Since the result of the Brexit referendum, nearly six months ago, I have found it hard to write. I spend too much time reading about developments and not enough time ordering my thoughts. As a consequence, this blog post covers a lot of ground and will be split into three parts.
But there’s a more subtle reason for my writer’s block: my mood swings. This month, watching the Supreme Court display Britain’s constitution working properly, I’ve been able to think that we might find a way through the challenges ahead with good sense and collegiality. But having seen – amid the broader global context of political upheaval – the intolerant and hysterical reaction to the earlier High Court ruling on Article 50, I experience a foreboding about what the Brexit vote might unleash.
I don’t think I’m alone. The foreboding extends beyond the cosmopolitan bubble I inhabit in London. I see it the eyes of visitors from northern cities. I heard it amid the chat of scores of More United supporters who turned up from far afield to campaign in the Richmond Park by-election for openness and tolerance.
Most of all, I notice it among those who, like me, were born here but whose family histories lie elsewhere, rooted in catastrophe. We recognise the foreboding without the need for words, though the words follow soon enough. No, the recognition comes from the mournful gaze that says we understand well enough where this can lead. And the recognition is all the more unsettling for dispelling the suspicion that we might be mad for fearing the worst.
The foreboding may not be confined to us, the children of refugee aliens. But the symbiotic understanding is. And it speaks of how the post-Brexit landscape is experienced differently, beneath the surface, depending on where you come from. This can make for troublesome dynamics between people who have always rubbed along without friction, without them perhaps appreciating why things might be shifting between them.
My own business bears this out. Vogel Wakefield is a partnership of long-standing friends and colleagues with aligned values. Remainers, both, in the referendum, Vogel and Wakefield were each born and grew up in England but our cultural inheritances and, more to the point, our attendant family histories set us apart. The foreigner Brit and the true-born Englishman: both struggling with good intent to understand together what has passed in 2016, but inadvertently activating primitive and atavistic reactions in each other. Vogel taking offence at the Prime Minister’s tin-eared insulting of “citizens of nowhere”; Wakefield explaining, perfectly rationally, that it applied not to the likes of me but to the oligarch class and their footloose corporations. Wakefield empathising with the hurt of those unsettled by untrammelled immigration; Vogel identifying with the foreigner making a home among us. Guilt, fear, hurt. We had to take the dynamic to supervision before we were able to appreciate what was occurring between us. Yes, both foreboding; both agreeing in many respects. But viscerally experiencing the meaning of political change in different ways.
I share this with you because, I suspect, if it’s occurring between us, there’s a good chance that many others are experiencing something similar. We need to identify how relationships are unsettled by political change, so that we can deal with the dynamic – not become subject to it. When old certainties collapse, it’s easy to run into conflict where it’s least expected. It surfaces beyond politics. You might notice an upswing in altercations between raging drivers and raging cyclists. It might surface in more frequent and more intense arguments at home. We shouldn’t be surprised if a coarsening of the political culture is reflected in a coarsening more generally in how we relate to each other.
I even notice it in my attitudes to strangers around me. I ride the Tube and experience a tightening knot in my stomach as I read of our turning away from liberal democracy. I look up and see others engrossed in playing games on their phones or polishing their nails. I become irritated and wonder if I am the only one who sees where this might be heading. But then I remember my fellow aliens and other foreboders and remember I’m not mad, We’re not outliers. We’re not blessed with exceptional insight. If the foreboding is widespread, not everybody deals with it in the same way. Perhaps playing a video game or applying nail polish seems like the most constructive thing to do in the face of awesome fear.
But it’s in the political realm where the signs are most explicit and concerning. After six months, the shape of my anxiety about Brexit is becoming clear. It’s two-fold.
Firstly, our leaving of the EU alarms me less than the manner of our leaving it. Our political leaders are in denial – at least publicly – of the complexity of the task and are thereby indulging dishonesty (about the difficulty of the transition and the scale of change ahead) and demagoguery (that shouts down any expression of scepticism or dissent).
Secondly, where, last June, I was worried that Britain was embarking on an ill-conceived journey of exceptionalism, now it’s all too clear that Brexit is a manifestation of a widespread turning away from tolerance and the rule of law. After Brexit, Trump. After Trump, Le Pen? Each insurrection makes the next more likely. Before we know it, a cascade of nationalist wrecking could bring down democracy and co-operation and tip us into a convulsive war.
The rupture that manifests here as Brexit can be seen not just as part of a turning away from liberal democracy in the West but – as the writer, Pankaj Mishra, argues – a development of the global disorder that has been gathering momentum for some time:
“The insurgencies of our time, including Brexit and the rise of the European far right, have many local causes – but it is not an accident that demagoguery appears to be rising around the world. Savage violence has erupted in recent years across a broad swath of territory: wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand, terrorism and counter-terrorism, economic and cyberwar. The conflicts, not confined to fixed battlefields, feel endemic and uncontrollable. Hate-mongering against immigrants and minorities has gone mainstream; figures foaming at the mouth with loathing and malice are ubiquitous on old and new media alike.”
In the UK, the local symptoms of global disorder have erupted over the past year or so. It’s not as if violent assault on democracy is simply a theoretical possibility. We have experienced it already this year. We reserved judgment about the motivation of the murderer of Jo Cox MP. But it turns out that he was a far-right terrorist all along. No need to implicate the mentally ill in his depravity.
The spectacle of citizens clubbing together to fund a test case of Parliament’s sovereignty came about because MPs were too cowed to demand their say themselves. The judges whose professional duty it was to clarify how our constitution should work were vilified by sections of the press as “enemies of the people” (an irresponsible and dangerous concept that has its roots in authoritarianism and tyranny). And the Lord Chancellor, whose duty is to protect the independence of the judiciary could not find words that fulfil this responsibility. Nigel Farage predicted – incited, you might think – “political anger the likes of which none of us in our lifetimes have ever witnessed in this country” if Parliament were to exercise its sovereignty against the will of “the people”.
And the Labour Party, once a proud bastion of Enlightenment values, now positioned on the irrelevant fringes of politics, makes itself a seedbed for virulent anti-semitism and seems incapable of cleansing itself.
It’s not, let me be clear, that I think we have descended into fascism. Not yet. But it’s a precarious moment. Since the referendum, it has become clear that liberalism is under siege by those who are careless – let’s put it no stronger than that – of what democracy and the rule of law enable. The US election has only reinforced the impression. I’m not comforted that Donald Trump has seemed to step back from some of his more egregious campaign promises, even before he has taken office as President of the United States. Whether or not one can trust what he says is beside the point. His campaign, like the Brexit campaign here, unleashed bile and untruths the like of which were previously beyond the pail in Western democracies in the post-war period. Both campaigns have encouraged people to view as legitimate the expression of opinions and acts of intolerance which good sense would previously have encouraged them to keep under wraps. The demands inflated by populism are difficult to contain and, if not fulfilled, could lead us over the precipice – whether or not our political leaders intend to take us there.
Mishra’s purpose seems to be to call time on Enlightenment values. Insofar as his target is an excessively rational approach on the part of policy makers who can construe humans only as homo economicus, his argument has some force. But the irrational aspects of our being – that, for example, are capable of voting for Brexit against our economic interests – have been recognised by Enlightenment thinkers from David Hume to Daniel Kahneman. Homo economicus is one legacy of the Enlightenment. Others are human rights, freedom, tolerance, co-operation and enquiry for the betterment of all members of society. These values have always been threatened by malign forces, especially during hard economic times. They were hard won as guiding principles of society and they need defending robustly. Just because they haven’t delivered utopia doesn’t mean we need indulge in despair at their ability to turn back a tide of global disorder.
In my next post, I will explore how we can maintain our ground.