Monday, 27 June 2016

The Brexit Tea Party

The Out vote in the EU referendum has been characterised by some as a protest against an out-of-touch Westminster consensus which has failed to represent the needs, interests and self-conception of ordinary British people. I think that we can go further than this - the Out vote is Britain's Boston Tea Party. But the protest is not directed at Europe - the target is Westminster.

The Political Economy Research Centre provides a good analysis of why some segments of society that voted for Brexit did so. The economic gradient along which people voted leave was marked out in the 70s with the de-industrialisation of the North-East of Britain and Wales, and entrenched in the 80s with the forcible smashing of the trade unions and the communities surrounding them. These are communities for whom the status quo was not working, and has not been made to work for some time. Economic regeneration and more importantly community regeneration have not rebuilt the social fabric of these areas. The paradoxical fact that communities most-dependent on European trade and subsidy were the most likely to reject the relationship is evidence that a subsidy-based, child-to-parent economic relationship is not a status quo that people wish to continue.

But the EU is not the principle agent that maintains this relationship; it is Westminster. And it maintains it with the rest of the country as well. When the British Empire retreated, retrenched and eventually crumbled, the administrative organs of government turned their force onto the British Isles - Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and the "regions." Britain is colonised* by Westminster - by the establishment and the political clique that benefits from it.

As described above some aspects of this colonisation are economic. The regions' self-determiniation is subordinated, not necessarily to the needs of Britain as a whole but certainly to the self-image of the political clique and civil-service. Regional development has been routinely neglected at the expense of London, and a tiny subset of the residents of London at that. The European Regional Development Agency aid that has assisted the North East, Cornwall, Wales and Midlands would not have been needed if there was a consistent vision of Britain that saw the entire Isles uplifted. There is no such vision. Westminster is the prize and the rest can hang.

There is also a cultural element to this colonisation. Many contemporary narratives of British identity and British success hinge on one being rich and living in London. The notion of British economic prosperity, for instance - certainly on paper Britain was until the referendum an economically powerful nation. But much of this was concentrated in the financial services sector, and the policy of successive governments from Thatcher's deregulation to Brown's bailouts has been to expand, elevate and prop up this economy. This does not translate into growth for the rest of the country, nor into improved living standards, nor into any tangible measure of success with which people can identify. The lives of people in poverty have not been well-represented in the media since the 80s (Caitlinn Moran's Raised by Wolves is a glorious exception.) These people are effaced from the national discourse.

Likewise, Cool Britannia and the metropolitan ideal of modern Britain is not lived experience for many people. For some it is also an imposed, colonising culture, in the sense that it is propagated by the colonising force at the expense of an existing culture. I do not mean that immigrants are a colonising force - I mean that Westminster imposes the narrative of metropolitan Britain as a tool of control. Immigrants have always been allowed into Britain to close the gaps in skilled labour left by our inadequate education system, and to provide unskilled labour in areas where Britons are unwilling to work. The multiculturalism of some parts of Britain is not an expression of their tolerance - it is the result of gradual acculturation in response to an economically motivated change. Metropolitan Britain is part truth, part vision, and part gloss designed to create a unifying narrative for this new Britain. For some people it rings hollow. The Changing Places report by Demos explores the white British ethnic response to immigration. It has many findings and I recommend reading it, but I want to pick out one here: at the same time that (some) white British communities have been experiencing the challenge of accepting a changing Britain, the narrative justifying that change comes from London, not from within the community. Simultaneously (some iterations of) the white English identity have been co-opted by fascists and conflated with the same by liberals, while being belittled in the popular media (the PERC article above points to Little Britain and the perjorative use of Chav as good examples.)

The Brexit vote had many motives - among them, a protest. It is the protest of people who are economically marginalised and culturally and politically belittled. The current turmoil embroiling both political parties has many causes, among them the collapse of their mandate to represent Britain as a whole. To restore legitimacy to the political process - and that legitimacy is needed if we are to see anything other than years and years of failed governments and an abyssmal resolution to the Brexit process - reform is needed, to the relationship between Britain and its government. In effect - Britain needs a new settlement with Westminster, a new constitutional framework - and home rule. An English assembly located in the Midlands would be a damn good start.

*To students and scholars of Imperial history and descendents of colonised nations, I apologise for using so gross a metaphor. I hope that these thoughts can justify it.

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