Monday, June 20, 2016


For this (or any) Yank, to comment on the Brexit referendum on continuing membership in the European Union that will happen in Britain on June 23 is foolish. It's too easy to slot the conflicting sides into our own political conflicts, even as there are kinships in the panic over immigration and persistent regional differences, missing the texture and complexity of British realities.

Yet the chance that Britain will try to sever itself from Europe is unsettling. In the 20th century, Europe was the font and exporter of global barbarism. (Yes, our own country is working on winning that title for the 21st century.) With exhaustion and the death of empires, Europe became a region of civilization. Its disaggregation can't be a good sign, can it?

Anthony Barnett is writing a book online at Open Democracy titled Blimey, it could be Brexit! which I have found enlightening. Here's how he describes his project:

And here are some nuggets, not in the order Barnett serves them up, that might be thought provoking for people in the States.

He names the signal failure of Britain's recent rulers; both Labor and Conservative governments have squandered the presumption that they rule in the best interests of the majority.

... Iraq irreparably holed the legitimacy of Britain’s current political caste below the waterline, not because they were mistaken, but because the people warned them they were mistaken. On a matter of war and peace – the highest calling of the state – the people were right and the Westminster political elite were wrong. The fundamental assumption on which rests the unwritten basic code of the UK’s operating system is that those who rule us will get it right. Or, if they get it wrong, as they did with appeasement most notably in 1938, they will provide the man and the judgment to correct their course. ...

With that loss of legitimacy, space has opened up for the strains implicit in an "unwritten constitution" within which whatever party rules in Parliament in Westminster can take the country wherever it chooses without much legal check.

... the referendum is a symptom of the unresolved constitutional agony caused by the failure to overcome Britain’s past.

... Here in Anglo-Britain we do not have a state that is answerable to us, the people. We have governments that can be ejected in elections and to that important if blunt extent are answerable. But the state that they run when elected is the most highly centralised of the western world and its powers are not defined or limited by a constitution that places sovereignty in the hands of the people.

Brits have relied on accreted, uncodified, snippets of law and liberty; the European project, meanwhile, is an attempt to define by diplomacy a written legal framework for many national states, accommodating differences but gradually eroding them.

... A multi-national entity like the United Kingdom [consisting of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland] whose constitution is uncodified is bound to be fundamentally threatened by membership of a larger, multi-national entity that is dedicated to codifying itself. If its membership continues, its constitution will eventually be dissolved by it. The British state’s conventions, informal procedures and lack of defined sovereignty cannot withstand being inside the consolidation of the EU’s processes.

... The European Union, soon to be ten times the size of the UK, by contrast, has a short history of changing its arrangements in as fast and purposive a way as it can, despite its now great size. These are two different constitutional projects. The term sounds odd applied to UK. But it's a mistake to see the British regime, however ancient and pre-democratic it may be, as somehow feudal. On the contrary it emerged from the first modern revolution of 1688, after a regicidal civil war, as a cross-class, capitalist formation committed to development, improvement and money-making, without which it could never have hosted the industrial revolution. Britain remains a purposive country, with an old constitution that seeks to encompass new energies.

This historic Britain, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, cannot preserve its inherited constitutional settlement and culture within the European Union. The two are incompatible. This will be so even if the European Union discards the experiment of the Euro and seeks to become, as the phrase goes, a United Europe of States rather than a United States of Europe, which it will be well advised to do.

Barnett faults "the left" for failing to break out of the apologetic frame within which Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has cast the referendum. Membership in Europe could be positively good not only for Britain's economic health, but even more for equality, diversity, and democracy.

By the left I mean an arc of those who oppose corporate power and its corruptions. It includes some who support Leave ... It stretches from Greens, Lib Dems and liberals (at least those who prefer democracy and liberty to the pure market place) the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru [of Wales], through varieties of socialism, labourism and social democrats... Looked at from the conventional, received point of view this is a heteroclite hodgepodge. This is because the received point of view is in the pocket of the system’s vested interests.

... no third option [beyond to Remain reluctantly or to Leave out of reactionary impulses] has caught the public imagination or been given significant media coverage. The main reason for this is that in their hearts too the Labour party and Labour movement also distrust the EU and do not feel European. They too support Remain for instrumental reasons, as a source of rights and other workers gains they feel too feeble to secure through their own strengths. Jeremy Corbyn says he is "about seven to seven and a half" out of 10 for the EU. It is an honest answer and that distinguishes him from the Prime Minister. But as well as being the opposite of inspiring, in the last fortnight of a momentous campaign it exhibtis precisely a relationship of calculated balance of advantage that is anti-EU in spirit....

... in England voters are being asked to choose between two forms of anti-Europeanism. In effect the question on the ballot paper is asking, ‘How antagonistic are you to the EU, a little or a lot?’ It is not surprising that the referendum has revived anti-Europeanism and a desire to Brexit.

In the last week a young Labour member of Parliament was murdered by someone who is apparently a nativist crazy. Jo Cox did inspire through her work with refugees and for the poor. Brits are still shocked by political murder (are we?). Whether this horror jars the result in the referendum where polls show Leave ahead will be seen on Thursday. Barnett intends to finish his book after the vote is taken; whatever the result, the issues he raises won't go away.

1 comment:

Brandon said...

The EU will eventually disintegrate, it seems to me.

Related Posts with Thumbnails