What does it mean when Nigel Farage declares that Britain’s exit from the EU is: “a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people”. Taken literally, this would seem to imply that those of us who wanted to remain in EU – 48% of all those who voted – are somehow not ‘real’, ‘ordinary’, or ‘decent’. Is this just the same kind of divisive rhetoric used by Michael Gove when he said the British public had had enough of experts getting it wrong or claiming that economists warning against leaving the EU were comparable to scientific experts in the pay of the Nazis Party? (Gove later apologized, although Boris Johnson claimed his remarks were justified). Or do all these statements point up something we need to attend to?
Natalie Bennett, who leads the Green Party in England and Wales, has sent a personal email to all party members that locates our departure as an event prompted by the fact that: “People in Britain are angry with the status quo” and asks that, despite the disappointment of those who, like the Greens, wanted to remain, we now “turn our attention … to unifying our divided communities after an extraordinary bitter period in British politics”. She goes on to write:
“This referendum campaign was carried out in a manner which does a disservice to the people of Britain. It was a Tory leadership campaign fought out over an issue of huge importance to this country and to Europe. People will have been turned off politics to an even greater degree than before. To help fix this democratic deficit we need electoral reform for the House of Commons to help build a more representative, inclusive democracy”.
While I think there is a lot of truth in this, I don’t think it’s anything like the whole story. There is a real danger that we will risk trivialising what has just happened if we reduce it to the consequences of “a Tory leadership campaign” played out via an anti-European agenda. I think Natalie Bennett is absolutely right that we face a massive democratic deficit, and that electoral reform is vital to building “a more representative, inclusive democracy”. But I think we also need to understand what social forces this political campaign has unleashed and so focusing on unifying divided communities is not enough. We also need to understand why the divisions have become so deep and so bitter.
It’s clear that the ‘exit’ vote is, in one sense, just another example – albeit a disastrous one – of a long tradition of British protest voting. A Government that imposed ‘austerity measures’ as a means to effectively wage economic warfare on the very sick and the very poor, is run by people too certain of their own entitlements to listen to the less well-off and less educated, has understandably prompted a massive negative reaction to itself and its natural suporters. (Albeit a reaction apparently blind to the fact that there is nothing substantial, ideologically speaking, to choose between the politicians leading each camp). Thanks to the cynical politicking of individuals like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Michael Farage, aided and abetted by an increasingly toxic approach to politics in the media, this sense of protest has been channeled into various easy forms of xenophobia, with the EU providing the ideal scapegoat for all that’s wrong in our society.
But the real causes of our current divisions do not lie simply with the Tory Party. They are also the result of the fact that “we” – whether that’s the Greens or the Labour Party – have as yet failed to create a credible alternative to the dominant ideology of possessive individualism – an ideology maintained globally by vast levels of expenditure through the media, advertising, etc. The only alternative on offer for those who can’t compete on that ideology’s terms is, as it now turns out, the myth of Britain’s “national greatness” (as celebrated by events like the Olympic games and in the type of history book Michael Gove was so keen to impose on schoolchildren when Minister for Education). So while the ‘Remain’ camp’s arguments appeared in the media to hinge almost exclusively on maintaining economic prosperity – something the Government has already brutally denied to a substantial element of the electorate – their opponents were able to exploit the powerful emotions underlying the call to restore “national sovereignty”. As a consequence, the majority of the British electorate has been induced to throw away it’s chance to help reform the EU and to build on the social and environmental rights and opportunities it has given us. All so that it can bask – very momentarily indeed I suspect – in the warm glow of the myth of ‘plucky little Britain’ (or more accurately England and Wales) “going it alone” like we did under Boris Johnson’s hero Winston Churchill. A myth that carries with it in the minds of some, given what has been said during vox pop interviews, an embittered nostalgia for a lost empire mixed with outrage that “we should be told what to do by Germans”.
I have every sympathy with those in the UK who have reacted in this way to being disenfranchised by global capitalism as aided and abetted by a Tory Party inseparable from the social and economic elites who have most to gain from that system and from the possessive individualism on which it depends. But “we” cannot pretend that it is just the Tory Party that has failed to listen to these people or to offer them a credible alternative value system. As Gove’s comments about experts suggest, one major cause animating the ‘leave’ protest was fear and incomprehension about the way the world is changing. (It’s highly significant that many who voted ‘out’ regard Feminism and Environmentalism as negative forces in society). Gove’s comments about ‘experts’ have a basis of sorts, in so far as they reflect popular awareness of the failure of those with the intellectual capital to influence State education to provide our children and young people with a comprehensible account of how the world works and how they can engage with it as active citizens. (Let alone with the skills and opportunities that will enable them to earn a reasonable living). And ‘experts’ do indeed regularly make this situation worse when they claim authority that exceeds the remit laid down by proper professional objectivity, sell themselves to support Government ideology in return for knighthoods or professorships, or use scientistic jargon to enhance their personal power at the expense of the public whose best interests they should serve.
There is another reason why we should not focus too much on the Tory Party and its power struggles – namely Nigel Farage.
Farage is not just a former member of the Conservative party who once voted Green, he is also a former commodity broker with substantial funds invested outside UK jurisdiction. The leader of the UK Independence Party has, since 1999, earned a very comfortable living as an MEP for South East England. (In May 2009, Farage said that over his period as a Member of the European Parliament until that point he had received a total of £2 million of taxpayers’ money in staff, travel, and other expenses). He is also a man who regards legal tax avoidance as “okay”, perhaps as a result of being asked on one occasion why £45,000 of his income was paid into his private company rather than a personal bank account. (He has resolutely refused to publish information on his own financial affairs and attached david cameron for doing so). He is a climate change sceptic and in favour of licenced hand gun ownership. In short, he epitomises the values and attitudes of the dominant culture of possessive individualism in its USA Republican form, an ideology that is as much social and cultural as it is political in the narrow Party sense.
With all due respect to Natalie Bennett, it’s our ongoing complicity in maintaining that ideology, and not just the Tory Party, that has brought Britain into the present divisive situation in which we find ourselves. If we value the best that the EU once offered us – the possibility of building a more humanitarian and empathetic politics for example – we had better provide a new and persuasive narrative able to fill the gap that will be left when economic realities demonstrate just how hollow claims of national sovereignty are in an age of global capitalism.