One of the more disturbing features of the debates surrounding Brexit is the routine way in which many Brexiteers invoke a notion of democracy based on the ‘will of the people’. According to this view, those who are trying to ‘frustrate’ Brexit are being anti-democratic, because they are going against the supposed popular will (this popular will amounting to 17 million people out of a UK population of 65 million; or, a 52% vote for Leave on a 74% turnout). Unfortunately, this increasingly common argument (it is encountered frequently in the Brexit-supporting tabloid press) is itself dangerously close to being anti-democratic, since it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what democracy is.
Democracy is government by popular consent. It is a form of government in which political authority flows from the people (rather than, say, from God, as in medieval political systems). Consent is a key term: where there is consent, a government is legitimate; where there is not consent, a government is illegitimate and can legitimately be replaced. A democracy ensures consent through such things as regular free and fair elections, the opportunity to remove and replace bad governments and to amend or overturn bad policies, a free press and a large public sphere in which politics can be discussed and debated by everyone. All these things are carefully defended in a democracy. Where they are denied—for example, if the press is not free, or there is no opportunity to overturn bad policies—the political system becomes increasingly undemocratic.
The definition of ‘the people’ has always been fluid, but at the heart of democracy is the idea that the ‘people’ should be defined as widely as possible. A society in which only the aristocracy has a say in politics is not democratic; nor is one in which, for example, women or Jews are denied a vote. Since ancient Athenian democracy restricted voting to adult males, excluding all women, slaves and non-Athenians, it would not qualify as a democracy in the modern sense.
Democracy has nothing to do with the so-called ‘will of the people’. Not only is this concept impossible to define with any precision (making it largely nonsensical), but it has routinely been invoked by anti-democratic totalitarian regimes (e.g. the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany) to justify their politics. It implies that anyone who disagrees with the supposed ‘will’ can no longer be considered one of the ‘people’; such an individual comes to be regarded as a traitor to the people. Historically, one of the consequences of this notion of the ‘will of the people’ has been the denial of rights to supposed ‘un-persons’ and the use of concentration camps, ‘re-education’, imprisonment and execution.
In any large, complex society there are numerous different interests and values which defeat all attempts to identify a single ‘will of the people’. Democracy involves recognizing these different interests and values through a form of government that, despite the differences running through society, is agreed to by everyone. Democracy is not, therefore, about simple majority rule; it is about governing in a way that commands the consent of everyone. A democracy which, for example, ignores the interests and values of minority groups or beliefs risks no longer being a democracy and becoming instead a tyranny.
For those interested in political thought: look to John Locke and John Stuart Mill, not to Rousseau.
Theresa May deserves some credit for the way she has handled Brexit thus far. The reality was that the most incompetent Prime Minister in recent British history tossed a grenade. Somebody had to catch it, and while the hopeless Andrea Leadsom would have provided great entertainment value by quickly letting the grenade explode, it was probably for the best that May and her much-touted safe pair of hands took charge. Evidently nobody had planned for Brexit, so it was always going to be a matter of muddling through the political chaos bequeathed by Cameron. And May has provided a textbook study of how to muddle through: in public play for time, don’t say too much, and don’t commit to anything, while behind doors scramble as rapidly as possible to assemble some sort of coherent plan. She has been much criticized for not having a plan or strategy for Brexit, but criticism should really be directed at her dismal predecessor. Anyway, what would we rather she had done—sit down with Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox over a few evenings, scribbling down a plan on post-its, and then announce that to the world? We may live in an age of instant news, information, clarity and decisions, but in relation to an issue as complex and important as Brexit there are many reasons why old-fashioned virtues such as patience, careful deliberation, information gathering and stalling for time are the best approach.
At some point, of course, May was going to have to issue more clarity, and so she now has with her major Brexit speech. The importance of this speech lies more in its political significance than in its detail. Much of the latter could have been guessed at; the only difference now is that we no longer need to play a guessing game. May’s focus on restricting immigration and freedom of movement has long been known (she was a notoriously illiberal Home Secretary); and the reality that ending freedom of movement means leaving the Single Market has been confirmed. Hard Brexit was always the most likely approach (most EU members have been correctly predicting that for months); May has now closed the door on the faint hopes of Remainers that a Norwegian model might have been the goal.
Although a Remainer myself, I appreciate two things about that. The first is the logic to it: while I would prefer a Norwegian model (aka soft Brexit) over hard Brexit, the Brexiters are right in regarding it as a compromise that would involve continued membership of the EU in everything but name and political clout. It would be a solution that would satisfy few, and would raise the question: if we’re paying for all the benefits of the EU, why not simply be full members with the ability to be part of the decision-making, instead of having access to the Single Market but no say in how it is run? For Remainers, the Norwegian model is hardly ideal, but it would have been a compromise hard to oppose; furthermore, it offered the hope that the model’s contradictions would result in it becoming a convenient stepping stone to a full EU return. That somewhat desperate hope, along with any prospects of a difficult and uncomfortable compromise outcome, is now off the table.
The second thing I appreciate about May’s speech is the clarity. All of us—Brexiters and Remainers alike—have a much better sense of the political terrain ahead. And the fact is, despite the Prime Minister’s rhetoric about Britons coming together over the Brexit negotiations, what she has done is mark out the dividing line for the forthcoming political war. She has confirmed that the referendum result was a winner-take-all outcome: nothing in her speech offered the slightest concession to the 48% who voted Remain (nor to the unknown number of Leave voters who believed that membership of the Single Market would continue after Brexit). As a case study for discussion by future students of democracy, the referendum will provide fascinating material: What is the best democratic response when a fraction over half the country want one thing, and a fraction under half the country want another? In the UK (unlike in most functioning democracies) you give the former everything that they want and the latter nothing, with no attempt at any sort of compromise. Having suggested in her new year message that she would be representing in Brexit negotiations the interests not only of the 52% but also of the 48%, it turns out that she’ll be doing no such thing. So it is that we remain divided—but the divisions are at least clear and confirmed now.
For Remainers the fight ahead is obvious. The object will be to attempt to resist and obstruct the goals of the Brexiters as much as possible. Had membership of the Single Market been on the table, then Remainers would have something worth supporting within the negotiations themselves. As it is, Britain’s objectives have little to recommend themselves to Remainers. A soft Brexit might have been worth supporting; a hard Brexit is not. So Remainers can focus on resisting Brexit tout court. And they can focus on getting organized and prepared for the forthcoming fight, now with a better knowledge of what they will be fighting.
Many Brexiters will regard what I have just written as treason; others will not comprehend why Remainers want to carry on with the fight. Here are some reasons:
(1) Brexit remains in all probability a national suicide. The Brexit position is still largely delusional. It is one thing to make an optimistic set-piece speech, quite another to sit around a table with other negotiators trying to make that optimism real. The speech was intended to be tough, portraying Britain as negotiating from a position of strength. In reality Britain’s position is desperately weak, at the mercy of the EU27 (any one of whom can veto whatever deal may be reached, and many of whom will already be figuring out ways of luring British businesses to the continent). The breezy Brexiter confidence about rapidly agreeing a whole series of favourable trade deals that will establish the UK as a major global player is the stuff of fantasy. May speaks about ‘global Britain’; yet the only platform that would truly give Britain significance on the global stage is that provided by the EU. The Brexit road ahead is going to be extremely hard going for the UK, will almost certainly result in a much diminished country and may well end in national disaster.
(2) The obsession of May and the Brexiters with immigration and the restriction of freedom of movement is nonsensical and corrosive. Freedom of movement has a sound economic basis, and it is a social and ethical good. The Brexit vision of borders—restricting, it should be remembered, movement both in and out of Britain—is worth opposing, not least because it panders to nationalists and racists.
(3) Early in her speech May spoke about protecting workers’ rights; yet she ended the speech with a threat that should Britain not get the deal it wants then it will choose to become, in effect, a low-regulation, bargain-basement tax haven. This threat was directed at the EU, but it should be seen as an equally great threat to British citizens. Given that May is so ready to make this threat, one ought to be suspicious about the broader government vision. The plan seems to be to leave the EU, then to cherry pick full access to as many areas of the Single Market as possible, with the prospect of ‘competitive’ tax rates as a secondary option if the EU does not hand over the cherries. May is here keen to display her hard edges to the EU—but they are hard edges which will wreak havoc on millions of Britons. More than that, it is precisely the sort of thing many Brexiters (Michael Gove, for example) want: for them, Brexit offers the possibility of pursuing a utopian neoliberal experiment. The admirable European social model, based on such things as workers’ rights and regulations to protect the environment, will be abandoned. For Remainers who value the European social model, and who are rightly dismayed at the casual way Brexiters are prepared to use workers’ rights (as well as the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK) as bargaining chips, there is no choice but to oppose the Brexiters.
(4) Brexit is not a foregone conclusion. The politics are not currently promising for Remainers, but things can change quickly over the months and years to come. (In the past eighteen months Jeremy Corbyn has become leader of the Labour party, David Cameron has resigned, the British have voted to leave the EU, and the Americans have voted for Trump: anyone at the beginning of 2015 predicting even one of those things would have been scorned.) There will be parliamentary votes and elections, there will be opposition from Scotland (and possibly Northern Ireland too), there is likely to be legal action to determine whether Article 50 is reversible (informed legal opinion suggests that it probably is), there will be economic developments, there will be political developments impossible to predict right now, and there are scenarios in which a reversal of Brexit may become a serious possibility. Brexit remains a long game.
(5) A point I have made several times previously bears repeating: just as Brexiters have for years exercised their democratic right to campaign against EU membership while the UK was a member, so Remainers will now exercise their democratic right to campaign for EU membership as the UK ceases to be a member.
(6) For all the predictable and meretricious rhetoric about the British being a great people, and how 65 million of us will come together to make Brexit work, May’s speech changes nothing; at most it offers slightly more coherence to the Brexit position (i.e. no more uncertainty about whether it will be hard or soft Brexit), and consequently it clarifies the anti-Brexit politics that lie ahead for Remainers.
Brexit can and should be resisted, and it can and should be stopped. Those of us who voted Remain in the EU referendum and who regard Brexit as potentially (for it hasn’t actually happened yet) the most disastrous event in modern British history have every reason to keep fighting and grounds for cautious optimism about success. As Martin Kettle has written in The Guardian, this is a long game: the complex process of leaving the EU has not even begun, and assuming that Article 50 is triggered in March next year it will likely be two years, possibly longer, before any formal agreement to leave has been reached. For the Remainers, there is time to mount a determined fightback; for the Brexiters, who have so far revealed themselves to be lacking any sort of coherent plan, who are divided among those who want variations of ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit, who are increasingly having to explain why they no longer stand by many of the claims and promises made during the referendum campaign, and who are facing growing evidence of the economic, cultural and social disarray that Brexit will cause, the problems will only accumulate.
Many Brexiters have argued that Remainers (or Remoaners as they are fond of dubbing us) should shut up since the ‘will’ of the British public is for Brexit; some, notably the Daily Mail and Daily Express, have gone so far as to accuse those opposing Brexit of being unpatriotic subverters of democracy, in effect suggesting that we are traitors. As I noted shortly after the referendum result, 17 million people voted for Brexit out of a population of 65 million; that amounts to 26% of the population as a whole, and about 38% of the electorate—hardly numbers that reflect a clear and emphatic ‘will of the people’. Even the headline (and most important) figure of 52% does not amount to such a general ‘will’; it simply reveals that a narrow majority of those who could be bothered to vote on 23 June favoured leaving the EU in one form or another. Unless the 48% who voted Remain (and the 74% of the population who, for one reason or another, have not expressed any desire to leave the EU) are no longer to be considered as part of the ‘British public’, any claims that the Brexiters speak on behalf of the ‘will of the people’ should be rejected as arrogant and unjustified. Put simply, they speak for the 17 million who voted for Brexit, no more, no less.
The 17 million do, of course, represent a majority of the vote. But the UK is a democracy, and as such the right of the 48% to continue opposing Brexit, through argument and debate, through democratic and legal means, should be respected. A democracy does not work on the basis that all those who lose a vote are immediately expected to abandon their position and adopt the position of the winning side—if it did, then it would cease to be a democracy and become instead a tyranny of the majority. It may be that the Remainers will not ultimately succeed in resisting Brexit, but that in no way means they do not have the right to resist it democratically. Those Brexiters who think that right should be denied the Remainers are adopting a dangerously anti-democratic stance (in keeping with their ‘enemies of the people’ attack on the judges who ruled that parliament must be consulted about triggering Article 50). Fundamental to democracy is inclusive debate, in which the views of all sides are heard; anyone, whether Brexiter or Remainer, who supports democracy should welcome an ongoing and vigorous debate about Brexit, the right of all sides to make their strongest cases, and the right of the 48%—just as much as that of the 52%—to be represented in those debates.
Equally to be rejected is the Brexiters claim that Remainers are ‘unpatriotic’. Those of us who continue to argue for Remain do so on the basis that Brexit will be enormously damaging to the UK. Remainers are determined that Britain avoids this damage; we believe that for Britain to flourish and prosper, it needs to be an open, inclusive, tolerant country within a Europe founded on cooperation and integration. There is nothing ‘unpatriotic’ about campaigning for the best interests of the UK; the implication that Remainers are anti-British is a nonsense. And there is something perverse about a ‘patriotism’ that is willing to risk the sort of long-term damage to the UK that Brexit is likely to cause.
Brexiters are fond of dismissing Remainers as metropolitan elites—part of their argument that we do not speak for ‘the people’. The tendency (on both sides) to portray the referendum result in terms of simple divisions—young versus old, graduates versus non-graduates, cities versus the rest of the country, and so on—should also be rejected. A significant proportion of people in London, Manchester and Birmingham (and the many other areas that were majority Remain) voted for Brexit; and a significant proportion of people in majority-Brexit areas voted for Remain. The notion that Remainers are an elite is laughable to most of us: any elite which includes someone like me—economically poor, insecure in employment and housing, highly critical of neoliberalism—is a strange one indeed. As for the supposed ‘representatives of the people’ such as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Douglas Carswell, Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail: if standing in a gilded elevator with the multi-millionaire president-elect of the United States (and angling to become UK ambassador to the US, not to mention numerous attempts to become part of Westminster), if public school education and privilege and hedge-fund financing and corporate global media, are considered the marks of the non-elite, then we have entered unusual times. Many of the most prominent Brexiters—Michael Gove, John Redwood, Iain Duncan Smith, Christopher Grayling, and the like—have energetically promoted policies of austerity that have hit hardest the very non-elites that they now claim to represent. The underlying truth, obscured by so much of the rhetoric, is that neither Brexit nor Remain stand for elites or non-elites; they are opposed positions in relation to EU membership, positions which attract the support of both elites and non-elites.
A compelling case can be made, therefore, to reject the demands of those Brexiters for Remainers to be silenced and for debate to cease. Such Brexiters are adopting anti-democratic rhetoric and simplifications intended deliberately to distort discussion. Right now, what is needed above all is a properly democratic debate. Article 50 will be triggered, and a process to leave the EU will start; that needs to be scrutinized and argued about, and the views of the 48% need to be part of that debate. Even if the UK ultimately leaves the EU, the terms of Brexit require careful debate. All we know at present is that 17 million people voted to leave the EU; we do not know what sort of exit they wanted, and there is no evidence that 52% of voters favoured a ‘hard’ Brexit. Almost certainly large numbers of the 17 million did not vote for ‘hard’ Brexit, which may end up being the only form of Brexit left on the table—and is the form of Brexit that many of the most vocal Brexiters are pushing for. At the very least, Remainers will play a vital role in ensuring that any ‘hard’ Brexit is decisively defeated.
Brexit may happen; but it is not inevitable. The Liberal Democrat victory in the Richmond by-election was the result of opposition to Brexit. Cross-party initiatives are being forged to fight Brexit (and, in particular, ‘hard’ Brexit). The calls for a future referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations are being made with increasing persuasion. Brexit is not a done deal; right now, as illustrated by the shambolic early stages of the process, it is ludicrous to talk about Brexit as a reality when those who want it are so clueless about what form it will take and what it will entail. Two years (or more) is an extremely long time in politics, particularly when the economic fall-out from the referendum result is likely to become more acute. As Martin Kettle suggests, time is on the Remainers side (and certainly time favours the Remainers more than it does the Brexiters), and it is a matter of continuously chipping away every day at the increasingly weak Brexit position, resisting outright ‘hard’ Brexit, making the compelling case through debate and democracy for Remain, and turning the 48% into 50+%. Those of us who support Remain should be making the case, clearly, confidently, positively and passionately—and repeatedly. We should be up for the fight ahead. As long as we are, we have good chances of success.
There was no great surprise in the announcement by Oxford Dictionaries that ‘post-truth’ is their 2016 word of the year. Usage of the word has increased 2,000% this year compared to last. Daily it is said that our age is one of ‘post-truth politics’. The vote for Brexit—or, more specifically, the campaign that led to that vote—and the US presidential campaign are cited as confirmation of our ‘post-truth culture’. ‘Post-truth’ has itself become a truth among many commentators and their followers; the term is bandied around in a spirit of assumed general acceptance of its validity and value.
Yet I am instinctively sceptical. ‘Post-truth’ looks a little too much like a trendy buzzword that ultimately turns out to be saying much less than it thinks it is. The coinage itself has that grating appearance of faux meaning for a generation desperate to think both its experience of the world and the way that experience is understood are novel and original. Not all terms beginning with ‘post-’ are vacuous, but many are—and many seem to stem from the laziness or inability to think deeply about an issue, to examine it within a broad historical and cultural context, leading to the easier approach of unquestioningly assuming that our world is unprecedented.
The dictionary definition of ‘post-truth’ is that the word is an adjective ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. My objection is not to this definition—it is quite neat to have a word, and a concept, that describes such a cultural state—but rather what is not contained in the definition: the implication, in the coinage itself and in the way that it is used, that ‘post-truth’ describes a new phenomenon.
I do not question that the politics of both Brexit and Trump were dominated by lies, distortion and exaggeration, by a casual dismissal of objective facts (or at least any that were inconvenient to a particular ideological viewpoint), and by appeals to emotion and personal belief. Nor do I doubt the wilful dishonesty of much media, the existence of ‘fake news’, and the power of both to shape public opinion. What I do question is whether any of this is new. The suggestion seems to be that we have moved from an age of truth, in which public opinion was shaped by objective facts, to an age of post-truth, in which public opinion regards objective facts as irrelevant. Neat and catchy as such an analysis is, I see little evidence of its truth—the irony here is that the description of our age as post-truth in contrast to an earlier age of truth may itself lack objective perspective.
Politics has never been about an unqualified commitment to objective facts. Politics is bound up with ideas (which become ideologies), with theories about, for example, the best ways of organizing economic and social resources. Politicians and political thinkers take strong positions on issues that defy straightforward objective analysis. Freedom and equality, for example, are rooted in ethics far more than they are in objective facts; whether a society should be more or less equal is invariably an ethical question rather than one that can be answered by reference to objective facts. Ideologies are about values, and values are rarely objective. (I am not saying that objective assessment of data does not contribute to these types of question, and that objective truths cannot support particular values; I suggest only that objectivity is usually less important than ethical considerations in answering them.)
Every age has its ideologies, and usually more than one. Consider the dominant ideology in much of early modern Europe: the divine right theory of monarchy (according to which a monarch, as God’s representative on earth, had absolute power). This theory was not built on anything that we would understand as an objective assessment of facts; it was built, rather, on various common beliefs about hierarchy, order and power, and the values that went with those beliefs. A similar point could be made about the many ideologies in our modern world. They are shaped by certain notions of how the world should be, and by various objectively unprovable beliefs and values (for example, that freedom is more important than security, or that a nation is more important than an individual). The advancement of an ideological belief, while it may be in part based on objective facts, is never entirely concerned with objectivity.
Furthermore, since antiquity politics has been closely bound up with the art of rhetoric. The classical authors of rhetorical handbooks (Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian, for example) were interested in the range of tools at a speaker’s disposal for persuading an audience. These tools could include reference to objective facts, but the focus of much rhetorical theory was on the way language could be structured and delivered in ways that worked on an audience’s emotions as well as reason. Persuasion—which is the essence of opinion formation—has always emphasized the importance of playing to emotions.
Rhetoric and the appeal to emotions appears to have been present in all political cultures throughout history. Whether it was the speeches and aesthetics of Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, the use of fear as part of political rhetoric during the Cold War era (and the projection of figures such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as strong leaders in the face of communist threats), or the hysteria surrounding the supposed Catholic threat in seventeenth-century England, appeals to emotions and personal beliefs invariably play a key role in shaping public opinion. For centuries, after all, an attachment to monarchy, hierarchy and the Church was largely an emotional attachment, not one grounded in any objective assessment.
Slogans, pamphlets and satires have been around for centuries, and they frequently appeal on an emotional rather than an objective level. And there are many instances of ‘fake news’ throughout history: spurious accounts of ritual murders by Jews, false reports of massacres by Catholics, invented conspiracy theories, fabricated myths and legends. In late seventeenth-century England, for example, the political crisis known as the ‘Popish Plot’ was based on an entirely fabricated account of a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and place the king’s Catholic brother on the throne. Nor is there anything new about a cavalier dismissal of objectivity and truth by the media. Newspapers have been doing this since their beginnings; even within living memory, the idea that the press (and tabloids in particular) have been wholeheartedly committed to objective ‘truth’ seems laughable.
The argument that, in respect to objective truth, the politics of the early twenty-first century differs fundamentally from previous ages seems, therefore, to lack much substance. Clearly the way we communicate today is different; but while digital and social media represent a significant technological shift, it does not follow that the nature of politics has also undergone a revolution. Populism and demagoguery were not born in the digital age; appeals to emotion and personal beliefs did not suddenly arise with social media. Equally, objective facts have not gone away; they are still prominent in debates, and they remain part of the arsenal of almost all politicians (even Farage and Trump).
Perhaps the significant modern shift concerns objectivity itself, in particular the value attached to it. But this shift is not recent; rather, it began happening in the seventeenth century. As Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity (New York: Zone Books, 2007) demonstrates, the notion and concept of objectivity arose alongside the empirical sciences. The process by which objectivity became established as part of the modern mental world was a long and complex one; but its legacy is that objectivity as a value and a concept has become ever more deeply embedded in modern culture.
What does seem to be new is the idea contained in the ‘post-truth’ concept that we are only now fully aware of it, as if truth and objectivity were silently taken for granted in previous ages. But they were not. In early modern England, many despaired of the methods of the pamphleteers and satirists, and bemoaned the way truth was lost among the emotion and outright lies of many populist appeals. Our laments about the supposed disappearance of objectivity and truth in politics are really no more than an echo of complaints that have been made for centuries; long before the word ‘post-truth’ was coined, George Orwell devoted considerable attention to the threats posed to ‘truth’ by the totalitarian ideologies of his time.
For those who believe that the term ‘post-truth’ applies to a new form of political culture emerging in the early twenty-first century, one that is qualitatively different from any previous political culture, the challenge is to prove and to articulate this idea fully. I am open to the possibility that there may be something in a notion of a distinctively new post-truth age, one that embodies a political culture fundamentally different from anything previously seen. It may be that digital technology is leading to a decisive rejection of either the existence or the relevancy of objective facts; it may be that politics is becoming so intensely ideological that any semblance of objectivity is eradicated. But I am yet to be persuaded of either of these suggestions, just as I am (for now at least) sceptical that our supposedly post-truth politics is substantially different in its relationship to truth and emotions than were the political cultures of the past.
Is Tony Blair worth listening to? Are the Liberal Democrats worth voting for? I’m going to risk losing whatever respect and friends I have by suggesting that ‘yes’ is a conceivable answer to both questions. A year ago, even six months ago, I would not have imagined being able to write this. But such is the nature of politics, generally, but particularly right now, that it is necessary to be flexible, to be strategic, to be willing to reassess and shift one’s positions—in short, to think what only recently had seemed unthinkable.
Some personal information will help contextualize this post. Those familiar with me will know that in so far as I am ideological I am well to the political left; I also subscribe to broadly liberal, libertarian and individualist views. All this makes me a somewhat idealistic anarchist. But I’m also a realist and, for the most part, non-partisan. I have long accepted that I will never see a society and political system conforming to my personal beliefs, I have reconciled myself to the long catalogue of political disappointments that I will experience in my life, and I am even sceptical whether my own politics would work—which doesn’t stop me from thinking that anarchism is a beautiful philosophy, and that the ideals of equality and freedom are important, even if only as a valuable counterpoint to and check on prevailing politics. Another way of putting this is to say that I am both politically idealistic and politically practical.
There is a vital place for both idealism and practicality in the present political situation. Idealism remains valuable: even if unachievable, our ideals, since they are ideas, are important starting points for thinking and debate. At the same time, there is a fundamental practical problem—more than a problem, in fact, a danger—facing us: the rise of the populist, nationalist right, with all its illiberalism and politics of division and (to be blunt) hate. In order to resist and overcome this danger it is essential that ideals and practicality are mutually accommodating.
My ideals can be viewed, above all by myself, both narrowly and broadly. The narrow view sees a particular version of anarcho-socialism. The broad view sees this anarcho-socialism within a wider historical context, namely a liberal and rational intellectual tradition that essentially stems from the Enlightenment. My own politics, in their detail, may be quite narrow and precise, but I recognize them as part of a large family of values and ideals occupying a broad swathe of the political spectrum, from the left all the way to some distant cousins on the centre-right. What unites this diverse and argumentative family are such things as the following: a belief in liberal values, above all a respect for individual freedom; the importance of tolerance; a celebration of diversity; the belief that all, irrespective of gender, race, ethnicity, religion and sexuality, are fundamentally equal; a rejection of nationalism, and a belief in the importance of international cooperation; a commitment to democracy and equality before the law; a belief that politics should be grounded in rationalism and secularism. Not one of those beliefs and values is straightforward and uncomplicated. But for all the differences and arguments about how best to achieve, say, gender equality, it ought to be possible to recognize the fundamental difference between those of us who believe absolutely in gender equality and those on the right who subscribe to patriarchal and misogynist views.
In good times (or less bad times) we can quietly acknowledge our shared core ideals and attend to the more urgent business of getting at each other’s throats over our more particular differences. But right now we are living in the bad times: the core ideals, the entire liberal and Enlightenment tradition, is in danger of being overwhelmed and overthrown. In practical terms, the family members need to set aside their differences, focus on the common threat and defend their shared, core ideals. That might mean acknowledging, however grudgingly, that the unsavoury and hard-to-like uncle trying to be heard is nevertheless part of our family, unlike Donald, Nigel and Marine, the noisy, obnoxious and aggressive neighbours next door.
I have never much admired Tony Blair, not even in 1997 when he led the sweeping victory of the centre-left over the Tories. His contribution to the rise of neoliberalism has been significant and woeful; his path of personal enrichment, and his work with authoritarian regimes has been appalling; and his role in the Iraq War was little short of scandalous. That Blair bears some responsibility for the current crisis is undeniable. But simply yelling ‘liar’ at him and insisting that he is prosecuted for war crimes is as simple-minded and unproductive as those Trump supporters who screamed ‘crooked’ and ‘lock her up’ about Hillary Clinton. Just as the murderer will never confess to his crime because he knows that to do so would come at the cost of personal destruction, so Blair will never apologize for nor admit the mistakes that led to the Iraq War. Does that refusal—which, I would suggest, owes more to understandable human psychology than to any irredeemable ‘evil’ on Blair’s part—mean that he should never be listened to again?
The fact is, distasteful though Blair may often be politically and personally, he belongs to the same family as I do. He is smart, experienced and insightful, and his political analysis is often incisive—just because one may not like him doesn’t mean one should ignore his strengths, intelligence and qualities. He is evidently dismayed by recent political developments, arguing that a fightback against Brexit needs to be launched in tandem with a revitalization of the political centre ground. I’m not much of a centrist myself, but I rarely find centrism truly objectionable. And right now there are simple binary realities that call for practical responses that embrace centrism rather than precious idealism that rejects it. The fact is, it may be uncomfortable having to vote for the likes of Clinton, or whoever the French centre-right puts up against Marine Le Pen, and it may be uncomfortable having to accept an alliance with figures like Angela Merkel or Richard Branson or Tony Blair, but in times like this it is necessary to act against the larger enemy.
I’m not suggesting that one needs to agree with everything, or even most things, that Blair says. I am suggesting that one needs temporarily to set aside differences and disagreements, or at least not to let them dominate debate, and focus instead on the shared ground. Let’s hope a day will come when arguing against Blairism will seem once more like a good idea. But for now there is an overriding goal: to resist the politics of Trump and Brexit and Farage, to defeat Le Pen, and to defend and reinvigorate the core values of liberal democracy. When that’s done we can all get back to fighting among ourselves; but if the new populist right is allowed to succeed, there’ll be no opportunity for infighting since we will have suffered a crushing defeat. That Labour, and above all Momentum (whose ideals elicit some sympathy from me, but whose practical politics elicit much contempt) seem determined to descend into infighting first, thereby enabling the populist right to run rampant and unchallenged, is a shameful invitation to disaster. Ideologically I may have more in common with Momentum than with Blair, but if the latter is urging broad cooperation in the face of the right-wing threat while the former is obsessed with internecine war on the left, then I’ll listen more seriously to Blair than to Momentum.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, I’m all for the idea of a broad front, spanning from the centre-right to the left, to resist the populist right. This does not necessarily have to be a formal front; on a personal level I find it practically strategic and helpful to view all forms of opposition to Trump, Brexit and Le Pen as constituting such a front, even if it is more an idea than a formally constituted political body. In large part this is a negative form of politics: it’s about doing anything and everything to stop the other side, the common enemy, from winning. If that means listening to Blair and Branson, if it means voting Liberal Democrat (like many, I vowed after 2010 never to vote for them again, but there you go), if it means opposition parties agreeing on single election candidates to fight the Brexiters, if it means voting for a centre-right French presidential candidate, then so be it.
But the notion of a broad front is not entirely negative. The positive essence of such a front is the identification, recognition and defence of the common values—those values of liberalism, tolerance, equality and rationalism stemming from the Enlightenment tradition that I summarized above. And there is a shared and positive wider aim, which is to ensure that history remembers the early twenty-first century not as the death of the liberal, progressive tradition but as a period of revitalization in the face of the threat from the irrational, illiberal, reactionary, authoritarian, intolerant and hateful politics of the populist and nationalist right.
[I have added some further thoughts and discussion to this post in the Comments below.]
One of the unfortunate consequences of the political hurricane that is Brexit and Trump is that, drowned out by the noise and the mayhem, many political and legislative developments have slipped by quietly and largely unnoticed. The passage of the Investigatory Powers Act (which awaits royal assent) and the Digital Economy Bill (which has completed its legislative stages in the House of Commons, and now moves onto the House of Lords, with a view to it passing into law in 2017) is a case in point. Both are appalling pieces of legislation containing numerous problems—yet there has been little public debate about either of them. Here I’m going to discuss only the Digital Economy Bill, a piece of legislation that deals with several broad issues pertaining to digital communications, above all piracy, file sharing, copyright and pornography. At the risk of disappointing readers, I will focus here solely on that driest of topics: pornography.
Perhaps some form of disclosure ought to preface my discussion. In principle I have no problem with pornography. Sex is an (occasionally) enjoyable and important part of being human; the opportunity to enjoy it, think about it and explore it through pornography and erotica is valuable. (I have written elsewhere about pornography’s historical relationship to radicalism, subversion, satire and freedom.) There are no good arguments, but many bad moral arguments, against the depiction of sex. When it comes to pornography, I am not far off being a libertarian. At the same time, however, I think most pornography is dreadful and has helped to create attitudes towards sex and sexuality which I find troubling; and there is no doubt that the pornography industry is frequently exploitative, and often downright nasty (although, to be fair, the same can be said about most industries and occupations). That a large proportion of pornography is boring, dreary, rubbish, horrible, or all four, and that many pornographic performers are exploited, do not, however, constitute reasons to ban pornography; rather, they should be met by artistic and ethical efforts, by good porn, by feminist porn, by ethical porn, by intelligent erotica. I am, I might add, quite a fan of erotica.
The Digital Economy Bill attempts to address a supposedly common source of popular anxiety: the easy accessibility of pornography to children. Whether or not this anxiety is exaggerated and hysterical, and whether it can be found beyond the pages and readers of the Daily Mail, is not something I can discuss with any authority; but moral panics are not unheard of. (What would be the point of the Daily Mail if it didn’t have a good moral panic to scream about?) Nevertheless, I’m led to believe that there evidently is a lot of pornography on the internet within easy reach, and children, being curious creatures, are wont to search for it. It would be trite to suggest that it is the responsibility of parents to manage and obstruct this curiosity; far better, the government and the morally righteous have concluded, would be to get the state to do the job.
The proposed solution to the problem, as outlined in the new legislation, amounts to this: adult material (by which is meant images, videos and audio) will henceforth require age verification (AV) in order to be accessed; a regulator will be appointed to police the internet, with the powers to enforce sites to implement AV, to block sites that do not comply with the legislation, and to fine site owners in contravention of the law (up to £250,000 or 5% of a site’s turnover, whichever is the greater); the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will be assigned the Herculean task of determining whether a site contains adult content. It is important to note that the legislation applies only to commercial sites; non-commercial sites (for example, personal blogs and amateur websites) are unaffected. It is also worth noting that pornography and erotica in the form of the written word are also unaffected; those who like to read and write erotica can breathe a sigh of relief.
There is little of merit in these proposals. The bill threatens to have a negative impact on personal freedom; there are numerous potential anomalies in the legislation; and it is highly likely that it will quickly prove unworkable and impractical. My prediction is that it will join such legislative incompetencies as the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act (notorious as a poorly considered and kneejerk response to a media-driven panic), and that the proposals on pornography will ultimately be abandoned or repealed. Politicians, often under pressure from both the public and the media, can be inclined to push forward hasty, poor, ill-informed legislation in areas they know little about. Our current set of politicians are neither better nor worse in this respect than their predecessors; history is littered with terrible legislation.
I certainly hope my prediction of abandonment or repeal is correct, because if I am wrong those of us with liberal values have a lot to worry about. Above all, the legislation (especially in tandem with the Investigatory Powers Act) signals a huge expansion in state control of online activity. As well as granting to police and security agencies almost limitless power to snoop on and hack into the digital activity of British citizens (irrespective of whether an individual is suspected of wrongdoing or not), Britain will very soon have the most repressive legislation relating to internet use of any western country. While totalitarianism is not likely in the UK any time soon, what does lie around the corner is some of the basic infrastructure of totalitarianism.
The legislation certainly indicates a chill wind of illiberalism and puritanism is blowing. A striking feature of the bill is its definition of ‘pornographic material’. As might be expected, anything that would receive the BBFC’s R18 classification (i.e. the equivalent of adult movies available only through licensed distributors such as sex shops) is covered—and, to be frank, there is a case for taking some sort of action to prevent this type of material being easily accessible to children. But also designated as content to be restricted is anything that would receive an 18 certificate and was ‘produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal’. Welcome to an area that is fifty shades of grey. The main intention is presumably to restrict access to softcore pornographic videos and images. But where does softcore end and erotica begin? Films such as Secretary, Fifty Shades of Grey, Nymphomaniac, Blue is the Warmest Colour, Sex and Lucia, and many, many more in that broad erotic genre, all contain explicit sexual scenes that would not be out of place in most softcore films. The legislation will almost certainly not restrict access to such mainstream films (and we can at least be thankful for that, even if Nymphomaniac is not a film I much want to see again). But it’s going to be a fun job for the BBFC to decide whether a video should be designated as ‘produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal’ or not. What would decide the matter? Would the semblance of a plot, competent acting, dialogue about non-sexual matters, and a modicum of production values ensure that a video escapes being restricted? Or does it all come down to that indefinable quality: taste? Similarly, plenty of difficulties will stem from still images. Nudity and mild sexual scenes are acceptable in 15 films; but would nudity be acceptable in an image? Some nudity is sexual, some isn’t, but most stands somewhere in between. It may come down to context: an image on an adult site will be judged differently from the same image on a non-adult site. I foresee endless arguments and appeals against BBFC classifications, and many inconsistencies in their decisions as to what should and should not be restricted.
What is clear from the bill is that a vast range of adult content will potentially be swept up by its definition of pornographic material: everything from the most explicit hardcore pornography to mild erotica. The impact this will have on the production of and access to adult material in the UK is likely to be profound. This has been discussed eloquently and intelligently elsewhere by, among others, Pandora Blake and Girl On The Net, so here I will only note the main points of their arguments.
The bill is likely to force most small, independent producers of adult content to close down their sites due to the prohibitive costs of implementing AV. It will have less of an impact on the big porn players, who will have the means and resources to accommodate the legislation (probably passing on the costs of AV to the consumer) or to ignore it (leading to their site becoming inaccessible in the UK—whether or not to ignore the legislation will depend on whether they see the UK market as worth the hassle and cost of AV). Some producers will inevitably find ways of circumventing the legislation; most such producers will be based overseas, a long way from any legal risk. Doubtless much porn currently easily accessible will find its way to the wild lands of the dark web. The overall effect of the legislation is likely to be a strengthening of the commercial power of the large producers relative to independent producers, many of whom will not survive. Adult material will be less free, less diverse, less likely to cater to niche interests, and there will simply be less of it.
The new legislation will obviously also affect those who wish to access adult material: not only will this be much harder, and much material no longer available (because the producers will no longer be able to operate, or because the site has no AV and is blocked), but there will be much less free content. In addition, all users will need to provide personal data to verify their age (no-one is clear what data will be used and how AV will be implemented yet), with all the attendant risks of this data being lost, stolen, misused, or sold. As well as creating large databases of porn users, accessible to the regulator and attractive to hackers and blackmailers, AV will also open up opportunities for fraudsters to acquire personal details (expect messages such as ‘Free porn! To access it simply enter your credit card details to verify your age and click here’ to be a lucrative branch of cybercrime). For a more detailed and technical discussion of the numerous issues around implementing AV, see Alec Muffett’s blog article, ‘A Sequence of Spankingly Bad Ideas’.
In short, the bill (presumably unintentionally, since its principal aim is to protect children) spells bad news for both producers and adult consumers of pornography, an outcome that will no doubt be welcome to many campaigners, be greeted by others as an acceptable price for protecting children, but be lamented by those who value the freedom to produce, explore and enjoy perfectly legal erotica and pornography.
But will the legislation work? There are several reasons to think (and hope) it will quickly founder on the rocks.
First, Muffett’s article suggests that there is no straightforward way of implementing AV. Any AV has to be robust and secure, as minimally intrusive as possible but sufficiently intrusive to verify a user’s age, and to apply potentially to every single user of the internet throughout the UK. At present, nobody knows what form AV will take, and it could take a long time before any system has been set up. Those without much knowledge of digital technology, such as most politicians, tend to assume that digital projects are relatively straightforward to fulfil; those of us with experience of working on digital projects know that the opposite is the case. (Think of the billions of overspend and huge delays on Iain Duncan Smith’s much touted system of universal credit for an example of the naïve hopes of the politician about IT projects.) Muffett’s analysis is that any system of AV in line with the bill’s proposals is likely to run into various problems. That may lead to it being abandoned; or it may lead to a more comprehensive form of digital ID that every British citizen will be required to have. If the latter, then we will be inching a little closer to an Orwellian dystopia.
Second, it doesn’t take long to find examples of content that will defeat the intentions of the bill. Consider Twitter. Twitter has a comparatively liberal, hands-off approach to adult content; unsurprisingly, Twitter is awash with pornography. To comply with UK legislation, Twitter will either have to implement AV for UK users, or it will have to remove all adult content. It’s almost impossible to envisage it doing either. To add AV to UK Twitter accounts will mean everybody in the UK who wishes to use Twitter will need to supply personal details simply to have access to an account. Moreover, it will presumably mean that Twitter will become 18+ in the UK. Perhaps this will be acceptable to UK users; but I doubt it. The alternative—to remove all adult content—would mean Twitter changing global policy simply to comply with the laws of a single country, letting the BBFC determine for Twitter what is and what is not acceptable content, and diverting resources so that content can be regularly and closely monitored. There is zero chance of that happening.
Third, I have already mentioned the difficulties facing the BBFC in determining whether material should be restricted or not. This will not be made any easier by the fact that the BBFC will be making decisions on every single adult website, and every website that contains adult content, from all over the world (and the regulator will need to determine whether any sites flagged up by the BBFC are commercial or not, before contacting the site and trying to enforce AV). Numerous job opportunities may well be opening up at the BBFC and in the new regulator’s department in the near future; applicants with a knowledge of pornography will have an advantage.
There are also various potential anomalies that will arise. For example, an erotic short story on a commercial site will be unaffected by the legislation; but if an author includes an audio file of that story, then, according to the letter of the law, AV will be needed to access the blog. A curious aspect of the bill is that the same words have a different legal status depending on whether they are written or spoken. Another anomaly: an explicit short story (one that describes, say, sexual torture) on a non-commercial blog will remain accessible to children; some mild nudity on a commercial adult blog will be restricted. Moreover, hardcore pornography will still be accessible on non-commercial sites (personal blogs, for example) without the need for AV. Fortunately for the Daily Mail, there will remain plenty to get worked up about.
It is worth recalling how ineffective politicians have been in dealing with media generally. For years politicians have discussed how to deal with the some of the worst excesses of traditional media, and have even endeavoured from time to time to do something, yet without any noticeable effect. All the measures designed to regulate newspapers, for example, have done little to curb the worst practices of the tabloids. Whether or not that failure is to be welcomed, it may be instructive when assessing the likelihood of successful regulation of digital media.
Perhaps the fundamental problem is the unrealistic, overweening confidence of UK legislators that a national legislative body can provide solutions in an area that is truly global and ever-changing. One might even say the spirit of Brexit can be detected here: rather than view this issue as requiring transnational cooperation, the British blunder forward in the stubborn belief that it can all be solved at the national level. Equally unrealistic is the idea that proposed solutions in 2016 will be relevant even a year or two from now. Digital technology changes rapidly; new devices and platforms will emerge; new problems will arise; current problems will evolve into different ones; ways will be found around out-of-date legislation. In the world of digital communications, legislation and policy have a very short shelf life, such is the rapidity of change in that world.
None of this is to minimize the seriousness of the problem: easy access to pornography shouldn’t be available to children. But a heavy-handed and censorious approach by the state is not likely to work—at least not without serious restrictions on individual freedom (for reference, see North Korea and Saudi Arabia, among other countries, as guides to effective internet restrictions). Far better would be: to begin a wide-ranging, open and public debate about digital communications; to take a more sophisticated approach to the different types of adult material (which would include thinking about that old chestnut, the difference between pornography and erotica); to work transnationally at addressing these issues; and to work and engage closely with digital producers, with social media companies, and, importantly, with producers of adult material. Easy solutions won’t be forthcoming; but a more informed debate and understanding of digital communications will be generated that is more likely to lead to positive outcomes, and less likely to lead to astonishingly illiberal mistakes such as the Digital Economy Bill.
As I’ve suggested above, there are good reasons to suppose the bill will not work. That is not necessarily good news: it may lead to an even more thoroughgoing attempt at censorship, deeper intrusion into privacy, and greater restrictions on personal freedom. And even if the outcome, more positively, will be the abandonment of attempts by the state to expand its monitoring and close policing of its citizens, the situation in the immediate future is not promising: the Digital Economy Bill will inject numerous anomalies and inconsistencies into the digital culture of the UK, it will move towards the establishment of a database of porn users, it will lead to the demise of many independent producers of erotica and pornography, and it will create a puritanical climate in which erotica is policed in an intrusive and heavy-handed way. For those of us who regard erotica and sex as important topics worthy of attention, creativity and freedom, this is a bleak, dismal state of affairs. And for those of us imagining that erotica might be one form of pleasant distraction from the horrors of Brexit, another hope is in danger of being dashed. It’s becoming increasingly hard to find anything to look forward to in Britain right now.
More than four months have passed since I promised this post—which is now written in the light of the election of Donald Trump as US president (something that I superstitiously predicted in the frustrated hope that I would, for once, be wrong about election outcomes). Like Brexit and the presidential election, my writing has been a drawn-out, chaotic process. This post as good as represents a new article rather than an obvious sequel to the first post. Above all, it responds far more to Trump’s election than it does to Brexit—it would, after all, be the height of parochialism to consider the latter anywhere near as significant as the former.
* * * * *
Right now, in the midst of Brexit and so soon after the election of Donald Trump as US president, historical perspective is not likely to yield much that is useful for helping to understand events that have only just begun to unfold. Clearly Trump and Brexit, as well as Putin, Erdoğan, Le Pen, Assad, Isis and much else besides across the world, point to the emergence of a global crisis and a treacherous future. But history will help us little to comprehend any of this in detail, how it may unfold and what may be the route out of the dark and grim cave we find ourselves in. On the other hand, history can provide an important broader perspective—and one that may even provide grounds for optimism.
Like anyone else, historians like to feel useful, so there are inevitably attempts to analyze recent events in light of the wisdom they have acquired from their expertise. One such attempt that garnered some attention (it was originally blogged at medium.com and was republished by The Huffington Post) is an article by Tobias Stone entitled (with somewhat hubristic confidence) ‘History tells us what will happen next with Brexit and Trump’.
Stone makes two broad points, which turn out to be disconnected, and arguably incompatible. The first is that comparatively small events, such as Brexit, can lead to larger events in a globally connected world. To illustrate the point, he sketches out a scenario in which Brexit is the triggering event in a chain that leads to global nuclear war. This is, of course, speculation rather than a serious claim that this ‘will happen’, and Stone himself concedes that one cannot know for sure what the outcome of Brexit will be, either for Britain or internationally. However, the general claim is sound to the point of being historical commonsense: events lead to other events, invariably in ways that are unforeseen at the time. No historian would dispute this.
Stone’s second main point is that history operates in a cyclical way. The cycle he presents is one in which a period of stability is inevitably followed by a period of destruction, from which society emerges in better shape and achieves stability again, only to descend once more into destruction; and so on. He suggests that most people are unaware of this because their understanding of the past is limited to about 50-100 years; but historians, who have a longer perspective on the past, will soon detect this cyclical pattern. Unfortunately, the only real example of this cycle he presents is one that is itself limited to the previous 100 years, encompassing the two world wars and various other events over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that culminate in the emergence of Putin, Trump and Brexit. Stone does present a disparate list of other historical events—‘the collapse of the Roman Empire, Black Death, Spanish Inquisition, Thirty Years War, War of the Roses, English Civil War’—but without explaining how these wildly different events (including one—the Black Death—that has nothing to do with human agency, and another—the Spanish Inquisition—that was not so much an event as an institution that spanned centuries) illustrate a recurring cycle to the past.
The idea that the past reveals historical cycles is a popular one. It was a common topos among classical writers, and the notion of a wheel of fortune revolving and dictating human affairs has a long pedigree. Nineteenth-century social theorists and historians, fond of understanding society in biological terms, likened human affairs to the life cycle, with inevitable stages of youth, maturity, decline, death, and new life.
But, to put it bluntly, cyclical theory is utter rubbish, based on a groundless, quasi-mystical notion that some kind of metaphysical (or, alternatively, biological) law applies to history. There is no evidence that history works in cycles and that we can use the past and a ‘cyclical model’ to predict what will happen next. Of course, if one tries hard enough (and many historians have) it is possible to impose all sorts of patterns on the past—most notoriously by those historians influenced by Marxist theories on historical development. We have a tendency (and this is arguably a psychological truth) to impose or detect patterns because we prefer seeing comprehensible order rather than incomprehensible chaos. However, these patterns, whether they are Christian providentialist history or Marxist determinism or cyclical history, almost never stand up to real scrutiny. They are fictions, telling us far more about ourselves than they do about the past. The Christian providentialist history, for example, reveals more about the mentality of its author than it does about the past; cyclical theory tells us a lot about the human predisposition to view time and the universe in an anthropocentric way, and about the desire to render history as a science operating according to identifiable laws. There is no requirement to be a postmodernist to cast scepticism upon such grand, and undeniably imaginative, historicizing theories.
One thing that history does teach us is that it is unwise to draw direct comparisons between two historical periods, particularly when they are at significant temporal remove. Any suggestion that our own time might be compared with earlier historical periods is fraught with problems. In almost every area there are fundamental, incomparable differences between our age and any previous age, whether those differences be demographic, cultural, technological, scientific, intellectual, or social. For all that there are things which approximate to constants (or at least admit only tiny change over history)—geography, the environment, biology—difference rather than similarity characterizes the overwhelming part of human life and society when viewed across historical periods. The urban, post-industrial society that we live in today, the way we work, the way we communicate, the way we socialize—none of that can be compared with any previous period except in ways that are highly general or superficial. It is, for example, undoubtedly interesting and valuable to consider the modern digital revolution in media and communications with the print revolution of the early modern period, but to approach them from a cyclical perspective—as examples, perhaps, of cycles of technological change—ends up in a ridiculous and misconceived effort to incorporate the vast differences between the two ‘revolutions’ under a single explanatory ‘law’.
The capacity for folly would seem to qualify as a human constant transcending time. However, this folly invariably manifests itself in different ways depending on the historical context. Just because in both 1618 and 1939 Europe descended into profoundly destructive warfare emanating from Germany does not mean the two events are comparable instances of a deeper cyclical law. The Thirty Years’ War and World War II were vastly different conflicts, stemming from vastly different causes, and occurring in vastly different social, political, cultural and intellectual worlds. Similarly, just because the crisis of democracy and liberalism in the 1920s and 1930s led to totalitarianism, war, genocide and devastation does not mean the same will happen again in the present crisis. The economy, society and culture of interwar Europe resembles our own in few respects. Trump, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen may well be ‘fascistic’, and it may be interesting to compare them with Hitler and Mussolini, just as it may be interesting to compare Putin with Lenin or Stalin, but there are significant limits to how far one can take such comparisons. There are far more ways in which Trump differs from Hitler than there are ways in which he resembles him. Likewise, one does not have to be fond of the Republican Party to point out that they are not remotely like the German Nazi Party. To suppose that Hitler and the Nazis, and Trump and the Republicans are fulfilling the same destined cyclical role is a nonsense. In short, cyclical theories of history are junk—entertaining junk perhaps, and revealing of the mental world from which they originate, but junk all the same.
* * * * *
History can nevertheless shed light on contemporary events. A more fertile approach to understanding the past was that of the French historian, Fernand Braudel (1902-85). One of the central figures in what has come to be known as the Annales school of historiography—the influence of which on historical research cannot be overstated—Braudel was arguably the greatest historian, and his book, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949), arguably the greatest historical work of the twentieth century. The importance of The Mediterranean stems in part from its brilliant exposition of sixteenth-century Mediterranean society, economy, culture and politics, but above all from its broader structure. Braudel consciously rejected the traditional approach to history which focused on politics and events. Instead, he understood the past in terms of three different levels of historical time: geographical time, social time, and individual time. The first deals with the extremely slow, almost imperceptible, changes in geography, the environment and climate that shape human history; the second concerns demographic, social, economic and cultural structures and their gradual changes; and the third, individual time, is the domain of ‘events’, those
surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs. A history of brief, rapid, nervous fluctuations, by definition ultra-sensitive; the least tremor sets all its antennae quivering. But as such it is the most exciting of all, the richest in human interest, and also the most dangerous. We must learn to distrust this history with its still burning passions, as it was felt, described, and lived by contemporaries whose lives were as short and as short-sighted as ours. It has the dimensions of their anger, dreams, or illusions… Resounding events are often only momentary outbursts, surface manifestations of these larger movements [of geographical and social time] and explicable only in terms of them. (The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, trans. by Siân Reynolds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; first published in French, 1949; second revised edn, 1966), p. 21.)
Traditional history fixated on events and individuals: kings and queens, statesmen, diplomats and generals, high politics, wars and revolutions. It is interesting, exciting and entertaining history, but on its own provides little understanding of the past. To understand the sixteenth-century Mediterranean world, as Braudel endeavoured to do, required attention to the longue durée, the long-term, the arena of geographical and social time. It necessitated understanding the Mediterranean as a sea with its islands and coastline, and the surrounding lands as varying regions of hills, mountains, plains and deserts. For it is this geography and climate which has shaped the social and economic culture of the Mediterranean peoples, fashioning the agriculture, the local and wider economies, the trade routes and financial systems. Only by grasping these features of the Mediterranean world—its geography, its climate, its economy, its society—is it possible to understand the individuals, politics and events that emerge from them.
Braudel’s metaphor of ‘surface disturbances, crests of foam’ suggests that most events are little more than froth. Perhaps one way of thinking about this is to offer a Braudelian adaptation of Shakespeare: events, whether wars, revolutions, political upheavals, are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing other than the larger movements of geographical and social time.
A Braudelian perspective, therefore, might regard the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit as surface manifestations of larger movements. An analysis of Trump and Brexit more plausible than the attempt to discern in them the recurrence of a cyclical stage is to consider them as reactions to rapid change (some of which might be described as progress). It is possible, for example, that they are the final, dying twitches of misogyny, white supremacy and blinkered nationalism in a world that increasingly has little place for such things; certainly, demographic, social, cultural and economic evidence suggests that possibility is more likely than that Trump and Brexit are ushering an enduring change in human history. There is a chance that these dying twitches will lead to global devastation and environmental catastrophe. But this is not inevitable, and assuming we manage to avoid such disasters, we may well find an era will follow—in five years or fifty years, who knows?—that once again embraces progressive, liberal and enlightened values suited to the demographically and culturally diverse world we live in.
The point is, to adopt this Braudelian view, that there is a flowing ocean of broad social, cultural and intellectual shifts on which Trump and Brexit are transitory crests of foam. One might consider gender history as an example. The election of Trump is undoubtedly a setback in the struggle for gender equality and women’s rights. But the long history of this struggle shows nothing cyclical about it; rather, it resembles a long and painfully slow story of progress against a background of gradual social, economic and cultural change. Trump is probably no more than a temporary setback, a desperate misogynist backlash, a brief and fleeting political manifestation of the rage and frustrations of men who are dimly aware they are almost certainly on the losing side of history. Even the misogyny of Trump and his supporters is not going to reverse female suffrage, say, or access to higher education. Despite Trump, all the historical signs are that one day in the future women will achieve equality. As Braudel put it, in ‘historical analysis… the long run always wins in the end’ (The Mediterranean, p. 1244). Individual historical actors, such as Trump, and events, such as the 2016 presidential election, are, for all their immediate and foreseeable pain, insignificant in the context of the broader tides of social and cultural change.
Despite the hopes of non-specialists that history may contain the secrets of what will happen in the future, historians have never been good at predicting the future with any precision. Any attempt to read from recent events a future sequence of events and their outcome is no more than speculative guesswork requiring no knowledge of history. Anyone could imagine, say, a scenario in which a terrorist incident on US soil in the name of Islamic fundamentalism early in the Trump presidency leads to virulent Islamophobia; or a win for Marine Le Pen that results in Frexit and further international instability. Equally, however, there may be neither a terrorist attack nor a victory for Le Pen. Whether there are or not, and what possible outcomes may arise, cannot be gleaned by looking at past historical events; they can only be based on an astute and informed assessment of current possibilities and probabilities.
But what history can illuminate are the broader and longer changes that generate events. Climate change, demographic change, social and cultural change, technological change: the long histories of these provide a better context for understanding recent events than a narrow analysis of personalities, political calculations and strategies. A recognition of this may help us avoid the despair of supposing recent events map out a road that ends only in catastrophe. And it certainly makes more sense than to view these events as manifestations of a mysterious historical law according to which humans will periodically enter into phases of self destruction. Not only is such a cyclical view nonsensical fiction, it is also likely to foster an attitude of resigned quietism.
Finally, it is worth stating that the present concerns are fourfold: to understand recent events; to avoid potential global disaster; to keep alive progressive values; and to work towards the acceptance and success of those values. History can help in these tasks, particularly those of understanding events and preserving values. This is because the past does not present a metaphysical law of inevitable cyclical return, but is rather a shared body of experience, knowledge and analysis from which to draw inspiration and understanding. It is for this reason that history, as the discipline concerned with the past, is invaluable in the present.
And since I began my first post with reference to the now deservedly Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan, I’ll end this one with a couple of lines worth keeping in mind: ‘For the loser now will be later to win, / For the times they are a-changin’.’
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.