Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Brexit and National Humiliation

Brexit's not going well, is it? The right wing press give voice to the tortures of the Tory backbenches. Imagine their pain, feel their agony. They achieved their heart's desire, a vote affirming their dream of leaving the European Union. And for the best part of two years, their Prime Minister has strung them along. At the height of her powers in 2016 she declared for a hard Brexit, and the Brexit hardcore squealed with glee. And immediately after the election, Theresa May gave her parliamentary party all the assurances that nothing had changed. Brexit was about "controlling our borders", kicking the European Court of Justice out of UK law, dark blue passports, back off Brussels, and signing new trade deals. These fantasies all appeared within reach and, well, May kiboshed them. Not only does her deal cede a great deal of leverage to the European Union should the UK fall into the backstop arrangements, parliament has repeatedly reminded the ERG that their favoured scenario isn't going to happen. Unless we tip out of the EU this Friday without a deal. After all, accidents do happen.

In short, this process May has been repeatedly humiliated by her party, their media, by parliament, and by the EU itself. Yet for all the blows she's taken, she was able to dole out a few jabs of shame in the ERG's direction. They've been made to look like mugs, and they know it. Some have felt chastened and come back to "mummy" - like Shrewsbury's Daniel Kawczynski, and others hold their no deal fetish in a death grip and refusing to deal with realities. Good. May the next Tory leader come from this unrepresentative rump of hard right chumpery.

Unrepresentative, yes, but not without a following. There are still a few hundred thousand people who read the Express, the press home of no deal since The Mail went woke. This disgusting rag has tried to keep the pecker of its falling circulation up with the viagra of more racism, more hysteria. If this was aimed at young men Prevent would be all over it like a rash. What it is doing is stirring up not just hate, but betrayal myths, stoking the utterly stupid and reckless notion that everyone apart from Mogg and his mates, UKIP, Farage, and Tommeh are stabbing the nation in the back. Where have we heard that before?

Assuming the EU grants the UK an extension which, at the time of writing, looks like it will be up to a year, the process is primed with opportunities to peddle a humiliation narrative. If we're looking at March 2020, the UK is set to be "supervised" at three monthly intervals to check how the process of coming up with a deal acceptable to Westminster. For the likes of the Express, this is fine for basket cases like Greece but definitely not us because, well, Britain. Under May's deal, assuming the impossible for a moment and that it comes back, we have no say over the custom's relationship in the backstop, and so another occasion for humiliation. Because the UK, in the backstop (or for that matter, no deal) would have to negotiate a trade deal from a position of weakness, more humiliation. And if we do arrive at a deal but we overrun the transition period because we can't arrive at a trade deal with the EU, the UK has to pay the EU £1bn/month to stay in that relationship until a new arrangement is arrived at. Even more humiliation.

I imagine the concept of national humiliation doesn't mean much for most readers. Except perhaps when your chosen home nation fails badly at the footy, or the UK does miserably at Eurovision. But for others it does, particularly those the Express has had a hand in cultivating and radicalising over the years. Brexit, shorn of its mystical trappings, is the withdrawal of the UK state from a common, cross-national system of regulations and legal obligations. Fed by false and distorted stories by the press, they fall on fertile ground because their experience of life chimes with a fantasy narrative of a world going to hell in a handcart. As Wolfgang Streeck observes, as capitalism seizes up and the world appears more uncertain, more frightening the more some people will reach for trusted anchors that short cut the complexity of the social. this is ideology as a crutch, a coping mechanism. In some countries that is religion, and in others it is nationalism. In the UK, it is Englishness specifically that is the anchor point of hard right Brexit nationalism. To be English is almost like being an ethnicity - it's possible to be Black British or Asian British and even be for Brexit, like a number of sitting Tory MPs, but they can never be English because English is exclusionary. It's something belonging to white people and white people alone.

And what does Englishness mean? Reformulated as an identity, it's much easier to grasp than multi-culty Britishness. It's masculine and loud, proud and brash, imperial and royalist, meat eating and beer swilling, an England that isn't all those foreign influences. An essential spark of national continuity running like a white and read cross stitch from the pure bred English past to a land under siege today gives us our line of purest descent. It wasn't for nothing that the EDL was both English and articulated itself as a defence. England and Englishness then is a foundation, a principle of coding the world in the whitest and blackest of terms.

As we saw while analysing Trump's support that, contrary to popular belief, were disproportionately well-off and economically secure. The assumption politicians, journos and not a few political and social scientists of equating being poor with economic insecurity and therefore open to far right populist nonsense forgets that those who have property and/or a fixed income, like pensioners, are going to be fearful of losing it. Hence why privileged and propertied layers in any population are more likely to support the party protecting those interests than those who don't. ABC politics. Leave very cannily spoke to these layers, the bedrock of Brexit, by talking up all the markers of insecurity and threat - waves of refugees, migrant workers signing on, money that would be better spent on the NHS, and did so by working a not insignificant proportion of them up into a fever pitch. In so doing, the dire warnings made by remain were masochistically incorporated and transformed into a virtue for leaving. In a world gone soft, the damage of Brexit, especially a no deal Brexit, is something to be embraced to shake things up and give the rising generation a taste of the school of hard knocks. Such adversity would then bring out the best of British (English) by allowing our national character's essential qualities come to the fore and refound a new identity on hard work and sacrifice.

These conceits held be people who won't have to do any of the sacrificing or hard work, help explain the near fanaticism and the potency of the potential for national humiliation. Seeing England weakened and begging from scraps from the EU angers on two counts - the shabby treatment of us by the EU (again, long stoked by the right wing press), and the supine and traitorous character of our MPs. Foreigners are going to foreign, but capitulation to this state of affairs is too much. They are colluding in national humiliation, making us a global laughing stock (what happened to Britons never will be slaves?) and frustrating the path to national salvation.

If this were just a bunch of harmless idiots, it could be dismissed. Unfortunately, there are links between betrayal mythologies and murder. We saw it with Jo Cox's murder, and we've found these arguments and tropes - including quotes from British columnists and British papers - in the miserable manifestos of spree killers. The danger the far right poses in the UK is not a mass movement of extra parliamentary thuggishness and street fighting, but of the radicalised-but-atomised carrying out acts of individual terror.

As the Tory party falters in the polls, it is virtually guaranteed to make a sharp turn to the right after May. Such a move would surely seal their electoral doom but the temptation will be to embrace the discourses of humiliation and betrayal. The consequences of which would be an acceleration of the main-streaming of these beliefs, normalising and naturalising them, and increasing the chances of violent and terroristic consequences.


SimonB said...

When Mirror Group bought the Express there was some hope the editorial line would change. Disappointing that it hasn’t, it says everything about the values of the business.

Boffy said...

"Brexit's not going well, is it?"

No, which is why it is all the more baffling why Labour remains committed to such a doomed and reactionary project, why some on the Left continue to argue for it to be implemented, as part of a stupid narrative that the Brexit vote has to be "respected", and why Corbyn and the Labour leadership have decided to tie themselves even more closely to this unfolding catastrophe, by their Ramsay MacDonald like acts of class collaboration with May's collapsing government!

No doubt the Stalinist strategic geniuses that brought about the defeat of the German, Chinese and other revolutions, Third Period sectarianism led to the victory of Hitler (and their own subsequent alliance with him via the Hitler-Stalin Pact), and then their Popular Front tactics that led to the defeat in the Spanish Civil War, again with their collaboration with the fascists to eliminate their opponents to the left, have a cunning plan.

Trouble is the cunning plan is to again link up with the class enemy to push through a reactionary nationalist agenda over the heads, and against the interests of the working-class, and 90% of Labour Party members.

Boffy said...

"May the next Tory leader come from this unrepresentative rump of hard right chumpery."

This is the same mistake made in relation to Trump. There are 5 million small businesses in Britain. Together with their families, and retainers that is probably around 12 million voters. That is the reactionary class basis upon which the Tory party is based, and from which it derives its core vote. It is also the core vote for Leave. Surveys show that 80% of this vote support a No Deal Brexit.

Trump and brexit showed that such a core vote strategy can work, where your opponents are unclear, unmotivated, or divided. Labour's continued commitment to the reactionary Brexit policy means that the Tories will hoover up all of the Leave votes, if it adopts a harder Brexit stance. Either way, I doubt the collapsing UKIP, or the Farage pensioners will pose it as much of a challenge as the media are suggesting as they again look for ratings figures.

But, Labour's confused, unachievable narrative of Brexit that is barely distinguishable from May's Withdrawal Agreement, provides no basis for a clear alternative to the Tories, and Corbyn's class collaborationist venture with May, makes that confusion all the greater. As Newport West showed, Labour is likely to get a kicking from Remain supporters who are now in an increasing majority, and for whom Remain is more an identifier than party.

In Liberal and former Liberal seats, where they should have been buried, they will be likely to win back seats, th same for Greens. In Wales, Plaid will undoubtedly take seats from Labour, and in Scotland, as Leavers congregate around the Tories, and Remainers congregate around the SNP, Labour is likely to get annihilated.

Sam said...

This want for national renewal through struggle, the idea that England is a white country, that "PC culture" is bad, that the youth are degenerate, that the country (which has a special and powerful destiny) is being humiliated by foreign powers, combine with the whole scale mistrust and contempt for the political class and that recent poll showing that Britons think we need a strong leader who'll break the rules - sounds like we've got all the ingredients for a mainstream UK brand of fascism.

bbk said...

"Such adversity would then bring out the best of British (English) by allowing our national character's essential qualities come to the fore and refound a new identity on hard work and sacrifice."

I think this is a good insight that applies to a lot of different "flavours" of right wing nationalism/pseudo "populism".

Even though a lot of the proponents would be insulated from the adversity their preferred policies would create (at least they imagine they will be insulated), they think adversity is good for those who will experience the brunt of the impact and for the nation as a whole. Because the right wing all believe they have struggled through adversity of some kind and come out stronger the other side. So they think everyone should get a taste of the medicine which was so good for them. Because the proponents believe they have already had their fill of adversity they don't see any hypocrisy in calling for policies which they know will require sacrifice from other people.

It's this weird combination of resentment (I suffered so they should too) and care (I benefited from my imagined suffering so they should have an opportunity to benefit too). It's also why left wing policy ideas for reducing suffering can't gain political traction with those kinds of voters. Those types of voters don't want to see a reduction in "national suffering" because suffering is both beneficial to the sufferer and it's unfair for those voters to have suffered if other people won't have to suffer too.

Dipper said...

"If this were just a bunch of harmless idiots, it could be dismissed. Unfortunately, there are links between betrayal mythologies and murder."

Would you say the same of Muslims and Islam?

Shame to see you following this path.

Phil said...

When it comes to the radicalisation of Islamists in the West, yes. There are broad parallels of cognitive processes going on here.