Philip Cunliffe – The Triumph of Global Britain

On the third anniversary of Brexit, Philip Cunliffe reflects on the failure of Euroscepticism.

Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International RelationsUCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR). He is also one of the founding editors of The Northern Star

Cross-posted from Northern Star

Britain has turned against Brexit. However much the results of opinion polls are artefacts produced by the very structure of pollsters’ questions, and however much the figures may be skewed by the inflow of new electors too young to have voted in 2016, there is no avoiding the evidence that the majority of voters see Brexit as a failed project. This is especially true of Red Wall constituencies, whose votes were so crucial to delivering not only victory in the referendum of 2016 but also in subsequent parliamentary elections. 

Recognising the sagging political support for Brexit does not mean that there is a viable electoral coalition for Rejoining the EU. Nor is it necessarily a defeat for Red Wall voters: if the northern and Midlands constituencies swing back to Labour in the next election, Brexit still had the valuable effect of allowing them to break from their decades, if not century, of loyalty to the Labour Party, demonstrating the value of political independence. If those constituencies return to Labour, it will be much more conditional. These places have become swing states in electoral terms rather than the old one-party states dominated by Labour. The fact that an entire generation of ageing liberals will blame Brexit for all the ills that have befallen the world since 2016 is also an undeniable gain of Brexit, an enduring testimony to the power of mass democracy to derange bien pensant middle-class opinion, and the capacity of ordinary working class people to defy the moral tutelage and political guidance of their betters. 

Where does all this leave the politics of Brexit, and how do we explain its failure so far? Brexiters may assert ‘Je ne Bregret rien’, expressing our individual defiance of the shifting tides of opinion. We could also justifiably point to the unrelenting Remainer revanchism of the state’s elites, that has sought to thwart Britain’s secession from the EU at every turn, and maintained a political and intellectual insurgency against it ever since, seeking to return to the era of Blairite technocratic consensus. 

In truth, however, the failures of Brexit so far must be laid on Tory Brexiters themselves: their inability  to understand  that economic growth was about much more than trade deals, and their resultant inability to deliver policies that were meaningfully different enough to demonstrate an authentic political independence of the status quo. To the extent that Bregret is a reality, it is an expression of the victory of Global Britain over Brexit Britain. 

Global Britain was originally the concoction of Remain-voting Prime Minister Theresa May, and was explicitly offered as a project of democratic containment – a containment of the poor and disenfranchised who had voted for a different course. Leave voters’ demands that their interests be represented through a restored national sovereignty threatened to undermine the influence of the supranational networks into which the UK’s political and social elite were fully integrated. The maverick Tory Eurosceptics, with their insistence on leaving the EU had unleashed a popular revolt, and that undermined the delicate balance of longstanding UK policy, seeking leadership in Europe as the USA’s closest ally.  Global Britain was a signal to the oligarchs, property developers, sovereign wealth funds, big banks and corporations, as well to the technocrats in Brussels and the deep state in Washington, that it was going to be business as usual. It has not taken long to reintegrate Britain’s domestic and foreign policy with the supranational elite’s agenda.  As lockdown is followed by Net Zero enforcement in Britain’s towns and cities, domestic policy has fallen into line.  And with Britain’s support for NATO’s proxy war in Ukraine, Blairite foreign policy was restored; Atlanticism and Europeanism were wed back together in Brussels in the form of NATO rather than the EU.

The Eurosceptics’ obsession with trade deals and low tax to attract foreign wealth was not as different from the Remainer outlook as it may have seemed during the Brexit crisis. The Tory Eurosceptics just had a different way of looking outwards politically, the better to avoid looking inwards to the needs of the majority of British citizens. They didn’t like the EU, but they were never concerned to put the interests of the British nation first. They were never interested in, let alone capable of, creating the domestic political coalition that could defeat the corporate and public sector elites, and invest in new industries, quality skills training, new infrastructure and public services. They failed to represent the interests of Leave voters and were no better at pleasing the markets, as Liz Truss’s defenestration demonstrated. For as long as no lasting political alternative to the Tories—and their clapped-out Thatcherite dogma—comes from within the Leave camp, Brexit is moribund at best, doomed at worst.

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