Brexit: rage against the machine?

23 Dec 2016

 It is inevitable that year now coming to an end will be eulogised as the one in which 'the establishment' got a kicking, seeing as it was defined by Britain's vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States. The two events have invited many comparisons, with pundits observing the way in which, in both cases, establishment 'insiders' posed as radical outsiders and manipulated public concern in order to take back control, to coin a phrase, of said establishment.


Tim Shipman's All Out War : The Full Story of How Brexit Sunk Britain's Political Class was written and published before Trump's victory on 8 November, but it does allude to the way in which the Vote Leave campaign shared many tactics, be it the naked lying (about Turkey and the money for the NHS), the anti-immigrant rhetoric, or the dismissal of any criticism as illegitimate, the product of a rigged contest rather than of genuine concern. Figures such as Trump, Nigel Farage and Andrea Leadsom – a woman I somehow manage to despise more than both of those men combined - are fond of talking about how rotten our political system is. That they are the winners and not the losers at the end of this year is proof, at least on some level, that they may have a point.


A lot of the fury unleashed following Brexit and Trump's election was directed at the winners. How could such people triumph, respectable voices scoffed, given the way in which they had conducted themselves? Few people who asked this question ever dare ask themselves the obvious, but more uncomfortable corollary: how could their opponents lose? David Cameron and Hillary Clinton were backed and broadly supported by a very wide berth of people, many of whom didn’t much care for them personally, but just wanted sanity to prevail. Why did the lesser evils fail?


Shipman's book naturally devotes a lot of time to exploring why Mr Cameron's cat-like survival skills let him down this time. Was it the foolish decision to use a referendum to sooth tensions in his own party? Perhaps. Or the way in which he ran his campaign, with barrages of scare stories from lofty financial institutions which meant little to 'ordinary' people, topped off with a somewhat condescending intervention from President Obama? Maybe. Or was it the decisions of Messrs Gove and Johnson to back the side they did which sealed the fate of their boss? Oxbridge psychodramas are tedious enough in themselves, but truly disgraceful when they are played out at the centre of national life, with the future of so many jobs and livelihoods unwillingly dependent on the outcome.


I still personally believe it was immigration, and the sly way in which this social and cultural issue was masked as an economic one, which 'swung' the result. By telling voters migrants were a threat to jobs and services - effectively transforming Daily Mail headlines into campaign slogans - Vote Leave instructed people that voting on the basis of xenophobia was okay. When was the last time a country won its 'independence' so grubbily?


Perhaps it is because of Shipman's writing style - the highly engaging, almost fictionalised way in which he focuses purely on the key personalities involved - that you begin to take the sides of certain 'characters' when reading this book. But that I wished to see the Prime Minister, his worried Chancellor, and their colleagues and friends save the day and defeat the contemptible Boris Johnson and despicable Nigel Farage is a testament not only to the quality of the writing, but also an indication of the state of the country's politics. The status quo was the Cameron government, while those advocating change were the Tory right, traditionally the most 'conservative' people in the country.


Labour's utter irrelevance during the referendum campaign is just one of the many ways in which the country has moved on since we affirmed our membership of the then-embryonic EU in 1975, when it was then the Bennite left who were the most vocal opponents of further European integration. Where are the sons of Benn now? Lodged at the top of the very party they once tried to destroy, that’s where, with the leader going AWOL for weeks on end and his underlings actively attempting to sabotage the rest of the party's work.


As we know grimly realise, the coup against Jeremy Corbyn, launched immediately after the vote to leave, would in the long run only make the vampire-like leader stronger. For a brief period during that chaotic summer it seemed the Conservatives would end up with a similarly unsuitable leader, as Andrea Leadsom made it to the final two with a strong chance of seeing off Theresa May in the party-membership run-off. Leadsom's hasty self-destruction, in which – let us not forget – she played the ‘mother card’ on a woman who could not have children, at least had the benefit of contributing to two ironies. The first is that the opening event of this newly sovereign, ultra-democratic nation was the unchallenged ascendance of an unelected leader. The second is that Vote Leave was a campaign which never recovered from its victory - just look at the way they snap bitterly about 'Remoaners' today, an attempt if nothing else to distract from their total lack of game plan.


But yet, whether they recovered or not never really mattered. They achieved what they set out to accomplish: they took Britain out of the EU. The establishment got a kicking all right, but it was malign elements within it, not a disgruntled public, which stuck the boot in.


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