Brexit: From Empire via Europe to Little England

No Comments » June 25th, 2016 posted by // Categories: World Affairs


Brexit: From Empire via Europe to Little England

Paul Zeleza

Brexit has come as a shock to many people and shaken global financial markets. But both the exit vote and the market convulsions were predictable given Britain’s troubled history with the European Union, the psychology of nationalism that can be impervious to economic reality and rationality, and the turbulence of the current global economy. Explanations abound that Brexit reflects the populist repudiation of corrupt political elites and compromised expert opinion, the consequences of austerity and deepening inequality spawned by neo-liberalism, the outrage of the masses disenfranchised and disempowered by globalization, not to mention the reckless gamble of a cocky, lackluster Prime Minister.

There can be little doubt that Mr. Cameron foolishly gambled the future of his country to save his job over an internal party squabble. Instead of boldly confronting the Eurosceptics that had goaded his predecessors, and the rising rightwing extremists, he called for a referendum, with the characteristic confidence and cluelessness of the scions of great privilege. In the end he lost his job, further fueled regional, social, and generational polarizations of his already fractious country, and won the dubious distinction of having led it out of the European Union into a small, insular island wedded to a sense of exceptionalism from a bygone era.

Equally evident is the fact that Brexit has left the political and corporate establishments in the United Kingdom, European Union, and United States who had campaigned vigorously against it, as shellshocked as the xenophobic nativists that championed it are ecstatic. The beleaguered European leaders are trying desperately to figure out the next steps, to limit the damage, to avoid sinking into their own treacherous domestic quicksands of angry populism. Jubilant Eurosceptics in France, Netherlands, Sweden, and elsewhere did not waste time to call for referendums, for their own Frexit, Nexit, Swexit, and other awkwardly named exits.

But there is need for analytical caution. The ‘Leave’ campaign in the United Kingdom was led by prominent members of the Conservative Party. Even Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party that energized the campaign, is a former member of the Conservative Party and commodity broker. Eurosceptics elsewhere in Europe are also led by fractions of the political class. Thus while the foot soldiers of populist movements are often the disenchanted masses, their leaders are disgruntled members of the same political class they rail against. This is one reason such movements fail to offer real redress.

Clearly, Brexit reflects the chickens of globalization coming home to roost. Its fundamentalist gospel of free-market capitalism and austerity has unleashed grotesque and destructive inequalities that have transformed the nature of political struggles, systems, and citizenship. Not surprisingly, almost everywhere traditional politics, faith in political elites, is upended by rising disaffection and anti-establishment rage. But Brexit is a Pyrrhic victory for its supporters among the millions of workers marginalized and alienated by globalization. Some are reportedly waking up from their hangover, shaken by the economic shockwaves it has unleashed on the British economy and its prospects, and expressing regret, or what is being dubbed Regrexit.

A backlash against the peddlers of Brexit is inevitable as the homegrown ruthless regime of British neoliberalism loses Brussels as the bogeyman. After all, Conservative Party Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was one of the key architects of neoliberalism, while Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair deodorized it with ‘Third Way’ aroma. The country and future the Brexit supporters were promised they were taking back will not materialize. In the rancorous campaign the EU became the embodiment of the assorted ills of globalization from runaway immigration to deepening inequality, rampant corruption to loss of local control.

Globalization is of course easy to invoke and blame for all manner of national and world problems. There is need to distinguish between globalization as a contemporary project and as a historical process. The latter refers to complex age-old processes of inter- and trans- regional interconnectedness and flows. As a project, contemporary globalization embodies neo- liberalism, a process of global capitalist restructuring that emerged at the turn of the 1980s. It has wrecked immeasurable damage to the wellbeing of working people around the world. Historically, it is the weaker countries and lower social classes that have always paid the earliest and heaviest price for capitalist restructuring.

The high social and structural costs of contemporary globalization were first experienced in the Global South. In Africa, the structural adjustment programs (SAPs) that were imposed by western countries and international financial institutions with uncompromising missionary zeal led to the ‘lost decades’ of the 1980s and 1990s. Out of the devastations and dislocations of SAPs emerged new social movements and struggles for the ‘second independence’, for democratization, which has made unsteady progress across the continent. The angry populist politics we have been witnessing among the developed countries represents the revolt of the victims of globalization, those who have lost control over their lives and livelihoods.

But instead of expanding democratic spaces and governance, xenophobic nationalism and nativism are spreading. Populist politics is being highjacked, as in the Brexit campaign, and Trump’s in the United States, by fractions of the same discredited elite least capable or even interested in resolving the multiple crises of contemporary globalization. Thus, while elements of the old guard are losing control they are trading places with even more retrogressive elements riding the ferocious beast of populism unleashed by the project of neo-liberal globalization. Lest we forget, Prime Minister Cameron and Boris Johnson his fiercest opponent in the Brexit campaign, and aspiring successor, are old friends and competitors from elite families and schools.

Anti-establishment rage including Euroscepticism is widespread across Europe. In fact, there are countries such as Greece that can lay greater claim for having been short-shifted by the rigid bureaucratic demands of European Union membership than the United Kingdom. Yet, in 2015 even when faced by the most draconian and humiliating conditionalities for a bailout (similar to those African countries were subjected to under SAPs) Grexit failed. This suggests there is more to Brexit than Euroscepticism or hostility to globalization by its frustrated losers.

Propelling Britain to this momentous rendezvous with history is the powerful force of nationalism. During the heyday of decolonization and its aftermath in Africa and Asia it became fashionable among British and other western scholars to vilify nationalism as an atavistic political pathology of backward societies. Never mind that it had once been valorized for its emancipatory possibilities in the context of the bloody history of European nation-state formation. The dismissal of nationalism was reinforced by the proponents of postmodernism and globalization who viewed it as historically outdated, a relic of discredited geographies and histories, incapable of shaping the trajectory of contemporary politics, economy, and culture.

Needless to say, nationalisms around the world have their own distinctive moments, motivations, and meanings, as well as projects, possibilities, perils, and even perversions rooted in their specific histories. Brexit reflects the complex dynamics of nationalism in the United Kingdom, rooted in the history of empire and its messy and troubled aftermath. The British empire subsumed the ethnic identities and nationalisms within the United Kingdom. It is widely recognized that the colonial superpowers of Europe, Britain and France, emerged from the Second World War greatly weakened and destined to play second fiddle to the new superpowers, the United States and the former Soviet Union.

Decolonization, the most important political development of the 20th century, played a pivotal role in the diminution of British power on the post-war global stage. While France increasingly hitched its fate to the project of European integration to rescue Europe from centuries of destructive wars and promote economic development, Britain ignored Europe and clung to the Commonwealth and fantasies of a great power based on its ‘special relationship’ with the US.

It was not until 1973 that Britain finally joined the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU. But two years later, a referendum was held to decide the country’s continued membership. It was approved by 67%. Conceived in convenience, not passionate commitment to the European integration project, the marriage limped along. Euroscepticism remained a popular, although its support waxed and waned among the dominant Labor and Conservative parties. In 1992, when the euro was introduced Britain opted out. Successive British governments sought to limit what they regarded as Brussels’ overreach as the EU integration efforts broadened and deepened.

Britain’s postwar struggle with its Europeanness, reflected and reproduced its difficulties in forging a national identity and new place in the world as a post-imperial power and society. This is to suggest decolonization and its aftermath and their wrenching effects on British politics, society, and psyche should not be underestimated. The collapse of empires tends to dissolve the glue of supranationalism into the fissiparous tendencies of ethnic nationalisms both in the imperial metropole and colonial outposts. In other words, Britain has been subject to the rise of ethnic nationalisms no less destabilizing than in some of its former colonies in Asia and Africa.

The acrimonious campaign characterized by blatant lies, fear mongering, and gratuitous incivility revealed the deep chasms between the four regional ‘tribes’ that make up the United Kingdom, to use the term British and other Western commentators routinely use in describing politics in African countries: the English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish. The first two voted overwhelmingly to leave (England ranging from 51.8% in the South East to 59.3% in the West Midlands and Wales 52.5%) and the last two to stay (Scotland 62.0% and Northern Ireland 55.8%).

The electorate was also divided along spatial, social, and inter-generational lines. Majorities in the cities voted in favor of remaining, while in the countryside and small towns they preferred leaving. Cosmopolitan and multicultural London voted 59.9% to remain. Similarly, people in higher income brackets and those under the age of 45 voted to remain, while those in lower income brackets and over 45 voted to leave. Millennials feel robed of their future.

Brexit was essentially decided by the English. It was an expression of English nationalism, a reflection of the country’s long descent from its glory days of empire to the anguished and angry nationalism of modern Little Englanders. In the 19th century, the Little Englanders were opposed to the expansion of empire, their contemporary offspring are dejected by the end of empire. In the 19th they gloried in England’s exceptionalism as the first industrial nation, now they sulk behind the jingoistic memories of past imperial glory.

The regional divide in the Brexit referendum will have far-reaching implications long after the economic and financial convulsions have settled, and the global economy has moved on to new crises. Brexit will profoundly redefine Britain’s position and power as a European nation and its continued existence as a united nation. The disintegration of the UK entered the academic debate in earnest after the Scottish scholar, Tom Nairn, published his book, The Break-up of Britain in 1977. When I first read it as a graduate student in London, it’s provocative thesis was intriguing, but the critique of nationalism by the eminent historian, Eric Hobsbawm, seemed more persuasive.

The Scottish referendum of 2014 brought Nairn’s prediction awfully close to realization. A second Scottish referendum in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, buoyed by the seductions of glocalization—achieving Scottish nationalism in the bosom of a pan-European identify and integration—may yet prove him right. In the meantime, Northern Ireland may latch its future as a European country to its southern neighbor fulfilling the dreams of Irish nationalists. And who is to say with the triumph of English, Scottish, and Irish nationalisms Wales won’t follow suit?

The future is of course unpredictable. Many fear, in the short term, the post-Brexit British economy will be battered into recession, and the wobbly European and global economies will be further weakened, perhaps also sliding into recession. Since the referendum the volume of chatter in the financial press has increased that Britain will become a less desirable beachhead for global capital seeking European business. There is trepidation that Brexit might present an existential peril for the EU presaging the inexorable demise of the European project.

Even if the worst economic predictions for the United Kingdom that were trotted with increasing desperation by the Remain campaign and their legion of global fellow travelers don’t come to pass, Brexit shows the United Kingdom has already travelled a predictable road from empire, via regional integration, to Little England. Thus Brexit goes beyond the country’s divorce from a loveless marriage with the Europe Union; it represents its historic reckoning as a post-imperial nation in the era of neo-liberal globalization.

For a country that once strode a world empire on which the sun never set, the forces and purveyors of global, regional, and national integration and disintegration have entered a new phase of contestation. The same forces, in varied incarnations and reverberations, will be fighting for the soul of Europe for years to come.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, written June 25, 2016.


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