Maurice Earls writes: Pro-Brexit feeling has hardened since the 2016 referendum and Remainers have fallen silent. The near complete disappearance of the Remain argument from public discourse confirms the suspicion that attachment to the EU ideal never had much in the way of cultural or political roots in England. Could anyone imagine Labour or the Conservatives disappearing from public view following an electoral defeat? Had the numbers been reversed, the Brexiteers would certainly not have scurried away. Like the Scottish nationalists, they would have immediately started planning for another referendum.
Yet despite all this, if there were another referendum it is still quite possible that Remain would win. Polls taken as late as June confirm this. Unravelling this seeming contradiction is challenging but could point in the direction of a potential resolution to the serious political and cultural problems that face England.
There can be little doubt that those who favour Brexit are energised by a vision of England’s future. For some it is a restoration and for others a brave new world. After decades of membership, Leavers know they don’t like the EU and certainly don’t like where the EU is heading. Some blame Europe for social and economic change and just want it to go away. Others are ambitious and vigorous nationalists, located on an ideological spectrum which culminates in imperialism. This zealous element cannot envisage a successful national future that does not involve winning.
Remainers on the other hand, with the exception of rare figures such as author and columnist Will Hutton, don’t think nationally and don’t have much of a vision for England’s future. For many of them the national is a tainted concept. This absence of vision may explain why, having lost the headcount, they now quietly accept Brexit as political reality.
Keir Starmer is an embodiment of the silent Remainer. Whatever his personal views are today, he was once a committed Remainer but has clearly decided it is better now to stay quiet on Brexit if he is to have the slightest chance of leading Labour back to power. It seems he believes that Labour Remainers will swallow Brexit if they have to, but that Labour Leave voters will spit out anything that looks like Remain. Many would acknowledge this as a realistic assessment. But it is also an approach which could see Starmer and the Labour Party fall between two stools. After all, something like that happened to Jeremy Corbyn on Brexit.
A viable long-term future for Labour as a party of government in England depends on uniting the former heartlands in the north and midlands with the anti-Tory Labour south. Papering over the cracks may work only in the short term. It could also be that a unity, which now looks out of reach, may not be quite as impossible as it seems.
In the period following the 2016 referendum, there was a great deal of speculation in the liberal Remain press around the reasons people voted Leave, much of it written in a condescending tone which questioned the intelligence of Leave voters, some of it more substantial. That has all stopped. There was never a comparable urge to explain why people voted Remain, which is at least as interesting a question.
Enthusiasts for the European project naturally voted Remain but they are a fringe element in English political culture. Personal financial interest, especially in the south east and certain cities, no doubt motivated some to vote Remain. A more significant cohort were young people who choose Europe, not least as a means to escape a political culture dominated by self-indulgent John Bullism. For them, the enduring negative moral legacy of imperialism is not something that can be swept under the carpet. These motivated young people have not disappeared. Recently some of them have been busy attacking statues seen to glorify England’s imperial past.
Notwithstanding the significance of this section of society, it is probably the case that most people who voted Remain did so because they believed there was no realistic alternative to EU membership. These are the people who would trudge off to the polls and vote Remain if there were another referendum. They are pragmatists, many of whom have no great love for Brussels but who accept that Britain and especially England can no longer go it alone, that England’s long ride on history’s wave has ended.
Theresa May, as prime minister, embodied this weary pragmatism. She voted Remain, but once the majority decided to leave she set about attempting to put “the people’s will” into effect, while limiting the economic damage. However, her efforts to square the circle, perhaps unavoidably, fell short and involved Britain agreeing to observe rules laid down in Brussels without having any say in making them. Brexiteers saw this solution, which they denounced as “vassalage”, as even worse than membership.
A significant number of Tory MPs revolted, thinking May’s solution a bridge too far. Brexit-friendly Jeremy Corbyn thought so too, and did not come to her aid. The DUP, on whom she came to depend, also opposed the deal she negotiated. After some months wobbling Theresa May fell from power.
May and the pragmatists were aware that decades of denial had not altered the reality of British decline as a global power. Since 1945, England had, indeed, trodden a long and fruitless road of denial and self-delusion.
In the face of palpable economic failure, Harold Wilson, who favoured joining the EEC, believed it would be possible for Britain to lead in Europe. He didn’t think there could be much difficulty in dominating a bunch of continentals. This puffed-up vision of an English future in the EU came to nothing. Margaret Thatcher, whose radical ideology did not in fact lead to a miracle in economic growth, grudgingly went along with EU membership but was incandescent at the idea that Brussels, “the Belgians”, were influencing the value of sterling. She was effectively an early cakeist whose cranky behaviour was celebrated by those who would become passionately pro-Brexit.
Even the pro-EU Tony Blair was attached to the idea that England was without peer, simply the greatest country in the world. In practice he did not make the EU the centre of his politics. Under the guidance of the pragmatic Gordon Brown, the economy did very well. But this somehow didn’t satisfy Blair. Rather, he sought grandeur both as a latterday Gladstone “solving Ireland”, which was good work, well-done and in close association with the US, which was engaged in regime engineering around the world, a project which turned out to be a murderous and destructive form of neo-imperialism, in the spreading-the-benefits-of-civilisation tradition. The relationship with the US turned out, as it had to, to be one of humiliating subordination. Throughout all this international activity, England’s postwar reduced international status persisted.
For the pragmatists, it was time to accept reality. Dull Theresa May, taking herself off to church every Sunday and enjoying bland walking holidays, had the advantage of not being encumbered by outsize ambitions. She knew her recent history. She knew there was no St George available to slay the dragon of relative decline. For her and those of like mind, it was time to read the writing on the wall. But the English had no use for a leadership style which reminded them of Angela Merkel. Realists without brio were not what they craved. Even the Remainer Guardian dubbed her “The Maybot”.
The reason May could not get her deal through was because the snap election she called in 2017 resulted in a hung parliament. This was Corbyn’s good election and it was an election which was, in large measure, about Brexit. Even when it was not what candidates emphasised, Brexit was the elephant in the room. Voters were wary of what May called a “balanced Brexit” involving “a deep and serious special partnership” with Europe. May received “a good kicking” from the electorate and Jeremy Corbyn, who had a national Brexit vision, albeit poorly articulated in a divided party, was given a leg up. Some expected it to be the Lib Dems’ election but, significantly, that unambiguously pro-Europe party did not do well. Confused as Corbyn’s message was, many, including those from Red Wall areas who had voted for Brexit, preferred it to May’s “capitulation”.
When pro-Brexit Boris Johnson replaced May he installed a pro-Brexit cabinet but was stuck with a parliament which wanted to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Under time pressure, he negotiated a modified version of May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU. The Northern Ireland backstop was replaced with something very similar but less straightforward and there were a few other tweaks here and there. The DUP, on which the government depended, refused to support it. Significantly, ardent Brexiteers supported it. Logically they should have remained opposed but Johnson cut a dash. Somehow it was felt this unreconstructed toff would find a way.
But Johnson just didn’t have the numbers, so he did what May did and called an election, with the support of Labour. Despite his soft Brexit deal with Europe, Johnson fought the general election of December 2020 on a strong Brexit platform. Nigel Farage’s party intervened effectively to support him. In England, the Conservative Party won 345 out of 533 seats and 47.2% of the vote ‑ the highest percentage by any party in England since 1970. The new parliament, with a large Conservative majority, passed the modified agreement.
Jeremy Corbyn, who had a very bad election, did not support Johnson’s tweaked deal. Corbyn had a vision of a resurgent Britain. His plans to improve the lot of the working classes, through harnessing the resources of the state to power economic development, were not really compatible with the “level playing field” which had apparently been accepted.
Faced with a choice between a vague though charismatic and self-confident upper-class person, and a dull ban-the-bomb-era lefty, the English electorate, including many in Red Wall areas, chose the former, believing that Johnson would take the Brexit battle forward. Brexit Tories, who were not prepared to countenance May’s agreement, were also prepared to trust Boris Johnson and his tweaked agreement.
It soon transpired that Brexiteers were right to trust Johnson. Under his leadership Britain quickly switched to hardball in negotiating future trade terms with the EU, so much so that a hard Brexit is now once more a possibility.
While it cannot be ruled out that Johnson will execute a U-turn at the last minute and throw Gove and Cummings under the bus, the hard Brexit talk has taken on a dynamic that will be difficult to stop.
Dominic Cummings is Johnson’s ideological guru and he has come up with a solution to England’s historical dilemma of disunity and lost empire. On paper it is comprehensive, and one can easily imagine him explaining it to Johnson and Gove with the aid of a blackboard and chalk. The idea is to adopt Keynesianism at home, to knit up the ravelled sleeve of national fragmentation. This will be combined with Friedmanism in economic matters. It looks impossible but the innate genius of the “island race” will, it is confidently declared, see Jack-be-nimble and Jack-be-quick cutting a dash in the world, getting ahead of the dullards and excelling in an exciting new crypto-imperial phase, one in which England will thrive and prosper globally without the bother of having to seize territories. Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings are taking the English on a last great ride. Roll up! Roll up!
It is highly likely, if it even goes ahead, that after a very bumpy ride and some embarrassment, England will crawl from the wreckage, finally realising the game is up. It remains to be seen if power will then be handed over to transactional pragmatists or whether the experience will trigger the emergence of a national self-understanding which draws on the many positive features of English culture and history.
In the meantime, England’s apparent political blindness has amazed the world. How can a country with a history of brilliant administrators and politicians, which ran ‑ and when necessary successfully disengaged from ‑ a massive empire and which is famous, however spuriously, for having negotiated the road from royal to democratic rule without drama and gore, have failed to adapt to post-imperial reality and ignored what is patently obvious, that Britain is no longer a world power?
The answer is that England has problems which other countries don’t have. History has, as it were, landed on its Achilles heel. Not only has it failed to learn from its recent history, but in the last half-century or so has embraced a delusionary version of its past. Spitfires, moral superiority and poppies occupy the space where thinking and reflection should occur. The “Take that Fritz!” version of the twentieth century, in which the world was made safe for democracy through the good offices of the English, spread and grew exponentially within English culture over the past fifty years, forcing everything else towards the margins. Arguably, the process served a purpose, but if so, it was hardly a useful one. By embracing a view of itself as a global and moral paragon, the disagreeable and ultimately unavoidable business of coming to terms with the unpleasant history of a destructive and blood-stained imperialism could be side-stepped.
Peoples learn from history not by reading history books but from shared experience embedded within the cultural fabric. Sometimes historical experience makes it easy to learn, and in this respect many countries have had it easier than England. Certainly, Ireland and Germany have had it easier
The Irish experience of demographic decline and economic failure over twelve decades was an unpleasant but highly unambiguous matter. In the late twentieth century Europe offered a way out and, unsurprisingly, the Irish turned out to be enthusiastic and successful Europeans. The country’s GDP per capita went from 53 per cent of the European average in 1973 to 118 per cent in 2017. Ireland had its out-and-out sovereigntists too, but they were dismissed in the national interest.
When it comes to history’s recent lessons, the Germans have also had it easier than the English. The German “take-away” from the era of Nazi aggression was that a European nation, however sizeable, well-organised and motivated cannot take on the world. The destruction and humiliation suffered as a result of their efforts to do so means that Germany will not be sending soldiers across its neighbours’ borders in any foreseeable future. It’s that simple: pragmatic modesty is now hard-wired in German policy.
Notwithstanding, many and perhaps most Germans believe in their hearts that they are more competent than their fellow Europeans. Indeed, there are all sorts of cultural forces in the country which involve feelings of superiority and which resist the full logic of the European project, but these pale beside the lesson of the Second World War. When it is necessary, Germany eventually steps up to the European plate. Angela Merkel has made it clear that in the face of the coming economic crisis Germany will once more do so. Like the Irish sovereigntists, those who feel Germany would be better off going it alone have, along with the Swabian housewives who worry that others might get their fingers into the German purse, been told that they can all go weep into their curd and potatoes, that Germany will be pursuing a European future.
By comparison the English experience has been a deeply ambiguous affair. England was not reduced to rubble in 1945. The English won, didn’t they? “Remind me again, why did we give up the empire” is a question hanging there in English political culture. “Was it because we are so decent?” It is as if imperial disengagement occurred in a fit of absent mindedness. When you win, it is a tricky business to learn that you have lost.
When it is all over and, metaphorically speaking, Mr Cummings’s head, like that of his famous Roundhead predecessor, comes to adorn a paling in London or perhaps Durham, we may see an altered England.
There is much that England has achieved and given in the arts and science. The world, for example is still feeling the after-tremors from the explosion of working class and lower middle class creative energy in popular music in the 1960s. There is much too in English political history to celebrate.
We will know something solid is afoot when those who are pulling down the statues of mass murderers have suggestions for the empty pedestals, when they move beyond a solely universalist perspective to offer a positive vision of England in the world.
It would, for example, be a sign of cultural health if, when the statue of the slave- and plantation-owning William Beckford comes down, it is replaced by a figure such as the decent Cornish-born Chartist William Lovett (1800-1877), a determined advocate of universal suffrage, a founder of the London Workingmen’s Association and a supporter of women’s rights. He devoted his life to the economic rights and general betterment of the common people. He was imprisoned for his troubles and eventually died in poverty. A plaque in a Cornish restaurant seems to be all there is to commemorate him at present.
It is in the celebration of such figures that the North and South might successfully join.