Whenever you want to say anything nuanced about Brexit, you have to choose your words carefully. If you assert, for instance, that the issue is inextricably entwined with austerity, and that the bankruptcy of the neoliberal consensus helped create the conditions for both the rise of UKIP and the outcome of the EU referendum, you risk implicitly endorsing the narrative that presents Brexit as a revolt of the downtrodden against the out-of-touch elite.
Let’s be absolutely clear: it is nothing of the sort. If one trait unites the chief architects of the Brexit project, it is an intense ideological animus against fetters to capital, whether in the form of working time regulations, health and safety rules or environmental protections. Left to their own devices they would transform Britain into an investor’s paradise of low taxation and minimal workers’ rights, and would have few qualms about dismantling the NHS and the welfare state in the process. This was the guiding impulse from day one; all the nativist rabble-rousing – the dog-whistle xenophobia, the talk of national sovereignty, the appeals to imperial nostalgia – was a means to this end. It is true that the economically marginalised voted in large numbers to leave the EU, but it was never their movement.
That being said, the response of many mainstream liberal and centre-left commentators to the Brexit crisis has too often been myopic and inadequate. The trouble with the particular brand of catastrophising despondency peddled by the coterie of journalists and activists who identify under the Twitter hashtag #FBPE is not that they are necessarily wrong about Brexit; it is that they are, for the most part, too wedded to the neoliberal worldview to stand for anything positive and transformative.
In the context of the Brexit debate, this is a fatal handicap. The 2016 EU Referendum was dangerously misconceived precisely because it offered people a choice between business as usual and some nebulous idea of change; it was entirely foreseeable that an electorate ravaged by eight years of austerity and economic insecurity might opt for the change option, however ill-defined it was. In a recent article for the Guardian, the novelist and journalist James Meek argued there is now an onus on Remain supporters to define what it is they actually believe in: ‘We know what we don’t want, but we don’t seem sure what we do want in the long term.’
To some, this will sound like complacent navel-gazing: with the nation on the brink of a possible no-deal Brexit, surely now is not the time for equivocation. But if the convulsions of 2016 taught us anything, it was that narratives matter quite a lot. The title of Meek’s latest book, Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, acknowledges that the argument about EU membership is not merely an intellectual one, but also involves intuitive and emotional factors as well as some outright delusions.
The book comprises four lengthy essays, blending fact-based analysis, reportage and interviews, which were originally published in the London Review of Books between 2016 and 2018. These examine the Brexit question in relation to four areas of national and economic life: fishing, farming, the NHS and the labour market. Touring Grimsby to research fisheries, Meek finds ‘pockets of optimism’ among the locals, although there is seemingly no objective reason to feel optimistic. In Norfolk a farmer tells him that Brexit would ‘be bad for farming, but there are some things more important than farming.’
This kind of stubborn determination – admirably resolute or dangerously pigheaded, depending on your view – is much in evidence among the farmers interviewed by Meek in the countryside. They harbour romantic notions of economic self-sufficiency and a generalised hatred of officialdom and rules, and are sustained by a blind faith that all these things ‘would fade away of their own accord’ once we leave the EU.
Their mindset is epitomised by the farmer and MEP, Stuart Agnew, a man with ‘a peevish ability to articulate complaints in such a way that aligned his personal disadvantage with the disadvantage of the country.’ During a discussion with another farmer about how the loss of EU subsidies will affect UK farming, Meek raises the possibility that British farmers may be forced to compete in a disastrous ‘race to the bottom’ with global agribusiness. The farmer is undaunted: ‘I just feel we have been, throughout history, able to get through any problem thrown at us by politics, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to continue to do it’.
The chapter on the NHS will by kryptonite to anyone with an aversion to management jargon. Investigating a health service in a state of chronic crisis, Meek quickly finds himself mired in a welter of acronyms, opaque management structures and vague buzz-phrases like ‘sustainability and transformation’. He concludes that, when you cut through the obfuscatory language, many NHS reform initiatives are essentially cuts masquerading as efficiency drives.
These amount to one big firefight; the worrying reality is that the health and social systems are creaking because capacity is dwindling at the same time as demand is increasing. In the long run, something will have to give, and the British public will be faced with a stark choice between increased investment in a revitalised health service – funded by taxation – or a gradual privatisation of the NHS. In a neoliberal post-Brexit world, the latter option would seem more likely. Future general elections will be won or lost on this issue.
Meek explores the politics of a globalised labour market by examining the contrasting fortunes of two industrial towns: Somderdale in England and Skarbimierz in Poland. Through infrastructure subsidies and tax breaks the EU facilitated the transfer of a Cadbury’s factory from the the former to the latter. The arrangement ostensibly benefited the Poles, but the people Meek speaks to in Poland are deeply ambivalent about the EU.
They lament the ‘neocolonial’ nature of the relationship, which has resulted in a ‘brain drain’ of young talent heading westwards, and they are all too aware that the boon of foreign capital investment may be withdrawn at any moment: ‘From Britain to Poland today; from Poland to an even cheaper country tomorrow.’ It was on the back of this unease that Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party built a successful electoral platform with the support of less than a fifth of the electorate; Meek quips thats ‘If Britain is straining the EU by leaving, Law and Justice’s Poland is straining it by staying.’
In Poland as in Britain, Meek believes the compromises made by so-called ‘third way’ politics surrendered the initiative to the political right: ‘parties like Civic Platform and New Labour followed business, and began treating economics and culture as two separate things.’ The centre-left jettisoned politics in favour of technocratic managerialism; the right persisted with politics, and has reaped the rewards. One consequence of this is that the spectrum of what is deemed possible in mainstream politics has been considerably narrowed: Meek rightly observes that, in 21st-century Britain, the idea of working-class security and prosperity belongs to ‘what now seems a mid-twentieth-century golden age.’ Against this backdrop, Corbynism’s relatively modest social democratic programme is perceived to be dangerously radical.
Liberal journalists have an infuriating tendency to explain away ‘populism’ as though it were a matter of mainstream politics having lost its way due to some obscure PR failing – a temporary shortage in the supply of photogenic politicians, or that pesky Internet leading voters astray. By contrast, Meek is refreshingly clear-sighted in his analysis of the contradictions of cosmopolitan liberalism. He grapples with the present quagmire in all its complexity, paying due attention to the role of rhetoric and imagination without shying away from the reality that the crisis is about material problems requiring material solutions.
Meek’s portrait of Brexit Britain illustrates the futility of trying to compete with the Brexiteer narrative with appeals to cold rationalism. In the run-up to the 2016 vote, a good deal of Remainer energy was expended to persuade Leavers that Brexit would leave them poorer; when it transpired that many Leavers understood this but were happy to proceed regardless, the game was up. The idea had captured their imagination, and that was that. Whatever happens with Brexit, it is clear that the old centre-left orthodoxy – that neoliberal pragmatism offers the surest route to success at the ballot box – has had its day. The left must offer a competing vision, or it will lose the argument in the long run.