This is a crisis, not a disaster. Like others I’ve been amused by an animated cartoon doing the rounds on Facebook. It depicts the masses eagerly striding into thin air from a cliff that instead of towering over open sea, as honest cliffs do, is the jaggedly circular edge to a big scary hole in the earth. It’s both funny and reactionary in its pessimistic and fact-defying conflation, woolly at best, of EU with internationalism. That conflation too often informs and reflects a thinly veiled contempt for those Brits and other Europeans who have most lost out to neoliberalism, its race to the bottom coordinated and expedited in Berlin and Brussels.
This is a crisis, not a disaster. Peg on nose I voted Remain for reasons given elsewhere, but we are where we are. How did we get here? Drivers of Thursday’s lurch into the unknown are easily identified: some longstanding and weighty, others of farcically narrow specificity. One, a Tory Party theologically split on an issue never high on the list of concerns for most Britons. Two, a press whose europhobic billionaire owners influence public debate in ways that put them in permanent contempt of democracy. Three, the rise of Ukip to tap and give focus not only to the perplexed frustrations of Little England but, as the voting demographics make clear, the rage and despair of those consigned to zero hours precarity within a shrivelled welfare state.
But for full effect this cocktail needed a fourth ingredient: Team Cameron, too arrogantly careless to build in the safety margin – 60 to 40 at the very least – most written constitutions specify as a minimal threshold for such far reaching breaks with the status quo. Britain famously has no constitution: a fact which, in tandem with those already identified, opens up the prospect of at least one bitter divorce within the post-Thatcher Disunited Kingdom. As with Brexit itself, McExit UK could be more harmful for its attendant furies than for the deed per se. (Let’s set aside the question of why Little Scotland should fare any better, post honeymoon, than Gallant Greece at the hands of the Dr Schaubles of this world.) Even this, however, could be eclipsed by the resurrection of ghosts we’d come to regard as laid to rest by a Good Friday Agreement, in part EU brokered, that had all but defused the lethal sectarianism of the six county statelet over the water. Nice one Dave. Neither of your fellow public schoolboys, Boris and Nigel, could have ushered in such potential for chaos without the cake-icing of your own smug ineptitude.
Farage, it almost goes without saying, marks a new low in a corruption of political life that has seen public confidence hollowed out by the Iraq lies, expenses scandals, revolving door and the overarching betrayal by Labour – along with social democratic parties across the western world – of the most vulnerable, many of whom turned in frustration to honest Nigel. Honest Nigel, who was to resign after South Thanet, May 2015. Honest Nigel, man of the people who spoke of £350m a week for the NHS. Honest Nigel, man of the sporting rulebook who, having insisted a month ago that a narrow win for Remain – yes, he really did say 52 to 48 percent! – would necessitate a second referendum, now admonishes that “it’s not the best of three you know”.
And what of that cuddly scallywag, the adorable Boris? Did he want this? Given his record of ducking, weaving and late conversion to Brexit it’s likely he meant only to put on a good show of euroscepticism for a tory leadership bid we all knew was coming regardless of Thursday’s result. As with Nige and Dodgy D, such sociopathic calculations betray something of how our ruling class, its tactics nurtured on the playing fields of Eton and Dulwich College, approaches issues that affect us all.
By such roads have we come to this pass. But it’s a crisis, not a disaster. For real progressives there’s work to do. It begins with repulsing those in the Parliamentary Labour Party who were weighed in the balance last September and found wanting; ideologically naked. Those who have chosen to mount a coup which, whether or not it succeeds, aids the Tories in their hour of disarray. Those who defy the rank and file in a bid to deliver Labour back to technocrats whose embracing of neoliberalism – aka “reaching out to Middle England” – has lost, along with all moral compass, Scotland to the SNP and much of England and Wales to Ukip.
This is a crisis, not a disaster. The vote to leave the EU was taken in circumstances far from ideal, and driven in large part by the most toxic of narratives. But we are where we are and must make the most of it. One thing we can say for Benn, Eagle and the coup coordinators is that, amid all the confusion and its fall-out, they have pointed us in the clearest possible terms to the need for progressives to stop bewailing the loss of an internationalism that never was, and get behind the defence of Jeremy Corbyn and the principles he represents.