WHY IS BRITAIN falling apart? The whole world is shaking its head in disbelief at the spectacle unfolding in Westminster. Well within a single human lifespan, Great Britain has undergone a profound transformation: from industrial behemoth and global empire, to one of the six economic also-rans which, alongside the USA, make up the G7. Historically, such descents from the geopolitical heights are almost always the result of defeat in war, revolution, or both catastrophes combined. But the British Isles have not suffered invasion and defeat for nearly a thousand years, and the last time the British people made a revolution was during the reign of Charles I – more than 375 years ago. Could it be that the extraordinary scenes currently playing themselves out in Britain represent its people’s long-delayed reaction to their country’s rapid relegation to the Second Division of world powers?
As an explanation, it maps very neatly over the geographical and generational divisions fuelling Brexit – that bitter debate over Britain’s future relationship with the European Union which lies at the heart of the present turmoil.
Take a map of Britain in 1642 indicating which parts of the kingdom are siding with the King and which with Parliament in the unfolding Civil War, and then superimpose over it a map showing which regions of Britain voted to “Leave” the EU, and which to “Remain”, and, extraordinarily, you will find that they are an almost exact match.
The wealthy, mercantile, south of England – most especially the city of London – has always looked towards the continent of Europe and beyond: to those places where the opportunities for amassing riches through trade and money-lending were greatest. To the people of the North, however, wealth has always been looked upon as something they made themselves. Be they generated by farms or factories, the riches of these far-flung and self-reliant regions of England were regarded as the just reward for their own labours – and nobody else’s.
The wishes of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the Celtic fringe of the British Isles, being conquered territory, have never really counted for all that much, and, if the Brexit Referendum and the Euro-Sceptics’ response to the so-called “Irish back-Stop” are any indication, they still don’t.
What made Britain truly “Great” was the coming together of the mercantile south and the industrious north in the scientific and technological revolution of the Nineteenth Century. The huge advantage conferred upon Britain by this heroic period of innovation, construction and investment overlaid the potent idea of “Britishness” across the still lively identities of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. While Britain’s power waxed ever greater, spreading itself over a quarter of the Earth’s land surface, those subsidiary identities remained in shadow. As Britain’s power waned, however, the unifying power of Britishness began to fade. It is one of those historical ironies that Britain’s insistence on being referred to as the “United Kingdom” coincided with its slow unravelling.
Britons born in the 1920s and 30s came into a world where, to all appearances, British power was as great as ever. The truth was very different. Even before the exertions of the First World War, the Americans and the Germans had left the British eating their economic dust. After the war, the British Empire turned out to be an antiquated, deeply-indebted mirage held together almost entirely by bluff. By the time those men and women reached their teens – in the midst of an existential struggle for their nation’s survival – Britain’s bluff had been well and truly called. In the years of austerity that followed the Allies’ victory over Germany and Japan, Britain was kept afloat by the generosity of American taxpayers and shareholders. The “Special Relationship” was always a one-way affair.
Some of those Britons born 80-90 years ago have come to terms with their country’s decline, but a great many more have not. Their children, the first-born of the Baby-Boom generation, who came into the world between 1946 and 1956, also struggle to grasp what has happened to “Great Britain”. In their formative years, the world map was still reassuringly dominated by imperial red. Popular culture teemed with stories of Britain’s “finest hour”, along with the outstanding deeds of more distant times that still glimmered in its glow. Though this generation had never felt the shock-wave of a German bomb, or fired a shot in anger, its members still boasted of how “we” had won the war. The spell of Britishness was an unconscionably long time dying.
Economic reality will not, however, be gainsaid and intelligent Britain knew it. Joining the European Economic Community was the obvious, sensible and entirely reasonable solution to the problem of a Britain which was now smaller and less influential than it had been for close to 400 years. But the attempt to exchange the EEC/EU’s new spell of collective strength and confederative support for the old spell of “splendid isolation” and imperial self-sufficiency, while winning over young and immigrant Britons in the 1970s and 80s, never truly succeeded in bewitching the over-60s.
The “Leave” vote was overwhelmingly old, and the “Remain” vote overwhelmingly young.
That generational dislocation was matched by a geographical dislocation born of the Thatcherite South’s thirty years of malign neglect of the Labour-voting North. The Brexiteers who refused to believe that Britain had ceased to be “Great” were joined by those who had come to believe, through bitter experience, that “Britain” had ceased to care – at least, about people like themselves.
The decision to leave the EU was thus driven by two impulses: right-wing southern nationalists’ wilful self-delusion about the possibility of reasserting their country’s greatness; and the disillusioned northern left’s desire to be revenged upon the London-based financial oligarchy which had callously sacrificed its once-strong industrial communities to the twin deities of neoliberalism and globalisation. That the EU of 2016, in its ideological rigidity and arrogance, bore a remarkable resemblance to that London-based oligarchy, didn’t help matters one bit.
The problem, of course, is that the fulfilment of the Brexiteers’ dreams of restored greatness and regional revenge can only ever be accomplished by driving through a “No Deal” Brexit. Only a No Deal Brexit can assert British sovereignty in the pure and untrammelled fashion demanded by the hard-liners who have always been in charge of the anti-European project. Theresa May’s Brexit deal was a surprisingly good one, but by acknowledging the reality of Britain’s need to retain strong economic ties with the EU (not to mention preserve the Irish peace agreement) it ruled itself out of contention. For the Northern revanchists there was a similar need to make the defeat of the London oligarchy and its handmaidens in the British political class absolute and irremediable. Anything less would only prove that the North had, once again, been shafted.
It seems clear that the only person who appreciated the uncompromising trajectory of Brexit was the man who masterminded the 2016 Leave campaign, and who is now ensconced in No. 10 Downing Street as Boris Johnson’s principal political adviser, Dominic Cummings. Like his American counterpart, Steve Bannon, Cummings has always understood that to make your country great again it is first necessary to demolish the political structures which turned it into something less than great.
Accordingly, there is absolutely nothing accidental or unintentional about the looming confrontation between Parliament and “The People”. Johnson – advised by Cummings – understands that an election fought and won on these terms will lead, inevitably, to the destruction of parliamentary democracy as generally understood by the peoples of the British Isles. As unlikely as it may seem, what Johnson, Cummings, and the hard-liners controlling the freshly-purged Conservative Party are out to launch, along with Aaron Banks, Nigel Farage and their soon-to-be-disbanded Brexit Party, is a second English Revolution.
Does Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and the Liberal-Democrat’s Jo Swinson understand the revolutionary nature of the Brexiteers’ ambitions? Do they grasp the central truth of the forthcoming general election: that unless it becomes a battle between two equally revolutionary alternative futures, Johnson and his allies will sweep all before them? That the one position that Corbyn must, at all costs, prevent himself and his party from being manoeuvred into defending is the status-quo? That his only chance of victory is to let the voters know that he ‘gets’ it? The old way of doing things has failed the British people, and must be swept away.
Only if he is able to convince British voters that Johnson’s fake revolution will lead them directly to the triumph of privilege, greed and corruption, and to their country being swallowed-up by the planet-destroying American plutocracy, will Corbyn secure a fair hearing for his own revolutionary appeal.
To the old people of the North he can offer a rock-solid guarantee that neither London’s financial oligarchy, nor the political elites, will survive a manifesto entitled “For the Many, Not the Few”. To the young people of the South, he can promise something far more exciting than a Britain made great again.
He can offer them a Britain made new.