Every nationalist”, wrote George Orwell, “is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered”. Britain voted on Friday to retreat into a fantasy English-nationalist world: It will leave the European Union, rid itself of the immigrants who have arrived on its shores, and regain the popular sovereignty ceded to the bureaucrats in Brussels. The near-term consequences of this decision — the precipitous fall in the value of the pound, the crippling consequences for British businesses, the uncertain fate of the 2.9 million Europeans living in the United Kingdom, the potential secession of pro-European Union Scotland — are all important. For the rest of the world, the most important thing, though, is what this decision portends for the idea of Europe — the idea that ethnic-religious narcissism, the cause of two great wars in the last century which claimed tens of millions of lives, could be transcended through a shared culture of democratic rights. In the wake of Britain’s European Union referendum, Europe’s far-right parties have been energised, with parties from France to Austria vowing to renew the nationalist assault on the post-1947 system.
There are important lessons in the Brexit story for countries around the world, all grappling with the uneven, often brutal, impacts of globalisation. The rise of charismatic nationalists in many parts of the world — most visibly, Donald Trump — has come on the back of mounting anxieties many ordinary people have about a world that has appeared to change more rapidly in the past three decades than it did in three centuries past. The United Kingdom’s Conservatives tried to ride this wave — only to be devoured by forces further to the right. Traditional conservatives, as well as Liberal and Left parties, disengaged from the everyday lives of ordinary people, must accept much of the responsibility, and blame, for the rise of ethnic-religious nationalism since the 1980s. In seeing politics as a matter of management, rather than a contestation that takes place at the level of the everyday lives of communities, they vacated the space of popular culture for the right to occupy. Though there’s little doubt that the ultra-right has traded in paranoia — immigrants, for example, are by no conceivable index responsible for the very real problems of the white working class in Britain — politics did not address the very real anxieties and fears of large swathes of people hurt by globalisation.
Where might we go from here? For Europe’s Liberals and the Left, as well as its traditional Conservatives, Brexit must be a time of introspection and renewal — not retreat. The real challenges still lie ahead, as xenophobic forces sail out with their colours on their mast. The road ahead is perilous — and it is one on which the world simply cannot afford for Europe’s responsible politicians to lose their way.
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