them.

To answer the first question it is important to distinguish between two forms of democracy: direct and representative. Direct democracy involves the people (or, more typically, those people who qualify as citizens) as a whole deciding on policy. There are few examples of direct democracy: the most famous is ancient Athens in which adult male citizens (constituting about 10% of the overall population of the polis) voted individually and directly on all legislative and executive matters. Some modern democracies—notably Switzerland and some constituent states of the USA—resort to direct democracy (through referenda) on various issues, but no modern democratic system can be described as a direct democracy.

The British political system is an example of a representative democracy: citizens do not vote directly on legislative and executive matters, but rather elect representatives to decide these matters. There are very good reasons why representative democracy is vastly preferable to direct democracy. Unlike ancient Athens, modern democracies are not small city-states in which the labour of women, slaves and foreigners enables the small number of citizens to participate in politics; they are large, highly complex societies and economies in which universal participation in politics would be impossibly unwieldy, beyond the capacity of most individuals to make informed decisions, and fraught with political risk. Representative democracy, by entrusting decision-making to elected officials dedicated to the sophisticated and difficult task of politics, is a rational and sensible arrangement for modern society and one that minimizes the risks of direct democracy.

The EU referendum illustrates some of the risks of direct democracy. On an issue of long-term and national importance, a fraction over half the voters (and little more than a third of the electorate) has overruled the wishes of a fraction under half the voters (and nearly two thirds of the electorate). It invited members of the public to decide on an issue likely to lead to national and international instability, with unpredictable risks and dangers both to Britain and the wider world. Many British citizens are educated and well informed, and are capable of weighing up the issues in a balanced, intelligent, critical and careful way. But many more are not. It is clear that many voters had little real idea of the issues; many voters engage rarely, if at all, in political debate, and, in so far as they do, rely on tabloid newspapers for their political information. Furthermore, there is the possibility that extraneous and irrelevant factors—the weather on polling day, the national mood in relation to Euro 2016, prejudice against immigrants that had nothing to do with the EU debate, a vote against Cameron or a vote for Boris (rather than a vote on EU membership), a vote based on no more than instinct or emotion—played a part. Any national vote is liable to be affected by contingency; the national mood now is not the same as the national mood a few months ago or the national mood as it will be in a few months’ time.

The referendum delivered, therefore, a snapshot of a deeply divided public mood on a particular day, and a result that statistically involved only a tiny margin between those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain. And yet the result is likely to affect many millions both in Britain and abroad who did not vote, as well as generations of people to come.

Rogoff comments that ‘the real lunacy of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union… was the absurdly low bar for exit’. In other words, the problem was not so much that a referendum was held in the first place, but rather that the specific EU referendum was fundamentally flawed in its design and conception. Above all, a ‘decision of enormous consequence… has been made without any appropriate checks and balances’. In Rogoff’s words: ‘This isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics.’

This is surely right. In a robust democracy, even comparatively minor issues go through rigorous and careful procedures. Checks and balances are built into the process. Legislation is debated and voted on several times; it has to pass through committees and both houses of parliament; and bad legislation can be amended or repealed. Select committees scrutinize the work of the executive; parliament holds the government to account. In other words, for all its problems, idiosyncrasies and weaknesses, parliament works according to procedures designed to ensure political decisions come under thoughtful consideration and are not rushed. Even for minor laws, parliamentary procedure is robust and rigorous, embodying important checks and balances.

The debate over EU membership is far from a minor issue; on the contrary it is the most important in recent British politics. Yet it is hard to claim that the referendum was designed with the robustness and rigour normally found in British political decision-making. To allow a decision of this magnitude to be reached by a simple majority of the public on a single day after a campaign of a few weeks (and of extremely poor quality) would seem laughable if it were not so tragic. The absurdity of this was compounded by the fact that the electorate were offered the option to leave the EU but without any proper debate or information about what would happen if that option was (as it turned out to be) successful. In effect the referendum was offering two paths, but one of which was blind, difficult and lacking in any map or guide.

For all this the Prime Minister bears a heavy responsibility. For it was Cameron who pledged a referendum—not for democratic reasons but in the expectation that by doing so he would end divisions within his own party and see off the threat of UKIP (instead, in a grim irony, he exacerbated divisions and handed victory to UKIP). Worse than his high stakes gamble—he bet the nation, and possibly Europe, in order to win a narrow tactical victory—was the reckless and ill-considered design of the referendum itself. There were various ways in which he could have built checks and balances into the process: he might have demanded a demonstrably clear majority (e.g. 60-40) of the voters, or a majority of the electorate as a whole; he might have insisted that the outcome of a Leave vote in the referendum would simply trigger a second referendum at a defined point in the future, allowing for further consideration and debate as well as a much clearer understanding of exactly what Brexit would entail; he might have required that an outcome of Brexit was only valid if all four constituent countries of the United Kingdom had voted in favour of it; he might have indicated a clearer role for parliament in the decision; or he might have implemented two or more of these checks and balances. But he did none of these things, doubtless fearful of antagonizing UKIP and the right-wing of his own party. The referendum was a hubristic abuse of democracy on the part of Cameron that threatens to bring democracy itself into disrepute.

However, an important note needs to be added to the above. In a campaign of extensive mendacity, the Leave campaign did not have a monopoly on lies: the Remain camp told a few too. Cameron claimed that the day after a Leave vote he would invoke Article 50, thereby irreversibly beginning Britain’s exit from the EU. Not only did this not happen—it was never likely to, and was presumably a dishonest but unsuccessful campaigning scare tactic—but the claim was fundamentally dishonest in the first place. Neither constitutionally nor legally is it in the power of the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50; rather it is parliament’s decision whether and when the process of Brexit begins. We may be grateful that, despite Cameron’s cavalier and reckless abuse of democracy, British constitutional law has within it a potentially vital parliamentary check on the ill-conceived referendum and its disastrous outcome.

Nick Barber, Tom Hickman and Jeff King: Pulling the Article 50 ‘Trigger’: Parliament’s Indispensable Role

Nick Barber, Tom Hickman and Jeff King: Pulling the Article 50 ‘Trigger’: Parliament’s Indispensable Role

This is an excellent contribution by three experts on constitutional law to the Brexit debate, specifically in relation to the issues surrounding Article 50. It presents a clear and convincing case that, both constitutionally and legally, it is parliament rather than the Prime Minister who decides on triggering Article 50 and hence Brexit.

UK Constitutional Law Association

Barber-Hickman-KingIn this post we argue that as a matter of domestic constitutional law, the Prime Minister is unable to issue a declaration under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – triggering our withdrawal from the European Union – without having been first authorised to do so by an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament.  Were he to attempt to do so before such a statute was passed, the declaration would be legally ineffective as a matter of domestic law and it would also fail to comply with the requirements of Article 50 itself.

There are a number of overlapping reasons for this. They range from the general to the specific. At the most general, our democracy is a parliamentary democracy, and it is Parliament, not the Government, that has the final say about the implications of the referendum, the timing of an Article 50 our membership of the Union, and…

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An immediate fightback against Brexit?

Should there and could there be an immediate fightback against Brexit? There are already signs that this is being considered. Some parliamentarians are suggesting that parliament should block Brexit; others are calling for a second referendum; millions have signed a petition against the referendum result; and even some Brexiters are showing hesitancy about triggering Article 50. Right now Britain remains part of the EU, and it is not clear when, or even if, Article 50 will be triggered.

Brexiters will argue that the referendum was a transparent democratic exercise that reflects the will of the people, and that there would be no justification to go against the result. They will plausibly claim that to ignore the result would be outrageously undemocratic, and would confirm how an establishment elite treat the wishes and concerns of the majority of British people with disdain. It is a powerful argument, and one that looks, on the face of it, unanswerable.

But it may be worth, at the very least, thinking through some possible counter-arguments. For this is undoubtedly the worst political crisis in Britain in any of our lifetimes. The country is in a febrile, chaotic, incomprehensible mess, at risk of falling apart, and in danger of legal, economic, political and social turmoil that could take years or decades to overcome, if indeed they will ever be fully overcome.

The following comes with a caveat: it consists of initial thoughts about an unprecedented situation, and one that is likely to remain highly unclear for some time to come. My points are intended primarily as a contribution to a debate rather than as a fully worked out position.

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The referendum numbers are worth considering. In a population of 65 million, 45 million were registered to vote (some, mostly the young, were eligible to vote but were not registered). Of that electorate, more than a quarter did not vote; of those who did, 17 million voted Leave and 16 million Remain. In other words, about 38% of the electorate voted to leave the EU, or 26% of the population as a whole. The lives of 65 million people have been decided by 17 million people. Only one out of every four people on the streets of the UK voted for Leave.

Of course it can be argued that my presentation of these figures is a sleight of hand. For example, a large part of the population consists of children, and it is necessary to distinguish between the population as a whole and those eligible as citizens and as adults to form the electorate. Nobody would seriously work out voting percentages in an election based on the population as a whole.

But the referendum was not the same as a normal election. In a general election, for example, one knows that whatever the result there will be another election in a few years’ time. The teenager disappointed by the 2015 election result at least knows that she will get to vote in the next election; but the teenager disappointed by the 2016 EU referendum result will have no such opportunity. Unlike an election, therefore, the referendum imposes a result upon millions of young people, and countless millions yet to be born, none of whom has any apparent prospect of revisiting, let alone reversing, the result.

It is worth reflecting here on one of the claims for classical conservatism. Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between ‘those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born’, while G.K. Chesterton argued against risking the tradition that links past, present and future by submitting ‘to the arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around’. In the referendum, 17 million people ‘who merely happen to be walking around’ have come to a decision that will affect generations to come.

All of this exposes deep flaws in the referendum process, and for that David Cameron bears a heavy responsibility. Most people, and he above all, knew the enormous risks of a vote to leave the EU, but he chanced it anyway, arrogantly assuming that his gilded life of success would secure a narrow political gain amid his own party problems. He might have allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to vote; he might have insisted that a majority of the entire electorate was required for a decisive result; he might have demanded that all four constituent countries of the UK had to be of one voice. In short, he could have built in some reasonable safeguards to ensure that a vote on such a momentous issue was more inclusive of the population, and required a high threshold for radical and extremely uncertain change.

Instead, what resulted was a referendum determined by a simply majority, and one that was always at risk—and particularly so after a Leave campaign based on populist slogans, dishonesty and base appeals to prejudice and xenophobia—of delivering a result that amounts to the rule of the mob. It is uncomfortable to make this point, but such is the crisis that numerous difficult and discomforting thoughts occur to those of us committed to progressive politics. But it is becoming increasingly clear that many people had little idea what they were really voting about; that many people regarded the vote as a simple protest against the government or the establishment, rather than specifically a vote on EU membership; that some Leave voters even hoped that Remain would win; and that many people were ill-informed and lacked the ability or the will to question critically the many lies and exaggerations of the Leave campaign (and, indeed, the relentless negativity of the Remain campaign).

But one does not have to argue that a dumbed-down political culture, in which, at best, a diet of tabloid junk journalism fuels the political views of large parts of the population, is a reason why there should never have been a referendum in the first place. For how many of us truly grasped the issues?

I can only speak personally here: I consider myself a well-informed elector, someone who has studied and taught on politics, someone who has read many things on the constitution, on sovereignty, on democracy, on the EU, someone who follows politics and keeps up to date with a wide range of commentary, someone whose work and research means I have to possess a modicum of understanding about economics, finance and broad social and political issues. And yet I did not feel truly qualified to vote on an issue of this importance. I have gone on record as saying that I like the EU and believe that it is in our interests we remain a member of it; I have also gone on record as saying that there are problems with the EU, and that some of the criticisms of the EU seem merited. I have been very happy to contribute my thoughts to the debate. But when it comes to making a decision on the issue, as opposed to being part of the important conversation about the issue, there are people, often with direct experience of working with the EU or with a broader perspective on British society and the economy, who are better placed and better qualified than I am.

The democracy we have is a representative democracy. We elect and pay for MPs whom we entrust to make informed and considered political decisions. We give them responsibility in areas over which we have limited competency. We choose them on the basis of their manifestos, and we get regular opportunities to choose someone else. In short, we entrust questions of national importance to parliament. This does not mean that we cannot debate and attempt to influence parliament; we can. But ultimately parliament is uniquely positioned to consider and make political decisions. There seems no good reason why, on the issue of EU membership as on any other political issue, it should not have been the responsibility of parliament to make the decision.

And, constitutionally, the referendum is only advisory on parliament. Westminster could, if it wanted, regard the referendum as an extensive opinion-gathering operation, and it could consider the wishes of 52% of voters as one factor to put alongside their own expertise as they deliberate the future relationship between Britain and the EU. MPs could note the referendum result but decide on continued membership of the EU based on their own understanding and knowledge of the national interest.

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It is only fair to note that the Prime Minister pledged the referendum during the last parliament and that this pledge was part of the Conservative party’s election manifesto last year. The Tory government was elected on this manifesto and it had, therefore, a duty to implement it. The process has been transparent and democratic. Any suggestion that the referendum result should be ignored or overturned undoubtedly risks looking like the complaint of ‘bad losers’. Democracy always involves some people not getting the result they want, and the expectation that they accept that. I would only reiterate that the referendum may not, for the reasons I mention above, be strictly comparable to normal democratic exercises.

Politically any attempt to sidestep the referendum is fraught with risk, so much so that I suspect it highly unlikely to happen. The popular fury and political turmoil if the result were ignored might be dangerously uncontrollable. On the other hand, almost all the possible paths ahead are full of risk. The fact is that the referendum has generated a crisis in which normal politics, and the old political rules and certainties, may no longer apply.

Post Brexit: First thoughts

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.

Let’s not party like it’s 1899: On Brexit, Remain and the EU referendum

chris_riddell_cartoonI shall be voting Remain in the EU referendum. Unlike Boris Johnson, I have not had to agonize over this decision. Like Jeremy Corbyn, my intention to vote Remain is 100% but my enthusiasm for the EU runs at about 75% (give or take 5%). But the nature of the referendum, and certainly the impoverished and shrill campaigns on both sides of the debate, does not allow for nuanced positions. There is no scope for a ‘Remain, but’ vote. This is a zero sum game in which a stark in/out choice is presented. Unable to pick and mix among the Remain and Leave arguments, we have to choose one side or the other. Given this, Remain is the obvious choice.

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There are positive and negative reasons for voting Remain. The referendum campaign has been dominated on both sides by negative arguments. Fear is a relevant factor in many of our political choices, and there is nothing wrong with voting for one side out of fear of what may happen should the other side. (However, scaremongering—using exaggeration, distortion and untruths deliberately to raise fears—is less virtuous. Both sides have indulged in it, although the Brexiteer claims about immigration have been especially dismal examples of it, and Brexit has been characterized by ‘dishonesty on an industrial scale’.) One does not have to be an expert on economics to realize that there are benefits to membership of a single market that will be lost by leaving that market; nor to surmise that a comparatively small island in the Atlantic with a diminishing manufacturing base may struggle in a world dominated by vastly more powerful economies and large trading blocs. Unlike Michael Gove, I am prepared to listen to the economic experts and to accept the consensus that leaving the EU will negatively impact on the British economy (and may well lead to wider international economic instability).

It is certainly fair to say that, while one cannot be certain of future disaster following from a vote to leave, Brexit is surely a chancey leap into the unknown. The economic risks are clear, but what is unclear is the path a post-Brexit Britain might follow. Many Brexiteers have made leaving the EU the defining issue of their political lives, and yet when tasked with mapping out a coherent and plausible idea of their long-desired post-EU Britain they provide only vagueness and confusion. Norway, Switzerland, Canada, blessed isolation, or none of the above, have, with varying degrees of incoherence, been posited as models. But for the most part the Brexiteers tell us with rhetorical airiness not to worry, because (in what amounts to an equivalent to Donald Trump’s ‘make America great again’ fluff) Britain is ‘a great nation’ and the British ‘a great people’ and that as long as long as we keep believing this then everything will probably work out. When Boris Johnson exhorts voters to believe in Britain, he has the air of an Eton schoolboy rousing his team on the rugby field rather than a politician of substance who might be a serious and responsible Prime Minister. Back in the days when undergraduates used to listen to me, I was always keen to encourage self belief and to remind students of their many abilities and great potential; but I also thought it important that they had a clear plan about how their studies would progress, since good university degrees are not achieved on self belief alone. Brexiteers (when not indulging in their own campaign of fear) offer little motivational nuggets but precious little of any substance. We may well find at the end of the Brexit rainbow nothing more than a pot of fool’s gold.

So we know where we are with the EU; but we have little idea where we would be post-EU. For many it is clear that the EU may not provide the perfect relationship for Britain. There are bills, arguments and a lack of real passion, and some parts of the house need renovating—but there is also security, occasional common purpose and frequent fondness, and some parts of the house are lovely. Upping and leaving may may feel like a racy, exciting idea, but it could well end up as life in a lonely, damp bedsit. Given this, the only rational choice for wavering voters is to vote Remain: Britain can leave the EU at any point (for, no matter what the Brexiteers like to say, the UK retains full sovereignty on its membership of the union), but it would be almost impossible to rejoin it again after Brexit, and certainly impossible to rejoin it on anything like the favourable terms of its current membership. Bremain now, Brexit in the future, is not an inconceivable scenario; Brexit now, Breturn (or Brejoin, or whatever ‘Bre-‘ word might be coined) in the future, is inconceivable. Unless one can be sure of the benefits of a post-Brexit Britain, then the only sensible and rational vote is a vote for Remain.

Much has been made of the irreversibility of the referendum decision, of how this vote is a ‘once in a lifetime’ choice. But it is only truly irreversible if Brexit is the outcome. Should Remain win, Nigel Farage and UKIP and Euroscepticism will not suddenly disappear for good. They will continue to campaign, and, like Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, they will push for another referendum. A British government will be free at any time to call a second referendum should it wish. Certainly it would be unlikely to happen any time soon, but politics can change quickly: if in a few years the EU looks like an irredeemably failing project, then nothing stops Britain from exiting. But should Leave win there will be no going back: if in a few years time Britain is struggling while the EU flourishes, there will be no easy route to regaining membership.

It is, however, unlikely that Britain will struggle for long following Brexit. Far more likely is that Britain will cease to be. Given that Scotland will vote to Remain, it is hard to imagine how the Union will hold together in the event of an overall vote to Leave. Brexiteers champion British ‘independence’, but what they will get is Scottish and English independence (and a lot of problems in Northern Ireland, as well as a possible resurgence of Welsh nationalism). There would be no obligation to grant Scotland either a second referendum or independence, but quite how Westminster could resist understandable Scottish fury over Brexit, possibly accompanied by widespread civil disobedience, is difficult to see.

So a compelling reason to vote Remain is the fear of where Brexit may lead. Economic instability, in Britain and abroad, is to not to be embraced lightly. Nor is the prospect of the break up of Britain, and a diminished country which, in order to attract inward investment and compete, may move towards becoming a large offshore tax haven with a lightly regulated financial sector and employment laws that favour employers over workers. There are some who warm to that vision—there is a reason why most Brexiteers are on the neoliberal political right, for they look forward to the day when Britain (or, more likely, England) will no longer be shackled (as they see it) by inconveniences such as EU regulations on workers’ rights or the protection of health and safety.

None of this is to suggest that the EU is perfect. There are certainly flaws in the EU, but there are flaws in any large political or economic system. Brexiteers on the left criticize the EU as a neoliberal capitalist enterprise, and there is some truth in what they say (it is this aspect of the EU that qualifies my enthusiasm). But Britain is also a neoliberal capitalist enterprise, and a more egregious example of it. Furthermore, Brussels is not a perfect model of democracy or accountability, although it measures up quite well to Westminster. Brexiteers trumpet British democracy over EU bureaucracy: this, presumably, is the British democracy that includes an unelected head of state, an unelected second chamber, a First Past the Post voting system that delivers majorities to parties voted for by fewer than 40% of the electorate, and a government in which unelected special advisors and media and business lobbyists play a prominent role; in many respects the European Parliament is a far more impressive example of democracy than the British parliament.

But there is much to love about the EU, and more generally about Britain being part of an integrated Europe. Two cartoons on the referendum campaign resonate with my own reasons for voting Remain this coming Thursday. In the midst of the campaign, and in the wake of Prince’s death, The Guardian published a Chris Riddell cartoon that depicts Boris Johnson and Michael Gove heading off to ‘party like it’s 1899’ (at the head of this post). On the final weekend of the campaign, the Sunday Mirror published a cartoon that combines a Philip Zec original from 1945 and a Charles Griffin ‘remake’ of the Zec original, the former proclaiming the possibility of ‘Victory and peace in Europe’, the latter ‘Stability and a place in Europe’.sunday_mirror_cartoon

History has not been invoked often during the campaign. (But there is a Historians for Britain in Europe group.) The most notable occasion on which it has, and the one that attracted most media attention, was when Boris Johnson compared the EU with Nazi Germany; in Johnson’s view, the aims of Brussels and those of Hitler are not dissimilar. Given that the underpinning ideal of the EU was to construct an economic and political arrangement in Europe that would bring lasting peace and put an end to the national rivalries that had come close to destroying the continent, Johnson’s claim is bizarre to say the least. Although I am no expert on Nazi Germany, I am fairly sure that an equivalent to the EU’s robust defence of human rights and working conditions did not feature highly on Hitler’s agenda; nor have I seen much evidence that the EU is intent upon implementing racial laws, genocide and global war. Of course, one should not be surprised at Johnson’s playground tactic of comparing something he does not like to the Nazis: Johnson will say or do anything as long as it serves his personal political ambitions, and has a proven track record of concocting lies about the EU. As a guide to history, as on so much else, Johnson is hardly a trustworthy voice.

But 1945 is relevant to the discussion. War has been endemic throughout European history. For example, I once calculated that between the beginning of the sixteenth century and the early eighteenth century there were only a handful of years (four was the answer I came to) in which there was not a war being conducted somewhere in Europe. In the years when there was not war countries were invariably recovering from the previous one or preparing for the next one. It is no surprise that both the world wars resulted from European rivalries. And as new and ever more sophisticated ways were found to destroy one’s neighbours and carry out mass murder, so, with a logic that ought to have been obvious to the heirs of the Enlightenment, by 1945 Europe had almost succeeded in destroying itself.

It was this long history of European warfare in general, and the more immediate aftermath of World War II in particular, that provided the context for the establishment of European union. When great cities have been reduced to piles of rubble, when millions are displaced and scarred, or lie dead across the continent, then understandably some will put their minds to ensuring this never happens again. At the heart of what was to become the EU lay the idea that by forging union—by creating a necessity of mutual cooperation within an integrated European economy—countries would no longer have either the motivation to wage war on one another or the means to do so. It was the ideal of securing peace, stability and prosperity, and a Europe based on cooperation rather than conflict, that led to the formation of the European Steel and Coal Community, which evolved into the EEC and then EU.

Europe has not been free from war since 1945; one only need look at the Balkans for evidence of that. But among the EU member states—and above all in relation to the Franco-German rivalry that was the source of so much earlier conflict in western and central Europe—there has been the longest period of sustained peace in European history. Whatever criticisms may be levelled at the EU, it is this securing of a Europe based on cooperation rather than conflict that represents its most impressive outcome. Both as one of the key ideals of the EU and as a real achievement, it should be embraced.

The vision of many Brexiteers is based on an ideological commitment to a world of independent, non-integrated nation states. Riddell’s ‘party like it’s 1899’ cartoon captures the reactionary nature of Brexit—and indeed the hopes of many Brexiteers (Gove in particular) that a vote for Brexit will lead to the disintegration of the EU as a whole. They want a return to the structure of international relations as they existed in the early twentieth century. And while it certainly cannot be said that Brexit will lead to war, it can be said that Brexit is likely to result in greater international instability, and a heightened potential for the return of crisis in Europe.

This misremembering of the supposed, largely fantasy, virtues of an earlier age in British and European history is characteristic of the deeply reactionary nature of the Brexit position. For the EU is based on a modern and reforming vision (and arguably even on radical and revolutionary ideas). Its architects and supporters recognize that in many areas of human concern and activity the independent nation state is no longer fit for purpose.

For better or worse we live in a globalized world; many of the most pressing social, cultural, political and economic issues of our idea are transnational in nature. Terrorism, crime, poverty, inequality, migration, climate change, communications, technology and science transcend the nation state. How we confront and solve some of the most fundamental problems in the world today and tomorrow require transnational approaches. Organized crime and international terrorism, for example, thrive in a world of uncooperative nation states, but have a much harder time of things when nation states cooperate on integrated policy. To take one instance: cyber crime, surely the most appealing career choice for criminals of the present and future, is most robustly addressed when states work collectively on intelligence gathering and sharing, on policing initiatives, and on legal responses.

Or to take another example: migration crises. The response to the Syrian migrant crisis may not have been the EU’s finest hour, but that has more to do with a refusal to cooperate on the part of individual member states (the UK being especially difficult) than it has with the EU itself. Would an EU-less Europe have dealt with the crisis better? Or would countries have been even more inclined to focus only on what they thought were in their own national interests, ignoring the international context of the crisis as well as the human suffering and moral issues it raised?

There are sensible reasons for allowing competency in certain areas to an institution such as the EU. Brussels has not led to the end of the nation state; Europe is still made up of numerous nation states, among which the UK is one. But as a collection of nation states in which economic, political and legal integration is a feature, the EU is better placed than a post-Brexit Britain to deal with transnational problems.

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In so far as I have any ideological leanings, they tend towards anarchism. I value freedom, independence, democracy and accountability; I tend to be suspicious of the state and of corporations. I have no wish to see an EU superstate (nor do I think it remotely likely that such a thing will happen), and there are many criticisms that can be levelled at the EU as a political and economic institution—although in my view not as many as can be levelled at the British political and economic systems. But both Britain and Europe have generally benefited from the EU, far more than they would have done had there been an EU-less Europe over the past few decades.

Above all I’m an internationalist who believes that integration and cooperation are fundamental to international relations. Brexit is a manifestation of a surge in nationalism; another variant of it is Donald Trump’s language of walls and borders, his rhetoric of division and conflict, and his rejection of openness. I hope Trump is defeated in the US and Brexit is defeated in the UK. If Brexit wins, then Britain will become a less open, a less engaged and a less cooperative country, and a much poorer and more unstable one too.

Finally, I’m an historian. I’ve studied and taught on both British and continental European history. I have not travelled extensively in Europe, but the social, cultural, intellectual and political history of Europe has given me a strong sense of being European, of being part of something that is a lot bigger and more important than Britain on its own. The EU, for all its imperfections, is one of the more impressive episodes in European history. Europe is better for it, and Britain is better being part of it.