Are the Conservative Establishment now the revolutionaries? Does Brexit be understood as representing a genuinely revolutionary moment in British history, or are there much deeper, longer-term trends that explain the current moment?
Conservatives as rebels and revolutionaries sounds like a contradiction, but if you think about it that’s what it has come to with Brexit.
It can be argued that the EU Referendum of 23rd June 2016 upset the apple cart, the established order of things. It wasn’t supposed to turn out that way. It’s been well reported that even Boris Johnson and Michael Gove didn’t really expect to win. This in part goes some way to explaining the curious post Brexit aftermath and the absence of rousing, triumphant victor’s speeches that set out the road map towards arriving at the Brexiteer’s vision of the nation’s future.
The reality proved that there was no plan or road map as Brexit wasn’t actually defined. It just meant leaving the EU. Perhaps the wrong referendum question was asked in the first place. Maybe we were all too gullible thinking leaving wouldn’t be that complicated. In retrospect the practice and ability to leave needed to be spelt out far more clearly in terms of the hows and wherefores.
It is not difficult to understand people’s wish to leave but I don’t believe it was clear to anyone how this could work without it being more detrimental than remaining in the EU. No one can deny that the Brexit campaign and overriding message was based on the implicit and stated expectation that, as D:Ream famously sang, ‘Things can only get better’ (1993).” However it’s clear that that is not necessarily so and no one, not even Brexiteer’s, was keen to leave if things were only going to get worse, in the long run.
That harks back to the initial poorly put question. It was never considered or put as a question such as – ‘Do you only want a Brexit that is better for the UK and doesn’t place an invisible hard border between Ireland and the island of Northern Ireland?’That obviously was a huge stumbling block and although that appears to have been removed with Boris Johnson’s October 2019 deal, still wasn’t enough to get through parliament.
This throws up questions re the efficacy of democracy, for it has as yet simply not been possible to deliver Brexit and it’s hard to see how this week’s General Election, without the referendum + General Election that Tiemo Talk of the Town called for as a proviso for holding the election, will resolve it. Strictly speaking we are and have continued to remain in the EU for a full 3 years since the vote and barring a clear Liberal Democrat victory in December’s General Election this is more than likely heading towards a 4th year of remaining post 2016 referendum.
Professor Anand Menon recently commented at one of the Battle of Ideas (BoI) 2019 Brexit debates that the problem with Brexit was twofold: “(1)the idea of Brexit – what it meant and how to implement it and (2) there is a dislike of the Establishment and how they’ve gone about trying to block it happening and it’s been impossible to reconcile the two.”
Actually we have many establishment figures on both sides of the argument. For once there is not a united establishment. We’re in a unique place in history where one can be a conservative Brexiteer and be perceived as a revolutionary seeking to overturn the established norm. We’re living in a time when people such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the House of Commons and Nigel Farage, The Brexit Party Chairman are pro Brexit. Normally such establishment figures would be pro-Europe – pro-remain. Big, corporate businesses are generally in favour of the settled status quo they are accustomed to.
If you accept that the referendum question asked was too simplistic and lacking in the detail people needed and if you take into account how difficult it is proving to leave (bear in mind none of the other 27 EU nations are looking to leave. In fact 7 European nations have applied to join and their applications are in various stages of progress that have so far been going on from between 3-10+ years to date per nation) then maybe the question ought to have been one of ‘How could the UK and other nations reform the EU?’ Former Prime Minister David Cameron tried hard to do so and as they didn’t budge on their position Cameron felt he had to call the referendum he threatened to call if they didn’t reform. Calling the EU’s bluff hasn’t as yet worked out so well as we’ve not left and the EU hasn’t changed a bit! In fact the now former European President Jean-Claude Juncker recently joked that he left the EU before Britain did, on 30th November 2019, after 5 years as President.
The current election battle was initially thought likely to be primarily a Brexit battle and ought to have been Conservative v Liberal Democrats, but the media and to be fair, the opinion polls as well, have created the sense that it’s the traditional Conservative v Labour contest for the keys to Downing Street. This means in reality it’s a decision for the electorate between Brexit with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s deal or no Brexit (Conservatives) or Labour’s position of a referendum and Brexit or Remain depending on the decision of the 2020 referendum Labour would call if they win.
The clarity of the Liberal Democrat message will appeal to many I’m sure as it couldn’t be clearer. If they win, they’ll revoke Article 50. Naturally that will be appealing to Remainers, but I would imagine it could also be appealing to un-decided’s (are there any?)* and those who just want this over and done with (including Brexiteer’s who don’t want Boris’s deal and realise there is no better Brexit deal likely to be had by re-commencing negotiations with the EU.
I value democracy but sometimes one could argue that the great British public get it wrong. If you look at the naming of the RRS Sir David Attenborough ship. It was put out to the public to vote for via the internet by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). The public voted for Boaty Mcboatface. That was understandably deemed too silly a name for a prestigious £150 million polar research ship and so the NERC decided against that and named it, far more sensibly in my view, after Sir David Attenborough instead. Whilst that was a relatively minor matter, does not the same principle apply to EU membership? I cannot name one single economist or historian in favour of Brexit. I’ve yet to hear of real, tangible, undisputed benefits to be had from leaving the EU. On that basis the Liberal Democrats position is principled and democratic as they are standing on a crystal clear, revoke Article 50 ticket.
*’ – Lisa McKenzie, Assistant Professor in Sociology/Researcher, Durham University said, rather amusingly at the BoI debate, “I’m not a Brexiteer or Remainer. I hate all of them! I’m an anarchist.” Lisa Wrote an essay entitled ‘The Class Politics of prejudice: Brexit and the land of no‐hope and glory’, which, in part, highlighted that all roads lead to the M1.
These were EU funded roads in the North of England, which had no pavements or bus stops so to Lisa’s mind they were not really built for the people. Lots of EU blue plaques were put up along the road. So who was the road for if not the people? Well soon enough one of Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct stores popped up. Her answer is that the road was a connective road for commercial purposes, for big businesses’ benefit. This, for her and many others, symbolises the problem with the EU. It’s perceived as for big business, not for the benefit of regular citizens.
The Reaction to Brexit is the problem
It is said that it’s not Brexit in itself which has been the problem, but the reaction to it causing all the furore.
This was started and highlighted by the killing of a Polish man Arkadiusz Jóźwik on 27th August 2016 which was widely reported as being Brexit-xenophobia related. To have exposed the so-called reality of English racism. Doubts have been expressed over that interpretation as he was reported to have hurled racist insults resulting in the attack on him, but nonetheless there was a well reported spike in Brexit related racism in the wake of the referendum vote and it’s often been said that whilst not every Brexit voter is racist, most racists voted Brexit.
The Establishment’s fear was and is that the vote was a threat to their status quo. The reaction to it has been one of profound hostility which created the current situation. Those favouring leaving were viewed as morally less superior. Perhaps that tells us more about the character and mindset of the Establishment than anything else.
The left behind
Professor Anand said one of the problems for former Prime Minister Theresa May was that she made a great speech outside 10 Downing Street on the day she became Prime Minister, 13th July 2016, but then never did any of the things she said she would.
Professor Anand doesn’t see the General Election as the key to resolving Brexit. “Whoever gets in after election, won’t resolve Brexit. I don’t see this as a moment of change. I see a quick return to status quo as the leaders will do exactly what they wish to do. Taking back control would surely be about giving more power to local government. That would make a difference.”
I agree with this and said as much in my blog last month calling for a referendum with the general election. Anand raised an interesting point regarding why so many EU leaders prefer to remain in the EU as that gives the impression they are ceding their power to Europe. “Why do Prime Ministers give away power to the EU? That’s because it’s a lot easier to get laws through the EU than their own parliament!”
I started out by asking is Brexit a Revolution By or Against the Establishment? I think the answer is that the Brexit vote was a vote against the EU establishment, by the ordinary working people and by a fair few traditional Establishment figures, whereas most of parliament is pro-Europe, pro-remain. That’s created a big tension and thus far a hugely unresolved problem.
Arguably this positions the Conservative Party, the party representing the traditional establishment as the revolutionaries against the establishment they represent!
I think it’s uncovered something seismic that is about much more than ordinary politics as we are accustomed to. As Captain Kirk might have said, “It’s politics but not as we know it.”
I can think of no other issue in my lifetime that has so stumped parliament and the country. We’ve voted on massive, hugely divisive issues before such as going into war (Iraq, 2003), not going into war (Syria, 2013), whether or not to renew our nuclear weapons (2016), the poll tax/revoke of poll tax (1991) … and parliament and the nation have made decisive decisions and moved on. At times public outcries have been acted upon e.g. revoking the hugely un-popular poll tax. Why is this different? This leads me to conclude that perhaps there is a spiritual element to this as the usual logic is just not applying.
If you look at the EU building. It was deliberately designed to mirror the Tower of Babel. Babel means confusion and thus the tower represented a tower of confusion, of a people thinking they could do without God. God was not happy with that and so the world went from a place with one, common language to one with many languages which was obviously confusing for people who didn’t speak the many other languages created. This is explained in far more detail in ‘The Rape of Europe‘ DVD, 2004) but could be seen as symbolic of the current period of confusion. Wherever you stand spiritually we are and have been living through highly confusing times since the 2016 referendum, of that I think we can all agree. How it will all end is anybod’s guess and I’m not convinced that this Thursday’s general election will bring forth the clarity to Get Brexit Done as some would want us to believe.
© Tiemo Talk of the Town
- Any General Election Must Now Include a Referendum– Tiemo – 29.10.19
- Brexit: A Solution to Break the Deadlock – Tiemo – 11.03.19
- The class politics of prejudice: Brexit and the land of no‐hope and glory – The British Journal of Sociology – 08.11.17
- Brexit: A Revolution by or against the establishment? – Battle of Ideas debate and video – 03.11.19
- The Rape of Europe – Eurovision Mission to Europe by David Hathaway (2004)