Thursday, 7 July 2016

The three tribes of Brexiters, and the cold logic behind Leave

Another Brexit blog. There must be millions by now. But here we go. I've been thinking more about the future in the last few days, and how Brexit fits into the broader picture. To do this I think we need to look at the people who voted Leave and why.

Aside from the small tribes of genuine racists, climate contrarians and hard-core revolutionary socialists who backed Leave, I think there are three broad groups.

Group A - the Nostalgists - have long been opposed to the EU. They are older, and remember a time in their youth when things where better and simpler and Britain cut a larger figure on the world stage. Why not get back to that? They are ill at ease with modern internationalism and its globalised culture, and the EU has only ever been a political construct. They lose nothing emotionally by leaving, and get to cut themselves off from something they perceive is (rightly or wrongly) responsible for tedious restrictions on car parking, and water use, and jug sizes and the kinds of words they can say.

Group B - the Rebels - voted out of the EU as a howl of protest against low wages, crappy jobs and corroded identity. It was a powerful rejection of the current version of free-market economics (which some call neoliberalism).  For them the EU was not a source of freedom but of penury. A system which forced them to compete with millions of others for dull jobs and which kept them locked in suburban mediocrity while the centres of London, Manchester and the rest developed into glittering playgrounds for the global hyper-connected elite. They look on leaving the EU as a route to protection, as a route to regaining cultural identity. They hope it will revive lost industries and break the cycle of debt and low incomes. Witness the impact that the planned closure of the Talbot Steel Works in South Wales had in the run up to the debate.

Group C are the Privateers. They are perhaps the smallest of the three groups, but the most powerful. They are free-market warriors who see Brexit as a way of keeping the game going a little longer. Far from protecting low paid workers, they want to strip away the social safety net. They are openly talking about turning the UK into a cold Singapore, a temperate Dubai, capitalist playgrounds where the ultra rich are waited on by indentured labour, and skyscrapers are built by workers in camps the Ancient Egyptians might well have recognised. Already some are asking for hard won rights like maternity leave to be scrapped. Environmental protections - the things that stop our beaches being covered in shit and our air being like smoking 10 cigarettes a day (as it is in New Delhi) are firmly in their sights.

These groups have little in common, and Group B may be in for a shock when they see what Group C are up too. Protection for Port Talbot steel works? Already some of the Privateers are anticipating a flood of cheap Chinese steel if the UK signs a bilateral trade deal (see the Twitter exchange below with a chap from the Institute for Economic Affairs). That would be the end of any local manufacture.

But why would the Privateers do this? Well one reason is to keep the neoliberal machine running a little bit longer. They postulate that Europe and the West have entered a period of secular stagnation. That will mean little or no real growth, perhaps for decades, perhaps for ever. Capitalism does not really work without growth. Asia and Africa on the other hand probably have a good few decades left before they hit the same phase. Rather than dealing with the root causes of the problem, they hope that by coupling the UK more tightly to the East they can keep it all together for a few more years. You can see their point and who knows, perhaps they are right?

But are we prepared for what that might mean? Are we prepared to continue the current process which seeks to sweep away the social systems we have developed to compete on those terms? To no longer compete with low wages and laxer regulations in Greece and Poland, but with India, Nigeria and Indonesia? Will we be willing to de-regulate everything from animal welfare to planning permission? And more importantly, will those in groups A and B who also voted to Leave be happy to go along with it?

The challenge for the UK, in the coming years, will be not only to see if it can hold itself together as a country, but to see if it can forge a new path - one outside the EU, but not engaged in a race to the bottom, and one able to survive the coming environmental and economic shocks in the decades ahead.

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