Brexit is happening. It is time to embrace it and see its radical potential. It is time to rescue Brexit from those who want to turn the UK into a dystopian combination of libertarianism and Little Englandism. This may be impossible for those utterly convinced that Brexit has nothing but downside. They will either have to commit to a gargantuan sulk or to a multi-decade campaign to get us back into the EU. They will sadly miss out, however, on the inherent radicalism present in this moment. It comes in three forms.
A Deep Green Brexit
The first, and most important, is recognising that Brexit Britain is an opportunity to respond to climate change. The European Union was always one of the absolutely central features of an international financial and trading system that has pumped CO2 into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates over the last thirty years. It is a system that has also deliberately promoted consumerist cultures that degrade our environment and bring misery to non-human species in multiple ways. This turbo-charged economy has swept away more modest, local trading systems to replace them with labour markets, high streets and home life dominated by global corporate entities reliant on extraction.
Brexit provides an opportunity to create an economy in Britain that bucks this climate-destroying trend. Freed from the rules of the global trading order, it is possible to imagine a Britain that combines major investment in decentralised renewable energy and transport with efforts to revive economies based on local food production and community-centred SMEs.
Of course, this is a million miles away from the current vision. The new Government’s goal is to tie the country even more into dangerously extractive free trade agreements so that we can continue to consume largely pointless stuff at the expense of the environment and our future survival as a species. Opposing those agreements and setting out the practical steps to a very different future economy will be vital first moves.
A Radical Democratic Brexit
Brexit was, of course, built around the notion of taking back control. Partly this was a racist dog-whistle to those who too eagerly swallowed the daily tabloid fare of immigrants robbing them of healthcare and housing. But it also played to a very widespread and long-standing sense that ‘ordinary’ people are ignored by the Westminster and Whitehall elite. A sense, in my view, that is entirely correct.
There are two ways of responding to this popular anger and frustration. The first is to use the populist’s sleight of hand: pretend that your particular version of top-down, self-interested elitism is actually the ‘will of the people’. A very effective technique right now.
Or you can campaign for genuine change in the way we make decisions in this country so that power and resource is devolved away from London to local communities and that democracy is participatory, deliberative and consensual. The opportunity for this more honest and positive version of take back control has been opened up by Brexit — with good campaigning and clear vision, it is a message which has particular potential to strengthen as the populist’s version is revealed for the snake-oil it is.
An Egalitarian Brexit
They have been much derided by the majority of remainers but it is now time to pay attention (with important qualifications) to the so-called ‘Lexiteers’ or left-wing brexiteers. They have argued that Brexit would allow public ownership, state intervention and public procurement to be used much more extensively to promote a more egalitarian economy based on decent wages, job security and regional economic vibrancy. While these issues may be more nuanced than some Lexiteers have admitted, it is certainly the case that freedom from EU regulations opens up policy options previously less available.
However, Lexit cannot mean a return to the pre-EU world of centrally-controlled public utilities, bailed-out corporations and Whitehall designed infrastructure projects characteristic of the post-war settlement. Any new freedoms to promote equality must be shot through with the green, local and radically democratic features outlined in the previous paragraphs.
Of course, this egalitarian vision will come to naught if the trade deals soon to be negotiated by the Government require us to replicate the very rules we have just escaped. The risk of this is high given the weakness of the British negotiating position. Forceful campaigning will once again have to be at the forefront of any attempt to build a fairer Brexit.
What this adds up to is a new vision for this country built around a much more localised, democratic and green polity and economy. For some it will sound like a jettisoning of all that has been achieved in recent decades to create a hyper-innovative, global system that has reduced poverty overseas and generated international solidarity after a century of brutal war. But the drumbeat of popular frustration and of climate science gets louder every day. The time has come to find another way forward that is greener, more democratic and more egalitarian. Brexit is Britain’s chance to show the world what that way forward might be.