The real divisions in a society in crisis are often obscured by the form of the apparent political rift. When Polly Toynbee (Guardian 26/3/19) argues from opinion poll results that the divide between leavers and remainers is now more strongly felt than prior allegiance to political party she underlines a disjunct between a passing sense of identity and a longer term set of alliances based on material interests that are more fundamental.
These interests cross borders. A paradox of globalisation is that the ethno-nationalist reaction against it is being encouraged, assisted and funded by the policy of the Trump administration in the United States, and some of the right wing media outfits associated with him. Some US businesses are doing this directly – looking forward to serious pickings as big polities are broken up into weaker fragments. They are working on the EU. They would like to do it to China.
The most fundamental division in Britain is between those who have wealth and power and those who do not – however they voted in June 2016. It is in the interests of the former to coral as many of the latter as possible behind them and the most potent way to do so has always been “patriotism” – the assumption that being born in a place should put you at the front of the queue for whatever is going and – that your particular “identity” somehow makes you both better than other people and gives you a wider significance- as a compensation for your very real subordination and obscurity in everyday life. In countries that are no longer as powerful and influential as they were, this often becomes toxic.
A division within the wealthy – in which one faction breaks with the established way of doing things- leads to all sorts of weird developments in which all that is solid turns into air – old Etonians claim to be anti-elitist, a leadership contender for the Conservative Party says “Fuck business”, the Daily Express, Sun and Mail denounce the House of Lords and the judiciary; and hedge fund managers short sell UK stocks and bonds to cash in on the economic consequences of their “patriotic” campaign – in which the lower orders are urged to “believe in the country” – taking as their motto an inversion of JFK – “ask not what you can do for your country” – ask only what your country can do for you.” and go laughing all the way to the tax haven. Because the country is set up for their benefit and only functions in order to do so, they wrap themselves in the Union flag while deftly stashing their assets in Dublin or Belize or Singapore, and preparing to burn “traitors” on bonfires made of red tape, as a distraction from the grand opening of
- Free Trade Ports and Enterprise zones (in which they and their friends will be bribed and subsidised to invest, while paying no tax back)
- the take over of the Health Service by US insurance firms (and probably Virgin) -so check the wallet before the pulse
- and the spread of chlorinated fried chicken stands- finger lickin cheap and nasty.
disguising their venality in the name of “The People.”
So, who are “The People”?
When Michael Howard went on the radio on Sunday (24 March) to argue for the hardest available Brexit, he talked about honouring the wishes of the 17.4 million people who vote to leave in the referendum, without troubling himself to question whether his own preference was indeed what they were voting for. He had a point as far as it went. 17.4 million is a lot of people and their views have to be taken into account. But, beyond the 17.4 million, what about the rest of us?
In a country with over 66 million people, that’s just under 50 million who’s views – in Howard’s world – are simply to be excluded from having any say or influence in the future direction of the country.
One of his Conservative colleagues commented today that “the British people” had “voted overwhelmingly” to leave the EU. Thinking that a ratio of 52:48 of those voting is “overwhelming”is sufficiently odd to require some investigation as to who he thinks “the British people” are.
Of a population of 65.5 million in 2016:
17.4 million voted leave.
16 million voted remain.
13 million were under 18 and ineligible to vote.
3 million were EU citizens not entitled to vote despite working and contributing.
16 million didn’t vote at all.
As a graph, this looks like this.
For this Conservative MP, the bloc represented in dark blue is an “overwhelming majority.” For Michael Howard these are “the people”, or at least the people that count – in whose image the nation must be recast. This is also about the control of the 17.4 million. Their views were and are far more diverse than they have been presented, but for people like Howard they are a useful statistic forever frozen in 2016 – the time of The One True Vote.
This sets us up for continuing crisis and polarisation. A political project that seeks to slash and burn regulations and protections for workers rights and the environment, that favours the replacement of the civil service with ad hoc committees of businessmen, that is prepared to see social security, farming and manufacturing go to the wall by slashing tariffs, and the re-ignition of the Irish troubles over a reimposed border, cannot afford to have a consensual approach. The sheep must be separated from the goats and the goats must be slaughtered. The cultural revolution style shrillness of the headlines – CRUSH THE SABOTEURS – ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE – matches the disruptive scale of the project and also the impossibility of it being carried through without a breakdown in an agreed political framework in which differences can be resolved without violence. It is in this context that a reviving UKIP is seeking to build an effective street fighting movement led by Tommy Robinson, pulling firms of football hooligans into some very large and aggressive mobilisations which have attacked trade unionists and the police.
If Brexit is averted the crisis will continue because everything that then goes wrong will be attributed to “the great betrayal” – in the same way that Germany was only defeated in World War 1 because the army was “stabbed in the back.” Untrue myths are often the most potent – because they cannot be tested. The scale of this remains to be seen, but anyone who thinks that just remaining in the EU as it currently is will solve all our problems has not noticed the economic stagnation of the euro zone, the impasse of Macron, the backsliding of Germany on its climate change commitments and the continent wide spread of US backed ethno-nationalist currents likely to make the next European parliament the most right wing in its history.
If Brexit is not averted – especially if we get a hard version – the grim realities are likely to turbo charge a hunt for further “saboteurs” and “enemies if the people”.
Although the weariness at all this is often expressed in the infantile injunction to “just get on with it” – as if “it” was something that you could “just get on with” – most people want to be able to get on with their lives without massive upheaval and disruption. Remaining, or the softest possible Brexit, like Labour’s deal or Norway plus, offers the best chance of relative stability in which “The People” can realign around more fundamental questions.