Notes on Brexit as an ex-Brit (November 2018)

Observing the tangles of Brexit over the last couple of years – which might have been better staged as a theatrical farce – has been intriguing and often exasperating. I’ll start with a confession: when I left the United Kingdom (UK) 38 years ago it was the Irish question and the final contortions of British colonialism combined with the arrogance of the Eton and Oxford educated ruling classes in dismissing and/or repressing struggles for civil rights which drove me to seek my livelihood in other pastures. In addition I was involved in a peace organisation and the ugliness of military operations in Northern Ireland disgusted me. These ghosts – the division of Ireland and the behaviour of the English elite – have been haunting the negotiating sessions as the British, Irish and other Europeans (the French, Germans, etc., etc.) seek to determine how these nations (tribes?) will collaborate in the future.

I’m an ex-Brit because 20 years ago I thought that as a citizen of the European Union (EU), it wouldn’t matter much if I changed my nationality and became Danish. At that time I had lived in Denmark for around 15 years, I was paying taxes and seeking a permanent employment contract as an adviser in the foreign services, so the change made sense. As it turned out, the regulations at that time required that I renounce my British citizenship and the right of abode in the UK. But from the vantage point of the Brexit charade, I’m glad that I opted to become Danish and that I’m not faced with the hassles associated with carrying a British passport while living in an another EU member state in the post-2016 referendum, transitional limbo. That the Danish anti-EU movement might force a vote in parliament and try to take the Danes down the same hazardous pathway is another story…

In addition to having lived in an ethnically diverse West African country (Burkina Faso), I have resided in several divided European nations (including Belgium and Switzerland) during my lifetime and have often speculated on what brings people together in these imagined communities and what drives us apart. State building and national unification seem to be fractious and somehow “open ended” processes. I also spent three years living in Managua in Central America where the complexities of ”us and them” took on other dimensions, in particular in the – also topical – question of the relations between Nicaraguans, their neighbours and the “gringos en el norte” (North America)… but that’s another story too![1]

A key observation about Brexit is the rather unhelpful conclusion that the referendum in June 2016 was a colossal mistake and for a host of reasons the Tories under David Cameron ought to have known better than to ask whether “the people” wanted to remain in the EU.[2] A glance at post-war socio-political trends in the UK instantly reveals that the easiest cause around which white Englishmen can be united is restricting immigration based on the fear of Johnny foreigner. Since a pillar of European cooperation has been the free movement of labour, it was not the least surprising that the reactionary rebels on the Tory right together with the ranting crazies in UKIP would do their utmost to play on the myth that migration undermines the purity of the nation and that they (assorted foreigners) are seeking to ”steal from” or ”destroy” or ”pollute” us (true Brits…). Back in 1968 an arch anti-EU Conservative member of the UK parliament called Enoch Powell got the immigration bogeyman firmly in the public consciousness when he made a speech about the rivers of blood that would flow as darkies engulfed the islands in reggae and curries and voodoo and all manner of un-English things.

Perhaps more fundamentally, the popular ranting about the downsides of British EU membership would have had much less impact if the European integration process had been successful and could be sold as a great leap forward. But as the debt crisis in Greece, the undermining of civil rights in Poland and Hungary, the rejection of joint defence forces in favour of a “North Atlantic” (NATO) model and so on all illustrate, building our common European house over the last 70 years or so has been a very difficult process. Is that surprising? Not at all, inter-governmental cooperation, exchange of goods and services and other forms of “civilised” (non-violent) interaction require patience, good negotiating skills and a shared desire to seek compromises for the common good. But many politicians and large chunks of the mass media in all European countries have always been on the lookout for scapegoats when economic policies go wrong, when unemployment rises, when currencies lose their value, etc., such that blaming ”Brussels” for an assortment of ills has always been an attractive option. The economic constraints (austerity policies) associated with the euro – which neither the British nor the Danes amongst others have adopted – have also undermined the European “project”, while the construction of pan-European institutions and cross-border political movements has faced numerous obstacles (including language barriers…).

Of course there are loud-mouthed groups in all countries who denounce international agreements and believe that governments should restrict their operations purely to defence and security to protect “the people” against foreign threats. The British have been subjected to this rhetoric on a large scale ever since the Germans became Nazis and the heroic images of rising up to fight on the beaches suffused the mass media. I remember how odd it was to explore the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1970s and discover that contrary to popular myths in Britain there was an efficient modern state, all the trappings of wealth and welfare and few signs of any desire to return to the horrors of the first half of the 20th Century. In other words, I found out that the incessant, almost obsessive recourse to stories of the war and how the Germans couldn’t be trusted, the French were unreliable and backward, etc., etc. were simply distortions, trapping the English in a time warp.

It was amazing that the 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the EU was won by the remain movement, except that the decisive game changer for making the membership case was the likelihood of better standards of living in a common market. Hence Margaret Thatcher became an enthusiastic European free trader, based on the logic that as long as the main reason for collaboration was to allow the ruling classes to become wealthier, then the EU was a good thing. But better conditions for workers or surrendering to the Germans, no way!

That a minority of raging nationalists have been able to subvert political processes and dominate the media in their portrayal of a European super-state nightmare says much about the failure of enlightened progressives (including social democrats) to campaign effectively around the necessity of building trans-national institutions that are capable of tackling trans-national problems with trans-national solutions. It reminds me of the polarisation paralysing international negotiations on climate change: first movers in terms of measures to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are constantly on the look out for free riders, who will expand their polluting activities while others agree to cuts. The upshot is that nothing is agreed and the planet continues to warm up.[3] The failure to transcend narrowly defined interests and to intervene for the common good is a failure with an inbuilt boomerang effect. Which appears to be what the Brexiteers will have to learn the hard way, as the government prepares emergency measures to cope with disruption of trade following a “no deal” exit…

The bottom line in my observations may be to concede the truth in recent remarks by Tony Blair – not a politician I admire, but he did at least negotiate the Good Friday agreement before he decided to make his miserable mark on the history of the Middle East and join a neo-conservative invasion of Iraq – who said that Brexit is going to be either pointless or painful. What’s the solution? If British politicians can bring themselves to act as responsible Europeans (!), then compromises will be sought through a carefully worded, well prepared new referendum – which would be the third time that Brits have been asked to pronounce en masse about “Europe” – with arbitrators avoiding simplistic slogans and focusing on informed debate. At least it would make sense to vote on an exit plan, not pie in the sky!

There are Danish, Irish and Norwegian precedents for asking the people to vote a second time on the scope and depth of European integration. Unfortunately, given the accumulated anger and bitterness associated with European affairs, in the UK it is more likely that another form of distorted reality will take over. The English ruling class is not bound by rules I understand!

In the end there may be no better explanations for the Brexit fiasco and the trials and tribulations of the EU than founding mythologies, such as Genesis chapter 11, verses 1-9:

1 Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. 3 Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. 4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. 9 Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.


[1] A couple of key references for my reflections over the years are ”Imagined Communities” by Benedict Anderson (Verso, 1983) and ”Acts of Union and Disunion” by Linda Colley (Profile, 2014). As the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War is celebrated this month, it is also appropriate to quote Wilfred Owen’s famous reminder of “… the old lie, Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.” Probably the best analyses of the self-inflicted Brexit morass that I have discovered so far are by Fintan O’Toole, an Irish writer and journalist (in particular an hour long interview on the US World Affairs TV programme which can be found on YouTube).

[2] 53.4 per cent of the 28 million voters in England voted to leave as did 52.5 per cent of the 1.6 million Welsh voters. But 62 per cent of the 2.7 million Scottish voters voted to stay in the EU, as did 55.8 per cent of almost 800,000 voters in Northern Ireland. Around 72 per cent of the electorate (registered voters) cast their votes, i.e. about 33 million people. The total UK population in 2016 was about 66 million.

[3] The 2015 Paris agreement at the UNFCCC did not include any binding regulations that would require signatories to introduce measures to reduce GHG emissions, rather it relies on so-called ”nationally determined contributions”, which it is hoped will be enough to keep global warming within a 1.5 (or 2) degree Celsius increase compared with the pre-industrial (1850) average temperature. We’ll see…

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