Britain must gather broken promises left by Brexit campaign and find an inclusive new national politics
In his address to the European Parliament yesterday morning, one sensed Nigel Farage had reached his moment of supreme wizardry – a single man, an idea, ever fighting and finally triumphing over a vast and ruinous treachery. He was determined to mark the new relationship between Britain and Europe with all the subtlety of an exuberant latrine: “you have, by stealth, by deception, without ever telling the truth” lied to the “little people”, the “ordinary people”, the “oppressed”.
In many ways, the speech was a remarkable achievement in capturing the evolving political landscape. Where previously politics was derided as dingy and listless, now it offers humiliation, cruelty and insecurity. With an outgoing prime minister destined to be remembered as seeking to settle internal party disputes by gambling the future of the nation, it fell instead to Farage to clarify a vision of Britain outside of the EU.
By personifying Brussels as the agent of oppression against the voiceless and marginalised, UKIP has successfully offered conspiracy in the place of reality, distrust in the place of unity and exclusion in the place of community. That such conspiracist narratives have been seized by so many as a way of shaping and influencing politics will have grave consequences for years to come. The Farage vision is the one most clearly set out since the horrors of Brexit – and such artless narcissism should concern us immensely.
In particular, the exaggerated and misconstrued narratives of immigration will continue to, in the long term, have a profound impact. At the heart of leaflets telling Polish people to “go back home” or the firebombing of a halal butcher shop in Birmingham, is a belief that the “little people” can only make progress through a rejection of foreign imposed authority – and a cynicism that, through such violence, their aspirations can be recognised. This is the vision of a Little England that Brexit has woefully engineered.
One only had to watch the Leave press conference to realise how insurmountable the Brexit agenda will be, and all the terrible consequences the campaign has engendered. The muted display of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, reminiscent more of a death than a rebirth, revealed complete dismay at a result they did not anticipate. Almost immediately after the result, the façade of Leave slipped as the sheer scale of the campaign’s dishonesty came to light. Within hours, key figures had distanced themselves from the promises of £350 million a week for the NHS, admitted immigration from Europe will not be much changed and, most troublingly, revealed that Leave did not have a Brexit plan. Meanwhile, the economic impact was almost immediate – the world markets went into upheaval, the sterling dropped to a 31-year low and within the day 2 trillion dollars had been wiped off the world market.
Yet, seemingly learning nothing from a brazenly dishonest campaign, the prime ministerial hopeful Boris Johnson set out in an article another long list of empty promises he cannot keep. In a bid to reassure the Remain camp, Johnson promised unity among the four nations of Britain, even as Nicola Sturgeon established a second Scottish referendum is on the table. He promised that Britain remains a part of Europe, intense and intensifying cooperation with the EU will continue, the rights of Britons living on the continent and those seeking to travel and work there will be protected, and that free trade will remain unchanged. Yet none of these promises are now his to make.
Decisions will be made at the mercy of negotiations with the EU, and it is increasingly apparent that they will not favour Britain. Both the president of the European parliament and the president of the European Commission swiftly established that they have no interest in waiting – “this is not an amicable divorce” – while Germany has rejected the notion of early informal talks. “If you want to exist and leave this family, then you cannot expect all the obligations to drop away but privileges to continue to exist,” remarked German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday. Brussels has dismissed Johnson’s aspirations for continued access to the single market as a “pipe dream”. And as for Farage’s involvement, Jean-Claude Juncke’s response to the UKIP leader’s afore-mentioned tirade with a simple “why are you here?” spoke volumes.
Britain is already an outsider, and Europe, snubbed and angered that “a whole continent is taken hostage because of an internal fight in the Tory party” feels it. The sight of MEPs jeering at the chief architect of Brexit in Brussels yesterday speaks volumes about our already diminished status in Europe. Our destiny as an ‘independent’ nation does not fill Europe with envy – a government and opposition in disarray, a rise in hate crime and a Leave campaign without a plan post-Brexit. Rising in parallel to hate crime is the sheer disconnect between a privileged political elite – in fact, a privileged, liberal London class – and those who have been dubbed as the “peripheries”. One can only hope that now the die is cast and the Pandora’s box of populist anger unleashed, our national political approach will have answers to address the rage. This does not feel like a country riding towards an ultimate goal, let alone galloping towards the rest of the world.
It is unclear whether any manoeuvre on the EU referendum result is conceivable, especially in light of the EU’s recent reaction to our folly. Indeed, a sincere acknowledgement of the abuse of democracy and the magnitude of deception from the Leave side of the campaign has yet to surface. Unless it does, we cannot move beyond the political instability we are facing and we will continue to scapegoat communities for political gain. This will, of course, threaten our own social and economic existence. At the same time, political parties and civil society groups must work hard on a post-Brexit plan, identifying the areas which will be most affected and lobbying on policies where it matters.
There is now an appetite for a newly inclusive and connected movement. In the absence of strong leadership and reassurance – while the Tories search for a new prime minister and the Parliamentary Labour Party has betrayed its own leader – a floundering Brexit dream is the most dangerous thing of all.
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