How did it come to this? Brexit Part I

          One of the great things about teaching the European Studies Colloquium for all those years was the chance to delve into a new topic every year and get immersed in a whole new stack of readings as I prepared the material. Turkish membership, minorities and migrants, the EU and the environment, the history of genocide in Europe, all fascinating topics. And then a few years ago I figured it would be fun to spend a semester looking at the relationship between the EU and the U.K. One of the books I that proved most useful was Hugo Young’s This Blessed Plot which, among other things, was a long historical essay on the UK’s relationship with Europe.
          I was reminded of the book last Saturday when I opened The Guardian, there on the back page of the special section on Brexit was an excerpt from the book. Hugo Young’s take on why membership in the EU was always going to be problematic for the UK. So I’m going to lead into this series of blog posts on Brexit by considering what he had to say and why it is so relevant for the Leave vote.
           Young’s basic premise is that UK membership in the EU was always going to be a reluctant proposition at best because, for a large sub-section of the British population, it is an expression of national decline. Application, admission and ongoing membership is a permanent, persistent reminder of post-war, post-Imperial failure. In the context of Brexit, this is the “Make Britain great again” argument. For those who believe that all it takes to cure Britain’s economic and social woes is to shed the unnecessary, restricting super-structure of the EU and we can go back to the pre-EU nirvana that was British domination of the world. This is, of course, delusional thinking, for reasons I’ll get into later, but the ambiguity that has always accompanied the UK’s relationship with the EU in many ways begin with this idea that if Britain was still “great”, if it was still the hub of Empire, then EU membership wouldn’t be necessary.
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            It is an unfortunate case of bad timing, perhaps, that the rise of the EU coincided with the decline of Empire. In the early 1950s, invited to participate in the European Coal and Steel Community, the British government refused to even enter negotiations. Later in the decade, when the invitation was extended to participate in the Messina Conference on expanding the ECSC into a fully realized single market, Eden’s FCO sent Russell Bretherton as their representative; a relatively minor civil servant whose obscurity was designed to insult the proceedings rather than contribute to them. The reasons for Britain’s refusal to participate were complex; a belief that Empire and Commonwealth would suffice as a trade partner; an over-reliance on trans-Atlanticism and the Special Relationship; a belief that nationalism was too powerful to ever allow the kind of international cooperation represented by the EEC to succeed (Anthony Eden in particular was unable to grasp the concept of post-national or super-national entities); a belief in British exceptionalism, both at the government and popular level, that made it impossible to consider subsuming British sovereignty to an outside entity; and a generally unstated, but well understood, disdain for Europe and all things European.
          Of course, even before the ink was dry on the Treaties of Rome Britain had been taught a salutary lesson about the limits of post-war British power. The Suez crisis in November 1956, far more than Indian independence or the unrest in East Africa, demonstrated several salient post-war realities. The most important of which was that Britain was no longer capable of enforcing its will on other parts of the world, even with French help, and that the special relationship with the US only applied when it supported US foreign policy aims, not British ones. It was the first real demonstration of the way trans-atlanticism was to play out in the second half of the 20th century; the US says jump and Britain says how high.
          At the same time the richer Commonwealth countries were reorganizing their trade relationships in the wake of WWII; Australia and New Zealand shifting their focus to the Pacific and Asia; Canada to the US; India had embarked on a massive import-substitition program to try to fix the damage done to its industrial sector by 100 years of British rule. On the continent France, Germany and Italy were all engaged in their different versions of economic revival and at a global level, trade was increasingly being regulated through international agreements like GATT, in which positive outcomes for countries were increasingly dictated by the amount of negotiating power they could wield.
          Thus, by the time MacMillan came to power in 1959 it was startlingly obvious that the UK governments of the 1950s had made a terrible mistake in shutting the door on EU membership, and the only way forward was to go cap-in-hand to Brussels and ask for entry. Where Britain was faced with an unyielding De Gaulle who, quite rightly, believed that British membership would be a mistake for the nascent community. Knowing that Britain was economically powerful enough to challenge the French position as one of the two powerhouses of the EEC, he didn’t trust Britain not to act as a spoiler, getting in the way of French objectives and potentially disrupting the entire project; and he didn’t trust that they wouldn’t act as a trojan horse for trans-Atlantic interests. So France vetoed, and continued to oppose British membership until De Gaulle was deposed in 1968.
          This delay in entry is another critical part of the problem of British membership, because it is during these formative years that many of the initial rules of trade and regulation were established, rules that Britain had no part in creating. The emphasis on agriculture, the dismissal of regional economic variation, the way in which fishing regulations were written to provide equal access for all members. All these issues, and more, have been constant points of contention for British membership.
          By the time Britain did finally join the EU it was the early 1970s and the country was an economic basket-case. Heavy industry was declining rapidly, beset by the costs of the worlds oldest (and therefore least efficient) industrial infrastructure, reliant on outdated technology, and poor educational infrastructure (the school leaving age was 14 until 1971), wracked by industrial action over both factory closures and poor wages and about to be hit by the oil crisis.
          For me this is one of the most fascinating things about the Brexit vote, the single largest demographic to vote to leave are baby-boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, people who must remember what Britain was actually like in the early 1970s, and who somehow think that’s something we want to return to. Really?
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          The winter of 1973-74 saw the second miner’s strike of the decade, it reduced power output from the major coal-fired power stations to such an extent that we saw a three-day work and school week; there were rolling blackouts across the country, engendering panic in many households on a Saturday afternoon if you were slated to lose power just as Doctor Who was coming on. People did their grocery shopping with candles on the shopping carts. Industrial jobs were hemorrhaging from places like Clydebank and Wallsend, and Wallasey, jobs in ship building, heavy engineering, steel making and textiles; jobs that would slowly be replaced by light manufacturing, Japanese and American companies making cars and TVs and washing machines, but only if those companies had access to the European market. Poverty and poor living conditions were still widespread. In 1972 the Conservative government passed a Housing Bill that included grant provisions to try to reduce the number of households (including ours) that were still living with an outside toilet; the vast majority had no central heating, kids getting set on fire when their polyester nightwear got too close to the paraffin or electric-bar heater was a common occurrence; and every kid got a third of a pint of milk at school every day to try to keep down the incidence of rickets (that (the free milk, not the rickets) ended in 1976 when Margaret Thatcher was Home Secretary).
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          So really , no, not something I’d want to go back to.
          The fact is, the last time Britain really was “great” was August 1914 and that was a greatness built on the back of colonial resource exploitation and slavery, both formal (sugar and cotton in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries) and effective (Blake’s “dark Satanic mills”). The entire 20th century was a 97-year exercise in the winding down of empire, from New Zealand in 1900 to Hong Kong in 1997; punctuated by two horrendously expensive wars and a hollowing out of an outdated, expensive industrial model that only really worked when you were the only industrial game in town and had captive markets to buy the goods you produced.
          So why were so many so deluded about the past? I think there are two at least tangentially related reasons for this rosy romanticism about the pre-EU years.
          First there is the demographic angle. As The Guardian’s demographic analysis has pointed out, while Boomers were more likely to vote Leave rather than Remain, those over 75 — those who actually remembered WWII and Britain’s supposed “greatness” — were more likely to vote Remain. The people voting to “make Britain great again” were, by and large, people who had never experienced Britain’s greatness directly, their entire lives have been spent watching Britain decline, and without the salutary lessons of WWII, they could be seduced by the idea that Britain can somehow improve it’s lot by striking out alone. This was a frequent theme when the news reporters talked to the “man or woman in the street”, usually someone in their 40s to their 60s, usually in a shopping center in the North of England, their claim was always “We ruled the biggest Empire in the world, who says we can’t make it without Europe”. It’s a sad indictment of historical illiteracy, but the context is important. Appeals to making Britain “great” again, seem to have worked best in places where the benefits of EU membership have been less obvious, places that never really rebounded from the industrial losses of the 1970s and 1980s. It’s pointless to argue that without the EU, without regeneration funds and training funds and access to the single market that attracted what little new industry is there, things would be manifestly worse for these regions. All that is visible is unemployment, economic stagnation and a sense that the benefits of globalization have passed them by.
          It is also worth noting that the Leave vote is closely tied to the UKIP vote, which is in turn the newer, more acceptable face of the BNP. That is, there is a hefty dose of anti-immigrant sentiment in the demographic that voted to Leave. That isn’t to say that every Leave voter is a raging bigot, but a healthy number of them are and this has parallels to the demographic of Trump voters in the US. Under-educated, middle-aged white men. This is partly a vote of those who are seeing their privilege disappear. This was a demographic that had it made for a very long time. Leave school at 16 (or 14 before 1971) and get a good industrial job, no education required and you were set for life. Outside of London there was very little competition from people who looked or sounded different, local boys went into the factories, local boys got apprenticeships with local tradesmen; you made a good living as a welder or a pipe fitter, or working on the line at the Vauxhall plant. Those jobs began to disappear in the 1970s and 1980s, a victim of international competition and Thatcherite neo-liberalism. At the same time as those jobs were getting scarcer, free-movement and the expansion of the EU into Eastern Europe opened up the existing jobs to a wider range of people. Although interestingly, the largest Leave percentages were in areas with the lowest rates of immigration (with the exception of Scotland and Northern Ireland).
          So again, why the delusion about the Eu and the impact of immigrants?
          The blame for this misdirection lies squarely on the shoulders of the government (this one and all British governments over the past forty years) and the press.
          British governments have always had an ambiguous relationship with Europe. Whether it is Tory mistrust of European socialism, or Labour mistrust of the “capitalist club” both major parties have always used the EU as a whipping boy for their own political ends. Both parties have routinely blamed Brussels when they needed a way to deflect attention from their own failings, a less deadly version of the US government’s “when in doubt, start a war” policy. When in doubt, blame the EU. Labour successfully used the promise of a referendum on EU (then EEC)  membership to boost its vote in the second 1974 General Election, and much of the party was surprised and disappointed when the voters chose stay by 2 to 1; apparently close proximity to the economic and political disaster that was pre-EEC Britain was an object lesson. From then on however, the EU took the blame for everything from declining fishing catches to dodgy regulations on the length and straightness of bananas. Prime Ministers routinely gave press conferences about “going to Brussels to get a better deal for Britain” and “upholding the rights of our fishing industry” which would have been upheld just fine if we’d entered the EU when we’d first been invited and had been in on the ground floor setting the fishing rules.
          The ultimate act of political opportunism, of course, was David Cameron’s attempt to head off UKIP by offering a referendum on EU membership during his next term if the Conservatives got elected in 2015. Anyone who didn’t know the context might have felt sorry for him when he resigned as PM last week, but he, and his cabinet, have single-handledly thrown Britain into a political, economic and constitutional crisis unrivaled since the Irish Home Rule Vote after WWI.
          Complicit in all of this has been the press, particularly the tabloids. Playing to a nativist, populist readership, again the EU was a convenient headline villain. The Daily Express, the Mail, the Sun, the Mirror, all furthering the narrative of a corrupt, lazy, venal European elite living off the British contribution to Brussels. Outrage and a convenient target sells newspapers, and the EU was always a convenient target. EU-legalized immigration just added fuel to the fire.
          The strangest thing on the morning of June 24th was the level of sombre disquiet in the country. There were a few people celebrating, principally Nigel Farage and his coterie of fascist insiders, but the overall reaction seemed to be “oh fuck, what did we do?” The realization that if Britain leaves the EU all its redevelopment money goes too was apparently a surprise for places like Cornwall and South Wales; Google was innundated with people asking what the EU actually was and what it did; a poll within the week indicated that 7% of the people who voted Leave actually wanted to change their minds, including one Leave voter at Manchester airport who was devastated that Leave had won, she had thought that Remain would win safely and voted Leave to send a message to the EU. Message sent….
           More pertinently, the PM resigned, as did most of the Shadow Cabinet, and the architects of the Leave campaign immediately began rescinding the promises they’d used to persuade people that they’d be better off without the EU; 350 million a week for the NHS, well we didn’t really mean that; no more immigration, well we didn’t really mean that either. And then they started resigning too. Ten days out and Farage is no longer leader of UKIP, Boris Johnson has declined to run for leader of the Conservative Party after Michael Gove withdrew his support so he could stand himself and currently he’s running a distant third to Teresa May and Andrea Leadsom in the leadership contest.
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          The rest of the fallout awaits us…
          I’m going to follow up with a post on the constitutional consequences of the Leave vote and then one on what happens next…

One thought on “How did it come to this? Brexit Part I

  1. THIS. ALL OF THIS.

    You’ve hit it squarely on ignorance of historical events that bring us to these turning points and show us why we should/shouldn’t do things. I always thought this was an agregious attribute of American society, but it seems the Brits suffer from it, too. Both our countries seem to be hurtling towards disaster at the same time. *SMDH*

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