28 June 2016

Four Points on the Brexit Compass

I found I had to write a very different post to the one I expected to write. While I dashed off a few paragraphs almost straightaway, I have also had to revise this post on an almost daily basis. 28 June was the first time in five mornings that there was not some kind of new fact to take into account when I looked at some of the British news web-sites. As the day wore on, however, some of what I had intended to say was overtaken by events, and I have tried to write around this still developing historic happening. I offer five points to help interpret, in an historical context, what is going on in the United Kingdom.

The first point is that the political map of England has ventured on new historical territory. Traditionally, London and the Southeast offer a solid bedrock of support for a ‘Court’ party, rooted in Westminster, to which supporters in other parts of England then attach themselves. By contrast, look for a map of the votes from 23 June, and you will see that London and its educational and ideological colonies in Oxford and Cambridge -- the ‘Court’ party -- stand out quite dramatically from the rest of England. The ‘Country’ party -- in the past the King’s party in the Civil War, the Tories in the Glorious Revolution and its aftermath, the Labour party from 1918 -- has won what is possibly its first lasting victory in English history.

The second, and crucial, point is that the United Kingdom's political class has blundered on a massive scale, calling into question the legitimacy of their right to rule. The whole process was structured in such a way as to make the transition to the consequences of a Leave victory as awkward as possible. This was not a general election, in which an alternative government stands ready. Thus, complaints by people that ‘there is no plan’ are somewhat unwarranted. Blame the people responsible for the way the referendum was posed, not the winners. One could single out David Cameron, but that would be unfair. The referendum was held under a parliamentary act that MPs debated and could have amended. As a consequence of that it is going to take several years for the new dispensation to emerge from the grind of daily politics, foreign and domestic. Leave’s victory constitutes a revolutionary moment. Both the French and Russian revolutions demonstrate that this opens up several possibly pathways for the UK state, and no-one knows with any certainty where they will lead. What is being fought over now is control of the opening gambit in this process. There is no guarantee that by the time the process ends, the same people will be in charge.

The third point is that Europe is a fault-line that has run through both Britain’s major parties since the 1960s. Labour suffered the most from it at first, leading to the split that created the Social Democratic Party. The Conservative split may have cost them a majority in February 1974, but they closed ranks and it was not until the Maastricht treaty in 1992 that they split again. Meanwhile, Labour retreated from its anti-EU position very rapidly, and gradually the anti-EU wing was reduced to a tiny group in the parliamentary party, assisted by a somewhat larger one outside. But now the original split is appearing again. The problem for the UK is that the organisational structures underpinning its political system largely try very hard to avoid accommodating this divide. This is the fundamental cause of the current instability in both political parties, and result in the abdication of the political elite from government.

The fourth point is that what we see on display in the result of the referendum is the fundamental trend governing world politics today -- the emergence of the city-state network. Certain cities have reached a stage where they can transcend national borders and exist as part of a network of communities that is almost, but not quite, self-sufficient. Imagine a global polity that consisted of London, New York, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Hong Kong and other places. Might these cities have more in common with each other in the pursuit of economic and social policies than with their hinterland? I suspect so. That leaves Boston in Lincolnshire, Sunderland and other similar places in the awkward position of being ruled by this polity but having no effective political representation within it.

The life of the late Jo Cox is itself worth of a Greek tragedy on the theme of what is happening. She grew up in a community that has converted its old textile mills into shopping complexes. She educated herself, being the first in her family to go to university, and left to find more opportunities in London. There she did good work on behalf of an international charity. There, her connections to the Westminster ‘bubble’ enabled her to return home and win selection as a Labour candidate and, in due course, election as a member of parliament. Her assassination by a neo-Nazi who was left behind by the Global Polity illustrated how their share community experience a very real problem. The Global Polity draws away many of the best and brightest from places that desperately need leadership and investment to find some sort of peaceful accommodation with the future. If this is not done, the United Kingdom -- and the world -- may get a lot messier than they are today.

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