Post-Brexit British Politics: Slow-Motion History & Utter Uncertainty
Maybe we’re screwed.
This last week of British politics has made the likes of House of Cards and Game of Thrones look tame in comparison to the damage, drama and dirge that the British political establishment now faces. Following the stunning Brexit result it seems as though the whole of the Commons is about to come crashing down. This whole piece may read as utter political nihilism and apathy but, given the hands we’ve been dealt, trying to make sense of the reckoning we have unleashed is at least a good first step.
The Joy of Exit-stacy
Everything seems so overwhelming to so many of us, all the while vast swathes of Brexiteers and the like are holding their hands over their ears. I don’t even want to write a ‘divisive’ us v. them piece, because dividing us up right now along these boundaries no longer works. The campaigns are over, and now Brexit has to bring about meaningful change. Maybe those victors, however, are just wallowing in joy as the white noise of political collapse drowns out the atmosphere. As an amateur historian I should probably cite some previous time that the world was this frightening-exciting. I should know examples or some kind or other context. Yet this non-linear politics to which we’ve know waded into is something starkly new. It may the greatest political crisis since the end of the Cold War. A whole political vacuum has cast itself over the continent in the wake of Brexit.
You can’t even adequately defend the idea that all ensuing events are simply short-term. The pound has fallen to 31-year lows, and continues to wobble despite today’s financial boost. Italy is on the cusp of a destructive banking crisis as Brexit uncertainty spreads to the Eurozone. The FTSE 250 experienced its worst drop ever. Britain’s credit rating has been dropped by S&P from AAA to AA (skipping AA+) and by Fitch too. Global markets, in total, have lost over $3trn in trading. These simply cannot be called short-term ‘bumps in the road’ as Michael Gove puts it.
I won’t claim to understand the economy and stand up on my Oxbridge degree and proclaim myself a czar of sound judgment, but these events are first effects of economic uncertainty under the cloud of Brexit. They are smoke signals of a probable recession. I’d bet my money on it if it wasn’t both so darkly ironic and also taking away valuable funds that I’d need to feed myself.
None of this reads as instant to me, but the damaging effects won’t be the pay packets of bankers being shaved a few pennies off. It’ll be the fact that upper middle-class couples can’t afford their weekly bottle of wine, and that the working poor can’t feed themselves. I’m terrified that another phase of scapegoating will engulf British politics, whether it be migrants or benefits scroungers. Just a small aside in that regard that total tax evasion, largely by corporations and businesses, sits at £34bn whereas benefit fraud is less than £1bn. And where exactly does the Murdoch media want you pointing the knives? And where are now? In an uncertain, slow-motion mess.
The fault of those arguing for us to stay in the European Union was to keep stressing these economic warnings and forecasts, taken by 52% of the voting public as bullsh — . We’ve seen a trend of a complete collapse in trust with the British establishment since the fall of Blair and Brown, and perhaps the referendum result was an expression of this utter discontent for the political class, no matter the consequences for everyday life. What should have been clearly expressed is the impact on jobs and welfare.
It won’t be immediate, and the scary fact is that we can’t actually be certain as to the exact impact. This is what I mean by slow-motion history. Only with hindsight can we link the events, judge the factors, and attempt to place ourselves in people’s shoes as to how events happened. But reading it now, within these times, I can only guess at the next chapter. The pieces are falling apart seemingly by the seconds, but the damage seems so much slower. Like when there’s a lag in an online match of Overwatch (a videogame where you shoot people in the face, like many videogames) between the time when you pull the trigger and the resulting idiot opposite actually falls over dead.
This week of British politics may be the greatest political drama of all time, I’m deadly serious, yet living within it is a time filled with fear for the future. It’s dread that only those who obsess over current affairs seem to ‘get’, for now, before the woes start spilling outward. I’m not even sure such an obsession is useful in the times to come.
People are going to lose their jobs. Families are going to be fractured. People will starve. Already with six years of austerity budgeting, the British economy is fragile and ripe for a crisis of extraordinary proportions. Brexit was a decision that was largely (but not entirely) a rejection of establishment elitism and austerity, and the irony of it all is that those who voted for it will suffer ever more. There’s been a skyrocket in the amount of children in poverty (now 200,000) not because of mass migration but by deliberate divisive ideological policies pursued by the Tory government. The dark dramatic irony of Cameron being defeated by his own hand is one that should elicit some glee, but the suffering simply can’t be ignored. The demands of the next few years are too high to warrant taking for granted even the smallest of moral victories.
Oh and Scotland is likely going independent, Gibraltar wants to re-arrange the table, the Northern Ireland peace process is suddenly on the ropes, and Wales wants to have a pop. As John Oliver said, in what I think is becoming a bit of a tiresome format, calling the United Kingdom by its name is starting to sound a bit more and more sarcastic as the hours clock by. This is besides the disgusting 57% rise in racist terrorists and legitimization of xenophobia. Likewise, calling all the Leavers racists is absurd and doesn’t answer the call that there’s a societal necessity to bridge the gaps. This is besides the fact that those who haven’t long to live in this world have consigned the younger generation (who voted overwhelmingly to remain) with this decision.
Yet, and yet, it has to be said that now much of our far-right now must feel emboldened by the fact that over 52% of the country agrees with them. Nigel Farage’s use of the words ‘without a single bullet being fired’ in his pre-emptive victory speech on the night of the referendum may just sum up the level of toxicity that has infected the politics of now. Oh and that a lot of the far-right have now taken Brexit as a means to arm their political arsenal in the wars to come.
Lies, Slander, and Non-Linear Politics
Boris Johnson’s ridiculous lies in the wake of all this, that everything is okay, is completely and totally false. Alongside the stupidity of claiming extra money for the NHS, and, most damning of all, and it will be interesting when Leave voters catch the whiff of this ‘betrayal’, the idea that Britain can abandon mass migration whilst remaining part of the common market.
Britain will likely (if it wants to actually, you know, survive) need to remain part of the common market, the European Economic Area, or face heavy tariffs. Part of the common market is having UK exports still subject to regulations and laws determined by the actual European Union. Another part is the freedom of movement, of the ability of mass labour to move easily. And we’re getting no special treatment in any regard to our arrangement in joining the common market, open borders will be part of the deal. As we’re no longer part of the European Union, we can’t change or lobby the regulations that impact our exports either.
Cameron’s deal with the European Union earlier this year, that would have gone into effect had we remained, actually entailed us remaining outside of the Schengen agreement and, wait for it, border controls! How hilarious is that?! No, seriously. Think about it. If you’re concerned about levels of immigration, and there are genuinely some communities which have a right to talk about this, the logical vote was for Remain. With this was the the actual ability to control immigration.
(As a small aside, I believe mass immigration has largely been good for this country, and the objective data proves this point true, but much can be done to make sure any local pressure is dealt with. Cameron’s scrapping in 2010 of the migrant impact fund could be one issue to actually talk about.)
By voting Leave instead, we have consigned ourselves to the common market and mass migration without controls anyway. In apparently ‘taking back control’ we’ve now removed ourselves not just of control over immigration but over our trade and political destiny across the continent. Again. A vote for Remain was a vote for immigration controls, if you wanted them. It’s darkly comic that for a campaign somewhat fought on the grounds of sovereignty, we’re about to lose a large chunk of it in return for um, something or other? Why did we hold this referendum thing in the first place?
All this doom and gloom, this societal, economic and political backtracking and collapse. All of it, just reads like a depressing omnishambles of politics. Those impoverished have chosen to make themselves more poor, and those who even experienced direct investment from Brussels voted to leave the union. This is a topsy-turvy political world bereft of political trust. As Clegg pointed out in the Commons yesterday, just 0.003% (150,000 members of the Tory party) of the British population will decide who the next Prime Minister is, as Cameron has fallen on his sword. I guess you could call that truly taking back control. Also the sun isn’t working and we’re due for another ice age. Because, obviously, things can’t get any worse.
But it can, because our political establishment is currently completely headless, torso-less and legless too. We’re lucky if by next Sunday we’ve still got some working limbs. Neither the Brexit camp nor Downing Street actually had a plan for what would actually practically happen in the event of Brexit. Cameron seems to be leaving literally everything to the next PM and shrugs at doing anything. The Tory party is undergoing a leadership war that involves authoritarian Theresa May, Jeremy ‘can’t even negotiate with a bunch of doctors’ Hunt, Boris ‘incompetent homophobe’ Johnson, and whomever else wants to allow themselves to be checkmated.
Also, because that isn’t enough, the Labour Party is undergoing open warfare including its membership, its Parliamentary Party, and the leadership. Over 20 shadow cabinet ministers have left the frontbenches. They cite Corbyn not engaging enough with Labour voters, despite Remain carrying 2/3rds of Labour (same amount as SNP voters), and despite so many critical MPs losing the Remain vote in their own constituencies. I’m not going to defend Corbyn in this as he did always read as putting on a half-hearted performance in the campaign. With a new general election likely imminent, the Corbyn coup reads like a desperate mesh of legitimate concerns over electability and a party-wide existential crisis. Literally as I’m writing this, the Labour leadership is facing down a vote of no-confidence in the PLP. Oh and he’s, quite literally now, lost it 172–40.
The King in the Corb, and the Wars to Come
To summarize so far: Britain currently has no government, no opposition, and no plan for what happens, as a wholesale political vacuum envelops Westminster. The exhausting scrolls of our 24hr news cycle now actually don’t have enough time to cover the vast political and economic turmoil that’s ongoing. The uncertainty of our times won’t lead to immediate suffering for working people, as this all feels all so slow-motion, but make no mistake, that is coming. And the great abyss that the United Kingdom is walking into may be floral and happy and finally wonderful, who bloody knows, but the warning signs already give off a wave of complete uncertainty and utter chaos to which the Left seems utterly unprepared.
Yesterday, Corbyn rebuffed his critics and vowed he’d face down a leadership challenge. Following a shambolic, hostile meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Corbyn ran off to greet a rally held in his name (of 10,000 people) less than 20 yards away from parliament. If you want to attempt to build a spectrum of support for Corbyn, those 20 yards, between his Momentum rally and the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting, are the metaphorical political lines we can draw. And I don’t know where I belong along that spectrum of support.
Corbyn in his nine months as Labour leader has won many victories on tax credit, the budget, and for finally setting an anti-austerity agenda. One could argue, though, he has become too politically toxic for Labour to fight an election. In my opinion, as a genuine believer in his integrity and honesty, and a once staunch supporter, I don’t think he is right to lead the party. He’s changed the state of politics, no question about that, but a statesman he is not. This is literally the most difficult political decision I’ve found myself having to answer. The party membership will likely re-elect him with another landslide, but the parliamentary party won’t shift. Deselection may be on the table, or defection, or a mass exodus of MPs altogether. The Left faces a truly existential crisis in the face of an authoritarian takeover of the Tory party.
With an early general election on the horizon, the Left needs to find some miracle, and Corbyn is not our messiah; the Labour Party must not walk into becoming a Corbyn cult lest it resign itself to electoral oblivion. The scariest fact is that I’m not even exactly sure who or what the alternative is. Clive Lewis? A tub of lard? I really don’t know. All I know is that Labour is making a similar mistake seen in 2010, and one capitalized upon by the coalition government, in which the financial crisis was blamed on Labour entirely. This political narrative has dominated perceptions of Labour’s economic credibility since 2010, and I now fear that the cascade of Corbyn coup headlines will do the same now. Labour cannot allow itself to be attached to such a destructive political narrative again, as the cost will be put upon those millions of Britons who desperately need the Left to restore hope in such uncertain times.
Whatever leadership election that takes place must be dealt with quickly, or I fear the chalice will be poisoned and Labour will be blamed, again, for a political mistake that’s enough to destroy the soul of party. If it even exists by the end of the year. The Chilcot report on the Iraq War is about to be released and with Corbyn at the top, so there’s going to be absolute political bloodshed if I haven’t stressed that enough.
I simply don’t think Corbs is up to the job. We should feel absolute pride in his victory last Summer and, as said, he has fundamentally changed the Labour Party that going back to what it was before is utterly impossible. I’m not even sure changing the leadership is possible without destroying the party entirely, as both outcomes of Corbyn either remaining leader or being ousted result in enough of a membership exodus and loss in political confidence to warrant destruction. I’m in agreement with Owen Jones and many other commentators as to the uncertainty and ambiguity that we now face, and how there seems to be no playbook for the next phase. A change in management, however impossible a result that may read, may be the only remedy.
It is difficult to side myself with the Corbyn coup, and the chance that Labour may be forever blamed by the political narrative of losing the referendum, a propaganda fight we cannot afford to lose. But the consequences of keeping with Corbyn will result in catastrophe and hardship. This is all based on my, albeit flawed and hopefully misguided, analysis. It is silly to propose a leadership challenge without a clear alternative, I understand, but perhaps a vacancy is the necessity that Labour needs right now. The ensuing crisis is likely to make the Miliband brothers’ rivalry look like some playground tiff in comparison to the war to come. Maybe the Corb himself will finally take charge and rout his critics, purge the Party, and present a crushing opposition. But the likelihood of this is too small to count on, and a pragmatic solution is necessary to meet the overwhelming challenge of the time.
I’m not even sure if I’ll be voting in the election to come. If this change doesn’t happen with the necessary result and democratic process, if Corbyn isn’t on the ballot, then I’m not sure I can remain a member of the party.
There’s a fallacy throughout mainstream media, historical narratives, and how we compose our perception of currents events, that of the ‘political moment’. A singular event, a moment, can no longer be seen as just that; singular. The turmoil of this week is the stepping stone, the taste, of what will arrive in the long-term. Processing it all is intellectually and emotionally difficult, and it’s that underpinning uncertainty to everything that has me utterly terrified. I’m supposedly educated enough to know things, but, as with the leaders of our establishment, there’s simply no plan or precedent for what happens next. All I will ask is be prepared. The news right now just seems to be an endless barrage of disaster and whole moral abandonment. It is schadenfreude in some respect, except the turmoil and damage is going to directly impact us in the coming months.
At this point we’re scraping the barrels of moral reserve for whatever nugget of hope there might be. And that’s good. That’s normal. I’m not certain Britain can handle the storm to come, but I guess being politically engaged can’t hurt. And, as this week has shown, it is quite a thrilling, abnormal time to be a part of, which is shifting literally by the minute. And there’s nothing we can do besides remain part of it.