When Brexit won the vote in 2016, staff at the University of Oxford received an email from the Vice-Chancellor. In it we were told that while the referendum’s results may not have been to our liking, with Oxford, like Cambridge and London voting against Brexit, we should remember that the university had survived worse crises. England’s seventeenth-century Civil War was cited as the chief example of such a crisis. At the time I found this comparison both preposterous and amusing, not least because then as now Oxford found itself on the losing side. But three years later it seems curiously apt.
While the Brexit referendum was won by a slim majority, it demonstrated that no consensus existed in the United Kingdom, with entire regions like Scotland voting against it. Today opinion polls have anti-Brexiters in an equally slim majority, revealing yet again the loss of national unity that resulted from the referendum. A situation in which no national majority can be marshalled is unprecedented in British politics, at least since the days of the English Civil War. And this loss of consensus also means the loss of Britain’s most important political principles: pragmatism and compromise.
In some ways the endless wrangling over Brexit since 2016 represents the last redoubt of British pragmatism if not compromise. For it conceals the ideological and constitutional conditions of a civil war behind mind-numbing bureaucratic procedure on the one hand, and the theatre of political infighting within the Conservative and Labour parties on the other. Gridlock is the only thing that holds the country together. Otherwise Britain appears to have switched places with her historical enemy, France, forsaking political caution for revolutionary posturing on all sides.
Britain has also abandoned a principle that defined her foreign policy from the Napoleonic Wars: to prevent Europe’s unification in any way that could threaten her interests. This principle was only reinforced by Hitler’s attempt to unify the continent, and it is what persuaded Margaret Thatcher to join the Common Market and retain Britain’s influence in European affairs. The immediate causes of this abandonment lie in former prime minister David Cameron’s resort to political gambles for short-term gain, in particular the Scottish referendum of 2014 and that for Brexit two years later.
Both referendums were decided by narrow margins, the first one shoring up Cameron’s government, while the second destroyed it by unexpectedly delivering the prime minister’s party to his rivals within it. Of course, these exercises did not enjoy the same constitutional status, with the former representing a long-standing demand by an elected majority in Scotland, while the latter was supported by a minority faction in the ruling party which Cameron sought to crush. Nevertheless, their unprecedented and serial deployment has undercut Britain’s parliamentary democracy.
An incomplete union
As we know from the case of French-speaking Quebec’s repeated claims to independence from English-speaking Canada, once legitimised, separatist referendums can never solve a political problem but only defer it. Whether or not Brexit will strengthen the case for Scottish independence, as seems likely, both referendums have weakened Britain’s political parties by turning them into the mere instruments of majorities defined by single issues. They have also played a part in delegitimising the general election as parliamentary democracy’s primary vehicle for ascertaining the electorate’s views on a range of subjects.
But the two referendums are connected more directly as well. I was in Scotland during the run-up to the independence vote, about which I was making a television documentary. I interviewed several of Scotland’s most eminent intellectuals, all of whom supported some version of their country’s independence, if for reasons rather different from the ones proffered in party campaigns. They told me that Britain’s constitutional problem had to do not with Scottish desires for secession so much as with the ambiguous constitutional status of England within the United Kingdom.
With the devolution of political power to Scotland and Wales, and the Good Friday Agreement that restored self-government to Northern Ireland in the 1990s, England remained the only part of the United Kingdom that possessed no assembly of its own. On the one hand it spoke for the whole of the country, defining its political future by sheer demographic dominance. But on the other an English identity lacking institutional foundations had long expressed itself in football hooliganism and xenophobia, both forms of collective assertion that are marked by the extensive use of England’s flag, the Cross of St. George, rather than the Union Jack which represents the United Kingdom.
Spurred on by devolution and the political institutionalisation of Scottish nationalism in particular, English nationalism initially manifested itself in xenophobic movements and eventually in new political parties like UKIP (the UK Independence Party) and the recently-formed Brexit Party, both demanding independence from the European Union. My Scottish interlocutors told me the great problem facing the United Kingdom was not their own largely symbolic and minority nationalism, which sought a common currency and monarch with Britain, but the institutionally ungrounded and far more radical nationalism of the English majority.
Rather than dividing Britain, therefore, Scottish independence was meant, in the view of the people I interviewed, to institutionalise English nationalism politically and allow the United Kingdom’s largest unit to speak for itself within a truly federal system. Whether or not this situation would have come to pass if Scotland had voted to secede, it is clear that a quickly-developing form of English nationalism lies behind Brexit. For the referendum’s English rather than British demand is evident in the geography of its results.
The two nations
Behind Brexit lies the emergence of English nationalism, willing to resign both Scotland and Northern Ireland to the EU in order to play a role of its own for the first time in modern history. Yet this nationalism remains the love that dare not speak its name, with only explicitly xenophobic and racist parties willing to describe themselves as English. Politics in the United Kingdom is thus defined by two kinds of nationalism. The Scottish one, resigning traditional markers of sovereignty, such as currency and defence, by attempting to replace the United Kingdom as one kind of federal structure with the EU as another. And English nationalism, now chiefly represented by the Conservative Party and the Brexit Party, defined by the very elements of sovereignty that the former abjures.
Those who support neither Scottish independence nor Brexit occupy a half-way house, lacking ideological clarity and differentiated from their rivals only by degree. However numerous, they are unable to make a positive case for themselves, instead lapsing into warnings about the adverse economic and political consequences of either alternative. Scottish secessionism now represents the only coherent pro-EU position in Britain, with the English left joining the right in supporting Brexit, which it calls ‘Lexit’ or a Labour Party exit. Yet Labour is paralysed in the effort to hold together its Brexit-supporting working-class supporters in the north and EU-supporting middle-class constituency in the south.
However different the aims of left and right regarding Brexit, their coming together is noteworthy because it suggests a mutual participation in English nationalism. One wants the return of national sovereignty to safeguard laissez-faire capitalism against external regulation, and the other to enforce labour rights against the EU’s neoliberal order. Both claim to be speaking for the national will, unable to recognise that the referendum’s split result demonstrates this nation does not exist and neither does the working class, each sundered into rival parties, regions and ideologies. This may explain the backward-looking character of both sides, their utopias dominated by early-twentieth century visions of the state.
Interesting about these duelling movements for independence, is how their reliance on the past has also led them to appropriate the language that Britain’s former colonies once used against her. And while this might make some sense for Scotland, which can at least rhetorically claim to be one of England’s earliest colonies, it signals something quite new among the English themselves. It is almost as if England has for the first time identified with her colonies, if only to bring the divisive processes of independence she supervised in places like Ireland, India and Palestine back home in a grand act of partitioning the United Kingdom for the sake of English nationalism.
For the moment Britain’s partition remains an ideological one, manifested in the loss of national will. The Conservatives, with a wafer-thin majority, and now none at all, have been taken over by a faction that was negligible before the referendum. But its appropriation of a hard Brexit strategy was also intended to take the wind out of far-right parties like UKIP, and, latterly, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, making Britain one of the few Western countries with a small far-right presence. Labour, in the meantime, is riven by infighting about Brexit. That leaves a third party, the Liberal Democrats, to mop up defectors from either side.
The party is over
Perhaps another referendum or a general election will allow a national will to be exerted. Or perhaps they will show that such a will does not exist. What we are seeing in Britain is a slow and relatively well-mannered civil war, but one that is neither unique nor horrific when placed in its global context. Civil wars appear to have returned to characterise politics in the post-Cold War world, whether in hot conflicts like those in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya and Yemen, or in cold ones like the US, Britain, France, Spain, Ukraine, Lebanon and Venezuela. Countries can be added or subtracted from either list depending on how one defines irreconcilable conflict.
We are used to seeing civil wars in the global south, where they tend to follow rather than provoke foreign invasions, but unaccustomed to recognising them in the north, where they are truly internal conflicts. Yet the constitutional impasses that now characterise otherwise stable countries in Europe and America should make us more open to rethinking their meaning. In the United States, like Britain but also India, we have seen venerable parties taken over by outsiders and political minorities to be hollowed out from within, while in France, Austria and Italy, just as in Pakistan, such parties have been rejected altogether for entirely new ones.
The populism associated with these newcomers to power, who in Britain include Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn as much as the Conservatives’ Boris Johnson, suggests not the making of a new national majority so much as the gradual destruction of those country-wide economic and other interests that had once defined and driven political parties. Whether it is in the majority or minority, populism lacks identifiable interests not because it exludes people from different social strata, but because they are no longer constituted as interest groups in any national or old-fashioned way.
Interests are a product of capitalism and defined by property ownership. Not only are class interests so defined, but also ethnic, religious or national ones for which identity has become nothing but a collective form of property. Tied from the very beginning of modern democracy to capitalism, in the property qualifications that once determined the right to vote, such rational interests stood contrasted with political passions that were seen as being uncontrolled and so dangerous, because they were not vested in maintaining some form of established property whose model and guarantor was the nation-state.
In poor countries, where capitalist ownership had not yet become so generalised as to define all social relations, interests did not determine politics. Gandhi, for example, sought to develop a politics based not upon interests, but the ideals of duty and sacrifice that he thought still characterised relations between relatives, friends and communities in India. His contemporary, Lenin, on the other hand, thought that it was the very absence of property and interest as dominant forms that made Russia a weak link in the chain of capitalism and thus suited for revolutionary passions.
The frailty of interests that faced Gandhi early in the last century now faces political parties in the West. The post-Cold War period saw the globalisation of supply-chains and shift of industrial production from one part of the world to another. Together with the dominance of financial and speculative capital, often invested in technology-driven service industries, this development has both dismantled the old working class based in manufacturing and rendered property immaterial as well as transnational. It is no longer possible to constitute classes or political interests by property ownership and in purely national terms.
It is the fragmentation of national interests, not their frustration, which has led to the emergence of populism. This has also resulted in the crisis of the political party, unable to respond to the challenge of globalisation. In the US, this crisis became evident not with Donald Trump’s election but that of Barack Obama in 2008. Obama was an outsider who took control of the Democratic Party in the teeth of a powerful establishment and seemingly by charisma alone. He promised to revolutionise the party, but betrayed this populist message and compromised his administration by traditional choices in both personnel and policy. Trump’s election only fulfilled the promise that Obama’s could not.
Having been saved from radical transformation under Obama, the Democrats are now dealing with it among the party’s new female and minority representatives. In the meantime, the Republicans have been taken over by populists, though neither party has seen a change of its elites or even supporters. These traditional backers remain in place, though some of them might have been disempowered within the party and others converted to the new cause. This is not some new politics of inclusion or a change of elites, but simply a breakdown of old interest groups within a new ideological framework.
In Britain, too, old parties have managed to stave off competitors, but at the cost of undergoing internal coups. It is now virtually impossible to distinguish party platforms by the interests they represent. This failure of political interest has been compensated for by new ideological rivalries based on competing nationalisms in the UK and race in the US. They represent not the return of some repressed identity but myths that have taken the place of interests in the populist imagination. And it is because they are no longer interests that such phantasms can only confront each other in a new kind of civil war.