Maurice Earls writes: Brexit has divided England vertically from top to bottom, from the elite to the impoverished. Traditional, horizontally-divided class politics can’t contribute much to resolving the crisis.
The pieces have been flung up in the air. All the energy is with the hard Brexit side, whose public has shown itself capable of unity and focus. That side is pushing hard to ensure that the pieces, when they land, spell Brexit. Successful politicians in the current situation will be imaginative ones. Thus far, there is little sign of an imaginative anti-Brexit politics.
Jeremy Corbyn does not recognise the nature of the Brexit national division nor does he see that it cannot be understood in the language of class division. This failure is hardly surprising, as he comes from a tradition where pretty much everything can be explained in that language.
Corbyn’s complacent view, it seems, is that the present political turmoil is caused by bickering Tories, that it will result in the emergence of serious class politics and that all he has to do is sit back while the right reveals its true colours. Unfortunately the Labour Party, by sitting on its hands, has becomes a melting ice-cap. Already, an electoral collapse is under way.
There is a general opinion, which is probably correct, that in the UK there is a majority against a hard Brexit and very probably also a pro-Remain majority. If so, it is a silent and ineffectual majority without political leadership or the ideas to settle the matter.
The London Review of Books recently published articles by David Runciman and William Davis, both of whom oppose the Brexit Party. Significantly, neither offers thinking, or even a road map towards ideas, which might form the basis of a culturally and politically coherent response to the highly effective Brexit minority.
David Runciman, who is a perceptive commentator with a deep knowledge of British politics and political ideas, believes it is worth saying that all the Tory leadership candidates are presenting themselves as the new Thatcher and claim that their Thatcherite sense of purpose is what is required to sort the mess. He goes on to say they misunderstand Thatcher who was lucky, pragmatic and a stickler for the rules, which she dressed up as “implacable resolve”. A reader might wonder what the point of these reflections is, unless it is to imply that a pragmatic leader might solve the problem, that if the Tories were led by an old-time political giant, then a united country could be led away from the Brexit error.
Runciman fears that public opinion is warming to the idea of chaos, that the public is not looking for a sensible old-fashioned politician. “Maybe the public is ready to tolerate some noisy plate-smashing in the corridors of power.” But he adds that going down that route would be “a catastrophic mistake, leading to a break-up of the multinational United Kingdom “Chaos,” he says, “will not breach a fractured political landscape. It will fracture it further.”
Worrying about impending chaos reflects a flaw in Runciman’s analysis. Looking in from the outside, it seems clear enough that his country is experiencing one of those historically rare moments when big decisions about future identity, aspirations and governance will soon be taken. Decision-making power will be transferred from one group to another. We don’t yet know who the winner will be. It is quite possible that if pro-EU forces don’t cohere politically, the Faragists will win the day. In any case there will be a fair bit of “chaos” before the ground settles. That is unavoidable and not worth complaining about.
William Davis, author of Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World, has similar concerns to Runciman. He gives a good account of how the parliamentary party system works in an integrated and culturally coherent society. In his equivalent to Runciman’s ruminations about Thatcher, he talks about “careful political and cultural management” being responsible for making the system work for the benefit of the propertied classes. As a result, he thinks, in a sort of neo-Corbynist way, that maybe fragmentation will be for the good.
It is surely more a case of new divisions around Brexit than fragmentation. Instead of looking at what is in front of him Davis attributes what is happening politically to the new technology and social media. These, he says, are inherently disruptive and give voice to segments historically obscured by the big old monolithic parties who fooled people into believing that they ruled in the common interest. It is unlikely that this kind of class analysis will do much to stop Faragism.
To imagine that Britain’s changing politics today is caused by the savvy use of social media by the Brexit Party is missing the same elephant that escapes Runciman’s notice: there is a new fault line running down English society. It won’t be going away. An ineluctable struggle faces England and in such times intellectuals either, like John Milton in a comparable era, identify the forces at work and get involved in the fray or quietly slip away to their gardens.
To overcome the danger of a Brexit triumph delivered by a focused minority, a leadership would have to emerge on the remain side. Its intellectuals would have to move beyond nostalgic lament for the old ways and beyond dreams of a new class war. Instead, they would need to create language and concepts capable of enabling a reasonably patriotic English person to identify with an England which was part of an integrated European democracy, one that might become a focal point for progressive and civilised values in the world.
Unfortunately, thus far there is little evidence that anti-Brexit intellectuals have an appetite for such an undertaking. Their failure will have two consequences. First, it immediately gives a moral and political advantage to what William Davies calls “Farage’s outfit” and what David Runciman sees as merchants of chaos interested only in “bragging rights”. Second, if ‑ as seems likely ‑ a new referendum is held and it results in a remain majority, then failure to generate and promulgate a pro-EU identity for England would allow for unending culture wars to the detriment of ordinary English people, their families and communities. It would be a Pyrrhic victory for remain, with all ongoing disruptive energies still residing with the Brexiteers and their ilk.