With Britain voting to leave the European Union, we are now entering a brave new world. Britain has, even if narrowly and divisively, voted to reject one of the most ambitious constitutional projects of our time: The EU. It is easy to speculate on what this is a vote against; it is much harder to be confident about what this vote represents. It is even more difficult to foresee whether the result will address the discontent, or calm the distemper, that characterised so much of the debate. This vote also has the potential to unleash other constitutional convulsions in Britain and beyond. It is a sign that our current structures of governance, the nation state or supranational institutions, all have a legitimacy deficit.
The big question is: Is this vote merely a local British affliction, or does it portend a more global anger against the governing structures of our time?
The EU was an audacious constitutional project that was caught between two incompatible characterisations. At the level of fantasy, it had a profound moral ambition: Pacifying forever a continent ravaged by war, creating open borders and common markets, enshrining a progressive agenda in law, and even creating a common institutional life that could knit together a diverse continent into a new tapestry. It was a political project: A way station to a new liberal identity.
But its institutional articulation began to be experienced as the opposite: A dysfunctional entity incapable of defending itself, an immigration policy that unsettled local communities, common markets that came at the price of highly bureaucratised regulation, a new set of institutions that are accused more of exemplifying democratic deficit than a new political identity. These criticisms of the EU were hugely exaggerated; the EU does have democratic representation.
But fundamentally, particularly in Britain, the contest between Leave and Remain turned into a contest between some fantasy of restoring self-government, re- establishing a modicum of control over economic destiny and cultural environment on the one hand, and an economic instrumentalism on the other. If you present something as only a necessary evil, people will remember the “evil” part and forget the “necessity.”
The case for EU had three cardinal weaknesses: It never infused the EU project with any degree of imaginative power or romantic appeal. To this extent, both the Conservative and Labour parties are to blame. They damned Europe with faint praise. Second, the instrumental argument for the gains that Europe brings were increasingly looking thin. Europe’s dysfunction over everything from monetary policy to the refugee crisis made it look less like an effective instrument for providing solutions. And thirdly, England outside of the city of London clearly did not see the economic benefits this integration had promised.
Can Britain prosper outside the EU? The honest answer is that we don’t know. A lot will depend on the conundrum of English identity and politics. If this is a revolt against globalisation, then this vote should be read, above all, as a vote against the city of London which has come to epitomise open immigration, financialisation of the economy, elites that are out of touch, a home for crony capitalism driven by real estate speculation and a cosmopolitanism that dilutes British identity.
The gap between City and Country is, as it were, growing. It is not clear that any strategy that requires Britain managing its economic recovery post-Brexit will necessarily be able to overcome this contradiction. Indeed, repositioning the British economy in the global system, in these circumstances, might, paradoxically, require the power of London to be enhanced rather than diminished. In short, it is far from an established conclusion that Britain will become less not more neo-liberal/authoritarian after leaving Europe.
Britain might be able to manage the aftermath of the exit. It is less clear that the rest of the world will. For one thing, this exit will, for the time being, take the romance out of all regional integration projects for which Europe was a model. It will strengthen right wing and parochial tendencies in the rest of Europe even further. Every politician around the world will now be more skittish about open immigration.
In an era of global discontent, it will embolden a political tendency of our time to experiment with risky alternatives. It is easy to list the evils of globalisation: The inequalities it produced, the sense of marginality amongst working classes of developed countries, and a sense that there is no longer a community which collectively exercises control over itself. This sense of disempowerment is real and understandable; it will be foolish for any politician to underestimate it. But whether globalisation is at the root of this, or whether there are other causes is debatable.
There is widespread angst and discontent. But voting against integration into wider spaces may be like the person who is looking for the key under the lamppost, not because he lost the key there, but because there seems to be light under the lamp post. The EU had many ills; but it also had a touch of a healthy utopian aspiration to it. The utopian aspiration has been rejected in favour of the nation state.
But what does the “Leave” victory represent? It is clear that the establishment of both major political parties was deeply out of sync with significant sections of the electorate. But the close margin of victory and geographical distribution of support should make one cautious in interpreting the results. It has to be said that if the EU lost, so has nationalism. In fact, the referendum may go down, not as a nationalist reaction to internationalism, but as an exposure of the limits of both.
Both the nation state form and the supranational in its current incarnation seem tired and wanting legitimacy. It is hard to argue that the “nationalist” reaction has generated a new wave of solidarity. If anything, this is a nationalist vote that exposes divides: Between London and the rest of England; between Scotland and England, between the young and the old. This is not a nationalist vote that restores a sense of identity and purpose to England, let alone Great Britain.
It represents the revolt of a significant section of England against itself: Against the city of London, against the unanimity of its political classes, against England’s historical tendency to have a larger footprint on the world, first through Union, then Empire, and then the EU. Instead of an accession into wider circles, England now seems like a fragment of a nation, a “god in ruins” to borrow Kate Atkinson’s resonant phrase.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Gods in ruins’)