Something is changing within the pro-Brexit narrative. We don’t hear much anymore about the £350 million for the NHS, about the benefits of exciting new trade deals. Rather, as a no-deal Brexit looms closer and closer, as companies begin to relocate outside of the UK, as details continue to emerge about the scale of the chaos that no-deal will cause, there is no way of making the case for Brexit in material terms.
Instead, what we’re seeing is a cranking up of nostalgist World War Two themes. We survived the Blitz, we survived Dunkirk, we stood alone, etc. Hardship and suffering will stiffen the nation’s moral fibre and unite the nation.
Much has been said about this strange masochism, most prominently by Fintan O’Toole who has done more than anyone to highlight it. As more perspicacious commentators such as Gary Younge have pointed out, Brexit is another sign that people are not simply materialist beings; at times we will choose values over material well-being.
What has been less appreciated is how far this new Brexit narrative may be a harbinger for a wider political sea-change. The most striking thing about it is its gritty honesty. To openly advocate a course of action that will lead to one’s own suffering in the name of a higher ideal is something we have grown unused to. Aside from the nostalgia and post-imperial melancholia, one of the reasons why no-deal Brexiters hark back to the Second World War is because it may be the last time that, in the UK at least, political leaders openly acknowledged the material hardship their actions would cause. When has a prime minister last offered his electorate only ‘blood, sweat and tears’?
Instead, in the post-war period, we have become used to politicians offering us growth, economic well-being and material comfort. Even when governments have embraced austerity and de-industrialisation — in the 1980s and since 2010 — it is very rare for those who advocate those policies to say simply and clearly ‘yes, many will suffer’.
This is all of a piece with the rise of denial and denialism as political strategies. The inability to publicly acknowledge the negative effects of tobacco smoking and carbon-fuelled lifestyles lead to sophisticated and organised attempts to promote alternative denialist knowledge. This was only a more extreme form of a wider inability to speak publicly of the inevitable negative consequences (intended or unintended) that attend any human action.
The campaign that won Brexit in 2016 was certainly permeated with denial and denialism. Outside of some rarified corners of the think tank world and left advocates of Brexit, there was almost no acknowledgement that the process of achieving a break with the EU would be fiendishly complex and, at best, turbulent in the short-term.
That this denial would erode in Brexit’s final stages was not what anyone would have expected. A more likely outcome would have been a doubling-down on the fantasy version of Brexit, an increase in magical thinking, combined with blaming traitors and foreigners for any shortcomings. Certainly, there has been plenty of the latter, but with an unexpected twist: enemies within and without are ruining our chances of achieving material suffering.
The recent open acknowledgement amongst many of its advocates that Brexit will be horrible but we should still do it, poses a significant challenge to its opponents. It cuts the ground out right under one’s feet. For years the Remain camp has been warning of the disastrous consequences of Brexit and now that argument is becoming widely accepted — and it still makes no difference. The only counter-arguments left are on the terrain of basic values and ideals, and these are even more difficult to challenge than material claims.
Perhaps we are moving towards a ‘new honesty’, born paradoxically out of fake news and post-truth, with the groundwork laid by denialism. In my book Denial: The Unspeakable Truth, I speculated that we might be seeing the emergence of ‘post-denialism’, a weakening of the desire to create alternative truths, a step towards open acknowledgement. Certainly, in his undisciplined lying, Donald Trump is ironically making it more possible to express previously unspeakable desires. His followers know what they believe and he believes, even when he says the exact opposite. And his opponents don’t know how to respond: what do you say when you accuse Trump of being a corrupt, misogynist racist and the response is little more than ‘so what?’.
On the left, there is a long tradition of attempting to explain why the oppressed make political choices against their best interests. One influential journalistic attempt to do this — often cited in following Trump’s election is Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? Frank explains why Midwesterners in Kansas and other ‘red states’ have consistently voted for their own impoverishment by highlighting the ‘bait and switch’ tactics of the Christian right: Republican voters are attracted by right-wing policies on abortion and same-sex marriage, ignoring or accepting the inequality, corporate domination and lack of healthcare that follows.
In a far-sighted piece published in 2011, Mark Ames took issue with Franks’s analysis: The Republican grassroots weren’t voting for one set of values over their material interests, they were simply expressing spite, hate and anger. There is certainly a strain of this amongst the no-deal Brexiters. There is a thin line between prioritising higher values over transitory material needs and nihilistic self-destruction.
What we don’t know is what will happen if a no deal were actually to happen. Would those who have yearned for the suffering it will cause genuinely enjoy it? Will they actually smile with pleasure when they are told that there is no insulin to be found for their children? If so, then this new honesty will truly be a force to be reckoned with. More likely though will be a retreat back to denial, open acknowledgement will become a distant memory. If so, the no- deal Brexiters may end up saving us from a challenge we don’t yet know how to face.
Keith Kahn-Harris is a writer, sociologist, lecturer, salonist and music critic. He is an honorary research fellow and associate lecturer at Birkbeck College and an associate fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research and a lecturer at Leo Baeck College. Photograph courtesy of Duncan C. Published under a Creative Commons license.