Allow me to catastrophise for a minute. Brexit isn’t a short-term national crisis, or even a long-term economic challenge. It’s an important battle in a worldwide war against liberal democracy… So, here’s how it’s going to play out.
Brexit will happen. That’s a legal certainty; a certainty of other kinds too. It’s locked in. Stopping it, unwinding it, modifying it; all grimly pointless, destructive fantasies. Forget it.
You cannot run history backwards. Reversing a vote (or revoking a decision) cannot reverse a populist shift that’s bigger than Brexit, bigger than Britain, bigger than the EU.
FBPE, the people’s vote, the whole ‘stop Brexit’ enterprise — they’re all symptoms of a sputtering, increasingly irrelevant liberal entitlement, of a slightly ridiculous bourgeois delusion, rooted in a Third Way Britain that’s been dead and buried for a decade and in a vision for the EU that literally never existed. The fact that the ‘people’s vote’ crew are feeling so pumped up about their fantasy outcome just emphasises how out of touch they are. They’re dreaming.
I don’t fancy life in post-Brexit Britain much but I fancy life in post-cancellation Britain less. The referendum result was epochal. We now live in the post-Brexit epoch. Britain (the world) will adjust. It will take time — years, a generation, more — but it’s our new reality.
The Leavers, the no-dealers, the Double-Breasted Loons of the European Research Group— let’s call them the DBLs — will have their way, or something close to it. And we will let them, because reversing back into the EU is neither possible nor even desirable now. Everything has changed. It’s over. Sorry.
As for what Brexit will actually look like, it’s obviously not going to be pretty. It looks like some preparation will be done. Some institutional scrabbling and some back-of-an-envelope comedy coordinating will happen. The 30th of March will arrive, let’s face it, with something quivering in the gap between a ghastly no-deal and a shabby, part-finished withdrawal agreement. We’ll learn just how many transnational institutions and networks a 21st Century state can do without. This will be bracing.
Other systems will falter but keep going because they just have to. Parts will probably still get to car factories. Diligent truckers and customs officials will figure out how to get perishable stuff to the factories. Gardae will turn a blind eye to kids crossing the border for school or farmers grazing their cows in a third country. The insulin will get through.
Literally no one wants a basket-case on the Northern edge of the continent. Not least because decades of steady, deliberate economic and administrative integration mean that this basket-case will be bigger than Britain and will take in a big chunk of the EU economy. So, pragmatic governments and institutions will look away while a new system is cobbled together, on the ground, on the hoof.
The WTO will not be our saviour, of course. It can’t be — it’s literally designed to stop the kind of buccaneering and freebooting behaviour that the DBLs fantasise for post-Brexit Britain. It’s an invention of the global elite that they so despise. Their enthusiasm for ‘WTO terms’ is entirely fake, just a cover for their own fantasy outcome.
It has taken us a while to grasp the inevitability of a hard Brexit. In fact, the naivety of the Remainers, the liberals, the business lobby and large parts of the left — basically everybody opposed to leaving the EU — will be a chapter heading in every history of the period. We were stupid and slow and we were had.
This is the important bit, the long-range, epochal bit. For the DBLs and the other hard-liners, Brexit is much more than a new trading arrangement with our neighbours. They’re revolutionaries after all. Brexit is their crisis, their necessary dislocation. It’s the kind of huge, unsettling social and economic disruption that only comes along every two or three generations. It’s the kind of cascading collapse of norms and settled beliefs that a Leninist would relish— an opportunity to challenge and unwind a whole set of situations, institutions, agreements, settlements and arrangements all at once.
The remains of the ‘post-war settlement’— the parts that survived the Thatcher-Reagan experiment, then the collapse of the Soviet bloc, then the worldwide neoliberal expansion and the shock of the 2008 crash — are in play, they sense, and they’re not going to miss this opportunity to finally demolish the whole thing.
So, inevitably, and for the vulnerable in particular, this is going to be hard — like austerity on steroids. Economically, there’s no good Brexit, but Brexit’s going to look like a walk in the park next to what comes after it. That’s why we need to stop banging on about Brexit and focus on what the DBLs have in mind for later.
Our task, those of us who are not busy embroidering banners or felt-penning whimsical placards, or literally inventing new ways of making decisions with 90 days to go, is not to mitigate Brexit or — heaven help us — to stop it or delay it or to try to shore up the collapsing European project behind it. Our task is to win the post-Brexit settlement here in Britain. More specifically — to stop the DBLs from winning.
Because the hard Brexiteers’ fantasy for Britain after Brexit is a dark one. It seems to involve a reboot of Imperial Britain (with, I kid you not, a return to East of Suez), a devil-take-the-hindmost trading model and the adoption of Singaporean-Bladerunner economics. It will be hostile to working people, to the poor, to women, migrants and people of colour and to all the institutions of civil society and, if it happens, it’s going to be profoundly destructive, immiserating, grim. Expect the final, grinding reversal of the ‘great moderation’ of post-war Europe and another profound challenge to the idea of the state as a positive force, to the collective as a rational way of organising things.
I’m being dramatic. Sorry again. It’s because we need to understand that stopping Brexit can’t stop this process. Against this larger context, Brexit begins to seem like the least of our concerns — just a sideshow really — because Brexit is a pretext for the larger ambitions of the DBLs and their allies in other countries — the nationalists, the racists and the oligarchs — a splendid platform from which to launch their assault on the liberal state and its transnational institutions.
Other platforms exist, of course, and are being exploited by populists and nationalists around the world now, where Brexit is an irrelevance — the migrant crisis, in particular but also the rejection of ‘Western’ social values and the looming prospect of another financial crisis. Don’t be surprised when the catastrophe of climate change is itself turned to the advantage of the nationalists, just another useful situation.
How do we stop the DBLs and the wider nationalist network from winning? It won’t be easy. Their movement is much larger than the UK and is acquiring coherence and confidence by the day. Half a dozen European governments already subscribe to the emerging ‘post-democratic’ model. It’s also attracting practical support (and lots of money) from nationalists and racists across the Atlantic. It will involve some big and important political arguments, some tough-minded realism about our situation, some surprising alliance building, acceptance of some unfamiliar concepts and lots of vigorous public contestation. Will there be any actual fighting? Jesus, I hope not. Crucially, it’ll require liberals, moderates, centrists and the rest of us to accept that it’s game over. Thank you for your contribution but please save your energy. No more funny placards. The ‘national debate’ is over.
And, whatever happens, I’m pretty sure it won’t involve a ‘people’s vote’.