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‘Britishness is now Brexitness,’ argues Anthony Barnett is his new book The Lure of Greatness. Photographer: Luke MacGregor/ Bloomberg

The Lure of Greatness: the best book about Brexit so far

Fintan O'Toole on how the failure of Britain was deflected on to the EU

The Brexit referendum vote last year was one of those events that is utterly shocking but not really surprising. There was a deep malaise in British politics, indeed in the whole idea of Britain itself. It was not articulated fully by any political party, but it was lurking there, waiting for its moment, a moment that David Cameron, in all his smugness and cynicism, duly provided. It is apt, therefore, that the best book about Brexit so far comes from one of the few political thinkers who has been writing and talking about that malaise for decades and who long feared that, if this “long drawn-out constitutional and political impasse” was not resolved in a progressive way, it would find a reactionary expression.

Anthony Barnett is a veteran campaigner for democratic reform in Britain. He was director of Charter 88, which proposed radical changes in the system of government to sweep away the powerful remnants of unaccountable privilege. He organised the Convention on Modern Liberty in 2009 with Henry Porter. He co-founded and edited the excellent openDemocracy website which flies the flag for transparency, reform and genuine popular power. If there are occasional tinges of “I told you so” in The Lure of Greatness, they are entirely justified. He did tell them so.

What he was telling them – which is to say the establishment he labels “the political and media caste” to emphasise the fluid movements of its members between journalism and PR and Westminster – were, in part, things that any sane observer could have said in any western democracy: that the disruptions of neoliberal globalisation and its rising inequalities would have profound political consequences. But he was also telling them something very specific to Britain: that English nationalism was on the rise and that it had to be given a political form in keeping with its best democratic and egalitarian traditions. Otherwise, it would become an enormously disruptive force.

Breaches of trust

This history gives Barnett a unique perspective now. He is (to adapt with all due irony the kind of Blairite language he despises) tough on Brexit but also tough on the causes of Brexit. He takes those who voted to leave the EU very seriously and treats their anger and frustration with genuine sympathy. He traces that anger back to the great breach of trust that was involved in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Interestingly, he points out that this breach of trust affected conservatives who supported the war as much as it did left-wing peaceniks: “many who came from the working classes that provide the bulk of the armed forces were less troubled by the illegality, provided the strategy worked.” But of course it didn’t work: British forces were defeated in Basra and also in Helmand in Afghanistan. The most potent symbol of Britishness – the ability to project military might around the world – was shown to be illusory.

His most original argument is that Brexit is primarily a response to England’s loss of faith in the once-glorious British project

More obviously, Barnett traces the other breaches of trust that created the disillusion with the existing political order: the blithe indifference to the victims of neoliberal globalisation, the replacement of public values with the fetishizing of market forces, the bailing out of a reckless and amoral financial industry. His critique encompasses the entire era of what he calls the CBCs – the Clintons, the Bushes, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. But his most original argument is that Brexit is primarily a response to England’s loss of faith in the once-glorious British project.

The drift away from Britishness is generally associated with the rise of nationalism in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales. But Barnett points out that census figures have shown a large majority of people in England choosing “English” as their sole national identity (38 million people did so in the 2011 census, 70 per cent of the English population). His argument is that, deprived of a national democracy, the English took out their anger on the EU, an institution relentlessly vilified by Rupert Murdoch’s empire and the rest of the Tory press. (He quotes the Evening Standard journalist Anthony Hilton: “I once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union. ‘That’s easy’, he replied. ‘When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.’”)

Failure of Britain

The core of Barnett’s thesis is that the Brexit vote was a form of displacement, rage at the failure of Britain being deflected on to the EU: “English hostility to the European Union is based on a delusion of its influence, linked to a nihilistic sense of the futility of Westminster… being deprived of a credible, representative power that clearly belongs to you leads to anger with the most remote authority of all, which is blamed as the source of your powerlessness… Unable to exit Britain, the English did the next best thing and told the EU to ‘fuck off’…”

And it was the English, or rather the non-metropolitan English wot won it – Barnett points out that while Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voted remain and Wales narrowly supported leave, what he calls England-without-London voted leave by a whopping 11 per cent. Even more importantly, support for Brexit in this non-metropolitan England, contrary to so much glib analysis, was not confined to the “left behind”. It stretched from the comfortable Home Counties to the hard scrabble former mining valleys, encompassing both rich and poor. It was a genuine nationalist revolt. And, he argues, it has doomed the old tolerant and humane Britishness: “Britishness is now Brexitness.”

Barnett is scathing about Brexit itself and predicts that when the break-up of Britain has eventually played itself out in “the end of the empire state” and England has emerged as a reimagined democracy, it will rejoin the EU: “Eventually Brexit will collapse… Then Britain’s separate nations, England especially, can recover as themselves, to put their admirable qualities and pugnaciousness to good use in collaboration with their neighbours – for the road back to our European identity lies through England gaining its independence and therefore the confidence to share power without feeling shame.” If this seems an overly optimistic conclusion to a brilliantly caustic book, there is some comfort in the fact that Barnett has been right about so much before.

Fintan O’Toole’s Judging Shaw is published by the Royal Irish Academy this month