July 23, 2017
Because the Article 50 negotiations appear to be going so well – a happy fact which allows Prime Minister May to take a three week holiday in the Alps – one can take a step back to reflect on the wider causes and consequences of Brexit. Summer holidays are a good time to read books: I have read three, all most recently published.
In The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump (Unbound), Anthony Barnett has written a stonker. Barnett, a Londoner, is a noted campaigner for constitutional reform. Being a progressive thinker, anti-Brexit and anti-Trump, he is therefore highly frustrated. He fulminates against the political class in Britain and America that has led their respective countries into such a pickle.
He points the finger at the ‘CBCs’ – that gallery of Clintons, Blair, Bush, Brown and Cameron – who promised too much, botched reform, lost touch with the public, suffered military defeat and fell prey to the ideology of neoliberalism. David Cameron is held in particular contempt as glib, careless and arrogant ‑ “one of those politicians who enjoy unlimited personal ambition untroubled by the burden of larger purpose. He was shameless in his desire to counterfeit himself as a courteous one-nation leader who loves his country”.
Theresa May emerges as the product of the Daily Mail, into whose shaky hands the future of Britain is now cast.
It is no wonder, argues Barnett, when faced with such a litany of failed governance, amply laced with corruption, that the people voted as they did. Brexit, he says, “broke the spell”. Barnett spares no one: Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the BBC, Rupert Murdoch and even the FT are castigated. Both the Remain and Leave camps deceived themselves, each other and the general public. Theresa May emerges as the product of the Daily Mail, into whose shaky hands the future of Britain is now cast.
Barnett does not omit to criticise the European Union, which he blames for its poor governance and its seeming addiction to neoliberalism. But here his touch is much less sure than on the UK or the US. When you read that his two main sources of EU analysis are Gisela Stuart and Yanis Varoufakis, you see what I mean. Strangely for such a constitutionalist, Barnett neglects the federalist thesis.
Barnett writes seductively well, but The Lure of Greatness is too long, suffers from some factual errors (especially about the EU), and would have benefitted from tougher editing. His prescriptions for the future are a bit zany: compulsory voting, the dissolution of the United Kingdom and the demolition of Buckingham Palace. He hopes that an undefined ‘soft’ Brexit will lead in the end to the return of England to the European fold.
Much better on the EU, and shorter, is Kenneth Armstrong’s Brexit Time: Leaving the EU – Why, How and When? (Cambridge). Armstrong is the professor of EU law at Cambridge, and he offers a clear and straightforward analysis of the complex events which led up to the triggering by Mrs May of Article 50, including the litigation in the UK Supreme Court. He is readable not just by lawyers, but his insistence that the EU is a regime of law is illuminating for those who might have thought otherwise.
Indeed, even MPs and civil servants would be advised to read Armstrong on what the EU’s internal market really is (and is not) and what the different options facing the UK as it leaves the EU really are (and are not).
Like Barnett a Remainer, Armstrong equally deplores the nationalist mood into which Britain has fallen. As befits an academic lawyer, he is less forthcoming on the politics of the EU and the workings of its institutions and he avoids the temptation to speculate on the fallout from Brexit.
In Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union (Cambridge) Harold D. Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley draw from numerous surveys of public opinion both before and after the referendum. They confirm that worries about EU governance, corruption and immigration deeply affected voters’ attitudes over a lengthy period. It is extraordinary in those circumstances that Cameron ever thought he could win a referendum on staying in an organisation he himself was known so to dislike.
Although it was widely recognised that Brexit could do economic damage to the country, most folk thought that their personal finances would not be affected. Most imagined that leaving the EU would not damage Britain’s standing in the world. Sovereignty – ‘taking back control’ – mattered more to those annoyed by years of bad governance at every level. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the electorate were not so much wrong as hapless.
One is left with a sense of British impotence and European potential.
Doubtless to the distress of the authors, these books were written before Mrs May called her futile general election as well as before the victory of Emmanuel Macron. Although all three books make undoubtedly useful contributions, in a sense they have been published both too late and too early. It is a pity that the analyses made and arguments advanced about our polity were not heard and seen before the British people voted on 23 June last year.
One is left from all three books with a sense of British impotence and European potential. The Brexit story is far from finished, for Britain and for Europe. What comes next?