Brexit brings about a very British civil war
People are now defining themselves by the call they made on Brexit, and the coarsening of attitudes signals lasting conflict across England
An anti-Brexit protest outside parliament in London. The “Dunkirk spirit” of being beaten but not broken has if anything shifted to the Remain side. Photograph: Reuters/Peter Nicholls
The landscape of England, a society recently famous for its skilful, if ruthless, organisation of consent, is now filled with traitors. As an old order breaks down, every single outcome of Brexit is denounced by opponents as “betrayal”. And not just by keyboard hooligans on social media. Distinguished practitioners of parliamentary politics are assaulting each other in terms that arouse the spirits of civil war, while once-civilised commentators tweet lists of enemies who will never be forgiven.
No institution goes unscathed. MPs and peers accuse civil servants of partisanship when their integrity was once regarded as sacrosanct. The House of Commons is savaged for mendacity and uselessness, and the BBC assailed for spinelessness. Judges are traitors, political parties scorned and the “elite” is pilloried.
The foreign secretary of a Conservative administration, asked about the concerns of the country’s manufacturers, replied “f*ck business”. He was quoted in the full Anglo-Saxon without asterisks by both the Financial Times and the BBC, and there was no denial. A permission for the violent dismissal of one’s opponents is signalled by such behaviour – and even more so by it being accepted with a shrug.
Even the glittering pinnacle itself, supposedly above politics, has joined the punch-up as the crown has been chucked into the fray, compromising the regime’s ultimate safety catch.
Queen Elizabeth told the Women’s Institute of her preference for “coming together to seek out the common ground”. The palace signalled this was a call to support the prime minister’s deal.
The response was a characteristically vicious back-handed “welcome” from hard Brexit-supporting Jacob Rees Mogg MP, who added that it was “inconceivable” she had not been told what to say by the government. He thus simultaneously undermined the monarch while accusing Downing Street of politicising her.
The Times demanded she stopped making “uncharacteristic” remarks and return to the “silence” on which the “success” of her reign rests.
And that’s life at the so-called top. The Daily Mail reports that over 1.6 million relationships have ended, and a million people have “cut off a relative” because of differences over Brexit.
Reports show that self-identification with either Leave or Remain is now much higher than the traditional identification with political parties. Only 9 per cent report “very strong” party identification, 44 per cent identify strongly with Remain or Leave; 36 per cent say they have no party affiliation, only 11 per cent say they have no view on EU membership.
Voters are defining themselves into opposing sides over Brexit.
There have been some shifts. Best for Britain (a pro-Remain campaign) found that 2½ million mainly Labour supporters who voted Leave have changed their minds, and about a million mainly Tory supporters who backed Remain have changed theirs. The net shift of around 1.5 million would just tip a rerun of the referendum the other way.
But the slightness of the swing just goes to show the deepening intransigence. People were asked to make a judgment. They are now defining themselves by the call they made, and the coarsening of attitudes signals lasting conflict across England.
What is motivating the two sides emotionally?
The Brexiteers want “a sovereign country” that is “in control”, not “ruled by Brussels”. But their desires are woven through with nostalgia, rooted, as Fintan O’Toole has analysed, in an unresolved harking for the second World War. The success and impact of his glorious arguments have enraged those who adore the Westminster system. Especially, it seems, Anglo-Scots like Iain Martin and John Lloyd, who feel Britain shaking under them.
The latter, for example, attempted to dismiss O’Toole in this paper. But he missed the point about the second World War, and instead assured us that Brexit voters do not want to recreate the empire. Their motive, Lloyd claims, is a straightforward modern wish “to be governed by a parliament and an administration that they understand, and on which they have a direct influence through their vote”. If only. Lloyd projects his own desire for reality.
But what motivates the supporters of Remain?
This question has received much less attention yet is surely just as important. It certainly does not stem from love of Brussels. At best, 15 per cent of UK voters were strongly pro-European before the referendum. Yet a stubborn refusal to exit willingly from the EU grips half the population that is just as English as the demand for “out means out”.
I am acutely aware that as yet no appealing counter-narrative has emerged to make a positive case for England’s participation in the EU
This is surprising. For Brexit was certainly a bold act of defiance, and if it is also a call for real democracy, as Lloyd asserts, then millions should have rallied to it when the flag was raised on “independence day”. None came.
Even the famous British tradition of losers’ consent hardly kicked in. Instead half the country folded its arms and said “no thank you”. Indeed, the “Dunkirk spirit” of being beaten but not broken has if anything shifted to the Remain side!
I share the intransigence. Especially that of younger, urban cosmopolitans who are far from being “citizens of nowhere”.
They have worked hard to create a more open, networked way of life. Despite all its insecurities and precarity they are not going to surrender it to wall-building, a mentality of exclusion and an incomprehensibly archaic and unfair Westminster parliament.
Yet I am also acutely aware that as yet no appealing counter-narrative has emerged to make a positive case for England’s participation in the EU.
Until this happens, division will rule.
Anthony Barnett is co-founder of Open Democracy and author of The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump