Post-war British life has largely been a stay of execution. The former superpower has largely stumbled through the past 70 years of societal rot that laid the seeds for the political crisis that is Brexit.
The old adage stands true that the country has not merely been without a proper place in the world, but a defining worldview to chart a course with. Following the slaughter of the Somme and Passchendaele, the old Anglican and imperial sensibilities began to crumble among their leadership caste opening the path towards post-national decadence.
This decadence is best encapsulated in Huxley’s “Antic Hay” describing the anti-patriotic hedonism of post-1918 British elites and the fact that rather than being the officer class of their society, they had lost their nerve and will to rule. The Edwardian stiff upper lip attitude folded, and into that vacuum came the social engineering of the Fabian society.
If the First World War heralded the end of the old imperial worldview the Second vanquished Britain as a significant global player, leaving it as an effectively American satrap whilst its empire was decommissioned. Genuine British geopolitical independence ended with the botched Suez campaign in 1956, seeing Britain tied at the hip with America right up until the recent sabre rattling towards Iran.
Despite the rot, a characteristic of British life the past 70 years has been the numerous attempts to revivify the nation with a new post-imperial worldview to adjust to the post-imperial world. Originally with the Atlee welfare state we see the attempts to transition towards socialist utopianism and a cradle to the grave nanny state.
Out of the ruins of the welfare state in the 1980s came the market orientated patriotism of Thatcher and attempts to return Britain to a type of pre-war patriotic normalcy. There was also of course the botched attempt by Enoch Powell for a racially protectionist policy for Britain and the Eurofederalism of Edward Heath in between.
With Brexit we see an attempt at a new project geared towards national revival with a rather crude form of populist nationalism. Out of the ashes of Blairism and Thatcherism, Brexit gained its electoral strength in the economically left-behind areas, combined with latent English nationalism, that may unravel the union as a whole. The empty bromides of diversity and GDP growth mattered very little a majority of the population ready to cut ties with Brussels in 2016, after 30 years of browbeating by neoliberal economics.
While perhaps everything that can be said about Brexit has been said, the extent to which it has and will define British politics for a generation is extraordinary. Slowly but surely the major parties are dying and new battle lines being drawn dependent almost exclusively on where one stands on the Brexit question. If 20th century Irish politics was defined by the national question, with economic ideology made secondary, then the question of Europe will be the focal point of British politics for a large part of the 21st.
British politics is bifurcating on nationalism versus globalism lines. On the latter are those who benefit materially from globalism, as well as those attuned to the cultural and demographic changes occurring at the present time. Ranging from Blairites to disgruntled centrist Tories, they are finding a home in a revivified Liberal Democrats, currently the second largest party in the UK, if the polls are to be believed.
In the opposing corner is an alliance of the fobbed off Old Labour vote, and sentimental Little Englanders, both baneful at the last 30 years of social change. The days of inoffensive and centred Blairism are finished, with the future belonging to the politicians best equipped to play to the increased polarisation rather than cling to the centre.
The strategic objectives for Brexiteers centre on the repatriation of powers relating to immigration and trade back to the British nation state, ideally in a scenario where the political integrity of the British union remains intact. The problem arises when you begin to inquire about what occurs after the break with Brussels, normally with vague talk of trade deals with America or Europe.
Perhaps the more advanced plans which exist for these post-Brexit trade policies exist in the proposals of the pro-Brexit economist Patrick Minford and his attached think-tank “Economists for Free Trade”. Envisioning the unilateral dropping of all tariffs post-Brexit, the plan is often cited by Brexit supporters. However, it has been criticised for its willingness to sacrifice large swathes of the British economy, such as the areas of agriculture and manufacturing, in order to transform Britain into a de facto free-trading Singapore on the North Sea.
Regardless of the merits and demerits of Minford’s plan, the probable post-Brexit future of the British economy being ransacked for the sake of economic rationalisation and myopic trade deals betrays the very forces that propelled the vote in the first place. It is for this reason that many Brexit supporters are potentially walking into a trap, whereby the economy and society at large suffers from even more neoliberal ransacking.
A rather sad and ironic endgame that may emerge from the entire Brexit process could be an increased pace of immigration into the UK. Any potential trade deal with non-EU nations may come at the price tag of liberalised visa laws opening the British market to more foreign labour.
Populism is a very crude instrument, however useful it is against the neoliberal order. As it stands what is likely to occur should the UK crash out will be a period of chaos, followed by a series of mismanaged and one sided trade deals, leading to effective asset stripping and labour market globalisation. An endemic irony is that the overall outcome of the Brexit process could be a more liberalised immigration system as part of any trade deal made with the rest of the world.
Brexit originated from the infighting and contradictions of the British Tory party, and is likely to miscarry because of it. The EU is an institution worthy of contempt for its homogenisation efforts, as well as its mismanaged handling of economics and migration. However the potential outcome may leave Britain in a worse off state, something that the more ardent Brexiters scarcely realise.
In addition to the naivety towards getting myopic trade deals, the failure to challenge American power by Brexiters is another stumbling block for any attempt at British national revival. While Brexiters take succour in the Trumpian voice in the White House, long term political independence cannot be secured for the UK while America and Britain are bound at the hip in terms of foreign policy.
Unlike the previous attempts at national revival there is no real depth to the current wave of populism gripping the UK, or the West in general. The hamfisted trade deals that may follow a crash-out Brexit will only worsen the social and economic conditions that spurned on Brexit.
Those on the nationalist right should benefit from a greater destabilising of the UK and EU in the aftermath of the Brexit decision. However, any change that emerges from it will be superficial if it does not address the spiritual rot at the very heart of British life.
Failure to break the mould on matters of neoliberalism and having a sycophantic foreign policy relationship with the USA will ultimately make any post-Brexit changes cosmetic. Brexit burst onto the scene as a chance to clean the Augean stables of British life, instead it may end up as just being a public relations rebrand of the Britain we see today.